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How The West Was Lost: Fifty Years of Economic Folly - And the Stark Choices Ahead Paperback – 26 Jan 2012
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Moyo's diagnosis of the recent disasters in financial markets is succinct and sophisticated...I applaud her brave alarum against our economic and social complacency: her core concerns are sufficiently close to painful truths to warrant our attention. (Paul Collier The Observer)
We [in the West] have alienated trading partners and are colluding in the decline of our own prosperity, says Moyo, who sets out strategies for weighting the political seesaw back to our advantage. (Iain Finlayson The Times)
This argument...can rarely have been made more concisely...Moyo is a very serious lady indeed. (Dominic Lawson The Times)
The sad saga of the recession gives legs to Dambisa Moyo's provocatively-entitled book, for it goes to the heart of the great economic issue of our times: how swiftly will power shift over this century? (Hamish McRae The Independent)
About the Author
Dambisa Moyo is the critically acclaimed author of Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is Another Way for Africa, and was chosen as one of Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2009. She holds a PhD in Economics from Oxford University and a Masters from Harvard University Kennedy School of Government, and has worked at the World Bank and Goldman Sachs. She was born and raised in Lusaka, Zambia.
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The suggestion of the US government defaulting on its debt to non-US passport holders (that is to foreign country creditors) is shocking, apparently revolting, but in fact spot on. It did happen in the past, it will surely happen in the future, so why not now? But the ultimate solution which could change the economic and political balance in the world 180 degrees is the West (notably the US) ending its reliance on fossil-fuel energy sources (oil and gas). This is easier said than done but the US needs to focus on this challenge 200%. If there is one area in which R%D resources need to go running and flowing this is it. Imagine a world where energy needs are plentifully satisfied by non fossil-fuel sources (primarily a safe nuclear network). No more blackmail by mischief-seeking oil exporting countries, no more energy-focused wars (like in Iraq), no more interest in the histrionics of the Persian Gulf inhabitants, no more Islamic terrorism (who would pay the money if oil money is collapsing?). Let the Chinese slug it out with oil exporters, but in fact not for long as they speedily build nuclear plants across their land. A "new world order" and that time in the sense suitable to the West and to human freedom.
Starting with capital, Dr Moyo asserts that the West has seriously mismanaged its capital in several ways. One of the main reasons for this - an idea that crops up again later in the book - is that Western nations lack the political ability to make rapid decisions for the good of the nation as a whole. They are hamstrung by participative democracy and frequent elections. In a passage that, for me, is the most important in the whole book, Dr Moyo explains why "debt is cheaper than equity". All corporations are funded by equity and debt; but those who own the equity are much less risk-averse than those who own the debt. Thus the creditors should exert a restraining influence, forcing management to avoid excessive risk. When government underwrites banks and other enterprises, it removes this restraining influence - leading directly to catastrophes like the financial crisis of 2008. Another dreadful mistake was for governments to encourage home ownership, which merely raised the cost of housing while tying up capital unproductively.
The situation is equally grim when it comes to labour, as demographics mean that the West has an aging population that will become steadily less productive, just as the unfunded promises of future pensions come due. Dr Moyo seems to approve much more of the Chinese way, where individuals mostly have to fend for themselves by saving while they can. The West has also failed on the educational front, both in terms of quality and quantity: standards have fallen in the pursuit of equality and anti-meritocratic policies, while China and India produce far more scientists, technicians, and engineers than the USA or the UK. Moreover, the West is misusing its talent, as the best and brightest make a beeline for Wall Street or the City of London instead of doing something useful with their brains.
Dr Moyo's undoubted expertise seems to have sharply delimited borders. Her only substantial mention of population growth leads to the judgment that the West is at a severe disadvantage due to its slow rate of increase, whereas China is sitting pretty with a much younger demographic profile. Later, she states in passing that the world's total population is "around 6 billion today". In fact, it passed 7 billion the very year (2011) this book was published. To underestimate such a critical number by 16% would be unforgivable, were it not that Dr Moyo is clearly an economist with little knowledge of, or interest in, ecology. Nevertheless, one may question the value of a book that carries economic analysis to a considerable depth while utterly ignoring the wider context which may render pure economic analysis worthless. In another example, she declares that Africa contains 80 percent of the world's "untilled arable land", suggesting that it could be cleared of trees and used to grow crops. But experience has shown that, in tropical forest, this often leads to laterization, after which the land won't grow crops, trees, or anything else.
When it comes to politics, Dr Moyo appears to be almost as naive. She writes, for example: "The US needs to make sure the benefits of its consumption accrue to the broadest number of its citizens". But this assumes that there is such a single entity as "the US", and that it is interested in the welfare of all its citizens. Even given that the USA is a functioning democracy (a big assumption to make) why would the rulers behave altruistically, rather than favouring their sponsors?
The book has been poorly (or at least unevenly) edited, as several schoolgirl clangers have got through. For instance, it is claimed that the UK's 62.8 million credit cards and total credit card debt of £63.6 billion represent "over one card and one pound for every Briton in the country". It doesn't build confidence when a professional economist confuses millions with billions! On page 77 of my edition, Danish researchers are quoted as saying that every second baby born today in "developed, industrialized nations" will live to 100. Well and good - but then on page 122 we are told that "across the industrialized West many medical practitioners agree that this generation of six-years olds will be the first to live less long than the generation that preceded them". On page 123 I was surprised to read that, "...one nuclear molecule provides many hundreds of times of kilojoules of energy than its closest competitors". I quote those mistakes only to demonstrate that the author, the editor, or both were inattentive at times.
Despite its imperfections, I encourage you to read this book. I don't think it has any answers, but it asks some very pointed and interesting questions.
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