U.S. politicians could learn from Chinese moms

January 20, 2011

By James Pethokoukis
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to Washington has triggered debate about whether the United States should copy his country’s hands-on economic model. But the Middle Kingdom’s feisty “tiger mothers” may provide a better guide. A new book extolling their tough-love approach could help America escape its debt trap and boost growth.

America is in a funk over the fear of decline and a still-wobbly economy. The age of anxiety started with the financial meltdown. The crisis and subsequent government bailouts prompted some U.S. policymakers to wonder if their steadfast belief in minimal state intervention had run its course. To make matters worse, while America plunged into its worst downturn since the Great Depression, China kept right on growing and adding to its massive dollar hoard.

But the solutions to America’s long-term economic woes won’t be found by aping the mercantilist industrial policy coming out of Beijing. That’s how poor countries play catch-up, not the way rich countries lead and innovate. Even China understands that at some point it will need to export less, consume more and loosen its financial system to more efficiently allocate capital.

So rather than turn to Hu for answers, ask author Amy Chua. The child of ethnic Chinese immigrants, Chua is critical of the lax parenting style of many American parents. In “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” she says they’re too quick to praise mediocrity and too reluctant to enforce sacrifice for better academics. In short, Americans are not preparing their kids as well as the Chinese are to compete and succeed as adults.

Whether the thesis is true or not, Chua’s critique still manages inadvertently to capture the essence of what’s wrong with U.S. economic policy. Too much spending and consumption today, too little savings for investment tomorrow. A dysfunctional education system. A tax code that rewards lobbying over productivity.

Americans need to demand more of themselves and of government, even if that means some days of unpleasant sacrifice. Chinese mothers, according to Chua, set high expectations of their children because nothing helps confidence like achieving what didn’t seem possible. That spirit would serve the United States well about now.

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