Sunday, March 7, 2010

Chinese Family Values and the Division of Labor, part II

... continued from part I...

Many a starry-eyed American conservative has expressed envy at the "strong" extended families of other cultures, such as the Chinese, but I do not think they really comprehend all the effects that such an arrangement has, nor necessarily the motivations that lead to it.  In the first place, when these American conservatives think of “grandparents,” they are likely imagining something along the lines of America’s “Greatest Generation,” the generation that grew up in the Great Depression and fought WWII.  In reality, in the case of the Chinese, these days they would be referring to the generation that formed the youth movement and lived out the Cultural Revolution.  They are not the doped-out hippies of America’s 60’s, but in large part they are not exactly the repositories of ancient value systems and timeless wisdom that they are imagined, either.  They are a generation that grew up adrift in a sea of value conflict, and in many cases were the actual agitators that challenged the old value systems.

Secondly, as Ms. Yi points out, most of the motivation for choosing this family structure is economic in nature – the pragmatism to which I refer. Ms. Yi's essay is quite illuminating in this respect; however, I think more commentary is in order from this economic point of view.  I think most people can understand the economics behind leaving children with their grandparents so that both parents can work at high-paying jobs.  What most people probably don’t understand is the nature of the economic system and the division of labor that most Chinese are dealing with, and that Chinese immigrants grew up with, influencing their decision making even once they have left that system.

The Division of Labor and the Extended Family

Most Americans simply cannot comprehend the types of challenges many non-Westerners face as they manage their daily affairs.  The familiarity of our own division of labor (and by this I refer to the economy at large and am not limiting myself to the family) is so ingrained in us that we cannot imagine the types of decisions that, truth be told, most of the rest of the world throughout time have faced.  That is not to say that we do not face any challenges at all, or even challenges of a vastly smaller magnitude, only that they are of a very, very different type.

For example, most of us really cannot imagine what it is like to wash clothes by hand, and what a convenience it is not to have to.  Yet until very recently, this was the case for almost everyone living in China.  An American stay-at-home mom can easily have a weeks worth of baby's clean clothes ready at a minimum of effort.  Not so for a huge swath of the Chinese population, even today.  And, for those who object that a washing machine and dryer do not constitute a division of labor but are merely objects of material wealth, I ask, first, who built the machines, and second, how were they paid for?  Home appliances are capital goods, and as such are integral parts of the division of labor.  Further, all material wealth above and beyond bare subsistence are products of the division of labor.  A Robinson Crusoe can never be a Bill Gates, irrespective of his talents or virtues.

When she goes out to buy formula for her baby, an American mom probably doesn't think much about the risk of her baby being poisoned.  Yet food contamination and outright product tampering is a far greater threat overseas than it is here.  The division of labor creates dependencies on others, and human nature being what it is, fraud, violence, jealousy and the like will raise their ugly heads as soon as two humans get together to try to accomplish anything.  I can assure you that Chinese are no more fond of the thought of lead in their food than Americans are, or of getting taken advantage of in the marketplace, yet this is simply a quality of the division of labor that differs between our two circumstances and a fact of life that one simply has to deal with.

What is a mother to do?  Hopefully, the answer is obvious:  seek out those that one can trust when one must interact with, and therefore depend on, other people, especially on such sensitive issues as care for babies.  It is best to choose to interact with close family members whose interests are aligned with our own if at all possible.

Large, close-knit family structures in developing economies are likely as much an effective response to the economic challenges they face as they are "tradition."  Far from being an indictment of Western civilization, I believe that our own more "atomized" family structures centered on the "nuclear family" is a testament to our own cultural ability to attain a fantastic degree of specialization and productivity, thanks to our historically unique ability to extend the division of labor far beyond what any other civilization has ever managed.  In this regard, we must understand that it is not the foreigners that are strange – it is us.  The vast majority of people in recorded history have lived in low division of labor economies and used the extended family structure to help improve their material well-being.  Even in well developed economies this still occurs, though usually on a smaller scale, such as with family owned businesses and the like.  I’m sure you can think of your own examples.  It helps reduce the risk of more complex economic structures.

(Of course, I'm also of the opinion that our own division of labor has been stretched far beyond what was ever intended or even remotely healthy by the dual effects of central banking and the centralized state.  More's the pity that the benevolent force appears to be dying out, while the latter duo appears to be successfully doing us in, but that is another topic.)

The vastly lower division of labor (again, broad terms) in China both increases the individual workload for a desired given output, and is an indication that illicit behaviors are prevalent.  If one must seek childcare, who better to turn to than grandma and grandpa?  Grandparents taking care of their grandchildren is an important part of the division of labor for Chinese families, and serves them well in this regard, at least to first appearances.  However, that is not to say that it is without effect in other areas.


Ms. Yi takes a harsh view of the pervasiveness of materialism and envy (literally translated “greed” and “competition”) impinging on Chinese family affairs.  Being a capitalist pig myself, I will be the first to say that there is absolutely nothing wrong with desiring material well-being for one’s self and one’s family, and I will defend the profit motive and the desire for riches to the bitter end.  However, this comes with the proviso that the pursuit of wealth should never come at the expense of violating principles of ethical conduct.

I think this is what draws Ms. Yi’s ire:  she never explicitly states it, but I suspect she senses that these children are not just growing up in different circumstances, but being wronged. This is probably where the average American reader started in his thought process, rather than with a bunch of esoteric musings about the division of labor.  For most Western readers, it is not merely shocking, but painful to read of families being broken apart for the sake of material gain.  Likely, there is a little bit of anger in one’s reaction as well.  Sacrificing one’s family obligations for the sake of marginal material gain certainly is throwing away the watermelon to collect sesame seeds.

I can vouch for Ms. Yi’s “materialist” conclusions on the basis of another observation.  In addition to Chinese couples sending their children to be raised by their own parents, I have known a great number of Chinese couples that also spent literally years apart, pursing one career goal or another.  Usually, it was graduate school, which can be a 7 to 10 year or more commitment.  This is not entirely unheard of among American couples, but from what I can tell it is pretty common among the Chinese.  There seems to be a fairly causal attitude about leaving one’s spouse for great lengths of time, or conversely, a great deal of emphasis on material and career pursuits. Or both. 

Most Americans view their jobs as a way of supporting their families, or “lifestyle,” if one is still single.  While I don’t know many people who would tell you that a job’s pay does not matter at all, I would say that most would turn down a high salary in exchange for a job they find personally enjoyable or meaningful, or which gives them the benefit of time off with their families.  From most American’s point of view, there would be no point in pursuing a high-paying job that forced him to break up his family in this way.  It would defeat the purpose – to support his “way of life”, which is now broken.  I think Ms. Yi is correct to say that, culturally speaking, material pursuits aren’t quite as important to Americans as they are among the Chinese, although this is of course a broad generalization and one would find a great number of exceptions.  But broadly speaking, in the West employment is usually viewed as a way to support one’s life’s goals, which are generally considered separate from work.  Work is the sacrifice; family life and personal goals are the purpose of the sacrifice.  Among the Chinese, the view seems to be more the other way around:  one must make family sacrifices for the sake of career.

But it is easy to criticize when one is able to make a comfortable living at a lesser paying job.  For most Chinese, and especially those living in China, that is not the case.  And while we are on the subject of family interfering with the relentless pursuit of materialism, one hasn't properly addressed the topic without looking at the role of the public school system.  Namely, is it really the case that the overwhelming majority of parents send their children to public school because they honestly feel that this is what is best for their children, or is it because through the public school mechanism, for every one public school teacher twenty or so mothers are freed from family duties to pursue a paying job?  The reality is that the public school system extends the division of labor in pretty much the same way that babysitting by extended family does, and I find it hard to believe that people feel that education by government is the best option for their children.  I wonder what fraction of the population uses public education versus public housing, public health facilities, and public transportation.  I do not wonder about the quality of these services.

Is it really so much worse to hand children over to their grandparents for a few years vs. the state for most of their childhood?  Perhaps it is not so much that the two cultures lie at opposite ends of a spectrum, but that the Chinese have simply taken our own line of thinking to its logical conclusion.

Family Discipline

Ms. Yi hypothesizes that Chinese children suffer from a feeling of isolation and being unloved as a result of being separated from their parents at a young age.  This seems plausible.  Certainly a number of very different family dynamics are set into play by altering family structure which can have very substantial effects on a person’s development.

From what I have seen, the biggest problem created by the dynamic of having grandparents cohabit with their children's families or even raise the grandchildren themselves is in the realm of discipline.  It is a well known and widespread phenomenon that grandparents have a tendency to spoil their grandchildren.  I don’t think this phenomenon needs any lengthy discussion, but I also think the issue goes much deeper than that.  Having grandparents in this role more or less permanently creates a serious conflict of authority.  Most people accept a parent's innate authority to discipline his own children, however, the policy immediately becomes confused when the child you are dealing with isn't "yours."  What is the caretakers place?  It is easy to say that there should be no difference.  It is a harder thing to do. 

The effect is further compounded by cohabitation.  The younger generation will naturally tend to defer to the older generation, which will feel out of place and defer back to the parents.  Nobody wants to rock the boat and everyone winds up intimidated out of the role of disciplinarian.  If there happens to be a tyrant or a softie among the four, forget about having any kind of coherent disciplinary regime.  Every decent parent knows how important it is that parents present a coherent, united front towards their children concerning what behavior is appropriate and what is not, and further what a tremendous challenge it is to do so in a world where people each have their own ideas and often disagree.  It doesn't help that children are intelligent and crafty little beings in their own right and quickly learn to play their parents off against one another to get what they want.

With four adults around acting as authority figures, especially four adults who have grown up in the cultural turmoil described earlier, and aren’t sure themselves exactly what value system they subscribe to, the situation becomes impossible to manage.  The net result of all of these dynamics is an environment in which a clever child can run wild because nobody is able to effectively say "no."  Strange as it sounds, I think it is probably easier for a single adult to effectively discipline four children than four adults a single child.

There are exceptions, of course.  Most Chinese children I have met have gotten the message to “study hard” loud and clear, and once again, pragmatism rules the day as far as bad behavior is concerned.  The prevailing ethic of pragmatism is that as long as nobody is mad, or at least nobody is mad that can hurt you, what you are doing is probably okay.  But make enough people mad, or the wrong people mad, and there will be consequences.  Rocking the boat too badly is therefore usually understood to be a circumscribed behavior.

The important thing here is that, as far as I can tell, there is very little inward direction where right and wrong is concerned.  It is more a matter of a consensus, or what others think, and being in harmony with those one cares about or whose opinion is valued.  It reminds me of a subdued version of the public shaming aspect of Islamic societies, where morality is more an external issue than internal.  I will admit that I could be reading it incorrectly, but whatever the overarching principle, it is very different from the West.

There is a certain well-known paradox about liberty.  Those who are unable to restrain themselves will inevitably find themselves subject to a tyranny of one form or another.  It might be a tyranny of addiction, or the long arm of the law, or simple ignorance or laziness. It can take many forms, and is not something a loving parent should want for his child.  Discipline is far too important to neglect or leave to the whims of chance.

Complexity and the Importance of Tradition

This disciplinary problem is, I believe, merely one example of a much larger phenomenon.  I have often remarked that what may be the single greatest fault of modern philosophy is the tendency to regard every problem as a mechanical problem.  The attitude discussed by Ms. Yi that "if the baby is changed and fed everything is taken care of" is a perfect example -- childcare reduced to mechanics.

The fact is that humans are organic beings, not computers, and the human brain is less like a predictable system of gears turning than an intricate and overwhelmingly complex assemblage of poorly understood goo.  Systems such as, well, us, may be composed of particles with mechanical properties at the molecular scale, yes, but taken together they are far too complex to submit to any mechanical understanding that we are capable of, at least at this time.  The many-body problem sees to that very quickly.  Biology likely has more in common with meteorology than with chemistry in this regard. 

The oozings and squishings of life as a being of flesh rather than as mechanical automatons has real and profound consequences in the real world, inconvenient as that may be for our mechanically inclined way of understanding things.  Our thinking organ is as much a hormone spouting gland as a computational device. 

To top it off, we are but limited beings with limited capacities for understanding forced to deal with a universe outside of ourselves that is also hopelessly complex.  The fact of the matter is that one will never be able to understand much more than a tiny fraction of what there is to know, even if all the knowledge of the universe were placed at one's fingertips.  It is too overwhelming.  As a result, for a great deal of the situations we face, there is simply no way to know exactly what all of the consequences of any particular action will be.  Thinking that one can really understand situations outside a narrow area of expertise is the height of arrogance, and attempting to derive solutions to every problem on the basis of one's own understanding is a hopeless folly. 

And there lies the rub, as the saying goes.  By making drastic or sometimes even simple changes to basic ways of life like family structure, one is tempting fate on issues with very high stakes.  The issues are far more complex than simple income calculations and one can't really be sure of the consequences, which could be very negative and far reaching.  Better to experiment at the edges on subjects with which you have some expertise, while adhering to proven wisdom on the bigger issues.  Better that one's actions be guided by ancient principles of right and wrong than by creature cunning. 

Familiarity with history also helps. 

"I'm Lost"

Unfortunately, too many Chinese find themselves stripped of these important tools in dealing with a complex world.  They feel trapped by a world that is changing far too quickly for them to handle, with little in the way of religious or other comfort to turn to when the going gets tough.  Especially with the recent economic contraction, a lot of people are feeling a little overwhelmed and spiritually lost.

First, the revolution and following Cultural Revolution smashed the ancient ways and filled the vacuum with an authoritarian apparatus that left decision making up to a state bureaucracy.  One was told what to study, where to work, where to live, whom one could marry, etc., all the way from cradle to grave.  State power replaced cultural tradition in dealing with the complexity problem.  Average folks may not have known just what they should believe, but there wasn't a lot of uncertainty in life to deal with, either.

Nowadays, with the liberalization of the economy, one faces an enormous array of choices without a lot of guidance.  The problem of complexity has been placed squarely on the shoulders of the average man and woman, who has been deprived of all tools to deal with it.

A lot of folks are finding the experience very unsettling.  A soap opera dealing with the difficulties and dissatisfaction of modern life, especially with respect to material pursuits and the difficulty in attaining the Chinese equivalent of the American dream, became fantastically popular there recently called Narrow Dwellings.  It dealt with a young couple with romantic dreams of a life in Shanghai who moves to the city only to find that they must work extremely hard to afford just the tiniest of apartments, and what sparing creature comforts they are able to afford bring them far less happiness than they had been led to believe.  Basically, the message is that life is not all its cracked up to be, a typical theme for a Chinese production, but applied to the modern materialist mindset and the pursuit of its idealized life, which is something new.  I'm not sure if the title of the show has the same multiple meanings in Chinese that it does in English, but it certainly does express the basic idea of the show well in our language.

It is a pretty boring show for anyone with more than a few picograms of testosterone floating in his bloodstream.  However, it developed a cult-like following in China, I'm presuming among women, and wound up getting canceled.  I suppose that it struck a chord with people's feelings about modern life and its lack of fulfillment, material or otherwise, and the government decided it was too dangerous.  One isn't supposed to question the transformation going on.

I would also note how similar this show's message is to China's division of labor problem I discussed the first time I took up the topic.  If there is any accuracy to its portrayal of modern life, the situation seems to be playing itself out just as one would expect. 

Christianity and the West

I once had a friend from Cameroon tell me that he hated all American movies.  All of them.  He never watched them anymore, because he said they only made him fall asleep.  When asked what he found to be wrong with them, he said they were all Christian and didn't make any sense to him because he didn't think that way.  Nobody is that way in real life, he said.  Thinking this a bit strange, I asked about what specific movies he had seen.  The only specific title I could get out of him was Titanic, but he insisted that they were all the same.

Now, I must confess to not having cared much for Titanic, either, but I also did not remember it as having much in the way of content that might be regarded as Christian.  I doubt most Americans see much "Christianity" in Hollywood's productions; more likely the opposite.  But not to foreign eyes. 

The reason is that, believe it or not, our Western lives and perspectives are so thoroughly saturated with the Christian outlook that these ideas are mostly taken for granted.  They no longer register as anything to take notice of, just as we do not take notice of the air we breathe, despite informing our most basic assumptions and understanding of the world in a way that looks preposterous to non-Westerners.  Note that I do not say unbelievers, because if one is a non-believing Westerner, one is almost certainly carrying around these attitudes as well.  Western media, upbringing, day-to-day interactions, much as the particulars might often offend the conscious sensibilities, nevertheless are saturated with the Christian perspective and its base of assumptions, at least to our particular culture's understanding of it.  What looks to a Westerner as mundane and religiously innocuous looks to outsiders as drenched with Christian beliefs and attitudes, whether the Westerner would necessarily identify them as such or not.

I really do not think we can comprehend just how profoundly our lives and civilization are influenced by Christianity, whether one is a believer or not, and I can tell you from firsthand account that to the rest of the world Westerners appear absurd.  And the funny thing is that it is not the specific beliefs per se, as the West's own atheists might have you believe, but the attitudes we share even with Western atheists that draws the most head scratching.  Westerners are widely perceived as naïve little children for their hope and optimism and their childish way of adhering to rules. For most of the rest of the world, these are alien concepts.  After all, grown-ups know how the world really works, and what it really takes to achieve success in this life.

For some reason, Christians will readily acknowledge that the Christian faith has a transforming power over individuals, yet it strikes most as peculiar, or perhaps does not occur to them at all, to think that it would also have a transforming effect on an entire culture that has embraced it for well more than a millennium.  In fact, stating such a belief has almost become anathema, and may get you labeled anything from a bigot to a racist these days.  Isn't everybody just a human being?  Why shouldn't a person from a completely alien background be able to integrate himself seamlessly into Western, Christian society with minimal effort?  The reality is that language is one of the more insignificant roadblocks to integration. 

I wish I could say that this naïveté merely reflected a welcome and open attitude towards others.  That may be part of it, but it more likely reflects the presupposition that "everybody is basically the same" and the West's Christian heritage hasn't really created much distinction between it and the rest of the world.  Believe me, the foreigners know better, and this ignorance tends to confirm their suspicion of Western mental capacities.

Aside from all of that, given the problem of complexity, one should really expect that a culture as radically different as the West is from the historical norm would look radically different from others from top to bottom, including the family, the division of labor, and the economy.  It really shouldn't surprise anybody to learn that this is actually the case; unfortunately, it does.  Too few really know what is going on in other places to appreciate the difference and what causes it.

Thanks to the complexity problem, it is a hard thing to guess just how family life plays into the whole picture.  Does the West’s atomized family structure better prepare children to deal with uncertainty in life and enter the division of labor in a way that is productive and furthers its extension?  Does the Chinese extended family structure ultimately hinder the pursuit of economic growth by providing a coping mechanism for certain cultural shortcomings, allowing problems to persist without being addressed?  It is certainly plausible, but difficult to say for certain.

What is certain is that the West’s Christian background has had profound effects on virtually every aspect of life, and it seems to me that the reality is that most of what we consider good and decent about the West, as well as its blessings, material and otherwise, each springs independently from this single source.  It does not have a good economy because it is “free,” and “free” because it practices democracy.  It mostly owes liberty, democracy, and an exceptional economy all to a Christian background, in my opinion, with considerably less interplay between these several effects than most would suspect.

For whatever reason, I was thinking the other day about modern farming and what it must have looked like five hundred years ago.  Most people do not farm today, but likely everybody has at least driven by a farm or two and had a peek at all the amazing gadgets modern farmers use to increase their productivity.  Nowadays, a properly equipped farmer can probably handle 500+ acres without much difficulty.  One farmer on a tractor in a field has replaced hundreds of workers with hand tools.

But it is a mistake to think that he is doing it “alone.”  Think of the thousands of workers it took to produce that one tractor, the engineers and scientists who designed it, the countless other businesses that supplied parts and materials, and all of their workers as well.  There probably was a fair bit of monkey business along that tractor’s circuitous production route, yes, but still, a great number of people were actually able to come together and accomplish this task at a material profit for everyone involved.  This is a staggering feat, a fantastic historical aberration, and yet we treat it as mundane. 

As I ruminated on all of this, as I do far too much for my own good, a peculiar thought struck me.  “Look at what Christ has done,” I thought to myself.  Maybe that is a bit melodramatic, but I do not think it is inaccurate.  But we should never, ever take it for granted that humans naturally act this way if we would like to continue to reap the benefits of our way of life.

On the other hand, as I drive by so many foreclosed houses, vacant shopping centers and strip malls on the way to work, I think… well… never mind…

First Things First

When I posted my thoughts on the future of the Chinese economy some while ago, I pointed out what I thought would determine its future direction.  Either there would be sweeping cultural changes that allowed an extension of the division of labor as never before, or the economy would face long-term stagnation.  Either way, in the short term China almost certainly has a dramatic crash in store.  That is unavoidable – but a bleak long-term picture doesn’t have to be.

I must say that I was absolutely delighted to encounter Ms. Yi's essay, which gets straight to the heart of the matter in a way that I never would have expected.  It gives me great hope that thinkers like her are so clearly articulating exactly the kinds of ideas that in my opinion address problems where they must be addressed and would lead to a better future.  C. S. Lewis, that source of seemingly endless wisdom and inspiring quotes, expresses best what I think is the right attitude in his thoughts on putting first things first.  “Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither,” he says.  “When first things are put first, second things are not suppressed but increased.”

One of the most amazing things about our universe is how often doing the right thing leads not only to good outcomes, but also creates all sorts of other benefits, “second things,” one never would have expected.  Yet pursuing those second things directly often leads to ruin, again in ways that would not have occurred to the most brilliant mind.  The complexity problem pretty well ensures that we will never know just exactly how everything works, but if a person simply puts first things first, odds are good that he will wind up living a decent life.  Maybe not the one he expected, or even one that he would have imagined, but better than he could have ever gotten by his own wits alone.

I hope to see more essayists like Ms. Yi setting things right.

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