Here’s the next book with a numbered agenda up for summary (following Harari’s 21 Lessons). It came out in October 2020, with journalistic promptness just six or seven months after the beginning of the lockdown, though before vaccines became available in early 2021. (The author is a CNN correspondent who’s also written a couple books.)

The first thing to say about this book is that the author – as is befitting a cable news international affairs host – is seemingly expert at US and world history of the past century. Throughout this book he is always comparing some current situation to, say, tensions before World War I, or how the Cold War played out, often in specific detail. The book consists of 240 pages of text, and no fewer than 60 pages of notes – that is, references to sources to support this phrase or that paragraph from the text. It’s seemingly exhaustive.

The second thing to say is, as the author advises, the book is not about the pandemic per se, but about what the world will be like following the pandemic. Or how the world will be changed by the pandemic. (Several articles have already appeared on the theme that the pandemic won’t ever “end,” but that covid will become endemic, like the flu, and we’ll just have to learn to live with it.)

So now – once again I’m going to try to summarize my notes to the bare minimum – here are his ten lessons.

Intro, The Bat Effect, p1

  • Rather than return to usual, the pandemic will likely accelerate existing trends.
  • Author summarizes how pandemics have shaped world history; e.g. how the bubonic plague led some to wonder how God could allow such a thing, and thus set in motion the Renaissance. [[ A point I’ve seen made elsewhere. ]]
  • The international order has been marked by three forces: American power; free markets; the information revolution
  • And now there have been three crises just this century: 9/11; the crash of 2008; the pandemic.

Lesson One: Buckle Up, p13, 16p

  • Lesson: The world is resilient: we are not doomed.
  • In any system you can have only two of these three: open, fast, stable. [[ Working in aerospace, it was fast, good, cheap. ]] Our world is now open, fast, and unstable. The three crises above can be understood in those terms.
  • We solved crises before, e.g. the Dust Bowl, with massive aid from the government.
  • There are many things we can do now to make the world a healthier place: enact a carbon tax; shift emphases in economic policies (much cheaper to do so now than to suffer the effects later). And we can address the safety of marketplaces—regulations. Promote healthier diets; less meat. Stronger public health systems. “You cannot defeat a global disease with local responses.” P28.2. As with driving a dangerous car, it’s time to tune it up, and buckle up.

Lesson Two: What Matters is Not the Quantity of Government but the Quality, p29, 27p

  • Lesson: The US government is now in a position of needing to learn from other countries; we are no longer a country to emulate.
  • The US response to the pandemic was lame. Other democracies did better. China did better, but only at first.
  • History of good government. The earliest systems were “patrimonial,” like the Mafia, currently Brazil, even to an extent in America where unregulated political spending results in endless quid pro quo. Plato’s five types range from an aristocracy run by philosopher kings (best) to tyranny (worst). Rome, Byzantium, China.
  • American exceptionalism: began deeply anti-statist; the first government failed in 10 years. After the civil war the government grew: Wilson expanded powers of the president and federal government. FDR’s response to the Depression was to try everything. He was the architect of modern America. Southern states resisted, fearing end of Jim Crow laws; they were right. This revolution continued until Reagan, who declared the government a problem. He succeeded in shrinking the government; now the US has fewer government officials per capita than comparable nations. His ideas have infected much of the populace. “Starve the beast”; Norquist, Bannon. For decades the government has been run by people pledging to destroy it. Have they succeeded? Add American federalism—the federal government must defer in many things to the states and local levels. [[ e.g. rules for mask-wearing ]] This became a nightmare for attacking a pandemic that knew no borders.
  • P53.7: “Good government is about limited power but clear lines of authority. It is about giving officials autonomy, discretion, and the ability to exercise their own judgment. It requires recruiting bright, devoted people who are inspired by the chance to serve their country and earn respect for doing it.”

Lesson Three: Markets Are Not Enough, p56, 19p

  • Lesson: Markets are powerful but not sufficient; they need supports and buffers and supplements – i.e. regulations, tax policies, government investment, education.
  • The trend away from raw capitalism is increasing, giving way to the realization that at time collective sacrifices are needed, especially in situation like the pandemic.
  • People support political parties as social clubs, for a sense of belonging and identity, even as party values change.
  • Yet America failed in March 2020 in many ways: not enough covid tests for everyone; the wealthy got theirs first. How hospitals are run like hotels.
  • The American dream is that everyone can make it, become wealthy, or president. Yet the US has a lower probability of upward mobility than countries like Denmark or Canada. Denmark has become an ideal to some Americans, with high levels of taxation and redistribution and also universal education and health care.
  • Populists like Trump want to shut everything down, return to some “imagined time of greatness.” P73. There never was such a Garden of Eden. We must move forward.

Lesson Four: People Should Listen to the Experts—and Experts Should Listen to the People, p75, 22p

  • Lesson: We can’t govern by gut and celebration of ignorance; we need more experts. Yet experts and elites need to connect with people and mind their needs.
  • How Trump, with his “good brain,” doesn’t rely on experts. How science works: advice about Covid from experts kept changing because new evidence came in. Experts need to explain how science actually works, without coming off as patronizing.
  • The best predictor of following expert advice is political affiliation. One side deeply distrusts the establishment; thus a preference for conspiracy theories and an ideology about “the pure people” vs “the corrupt elite”.
  • All advanced countries are meritocracies. The “ruling class” live in cities and are socially liberal; the non-college educated tend to be rural, socially conservative. Pattern similar in Europe. The pandemic has widened these divisions.
  • Studies show that power kills empathy; Macbeth, King Lear. Yet some, like the Roosevelts, maintained empathy.
  • [[ I think this chapter is weak in suggesting how the experts are supposed to “mind the needs” of the ignorant. Even though I’ve read such advice before, especially in dealing with family members who are conspiracy theorists. ]]

Lesson Five: Life Is Digital, p97, 25p

  • Will the digital economy save us? Maybe not, but it will refocus our lives.
  • Covid has forced more of us to work digitally, e.g. working from home. This is a shift from the idea of the office as factory, everyone coming and going at the same time.
  • AI is transforming medicine, though with a lack of data they didn’t help much in the early Covid crisis.
  • Discussion of robots, Ian McEwan, the flex economy.

Lesson Six: Aristotle Was right—We Are Social Animals, p122, 25p

  • We are social animals, and need cities – despite the way pandemics spread more easily in densely populated areas, cities will not be abandoned.
  • History of how people have fled cities during pandemics.
  • And yet, cities are cleaner, more productive, and healthier, than rural areas. Social progress begins in cities. They are more sustainable. They are the centers of innovation.
  • Cities of the future will move toward a new metropolitan model, e.g. to make all areas accessible within 15 minutes, as Paris is trying to do. Cars banned from streets; more bike and walking paths.
  • Won’t Zoom and such tools obviate the need for people to live in cities? But they have limited success. Author quotes from E.M. Forster’s famous SF story “The Machine Stops.”
  • [[ I note here that a theme in 1950s SF was that people would gravitate toward large rural estates, as the world became more wealthy. This was a theme especially in Simak, e.g. CITY (discussed here http://www.markrkelly.com/Blog/2019/05/15/clifford-d-simak-city/) and in Asimov (THE NAKED SUN). ]]

Lesson Seven: Inequality Will Get Worse, p147, 20p

  • Inequality will always be with us, though the number of people living in extreme poverty has dropped in recent years.
  • How has covid affected this? The world is splitting into places with good health-care systems, and those without.
  • In America, inequality makes for bad economics and politics, and Covid makes these issues worse. Tax codes favor capital over labor, and Congress keeps passing tax cuts that benefit mostly the top 10%.
  • In American capitalism, everything is for sale – e.g. access to physicians, passports, seating at sports stadiums. And so poor Americans think the system is rigged against them.
  • Covid reminds us that we should strive to equality in keeping everyone safe and healthy.

Lesson Eight: Globalization Is Not Dead, p167, 20p

  • Pandemics are not contained by borders. And the interconnected world we have today will not be undone.
  • The current anti-globalization argument is that things must be manufactured locally. “Buy American.” Yet bringing manufacturing back to the US would be expensive. It’s easier for different countries to specialize in different areas. [[ I’ve always thought this “Buy American” pitch is naïve, not realizing how much the world is already interconnected and how ordinary products are built from parts from around the world. Why not pitch “Buy Illinois” to encourage residents to support only products built in their own state? ]]
  • Most modern economies have more service jobs than manufacturing jobs—and service jobs can’t be exported.
  • Globalization began in 1492, or perhaps 1498, and it can’t be stopped. Costs of communication and internet connections are falling, to effectively zero.
  • Can globalization trends be reversed? It was undone by WWI. It could happen again, if we want to kill it.

Lesson Nine: The World Is Becoming Bipolar, p187, 23p

  • Today’s world is defined by a single global system, as never before. And this “liberal international order” is in everyone’s interest.
  • Talk of American’s decline goes back decades, what with inequality, gun violence, prison inmates, lack of health insurance, racial divides. And yet American has the biggest military. Still, its power to set the world’s agenda has declined.
  • And now there’s China, with huge economic growth. The international system is becoming bipolar. Europe and Russia are falling away.
  • Is conflict with China inevitable? Has covid made things worse? Hard to say; many trends.

Lesson Ten: Sometimes the Greatest Realists Are the Idealists, p210, 24p

  • The Covid crisis has caused many nations to look inward. It’s fashionable to bash globalism.
  • Recall Roosevelt and Truman, the latter of whom copied out Tennyson’s “Locksley Hall” to read out loud to his advisors. Eisenhower too strove for universal peace in terms unthinkable today. Even Churchill spoke of a United States of Europe.
  • Now Trump and other leaders are selfish and looking inward.
  • The “liberal international order” was never completely liberal, international, or orderly. American’s greatest achievement was to forgive and rebuild its rivals in WWII.
  • Now Trump looks only inward, concerned about other countries only to the extent he thinks they are swindling the US. He has no particular foreign policy at all. Similarly with the vaccine—Trump looked only to edge out other countries. Bush and Obama did much better, with AIDS and Ebola.
  • Yet the “liberal international order’s” idealism is simple and practical: avoid war, and people will lead longer, richer, and more secure lives; become intertwined economically, everyone ends up better off.

Conclusion: Nothing Is Written, p234. 8p

  • The author recalls some famous scenes in Lawrence of Arabia, in which someone declares that another’s death “is written.” And Lawrence replies: Nothing is written.
  • Zakaria underlines that: Nothing is written. Don’t give in to apparent trends. Review of historical decisions.
  • The tension is between integration, and isolation.
  • The solution is more cooperation, not withdrawal.
  • There’s no global “one world government” and there never will be – it’s a phrase to scare people.
  • The pandemic has created the possibilities for change and reform.
  • We can take up these opportunities, or squander them. Nothing is written.


This entry was posted in Book Notes, Culture, Science. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.