Of ironing boards and decline


My wife wonders why I like ironing shirts so much – I tell her that it gives me more time to listen to more podcasts (at which point she either sighs or questions my sanity). I digest hours of podcasts every week, ranging from politics to football to business to history. And every so often, I find something that makes my ears prick up and my brain start to spin.

The BBC’s flagship Today Programme’s recent short series on declinism – the idea that the US is on the slide on a rather grand, historical scale – had my ears pricking and my brain spinning. Presenter Justin Webb spoke to an impressive list of interviewees – Richard Haass, Francis Fukuyama, Anne-Marie Slaughter and Jeffrey Sachs (all interviews plus an overall piece from Justin are on the web page). The result was fascinating and illuminating.

Here are just two of the more engaging points that were raised. Richard Haass spoke about levels of debt and the danger posed to the US’s international standing if it didn’t get its domestic house in order. Anne-Marie Slaughter was more upbeat. She argued that the virtues of American education – the need to constantly question and evaluate authority and received wisdom – would see the country through in the long run.

It was stirring stuff, not least because, after all, the questions raised are ones that we need to answer over on this side of the Atlantic too. If the last eighteen months has taught us anything, it’s that Europe simply cannot afford to be complacent about its own standing, its own ability to generate jobs and support comfortable lifestyles. That involves asking searching questions about decline. They’re asking those questions over in the US; we need to do likewise.

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