Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Think fast.

Here is the key part of Tom Friedman’s piece in today’s New York Times:

China, of course, understands [what’s going on], which is why it is investing heavily in clean-tech, efficiency and high-speed rail. It sees the future trends and is betting on them. Indeed, I suspect China is quietly laughing at us right now. And Iran, Russia, Venezuela and the whole OPEC gang are high-fiving each other. Nothing better serves their interests than to see Americans becoming confused about climate change, and, therefore, less inclined to move toward clean-tech and, therefore, more certain to remain addicted to oil. Yes, sir, it is morning in Saudi Arabia.

This observation points out an important difference between dictatorships and democracies that has until now served democracies and particularly the US well but is not necessarily going to do so forever.  The difference is that the US can never “understand” anything complicated.  Our system depends on the nation never really understanding anything.  We believe  some important things, and our intellectuals understand some important things, but our government does not operate by understanding – it operates by resolving the power vectors of people with competing beliefs, beliefs determined by short-term interests, which can be greatly at odds with how things really are.

China’s bosses do have to answer indirectly to the people.  Everyone talks about how the Chinese mercantilist strategy is intended to prevent some sort of political upheaval.  How can there be an upheaval in a true thugocracy?  But the Chinese political system does not have nearly the give and take of ours.  The bosses are the bosses until they are not the bosses.  So if they think nuclear, wind, and solar energy would be good for China, then they will implement them, and they will not have to worry about being voted out in the next election.  If the policies fail – if the growing prosperity stops growing – then they may have something to worry about.  But for now, there is no one to stop them from turning pretty much on a dime – no 41-vote minority of an opposing party – to stand in their way. 

The point here is not specifically that dictatorships can move quickly. That has always been true.  But dictatorships’ power to move quickly has, in the past, ended badly, as ideologues implement rules that stifle rather than promote innovation and prosperity.  But things change.  The Chinese dictatorship appears not to be terribly ideological, at least not in the way we are used to seeing Communists be ideological.  Nor do they appear to be thugs in the sense that they kill their political rivals the way Stalin and Pol Pot did.  Yes, they suppress dissent, but they have not suppressed innovation, allowing some measure of economic, i.e., entrepreneurial freedom, which is a great release valve for restless minds.

The point, rather, is that there are times when speed matters more than at others, and there are world conditions to which a democracy, unable to reason, cannot respond effectively, whereas a dictatorship, if it has the right people in place, can respond intelligently and rapidly.  The odds may very well favor democracy, in the sense that a confluence of difficult problems and wise dictators doesn’t happen often enough to make dictatorship the “right” strategy for a people to pursue.  But that does not mean that such a confluence does not happen or that it is not happening right now, precisely as Friedman describes it.

The whole idea of saying “China understands…” is alien to us.  When do we ever say “The United States understands…”?  We don’t say it.  We say, in retrospect, that some American leader understood something and was able to persuade folks to act on it.  Or not.  Jimmy Carter understood how damaging our dependence on foreign oil was.  But did the US “understand”?  Not hardly.  We had just lived through an oil embargo that had disrupted life here significantly.  Still, instead of starting a crash program to become energy independent, we watched the price of oil fall back to comfortable levels, as if it would never rise again, and went back to our stupid ways.  Like the hillbilly in the Arkansas Traveler’s song, we can’t fix the roof when it’s raining, and we don’t need to fix it when it’s not. 

A traveler was riding by that day,
And stopped to hear him a-practicing away;
The cabin was a-float and his feet were wet,
But still the old man didn't seem to fret.
So the stranger said "Now the way it seems to me,
You'd better mend your roof," said he.
But the old man said as he played away,
"I couldn't mend it now, it's a rainy day."

The traveler replied, "That's all quite true,
But this, I think, is the thing to do;
Get busy on a day that is fair and bright,
Then patch the old roof till it's good and tight."
But the old man kept on a-playing at his reel,
And tapped the ground with his leathery heel.
"Get along," said he, "for you give me a pain;
My cabin never leaks when it doesn't rain."

Apparently, the old man didn’t understand. 

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