Biden Has Problems. The World Has Solutions.
From the founding fathers to Silicon Valley, the U.S. has a long
tradition of borrowing the best ideas from around the globe.
November 29, 2020, 2:00 PM GMT+8
The worst thing that President-elect Joe Biden can do right now is
to spend any more time with election lawyers. The irritations of President
Donald Trump’s unseemly rearguard action are already fading away. The challenge
of governing the country will only grow. The ugly truth is that the new
president’s inheritance is a much tougher one than most of Biden’s supporters
realize — on two counts.
Covid-19 has revealed in painful detail, the U.S. is falling behind much of the
world, not just in health care but also in most of the functions of government.
Second, little of this falling behind is really Trump’s fault. The disruptive
child being dragged out of the White House is more a symptom of what ails the
U.S. than a cause. Merely removing him will not solve much.
perspective, Biden should do what other great U.S. presidents have done when
their country has started to fall behind: Look abroad and copy what works.
the talk about American exceptionalism, the best American leaders have never
been ashamed of learning from abroad, especially in times of trouble. The
founding fathers carefully studied the world’s most successful political
systems, particularly those of Britain, France and ancient Rome. James Madison
pored over comparative constitutions while at Princeton, while John Adams and
Thomas Jefferson drew on their experience as envoys to France.
A century ago, the Progressives stole ideas from Europe: President
Woodrow Wilson even began writing a universal history of the state in order to
redesign U.S. institutions for a post-laissez-faire age. During the Great
Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt based Social Security on foreign
pension systems and turned to John Maynard Keynes for economic ideas. President
Lyndon B. Johnson borrowed the phrase “Great Society” from another British
academic, Graham Wallas, while the Ronald Reagan administration borrowed
“privatization” from Margaret Thatcher. America’s most influential statesman of
the late 20th century, , based much of his diplomacy on the European
concept of balance of power.
Nowadays, Kissinger still draws on Metternich and Talleyrand when he thinks about the U.S.-China relationship, but in terms of public policy he is a cosmopolitan exception. Washington, sadly, has stopped learning from abroad in terms of ideas and has become the rich world’s most parochial capital city.
The lobbyists and lawyers who infest the town are preoccupied
with exploiting their knowledge of the intricacies of the U.S. system to
win advantage for their clients. Of course, a president whose foreign policy
was summed up by “America First” has not helped, but Trump’s blinkeredness is
hardly unusual. With John McCain gone, can you name a senator who understands
what is happening in the rest of the world?
neither could we.
The contrast with the private sector is especially stark. U.S.
businesses still steal ideas from around the globe: Silicon Valley and Wall
Street suck in foreign-born talent. But politicians in Washington are obsessed
with their bases, which, given the U.S. primary system, means a highly
ideological sliver of the population. Not that the media are much help: One
U.S. assumed the fireworks that exploded over London
on Nov. 5 were to celebrate Trump’s removal, apparently unaware that Guy Fawkes
Day has been celebrated by Britons for centuries.
history of great empires that have turned inward is not a happy one. The next
president always needed to confront this — but Covid-19 has shown that
this insular U.S. has fallen much further behind than even pessimists
The global pandemic has been, among many things, a global test of
government capacity. Last week Bloomberg News published its study of The U.S. came in 18th of 53 nations.
It would have been far lower, if not for its private sector’s success in
producing vaccines. On the basic Hobbesian test of keeping its people alive,
the American Leviathan has failed.
The U.S. is closing in on . That is a slightly better record than Britain and
Belgium, but it is far worse than most of its allies. Germany, with 170 deaths
per million, has done six times better. But the really shocking comparative
numbers come from East Asia, where plenty of governments that a generation ago
looked across the Pacific to the U.S. as the great role model have now
outperformed their erstwhile exemplar.
lost fewer than 2,000 people, or a hundredth of the U.S. death toll, despite
having an elderly population and a supersized capital city. Taiwan has gone
more than 200 days without a domestic case of Covid-19. Singapore is beating
itself up because its mortality rate is edging close to five deaths per
most pointedly of all, China is now almost back to work as normal. Even
allowing for Beijing’s sluggish start in dealing with the virus, and throwing
in some skepticism about its official death toll of just three deaths per
million, it has plainly been far better at protecting its people from dying
than the U.S. And the rest of the world has seen it.
There are two lame excuses for this — both of which Biden should
dismiss. The first is that high U.S. mortality rates are part of the price you
pay for freedom and democracy. Though China’s success certainly has something
to do with autocracy, all the other countries at the top of the Covid-19 league
tables are also freedom-loving democracies; they’re just better-organized
freedom-loving democracies than the U.S. For instance, New York City and Seoul
are both lively cities with crowded subways and a wild nightlife. But New
York has lost more than 22,000 people, while Seoul has lost a few dozen.
Asia’s supremacy at Covid-19 was not a fluke. Look at the global rankings for
high schools and health care: East Asian countries are clustering at the top
alongside the Scandinavians. Or look at infrastructure. The gap between Asian
airports and New York’s La Guardia or JFK are obvious to any traveler, but just
as striking is the gap in the underlying wiring: Some three-quarters of the
world’s “smart cities,” which have updated their infrastructure for the
internet age, are in Asia.
nearly 50 years, Asian countries, led by Singapore, have been quietly building
smarter and better governments in the same way that Toyota and Honda once built
smarter and better cars. The difference is that, while Detroit and the rest of
U.S. industry eventually copied Japan’s “lean manufacturing” so they could
fight back, Washington’s politicians have not copied Singaporean lean government;
indeed, they barely know what it is.
The second excuse that Biden should dismiss is that America’s failures are all Trump’s fault. The outgoing president may have actively obstructed U.S. attempts to deal with Covid-19, but he did not create a health system that was designed to help the old and the rich, not the poor. A pandemic was always bound to expose that. All those people who died in New York City did so under a Democratic mayor and a Democratic governor.
The same goes for many other things where the U.S. is falling behind the rest of the world. Trump said some unhelpful things after George Floyd’s death, but he did not invent racist policing — one of us covered the Rodney King riots nearly three decades ago. Polarized politics? Poor schools? A convoluted tax system? Trump hardly made any of these problems better, but the U.S. public sector started falling behind its peers long before he even became a reality TV star.
little reading, the president-elect could discover that other countries are
doing plenty of clever things that the U.S. could copy. Formerly socialist
Scandinavia is a world leader in contracting out parts of the public sector to
the private sector, including in sensitive areas such as health care and
education. Germany has an exemplary decentralized health system that covers
everyone at a fraction of the cost of the U.S. system.
given every citizen — more than a billion people — a digital identity that
can be used to deliver benefits to a population that has high levels of
illiteracy. Tiny Estonia has made it possible to do a host of things online,
including voting, filing tax returns, participating in the census and setting
up businesses — enough to save about 2% of gross domestic product through
other governments are clearly doing better than Washington. But East Asia
presents the most pressing challenge, not least because China has the potential
to rival the U.S. as the center of the global economy. Its schools are
following Singapore’s tactics of promoting good teachers, firing bad ones and
using tests to monitor the system. Its 15-year-olds sit at the top of the
Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development rankings for reading,
science and math; their U.S. equivalents languish in 14th, 19th and 38th
places, respectively. Yes, China cheats by including only four cities, but no
one thinks American students come close — and the U.S. results look especially
lousy given that it outspends most of its rivals.
dysfunctional public sector is a geopolitical liability for the U.S., it is
also a political liability for Biden’s Democratic Party. The Democrats can
claim that, unlike the destructive Republicans, they believe in government and
the good that it can do. But in practice, they are the political arm of
public-sector unions that will move heaven and earth to save their members from
Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama managed to introduce a few reforms,
but they got far less than they wanted. Despite increased charter schools and
merit pay, it’s still very difficult to reward good teachers and fire bad ones:
Every year, incompetent and even criminal teachers are shuffled from school to
school (“the dance of the lemons”) or allowed to spend their days doodling in
city offices (“rubber rooms”).
Biden is in an unusually good position to break this dismal
pattern. With 30 years on the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, he knows as
much about “abroad” as anybody. As a moderate Democrat, he can position himself
at the vital center, between the old left, which is tied to the unions, and the
At 78, he’s unlikely to run for a second term (which would mean
asking Americans to keep him in the world’s most difficult job until he’s 86),
so he probably has unusual freedom to reform the public sector. This is
surely where most Americans also belong: More than 60% of voters, including a
majority of Democrats, that they support serious structural
reform of government.
around the world, Joe: Set up an office to study what works in other countries;
copy the best and avoid the worst; build back better not just on the basis of
U.S. examples, but foreign ones too. China is a particularly important example
to study. Not only can it teach the U.S. a thing or two about how to build
airports and harness the power of the internet of things, but it can also teach
what happens when countries become complacent and parochial.
Columbus reached the Americas on the Santa Maria in 1492, China accounted for a
fifth of the world’s economy, and it boasted the world’s most
sophisticated government and its most powerful navy (some Chinese ships were
more than 400 feet long, to the Santa Maria’s 70 feet). But eventually,
complacency set in: While European states fiercely competed against each other,
copying technology and ideas to improve their administrative and military
machines, China atrophied, with mandarins learning the same Confucian texts
decade after decade and century after century, and emperors turning their backs
on the world.
China destroyed its world-beating fleet, setting fire to some ships and leaving
others to rot, in order to prevent the country’s purity from being contaminated
by contact with other countries. In 1792, the Qianlong emperor famously
dismissed a British envoy, George Macartney, who had come bearing a treasure
trove of gifts in an attempt to persuade China to open up to trade: “We have
never valued ingenious articles, nor do we have the slightest need of your
generation, China was a plaything of foreign powers. The modern Chinese have
learned from that lesson. Has Joe Biden?