What Goes Up, China Edition

Skyscrapers inspire.

Sometimes they inspire shudders.

I am an admirer of such neo-Babels, and you can’t find a better Schelling point for New York than the Empire State Building. Civilization’s highest erections symbolize something good about humanity.

And yet, I wonder about the latest Chinese engineering effort, Sky City, to be built in Changsha in record time, 90 days.

It’s supposed to house over 31,000 people, contain hotels and restaurants and schools and shops, too, and tower up 163 floors to a height of 2,749 feet.

How could such a thing be so quickly constructed, and still be safe?

Cheating.

Well, not really. It’s prefab. Much of the work has already been done. Building it will be a job of putting pre-fabricated pieces together. The company responsible for the effort has had some success on prefab buildings before, and . . .

The whole thing still sounds a tad hubristic. I wish the builders (and inhabitants) the best, but, even if it succeeds, there’s an ominous aspect to the whole project, if economist Mark Thornton’s theory about new-building skyscrapers has any truth to it. Tall buildings are built when people are optimistic. People are most optimistic during booms. Booms — at least inflationary booms — yield to busts, and many of the major economic depressions have been marked by unfinished or just-finished record-book skyscraper projects.

Does Sky City signal a Chinese bust coming soon?

It may. For the story of our time might be this: China is to America, now, what America was to Great Britain in the 1920s and ’30s. Similar monetary policies and bailouts.

And the loaning nation doesn’t get off free. At least, we didn’t in the decade in which the Empire State Building was finished.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

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