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.