December 14, 2017


When America Was a Developing Country (Addison Del Mastro, Dec. 13th, 2017, American Conservative)

Consider this. The World Bank defines a "high-income country"--a rough analogue for a developed country--as having a GNI per capita at or above $12,476 [2]. The United States reached this threshold in 1979 [3], according to one of the World Bank's calculations. Investopedia states [4], "Some economists feel $12,000 to $15,000 [GDP per capita] is sufficient for developed status, while others do not consider a country developed unless its per capita GDP is above $25,000 or $30,000." The United States achieved a $12,000 GDP per capita in 1980 [5], and it achieved a $25,000 per capita GDP in 1992. Depending on which of very many methods is used to calculate these numbers, the years can be pushed back a couple or a few decades. Even then, they are surprising, generally placing the United States' transition from developing to developed nation in the early post-war era, which is to say the 1950s.

As for GDP growth rates, rapidly developing countries typically post somewhere between 5 to 10 percent. Look at the growth rates for China or India over the last few years, or for South Korea and Taiwan in the 1980s and '90s. Mature economies eke out between 1 and 3 percent--if they're lucky, 4. The last time the United States grew by over 5 percent was 1984 [6], and that was during an economic recovery. Such numbers were posted commonly in the 1970s and earlier, and have since vanished.

This is further evidence that America could reasonably be described as a developing country up until about the 1960s, when mass-produced consumer goods became widely available, labor-saving devices had vanquished laborious housekeeping chores, and social goods like health and education were enjoyed by the majority of the population (ensuring a racially equal distribution was another story, of course). The disappearance of the countryside-urban divide into long stretches of suburbia also indicated a higher level of economic development, though not necessarily a superior living arrangement.

In thinking about all of this, and having completed my degree in public policy with a cohort largely made up of Chinese students, I began to notice an uncanny similarity between what I knew of modern China and the United States of yore. Based on GDP data, one could make the case that China is roughly in the phase of development that the United States was in from around 1890 to 1950: the period of rapid industrial growth. Anecdotally, this is the time when the skyscrapers go up. It is also the period before skyscrapers are snidely derided as a certain kind of measuring contest.

The social attitudes of the Chinese students I have met are also reminiscent of the American 1950s. For example, they have very little sense of identity politics or social justice ideology, which are probably epiphenomena of the West's gratuitous affluence. At a Chinese New Year party, one classmate prepared an incredible spread of homemade dumplings. Another classmate offered the compliment, with no hint of sarcasm, that she was like a great Chinese housewife. In my experience, the Chinese view marriage and family as mostly normal and expected stepping stones in life, without all of the ideological freight that they have acquired for us. When it comes to politics, their attitudes are more like those of the machine politician age: cynical about the ability of both government and markets to operate without patronage and corruption. Yet they aren't cynical about the value of hard work and merit, and perhaps deemphasize the undeniable structural aspects of poverty; another Chinese classmate of mine once said, as if it were an unorthodox opinion, that perhaps the poor are not poor only because they are lazy.

If what I've just described reminds you of bygone American attitudes, it is only because a sincere work ethic, social traditionalism, and hard-nosed realism about politics and self-interest are not "Chinese" attitudes or "American" attitudes. What they are is developing country attitudes. This is something that those who pine for an earlier era must understand. It is not only that the desired economic and social arrangements are long gone--it is that their psychology is also long gone.

Posted by at December 14, 2017 5:25 PM