Looking to the Horizon

David Brooks mourns the loss of energy and invention in the United States:

There are also periodic crises of faith. Today, the rise of China is producing such a crisis. It is not only China’s economic growth rate that produces this anxiety. The deeper issue is spiritual. The Chinese, though members of a famously old civilization, seem to possess some of the vigor that once defined the U.S. The Chinese are now an astonishingly optimistic people. Eighty-six percent of Chinese believe their country is headed in the right direction, compared with 37 percent of Americans.

The Chinese now have lavish faith in their scientific and technological potential. Newsweek and Intel just reported the results of their Global Innovation Survey. Only 22 percent of the Chinese believe their country is an innovation leader now, but 63 percent are confident that their country will be the global technology leader within 30 years. The majority of the Chinese believe that China will produce the next society-changing innovation, while only a third of Americans believe the next breakthrough will happen here, according to the survey.

While I would welcome increasing prosperity in China and I think that China’s current emphasis on science education will almost certainly result in an increasing amount of science being done in China, I’m skeptical that China will become the “global technology leader” in the foreseeable future. Or, more precisely, I believe that to the extent that China does increasingly become a center of science and technological innovation it will necessarily become less Chinese. Specifically, I think there are pretty good reasons that English will remain the lingua franca of science. English’s hegemony in science education and publishing is accelerating, not slowing, cf here and here.

I think that Mr. Brooks is thinking of a highly idealized even sanitized version of American history. Other qualities he doesn’t mention attributed to Americans by our cousins in England and Europe are being shrewd, greedy, and vulgar and I find all of those qualities in plenty in myself and my fellow countrymen.

I think that Americans are savvy readers of markets and responsive to incentives and that’s what they’re doing right now.

The term “rent seeking”, meaning using mostly governmental power to manipulate the economic environment to your advantage rather than earning profits by making, selling, or doing things, hadn’t been coined back in the antediluvian days when I took economics but the behavior is probably as old as humanity. Today in the United States rent seeking is the surest way to achieve wealth.

Consider the case of the recent bailout of General Motors. GM received a grant advertised as a loan of some $50 billion dollars. GM hasn’t had cumulative net earnings of $50 billion dollars over the period of the last 25 years. This is rent seeking bold, bald, and ugly. It is what we have seen in banking, too.

In the United States today we provide incentives to having wealth (as all countries do) and penalize acquiring wealth. If we want Americans to dream bold dreams and look to the horizon, we’ve got to provide the incentives for doing so and limit the effectiveness of rent seeking as a means of realizing success.

3 comments… add one
  • Jeff Medcalf Link

    Not to mention that the Chinese are becoming more free, as the government allows more and more choices, while the US is becoming less free, as the government allows fewer and fewer choices. Of course the Chinese think they’re heading in the right direction and we think we’re heading in the wrong direction: neither population is particularly stupid.

  • Brooks thinks he sees one of many “periodic crises of faith”, but I wonder if something else is going on. In his book “The Revolt of the Masses” Jose Ortega y Gasset noted:

    “This leads us to note down in our psychological chart of the
    mass-man of to-day two fundamental traits: the free expansion of his vital desires, and therefore, of his personality; and his radical
    ingratitude towards an that has made possible the ease of his
    existence. These traits together make up the well-known psychology of the spoilt child. And in fact it would entail no error to use this psychology as a “sight” through which to observe the soul of the masses of to-day. Heir to an ample and generous past- generous both in ideals and in activities- the new commonalty has been spoiled by the world around it. To spoil means to put no limit on caprice, to give one the impression that everything is permitted to him and thathe has no obligations…the new masses find themselves in the presence of a prospect full of possibilities, and furthermore, quite secure, with everything ready to their hands, independent of any previous efforts on their part, just as we find the sun in the heavens without our hoisting it up on our shoulders. No human being thanks another for the air he breathes, for no one has produced the air for him; it belongs to the sum-total of what “is there,” of which we say “it is natural,” because it never fails. And these spoiled masses are unintelligent enough to believe that the material and social organisation, placed at their disposition like the air, is of the same origin., since apparently it never fails them, and is almost as perfect as the natural scheme of things.”

    The only difference from the way Ortega presented the situation is that we are more self-aware of our plight then his idea of the “mass-man” would seem to allow. We just don’t seem to have the moral will to change anything about it.

    We’ve replaced ignorance with fatalism. Is that an improvement?

  • It’s very difficult for Americans trained in engineering and science to get good jobs nowadays. With the outsourcing of manufacturing and the winding down of the Cold War the demand is much less. Furthermore, the growing dominance of the field by Asians has led to cultural conflicts that can block an Americans’ advancement. I myself have seen professors decide not to help a student get his PhD, simply on the grounds that the student is an American white male. (Minorities are protected from this sort of thing, AWMs are not.) And even U.S. firms are searching for graduating engineers with working knowledge of Asian languages, something that is in very short supply.

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