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).
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.