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Week in Review

This week, we took a close look at how the world leaders across the globe have utterly failed to provide the bold leadership the world needs in the face of a serious crisis. Italy’s dysfunctional political class is leading the way, but the rest of the world, from America to China, is not far behind:

The people who run our affairs today come in many shades of bland. There are the elected officials and their direct appointees clinging more or less precariously to their posts. There are the career bureaucracies and civil servants who toil on regardless of the political winds. (This is a group that includes senior staff in national and regional governments and central banks; others in this category work for international organizations like the EU, the UN, the IMF and the World Bank.) In the developed world there are also the serried ranks of the leaders of the imperial non-profits: the heads of foundations, presidents of universities and think tanks, top staff at prominent NGOs. There are the intellectuals and academics whose views influence the decision makers, and there are the press lords—proprietors, editors and writers—who shape public and elite perceptions about what matters. There are the CEOs and financial movers and shakers whose views and deeds can move markets. More influential in some parts of the world than in others, there are the religious and spiritual leaders, officials and opinion makers. There are the cultural powers in Hollywood and elsewhere that both shape and express the zeitgeist.

As individuals, many of these people are outstanding: bright, hardworking, public spirited and dedicated to their jobs. They score well on tests and they get good grades in school. They can navigate the tricky path of advancement in the large and clumsy institutions that are the hallmark of our time. There are a lot of things they do well: they are mostly polite, they pay their bills and are reasonably faithful to their spouses and reasonably mindful of their kids. They are good company at cocktail parties and can at least appear attentive to panel presentations at multiday conferences. Whatever virtues are fashionable they are ready to exhibit, whatever opinions fit them for power they are eager to embrace. They look the part.

But they also have their limits: generally speaking they not only can’t think outside the box, they can’t conceive of a reality beyond the box’s comforting walls. They are bad at estimating probabilities, bad at anticipating consequences, bad at policy design and bad at managing change. Most are technical rather than strategic intellectuals; they often understand their own specialties pretty well, but cannot grasp the big picture. Incremental and cosmetic change they can process; deep change, not so much. They color between the lines and they play well with others, but under their mostly well meaning and eminently consensual direction the world is careening toward chaos.

In the Middle East this week, the Obama administration made signs that it may begin sending direct aid to the Syrian rebels, nearly two years after the conflict began. Elsewhere in the region, Egyptian youth unemployment continued to climb, and Israel was hit by another rocket from Gaza as Egypt filled the Gaza tunnels with sewage. Meanwhile, Bob Woodward criticized the President for sending the wrong signal to Iran, which, for its part, is now claiming that it is sitting atop 140 years worth of oil.

In Asia, the Obama administration has been dropping hints that it may be abandoning its pivot towards the Pacific. Whether true or not, this is sending a dangerous signal to the Chinese. China and Japan continued their war of words over the Senkaku Islands, as the Chinese media gloated that Japanese PM Shinzo Abe returned from his America visit empty handed, while Abe responded with a rousing Thatcheresque speech directed at China. Elsewhere in China, the Wukan rebellion finally petered out, while a top Chinese official argued that China should reconsider its alliance with North Korea. As China and Japan continue to square off, India is turning its attention towards its eastern neighbors in Southeast Asia as potential PM candidates square off ahead of next year’s elections.

In Europe, the news of the week was Silvio Berlusconi’s victory over the European establishment in the Italian elections, which have thrown both Italy and Europe into chaos and resurrected the fears that Europe is coming apart. Despite these fears, Germany and France appear to be slowly dropping their opposition to Turkey’s EU accession, although an independent Scotland’s chances still look rather dim. Religious news from the continent was mixed: We were encouraged that Danish Muslims are speaking up for the rights of a prominent anti-Islam activist, but disappointed to see that anti-Semitism is still going strong in Europe.

On the home front, we saw good signs from the red states of Middle America, which are at the epicenter of a new jobs boom. Texas, in particular, is at the front of the pack on jobs, with an $8.8 billion surplus to boot. Things are looking much worse in the blue states: Illinois is on track for $22 billion in unpaid bills, California’s pensions are crushing state finances, and Detroit is in an officially declared “State of Fiscal Emergency” and is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Even LA, which is looking to cut taxes, is hamstrung by its powerful public unions and shaky finances.

Education news was mostly bad this week: Student debt is now pushing $1 trillion, while a Science PhD is beginning to look like a ticket to unemployment. Medical news was more of a mixed bag. The Atlantic spotlighted a promising new technology that would allow individuals to perform a urinalysis at home without a doctor’s visit. On the other hand, we’re seeing signs that FDA regulations are crushing one of America’s most productive industries.

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