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China's Statistical Advantage
June 7, 2018
by William P. Meyers

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Large Populations Have More Geniuses

The United States has been the acknowledged global leader since the end of World War 2, when our factories were functioning in high gear, untouched by a war that destroyed a significant portion of the factories of the other industrial powers.

Since about 2000 China has been catching up with the other world economic powers, including the United States. Its per capita income has risen more quickly than any other power. With a population now near 1.4 billion, it now has the second largest economy in the world (the largest by measures like purchasing power parity). With a population about 4.3 times that of the United States (at 326 million), it per capita income only has to reach 23.5% of that of the U.S. to make its economy as large by any measure.

Most economists believe that China will take a clearer economic lead sometime in the next few decades.

Population is not the only factor in the equation, but once two nations come to a rough parity in technology and organization, it gives advantage to the larger country. Part of the reason is the statistical nature of human talent. If a relatively few geniuses, or talented outliers, give a country an advantage, they are far more likely to appear in the nation with the larger total population.

Consider the standard bell curve for a population. Most people are nearly average, whether in general intelligence, a particular type of intelligence (math, memory, crossword-puzzle solving aptitude, etc.), height, or athletic ability. As people deviate from average for a particular trait their percentage of the population declines. At some point the percent tapers off to zero.

Now consider two bell curves, say one with 1.4 billion people and one with 326 million. My illustrations are for arbitrary numbers, except China is 4.3 times the U.S. on the vertical scales.

Talent Curve, Normal

Genius Tail of Bell Curve

The number of average people in China is very close to 4.3 times the number of average people (say the middle 20%, the third quintile) in the U.S. That is also true for those in the next two quintiles up (presuming up is better), the fourth and fifth quintiles. Let's say we are looking for the most economically effective range, the top 2% say, which produces scientists, the best business and government people, and the most competent computer programmers. Even there, China would have a 4.3 to 1 advantage, which would be quite an advantage, everything else being equal.

This can also be described as the long tail of the bell curve. It tapers out earlier, closer to average, for smaller populations.

It is in the uppermost 0.1% that the U.S. will run into its greatest competitive problem. Simply put, the top one percent of Chinese is likely to be unmatchable by the top 0.1% of Americans. Another way to think of it is that as the race to the top thins, at some point, in any given field, there will be less than 1 American genius, but 4 actually existing Chinese geniuses. And it you look at history, say the history of physics, or business ideas, a few people, perhaps as few as 4, do the most crucial work. In early 20th century physics, perhaps Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr, and Dirac.

Of course, there are many variables in national development. Often genius is not recognized by school systems or society. China had a lot more people in 1900 than Europe, but produced none of the top physicists.

Historical context is important. Most Westerners believed the Chinese were an inferior race from perhaps 1800 to 1950. In 1800 China probably still had the largest national economy on earth, but was falling behind Europe in technology and social organization. By the end of World War II China was in a shambles, largely reduced to a third-world subsistence economy. National unification under the communists marked the beginning of the rebuilding of the nation without imperialist overlords.

China is still behind the United States and some other nations in some cutting-edge technologies. It has surpassed most nations, including the U.S., in industrial capacity in sectors like steel, energy production, and the construction trades.

China is also behind the U.S. in military technology, but should be able to rapidly close the gap. It now can produce aircraft carriers. Hopefully it won't waste its resources on them the way the U.S. does, but it could build more than the U.S., if its leaders want that.

The short lesson is: unless something unexpected changes, China will be the world leading nation some time, probably well before 2050. It may not lead in each thing, but it will lead overall.

The entire globe, however, will produce more geniuses than China can. So one possibility is that the U.S., or Russia or a group of nations like the EU, will add the non-Chinese geniuses to its own total. To some extent the U.S. used to do this and still does. Even Chinese geniuses come to U.S. universities to study, and many remain in the U.S.

Also note that India has a population of 1.3 billion. The EU has a population of a half billion, which is also larger than the U.S.

Seeing what is likely to happen, I would suggest that the U.S. befriend China and prepare to eventually be an ally within the Chinese umbrella. Then all our geniuses can work together to save the planet from environmental destruction while raising our standard of living.

We need to tone down U.S. nationalism and take a more tolerant, internationalist tone. We need to recognize that the U.S. military presence in the western Pacific is not going to be viable in the long run. To compete for the best place possible in a future China-dominated world, we need to focus on needs in the 50 states, like education, infrastructure, social mobility, and child care.

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