My good friend Kishore Mahbubani just finished a small book titled “has the West Lost it?” Kishore has a pretty remarkable background — growing up as an Indian in Singapore from a family so poor he was on a food subsidy scheme and going on to become Singapore’s Ambassador to the United Nations (with a stint on the Security Council) and Founding Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Government.
He has three main points in his book:
- The West can take credit for a huge range of contributions to the betterment of the world, primarily the “trickle down” from the advances in technology, education, philosophy, the arts, etc. Kishore went through a set of facts on the reduction of poverty, hunger, war violence, infant mortality, etc. to substantiate the view that “the world has never been better”
- The West is now “off track” and is failing to recognize just how much the world has changed. Just as a parent sometimes can’t accept that their child is now an adult, the West sees the rest of the world as still neither ready for nor deserving of “an equal seat at the table” (let alone a bigger seat)
- He then had three suggestions for Western positioning in the new world order — minimalist intervention (he cited the global scars of the colonial period as well as recent interventions), multilateral (he made a staunch defense of the United Nations) and Machiavellian / realpolitik — basically clarity on goals and being cleverer about achieving them
One of the advantages of my Western Education is that we are taught to be skeptical, to poke holes at facts, logic or reasoning, to make our own determination of what we agree with and what we don’t. I think Kishore has a lot right, but I would challenge him on a number of points. Here would be my top three challenges:
- I believe most of the problems of the “West” are driven by their stage of development (post-industrial; aging and declining population) and not because they are “Western” (or implicit in some of the discussion, non-Asian societies). When I work in Japan and even Korea / Taiwan, I see many of the afflictions Kishore ascribes to the West in these societies: a sense the political class is not being truthful / realistic about the challenges society faces, not just from “China” or “Asia” or “globalization” but more importantly from technology / automation / artificial intelligence. Repetitive, manual labor is going away — at an increasing rate. Whether you are in Korean shipbuilding or Japanese automotive or Taiwan electronics, or US aerospace, governments are going to have to deal with a massive pool of workers who do not have the full toolkit to survive in a “robotic age” — programming skills, self-direction, grit, desire to learn new skills, etc. My view is that every society is now going to have to deal with a split in their society — between the minority who thrive in this “age of innovation” and the majority who find it overwhelming. The only reason the “West” stands out is that these forces have hit the west first. But as manual labor is replaced, countries that are still highly dependent on manual labor (China, India, ….) will soon feel the full wrath
- What system of government is best set up to deal with the level of dislocation that is about to happen? First, while Kishore has lumped “the West” together, it is clear that Germany is currently navigating this environment extremely well. My years in Singapore have taught me how a “hybrid democracy” can be a reasonable alternative to the American system. My strong view is that the right form of government has to reflect what has historically worked in that society — it is hard to impose democracy on Iraq, and it would be hard to take democracy away from Americans. Yes it can evolve, but the starting point is “what has worked in the past?” Of course Singapore is managing the “Age of Innovation” better than anyone — but it is a small country with an approach to government that is hard to mimic. I am going to write about this on 12 June, when Trump visits Singapore (what Trump can learn from Singapore).
- The US has some quite legitimate gripes. I have done work for MNC’s where the key question is “how do we avoid technology leakage to China?” The pressure to put key operations into JV’s, only to find the partner has set up another factory down the road, is enormous. The US trade deficit with China is too high — I know economists try to blame this on the US savings rate, but the outcome reminds me of the joke “the operation was a success, but the patient died.” At some point you have to look at outcomes, not just the rules and process.
On a long bike ride you have to keep your eye on the road, but it is also a good time to reflect on a book or a conversation or a recipe. My good friend Mark Koulogeorge wrote me the other day to say “this X-America trip is like a modern Toquevillian quest to rediscover America.” My hypothesis is that I am going to see the split society — the one that is excited, energized and committed to an open, innovative society and comfortable with the lack of guardrails, as well as the one that is scared, upset, and feeling oppressed by all of the change that is going on. Trump is appealing to the latter with a sometimes reasonable diagnosis (but generally a poorly thought out remedy). The solutions are going to have to address the needs of both societies. But the problems he is facing are not Western ones, they are a function of our transition to the “Robotic Age”
Tuesday, 15 May 2018 Training: Rode 56 kilometers in just over 2 hours today. High cadence, although not high enough. Have a heavy week this week — I was supposed to ride four hours today but I looked at the wrong week.