Gains from trade apply with China, also

A result of real Chinese parenting

An Amy Chua article on “Chinese parenting” has been getting a lot of backlash for, among other things, suggesting this is a good way to teach piano:

Back at the piano, Lulu made me pay. She punched, thrashed and kicked. She grabbed the music score and tore it to shreds. I taped the score back together and encased it in a plastic shield so that it could never be destroyed again. Then I hauled Lulu’s dollhouse to the car and told her I’d donate it to the Salvation Army piece by piece if she didn’t have “The Little White Donkey” perfect by the next day. When Lulu said, “I thought you were going to the Salvation Army, why are you still here?” I threatened her with no lunch, no dinner, no Christmas or Hanukkah presents, no birthday parties for two, three, four years. When she still kept playing it wrong, I told her she was purposely working herself into a frenzy because she was secretly afraid she couldn’t do it. I told her to stop being lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic.[…]

I rolled up my sleeves and went back to Lulu. I used every weapon and tactic I could think of. We worked right through dinner into the night, and I wouldn’t let Lulu get up, not for water, not even to go to the bathroom. The house became a war zone, and I lost my voice yelling, but still there seemed to be only negative progress…

Besides the rather extreme cruelty exhibited here, and the stereotyping of “Chinese parenting” in the article (at one point she says, “If a Chinese child gets a B—which would never happen…”), many doubt whether isolating children and demanding a high level of rote learning is efficacious beyond the very limited goal of getting people into Ivy League schools. So, David Brooks:

I believe [Chua is] coddling her children. She’s protecting them from the most intellectually demanding activities because she doesn’t understand what’s cognitively difficult and what isn’t.

Practicing a piece of music for four hours requires focused attention, but it is nowhere near as cognitively demanding as a sleepover with 14-year-old girls. Managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group — these and other social tests impose cognitive demands that blow away any intense tutoring session or a class at Yale.

Yet mastering these arduous skills is at the very essence of achievement. Most people work in groups….

Participating in a well-functioning group is really hard. It requires the ability to trust people outside your kinship circle, read intonations and moods, understand how the psychological pieces each person brings to the room can and cannot fit together.

I think Brooks is absolutely right; in a modern economy – in fact, in any economy post Industrial Revolution – it’s crucial to be able to trust other people enough to function in a global market. You have to trust that contracts will be upheld, that when you buy from Starbucks the coffee, milk, sugar, cardboard, heating equipment and so on are all good products, even though you’ve never met the people who’ve made any of them. In some sense, you have to trust – if only implicitly – that trade, and prices, work. As Keith Humprey’s relates, Chua’s type of parenting creates the opposite effect – a belief that we live in a zero-sum world where your gain is my loss. And so it’s astonishing to read David Brooks include this throwaway in the very same column:

Chua plays into America’s fear of national decline. Here’s a Chinese parent working really hard (and, by the way, there are a billion more of her) and her kids are going to crush ours.

If Brooks is being serious he’s missing the entire force of his argument. If Chinese kids are successful they won’t “crush us” If Chinese parenting was truly successful for the “billion more of her” then that would be overall great for us, just as China’s rise in general should be good for us economically. Think about it this way. Many economists thought that this recession was an aggregate demand one, which just meant that the economy was weaker because people bought less stuff. If China gets richer then she will buy many more American goods. More iPads. More PCs. Maybe even more wheat.

And even beyond the sheer increase in products China can buy for us, a China that’s full of university educated people is a China that could produce the next Einstein or Jonas Salk – a China that could help cure cancer and improve solar energy. I’m pretty sure Chua’s methods are not the way there, but surely improving Chinese welfare does not decrease Americans’, in the aggregate.

(First, that coffee example is from Tim Hartford’s The Undercover Economist and before then from the essay I, Pencil. Second, I should just caveat this mutual-gains thing in regards to China and say that while this is probably true in the long run, in the short run some people will lose jobs to cheaper labor in China. And I think there’s a good argument that the state should have some role in propping them up. But in the long run people will find jobs in other sectors, and the cheaper and improved goods from abroad will be the reward for sending jobs temporarily overseas. This is a form of creative destruction, just in terms of allocating labor, not making different products.)

Picture: My photo, available with CC licence.

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