BY CHARLES KAISER
Charles Dunst’s “aspirational” book about how democracies can do a better job of competing with autocracies is bursting with statistics and lots of common sense.
The statistics are there to convince us that many autocracies spend much more sensibly than the world’s richest democracies do. A few examples:
China has increased spending on education as a percentage of its gross domestic product by 75% since 1975.
In 2018, 15-year-old Chinese students had the highest average scores in the world on tests for math, science and reading, followed by Singapore, Macao and Hong Kong – “none of which is a democracy”.
Citizens of Singapore have an average life expectancy of around 84 and an infant mortality rate of two per 1,000 – “better than almost every democracy”.
Singapore achieves that good health by spending just 4% of its GDP on healthcare – versus 17% of GDP spent in the US, which gets much less impressive results.
Dunst’s commonsense observations include ideas like these: weak safety nets damage citizens’ confidence in their governments (and therefore should be strengthened); bad healthcare systems cost more money in the long run than good ones; and investments in infrastructure repay themselves many times over.
Dunst is deputy director of research and analytics at The Asia Group and an adjunct fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Looking at his own country, he is heartened that Joe Biden managed to push through a $1tn infrastructure bill, but then points out that’s only 1.25% of GDP, compared with the 8.5% of GDP China spent on infrastructure every year from 1992 to 2011.
“China today spends more on infrastructure than the United States and Europe do combined,” Dunst writes.
By spending more on things that actually matter, countries that oppress their citizens in other ways can engender remarkable levels of confidence in government.
“In 2019,” Dunst writes, “nearly 90% of Chinese reported trust in their government … as did almost 70% of Singaporeans.”
Practically the only good news for democracies in this story is the fact that almost every major economy faces similar declining birth rates. Most dramatically, China has gone from 2.25 children per woman in 1990 to just 1.3 today. No major economy is producing enough children to maintain its current population.
At the same time, since 2017, China’s net migration rate – the number of immigrants minus the number of emigrants – “has worsened every year”.
China lost about 335,000 people in 2022 alone.
Democracies like the US, Germany and the UK all posted positive net migration rates of at least 2.7%. These numbers support one of Dunst’s more optimistic notions. While “China and others may promise economic stability”, democracies remain attractive because they offer “more freedom, equality and opportunities to pursue happiness”.
Dunst argues that one of the biggest challenges for democracies is to convince their populations of the benefits of immigration, instead of listening to politicians like Donald Trump in the US and Marine Le Pen in France, who have been so successful in reviving ancient xenophobia.
Dunst also thinks education systems in places like the US and Britain need to become much more democratic. At Harvard, the acceptance rate for the children of alumni is 30%, versus 6% for the general population. In 2021, “nearly a third of legacy freshmen hailed from households making more than half a million dollars”.
When non-connected parents “see the underperforming children of top financiers and politicians vaunted into top schools and jobs because of connections, these parents will rebel against the system that allowed this to happen … They will vote for the would-be dictator.”
Dunst thinks we must offer more scholarships “for people studying science and technology … more funding for vocational schools” and “constant skill training” for the workforce.
He wisely suggests that a “key reform would be to make non-regular [American] workers eligible for high-quality health insurance that travels with them from job to job”. But he is also bizarrely opposed to universal healthcare – the kind that is the norm all over Europe. Suddenly, he sounds like a flack for a greedy pharmaceutical company, writing that such a system “could undermine the competitive attitude that makes the United States one of the world’s leaders in medical innovation”.
America’s continuing failure to provide decent health insurance to its most needy citizens is hardly a spur to innovation. And the fact we are the only major democracy with a healthcare system dominated by the profit motive isn’t mentioned here at all.
Dunst is almost entirely silent about the explosion of fake facts on the internet, which makes it so much more difficult to sell the commonsense ideas he pushes for. Another problem is his failure to acknowledge that America now has only one major political party that is genuinely interested in solving any of these fundamental problems, while the other prefers to cater to its base with attacks on wokeness or any prosecutor who thinks it makes sense to prosecute a former president for any of his dozens of alleged crimes.
This is the fundamental problem facing American democracy now. As long as the Republicans control the House of Representatives or any other part of the government, the chances of enacting any of the proposals Dunst thinks necessary to help defeat the dictators – serious educational reform, immigration reform and additional infrastructure projects – are exactly zero.
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