Western democracies on a negative trajectory

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Win, lose or draw on the war in Ukraine, the West, overall, is in trouble—or at least on a negative trajectory, even if it were to find a mecca of a cheap energy source. Why?
You could focus on identity politics, wokism and the creepy ever-growing creep of the highly technologically advanced security state ever widening its net. But I am more into basics like long term growth trajectories, labour stability and availability, productivity, GNP growth, business and commercial friendly regulatory environments. And secondarily, I focus on popular sentiment about the future and government.
Let us look at some good examples. Some come from Professor Graham Allison in his lecture at Harvard University (on YouTube) on whether there will be war between the West and China. He gives a whole lot of statistics demonstrating the overall fast growth of the Chinese economy. For 1978, he shows that 90% of the Chinese people were living on two dollars or less a day—and the remarkable degree to which mass deep poverty in the 1980s has become a very small part of the China of today. In fact, by 2014, and no doubt beyond, only one in a hundred are living in extreme poverty.
As implied by Allison, such fast paced progress was due to the serious goals and time frames, Xi Jinping the Chinese leader, his officials and his post Mao predecessors set for the country on the long term. But even a clip from his lecture shows how serious the Chinese are about fulfilling short-term goals. Allison showed a time lapse video of a small bridge being reconstructed in Beijing done entirely in 43 hours—all while a small bridge near the Harvard campus has taken years to renovate.
I will add the famed doomed California fast train system. The Gaurdian (UK) headline says it all: “Despite 14 years of work and about $5bn spent, the 2008 promise of quick transport between Los Angeles and San Francisco has not materialized”. Contrast over the same period, as according to Xinhua news, “The total length of high-speed rail lines in China came in at about 37,900 km at the end of 2020 and was up about 2,900 km from 2019 and almost twice that of 2015.”
And what do we have in the UK. In Britain, speaking of train service, it has been on strike. Only an intermission due to the passing away of the late Queen Elizabeth II, interrupted the work stoppage. Several years ago in a famous report, the current UK Prime Minister Liz Truss derided the lack of work ethic and devotion to aspiration by too many native Britons. Many today, as polls show, are very uncertain of their future. She even went as far as praising the greater commitment and ambition by many Indian immigrants to get ahead. Truss seems worried that England has been in a too low productivity situation for way too long which undermines economic growth. Piers Morgan, one of England’s most famous talk show hosts, goes further in a recent YouTube clip. He categorizes Britain as essentially a basket case.
An Ash Center poll underscores the important contrast between the US and China. From the Harvard Gazette: “Survey team found that compared to public opinion patterns in the US, in China, there was very high satisfaction with the central government. In 2016, the last year the survey was conducted, 95.5% of respondents were either ‘relatively satisfied’ or ‘highly satisfied’.” It goes on and says only 38% in America were so.
And speaking of India, it has seen extremely fast growth, registering well over 6% over recent years and up to around 12% in recent quarters. Its technology sector has been fast developing and its major companies have been important sources of investment capital for England. In fact, exogenous capital from countries of the South has been an important lifeline for British manufacturing, not only the Premier football league. Main brands like Jaguar to Range Rover are owned by Indians. It is hard to think how worse off the UK would be without immigration and investment from such, so-called developing or newly developed countries. Some of these patterns of low or insufficient growth and productivity and labour issues hold up on the continent.
My view is that it becomes increasingly hard to have stability without economic fundamentals in order. For Asia, this has been the practical focus—wealth and stability. Economic growth is intricately connected with fairness. A priority that cannot be (overly) subordinated to western values of pro-identity politics and beyond, even if a country does not meet the US definition of democracy, exceptional or not?
To be fair, the West has reached a very large GNP for their population size. So, there may be increasing limits for high growth rates when compared to India, Southeast Asia if not China. India is said to have an overall GNP that has surpassed that of the UK. But the UK has a much smaller population and China whose economy is fast approaching a size or bigger than the US’s. So, what to do to clearly boost the economic prospects of the West with its poor growth prospects and negativity among its populations about government. All of which is giving a bad name to democracy or at least western forms.
There needs to be a culture change in the West (and Japan). That means welcoming more entrepreneurship and the skilled from places like the Commonwealth, yet in a more orderly way than the madness at the Mexican border, Channel or Mediterranean crossings of illegals in rickety boats. Many more resources should be put forward to accelerating legitimate and functional immigration from the South to vitalize “rusty” regions of the West. This should be done sensibly, not in panicky manner. As well, the diversification as seen in the Liz Truss cabinet should be a signal that rewarding meritocracy goes hand in hand with anti-racism. Achievement should not be overly tied up in quotas but pushing and supporting excellence and productivity through all layers and regions of society. Varied sources of foreign investment can help, too. Educators have important roles in this including raising the economic and investment IQ among students.
The Ukraine war has not only been sad given all the deaths of the innocent, refugees and physical and environmental destruction. But it may have also distracted the West from dealing with some fundamentals to making democracy more attractive, bettering fundamentally, the West’s economic health at large.
Peter Dash, an educator based in Southeast Asia, has written for many years on development and international affairs issues. He was a researcher at Harvard University in the Africa Research Program.

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