15th July, 2018

Envy the American dream but its supremacy is on the wane

I have enjoyed a lifelong love affair with the US. Frequently I consider moving there, but each time find an excuse to delay. For me it has always represented the future: innovative, enterprising, optimistic — and bountiful. The first time I went was in 1980 and it felt like another planet compared with the sleepy Buckinghamshire village in which I grew up. The scale, energy and sheer appetite for adventure in cities such as Los Angeles and Chicago were enthralling. It was almost a promised land.

When I was in my twenties and thirties, places such as California and New York were the most dynamic and confident locations on Earth. Americans believed in business and success in an unbridled way — whereas the British are always somehow embarrassed by the idea of fortune hunting. Anything seemed possible in America: when I was 26, I found an apartment I wanted to buy in Hollywood and obtained a mortgage in four working days. A decade later, I cold-called two owners of a business in Baltimore and asked to buy their company for $25m. They agreed on the phone and we did the deal.

Whenever I read the phrase “the American dream”, I feel a touch of envy. We have no comparable concept in Britain. Somehow the US has nurtured a culture that still believes in risk-taking and the idea of a transcendent future. To me it is not just a phrase but a state of mind — a metaphor. America is no longer a young nation, yet its society retains an element of “manifest destiny” — a providential mission of growth and betterment, the frontier spirit in action. At the individual level, I interpret that as a widespread belief in the potential for self-improvement among everyone.

Perhaps in Britain we suffer more from self-doubt — we much prefer self-deprecation to bursting pride and overflowing confidence. We are an older nation and more cynical. As a people we are often more modest and less prone to showing off than Americans. That might be regarded as a worthy trait. Yet self-confidence is a vital asset, both in an entrepreneur and in a nation.

We criticise our politicians for failing to offer us hope. I think that expectation is right; leaders must inspire their followers to look forward with a positive attitude. No successful general ever led troops into battle with a speech telling them they faced defeat. A motivated army, workforce or indeed nation is one that sees a brighter future. Pessimism among many educated Britons about our country has become something of an unhealthy obsession. The better companies and charities with which I have been involved are run by bosses who have an enthusiastic vision that they manage to impart to their teams.

Of course, the American dream is more than just a general idea of progress. It means upward mobility, homeownership, a good job, free enterprise, independence and a destination of the good life, attainable for all.

For many, America delivers that — but, for a minority of citizens, it fails. The average white household has roughly 10 times the net worth of the average black household — a savage disparity. That gap isn’t closing.

Moreover, the era of America’s dominance is waning. Much of the world has inevitably been catching up, just as others caught up with Britain early in the 20th century. In 1988, the US accounted for 22.4% of global GDP by purchasing power parity; by this year, that had fallen to 15.1%. I applaud the progress made by China and India, but I doubt we will replicate the deep connections we enjoy with America.

The eclipse of America’s supremacy will have profound consequences for the Anglosphere, of which we are a founder. We invented the English language and started the Industrial Revolution. As America’s overwhelming importance and power diminish, we will suffer alongside it — economically and culturally. Britain has benefited hugely from America’s strength and influence. A shared history, language and many cultural and economic ties mean we prosper in its slipstream.

Fools think America is going downhill because Donald Trump sends ill-judged tweets. What matters is economic might. And here, I’m afraid, the US is in relentless gradual decline — at least in relative terms. It has too much debt, a growing regulatory burden, inadequate infrastructure, a flawed healthcare model, fewer start-ups, far too many lawyers and worsening demographics. Americans will find it hard to adjust when they are displaced at the top of the pile.