Hey, other American people say silly crap about China too!

What a surprise. From today’s NYTimes, David Brooks’ op-ed column entitled “Dictatorship of Talent”, a thought experiment about China:

“The meritocratic corpocracy absorbs rival power bases. Once it seemed that economic growth would create an independent middle class, but now it is clear that the affluent parts of society have been assimilated into the state/enterprise establishment. Once there were students lobbying for democracy, but now they are content with economic freedom and opportunity.

The corpocracy doesn’t stand still. Its members are quick to admit China’s weaknesses and quick to embrace modernizing reforms (so long as the reforms never challenge the political order).

Most of all, you believe, educated paternalism has delivered the goods. China is booming. Hundreds of millions rise out of poverty. There are malls in Shanghai richer than any American counterpart. Office towers shoot up, and the Audis clog the roads.

You feel pride in what the corpocracy has achieved and now expect it to lead China’s next stage of modernization — the transition from a manufacturing economy to a service economy. But in the back of your mind you wonder: Perhaps it’s simply impossible for a top-down memorization-based elite to organize a flexible, innovative information economy, no matter how brilliant its members are.

That’s a thought you don’t like to dwell on in the middle of the night.”

I guess the argument is that because the Communist Party is a paternalistic boys club made up of people who happened to have been able to grab power and ace all the elite school exams, China is going to have problems growing into a service economy.

I don’t understand. Isn’t America elitist? Don’t people at the highest levels of corporate and US government power collude with one another? Aren’t we content with economic prosperity rather than actual democracy? Doesn’t our government also resist reforms that would actually pose a challenge to the powers that be? Have we really “organized a flexible, innovative information economy?” If so, how did we do it? In what way would China have trouble doing the same thing?

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2 Responses to “Hey, other American people say silly crap about China too!”

  1. William Says:

    I liked the Brooks piece. I’ve often heard the Brooks likes to write about big ideas rather than examining minutia, and that shows in this column.

    The big idea here is central planning vs. the free market as a means for economic planning. The point is not really to contrast China and America, though, so much as China and Russia.

    When Americans think of the Soviet economy, we think of an economy planned by central bureaucrats selected only on the basis of their loyalty to the party. Pleasing your superiors, rather than getting actual, useful results, was the highest goal. Thus the famous cases of Soveit shoe factories that produce thousands of tiny shoes that no one could wear so as to meet their quotas.

    In China, as Brooks points out, you don’t just pledge loyalty to the party, and that is that. You are selected to be a member of the party based on your displayed abilities. Chinese leaders are selected for their ability to succeed, not for their loyalty.

    The question is whether any kind of central planning, even this “new and improved” central planning developed in East Asia, can make a country successful. So far, it has actually seemed to work quite well, defying the predictions of free-market types. East Asian countries’ government-assisted export-oriented growth in the last few decades has been, by all accounts, phenomenal. Whether these countries can successfully transition to the next stage of development based on this model is the question.

    That’s the real contrast between the US system and that of China. In America, there is no official policy on what people should be developing and producing. In China, there is. That’s the difference.

  2. tripinchina Says:

    Thanks for the insight. My issue with the Brooks article was that when he implies that China and its people won’t be able to keep up where innovation and flexibility are concerned, he seems to think that this is just obvious and he doesn’t have to provide specifics.

    It is a good point about the pitfalls of Soviet shoe factories. But I’m a little hazy on the extent to which the government controls the direction of the economy in China, as is everyone else.

    It’s OK to voice concern about the potential limitations of the “new” central planning system, which is to say perhaps the article doesn’t deserve to be categorized off hand as “silly crap.”

    C’mon, though, doesn’t it sound just a little bit arrogant?
    in a sort of America-is-creative-and-awesome, China-is-obviously-stuck-in-the-mud kind of way?

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