Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Chinese lessons

Thomas Friedman notes that the U.S. and China were both the runaway leaders in the Olympics medals count, and seemingly based on this observation alone states that we have much to learn from each other:
The Olympics may just be a sporting event, but it is hard not to read larger messages into the results, especially when you see how China and America have dominated the medals tally. Both countries can — and will — look at their Olympic successes as reaffirmations of their distinctly different political systems. But what strikes me is how much they could each learn from the other. This, as they say, is a teaching moment.
Now, it's true that there is no shortage of things that China can learn from us: democracy, individual freedom, rule of law, civil society or economic liberalism, etc. But what can we learn from the Chinese? Not much as far as I can tell. But Friedman thinks otherwise:
...There are some things we could learn from China, namely the ability to focus on big, long-term, nation-building goals and see them through. A Chinese academic friend tells me that the success of the Olympics is already prompting some high officials to argue that only a strong, top-down, Communist Party-led China could have organized the stunning building projects around these Olympics and the focused performance of so many different Chinese athletes. For instance, the Chinese have no tradition of rowing teams, but at these Games, out of nowhere, Beijing fielded a women’s quadruple sculls crew that won China’s first Olympic gold medal in rowing.
The lesson for us is surely not that we need authoritarian government. The lesson is that we need to make our democracy work better. The American men’s basketball team did poorly in the last Olympics because it could not play as a team. So our stars were beaten by inferior players with better teamwork. Our basketball team learned its lesson.

Congress has gotten worse. Our democracy feels increasingly paralyzed because collaboration in Washington has become nearly impossible — whether because of money, gerrymandering, a 24-hour-news cycle or the permanent presidential campaign. And as a result, our ability to focus America’s incredible bottom-up energies — outside of sports — has diminished. You see it in our crumbling infrastructure and inability to shape a real energy program. China feels focused. We feel distracted.
Where to begin? Divided government and the separation of powers is an asset, not something to bemoan. Perhaps the very thing that our founding fathers feared the most was concentrated power in the hands of a few who could ride roughshod over the will of the people. Indeed, it's when Republicans and Democrats are united that the American people should run for cover. A list of legislation passed with bipartisan consensus during the Bush Administration: No Child Left Behind, Sarbanes-Oxley, Medicare drug benefit, campaign finance legislation, along with counterproductive and pork-laden energy and agricultural bills. Meanwhile, on an unquestionably good bills such as multilateral free trade you find fierce partisan divisions, with Democrats almost uniformly found in the opposition.

Just look at the examples cited by Friedman -- infrastructure and energy. With regards to infrastructure the 2005 transportation bill was to the tune of $286.4 billion. The problem isn't a failure to spend enough money -- spending taxpayer dollars is something that both Democrats and Republicans can agree on.

On energy, again, we did have an energy bill -- and predictably it was comprised to a great extent of favors for well-connected constituencies. That bill was such a smashing success that we have been left paying gas prices in excess of $3 a gallon.In fact, we don't need a national energy program. Politicians shouldn't be picking the energy sources of the future, markets should. In fact, there is no provision for such legislation in the Constitution (you may have heard of it -- it's something we used to govern by) anyhow.

Thank goodness for divided government, lest the Thomas Friedmans of the world get their way and start "big, long-term, nation-building goals" that lead us into oblivion.

Lastly, I can't leave Friedman's final sentence unremarked upon:
So, yes, America and China should enjoy their medals — but we should each also reflect on how the other team got so many.
OK, I reflected on it, and I have some answers. The reason that we won so many medals is because our sports programs are well funded. Corporate sponsorships, the non-profit USOC and our university infrastructure provide a world class environment in which to groom atheletes. China, meanwhile, has copied the Soviet system in which kids are taken from a young age and placed on a grueling training regimen so that they can accumulate more glory for the state.

Reflection complete: We have nothing to learn from them.

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