Archive for August, 2011

Impeach President Perry!

August 26, 2011

You heard it first here.

Bush bashing

Not that it’s a slam dunk that Perry will get nominated; or elected; but if he does it’s a sure thing that the leftosphere will go to war with a vehemence making Bush-bashing seem like patty-cake.

In other words, here we go again.

Romney might not be their cup of tea, but wouldn’t push the left’s buttons like Rick Perry, waving a red flag in a bull’s face. Romney might be the choice for sober-minded Republicans. But Republicans don’t seem very sober-minded these days; they too are acting like that provoked bull. Throwing GOP primary voters steaming hunks of red meat, Perry might very well bulldoze Romney.

Bachmann also throws red meat, but you know how women throw. (Bad sexist joke.) But seriously, Perry is just a bigger personality (with a plumper resume to boot), against whom I don’t think Bachmann can really hold her own either. Republicans might enjoy a dalliance with her; but Rick Perry is the stuff of serious romance.

Sarah Palin? There is such a thing as a tease too long. Her moment, if it was one, has probably passed.

Rick Perry, finger to the wind

We’re told the White House is licking its lips at the prospect of Perry as the GOP nominee. They should think again. From their lah-di-dah liberal perspective, Perry is an impossible buffoon who they can’t imagine winning. But remember how George W. Bush was misunderestimated. While Romney might seem more plausible as presidential timber, he does have personal quirks that could be played up to make him seem not-a-regular-guy (a la John Kerry 2004). We’re also told that, deeming it impossible to win on his economic record, the Obama camp has been gearing up for a campaign of character assassination against Romney. No doubt they’d do likewise with Perry. But I suspect it would be much less successful, because, love him or loathe him, Perry is authentically what he is, and many voters are apt to perceive him as the strong leader type that Obama so glaringly is not. Perry’s music is likely more important than his lyrics.

Moreover, if the Republicans wind up with Romney, it will for them be like swallowing Castor Oil; if Perry, a heart-throbbing stampede. The right will mount their warhorses energized; the left, dispirited. As Tolstoy showed in War and Peace, battles tend to be won by whichever army is the more motivated.

So, given the black economic picture, Obama’s well-deserved image as a cerebral nice guy but a weak noodle, and the disenchantment of so many who voted for him in 2008, the prospect of a Perry presidency is no chimaera.

And it sends me to the slough of despond.

Obama bashing

Actually, on the issues – those that really matter (fortunately, whether evolution is a “mere theory” is not something over which a president has any control) – my views are probably closer to Perry’s than Obama’s. But after the Clinton wars, and the Bush wars, we elected Obama in hopes of a respite, enabling our bloodied body politic to mend its wounds. Alas, it was not to be (and I give much blame to Obama). Today our body politic is as battered as ever, and a Perry presidency would surely mean, if anything, even further escalation of the partisan warfare.

Our governmental dysfunction is very much a consequence of this intractable partisan divide. For most of U.S. history, for long stretches a single party was strongly dominant, with the opposition largely irrelevant and quiescent. Bitter partisanship was not engaged in because, basically, it would not have paid. That has changed in recent decades, with the two sides closely divided, each party having its sizeable core of true believers (the divide exacerbated by the culling of moderates from both parties, partly due to ever more adept gerrymandering) and fighting in each election to (temporarily) sway the confused voters in the middle. In that political landscape, scrabbling for every iota of partisan advantage can pay. Especially with the stakes so high nowadays, with government so much more powerful, controlling so many more dollars and jobs, than in past epochs.

While most Americans decry this state of affairs, they obviously, in effect, if unwittingly, support it with their votes. Talk about a third party is usually just empty air. But, while there are mountainous obstacles, I actually think the situation is now ripe for the right kind of third party presidential candidacy. Ross Perot might actually have done it in ’92 if his erratic behavior hadn’t blown it; even so, he still got 19% of the vote. I believe a Perot type candidacy – but possessing the gravitas that Perot flubbed (i.e. not Trump) – could potentially be very serious in 2012. Bill Gates? (Romney, freed from having to pander to GOP crazies, might actually have been better off taking this route. Too late now.)

However, given the difficulties faced by a president with a support base in only one of the two main parties, how well would a president fare with support from neither?

Huntsman -- too reasonable to win?

The only candidate who actually sounds reasonable is Jon Huntsman. Judging by the polls, there must be, oh, four or five other people out there who agree with me. (And two of them are his wife and kid.)

My chief source of optimism is that America is still a country where what individuals do, on their own, matters more than what government does.

[For the literary minded: how many metaphors and similes can you spot in this piece?]

Clash of Civilizations?

August 20, 2011

In 1993 Samuel Huntington published his famous article, The Clash of Civilizations?, followed by a 1996 book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. Obviously, the world has changed a lot since; but many would say Huntington was prescient, and today’s world does seem dominated by clashes among civilizations: most notably between the West and China (with its authoritarian “Asian values”), and between Islam and the West, the latter being arguably outright war.

Huntington’s viewpoint echoes the old time construct of nations akin to billiard balls in their interplay; with today’s game involving seven or eight discrete billiard-ball civilizations. Thus he fixates on the differentness among civilizations, as though talking about Earthlings versus Martians, while dismissing the commonalities.

No one can deny cultural differences, some important. Exiting a Hong Kong ferry on a recent Sunday afternoon, into a long covered walkway, I saw legions of people camped out on mats and blankets along its walls. At first glance they might have been homeless. But, overwhelmingly women, they were well dressed, many working smart-phones and computers, gabbing cheerfully, playing cards, relaxing, and picnicking. This scene was obviously a distinctive local cultural idiosyncrasy quite foreign to the West. And yet not incomprehensible. The human characteristics on display were readily recognizable. These were no Martians.

The same was true throughout my recent tour of China – plenty of differentness, yes, yet nothing fundamentally alien. Always one could easily relate to the humanness. Huntington is wrong to stoutly deride the notion of a universal civilization. To me, the commonalities are vastly more significant than the differences among peoples. Human civilization is global – with local variations. (And people act accordingly – why else would Americans contribute to relief of natural disasters half a world away?)

Moreover, while Huntington consistently talks as though the differences constitute irreconcilable “conflicts,” it’s actually hard to see why. America is not going to invade Hong Kong to stop women picnicking in walkways. By no means are differences necessarily “conflicts.” The overwhelming majority of differences among civilizations are ones they can live with in equanimity. That, indeed, is part of what it means to be civilized.

To be clear, I am not trivializing differences or denying that nations, or groupings of them, have interests that sometimes clash, or that they jockey for relative power, influence, and economic advantage. Of course they do. That’s life; we see it within nations as well as between them. But that doesn’t mean nations or civilizations need be at each other’s throats. Just as such jockeying for advantage among individuals doesn’t generally disturb the peace within societies, so too with nations and civilizations: as long as disagreements, rivalries, and even “conflicts” are handled through peaceable means, then the “clash of civilizations,” such as it may be, is quite simply not a problem.

By analogy, though my wife and I were reared in the same civilization, our personalities and psychologies differ greatly. John Gray wrote Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus; I sometimes feel my wife is not from another planet, but another dimension. Yet we live together in harmony, respecting and accommodating our differences, virtually without strife.

Is it naively simplistic to imagine this model applying among human civilizations? Not at all. In fact, historically, that has been the reality of civilizational relations for the most part. There has been far more getting along than warring. For example, India’s culture is about as different from ours as could be; but we’ve never fought India; we get along fine with India.

Such amity has been increasing in recent times. While many people have the feeling that warfare has been on the upsurge, it simply isn’t so; worldwide per capita death rates from war have been declining sharply, over past centuries, as well as over past decades. Wars among advanced nations today are pretty much inconceivable; and more and more nations are entering those ranks.

A key factor here has been another powerful trend: increasing democratization. So many commentators on issues of war and peace still harp on nation state conflict as an enduring verity, as though they didn’t get the memo that the world has evolved. It’s a cliché that democracies don’t fight each other, but it’s true. I recall one essay by journalist Jonathan Chait denying this, claiming a “whole list” of wars between democracies. To make his list he counted Nazi Germany as a democracy; likewise Serbia under dictator Milosevic; he included a border skirmish between Peru and Ecuador; and Athens fighting Syracuse in 415 BC. That was his “whole list!”

By democracies I mean nations with a democratic culture, including not just elections but government accountability, pluralism, free expression, and rule of law. Such nations do not war upon each other because they resolve disagreements by peaceable means; they don’t give each other reasons for war. Virtually all wars are caused by the actions of non-democracies. And the broad trend is that non-democracies are decreasing.

Huntington, throughout his book, disregards whether nations are democratic, again treating them all as billiard balls behaving alike. It’s a profound error.

Regarding Islamic civilization in particular, it’s true that hatred toward the West is wide and deep, due to historical resentments; a (distorted) negative perception of Western culture; and some muddled paranoia. Further, to call Islam a “religion of peace” is overly indulgent. And as Huntington says, Muslims seem to have problems living peaceably with neighbors; a significantly disproportionate share of modern violent conflicts involve Muslims. Huntington advances various theories to explain this, but once more overlooks perhaps the most obvious: that a disproportionate share of the world’s non-democracies are Muslim. So perhaps the problem is not so much Islam as non-democracy.

But, be that all as it may, let’s get a grip. Muslim hatred toward the West is not – despite all the provocations – much reciprocated. We, at least, don’t see ourselves as being at war with Islamic civilization. While many Muslims might disagree, still for the vast majority of them the state of war is merely metaphoric. Those we are actually fighting constitute a very narrow segment of Islam.

Apart from those fanatics, Islam does not threaten our interests, nor is there anything about Western civilization that any longer necessarily threatens Islamic societies. Most are themselves at war with the same extremists bedeviling the West.

Huntington, however, portrays Islamic civilization as indeed seeing itself threatened by Western civilization. There is the cultural aspect – “McDonaldization” if you will – but obviously such aspects of Western culture spread because of attractiveness to a great many people. Some decry it, but they don’t have any right to squelch it for others. The bigger issue, in Huntington’s view, concerns fundamental values of democracy, human rights, respect for individuals, free expression, and rule of law. These “Western values,” he says are rejected by not only Islamic civilization but others too, such as China’s, which resist the West’s proselytizing these values. In opposition to them, says Huntington, are value systems like Confucianism stressing authority, hierarchy, and subordination of the individual to society.

Now, you might say Christianity is a Western religion, and efforts to Christianize Asia are the kind of thing Huntington talks about. But the same does not apply to values regarding democracy and human rights. That they happened to come alive first in the West does not make them “Western” values in any sense other than semantic shorthand. They speak to universal human concerns.

Values like the Confucian ones cited above, and likewise the supposed Islamic notion that man-made (i.e., democratically made) laws are in opposition to God’s law, speak instead to the concerns of ruling elites. They are pretexts for enforcing the submission of the masses. Most people in those societies, in fact, do not oppose having a say in governance or their human dignity respected. To the extent such “Western” values are resisted, it’s primarily by the privileged elites, seeking to protect their position. Populations at large do not resist such values, but thirst for them.

The truth of this is playing out right now in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria. As for other non-democratic regimes wrapping themselves in non-“Western” values – like China’s – we shall see.

Thanks a Lot

August 12, 2011

I am frankly one of those “rich” people whom Republicans steadfastly defend against higher taxes. Well, thanks a lot, fellas – that intransigence on taxes is actually costing me far more in my investment portfolio than any conceivable tax rise would cost me!

In a nutshell, by stonewalling any tax revenue increase, these short-sighted Republican zealots are ensuring American economic weakness for years to come. Again, that will cost me more on my investments than higher taxes might cost me. I’ve lost a ton of money already, in the last couple of weeks, because of this.

The GOP is right that, all else equal, higher taxes are a drag on the economy. But all else isn’t equal. An even bigger drag on the economy is the government’s inability to get a grip on deficits and debt. Increasing revenues is unavoidably part of the needed fix. Republicans are unrealistic to insist on solving the problem through spending cuts alone. Moreover, so long as they refuse to budge on their sacred cow of taxes, Democrats won’t budge on their own sacred cows of Social Security and health care entitlements, which is where any serious spending curbs will have to be found. Only by bending on taxes can Republicans actually achieve the spending cuts they claim to want.

Likewise, Democrats are living in a dreamworld if they imagine they can indefinitely preserve bloated social spending, with exploding costs as the population ages, while the economy remains weak in direct consequence of those exploding costs. Only by sensibly agreeing to trim entitlements now can they hope to avert a huge entitlement smash-up later.

In sum, both parties would better serve the interests of their constituencies if they made a serious “grand bargain” that would lay the foundation for a stronger economy. As Tom Friedman said in a recent column, just the announcement of real negotiations on that basis would send the Dow skyrocketing by 1223 points (which would pay for my increased tax bill for years to come).

In contrast, Paul Krugman believes the financial markets are saying, “We’re not worried about the deficit! We’re worried about the weak economy!” He’s wrong. What the markets have been saying lately is “We’re worried that failure to deal with the deficit will keep the economy weak!”

Top: Federal spending, 2000-2020; blue line is without debt deal; yellow line assumes the full $2.4 trillion in cuts. Bottom: spending as a share of GDP, 2000-2020

The markets fell after the recent deal because they realized it wouldn’t really cut deficits. It doesn’t enact spending cuts; it merely promises to do so. (Just like the phony promise to cut Medicare that enabled Obama to falsely claim his health care law would save money.)

Then there is the “super committee” of 12 tasked with agreeing another $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction (over 10 years), or else automatic draconian spending cuts will be triggered. So the Republicans have appointed to the committee 6 hard-line anti-taxers, and the Dems appointed 6 hard-line entitlement defenders. Does that mean they’ll fail to agree, triggering the automatic cuts? Ha ha, you still don’t get it. What it means is that either they’ll come up with yet another phony deal, or, if not, that Congress will wiggle out of the supposed automatic cuts (which would not take effect for another year).

Japan has suffered two decades of lost economic growth because its politicians would not bite any bullets. America is headed down the same path.

I think most U.S. politicians understand this. But they’re trapped by the system. The real fault lies with voters, who don’t understand. The problem in democracy is that voters get what they vote for. Republicans vote against higher taxes; Democrats to preserve entitlements; and in so doing, all are voting for America to become Japan.

 

 

China

August 9, 2011

Beijing high rises

Visiting China imparts a visceral understanding of what’s going on with this nation geopolitically. Go to Beijing and you see vistas of modern high rise buildings – as far as the eye can see, in all directions. The same in Xian, Chongqing, and Shanghai. Chongqing (formerly Chunking, but pronounced “Chongching”) in particular had the feel of an imagined metropolis in some Star Wars type movie. This has come about with really astonishing rapidity. Less than 20 years ago, the main business area of Shanghai, with all its glitzy towers, was nothing but rice paddies. And the country is still very much under construction. The joke that China’s national bird is the crane is very apt – you cannot look anywhere without seeing giant construction cranes.

For a written language that is uniquely challenging, they sure use it a lot. One of China’s biggest industries must be production of all the big fancy Chinese characters festooning building facades everywhere.

National wealth is ultimately a function of people being productively employed. If so, China still has a lot of upside potential. That labor still has a relatively low value in China was evident from all the overstaffing observed. Everywhere, we saw people whose job appeared to be standing around, much in contrast to many U.S. stores where it can be hard to find a salesclerk (labor being more valuable and hence more costly to employ). If China can find ways to employ more productively all this under-utilized manpower, it can improve economically even more.

 

Shanghai

More impressive to me than China’s building spree was the human dimension – people in their thousands, everywhere, enjoying lives that we’d consider normal – nicely dressed, with nice cars, ubiquitous advanced phones, eating well, and generally enjoying life. It was hard to remember that just 35 years ago, this was a nightmare land. As if to remind us, Mao’s portrait is still on all the currency; but his ghastly legacy was happily and thoroughly undone by Deng Xiaoping, at least in the economy. Throughout my two weeks in China it hardly occurred to me that this is a “Communist” country – I use the quote marks because China is actually one of the most free-market nations in the world. And the results are dramatic. Touring China, I never had the sense of being the privileged American in a Third World country. At times in Shanghai it almost felt as though I was the Third Worlder.

But China is still frankly a dictatorship, with no real accountability of government to the people, no transparency, no real freedom of press or expression, and no rule of law. China’s economic growth in the last few decades has not come about thanks to this kind of political system, but in spite of it. How long a population of rising affluence will continue to tolerate such a political system remains to be seen.


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