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Good Reads: China's limits, competitive America, charitable giving, and New York childhoods

This week's round-up of Good Reads includes the 'glass ceiling' superpower China faces, optimism about the long-term prospects for the US economy, a look at charitable giving in the US, and tales of growing up in New York City. 

Aly Song/Reuters
Workers install models in preparation for a real estate exhibition in Shanghai, China.

China faces a “glass ceiling” in its efforts to become the predominant world power, argues Geoff Dyer in Foreign Policy.

Key constraints on China’s ascendency include suspicious and fast-growing neighbors combined with obstacles imposed by China’s state-controlled economic system, says Mr. Dyer. So even if China overtakes the United States and becomes the world’s largest economy – as some experts predict will happen within the next 10 years – the Asian giant will not dislodge Washington from its place as the world’s leading power for the foreseeable future, Dyer argues. 

China “is implementing plans which challenge U.S. military, economic, and even political supremacy. But on each front, the last few years have demonstrated China’s limitations, not the inevitability of its rise,” says Dyer, a former Beijing bureau chief for the Financial Times.  

One limit on China’s rise is that its assertiveness is generating suspicion among economically vibrant neighboring nations, including South Korea and Vietnam. “China’s strategic misfortune is to be bordered by robust and proud nation-states which expect their own stake in the modern world,” Dyer says.

As for China’s efforts to have its currency rival the dollar, “it can have an international currency that might challenge the U.S. dollar or it can keep its brand of state capitalism,” Dyer says. “But it cannot have both.”

The America that works

“Cheer up” is the advice from The Economist in its 14-page special report on American competitiveness.

True, there are worrisome developments on a variety of issues – innovation, energy policy, education, immigration, and infrastructure. “America’s politicians have been feckless,” the magazine concludes. “The combination of dysfunctional politics and empty coffers” is preventing Congress from dealing with many problems.

Still, the magazine comes away hopeful about the long-term prospects for the US economy: “The America That Works” is the title of the cover package. The optimism stems from what is happening out in the country, away from Washington. “[T]he main reason for cheer is that beyond the Beltway no one is waiting for the federal government to fix the economy. At the regional and local level America is already reforming and innovating vigorously,” The Economist reports, with the states serving as laboratories for experimentation.

Of course, political feuding in Washington imposes costs. “The United States could become far more competitive far more quickly if Congress punched its weight,” The Economist says, adding that so far “the politicians in Washington have not inflicted any crippling damage yet.”

Surprising facts about charitable giving

Just in time for tax season, The Atlantic serves up a fascinating look at charitable giving in the US.  

“One of the most surprising, and perhaps confounding, facts of charity in America is that the people who can least afford to give are the ones who donate the greatest percentage of their income,” writes Ken Stern, author of a recent book on charities.  

The wealthiest Americans – those with earnings in the top 20 percent – gave on average 1.3 percent of their income to charity in 2011, the latest year for which statistics are available. By comparison, Americans with incomes in the bottom 20 percent donated 3.2 percent of their income.

Wealth helps determine the recipients of charity. The poor tend to give to religious organizations and social service charities like the Salvation Army, The Atlantic says. The wealthy tend to focus their giving on colleges and museums.

What you see around you also influences how much you give, Mr. Stern says. Wealthy people who live where most of their neighbors make $200,000 a year or more give less than those who live in more socioeconomically diverse surroundings and see people in need on a daily basis.  

A New York view of childhood

To celebrate its 45th anniversary, New York Magazine features a wide array of current and former city residents reminiscing about their childhoods in the city. It is an eclectic group ranging from comedian Whoopi Goldberg to Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

Some of the memories are specific to New York City, but many speak to the joys and sometimes painful lessons of childhood in general. Ms. Goldberg says of her mother that she “demanded that you tell the truth or be insanely creative about lying. It had to be a good story. If it was a terrible story, you ran the risk of really having her disappointed in your lack of imagination.”

Justice Scalia writes about a girl named Theresa, the object of his first crush, and also about his sixth-grade teacher, Consuela Goins. Of this lovingly remembered teacher Scalia observes, “Every cloud has a silver lining, and one of the benefits of the exclusion of women from most professions was that we had wonderful teachers, especially the women who today would probably be CEOs.”

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