Friday, March 07, 2014

Ming America

Here's me being both preachy and alarmist in The Week:
For almost 300 years, Ming China could — and did — rightfully consider itself the center of the world. 
But with the hindsight of history, the Ming doesn't look so awesome. While China was basking in seemingly timeless stability, Europe was seething with new ideas and technological progress. Even as the Chinese government banned oceanic shipping and heavily restricted foreign trade, European countries were discovering the New World and building trading empires. By the time the Ming fell in the 17th century, Europe was well on the way to dominating the world. 
The stagnation of the Ming may carry important lessons for a more modern superpower: The United States. We too are a huge, rich, powerful nation that for much of our history has dominated the field of competitors. We too have a whole century of dominance — the 20th — under our belt. And if there's one thing we don't want to do, it's turn into the Ming... 
One big reason the Ming stagnated was probably isolationism...The United States is hardly isolationist. But as a large country that is geographically isolated from most of the populated world, we need to be vigilant against turning inward...Survey after survey finds that Americans are geographically illiterate... 
Another likely reason for the Ming's decline was disrespect of science...America shows uncomfortable signs of treading this same path. Of course, there is the attempt by conservative groups to halt the teaching of evolution, climate science, and the Big Bang in public schools, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. Americans are turning away en masse from science, technology, and mathematics fields... 
America shows signs of falling into this trap. We tell ourselves robotically that we have "the best health-care system in the world," when in fact it underperforms most other rich countries. We gape and gawk when we first travel to Japan or Switzerland and find that all the trains run perfectly on time — not to mention the fact that there are trains in the first place. We ignore our sky-high infrastructure costs and grumble about potholed roads, never pausing to wonder why West Europe and East Asia don't have these problems. We tell ourselves that we're the "land of the free," ignoring the fact that in Japan you can drink a beer in the park without getting arrested. We say that anyone in America can get rich, ignoring the fact that economic mobility is lower here than in almost any other rich country. 
The fact is, America had an extraordinary run of success in the 20th century. We got used to thinking of our country as The Future, as No. 1, as the place where everything happens. But other countries have been racing to catch up with us, and in some ways they have already succeeded. We need to get out of our bubble and recognize the innovations other countries have achieved, and reform our institutions in order to keep up. Otherwise, we risk becoming a stagnant superpower. "Ming America" must be avoided at all costs.
You can read the whole thing here!

Note that the "collapse" headline was not chosen by me. I'm more worried about high-level stagnation and "golden age-ism" than collapse.


  1. Um, why should anyone care what country is "ahead"?

    1. Because countries should strive to become better - and comparing societies is a good way to see what to improve. To make a good comparison you need to know nuances and specifics, rather than just dismiss the rest as 'barbarians'.

      BTW Europe now has potholed roads thanks to 'Austerity'..

    2. America has had potholed roads for decades.

    3. Um, why should anyone care what country is "ahead"?

      For that matter, why should anyone care about anything??

    4. Ha ha, Noah. I am not saying no one should care about anything. I am saying, "Among things to care about, this is a very stupid one." I would submit that life can be much, much better in countries that aren't worried about whether they are "ahead" than in those that are, and that to the extent a country worries about being ahead, life will be worse for its citizens than it otherwise might be.

    5. @Dimitar: "Because countries should strive to become better - and comparing societies is a good way to see what to improve."

      Well, Bhutan is measuring a "happiness index" for its people: if that is the sort of thing we strive to improve, great. But being "ahead" in the sense that America was "ahead" in the 20th-century strikes me as about as sensible as a nation striving to be ahead in picking Super Bowl winners.

    6. @Gene: If the impulse is "to be better than," you're probably reaching for "than we used to be." Right on. Lotsem go for the low hanging fruit.

      And don't get me started on metrics! If the Toxic Donut ( gives your child some horrible disease or birth defect, that child's lifelong treatment is a plus for the GDP.

      U-S-A! U-S-A!

    7. war war of a are great ....nice reasoning

      TRASH IT?

      TRUST IT?


      TRICK IT?

      TRAP IT?

      TROOP IT?

      TREK IT?







      to be better to be alive n'est pas

    8. i like a nice word for a nice economic war

      or for a war less economic

      it's a entire generation that never took part in economic wars

      blame it on viet name

  2. China was actually doing pretty good for most of the 17th and 18th centuries, expanding heavily both in population and economy. It wasn't until the late 18th century that stuff started slipping, and even then they didn't really go off into the deep end until after the First Opium War and the Taiping Rebellion.

    Their biggest mistakes were that they weren't quick to recognize the significance of new industrial and military technologies coming out of Europe during the 1800-1839 period, and at least try to modernize their military if nothing else. Japan was much more on point about that after the Black Ships.

    1. no their biggest mistake is loosing the war on drugs

      no human society survives with 10% of opium users

      and exporting to the rule britania to pay the drug dealers with silver and silk and tea

  3. 1. Worry about collapse. Ming China was pre-industrial, pre-capitalist, pre-propaganda, pre-radical capitalist. Until further notice, Marx has scoreboard.

    2. To your commenters, "nations" only strive for supremacy when their controlling interests convince the masses that they should do so. Controlling interests strive for supremacy always, nation or none. That's what psychopaths do; it's their job.

    3. Commenting options don't include Disqus? Emergency dental clinic is NOT in Manhattan NY. Guessing China, from the grammar. "You're lowering the tone of the entire industry." (Google the quote.)

    1. Nicely done! But add Disqus for the awesome.

    2. Effin hate disqus.

  4. Noah,

    Excellent article. Very good points. What I know about this I know from reading Wharton's Jeremy Siegel's fascinating book, "The Future for Investors", which you may remember me quoting. Here it is again:

    Until the onset of the industrial revolution, productivity and population growth inched ahead extremely slowly. In fact, productivity backtracked as often as it moved forward. Discoveries and inventions were made, but many were lost to the next generation. For example Rome of A.D. 100 is said to have had a better infrastructure (roads, sewage systems, and water distribution) than many European cities of the 1800s. (page 207)

    "...for a period of seven or eight centuries, Chinese civilization was by most standards the most advanced on Earth [quoting Michael Hart]" China's dominance was clearly facilitated by its ability to record and transmit information [the Chinese invented paper]. (page 209)


    "The Ming rulers rejected anything that disturbed the status quo...many books of knowledge vanished during the Ming Dynasty...Charles Jones, an economics professor at Stanford University, wrote, "China came within a hair's breadth of industrializing in the 14th century, yet in 1600 their technological backwardness was apparent to most visitors; by the 19th century the Chinese themselves found it intolerable" (pages 209-10)

    End Quotes

    Here is another analogy you can draw. It seems from these quotes that those in power did not want people to become too smart and knowledgeable, because that could lead to them rejecting and fighting the Ming's. Today's right fights so hard to keep people ignorant and misinformed because the more informed people get, the more the vast majority will see how harmful the right, and the plutocrats and libertarians that control it, are to them.

  5. Hi Noah,

    Without something truly disastrous, I don't see America, or any other country, succeeding in isolating itself in our era. We humans are increasing our connectedness and accelerating the pace with which we do it. Because that is our inherent nature as social beings, it will continue even as it disrupts expected order. Many will propose this measure or that to halt or reverse the upset, to undo the evolution, but it won't amount to much. The natural drive to integrate will overwhelm all such efforts.

    The question then is can we get ahead of it and control the direction or will we just go along for the ride. This is where we need new methods and ideas. The old ways won't work and will make existing institutions appear dysfunctional eg immigration policy or healthcare. Some will look at such institutional failure and call for a return to "basics" ie isolationism. Others who can't keep pace with the accelerating change will try to drop out eg. turn away from science & technology. But it won't matter because it isn't possible. (Think of being in a dingy rising on an ocean swell. You're going up whether you like it or not.)

    So the race is on as to which people will learn about interdependence ie globalization first and best. Who will map the interactions effectively to lead change instead of being lead by it? In that regard, you're right that America should increase its engagement with the world to not just predict change but guide it. Who's ahead matters only in this sense. But even if it doesn't, it doesn't spell doom for the American civilization. It just means we follow someone else's lead.

    Best regards,
    Shrikant Kalegaonkar

    PS: I derive most of my ideas from Russell L. Ackoff, Alvin Toffler, and their ilk. Wish I was more original :)

  6. Anonymous6:50 PM

    Nice post. So you are saying we are Americas are isolationist in mind but not in deed. That is a scary way to look at it. But it explains so much.

  7. Hopefully the manchu tribes to our north don't unite, take over DC and make us the Qing. Wait, Qing>Ming, so maybe that would be a good thing. Ha that rhymed.

  8. Anonymous3:18 PM

    The Ming followed the collapse of the Mongol Empire. The Mongols built and managed the trade routes, expanded the Empire and were internationalists. The Mongols were culturally tolerant and hosted perhaps the first debate between Christianity and other religions. The Mongols were not only open to new ideas, they active adopted new technology and brought knowledgeable people into their ruling court from throughout their empire. As long as people were willing to trade and operate by the Mongol Rules they could profit. The Mongols did not tolerate political and economic obstruction. Having built a trade empire and accumulated knowledge from throughout the world the Mongols looked to continue for centuries.

    It all came to an end with the plague that killed as many as 90% of the population in some provinces. Plague spread through the trade routes, collapsing trading stations and ending Mongol empire. Eventually plague spread to Europe from Asia.

    How much of the Ming was reaction to the Mongols and trade ending with the importation and spread of plague through trade? How much was due to a population crash and loss of institutional memory? How much was a reaction to the split of an empire into competing economic and political units? How did the population loss affect workforce and the ability to trade? I am not sure what lessons the Ming hold for the US.

    -jonny bakho

    1. As a Mongol history buff I endorse this comment.

      Yes, I've wondered if Ming isolationism (and Romanov and Safavid xenophobia and militarism) were reactions to the trauma of the Mongols.

    2. I don't think Ming isolation was about a reaction to Mongol trauma directly. The Ming were plenty outward looking with the explorations of Zheng He.

      However, further exploration had to be abandoned because the resources required (to do it right) were instead devotes to protecting China from Central Asian nomads. The court of heavan abandoned exploration and domination of south Asia because it would weaken their ability to prevent another Mongol like invasion of China. The rich and powerful empires of Central Asia gave birth to Tamerlane and the Mughal state of India. Chinese focus towards Central Asia may have avoided exactly what happened in India. Of course that is eventually what happened when the Manchu took power anyways but that had more to do with the empire crumbling from monetary and climactic shocks that devastated the farmers and was exploited by the Manchu.

  9. Can you really get arrested in the US for drinking a beer in the park?

  10. Noah, this must be about White America's view of the world. Surely African Americans are aware of the existance of Africa!

    As regards the land of Kangaroos (my homeland - not my residence), when I was in the US in the 1980s, I was amazed how many Americans had never heard of it. (Although, one dear sole said I couldn't be Australian because I wasn't black.) That they now know it as the land of Kangaroos is some improvement.

    1. Noah, this must be about White America's view of the world. Surely African Americans are aware of the existance of Africa!

      No more than the average white American is aware of what happens in Chile or Argentina.

  11. I think most westerners would be surprised that European dominance of the 20th century would have been very hard to imagine if someone looked at the world in 1750 or even 1800. China was the wealthiest country in the world with an internal transportation network of canals. They were wealthier, longer living, and dominate within their sphere.

    The Ming fell in 1644, at this time Europe paled in comparison to the grandeur that was china or India. Europe was separately trying to resist the advance of the Ottoman Empire. The great explorers of the time were still desperately searching for an economic way to bypass those Ottomans to get the trade goods that were essential to the elites way of life.

    The Europeans had yet to utilize the New World to avoid the traps that many of the larger states like China eventually fell into. The potato was just starting to provide a necessary level of calories for limited labor and land that allowed a better utilization of manpower (although this led to longer and larger wars). When population and industrialization started putting pressure on European states they had the safety valve of the Americas to send the dissatisfied and poor instead of forcing greater turmoil.

    No, the Ming is way too early to really establish what left China behind in my opinion.

  12. Also, I think the scientific inquiry that dominated in Europe was a unique feature driven by the philosophical basis of Christianity.

    The belief in a single unified god that made the entire universe was the basis behind the idea of laws of nature. The western concept of god meant that experimental discovery revealed universal truths which were assumed laid down by God. Discovering one of Gods laws meant that they had discovered some fundamental truth in how god constructed the universe. This meant that new knowledge could fundamentally be used to explore and discerns further universal truths. This allowed people to systematically explore their reality by building upon the knowledge of their predecessors. One could use logic as taught by the Greeks (passed down through the Muslim scholars) to deduce how the world worked.

    In contrast, China did not inherently have the concept of a universal natural law. There was no basis to demand that future knowledge be based upon what was already known. If there was no singlen force that demanded that the rules and methods used by those who came before we're uniform then how could one conceive of a systematic approach to knowledge? Chinese knowledge was conditional and based upon situation and not on some universal Tennant.

    1. Anonymous11:53 PM

      I often read various variations of this argument, but it's plainly not true. Christianity arrived in Europe slowly during the first centuries of the first millenium. After that point Europe, or Rome, went into a gradual decline from which it never recovered until the 18th century.

      How can Christianity then be the explaining factor when it was present during the former glory days as well as the decline.

    2. I respectfully disagree with this comment. Dark ages are *not* a "gradual decline". It's a shift of power between the mediterranean and the north of Europe. It lead to enrichment in the north and the contrary in the southern Europe. It may have brought less sewage, but it also brought down the notion of slavery until the liberal revolution in Holland and Britain (no slaves in western Europe from 650AD to 1600AD), which has been noticed even by the arabs during the crusades (Some comentators at the time said that western soldiers were totally illiterate and utter barbarians, but, their kings had to comply with the same rules as the common soldiers, which was not the case in the califat apparently)

      I don't know if there are some english translation of this work, but I would recommend reading A. Maalouf "the crusades as viewed by the arabs".
      And books on the desapparition and reapparition of slavery are numerous I believe. You may find a book on links between the liberalism founding fathers and slavery by A. Losurdo (an italian) refreshing, even if a bit on the socialist side for america.

    3. The relationship need not be causal. The same argument can be made for scientific advancement in the Muslim world before the Renaissance. Monotheism didn't CAUSE the scientific revolution, nor was it necessary. The argument is that the assumptions underlying early scientific inquiry allowed a systematic investigation of nature.

      The point is more that it seems as if the Chinese had not accepted that there were universal truths in the same way. Europe stumbled into the idea because of cultural and religious preconceptions. There were other places where the idea of universal natural laws arose, but they were not necessarily accepted by the intelligencia.

      Confucianism's emphasis on competence and efficacy meant that results were more important than process. This also dovetails into the non-western religious emphasis on actual action over intention.

      There is nothing in the above argument that says that Christianity demanded scientific progress, nor would a non monotheistic religion prevent the discovery of universal natural laws. Europe just happened to stumble upon what seems like a necessary insight for the development of systematic scientific inquiry.

      China and India excelled at observational science. The Mughal astronomers created a huge collection of knowledge and observations that outstripped anyone. However, there was no THEORY on how the heavans worked. Thus you had a great emphasis on Astrology which persists to this very day in South Asia.

  13. Anonymous1:54 PM

    Enjoyed your post. I think the American hegemony will be with us a while though. East Asia is learning English, we are not learning Chinese. Globalization in many ways is really Americanization. Good in some ways, but through the marginalization of other traditions and societies, the world is losing diversity.

  14. Anonymous5:46 PM

    Here's another interesting tidbit in support of your theory. The late Ming went through a process of privatization of (previously) public services that seems to parallel current developments in the US. (According to Eric Jones, "Growth recurring".) It appears symptomatic of a growing paralysis of central government.

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  16. The Ming dynasty had a lot of things going for it that it often doesn't get credit for. Actually, when you look into Neo-Confucianism, the dominant ideology of the Ming Dynasty, what stands out isn’t how insular and conservative it was, but how refined and “progressive” it could be. According to the Neo-Confucian worldview:

    1. The emperor was like a keystone in the social system who, if he or the government bureaucracy behaved badly, they should be brought to account. The Donglin Movement, in particular, was a notable example of this view being put into practice.

    2. To counteract bureaucratic waste, Institutions should, ideally, be managed locally, via community compacts, complete with regular assemblies of the people.

    3. Ethics and philosophy should be rationalistic. Superstition and mysticism was looked down upon, and organized religion was viewed with distrust

    4. And, depending on the school, either promoted academic study and observation of the natural world (Zhuxism) or promoted inward introspection, moral relativism and mass participation (Yangmingism)

    So there we have a belief in rule of law, rationalism, social contract theory, observational science, and so on. In other words, there were a lot of ideas that wouldn’t take hold in Europe until the enlightenment. The Chinese could be quite flexible when it came to experimenting with new technologies and applying them, as they did expertly with agriculture.

    I think the bigger problem was that China’s geography. China was mostly hinterland and most of the trade occurred on three rivers that ran east west across the country. While estuary regions like Shanghai and Canton could be quite prosperous and did develop quite sophisticated markets, regions up river weren’t, which was most of the country, weren’t as able to take advantage of logistical economies of scale. Like if you wanted to exchange tea grown in Sichuan for granite from Shanxi you’d have to sail it down river hundreds of miles down to Shanghai, sail it up river to Tianjin, then sail it back up the Yellow river in another small ship. Compare that to doing trade between Flanders and Rome, where almost all the shipping would be done by large, efficient cog ships. This would have made even interregional commerce limited, and would have encouraged people invested more of their capital into growing food for local consumption, with predictable Malthusian results. Coupled with the corruption, inflation due to Spanish silver and the devastating Manchu conquest there was a lot preempting an industrial revolution in Ming China.