Letter from Kyoto
Editor-in-Chief Looks at Innovation Across the Pacific
This morning I awoke in this ancient city full of Buddhist shrines and temples to find another antique tucked under my door, a hard copy of the International Herald Tribune. As I sat at breakfast with the hordes of elderly Asian tourists who descend on this city in November, I read a column by David Brooks bemoaning Americans’ loss of confidence in the future, as compared with the Chinese. Brooks rightly notes that the mood is especially disquieting for a country and a people that, unlike China, has defined itself by its future rather than its past.
Of course we’ve heard this before, especially with reference to Japan. As I’ve traveled around the country this past week many conversations have touched on two topics: the recent change in government and the efforts by the new, more liberal administration to confront the corruption and waste that are contributing to Japan’s version of our economic crisis. Then there are references to the “lost decade” that still shadows the diminished Japanese giant. Far fewer companies are paying for those infamous thousand dollar lunches in the Ginza, let alone financing leisurely chats at the disappearing geishas. The purchase of Rockefeller Center that so shook Americans seems as remote as the Shogun.
To be sure, China is not Japan, but it’s easy to get caught up in the criteria of the moment. Next month I will be in Beijing for the third time in four years, where the air is indeed thick with excitement about the next Shanghai tower and robust economic growth. But atmospheric Beijing restaurants frequented by Western expats and visiting scholars are also full of talk about continuing unrest in rural areas, environmental catastrophe, the lack of a leadership succession, and the Communist party’s anxiety about any incident that could trigger another Cultural Revolution, which still cannot be discussed in public.
Yet it is true that, for the moment at least, America’s self-confidence has been shaken. Worries that something is deeply wrong with the country were nearly universal in the late 1960s, and the 1930s, and so again in the early 2000s. Brooks is right that rekindling an innovation economy focused on regional clusters would go far to making Americans productive and optimistic again; that is exactly the cause we’ve championed at Science Progress. It’s also the orientation that can distinguish the American spirit from the Chinese system, which so far still lingers far behind as an innovation center.
One element of the American story that Brooks fails to mention that has been key to our success is immigration. Even the Japanese scientists I’ve spoken with agree that Chinese students are far more likely to spend virtually all their time at their work. A Japanese grad student told me that universities have had to remove makeshift beds from the labs so that Chinese students would stop sleeping there and stimulating rumors of sexual harassment. China has not shown that its system can unleash the combination of ambition and creativity that has long found such fertile soil in the United States—and in my view it never will. We should refocus our efforts on continuing to attract new waves of new Americans who can re-energize the American future and remind us why we came to America in the first place.
Jonathan D. Moreno is the Silfen University Professor of Medical Ethics at the University of Pennsylvania, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, and the Editor-in-Chief of Science Progress.
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