A wake-up call for the west – 13 ways we can reverse our decline

Written by Matthew Rock Tuesday 15 September 2020
A powerful new book debates how the Coronavirus pandemic has exposed weaknesses in western leadership and proposes some imaginative fixes
Orange, retro phone

The thrust of The Wake Up Call by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge (senior editors from Bloomberg and The Economist) is that the Coronavirus pandemic has shown up a growing gap between the West (Europe and the US) and Asia in terms of economic vitality and statecraft. Countries such as Singapore, South Korea and China - where the pandemic began - have risen to the challenge of managing the fallout; the US and much of Europe (with honourable exceptions such as Greece) have seemed slow and disorganised by comparison.

This reflects a wider story, the authors say. “Anybody who flies from shoddy Kennedy to one of Asian’s gleaming new airports can see an infrastructure gap yawning. The danger is that the same gap is opening with the state more generally.”

In one particularly good chapter, Micklethwait and Wooldridge, try to imagine how the West might respond if it had truly far-sighted, enlightened leadership. They invent a president Bill Lincoln (a composite of the 19th-century British prime minister William Gladstone and US founding president Abraham Lincoln – “the two most formidable politicians from that era”) and conduct a thought experiment about what Bill might do.*

Here are the main actions that, they believe, Bill Lincoln would take. (You might want to join in a conversation about whether these are workable or indeed a good idea on Twitter @cmi_managers or loop in @adwooldridge or @shortbooksUK):

  1. Build resilience. We’d had warnings about a pandemic (SARS, Ebola, Zika) but most western governments looked hopelessly unprepared. Professor Ian Goldin highlighted this failure of ‘just-in-time’ in the latest CMI magazine. What would Bill do? Enlist employers into keeping up-to-date kit for workers. Rejoin the World Health Organization. And, crucially, keep an eye out for other looming threats such as cyber-security.
  2. Protect and unite. The pandemic has highlighted economic and racial inequalities in the US. Bad cops need to be fired, the book suggests. More broadly, “The police are a classic example of the overloaded state, with cops being asked to deal with problems such as mental health, family breakdown and juvenile delinquency.” The job needs redefining.
  3. Lift the fog. The accounts of government - particularly in the US - need to be exposed to the light so we can see where there are “perks and exemptions that benefit special interests.”
  4. Simplify, cut, modernise, sell. Rather than allowing new regulations to pile on top of old ones, ‘sunset clauses’ need to be routinely applied to avoid ever-greater complexity.
  5. Stop subsidising the rich and the old. The politics of this one are ‘explosive’, they admit, but Wooldridge and Micklethwait recommend “Means-testing Social Security and raising the retirement age rapidly to 70” to help balance state budgets. To soften the blow, they suggest setting up an independent commission to examine ‘the entitlements system’ (a particular target of Bill’s policy onslaught).
  6. A fairer healthcare system. Their recommendations here are very US-specific* but there are some sound lessons for UK and European audiences: hypothecation of taxes so the public can see how much they’re spending on healthcare; reducing bureaucracy; introducing incentives to stay healthy.
  7. Educate our masters. As with the police, pay good teachers well and weed out bad ones; focus on core subjects. And - a particularly strong point - don’t limit formal education to the young. “Most people end their university education in their twenties. The option of a year’s subsidised education once you reach 50 should also be part of our contract with Leviathan [the state].”
  8. Unleash technology. “Asian governments are stealing a march on America in using the internet of things to monitor smart infrastructure. In Singapore, water pipes report back to the authorities if they spring a leak, while lampposts gather data on temperatures, humidity and traffic flows.” Most large and public-sector organisations in the UK have antique IT – look at how easily the NHS was hacked in 2017. We need to go for broke on broadband and technological upgrades.
  9. Go local. There is a “wave of reforming mayors around the world”, the authors point out. “Big city mayors should get more power over schools, transport and police; they should also be encouraged to copy successful ideas from other cities.”
  10. Reinvigorate talent. The Wake Up Call argues that we must improve the quality of people in the public sector. One innovative suggestion is to “copy Singapore’s idea of scholarships for public service: pay the full fees of poor students at elite universities in return for a commitment that they will work for, say, five years in the public sector.”
  11. National service for all. In the West, we have seen “the fraying of the bond between the elite and the public realm”, the authors argue. America, they say - though this might apply in the UK, too - “would gain enormously if every young man and woman was expected to work 18 months for the government before the age of 25… If Harvard’s gilded youth were forced to dig roads and guard prisons alongside school leavers from Compton and the Bronx they might take more interest both in the roads and the school leavers.” Surely the same would apply in Oxford and Cambridge.
  12. Make government dowdy. As a devoted simple-liver and Catholic, I liked this one. Bill Lincoln shouldn’t fly the world in private planes. “Our President Lincoln would copy Gladstone - living on bread and water, spending his evenings reading Homer, and walking everywhere. His modern model would be Pope Francis. The pontiff lives like a pauper and drives himself round in a simple old Renault. It is much easier for a pope or a president [or a prime minister] to cut unnecessary spending if they don’t spend their life in a cocoon of privilege. Presidents shouldn’t live like emperors.”
  13. Rebuild the West and expand it. Micklethwait and Wooldridge’s book comes out as the US is decoupling from global institutions such as the WHO, and the UK is detaching from the EU. “With the US absent, China is increasingly taking the lead. Chinese nationals now head four of the UN’s institutions, compared with just one American.” While we may have our differences with global institutions, that’s no reason not to engage with them. As they argue: “For all China’s clever ‘mask diplomacy’ in the wake of the virus, there is still a deep distrust of the Middle Kingdom across the world, not least in Asia, and an affection for the United States. A little bit of sugar and a lot of pious words would go a long way.”

We may still – just – have time...

*The authors’ recommendations are mainly focused on the US but almost all apply equally to the UK and Europe.

The Wake-Up Call: Why the pandemic has exposed the weakness of the West - and how to fix it is published by Short Books.

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