乌有之乡网 (Utopia Net) offers socialist stories, analysis, and insight into contemporary China. Two days ago (Feb 21, 2011), they published the Fable of Donkey Island and Piggy Island, a story which challenges mainstream economic thinking – both American and Chinese – about how the past thirty years have transformed the world as we know it. Importantly, the fallout from trade imbalance that progressive Chinese intellectuals are grappling with in the Fable are the same issues to which the Wisconsin protests call our attention. Specifically, globalization has not trickled down to the common people, here or there, and so we continue to labor and not get what we need. I have paraphrased the fable, below; Chinese version, here.
Once upon a time, there were two islands, Donkey Island and Piggy Island.
The people on Donkey Island were industrious, working every day to produce grain. The interesting point is that the Donkeys were also very frugal and unwilling to eat this grain. Instead, they saved it up and then shipped it to Piggy Island, where the Piggies ate it.
The opposite was true on Piggy Island, where the people were extravagant and wasteful. When the Piggies had money they spent it and when they didn’t, they borrowed. The Piggies didn’t produce enough to satisfy their consumption and so they imported stuff from Donkey Island. Every Piggy bank account was not simply empty, but had a negative balance. But anyway, when you’ve got enough lice you don’t itch, the more you owe, the less you feel it, and so they didn’t care.
In this way, the Donkeys shipped boatloads of grain to Piggy Island, and then empty boats returned. When the Piggies received a grain shipment, they gave some green paper to the Donkeys to prove that it had arrived. As the days grew long, everyone accepted this as the way of the world.
However, one day there was an earthquake on Piggy Island, which sank into the ocean. In short, Piggy Island disappeared. At this news, the Donkey King went crazy, worried that this mode of production had been upset. What were they to do?
The Donkey King asked his ministers. An especially smart Minister said, “Immediately block this news. Do not tell the people that Piggy Island has vanished. Donkey Island can continue producing grain as before. Then send the grain to the docks and have it shipped to where Piggy Island used to be.”
And so it was, shocking the ship’s Captain, who followed orders and dumped everything into the sea. After dumping, the ship returned to Donkey Island, where green paper had already been printed to distribute to the Donkey people. Things on Donkey Island continued in this way for many years.
The Donkey King couldn’t resist asking the smart Minister what was happening. The Minister explained, “It’s actually very easy. We ship our grain to Piggy Island, where from the point of view of Donkey Island, it doesn’t matter if the Piggies eat it or we dump it because all we get out of it is green paper. Accordingly, the existence of Piggy Island is irrelevant to us and no one will discover that we’re dumping grain.”
The Donkey King thought about it and then asked, “Why don’t we give this grain to the hard working Donkeys?”
The Minister replied, “That’s the worst thing you could do! If you give the people grain for free, they will develop lazy habits. Once they realize that they can live without working, who would be willing to sell their labor? And if the people stop laboring, then the world will truly change.”
This fable is absurd, but reality is even more absurd. Let’s look at some statistics. Last year , China’s National Benefits Fund was roughly 1.4 trillion rmb. At the same time, we held roughly $US 2.8 trillion in foreign debt, or roughly 18 trillion rmb. The foreign debt we hold is 12.8 times more than what we pay in national benefits. If we use these statistics to interpret the fable of Donkey Island and Piggy Island, it means that the amount of grain that the Donkeys sent to the Piggies, was enough for every donkey to eat for 12.8 years.
What do I think? Two sides, same coin, or green paper as the case might be. We need a global system that works for protesters in Wisconsin and workers in China. It’s not enough for political leaders to take the small-minded way out and simply ask, “What’s in it for me?”