The Coming Problem with American Exceptionalism: ‘The China Shock’

The problem with American exceptionalism, as one side of the gun control debate shows, is that it stops you learning anything from other countries.

Exceptionalism is also in for a shock (‘The China Shock’) in around 2018 when China becomes the biggest economy in the world, which it achieved by letting go of Chinese Middle Kingdom exceptionalism and learning from…wait for it…the rest of the world. Big insular exceptionalist countries don’t do well in the long run…and the US is around 4.5% of the world’s population so it can learn from the other 95.5% if it would listen.

I am reading Ezra Vogel’s excellent book on the transformation of China: ‘Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China’. The current state of the USA reminds me of China in the later stages of the Mao era as Vogel describes it. One of America’s major parties, the Republicans, has given up on science and being data-driven, just like the conservative Maoists. While the insurrectionist antics of the NRA and the Tea Party remind me of the Cultural Revolution and the Red Guards, who shut down China’s universities and bullied intellectuals into silence, like talk radio tries and fails to. Paradoxical that those who call themselves conservatives should act like Maoists?

What all this suggested to me, is that the USA needs a profound modernization. It needs a Deng Xiaoping (who of course had his faults; I am not talking literally) to move America into the 21st century. Deng saw scientific and technical education as the key to China’s future and America needs to do the same. Rather than wait for the China Shock to the American city on a hill exceptionalist system of China actually overtaking the US as the largest economy; why not start right now and radically improve the scientific and data driven nature of education, with a view to using this strategically to boost real value add sustainable wealth creation. Move the economy away from the Wall Street Casino and aim to create a large number of manufacturing and hi tech start ups around science driven solutions to improving health care, elder care (given the growth in proportion of the population who will be elderly), transportation, energy supply, and the products we need, not to mention efficient services and food supply. Such a drive should appeal equally to moderate Republicans and most Democrats and maybe start melting the political grid lock.

And as for the countries to learn from? Well maybe Finland with the best education results in the world. Switzerland with the best value for money health care? The UK for the lowest gun crime. Germany for hi tech manufacturing. Israel for defense sector efficiency/value for money sans pork. And of course China for dealing with conservative/Maoist reality denying extremists and so on….

What do you think?

 

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About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
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8 Responses to The Coming Problem with American Exceptionalism: ‘The China Shock’

  1. louploup2 says:

    Your essay itself has a bit of assumed American exceptionalism. Why should it be assumed that U.S. has some “right” to be the largest economy in the world? As you point out, we have 4.5% of population, but c. 19% of world economy. China has almost 20% of population, and 14% of economy. Why shouldn’t China be the largest economy?

    Look at the top ten countries listed in order of population size followed by their order in terms of economy size (cannot post the table because blog doesn’t accommodate attachments): China #2, India #4, U.S. #1, Indonesia #15, Brazil #7, Pakistan #27, Bangladesh #44, Nigeria #30, Russia #6, and Japan #3. (data: wiki compilations from IMF and other primary sources) There is some serious inequity and poverty happening here.

    “as for the countries to learn from” here’s my take:
    Finland is a small fairly culturally homogenous social democratic country; how is U.S. ever going to emulate that?
    U.K. gun ownership per 100 capita = c. 6; U.S. is c. 88. What are we supposed to learn from the Brits, how to reduce gun ownership more than an order of magnitude?
    Germany & hi-tech; yes, the problem is U.S. is run by banksters instead of industrialists.
    Israel; have you looked at the amount of $ U.S. pours into Israel, especially their military? How do you calculate “efficiency”?
    China and governance; I call China’s system statest fascism, and cannot imagine it being a model for anything good in U.S. But as noted, they are the largest country and if anyone can be considered “exceptional” it’s China in the 21st Century.

    I have little hope U.S. will understand the nature of global resource crises before the global economy starts falling apart and/or devolving due to lack of cheap fossil fuels and other key resources together with too high population. On the other hand, the same probably applies to most countries. China’s leaders do seem to understand more aspects of the problems they face than our leaders do, but only time will tell how well they will be able to adapt.

    • @louploup2. I make no such assumption that the US has some right to be the largest economy in the world. I merely note that American Exceptionalism is strongly based on it and so it will be a shock when it is no longer the case. China was the largest economy until around 1800 when civil war and the arrival of imperial powers destroyed its viability for 150 years. A lesson in what happens to powers that become wracked by civil war and a lesson for the USA.

      Finland has a strong approach of obtaining the best from each child and as does have significant Swedish and Sami minorities. So I do think that we can learn from its education system, though Finnish is so bloody hard to learn that no wonder they are so smart. 🙂

      UK had a school massacre and simply banned guns apart from two shot shotguns. If we had their gun death rate it would save 29,640 Americans or nearly 10 x 9/11 each year. We could learn from their road safety too as they have the lowest road fatalities per 1 million miles traveled.

      Germany and hi tech: my point precisely.

      Israel may get plenty of US aid but its actual defense forces are pretty efficient aka value for money: the number of current generation warplanes, ships and other equipment for the size of their defense budget including US contribution.

      China’s political system is a strange hybrid and I am not sure I would call it Fascist. More authoritarian capitalist like so many countries in the world and South Korea and other Asian tigers before they got democracy. If China fails it is likely to be because of the extreme inequality its progress has brought. Another lesson for the US. I guess the lesson for me of China is around their ability to think long term that the US seriously lacks. Even now the political system hasn’t really noticed the rise of China and what that means…duh…

      • louploup2 says:

        “I make no such assumption … China was the largest economy until around 1800 when civil war and the arrival of imperial powers destroyed its viability for 150 years. A lesson in what happens to powers that become wracked by civil war and a lesson for the USA.”

        By the early 1800s China had c. 300,000,000; U.S. didn’t get that big until 200 years later. U.S. only had 30,000,000 at the Civil War (1865). Yes, the West’s imperialism set China back, but so did its own over population; population dropped 10% in 1790s.

        “Finland has a strong approach of obtaining the best from each child and as does have significant Swedish and Sami minorities. So I do think that we can learn from its education system, though Finnish is so bloody hard to learn that no wonder they are so smart. :)”

        I was thinking more about non-Scandanavians. (And many Sami became pretty assimilated over time.)

        “UK had a school massacre and simply banned guns apart from two shot shotguns. If we had their gun death rate it would save 29,640 Americans or nearly 10 x 9/11 each year.”

        Yes, but how do you reach UK’s lower “gun death rate”? Not only are we saturated with twelve times the per capita ownership, but our cultures are very different in attitude toward use of guns and in the acceptable degree of impingement on “individual liberties” to achievable social benefits. Simply citing their lower death rate does little to inform how U.S. can lower its own. I think a lot more innocent children, adults, and politicians (maybe not so innocent) will die before we see a sufficient change in attitudes.

        “We could learn from their road safety too as they have the lowest road fatalities per 1 million miles traveled.”

        That’s a good one; I wonder why that is.

        “Germany and hi tech: my point precisely.”

        “Israel may get plenty of US aid but its actual defense forces are pretty efficient aka value for money: the number of current generation warplanes, ships and other equipment for the size of their defense budget including US contribution.”

        I’d like to know more about this; do you have some sources you can recommend?

        “China’s political system is a strange hybrid and I am not sure I would call it Fascist. More authoritarian capitalist like so many countries in the world and South Korea and other Asian tigers before they got democracy. If China fails it is likely to be because of the extreme inequality its progress has brought. Another lesson for the US. I guess the lesson for me of China is around their ability to think long term that the US seriously lacks. Even now the political system hasn’t really noticed the rise of China and what that means…duh…”

        To me fascism is a system where an oligarchy controls the major systems of production by combining state and corporate power, and enforcing their control with significant limitations on civil liberties and use of violence as needed. Mussolini himself (probably–cited in a 2005 book in Italian and extracted at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/America:_Freedom_to_Fascism): “corporatism is the corner stone of the Fascist nation, or better still, the Fascist nation is corporative or it is not fascist.”

        In China, the development of a capitalist economy has not followed the Western liberal path, and is primarily a party/state run operation. I don’t know the subject well enough to say much more, except it is clear that the lack of civil liberties and state violence are very much present. On the subject of China’s political economy, http://www.amazon.com/Chinas-Emergent-Political-Economy-Capitalism/dp/0415497183 looks like a good study. One factoid I noticed skimming the available pages is that directly state-owned enterprises still constitute 60% of China’s GDP.

      • @louploup. One good example of successful US learning to contradict my point was the auto industry. Faced with extremely tough Japanese competition, the US auto industry did learn Lean Manufacturing and that has spread to other industries very successfully. Funnily enough Toyota the main source of the learning said the Japanese learned Lean from visiting Ford in the 1920s and America had lost it in the interim and become wasteful. 🙂 And actually Lean Healthcare is the solution to the US healthcare cost issue as I tried to convince it a few years back.

        And you are right to question my examples. They were illustrative. I did some corporate work on spreading best practices and I came up with the insight that best practices spread when you understand what caused them. Simply replicating the symptoms or surface features is worthless. So your point is valid. There was a famous automotive case. A Japanese auto company was splitting body sides in two parts and US manufacturers couldn’t see the advantage but felt there must be one. And then they found the body part supplier was separated from the assembly plant by a tunnel which could not cope with full size body sides….I call failure to understand the causes of best practices Cargo Cult after the South Seas cult of building air strips post 1945 to get cargo to land as the US Marines had….

        The best lessons the US can learn are probably from Germany around the central importance of manufacturing and how to remain competitive with really good technical and scientific education and avoiding Wall Street Casino delusional thinking.

        Over population is about carrying capacity and an agrarian society like China did indeed reach the limit. Europe was able to exceed the limit and industrialize because of North American food exports and the other colonies elsewhere. Ken Pomeranz in The Great Divergence is good on this and I am an economic historian by training. There is a book called Adam Smith in Beijing by Giovanni Arrighi I found good on China today.

        As for China’s political system, I think that fascism is not a possible way to run a hi tech modern economy in the long run. Whether China is fascist: I am not sure. It has some things in common with 1930s Italy but I wonder if it is just its own thing and not categorizable under Western labels. Authoritarian Confucian? At least the mass deaths of the Mao era seem over. There are huge number of disturbances mainly because of local corruption and failure of the rule of law.

        The worry for me is that the US is so divided that it risks imploding like China did under in the US’s case environmental and other pressures. The US’s problems are relatively tame compared with China’s get rich before they get old. But the US political system is the meta problem that prevent relatively easy fixes to America’s most immediate problems. I did the New York Times interactive fix the deficit and found it easy until you think of the loonies in Congress.

        James Burham’s 1941 book The Managerial Revolution had some interesting things to say about the corporate state and one could argue the US is suffering from some symptoms of fascism too. Extreme nationalism and exceptionalism as a way to avoid facing the real economic, environmental and inequality issues.

        My comments on the Israel defense sector is based on watching it. I see very few failed weapon systems and no local politician pork. They buy off the shelf planes and other equipment and then add hi tech add ons very cheaply. They don’t have missile magnet aircraft carriers which are about as much use as battleships. And to be fair they don’t have hundreds of overseas based. Their military is fit for purpose and thought to be the best in the world for its size. I don’t actually think it is as good as it was as Lebanon 2006 proved it had lost the ability to understand and respond to the enemy. Hezbollah are a lot more formidable than Hamas militarily. And shooting stone throwing kids was not a good training for the military or for its morale.

        Good to discuss this with you as always. Best and Happy New Year.

      • louploup2 says:

        Little time for more now; ah, to be truly retired.

        I agree America has indicia (“symptoms”) of fascism. The growing disparity of wealth and income won’t help.

        “We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” Louis Brandeis

        Pomeranz’ book is free to download (pirated)? Looks interesting, and I’ll be trying to read (although I prefer real books for this kind of study). I am impressed by his discussion of Wallerstein and others. I found Wallerstein’s short summary of world-systems analysis to be a pretty compelling description of many aspects of modern global political economy. China’s increasing role as a new “core” fits well. http://www.amazon.com/World-Systems-Analysis-Introduction-Franklin-Center/dp/0822334429

  2. PS 2louploup2. It is interesting now I think about it that you respond to my suggested countries we could learn from, by telling me why most of them are different so we can’t learn from them. You don’t think China in 1978 or Japan in 1868 were radically different from the West? Did they say: ‘Oh they are different, we can’t learn from them’?

    I respectfully suggest then that you therefore illustrate almost perfectly the American Exceptionalism that prevents us learning from other countries. Which is a pity as on many issues you have some great insights.

    American insularity is a tough nut to crack, as it clearly goes across the whole political spectrum. I can’t remember the last time in a political debate, an American said: ‘Oh there is this really neat thing they do in Botswana or Germany or wherever, we could learn from. And American ignorance of the outside world, even among the best educated, is astounding to me still. Though of course there are some marvelous exceptions and I have a biased sample of friends who have spent many years overseas, and I spent 75% of my life outside the US.

    I remember once out in the Moroccan Sahara being asked how things were in Britain and in particular what was the role of the horse in British society? In all my 16+ years in America, I cannot recall a single person asking me: ‘Oh how do they do this in Britain?’ I have been to maybe 30 other countries and in every one of them, people had great curiosity about how things were in the Britain or more recently the US. Lack of curiosity is a something I find incomprehensible in educated people.

    • louploup2 says:

      I’d prefer to think I am wisely pointing out how we need to be more specific about the differences so we can better understand how to learn from the examples. 😉 I found some of your examples thin on explaining how they apply or could apply to U.S. and that drove me to respond. I tend not to say as much about the points I agree with, and for that lack of diplomacy, your point is well taken.

      In fact, American exceptionalism drives me crazy. Even Obama spouts it (or more accurately, “has to spout it”) in his speeches. If I am guilty of American exceptionalism, I believe it stems from my grumpy belief that Americans are on average exceptionally stupid (“lacking curiosity” as you put it more politely) and disabled to learn from the examples of others (“we don’t need no stinking European socialism”!). And that’s just a corollary of my depressive attitude about the apparent inability of humans as a species (clearly there are significant “exceptions”–ha) to think beyond our own selfish perspectives as individuals and to some extent as families. We cannot even get outside our pathology enough to think much beyond our children’s lives; we’re driving the planet’s ability to sustain us off a cliff and the loudest refrain I hear is, “they can deal with that when the time comes, right now we need jobs and a growing economy.” Which of course is a major cause of cliff dive in the first place. As I said, stupid.

      Hopefully my previous post (put up before I saw your p.s.) will indicate to you that I am not one of the incurious.

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