.

A Read Suited for 30,000 Feet

There exists a cottage industry of published books best suited for transcontinental or international flights. Books by authors like Malcolm Gladwell or Thomas Friedman that are just deep enough to arch an eyebrow, but not deep enough to lead to questions about their underlying theses.

Surely, you’ve seen the shelves stocked with overpriced books leading to the gate (well, perhaps not recently). They are the type of book that people like to read while at cruising altitude, and upon landing, dazzle their host with some nifty anecdote or story they read courtesy of Messrs. Gladwell or Freidman. Never mind that the subject or the world they describe is vastly more complicated than what the authors present. Never mind that they selectively choose evidence that suits their thesis while ignoring the rest. If nothing else, they are a much better way to spend the hours aloft rather than thinking about how expensive your in-flight peanuts are.

To these increasingly full, if currently under-perused shelves, Fareed Zakaria, the CNN host, and best-selling author, adds his latest book 10 Lessons for the Post-Pandemic World. It is one of the first hot takes on the impact of COVID and it shows.

Less Lesson, More Observation

To be fair to Mr. Zakaria, Ten Lessons is better than initially expected. It could have easily regressed into a simple pandemic era cash-grab. Thankfully, Mr. Zakaria does not go down that path, but he doesn’t go far enough down the path he chose. This book would be more appropriately titled “Ten Observations” as that is what each chapter really is—merely an observation. There are the requisite statistics, graphs, and obligatory vignettes, but Mr. Zakaria doesn’t go deep enough.

Mr. Zakaria’s lessons are less instructive; more thought-provoking. Readers will certainly ponder, “huh, I hadn’t thought of that”, but they will be left wondering, “so what?” One hopes that there will be some sort of follow-up to this book, one that dives into the “now what?” part of the question.

For example, it is all well and good to say that “quality of government matters more than quantity”, but how does one put that into practice? From where will one summon the bipartisan energy to address the issues identified in Ten Lessons?  Moreover, how does one achieve governmental efficiency without making cuts and not adding more government in the process? Government is one of the few institutions in human existence that solves its failures by creating more of itself. Indeed, that’s how so many layers have been added to government bureaucracies.

If markets are insufficient to address the problem, as Mr. Zakaria states, what reforms are necessary, and from where will the political capital and energy come to drive through these substantive changes? That the Financial Times authored a piece about the need for more governmental involvement in the economy is interesting, as Mr. Zakaria notes, but speaking against a shibboleth and breaking it are two entirely different things.

Mr. Zakaria also fails to address the proverbial elephant in the room: society seems to be locked in a perpetual COVID crisis mode, reflexively crouched, waiting for the other shoe to drop—be it the second wave, third peak, or some other attendant catastrophe. Certainly, within the United States and, arguably, the United Kingdom, there are few, if any, discussions about risk management or risk mitigation. It is an all-or-nothing proposition: as a society, we are either entirely open, as many on the right advocate, or we are entirely shut down, as their counterparts on the left argue is critical to flatten the curve.

There seems to be a paucity of adults (or indeed, experts) saying something to the effect that COVID is with us for the foreseeable future; we need to take precautions to prevent and control its spread in the near term until a vaccine is widely available; and here is what we can do to mitigate or manage the societal risk while allowing economic activity to resume.

Insta-Pundits & Experts

Mr. Zakaria’s commentary about experts, and both the need for the public to listen to them and their need to listen to the public, is lacking. To be sure, the expert class needs to have a bit more faith in the American public and explain the challenges ahead, but to think that is a panacea is to miss the point.

Now, with a few clicks of the mouse, anyone can be a self-described expert or an insta-pundit. The same individuals who were opining on Twitter about COVID-19 suddenly shift to the 25th Amendment, barely catching a breath in between. The reality is that social media has eroded the definition of expert and created a false sense of equivalence. No, your Aunt Karen is not an expert on novel coronaviruses, but on Facebook, she—and anyone she can convince—thinks she is.

Equally jarring is the fact that Mr. Zakaria doesn’t turn the camera on his employer and the cable news industry writ large. In the zeal to fill the 24-hour news cycle—and due to financial pressures that resulted in the elimination of many real, and expensive, correspondents—the airwaves are filled with talking heads that comment, analyze, and opine on the news of the day. Producers seek to fill seats and airtime and, in doing so, erode the value of expert opinions. Dr. Fauci may get ten minutes of a segment, but the next 55 are filled with “expert” political analysis. There are, of course, analysts who do add real and substantive value, but their contributions are often outweighed by the pursuit of a guest that is louder, more brash, and more willing to say something that will get audience attention.

The Post-COVID Urban Future

It is perhaps premature to diagnose the fate of cities in the post-COVID digital era. Whether or not the flight from the cities is a temporary development, or something more permanent, remains to be seen. There are no shortages of opinion—even comedian Jerry Seinfeld weighed in, offering a rebuttal to a blog post proclaiming the death of New York City.

In the near term, the impact is undeniable. In Washington, DC, the number of businesses boarded up on main thoroughfares once heaving with people is shocking. A Starbucks at one of the busiest metro stations (Farragut North) in the nation’s capital closed up shop, something unimaginable before the virus’ arrival. Anecdotally, more people—particularly those of the Millennial generation—are leaving the city to save on rent, a sensible move when all the trappings of urban life are shut down or severely limited.

On inequality, he rightly notes the potential impact of the global shutdown on the gap between the haves and the have-nots but doesn’t explore the concomitant challenge of the very stay-at-home orders that many supported. It is easy to work from home if you have a white-collar job, but much more difficult if you are employed in a service job or have your own business. That was arguably omitted amidst the hyperbolic rush to judge those protesting the states’ orders.

The New COVID World Order

Mr. Zakaria also trots out the return of the bipolar world as one of his lessons—that the United States and China will find themselves locked less in military competition (a la the Soviet Union) and more in economic competition. Here again, there is little news that hasn’t been written at great length and greater depth elsewhere. To be sure, China’s propaganda and disinformation efforts have made it appear heroic in conquering COVID domestically—especially given the repeated missteps in the United States and the United Kingdom—but such canned heroism masks gross early failures and a Chinese Communist Party that is terrified of internal or external criticism. One could imagine John Cleese reprising his Basil Fawlty role, with a minor script change, saying, “Whatever you do, don’t mention the Uyghurs. I mentioned it once, but I think I got away with it alright.”

Mr. Zakaria notes the erosion of American influence globally, but arguably that is a transient phenomenon. Beijing’s bullying is not winning it any friends and its ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative comes with far more strings and debt traps than recipients initially realized. While countries may look to find a third way or develop their autonomy and independence, America will still be a far better option (the current political environment notwithstanding) than Beijing.

He ends this section by saying that bipolarity is likely inevitable, but a cold war is a choice. While that may be an attractive sentiment, the reality is more complicated. The United States could choose to not confront China’s expansionist foreign policy, but that doesn’t mean Beijing will stop building new islands in the South China Sea and arming the new territory. Washington may choose to reduce its support for allied capitals in the region, but Beijing won’t stop its bullying behavior. It matters less what one party thinks and chooses, and matters more what the dynamic between the two parties yields. Shaping that environment requires strength, will, resolve, and above all, alliances.

Here on the international stage, Mr. Zakaria is right in saying that globalization is still with us and will remain so for the foreseeable future unless we intervene against its progress. True, the COVID-19 pandemic exposed the weaknesses of the just-in-time global logistics network and the fragility of supply chains, but these are not reasons to close economies off from one another. Rather, it is a clarion call to build more resilience into the system or, to borrow Nasim Nicholas Taleb’s idea (also noted by Mr. Zakaria), anti-fragility.

Nothing is Written, Indeed

Mr. Zakaria closes his Ten Lessons with a simple statement of “Nothing is Written”, providing for human agency in all of these observations. The reader is left wondering what is next and what is humanity to do about these ten issues. That is where this book stumbles the most. It is very much like the cable news panels on which Mr. Zakaria sits; occasionally thought-provoking, but mostly filler. That is a shame. Had Mr. Zakaria split the ten observations into five tangible policy issues and accompanied it with prescriptions for action, Ten Lessons would have been a far stronger book. Even had one disagreed with the policy suggestions, it would have contributed something to the current debate. Here, Ten Lessons merely admires the identified problems; now, perhaps more than ever, less admiration is needed, and more action is demanded.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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www.diplomaticourier.com

Ten Lessons for the Post-Pandemic World

October 24, 2020

Ten Lessons for the Post-Pandemic World | Fareed Zakaria | W. W. Norton & Company.

A Read Suited for 30,000 Feet

There exists a cottage industry of published books best suited for transcontinental or international flights. Books by authors like Malcolm Gladwell or Thomas Friedman that are just deep enough to arch an eyebrow, but not deep enough to lead to questions about their underlying theses.

Surely, you’ve seen the shelves stocked with overpriced books leading to the gate (well, perhaps not recently). They are the type of book that people like to read while at cruising altitude, and upon landing, dazzle their host with some nifty anecdote or story they read courtesy of Messrs. Gladwell or Freidman. Never mind that the subject or the world they describe is vastly more complicated than what the authors present. Never mind that they selectively choose evidence that suits their thesis while ignoring the rest. If nothing else, they are a much better way to spend the hours aloft rather than thinking about how expensive your in-flight peanuts are.

To these increasingly full, if currently under-perused shelves, Fareed Zakaria, the CNN host, and best-selling author, adds his latest book 10 Lessons for the Post-Pandemic World. It is one of the first hot takes on the impact of COVID and it shows.

Less Lesson, More Observation

To be fair to Mr. Zakaria, Ten Lessons is better than initially expected. It could have easily regressed into a simple pandemic era cash-grab. Thankfully, Mr. Zakaria does not go down that path, but he doesn’t go far enough down the path he chose. This book would be more appropriately titled “Ten Observations” as that is what each chapter really is—merely an observation. There are the requisite statistics, graphs, and obligatory vignettes, but Mr. Zakaria doesn’t go deep enough.

Mr. Zakaria’s lessons are less instructive; more thought-provoking. Readers will certainly ponder, “huh, I hadn’t thought of that”, but they will be left wondering, “so what?” One hopes that there will be some sort of follow-up to this book, one that dives into the “now what?” part of the question.

For example, it is all well and good to say that “quality of government matters more than quantity”, but how does one put that into practice? From where will one summon the bipartisan energy to address the issues identified in Ten Lessons?  Moreover, how does one achieve governmental efficiency without making cuts and not adding more government in the process? Government is one of the few institutions in human existence that solves its failures by creating more of itself. Indeed, that’s how so many layers have been added to government bureaucracies.

If markets are insufficient to address the problem, as Mr. Zakaria states, what reforms are necessary, and from where will the political capital and energy come to drive through these substantive changes? That the Financial Times authored a piece about the need for more governmental involvement in the economy is interesting, as Mr. Zakaria notes, but speaking against a shibboleth and breaking it are two entirely different things.

Mr. Zakaria also fails to address the proverbial elephant in the room: society seems to be locked in a perpetual COVID crisis mode, reflexively crouched, waiting for the other shoe to drop—be it the second wave, third peak, or some other attendant catastrophe. Certainly, within the United States and, arguably, the United Kingdom, there are few, if any, discussions about risk management or risk mitigation. It is an all-or-nothing proposition: as a society, we are either entirely open, as many on the right advocate, or we are entirely shut down, as their counterparts on the left argue is critical to flatten the curve.

There seems to be a paucity of adults (or indeed, experts) saying something to the effect that COVID is with us for the foreseeable future; we need to take precautions to prevent and control its spread in the near term until a vaccine is widely available; and here is what we can do to mitigate or manage the societal risk while allowing economic activity to resume.

Insta-Pundits & Experts

Mr. Zakaria’s commentary about experts, and both the need for the public to listen to them and their need to listen to the public, is lacking. To be sure, the expert class needs to have a bit more faith in the American public and explain the challenges ahead, but to think that is a panacea is to miss the point.

Now, with a few clicks of the mouse, anyone can be a self-described expert or an insta-pundit. The same individuals who were opining on Twitter about COVID-19 suddenly shift to the 25th Amendment, barely catching a breath in between. The reality is that social media has eroded the definition of expert and created a false sense of equivalence. No, your Aunt Karen is not an expert on novel coronaviruses, but on Facebook, she—and anyone she can convince—thinks she is.

Equally jarring is the fact that Mr. Zakaria doesn’t turn the camera on his employer and the cable news industry writ large. In the zeal to fill the 24-hour news cycle—and due to financial pressures that resulted in the elimination of many real, and expensive, correspondents—the airwaves are filled with talking heads that comment, analyze, and opine on the news of the day. Producers seek to fill seats and airtime and, in doing so, erode the value of expert opinions. Dr. Fauci may get ten minutes of a segment, but the next 55 are filled with “expert” political analysis. There are, of course, analysts who do add real and substantive value, but their contributions are often outweighed by the pursuit of a guest that is louder, more brash, and more willing to say something that will get audience attention.

The Post-COVID Urban Future

It is perhaps premature to diagnose the fate of cities in the post-COVID digital era. Whether or not the flight from the cities is a temporary development, or something more permanent, remains to be seen. There are no shortages of opinion—even comedian Jerry Seinfeld weighed in, offering a rebuttal to a blog post proclaiming the death of New York City.

In the near term, the impact is undeniable. In Washington, DC, the number of businesses boarded up on main thoroughfares once heaving with people is shocking. A Starbucks at one of the busiest metro stations (Farragut North) in the nation’s capital closed up shop, something unimaginable before the virus’ arrival. Anecdotally, more people—particularly those of the Millennial generation—are leaving the city to save on rent, a sensible move when all the trappings of urban life are shut down or severely limited.

On inequality, he rightly notes the potential impact of the global shutdown on the gap between the haves and the have-nots but doesn’t explore the concomitant challenge of the very stay-at-home orders that many supported. It is easy to work from home if you have a white-collar job, but much more difficult if you are employed in a service job or have your own business. That was arguably omitted amidst the hyperbolic rush to judge those protesting the states’ orders.

The New COVID World Order

Mr. Zakaria also trots out the return of the bipolar world as one of his lessons—that the United States and China will find themselves locked less in military competition (a la the Soviet Union) and more in economic competition. Here again, there is little news that hasn’t been written at great length and greater depth elsewhere. To be sure, China’s propaganda and disinformation efforts have made it appear heroic in conquering COVID domestically—especially given the repeated missteps in the United States and the United Kingdom—but such canned heroism masks gross early failures and a Chinese Communist Party that is terrified of internal or external criticism. One could imagine John Cleese reprising his Basil Fawlty role, with a minor script change, saying, “Whatever you do, don’t mention the Uyghurs. I mentioned it once, but I think I got away with it alright.”

Mr. Zakaria notes the erosion of American influence globally, but arguably that is a transient phenomenon. Beijing’s bullying is not winning it any friends and its ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative comes with far more strings and debt traps than recipients initially realized. While countries may look to find a third way or develop their autonomy and independence, America will still be a far better option (the current political environment notwithstanding) than Beijing.

He ends this section by saying that bipolarity is likely inevitable, but a cold war is a choice. While that may be an attractive sentiment, the reality is more complicated. The United States could choose to not confront China’s expansionist foreign policy, but that doesn’t mean Beijing will stop building new islands in the South China Sea and arming the new territory. Washington may choose to reduce its support for allied capitals in the region, but Beijing won’t stop its bullying behavior. It matters less what one party thinks and chooses, and matters more what the dynamic between the two parties yields. Shaping that environment requires strength, will, resolve, and above all, alliances.

Here on the international stage, Mr. Zakaria is right in saying that globalization is still with us and will remain so for the foreseeable future unless we intervene against its progress. True, the COVID-19 pandemic exposed the weaknesses of the just-in-time global logistics network and the fragility of supply chains, but these are not reasons to close economies off from one another. Rather, it is a clarion call to build more resilience into the system or, to borrow Nasim Nicholas Taleb’s idea (also noted by Mr. Zakaria), anti-fragility.

Nothing is Written, Indeed

Mr. Zakaria closes his Ten Lessons with a simple statement of “Nothing is Written”, providing for human agency in all of these observations. The reader is left wondering what is next and what is humanity to do about these ten issues. That is where this book stumbles the most. It is very much like the cable news panels on which Mr. Zakaria sits; occasionally thought-provoking, but mostly filler. That is a shame. Had Mr. Zakaria split the ten observations into five tangible policy issues and accompanied it with prescriptions for action, Ten Lessons would have been a far stronger book. Even had one disagreed with the policy suggestions, it would have contributed something to the current debate. Here, Ten Lessons merely admires the identified problems; now, perhaps more than ever, less admiration is needed, and more action is demanded.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.