February 14, 2011
by Annelise Riles
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Can we talk?

I spend roughly half of each year in the United States and half in Asia.  Thinking about markets and their regulation from these two different vantage points makes you confront, every day, the almost comic level of misunderstanding, misconception, and general lack of sophistication that prevails on each side of the Pacific about what goes on on the other side.  Even what gets celebrated and imported is often twisted almost beyond recognition and therefore destined to do far more damage than good:  for the record, Chinese mothering is not a ruthless and abusive pursuit of a myopic definition of success, and the ideal of American capitalism is not about eliminating all obligations to employees or consumers and treating everyone around you as unworthy of dignity.

In my experience, the problem is sadly but equally widespread from street-level shop owners to the high echelons of national bureaucracies, and from journalism to the academy.  For the most part, and with very notable exceptions, the average academic or bureaucrat I know in Asia or the US frankly just isn’t that interested in what is happening on the other side of the Pacific. He or she has his or her own day to day concerns, political struggles, and ambitions, at home, and doesn’t really see how reaching out and taking an interest in foreign stuff, or putting in the time to build long term relations with people elsewhere, will pay off.

So what? The stability and growth of the three largest economies in the world–the US, Japan and China–depends on our collective ability to find solutions to some serious disagreements and ways of working together on some real challenges, from labor and trade relations to government debt to foreign exchange policy, border disputes, environmental standards and much more.  We are at an exciting, but also a potentially dangerous time in world affairs and market development.  Where are we going to find the resources–the ideas, the people, the institutions–to make real progress on these conflicts and build solutions that will last?

The language barrier is much more of a problem here than we often acknowledge.  It only takes a couple of years of language classes for a smart French bureaucrat or union leader to be competent enough in Italian to make sense of a position paper written by an Italian colleague.  As a result, the ability to communicate is much more widespread throughout the society.  In contrast, it takes many years of very hard work for Asians and Americans to master one another’s languages.  And this creates its own distortions and absurdities: the Americans who specialize in Japan and the Japanese who specialize in America each are their own odd breed, to say the least. At the same time, I have met too many Americans whose solution to this problem is to convince themselves that it doesn’t exist–that everyone in Asia speaks English anyway–and who are therefore blithely unaware of the depth and richness of what they are missing.

And yet living between the US and Asia I am also constantly reminded of how much each side stands to learn from the other.  The Japanese experience with health care, and its technical, social and political innovations for adapting to the so-called Aging Society is surely a model for the US.  At the same time, Japanese society and markets surely would benefit from studying some of the deep conditions of American innovation–not the surface level stuff of importing a foreign CEO or two, or cutting employees’ employment security, but the stuff Americans largely take for granted: relatively open immigration, the availability of credit, and the availability of equal opportunities for people under the age of–say–fifty.  The Chinese government is ahead of both the United States and Japan in appreciating the long-term benefits that come with training a generation of experts who are truly culturally, linguistically and technically fluent and can move freely across the Pacific region.

In the same way that we need to invest in light rail and internet infrastructure, we need to invest now in building the human resources–the individuals, the institutions, the ways of talking to one another– for a vastly more sophisticated cross-Pacific conversation.  This needs to happen at all levels–from elementary school on up. In the specific area of market regulation and reform, the Clarke Program in East Asian Law and Culture which I direct at the Cornell Law School is launching a multilingual (Japanese, Chinese, English) online community of lawyers, policy makers, academics and graduate students across the Pacific.  We hope that by investing in a detailed and intensive conversation about market issues, broadly conceived, over the long term, we can have the kind of frank and imaginative conversation that will produce the new ideas we all need.  More about this initiative soon on this site!

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