In his latest book, America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy, Gus Speth has not held anything back. Nothing is sugarcoated. He tells us the hard and necessary truth about the mess that we’re in here in the United States. No—mess is too dismissive a word. Maybe something like “slow emergency” is more appropriate. “Crisis” is even better.
Speth’s assessment of the current state of our country is sweeping and devastating. He compares the United States’ standing across a range of metrics, indicating the nation’s performance relative to what he calls “peer countries,” that is, the major economies of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
Speth rattles off category after category in which we rank at or near the bottom relative to our peers. These categories include inequality, economic mobility, poverty rates, spending on social programs, access to health care, education, resource consumption, ecological footprint, homicide rate, prison population, and weapons sales.
It’s not a pretty picture. Speth plays tour guide, trudging us through the endless morass of U.S. problems not because he despises this country, but because he loves it. He sees what we once were and what we could one day be. But he also recognizes that to get there, we must soberly face what we are at present.
America the Possible is not about converting anyone. It’s something like a revolution cookbook, something like a strategy manual. It’s a reference guide for the converted, a toolbox chock full of ideas. If you’re already convinced that the United States is off the rails, the book will: 1) support this belief (and how!), and 2) lay out a vision of what our country could be by 2050. Throughout, Speth comprehensively catalogues the political, social, economic, and cultural factors that have shaped what we are now, as well as the changes that must occur if we are to realize what we can be: America the Possible.
I found America the Possible to be a bit overwhelming. Speth’s torrent of facts and quotes and policy suggestions is relentless; in fewer than 200 pages he manages to squeeze in over 500 endnotes containing some 900 individual references (this is an approximation; I actually lost count). The quotations come so frequently that in some places, the book starts to feel like an extremely thorough annotated bibliography.
Speth’s gift is for recognizing other people’s good ideas and weaving them together. His knowledge of others’ work is encyclopedic, which is impressive, but it does take commitment to read through it all.
Admittedly, I finished this book initially feeling more despair than hope. If so many brilliant people have put so much thought and effort into figuring out how to rebuild our democracy, reverse climate change, transition to a steady-state economy, and realize economic equity and social justice—yet we have made so little progress—then what kind of meaningful contribution could I, the average American citizen, possibly have to offer?
To this, I’ll reply with Speth’s quote from former Visa International executive Dee Hock: “Things are much too bad for pessimism.” If someone as knowledgeable and experienced as Gus Speth is still has hope, then it feels like an act of hubris to feel hopeless. Speth had every reason to become jaded, but he has not. And neither should we.
If you believe that things in the United States have gone awry, and consider it part of your great work to contribute to the nation’s repair, then America the Possible is an indispensable reference manual. It’s not comforting, it’s not conciliatory, and it’s not naïve. It is full of facts, ideas, and hope—all of which are in short supply these days.
Chris Stratton lives in Oakland, CA, and researches residential energy use at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.