Obama’s China Envy

January 27th, 2011 at 5:10 pm | 12 Comments |

| Print

Dandong is a city in Northeast China with a population about 780,000. Here is a photograph I took of Dandong’s airport last fall – an airport that serves a city that is more populous than Seattle, Boston, and Washington, DC:

A personal favorite is this photo I snapped of the airport’s parking lot. Would that, say, JFK, were so easy to navigate:

By contrast, here is a picture of just one concourse of Denver’s airport. This is a only one section of an airport that serves a city of 610,000 people, a city a good deal smaller than Dandong:

President Obama used his State of the Union address earlier this week to lament that “China is building newer airports,” and to imply that the United States should be doing the same.  It’s a familiar sentiment, one that we hear often from American journalists, politicians, and academics.

But lost in America’s current bout of China Envy is the fact that the Middle Kingdom is emerging from decades of extreme poverty. As it becomes a middle-income nation, with more of its people taking to the sky, of course China needs new airports. As recently as the spring of 2008, Beijing’s airport consisted of only one small terminal. Look again at that photograph of Dandong’s airport to see just how inadequate the infrastructure it is replacing is. The same situation is true of China’s rail network, which Obama also praised. China is now constructing new rail lines because it’s replacing trains that were little better than standing-room-only freight cars.

To be sure, the US is in need of upgraded air traffic infrastructure in order to ease congestion around the country’s largest airports. That’s all well and good. But the idea that America needs to go on a binge of airport building is risible. It would be an example of needlessly replacing something that is perfectly adequate, and of fetishizing the new simply because it is new. Should New York’s Grand Central Station be demolished because Beijing recently built a nice new train station? Should Buffalo tear down its magnificent art deco City Hall because Shanghai’s is “more modern?” Our situation is wholly different from China’s – we are not just starting to build a functional country after decades spent mired in third world conditions. We are not the China of the West.

The call to build new pointless airports brings to mind John Maynard Keynes’ injunction to “dig ditches and fill them up again.” Come to think of it, that’s probably why Obama supports the idea.


Recent Posts by Ethan Epstein



12 Comments so far ↓

  • balconesfault

    Envy is exactly the wrong term.

    What Obama is doing is trying to motivate Americans to continue to push for excellence. When, for example, we responded to Sputnik, we most certainly didn’t “envy” the USSR – but we did want to outcompete with them.

    I think you horribly misread his comments as a call to building new airports.

    Our infrastructure used to be the best, but our lead has slipped. South Korean homes now have greater Internet access than we do. Countries in Europe and Russia invest more in their roads and railways than we do. China is building faster trains and newer airports. Meanwhile, when our own engineers graded our nation’s infrastructure, they gave us a “D”

    What it is is a call to invest heavily in infrastructure, and pointing out that our global trade competition is doing exactly that. America has been running an infrastructure spending gap for decades, essentially borrowing from the infrastructure spending of the pre-Reagan era.

  • lessadoabouteverything

    Dandong? This is ridiculous. Yeah, like an airport that borders North Korea is going to be all that bustling. Why didn’t you take pictures of Pudong Airport in Shanghai and the bullet train that gets you downtown in 6 minutes. Or all of their new subway lines?

    “Should New York’s Grand Central Station be demolished because Beijing recently built a nice new train station? Should Buffalo tear down its magnificent art deco City Hall because Shanghai’s is “more modern?””
    Strawmen arguments. Absolutely idiotic ones as well. No, don’t tear down Grand Central Station, but how about get the escalators working, or have bathrooms that only a heavily armed gunman would dare enter. And it would have been nice to build that tunnel that Gov. Fathead in NJ cancelled because he didn’t want to contribute 1/3 of the cost even though it is absolutely necessary. Have you ever commuted to NY Mr. Epstein? I have, felt like I was wasting my life taking 2 hours to get to a building I could literally see from my apartment in North Arlington.

    And the only person who said we need to go on a binge of new airport building is yourself, so if you are working yourself up about it you are a genuine idiot. Really, show me where Obama said we have to build new airports.

    I lived in China a long time, I was pretty surprised to find even in remote villages people who had solar powered water heaters on their rooftops, now I know they did this out of necessity but damn, if these peasants can do it there is no reason why our entire Southwest could not have pretty much everyone having them. We are literally pissing away untold sunlight because Mr. Epstein thinks investing in modern technology is akin to digging ditches and filling them up again.

    This is the first article I have read of this guy, unless he gets off his strawman kick it is likely to be one of the last.

    And pictures of Dandong, honestly, dude what is wrong with you? Why don’t you take pictures of downtown Detroit and act as though it is typical of the state of America.

    Look, I agree facile comparisons to China are cheap. Yes, Shanghai has some of the best students in the world but there is no way we are going to replicate that system in America so it only makes an interesting data point, nothing more. But the point Obama is making is not to replicate the shit that is a large part of China but the areas they excel. No, we can’t replicate their High School achievement in Shanghai, but we can build a Goddamn tunnel to Manhattan.

  • truth

    What a cheap shot followed by a bunch of strawmen. Dandong is NOT representative of Chinese airports.

    Some people just can’t accept the truth that the USA is in terminal decline and decay. Denial is the first step, huh?

  • jcm433

    Maybe Obama does envy China, empty airports and all. And why wouldn’t he? Doesn’t their economy grow 10% per year on average? So what if they’re just coming out of third world poverty? At least they’re not slipping into it.

  • valkayec

    Bravo, my fellow commentators! It really is time to get pissed off at those who mislead Americans into thinking we don’t have to compete…that everything is hunky-dory in the U.S.

    It’s not and we better wake up to it fast.

  • Rabiner

    Why are you focusing on building new airports and not the line about South Korea having better quality internet access than American homes? I would think internet access is a huge tool for better education and productivity for businesses?

  • ktward

    The call to build new pointless airports…

    Huh?

    As I have done for nearly every SOTU speech in the last 3+ decades, I sat through Obama’s. I don’t recall him suggesting that we should invest in building “pointless airports”. (See balconesfault’s and every other comment above.)

    Mr. Frum.

    Look, I understand why you keep the likes of Guardiano and Vecchione around: not only are you admirably loyal to those contributors who helped get FF started, but you’re quick to overlook journo hackery for the sake of pro-Israel hawkery. I doubt very few FF readers bother to read Worthington anymore, but I also get why he’s still here at FF. He’s family.

    But this Epstein dude is a silly hack. Unless he’s a nephew or something, dump him.

  • ggore

    Look at any country on the planet and it is very painfully obvious that the US is rapidly falling behind the rest of the world in infrastructure. The rest of the world is building high speed rail and here we sit with one line in a very small part of the country. The rest of the world is updating its highways and we sit stagnant with thousands of bridges about to fall into rivers. And here this author shows a picture of an ancient airport in the middle of nowhere and uses it as evidence that the Chinese are spending money for no reason????? Please, give us a little credit! Show the Olympic facilities and the new Beijing airport they built for the Olympics at least.

    Infrastructure is the ONE thing that affects EVERY citizen of the US every day and affects everything our economy does. To cut that spending in this time of government cutbacks would be economic suicide.

  • Libdem

    The Washington DC metropolitan area has population over 8 million; it’s dishonest to only use the population inside the political boundaries when comparing airports.

  • think4yourself

    As other posters here noted, the point of the President’s comments is not that we need to match China airport for airport, is that they are heavily investing in infrastructure and we are not. That means in the future, they will be able to leverage that infrastructure into greater economic capacity (much like the US did in the ’50′s), while our decaying infrastructure will depress our economic capacity.

    So yes, we need to invest in infrastructure if we want to be competitive in the future (which means more jobs and higher pay in the US). The question becomes what is the best kind of infrastructure to invest in, more and better roads, high speed rail, better technological infrastructure, etc.).

  • Houndentenor

    Our infrastructure is on sorry shape. I don’t know how anyone can look around their own city or state and not see that. For starters the interstate highways system is in serious disrepair. Bridges and tunnels are also in bad shape. I guess we learned nothing from the bridge collapse in Minnesota a few years ago. There are surely more disasters like that looming if we don’t act.

  • dunndavid

    Actually Ethan is substantially correct. Much of China’s investment boom, government directed as it is, is being wasted. What kind of return is China going to get on its 100 Billion for the Beijing Olympics (40 B, 2009), Shanghai Expo (30 Billion 2010) and Guangzhou Asian Games (30 Billion 2010)? The answer is face and graft for the government and dodgy loans for China’s banking system. These kind of investments are taking place all over the country. Money for construction loans to add additional apartment and office building in an already glutted market. Money for convention centers and airports, vastly outstripping actual demand. Money for high speed rail, while ordinary people can’t get a seat on the vastly overtaxed and cheaper low speed system. Money for highways which are mostly used by the rich and the government officials, while the rail network needed to get vital coal to power station goes neglected. Money for mostly under used convention centers, while SOx and NOx air pollution system are shortchanged and ineffective. Those of you on the left that think that China is some kind of great success for state control will soon have egg on your faces. China has progressed from one of the poorest countries in the world in the 1970s to the middle of the pack among poor countries today, but lacks a system of governance and economic system to continue to propel itself much further. You don’t live in China, you don’t speak Chinese and you don’t deal with Chinese State-Owned Companies on a daily basis. I do. Just wait at most a few more years… You’ll see.