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China vs. India: who’s winning?

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By Joshua Rothman
May 15, 2011

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The Cold War witnessed a space race and an arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. In our own era, the great competition may be the growth race between China and India. In The New York Review of Books, Amartya Sen asks the obvious question: Which country has the better quality of life?

The answer, of course, depends on what you value. India has built a democratic society, and its citizens enjoy tremendous civic freedoms; at the same time, the country is still struggling with economic inequality. In China, prosperity has been more widely shared, but political freedoms have been slow in coming.

On the whole, Sen finds, life in China is better: Life expectancy is longer, child mortality is lower, and the literacy rate is higher. Nearly all Chinese children have received immunizations against diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus; in India, only 66 percent have received them. Democracy matters, of course, in a qualitative way. But, Sen writes, “When we consider the impact of economic growth on people’s lives, comparisons favor China over India.”

Moving forward, Sen sees the challenge in democratic India as one of attention. Indians have to keep the political discussion focused on issues of inequality. In China, by contrast, the challenge has to do with accountability. Decisions are made from the top down, and people have little recourse against their government. In both cases, it’s important to look beyond broad measurements like gross national product. Growth has been important, but in the coming decades, politics might be even more so.

Human reason, the real story As a species, we’re justifiably proud of our ability to reason. We elect politicians and pay CEOs to think through decisions in an even-handed, unbiased way; when Hamlet exclaimed, “What a piece of work is a man,” he cited, among other things, the fact that human beings are “noble in reason.”

Evolutionary theorists, of course, aren’t content to admire — they want to know why people are such good reasoners. In their new paper, “Why Do Humans Reason? Arguments for an Argumentative Theory” (just published in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences), cognitive scientists Dan Sperber and Hugo Mercier propose a new account of the origins of reasoning. Reasoning, they argue, actually didn’t arise as a means to help us find the truth — it evolved as a tool to help us make, evaluate, and win arguments. “The emergence of reasoning,” Sperber and Mercier argue, “is best understood within the framework of the evolution of human communication.”

If the reasoning process isn’t necessarily about finding the truth, there are some sobering implications. “Reasoning,” they write, “pushes people not towards the best decisions but towards decisions that are easier to justify.” So what good is reason? If, as Sperber and Mercier argue, our reasoning abilities really are grounded in social life, then it follows that reasoning will be most valuable in social situations. As individuals, “reasoning” just means making up arguments. In groups, we have debates, and work our way collectively towards the truth.

The evil mountain lair of our dreams The discovery of Osama bin Laden’s safe house in Pakistan has ended years of speculation over where, exactly, the terrorist leader might be hiding — speculation that has at times veered toward the fantastical. Check out, for instance, this amazing graphic from the Times of London, published in 2001 and unearthed on the website of journalist Edward Jay Epstein. It depicts the Qaeda leader’s presumed “mountain fortress.”

Epstein writes: “The story [about an underground lair] probably reached its high point on NBC’s ‘Meet The Press’ on December 2nd when Tim Russert, the host of the program, provided Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld with the artist’s rendering of bin Laden’s fortress.”

Rumsfeld looked at the diagram, a redoubt complete with a ventilation system, truck entrances, and its own hydroelectric power — and rose to the bait. “This is serious business,” he said. “And there’s not one of those. There are many of those. And they have been used very effectively. And I might add, Afghanistan is not the only country that has gone underground. Any number of countries have gone underground.”

In the end, the underground lair turned out to be more of a bunker — and bin Laden’s final hideout was even less glamorous.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and teaching fellow in the Harvard English department and an instructor in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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