Think of the US and add 1 billion peasants.

On several occasions I’ve quoted other authors when they’ve penned great one-liners to describe the situation in China: a crime wave with a flag; a billion souls in a sex imbalanced society; a crime syndicate in a stage of “bumptious nationalism” (like Britain circa 1800 or the US circa 1900) with a “naïve, passionate, and uncritical” patriotism.

When I do I also typically add that you can never have too many robot space planes.

I stumbled across the new one liner used in the above title from a Peace Corp worker quoted by Jonah Goldberg in Why We Need Not Envy China:

Imagine that there’s a country exactly like the United States. Exactly the same size. It’s got the same cities. It’s got the same number of rich people and poor people. It’s just like us. And now add 1 billion peasants. That’s China.”

Goldberg provides a quick list of reasons why we should not idealize China:  40 million live in caves, 20 million live on $90/yr, another 35 million on less than $125/yr, hundreds of millions live on $1 or $2 a day, environmental degradation, real estate bubble worse than our own, demographics that pretty much ensure it will grow old before it grows rich.  He then concludes:

Moreover, China’s social fabric is in dire need of repair. Just consider the recent horrifying footage of a two-year-old toddler who was struck by two vehicles and was left to die in agony in the middle of a busy street as passersby ignored her. The New York Times reported this summer that, in some regions, it is common for officials to snatch newborn babies from parents — and sell them. Indeed, China has a thriving market in children. And do you really think our problems with income inequality are worse than China’s?

Oh, and let’s not forget: It’s still an autocratic police state.

Obama is hardly alone in his effort to mythologize China in order to justify expansion of government. Times columnist Tom Friedman — who has written often of his envy for China’s authoritarian system — begins his new book comparing the unreliable escalators at his neighborhood subway station with a glitzy convention center in China, in order to suggest that China is winning the future. It’s as instructive as comparing his mansion in Bethesda, Md., to a Chinese cave.

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5 Responses to Think of the US and add 1 billion peasants.

  1. Paul Marks says:

    The relative decline of American (and other Western) manufacturing industry (in comparison to China) is real.

    People who deny this (and wave around figures to “prove” there is no problem) should, for example, visit a shop – or spend some time as a security guard guarding a distribution centre.

    Playing with credit/money bubbles (which is what the “financial services industry” has become) can not sustain a nation (certainly not one of some 300 million people) only MAKING THINGS can do that – things that people actually want to buy (physical things – not “services” that turn out to be /money bubble dependent).

    However, people get the above facts and then come up with exactly the wrong conclusions. They way to react to this relative decline is not with more government (for example taxes and other restrictions on imports), but by a radical reduction of the size of goverment in the United States (and other Western nations) back (at most) to the size government was when the West dominated manufacturing. Taxes and government spending in China are a small fraction of what they are in the West.

    Want to keep government spending (Federal, State and local – including the “off the books” spending) at around 40 or 50% of GDP? Then you must accept a continuation of relative decline – indeed also an absolute decline (which will turn into a collapse – and a collapse that is not so far away).

    • John says:

      The mfg industry, in terms of jobs for non-college grads, has declined – true. But it’s thrived in terms of productivity (making more stuff while eliminating all those jobs).

      I’m less troubled by globalization – they grab the first rung on the development ladder, we climb up to the next industries. Also, my mutual funds do well when those corps reduce their costs and pay better dividends. The pain is an inch wide and a mile deep – the local plant closes, lives destroyed. The benefit is a mile wide and an inch deep – we all pay less for things at Walmart and watch our 401(k)s grow (?).

      • Paul Marks says:

        Jobs in manufacturing industry being replaced by jobs at Walmart (or no jobs at all) – does not sound good to me. That is not “climb up to the next industries” (the brandnames may be Western but the goods are not made here – and, sooner or later, even the brandnames will not be Western).

        But it is not “globalization” that is to blame. It is the wild government spending (and credit bubble boom/bust “finance economy”), heavy taxes (especially on enterprises), endless regulations, and a terrible legal system (especially the Federal “Justice” system – which is demented).

        This can not last – it will go down in flames.

      • John says:

        It’s more like we’re swapping mfg jobs (mostly in “old” industries) for jobs in software, medical devices, etc. We’re not all “just” cutting each others’ hair. But the displaced workers don’t have skills that match the new jobs, and/or can’t move to where those jobs are. We spend a ton on (mis)education and worker retraining but… to little avail.

        I think you are spot on about the govt “contributions” to the problem.

        Globalization is mostly to “blame” although I don’t think of it as “blame.” It’s a force for good. But the benefits – e.g. cheaper shirts for everyone – is a mile wide and an inch deep while the pain – that shirt factory in SC closes – is a mile deep and an inch wide and gets all the headlines.

        It’s also become harder to quantify all the effects – that car made in Japan uses parts designed in Detroit, assembled in TN, out of components made in Mexico, and the corporate profits build plants in the US and increase the value of all our 401(k)s. Labor (im)mobility remains a big issue. If that plant moved from MI to TN, the workers can move too; when it moves to Japan or Brazil… we need to find/create new industries for those displaced workers. Just as the US climbed up from raw materials to textiles to manufacturing to high tech, so will the rest of the world.

        I read a great piece the other day, hard copy/not sure if I can find it online… I will look for it tonight (hopefully) and maybe post it tomorrow.


  2. Erica Blair says:

    I’ve never been to China, but I did work at a restaurant where pretty much all the other workers were Chinese. Most of them could not read. Chinese. In fact, they often made fun of one of the Taiwanese managers that could.

    I just thought it was interesting. 1 billion peasants doesn’t seem like a huge stretch to me in such a populated country, but all we ever see comes from the top, not the bottom…

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