Saturday, March 04, 2017

Woe is me! Damn those Chinese!

I have sent an edited version of this to the editor

Throughout the campaign, donald t. rump beat up on three countries as the most significant reason for why the white working class were left behind even as the American economy grew: China, Mexico, and India. Since his election and then the inauguration, trump has further amplified that message from the presidential bully pulpit.

Given how long we have been listening to the rhetoric that blames China, Mexico, and India, here is a quick question. Can you name the presidents of China and Mexico, and the prime minister of India?

If a scientific polling were done, my guess is that only a very small percentage of the American electorate will be able to correctly name even two of those three leaders. In contrast, quite a few Americans will be able to name the leader of our northern neighbor, Canada.

When I worry that most Americans, especially those who love beating up on China, Mexico, and India, would not know the names of the leaders of those countries, my concern is not about my fellow Americans being unfamiliar with factoids. It is not a game of trivial pursuits. I have three important reasons.

First, if we are going to make an enemy out of somebody or a country, then we better get to know that enemy really well. Sun Tzu, the philosopher and military general from China, articulated it well more than 1,500 years ago:
If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.
If we are going to make those countries the “bad hombres,” then we better know who they are. Merely eating Chinese, Mexican, and Indian foods do not make us experts about those countries with long and rich histories. And, by the way, the typical Chinese, Mexican, and Indian foods that we eat at restaurants are not the typical foods that are consumed in the households in those countries. For instance, how many of you are familiar with the “idli/sambar” combination that is everyday food in the part of India where I was born and raised

Second, here is the economic reality about the US and those three countries. Even after adjusting for the cost of living, and on a per capita basis, Mexicans and Chinese earn only about 40 percent of what the average American earns. The Indian economy lags even further behind—the per capita income in India is barely more than 10 percent of the average American income. Even the Greeks and the Kazakhs live more affluent lives than do the average Chinese, Mexican, or Indian.

Those average incomes do not convey the remarkable differences between life here in the US versus life in those three countries. Consider the following two factoids, for instance. In India, 240 million have no access to electricity. And about 60 percent of the 1.2 billion people there defecate in the open because of a lack of toilets at home. Yet, we think such a country is “our competition” stealing “our” jobs?

Knowing the names of those leaders is, therefore, a mere starting point to understanding those countries. Before I proceed, here are the names of the leaders. The president of China is Xi Jinping. And, note that Xi is the surname and not the given name—in many cultures around the world, the given name is not the name that appears first. Thus, it is President Xi. Enrique Peña Nieto is Mexico’s president. And, narendra modi is India’s prime minister.

Finally, and most importantly, we operate under a terribly screwed up view of the world if we believe that only our economy and our jobs matter and, therefore, the rest are our enemies. To paraphrase Shakespeare’s Shylock, if we prick them do they not bleed? Aren’t “they” humans too, who would like to have electricity and indoor plumbing? Is there any law that only Americans are entitled to a life of affluence?

Further, the story of economic progress over the past two centuries has been one of betterment all over the world. While some countries lag behind others, global competition and trade has contributed to improvement in the human condition across the planet. It is incorrect, and unwise, to think that “their” betterment will mean nothing but “our” loss. It is our government policies, and not China or Mexico or India, which is to be blamed for the economic stagnation of the American middle class.

If, instead, we continue to beat up on China, Mexico, and India, and others too, then I panic about another line from Shylock’s soliloquy: “if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”


Ramesh said...

As this post is entirely directed at Americans, I cannot offer a reasonable comment that I of course know the leaders of all those countries. Instead I would completely agree with you that not a single American, not of Indian origin, can understand what an idli sambar is.

Here's proof. The good lady that is visiting this country remembered idli from our previous banter on some post. So she tried it out at the hotel breakfast and opined that it is bland and tasteless. I had to advise her to try it our with the sambhar !!

Sriram Khé said...

You even know the local level leaders in China ... am always hesitant to talk Chinese affairs with you as one damn China expert. Seriously, if India has something like the India-China Chamber of Commerce, I hope you are an active participant in that ... are you?

Most read this past month