The West still has no idea what kind of trouble it’s in.
Singer Susan Boyle, our latest instant celebrity, reminds me of any number of singers I conducted in amateur renditions of the easier Schubert or Haydn masses, or the sort of matron who sings “Katti-Shaw” or “Buttercup” in the local Gilbert and Sullivan production. Musical talent springs up like grass, and engaging voices are a dollar a dozen. That Boyle has come to embody the triumph of ordinary people over obscurity, complete with invitations to appear on Oprah and Larry King, is disheartening. The popular audience in the West likes to validate its own mediocrity, and crowns stars-for-a-day.
“In a time of economic strife and stress, she came out of nowhere to make us smile and maybe even shed a congratulatory tear or two for someone who had finally fulfilled a life-long dream. Hey, we all have our dreams, right?” gushed Steve Rosen at the Kansas City Star newspaper on April 17, in a variation of a theme that has appeared in numberless versions in the media.
Meanwhile, in China, 60 million children are learning Western classical music under the gimlet gaze of strict teachers. East Asian singers, particularly Koreans, are working their way up the ranks of provincial opera companies, and every one of them sings better than Boyle. Who do you think is going to run the world 20 years from now? As the Italians say, we’re bolliti, “boiled.” Now we can spell it with a “y.” I hate to always be the one to say this, but the hope is fatuous. No, you can’t.
There is an undercurrent of self-worship in the aptly named American Idol and its British knockoff, which lifted Boyle to stardom. As I wrote some years ago (American Idolatry Asia Times Online, August 29, 2006), at some time during the 20th century, the people of the West elected to identify with what is like them, rather than emulate what is above them.
Churlish resentment of high culture comes from the slacker’s desire for reward with neither merit nor effort: the sort of artistic skill that requires years of discipline and sacrifice is a reproach to the indolence of the popular audience of the West. Better voices than Boyle’s can be found in a thousand choirs and amateur theatricals, but the crowd has embraced this late-hatching Scottish songbird as a symbol of its own aspirations.
With no prejudice to Boyle, who seems amused rather than beguiled by her success, the fantasy-life of nations has consequences in the real world. In China, as I observed in a recent essay (China’s six-to-one advantage over the US, Asia Times Online, December 2, 2008), nearly 40 million children study classical piano, and another 15 million or so learn to play stringed instruments. Nearly 60 million young Chinese in all are learning Western classical music, and learning it the hard way, under teachers who demand mastery of technique, paid by parents who have scraped together tuition and demand regular practice. Sixty million is a big number, considering that there are only 30 million Americans aged five to 18. Of these, perhaps 5 or 6 million study piano, but few with the intensity of their Chinese counterparts.
A century ago, middle-class Western girls learned piano to make them more marriageable. Chinese children learn piano because their canny parents know that it will make them more likely to succeed academically, and make considerable sacrifices to pay for lessons. Of course, a few Chinese become concert artists. At the music conservatory on whose board I serve, the best instrumentalists usually are East Asian or Eastern European, with the occasional Israeli thrown in. Most of the up-and-coming East Asian concert artists have a keen sense of classical style, and some show deep insight into Western music.
As a Wall Street executive, I had many opportunities to compare Western and East Asian job candidates. Invariably the Chinese candidate would come in with a doctorate in a quantitative field, keen entrepreneurial instincts, and an exemplary work ethic. Usually he or she would wind up crunching numbers for an American frat boy who glad-handed the customers, earning a small fraction of the frat boy’s pay. There were exceptions; the government trading desk of one of Wall Street’s most successful shops was run by a Chinese woman who came to America to study ballet, and who played Mozart piano concertos with orchestra as a hobby. For the most part, though, the Chinese blended into the wallpaper and never had a chance at the big money.
Now the frat boys have less to do, for “salesmanship” has become a dirty word in the financial industry. The first trillionaires well might be entrepreneurs like Wang Chuan-fu of the battery company BYD, which might just launch the first successful mass-market electric car. The smartest Western kids went to business and law school, while Wang learned science at a provincial Chinese university.
Boyle’s stardom might prompt a closer look at the little Scottish town of Blackburn in West Lothian whence she hails, and, more generally, the state of the formerly industrial towns of Britain’s north. There is life after economic death, but it is not pleasant. Few places in the West are more disheartening. Young people have nothing to look forward to but a weekly Walpurgisnacht.
The local newspapers print thick advertising supplements about clubbing, which seems to be the mainstay of the local economy. On Friday or Saturday night, besotted boys and girls in extreme states of dishabille riot through whole quarters of ruined industrial towns. A good deal of Britain’s working class is unemployable at any price, too lazy to move to London to take the jobs waiting tables or driving buses that bring Spaniards or Frenchmen to the British capital.
A generation of Americans learned the wrong jobs: selling real estate, processing mortgages, and selling cheap imports from China at shopping malls. The cleverest among them got business degrees and learned to trade derivatives. Their services will no longer be required. On paper, it is obvious what America needs to do. Its economy went into free fall because everyone cut back spending at the same time in response to the crash of asset prices. The aging Baby Boomers need to save for their retirement, or retire later, now that their home equity has vanished along with the contents of their 401(k) plans. The only way for everyone to save at the same time without crashing the economy is to export, just as China does.
That works well enough on paper: but what are Americans to export? Not electric cars, it would appear. Warren Buffett isn’t buying General Motors these days, but he did put down over $200 million for a tenth of BYD, China’s contender in the electric-car sweepstakes. China requires nuclear power plants – it will install three a year for the next quarter-century – but America shut down its nuclear industry some time ago. There’s always Caterpillar, but the field of heavy earth-moving and construction equipment now is dominated by Japanese and German engineering, as a quick tour of the diggings for New York’s Second Avenue Subway make clear. America can’t even provide the capital equipment for its own infrastructure projects, let alone for China’s.
That Wall Street frat boys are in trouble is not a controversial statement. Top-of-the-market bubble behavior no longer is encouraged. Not long from now, they will be lucky to find employment getting coffee for a Chinese (or Indian) boss. The bubble accounted for so much of America’s employment down the food chain, though, that many millions of American jobs may vanish. This is particularly painful for prospective pensioners who find themselves in need of employment, for just the sort of jobs that suit older people – part-time retail work, for example, or real estate – are the first to disappear. America might find itself with millions of indigent elderly.
If BYD’s electric car takes the jackpot rather than General Motor’s much-heralded “Volt,” Detroit may never come back, and the American automobile industry may shrink to a skeletal remnant of itself, like Britain’s. A number of American rustbelt cities, including Detroit and Cleveland, have shrunk to less than half of their peak population, but the same might be true for the suburban sprawl of parts of the Sunbelt.
The day is gone when a smile and a shoeshine will get you a shot at the American dream, but a smile and a song still will get you a chance at instant stardom. That is the message of hope that Susan Boyle bears to the beleaguered audience of the Anglo-Saxon world. In fact, her own little corner of Britain is living proof that hope may be entirely in vain. Whole parts of the industrial world never will come back. Nothing can resuscitate the north of Britain from industrial ruin, and portions of the United States appear likely to follow.
China’s thrift, industry and diligence are qualities born of long experience with hard times. The terrible suffering of the 19th and 20th centuries left every Chinese parent with the conviction that the world shows no mercy to mediocrity. They have less tolerance for fantasy than their Western counterparts. Reality has intruded on their lives for generations to the point that they are ready to meet it head on. Enough of them devote their lives to making their children excel as to produce an army of hothouse wonders so large as to swamp whatever competition the West might send against them. If Westerners think the present recession is unpleasant, they cannot begin to imagine how the recovery will look, for it may occur entirely remote to them, on the other side of the world.
It is harder and harder to dismiss the awful thought that Americans, too, might require long experience with hard times to restore the sort of diligence that their Chinese counterparts learned at such a high price.