If You Can’t Define It, You Can’t Accomplish It

When I read the title of Fareed Zakaria’s latest Washington Post column, “How Trump can win the cold war with China”, I was interested, excited even. After reading it not only was I disappointed, I was angry. After reading nine paragraphs in which he described the challenges here is the single paragraph of his prescription:

Tariffs and military maneuvers might be fine at a tactical level, but they don’t address the core challenge. The United States desperately needs to rebuild its infrastructure, fix its educational system, spend money on basic scientific research and solve the political dysfunction that has made its model less appealing around the world. If China is a threat, that’s the best response.

One of the peculiar things about language is that using ordinary human language you can create names that have no actual referent, i.e. that refer to things that do not and cannot exist. Just because you name something does not mean it actually exists or can be done.

Not one of the four measures Mr. Zakaria alludes to has an actual referent. Let’s start with the last, solve political dysfunction. I believe that if you asked ten people what should be done to solve political dysfunction in the U. S. you’d get ten different answers. Some would say get rid of Donald Trump. Some would say get rid of Fareed Zakaria. I think that, short of turning human beings into automatons, political dysfunction cannot be solved or, more precisely, there is no such thing as political dysfunction. There is politics. It is all dysfunctional to one degree or another. That we have no viable alternative does not make it more or less dysfunctional.

But I think his premise is flawed. It isn’t political dysfunction that “has made its model less appealing around the world”. The American system has never had any appeal other than economic might. Our economy is still growing; our system is just not the only game in town today. There’s also the autocratic Chinese model. Do you know who likes the Chinese model? Autocrats and wannabe autocrats.

Now I believe that the Chinese model is doomed to failure and cannot be repeated but that’s an article of faith rather than something I could provide evidence for. But the reason that China’s economy has grown so spectacularly while ours, at least in relative terms, has languished is that for the last 40 years we’ve been taking Fareed Zakaria’s advice or at least the advice of people who believe as he does.

Onwards. It is not possible to “spend money on basic scientific research”. There are only specific projects on which we might spend. All projects are not created equal and resources of money, time, and attention are finite. How do we distinguish between worthwhile and worthless projects? Any decision is bound to be flawed. My own prejudice is that most money spent on medical research is wasted. We’ve already plucked the low-hanging fruit and there are now diminishing returns on investment. There’s an argument to made that is true in all scientific fields. The best evidence for that is the decreasing pace at which basic discoveries are being made.

I would also ask Mr. Zakaria how “basic scientific research” will convey a competitive edge to the U. S. against a China that is ready, willing, and able to beg, borrow, or steal anything we might discover or create? IMO although it might be public-spirited it wouldn’t solve any problem we actually have.

Education. What would it mean to “fix its educational system”? I don’t think Mr. Zakaria can define it. All I can offer is an opinion. I think the primary problem with our educational system is that it’s being asked to do too much. Children should arrive at school ready to learn. We presently have no alternative for families in child care. I don’t believe there is one.

For another issue let me give you an anecdote. I have a dear friend, a teacher of children with special needs, who began her career in teaching many years ago. In one of her first classrooms she had eleven first grade students with six different first languages (English, French, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, Arabic, and Urdu). How do you fix that?

I don’t even know how you’d measure progress in “fixing our educational system”. Over the period of the last 25 years real spending on education has trebled with little measurable progress. How much would it cost to “fix it”?

Finally, infrastructure. According to ASCE’s infrastructure “report card” for Illinois, the state has 26,775 bridges, 2,303 of which it characterizes as “structurally deficient”. 20,000 some-odd of them are rural. The rural bridges with local use only (which account for most of the bridges that are structurally deficient) which are structurally deficient average fewer than 100 crossings per day. Which should be repaired? I’m asking you, Mr. Zakaria. If you say “none”, repairing the rest, at least from a statistical standpoint, will have no effect on the overall report card.

Do we have a lot of bridges? Yes. Are a lot of them structurally deficient? Yes. Could we do better? Yes. Should we repair all of them? Probably not. It just wouldn’t make any sense.

In conclusion we can’t accomplish any of his “core challenges” because they’re so poorly defined and we could arguably accomplish all of them and it wouldn’t help us a bit.

In short I thought his column was as big a piece of codswallop as I’ve ever seen.

11 comments… add one
  • bob sykes Link

    You can add many members of our Establishment who are admirers of the Chinese model, Thomas Friedman for one.

    Zakaria also misses the industrialization issue. China is richer today because it industrialized. Most of our problems derive from the US’ conversion from a high-wage, high-tax revenue industrial economy to a low-wage, low-tax revenue service economy. But that is exactly the conversion that Zakaria, Friedman and the rest of the Establishment wanted.

    Recovery of our industrial base will require the adoption of a mercantilist trade policy, complete with high import tariffs and other protectionist measures. This will slow economic growth, but it will also improve the incomes of the working class, which has steadily lost real income since around 1970. The Ruling Class will oppose this, and our continued decline, both relatively and absolutely, will continue.

  • Guarneri Link


    Were you really surprised, really? Observation with snark is easy. I’m one of the worst practitioners. “No referent” is all around us. But it sells papers and gets votes. Efficacious policy prescription is hard; achieving consensus to implement, and execution, are an order of magnitude harder. You know that. It’s a big part of your job.

    Over time the pursuit of money and power, and the conceit of thinking one possesses the answers combined with the inattention or docile posture of the masses has been corrosive to the country. It’s always been with us to a degree, but it seems to have taken a serious ratchet up with FDR. (Which is why I don’t consider him a great president). And what happened to ask not what your country can do for you……? As an example, why is student loan forgiveness given even a moments consideration?

    Codswallop it might have been, but in the current national psyche it’s in vogue.

  • Andy Link

    You’re missing Zakaria’s genius – his ability to make any set of circumstances fit his existing preferences.

  • China is richer today because it industrialized.

    Not exactly. China is richer today because it moved relatively unproductive labor resources from agriculture to industrial production. We aren’t as rich as we might have been because we moved pretty productive resources from industrial production to…nothing. To fast food jobs paying minimum wage.

    And a narrow sliver of Americans captured the economic surplus produced in the transaction.

  • Guarneri Link

    It’s my understanding that the two states that have become the most excessively unequal in income are CA and NY. If memory serves CT and NJ are in the top 7.

    All blue.

  • steve Link

    ” But the reason that China’s economy has grown so spectacularly”

    Catch up growth. When you can greatly improve your growth and productivity just by building some roads and providing electricity, it is easy to grow fast. Not so easy to grow fast in a mature economy. You actually have to innovate.

    I am a bit less skeptical about basic research. I have always been impressed by how freely people move in and out of academia into private business. I think you have a big advantage if you have the people who best understand the basic science. I have to wonder if it is just coincidental that at the same time that our spending on basic research has declined, our growth has slowed. We used to be willing to take risks. We supported research with no obvious commercial benefits, and then we ended up with benefits anyway. Ones that would never have been predicted or found with guided commercial research. Do we risk some of that money being wasted? Sure, but there are upsides. It looks to me like we balanced those pretty well in the past.


  • steve Link

    List of states by inequality (Gini). It is actually pretty well spread out. If you look at the top 10 states, you are 5 and 5. If you look at the top 20, it is dominated by red states. Look at the top 3, you have 2 blue and 1 red. Pick your metrics to support your case.



  • walt moffett Link

    To give Zakaria his due, he hit his word count, got some clicks and regurged the D’s national talking points since at least Al Gore’s run.

  • Catch up growth.

    That’s another way of saying the same thing I did. I was just more specific. We can’t produce more growth by moving relatively non-productive resources from agriculture to industrial production. And we aren’t producing growth by moving resources from industrial production to something more productive for a variety of reasons include licensing, prerequisites, various other barriers to entry, and because there isn’t anything else.

    I am a bit less skeptical about basic research.

    I don’t believe in the history of the world anybody has ever received a grant for basic research. They receive grants for much more specific things than that.

    How is that to be allocated? It will be allocated politically. When it’s allocated politically and you’ve already picked the low-hanging fruit not only will your ROI be lower it continue to decrease over time.

    Most of the basic discoveries weren’t made by doing basic research. They were discovered because people wanted to do things.

  • steve Link

    “I don’t believe in the history of the world anybody has ever received a grant for basic research. They receive grants for much more specific things than that.”

    Maybe this is just semantics, but there have been a lt of grants to research what I think was basic science, that had no apparent commercial applications. In biology there was all the research done looking at the make up of individual parts of a cell, transmitters, etc. In physics a lot of research has been done to looking at the basic building blocks of the universe, with no obvious commercial application.

    Will it be politically apportioned? Probably, but then that was also true in the past, and we were more successful at basic research than any other country. Perfect is the enemy of good.


  • Yes, it’s semantics.

    The ROI on mass engineering projects including in basic research has been enormously higher than the return on “basic science”. Examples of mass engineering: the space program, the A-bomb.

    The entire modern day computer, cellular phone, and information technology sectors are outgrowths of the space program.

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