Opinion: What Brexit and the Green New Deal Have in Common

Both share the hedgehog syndrome and an aspiration without capabilities.

Dear friends,

Welcome to Profiles in Leadership (formerly named Bookstack), a newsletter on leadership and strategy anchored in books and the actions of historical men and women. In this newsletter, we reflect on the role of leadership in Brexit and the Green New Deal (GND). Note that this week’s Lindy’s section is embedded in the links.

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Brexit and Green New Deal: An Aesopian Analysis

What on earth could Brexit have in common with the Green New Deal? At first glance, nothing at all. Brexit is populist and bad. The Green New Deal is progressive and noble. But perhaps we could apply the tenets of Gaddis from the last newsletter that leaders should be both a fox and a hedgehog and balance aspirations with capabilities? If faithfully applied, we soon discover that both movements suffer from a hedgehog syndrome and excessive aspiration for their capabilities at hand.

Brexit: Imperialistic Nostalgia and a Tortoise

After being rejected thrice in Parliament, Theresa May is seeking cross-party consensus with the opposition Labour Party and requested a further extension for Brexit to June 30th. For now, there is still hope to avoid a hard Brexit.

On a macro-level, Brexit reflects roughly half of its inhabitants’ false assumption that Brussels is suffocating Britain’s greatness as well as their fantasy that the empire on which the sun never sets could be revived by cutting ties with EU. Sam Byers mourns that Britain is drowning in nostalgia.

But what is such imperial nostalgia other than too grand an aspiration with too little capability to match it? The New Yorker reports that “[s]upport for Brexit correlated with ‘collective narcissism’—a belief in the unparalleled greatness of one’s country—and with a heightened fear of immigrants.” It’s narcissism against the cold, hard reality: the New York Times reports that “British economy is now 1 to 2.5 percent smaller than it would have been without the Brexit vote”. It could be worse.

On a micro-level, Brexit reveals a lot about Britain’s current leader, Theresa May. Though May campaigned for Remain, she has led with a stubborn conviction that Brexit is British people’s choice and must be enforced. The Economist offers a humorous yet incisive verdict on May’s leadership:

“Wilfredo Pareto…argued that effective leaders fall into two categories: lions, who rely on strength, and foxes, who rely on cunning. Mrs May represents a third type, the tortoise. Tortoises can achieve remarkable things in the right circumstances, thanks to their thick shells and plodding determination, as Mrs May’s six years as home secretary showed. But Brexit demanded different qualities—the cunning of the fox and the occasional raw power of the lion. And tortoises suffer from one big weakness: flip them on their backs and they are extremely vulnerable.

Hedgehog or tortoise, May lacks flexibility necessary to balance her negotiation within her government and with EU. The hedgehog spirit had led Britain through the darkest hours in WWII, but that Britain had enough wit to manoeuvre like a fox. Today’s Britain, headed by a tortoise and lion-cub-like Brexiteers with little teeth and claws, is reducing the empire to a farce, quite like Shakespeare’s “poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage…full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Green New Deal: AOC’s The Art of No Deal

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), the congresswoman who champions the Green New Deal, which strives to be like FDR’s New Deal that restored American prosperity after the Great Depression, is uncompromising against billionaires, social inequality, and conservatism. Popular among the millennials, she is known for her outspoken democratic socialism, unwavering environmentalism, and social media skills. But her Green New Deal is, to my sadness, no deal at all, freshly rejected by the U.S. Senate last week.

First of all, the deal’s noble promise of “high-quality health care; affordable, safe and adequate housing; economic security; and clean water, clean air, healthy and affordable food, and access to nature” has no details to back up the execution. It’s all bones with no flesh. There’s no question that climate change is happening and drastic measures are needed to revert its course. There is no question that we can do better on tackling inequality, especially as technological advancements are splitting the workforce in two. But empty promises are nothing but fantasy, and good intentions result often in tragedy.

What’s more, there’s no bi-partisan ground for the deal. In a politically divisive America, featuring trillion-dollar price tags and an unrealistic economic plan raising debt or taxes on the rich invites only opposition from the backward-thinking Republicans who are only too ready to believe that lumping together climate and social policy serves as Democrats’ smokescreen for a left-wing economic agenda.

It also defies market economics. Climate change is a market failure that can be solved by including the social costs of emission into the prices consumers pay, reducing people’s emissions by making carbon-intensive activities pricier. An elegant solution indeed. But it takes time when drastic changes are needed now. Therefore, AOC’s deal goal goes into extreme, ignoring economic principles and cost-benefit analysis, aiming at 100% decarbonisation within a decade when renewable capacity and market mechanism are not fully developed to match her aspiration.

Al Gore, a former vice president and environmental activist, is hopeful and optimistic about the Green New Deal. Unfortunately, despite his many talents, skills, and virtues, Gore isn’t a political genius on the rank of Lincoln, FDR, or LBJ. Walter Russell Mead comments that Gore possesses “Midas touch in reverse; objects of great value (Nobel prizes, Oscars) turn dull and leaden at his touch.” Therefore, Al Gore’s approval can hardly add weight to AOC’s hedgehog scheme. Perhaps AOC only wished to serve as a pawn in a grand revolution yet to be steered by a real leader? If not, I hope she reads On Grand Strategy.

So What Kind of Leaders Do We Need?

Personally, I am in favour of a leader who has both a moral compass but also the patience and flexibility to wait for the best timing. As liberals and millennials who care about our Earth and all future generations, we are eager for change; we are eager for action. We blame the outdated conservatives and the corporate lobbyists, binging radical leftist ideas. But too much cynicism sink us into mud and too much idealism detaches us from the ground.

Lincoln and The Emancipation Proclamation

Despite morally opposing slavery, Lincoln knew an immediate abolition of slavery could harm the Union more than to serve any good. Instead, he patiently designed a plan to put slavery slowly to death. Why so? His “personal wish” had always been that all men could be free, but as the president he must be tactful with the timing and the momentum.

Captured slaves were tricky to handle during the Civil War. Being patient, Lincoln did not allow his generals to free captured slaves, but he also did not object to have the slaves put to work in supplying the army. Not only did this augment the Northern manpower in fighting the war, but it also unnerved the South, where people always feared slave revolts.

What’s more, no Northerner could support re-enslavement when these captured slaves had fought for the Union. The more blood the Union shed, the more just emancipation would be. Therefore, his Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 was not declared in desperation by in full strength and legitimacy. From that moment on, Southern rebels were in passive defense.

LBJ and the Civil Rights Movement

A second exemplar of the leadership I desire to see is the controversial, or even awful, Lyndon B. Johnson. My favorite biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin expresses her hesitation when including LBJ in her most recent book, Leadership in Turbulent Times. But given the amount of legislations he passed and changes he made in society, LBJ is the epitome of a fox with moral rectitude.

In an interview with the New York Times, Robert A. Caro, the author of four volumes of biography on LBJ, sheds light on LBJ’s political genius:

You read in every textbook that cliché: Power corrupts. In my opinion, I’ve learned that power does not always corrupt. Power can cleanse. When you’re climbing to get power, you have to use whatever methods are necessary, and you have to conceal your aims. Because if people knew your aims, it might make them not want to give you power. Prime example: the southern senators who raised Lyndon Johnson up in the Senate. They did that because he had made them believe that he felt the same way they did about black people and segregation. But then when you get power, you can do what you want. So power reveals. Do I want people to know that? Yes.

My question now is to my readers: what do you think? What kind of leaders do you see as being capable of leading the Western world in this turbulent time? Please share your thoughts with us by commenting on my newsletter.

Thin Slices

Here are two tiny glimpses into Julian Barnes’ 2011 novel, The Sense of an Ending, which won the Man Booker Prize and is adapted into a film. Truly a brilliant work that I’d recommend to anyone.

Relationships & Breakups

“Can I ask you something?”

“You always do,” she replied.

“Did you leave me because of me?”

“No,”, she said. “I left you because of us.”

—Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending, p102

Memory & Age

It strikes me that this may be one of the differences between youth and age: when we are young we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others.

—Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending, p80

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