A Future Perfect by John Micklethwait & Adrian Wooldridge
William Heinemann pounds 20
Micklethwait and Wooldridge are men with a message - and a mission. Their message is simple: globalisation is good for you, whoever you are. The mission is to counter the arguments of the Seattle coalition, and present a manifesto for governments and regulators to ensure that global free trade really does deliver the benefits claimed for it. The message, by and large, is correct. But the mission is impossible and the manifesto is tendentious, prejudiced and silly. No unbeliever will be convinced.
It is certainly true that the free traders' case needs to be restated. President Clinton said as much at Davos last year, and in a thoughtful speech tried his hand at a reformulation. The authors themselves make telling points about the dangers of a slide back into protectionism and comprehensively demolish the mercantilist and 'lump of labour' fallacies that bedevil political debate. For that, much thanks.
So why must A Future Perfect nonetheless be accounted a failure? Two problems: style and substance. The style is an unhappy cross between The Economist (which gives the authors their day jobs) and Tom Peters. Short, punchy sentences. Half-formed thoughts presented as incontrovertible truths.
Anecdote piled on cliche, larded with doubtful statistics, and the kind of 'jokes' you find on the office e-mail. This is MTV journalism: no image can remain in focus for longer than three seconds, though it can come round again - and does, and does.
The book is shot through with errors. Some are minor. (The style is catching). I guess it doesn't matter that Indians do not 'drive around in old Austin cars' or that one of 'the twin towers of Canary Wharf' exists only in Paul Reichman's imagination. Though it does make you wonder about the thousands of other 'facts' that pepper the pages.
More importantly, Micklethwait and Wooldridge pile non-sequiturs on half-truths, to create a genuinely confusing mish-mash. Take this half-paragraph, for example:- 'In Britain, the McKinsey-trained William Hague faces Tony Blair, who rejuvenated the Labour Party by importing plenty of Bill Clinton's ideas from Washington and surrounding himself with British cosmocrats, such as Jonathan Powell, Ed Balls and Philip Gould. The Blairite Demos think-tank in London and the Democratic Leadership Council in Washington are full of interchangeable young men who have been educated on both sides of the Atlantic. The EU is now headed by the multilingual Romano Prodi. Most sensible political discourse is carried on in more or less cosmocratic terms.'
How does one begin to deconstruct this sort of eyewash? Jonathan Powell might conceivably admit to being a cosmocrat - if he knew what it meant. Ed Balls would be surprised to learn he worked for Tony Blair. Gould is a domestic focus-group analyst. And Prodi? To roll him into an Anglo-American Labour-Democrat conspiracy is wilfully obtuse. Prodi is a civilised Italian professor who speaks a tongue or two, but that's where the similarity ends.
Finally, what of the Micklethwait and Wooldridge manifesto?
It turns out that the exciting policy prescriptions for dealing with the problems of the dispossessed third world poor or the displaced factory worker in the US include abolishing the Common Agricultural Policy, scrapping the BBC, privatising the New York education system and limiting deposit protection to 'narrow banks'. It also turns out that all politicians, bureaucrats and regulators, everywhere, are just too feckless or dim to realise the obvious truth of what is recommended here. Bill Clinton is excoriated for his 'meandering mind'. The IMF is just hopeless at its job - and at communication. 'You need only spend half an hour with any of its denizens to realise that you are more likely to get Ciceronian oratory from your typewriter.'
You need only spend half an hour with Micklethwait and Wooldridge's word processor to know that you are in the presence of superior intellects, granted insights which lie hidden from the rest of us. When I go back to my office in Canary Wharf next Monday, I am sure those twin towers will be there - if only I had eyes to see them.