15 May 2014

The Upside of Down: Charles Kenny on why we do not live in a zero sum world

I am a fan of Charles Kenny.  He writes regularly for Foreign Policy and he is always challenging, thoughtful and provocative.

His latest book, the Upside of Down, is very readable (and mercifully brief).  In it, he takes aim at those who say that the Rest of the world's rise is at the expense of the West.

Nonsense, he says.

He goes through the 4 big assumptions the "declinists" make:

(1) the West is to blame for its own decline.  Too little investment, too high taxes. Kenny notes that US and European growth rates have been pretty stable for the past 40-50 years, no matter who is in charge.

(2) being the biggest is always the best.  Kenny argues that being big is overrated.  For example, having the largest army in the world does not guarantee success (see Iraq and Afghanistan).

(3) the rise of the Rest is a terrible thing for the West.  Job losses.  Resource depletion. But as the author notes, growing incomes in the Rest, means markets for the West--if it keeps innovating and is not complacent. There will be painful transitions for some, but these can be softened or prevented with appropriate retraining and transition arrangements. And Kenny is optimistic that poorer countries are in a better place to adopt sustainable technologies than the West, so resource depletion worries are misplaced (greenhouse gases he says are the real worry and we know how disproportionately the West generates these).

(4) fortress America or Europe is how we reduce uncertainty.  But in a globalised world, where the West needs migrant labour and where the West cannot shut itself off from climate change, isolationism is not a sustainable option.  

For someone like me, there is not a lot to object to in the book.  The book was written to counter the Weekly Standards/Fox News Channels of this world.  (The overtures to Europe in the book feel a bit added on--its really about the US.)   But I don't think that the book will change their minds, partly because their perspective is ideological and partly because their perspective is commercial (it sells), but partly also because the book feels as though it written without any real deep knowledge of how they think and more importantly why they think the way they do.

It would have been much more powerful book if co-authored with a right wing writer who could really calibrate the good arguments to push the hot buttons of the "declinists" (not easy, I realise, to find such an accomplice).

So all in all a really enjoyable read, especially for someone who is already sympathetic to the arguments.  I just wonder if it will change any minds.

Ultimately I think Kenny is wrong that the folks at places like Fox News and the Weekly Standard don't think there is an upside to down.  They do--it is circulation and ratings.  It is just a different upside to the one he argues for.

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