What is disturbing about this book is not the argument Dr Moyo purports to make but the inadequate manner in which she makes it. Perhaps it's a reflection of Americans' self-critical mood at the moment that Amazon.com reviewers have heaped the book with praise, leaving only one reviewer level-headed enough to award the book just one star.
'How the West Was Lost' reads uneasily, shifting from a mildly didactic tone to energetic advocacy to journalistic analysis. It combines sweeping generalizations, a somewhat confused and tendentious reading of what constitutes the economic and social challenges currently facing the United States, and a cherry-picking approach to conditions in other countries, both developed and developing. It runs through the usual list of economic, financial and social difficulties now facing the United States, asserting that 'radical solutions, many of them offered in this book' must be adopted quickly before it's 'too late' (p xiii) to save the west 'from oblivion' (p 181). The reader then has to wait patiently for these radical solutions, which are offered briefly in the last few pages of the book. They include ' a serious revaluation of the US's role as virtually the sole underwriter of global public goods', by which the writer seems to be alluding the size of the Pentagon's global operations and budget; accepting the likely benefits of economic protectionism; addressing growing income inequalities in the US, and growing US welfare costs; saving more and spending less; and investing in the US to create a more skilled labor force and new technologies. She also proposes that the US defaults on its external debt so as to break the 'stranglehold of debt and dependence' it is, she says, gripped in by China and others. To reinforce her disturbing protectionist message and her reductionist view of US-China relations the author remarks sweepingly that 'forging closer ties with the emerging economies and dismantling...trade barriers will not work.'
Few of the policy implications of these so-called radical solutions, none of them new, are properly analyzed or thought through, so that after being subjected to a 190-page account of the US's inadequacies, not to mention the bright prospects for China, the reader is left with little more than a few beguiling slogans.
Sourcing is also inadequate and often hard to make use of. To take just one example, selected more or less at random, on p 167 the author writes about 'the continuing face-off between India and China, propelled to a large extent by water shortages'. This is in itself a highly partial and inadequate description of the complex relationship between China and India. But that isn't the main point here. Dr Moyo then declares that 'China is thought to be considering rerouting the Brahmaputra River to its Yellow River, which would have devastating effects on the land and people of Bangladesh and India'. The source cited for this statement is a very long website address which cannot be accessed as given, but which evidently refers to an article by Brahma Chellaney in the 08.14.09 edition of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. Chellaney (and why wasn't he sourced or interviewed directly? why was an op ed piece in an Israeli newspaper selected as the source for this?) is a respectable senior researcher at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, but his assertions about this possible future use of the Brahmaputra are controversial and contradicted by various other commentators, including several Chinese sources, none of whom Dr Moyo mentions. This is, as I say, a random example (and I should add that I am in no way involved in China-India relations or water-related issues); there are many more like it.
There is a real need for a good book assessing in detail alternative policies and strategies for the west and for the US in particular in the light of the 2008 crash. Regrettably this is not that book.