When people speculate on the decline of America, they usually compare it to the decline of the Roman Empire. Michael Lind, author of “Land of Promise,” an economic history of the United States, thinks the British Empire provides a more instructive parallel.
Britain and the United States lack the strong guild traditions of continental Europe and East Asia, in which skilled craftsmen are valued. In the Anglo-American world, industrial production has traditionally been the province of a poorly-educated peasant-bred working class, recently extracted from American and foreign farms and, for some decades now, supervised by well-paid, college-educated “managers” or overseers. This division within the workforce is reflected in both the United States and Britain by the division in higher education between prestigious liberal arts colleges and universities, on the one hand, and low-status vocational colleges like America’s community colleges and Britain’s “redbricks” or polytechnics.