The Wake-Up Call: Why the Pandemic Has Exposed the Weakness of the West, and How to Fix It Inbunden – 15 September 2020
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A shot in the arm...powerful."--The Financial Times
A readable and fascinating excursion.--The Economist
A succinct and credible assessment of Western government dysfunctions.--Publishers Weekly
With their customary wit and insight, John Mickethwait and Adrian Wooldridge offer a fresh take on an old theme: the decline of the West. The Wake-Up Call argues that Covid-19 has exposed not just one president's shortcomings but a much more profound degeneration of governance dating back long before 2016. Can the United States and whatever else remains of "the West" repair their broken systems sufficiently to compete with East Asia's alternatives? And who exactly is Bill Lincoln? You will read no more interesting book on the political consequences of the pandemic than this.--Niall Ferguson, author of Civilization: The West and the Rest
COVID-19 was a wake-up call for the West - especially the United States. Micklethwait and Wooldridge offer a masterful analysis of Western failure, and a clear program for the future. --Anne Applebaum
John Micklethwait is the editor-in-chief of Bloomberg and was previously editor-in-chief at The Economist.
Adrian Wooldridge is the management editor and "Schumpeter" columnist of The Economist. He was educated at Balliol College, Oxford, and All Souls College, Oxford, where he held a Prize Fellowship. He was formerly The Economist's Washington bureau chief and "Lexington" columnist. He is the coauthor, with John Micklethwait, of five books--including The Witch Doctors: Making Sense of the Management Gurus; A Future Perfect: The Challenge and Hidden Promise of Globalization; The Company: A Short History of a Revolutionary Idea; and The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America--and the author of Measuring the Mind: Education and Psychology in England c.1860-1990.
- Utgivare : Harpervia (15 September 2020)
- Språk : Engelska
- Inbunden : 176 sidor
- ISBN-10 : 0063065290
- ISBN-13 : 978-0063065291
- Rangordning för bästsäljare: #47,086 i Böcker (Visa Topp 100 i Böcker)
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Taking a liberal (European sense) stance, they explain the rise and degeneration of western state machines, contrasting these with the Asian model; more convincingly explaining the former than the latter’s reformulation of democracy-in-context and economic success. They wrongly accord Singapore with template status when Japanese success followed a development state model and China’s unique socialism with Chinese characteristics follow entirely different pathways. Explaining China’s success is one of the book’s major weaknesses as is accounting for state-funded bailouts following market crises in the west.
The book is strongest when reflecting on big political theory ideas (Hobbes, Mill and the Webbs) and a catalogue of liberal thinkers. Sadly, this turns out be also be a weakness, confining analysis to a strategic level without linking to policy, most clearly seen in banal comments on improving education, policing and healthcare. Sharply explaining the rise of western populist contagion (not eastern for example in Indonesian and the Philippines) it then falls short in proposals that would counteract oligarchic capture of US institutions, reserving criticism for Trade Unions and left-of-centre interest groups. Though rising inequality is discussed there is no convincing explanation or alternative is considered, instead, better educated leaders and middle-class civic engagement are proposed in a liberal exhortation for a smaller, more effective state.
Worth reading: yes. Convincing in analysis and prognosis: only if you share the author’s anti-China biases and a focus on the US. The book strangely fails to connect economic success with political theory, strangely for two authors who’s persona is based on doing just that.
This short book packs in a lot and from it an interesting manifesto arises, including:
- Agressive modernisation and use of tech; mass simplification of bureaucratic processes. Not weaker regulation, but less of it; cut overlapping regulators. Sunset clauses on more and more taxes and regulations to prevent ‘endless accretion’
- education, education, education: more focus and spend on early years (that’s where inequality starts & becomes incurable); cut subsidies/loans for middle class university students (get their parents to pay)
- humanities education is in intellectual decay. Be ruthless and direct state tertiary spending to areas of greater social economic utility
- Reinstate state service: in exchange for free uni education for the brightest poor students demand five years of post-graduation state work - like Singapore’s
- But also some state service for all young adults, including middle class and rich kids (as South Korea is doing): if they had to spend a couple of years guarding prisoners; building roads of cleaning hospitals (alongside poor kids), they’d have a much better understanding of roads, prisons and hospitals, and of social inequality and how to cure it
- Pay the best civil servants much more; but fire the weakest. Make public sector more like private sector employment in risks and rewards. Smaller, richer more demanding civil service
- More, but different, health and care spending. Embrace private sector capacity; introduce nominal charges for adults using primary care (to address those who treat GPs & A&E as an ‘all you can eat buffet’)
- old people are taking too much from the state. Means test access to state pensions [or hike NI] & end automatic annual [triple lock] increases
- tax consumption more and income less; tax capital (& wealth) as much as income
As is to be extend from something written by journalists, the book is longer on analysis and somewhat shorter on solutions (and it’s hard to see that many of those they propose would have greater altered the trajectory of the pandemic in the West).
However, this is an urgent and worthwhile short read and I recommend it to anyone who has wondered why Europe has fared so badly and Asia much better in handling the pandemic (even if you exclude the two outliers: a lying China and a criminally negligent USA). The authors very successfully chart the decay in the quality of the West’s governing of itself from the 1970s onwards.
In short, Trumpian and Johnsonion popularism is a failure - as we’ve seen with the COVID pandemic - but the solution may be more, not less, Cummings-style revolutionary state reform
The decline of the West started a long time ago, and may not be noticed until it is too late. The authors point to the symptoms of decline that were previously undetected or ignored, but now made patently obvious by the Covid-19 pandemic. The authors examine the factors that have led to this decline. It is not a case of ‘what if’. They declare, ‘even if Donald Trump had stayed in light entertainment and the virus had never left Wuhan, a reckoning was coming’.
The causes are several. First, the Western state is in relative decline because it is outdated. The American constitution was written, they say, not for the kind of country that America is today. And in Europe, Belgium, is an example of mammoth inefficiency with its three different languages and five parliaments. Second, the Western state is ‘crushed under a burden of obligations’ that they can never meet. They are all overstretched, doing more than they could or should. It does not realise that its state apparatus has becoming too huge and clumsy. Only lawyers of the wealthy in America read the IRS’ 90-page booklet explaining the 15 tax incentives for higher education.
Third, it is hampered by an inefficient bureaucracy that bothers with weird and useless rule-making such as requiring labels on cans of salmon to say, ‘may contain fish’. Officials, they say, ‘are so busy with paperwork they seldom get a chance to see what works elsewhere’. Fourth, the state is at the mercy of special interest groups – both from the inside (the government) and outside. Teachers who are incompetent are ‘bounced from school to school, or left sitting in an office if nobody takes them’.
Fifth, the welfare model is failing. In 1889, Bismarck set retirement age at 70 when the life expectancy was 72. Today, retirement is set at 65 when life expectancy is 79. Medicare fund, they say, will run out in 2026, and Social Security in 2035. Sixth, the state is running short of talent and is burgeoning with deadwood. The Italian president has 900 underlings, and in Brussels, bureaucrats ‘you have never heard of have bodyguards, cars and luxurious residences’. Seventh, there is a lack of political leadership. Trump and Johnson. Need more be said?
The authors suggest ways in which the decline might be arrested. Make the government less dowdy – ‘Presidents shouldn’t live like emperors’; re-engaging with global institutions; focus on education and ‘educate our masters’; stop subsidising the rich and the old; create a fairer healthcare system; unleash technology, and various other thought-provoking measures.
This book is about the failure of government and how to set it right.
The frustration is in the analysis. I suspect that part of the problem is that both authors are economists. That study is mistakenly thought by some to be a rigorous semi-science. It is no such thing. At best it is inspired guess-work: at worst it is dogmatic choices. Do any economists’ predictions ever come true? Look at those made by the last Bank of England governor, Mark Carney - not one. But then again he called them ‘forward guidance’. Peter Drucker’s assertion that, ‘Forecasting is not a respectable human activity ...’ is forgotten it seems. It would have been better to include a skeptic about economics in the writing or editing team. I would have volunteered. I love a good argument.
Mental set or prejudice adversely colours some of the analyses. The authors believe that Brexit is a wrong decision that will inevitably be bad for the UK, which of course we cannot know yet and won’t be sure about for a decade. There are frequent direct criticisms of the EU or descriptions of adverse practices that are found the EU, and yet.... and yet... they cannot break away from the conventional premise that leaving the EU is a bad idea. As a leaver I am convinced that many remainers will, in ten years time, be saying that they voted leave. The authors describe the reasons for the decline of the West, which are very convincing. But when they describe the shortcomings of the EU they don’t seem to see that they are same reasons as those causing decline. I guess you have to practise the doublethink of an economist to be able to hold two contrary ideas at the same time in your head, or in written text.
Another prejudice sees the authors frequently railing against populism. It becomes an irrational insult – a cliché. Whilst we can all see the ignorance, shortcomings and even nastiness of some of the policies of such people, they have mostly been elected by a democratic vote based on what they have said they want to do. Better to accept the reason for their election, which is the abject failure of conventional party politics to address the problems in the lives of real people, and to see if there is any merit in what they say. It is sheer folly to insult the voters over their choices.
The authors clearly describe the advantages of the more ordered societies of Singapore, South Korea and China. It is plainly obvious that that a country with a very strong central government can do things that countries that stress individual liberty cannot. That does not mean that it is the right or acceptable thing to do.
The last chapter was outstanding. Earlier in the book the authors invented the perfect ruler, Bill Lincoln, who is a fusion of the best qualities of William Gladstone and Abraham Lincoln. They describe thirteen tactics that Bill would adopt to improve government. It is a concise statement that should be read by all politicians. In the Conclusion the authors reiterate the ideas of Plato that still are relevant today.
So, thank you for an excellent book that gave me a thorough mental workout. But no index!
The authors are through-and-through journos and it shows. Wild claims are made throughout which aren't referenced at all or link to opinion pieces in magazines the author's are associated with (which are also poorly referenced). In one particularly sensational claim about the Italian state funding a blind football referee the only reference provided is a "thanks" to another journalist who writes in an Italian-American gossip magazine. The writing style is magazine-esque and sensationalist. The editing isn't great and the book feels rushed-out, in order to keep it topical.
Overall the book is readable and mildly entertaining at points, but when you look back, having finished the book and think about it dispassionately, you come to realise the authors actually said very little and reached no firm conclusions. They just threw together a bunch of wild claims and hoped it would pass for an assessment of the problems of the whole western world.
The book is readable and provides a GCSE level summary of philosophical ideas about the role of government. It is unlikely to change the views or inspire the educated reader.
A much shortened version would have made a very good magazine article.