The Chinese New Year, often called the Lunar New Year, begins on Friday, February 16, 2018. Last year it began on Saturday, January 28, 2017.
The Chinese refer to it as the Spring Festival and it is, above all else, a time for celebrating the family. That, in turn, leads to the biggest human migration on the planet. Over the official 40-day travel period, according to the National Development and Reform Commission, the Chinese will take 3 billion distinct trips utilizing every form of transportation known to humanity. More than 390 million Chinese will travel by train alone, the equivalent of putting every man, woman, and child in America—and then some—on a train in a period of six weeks.
The US and most countries in the West follow the Gregorian calendar, created in 1582 by a slight modification to the Julian calendar in order to bring the date of Christian Easter in line with the date chosen by the First Council of Nicaea in 325. China adopted the Gregorian calendar as its official calendar in 1912, but Chinese culture and its holidays continue to be based on the Chinese calendar, sometimes called the Han calendar.
The Chinese calendar is neither a lunar calendar nor a solar calendar. It is a lunisolar calendar, defined by both the lunar phases and the solar seasons. The Chinese New Year falls on the second new moon following the winter solstice. Which means, if you do the math, the New Year can fall no later than February 19 and no sooner than January 21.
Most Westerners recognize that the Chinese years are each associated with one of the twelve animals of the zodiac. We’re leaving the Year of the Rooster and entering the Year of the Dog.
But it’s actually a little more complicated than that. The Chinese calendar, in fact, works on a 60-year sexagenary cycle. Each year is assigned two component designations. The first is the Celestial or Heavenly Stem, which are consecutive yin and yang versions of the 5 elements – wood, fire, earth, metal, water – and the second is the Terrestial or Earthly Branch corresponding to the 12 animals of the zodiac. Taken together these provide 10-year and 12-year cycles that run concurrently, resulting in a net 60-year cycle. (Sixty is the first number to be evenly divisible by both 10 and 12.)
Technically, therefore, this will be the Year of the Yang Earth Dog, which last occurred in 1958. Anyone born in that year will celebrate living for one life cycle, making the 60th birthday one of the most important in Chinese culture.
So, what can we expect in the year of the dog? Due to its yang component, the dog will have masculine energy this year, but feminine and masculine, as they relate to yin and yang, are not sexual. Masculine energy is more like what you’d expect from your typical house dog—barking at the window one second and sound asleep on the couch the next.
Given the inherent erraticism of the dog, it’s best not to chase the extremes but to connect to the center by studying hard, spending time with family, taking care on the job, and connecting to your inner self.
Good advice, but not likely to be followed by our friends in Washington. We can probably expect them to bounce from one crisis to the next for most of the year. The only saving grace is that the dog is not known for emotional stamina. Emotions will flare, die quickly away, and flare again. It may seem like a siege in the end, but rest assured that better days are coming.
This year, in fact, is really a setup for next year, the Year of the Yin Earth Pig. If we steady ourselves this year, it should be a year of light festivity and relaxation. While pigs are not considered intelligent by the Chinese, they are considered lucky. And it will all begin on February 5, 2019.
And what about all the red? Well, the legend has it that the Nian, the mythical monster that lived in the mountains, would come down into the village every New Year’s Eve to feast on the children. One year, however, one little boy was wearing red and the Nian left him alone. Voila, red it is!
And while you’re enjoying, please consider reading my latest book: We, Ourselves, and Us: Creating a More Just and Prosperous America. It’s now available on Amazon.
I guarantee my book will be worth your time. And if you agree, I would greatly appreciate it if you will take the time to post a review on Amazon, Goodreads, or whatever book site you enjoy. (It’s a binary world, after all. Authors, like everyone else, live by their clicks – whether they’re dogs or horses, like me.)
If a ship had 26 sheep and 10 goats onboard, how old is the ship’s captain?
This question made the rounds on the Internet recently. It went viral in the US, where netizens, one after another, marveled at the fact that such a difficult question had been given to 5th grade students in China. Is this some kind of new Chinese math?
It took me a minute, but having spent nine years living and working in China I got the answer fairly quickly. My Chinese wife got it immediately. (As I knew she would.)
The answer? There isn’t one. Or, more accurately, there are many. There is no single answer.
And, no, this isn’t a joke. My wife didn’t even smile. She just answered the question and left the room, after reading the original Chinese and verifying for me that the translation was accurate.
This question is the perfect explanation for why the future of technology is likely to belong to the Chinese and not Silicon Valley. Or maybe not.
The reason this school gave this question to fifth-graders is that there is concern among Chinese educators that Chinese culture fails to instill students with enough curiosity. And curiosity, they believe, is critical to achievement in a technologically advanced world. When I ran a glass factory in China I had the same concern. They’re right, but they’re wrong.
Chinese culture is built on a very inductive worldview. Inductive logic moves from right to left, from observation to speculation. That is why Confucius said, “Wherever you go, there you are,” and that makes all the sense in the world to the average Chinese fifth grader. (Ask your American fifth grader what Confucius meant.)
American culture, in contrast, is built on a deductive worldview. Deductive logic is the logic behind the scientific method and moves from left to right. For every cause there is an effect, and according to the laws of science it is the same every time. (In truth, it is not. Science is really about probabilities, not absolute truths.)
To put it in terms of the modern world, the machines in the glass plant I managed in China cost millions of dollars to build and were immensely complex. And when they broke down the Chinese mechanics at this plant could fix them in a fraction of the time that it took the mechanics at other plants around the world, including those in the US, to fix the exact same machine.
If you were to ask the Chinese mechanics what happened, however, they would surely respond: “The machine broke down.” And that drove our Western mechanics crazy. “Don’t they understand how important it is to understand why the machine broke down so that we can prevent it from happening again?” they would demand of me. The implication, of course, was, “What are you teaching them?” (BTW, this is where prejudice comes from, but that’s another topic.)
But the Chinese mechanics were, in fact, teaching me. “They don’t care why it broke down because while they were working to get it running again a different machine broke down and they felt it was a better use of their time to go fix the second machine than to waste a lot of time trying to answer a question that may have no answer or which more than likely has an answer the knowledge of which will do nothing to prevent it from happening in the future.”
American companies are infatuated with process because of their deductive worldview. And process can be a very good thing. It can also lead to excessive bureaucracy, a lot of extra costs, and terrible customer service. Process isn’t bad per so, but it can be.
So, too, can a lack of curiosity. Which is exactly what the Chinese educators were getting at with their question. They just wanted their fifth-graders to think about it. Instead of immediately assuming there is no answer, as older Chinese like my wife would be inclined to do, they wanted the students to wonder if there, in fact, might be a knowable answer.
So which way is better? Neither, of course. As in all things in life and the universe the truth is not binary. Real knowledge lies in the balance between the two extremes. In Silicon Valley they refer to these digital options as 0 and 1 (on and off). In China they refer to the same duality as yin and yang.
If you saw this question on the Internet you probably saw it referred to as a math problem. But it’s not. In fact, the Chinese character for math appears nowhere on the original document provided to the fifth graders. It is only we Americans who feel obligated to define it as a certain type of problem. And suggesting it is a math problem, of course, further reinforces the false assumption that there must be a solution.
To date, Silicon Valley has won the technology race, in large part, because a bunch of college dropouts were incredibly curious. And they quickly figured out that the 0’s and 1’s at the heart of the new technology is all about patterns. That’s what computer coding is, and Americans (and more than a few Chinese) proved very good at working with such binary patterns.
No one, however, will ever be better at working with patterns than the machines built from them. They are, after all, bigger and faster when it comes to patterns. It’s not in their DNA; it is their DNA. And, of course, as a result it is virtually inevitable that smart machines will soon program themselves. (They already are.) Being a computer coder will be about as valuable as being an expert blacksmith.
The economic race will then become not a coding challenge, but a race to tell them what to do, and, very importantly, to make sure they don’t do evil things; because, of course, neither a 0 nor a 1 knows what good and evil are.
Of course, curiosity will be a very valuable thing indeed in this digital world. What can I do with this technology? What is that machine basing its answers on? Does this make sense? Or is this machine acquiring a racist perspective?
Curiosity, however, will only have value until it doesn’t. And the inevitable truth is that sometimes it will and sometimes it won’t. To even understand the problem and the opportunity, in other words, people will have to think holistically. They can’t think in the simple terms of left to right or right to left.
Right now the Chinese have the edge in training their students for that day. Chinese educators fully recognize that the student of the future needs to be both inductive and deductive. They must think bi-directionally.
Some American educators, I have to believe, understand the same thing. Their challenge is the same one, although it comes at the problem from the opposite direction.
The problem is that most American business, and virtually all American politicians, don’t recognize that a problem even exists. To them it’s all about their very simple and one-dimensional perspective on truth.
Think about it.
And while you’re thinking about it, consider reading my latest book: We, Ourselves, and Us: Creating a More Just and Prosperous America. It’s now available on Amazon.
It’s a book about the age of the captain on a ship holding 26 sheep and 10 goats. Or is it 26 goats and 10 sheep? Or two captains, perhaps, one of whom happen to be ______.
I guarantee my book will be worth your time. And if you agree, I would greatly appreciate it if you take the time to post a review on Amazon, Goodreads, or whatever book site you enjoy. (It’s a binary world, after all. Authors, like everyone else, live by their clicks—whether they’re sheep or goats.)
Exactly one year ago, President Xi Jinping delivered a speech to the United Nations office in Geneva, entitled, Work Together to Build a Community with a Shared Future for Mankind. It was collective in its vision: “China is ready to work with all the other UN member states as well as international organizations and agencies to advance the great cause of building a community with a shared future for mankind.” And it was long term in its perspective: “Building a community with a shared future is an exciting goal, and it requires efforts from generation after generation.” The sentiment would later be enshrined in a formal resolution at the 55th UN Commission for Social Development, as “a human community with shared destiny”
Jump ahead one year to January 26, 2018, and United States President Donald Trump spoke to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, at its annual conference of the heaviest of the heavy hitters in global politics and business. The man elected on the simple platform of “Make America Great Again” (MAGA), like Xi Jinping before him, delivered his vision for the future of the world.
Trump opened with the warning that “I’m here to represent the interests of the American people…” And, as expected, most of the speech was devoted to his personal contribution to “helping every American find their path to the American dream.” Specifically he spoke to the surging stock market, job creation, small business confidence, deregulation, and, of course, “…the most significant tax cuts and reform in American history.” (Which, on a side note, is not true.) As you would expect from the MAGA president, it was all about America, and, not surprisingly, him. After all, MAGA has everything to do with individuals, he being the biggest and most powerful “I” among them, and almost nothing to do with “human community,” as President Xi described it.
Trump’s would have been the perfect speech had it been delivered by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a fellow Republican, in the 1950s. It would have been even more appropriate, in fact, given Eisenhower’s military fame, and the fact that the only references Trump made to the US’ role in the world had to do with our self-appointed role as the world’s policeman, and “making historic investments in the American military”, already the world’s largest, costing $1,900 per year for every man, woman, and child in America, at a time when 80 million Americans have little or no health insurance.
Other accomplishments noted by Trump were “eliminating 22 burdensome regulations for every new one,” “…no longer turning a blind eye to unfair economic practices overseas,” and “lifting self-imposed restrictions on energy production,” even though all restrictions are self-imposed and according to the laws of the universe energy is not produced, but merely transformed (and thus fixed in quantity). And, of course, insuring that all nations “contribute their fair share” to the cost of the American agenda.
All told, Trump’s individualist agenda was summed up by this simple claim: “When the United States grows, so does the world.” Perhaps unconsciously, it was the exact same sentiment that Charles Wilson (1890-1961), the CEO of General Motors, made during his confirmation hearings as Secretary of Defense under Eisenhower. When asked about a potential conflict of interest between the interests of the US and GM, he is rumored to have said, “What is good for GM is good for the country.”
The world of today, however, is not the world of the 1950s. The world’s population has expanded three fold, from 2.5 billion people at the end of World War II to 7.5 billion people today, even thought the world’s land mass and its inherent ability to sustain life have not changed at all. As a result, the earth’s climate is changing, in less than desirable ways, and clean air and clean water are among the world’s most precious resources, and disappearing fast.
Technology has made the world smaller and virtually eliminated the concept of local communication and debate. Information flows to a far wider audience but is transmitted by global super-monopolies like Facebook and Google, who rule the world by algorithms that are developed with their own inevitable bias but remain virtually unregulated.
In short, this is not the 1950s. And any desire to turn back the world clock in search of that era is sure to fail. People and technology cannot simply be put back in the bottle. That would require the type of totalitarian dystopia that Orwell wrote about and the Great Generation had just sacrificed countless lives to vanquish.
The U.S. Constitution, one of the most famous documents in global political history, begins with the words, “We the people.” Yet it is “Me the individual,” that Donald Trump embodies and best represents the America of 2018. My identity, my rights, my tax cut, my income, my freedom—whether it’s my freedom to own assault weapons or my freedom to marry who I like—are at the heart of both the conservative and liberal political agendas.
The conservatives want to pull the rest of us along through individual exceptionalism. The progressives want to push us along through the acceptance and inclusion of all micro-group identity. Neither, however, will work, because both are built on the notion of an individualized world that simply doesn’t exist any more. Both would have been legitimate competing worldviews in the 1950s. Both are obsolete today.
Whether we want it or not, we will face the “shared future” that President Xi Jinping referenced more than one year ago. We will not have the option to choose who will be a part of that community. We all will. Whether you are a Dreamer, a Tea Party supporter, a member of the Rainbow Coalition, a misogynist or a feminist, a white supremacist or a believer that Black Lives Matter, will not matter in the end. We will be forced to live as a single, global community, consuming resources that are fixed by the laws of the universe.
We really only have two choices: 1. We can kill each other. (Or die trying.) 2. We can turn “Me” into “We.”
We have, of course, been here before. Eisenhower and the Great Generation faced the very same dilemma. And, unfortunately, following the great tragedy of World War I and the even greater human tragedy that followed, as the victors sought revenge on the losers, the “we” side of the option ultimately morphed into brutal forms of fascism and communism. They, in turn, gave us the Nazis, the Holocaust, the gulags of the Soviet Union, and the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge.
As a result, many of today’s most ardent individualists believe that any form of collectivism is, as the 20th Century seemed to show, inherently flawed and will only lead to brutal totalitarianism. That, however, is simply not true.
More importantly, however, it doesn’t matter if it is or not. Whatever form of individualism we pursue, the elite, however that is defined, will be forced to squash the many in the fight for limited resources. One percent of the world’s population already controls more than half of the world’s wealth. What will happen when it controls 90%? (And it will, if nothing changes.)
What will happen, in contrast, if the coalition of oppressed micro-identities overthrows the oppressors? All will be well, of course, if the former oppressors all accept a new micro-identity. But what if they don’t? And what about human psychology suggests that they will?
We may not agree with Presdient Xi Jinping’s politics. We can’t, however, plausibly deny his vision of a shared future. An economically and militarily elite America will not and can not pull the world along. A progressively elite America, even if elected, and even if it is truly inclusive, cannot push the world along.
We’re not in Kansas anymore. And the sooner we realize that the less pain we will be forced to endure.
Note: Author Gary Moreau was recognized by the World Economic Forum as a Global Leader for Tomorrow in its inaugural class of 1993.
You may contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org
Visit my personal blog at www.gmoreau.com
Follow on Twitter @gmoreaubooks
Summary for We, Ourselves, and Us:
In this new guide to American politics and economics, Gary Moreau wants to turn the “I” into “We.” As he argues in We, Ourselves, and Us, Americans’ cultural sense of individualism is hindering rather than helping the country. Moreau instead argues for a change to political, economic, and social systems to refocus them on the collective good. As he proposes this important change, Moreau argues that
both major political parties are offering ineffective solutions to the problem,
the model America was based on is no longer realistic for a modern society,
both communism and socialism fail because they are still based on the idea of individuality,
the unequal flow of power is responsible for a prejudiced and unbalanced society,
the concepts of obligation and self-interest are intrinsically connected,
individual advancement means nothing without collective advancement, and
all of society is interconnected in nuanced and important ways.
Moreau does not equate collectivism with communism or other political movements. He isn’t arguing for the elimination of private property or other drastic changes. Instead, he simply gives you a new way of viewing systems of power and important suggestions that could lead to satisfactory results for the entire nation.
On January 11, 2018, I posted “Consumer Electronics Show”, in which I gave some dimension to China’s importance to American tech and offered my assessment that China, for the reasons stated in the post, would be a major player in the future global tech industry. And, yes, this prognosis was very different from the one I provided in 2015, when I wrote Understanding China: There is Reason for the Difference. And, of course, I provided the reason for the change of heart.
Five days after I released that post, Google announced it was opening an office in Shenzhen, China, the center of the hardware manufacturing universe, just across the river from Hong Kong. And a few days after that Google announced a broad patent sharing agreement with Chinese tech giant Tencent, the $500 billion parent of China’s top social media and payment app, WeChat.
This, of course, all comes on the heels of Google’s previous announcement of a new AI research center in Beijing, where the software side of China’s tech business is growing rapidly, in part due to the presence of many of China’s top universities there. And, of course, the symbolism of Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai speaking at a conference in China, back in December, hosted by the Cyberspace Administration of China, which overseas Internet censorship in China, where Google’s search engine, as I write this, remains blocked.
In addition to providing some support for my prognosis, these announcements have triggered some additional thoughts that only reinforce my conviction in that previous prediction.
It is difficult for Westerners, and Americans in particular, to appreciate the role of the Chinese government in the economy. If your company does not maintain good relations with the government, you simply won’t succeed there. And it’s not enough to simply do what they ask you to do. If you want to succeed, you must be pro-active, and you must convince the government that you are a good partner. That means you have empathy for the job it faces and you share its goals for model corporate citizenship.
As my faithful readers know by now, I believe the universe is ultimately defined by dualities. For every pro there is a con, for every cloud there is a silver lining, for every yin there is a yang. Reality, as a result, is not so much defined by the dimensions of the two sides of that duality as it is by the degree to which equilibrium is established between them.
American business people look at the role of the government in the Chinese economy and immediately think oppressive regulation, bureaucracy, long delays, and, of course, bribery. And, of course, all of these things can exist. That is not to say, however, that they must exist, and, in fact, my nine-year experience there convinced me that while these concerns are realistic, they do not define the current reality. I found the government facilitated my business more than it hindered it and not once did my company pay a bribe, nor was one ever solicited.
And, yes, I am experienced enough to know that a government official looking for a little grease is not going to ask me, a foreigner, directly. If an official is corrupt it doesn’t mean he or she is stupid. Which is why every quarter I personally reviewed each and every cash disbursement made by my company, from the payment of invoices to the reimbursement of travel expenses, to the replenishment of the petty cash fund. If you are looking for fraud, that’s where you will find it. And I found none.
In the case of Google and the tech industry you have to look at the positive side of the government duality issue. In the fast moving tech industry, a government alliance is not a strategy for risk avoidance; it’s a strategy for gaining competitive advantage in the global tech industry.
That is because, unlike the US, China, like many developed countries, including Germany, has a very well defined national industrial strategy. The policy defines those industries where it sees the most positive growth potential, in fitting with the country’s social and political agendas, of course, which serves as a blueprint for both corporate leaders and government regulators. It’s totally transparent and insures that everyone is singing from the same song sheet.
The US, by contrast, leaves its national industrial policy up to the “free markets.” The US, in other words, lets the corporations decide, based on the theory that they will be guided by Adam Smith’s invisible hand of profits to do what, in the end, is in the best interest of the country and its citizens.
Like a lot of our political and economic theory today, unfortunately, that’s not the way things really work. The US has an industrial policy; it’s just not transparent. It is defined by politicans, corporate lobbyists, and special interests behind closed doors. This is one of the main reasons that the rich continue to get richer in the US. They are the only ones with access to real political power because they are the ones with the money that politicians need to remain in power. We don’t call it bribery, so that we can claim the moral high ground, but it is bribery of the worst kind—both distortive and clandestine. (I was a CEO and board member in the US as well as China, so this is not conjecture.)
Google has apparently seen the light. (Microsoft saw the light years ago but it learned some very hard lessons before it did.) They recognize that China is the world’s second largest economy, with 1.4 billion citizens who are the earliest of early-adopters, and which, if you have good government relations, is going to be the fastest moving playing field on the planet. As I noted last time this is because, if you make the national priority list, which tech sits atop of, your regulatory and legal problems will largely disappear. The government will clear the runway in the way that only a government can. In the meantime, the young bucks of Silicon Valley will be trudging through the quagmire of preventing “fake news” and fighting it out in court over who owns what intellectual property rights.
When it comes to China, Americans have been trained to see the glass, particularly when the government is involved, as half full. In reality, the opposite is true. A partnership with the Chinese government will not only set up your company to succeed in China, it will set you up to dominate the global market for tech or any other favored industry.
The world has changed. It is smaller and more crowded. But more importantly, technology has been a game-changer. And one of the things it has changed most dramatically is the integration and complexity of the political, economic, and social systems we use to govern the country. We can no longer think of them in discrete, independent terms.
Environmental scientists used to think of our environment as a collection of discrete ecosystems. We had a prairie here, a polar ice cap there, and a rain forest a long way away. They now recognize, however, that these are not discrete. They are all part of a single global ecosystem that is intricately interconnected. Yes, climate change can lead to huge snowstorms and record-breaking cold temperatures along the US eastern coastline. That doesn’t mean the climate isn’t changing. It just means that the global environment is more inter-connected than we ever imagined.
Other areas of science have discovered the same thing. The various branches of hard and soft science (e.g., biology and economics) were once studied and researched as discrete subjects. Today, however, the real science is being done in areas like evolutionary biology and behavioral economics. The knowledge of how the world works is found not within the functionally discrete pockets of science, but in the overlaps that pull them all together into one inter-connected reality.
I’ve actually written a book about it. It’s called We, Ourselves, and Us: Creating a More Just and Prosperous American and it will soon be available on Amazon in print and Kindle versions. It is not a book about China. It is a book about how to leverage our individual liberties and opportunities into a new model of political economy that emphasizes our collective advancement as a country and a just, inclusive society.
Here’s the text from the back cover:
The phrase “We the people” is the start of one of the most famous documents in American history, yet few have paused to consider what it truly means. In his new political guide, Gary Moreau ponders this expression and the change it could represent for our society. America has long perpetuated an idea of rugged individuality and exceptionalism. The “we” in society has been replaced with “me.”
Moreau explains why this notion is simply untenable for America. America has gone through some growing pains in the past two hundred years, and Moreau believes that society’s refusal to cast off some of its original, ineffective methods is a pressing issue. Instead, they should be replaced with a model focused on providing for the collective good.
The world is changing, and for America to continue to be the land of happiness and prosperity, it needs to change with it.
The release date is February 15, 2018, but that is subject to change as the design process wraps up. In the meantime I am offering 25 free copies of the book in either paperback or Kindle formats. Just send your name and address to email@example.com with the subject line “Free Book” and I’ll send it out as soon as it is available. First come, first served. For print versions, US addresses only, please, and for the Kindle version you must have a US e-mail address and access to Amazon US. (I don’t need your physical address if you are requesting a free Kindle copy, and I promise not to sell any of your contact info or use it for any other purpose.)
You may contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org
Visit my personal blog at www.gmoreau.com
The annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) kicked off this past Tuesday in Las Vegas. Media coverage is dominating the business, tech, and lifestyle news cycle in virtually every format.
The Chinese have a big presence there, as they have for the last decade or more. There are about 1,500 Chinese tech companies in Vegas, collectively accounting for about one-third of all of the booths at the show.
Industry giants like Baidu and Alibaba, the parent of e-tailing giant, Taobao, which did $25 billion in retail volume during one 24-hour period this past November 11, are there, of course, along with numerous Chinese startups that you’ve never heard of. One Chinese company, Iflytek, which specializes in AI translation, introduced a real-time translator that works as well as the most proficient human translators.
Driverless car technology, as expected, is everywhere. Royole, a Shenzhen-based company with engineering teams in 16 countries, and a leader in human-machine interface technologies that introduced the world’s first curved car dashboard in 2016, unveiled the completion of a $1.7 billion production campus for its flexible display technology in China.
The big Chinese star this year, however, is Byton, an electric car unveiled at CES that is expected to sell for $45,000 and be the Chinese equivalent of Tesla. Suning, a Chinese electronics retail giant, also opened the first fully automated retail store in the US. The new store, in Las Vegas, is a further rollout of the five it already operates in China.
Tech, of course, continues to further dominate the way we live, work, and learn in ways that none of us could have imagined even a short time ago. While I have historically been a late-adopter of all things technical I actually ended up with an Echo device over the holidays because I bought one for each of my daughters and Amazon, marketing geniuses that they are, was running a promotion on a pack of three. So far I’ve only used it about ten times more than I thought I would, and I have yet to spend any time learning how to apply it. It even responds to my wife, who speaks with a heavy Chinese accent but can use Alexa for audible translation into English.
And where does China fit in? Of course, China makes virtually all of the hardware, but that’s not where the real money is. Or the influence. Silicon Valley is still the center of that universe, for now.
When I wrote Understanding China: There is Reason for the Difference, I honestly had my doubts as to China’s ability to lead the tech charge. And since the machines will ultimate build themselves, being the tech factory to the world didn’t seem all that alluring.
That reservation was built on the observation that as a result of their inductive worldview and the rote nature of their education system, the Chinese I encountered did not exhibit the same level of raw curiosity that I had witnessed in the best-run American companies, and I thought that might hold them back.
But I’ve changed my mind. Completely, in fact. And my reasoning has more to do with a better understanding of what drives tech than anything else. I now believe that the Chinese are ideally situated to dominate the tech universe of the 21st Century. It will take time for the Chinese to develop the brand confidence that is so essential at the early-adopter stage, which we’re still in, but they will get there, just as the Japanese got there in automobiles following a pretty weak start in the 1960s, when their car brands were synonymous with poor quality.
One obvious advantage the Chinese have is that the education system, which is changing, but still largely rote-oriented, puts a big emphasis on the STEM subjects. Chinese culture puts a big emphasis on education, moreover, and the Chinese university system is putting out roughly 8 million graduates per year, each of whom has gained nothing quite so much as they have learned discipline and hard work. Chinese students in general, and university students in particular, must survive a daunting school schedule that leaves little time for much else, but prepares them well for the grind of the modern workplace.
And, of course, there are roughly 300,000 Chinese students currently attending American universities, and an equal number, or more, attending universities in Canada, the UK, and Australia, as well as virtually every country in Europe. Some of those will stay overseas when they graduate but many will return to China and join their classmates who stayed home to go to school to form a truly internationally-trained workforce.
Anyone who has ever worked or lived in China also knows that there is such a thing as “China time”, a greatly accelerated time line that is impossible to comprehend until you witness it. They accomplish in days what other countries struggle years to achieve. Part of that is a function of the work ethic, but Americans work hard, too. American companies, however, reflecting the deductive worldview of Western culture, are consumed with process, which helps to insure consistency and sustainability, but at the expense of bureaucracy and rigidity. The inductive Chinese, by contrast, are laser-focused on results, and far less infatuated with the process employed to get there.
Tech, of course, works to an accelerated clock that is only going to accelerate faster and faster as machines get better and better at learning and one breakthrough is quickly leveraged into a dozen more in the blink of an eye. The Chinese will be very comfortable working at warp speed and juggling many balls in the air at one time. American business will continue to excel once they get their processes developed and in place, but when the landscape is changing that rapidly, speed will be the ultimate competitive weapon.
Chinese companies will also benefit from a much more business-friendly regulatory environment in China. Unlike the US, China has a very clear national industrial policy and tech is at the head of their list of priorities. That alone will remove a lot of regulatory hurdles and delays. When Chinese tech companies are ready to test new technologies in real-world environments, they will face far fewer regulatory delays and will be able to be in live tests in a matter of days.
China, as well, is far less legalistic, of course, and while that may hinder development in some arenas, it will be a big advantage as new technologies totally redefine the legal boundaries of ownership and property rights. American companies, by comparison, are sure to get bogged down in the courts as obligations and rights are resorted through the new paradigm of technology, where ideas dominate, and where one begins and another ends is often a matter of perspective.
I actually believe, however, that China’s big advantage in tech will be one that will surely surprise you and that I, frankly, hadn’t even considered until recently. That advantage—hold your hat—is the Communist Party of China, or, more specifically, the collectivist environment in which the Chinese tech pioneers of today have been raised.
America is the home of rugged individualism, and that perspective has served it well. To date, the US has clearly been the center of the tech universe, largely on the back of young, independent entrepreneurs like Mark Zuckerberg, Dustin Moskovitz, Rishi Shah, and the once younger Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Page, and Sergey Brin.
By definition, tech is built on collaboration and a collective perspective to personal rights and ownership. There is a duality to everything—or a yin and a yang, as the Chinese would put it. American business has benefited from a strong legal system and its protection of intellectual property in the past. The idea economy, however, is sure to blur the historically clean lines of IP ownership and protection and the courts are sure to become a quagmire of commercial suits and counter-suits as the tech giants and bankers battle it out. The Chinese will face no such burden.
I recently saw an interview with 26 year-old Dai Wei, the founder of bike sharing company Ofo Inc. The company has already raised $1.3 billion in startup capital and was expected to have 20 million of its yellow bikes on the streets by the end of 2017. Dai Wei is typical of the Chinese young tech entrepreneurs, and in many ways could not be more different than his Silicon Valley counter-parts.
Dai Wei attended Peking University, the Harvard of China, where he surely got a world-class education and probably paid virtually nothing thanks to government largesse. After graduating, however, he joined a government teaching program sponsored by the Central Committee of the Communist Youth League of China and went to Dongxia township in rural Qinghai Province to teach math to poor middle school and high school students. He cycled 17 kilometers from his dormitory to work each day along dirt mountain paths, the only way in and out of the village. He would later return to Beijing to earn his masters degree and start his ride sharing company.
When the interviewer asked Dai Wei who actually owned the bicycles that the company leases for 1 yuan (about $.15) per ride, he seemed perplexed by the question. “No one owns them,” he finally answered. “They don’t belong to anyone, but all of us may use them.” It’s hard to imagine many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, in the their mad scramble to become the next youngest tech billionaire, or the venture capitalists lining up to cash in on them, would share such a perspective, either in terms of career path or the ownership of bicycles.
There are some in the tech world who do share a collectivist utopian vision of the tech future. But that does not appear to be the direction the country is heading. Progressives, conservatives, and libertarians alike all see the world through a decidedly individual prism. They come at the issues from different directions, but they all end up at ME. Whether it’s the individual’s right to be free of the government, or the individual’s right to the government’s protection and support, their worldviews are not collective.
Eventually, I believe, the US will have to adopt more of a we-centric socio-economic-political system if we want to maintain the American Dream and make it available to all Americans regardless of race, country of birth, gender, or sexual identity. I am, in fact, writing a new book about it.
In the meantime, enjoy the coverage of CES and the fancy new gadgets being unveiled there. This will be the Year of the Dog in China, an auspicious sign not far below the dragon or the horse in the cosmic pecking order.
The year is already off to an interesting start.
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My two daughters, now 14 and 16 years old, live with their mother in Charlotte, North Carolina. They came to visit over the holidays, however, and, as always it was delightful to see them both, despite the frigid temperatures that have engulfed much of the northern US over the last week or so.
Because of the cold temperatures, we decided that shopping would be more appropriate than skiing or ice-skating on their first day here in Michigan. They both had a couple of gift cards that they received as gifts and were eager to spend them, so the plan came together splendidly.
Before leaving home, however, my oldest daughter and I had the following exchange:
“Dad, can I have some money for shopping?”
“I just gave you a gift card. And I know you have others. Why can’t you use them?”
“That’s true, but I have to buy some warmer clothes. And it was your choice to move to Michigan when you moved back from China so it seems only fair that you buy me some warmer clothes given that I’ve only come to Michigan to visit you. Doesn’t quite seem fair that I’d have to spend my gift money on clothes that I don’t really need in North Carolina.”
It was not an atypical conversation. My daughter is brilliant, clever, articulate, and very, very quick on her feet. She would make a first class litigator some day.
I was, therefore, in no way offended by the conversation. And while I’d like to think I don’t always give in, I thought it was a worthy performance, as it were, and I gave her a modest amount of money to buy some warmer clothes. Frankly, while I try to teach my daughters to be thoughtful, considerate, and respectful of others, particularly their elders, I was rather proud of her spunk.
My Chinese wife, however, while she showed no reaction at the time, was, I would find out later, aghast. She wasn’t angered by the conversation. The parent/child relationship is very special in Chinese culture and my wife wouldn’t presume to insert herself. She was, however, at a total loss to understand my daughter’s logic. She could not fathom a Chinese child ever saying such a thing to his or her own father. It wasn’t so much disrespectful in the Chinese worldview as it was simply beyond comprehension.
Filial piety is at the heart of Confucian obligation and Chinese culture. Aging parents, it is assumed in China, will live with their adult child. While the concept of Chinese obligation does not extend to holding a door open for a stranger or acknowledging a queue, it would be unthinkable for most Chinese to even consider putting a parent in a senior or assisted living home.
Having expressed her bewilderment that evening as we got ready for bed, my wife did not expect an explanation, and I long ago stopped feeling obligated to provide one in such circumstances. In the Chinese worldview many things just are and don’t warrant an explanation. And, in fact, they are often baffled that Americans spend so much time and effort in a futile attempt to explain the inexplicable and largely unimportant.
This, frankly, is one of the ways in which I think Americans and the Chinese can learn from each other. They’re right that we spend far too much time and effort on things that really aren’t all that important. And, as a result, we sometimes fall short on the stuff that really does matter.
On the other hand, it is our scrappy American curiosity and mental agility that has made the US the center of the technology universe. And while it is that same quality that has spawned the legal quagmire that we often find ourselves drowning in as a nation, the ability to articulate and defend your position is one of the most important life skills to have in the shrinking, integrated, and complex world of the 21st Century.
The ability to both project and defend your position is, in fact, increasingly important in the world of commerce and technology, particularly now that functional distinctions are disappearing and collaboration is the hallmark of most successful ventures of every stripe. We all have to sell in a world of ideas and apps. The ability to execute in isolation is rarely enough.
Collaboration, in fact, is essential to just about every profession today, including diplomacy. And, I believe, is the larger lesson that we can take from this little side story of filial piety—or not—into 2018.
When it comes to political leadership, power is really of secondary importance. How a government comes to power is subordinate to how it uses that power. And how it uses that power is typically defined by perceived obligation. As the men or women in power, on whose behalf do the political leaders of a country exercise their power?
Obligation, however, is itself a duality. On the other side of obligation is mutual obligation, or what might be more accurately described as deference. And, of course, deference is likewise a duality. I can defer to you because you have a gun to my head or because I, for whatever reason, choose to.
When the three components of politics and diplomacy—power, obligation, and deference—are in balance, there is peace and the world at least has the opportunity to progress, although there may be other influences (such as the ability to present/defend your ideas) as to how far the world progresses how quickly. When there is imbalance, however, progress stalls, and can, in fact, turn into destruction. (Think North Korea, Syria, Afghanistan—plenty of options.)
If we define a society in terms of its common governance, we all want to belong to a society in which the three elements of power, obligation, and deference are in relative balance. We might say that it is the most balanced state that best allows the energy of the society to be applied toward collective advancement.
When there is an imbalance, on the other hand, society does not progress because, as is true of all ecosystems in the universe, its energy is consumed with correcting the imbalance. As in the larger universe, balance is the ideal state which all energy seeks.
Of all forms of governance that have existed over the course of history, it can be legitimately argued that American democracy has achieved a relatively high level of balance, which, in turn, allowed its social energy, shaped and directed by strong values of opportunity and achievement, to forge the American Century, from which the US emerged as the lone superpower, the world’s largest economy, and the primary architect of digital commerce and social media.
That is not to say that imbalance did not occur over the last two and one-half centuries. Those periods of imbalance, however, were largely, but by no means completely, corrected. While the Civil War, for example, helped to correct the imbalance resulting from the slave trade, it clearly didn’t abolish slavery per se. It was an important inflection point, to be sure, but it was a nudge in the end. Racism was not eradicated and continues to absorb much of our collective energy in non-productive and destructive ways.
Technology, which has impacted the world in so many ways, has, more than anything else, empowered a heightened awareness of imbalances between power, obligation, and deference around the world. Women, the LGBTQ community, the physically and mentally challenged, the uneducated, and the poor, have always been enslaved, to varying degrees, by the Western white male oligopoly of the modern era. And technology, more than anything else, has made that reality more transparent.
Technology has, however, also raised the stakes of the imbalance. The gap between the advantaged and the disadvantaged has grown much wider, and the impact of that gap far more significant.
Consider, for example, in a strictly material way, what it meant to be enslaved in ancient Egypt or the early 19th Century South. There were huge differences in the quality and dignity of life, of course, but nobody had access to modern medicine, indoor plumbing, electricity, or efficient transportation. While the powerful lived in beautiful palaces and manor homes, the fundamental differences were not as great as the difference between the world’s poorest and most oppressed people today and the uber-billionaires who, quite literally, live in a parallel dimension of privacy and privilege.
This fundamental shift, largely caused by technology, has profound implications for governance in today’s inter-connected world. The more advanced an ecosystem is, the more it relies on balance, and the easier it is for that balance to be lost.
All of which leads me to wonder what 2018 will bring. Will we work collaboratively to instill a sense of global balance that just may save the planet and allow the collective “we” to enjoy peace and prosperity? Or will we fall back on traditional norms of power, obligation, and deference, that have historically divided and selectively oppressed us?
If we can learn from each other, as I hope both my wife and daughter can, I am personally optimistic. I am still out forty bucks, but that’s a small price to pay for so much food for thought.
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In China Christmas Day is just another workday. Even the government offices and the banks are open.
The Chinese are aware that it is Christmas, of course, and merchants have started promoting the commercial aspect of the holiday. They get it. And many wealthy Chinese have bought in. They do it entirely by choice, however. The Chinese just aren’t very gullible when it comes to money.
For the first few years that my family and I lived in China I always took the day off, we had plenty of Christmas decorations (That’s where they’re all made, after all.), and we always had plenty of gifts for my young daughters. As luck would have it I had to come to the US each December to present the following year’s budget, so I inevitably lugged three large suitcases full of Wii consoles, or whatever was the popular toy of the year, back with me.
I was never once stopped by China Customs. The government is strict in some ways, but it understands priorities. I was a foreigner and they were happy to let me be one. (Unfortunately, we seem to have abandoned our own empathy on that front.)
When my family moved back to the States without me, however, I stopped celebrating Christmas. I went to work. It wasn’t just another day, but the difference was within.
I still bought presents for my daughters, of course, but that wasn’t easy to do. You may not have heard this but if you want to shop online at an American retailer and the IP address you’re using originates in China, the store will automatically cancel your order. American business is a slave to process. China IP = cheating. They say that’s not profiling or racism, but that must be some kind of new math. (The same math, I suspect, that leads to the drug-related incarceration of African Americans at more than six times the rate of white incarceration despite comparable usage rates.)
I tried calling a couple of the biggest retailers on Skype and explained the situation. The people who answered were sympathetic, but in the end could do nothing. The computer just didn’t allow them the discretion to overrule my being blackballed. They did remind me, however, that a survey would be forthcoming and it would improve their Christmas if I could see my way to a good score. (It’s the commercialization of customer service, of course.)
I wasn’t deprived as a child, mind you. My mother loved Christmas. She worked on it for months. We went to church on Christmas Eve, my father took us caroling, my mother baked Christmas cookies, and we set out cookies and milk for Santa. I never saw Mommy kissing Santa Claus, but there were lots of hugs and the atmosphere was warm and loving.
This is my second Christmas back in the US. And my wife and I have consciously decided not to celebrate with decorations and gifts. We’re not atheists. We’re not even agnostics. We just don’t see the value in spending a lot of money on stuff we don’t need and destroying the environment in the process.
Our leaders, of course, tell us that we have a duty as Americans to spend money. The economy depends on it. And if we don’t, American workers will suffer. And yet it is somehow uniquely American that we don’t even see the problem with that logic. (Or that we don’t recognize that it is foreign workers who will suffer since that’s where most of the stuff we buy as gifts is actually made now.)
It’s addiction logic. If I stop it’s going to hurt so I’ll just have another drink or snort another line of coke. Reminds me of the old joke about the Irish woman who took her husband up to the top of the hill overlooking the local brewery one night to prove to him that he couldn’t drink it dry. “No, but I got ‘em working three shifts,” he noted. (I’m Irish, if you want to skewer me on Twitter.)
It’s no surprise that Christmas has become so commercialized. We’ve commercialized everything in America. We’ve even commercialized waiting in line. Pay a premium and you can stand in a shorter line. And who needs net neutrality? Let ‘em pay. (Just remember to give those same big corporations a nice tax break for Christmas.)
The commercialization of American life really hit home for me on Christmas Eve, however. I was feeling a bit nostalgic and thought I’d find the tv channel that shows the Yule log burning. Talk about Christmas traditions.
I went through each of the 163 channels I now get but never watch. I found a whole bunch of channels that are a testament to how out of control we are commercially but I could not find the Yule log. Until, that is, I got to the 153rd channel or so. And there it was. But it was on a premium channel that I don’t subscribe to so it was blocked. The friggin’ Yule log is now pay to play, just like everything else.
The real problem I have with Christmas in America these days is that it is just another reminder of our social and economic division. The rich are hobnobbing in Aspen and the rest of us are watching them on Facebook and wondering why our lives are so boring.
The secular Christmas, of course, is a pretty crappy time for many Americans. The pressure to keep up is overwhelming to many. That’s not Santa shouting from the rooftops. It’s our neighbors telling the world how lame we are.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a collective Christmas for once? Wouldn’t it be nice if we just took a time out and devoted all of that effort and money to helping the people who need our help most? Christ knows (pun intended) there are enough of them.
I’m actually not a Grinch. I’m quite content with my life. China just gave me a different perspective. It helped me take “I” out of my life and replace it with “we.” It’s not as hard as you might think.
And you’ll feel better for it. Remember, “we” is just “me” with the first letter turned on its head. It’s all in the perspective.
header photo credit: iStock.com/FlairGun
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In a recent survey reported by USA Today, one out of two American millennials preferred communism to capitalism, and 22% said they have a favorable impression of Karl Marx. For almost any American older than a millennial, this came as a complete shock, and, with few exceptions, has been characterized as a failure of the American education system to accurately portray history.
But is that a fair assessment?
I have a degree in Economics from Middlebury College, where I graduated with honors. I have spent an entire career in Corporate America, more than half of that in executive management. And I lived and worked for nine years in China, a collectivist state, where I managed a factory and a company, referred to as a Wholly-Owned Foreign Enterprise (WOFE), for a public American corporation. I believe, as a result, that I bring some experience and credibility to the topic.
Let’s start the assessment by dropping the labels. All of the relevant terms—democracy, capitalism, communism, socialism, and fascism—raise a lot of dust but have lost all of their original meaning. China is not a communist state. It is a collectivist state run by the Communist Party of China. The Chinese themselves refer to it as “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” I will refer to it simply as Chinese collectivism.
The United States, on the other hand, is not a pluralist democracy. The Founding Fathers went to great lengths to avoid the potential tyranny of the democratic majority. The three separate but equal branches of government (legislative, administrative, and judicial), the Electoral College, the unique structure of the US Senate, with two senators from each state regardless of population or economic strength, and the very specific and largely irreversible allocation of certain powers to state and local governments, all are designed to limit the power of the plurality.
Both China and the US allow free market forces to “manage” large parts of the economy. There are, however, two big differences. The first is that almost all property in the US, including intellectual property, is privately owned. In China, on the other hand, the government retains ownership of much of the common property, including all land and the natural resources it holds.
The Chinese collective also retains ownership and control of key strategic industries that have a broad social impact, including most of the banks and much of the energy sector. The Chinese government, moreover, maintains a well-defined national industrial and economic plan that guides public and private investment, in part through taxes, and provides strategic direction to the regulatory branches of government.
There are no government owned companies in the US, although the US Post Office and NASA are independent agencies of the US government. The General Services Administration (GSA), moreover, another independent agency of the federal government, oversees the expenditure of approximately $66 billion in government spending each year and manages about $500 billion of US property.
In total, government spending by the Chinese and US governments is about the same, at roughly $2.8 trillion per year; although the US economy is larger in total.
The US, however, has no national industrial policy, despite the amount of money spent by the government each year. While China targets key industries for development and protection in the interest of national security and social and economic development, the US, in theory, leaves such decisions up to the private sector.
That’s only in theory, however. In practice the US has a well-defined national industrial and economic policy. There has to be given the amount of money the government spends each year and the regulatory influence the government has over the economy. The real difference is that in the US government policy is left largely up to private individuals and corporations to define. Corporate lobbyists and corporate government relations staffers play an active role in actually writing government legislation and regulation, always, of course, in an attempt to promote the self-interests of their employers.
One of the primary vehicles for economic policy in the US is the US Tax Code. The Code itself, along with the supporting documentation and legal interpretation, runs to 70,000 pages in total, most of which is devoted to defining tax breaks and other financial considerations designed to favor one sector of the economy, or one segment of any given sector, over another. The 2017 Tax Reform recently approved by the US Senate itself required more than 400 pages to articulate what was supposed to be a simple reduction in tax rates. It wasn’t, of course.
That is why despite a top corporate tax rate of 35%, most large corporations pay considerably less. Google, in its last reported year, paid only 19%. Apple, one of the most profitable companies on the planet, and which holds $230 billion in cash in overseas accounts, paid only 25%. Asset rich ExxonMobil and GE both enjoyed tax credits, effectively sheltering all of their income from taxation, all based on provisions buried somewhere in those 70,000 pages.
Another way in which national policy is established in through government regulation and, once again, much of that has been turned over to the private sector, allowing business people and corporations to use regulation to benefit themselves and tilt the playing field in their favor. Many of these regulations are fraudulently sold to the public in the name of consumer protection, but the protection of certain businesses and their profits is the real objective.
In the state of California, for example, you cannot cut hair for a living unless you receive 5,000 hours of training at a state-accredited for-profit barber school. It’s doubtful that enough Californians complained about bad haircuts to push the state legislature into action. It’s far more likely, and almost certain, that the barber schools, in partnership with the existing barbers looking to sustain higher prices, lobbied for the legislation and were readily obliged.
In my own state of Michigan Tesla cannot sell its cars directly to consumers utilizing the business model it has built its business on. And the reason is not Ford, GM, or Chrysler. The reason is the independent automobile dealers association that has used its political muscle in Lansing to push for such protection. Michigan is not alone. Independent dealers in many states have successfully lobbied their state legislators for protective legislation that goes well beyond any legitimate consumer interest.
The list is endless. It was recently announced that a common medication for erectile dysfunction may soon be available over the counter in the UK, thus reducing its price and freeing up doctors to spend their time on more pressing health matters and thus reducing health care costs. In China, many common medicines, except narcotics, are available directly from pharmacists without a doctor’s prescription.
The US, on the other hand, has one of the most restrictive set of pharmaceutical regulations on the planet. It’s one of the reasons the US spends more on healthcare than any other nation despite the lack of universal insurance coverage. It’s all justified on the basis of consumer protection, of course, but it coincidentally maximizes the profit of the big pharmaceutical companies and, by the way, we have a huge opioid epidemic anyway. (Why don’t we treat prescription drugs like guns? Opioids don’t cause addiction. The people who abuse them do.)
In the end, as I’ve noted, the biggest difference between Chinese collectivism and what I will call Americanism is in who defines government policy and who owns the country’s collective assets.
No individual or corporation owns land in China. It’s owned collectively by all of the people of China and managed on their behalf by the Communist Party. As a practical matter, the distinction doesn’t have much impact on daily life. The feel is the same. Both my home in China and the factory I managed sat on land owned by the people of China but managing either one felt pretty much the same as it does here. As they say, possession is nine-tenths of the law.
If the day to day difference between collective ownership and private ownership of property is immaterial, it has a huge impact on who decides how to use that property. In the US, that right resides with the individual and the private corporation. In a collectivist state, that right resides with society at large.
Over time, of course, the US has discovered the inherent weakness in private ownership of property and has sought to restrict usage through zoning laws. The local zoning board, however, is entirely local and fairly easily swayed in favor of development by their aligned interests and political pressure, so the practical effect has been very limited. Wealthy developers still have the power to do what they want in the pursuit of profit.
What we can’t do as a country, however, is build new airports, new train systems, or more efficient highways. And that’s because the rights of the individual, the cornerstone of Americanism, are protected by a strong judicial system. Large infrastructure projects can be tied up in the courts for years, if not decades, effectively prohibiting the kind of large infrastructure projects that the Chinese excel at. (Many experts believe that this deficiency alone, will ultimately compromise America’s global leadership.)
America can’t, in other words, adapt to technological innovation. We didn’t have airplanes, automobiles, or high-speed trains, all of which require land-intensive infrastructure, at the time of the nation’s birth when the principle of private ownership of land was established. We had canals and roads and harbors, but these were easily accommodated through the legal concept of eminent domain. Even that collective protection, however, has been severely eroded by the courts and the politicians, both of which are easily exploited by wealthy developers and other corporate interests.
In theory, of course, the American government is accountable to the people. That theory, however, has been severely tested by the passage of time and the steep cost of running a successful modern political campaign. Money, not ideology, now controls the American political process. If there is anything to be learned by the recent rash of political resignations and decisions not to seek re-election it is that political power does not accrue to the men and women of the highest integrity and civic mindedness. It accrues to those who can harness the most money and power.
So, in the US, in theory, we have a paragon of free market capitalism and democratic freedoms. And in China we have the last remaining socialist superpower, where the press is censored, there are no free elections except at the local level, the government retains ownership of key industries and the country’s largest companies, and there is no private ownership of land.
In practice, however, the US, by its own admission, suffers from ongoing sexism, racism, and religious prejudice. Mass murder is almost a daily event. Drug addiction is rampant, wages are stagnant and have been for decades, inequity in wealth and income is expanding, and social unrest and general disillusionment is now the standard.
China, on the other hand, in practice, has raised 300 million people out of poverty in one generation, violent crime and mass murders are rare, the best schools are equally accessible to everyone, virtually everyone is employed, wages have been rising at rates far above the GDP, and the President’s approval rating is among the highest in the world, many times that of our own American president.
Why the disconnect? In a word, context.
Personal freedom and economic well-being do not exist in a vacuum. They exist in the context of a complex web of political, social, technological, and economic conditions that, in the case of the US, have changed dramatically since the country’s founding.
Consider this small sampling of facts:
There were 2.5 million people living in the US in 1776. There are 315 million people here today.
The entire landmass of the original thirteen colonies was 339,000 sq miles. The US today covers 3,678,000 sq. miles.
The only guns available when the Second Amendment was ratified in 1791 were the single fire musket and the flintlock pistol. In the hands of the most skilled operators they had a capacity of about three rounds per minute and were accurate only at very short distances. The Las Vegas shooter, who killed 58 and left 546 injured, by comparison, was able to fire 1,100 rounds in under ten minutes, massacring innocent civilians at a range of almost 500 yards.
The first train locomotive to run on US rails did not go into operation until 1829. The first American car was not built until 1893. The first commercial flight did not take place until 1914.
The pharmaceutical industry, as we know it today, did not come into existence until the mid-20th Century.
The Internet has been in widespread existence for less than thirty years.
The 16th Amendment, legalizing the income tax and creating a powerful tool for social and economic engineering, was not ratified until 1913. The tax system we know today did not come into existence until 1954.
In short, our world, and the context in which our political and economic systems operate, has changed dramatically. Yet we still attempt to manage it all with political and economic systems that are built on the ideological premise of the supremacy of the individual over the collective.
Advances in technology drove much of this change. Technology has entirely transformed how we work, how we live, how we travel, and how we communicate.
At the time of our founding, our news was limited to the local newspaper and the men and women motivated enough to grab a soapbox and stand on a street corner. Politics was a part-time profession carried on by people moved by a sense of civic duty. The world of the average American, in short, was a decidedly local world and he or she lived and worked with relative autonomy.
Technology, both directly and indirectly, has made the world both bigger and smaller, connecting us all in real-time. It has also, however, driven the commercialization of every aspect of our lives. It is no longer possible to live a dignified life of poverty, even if you so choose. There is virtually no alternative to money. Even the original social safety net—nature—has been taken away. Living as a self-sufficient farmer or hunter-gatherer in the wilderness is no longer an option. The socio-economic complex in which we live forces everyone into the economic game. Compete or perish, with perhaps a short and undignified stay in government entitlement along the way.
As America grew and prospered, however, an unintended consequence began to emerge. Most of the wealth creation went to a relatively small segment of the population. As time went by, moreover, the system was incapable of correcting itself. The rich, now called the 1%, continue to get richer while the other 99% struggles to get by. Many, in fact, have failed in their quest and are either homeless, addicted, or both. And, most importantly, their hope is lost.
There are more than 540 billionaires in the US today, who share a collective net worth of $2.4 trillion, more than the total GDP of India, a country of 1.3 billion people. Half of Americans, however, make less than $30,000 per year and have virtually no personal savings and sizable amounts of debt. (Student debt is a national crisis.)
Another unintended consequence of this massive wealth creation and its concentration is the creation of a permanent political class. An economy this big and a society this large require full time management.
The two developments—the enrichment of the economy and the creation of a professional political class—were fundamentally inter-related. Modern politics takes a lot of money and the Founding Fathers made no provision to provide it. The need for private funding, in turn, further embedded private citizens of wealth into the political process. And when, in 1886, the U.S. Supreme Court applied the 14th Amendment to give corporations the same legal rights, other than voting, of the individual citizen, the modern era of politics was born.
And it’s not working. And it’s not working because the context has changed. We live in a very different world than we did in 1776 and yet we are attempting to manage it with the same individual-centric political and economic systems developed more than two centuries ago.
The People’s Republic of China, on the other hand, has been in existence for a little over 60 years. And while the Communist Party of China is still in charge, the economic and social management systems have been entirely transformed. Chairman Mao himself would surely not recognize the modern China.
By adapting to change, however, China has emerged as a global superpower and many are predicting that the American Century will soon give way to the Chinese Century.
Many in America, of course, will argue that China transformed itself by following the example of the US and adopting many of the provisions of free market capitalism. It is these same people, moreover, who believe that the path forward should be to double down on what has worked in the past. We don’t need to adapt, in other words, so much as we need to go back to the perceived purity of the political and economic systems we employed two centuries ago.
It is pure folly, of course. Even if we could turn back the clock, which we can’t, those systems and ideals would no longer work. The result, in fact, would be disastrous; on a par with asking corporations to live without computers or teenagers to live without smart phones.
Technology has so empowered the individual that no single individual can be given the kind of power historically granted to the individual American. It is simply unworkable. What worked when we were few and largely isolated and spent our days farming and hunting, will simply not work today. It would be like giving every colonial soldier a nuclear bomb and telling them to go win the war. They would ultimately win the war, but like the 1%, would dramatically transform the country itself.
In the end, the millennials are right. They may have the details wrong. (The referenced study’s sponsor noted that most of the millennials who voted for communism were unable to define it correctly.) They are, however, right in their instinctive belief that in the modern world in which we live and work, the collective society, not the individual, must reign supreme.
Let’s not call it communism, or fascism, or any of the traditional –isms, because their critics are right; they didn’t work either. And libertarianism, the system of choice for both the alt-right and Silicon Valley, won’t work any better. That would be just doubling down on what we already have and would simply accelerate our decline.
And I am not suggesting we simply imitate the Chinese or try Marxism yet again. The former, for a lot of social and cultural reasons I don’t have space for here, won’t work in America. And Marxism, while ideologically attractive at some level, simply isn’t tenable.
What we need instead is a new form of collective governance that puts the interests of the collective society above the liberties of the individual and manages our collective interests and assets in a way that allows some level of individualism without allowing it to suppress or circumvent the collective good.
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With North Korea’s recent successful test of a Hwasong-15 missile that reached an altitude of 2,800 miles, more than ten times the altitude of the International Space Station, Kim Jong-un is back on the front page. This, experts suggest, gives the hermit nation the established ability to strike Washington, D.C. with a pre-emptive nuclear strike launched from within its own borders.
When confronted with the issue by reporters, Trump, characteristically, was dismissive: “We will take care of it.” How, exactly, no one knows. Sanctions clearly haven’t worked and whatever diplomacy Secretary Tillerson has been pursuing behind the scenes apparently hasn’t either. (Adding even more urgency to the issue, Tillerson, the one politician even broaching diplomacy, is rumored to be on the way out.)
According to The Washington Post, “A growing chorus of voices in Washington is calling for serious consideration of military action against North Korea,” although it is inconceivable that such options have not already been considered and ruled out as impractical. The loss of life, particularly in South Korea, would easily rival the 20 million Russians who perished during World War II, redefining the geopolitical landscape for decades to come.
China has clearly noted that it would consider any pre-emptive strike by the US to be an intolerable violation of sovereignty. Such military aggression, moreover, would be senseless unless the US was willing to follow its ordnance into the country to pick up the pieces and reshape the nation, and there is virtually no way the Chinese would allow this to happen without their strongest possible resistance.
Depending on whether Trump or China is higher on their derisory priority list on any given day, many Western media outlets have attempted to position the latest missile test as either indicative of China’s failure to follow through on the perceived commitment to resolve the Korean Peninsula issue, or Trump’s foolhardiness for believing he had that kind of personal pull in Beijing.
Personally, I think there is little incentive for China to do anything except sit back and watch. If it believes that Kim’s regime will ultimately collapse, it has little to gain by getting its hands dirty now, short of preventing the US from establishing a US military presence on the 880-mile border China shares with North Korea. Let it collapse and then step in to either push for a unification of the Korean Peninsula, with security and political assurances from the current South Korean government, or turn North Korea into an autonomous Chinese political zone not unlike Hong Kong, Macau, or Tibet. (The latter, I believe, is the more likely scenario, all things considered.)
Two things, I believe, we can say with certainty:
1. Given any say in the matter, the people of North Korea will choose a Chinese protectorate over a US protectorate. Unless South Korea takes significant steps to distance itself from the US they will not, in all likelihood, even choose unification over China. Dennis Rodman’s diplomacy aside, the North Koreans do not see the US as Donald Trump sees us.
2. China will do nothing to give Trump face. In other words, he will accomplish nothing with China’s help if they believe he stands ready to take credit for it. He is quite literally shooting himself in the foot by touting his relationship with Xi Jinping in the context of his great self-acclaimed negotiating skills. To give Trump credit would be to compromise the Chinese Dream that is at the heart of Xi’s political agenda and legacy. He won’t do it; he has no incentive to.
To this latter point, I am quite confident that China did not release LiAngelo Ball and his UCLA basketball teammates after being arrested for shoplifting in Hangzhou because Trump asked them to. They did so because they concluded that it was in their best interest. It may, in fact, have been a simple test to see how Trump would respond.
Trump’s reaction, in fact, could not have been worse in terms of his future ability to influence Chinese behavior. In his willingness to start a Twitter feud with LaVar Ball, Trump demonstrated beyond a doubt that he has no understanding of Chinese culture and the importance of face, particularly in the political arena. Certainly someone in Washington understands this.
I believe the most effective option for the US and the world remains the same. The US must withdraw its military presence from the Korean Peninsula unilaterally, while maintaining its commitment to protect South Korea from aggression using all of its resources, including nuclear weapons, if necessary.
Given the unlikelihood that a contained exchange of cannon fire along the 38th parallel will be sufficient to convince Kim Jong-un to dismantle his nuclear capabilities, it is hard to see how a military withdrawal from the Korean Peninsula would materially compromise the US’ treaty obligations to South Korea or Japan.
Nor would it, in fact, cause a US loss of face in the region. As famous Chinese military general Sun Tzu is often quoted to have said, “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” In the eyes of Asia, it would take a strong and courageous America to unilaterally to pursue such a strategy, putting the clear burden for resolution of the North Korean problem at the doorstep of Beijing’s leadership.
The proof is in the rhetoric. Why has China not seen fit to rattle its sword to the extent President Trump has? Why are there no anonymous quotes coming out of the Great Hall of the People? Is it because China is afraid? Or is it because China is clever and understands the importance of face in true diplomacy?
China can resolve the North Korean problem. And it will, if we allow them to solve it at their own pace and in their own way. In the meantime, North Korea is contained. There is no way that China will allow Kim Jong-un to unleash a single nuclear device on Guam, Japan, or the US. And there is no way that China would not know of such an attack long before the missile leaves the ground.
What is it that American diplomats are so afraid of? Does the Munich Pact still haunt the souls of our diplomatic core? The times and the circumstances could not be more different.
This would not be peace through appeasement. This would be peace through strength and confidence and a willingness to put humanity above any one individual’s standing in the polls. This is not an issue for Twitter. This is an issue for men and women of greatness to take the lead in the name of peace and stability.
If they fail to do so, history will not remember them kindly.
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My Chinese wife and I shared Thanksgiving dinner with several Chinese American families who live in the area. Most are naturalized American citizens and have teenage children born here. Nearly all are university professors or medical doctors.
We first came to know of this group because one of the people in the group is from the same hometown in northeastern China as my wife. They had never met, of course, and there is no relationship or acquaintance between their families. A common hometown, however, is enough to create an automatic social obligation in Chinese culture. You are almost family; particularly when that hometown is relatively small by Chinese standards (About 3 million residents as of the 2010 census.), and you both find yourselves in a foreign land 7,000 miles away.
This was not our first dinner with the group and I always enjoy them. They all speak fluent English, of course, although Mandarin is the language of choice for most of the evening. It is a warm and gracious group of people and all seem to share some self-imposed sense of responsibility to insure that the one foreigner in the group—me—is having a good time and not feeling left out.
It is a very light-drinking crowd although baijiu was brought out to allow everyone the chance to toast the health and prosperity of their friends, as is their custom. The bottle was capped and put away, however, after a mere quarter of a liter was consumed with the formalities of friendship.
There is zero interest in American football among the group, including the teenagers, and most of the evening is spent in small group discussions over tea, with a few of the men breaking off for karaoke and a few traditional Chinese ballads.
To a person, all of them feel blessed to be in America and to have the chance to raise their children here. None among them have any interest in leaving although all have family in China and stay in touch with all things Chinese.
The topics of discussion were and weren’t what I expected. There was, as I expected, some talk about Yingying ZHANG, the 26 year-old Chinese scholar who disappeared from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus on June 9 of this year. A local Caucasian man has been arrested and charged with kidnapping but has never admitted guilt and the whereabouts of Zhang or her body remains unknown.
Beyond the obvious fact that there is a human life involved, this is big deal for all Americans. There are roughly 900,000 foreign students studying at America’s universities today, and about one-third of those are Chinese. The Chinese student population in the US, in other words, is about the same as the entire population of Cincinnati, Ohio, and the monetary infusion into the US economy easily exceeds $10 billion per year. If those students, or their parents, collectively decide to stay home or go elsewhere out of fear that the American government will not or cannot protect them, the impact on our education system, our economy, and the educational opportunities available to our own children will be enormous.
What seems to perplex the Chinese about this case is not that one of their own came to harm. The Chinese know full well how dangerous life can be. It is that the police have not been able to solve the case and the man accused has yet to go on trial, now almost six months later.
Wherever you come down on the scale of personal rights, from libertarian to collectivism, the one job every government has above all else is to keep us safe and to punish those who violate the precept. And there is little doubt in most Chinese minds, or mine, that if an American student had disappeared in China, the case would have been solved long ago and the guilty punished, probably by immediate execution.
According to NationMaster.com, a global community of statisticians that The New York Times calls “astounding,” and the BBC refers to as “a statistician’s dream,” violent crime and murder occur at a rate 18 and 4 times higher, respectively, in the US than in China.
This, of course, is part of a larger discussion on the perceived trade-off between individual rights and freedoms and a strong government looking to protect collective stability and safety. The Western media, of course, has long treated the issue as a zero sum game in which government strength can only come at the expense of individual liberty. And both are inevitably measured, of course, by the freedom of the press. It is, however, a specious argument.
I have yet to meet the Chinese person that believes China should adopt the American political system. To a person they don’t believe it would work in China, not only because of the size and diversity of their country, but because it clearly doesn’t work here in the US. The 2016 election and subsequent events have only reinforced the conviction, although I don’t think a different electoral outcome would have had any impact on the observation of dysfunction.
On a related but very different aspect of strong government control, however, the part of the conversation that did surprise me related to the Internet.
The Chinese have long been chided by American media for the strict government control of the Chinese Internet. The Western media detests nothing quite so ardently as it does any attempt to make it responsible for what it reports.
In addition to controlling the use of social media for voicing political dissent and promoting social unrest, China has already taken strong steps to prevent digital anonymity, personal shaming, revenge porn, and the malicious spreading of rumors, gossip, and unsubstantiated accusations. (They do this, in part, they claim, by blocking access to Internet sites like Facebook and Twitter, which have traditionally refused to allow any government regulation of their platforms.)
Porn, which some estimates suggest accounts for as much as 30% of all Internet traffic in the US, is strictly forbidden and censored in China. Identity theft carries severe penalties and the government actively protects its citizens against malware and Internet schemes that prey on the elderly.
It was noted over tea, however, that Americans may now be realizing that strong government regulation may not be so dystopian after all. Beyond the constant threat of identity theft, ransomware, religious radicalization, adolescent bullying, and attempts by Russian operatives to influence American politics, it has become increasingly clear that the very structure of the American Internet is dividing us and enflaming our distrust and animosity through self-reinforcing media feeds, biased reporting, and outright fake news.
In our case, however, it is not the government that is controlling the information that divides and enflames; it is the oligopoly of Internet giants that government regulators have allowed to achieve such enormous scale and unfettered power that their ability to influence public opinion now dwarfs the control of government censors in China, Russia, or elsewhere.
The only difference between China and the US in terms of digital censorship is that in China it is the government that yields the control and in the US it is the corporate states of Google, Facebook, and Twitter, among others. Whether or not the Communist Party makes good on its commitment to sound governance, we know by their own admission and behavior that the Silicon Valley elite is driven by the insatiable drive for profit and personal wealth. Perhaps even more dangerous and minatory is the fact that in China, at least, the censorship is transparent. In Silicon Valley it is anything but.
It is doubtful, in fact, that even the engineers at companies like Google and Facebook have any idea how their algorithms actually work. How does anyone really know if their unfathomably complex algorithms aren’t themselves fanning the fires of racism and misogyny, for example, in the interest of getting more users to click on more advertisements?
Certainly no one would suggest that they are doing so intentionally, but who is to say what is really happening in the bowels of their server farms that they can only understand by processing test data and assessing the output against “rational” expectations, whatever those may be. Proxy causation, by definition, would be almost impossible to detect.
All of which might pose minimum risk if the US government regulated their activities and limited their scale and market dominance in the same way they regulate virtually every other industry. But they don’t. And one doesn’t have to think hard to come up with possible explanations.
Government dystopia comes in many shades and flavors. Nearly all, however, rely on controlling the flow of information. And whether that flow is controlled by an autocratic government or a free market oligopoly with little to no oversight, matters little. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding.
You may contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org
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