Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Age of Ambition and The Fourth Revolution

Evan Osnos (New Yorker China correspondent; successor to Peter Hessler) on his new book Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China.

BONUS: Micklethwait and Wooldridge, co-authors of The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State, on CELAP (also here).
WSJ: Buried in a Shanghai suburb, close to the city's smoggy Inner Ring Road, the China Executive Leadership Academy Pudong, or Celap, seems to have a military purpose. Razor wire curls along the fences around the huge compound, and guards stand at its gate. But drive into the campus from the curiously named Future Schedule Street, and you enter what looks like Harvard as redesigned by Dr. No.

In the middle of the academy stands a huge, bright-red building in the shape of a desk, with an equally monumental, scarlet inkwell beside it. Surrounding it are lakes and trees, libraries, a sports center and a series of low, brown dormitory buildings, all designed to look like unfolded books. Celap calls this a "campus," but the organization is too disciplined, hierarchical and businesslike to be a university. The locals are closer to the mark: They call it a "Cadre Training School." This is an organization bent on world domination.

Celap's students are China's future leaders. The egalitarian-looking sleeping quarters mask a strict pecking order, with suites for senior visitors from Beijing. The syllabus eschews ideology in favor of technocratic solutions. The two most common questions, says one teacher, are: What works best? And can it be applied here?

Today, Chinese students and officials hurtle around the world, studying successful models from Chile to Sweden. Some 1,300 years ago, Celap's staff remind you, imperial China sought out the brightest young people to become civil servants. For centuries, these mandarins ran the world's most advanced government—until the Europeans and then the Americans forged ahead. Better government has long been one of the West's great advantages. Now the Chinese want that title back.

Western policy makers should look at this effort the same way that Western businessmen looked at Chinese factories in the 1990s: with a mixture of awe and fear. Just as China deliberately set out to remaster the art of capitalism, it is now trying to remaster the art of government. The only difference is a chilling one: Many Chinese think there is far less to be gained from studying Western government than they did from studying Western capitalism. They visit Silicon Valley and Wall Street, not Washington, D.C.

The West pulled ahead of "the rest" because it created a permanent contest to improve its government machinery. In particular, it pioneered four great revolutions. The first was the security revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries, when Europe's princes created modern nation states. As Spain, England and France competed around the globe, they improved statecraft in a way that introverted China never did.

The second great revolution, of the late 18th and 19th centuries, championed liberty and efficiency. Aristocratic patronage systems were replaced with leaner, more meritocratic governments, focused on providing services like schools and police. Under Britain's thrifty Victorians, the world's most powerful country reduced its tax take from £80 million in 1816 to less than £60 million in 1860—even as its population increased by 50%.

This vision of a limited but vigorous state was swept away in the third revolution. In the 20th century, Western government provided people with ever more help: first health care and unemployment pay but eventually college education and what President Lyndon B. Johnson called the Great Society. Despite counterattacks, notably the 1980s half-revolution of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, the sprawling welfare state remains the dominant Western model.

In the U.S., government spending increased from 7.5% of GDP in 1913 to 19.7% in 1937, to 27% in 1960, to 34% in 2000 and to 42% in 2011. Voters continue to demand more services, and politicians of all persuasions have indulged them—with the left delivering hospitals and schools, the right building prisons, armies and police forces, and everybody creating regulations like confetti.

In all three of these revolutions, the West led the way. But now, as China's ambitions illustrate, the emerging world is eager to compete again.

And why not? Over the past two years, while the U.S. political system has torn itself apart over Obamacare, China has extended pension coverage to an additional 240 million rural people. Lee Kwan Yew's authoritarian Singapore offers dramatically better education and health care than Uncle Sam, with a state that is a fraction of the U.S.'s size. If you are looking for the future of health care, India's attempt to apply mass-production techniques to hospitals is part of the answer. So too, Brazil's conditional cash transfers are part of the future of welfare. At the very least, the West no longer has a monopoly on ideas. ...

The first is that, while Western voters have overloaded the state with demands, they abhor the result. The U.S. Congress regularly scores an approval rating of 10%. In Britain, membership of the Tory Party slid from 3 million in 1950 to 123,000 today, a performance that would have put a private company into receivership. Voters are frustrated.

Second, government is going broke. The U.S. government has run a surplus only five times since 1960; France hasn't had one since 1974-75. And now the demographic challenge of caring for aging populations will push even left-wing parties toward hard choices about what—and whom—they want to save.

The third reason is more positive. Government can be reformed, but only if Western politicians and electorates decide what they want it to do.

Our own answer is, simply, much less. The overloaded modern state is a threat to democracy: The more responsibilities Leviathan assumes, the worse it performs them, and the angrier citizens get. ...

You may disagree. But this is part of a bigger argument that the West must start having now. A great contest is under way to reinvent the state, and the Chinese have the advantage of knowing what the consequences are if they lose.


Butch said...

A good post.
Perhaps someone more conscious than most like you professor is to be invited to such an institution given your "traits.
Your blog has been getting better and I like your recent posts, keep it up.

BobSykes said...

I guess my bet would be on the Chinese, but I won't live long enough to collect, so I won't bet.

As to "much less", that means fewer, smaller and less subsidized public and private universities and less welfare among other things. Reducing the military is already happening, and there seems to be a consensus about that.

RMB said...

It's an interesting question. What is the best path forward for forms of government? China seems to be focused on trying to establish a form of political life where bad leaders, ineffective policies and the problems that come with such leaders and bad policies never get a chance to arise. The West, on the other hand, has developed political institutions whose purpose is not primarily designed to nip problems in the bud, but rather to make changing bad leaders and policies relatively easy. In a modern world where uncertainty and change really is the only constant, I'll bet on the latter as the best method for governance.

5371 said...

Replace your own people with the first comers from anywhere on the globe, and of course you won't have anyone worth spending money on. Self-fulfilling prophecy.

Carl said...

Singapore offers better education than the US, gonna let that slide here? Doesn't that conflict conflict with the "not having as many people who have inferior genetic intelligence" hypothesis that seems pretty popular in this blogosphere?

botti said...

If you control for demography the US education system produces similar results to Singapore.

"For Asian-American students (remember this includes Vietnam, Thailand and other less developed countries outside Northeast Asia), the mean PISA score is 534, same as 533 for the average of Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong. Here we have two biases going in opposite directions: Asians in the U.S are selected. On the other hand we are comparing the richest and best scoring Asian countries with all Americans with origin in South and East Asia."

emustrangler said...

I find that a lot of the time, when writers are in theory writing about other countries, what they're really doing is writing about stuff they don't like about their own country, and just using their supposed subject as a foil. The quoted blurb is a good example, it doesn't really have that much to do with China. Its just a laundry list of (fairly tired) complaints about Western Governments.

Richard Seiter said...

This improvement attitude is definitely a key feature of modern China. I oversimplify it as a bunch of engineers trying to optimize everything and can't decide about the implications (many aspects seem to work well, but there is a lot of "running over people" in the process).

A good example of this IMHO is giving micronutrient supplements to babies. See "The hungry and forgotten" -
in this week's Economist. The US will happily throw buckets of money at Head Start, but won't consider <$1/person-day for something like this (at least not that I have seen, the closest analog being free/reduced price school meals).

The interesting thing about that 5 US budget surpluses since 1960 statistic is that the years were 1962 $3.2B, 1998 $62B, 1999 $126B, 2000 $236B, 2001 $128B (source Table 1.1—Summary of Receipts, Outlays, and Surpluses or Deficits (-): 1789–2019, page 25 in the big PDF). GWB and Obama have certainly changed things ;-/ (with a helping hand from demographics).

aseuss said...

That second revolution cited by Osnos, the move toward efficient, meritocratic governments, was based on China's meritocratic imperial examination system. The mid-19th century Northcote-Trevelyan proposal described a system of selecting the best and brightest for government positions based on China's "Mandarin" examination system. This system was foreign to European notions of a large commoner class presided and ruled over by an aristocratic elite. It is when the West decided to make their societies more egalitarian and democratic that they turned to the old Chinese concept of meritocracy based on the Confucian respect for learning.

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