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:
- Be Ambitious
- Education Matters
- Look After the Elderly
- Save More
- 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.