Sometimes You Gotta Bow to Conventional Wisdom

July 22, 2010

I try to be cautious and skeptical when I write commentary on current events in China, the same approach I try to take with my legal practice. However, once in a while it turns out that the skepticism wasn’t warranted and that conventional wisdom was spot on.

Lots of folks these days will tell you that China is an unstoppable force, that its economy and military are growing like gangbusters and that it will soon supplant the United States as global superpower. It’s a bit of an exaggeration, right?

Sure, China’s economy is growing rapidly and the country has upped its military budget in recent years. However, China has many challenges ahead (I’ve talked about most of them on this blog ad nauseum), and even if everything was perfect, it would still take China a very long time to bridge the gap separating its economy or military from that of the U.S.

So this is what I’ve been telling myself in response to all those cheerleaders out there, and I refudiate that point of view on a frequent basis. Every time Tom Friedman of the New York Times breathlessly talks up China after lunching with the CEO of a Chinese solar power firm, I say yeah I understand, but careful with the sweeping, hyperbolic assertions. Solar power is not going to transform this country overnight.

I have to admit, though, that all my caution is making me feel misinformed. Events in the U.S. are much worse than I thought, and the folks in power are doing everything they can to make China’s monumental challenges look insignificant in comparison. You can talk about growth rates and military power all you want, but another important item to consider is the direction a country is heading, and what that might mean for future performance. Take a look at this (h/t Americablog) and then try as hard as you can to be upbeat on the direction of the U.S. economy:

Paved roads, historical emblems of American achievement, are being torn up across rural America and replaced with gravel or other rough surfaces as counties struggle with tight budgets and dwindling state and federal revenue.

In Michigan, at least 38 of the 83 counties have converted some asphalt roads to gravel in recent years. Last year, South Dakota turned at least 100 miles of asphalt road surfaces to gravel. Counties in Alabama and Pennsylvania have begun downgrading asphalt roads to cheaper chip-and-seal road, also known as “poor man’s pavement.” Some counties in Ohio are simply letting roads erode to gravel.

But higher taxes for road maintenance are equally unpopular. . . . “I’d rather my kids drive on a gravel road than stick them with a big tax bill,” said Bob Baumann, as he sipped a bottle of Coors Light at the Sportsman’s Bar Caf and Gas in Spiritwood.

Are you still upbeat about the good ol’ US of A after hearing from good ol’ Bob Baumann? I assume that I do not need to explain the significance of this information? I really, really hate to say this, but our friend Bob up there in Spiritwood could be the poster child for authoritarian government. You just know that he is going to cast his vote in 2012 for Sarah Palin, doing his part to put a functional illiterate in the White House (’cause American peasants don’t trust folks who are smarter than them).

Many parts of the U.S. are literally going backwards. Keep in mind that this is just one example of a government service that is being discontinued or cut back — replace “roads” with “schools” and you see where I’m going with this. What’s next? Everyone has their own gun now, so I suppose cities can do away with their police forces, right?

Given all of the problems facing China, you still might respond with “Well, the Chinese are having the same trouble.” Yes, local governments are in a world of shit over here, but the same stupid decisions are not being made as a result, with a few notable exceptions. Consider what is going on in the street outside my apartment. A work crew has been there for the last few days tearing up the pavement. This has been a source of annoyance, what with the noise, dust and inconvenience.

Here’s the thing. In the U.S. they are tearing up the roads to get rid of them, and in China they are tearing up the roads to widen the freakin’ road; when the work is done, they will repave the entire thing!

Will China catch up to the U.S. in the next few years? Not a chance. Is the U.S. doing everything it can to minimize the time China needs to bridge the gap? Seems that way.