For the last two decades, America’s pundit class has been looking for models to correct our numerous national deficiencies. Some of the more deluded have settled on Europe, which, given its persistent low economic growth over the past 20 years and minuscule birth rates, amounts to something like looking for love in all the wrong places.
More rational and understandable have been those who have looked for role models instead in East Asia. After all, East Asia has been the world’s ascendant power for the better part of past 30 years. It is home to both China and Japan, the world’s second and third largest economies, as well as the dynamic “tiger” economies of Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore.
Thomas Friedman, long enamored by authoritarian leviathan China, recently praised the tiger countries as exemplars of forward thinking. He traces their strong emphasis on “highly effective teachers, involved parents and committed students” as keys to turning their resource-poor countries into first world successes.
Yet for all their laudably good school test scores, these tigers could turn somewhat toothless in the future. Already Japan, which fashioned the first great Asian model, is beset by a series of massive challenges including a lack of technological competitiveness and disastrously declining demographics. They also face competition from places like China and India, behemoths which may not equal the Tigers’ spectacular per-capita education numbers, but which can marshal overwhelming numbers of ambitious, educated and skilled people.
Many in the tiger nations recognize this competitive plight far more than their western cheerleaders. Some even wonder if they may even have been too rational and credential-obsessed for their own good. Like Japan after the Second World War, they invested heavily in educating their young people to excel on tests and work long hours . But this also fostered high levels of stress and hyper-competition that discourages both family formation and child bearing .
Singapore (where I serve as Senior Visiting Fellow at the Civil Service College) is arguably the best planned and most cleverly conceived of all the Tigers. Singaporeans live well — their per-capita incomes surpass those of Americans — but this edge is largely blunted by extremely high costs. As in all the Tiger countries, consumer goods like cars are extraordinarily expensive (a modest Korean model can run upwards of $75,000 or more in Singapore) and housing costs far higher than experienced by most Americans. In Hong Kong, notes researcher Wendell Cox, an average apartment, usually quite small, costs roughly twice as much as one in New York or San Francisco, two most elite metro U.S. markets, relative to income....MORE