When my wife first arrived in the US in 2016, having never before traveled outside the northeast regions of China, she made two rather prompt observations.
The first was to note, “There are no people.” I was perplexed, to be honest, given that we were leaving the Detroit airport at the peak of rush-hour traffic, crawling bumper to bumper among the suburbanites leaving the city center at the end of the work day. “Are you kidding? Look around. The traffic is terrible. Just as I remember it.”
“Those are cars,” she noted, “not people. It’s different.”
Her second observation came some days later, after having experienced American television and what we call the news. “The poor people in America appear very sad. Or angry. That seems strange to me.”
She, in fact, had lived in poverty virtually all of her life. At less than one hundred pounds in total body weight, her shoulders had long since given out from the work she began at the age of eighteen at the state-owned flourmill where both of her parents worked, and on which her family relied for virtually everything, including their apartment. She lifted 25 kg (55 lbs) bags of flour off of a conveyor belt, stitched the top shut, and then piled them on a platform for removal and shipment. And she did it for 8 hours per day, six days per week, and was paid $5 per month.
She is not pious, naïve, or deprecatingly arrogant about her personal history. I have met few in my life who are as candid and matter of fact about the reality of her circumstances. She does ‘get it,’ to use the common American phrase.
But it was Confucius who said, “Wherever you go, there you are.” And few people throughout history have embodied their culture or their heritage more completely than he did. Having lived in China for so long I easily imagine the 1.4 billion Chinese currently living there thinking the same thought with frequency throughout each day.
I offer here no ode to the poor and unfortunate. I don’t sing their praises as defined solely by their poverty. I do not mean to put them on an ethical pedestal. But I admit my bafflement that any of us, rich or poor, famous or ignored, imprisoned by bars or by circumstance, believe that our financial worth, or our social network, or even our Twitter following, is defined by things that should make us happy or sad, proud or bitter.
They are what they are, pure and simple. And while that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t change them, we should change them for the right reasons and in the right ways.
While Chinese culture is built on a collectivist foundation that turns on personal obligation, American culture is built on an individualistic foundation that turns, so we think, on performance. We inevitably measure, as a result, success and failure of any kind, in personal terms. The successful are gifted, hard-working, and well organized. Those who fail are lazy, unmotivated, and, most likely, deserving of their failure.
The inevitable result is not a contest of ideas, but a contest of competing virtues. ‘Because my ideas are better, I am better.’ It’s just a short hop to contempt. And that, of course, is where sadness and bitterness come from.
On March 14 students across the country took to the street to protest the fact that very angry young men are allowed to buy military assault rifles and kill large numbers of their fellow students. They should be angry. The fact that we are even debating what to do is a sure sign of just how far we’ve fallen from our true American heritage. (When the Second Amendment was adopted in 1791 the only guns in existence had a capacity of only three shots per minute in the most capable hands and were accurate at little more than 20-30 yards.)
And who are the media heroes of this fight? Judging from the coverage it is the students with the loudest voices and the most contempt. And, of course, no politician gets time in front of a television camera today unless he or she is virtually seething with contempt for somebody.
Contempt, of course, seldom solves much of anything. It destroys lives, in fact. It feeds addiction, shortens lives, and leads, inevitably, to sadness and despair.
The reason our politics and our social intercourse is so vile and acerbic at the moment is not the result of Trump’s election or Pelosi’s fund raising skills. It is the result of our unwavering commitment to individualism; to the belief that the individual, either competitively or inclusively (which is really the only difference between Republicans and Democrats, respectively), stands at the center or our economy, our ecology, and our culture.
It worked, with some obvious exceptions (e.g., slavery, the lack of women’s rights), when our world was far less crowded, much more localized, less industrially advanced, and less technologically integrated. It worked, in other words, on a relatively small scale.
The message we should be teaching our children is not that they should feel contempt for the death that surrounds them, but that they are literally all in this together. And in light of that reality there is no room for contempt. There are only solutions that promote the common good. It’s the difference between shouting for the cameras in a gesture that Washington will soon forget, and, say, organizing school watch programs, or student aid programs that help the most alienated children find their social footing before they resort to violence.
In my latest book, We, Ourselves, and Us, I note that early in my career corporate executives felt a strong sense of personal obligation to the employees and the community. My first CEO wanted nothing more than to raise wages and would never have even entertained the idea of closing the factory on which the community relied and moving production to Mexico or China.
Corporate executives today often lament the change, but blame it on globalization or activist shareholders, both of which are beyond their control. It’s bunk. No law has been passed that in any way restricts corporate executives from exercising the kind of obligation they did just a few decades ago. It is merely their sense of individualism that precludes them from accepting their collective obligation.
Individualism without obligation is fatalism. Individualism with obligation is collectivism, what I call we-ism.
When I lived in China I witnessed poverty on a daily basis. It was no-running-water poverty. My friend referred to his own upbringing as a three-bath life (once when you are born, once when you get married, and once when you die). But that never once influenced how he felt about his life or the people around him.
In his latest book, Radical Inclusion, retired general Martin Dempsey notes that when he had to console troops who had lost a comrade, he always said, “Make it matter.” It’s great advice. But it won’t matter if we don’t accept we’re all in it together.
That, I believe, is the message we should share with our children and each other. Once we do, the violence will dissipate. And the newsmakers won’t be quite so full of contempt.
My newest book, We, Ourselves, and Us: Creating a More Just and Prosperous America, is now available on Amazon in paperback (click here) and Kindle (click here) versions.
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I’ve taken a bit of heat for my recent blog post in which I intimated that the real Orwellian oppressor might be the American political, economic, and Hollywood elite rather than the Communist Party of China. In this post, therefore, I will attempt to put just a little more meat on the bones of my figurative and conceptual dragon.
Freedom exists at a number of levels and I can’t address all of them in one post. First, however, we must establish what American freedom is not. It is not one person, one vote; majority takes all. Nor do we want it to be. That would be oppression of the worst kind.
That is why we have three branches of government, the Electoral College, and the requirement that three-fourths of the states must ratify a new amendment to the US Constitution. That is why, in fact, we have the Bill of Rights and a total of twenty-seven existing amendments to begin with. They put hard limits on our democracy and the power of the majority.
So what is freedom? Let’s look at a few examples of what might be considered freedom and see how China and the US compare:
Government Social Engineering:
This is the freedom to live free of government interference and China does have some well known social regulations but they are quite transparent and are seldom hard and fast. At the head of that list, of course, is the famous one child policy, although it has been relaxed significantly in recent years and there have always been exceptions for ethnic and rural populations. And while there may have been cases of forced compliance in the past the frequency has undoubtedly been overstated in the Western media. Today, I believe, it is virtually unheard of.
In the US our social engineering is significant but far less transparent. Most of it is accomplished surreptitiously, largely through the tax code and regulations positioned as being in the public interest. People who decide to remain single, or couples who do not or cannot have children, for example, subsidize the living expenses of those who do get married and have children through tax provisions that favor marriage and procreation. There are no such tax provisions in China. Everyone in China is an individual taxpayer and there are no deductions for anything.
Women, moreover, have complete control over their own bodies in China. Abortions are readily available and cheap. And since everyone is essentially guaranteed a job there is virtually no woman who can’t get an abortion if she so elects. Women who work, moreover, enjoy generous maternity leave at full pay, have full job protection, and are even guaranteed time to breast feed after they return to work.
The US, on the other hand, is the only industrialized nation on the planet that offers no paid maternity leave. If you can find a place to have an abortion, moreover, you will probably have to pay for it and will undoubtedly be forced to suffer the indignity of protesters when you go for the procedure. (This would never be allowed in China.)
China does have a residency registration system called the hukou. It is designed primarily as a structure for providing government services but it is also designed to limit urban migration so that the infrastructure of the wealthy urban areas is not overwhelmed. You can still move your family where you want to but it will cost you more in schooling, medical care, and the like. I met my wife in Beijing, for example, where she was living and working, but her son remained in her hometown for these reasons. It’s a fairly common arrangement in China.
In the US, of course, there are no restrictions on where you can live but the residents of those states with low or no income taxes (e.g., Florida) subsidize the residents of those states with high income tax rates (e.g., New York). Trump is trying to change that but it hasn’t happened yet.
Urbanization in the US is nonetheless discouraged in several other ways. The public schools in urban areas are generally of inferior quality. People living in urban areas often pay higher taxes, largely due to additional sales tax. Crime rates are often much higher. And since urban dwellers are likely to rent, they are essentially forced to subsidize, again through taxes, all of the middle and upper class homeowners living in the suburbs who get to claim their mortgage interest and real estate taxes as tax deductions. (And who get the benefits of living in proximity to a major US city.)
Freedom in Education:
Education in China, including college, is open to everyone and largely paid for by the government. There is intense competition for entry to the best schools via standardized testing, but the opportunity and the cost is the same for everyone. If you can get in to one of the top schools, you can afford to go. Everyone pays the same low rate.
In the US, of course, standardized testing plays a role, but is not defining. Ivy League schools still give preference to the children of their alumni and donors, and admissions officers consider the quality of the secondary school attended, and largely subjective demonstrations of leadership, etc., which are disproportionately available to wealthier families. Poor children living in the inner city don’t often have a chance to join the debate club and even when they do may be required for family childcare or to work in the family business. The cost, moreover, between colleges varies widely, which, of course, is less of a burden to wealthier families.
The Chinese are more or less free to practice religion as they see fit. You will find Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Buddhists, Taoists, and practitioners of Chinese folk religion just about everywhere in China. There is, however, one simple restriction: The church must stay out of politics. There may be a lot of argument about that but even Jesus advised his followers to pay Caesar his due.
We have religious freedom in the US, of course, in that the church can be very actively involved in politics and can even organize political protests. All churches in the US, however, are essentially subsidized by the entire population, whether those citizens are religious or not. Even the building in which congregants worship is free of tax. In essence, we don’t have freedom of religion so much as we have government sponsored religion.
Freedom to Set Prices:
While China has moved decidedly toward a free market economy there are still some sectors that are government controlled. In the case of utilities, for example, the biggest providers are still government owned and the government sets prices. In China, however, the citizens generally pay less than the large corporations for things like natural gas and electricity. In the US, the opposite is true. That factory down the street is probably paying less for natural gas than you are. This is how the American “free” market works.
Freedom to Make a Living:
In China, if you want to make some extra money for your family by cutting hair on nights and weekends, you just do it. You have to pay taxes but it’s unlikely a barber would generate enough income to trigger a tax liability. Even if you do, the local tax collector is likely to ignore you unless you run afoul of the law in some other way.
In the US you cannot cut hair without a license. And in most cases, that requires a substantial investment of time and money. In California, for example, you must attend a government accredited barber school for 5,000 hours of certified instruction before you can cut anyone’s hair. The big winners, of course, are the for-profit barber schools, who undoubtedly pushed for the legislation to begin with, and the existing barbers, who can charge more due to the artificial limits on competition.
“Professional” regulation costs US residents far more than Bernie Madoff ever did, and it’s a scam that is both government sponsored and goes largely unnoticed. Tesla cannot sell its cars in the state of Michigan because the auto dealers, through their powerful lobbying group, have pushed through state legislation prohibiting the sale of cars directly to consumers. Ford can’t do it either. The consumers, in the end, subsidize the generally well-off car dealers. And, of course, the consumers have no practical choice in the matter.
Similar constraints exist in almost every industry. The current Republican tax overhaul is 429 pages in length. What could possibly take so much ink? Rest assured that corporate lobbyists wrote most of it and it’s surely laden with little tax goodies for powerful interest groups and political donors.
All of the professional regulation, of course, is, in theory, enacted in the name of consumer protection, although I’ve never known any consumer who needed protection from a bad haircut or manicure. If you do get an embarrassing haircut you can always switch barbers.
In the end, the US is probably the most regulated country on the planet, and most of that regulation exists not to protect the consumer, but to protect the established elite who lobbied for it. Why do you think we spend more than any other country in the world on health care and are nonetheless the only developed country that does not guarantee access to affordable health insurance? The drug companies and the for-profit hospitals love things the way they are. They largely designed them.
And how do they get away with it? It’s easy. It’s all done through the mechanics of American democracy—the basis of what we call our democratic freedom.
Buying Government Influence:
As every school child knows, the US government is made up of three largely equal branches – legislative, administrative, and judicial. Each provides an opportunity to shape the ways in which our lives are controlled by government interference. The legislature can pass laws and regulations, the President, as we now know, can determine how to administer those regulations through executive order, and the courts can step in at any time and change everything.
The net result is that vested interests, such as corporations and wealthy individuals, have three bites at the apple. They can effect change to their benefit in any of the three spheres of influence. Or all three, as is typically the case. And they are uniquely privileged to take such bites because each bite takes money. And the more you have the bigger the bite you are granted.
The politicians, of course, pander to money. But so do the courts. The latter wealth bias is not quite so transparent, but nonetheless real. You have to hire a lawyer to take advantage of judicial power. And a lawyer is not a lawyer. A talented lawyer with the right connections is going to cost you. And you, if you are an average citizen, probably don’t have it. The end result is that the wealthy, particularly large corporations, have more legal protection and influence than the average citizen, simply because they can afford better lawyers, and more of them.
In China, by contrast, government influence is available to everyone. There are cases of outright corruption, of course, but that’s true in every government, including our own, and the current government in China has taken very specific steps to reduce it, unlike our own, which frankly seems to be promoting it through pay to play and other similar schemes.
While living in Beijing I often saw older couples wearing hand-written sandwich boards in public venues protesting their treatment at the hands of the local government a thousand miles away. And I saw policemen without riot gear, tear gas, or military style weapons, often lead them away, but always with respect. I never once saw anyone dragged, threatened with a club, or even handcuffed.
The biggest difference, of course, is the relative power of the courts in China and the US. While there is reform underway, the courts don’t have much power in China to challenge the government. Which is why high-speed trains and new airports are still being built there and in an astonishing short period of time, and why three American college basketball players arrested for shoplifting could be released from detention without penalty or delay. That would never have happened, of course, if three Chinese basketball players had been arrested under similar circumstances in Los Angeles, because we are a “nation of laws.”
In theory a powerful judiciary would be nice if it were truly used to empower the powerless. But it’s not. It just further empowers the elite. Poor minority males end up in jail. Rich white male sex abusers go to luxury spas in Arizona for some quiet time.
Freedom to Roam:
The biggest impediment to American freedom, however—and this admittedly sounds strange coming from someone living in Michigan—is the simple fact that with very few exceptions you can not survive in America without a private car. Outside of a few urban areas, public transportation is virtually non-existent. Uber and Lyft are helping, but they, too, are largely limited to the larger urban areas. And they’re cheaper, but not cheap.
In China, by contrast, car ownership, and the expense that goes with it, are truly optional. There is cheap public transportation everywhere. And the country is laid out so that most people can pretty much walk or ride their bicycle to most places they need to go.
Whatever mobility Americans believe they enjoy, in other words, depends entirely on their ability to buy and maintain a car. It’s an incredibly regressive tax scheme that the banks and car companies love. You might decide to move to New Mexico for the weather, and you enjoy the democratic freedom to do so, but you will need to buy a car first.
If you can’t afford a car, you are, as a practical matter, forced to live in an urban area, probably in the poorest neighborhoods. And those, of course, are the neighborhoods with the highest crime, the worst public schools, and the fewest government services. (Ask the poor if they feel free.)
I could go on, and I will in future posts, but your attention is waning. Suffice it to say that I stand by my observation. The US might be one of the least free countries in existence. That’s not to say that I don’t love it; I do. I choose to live here. What we call freedom, however, is really privilege, available primarily to the country’s elite and already privileged. The old saw that them that has, gets, has never been truer than it is in the US today.
I haven’t forgotten freedom of the press yet, I assure you. Suffice it to say for now that there is less freedom of the press in the US than in China. The only difference is who does the censoring.
This will become more obvious in the future as Google, Facebook, and Twitter increasingly act on their almost limitless power to shape the news. As is typical of the American illusion, of course, they will do it in the name of consumer protection and the noble effort to eliminate Russian interference and fake news. The effect, however, will be censorship, pure and simple.
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Reuters recently ran a story entitled, China reaffirms war on poverty after suspected rural suicides. In it Reuters quoted President Xi Jinping, speaking at a Communist Party conference on the 13th 5-Year Plan. He said, “The most arduous task for achieving a well-off society in an all-around way lies in the rural areas, especially the impoverished ones.
At the time I was vacationing with my daughters on Mackinac Island, a quaint and pristine throwback in time where cars are not allowed and the bed & breakfast is taken to a new level. Unless you must have access to nightclubs while on holiday I highly recommend it. It is beautiful, quiet, and literally sits with its feet in the water at the juncture of Lake Huron and Lake Michigan at the northern most point of Michigan’s lower peninsula.
While reading the Reuters article several observations formulated into thoughts simultaneously. One, in particular, related to a statistic I heard on the radio while driving here. It was that the average American male has gained 30 pounds (13.6 kg) in weight over the last X years and now is a touch under 200 pounds (90.7 kg) – the average! In my youth that was huge. (The average American female has gained a comparable amount of weight but I honestly don’t recall the number.)
And while I don’t have any statistics on the topic, and I am sure to be viewed by some as politically incorrect, I’ll say it anyway. I live in and admire China. I’m politically incorrect to many to begin with.
My observation is that in America the lower your income, the higher the chance of your suffering from obesity. There are many rich Americans who are grossly overweight, of course. I don’t mean to suggest a direct correlation. It is an observation nonetheless.
Which brings me to a second observation. The Chinese do not wear deodorant and it is not uncommon, but not universal, that the Chinese will skip the everyday shower or bath that Americans consider a must. These two realities are often the subject of debate among ex-pats in China over whether the Chinese are subject to the same realities of body odor as Westerners are. (The Chinese are happy to tell you they aren’t.)
My own observation is that they are subject to the same realities, but don’t suffer them. They are inclined to far less body odor than Westerners. But it has nothing to do with genetics or ethnicity. It has everything to do with what they eat.
It’s difficult to find ‘real’ food in an American grocery store today. Forget the labels. They are largely irrelevant. While nearly all of the packaging claims to be less this or less that, the reality is that very little of what Americans eat today is natural, or unmodified, or even real.
I can speak from first hand experience. When I am in China I do shower every day. (The Chinese tend to shower before they go to bed instead of when they awake, which is a habit I have adopted. It really does make more sense and makes the work morning far less frantic.) But I don’t use deodorant. And I never feel, nor has my wife or colleagues ever told me, that I stink. And I honestly don’t believe I do.
When I travel to America, however, I always pack deodorant. Not because of any difference in sensitivities in the people around me, but because after a few days of eating an American diet I do stink. I feel stinky. And I smell stinky. And when I return to China the feeling and the smell go away after a few days and I put the deodorant away until my next trip.
How food is prepared, I believe, and the types of foods marketers with huge advertising budgets make available to us, is behind the growing obesity problem in America. Yes, better health care and nutrition have played a role in the growth in our average height and weight. They, by themselves, however, do not explain the obvious.
It’s a ticking time bomb for the U.S. health care system, for sure. The weight gain comes at a price. Diabetes and heart disease have both been statistically correlated with excess pounds.
There is, however, a far more serious consequence that I have never seen discussed. America, as has been well documented, is becoming more and more polarized in terms of wealth and income. It is in the top 3 when it comes to the gap between rich and poor in the developed world.
And I’m now convinced that our food supply has something to do with it. Weight discrimination is real. The people at the top of the income pyramid are handsome and pretty and seldom overweight. I don’t believe there is any debate on that.
And that, I believe, is because they have access to the low supply of truly natural foods and farm to table restaurants that are all the rage in wealthy urban and suburban areas in America. The poor have less access to these things both because of where they live and because they don’t have the money. Education may also play a role but I don’t want to go there and don’t need to in order to make the argument.
The simple fact is that the lower the price of food the greater the chance that it is heavily processed and made with artificial ingredients and flavorings. That’s why the manufacturers and processors do it. It allows them to sell value and still make a profit. And it seems irrefutably logical that the lower their income the more sensitive consumers will be to price.
In effect, America is both creating an economic feudal system and literally killing its poor prematurely through it’s commercial food chain. And making the purveyors of scented soaps and deodorants wealthy in the process.
So, yes, there is still plenty of poverty in China, particularly in the rural areas. And I hope President Xi Jinping is good to his word about doing something about it. I believe he is sincere based on his past behavior.
I dearly hope, however, that in the process of alleviating poverty, China takes a different path to a more ‘developed’ food supply and does not fill the stomachs of its people with processed and artificially-whatevered, processed food.
The sales of deodorant in China will be the telling metric. My insincere apologies to the companies that purvey such products. But I dearly hope that China remains a poor investment opportunity for them. There is no reason why people can’t enjoy a comfortable and long life together. They aren’t mutually exclusive.
Please note: As I have noted before, I make no pretense of being an investigative journalist. I am a blogger. While I make every reasonable attempt to be accurate, my stock in trade is observation. And I am the first to recognize that no generalization is universal. There are many overweight people who are so simply as a result of biological and/or genetic factors. It matters little what they eat. But the exceptions, and there may be many, don’t invalidate the observation. A national weight gain of 30 pounds is inarguably moving the needle in a material way that can’t be explained by natural causes alone.
View the author’s literary work written under the pen name of Avam Hale. Both books are available at Amazon and most major online retailers in both electronic and print formats.
Notice: The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity. They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.