20:21 Vision: Twentieth-Century Lessons for the Twenty-First Century

by Bill Emmott
ISBN: 0374279659

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A Review of: 20:21 Vision: Lessons for the Twenty-First Century
by Andrew Allentuck

Movie mogul Sam Goldwyn is supposed to have said, "never make forecasts, especially about the future." In 20:21 Vision: Lessons for the Twenty-First Century, Bill Emmott ignores that caution. Editor-in-chief of the distinguished British weekly, The Economist, he bravely takes up where gloomsters like Nostradamus and Thomas Malthus left off. With elegant words and a great deal of data, Emmott assures the ready that, though the road through the new century may be rough, the ride will be better than it was during the last.
Emmott is on treacherous ground, for world events don't play out in linear ways. Therefore, what one knows of the past is not necessarily descriptive of the future. Trends accelerate or decelerate or go into reverse. Events like stock market meltdowns happen more often than they should according to conventional laws of probability. Stir in terrorism, the willingness of masses to be guided by glib sociopaths, global warming and potential geological mayhem, and one is entitled to ask-how can he be so sure?
Emmott asks the basic questions one might expect of the editor of his distinguished publication. Will the U.S. remain top cop of nations? Will market mechanics, a.k.a. capitalism, continue as the dominant and most successful method of coordinating production and consumption? Will the world run out of food or oil or water or whatever as human populations grow? Which countries will thrive? And will humankind be better off a century from now?
Emmott's answers, in order, are as follows: Yes, America will remain top nation if only for lack of competition; capitalism, in spite of its vulnerability to shocks and its inherent, short-term instability, will remain the style setter in economics; no, there will be plenty of food and other stuff to go around; China's Gross Domestic Product has a good chance of surpassing America's in a few decades; and, yes, our descendants should all be better off a hundred years from now.
It takes guts to say these things. It's far easier to be a Luddite and join the chorus of complainers who denounce globalization, excess use of resources, cars, capitalism, meat eating, and nuclear energy. Emmott rejects all of it in a final chapter called "Paranoid Optimism", which argues that the world is moving firmly in the right direction, even if the path to the future is rocky. The world will get better, he claims, because of the expansion of capitalism through globalization, the growth of democracy and the expansion of the rule of law, greater zeal on the part of powers like Japan to participate in the maintenance of world order, and the quest for truth by journalists. In the last sentence of the book, Emmott gives himself an attaboy'. There can be no prosperity without truth-think Orwell here-and if Emmott's fellow ink stained wretches do their jobs, there will be more truth. "The hunt for humbugs is one of the basic purposes of journalism, the quintessentially paranoid profession," he writes. "The hunt must go on."
Remaining confident in the future is not an easy task. This reviewer, once taken to task by Globe and Mail moralist Rick Salutin for being a capitalist imperialist pedant, can think of many reasons why the present prosperity of the world should be limited by scarcity of global resources. We, the consumers in nations with relatively high GDP per capita, are using too much oil, heating up the planet, stripping the oceans of fish, and making weapons that unwise politicians will one day find occasion to use. And that's just for starters.
Shucks, says Emmott. That doesn't have to happen. He quotes Sheikh Yamani, the Saudi oil minister of the 1970s, who said, "the Stone Age did not come to an end because the world had run out of stones." What will happen is that an alternative to oil will be found and that will be the end for the lords of OPEC, Emmott suggests. There's precedent for his views, for the world switched from whale oil lamps to gas lamps in the 1860s, relieving pressures on cetaceans, and gas was turned off in favour of electricity when the combination of electrical networks and light bulbs spread throughout cities in the early 20th century. Fossil fuels could fizzle if hydrogen fuel cell technology, currently too costly, can be made cost-competitive with oil.
Emmott rejects doomspeak as bad reasoning. He quotes the Club of Rome's 1972 bestseller, The Limits to Growth, which predicted that the world would run out of silver and mercury in 1985, zinc in 1990, oil in 1992, and copper, lead and natural gas by 1993. None of it happened. Analytically, those predictions were the result of linear extrapolation, the assumption that trends continue at steady rates or that the rate of change of trends is steady.
In fact, industries tend to adjust production processes when inputs become too costly. Emmott reasons that there is a learning curve in resource management that reduces the amounts of basic commodities like iron ore and coal that are required to make given sums of GDP. And Emmott is more right in this than he allows in his relatively brief remarks. After all, as societies advance, they get more and more of their consumer products from things that are rather light-computers, televisions, and services, for example.
Heavy industry is therefore a phase in development. Once economic systems "learn" to make steel, they can create higher value added uses for it. One day, Emmott says, China may be able to export cars to Europe and North America, just as Japan entered world markets with their rather tinny cars in the early 1970s. Within a couple of decades, Honda et al. rose to making what are widely regarded as some of the best vehicles in the world with low defect rates, good design, and the best of creature comforts. India, too, he says, could make exportable cars one day.
Globalization is what the auto business is about. Major Japanese companies now build cars in the U.S. with parts sourced from around the world. In finance, globalization happened long ago. Currencies like the U.S. dollar have become de facto world money. The Euro is now also a multinational currency.
Does this mean that nationalism, the source of intense conflict throughout history, will wither away? Emmott thinks not as "anxiety about inequality seems always to be with us." Nevertheless, he is confident that today's successful capitalist states will be replicated by emerging nations. "The point of the market is that, for all its imperfections, it is the only way yet found to...discover peoples' changing preferences." Political chaos should diminish, he says, for central bankers will be able to smooth out the economic mayhem that seems to follow in the wake of capitalism.
Emmott's analysis is usually shrewd, though he allows himself to escape from problems he himself exposes. For example, he waffles with respect to the ability of the European Union to cohere and provide benefits to the peoples of western and eastern Europe: "Muddling through is the most maddening aspect of the European union and the main reason not to expect it to play a dominant role in the world. But it is also its greatest talent for survival." Written like a true muddler.
The more incisive phrases in 20:21 Vision are going to become a part of intelligent discourse. That's my prediction. As for the rest, I'm not so sure. American hegemony could be zapped either from the outside or the inside. Free market economics could morph into a gentler, more socially responsible form of capitalism. Emmott's equivocal remark at the end of the book-"One thing can be said with certainty about capitalism: it will always bring bad times as well as good ones,"-is vague enough to be interpreted as evasion. But it has enough veracity to be around for years.

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