U.S. vs. China. Can We Please Get Rid of the Scorekeepers?

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As much as I dislike commentators of the U.S.-China bilateral relationship that insist on looking at everything as a zero-sum game, where every advantage or success of one nation is seen as a negative for the other, there is another category of knuckleheaded chatterers out there who are even worse. These are the scorekeepers, folks who love uncovering meaningless statistics in order to . . . well, I don’t know exactly. Instill fear? Gin up concern? Interest in reading a blog or book?

Dan Newman appropriately posted a good example of the scorekeeper article on the Motley Fool blog. Foolish indeed. The post title starts us off on an execrable basis: “China Vs. the US: the Scorecard.” Ugh. Here’s the lede:

You hear about China’s rise everywhere in the news: China beats the U.S. in test scores, China beats the U.S. in construction, China beats the U.S. in Olympic diving. All of these metrics swimming around can get murky after a while, but to help us keep track of what exactly China is winning, here is a breakdown in how China and the U.S. stack up across several measures.

I don’t mean to beat up Newman in particular; the guy is just flogging some research report his firm has issued. Moreover, his “metrics” (I kind of despise that word, since it is jargon spewed by a certain type of individual I could do without) are accurate, and his article holds together nicely. But at the end of the day, what’s the whole point?

Newman’s numbers are summarized in a “tally” chart, complete with a column for the US, a column for China, and little boxes with “Xs” to tick off each category’s winner. Exhilarating. And here’s Newman’s concluding point, where I assume he would want to explain why all this is so damn useful to his readers:

This chart obviously leaves out several metrics, but it’s clear that China rides on the wave of a dramatic economic change.

WTF? A dramatic economic change? Nice scoop, Dudley Dimwit. Maybe tomorrow you can use an econometric analysis to show that factory orders in China go down during the New Year holiday.

OK, why do I care, and why should you? Honestly, you probably don’t need to bother with this claptrap. I care because this gross oversimplification of the bilateral relationship, the subtle reinforcement of the zero-sum way of thinking, is a bad influence. Every time  some investment bank issues a report forecasting when China will surpass US [insert meaningless indicator here], everyone scrambles to explain what’s going on. If the report appears to show China encroaching upon America’s vaunted position as #1 in some category, the politicians get involved, pointing fingers at their opponents and accusing whoever is in charge of “allowing” China to threaten the U.S.

It’s like the old “Who lost China?” argument all over again, minus the McCarthyism.

Just for fun, I looked into the China Hearsay archives and found a post from last year on this very topic. I must have been just as cranky when I wrote that post as I am now:

Let me just say that I’ve had it with the competition bullshit already. Not everything is “Us versus Them.” Yes, I know that we live in a world economy, and I realize that kids need to study hard or else they will end up on the street living on handouts of government cheddar, but that doesn’t mean that American workers need to see their Chinese counterparts as the enemy. That kind of thinking leads to very bad outcomes.

Why can’t we play up the good parts of globalization? The interdependence, the cooperation, the openness? So many people I meet these days have traveled abroad, are actively working with foreign nationals, are learning about new business practices, not to mention new cultures and languages. We should all recognize and acknowledge that’s a really cool thing.

But no, instead we focus on which culture is better at parenting, which country is generating the most chess grand masters, and why the new jet fighter or aircraft carrier is a presage of Armageddon. We’re all hunched over in our miserable little cubbyholes studying statistics in a futile effort to validate our own national identity.

I’ve got a completely nutty idea. Let’s stop keeping score and comparing ourselves to the other guy. Perhaps a better set of metrics for U.S. commentators to worry about are domestic unemployment, domestic income inequality, domestic life expectancy, domestic poverty rates.

Probably not. If people actually paid attention to that sort of thing, they would have to come up with policy solutions for those problems. And no one wants to get sucked into that debate.

One response on “U.S. vs. China. Can We Please Get Rid of the Scorekeepers?

  1. ajax151

    There is a school of thought that says the more you listen to experts, the dumber and less informed you become. While I have not reached Nassim Taleb’s level of cynicism, I am starting to realize more and more that journalists, financial or otherwise are more entertainer than thinkers.