We can learn from the United States

The particular strength of the US is that it has a great education system. As a consequence, it produces many people who are articulate, intelligent, thoughtful and above all, reasonable. That thought struck me forcefully once again when I was reading James Fallows’ essay in the recent issue of The Atlantic titled “How America can Rise Again.” Of course, the reason it has a good educational system is simply because it has a good set of rules, the primary source of which is the constitution of the US. Below the fold, I have some extended excerpts from the essay by Fallows. It’s one heck of a fine essay and I am certain you would learn from it.

SINCE COMING BACK to the United States after three years away in China, I have been asking experts around the country whether America is finally going to hell. The question is partly a joke. One look at the comforts and abundance of American life—even during a recession, even with all the people who are suffering or left out—can make it seem silly to ask about anything except the secrets of the country’s success. Here is the sort of thing you notice anew after being in India or China, the two rising powers of the day: there is still so much nature, and so much space, available for each person on American soil. Room on the streets and sidewalks, big lawns around the houses, trees to walk under, wildflowers at the edge of town—yes, despite the sprawl and overbuilding. A few days after moving from our apartment in Beijing, I awoke to find a mother deer and two fawns in the front yard of our house in Washington, barely three miles from the White House. I know that deer are a modern pest, but the contrast with blighted urban China, in which even pigeons are scarce, was difficult to ignore.

. . .

When I was a schoolboy in California in the 1950s and ’60s, the freeways were new and big and smooth—like the new roads being built all across China. Today’s California freeways are cracked and crowded and old. A Chinese student I knew in Shanghai who has recently entered graduate school at UC Berkeley sent me a note saying that the famous San Francisco Bay Area seemed “beautiful, but run down.” I remember a similar reaction on arriving at graduate school in England in the 1970s and seeing the sad physical remnants—dimly lit museums, once-stately homes, public buildings overdue for repair—from a time when the society had bigger dreams and more resources than it could muster in the here and now. A Chinese friend who flew for the first time from Beijing to New York phoned soon after landing to complain about the potholed, traffic-jammed taxi ride from JFK to Manhattan. “When I was growing up, these bridges and roads and dams were a source of real national pride and achievement,” Stephen Flynn, the president of the Center for National Policy in Washington, who was born in 1960, told me. “My daughter was 6 when the World Trade Center towers went down, 8 when lights went off on the East Coast, 10 when a major U.S. city drowned—I saw things built, and she’s seen them fall apart.” America is supposed to be the permanent country of the New, but a lot of it just looks old.

. . .

The American culture’s particular strengths could conceivably be about to assume new importance and give our economy new pep. International networks will matter more with each passing year. As the one truly universal nation, the United States continually refreshes its connections with the rest of the world—through languages, family, education, business—in a way no other nation does, or will. The countries that are comparably open—Canada, Australia—aren’t nearly as large; those whose economies are comparably large—Japan, unified Europe, eventually China or India—aren’t nearly as open. The simplest measure of whether a culture is dominant is whether outsiders want to be part of it. At the height of the British Empire, colonial subjects from the Raj to Malaya to the Caribbean modeled themselves in part on Englishmen: Nehru and Lee Kuan Yew went to Cambridge, Gandhi, to University College, London. Ho Chi Minh wrote in French for magazines in Paris. These days the world is full of businesspeople, bureaucrats, and scientists who have trained in the United States.

Today’s China attracts outsiders too, but in a particular way. Many go for business opportunities; or because of cultural fascination; or, as my wife and I did, to be on the scene where something truly exciting was under way. The Haidian area of Beijing, seat of its universities, is dotted with the faces of foreigners who have come to master the language and learn the system. But true immigrants? People who want their children and grandchildren to grow up within this system? Although I met many foreigners who hope to stay in China indefinitely, in three years I encountered only two people who aspired to citizenship in the People’s Republic. From the physical rigors of a badly polluted and still-developing country, to the constraints on free expression and dissent, to the likely ongoing mediocrity of a university system that emphasizes volume of output over independence or excellence of research, the realities of China heavily limit the appeal of becoming Chinese. Because of its scale and internal diversity, China (like India) is a more racially open society than, say, Japan or Korea. But China has come nowhere near the feats of absorption and opportunity that make up much of America’s story, and it is very difficult to imagine that it could do so—well, ever.

Everything we know about future industries and technologies suggests that they will offer ever-greater rewards to flexibility, openness, reinvention, “crowdsourcing,” and all other manifestations of individuals and groups keenly attuned to their surroundings. Everything about American society should be hospitable toward those traits—and should foster them better and more richly than other societies can. The American advantage here is broad and atmospheric, but it also depends on two specific policies that, in my view, are the absolute pillars of American strength: continued openness to immigration, and a continued concentration of universities that people around the world want to attend.

. . .

Americans often fret about the troops of engineers and computer scientists marching out of Chinese universities. They should calm down. Each fall, Shanghai’s Jiao Tong University produces a ranking of the world’s universities based mainly on scientific-research papers. All such rankings are imprecise, but the pattern is clear. Of the top 20 on the latest list, 17 are American, the exceptions being Cambridge (No. 4), Oxford (No. 10), and the University of Tokyo (No. 20). Of the top 100 in the world, zero are Chinese.

“On paper, China has the world’s largest higher education system, with a total enrollment of 20 million full-time tertiary students,” Peter Yuan Cai, of the Australian National University in Canberra, wrote last fall. “Yet China still lags behind the West in scientific discovery and technological innovation.” The obstacles for Chinese scholars and universities range from grand national strategy—open economy, closed political and media environment—to the operational traditions of Chinese academia. Students spend years cramming details for memorized tests; the ones who succeed then spend years in thrall to entrenched professors. Shirley Tilghman said the modern American model of advanced research still shows the influence of Vannevar Bush, who directed governmental science projects during and after World War II. “It was his very conscious decision to get money into young scientists’ hands as quickly as possible,” she said. This was in contrast to the European “Herr Professor” model, also prevalent in Asia, in which, she said, for young scientists, the “main opportunity for promotion was waiting for their mentor to die.” Young Chinese, Indians, Brazilians, Dutch know they will have opportunities in American labs and start-ups they could not have at home. This will remain America’s advantage, unless we throw it away.

. . .

That is the American tragedy of the early 21st century: a vital and self-renewing culture that attracts the world’s talent, and a governing system that increasingly looks like a joke. One thing I’ve never heard in my time overseas is “I wish we had a Senate like yours.” When Jimmy Carter was running for president in 1976, he said again and again that America needed “a government as good as its people.” Knowing Carter’s sometimes acid views on human nature, I thought that was actually a sly barb—and that the imperfect American public had generally ended up with the government we deserve. But now I take his plea at face value. American culture is better than our government. And if we can’t fix what’s broken, we face a replay of what made the months after the 9/11 attacks so painful: realizing that it was possible to change course and address problems long neglected, and then watching that chance slip away.

The most charitable statement of the problem is that the American government is a victim of its own success. It has survived in more or less recognizable form over more than two centuries—long enough to become mismatched to the real circumstances of the nation. If Henry Adams were whooshed from his Washington of a century ago to our Washington of today, he would find it shockingly changed, except for the institutions of government. Same two political parties, same number of members of the House (since 1913, despite more than a threefold increase in population), essentially same rules of debate in the Senate. Thomas Jefferson’s famed wish for “a little rebellion now and then” as a “medicine necessary for the sound health of government” is a nice slogan for organizing rallies, but is not how his country has actually operated.

Every system strives toward durability, but as with human aging, longevity has a cost. The late economist Mancur Olson laid out the consequences of institutional aging in his 1982 book, The Rise and Decline of Nations. Year by year, he said, special-interest groups inevitably take bite after tiny bite out of the total national wealth. They do so through tax breaks, special appropriations, what we now call legislative “earmarks,” and other favors that are all easier to initiate than to cut off. No single nibble is that dramatic or burdensome, but over the decades they threaten to convert any stable democracy into a big, inefficient, favor-ridden state. In 1994, Jonathan Rauch updated Olson’s analysis and called this enfeebling pattern “demosclerosis,” in a book of that name. He defined the problem as “government’s progressive loss of the ability to adapt,” a process “like hardening of the arteries, which builds up stealthily over many years.”

We are now 200-plus years past Jefferson’s wish for permanent revolution and nearly 30 past Olson’s warning, with that much more buildup of systemic plaque—and of structural distortions, too. When the U.S. Senate was created, the most populous state, Virginia, had 10 times as many people as the least populous, Delaware. Giving them the same two votes in the Senate was part of the intricate compromise over regional, economic, and slave-state/free-state interests that went into the Constitution. Now the most populous state, California, has 69 times as many people as the least populous, Wyoming, yet they have the same two votes in the Senate. A similarly inflexible business organization would still have a major Whale Oil Division; a military unit would be mainly fusiliers and cavalry. No one would propose such a system in a constitution written today, but without a revolution, it’s unchangeable. Similarly, since it takes 60 votes in the Senate to break a filibuster on controversial legislation, 41 votes is in effect a blocking minority. States that together hold about 12 percent of the U.S. population can provide that many Senate votes. This converts the Senate from the “saucer” George Washington called it, in which scalding ideas from the more temperamental House might “cool,” into a deep freeze and a dead weight.

There’s more in the Atlantic essay.

2 thoughts on “We can learn from the United States

  1. I wish I shared Fallows’s optimism. Sadly no. The US education system may still produce very smart and articulate people. But the power of this class to influence and direct public policy has been on the wane for over 30 years since the advent of Reagan and is today plumbing new depths. The US suffers from deep social, economic and political problems and no solution is in sight. This is a land that is run by corporations that use politicians as cats paws. It is know nothing MBAs in suits that decide how best to keep Wall St happy, the customer, employee and society be damned. What began as a trickle with outsourced manufacturing, has now become a deluge, leaving large swathes of the US, denuded of investment. The flight of manufacturing to China, facilitated by robber barons like Jack Welch has turned inner cities into ghost towns, and once prosperous areas like S.Illinois into wastelands. Unlike even banana republics, the US simply does nothing about separating money power and political power. As a result any industrial lobby can influence just about any law you can imagine. A grotesque criminal justice system supported by a prison-industry-complex manages to maintain the world’s largest prisoner population incarcerating 1000s of young men and women for petty offences while letting the rich go scotfree. Intransigence and unscientific thinking on the part of legislators has ensured that >0 years have been frittered away without developing any meaningful alternative to fossil fuels. And to sustain this addiction the US has in the last 10 years spent >$3 trillion on warfare, to no avail. A spectacularly dumb electorate (what else would you call a group that revotes Bush and hankers for a Palin administration) led by compromised legislators has failed to effect meaningful reform on just about any subject you can think of – healthcare, energy, education, banking, justice, or immigration.

    In the meanwhile there is thriving industry (consisting of both right wing and left wing hacks) that makes light of the flight of jobs overseas. Fallows is one such hack, making light of China’s investments in the future, or as others tend to do when they write about India – how it encourages “rote learning” (as if that helps one thru the JEE), hierarchy etc. No one seems to realise the scale and scope of job flight. It is no longer about cost, because when a company like Microsoft has relocated its entire global backoffice to Chennai and likes the service it is likely they will stay there for a very long time to come. Or as with McKinsey that has shifted 50% of its research backoffice to India or like McAfee where 100% of its patents were generated by the India office in 2007.

    Even education doesn’t seem to help in the US. One year after he got elected Obama has ignored the warning of other learned people like Robert Reich and Krugman and instead listened to washouts and made a mess of things. This country’s people’s ability to be distracted by soundbites is horrifying. I was having an argument with my Jewish boss about healthcare when he repeatedly kept !decrying socialised medicine, until I told him Israel has precisely such a system. So while it is important that the US revive, because a world ruled by China is too horrible to imagine, it is not going to be easy.


  2. I agree with krauncha’s comments, but I wish to point out
    the contrast between the education systems in India and the
    US, to give him some room for optimism, or at least for a little less pessimism. If one looks at the recent drama about deemed Universities in India and ask the question, is there any organisation in India like the American Association for Universities and Colleges with a mandate of upholding the quality of higher education? I have not seen a single document on higher education in India that comes anywhere near the scholarship of an example document from the AACU Board.

    “Our Students’ Best Work: A Framework for Accountability Worthy of Our Mission”

    A whole generation of smart Indian youngsters are getting dumbed down through our higher education system today and I
    feel that is a cause for much bigger concern as an Indian.

    If I were a US citizen I will be very concerned about Bush-driven and not yet repudiated measures to make
    assessment and test as the primary means of ensuring effectiveness of education, using the ‘success’ of Indian education as a rationale!


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