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As Asian markets and
economies experienced a drastic slide beginning in the summer of 1997,
threatening the stability of other world markets and potentially dampening
the technology boom that had been driving world development, the editors
began a look at the effects of cultures and economic systems on social
and technological change. Following is a Q&A interview with James
Fallows. Beginning in 1999, Fallows was media columnist for The Industry
Standard. He also is the former editor of U.S. News and World Report,
was a senior editor and correspondent in Asia, and Washington editor,
for The Atlantic Monthly and is the author of two books on Asia, Looking
at the Sun and More Like Us. The interview was conducted June 30, 1998.
and Asian Resilience
In the decade since
you wrote More Like Us, we have seen a progressive ? and now, suddenly,
radically different ? Asian economic picture unfold, from riches to declining
markets and default. How do you see the differences between Americans
and Japanese in terms of the way they handle economic damage control and
recovery, and any changes in their self-perceptions? Are the Asians any
more contrite, and are Americans any more detached in their self-assessments?
Fallows: I feel
abashed in offering generalizations about “Asian” attitudes to stresses
of this sort, since so many different cultures have so many different
traits. Traditional Malays describe themselves as being fatalistic about
adversity, while seeing the ethnic Chinese in their midst as more resilient,
for example.But I think between America and Japan, one contrast is fair
to note. On the whole, Japanese culture prides itself on stoicism ? an
ability to withstand real hardship and sacrifice. Thus it takes pride
in its recovery from the horrors of defeat and the indignity of post-war
occupation. American culture, I would say, features instead an optimistic
“things will get better” spirit.
After a bankruptcy,
after a divorce, after being laid off, people are encouraged to think
that the next venture they start will turn out well. In practice, both
of these ethics can equip people to bounce back from difficulties, but
they do so in different ways.
More Like Us comments
on what you call “creative destruction” in regard to both U.S. and China
societies, and gives us reason to believe that the seeds of entrepreneurship
can originate in a racially homogenous totalitarian country (China) or
in a multi-cultural democratic system (U.S.). Is China’s future role to
become the “Superman” of innovation and enterprise, the center of new
entrepreneurship and the spawning ground for new ideas and inventions,
replacing the American tradition in that role? From a 1998 view, will
China perhaps become the most capitalistic of all?
about the premise of the question: while China as a whole has a sense
of racial specialness and separateness from the West, I would not think
of it as a racially homogenous country. There are huge differences north
to south, east to west. Nonetheless, it?s clearly true that this culture
does reward many “American” style productive traits, from a practical
problem-solving orientation to a desire for each person to have his own
(or family?s) enterprise. The market tradition seemed not to be extinguished
even during the Mao years. Whether in the long run this is destined to
be the most capitalistic society, I couldn?t say, nor could anyone, I
think, since so many historic, military, and other factors are involved.
But their prospects are good.
Regarding the Japanese
perspective of “common good of the people first” that you mention in both
your books, do you sense any stress fractures in this outlook, especially
among younger Japanese who have come of age in the past 5-7 years and
have to deal with the economic problems caused by their predecessors and
elders? Are they perhaps becoming more independent and entrepreneurial
in spirit as a result?
Fallows: I am
sure that changes in both directions are underway; the question is the
rate of change, compared to how robust the traits are. It is possible
that today?s economic strains really will erode them. On the other hand,
it?s worth remembering that outsiders have consistently overestimated
the rate of change on these fronts. We?ll just have to watch and see.
Why does the entrepreneurial
spirit you describe in Looking at the Sun survive and thrive so strongly
in China, but seems not to have made the narrow leap to Japan?
is one guess: China has been so large and populous for so long that an
“every man for himself,” or really “every family for itself” spirit has
been necessary. Japan has thought of itself as small and contained enough
to be run with a more group-conscious spirit. Also, as a number of cultural
historians point out (most recently Sheldon Garon, in Molding Japanese
Minds), there have been concerted efforts by Japanese public officials
for a century or more to promote the collective spirit. This emphasis
may have dampened the entrepreneurial potential of the country.
Can the tradition of
high personal savings rates in most Asian cultures help mitigate the current
financial crisis? Is this a factor, or did it drop by the wayside over
the past decade in countries such as South Korea, Thailand and Indonesia?
this will make a huge difference ? and does help explain the different
predicaments of different Asian countries. Taiwan, Japan, and Singapore
have VERY high savings rates ? and they are the three in least urgent
distress during the financial crisis. (Japan has tremendous stagnation,
but not Indonesia-style collapse). Indonesia and Malaysia and Thailand
are much less frugal in this sense, and are walking on thinner ice.
Will the Asian economic
recovery likely include more or less government regulation of economic
policies in the respective countries, or are we likely to see yet another
set of economic models that are still quite different from the Western
free market philosophy?
guess is: A quite significant long-term difference in Asian and Western
models. It is possible that the two approaches really will converge. But
the cultures, histories, and social preferences of many Asian societies
differ enough from America?s to make long-term difference possible, too.
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