Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Battle For Africa And The Ideological War With China

David Brooks likes big ideas.  In this article he turns a success story in Africa into a big idea.  His big idea is that China is gaining prestige in many African nations and that its version of "authoritarian capitalism" is winning the ideological war against "democratic capitalism" which is purported to be the US system of capitalism.  The Chinese system is autocratic and centralized; the US system is democratic and decentralized according to Brooks.  It would be a shame if African nations adopted the Chinese system over the US system.  We need to provide more demonstrations of the successful application of "democratic and decentralized capitalism" in Africa.

David Brooks' big idea comes from reading a book about Africa.  He lives in the US but he seems not to understand his own country.  Perhaps he should read more about what has happened to representative government and democratic capitalism in the US.  He could start with an article in today's NYT which describes the inability of government to provide safe drinking water for 500,000 residents of Toledo, Ohio.  The city's water supply comes from Lake Erie which has been polluted by toxic algae.  The city was forced to restrict the use of water from Lake Erie for two days.  That is not a new problem in Ohio, and it is not a unique problem.  Other lakes are being polluted by individual capitalists who put their own interests above those of the greater community.  The overuse of phosphorus fertilizers and improper disposal of animal waste by farmers is the major cause of pollution in Lake Erie.  The farmers and the fertilizer industry are represented in government by lobbyists;  they have been more successful in limiting the ability of government to control pollution than the 500,000 residents of Toledo want government to prevent the pollution of its source of water.  That is not how "democratic capitalism" is supposed to work, but it is a fair description of what has been happening to that system in the US.  There is a strong tension between democracy and hierarchical systems.  Hierarchy has no interest in a vigorous democracy.

Brooks also has a love affair with decentralization.  He contrasts decentralized decision making with the command and control system that is used in China, and in  other authoritarian regimes.  He does not seem to understand that most of the large corporations in America operate under a centralized command and control system.  Corporate strategy is set at the highest levels of the corporation and managers at lower levels of the corporation are required to meet financial targets that are aligned with the strategy.  There are lots of discussions between top management, and the management lower in the hierarchy, but there is no question as to where the real authority lies.  That system seems to work reasonably well for large corporations, and countries like China seem to have emulated that system effectively.  Its hard to understand what "democratic capitalism" means to David Brooks.

My point is not that we should emulate China in America.  David Brooks should turn his sights on his own country and stop reading books.  He might start by telling us how government should respond to the pollution of Lake Erie, and by suggesting the changes in our political system that will limit the ability of lobbyists to constrain government decision making.

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