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Niall Ferguson - The West's Six Killer Apps

May 22, 2012

by Robert Huebscher

Presenting data from the World Economic Forum, Ferguson found that, across 15 different measures of the quality of the rule of law, the US was among the top 20 countries in only one category.  On many measures, he said the US ranked “dismally low.”  Those measures included things such as whether property rights are protected, whether corruption is under control, and if bribery is a problem.

Hong Kong beat the US in every measure.  “This is a huge problem,” Ferguson said. 

The US has lost its edge in the rule of law, Ferguson said, because it has succumbed to a “rule of lawyers.”  One-third of the members of Congress are lawyers, he said, and “they enact legislation of unbelievable complexity,” such as the 2,000-page Dodd-Frank bill.  It is “filled with ambiguity and complexity that only lawyers can interpret” and “is the biggest job-creation scheme for the legal profession in the history of mankind” he said.

As for medicine, Ferguson granted that since the middle of the 20th century, life expectancy in the West has doubled.  But over the last 30 to 40 years, he said, some parts of the West have experienced a “massive deterioration” of healthcare.  In his home town of Glasgow, Scotland, Ferguson said that life expectancy is now less than in Bangladesh, a statistic he attributed to alcohol use, smoking and poor diet. 

Not only do the Japanese have higher life expectancy than Westerners, so do Hong Kong and some parts of China.

The West has lost its edge in education, according to Ferguson.  He cited OECD data, based on standardized test results for students up to age 15.  Shanghai now ranks number one in terms of math and science performance, he said.  The gap between Shanghai and the US is the same as between the US and Albania. 

“The US has a disadvantage, in that a substantial number of our potentially talented young people who had the misfortune to live in poor zip codes are not being educated to nearly a high enough standard in basic math and science,” he said. “I can't think of a single bigger thing for us to worry about than that.”

Vigorous work ethic used to be a Western phenomenon, he said.  But now the average South Korean works about 1,000 hours more per year than the average German.

“Whichever of the killer apps you consider,” he said “it is striking how we no longer lead.”