Tell the truth

 By Kishore Mahbubani

Dictators are falling. Democracies are failing. A curious coincidence? Or is it, perhaps, a sign that something fundamental has changed in the grain of human history. I believe so.

How do dictators survive? They tell lies. Muammer Gaddafi was one of the biggest liars of all time. He claimed that his people loved him. He also controlled the flow of information to his people to prevent any alternative narrative taking hold. Then the simple cell phone enabled people to connect. The truth spread widely to drown out all the lies that the colonel broadcast over the airwaves. Similarly in Egypt and Tunisia,the regimes lost control of the narrative. In short, technology has undermined dictators’ ability to lie to their people.

So why are democracies failing at the same time? The simple answer: democracies have also been telling lies. Now we know, for example, that the eurozone project was created on a big lie. All the major European politicians assured their publics that the contradiction between monetary union and fiscal independence would be resolved by insisting on fiscal discipline. Any eurozone member that violated the 3 per cent budget deficit rule would be punished.

All this was a big lie. When France and Germany breached the 3 per cent rule in 2003, nothing happened. This then opened the doors for others to break the rule (Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain). Even worse, Greece began lying to its European partners from the very beginning. To be fair to Greece, its European partners knew Greece was lying.

The people of Europe went along with the big lie as long as they did not have to pay for it. The great western financial crisis of 2008-09 changed everything. Bankers had to be rescued. Taxpayers had to pay the price. Foolishly, the Irish government took on the liabilities of Irish banks, passing the burden to Irish citizens. Today, the German taxpayers balk at having to pay the price for rescuing an economic experiment that rested on a big lie.

Europe is not alone. The American people are equally angry with their government. No US leaders dare to tell the truth to the people. All their pronouncements rest on a mythical assumption that “recovery” is around the corner. Implicitly, they say this is a normal recession. But this is no normal recession. There will be no painless solution. “Sacrifice” will be needed and the American people know this.

But no American politician dares to utter the word “sacrifice”. Painful truths cannot be told. And there is an even more fundamental reason why they cannot tell the truth. In theory, a “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth” in America. In practice this is a big lie. Take the US budget process as exhibit A. In theory, the government collects taxes to deliver public goods to the population. In practice, the US budget has been hijacked by all kinds of special interest groups. This is why the US stimulus plan failed. A small portion of it went to help create jobs. Most of it was absorbed by various special interests. As Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron says: “The stimulus was so poorly run that stimulus money wound up going to prisoners and dead people, bridges to nowhere, and useless government buildings.”

In short, the US political system is dangerously flawed. The American people feel in their bones that something has gone awfully wrong. They know that the financial elite is in bed with the political elite. The interests of the banks will be taken care of; the interests of the people will not. Yet while all this is happening, politics is on autopilot.

Few American politicians seem aware that the whole world was shocked that a “deal” was reached to get America’s finances in order without raising a single tax. When S&P delivered the natural verdict that this would not work, the messenger, as usual, was crucified.

Most people know what is happening. Hence, there is a simple way politicians can regain trust: tell the truth, even if it hurts. But they won’t until they learn that lying doesn’t work – it is not just dictators like Col Gaddafi who never will.

The writer is Dean, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, and author of “The New Asian Hemisphere: the Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East

Source: Financial Times, Sep 4th

About Michaela

I am a wanderer and a wonderer, like you are. I love our journey and to walk in the company of friends – to learn, experience, share, laugh, cry and above all I simply love this marvelous, magical, mysterious life. I have no plan (cannot believe I am saying this) and my only intention is to be truthful to myself and others.
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4 Responses to Tell the truth

  1. Paul says:

    Excellent article on where America went wrong during this lost decade. The American people need to conjure up our collective memory to a time when politics were beholden to and even afraid of the will of the people. Sacrifices will need to be made during these hard times and their needs to be the Great American Political Awakening!! We are just as guilty for the recession as the bankers, financial institutions, and politicians because the Constitution actually calls on people to be the great balance between Washington and the powers that be….

  2. Fatima says:

    This article raises some interesting points.

    History shows that our democratic society, has always moved from behavior arising out of the most venal aspects of human motivation, i.e. fear, lust, greed, self interest, injustice etc to a more upright situation. While social wrongs have been an ongoing shame, large and small, public outcry has in the past resulted in some sort of rectification toward ‘justice for all’.

    “As Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron says: “The stimulus was so poorly run that stimulus money wound up going to prisoners and dead people, bridges to nowhere, and useless government buildings.” This may be partially true ….i.e. things happen. If this professor has (I assume he does) facts to back up his assertion I guess someone was keeping track. Whatever and where ever those “useless” government buildings are might be interesting to know, but may I point out that people build buildings and those are jobs.

    This declaration however…”This is why the US stimulus plan failed. A small portion of it went to help create jobs. Most of it was absorbed by various special interests.”

    I am not at all sure that statement is true and if it is not…..? It raises a question in me about lies and lying. What is….. or,,,, is there a difference between lies that are obvious and apparently intentional and those that are based on ignorance or simple unconsciousness?

    Despite the great Republican cry of “The Stimulus Failed” even as they put it work in their districts and states, I think the facts are that the stimulus did not fail, but that it was way too small and needed to be followed up. There are powerful elements in our society who would rather see Rome burn than this President and progressive policies be successful. The recalcitrant refusal of these elements to cooperate with him in working to solve our social, but especially our fiscal problems has been very troubling to observe. They are spending huge amounts of money and time systematically stalling in congress, creating diversions with social issues (abortion, gay marriage, etc) and generally undermining the democratic process. Around the world people can get an impression of what is happening in Congress along these lines. At the same time, across the country Republican run state legislatures have been passing draconian laws in concert, reversing many hard won human rights. The most egregious at the moment seems to be the disenfranchising of millions of voters (most of whom would likely vote Democratic) in the name of preventing voter fraud, which btw is virtually non-existent.

    The balance of consciousness is weighted dangerously in our population…. and world wide founded collectively on individual consciousness and that is the fundamental LIE that can only be addressed one individual at a time.

    This situation that we see unfolding in the US now may be quantitatively different but it is not qualitatively different….i.e. there were no ‘good old days’ there has just been a history in the US of self-correction with government moving from injustice to justice. And, that being the case, there has always been that element that some have aptly characterized as “rearranging the deck chairs on the titanic” though as times change and this is what has to change.

    If there is a saving grace in Democratic societies as they exist so far… has been and is still, the separation of the military from any individual or group of governors to use against the people as a whole. This is something that I see as a looming and present threat…that an individual, or small group could try and succeed in ruling this country not by law but by force. So far it has not happened but there were moments in the Bush/Chaney administration that that direction opened up as a real possibility.

    President Eisenhower (post WWII General Ret.) warned the people of the US about this then, in all seriousness, “Beware of the growth of a military industrial complex.”.

    It is a real public threat and it has not been addressed….it is below the radar of the general population. We have a very powerful and growing shadow military power and it is not the small pockets of militia around the states…………although I suppose they could be scooped up by it.

    Oh well.

    Governments will always reflect the balance of the consciousness of the governed, but
    …Democracies are way different than dictatorships. They are not equal. I would propose that a Dictatorship no matter how benevolent is fundamentally flawed.

    The golden rule of governance that was left by Prophet Muhammad, pbuh, was:

    “Choose from the wisest among yourselves to be your leaders, the most upright and God fearing.”

    Sounds democratic to me and that concept is still circling Earth as the highest political aspiration of human social form. I am on the side of Gandhi and Marianne Williamson and thank God…. many others. We each must do what we can to live the highest human ideal whenever possible in through action, word and heart.

  3. Fatima says:


    I am so not a skillful writer….no surprise to so many of you who are. I obviously need an editor. Any volunteers?

    My sympathies and apologies to those of my friends who find such in-articulation heavy going. lol

  4. Fatima says:

    “The liar is not one of us.” A statement by the Prophet Muhammad, pbuh.

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