Kuora: One simple lesson the U.S. can learn from China

Today’s column comes from one of Kaiser’s answers originally posted to Quora on November 10, 2017:

What if anything can American policymakers learn from China about how to maintain social cohesion amidst high socioeconomic inequality?

I’m going to go with the “if anything” option in the question and suggest that China doesn’t offer anything by way of viable solutions. What looks like social cohesion in China despite a high Gini coefficient is mostly a product of sufficient forward motion — along with coercion, frivolous distractions, fairly effective controls not just on media but on the basic historical narrative, and occasional (and — touch wood — thus far fairly mild and controlled) appeals to nationalism.

I’ll concede there’s probably something cultural in there — a certain acceptance of inequality as natural, with roots in the Confucian myth of meritocracy and the Mencian idea that “those who labor with their heads should rule those who labor with their hands,” and I would further concede that the once tight-woven social fabric hasn’t so frayed yet that it can still keep the losers in China’s increasingly cutthroat economic game from falling too far.

But I think these features are not only impossible to really copy and paste onto America, but are on the wane in China and are too weak, ultimately, to counteract the fissiparous forces constantly at work — forces that, as your question suggests, are made stronger by income and wealth inequality.

It’s easier to keep your balance on a fast-moving bicycle. But “grow really fast” isn’t exactly something that the U.S. can just borrow, either. And while fast growth has propelled Chinese society along for over three decades now, it only worked its magic as long as basically everyone was getting richer — as long as their slice of this still-fast-growing pie, though not nearly as big as the other guy’s, was still bigger than it was last year. That doesn’t look like it’s going to be the case for all that much longer.

Which leaves the other tools in Beijing’s toolbox. There’s coercion, but that’s hardly something most Americans would see as a best practice worth adopting. There’s distraction, but that’s something at which we’re already much, much better than the Chinese. There’s media and narrative controls, but that’s just goddamn un-American, and besides, it’s probably too late — that ship has sailed, captained most recently by our “FAKE NEWS”-barking president, who has led us deeper into the epistemically brackish waters of Post Truth. Trump, though, our Tribune of the Plebs, does seem to have bamboozled the disaffected into believing he’s leading them, pitchforks in hand, against the rich even as he’s doling out massive tax breaks to the rich and shamelessly mortgaging whatever future the plebs might ever have had. Nothing to learn from China there, either.

All then that’s left — something that may have worked to delay a reckoning over wealth inequality in China — is the paean to patriotism. China has Xi Jinping’s vague and undefined “Chinese Dream” idea. That vagueness may be one of its chief strengths. Trump’s version of it — “Make America Great Again” — is distressingly far from the kind of inclusive, expansive, broad-minded, and inspiring idea that, say, a new Great Society might be. Rather, it’s exclusionary, deliberately parochial, inward-facing, rooted in fear, and just plain mean. So perhaps if there’s anything to borrow from China right now, it’s that country’s sensible recognition that economic globalization can still continue to bear abundant fruit. Alas, it looks like under this administration, the U.S. will instead reap the bitter harvest of another Smoot-Hawley.

Kuora is a weekly column.