In China, nearly everyone has at least one story about, “someone from village ‘X’ started a business and got really rich, so he bought houses for the whole village.” I’ve heard several variations, from people in different walks of life, over the past couple of years. Although the details vary widely, the stories are sometimes true, and follow that same basic pattern.
I began to wonder, why is this such an appealing story for people to tell one another, and do we have similar stories in America? That is, what kind of “good fortune” story is likely to get quickly passed from mouth to mouth among Americans?
At first blush, the Chinese version of the story is one that would rarely spread in the west. Since Martin Luther and the end of Catholic “indulgences”, we tend to see big handouts from rich people as attempts to wash away past sins. That’s not to say that buying people houses is a bad thing; it’s just that westerners are programmed to be suspicious of such gestures.
The other thing that’s different, I think, is that America has historically had a culture of self-reliance; so buying a house is like giving someone a fish. The saying goes, “give a man a fish, he eats for a day; teach him to fish, and he eats for a lifetime.” Buying a house for someone just makes them dependent on you.
As a contrast, the story of Johnny Appleseed was of a man who spent his life planting trees for villages across the country. Americans are taught that Benjamin Franklin used his wealth to spread libraries; Carnegie and Rockefeller (both the worlds’ richest men during their times) spent their wealth on libraries and universities.
However, I think it’s a bit too soon to criticize the rapidity of “house buying” stories in China. The stories of “school buying” in America are a matter of history, while Chinese are doing this today. Take a look at China Tomorrow, an organization founded by MSFT employees (but open to anyone, including Google employees :-)) that has given nearly 3 million RMB to build and renovate more than 80 schools across Chinese countryside. This is just one organizations; I’ve seen many examples of individuals and organizations making huge contributions to the education of their home villages.
And in contrast, I note that in America today, Gates foundation (the pooling of resources of the world’s two richest men) gets press for fighting AIDS, but not much press for their work in education. The story told amongst the general population could be paraphrased as “These guys got really rich, and at least one of them was really hated by the competitors he beat, but they are being nice and helping sick people around the world.” That is, the storyline is basically that they are buying indulgences.
As William Loughborough calls it, the “catch and release” strategy. Certainly a lot better than the “catch and keep” strategy, but not necessarily perceived by most people as much more than a net wash.
It remains to be seen if Gates foundation approach to education (do basic research about what works and doesn’t; rather than buy more teachers — in essence, “teach the teachers to teach the teachers to teach”, or something like that) will have as much impact as Franklin, Carnegie or Rockefeller. But the bigger problem, in my mind, is that Americans don’t even tell the story anymore. The stories that seem to spread today are about indulgence-by-AIDS-research, or “Ann Nicole got rich by marrying and old guy, and had a baby with her lawyer”. The most common “good fortune” stories are about some kid from some cornfield who did something ingenious and now has a jet and indoor basketball court. Or some guy built a biotech company and now has villas on 3 continents. That is, our word of mouth heroes are people who spend their money on incredibly stupid stuff. To be fair, China has some of these stories too, but not quite the virulence that they have in America.