Fears are rising in the US that China is on course to overtake American global leadership. Image: Facebook

This article is the first in a three-part series.

It all happened before: 30 years ago, both American and foreign observers were obsessed about Japan leapfrogging the US, just as they are now about China, making the exact same observation about “root causes,” and some arguing for similar drastic institutional remedies in the US. Although China is no Japan, the debates within the US have been eerily similar.

Clyde Prestowitz Jr’s 1988 book Trading Places concluded that because of the United States’ failure to respond to the Japanese challenge, the power of the US and the quality of American life would decline rapidly. Pat Choate’s Agents of Influence (1990) warned of the influence of corporations and Washington lobbyists in Japan’s favor, fearing the loss business and revenue.

William Holstein’s The Japanese Power Game: What It Means for America (1990) argued that Japan’s end game was to dominate the Americas and the Pacific Rim with its auto industry, electronics, supply chains and even banking. He wrote that the US government and industry were failing to coordinate their response and that the US must pull together to counter the Japanese threat. 

The book also saw risk in Japan’s real-estate purchases in the US – though how that was a threat was never made clear. After all, buying real estate, or anything immobile, suggests confidence in a country, as its value is derived from rents – derived from future incomes in a prosperous place – and that would be the US. 

By now everyone knows how such real-estate takeovers ended, as Mitsubishi, after paying US$1.4 billion in 1989 for 80% of Rockefeller Center, the most prominent such deal at the time, defaulted in 1995 on its mortgages and a Rockefeller consortium together with Goldman Sachs bought back the Center in 2000. 

William Dietrich, a prominent entrepreneur in the 1990s (in 2011, he gave the single biggest donations to Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh, of $265 million and $125 million respectively), wrote in his 1991 book In the Shadow of the Rising Sun: The Political Roots of American Economic Decline that the Japanese advantage stemmed from its strong central government and skilled bureaucracy – and these would be the solutions for the United States’ malaise too, requiring drastic changes in its institutions, its constitution included. 

Unless the US did so, Dietrich preached, there would be a “Pax Nipponica,” with the US falling much further behind than Britain did when the US leapfrogged it.

Decades ago, many writers warned that Japan was ‘leapfrogging’ the US. Now, there are very similar warnings about China. Photo: Getty via AFP

Hardly had these books appeared before Japan’s prosperity disappeared in a puff – not to be heard of since. Instead, books since then have been about Japan’s compounding fiscal and monetary policy mistakes, and obstacles its homogenous culture and lack of immigration pose.  

With its low and declining fertility rates, Japan’s population is predicted to halve by 2100 from the present 120 million to 60 million (which would diminish Japan’s alleged contribution to pollution and climate change far more than any “climate policy” Japan signs on would – an issue never discussed).  

The land of the Rising Sun – the title of Michael Crichton’s best-selling novel in 1990 about a Japanese conspiracy to take over the US – has become in less than 30 years the land “Where the Sun Sets.”

There are other similarities between the debates of today and those of the 1990s: The US was in a recession then, was drastically restructuring certain sectors (defense among them), and unemployment hovered around 8%.  

Robert Reich, later secretary of labor for Bill Clinton, had this to say in a New York Times article in 1992: “Low productivity gains and deepening debt have been eating away at the foundations of the American economy for years.

“The reasons for these long-term ills have been well chronicled: a capital market that resembles a casino and demands immediate profits; an educational system that leaves almost 80% of our young people unable to comprehend a news magazine and many others unprepared for work; managers who award themselves princely sums while laying off their workers … a collapsing infrastructure of unsafe bridges and potholed roads; and, more generally, a social norm … of overconsumption and underinvestment.” 

This almost reads as if written in 2021 – and not by a Democrat. 

Japanese observers in 1990 also noted that the United States’ problems were not because of Japan’s aggressive business tactics or limiting imports, but the United States’ high crime rates, it being drug-ridden, the US having the world’s largest share of its population in prison, American workers being less disciplined and unable to respond to the challenges following the fall of the Iron Curtain and of China deviating from its rigid ideology-driven  principles, and also that a large fraction of the US came to depend on welfare and families were falling apart. 

Thirty years later, these same problems persist, and Covid-19 has aggravated them. 

Chinese medical workers in face masks on a deployment overseas. Photo: Facebook

Yet Japan’s decline since the 1990s and the US restoring itself in spite of repeated crises (9/11, 2008, the Fed-engineered Y2K) show that the solutions are not to be found in emulating the Japanese model of society.  

Still, the facts are that problems identified by both American and Japanese observers in the 1990s have gotten worse. The facts are too that for 16 of the 30 years that have elapsed, Democrats were in power and Republicans agreed with most of both Reich’s and Japanese observers’ list of problems plaguing the US back then and since. 

The latter fact suggests that something fundamental has gone awry that monetary and fiscal policies pursued by either party when in power did not solve.  

The major factor, as this series of articles will show, is that the US, perhaps with the best intentions, has been giving up on institutions that allowed it repeatedly to solve more quickly, and in an accountable manner, mismatches between talent and capital than any other country – in its research and development in particular. 

The eerie parallel between the US debates in the 1990s and now, though, does not imply that we can just brush aside the present worries about China leapfrogging the US.

But the analyses presented in this series will show that the US can reverse the weakening of these institutions, and correct the wasteful mismatches of talent and capital – actually emulating features of what China has done over the last few decades – what concerns its R&D policies in particular.  

Whereas it is true that China does have two features Dietrich so admired in Japan in 1990 – a strong central state and a skilled bureaucracy – China’s recent success came about as the country was distancing itself from its communist-ideology-driven “central planning” and of bureaucracies being fully in charge – though the Communist Party kept its monopoly. 

The late Deng Xiaoping, China’s former leader and father of “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” put it succinctly in 1992: “Let a part of the population get rich first.”  China succeeded in achieving this by moving away from centralization in finance and economic life, and allowing skills to be better leveraged in business, science and government, allowing them to be matched by capital from different, independent sources.  

China’s success is an illustration of the pragmatic ancient adage “Primum vivere, deinde philophari” – that is, most people wanting to “live first, philosophize later.” How long its society can prosper with a party monopoly prohibiting “philosophizing” is yet to be seen. 

But politics and philosophy matter less when less money and decision-making flow through bureaucracies’ hands, the government becoming less of the overwhelming “financial and regulatory institution” with obscure accountability for its “matchmakers.” 

The way Chinese society has been navigating away from its centralized past also suggests that when countries are leapfrogged – as was China’s case when it drastically changed its domestic policies – solutions require changes that are more fundamental than dealing with traditional fiscal and monetary matters, a case the US faces now.  

China is navigating away from its centralized past. Photo: AFP/Getty

The US trend over the last decades has been to mismatch skills and resources under a wide variety of faddish, myopic rationalizations that politicians subsidized and then relied on suggesting there was “science” behind them.

Solutions can be found by reversing these trends and strengthening institutions that can both better match the variety of both skills and deep, independent sources of capital (the latter still being the United States’ unique feature), and correct mismatches faster. 

As will be shown in Part 2 of this series, this does require a change in culture, starting perhaps with the language, as an ancient Confucius quote accurately reminds us: “If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.” 

This article is the first in a three-part series that draws on Reuven Brenner’s books History – the Human Gamble (University of Chicago, 1983), Labyrinths of Prosperity (University of Michigan Press, 1993) and Force of Finance (Thomson/Texere, 2002), and a series of recent articles in American Affairs and Law and Liberty.     

Reuven Brenner

Reuven Brenner is a governor at IEDM (Institut Économique de Montréal). He is professor emeritus at McGill University. He was the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship, was awarded the Canada Council's prestigious Killam Fellowship Award in 1991, and is a member of the Royal Society.