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Twenty-First Century Limited

The popularity of the idea that we have arrived at the “End of History” coincides strangely with the popularity of its direct opposite—the view that a wholly new and unsettling era has opened. For forty-five years many Europeans felt geographically, culturally, militarily, and economically trapped between the two competing superpowers. Now we seem to have a tripolar world, anchored on the US, Japan, and the European Community. This is a world whose history is about to begin, and whose future is entirely unpredictable, at any rate by contemporary social science.

Tripolarity” can be a slogan that spares us thought in much the same way as “the end of history,” however, and never more dangerously than if it suggests that the main parties to the new historical order understand their future roles, and are ready to play them. Recent events in fact suggest that our three leading actors are in considerable disarray. The US and Japan are just too engrossed with domestic problems to attend to anything else. But Europe is in disarray along several dimensions simultaneously; the European Economic Community has thirteen members, and this is visibly both too many and too few—Britain, Italy, Greece, and Portugal can’t keep up with the economic policies demanded by their membership of the common monetary system, while the struggling ex-comecon countries such as Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Rumania, and Bulgaria, which are infinitely less capable of full membership, nonetheless have to be brought into some association with the Community if they are ever to catch up. Every one of these relationships has its own complications, and while the problems of the pound and the lira are hardly in the same league as the social and political disintegration of the former Soviet bloc, British and Italian politicians might be forgiven for feeling that if the EC can’t cope with the former, it is unlikely to do better with the latter.

There are innumerable European institutions besides the EC; indeed, Europe has an “alphabet soup” of overlapping and competing organizations. The Council of Europe has existed since 1948 to promote democracy and human rights throughout Europe and it already embraces many more countries than the Economic Community—Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia are members, and Russia and Ukraine will probably join soon. On the security front, the Western European Union is as old as NATO; the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe is another umbrella that has now been opened to take in the former Soviet dependencies. But none of these organizations has been any use in meeting the military challenge of the civil wars in Bosnia and Croatia; none offers much prospect for doing better in Moldavia or Armenia, and none has helped to concentrate European efforts to relieve starvation in Somalia. They may do more for the political and legal education of the former Soviet dependencies, but whether in time to stem the disintegrating effects of economic and political disillusionment is another matter.

The concept of tripolarity is indeed more hope and expectation than description, a gesture toward the thought that Japan, the EC, and the US must take the economic, cultural, and strategic lead in their respective geographical regions, that economic growth in the developed world, and the sponsoring of growth—along with peace, democracy, and a respect for human rights—in the less developed world must depend on their efforts and their cooperation.

Not, to be sure, on their cooperation alone. These are capitalist economies whose health depends on the energy—what Keynes aptly labeled “animal spirits”—that they bring to the familiar tasks of inventing new products and stimulating a demand for them. They are competitors as well as cooperators. Contrary to Lester Thurow’s view in his recent book, Head to Head, this is generally all to the good. Just as a competitive market economy that keeps individual firms on their toes is the best way we know for generating resources for public purposes, international competition that keeps the major economies on their toes is as good a way as we can imagine of producing the resources for international public purposes—whether these are peace-keeping forces under a UN banner, global public works schemes to save the environment, or modest educational efforts to teach the elements of economic efficiency and political accountability to societies that have spent the postwar years neglecting them in the name of Marxist or nationalist fundamentalism. Just as competition in a single national economy constantly educates firms and consumers about products, techniques, costs, and markets, so it should internationally.

But here is the rub. We know that capitalism is vastly productive only when it is controlled by reasonably effective political arrangements. We know that governments are staffed by people whose conceptions of public policy, along with their willingness to govern uncorruptly and efficiently, are sustained by all sorts of local cultural and legal conditions. What we don’t know is what we need to know if we are to borrow intelligently from one another’s institutions and pass the knowledge on to the rest of the world. We don’t know whether one set of political and cultural arrangements is uniquely effective or how easily they can be transplanted—whether parliamentary systems work better than an American “separation of powers” system for instance, or whether it would be worth investing in an Ecole nationale d’administration in Washington, or indeed whether foreign revisions of such institutions can be successfully erected.

The evidence of the postwar years is that very different arrangements can work equally well, but also that they may work well for a while but then eventually stagnate unpredictably—Sweden, for instance, combined high growth rates, low unemployment, and an elaborate and expensive welfare state for many years, and now seems to have lost the knack of it, while the occasional heretical voice has already been heard to suggest that the Japanese economy is not merely faltering but may face deeper trouble. If the leaders of the tripolar world have something to teach everyone else—other than that communism, militarism, and the cruder sorts of nationalism are bad for your health, welfare, and human rights—what is it? How much do we know about what mixtures of culture, politics, and economics will prosper in the new world?

It’s easy to see what is at stake—what we would like the social sciences to tell us—by considering the way Americans so widely believe that in the near to medium term they face economic disaster because of the inadequacies of American education. Anyone working in the educational field in the contemporary US is aware that all is not well and that American public high schools, for example, produce on the whole a badly educated group of eighteen year olds. Even good schools are exceedingly bad at teaching foreign languages; even the best schools teach history and geography very poorly, and give little real understanding of the literature and culture of other societies. In mathematics, the best 5 percent of American high-school students learn calculus; but calculus is taught to the best 75 percent of Japanese students. The worst schools are simply nightmarish. Ought we not to spend whatever it takes to remedy this at once?

For all the gloom, the rottenness of American education seems (at any rate so far) to be less damaging than one might expect. Part of the reason seems to be that America’s universities are much better than its high schools, partly that Japanese universities do not make the same efforts as Japanese high schools, so that by the time the American young are twenty-five, those who have been through an advanced graduate education are formally better educated than their peers anywhere in the world, save for the traditional American deficiency in language and general cultural knowledge. The fact that over 40 percent of Ph.D.s in mathematics and engineering and around 30 percent of Ph.D.s in computer science and physical science are awarded to nonresident aliens suggests where the American advantage lies. And the proportion of Americans who go to colleges and universities is still unrivaled elsewhere.1

Other possibilities might be considered. Perhaps the ill effects of poor secondary education have just been slow to show up; perhaps American college education has been so effective in encouraging the inventiveness of entrepreneurs that the educational deficiencies of much of the work force has to some degree been offset. Perhaps the American economy is elaborately divided internally, with a sophisticated, highly paid, intellectually demanding information-processing sector and a poorly paid, intellectually undemanding manual and service sector—the view that Robert B. Reich’s The Work of Nations puts forward. Whichever view we accept, the deficiencies of American education might not matter very much—in gross.

As a matter of distributive justice, they remain intolerable. The defects of public high-school education would matter very much to the manual working class no matter what their effect on the overall efficiency of the economy, because they would determine that in the global economy the most sophisticated production jobs will tend to go to Japan and Germany—while what British managers once called “low value-added metal bashing” would be carried on in the US and Britain, and otherwise in the third world. But the badness of the worst education would not necessarily matter to the economy overall, and particularly not to the better off. Nor would the traditional defects of the best American education. The deficiency in linguistic skills and general culture of managers, public servants, and political leaders might make for a rather coarse ruling elite, but it would be economically irrelevant.

This view is morally ugly, if only because it takes for granted an increasingly wide income and welfare gap between better and worse off. Its moral ugliness alone would not be enough to discredit it, however. More significantly, it seems unlikely that the US can allow itself the luxury of running that sort of economy very much longer, and that the deficiencies of both the best and the worst American education will matter increasingly. It is a commonplace that what makes modern economies tick is their “human capital”—a point made long ago by both J.S. Mill and Marx, but now coming increasingly to the fore. Human capital—the qualities of commitment, skill, adaptability, and so on that make one work force more productive than another—is very much man-made, or, to put it more elaborately, culturally produced. The tripolar world can only promote global economic sophistication if we can understand better than we do now how to foster the cultural capacities that support it. I do not mean that only one kind of culture can support a sophisticated economy—that is plainly false for we know that different cultures will do it differently. But some combinations of cultural characteristics will be possible and fruitful, some impossible, some possible and destructive, and it is increasingly important to know which is which. The importance of the influence of the political, legal, and social culture on the economy emerges particularly vividly when one considers the negative example of the baleful influence of a Leninist political culture on the economies of the former Communist bloc.

  1. 1

    American higher education statistics are summarized in the Annual Statistical Abstract of the United States; other countries publish similar annual abstracts. Institutional differences make detailed comparison very difficult, and comparisons of quality almost impossible; but a crude indicator is that in 1989 there were some 15 million students in higher education and 800,000 college and university teachers of the rank of lecturer and above in the US—many of both categories parttime—and nowhere else comes close on a per capita basis. It is open to anyone to retort that much or even most of what goes on is not really “higher” education, to wish that more of it was German apprenticeship training, or that more of it took place in high school. These are my own views; still the sheer size and availability of the higher education system remain astonishing.

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