October 22, 2010

Why The Chinese Professor Is Both Right And Wrong

Citizens Against Government Waste has put this advertisement out on the eve of the mid-term elections. It is called "Chinese Professor."
I am uncomfortable with the advertisement for a few reasons, and I like the ad for a few other reasons.

It is uncomfortable first because it plays on fear. I don't think it's specifically a reincarnation of the Yellow Plague fears of a century ago, but there is an echo of it. Rather, it's a fear that the Chinese are malicious simply because they are our new economic and military rivals. The advertisement's fear of being overtaken and even in some sense of the word mastered by the Chinese is not particularly racial -- rather, the ad simply assumes that the Chinese are as smart and as opportunistic as we are, and that they would not hesitate to use our own mistakes and misfortunes to their advantage. That's not thinking of them as racially evil or even particularly evil at all; it's just thinking of them as motivated and capable competitors.

It's a fear that the Chinese are consciously attempting to step in to the shoes of the United States, which is not something that I think is accurate. China is trying to do its own thing -- which does involve being rich and powerful, yes, but I've yet to see evidence that it involves trying to be a projector of its military power. China faces inherent geographical problems with the projection of its military power, particularly westward overland.

The Chinese do not own all of our debt. They own roughly one-twentieth of it. They're also not particularly happy about it because they don't think the acquisition of U.S. government debt is a good idea because they would prefer to have more Euro-debt than Dollar-debt, and would prefer debt more readily convertible to Renminbi, or gold, even more than that.

Three-quarters of the debt of the United States is owned by U.S. citizens and U.S.-based corporations and banks. If our economy and government catastrophically break under the weight of our debt and we default, the primary bearers of the harm done by that default will be ourselves.

The ad portrays an ultra-modern, ultra-clean, and technologically-advanced lecture hall in a Chinese university. There is no guarantee that the Chinese will not one day surpass us in technology, although I suspect that with globalization the level of technology will be much more uniformly spread than this -- if a Chinese university's lecture hall looks like that in 2030, it's a good bet that lecture halls will also look more or less like that in pretty much every industrialized nation, including the US.

The Chinese have economic and technological problems of their own, and urban-rural and age-driven cultural divides of their own, which will surely come in to play in the next twenty years over there. The professor in the advertisement looks to be pretty young -- in his early forties, perhaps. I don't think the Old Guard in China is ready to let go so easily, I don't think it would be comfortable with the free flow of information that a lecture hall laced with sophisticated computers and wireless internet would represent, and a young, good-looking, and charismatic professor like this would be viewed as a figure to watch closely by a sure-to-be still-authoritarian government, no matter how closely he held to the nationalistic line.

And if the United States economy collapsed utterly, the Chinese would suffer for it. We are, after all, their biggest customer.

All of which is not to say that CAGW is wrong. It is to say that the advertisement presents an unrealistic nightmare future as a scare tactic. Like all nightmare fictions, it is unlikely to come literally true, but rather should be viewed as a graphic and compelling symbol of what could come true. We are spending ourselves into impotency. While I think that the idea that we would all wind up working for the Chinese is a stretch, the idea that we could wind up enslaved to a huge public debt socialization is not.

If you are conservative, what you should fear about this is that recipients of governmental aid -- social security, welfare, medical care entitlements -- will wind up receiving the bulk of governmental redistributions and leave little for national defense, infrastructure, or law and order, reducing the government to the kleptocratic nightmare scenario of Directive 10-289.

If you are liberal, what you should fear about this is that the bulk of the debt will not be held by the government of the PRC, but rather that it will be held by large American or semi-American corporations and banks, who will then leverage the power over the government brought by that debt into increased receipt of governmental largesse and overt delegation of governmental power, the gradual institution of corporate feudalism in place of functional democracy.

I hope we can all find some common ground here. Sadly, fighting the descent of the nation into one or the other (or both, for that matter) of these nightmare scenarios means spending less money we don't have on stuff we can't afford. It means demanding that our government live within its means and not burden future generations with the finance charges on our present-day spending.

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