What is the question and reasoning in "Romantic Advantage" by David Brooks?
Brooks' fundamental contention is that China has an institutional barrier which prevents it from overtaking the United States on the stage of international commerce and global economic output. This is not a flag- waving or nationalist argument, as much as it is an observation about the Chinese mindset that governs commercial activity. For Brooks, the question as to why China will not be able to fully overtake the United States as the world's most dominant economic force is because of a cultural condition that prevents the wide and divergent thought in commercial branding which distinguishes American capitalism. In Brooks's mind, the Chinese commercial mindset cannot overcome what has defined American capitalism.
Brooks makes the argument that the element of American branding of products have helped to catapult American capitalism to a position where it is difficult to see it being overtaken. American corporate brands are associated with much more than transactional products. There is a romanticism associated with it. Manufactured or not, this helps to ensure that products are sold on a scale beyond traditional capitalist notions of the good:
Think of Ralph Lifshitz longing to emulate WASP elegance and creating the Ralph Lauren brand. Think of the young Stephen Gordon pining for the graciousness of the Adirondack lodges and creating Restoration Hardware. Think of Nike’s mythos around the ideal of athletic perseverance.
People who create great brands are usually seeking to fulfill some inner longing of their own, some dream of living on a higher plane or with a cooler circle of friends.
For Brooks, this becomes critical in understanding why American capitalism is so successful. Apple products represent more than just an electronic device in the same way that Levi's Jeans embodies more than apparel. Coke and Pepsi are not simply "sugar water." There is a branding to American products that helps to “decommoditizes a commodity.”
In "coating meaning around a product," American capitalism is uniquely different from what China is developing. Brooks suggests that the Chinese mindset is to view capitalism as transactional, devaluing the relationship between products and consumers. This lack of emotional affect is going to limit Chinese growth and inhibit it in a desire to overtake the United States. Brooks suggests that part of this is cultural, embedded in China, and thus difficult to overcome:
Brand managers who’ve worked in China say their executives tend to see business deals in transactional, not in relationship terms. As you’d expect in a country that has recently emerged from poverty, where competition is fierce, where margins are thin, where corruption is prevalent and trust is low, the executives there are more likely to take a short-term view of their exchanges.
American capitalism is "long term" in the vision it seeks to create with the client. This long term notion is more sustainable and can be relied upon for greater sense of market share, which is something that the approach taken by the Chinese lacks. The question that Brooks leaves the reader in the conclusion of the piece is not whether China can overtake the United States. Rather, whether this innovative spirit and vision is gone. In trying to "anti- capitalize" capitalist products, has this evaporated, reducing the American edge in the marketplace?