In Defense of Sloth, part 2

My Vietnamese commentator makes an interesting point about the Confucian Ethic.  Economists often use  the Confucian Ethic (the Eastern version of the Protestant Ethic) to explain the economic success of countries like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and most recently China.  Basically, the argument is that Confucius in the East, like John Calvin in the West, taught the value of hard work, this lesson then became a part of the culture, and that hard work leads to prosperity.  These economists would no doubt disagree with my assertion that it is this same cultural trait that hinders economic success by inhibiting innovation.  So that’s good.  Because if there’s one group of people out there who inhibit innovation by requiring unnecessary rigor, it’s economists, and social scientists in general.  In the social sciences, like in China, interesting new ideas are effectively illegal.  Because the peer review process forces new ideas to get past a group of people who all share the same assumptions (demonstrably false assumptions in the case of economists and Big Beijing), new ideas don’t get very far.  There are two ways to get an idea past the peer review process: 1. show that its not new, in other words, cite it, or 2. do rigorous (and usually expensive) research.  I’m glad I’m not in grad school anymore.  Academics, like authoritarian regimes, are incredibly closed-minded and insular.

And that brings me to my next point.  Insularity may be part of the reason that my least innovative students are also in the ethnic majority.  In my experience teaching in the Denver Public Schools, and later at the University of Colorado, the white kids were always much less interesting than the African Americans, Mexican Americans or Asian Americans.  When I tried to get white kids to think a little cynically, they often just couldn’t.  When I tried to get them to see things from other perspectives, they sucked at it.  This week, I met my first student from a Confucian culture who is also a minority in HK (he’s Korean).  And man is this kid smart.  And not in the way that my smartphone is smart (data storage and calculation).  He’s quick witted, adaptable, and cynical.  He didn’t know what the word eloquent meant, so I gave him a definition, and used the example of Barack Obama’s eloquence vs. George Bush’s lack of it.  This prompted him to ask me if I was a Democrat or a Republican.  I told him neither, but that I voted for Obama.  He asked what I though of Obama, and I told him that I was disappointed that his policies resembled Bush’s way too much for my liking.  He then told me that he hated Bush, but didn’t really like Obama much either, and said he thought Obama was a puppet of corporate power.  He’s 14 years old, and has never been to the US!  We then had a fairly nuanced discussion about politics, something my Chinese students seem completely incapable of.  I’m beginning to think that the reason I like my Indian students so much here is simply because they’re minorities.  There’s something about not being from the dominant ethnic group that makes you question established wisdom more.  So maybe it’s not hard work that kills creative thinking, but just being a member of the group that’s in power.

Throughout history, the cities that have been economic, social and cultural innovators have often been places where cultures collide.  New York, London, ancient Rome, Alexandria in Egypt, and Byzantium are just a few examples.  That’s one of the benefits of colonialism; both the colony and the colonizer can’t help but be exposed to different ways of thinking.  There’s nothing like a clash of cultures to shake things up, and get you thinking differently.  Lord knows I’m experiencing that these days.  And on that note, I’ll return to my gas bladder issues shortly.  Stay tuned.

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6 responses to “In Defense of Sloth, part 2

  1. You’re spot on in that observation. One of my biggest worries for the fate of the US came at the time shortly after Sept 11, as we began to clamp down on foreigners, even those in academia and their J1 visas. A sort of brain drain that I still think would bring us to our knees if we stopped being a desirable location for anyone outside of the US to inhabit.

  2. You can let your cynicism fuel your efficacy or you can let it undermine it. My established wisdom is that complaining about how both the parties in the US are dominated by corporate interest won’t get anything accomplished. I understand how crappy the American institutions are and am less apt to blame individuals (well, certainly hesitant to blame Obama) for its failures. It is a long, hard slog getting anything done and Obama is actually getting quite a bit done in relative terms. It may not be very satisfying, but to act like the failure to live up to an ideal is a moral failing on Obama’s fault is to misunderstand what is going on.

    Anyway, more bashing on academic social science please. I just went off on Steven Levitt (of Freakonomics fame) for econometric analyses he did arguing that child safety seats are no better than standard seat belts for 2-6 year olds. Injury prevention is one of my primary areas at work and to see Levitt play the statistical significance/counter-intuitive game with something so serious pisses me off. Heaven forbid something that saves thousands of lives ONLY be significant at the 90% level or something.

  3. Bondo,
    I’m saying that my 14 year old student has everything figured out. But I think he was blaming institutions, not Obama personally. So it’s a pretty sophisticated argument for a kid. He seems to realize that when corporations give money to politicians, they want something in return. This is something that no political scientist who studies American politics has even considered (see The Macro Polity). Certainly no Americanist at CU would entertain such a blasphemous idea, at least not in print. So I was impressed.

    As for more bashing of academic social science, well I think I just did some. But there is likely to be more of that to come, even though it’s not really the topic of my blog.

    Actually, I shouldn’t say no political scientist who studies American politics has considered that. That’s not true. Just no American political scientist. The Europeans are quite aware of this phenomena, and I suspect that’s part of the reason there is essentially no dialogue between the two groups.

  4. a teacher who has been in asia for ten years

    I want to continue to add to the thread from mainland china that comes from the history of communism that your HK Chinese students do not have. It makes things VERY different. The middle aged generation of teachers that I work with were all influenced by the Mao cultural revolution. They were children who saw their academic parents beaten, humiliated and in some cases killed just for being academics. In turn they were beaten as part of being taught to be hard working. They also grew up with no freedom of information or freedom of thought. These factors are still at work today in how they perceive themselves, the world, and the younger generation. As I said, the younger generation, those that are in their 20s and 30s, like your age, are at least curious about the western world and seek new information thanks to the internet. But they too carry the history of “physical discipline” as well as studying through memorization not creative thinking. I had that very discussion with my 25 year old interpreter in southern china last April.

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