Reading corner: The Fix

The Fix: How nations survive and thrive in a world in decline

By Jacob Tepperman

Tim Duggan Books

Jacob Tepperman’s book The Fix brings, as you might guess from the title, a positive message. His premise is that many of the problems governments grapple with are fixable and that the answers for how to do so are already out there.

But before he introduces us to solutions, Tepperman runs us through a decalogue of dysfunction, a litany of problems that afflict societies and their governments around the world: inequality, immigration, civil war, corruption, the resource curse, energy, the middle-income trap and two kinds of gridlock. For each of these problems Tepperman presents a story of a strong, charismatic leadership and top-down government action.

One emblematic example is the story of “Bolsa Familia”, the Brazilian direct cash transfer for the poor introduced by then-president Lula. Tepperman recounts how Lula, a former union leader and man with impeccable leftist credentials, shrewdly built a broad coalition of support around his ambitious vision of improving the lot of Brazil’s poor. By making continued payments conditional on school attendance, immunisation and other desirable behaviour, Lula also made the programme acceptable to conservatives. Businesses quickly realised that cash transfers (rather than, say, skill-building programmes) increased the spending power of a large segment of the population.

The narratives are engaging and highlight important lessons for leaders in government who don’t just want to be right, but who want to create impact. Tepperman’s stories are, for example, a strong reminder that solid evidence for “what works” can never win the day in isolation. All successful government action requires not just a well-designed policy. It also requires the ability to translate that policy into action and, crucially, it needs to command sufficient support. The “Bolsa Familia” example is a strong reminder that without those three elements in place a “fix” cannot succeed.

Tepperman tells an inspiring narrative that will lift the spirits of anyone who believes in the power of government to do good. His examples are interesting, but limited in three ways.

Firstly, all are stories of good, old-fashioned top-down government action. Tepperman isn’t, at least in the context of this book, interested in different, more local forms of government action.

Secondly, the focus of all the stories is the heroic leadership of individuals. This is a refreshing departure from the political science literature, which tends to emphasise institutions over individuals. Yet one is left wondering whether institutions might not play a more important role than implied by these narratives.

Thirdly, despite his insistence that he doesn’t “buy the Great Man theory of history” none of the major protagonists in his book are women. This is a puzzling choice and hard to justify in this day and age. Surely there must exist similarly engaging stories of charismatic female government leaders.

Despite these quibbles The Fix is worth reading, particularly for those traditionally skeptical of government action. Tepperman is a journalist (rather than an academic or think tank wonk) and it shows in all the right ways in his fluid and engaging prose. His case for pragmatic and effective policymaking is a strong one. His book should be required reading for all cynics who don’t believe that government can be a force for good.