Monday, May 7, 2012

New Millennial Economics, Part One

Louis F. Petrossi, The Richest Man in China: Harnessing the 8 Pillars of Wealth

With the political season upon us, in a time of continued economic uncertainty, I’d like to take this week to consider contrasting views on our future. I’d like to start by looking abroad, to the country which recently overtook Germany and Japan to become Earth’s second largest economy. The People’s Republic of China may soon outpace America, and international eyes study its patterns to see how we may mimic their success.

As Louis Petrossi points out, China has produced an unprecedented number of millionaires and billionaires in the last five decades. Not surprisingly, many Westerners want to know what about Chinese culture makes such runaway wealth possible. Petrossi weighs in with only the latest in a long string of books which pitches a broadly Chinese ethos of wealth creation. Readers may like him because his book is both brief and lucid.

Moreover, Petrossi’s sutra-like approach to wealth may appeal to people who see Asia as a place of mystic possibility. It melds the rhetorical styles of various Eastern religious traditions, including Buddhism and Confucianism, to create a system whereby achieving wealth becomes a sort of secular nirvana. After all, as Petrossi asserts, wealth makes it possible for us to do good for others.

The problem is, this book is about as Chinese as beef chop suey and fortune cookies: that is, not Chinese at all. Despite its “Confucius Say” aphorisms and ah-so language stylings, this book is plagiarized, body and soul, from Western business texts. Astute readers will recognize chunks transplanted from Napoleon Hill, Dale Carnegie, and Joel Osteen. But beyond a doubt, the largest DNA donor is Rhonda Byrne.

Petrossi structures his book as a string of very short chapters in which a multimillionaire known as “Master” lays out his Eight Pillars of Wealth. These sweeping discourses on self-affirmation alternate with long dialogues in which Master answers questions from his intrepid scribe Liang. These dialogues are more specific than the chapters, but not by much. This book runs about as vague as a Sesame Street character reassuring viewers that you—yes, you!—are special.

Worse, Petrossi’s “Inscrutable Orient” idiom serves to obscure the real complexities of Chinese economics. While the self-described Middle Kingdom has produced staggering numbers of the obscenely wealthy, UN statistics reveal it has the world’s largest gulf between rich and poor. Shaun Rein, in The End of Cheap China, asserts that the state has begun to balk at this lopsidedness, but it will take years to overcome deeply ingrained inequities.

Even this fails to account for the real costs of economic “growth.” Beijing pollution has become the stuff of legend. Intricate irrigation networks that have survived since the Xia Dynasty have recently proved incapable of meeting modern demand. And the population has long since exceeded land yields. James Howard Kunstler’s upcoming Too Much Magic reveals that, in 2008, the formerly robust China became a net food importer.

This does not mean that we have nothing to learn from China. A country on the verge of collapse a century ago has become one of Earth’s great powerhouses through a unique mingling of state communism and selective market capitalism. Its strong ethic of order and industriousness has made it a model for development in uncertain times. But we must learn from China as it really is, not as our Western romanticism wants it to be.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, describes one important difference between Chinese and American cultures. Western wheat-based agriculture, he says, encourages fatalistic attitudes and an ethic that considers work an intrusion. Eastern rice-based agriculture requires intense attention and mathematically precise management. Rice-growing nations, like China, learn early the value of hard work, advance planning, and strategic thought.

Notice this does not involve chanting mantras for wealth, which Petrossi advocates. Though Petrossi does include some statements on the importance of wise saving, investment, and strategic residuals, he not only says nothing particularly Chinese, he also says little that isn’t either obvious or silly. Success does not come from believing the universe will kick money your way. It comes from perseverance, planning, and forward striving.

China has become a world-shaping force through very concrete means. Its respect for order, stringent learning networks, and system of social order have made it possible for some people to achieve previously unimaginable wealth. But not one Chinese billionaire became rich in a vacuum. And they certainly did not get rich by pleading to the universe. Chinese abundance came about through Chinese industriousness, and at no little Chinese cost.

On a related topic: Put Your Money Where Your Soul Is
Dissecting China for Fun and Profit: Troy Parfitt's Tourism Journalism 

1 comment:

  1. They're cheating because they get IV drips when they are studying for tests.