A Few Things America Can Learn From China

From this discussion. The speaker is Noriel Roubini, the NYU economics professor:

In U.S. the total consumption’s about $9.5 trillion. Take the entire consumption of 1 billion Chinese, it’s about $1 trillion.

The average American thinks: We’re rich, they’re poor. It’s more complicated than that. The Chinese, in hundreds of ways, do more with less. They pay less for the same quality of life. Here are some examples:

1. The lights on the stairs to my Beijing apartment are sound-activated. Works well, saves electricity. In Berkeley I pay $4/month to light the stairs to my apartment and why should my landlady install sound- or motion-activated lighting?

2. The water-heating system in my apartment is flash heating, that is, just-in-time heating. It works just as well as an American-style water heaters and there’s no heat loss when you aren’t using it.

3. My washing machine doesn’t use heated water. Incoming water is heated to room temperature by a set of baffles.

4. The doors to campus cafeterias are a set of hanging plastic strips. It gets cold in Beijing in the winter. When someone enters there is much less heat loss than when a door is opened.

5. Bicycles are everywhere (in my part of town, the university district, at least) and are easy and safe. They are also very cheap. I could have bought a used one for $15 but instead a friend gave me hers — she takes the bus to work. While bicycles are basically transportation for people who live close to work, as students do, electric bicycles — in which China leads the world — are far more powerful and could probably replace a lot of cars if downtowns were safer for them.

6. The better you cook, the cheaper ingredients you can use and achieve the same result. The Chinese, who are great cooks, use lots of vegetables, which are cheaper than meat and of course easier on the environment.

7 Replies to “A Few Things America Can Learn From China”

  1. The UK is ahead too — but the electric bikes in China are amazing — my flatmates are Chinese and described the ubiquity of the electric bike, and that some city’s are banning motorcycles to encourage more bike use. So China is ahead in many environmental areas despite perceptions to the contrary. An electromagnetic countertop burner is also common there, yet I’ve never seen one in the West.

  2. Seth — you implicitly contradict yourself.

    You write:

    3. My washing machine doesn’t use heated water. Incoming water is heated to room temperature by a set of baffles.

    Which I think you see as a plus. Fair enough, each to their own, but I think we can agree that my honkin’ electricity eating American washing machine when set to hot water and full of Tide is gonna give me a better, more powerful wash than its room temperature Chinese brother.

    But then you write:

    While bicycles are basically transportation for people who live close to work, as students do, electric bicycles — in which China leads the world — are far more powerful and could probably replace a lot of cars if downtowns were safer for them.

    Isn’t the electric bicycle analogous to my washing machine? My washing machine doesn’t need hot water, but it is certainly more powerful with it, just as an electric bike is more powerful than a standard bike, but doesn’t need a motor. Perhaps the Chinese are more indulgent than Americans in this regard.

    I should also mention that electric bikes (and cars for that matter) need to, obviously, be powered by an energy source. All those coal fired power plants powering all those electric bikes — when they could be simply pedal powered — can’t be good for the environment….

    So which one is it? (Pardon the over-over-over-simplification)

    Weak washing machine = good, then electric bikes = bad.

    Or

    Electric bikes = good, weak washing machine = bad.

    In my eyes, you are, at least, superficially inconsistent. Thoughts?

    Also, here you are way off-base:

    The average American thinks: We’re rich, they’re poor. It’s more complicated than that. The Chinese, in hundreds of ways, do more with less. They pay less for the same quality of life.

    In aggregate and on average, the Chinese are much more poor than Americans and the vast, vast majority do not enjoy the same quality of life whether they pay more or less for it.

    I wonder about your claim as to whether they pay less. My guess is that as a percentage of income they pay MORE for foodstuffs and medicine than the average American. But in the end, I don’t know.

    People vote with their feet. You simply don’t see a mass influx of permanent immigration to places like China, Cuba etc etc unlike places like the USA.

  3. Sure, the Chinese are much poorer than Americans. I’m trying to point out some non-obvious reasons for the difference in consumption per capita. I’m not saying Chinese have a better life overall, just that in certain ways Americans can learn from them. As for bikes, the Chinese have discovered the value of electric bikes. Americans have yet to. In the case of washing machines, Americans could surely get by with weaker washing machines but haven’t discovered this (although cold-water detergents are now sold). We overclean our clothes, just as we overheat our water (keep it warm when not necessary).

  4. Hi Seth,

    I don’t you are addressing my point about the inconsistency of your argument in the post.

    As for bikes, the Chinese have discovered the value of electric bikes. Americans have yet to.

    To dovetail on this, taking into my account what I wrote above, would you not agree that the Chinese have yet to discover the value of American-style washing machines? I would argue my machine is more efficient, it takes more washes, more water, more detergent, more power via a Chinese machine to achieve the same level of cleanliness. This is not idle speculation — this is what I have observed in Central America and Eastern Europe.

    In the case of washing machines, Americans could surely get by with weaker washing machines but haven’t discovered this (although cold-water detergents are now sold).

    Well, we could ‘get by’ if we had no machines either. Let’s have the women out by the wells with a washboard and handsoap! 🙂 My guess, all things being equal, you show a Chinese woman an American machine and a Chinese one, she’ll go with the American one. The reason the Chinese ones are handicapped, b/c it is a poor country and they cannot afford my washing machine.

    We overclean our clothes, just as we overheat our water (keep it warm when not necessary).

    The merits of flash heating are debatable. My experience (quite a lot) in former and current Communist countries is that when you scratch the surface a bit, things are a lot less efficient than they seem.

  5. Sounds like how we live in Japan.

    On-demand water heaters are great. You get 80-degree C water right out of the faucet. I use it to fill a heating tank to put under the covers of my bed, and it’s still warm in the morning. I can fill up a saucepan without removing it from the stove and it’s boiling in seconds.

    We don’t have hot water for washing machines either, and it’s just not missed (nor are dryers).

    The thing I just really can’t figure out are dishwashers. When I visit my family they use dishwashers that in effect require that you pre-clean the dishes or the thick stuff will bake on, and you have to arrange the dishes just the right way. Because the dishes have been “pre-cleaned,” they don’t look dirty, so it’s hard to tell if the dishwasher contains dirty or clean dishes. My mom has some sort of code: she leaves it latched or not latched or something to remind her. In Japan I just wash the dishes while I cook. There are plenty of little 30-second moments during meal preparation to clean everything you’ve used up to that point, and then the remaining table dishes are all that’s left. But, oh, I forgot: Americans can’t cook. They can “Food Channel” cook, make big production number dishes, but they can’t efficiently throw together a delicious, cheap meal out of a few fresh ingredients picked up on the fly in the market, using a couple burners and few dishes.

    You didn’t mention split-ductless heating. That is huge! Each room (or each major room) has its own heating and air conditioning. And since we don’t have huge “great rooms” and high ceilings, you can heat or cool the room(s) you’re using very cheaply. And the suckers only cost a few hundred dollars. Split-ductless is available in the U.S. for historical buildings that don’t have ducting areas in the ceilings, but when I looked into them for an apartment building I own it turned out that they cost thousands (for the same devices, I’m convinced).

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