For a country that is losing a war, the U.S. is having a strange election. One hundred and eighty thousand Americans have died from Covid-19 — more than double the number who perished in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq combined. America has done significantly worse than most other rich countries, with a mortality rate of 500 deaths per million people compared with just over 100 in Germany, and fewer than 10 deaths per million in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and China. Of course, different countries count Covid-19 casualties in different ways, but the gap is immense. If Covid-19 is a test of government effectiveness, then the world’s most powerful country has failed spectacularly.
Indeed, the coronavirus crisis could well turn out to be a historical turning point. Five hundred years ago, China was the greatest power on the planet, with the world’s biggest capital city and best run government. The West then rose by mastering statecraft — first in Europe’s competing nation-states, and then in the U.S. As the 1960s opened, America was aiming to put a man on the moon, while millions of Chinese were dying of starvation. Ever since that decade, Western governments have ossified while Asian governments have caught up, and in many cases overtaken the West. The average citizen is not only safer from Covid-19 in Singapore, South Korea or Taiwan than in the U.S. — they also enjoy better health and send their children to better schools.
So Covid-19 is a wake-up call for the West. The encouraging news is that the U.S. has reinvented itself before. A reformed America could lead the West again; but if Washington snoozes, it could follow the way of other empires that crumbled, notably Rome and Athens (which gave way to autocratic Sparta in the wake of a plague).
Given the size of the challenge, the presidential election seems strangely irrelevant. Both parties are stuck in a pre-Covid mindset: The Republicans continue to claim government agencies are a wealth-destroying encumbrance while the Democrats continue to be wedded to public-sector unions. Both parties are running campaigns based on scapegoating, not structural reform. Republican President Donald Trump’s strategy is to blame China for America’s problems. The strategy of Democrats and their nominee, Joe Biden, is to blame Trump.
But don’t be fooled: China is not to blame for America’s failings, many of which are structural. And Trump did not invent a health-care system that is skewed toward elective surgery for rich patients, nor did police start becoming brutal on his watch. America’s schools have underperformed for years. Trust in government (like the nation’s roads and bridges) has been crumbling for decades.
Of course, America has many strengths, not least Silicon Valley, Hollywood and Wall Street. But the vibrancy of its private sector only demonstrates just how far its public sector has slipped. In the age of Facebook, Google and Amazon, much of the federal government lives in the Industrial Age, and some of it further back. The Department of Agriculture still employs 100,000 people spread out across 4,500 locations — and American students still take long, knowledge-destroying summer holidays so they can go and work on the harvest.
American government needs a far bigger overhaul than anything that the candidate of either party is considering. To imagine what a real reformer would do, conduct the following thought experiment: Reach back into the great era of government reform in the 19th century, resurrect that era’s two most formidable Anglo-Saxon politicians, Abraham Lincoln and William Gladstone (who was four times prime minister of Britain when it was the most powerful country in the world), fuse them together, and put them in the White House on a platform of reforming American government.
What would President Bill Lincoln do?
Our new president would combine the best of his two antecedents. Neither man was perfect — especially when young — but once in power they showed a willingness to cleanse government. From “the People’s William” (as Gladstone was known), Bill Lincoln inherits a drive to direct resources away from the Old Corruption of special interests toward those who really need them. From “Honest Abe,” he gets a desire to unite his country and rid it of the scourge of racial injustice. Both men believed in improving the lot of ordinary people — especially through education, but they also hated taxes. President Bill Lincoln could be either a Republican or a Democrat — he is both a “left-wing” social reformer and a “right-wing” small government man who believes in self-reliance. He is above all a patriot who is terrified by the way that the U.S. is falling behind authoritarian China.
Having prepared for office not by rote-learning partisan talking points but by studying the places that work better (both other governments and the private sector), President Bill Lincoln would start applying the following 12 reforms. Some involve more government, but overall, you would have a much smaller, smarter state that provided more protection to the needy. These reforms are all based on what already works elsewhere, so the barriers to implementing them are political, not practical.
1. Build resilience
The obvious place for Bill Lincoln to start is by dealing with the complete lack of preparedness for the virus. The U.S. was warned: Covid-19 was the third outbreak of a coronavirus this century, after SARS (2003) and MERS (2012). President Bill Clinton created a national pharmaceutical stockpile, but supplies were allowed to dwindle. In 2018, Trump dissolved the National Security Council’s “pandemic preparedness” team. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were underfunded.
These mistakes need to be rectified, but smartly. Rather than building up central stockpiles of medical supplies, Bill Lincoln could copy the cheaper, more flexible Swiss system, where each employer is responsible for keeping up-to-date kits for its workers. He would also ask himself: Where else is America unprepared to protect its citizens against catastrophe?
One obvious area is climate change: Although the exact nature of the threat is debated, the danger that a warmer climate poses (not least in parts of the U.S.) is so great that it is foolish not to take out insurance. The cheapest premiums are multilateral ones: America will get more protection through a global-warming agreement than it will ever get unilaterally. But Bill Lincoln could still act at home. The $20 billion in subsidies that go to the fossil fuel industry would disappear. He would follow 25 countries and introduce a carbon tax, which hands the job of choosing technologies to the market. Some of the proceeds could be directed toward workers who lost their jobs, such as coal miners in West Virginia.
2. Protect and unite
The warnings America had about viruses striking its population were sporadic; the warnings about racist policing have been regular and repeated. Nearly 30 years after one of us covered Rodney King’s beating in Los Angeles, Blacks are three times more likely than Whites to be killed by the police.
Two constitutional problems bedevil police reform. First, most policing is local. There are more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies, some of them tiny; in big cities like Los Angeles, multiple forces overlap. Second, expansive readings of the Second Amendment have made America a heavily armed country where guns kill 40,000 people a year. The police are terrified of being shot. Bill Lincoln would do everything possible to get guns off the streets and toughen up background checks. That is a long slog, admittedly, but he would immediately abolish the Pentagon program that doles out surplus armored Humvees and assault rifles to local police, equipping them like an occupying army.
The U.S. needs to fire bad cops. Like bad teachers, they are protected by powerful unions that don’t give a fig about individual merit. Federal law should insist that disciplinary records are kept in full. America should follow other countries and train its cops for longer: It’s astonishing that a Louisiana police officer can use deadly force after just 300 hours of training.
Police reform by itself will not right the system that throttled George Floyd to death. When he was prime minister, Gladstone created big government commissions on the most pressing social problems and then implemented their recommendations. Bill Lincoln could set up two: one to look at criminal justice (America sends people to prison at twice the rate of Turkey, the sternest in Europe) and the other at poverty, an obsession for both Lincoln and Gladstone. From cradle to grave, Black America gets the worst of the state: shoddy maternity care, lousy preschool education, substandard schools, expensive universities, no sick pay and a medical system designed for rich people. New public spending devoted to righting these wrongs should be conditional on the producer lobbies, especially public-sector unions, accepting reform.
3. Lift the fog
Unless you expose Washington to the light, you will never persuade voters to accept change. When Gladstone went into politics, the British government’s accounts, insofar as they existed, were deliberately incomprehensible — the aristocrats who ran the country could hide how much cash was being siphoned off to their relations. Today, America’s budget is similarly incomprehensible because it is stuffed with perks and exemptions that benefit special interests. Bills don’t run to thousands of pages by accident; they conceal what is going on from the public.
Bill Lincoln would follow Gladstone’s practice and make the State of the Union an honest accounting of where taxpayers’ money went. That would include both the guarantees given by government — for instance, behind student loans and Social Security — and the giveaways Uncle Sam hides in “tax expenditures.” For instance, the trillion dollars the federal government spends on health care does not include the $225 billion more it hands out in tax deductions for employer-provided health care.
4. Simplify, cut, modernize, sell
With honest numbers, Bill Lincoln would begin to simplify and slim Washington. Does America need a tax code that is so complicated that 9 out of 10 tax-filers pay for help to complete their returns? Reformers have long argued that the income tax rate could be lowered if you got rid of the $1.6 trillion of exemptions that go mainly to the well-off. Do it now. Make the tax rates for income and capital gains the same, so richer people are no longer incentivized to shuffle income and wealth from one place to another. Shift more of the burden onto consumption, rather than income: America is the only large country without a value-added tax.
This is where Bill Lincoln would challenge Republicans. They claim they believe in small government — but through loopholes they keep on doling out cash to the rich. (Victorian Britain cut taxation from 80 million pounds in 1816 to below 60 million pounds in 1846, even as it built many of the schools, hospitals and sewers that are still in use — just by cutting out the sinecures and exemptions that the likes of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell now defend.) Bill Lincoln would call out the Republicans as fiscal wimps and defenders of privilege.
The next stop would be the perpetually expanding Federal Register of laws. One way to curb its growth would be to use “sunset clauses,” so that laws and rules automatically expire. So far, they have mostly been accounting gimmicks to get tax cuts into balanced budgets. But why not insist that all new laws and regulations expire after 10 years?
And while Bill Lincoln is simplifying things, why not get to work on out-of-date institutions? The Department of Agriculture should finally go: Most of it can be carved up among the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Health and Human Services (for food stamps) and a food-safety agency. Selling some of the 900,000 buildings and 640 million acres of land owned by Washington would also allow you to cut the government’s size while producing a revenue windfall.
5. Stop subsidizing the rich and the old
Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid eat up nearly half the federal budget. Put simply, the American state is designed to look after the old, not the poor. Nearly 90% of social insurance payments go to people who are over 65. Some old Americans are indeed poor. But the security of, say, Bruce Springsteen or Warren Buffett is in no way improved by their entitlement to a state pension. As the original Lincoln said, “Government should do for the people what they cannot do for themselves, and no more.”
Means-testing Social Security and raising the retirement age rapidly to 70 would help balance the budget. (When Social Security was set up in 1935 and the retirement age set at 65, life expectancy was 61; it is now 79.) Of course, the politics of this are explosive. But, again, copy what has worked elsewhere — and set up an independent commission charged with reforming the entitlement system, with its final proposal subject to a straight congressional yes or no vote. Sweden did this in the 1990s, bringing its entitlement system into balance: All Swedes still get pensions, but they don’t automatically increase regardless of the country’s ability to afford them.
6. A fairer health-care system
The U.S. spends about 18% of its gross domestic product on health care, far more than any other country, while leaving 1 in 5 non-elderly people uninsured. And no matter how much the health industry howls about the threat of socialized medicine, there is nothing free-market about a system that spends proportionately more public money on health than “socialist” Sweden (which, like just about every rich country, has a healthier population than America).
Look around the world and there is no perfect health system, but most offer better value for the money. Bill Lincoln could draw on Germany, where health insurance is compulsory, with 90% of the population using subsidized public insurance and the richest 10th staying private. Or on Canada, where the single-payer system with set fees for procedures reduces the paperwork that comes from whether doctors are “in network” or “out of network” and so on — and also has cheaper medicines. Or on Singapore, where a Central Provident Fund provides health care for all but also demands that everybody pays a small fee when you visit your primary provider in order to discourage the unnecessary visits that plague “all-you-can-eat buffet” public health systems like Britain’s National Health Service.
However Bill Lincoln put his system together, it would combine three features. It would guarantee every American a certain standard of free health care, paid for by the government but provided at both public and private hospitals. It would include a hypothecated health-care tax so each American could see how much the public system costs on their (enormously shorter) income-tax return. And it would allow Americans a small tax break, capped at, say, $500, for private health insurance, but this perk would be personal and portable, not the convoluted corporate version (introduced by accident during the Second World War to deal with temporary labor shortages). There would be incentives to stay healthy and get vaccinated, and a more vigorous public health policy, including taxes on sugar to tackle the epidemic of obesity. Private medicine would survive, as it does in Germany, Canada and Singapore.
7. Educate our masters
Bill Lincoln would be particularly struck by how far the West has fallen behind in education. The original Lincoln laid the foundations of America’s state university system with his land-grant colleges. Gladstone believed in the importance of “educating our masters” for the emerging democratic society. As Bill Lincoln thumbed through the PISA tests that measure the excellence of schools around the world in reading, math and science, he would be horrified by how America, despite spending more money than most, is at best a global also-ran. The same names keep coming at the top: Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan from Asia; Finland, Estonia and Switzerland from Europe, with Poland and Ireland also doing well; and Canada.
These more successful countries pay good teachers well and weed out bad ones; they focus on core subjects; and they provide a variety of schools to address the variety of abilities and aptitudes. Bill Lincoln would set stricter standards for teachers, but would provide more money in at least two areas. One is preschool education. This is where inequality starts — where the middle classes who can afford nannies start to move ahead, and the children of single parents are punished. The other area of educational investment would be at the other end of life. Technology is changing jobs at a time when Americans live and work longer. The option of a year’s subsidized education once you reach 50 makes sense. Right-wingers like to argue that overseas aid should be focused on providing the poor with fishing rods rather than fish. The same applies to older Americans.
8. Unleash technology
Again, both Lincoln and Gladstone were interested in technology, the former as an inventor (with a patent for lifting boats), the latter as the champion of Victorian entrepreneurs. In the 19th century, the telegraph and the railroad transformed American government. Today, little of Silicon Valley’s inventiveness has been applied to America’s public sector. What chance was there of fighting Covid-19, when about 40% of the IT systems at the Department of Health and Human Services are “legacy” ones, no longer supported by their manufacturers?
Asian governments are stealing a march on America in using the internet of things to monitor smart infrastructure. The U.S. has stinted on high-tech infrastructure for the same two reasons that it lets bridges and roads crumble: because entitlements hoover up so much cash and because nobody counts the dilapidation in the national accounts.
Bill Lincoln should borrow from America’s past, as well as Asia’s present. Franklin Roosevelt built the dams. Dwight Eisenhower built the freeways. Bill Lincoln will use America’s ability to borrow long-term money at close to 0% to build the infrastructure a knowledge economy needs.
9. Go local
As “laboratories of democracy,” the states used to be America’s way of renewing itself. Welfare reform and charter schools both began in Minnesota and then spread across the country. President Barack Obama established a “Race to the Top” program to spread successful ideas in education; it fizzled out. Bill Lincoln would certainly try to spread ideas around the states, but at the moment they are not where the action is.
Globally, mayors are driving most of the innovation in government. They are closer to their people than national politicians are; they also tend to be much less partisan. One reason Seoul lost barely 20 people to Covid-19 is that it had competent city leadership. In America, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle all did reasonably well at handling the pandemic. Boston and San Francisco are good at technology; Dallas leads the way on toll roads; New York has tremendously improved air quality. Big city mayors should get more power over schools, transport and police; they should also be encouraged to copy successful ideas from other cities through a special federal government fund.
10. Reinvigorate talent
Any overhaul of government has to include improving the quality of its people. In Singapore, civil servants can get paid $1 million a year while bad ones are quickly sacked. But in America’s public sector, the best are grossly underpaid by private sector standards while, if you take perks and pensions into account, the worst are overpaid. Bill Lincoln would start paying the heads of government departments what they could get in the private sector — while imposing limits on what they can do after public service (to close the revolving door to K Street).
Flat pay scales are common across the West. But where America really distinguishes itself — and not in a good way — is in the number of political appointments at the top. Ambassadorships go to the highest bidder, in much the same way that Europe did in the 18th century; those jobs should go to professional diplomats. America didn’t have a revolution only to build its own version of the ancien regime.
Bill Lincoln would also copy Singapore’s idea of scholarships for public service: pay the full fees of poor students at elite universities in return for a commitment that they will work for, say, five years in the public sector. This program would reconnect the Ivy League with the life of the nation (currently more Harvard students come from the richest 10th of the population than from the bottom half), and government would gain a talented young person who saw the citizens of the Bronx as friends and neighbors rather than just as statistics. And while you are trying to reconnect the elite to the government, why not consider introducing (non-military) national service for the young?
11. Make government dowdy
Prime Minister Gladstone was so bent on saving money that he told his civil servants to use cheaper writing paper. In Abraham Lincoln’s time, Washington was a small Southern town that was regarded as a hardship posting for diplomats: You got paid more to serve in the swampy summer. Nowadays, the presidency has become imperial in style as well as substance.
We have to admit that, despite his reputation for parsimony, the original Lincoln overspent on redecorating the White House. Our President Lincoln would thus copy Gladstone — who lived on bread and water and liked walking everywhere — and also Pope Francis. The pontiff lives like a pauper and drives himself around in a simple old Renault. It is much easier for popes and presidents to cut unnecessary spending if they don’t spend their life in a cocoon of privilege. Presidents shouldn’t live like emperors.
12. Rebuild the West and expand it
One thing that Bill Lincoln would study is the “Huawei barometer,” a map on Bloomberg’s website that shows which countries accept the Chinese tech giant’s kit. So far, despite energetic arm-twisting, not to mention all the money it spends on its allies’ defense, the U.S. has persuaded only Australia, Japan and Taiwan to ban the Chinese tech giant, with Britain now limiting some access. Most of Europe and Asia have ignored its plea.
If the U.S. keeps losing allies, its power will ebb, no matter how much it reforms at home. Our President Lincoln believes that the West is about more than just geography. Rather than looking through the prism of “America First” and nationalism, he would follow the formula that won the Cold War: talk about freedom more and unite the democracies, so they speak as one. Bill Lincoln would start rebuilding Western institutions, especially NATO. Why aren’t the democracies of the East — countries such as India, Indonesia and South Korea, not to mention Australia and Japan — tied in as well?
The West needs to be expanded, not militarily but as a state of mind, so that, when China tramples freedoms in Hong Kong, the democracies speak as one. Collectively, they carry far more clout than the autocracies: China could never hope to outsmart them, if they spoke as one. For all China’s “mask diplomacy” in the wake of the coronavirus, there is still a deep distrust of the Middle Kingdom around the world, not least in Asia, and an affection for the U.S.
The Ship of State
In 1849, one of America’s greatest poets, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, wrote a poem about the state of the Republic. The poem was called “The Building of the Ship”; the ship was called the Union and, in the first draft, the ship came to a miserable end:
Wrecked upon some treacherous rock,
Rotting in some loathsome dock,
Such the end must be at length
Of all this loveliness and strength!
But at the last moment Longfellow had a change of heart and wrote a new ending with some of the most famous lines in the American canon:
Though, too, sail on, O ship of State!
Sail on, O Union, strong and great!
Humanity with all its fears
With all the hopes of future years
Is hanging breathless on thy fate!
America — and with it the West — faces a choice between two endings: one in which the ship continues to rot and another in which it is repaired and rejiggered. The ship of state has been neglected, but the basic design is still sound and the spirit of the crew is still strong. We have constructed an ambitious program for our fantasy president. You can tamper with some of our designs: If you don’t like Canada’s health system, borrow France’s or expand Medicare. (For that matter, there’s no reason for “Bill Lincoln” to be a White male.) But America cannot ignore the fact that other ships are beginning to go past it. The rest of the world is not staying still. It is in all our interests that the union sails on, “strong and great.” It is time to wake up.
This essay is excerpted from “The Wake-Up Call: Why the Pandemic Has Exposed the Weakness of the West, and How to Fix It,” by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge. To be published by Short Books by Short Books in the U.K. on Sept. 3 and HarperVia in the U.S. on Sept. 15.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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