"My America is the one that believes the path to greatness is to go backward instead of going forward."
Larry Good has traveled to China for work since 2004, but it was only about three years ago when he, New Jersey-born Virginia man, truly saw that the country had the world’s fastest-growing economy. All it took is about an hour-long train ride.
“I looked out of the window, and I saw so much production capacity for material goods. I’ve seen more aluminum, more steel and more construction on one short train ride than I see in an entire year here in the U.S.,” says Good.
“The scale of growth and activity in the country like China very quickly makes me realize that it is not an issue of if the U.S. will remain the No. 1 economic powerhouse, but the issue of when it will transition to China. There are so many people, and there is so much happening there…the scale of growth is jaw-dropping, and there is no way we can or should keep up with it.”
“We need to find a new place in the world, but it’s not the place we held 50 or 60 years ago — a different role — manufacturing powerhouse is not it. We would never keep up with them.”
Normally, Good, a charming blonde man in his early 40s, travels around China by air and spends a lot of time looking at the country from a window of a plane. His job as a supplier to the metal (steel, aluminum) manufacturing and port crane industries he got after advancing his engineering degree with MBA, has taken him all over the world. He’s been to almost every continent and worked in places like Russia, Mexico, Germany, and Japan, just to name a few.
Good does about eight trips abroad a year, preferring short trips which allow him to spend more time with his wife and son in states. He traveled all over the world, but it was the experience of China that helped him justify switching his flip-phone to an iPhone with translator apps when the technology became available.
“I got tired of ordering the same two or three things off the menu, which I knew how to say in Chinese,” he laughed.
The upgrade also offered him more confidence to travel within China by himself the next time he visited, offering the advantage of moving about, without having tickets and taxis ordered through his hotel, feeding Good’s reasonably adventurous nature.
Three years ago, the translator and GPS apps inspired him to buy a train ticket from Shanghai to Changzhou by himself and set off to meet with the customer to talk about a shipping port expansion project. Soon, he got a window seat on the train and spent the next hour looking at China as he had never seen it before.
“I must have traveled 100 miles, and I never felt that I was traveling through a field. If I go 100 miles in NYC, Chicago or Los Angeles, I am in a farmland. I rode 100 miles from the center of Shanghai, and it still felt like a city,” said Good.
On that one train ride, it became apparent to him how many people there are in that country.
“We’ve all seen the numbers – over 1 billion,” said Good. “In our country, we have no cities which come even remotely close to the scope of what Shanghai may be.”
The scenery made Good think of the place he grew up believing the United States held in the world. Now, it seemed that it was time for his country to find a new one.
Growing up in a liberal corner of New Jersey, Good, as many Americans all over the country, Good was taught that one of the things that made the U.S. great, especially during the time of the Soviet Union and the cold war, was that America had a huge industrial power it could turn into production capability to fight a war or to do whatever it wanted with it.
“Even now, there is so much talking in the media about how important industrial power is,” said Good. “But I think if we use production of material goods as a measure of success, in the end, we are going to lose this battle.”
The world is changing, and what is good for America is that the country is changing with it.
Today, the U.S. economy is significantly ahead of Chinese one in terms of nominal GDP, which makes it the largest economy in the world. Yet, China is estimated to pull ahead of the U.S. in coming years.
Keeping up with insane growth of Chinese economy is not something the U.S. should be aiming to achieve, Good believes.
The level of production and industrial output that China has takes a toll on people, the environment, and the quality of life.
“When you become a production powerhouse, pollution is a byproduct,” Good said.
“I can be on a plane in a Beijing airport, and I can’t even see a plane two gates over because there is so much smog. The air inside the airport is much cleaner than outside the airport.”
Beijing is renown for its bad quality of air, and its an extreme example. It’s not so bad in other parts of China, Good added.
“That’s a part of the reason I wouldn’t want to have 10 times as many steel mills as we have. It sounds great, but I don’t want live next to one.”
In general, Good doesn’t find China to be the most pleasant place to visit, he said.
“Everything is focused on production. It seems that every other consideration is secondary.”
During his trips to China, Good sometimes saw manufacturers holding their production process up to even higher standards than Good himself used to.
“I have customers who have major contracts with US suppliers such as Boeing, so the market has driven the suppliers to improve quality,” said Good. “China absolutely has the ability to make quality product when they need to.”
Yet, Good still noticed a general disregard for each individual.
“You do what the boss tells you to do,” at least in Good’s experience watching people in certain industries, “even if it’s dangerous. Otherwise, you might not have a job. It might not even occur to people that what they are doing is extremely risky. I see them doing it anyway.”
“Sometimes it seems that people are more interested in checking off the box that something has been done rather than having it done correctly.”
In the place like that, people are forced to work harder to stand out. There are so many people waiting to take your place.
It comes as no surprise to Good that Western companies go more and more often to China to solve their problems. It’s not about cheap labor now as much as it was in the past, Good believes. American companies look at intensely innovating to stay relevant Chinese industries for ideas and skilled labor.
To keep up with China, Good believes, the U.S. would have to give up a lot of its quality of life.
“We would have to give up a little bit of what we say we believe in – social safety nets, taking care of elderly and disabled. We can turn around and put all the money from the programs which we think do good for us and put it to infrastructure or production or whatever it might be… but I think we would have to lose a little bit of our compassion for others to achieve it.”
If China, with so many people working so hard and never stopping construction and production, is about to replace the U.S. on the pedestal of the world’s leading economy and industrial powerhouse, what is left to do for America?
Good doesn’t know, but he is sure that its time for the country to reinvent itself once again.
Historically, the U.S. drew its power from diversity.
“Many of our great ideas came from immigrants because they have a different background, that is what gives them the interest and, in many ways, the drive to do what they can when they get here.”
“I think what we are is a country that takes people from other places and allows them to bring the best of them with them and add it to what we are. My America is the country that values itself in allowing people to become more than they could before they came here.”