The Times of London is now my favorite newspaper. Christopher Hart’s penetrating review of The Price of Prosperity catapulted the book to #1 on Amazon’s best-seller list for history, business, and political economy. In addition, the Times found this nifty photo that makes me look like an omnipotent Zen-master. Or a James Bond villain. I’m neither. Here’s what he had to say:
Books: The Price of Prosperity: Why Rich Nations Fail and How to Renew Them by Todd G Buchholz
Falling birthrates, rising debt, globalisation, decaying work ethic: a tough-minded look at the malaise now gripping the West
Review by Christopher Hart
July 24 2016, 12:01am,
The Sunday Times
In Japan, more nappies are sold to adults than to babies. In America, President Obama has overseen a rise in national debt almost equal to that accumulated by every preceding president — from about $10 trillion to $18 trillion. In Britain, many more young Muslims have travelled to Syria to join Isis than serve in the British military. These things, says Todd G Buchholz, are all connected. They are the downside of the First World’s success, and threaten the end of it.
The Price of Prosperity is one of those swaggering, world-ranging “big ideas” books that sets out to analyse the world’s problems and then provide solutions. Buchholz, a former White House director of economic policy under President George HW Bush, admits in the preface that it is “ambitious and possibly quite foolish”, but this example, at least, is worth your attention for its unflinching grasp of unpalatable realities. Given the lively events of the past few weeks in Britain, much of what he has to say is sharply pertinent. No sensible person ever really believed in the End of History, and it is certainly not all over now.
Buchholz’s primary observation echoes Greek and Roman moralists lamenting the degenerative effects of “luxury”. Prosperity, he says, is best achieved by peaceful, law-abiding, hard-working, politically stable and socially unified societies. However, once prosperity is achieved, it begins to corrode those very foundations that made it possible. “Throughout history, prosperous nations have suffered from a powerful tendency to fissure, splinter and lose their unifying missions.”
Out-and-out pessimists, such as Jim Penman in his fascinating “epigenetic” study Biohistory, argue that all prosperous societies crumble sooner or later, because prosperity and comfort actually alter people’s temperaments and make them incapable of preserving or perpetuating themselves. Buchholz is no such a pessimist, but he identifies five huge problems facing prosperous societies: falling birthrates (hence the Japanese nappies statistic), globalised trade, rising debt loads, a decaying work ethic and the evaporation of patriotism. They all turn out to be closely interlinked.
Birthrates first. If you aren’t aghast at the West’s falling birthrates, you can’t have read the stats. What is euphemistically called “an ageing population” really denotes a collapse. A replacement birthrate is 2.1. The average American woman is likely to give birth to 1.89 babies (though only 1.6 for graduate mothers). In Italy it is a near-catastrophic 1.39. “We are a dying country,” Italy’s health minister said recently. The rest of the West is similar, its population destined to halve every generation or so. In rich societies, children are no longer “obedient field hands”, but more like luxury goods, says Buchholz.
You could solve the “problem” simply by announcing no state aid to anyone under 80 — not even a free bus pass. Carry on working. But who is going to vote for that? Instead we vote for more handouts. And for every factory worker today, says Buchholz, there is another at home on disability benefit.
Buchholz’s book is worth your attention for its unflinching grasp of unpalatable realities
The solution of the West’s (but not Japan’s) leaders is mass immigration from high birthrate countries, virtually untouched by feminism (which brings low birthrates) and often still highly religious. (A sombre note for atheists: religious populations always outbreed secular ones.) In Niger and Yemen, the birthrate is still around six. If Italy replaces its missing 45m people over the next few decades with mostly African and Middle Eastern Muslims, will they really embrace western values? Why should they?
It is quite an experiment, with an almost embarrassing abundance of evidence to suggest there might be trouble ahead. Buchholz discusses how immigration “leads to either a breakdown or a downward shift in the spirit of community”, as shown in the appalled discovery by the Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam that diverse societies are less happy, less trusting and less outgoing than homogeneous ones. They even have lower rates of volunteering. Putnam, a good East Coast liberal, was so dismayed by his findings that he buried them for six years.
So, even if immigration temporarily solves the “ageing problem”, it brings other problems just as great. Globalisation means further immigration and insecurity, along with increasing wealth: but wealth only for the hi-tech elite, it seems. However, Buchholz is scathing about the sentimental and self-indulgent idea that government borrowing and spending is somehow nicer and more caring. It is just bequeathing colossal debts to unborn generations to sort out. Talk about taxation without representation.
He has a great way of summarising broad trends. In America, the Pledge of Allegiance has been replaced in schools by affirmations of self-esteem. Everyone is a star! This is ego-building, not nation-building. The psychologist Jean Twenge found that in 1950, only 12% of teens agreed with the statement: “I am an important person.” By the 1980s, it was 80%. And here is how rich countries generate red tape, which then strangles wealth-creation: in Arizona, a hairstylist must have “1,600 hours of classroom instruction” before practising. Policemen need only 600. A Revlon hairdryer is more dangerous than a Glock .45, apparently.
The decline of patriotism and civic pride means that today’s consumer-narcissists are more likely to identify themselves by proclaiming:“I’m gluten free. And proud.” Buchholz summarises subprime mortgagors as: “Mr and Mrs I Deserve Four Bedrooms and a Jacuzzi Even Though I Never Saved a Dime in My Life.” And he points out that, in 2014, the head of the federal agency that oversees Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac once again backed mortgages on down-payments as low as 3%. He made the announcement in Las Vegas, “a choice venue for rolling the dice”.
Highly entertaining, far-sighted and enjoyably acerbic, The Price of Prosperity vividly evokes the vast centrifugal forces that threaten the First World today. Immigration breaks the bonds between neighbours, wealth separates the rich and poor, government debt abuses the trust between present and future generations — and the anxiety engendered by such forces is now producing populist counter-movements that, as Britain’s Brexit experience shows, are very much one-nation, anti-global and anti-immigration. Doctrinaire liberals might despise them, but they might do better to understand them.
Later chapters examine how our problems echo those faced by Japan’s Meiji empire, or by Alexander the Great, and these are more grandiose, broadbrush and unconvincing. Our problems today are unprecedentedly global, and often driven by new technology. Buchholz’s final prescription is for a renewal of national feeling, shared symbolism, binding ritual — ie patriotism. But at the very suggestion of such a thing, you can already hear the BBC’s sneer of cold disdain, or the bleating chants of “racism”.
Buchholz’s tough-minded diagnosis suggests tectonic forces at work far more powerful than any available counterforce. We all feel them. And comfort-blanket mantras such as “celebrate diversity” seem pitifully inadequate: like trying to hold together a herd of stampeding bullocks with a piece of thread. The lasting impression left by this book recalls an admonitory phrase from the political scientist Samuel P Huntington: “A nation is a fragile thing.”