Reassessing the quality of government in China

For a while I have been arguing that China is much more of a meritocracy than many outsiders (or for that matter insiders) believe.  You have to distinguish type I from type II error; the princelings do unjustly well but smart people from rural areas are elevated at fairly high rates.  Most important jobs are filled by very smart people.  Therefore I am happy to see this new paper by Margaret Boittin, Gregory Distelhorst, and Francis Fukuyama:

How should the quality of government be measured across disparate national contexts? This study develops a new approach using an original survey of Chinese civil servants and a comparison to the United States. We surveyed over 2,500 Chinese municipal officials on three organizational features of their bureaucracies: meritocracy, individual autonomy, and morale. They report greater meritocracy than U.S. federal employees in almost all American agencies. China’s edge is smaller in autonomy and markedly smaller in morale. Differences between the U.S. and China lessen, but do not disappear, after adjusting for respondent demographics and excluding respondents most likely to be influenced by social desirability biases. Our findings contrast with numerous indices of good government that rank the U.S. far above China. They suggest that incorporating the opinions of political insiders into quality of government indices may challenge the foundations of a large body of cross-national governance research.

That is based on questionnaires, but the basic comparative results hold up when you consider only those Chinese officials who are willing to make negative remarks about their own government elsewhere on the questionnaire.  Still, to some extent the American and Chinese respondents simply may be understanding the scales in different terms.

There are other interesting results in the body of the paper.  The only U.S. federal agencies with higher meritocratic self-assessment than the Chinese mean are the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the SEC, the OPM, and Education.  Homeland Security, Agriculture, and HUD do the worst, with the performance of the branches of the military being poor as well (see Figure 3, p.32).  For the participation variable, NASA and the SEC do best of the U.S. agencies, Homeland Security again doing the worst and the military again not doing well (Figure 4, p.33).  It’s a pretty consistent picture for the variable of morale, with NASA, the NRC, Education, SEC, and OPM at the top, in that order, and guess again which agency comes in at the very bottom? (Figure 5, p.34)

You will note that Chinese civil service jobs are highly coveted, and on average there are fifty applicants for each slot, making those jobs more exclusive than Ivy League universities.


'Therefore I am happy' ...

... to provide another example of mood affiliation.

'and on average there are fifty applicants for each slot, making those jobs more exclusive than Ivy League universities'

Actually, much more exclusive - the fact that one also pretty much requires membership in the Party, with an unblemished political record, for higher positions also plays a role. Along with this fillip from wikipedia - 'Most of the civil servants work in government agencies and departments. State leaders and cabinet members, who normally would be considered politicians in political systems with competing political parties and elections, also come under the civil service in China. Civil servants are not necessarily members of the Communist Party, but 95 percent of civil servants in leading positions from division (county) level and above are Party members.''s_Republic_of_China

The Powerball jackpot is still more exclusive. They vast majority of college know they don't merit acceptance to an Ivy League school, so they don't bother applying. Can the samebe said for the civil service jobs?

The U.S. federal government recurrently improved the quality of its civil service hiring exam up through the mid-1970s. But in January 1981, the lame duck Carter Administration tore up the civil service exam in the Luevano discrimination lawsuit, telling the next Administration to devise a new exam that would be both valid and not have disparate impact on protected ethnicities.

That of course proved impossible.

It would be interesting to study how much damage has been done to the quality of government in the U.S. by the Luevano fold:

Steve, Many agencies have very high academic standards, regardless of civil service exams.

Try to get into the DOJ without being in the top 15% of your class.

Many, probably most, parts of the DOJ, at least when I worked there, were not particularly exclusive, at least compared with top law firms. The top 15% statistic is not particularly meaningful, even if true (it wasn't in my day) because the top 15% in many, probably most, US law schools is not particularly elite -- given that law school admissions, unlike US med schools, is pretty easy and the bottom 50% is unlikely to find a job anywhere.

Jack, I disagree. I didn't think they changed their standards for hiring attorneys and did a little research. Here is the link to the OPIA description of attorney qualifications for applying to DOJ.

Bill, I disagree. Obama DOJ had openly encouraged mentally retarded attorneys to apply for positions in DOJ's CRD, and to many people it explains about his choices of AGs.

Employment even for bottom half of the class students at non-top law schools, is surprisingly decent.

I think one thing the article you linked to says is that the federal government is actually using these types of exams for many jobs again. Right?

I'd be interested in seeing more extensive information on the details of the Carter administration's demand that the exam not have disparate impact--even indirectly--on certain ethnicities. Was that an explicit requirement? (Also, what are "protected ethnicities"? Can I find the definition in OPM guidance or federal regs?)

Great article.



Look at this abstract by Fukuyama, taking careful note of his core argument:

Then google 'Fukuyama Patrimonialism' in search of his central theoretical concept, and look down the list for a piece by yours truly called 'Hellerian Capitalism'. To save you time:

Then look at the bitter man Fukuyama's tweets too. T'is clear he hates Trump with a Clintonesque vengeance which transcends the bounds of rational sanity. And now finds common ground with Cowen who, despite today's claim, has probably never ever before written a complementary word about China's governance. How did the befuddled left wing American public intellectual sub-class fall so far? Time for the Schumpeter shock.

@Heller - Seems like a lot of backward curve fitting rubbish, akin to the Weber thesis, which, though thought provoking, doesn't really explain anything. From your review: "Conceptually this fresh and clear focus on “three sets of institutions” looks very much like a repackaging of my emphasis throughout Capitalism, Institutions, and Economic Development (2009) on three historically-sequenced interacting institutions of impersonal law (first), impersonal public administration (second), impersonal political representation (last)" - and anyway, if you dig down you'll see that American jurisprudence is not as impersonal as you may think: the rich usually win the vast majority of the litigation. Either the rich are unusually correct in law, or, more likely, the law favors the status quo which means it favors the rich incumbent over the poorer upstart.

In the US there is zero risk to civil servants calling out their coworkers as incapable. In China there is always a risk your responses could negatively impact your personal freedom, especially when responding to foreigners about these topics.

I don't buy it. My experiences with Chinese civil servants has always been they are just as bored as American civil servants. And no one i've met can explain what the "extremely capable" Xi Jinping has done at his previous posts to merit each promotion. What made him better than the previous mayor of Shanghai?

Of course these spots are in high demand. Like the US it's impossible to get fired. Unlike the US, it's a surefire path to great wealth you can extract with your influence.

Yes, good analogy. Also the best and brightest in China, like in France, gravitate to the state bureaucracy (a French word) while the dumbest quartile end up working for Uncle Sam.

"You will note that Chinese civil service jobs are highly coveted, and on average there are fifty applicants for each slot, making those jobs more exclusive than Ivy League universities."

So long as they aren't choosing these people for these jobs based on something that is not obviously tied to skill or expertise (e.g. last name, who they know), then would you expect any response other than, "I was chosen from many others to do the most prestigious work in the country, and I deserved it. Of course it is a meritocracy, ."

It would be interesting to examine why civil service jobs are so much less prestigious in the US than China.

Maybe it has to do with several generations of propaganda where management failure and laziness in service delivery are highlight as things which may only occur in the public sector, ignoring all counterexamples of a) good things in the public sector or b) inefficiencies in the private sector (which are usually not released except in the form of their ultimate effect on quarterly statements, etc).

I guess if you spend 50 years telling the population that only scum serve in a certain kind of job, it might be harder to attract talent into those positions.

It doesn't have to be that highly orchestrated of a conspiracy for the biggest of businesses to understand that this a) may reduce their tax bill, which may pad profits at least in in the short run, and b) this may improve their access to talent at a lower price.

I mean ... with all the incompetence, pork, waste, laziness, and anti-whatever stuff going on in the education system, who would want to be associated with that? Instead, let me make money the right way, where profit is the only motive.

"It would be interesting to examine why civil service jobs are so much less prestigious in the US than China."

Less potential for personal enrichment would be my guess.

Definitely not surname, as the vast majority of the Chinese share about 20 surnames.

This is another reason why the choice of Rex Tillerson for State, while unorthodox, makes a lot of sense. He has a background that's more in line with the Chinese leaders than a career politician would have.

And, Rex has a warm and friendly relationship with the Saudis.

He is probably aware of any money that Exxon has paid to leaders or their parties for access to oil.

If I were on the committee confirming Rex, I would ask a whole series of questions under oath about any type of favor or payment made to foreign leaders or their political parties. Go down the list of Foreign Corrupt Practices Act questions.

International oil is a dirty business.

I think we would be better off nominating the CEO of BP. They have experience in the Gulf of Mexico.

The constant denigration of government, government service, and government employees by many people in the U.S. doesn't help.

The next time a government employee apologizes to me for the terrible service they provided then they will rise in status. Until then, they can go piss up a rope.

I'd venture that the large majority of federal government employees don't have positions where they regularly directly interact with the public. The ones that you do interact with are probably local or state level people, rather than federal, who are the focus of this analysis.

Jan, It's possible that some of thee folks here could be in a federal prison, seeing probation officers, run in with the DEA, are farmers that interact with the soil conservation service, are on social security disability, etc., so I wouldn't be so confident that they dont interact with federal employees.

And, they also watch a lot of TV where they see federal employees, or at least actors, pretending to be.

It doesn't help because no one is listening. Maybe one day it will help and salaries will return to a normal level while better qualified candidates are taken.

Do you think there are better candidates to be had that they just aren't hiring? And, will reducing salaries (which tend to be low the level of education federal employees have, compared to private sector) attract these more qualified candidates you seek?

Keep in mind that municipalities in China (in Guangdong Province anyway) have two, parallel bureaucracies, one political and the other economic, the latter headed by what's called the "executive mayor", someone educated in business and finance (and often with technical degrees such as engineering) rather than civil service. Where the actual power resides likely ebbs and flows, but it's an ingenious structure. I suppose we don't read much about it here because, well, it would be inconsistent with the popular ideology that government works against business not in cooperation with business, the solution for which is to let the fox guard the henhouse.

This isn't really true. You have the party which allegedly sets policy with the state acting as executor. But in reality all top officials hold seats in both the state and party, and the party rule always takes precedence.

I don't think there's any evidence that Chinese leaders with their technical degrees are any better at management than municipal leaders elsewhere without tech degrees. Having lived through half a dozen mayors in my city, the variation between administrations was extremely small.

"party rule always takes precedence"

Maybe kinda sorta. But since it's not debated, basically it never takes precedence.

So you're saying that we in the U.S. should take China's example and have a Chinese-style government??

Ask the expert, Professor Cowen.

Maybe if China gets miles and miles ahead, and they beat us to the fifth industrial revolution by 100 years while the West sits about smoking opium and infighting, etc., we can try to CCP approach to do 100 years of development in 20. But maybe it'll take 22 instead because some things just don't need to be rushed that much, in consideration of what else matters ...

So basically, when evaluated by outsiders, the US is generally better governed than China, but we can show this isn't true by administering...self-reported surveys? WTF? Not to say this is completely meaningless but the paper's authors fail to make a compelling case that theirs is a better measure of government efficacy than the other metrics (which gave the opposite results).

Honestly it wasn't so much the self-reporting part that made me dig into it as the fact that OPM (which recently turned over a complete list of everyone with a security clearance to China) and Education (lol) were supposedly among the beacons of world-beating competence within USG.

An associate once noted that in the field of cyber security the Federal Government didn't hire from the top universities (their starting pay was always below market) or obtained the "best and brightest". These then become the key people to defend this country from the "evil twins" of our Carnegie Mellon, Standford, Berkely, MIT, Ph.D's graduates.

Because the pay is not competitive, what happens is that the government contracts with private firms which can attract and pay their staff much more. A number of government jobs in technical areas, because the pay is low, are really contract management positions.

While I wouldn't pretend to be highly informed on the matter, the self assessments in US departments suggest that US officials tend not to be as delusional as some people might have expected.

I imagine that having smart officials is useful when you're basically just applying lessons learned from elsewhere. Traditional research skills and various techniques in implementation can be made use of as "optimal", ideally.

However, it is not clear that, having exhausted all the obvious stuff, such as cleaner coal plants when income exceeds $20,000 a year (number out of butt), spending on mass transit when large populations of active workers in highly concentrated residential arrangements need to get to work, always leaving space for growth in the basic space allocations (large roads in medium sized towns), and a number of other things ....

... can these smart people innovate? Much like intelligence is no protection against thought reform (etc., and may in fact deliver overconfidence on the matter), can these intelligent officials navigate and experiment with options in a manner that attends to political demands, which may be more difficult to balance when you're not in the very midst of rapid implementation of a very long list of high value public investments?

I think the utility of intelligence declines as you approach the cutting edge. However, in matters of public policy which are uncertain and where evidence, not intelligence, is the name of the game, China also seems very sensible in experimenting in deployment of social services and public insurance systems to align economic and social objectives in accordance with Chinese culture.

My main point, though, is that I don't think having a "highly intelligent" civil service will be so useful once all the "obvious" public investments have been made.

The selection process for Chinese universities is almost purely meritocratic, but the universities themselves are a hideous joke.

It's not too far off for the bureaucracy.

I'm not sure it's quite fair to use the word "meritocratic" when most in top universities have had tutors and special learning assistants for many many hours a week over the course of the 12 odd years of education which precede university. University entrance (or lack thereof) in China is very often is the culmination of a highly unequal distribution of educational assistance and opportunity.

There are immense inequalities in primary and secondary education, far surpassing anything in America, but the selection process itself is quite transparent and very clear. One test, plus a stated regional and ethnic adjustment that are given in point form. Versus America where schools are essentially not even allowed to be honest about their selection process.

In the process of developing systems that work, yes, it can definitely be said that it is a very transparent process. And, moreover, one which is virtually impossible to cheat.

If there is one thing to be known about the system that is undermentioned, is that the option to take the tests 12 months later always exist. You can take them as many times as you want.

If more people knew that, there would probably be some hundreds or thousands fewer suicides in China annually. But, that's like one in a million people or something ... maybe something thinks it's not worth mentioning considering all possible delays in human capital development associated with that. Personally, I think the ability to easily hop back into human capital accumulation or pursuit of accreditation is a good thing.

The university situation is very similar in S. Korea and Japan.

Huh? Different provinces have clearly posted exam score cutoffs for top colleges.

Not even close to purely meritocratic

As a Chinese myself, I would venture to say Prof. Cowen always has a fantasy about the meritocracy of Chinese government.

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