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Friday, 20 June 2008

John Micklethwait drew a good 700 to the Seymour Centre on Thursday night to hear ringing vowels - a flat, utterly middle-class English burr - atone for the public sphere's conventional absence from mostly private lives.

Located on the edge of campus, the theatre building lacks the infrastructure to deal with this kind of volume. The queue at the 'pre-paid' window stretched to the back of the lobby full of tall, well-dressed young men (some in suits) and well-attired young women.

A few grey individuals loitered at the edges but even they looked fit.

The sheer volume of chatter was mesmerising, invigorating. I could feel the excitement build among the 'brash'. Certainly you felt that these people have (a) top communication skills and (b) their milieu's highly competitive.

Mostly journalists, I thought to myself.

The louder, more confident you are, the less likely you are to be left out. Micklethwait is one of these people, having spent an hour the previous day - so Prof John McKern of International Business with the USSC tells us - talking with Kevin Rudd.

McKern spent time at Stanford (California) and, while there, had introduced the new Economist editor-in-chief's predecessor, Bill Emmet, to a similar audience.

The magazine was "an essential lifeline to the world beyond our borders" and "the best weekly journal in the world". We expected nothing less. The figures - 180,000 sold in the UK but 1.3 million globally - back him up.

The Economist has essentially liberal roots. It was was set up, Micklethwait tells us, to fight the Corn Laws and slavery.

His opening words also called on history for support. He traced out a series of headlines that, in the second decade of the 19th century, responded (hilariously) to the reemergence of Napoleon following the escape from Elba.

The audience clapped on queue. The volume of chatter, which had seemed so spontaneous, turned itself down just as the performance was about to begin. There would be perfectly timed guffaws, too. The audience was totally in tune with his rhythm the whole night.

The result of this would be that, although the show started late due to so many still queueing at 6.30pm when it was scheduled to begin, Micklethwait allowed questions to run until 8pm.

By this time the rain had started but I didn't mind. Nor, it seemed, did several middle aged men who had - somehow - lost their cars in the diminutive Shepherd Street carpark.

I felt it symptomatic of general euphoria when one - in his fifties but hale - started throwing confusion around like a flamenco dancer at a bus stop: "Where's B2, do you know?" - "There's no basement level in this carpark." - "I've lost my car. Do you (turning to another victim) know where B2 is?" - "Sorry."

As I squeezed my car out of the tiny space typical of this future-facing edifice I saw him down half a level pacing and gyrating in search of a car that - I assumed - must have six cylinders and take 100 dollars of E10 fuel to fill.

Micklethwait touched on the economics of the new world order, including high crude oil prices.

He started working with the magazine in the 1980s after working at a bank. He was the editor of its US section from 1997 to 2006 and head of the US bureau for two years. He also set up The Economist's Los Angeles office.

But while he addressed economic matters the main area of interest was tailored for the audience. For this reason, he talked about the "reemerging world, not the 'emerging' world".

In the future we would not characterise this period with labels - such as the 'war on terror' - currently employed. It would become, rather, the time of the "reemergence of Asia". A few cogent historical facts were put up to bolster the prognostication.

Globally, there had been "dramatic amounts of people whose status has changed extraordinarily". Africa, too, is doing better than it has for a very long time. We were seeing the fastest growth in human history and it was "not coincidental" that there had been a "leap forward" in freedom at the same time.

Even in China, Micklethwait said, "there's no doubt about which direction it's going". Later, I would ask a question about the Party and its plans to dismount the thundering stallion of continental growth.

China, he answered, was "run by engineers, while India is run by lawyers".

"It's like a mechanic getting out from under the bonnet to explain to a passenger what needs to be done." They want to get on with other things while they're required to stop to explain what has to be done.

In terms of precedent, however, his assessment lacked the assurance he displayed in most areas. In Chinese history, when something seems to be happening there's always something big that comes along to derail it.

Or so historians tell him. "People who know the history better than I." General ignorance is a legacy we may come to rue.

"Sinophobia has much deeper roots than Japanophobia in the 80s." China, too, was "an angry place". Rudd's attempt to bring the East Asian powers into some sort of order was a valid response to the "Kissingerian" issues today of "competing interests".

China's dissatisfaction with the world's reply to its sudden modernisation caused many to be angry. They want an invitation to the G8, but don't get it. The West goes on about Tibet all the time. "These things run deep."

He mentioned the problem of what's taught to children in China and Japan and the government's ability to "turn on the tap of Japanophobia".

Progress won't halt, however. In 1998 alone, 28 million people moved from rural areas to the coastal cities. In the period of rapidest US growth - the 19th century - there were not as many over the whole hundred years making the trip across the Atlantic.

Imagine the social tensions, he asked us, when the economy doubles in size every eight years. He predicts that China will be the world's biggest Christian (and Muslim) country by 2050.

The Olympics, he posits, would come back to bite the Party. Especially if China wins more medals than the US. This would "spook America", which - in 1908 - was the 'rising hegemon' that China is now.

The French - naturally - have a term apropos for the new world economy: "le capitalisme sauvage".

1 comment:

Janine & Steve said...

Strange that you should mention the responsiveness of the audience. I've been listening this week to a number of downloads of the ABC's Book Show that were taped at the Byron Bay Writers' Festival. Enjoyable though the presentations have been, I'm very aware of the hilarity with which even the most mildly humourous observation is greeted. When I think of how hard comedians have to work to get a snigger, but here these writers have an audience agog to fall in love with them.