20:21 Vision: Twentieth-Century Lessons for the Twenty-First Century|
by Bill Emmott
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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
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
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
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.