The Parable of Sam and Joe

At birth, Sam was 361 percent richer than Joe.  Then for most of their lives, Joe’s income stayed at the level of dire poverty while Sam’s kept growing steadily.  By the time they reached middle age, Sam had become 20 times richer than Joe. From that low point, things finally turned out big time for Joe and he started catching up to Sam, but today Sam is still 253 percent richer than Joe. Whom would you prefer to be, Sam or Joe? If Sam followed one career approach and Joe followed another, would you rather imitate Sam or Joe?

As you may have guessed, Sam is Uncle Sam, standing in for the average American income. Joe is actually Zhao, standing in for the average Chinese per capita income, and their “lifetimes” are from 1870 to 2011 (“middle age” is around the 1970s, and “today” is 2011).

Yesterday’s blog post provoked a few negative comments and suggestions that I look at other blog posts by Helmut Reisen and Gideon Rachman that prove America’s decline relative to China’s rise.  Anyone questioning the orthodoxy on American decline and Chinese superiority even gets the ominous label of “denialist.”

This is not to deny China’s remarkable economic miracle, just a reminder that the miracle is about growth and not about levels. And this parable suggests that growth is not necessarily a good guide to well-being and success.