The world ain’t flat

The world ain’t flat
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First Published: Fri, Oct 31 2008. 11 28 PM IST

What Next? Allen Lane, 490 pages, Rs795.
What Next? Allen Lane, 490 pages, Rs795.
Updated: Fri, Oct 31 2008. 11 28 PM IST
In What Next: Surviving the Twenty-first Century , Chris Patten, best known as the last governor of Hong Kong, takes a swipe at the former US Federal Reserve chairman and market maven Alan Greenspan. In the early days of the subprime housing loan crisis in his country, Greenspan had described what was happening as “froth”, nothing to get worked up about. “The Titanic was not sunk by ‘froth’,” quips Patten, in what is an eerily prescient reading of how the crisis would drown banks and markets, trigger off a recession at home and cause worldwide panic.
What Next? Allen Lane, 490 pages, Rs795.
Patten’s opus on the challenges before the world and our collective future could not have arrived at a better time. He picks up on the US meltdown early on, and hints it has to do with the flawed construct of the American dream—“an absence of reasonable sufficiency”. This, he writes, has coexisted—quite perilously, in hindsight—with the stagnation in real wages. So Americans have borrowed endlessly to end up living beyond their means to service what now looks like a dubious dream.
On the other hand, Patten takes to task bad policy and inadequate regulation for the banking crisis snowballing into a financial catastrophe—“It had nothing to do with inherent weaknesses in globalization,” he writes. And he echoes the popular sentiment today that regulators “need to take a beady look at the way banks pay their staff: The bonus culture needs to change”. Why so? Patten’s explanation is lucid common sense. “It is not self-evidently in the interests of the shareholders who own a bank that its executives are paid more for taking ever greater risks, hoping that success will endow them richly and failure will be covered by the state or by foreign investors.” On this count, politician-diplomat Patten wins over banker-economist Greenspan’s unshakeable faith in the resilience of the markets in his 2007 book The Age of Turbulence.
Bad laissez-faire economics is just one of the many things worrying Patten and the world today. So the former Conservative Party chairman and present chancellor of Oxford University takes on a grand sweep of challenges facing the world—energy, food, water, global crime, weapons trafficking, climate change, epidemic disease, migration—and manages to navigate fairly skilfully, and with verve and clarity, ways to make things better. Patten does not offer any radically new prescription or Francis Fukuyama-like predictions on the global triumphs of political and economic liberalism. Despite its ambitious moniker and considerable length, he says the book does not seek to be a “manifesto or manual for survival”.
Instead, like a libertarian paterfamilias, Patten says he is happy to be described as a “liberal internationalist” with a strong belief in rule of law, democratic governance, open markets and free trade. He doles out reassuring, and useful advice: The UN must be rejuvenated and made more pro-active; regional and global collaboration is essential to deal with epidemic diseases, global warming and climate change; good housekeeping leads to good foreign policy; Western unilateralism needs to be tamed to solve global problems. “America and Europe can no longer set the global agenda on their own,” he writes. “They have to involve China, India and others like Brazil and South Africa in the management of the world’s problems.”
Soothsayer: (above) Patten’s book somewhat predicts the current financial crisis; (left) the diplomat and professor. Nicky Loh / Reuters
In a world drowning in shrill right-and left-wing discourse, Patten is a voice of moderation. Travelling to the gleaming Infosys campus outside Bangalore, he differs with Thomas Friedman and wonders whether the world is, indeed, flat. “…the road to the Infosys campus is anything but flat, the sort of incongruity that is still so present in India for all its progress.” He is also, reassuringly, not a sucker for hype: “We should not exaggerate the impact of the Internet, air travel, and container ships in the last century; nor should we forget that most people do not live in a cyberworld. They possess neither phone, nor modem, nor computer, though these technologies are spreading rapidly.”
Even in his thoughts on India, Patten’s clarity eschews the typically superficial and stereotypical understanding of a confused West. He agrees that India would have grown faster with more reforms. And he has his finger on the pulse when he says: “There is now in the country a strong consensus in favour of not very strong reforms; this is largely a consequence of a fractured political system rather than of the constraints of the democratic process itself.” Looking back at the political tempest in India over a nuclear deal with the US, Patten’s understanding of realpolitik in the world’s biggest democracy appears to be more acute than foreign correspondents: “To form governments, it is necessary to mobilize support from a wide variety of splintered parties, which increases the power of lobbies to block reforms and increases the temptation of politicians to appeal to bigotry.”
In the end, as with India and every challenge facing the world, Patten is an incorrigible optimist. We live in a world, he says, “still capable of rationality, creativity, generosity and kindness”, and predictions of global doom have never proved true. This is a bit of a fey conclusion at the end of some 500 pages, but does not take away much from Patten’s cogent understanding of much of the world’s problems.
In Six Words: A moderate voice on global challenges
Soutik Biswas is India editor of BBC News online.
Write to lounge@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, Oct 31 2008. 11 28 PM IST