Cognitive Dissonance on the Lessons to be Learned from China

Time features an article on the “Five Things the U.S. Can Learn from China” that I can only characterize as surreal. Here are the five lessons:

  1. Be Ambitious
  2. Education Matters
  3. Look After the Elderly
  4. Save More
  5. Look over the Horizon

For the details you’ll just have to read the article.

On ambition, the article’s author, Bill Powell, returns to a theme often sounded by Tom Friedman which I would summarize as how much you can accomplish when you’ve got an authoritarian government.

On education, the United States spends more on it than any country in the world, more per student, and more as a percentage of GDP than France, the United Kingdom, or China. Whether the money is well spent is another question entirely. We misspend. It is the American way.

However, when you’re a country of more than a billion people you’re bound to have a lot of smart, talented people and the Chinese authorities see the future of a lot of those smart, talented people being in science and engineering so they’re emphasizing it. In the United States opportunities in science and engineering are doubtful, Americans are savvy readers of the market, and, consequently, American students aren’t pursuing science and engineering (except in healthcare where there is clearly a future).

However, China’s elite don’t represent the whole story. China has millions and millions of people who are illiterate and are likely to stay that way, perhaps 30% of the population or more (there are some claims that the rate of illiteracy in China is much, much higher). How should we learn from the Chinese on education? Should we abandon universal education?

Look after the elderly! Forsooth. China has no national system of social insurance. In China looking after the elderly means in the family. Were we to emulate China in this we’d abolish Social Security and Medicare outright. Note: I don’t advocate this. I think that properly constructed social insurance and subsidizing healthcare for the elderly is freedom-enhancing. Needless to say what we’ve got now is not properly constructed.

And that’s intimately related to why the Chinese save. The Chinese save because they’re afraid of the future and because they have little choice. Were we to heed the lesson of the Chinese in this we’d reduce our social safety net rather than extend it.

I do think that there are lessons we should learn from China and many of them are object lessons. China is a great country with great people hobbled by cultural baggage and a corrupt, evil, authoritarian government whose oligarchs hoard the bulk of China’s wealth for themselves and their families. The notion that China is to be emulated is nuts.

FILED UNDER: General, , , , ,
Dave Schuler
About Dave Schuler
Over the years Dave Schuler has worked as a martial arts instructor, a handyman, a musician, a cook, and a translator. He's owned his own company for the last thirty years and has a post-graduate degree in his field. He comes from a family of politicians, teachers, and vaudeville entertainers. All-in-all a pretty good preparation for blogging. He has contributed to OTB since November 2006 but mostly writes at his own blog, The Glittering Eye, which he started in March 2004.

Comments

  1. Brett says:

    And that’s intimately related to why the Chinese save. The Chinese save because they’re afraid of the future and because they have little choice.

    Exactly. From what I read, either your kids take care of you, or you save so you can live a baseline, poverty-ridden existence in your old age (barring some unexpected medical or other expense) if you’re a peasant in the countryside.

  2. Bill H says:

    Of course they know that education matters; that is why they come to America to get their education. Not only do they come to American universities, they make enormous sacrifice to do so, separating families for decades, parents separating from children, fathers with PhD’s working as lab assistants to pay for their children to attend classes… In American universities such as the University of Arizona, where our children go to party rather than to learn any damn thing.

  3. DC Loser says:

    The Chinese save because they’re afraid of the future and because they have little choice. Were we to heed the lesson of the Chinese in this we’d reduce our social safety net rather than extend it.

    And the corollary of that as it applies to the US is that we don’t save because our social safety net will take care of us until we die? How many of us really expect Social Security to be there when we retire? I’m almost 50 and I really don’t think it’ll have any money left when I retire. Either that or they keep pushing back the eligibility age so that I might as well plan on working the rest of my life. I probably have a better chance of getting my sons to take care of my wife and me when we get old. We’ll come full circle once again to the Chinese model.

  4. Concur, but one thing you wrote struck me as odd:

    I think that properly constructed social insurance and subsidizing healthcare for the elderly is freedom-enhancing.

    Apparently we are working from different definitions of the word freedom. An argument can certainly be made that social insurance and subsidized health care is something that enhances society and that most people want it, but I don’t understand how it enhances freedom. It seems to me the classic case of a bit of freedom being sacrificed for the common good. And please don’t say it gives the elderly freedom to do this or escape that since by the same token you had to take that money from someone with a commensurate loss of their freedom. Oh, and the adjective properly in this context is an easy out similar to the hoary old chestnut, “Communism has just never been implemented properly!” If I am missing something, please enlighten me.

  5. Rick Almeida says:

    China has no national system of social insurance.

    And yet, it moves.

  6. Dave Schuler says:

    Rick, your Wikipedia link does not demonstrate that China has a system of social insurance, e.g. Social Security (because it doesn’t have one). There are plans that cover some state employees, yes.

  7. Rick Almeida says:

    Hi Dave,

    I guess I read your post as not just applying to the elderly. Fair enough.

  8. odograph says:

    Well, remember my link from the other China story. We encourage debt amongst ourselves, not savings.

  9. People see shiny skyscrapers in Shanghai and think that’s China. The number of Chinese in barebones homes without electricity or plumbing vastly outnumbers the Chinese in penthouses.

    My daughter is from China. There are quite a few adopted Chinese kids in the US. When the reverse is the case I’ll start believing we need to emulate China.

    Besides, I think if we’re going to emulate anyone it should be the Netherlands. Pot’s legal and the country is overrun by six foot tall babes on bikes.

  10. sam says:

    @Charles

    And please don’t say it gives the elderly freedom to do this or escape that since by the same token you had to take that money from someone with a commensurate loss of their freedom.

    That’s interesting, Charles. Let’s unpack that. Is this your argument?

    1) money = freedom

    2) there is a finite quantum of money available at any one time (hence a finite quantum of freedom)

    3) therefore any reduction in my money entails a reduction in my freedom and hence a reduction in the total quantum of freedom at that time. And thus, as a society, we are made less free.

    Is that it?

    But here’s a counterargument: if your freedom is reduced by N so that someone else’s freedom can be enhanced by N (where N can be expressed in money), the total quantum freedom remains the same, and thus our society is not made less free.

    How would you respond to that?