Thomas Friedman hits the US hard today for missing out on the last seven years, while China has passed us by on so many levels:
As I sat in my seat at the Bird’s Nest, watching thousands of Chinese dancers, drummers, singers and acrobats on stilts perform their magic at the closing ceremony, I couldn’t help but reflect on how China and America have spent the last seven years: China has been preparing for the Olympics; we’ve been preparing for Al Qaeda. They’ve been building better stadiums, subways, airports, roads and parks. And we’ve been building better metal detectors, armored Humvees and pilotless drones.
The difference is starting to show. Just compare arriving at La Guardia’s dumpy terminal in New York City and driving through the crumbling infrastructure into Manhattan with arriving at Shanghai’s sleek airport and taking the 220-mile-per-hour magnetic levitation train, which uses electromagnetic propulsion instead of steel wheels and tracks, to get to town in a blink.
Then ask yourself: Who is living in the third world country?
Now, faulting the US for its shortcomings, and finding China so impressive, is easy, because on the surface the comparison really does seem stark. China's come a long way quickly, whereas we've obviously lost some relative distance.
But dig a little deeper, and the comparison rapidly becomes less useful.
Start with that mag-lev train Friedman points to. I've ridden it; it's worse than useless. The thing doesn't actually go all the way into Shanghai, you have to get off and transfer to another, non-high-speed rail to get anywhere you actually want to go. Plans to extend the train into the city proper were halted by angry residents this year. It was a vanity project, meant to inspire columns exactly like this one by people who don't take the time to actually find out what's going on. The mag-lev folks tried to build demonstration trains in the US on several occasions and failed, because it was too expensive and delivered poor results.
Or take the Olympics. Big impressive show, yes. But did it actually make anyone's life better? Sure, you could point to the massive infrastructure investments in Beijing. But, why, exactly, couldn't the Chinese government have invested those funds without the Olympics as a pretext? And why should China be spending $47 billion in one of its wealthiest and most developed cities, when more than 100 cities of 1 million people or more have far inferior infrastructure? Because that spending wouldn't have shown up on TV, and wouldn't have shown up in Friedman's column.
Security spending? Definitely the wrong example to pick as a point of comparison. China's security spending for the Olympics was so over-the-top that they proudly (eighth picture down) unveiled the world's first Segway-mounted assault rifle brigade in preparation. Their overly zealous security measures before the Games probably cost billions more in lost business.
Meanwhile, what has the US been up to in the last seven years? Well, iPods aren't that bad, nor is Facebook, nor this blogging platform that I'm using right now. Google has done some pretty neat things that perhaps you've heard of. Unlocking the human genome might prove to be somewhat useful. Throw in the thousands upon thousands of incremental improvements in science, technology, health, and living-standards generally, and well, I would not choose to live in the world of 2001 over today's world at all.
Friedman makes two errors, both common. One is harmless - confusing catch-up with progress. He looks at China, and rightly sees the enormous strides the place is making. As I'll never tire of marveling at, the country is growing faster, for longer, and on a bigger scale than any human society ever has. But it's not blazing new territory, yet. Most of China still looks like something out of the early 19th century, and most of the people still live in desperate poverty. Of course the place can change quickly if it gets a few things right. There's a lot of room for improvement. Developing countries can do that; established, developed ones can't, because we don't have easy models to follow. If the US could grow that quickly, we'd all have jet-packs next year, and hover cars the year after that.
I don't mean to take anything away from the phenomenal accomplishments of the Chinese people - just to point out that their situation is different from that of the US or other big, older economies.
Friedman makes a more pernicious error in mistaking appearance for reality, however. China can mount enormous vanity projects like the Olympics, or Shanghai's Pudong skyline, because the government is able to do what it wants in pretty wide parameters without checks and balances. So, it can funnel a great deal of wealth and attention to giant projects that look good if it wants. But it's also free to ignore the costs of displacing thousands of people for the Olympics, or a million and a half people for the Three Gorges Dam. Environmental assessments that would have prevented other governments from building Shanghai's skyline on a swamp didn't function in China, so now that part of town is sinking at a terrifying rate.
The centers of China's showpiece cities are futuristic and dazzling, but at the cost of depleting most of China's water, fouling most of its air, and leaving a creaking infrastructure in the interior that is currently struggling with massive power shortages and transport bottlenecks.
China's young, and these are growing pains to be expected; they're not unlike conditions in Britain in the 18th century, or the US in the 19th. But I wouldn't want to emulate those times here today.
Yes, flying in the US is a miserable experience (which seems to be the real animating complete behind Friedman's piece). And yes, flying is actually almost enjoyable in China. And the buildings there have neat lights and you can get better Internet reception, as long as you don't care about the censorship. But it's important not to forget how much of what shows on the surface in China comes at real, hidden costs to its people. And how much of our bickering, seemingly unproductive stasis really represents a flexible system that lets private individuals make the progress and at least holds the government back from doing too much just for show.