"An aging society with rising expectations, burdened with rates of chronic diseases exacerbated by sedentary lifestyles, will probably divert spending from both military development and the economic growth that sustains it."
Prepare for some enormous cognitive dissonance. That paragraph is not a description of the United States circa 2014 but the way that military strategists are describing China circa 2034.
Yesterday I was reading an article about our military preparedness and the capacity the U.S. has to stop China if they decided they wanted to attack Taiwan or Japan, two places we’ve promised to defend. I was hooked into reading the article by two absurd assertions: (1) that our submarines are all that is really needed to deter an attack for the next 20 years and that (2) after that, China will implode and we won’t have to worry about them doing something crazy like attacking Taiwan or Japan.
Now I’m not a military tactician, but I do believe history reveals that both Kaiser Wilhelm and Adolf Hitler received similar confident words of insight in regards to deploying their U-Boats against the U.S. and British fleet. It should also be noted that said insight did not occur before the war but only when Germany was starting to grasp that they could lose. I’m confident (at least hopeful) our senior military tacticians know there are countermeasures to submarines and so I’ll chalk this one up to lazy reporting.
What is more interesting to me in the article is the last section on future Chinese decline. Here’s how that begins:
If American subs can hold the line for another 20 years, China might age right out of its current, aggressive posture without ever having attacked anyone. That's because economic and demographic trends in China point towards a rapidly aging population, flattening economic growth, and fewer resources available for military modernization.
To test the validity of this hypothesis, we need only look at the United States. Has a rapidly aging population and flattening economic growth given us fewer resources for military modernization? Has it reduced our capacity for an aggressive posture? Now one data point does not prove anything, but it certainly refutes the notion that, after twenty years, China is going to age right out of an aggressive posture.
Another factor is the unusual speed with which the Chinese economy has expanded to its true potential, thanks to the focused investment made possible by an authoritarian government…
I read this sentence and replaced “authoritarian” with “centralized” which is a more accurate description of both China and America’s economic sunburst. A lot can be accomplished in a short period of time through centralization. What is lost is resiliency; the ability to adapt to change. Our highly touted ability to recreate ourselves is being undermined by the very success it created.
Warren Buffet said that the rear view mirror is always clearer than the windshield. Not always, especially when the rear view mirror involves looking at yourself.
Okay, I've already gotten the "what does this have to do with Strong Towns" note.... Yes, we're not the RAND corporation. No, this brief post is not about military strategy.
Large, centralized systems have a few distinct characteristics. They can accomplish a lot in a short period of time because they can focus tremendous resources. Centralization creates disconnect, which makes meaningful feedback difficult to obtain. In the absence of meaningful feedback, especially the uncomfortable type, the ability to focus tremendous resources allows these systems to resist change. Large, centralized systems don't adapt well over time. They get brittle and lose their resiliency.
In this article, U.S. military officials are able to clearly see why an aging population, slowing economic growth and centralized decision-making is going to weaken China. They seem unable to apply this reasoning to their own country and their own economy. Even worse, they assume China will respond to this situation with passivity while we are responding to the same circumstances in an opposite manner.
The financial problems our cities experience today are the byproduct of our centralized economy and our centralized approach to decision-making. We can see the symptoms -- our cities are going broke -- yet the underlying problem and the solutions are elusive to us. They are elusive because they are painful. So long as our debates and "solutions" are centered on Washington DC and our state capitols instead of our cafes and coffee shops, we will be as blind to reality as the military analysts in this article.
For many reading this blog, the narrow and limited capacity of these military analysts is easy to see. Our own narrow and limited capacity is not so easy for us to see, but it will probably be obvious to those military analysts.