Memo to the West: Planning is everything

Memo to the West: Planning is everything

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President Dwight Eisenhower with Britain’s Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip following their arrival in Washington on October 17, 1957. (Reuters)

As the hero of Normandy, Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower, put it, “plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” Ike knew that, while specific plans rarely survive their first contact with reality, the art of planning — of thinking through policy problems — bestows on policymakers the intellectual expertise and flexibility to master real-world crises.
It is in this wise spirit that I offer a planning memo to Western leaders. For all the tremendous outpouring of money by the Fed and the European Central Bank, all that the West has achieved up until now is buy us a few months of grace while we shut our economic system down in an effort to see off the worst of the coronavirus. If we merely sit around, frittering away the time, in our decadence we will not be serving a world that presently needs all the help it can get.
First, the coronavirus presents the West and the rest of the world with two overriding problems to solve. The worst of a pandemic must be avoided — we must not have upwards of 50 million casualties, as resulted from the Spanish Flu of 1918-20 — while at the same time we must not lock down our societies for so long that a self-induced global depression becomes inevitable.
It is useless, and indeed dangerous, to think of one problem without recognizing the other. Those who say the economy is secondary have never experienced the agony of global depression, and are endangering the life chances of today’s children. Those who act as if the pandemic is merely a minor annoyance — just a particularly bad form of the flu — are equally dangerously blind. Instead, the policy compass needed to evaluate every specific policy proposal involves steering between these two looming global disasters. Policy balance, above all, is called for.
Second, balance does not mean doing nothing or being overly reactive, as so many leaders characteristically are. That leads to an increasing chance of the worst of all possible worlds: We will have the emotional pain of millions killed while at the same time experiencing a full-blown economic depression.
Caution in a crisis is not wisdom. As Eisenhower’s wartime boss Franklin D. Roosevelt put it when combating the Great Depression, “above all, try something.” Now is the time for action, for options, and for Western governments to show their people they will try whatever it takes to — through trial and error — quickly right the ship of state.
Third, if you are sick or you are old, at present you must be quarantined. If you are elderly — given that the first full-length study of the coronavirus illustrates that age is the primary determinant in rates of both hospitalization and fatality — you must remain quarantined, as society must protect both the elderly and those they might infect. In both cases, they must be wholly provided for by the rest of us.
Fourth, the tools to combat the virus must be mass produced at light speed. US President Donald Trump’s approval of a 15-minute coronavirus test is a step forward, as a vast increase in testing is the key to opening up an economy that will be devilishly hard to bring back online. Likewise, surgical masks must be made available to everyone. Having reliable temperature checks of all workers and at airports as we open up is another vital form of screening.
But, fifth, it is also vital that the rest of us get back to work or school as soon as is medically practical. This includes children (the virus study mentioned above showed that only 0.04 percent of infected 10 to 19-year-olds are hospitalized and only 0.002 percent are fatalities) and workers of all stripes. The school year must be extended from the beginning of June and they must be back at it by Sept. 1. Enough of treating education as though it is a mere interference with the summer holidays.
Sixth, the US must embark on a Manhattan Project-style effort to compress the time frame (say from 18 months to less than 12) to produce a vaccine for the virus — the only policy move that can truly “solve” the crisis. Given America’s global advantage in biotechnology and the life sciences, it falls on the US to take the lead.

Now is the time for Western governments to show their people they will try whatever it takes to quickly right the ship of state.

Dr. John C. Hulsman

Seventh is to permanently socially change the concept of work. White collar workers should now work from home more and more often, traveling to the office only for meetings and other essential company functions. We must get used to the idea that needless overcrowding is a health hazard.
Eighth, and finally, leaders must level with their people. To put it mildly, there has been too much wishful thinking and not enough honesty. During the Great Depression, Roosevelt rallied the American people by doing the simplest of things; he trusted them by telling them the truth. In turn, they responded to his brave honesty and loyally stuck by him. That is called democratic leadership. And that is precisely what is called for now.
This plan is not complete (these policy steps must be done simultaneously) and it is not perfect. But it is a start. And, remember, planning is everything.

  • Dr. John C. Hulsman is the president and managing partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a prominent global political risk consulting firm. He is also senior columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the City of London. He can be contacted via
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