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Mortal splendor, the American empire in transition.

Mortal Splendor, The American Empire in Transition.

WalterRussell Mead. Houghton Mifflin, $18.95. More important than the contents of this maddeningly uneven book is its publication now--as another liberal effort to prepare an intellectual and political agenda for the post-Reagan years. Once again, a liberal book is talking of limits, openings to the Third World, and the inability of the U.S. economy to spread its wealth adequately among all its citizens. These were common themes of the late seventies that suddenly sound topical again at a time of collapsing currencies, mounting debts and interest rates, and high comedy disguised as national security policy.

Mortal Splendor does not pretendto be a work of original scholarship; rather it is part polemic and part prescription.

In an effort to score rhetoricalpoints, Mead is given to excesses and plain sloppiness. That Britain, France, and Germany "progressed simultaneously' to democracy would come as a surprise to most Europeans. And to assert that Stalin, Hitler, and Roosevelt were equally preoccupied with the need for their governments "to establish and maintain an intimate link with even the humblest of the nation's citizens' boggles the mind.

Fortunately, Mortal Splendor istwo books. Mead's prescriptive analysis, while inevitably controversial, at least offers some thoughts for Democratic liberals before they begin assigning themselves downtown office space for 1989. His analysis certainly highlights the question of whether the gulf between neoliberals and institutions such as labor can be bridged. He criticizes institutional prescriptions such as protectionism but is more critical of the neoliberals for failing to understand the threat of Third World low-wage competition. He offers one innovative response: that the U.S. push for a kind of international minimum wage. The idea is not as Utopian as it first might appear.

Mead also predicts that futureeconomic planning and distribution will be guided through a government-supervised cartel of banks, brought to such a state by their foreign debt problems. Horrific to imagine, but at least original and plausible. Like his other prescriptions, it is based on the assumption we will need and want more government in the future. For government to work, Mead acknowledges the need to find alternatives to current bureaucracies. One suggestion is jury-like citizens' panels to make decisions in such adverserial situations as the location of highways.

Basically, however, this book isfar longer on analysis than prescription. Mead concludes that the Establishment will have to turn over power to the children of its housemaids and that the Democrats will have to become a more populist party. He assumes that further economic decline and discontent will create the conditions for these political transformations. Perhaps, but there is no compelling evidence in this book that a populist coalition has a program or is ready to take power. Indeed, Mead acknowledges that his baby-boom generation is as unanchored and politically unsettled as any in U.S. history. This large generation is just as likely to atomize or lurch further to the right as it is to provide the driving force for a new venture in liberalism.
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Author:Mosettig, Michael D.
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1987
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