Wednesday, November 10, 2010

U.S.-China Convergence

by Richard Crews
The U.S. economy has recently taken a bad bruising. For a century and a half we believed more and more--sometimes secretly, sometimes ostentatiously--that democratic capitalism was the way the human race was meant to turn out. Clanism, feudalism, and monarchy fell by the wayside. Communism and fascism took their turns at the plate and struck out. Socialism evolved drastically to take a seat in the boardroom. But democratic capitalism built on its gains, learned from its setbacks, and inexorably spread to take over the world--economically, politically, and even culturally.

Democratic capitalism seemed like the ultimate marriage between the strengths and foibles of human nature. Its spiritual tradition was Judeo-Christian, a blend of puritanical hard work with soul-saving do-goodism. Its biological belief structure combined jungle-instinct, survival-of-the-fittest competitiveness with an inborn sense of altruism and community. As Western history was written and rewritten, monarchs yielded to presidents and to chairmen (and chairwomen) of the board, and military might yielded to economic heft. Democratic capitalism, it seemed, was being honed and polished in its role as the ultimate way of organizing human behavior.

Meanwhile China slept. It was mired in the weight of its vast human masses and the inertia of its traditions. Its spiritual roots were in the Tao (just let things be, go with the flow) and the wisdom of Confucius (the highest good, the Great Man, was a thoughtful and ethical leader). Its biological belief structure was empirical but deeply traditional. And the writing and rewriting of its history consisted of a succession of tyrants culminating during the twentieth century with the hegemony of communism, the ultimate tyrant.

But the U.S. and the appended world economy has recently taken a bad bruising. Laissez-faire deregulation, it seems, does not correctly--ultimately--counterbalance the short-sighted greed of entrepreneurs and economic empire builders. We wanted ever so much to believe it would. We tried hard to be like the three monkeys, covering our eyes and ears and mouth (and nose). Surely, surely the inventive financial excesses would right themselves--the false credit, the speculative "investment" slights of hand, the insider double-dealing would create their own demise; the inherent specific gravities and buoyancies of democratic capitalism were such that the ship would right itself.

But it didn't. Even the venerable Alan Greenspan, for 20 years America's top banker--the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, after a lifetime of laissez faire economic punditry said, essentially,"I was wrong."

Meanwhile China woke. It had struggled with its encumbrances and studied the West's successes. And in the wake of the West's economic disaster, China emerged from the mist coming on strong.

Now we have two world views. Democratic capitalism from the West trying to reign in its mad, runaway horses: trying to regulate renegade financiers, curb industrial pollution, and channel consumerism into sustainable (green) paths all the while sustaining (or in some cases rehabilitating) its humanitarian values--safety nets for the infirmities of illness and old age, universal health care and education, and respect for the dignity and individuality of each human being. And from the East, trying to dictate its way to mature capitalism: recognizing the need for a strong, consumer ("middle") class and perhaps, therefore, the inevitability of human rights and civil liberties.

As the West becomes more and more regulated and the East, more and more liberal, China and the U.S. are on convergent paths--and the world holds its breath.