I don’t often disagree with George Will, but I must take issue with parts of his recent essay (“Unlike China, U. S. has a future rooted in the past”) that closes with the following: “While China increasingly invests in its future, America increasingly invests in its past, the elderly…………America’s destiny is demographic, and therefore is inexorable and predictable, which makes the nation’s fiscal mismanagement, by both parties, especially shocking”.
I certainly don’t disagree with the remark about our fiscal mismanagement, the current manifestation of which was begun by a Republican administration and greatly expanded by the current Democratic one. And I find the current distribution of health care costs badly skewed toward the later stages of life, although I don’t have a solution, short of government mandated care and price controls, which are anathema to most Americans. But I refuse to believe that demographics is destiny, because I continue to have confidence that the American tradition of common sense will ultimately prevail in the policy arena. One might say this is naive. Maybe, but it’s not cynical.
Will notes the enormous investment that China is making in education. Well, no nation spends more on public education than the United States, over $10,000 per student annually. We may complain about the results, and no one does more of that publicly than I do, but these resources are allocated based on the consent of a free people expressed through their chosen representatives, an important point. I have been to China, have had dialogue with some of its top leaders, and read extensively of their thoughts and strategies. They are scrambling fast to maintain control and deliver success to their people, mostly because it’s the right thing to do, but also because they know that theirs is essentially an illegitimate regime that must produce results at almost any cost. The Chinese also know that, ultimately, to produce the kind of results they need, they must adapt the success factors of the West to their culture, keeping the ideas that are useful while rejecting the ones that are subversive to their control (witness the current conflict with Google). In the long run, this is a losing battle and I believe they also know that.
Contra to Will, Joel Kotkin writes that demographics is actually an advantage to America, particularly given the differing demographic trajectories of the U. S. compared to the Western European countries and Russia. As for China, he suggests that their xenophobia is so embedded in their worldview that demographics can be a disadvantage in their ability to function successfully as a world and economic power.
In the end, America remains the only nation that, as Chesterton said, is “founded on a creed”. I am evidently somewhat more confident than George Will that the next generation can sustain that exceptionalism and all that it means for our world economic leadership, while not abandoning us in our advancing years.