Archive for the ‘World affairs’ Category

Turkey’s phony “coup” plot

July 17, 2016

Turks are out in the streets, celebrating the supposed triumph of democracy over a supposed military coup attempt. President Obama has naively congratulated them.

UnknownTheir President Erdogan once said, “Democracy is like a train. When you reach your destination, you get off.” For him, it’s been apparent that the destination is personal dictatorship. Can’t those Turks cheering in the streets see that’s where the train’s going?

I’m not one for conspiracy theories. But when I first heard the news, the idea of a military coup in today’s Turkey seemed rather implausible. Far more plausible that the whole thing was orchestrated by Erdogan himself, as a pretext for grabbing more power and ramping up repression of political foes. He’d already gone far toward crushing them, silencing dissent and press freedom. Now this “coup attempt” has prompted a ferocious response, with the immediate arrest of thousands. Could so many have really been so transparently implicated in a huge coup plot?

Hundreds have been killed too. And, reportedly, 2,745 judges unseated, some arrested. Pretty fast work. Tell me the hit list wasn’t prepared beforehand. I’d call this a coup by Erdogan.

Gulen

Gulen

All the alleged “coup plotters” are being linked to the Gulenist movement, headed by Fethullah Gulen, a moderate cleric, democracy advocate, and one-time Erdogan supporter, now in exile in Pennsylvania. Turkey has sought his extradition. God forbid.

I’m reminded of Turkey’s “Ergenekon” affair, a few years back, in which again large numbers of soldiers and others were prosecuted for alleged involvement in a vast underground anti-government conspiracy. The details were murky; and a lot of those charges eventually proved bogus.

Erdogan

Erdogan

In more halcyon times, Erdogan seemed to be doing the right thing, in moving toward a peaceful settlement regarding Turkey’s restive Kurdish regions. But then he threw all that progress away and turned back to violence, exacerbating the conflict as a way to get the country to rally behind him. Faking a coup plot would be another move in this cynical, criminal game.

Democracy is not a train, and not merely a political system either, but a culture; as John Dewey said, a way of life. At its heart is acceptance that other people are equally entitled to a role in society. Given our evolutionary tribalism, that concept is difficult for many folks, and hence it’s constantly under assault. For a long time, it seemed to be nevertheless winning, but lately the war against it has intensified, and too few people grasp what’s at stake.

images-1Democracy can be one bad man from the abyss. We’ve seen this too many times. Putin in Russia. Chavez in Venezuela. Erdogan in Turkey.

Let’s not add “Trump in America.”

Evaluating Obama’s presidency

July 13, 2016

UnknownPresident Obama’s approval ratings have risen as his tenure nears an end. That’s a typical pattern. And there may be anticipatory Obama-nostalgia, given his potential successors. And some always considered him the most wonderful president since FDR, or Lincoln, or Jesus.

I give him points for intellect, integrity, eloquence, and demeanor. In such respects he’s actually a model president, so the admiration is understandable. Alas however, he’s failed in three crucial respects.

images-1First, he promised a new post-partisan politics. But it was all talk and no walk. Obama’s intellect here disserved him, by making him arrogantly contemptuous toward lesser mortals with different views. It started even before he took office. There was never an effort to meet the other side half way, or even a tenth. Instead he was all about demonizing them, imagining he need only point out their errors, and they would just capitulate, or be punished by an enlightened electorate.

It doesn’t work like that. Opponents usually have reasons for their stances. And please don’t quote Mitch McConnell about making Obama a one-term president. For a political party, winning the next election is its raison d’etre, entirely legitimate. And while Republicans did refuse cooperation with Obama, that was only after he’d established a modus operandi of disregarding them.

Obama felt he could, having congressional majorities at first. He didn’t change that when the landscape changed. The result was a political climate so poisonous that Trumpery is a natural upshot. There’s blame all around. But it rings hollow for Obama to complain of partisan enmity by people he’s relentlessly sneered at.

Unknown-1Secondly: Obama fans point to the economic crisis he inherited, and how well we’ve done since. Fair enough. Though really the credit belongs far more to the Fed than the White House. But meantime, Obama’s biggest economic legacy lies in the future, and it’s not good. As ever more people are not working but collecting benefits, deficits and debt will explode. We’re skating along for now only because interest on our borrowings is so low. But at some point unsustainable debt levels will spook the markets, interest costs will balloon, and we’ll be busted.

To head this off, Obama appointed the Simpson-Bowles commission, which came up with a balanced deficit reduction plan. So far so good. But then Obama just ignored the whole thing. Now, his wasted eight years make the problem far tougher. That’s his chief economic legacy.

Third: the world situation has undeniably deteriorated on Obama’s watch. Queered by Bush’s bungled Mid-East intervention, Obama fell into the opposite mistake of hands-off. Iraq was making progress when he took office, but then he disengaged, and all hell broke loose. It also did in Syria where again his phobia of involvement made things much worse. How many times have we seen this movie? – where a little action at a critical juncture could head off so much agony later.

imagesHis signature moment was drawing a red line on chemical weapons in Syria, then funking it when the line was crossed. Shredding America’s international credibility, making Uncle Sam a monkey’s uncle.

More generally, the Arab Spring was an epochal moment of opportunity, where U.S. engagement might have helped midwife positive outcomes. We’ve done this before, like in post-WWII Europe, where deep and steadfast American involvement helped hugely – to our benefit. The Middle East cried out for this. Obama feared the consequences of acting; but inaction has consequences too.

imagesIt’s no surprise that a villain like Putin, taking Obama’s measure, would push the envelope. Russia’s Ukraine aggression up-ended a crucial norm of international conduct that had prevailed, pretty much, since WWII. Putin basically got away with it, and won. This is terrible for the global future.

All considered, President Obama has been great on style. Pity about the substance.

Brits: Don’t Brexit!

June 18, 2016

Britain votes June 23 on leaving the European Union (“Brexit”). Don’t do it!

UnknownThis is a big deal. Prime Minister David Cameron called the vote to placate eurosceptic members of his Conservative party, and lance the boil. But more top Tories than expected have plumped for leaving, including London’s clownish ex-Mayor Boris Johnson, angling for Cameron’s job.

The opposition Labour party notionally supports staying. Unknown-1But after decisively losing the last election with a left-wing platform, Labour picked a new leader, the ridiculous Jeremy Corbyn – a veritable caricature of a loony lefty – whose pro-EU stance is lukewarm at best.

So the “remain” campaign is anemic while Brexiteers are energized. It’s easier to enthuse people for change than for the boring status quo. And while older voters back Brexit, younger ones don’t, but they’re less likely to vote. So Brexit could win.

This would be disastrous. Eurosceptics actually have some fair points; the EU has a big democratic deficit, with a penchant for intrusive, nitpicking regulations decreed by Brussels bureaucrats. Nevertheless, Brexit would be economically suicidal. And coming on top of the still simmering Euro crisis, it could contribute to the whole European integration project unraveling. For all its flaws, that integration has been a good thing, making Europe more prosperous and peaceful, with freer trade and freer movement of people. Its failure would be a sad reversion to dismal older paradigms. It would weaken Europe as a U.S. ally and counterweight to a bullying Russia. And even if the EU survives, it would be a worse EU without Britain’s good influence.

Unknown-2Further, Brits would in effect be voting to break up their own country. Only recently Scotland rejected an independence referendum; but the Scottish National Party has since strengthened, and Scotland being very pro-EU, Brexit would prompt calls for a fresh independence vote, which they’d likely win.

Brexitism reflects a baleful phenomenon afflicting much of the West nowadays: bloody-minded voters lashing out against what they see as a rotten status quo. There is indeed much to reform in the status quo, but unfortunately these kinds of populist responses tend to be exactly the wrong medicine, bound to make things worse. Such politics exploit voters’ unsophisticated knee-jerk emotions. We see it with the rise of misguided movements throughout Europe, like Spain’s “Podemos,” the “Alternative for Germany,” France’s National Front, Austria’s Freedom Party; Poland recently elected a really nasty populist government, which many Poles are already rueing.

images-1Of course the biggest manifestation is Donald Trump, exactly that sort of candidate, attracting voters who simply don’t know any better.

Conventional pols do a poor job combating the nonsense. It’s easier to coddle it than to cogently explain why it’s wrong. Like Hillary, who does know better, going populist on trade. It’s Yeats’s old story: the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.

Yet it’s hard to see quite where all this voter stroppiness is coming from. For all the hand-wringing about middle class angst, Western societies are not actually in bad shape. Most of those voting trumpily live very comfortable lives compared to the not-so-distant past. How easily we forget what “the good old days” were really like.

A big part of happiness is a sense of gratitude for one’s blessings. Too many spoiled people have lost this.

Renaming America

June 8, 2016

“America” is the most important name on Earth. It belongs to not just one continent but two, as well as the nation that is the world’s most important geopolitically, economically, and culturally.

And where did this name come from? We all remember learning in grade school that it’s from Amerigo Vespucci – but has it ever struck you how utterly bizarre and ludicrous that is?

imagesVespucci (1454-1512) was an insignificant personage. He made some early trips to the “New World” and published an account of them. Though there’s a question whether he actually wrote it. Anyhow, it misled mapmaker Martin Waldseemuller into thinking Amerigo Vespucci was the discoverer. So in 1507, on the first map showing those realms as actual continents, Waldseemuller used  a version of Amerigo’s name as a label. That map gained wide circulation and the name stuck. Thus did America get its monicker through a blunder.

Not a U.S. coin

Not a U.S. coin

The absurdity is highlighted by the fact that Amerigo Vespucci, our country’s namesake, has never even been honored on one of its coins or stamps. There is no statue of him anywhere in the land bearing his name.

But must we be stuck with this dumb name for all time? We can change it. After all, America is quintessentially the land of reinvention. And countries do change their names. Dahomey became Benin; Upper Volta changed to Burkina Faso; Congo was called Zaire for a while; and now the Czech Republic is turning into Czechia.

Unknown-3Maybe we could do it democratically – with a public naming contest, like the British recently did to christen an important new naval vessel. Though apparently the Brits didn’t approach this with due seriousness – by popular acclaim, the winning name was Boaty McBoatface.

wuxOr perhaps we could hire one of those corporate management consulting outfits to do market research, with focus groups, etc., to devise a really trendy rebranding. These seem to favor meaningless letter sequences – like Philip Morris becoming Altria. America could wind up named something like Wuxibaf.

Speaking of corporate rebranding, our local supermarket chain, after decades promoting the name Price Chopper (carrying an obvious message) is switching to “Market 32.” Because it was founded in 1932. A brilliant move. Maybe America should change to Country 76. Or how about something with a little more attitude: Country #1. Instead of “Americans,” we’d be known as “Onesies.”

Unknown-4Or meantime, a certain presidential candidate has a penchant for putting his own name on everything. We could become the United States of Trump.

Well, maybe the name “America” isn’t so bad after all.

The truth about immigration

March 30, 2016

My local community is having a celebration of immigrants. It’s timely, given our national panic attack over immigration. Unknown-1Forgetting Ronald Reagan’s “Tear down this wall,” now a presidential candidate wants to build a new one.

Do immigrants take jobs from Americans? Many think there are only so many jobs to go around, and anyone hired means someone else unemployed. Economists call this the “lump of labor fallacy.” It assumes a static, unchanging economy, whereas the reality is constant dynamic change.* Add productive capability, and uses for it will be found.

Immigrants do add to such capability, thus making our nation economically stronger, not weaker. Especially since they have more drive than the pre-existing population’s average. Countries like Mexico are not sending us “wretched refuse.” To the contrary, anyone willing to face all the hazards of emigrating is among the most courageous, ambitious, enterprising, resourceful, capable of people. We need them. They come here to get ahead, not to get hand-outs.

images-1In fact, we have a huge problem with a growing imbalance between our rising elderly population, collecting benefits, and those working and paying taxes to fund those benefits. Young work-hungry immigrants help redress that imbalance. Thusly replenishing our work force is a key factor making America’s economy stronger than Europe’s (actually more anti-immigrant than we are).

America believes in freedom. A fundamental freedom is to live where you want. Should we then let everybody in? It’s not a crazy idea. Economists have estimated – get this – worldwide free movement of people would double global GDP. Because migrants would multiply their earning power by going to where their work is more productive (often because of better technology). Most poor people are poor because they’re trapped where their productive potential is vastly underutilized. Remedying that, through freer movement, would go far toward eradicating poverty. And the resulting more efficient production of goods and services, globally, would make everyone richer.

Some fear immigrants will degrade our culture.

Learn English or get out

Learn English or get out

But successive waves of immigrants have enriched U.S. culture, continuously rejuvenating it; our polyglot diversity is what makes our culture the world’s most vibrant and attractive. Ironically, those who fear this cultural flux are not themselves paragons of cultural refinement. No, it’s not immigrants who threaten America with cultural degradation – it’s the immigrant-haters, who would hand the presidency to a braying, bragging brute.

Real Americans love apostrophes!

Apostrophes belong to Americans too!

*Automation is a similar jobs bugbear. So far employment has always actually expanded. But is technological progress finally leading to all production needs met without jobs for all? Ever fewer people are employed making stuff — but more in services. Unskilled work is disappearing, hurting the less educated. Our challenge is to make everyone productive.

Morocco: open for business

March 25, 2016

UnknownSince our daughter had a gap between jobs in Jordan and Afghanistan, we met up for a hastily booked Morocco tour.

We had been to this North African country before, a brief side excursion. I remember exiting the tourist bus in Tetouan and saying, “Toto, we’re not in Kansas any more” – it was like stepping back in time a thousand years. But that was not representative of Morocco, whose modernity, this time, surprised me.

photo by Elizabeth Robinson

photo by Elizabeth Robinson

It’s overwhelmingly Muslim, with two main ethnic groups, the indigenous Berbers, and Arabs who came later. Ethnic tensions seem minimal. I asked our tour guide about this, in light of sectarian strife in other Islamic lands. “Those people aren’t Muslims,” he said, “they’re fanatics.”

Moroccans are bilingual, equally using Arabic and French (this was a French colony, 1912-56). The distinctive Berber script is seen occasionally; and of course there’s Globalspeak (English).

Berber script

Berber script

Morocco is a constitutional monarchy, not what you’d call a free country; but while the King, Mohammad VI (since 1999), is really still the boss, he’s done a fair bit to modernize, liberalize and democratize Morocco.

Volubilis - photo by Elizabeth Robinson

Volubilis – photo by Elizabeth Robinson

It was part of the ancient kingdom of Mauretania; later, of the Roman Empire. A nice surprise was visiting the extensive ruins of the Roman city of Volubilis – off my radar screen because (unlike the typical ancient city), Volubilis issued virtually no coinage.

We spent quite a few hours in the “medina” (old city) of Fes – a vast labyrinth of narrow streets. Here, and elsewhere, one finds an incredible profusion of little stores and seller stalls; the country is like one gigantic flea market, offering every sort of edible, wearable, or useable. One stall might have nothing but a mountain of peanuts; others with pyramids of dates, or cookies, or spices, etc. Even bathtubs! People mostly do their shopping, and many earn their living, through these markets.

My wife wanted to try a sizable disk-shaped bread loaf. The quoted price was Two Dirhems – about 20 cents. But for that we actually received two loaves.

I wondered aloud how they all could sell enough to stay in business. But my daughter pointed out the obvious: they wouldn’t be there otherwise.

Then we went to Marrakech, where the souk (marketplace) was orders of magnitude larger, with the profusion of goods bordering on unbelievable: mountains of shoes, foodstuffs, handbags, electronics, souvenirs, jewelry, handicrafts (one entire section, for example, with stall after stall selling brasswork); a lot of the production was being done on site too, making for quite a humming scene.

imagesI had fantasized finding a pile of those cool cast 19th century Moroccan coins, but didn’t see any. At the end I asked our local guide, and he took me back to one gnarled ancient fellow who came forth with a bagful of about 30. But his price was way high. Then our guide knocked on a closed door, which opened into an antique shop, with a bucketful of silver coins. I bought a few Moroccan ones in unusually choice condition – and a 1929 Italian 10 Lire – good date! – and a steal. Meantime my daughter bought a handbag and some boots, proving herself better than me at haggling.

Photo by Elizabeth Robinson

Photo by Elizabeth Robinson

We also had the obligatory tourist visit to a carpet emporium. Once on a similar excursion in Turkey, I made the mistake of agreeing to sign in with my phone number. I couldn’t believe how often those carpet pushers called me in subsequent years, despite my increasingly angry brush-offs.

The overall impression of Morocco was one of basic prosperity. There were, admittedly, a fair number of beggars. But many looked no scruffier than a typical seller in the souk. I suppose that holding one’s hand out is actually a more effective way of getting passersby to part with cash.

UnknownBut Marrakech is also a very modern city, whose main drags might be hardly distinguishable from, say, Lille, or Dusseldorf. We visited one glitzy shopping mall, very different from the chaotic souk, with beautiful Moroccan décor, and the poshest brands. I remarked to my wife, “I must be the shabbiest looking person in this mall.”

And the Moroccan economy is not all souk sellers flogging kitsch. Everywhere you looked it was evident that every sort of modern business was thriving. The roads were jammed with vans and trucks displaying a profusion of their logos. If not politically free, this is manifestly a very open, free economy. I am always energized visiting countries like this. It’s part of a worldwide phenomenon, of recent decades, which many people fail to grasp amid all the gloom and doom talk. Economic openness, free enterprise, and trade, are transforming, for the better, the lives of billions of people.

I couldn’t help pondering the contrast with a country like Venezuela, where folks stand in line for hours outside the few stores, hoping for a rare chance to buy some meager necessities – thanks to their “21st century socialism.”

Islamically correct rape

March 17, 2016

UnknownHow often we’re told morality comes from religion.

The Islamic State trumpets a pure, strict Muslim faith. Which, they say, prohibits sex with a pregnant woman. Very fastidious.

However, buying and selling women as sex slaves, and raping them — that’s Islamically okay. So long as you’re sure they’re not pregnant.

Unknown-1So ISIS guys buying captured women to rape, The New York Times reports, force them to swallow birth control pills. That too is Islamically okay. As is forcing abortions, likewise so the women can be cleared for rape.

Isn’t religion great?

Well, I’ve never raped anyone, but I have had sex with a pregnant woman, so I guess I’m a heathen.

Our Gal in Kabul

February 24, 2016

elizabOur daughter Elizabeth is going to Kabul, to sort out the mess there.

With a degree in international relations and economics, she’s been in Jordan since last summer, working at Questscope, a humanitarian non-governmental organization. Now she’s accepted a job (program development officer) with a different one, called ACTED, in Kabul, Afghanistan.

We’ve often been asked if we were worried by Elizabeth’s being in the Middle East. We visited her in Jordan, and it’s a perfectly normal country. But Afghanistan – not so much. (ACTED’s website memorializes a staffer who was assassinated). Nevertheless my wife and I gave Elizabeth our blessing. (She’ll be living and working in a compound, reasonably secure we’re told.)

Edith Hamilton wrote of the ancient Greek: “Life for him was an adventure, perilous indeed, but men are not made for safe havens. The fullness of life is in the hazards of life.” images-1And I said to Elizabeth what I’ve often said on my blog – there’s really no such thing as being safe. One can get hit by a car crossing the street, or by lightning, or a thousand other dangers. If we took them all to heart, we’d never get out of bed (and 600 Americans die annually falling out of bed). And of course, in the end, nobody gets out alive (so far).

All achievement entails risk. We are pleased to have brought into the world a woman with the grit, courage, and vision to undertake this mission. Of course she won’t sort out all Afghanistan’s problems. But I’m confident she will do good there.

How to defeat terrorism: by ignoring it

December 7, 2015

images-3With every terrorist atrocity, like San Bernardino, I ask myself – what the f— do these people think they’re accomplishing?

The objective in war is to subdue the enemy by destroying his capacity to fight. ISIS and other Islamic radicals can do nothing of the kind. So instead they do terrorism. To what end? To hurt us? Yes. To subdue us? Seriously?

If they’re deluded enough to actually believe in the God they purport to worship – a God who bizarrely approves such horror – then maybe they’re deluded enough to imagine this is a path to . . . something.

But these outrages won’t bring down our society. A San Bernardino every day would get no closer toward that end. Fourteen dead? Why, we Americans murder an average of almost 100 a day, just being our normal selves; in fact, there’s already a daily mass shooting, on average. ISIS would have to up its game by orders of magnitude to have much true impact.

images-4Oh, but they do have impact – only because we behave as though they do. Notwithstanding 100 daily murders, and San Bernardino being a drop in the bucket, we behave like it’s an apocalypse. The President gives a rare oval office address. We get our knickers all in twist, and talk about extreme actions (like Trump now proposing to ban all Muslims from America).  images-6As if that would protect us from terrorism. (While we eschew common sense measures that would curb the vastly greater death toll from gun culture.)

Such irrational craziness can only make terrorists think they’re actually accomplishing something.

Well, it’s called terrorism because it’s aimed at terrifying us. And we obligingly act all terrified. What if, instead, we just shrugged it off and went about our business, treating terrorism as the mere minor nuisance which, in the big scheme of things, it actually is? images-7Making clear that it achieves nothing. That’s how to defeat it.

China versus America: the candid truth

December 3, 2015

I was recently on panel, with two Chinese natives, comparing our respective countries’ cultures. Here (a bit condensed) is my presentation:

UnknownChina is a great civilization with many accomplishments, a rich history and culture, and much to admire. I’m saying this because the rest of my comments won’t be so complimentary.

When I got the phone call to do this, I happened to be reading David Brooks’s book, The Road to Character. And I asked myself, would such a book be written in China? Because its approach is very humanistic, a book written for a society of individuals. Then I recalled the phrase “Asian Values” popularized by the late leader of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew: an attempt to dress up authoritarianism and paternalism as reflecting deep cultural traditions, as an alternative to Western values that emphasize democracy, human rights, the worth of the individual, and so forth.

Unknown-1We hear a lot of nonsense that America is not really a democracy. But there’s really no voting at all in China, certainly no political competition, no opposition allowed, no freedom of speech and press. And this does reflect a cultural difference. We Americans do value people as individuals, whereas in China what’s most important is one’s role as a part of a group – the family, and, more broadly, the whole society. Compared to America, Chinese society is more like an ant colony or beehive, which biologist E.O. Wilson has likened to “superorganisms,” with the role of the individual ant or bee equivalent to that of a cell in a human body.images-1

One important element of human rights is the rule of law. President, Xi Jinping talks a lot about this, but it means something different to him than to us. It’s not a restraint on government, it’s a tool for government to restrain citizens. The government and the Communist party (pretty much the same thing) are still above the law.

China does have a constitution, full of worthy platitudes, yet the word “constitutionalism” is seen as a subversive Western idea. People have been jailed simply for voicing the radical concept that the constitution should be obeyed.

images-2I was one of those optimists believing that as China grew richer it would evolve toward democracy. For a while that seemed to be happening, albeit at a glacial pace. But now it’s gone into reverse. President Xi is consolidating power to a degree unmatched since Mao, cracking down on anyone and anything seen as remotely challenging to the party’s control. Recently all the country’s human rights lawyers were arrested.

Speaking of control, you probably know about China’s one-child policy, which just became a two-child policy. A long overdue change, but it’s still an unjustifiably cruel, coercive approach. It’s given China a big labor shortage, with not enough working age people to support a growing population of elderly pensioners. And because of a strong cultural preference for male children, people often made sure their one child would be a boy. So males outnumber females, and many of those pampered little princes won’t be able to find princesses to marry. This is a societal time-bomb.

Unknown-2Then there’s the hukou system. A hukou is a sort of internal passport and residence permit. It’s a very big deal. You can go from the countryside to the city to get a factory job, but you cannot get a city hukou. Without it you’re you’re barred from local public services, like health care, and your children can’t even go to school. One consequence is that an estimated 70 million children are left behind with other relatives, growing up with all kinds of psychological and adjustment problems. Another societal time-bomb.

Now, Americans are very patriotic, we love our country. Chinese love theirs, but with a difference. It’s perhaps explainable in light of China’s past history of depredation by other powers. Chinese are highly nationalistic and obsess about their global standing, with a chip on their shoulders. This is seen in China’s aggressive claims to vast ocean regions.

But here’s some good news: since Mao and his mad policies were buried, China has experienced phenomenal economic growth. In 35 years its average income has increased by 3000% — thirty-fold. Some would say this shows authoritarianism works. That would be wrong.

China is really two economies: the communist sector of state-owned businesses, and the private sector, which is in fact the closest thing ever to that mythical beast, “unfettered laissez faire capitalism.” And virtually all of China’s economic growth has come from that sector. The lesson is not that authoritarianism works, it’s that free market capitalism works.

My final point: compared to America, China is a profoundly corrupt society.

images-3We’re often told the U.S. Senate is a millionaire’s club. Well, China’s legislature – with much less real power – is packed with billionaires. And whereas our Senatorial millionaires in general earned their money outside of politics, most in China got theirs by abusing their official positions. American political corruption is mostly politicians catering to private interests to get campaign money, not personal wealth. In China it’s the latter. Being a high official is a license to steal.

Now, President Xi is crusading against corruption, and some big fish have been caught, like Bo Xilai and Zhou Yongkang. But this is really less a clean-up than a political purge, aimed mainly at tightening Xi’s control. China’s apologists like to point out that Western democracies are not immune to abuses of power, citing Watergate as a prime example. But Nixon fell because of checks and balances within the American political system – notably a strong opposition party and a free press. Bo Xilai and Zhou Yongkang fell to the power of an even bigger fish. And what will constrain that bigger fish’s power?

China’s culture of corruption goes beyond politics. Ironically, for a country that actually invented civil service examinations centuries ago, today it’s based not on what you know but who you know; the greasing of palms and disingenuousness. Yale University had a bad experience trying to set up branches in China. Of course there’s cheating in American schools, but Chinese students took it to a new level. Yale gave up and left. A New York Times essay quoted Chinese author Wang Xiaofang: “The habit of falsehood is fatal to a culture. But to us, falsehood is the essence.”

Unknown-3Recently we learned about China’s cyber-hacking, stealing corporate secrets. Here again, of course such things happen in the West. But for the government to set up a whole bureaucracy to carry it out? David Brooks has commented that this shows China sees world economic competition as equivalent to war, with all weapons allowed. But this destroys the trust that lubricates free exchange and international commerce. This is not how you become a global economic leader.

I recognize that, compared to China, American government has become dysfunctional and paralyzed. It’s mainly down to our partisan political polarization. But Francis Fukuyama wrote a book in 1992, titled The End of History, arguing that the classically liberal Western model of democratic government under rule of law, accountable to the governed, is bound to prevail because it satisfies a basic human hunger for personal dignity and self worth. America may be in decline relative to a rising China; but I’d rather live in a declining democracy than in a rising authoritarian state.


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