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What Can Singapore and Poland Teach America?

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SINGAPORE SCHOOL CHILDREN
ROSLAN RAHMAN via Getty Images

I sat down recently in London with John Micklethwait, Editor-in-Chief of "The Economist," to discuss his new book "The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Invent the State." See more here.

John, in your book you basically think that the notion of the State should be changed and your suggestion, if I am not wrong, is "trim the State and revitalize democracy." But do you really think that such big change is possible?

Yes, I do, because of two factors: history and technology. Historically speaking the Western State has been through three and a half great revolutions. The first took place in the 17th century, when Europe's princes constructed centralized States. Then they became trading empires and then entrepreneurial liberal democracies. The second revolution took place in the late 18th and 19th centuries. It began with the American and French revolutions and eventually spread across Europe as liberal reformers replaced regal patronage systems. The third great revolution was the invention of the modern Welfare State and that, beside other changes, is what we in the West live with today.

And what about technology?

The Internet has revolutionized everything that it has touched, from the newspaper business to retail. It would be odd if it did not also revolutionize the State. The internet revolution is robbing the state of what was one of its great sources of power -- the fact that it possessed so much more information than anybody else. Education will be delivered in a different way.

Things have to change if you want to serve the poor with a better education, better health care, better welfare.

Go to Singapore and you will get all those public services with higher quality at a fraction of the cost. Today we know so much more about relative school performance. America has a much worse school rating than Sweden, Poland or Singapore.

Do you think that Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi brings a new kind of government?

He talks with punch and aggression. He said he wanted things to change. In France, Hollande said the same, but he did not succeed and he did not even try. For Renzi it may be possible -- the rhetoric is good and he has more political subtlety than some others; but the labor laws did not change yet. . . but they may.

Who is changing?

Sweden, Singapore, Quebec, Britain. Yes, in Britain they have reduced the size of the State without obvious cuts. Cities somehow are easier to change. One example is crime. Crime figures came down by a huge amount, burglary dropped enormously, bank robberies dropped dramatically.

What kind of State would you like to have?

I want a liberal State. A pragmatically small State that wants to keep the individual supreme. But it is liberal not libertarian. I am happy with a National Health Service.

But what is going on with States today?

The problem is that the individual has a smaller space and the States are out of money. People are changing on local levels. I am thinking of Sweden, which reduced its expenses from 67 percent of its GDP to 49 percent just by doing sensible things. Angela Merkel's favorite statistic is that the European Union accounts for 7 percent of the world's population, 20 percent of its GDP and 50 percent of welfare spending. This is not going to last.

What does your job as Editor of The Economist consist of?

I think that here, if you want to compare me with other editors, your fingers are in the ink. We don't have extra people outside of our own staff and we don't individually sign pieces. One has to remember that most good ideas come from below.

But how do you work?

I think that for a weekly magazine it is valuable to have something very curated, that gives you an idea of the world. Our readers have to trust that we will cover everything important and what is going on weekly. We still think that our bundle adds value.

Who are your readers?

People who are interested in ideas. But the same readers can buy The Economist and People magazine. They want a mixture. Today the top end is growing, more people travel, go to university and rely on ideas.

What is your political side?

Liberalism, that is still the backbone here. We pushed gay marriage, we went against Guantanamo first, we were for legalizing drugs...

Are you doing well?

We make 60 million pounds a year because we have a product you can charge for. When I became editor I was convinced that the Internet was like a hurricane and would hit magazines. I was wrong. People wanted a filter, the sales of the paper edition went up. In America today iPad and Kindle readers are more or less as many as the people who prefer print. We know that young people, students, go for print. What is important is to understand that a magazine is finishable. Once you read it, it is over.

You made a great campaign against Berlusconi when he was in power?

We said he was unfit to govern Italy. Some Italians came to tell us that he would change Italy. We accepted the concept but we said that Berlusconi was a dishonest businessman interested only in protecting his own interests. He has been useless for Italy at the end of the day and now nobody speaks in his defense.

What about Putin?

We dislike him. He let his friends steal too much and, besides gas, their industry is ruined.

And China?

I have been impressed by what they did and China is competing again and going in a 'Singapore direction'.

And America?

Obama is not a disaster, but he is a massive disappointment. When Obama looks back at what he did, he will regret that he rejected the tax and entitlement reform solution put forward by the Simpson-Bowles commission. He had a chance to say yes. He will also regret not intervening in Syria. He made a mistake. If you are a superpower, you cannot stop. Bush did too much, Obama too little. America is recovering, but will have to spend more on defense. As for health care, Obama did not make enough effort to make it work.

And Hillary, is she going to be the next president?

She may make it. She stands an 80 percent chance to be the Democratic candidate, 70 percent to win the elections. It would possibly be the best thing.

See more here.