A review of Unleashing the Second American Century: Four Forces for Economic Dominance, by Joel Kurtzman and America 3.0: Rebooting American Prosperity in the 21st Century, by James C. Bennett and Michael J. Lotus

A Japanese fellow named Tsutomu Yamaguchi was in Hiroshima when the atom bomb was dropped on August 6, 1945. He survived that and went back to his home town of Nagasaki, just in time to be there when that city was struck on August 9. He survived that, too, to die at last in 2010 at age 93.

I feel a certain psychic kinship with Mr. Yamaguchi. Born in Britain a few weeks before the first of those detonations, I grew up watching my native land decline from a leading power in the world to second-class status. The destruction was not as complete as would have been delivered by a fission bomb, but it was depressing enough.

The Britain of my childhood was proprietor of a world-wide empire, homeland of an ancient and distinctive people with a glittering cultural tradition, and recent co-victor in a tremendous war. Twenty-eight years later the place was a wasteland of stagnant industries and cultural neurosis, its distinctiveness draining away under the assaults of globalist bureaucrats, ethnomasochist intellectuals, and mass Third World immigration. (Today, 40 years further on, Britain is about as distinctive as an airport departure lounge.)

It was very bracing to move from such a place to the U.S.A. of 1973. There was still a vitality, a confidence, an ease of living here that refreshed and invigorated. “Put a hundred down and buy a car,” said a song of the time. I actually paid $200 outright for my 1964 Chevy Nova, and drove it all over this marvelous, hospitable nation whose men had just recently walked on the moon.

Then came the Nagasaki bomb, in three installments: the oil shock, Watergate, the Vietnam defeat. By the end of that decade, with Jimmy Carter in the White House, inflation at 15%, and U.S. embassy personnel bound and gagged in Tehran, there seemed no choice but to surrender to Western civilizational decline.

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The Reagan and Thatcher years saw some push-back, although as James Bennett and Michael Lotus remind us in America 3.0: “Reagan’s domestic program was quite moderate and constrained, not really disassembling any major parts of the federal machine, and merely slowing the rate of increase of federal non-defense spending.” (David Frum’s chapter on this in his 1994 book Dead Right has the title: “The Failure of the Reagan Gambit.”)

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Hope stirred again with the fall of the USSR and the conservative congressional victories of 1994, only to wither in the follies of a new century: relentlessly expanding entitlement programs, surging Third World immigration, and futile missionary wars. Bennett and Lotus give the political background: “Meanwhile the Republican Congresses, after a decade, lost any connection to the reforming Congress of 1994 and had slumped into oligarchic favor-trading.”

It’s all been very depressing, the steady downward trend unmistakable. Where then shall Hope and Fear their Objects find? Must dull Suspense corrupt the stagnant Mind?

Well, not necessarily. We can peer into the future and try to discern some happy omens for civilizational revival. These two new books undertake that task in interestingly different ways.

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The more cockily optimistic of the two is Unleashing the Second American Century by management guru Joel Kurtzman. The author’s thesis is that our country is in the early stages of a great transformation that will bring us renewed strength and prosperity. This is all laid out in plain business-magazine prose with many uplifting anecdotes about the vigorous innovation to be found in university-business clusters like those around San Francisco and Cambridge, Mass.

Kurtzman pooh-poohs notions of American industrial decline. He offers impressive statistics on labor productivity here, and writes at length about “re-sourcing”—companies returning their outsourced manufacturing operations from China or Mexico to the U.S. China’s advantage in particular is dwindling fast as labor costs there rise and issues of security and transparency become more prominent by comparison.

He sees two great boost factors helping American resurgence. One is energy independence.

American energy technology, specifically the high-pressure hydraulic fracturing of rock—or “fracking”—has advanced to the point that these once unobtainable reserves of energy can now be extracted quickly, easily, and profitably…. So vast are our reserves of energy that it is likely we will become a net energy exporting country, something we haven’t been since Harry Truman was in the White House.

The other boost factor is in the huge reserves of capital lying idle in companies still shell-shocked from the 2008 recession. With these factors, says Kurtzman, and our tradition of economic vitality, and the depth and breadth of our manufacturing expertise, we shall soon be soaring high above the rest of the world. We may indeed already be halfway down the runway.

Entrepreneur James Bennett and lawyer-economist Michael Lotus take a more structured, scholarly, and conditional path to similarly rosy conclusions. They begin with a lengthy survey of English social history, centered on the concept of an Absolute Nuclear Family.

In the English style of family even the weak kinship groupings of the original Germanic family type weakened further. Saxon, and later English, nuclear families became increasingly independent and autonomous, and relied on voluntary associations, contract and market transactions instead of kinship ties for an increasing portion of their affairs.

This Absolute Nuclear Family, they say, was the foundation of the old pre-industrial America—what the authors, by analogy with iterations of a software package, call America 1.0: small family farms, ranches, plantations, and commercial towns.

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That structure was superseded from the late 19th century onward by the more centralized, bureaucratized (and in its urban aspect, cleaner and more orderly) regime of the Progressives—America 2.0. Here too the trend was slowed for a few years by push-back under Presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge before consolidating itself through the middle and later decades of the last century, leaving us with the lumbering, arthritic federal behemoth of today. We now have the opportunity to transition to a freer, less-centralized America 3.0. The authors lay out a detailed pathway to that goal: abolition of the income tax, the breaking-up of big states, distributed small-scale industrial production, “Big Sort” residential disaggregation by political and lifestyle preference, constitutional reforms to remove prickly social issues from the purview of the federal government and courts.

Where Kurtzman is unblushingly predictive, Bennett and Lotus are merely prescriptive. These, they say, are necessary reforms that we should want; but they are not inevitable, nor even easy to bring about. For example, while Kurtzman celebrates our coming energy independence, Bennett and Lotus worry—more realistically, in my opinion—that it will merely be “an undeserved cash infusion” that politicians will use to postpone reform and enrich their friends. Kurtzman does mention the “resource curse” as afflicting Russia and oil-rich Third World nations, but seems not to think the U.S. could succumb to it. Ha!

Kurtzman also shills for the cheap-labor lobbies seeking to replace American citizen workers by indentured H-1B immigrants. “[W]hat the country really needs is people with STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] degrees…. That’s where we are weak,” he tells us. Really? Then why aren’t STEM wages going through the roof? “Real hourly wages (adjusted for inflation) grew on average just 0.7% a year from 2000 to 2012 for STEM workers, and annual wages grew even less—0.4% a year. [“Is There a STEM Worker Shortage?” by Karen Zeigler & Steven Camarota; Center for Immigration Studies, May 2014.]” Has the law of supply and demand been repealed?

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Both books emphasize the American national spirit of entrepreneurial creativity but both are, to different degrees, dismissive of the question: will that spirit survive a major demographic transformation? A dispositive answer to this question lies beyond our present understanding, but it will be revealed to our children. Our immigration policies from 1965 on have ensured that the northern European founding populations of America, whose descendants in the middle 20th century censuses were a large majority, will be a minority 30 years from now. Our authors here are blithe about this. “Coming to the United States changes people,” Joel Kurtzman asserts breezily. What, is there something in the water here? No, no, it’s culture—the phlogiston, the luminiferous ether of modern social-science theorizing: “Our culture changes people from introverted ‘lab rats,’ as one researcher explained to me, ‘into full-blown entrepreneurs.’” Does it? Undoubtedly some persons change in a new social environment; but entire populations?

Bennett and Lotus, because of their deep historical and anthropological approach to America’s national character, feel obliged to tackle this issue more forthrightly than does Kurtzman. Thus:

Writers in the past who asserted the Germanic roots of English liberty often…spoke in terms of an Anglo-Saxon ‘race’ that was especially democratic or liberty-loving…. We now know more about human biology and genetics than did the writers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. We know for a fact that there is no genetic basis for the English way of life.

Then later:

By the 1970s…no one any longer accepted the idea that some group or other had a genetic predisposition toward any particular set of political or cultural arrangements.

This is either ignorance or cowardice. We do not “know for a fact” the thing that Bennett and Lotus claim we know. To be sure, we do not know the converse thing either; but that does not excuse the authors’ untruth, and the converse thing is actually a better fit to current data than their “known fact.” At any rate, they are left to hang their optimism on the traditional American family structure, even as, with 40% of American children now being born out of wedlock, the Absolute Nuclear Family seems to be undergoing a fission reaction of its own.

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Here is a thing we do know for a fact: Individual human behavioral and personality traits are all to some degree heritable, often highly so. It is reasonable to infer that races—big, old, localized inbreeding groups—will display different statistical profiles on these traits; and that this will especially be so where localization is maintained by significant geographical barriers. The native British may well be what Winston Churchill called them: an island race.

This is an open area of ongoing empirical enquiry and proper, informed scientific speculation (see, for example, The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility by economic historian Gregory Clark [2014], A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History by science journalist Nicholas Wade [2014], and The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution by the geneticist-anthropologist tag team of Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending [2009]). Canting asseverations of creedal dogma have no place in science, nor in commentaries that look to science for support. They give off an unsavory whiff of servile Stalin-era truckling to ideological bullies.

Those points aside, and ignoring also some minor inaccuracies—the sign you see on leaving Brooklyn does not say “Forgetaboutit,” it says “Fuhgeddaboudit”—these are both suitable books to give to a conservative who needs cheering up. Did they banish my own gloomy thoughts about America’s future? Alas, no; the negative trends seem to me irresistible. Still, if I live as long as Mr. Yamaguchi I may be proved wrong. I shall be very glad if that happens.