Dear John Hickman: Math and History are Important.
On yet another nativist alarmism post on the Looming Asian Menace, Space.com has an article on China’s space program using extensive quotes by political science professor John Hickman of Berry College. There’s a lot to dislike about the article, but by far the most absurd quotation exchange comes as more of overhyping China’s great threat:
The last time America was forced to participate in a space race, Hickman said, America managed “a come from behind win” in large part because the U.S. had the advantage of a much larger and more efficient economy than the Soviet Union.
“That is not true this time around. China is not the Soviet Union. The implication is that what we need is a serious ‘forward’ space policy now or we will lose not only this international competition but also the chance to lead the human endeavor in space,” Hickman said.
Now, it’s fashionable to suggest that OMGCHINAISGOINGTOTAKEOVERTHEWORLD or some other hyperbolic statement to that effect. It’s used in every field, ranging from manufacturing, to STEM degrees, and god help us, even in people claiming that the Chinese surveillance state is somehow less intrusive than the American one. (This is a rant for another time). But there are some cold, hard facts against that hype.
First is the little fact that the US has something in the order of twice the nominal GDP of China and China’s GDP growth has been…well less than spectacular in 2013. Second that the Chinese government continues to struggle with meeting basic infrastructure and human society needs, much less the needs of creating Chinese moon bases and other Gingrichian ideas.
This brings me the relative positions of the countries during the Space Race. An interesting tidbit from an old Paul Samuelson textbook in the 60s (h/t Alex Tabarrok) shows that the positions between the USSR and the US circa 1961 were rather similar to the US-China dynamic today. If you look at the graph you’ll note that the US had a substantial GDP advantage (of again, about twice the nominal output of the Soviet Union) but lagged behind the Soviet Union in terms of economic growth. The idea of course is that if you extrapolate far enough into the future, the USSR would surely have surpassed the US by the 1980s.
Of course it never happened that way. It’s no reason to be complacent, but let’s at least keep within the bounds of history and reality, particularly if the source quoted is claiming to be an authority on political science.
China’s certainly rising, but it’s a country with very very large challenges ahead, challenges which will likely limit its ability to simply impose its will whereever it pleases.