Planning for the Future

In his column in the New York Times this morning Tom Friedman, dazzled by China’s growth and development, urges us to get our act together lest we end up on the scrapheap of history:

China did not build the magnificent $43 billion infrastructure for these games, or put on the unparalleled opening and closing ceremonies, simply by the dumb luck of discovering oil. No, it was the culmination of seven years of national investment, planning, concentrated state power, national mobilization and hard work.

Seven years … Seven years … Oh, that’s right. China was awarded these Olympic Games on July 13, 2001 — just two months before 9/11.

As I sat in my seat at the Bird’s Nest, watching thousands of Chinese dancers, drummers, singers and acrobats on stilts perform their magic at the closing ceremony, I couldn’t help but reflect on how China and America have spent the last seven years: China has been preparing for the Olympics; we’ve been preparing for Al Qaeda. They’ve been building better stadiums, subways, airports, roads and parks. And we’ve been building better metal detectors, armored Humvees and pilotless drones.

The difference is starting to show. Just compare arriving at La Guardia’s dumpy terminal in New York City and driving through the crumbling infrastructure into Manhattan with arriving at Shanghai’s sleek airport and taking the 220-mile-per-hour magnetic levitation train, which uses electromagnetic propulsion instead of steel wheels and tracks, to get to town in a blink.

Then ask yourself: Who is living in the third world country?

He may be right. It may be that an economy like ours, mostly dependent on consumer spending and, consequently, on the individual purchasing decisions of millions of consumers, just can’t compete with an economy like China’s, which is considerably more planned.

And it may be right that a government like ours, in which politicians elected in safe districts and safe states curry favor with voters by offering them ever larger benefits while filling their campaign funds with donations from wealthy donors who aren’t above exploiting the political system to become wealthier, can’t compete with a government like China’s, in which civil rights are curtailed and the decisions made by a relative handful for the greater harmony and benefit of all. Presumably.

However, I can’t help but think that the Tom Friedmans of the 1930’s were writing much the same things about Soviet Russia when the world marveled at the growth of its economy. Much later we learned that Soviet Russia’s remarkable productivity increases had come about as a result of transferring relatively nonproductive agricultural labor assets to relatively more productive industrial use. In other words people were taken off the farms and made to work in heavy industry. That strategy can only work over time if agricultural outputs per worker increase (they didn’t) or the country is willing to import an ever increasing proportion of its food (they weren’t).

There’s another point that I think needs to be made: China’s current per capita GDP is about what ours was in 1900. They have a long, long way to go with many challenges to face. I hope they make it.

I don’t begrudge China its increased prosperity and, moreover, China’s increasing wealth and prosperity hasn’t made us poorer. In fact it’s made us that much wealthier. We are cooperative with China rather than competitive. Or, more accurately, we are both cooperative and competitive with China. Increased productivity in China motivates the U. S. to become that much more productive.

Further, I think that if China is to continue its development, it will need to cultivate its own internal consumer market. And that will provide opportunities for the whole world.

Additionally, I don’t share Mr. Friedman’s relish for central planning. I think our economy and society are emergent phenomena, having reached a level of complexity that they’re beyond the ability of any small group of individuals to plan and govern, whatever American Fordists might think.

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. Friedman’s view, while accurate, is incomplete. He should have left the big city and traveled to the fields of rural China. For all of China’s exploits in the cities, there is a thick underbelly of want and poverty that an authoritarian state can hide.




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  2. Bithead says:

    He should have left the big city and traveled to the fields of rural China.

    No need for even that.
    I forget where I saw them… Q&O, I think… but there are pics floating around the net of the Chinese infrastructure even in Bejing. Suffice it to say, what we saw hides what is underneath.




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  3. Any dictatorship can achieve a Potemkin village level of apparent success given sufficient time and motivation.

    Perhaps he wants to achieve the China results in the same way as China. Impoverish the areas outside the Potemkin village and the ban speech that would point this out.




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  4. Houston says:

    These types of columns (and Barack’s comments about how the Chinese infrastructure is “vastly superior to us now”) are shockingly naive.

    For example, everyone visiting Beijing commented about how green and beautiful the city grass and parks were….but look what happened with the water supply for the neighboring provinces…

    London Times: Millions forfeit water to Olympic Games

    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/asia/article4597006.ece

    It’s not like it’s difficult for the media to see through the smoke-screen – it they really want to. C’mon, guys, do your job. Freidman is usually more reliable and thorough than this…




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  5. Steve Verdon says:

    Why is it that (supposedly) smart people are always so easily taken in by command-and-control economics. Sure allocating $43 billion to simply impress the likes of Tom Friedman is impressive in a perverse way. However, that is $43 billion that they don’t have to invest in other activities that could be far more productive/rewarding to the people of China.

    Further, China was a backwards nation, technologically and economically speaking until rather recently. So that they are making rapid gains isn’t that shocking. Think of the curve y = x^.5, a small increase in x away from zero produces a large increase? For example, if we go from 0.01 to 0.02 we go from 0.1 to 0.1412, and a percentage increase of 41.2%.

    The idea that long term growth rate of a country is a linear projection of the current growth rate is not accepted by just about every single economist out there.

    As I sat in my seat at the Bird’s Nest, watching thousands of Chinese dancers, drummers, singers and acrobats on stilts perform their magic at the closing ceremony, I couldn’t help but reflect on how China and America have spent the last seven years: China has been preparing for the Olympics; we’ve been preparing for Al Qaeda. They’ve been building better stadiums, subways, airports, roads and parks. And we’ve been building better metal detectors, armored Humvees and pilotless drones.

    Yes, and to accomplish the samething all we need to do is destroy our democracy.

    What a moronic ass.




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  6. Bithead says:

    Verdon:

    As a freind recently said:

    “If I had the productivity of over a billion people at my summary disposal, I could do that, too.”

    Amazing how the thought that the whole thing is only possible due to effective slavery, never enters Friedman’s head.

    Oh, wait. “Fried” vs vs “Freed”.
    Never mind. I understand, now. [/snark]




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  7. Steve Verdon says:

    “If I had the productivity of over a billion people at my summary disposal, I could do that, too.”

    Wish I could give a thumbs up for that.




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  8. Bithead says:

    By the way, I found that Q&O article.
    Check the pics. You can understand why what China has been showing us would look good to those who lack the desire to dig a little.

    There’s this, too… as one of the commentors over there reminds us.. they hadda shut down their factories to eliminate the pollution long enough to run the games.




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  9. Alex Knapp says:

    I remember when everyone was freaked out about the economy of Japan in the 80s the way some folks are freaked out about China now. But it’s important to remember why Japan didn’t end up overtaking us: their housing market collapsed with led to big problems in their financial system, plunging the country into a decade long recession…. oh. Crap.




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  10. anjin-san says:

    $43 billion that they don’t have to invest in other activities that could be far more productive/rewarding to the people of China

    Sort of like the half a billion a day we spend in Iraq.

    There’s this, too… as one of the commentors over there reminds us.. they hadda shut down their factories to eliminate the pollution long enough to run the games.

    Since when do you care about pollution? Or do I need to remind you that we owe the fact that we are not swimming in our own pollution at the moment to people like Al Gore…




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  11. Bithead says:

    Since when do you care about pollution?

    There’s a word you should consider adding to your vocabulary, Anjin… it’s “Balance”.

    Or do I need to remind you that we owe the fact that we are not swimming in our own pollution at the moment to people like Al Gore…

    Utter nonsense.
    So, before Al Gore showed up, we were all swimming in our own sludge? Don’t you think this hero worship things done got a bit outta hand?




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  12. anjin-san says:

    Utter nonsense.
    So, before Al Gore showed up, we were all swimming in our own sludge? Don’t you think this hero worship things done got a bit outta hand?

    Do you remember what the air was like in the LA Basin in the 60s? When you could grow up in LA and never see the San Gaberial mountains? Do you remember when the Cuyahoga River caught on fire? Love Canal? When people did oil changes in the driveway and dumped the used oil down the sewer?

    These things got better because environmental activists and concerned citizens forced the enacting of legislation to clean up the environment, not because concerned corporations decided to squeeze their margins a bit for the common good.

    Spend a little time in Mexico inhaling the fumes from each car that goes by. Imagine if every car in America was still like that.

    As for Gore, I use him only as an example of an environmental activism. The environmental movement that saved us from China like pollution started in the 50s. (Actually several early victories were won in Marin County, my home turf),

    Hero worship? Is that the best you can do? I did not even vote for him in 2000. But I will give him credit where credit is due. Try harder dude.

    Balance??? Thanks, coming from you, that will provide days worth of laughs.




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  13. anjin-san says:

    Japan didn’t end up overtaking us

    Japan’s economy has always been resource poor, a fundamental weakness. It was one of the root causes of WW2. For all their talent, energy and ambition, Japan is only going to go so far.

    China does not really suffer that problem.




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  14. Bithead says:

    As for Gore, I use him only as an example of an environmental activism.

    Heh… here’s the thing; So was I. One of the best examples one could think of. Total moonbat.

    Balance??? Thanks, coming from you, that will provide days worth of laughs.

    Well, we may as well spread the laughs around. Tell us, Anjin, is there such a thing as too much concern for the environment? Where does that threshold exist, assuming it does?




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  15. anjin-san says:

    Heh… here’s the thing; So was I. One of the best examples one could think of. Total moonbat.

    Well, name calling can keep one occupied at recess, but I notice you completely ducked the issue of out of control pollution in this country in the mid 20th century and how that trend was reversed.

    What saved us from swimming in our own crap? How come streams that were nearly dead 40 years ago are healthy spawning grounds now? Magic ponies?




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  16. Bithead says:

    I notice you completely ducked the issue of where the border is between balance and fanatisism.

    Not unexpected.




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  17. anjin-san says:

    balance and fanatisism.

    Is there a thing such as too much concern? Of course not. Our environment is were all life on our planet is, and we have the power now to render this planet largely uninhabitable.

    If we were to do that, I think the survivors might view Hitler and Stalin as pikers in the mass murder department.

    It’s sort of like asking if there is such a thing as too much concern for one’s health. You can just be cruising along through life, then suddenly its “sorry you have terminal cancer, six months to live. Rough break”. And then years of not taking care of yourself don’t seem like such a great idea.

    The line between balance and fanaticism? Lets address that after you have responded to my question…




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  18. Pete Burgess says:

    Anjin-san, We do not have the power to render Earth uninhabitable. To believe that is the height of arrogance and ignorance. Mother Earth adapts to every disaster that occurs, including the ones we produce. Ours are minor compared to the ones produced by Mother Earth herself. I’m delighted our rich, vibrant, capitalistic economy has the resources to clean up after itself, as it should, but fanaticism never makes for reasonable resolution.




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  19. Brett says:

    For all this talk about how China is racing to meet the US, it’s interesting to note that the foundation of much of their economy is still based on exporting to other countries, like the United States. That “Japan in the 1980s” similarity just got closer.




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  20. Dave Schuler says:

    Brett:

    It’s possible I don’t understand your comment. I don’t recall my having posted that China “is racing to meet the US”. Or it’s possible you’re misinformed. 70% of the US economy is based on consumer spending. That leaves 30% for everything else. Only about 6% of our economy is exports.

    The picture is quite different in China. Roughly 15% of their GDP and 60% of the growth in their economy is exports.




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  21. Bithead says:

    Is there a thing such as too much concern? Of course not.

    Folks, that explosion you just heard was the attempt to paint me an extremist dying the sudden and violent death it deserves.

    And that attempt, let’s be honest about it, is the only reason Anjin even asked the question of me he did. The answer to which is surrounded in logic so simple that even Anjin should be able to answer it;

    The use of the word “Balance” on my part suggests that environmental concern per se’, is not totally without merit. The problem of course is tehse days, it’s nothing shy of a religion… as Anjin handily demonstrated for us.

    Game over.

    By the way, Pete; You’re quite correct.




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  22. anjin-san says:

    Concern and what you do about your concerns are two different things. This is not a difficult concept. Is there such a thing as “too much concern”? No.

    Is there such a thing as unproductive, misguided or downright stupid reactions to your concerns? Of course there is. Gosh, just listen to me. Clearly I am a “fanatic”.

    Really Bit, do you look at the world with the level of simplicity that your posts suggest? You keep injecting nonsense like “hero worship” and “religion” into the discussion. Can Paris Hilton be far behind?

    So you have bobbed and weaved and, as usual. ducked the question. Not a bad strategy when you can’t support your own position.

    Its pretty simple. One of the main reasons we have made progress on the environment is government regulation. I can see why you prefer to sidestep that discussion.

    Anjin-san, We do not have the power to render Earth uninhabitable. To believe that is the height of arrogance and ignorance.

    Completely uninhabitable? Probably not. But then I did not say that, did I?

    What do you think this planet would look like after a full out, nothing held back nuclear war? Yes there would be life, and yes, over the course of time the planet would probably heal. But large percentage of what is alive now would probably die in the war and its aftermath, and we do have the power to do that…

    To believe that is the height of arrogance and ignorance.

    Ok. Can you support that statement?

    Mother Earth adapts to every disaster that occurs, including the ones we produce

    There is something to that. Have you ever considered that part of her healing process might be getting rid of the critters that are causing the problems?

    Ours are minor compared to the ones produced by Mother Earth herself.

    hmmm. Ok, can you explain things such as dead zones in the ocean and 25% of California’s bird species being stressed to the point where danger of extinction is not an exaggerated concern?

    Man is the first creature to come along with the intelligence to severely impact the environment in a negative way. Kind of a wild card. Just saying “Mother Earth will heal the wounds” is kind of a lame strategy for the long-term survival of our and other species…




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  23. Bithead says:

    Really Bit, do you look at the world with the level of simplicity that your posts suggest?

    So, it wasn’t a simple POV that caused you to try and set me up as an extremist? But guess who ended up with that label? Don’t be blaming ME if that’s the effect of YOUR words, Anjin. Enjoy the bed you’ve made.

    Its pretty simple. One of the main reasons we have made progress on the environment is government regulation.

    So, there’s no better way to deal with the problem, than government?

    Pathetic.




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  24. anjin-san says:

    So, there’s no better way to deal with the problem, than government?

    Lets hear your solution. I am all ears.

    Pathetic.

    How so? We still have a long way to go, but we have made great strides in dealing with our pollution problems, thanks to government regulation. Or would you be happier if we had China’s pollution problems?

    And you are still ducking my question…

    Are you a Malliard or a Merganzer?




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