Ezra Klein and Kevin Drum had a little back-and-forth yesterday on the merits of rhetorical invocations of the specter of China to spur the country to improve. Klein is generally skeptical and Drum generally supportive. I think I basically agree with Drum’s take on this, but it is worth pointing to what Matt Miller specifically said in the column that sparked this conversation:
That’s because the real race we’re in is not a “race to the top” within the United States but a race to maintain middle-class living standards in a world where rising, hungry powers such as China and India now threaten them. It’s a race against other advanced nations whose school systems routinely outperform ours.
To be clear, I think Miller’s column is spot-on in its main points about education policy, but this is a very misleading account of how Chinese and Indian living standards relate to Americans’ well-being. It clearly implies that if India’s economy stopped growing, that this would somehow make it easier for America to maintain middle-class living standards. It’s important that people not go around thinking this, because there probably are things we could do to make China and India poorer but we really shouldn’t do them.
I like the line about “other advanced nations” a lot better. In this telling, it’s not that Finland’s excellent schools threaten America. Instead, they simply demonstrate that we can and should do better than we’re currently doing. Americans don’t like the idea that other people are outperforming us, and we shouldn’t like that idea. We should aspire to be the best. But that’s different from saying that the success of others is a threat to us, and I think people like Miller should be careful about how they phrase these points.