Hollow City Book Review

Hollow City: Book of Karma book 1
by Cheah Kit Sun
Published by Silver Empire (2019)

Hollow City is the second book in the Heroes Unleashed universe I have reviewed. I picked up this copy on my own, so you can’t blame the author for my opinions.

My opinion is: I like this book. Adam Song is a fascinating character, and I’ll delve into why at some length. Adam’s interests and profession also make this book a kind of gun pr0n, which is fun for me since I am also interested in firearms. Finally, I am enjoying the Heroes Unleashed take on superheroes, which doesn’t make them mundane, but at least routine. Not everyone has super powers, but you better take the possibility into account when making any kind of serious plan.

I doubt this review would pass a strict spoiler policy, but I’ll try to keep it under control. Consider yourself warned.

Let’s get into why I find Adam so interesting. Adam Song is a cop. Not just any cop, but a member of the elite Special Tactics and Rescue team. He is a doorkicker, a life-taker, and a heart-breaker. Well, probably not the last, now that I think about it. In so far as Adam has killed an average of one person a year in the course of his duties with the Hollow City Police Department, he definitely qualifies as a life-taker. But he lacks the dark triad traits that make murderers and terrorists the recipients of gushing fan mail in prison. If anyone’s heart is going to be broken, it is probably Adam’s.

Adam also has a secret. He is a Prime, the Heroes Unleashed version of a superhero. His powers are precisely what elevated him to the STAR unit. At the beginning of Hollow City, Adam has been a cop for six years, but a member of STAR for only eighteen months. Which just happens to coincide with the time since he gained his powers. This is because STAR, like Detroit SWAT, specializes in no-knock raids. But in Hollow City, unlike Detroit, the guy on the other side might have superpowers too, so HCPD makes sure to even the odds by having a Prime on the entry team. In that capacity, he goes by his codename Amp, and wears a mask when he is working.

Knock knock.

Knock knock.

Many men in Adam’s position would probably be insufferably arrogant, but Adam strikes me as a quiet, unassuming type. In part, this is a matter of self-protection, since his public persona would be liable to reprisals if his enemies knew where he lived, but also I get the feeling Adam would have acted the same way in public if there were no danger. His primary motivation is not fame or money, but duty.

His dutifulness is the prime hinge of his character, and the source of the two major conflicts Adam experiences in the book. In each case, he feels duty-bound to do two-incompatible things. In a sense, his life [and this book] is a quest to reconcile these moral imperatives.

First, Adam is first-generation Chinese immigrant. His parents brought him to America when he was thirteen, by way of Singapore and Hong Kong. He was old enough to remember his previous life, but also young enough to imprint on his new home. His parents have definite ideas about what constitutes honest employment, and neither his previous job [Marine] nor his current job [Cop], meet that definition. In the straightforward expectation of his culture, duty would require him to follow his parent’s wishes, and work in the family business.

Aaron and I were outsiders. Always had been, always were. In Singapore, primary schoolers made fun of our funny accents and weird speech patterns. In Halo City high schoolers did the same. Everywhere we went, the old rules no longer applied. We had to learn quickly, adapt even faster.

Aaron kept his head down, submerged himself into the local Chinese community, and followed in Father’s footsteps. I almost did the same, until I saw my first USMC recruiting advertisement. In the Marines, I saw a way to become a man. I wanted to prove that I was an American, more American than everyone else.

In America, duty primarily means service to the nation, rather than the family. So when Adam decides that he wants to be a good American, he does the thing that is expected of him as an American. He travels to distant lands, meets interesting people, and kills them.

This decision flows into his second conflict, which is secondary to his character, but primary to the plot. After Adam gets out of the Marines, his duty to the nation fulfilled, he naturally flows down to the next lower level of loyalty, and joins the Halo City Police Department. In America, the basic motto of any police department is To Protect and to Serve. It just happens that Adam is really really good at protecting the public by shooting bad guys in the face.

Which is exactly what he is hired to do once he becomes a Prime. Adam’s history with the HCPD prior to the STAR unit is a bit less explored in the book, but we do know that Adam was the trigger puller in more than one OIS [officer involved shooting] before he joined the high risk STAR unit. It is possible that this was overlooked in the overwhelming need to put an already employed Prime officer into the high risk STAR unit, but I suspect it is more likely that this was seen as a feature and not a bug.

At least until he became a political liability by killing an admittedly dangerous man [a Prime with the ability to shoot anything he pointed at] who was also the son of a gangster in the process of crossing the line between crime lord and pillar of the community. When Adam was in the Marines, this was his job, full stop. You killed anyone who was dangerous, and you did so in a way that maximized your odds of coming home at the end of the day. This is uncomplicated when you can identify your targets as enemy combatants, and potentially explosive then they are American citizens who are innocent until proven guilty.

In this way, Adam serves as the personification of the militarization of the police in the United States. The actual military is famously forbidden from engaging in police activities by the Posse Comitatus Act, but there is a creeping influence which can probably be measured by looking the kind of uniforms police officers wear, as can be seen by the image above of a no-knock raid training exercise. The fear is that the distinction between accused or suspected criminals and open enemies of the state is being erased.

There is also a positive sense, insofar as the militarization of the police has coincided with a professionalization of the police. Cops used to do pretty much any damn thing they felt like. Now, there is at least a standard to which they are expected to adhere. At the best, this means less chance of death for both the cop and the perp, insofar as options are sought that seek to maximize that outcome.

Adam Song occupies the ground precisely where that question comes into play. A question that is interesting to me is where does the line lie for police work as opposed to war? When is it acceptable to kill a man who might be a danger to public order? Or who is definitely dangerous, but not currently in the act of shooting his victims? For a soldier, that question is relatively simple. You act with maximum force at the first opportunity. For a police officer, the answer is always NO, you cannot kill except when your life or the life of another is directly at risk, or at least that is the moral and legal presumption in our society. What makes this hard is that a lot of former soldiers eventually find themselves in service as cops. Men just like Adam Song.

For Adam Song, what makes a strait-laced cop go rogue is the feeling of betrayal when your superiors throw you to the wolves for doing precisely what they hired you to do. Adam’s job, as Amp, the HCPD Prime, is to serve the warrants on dangerous Primes that would otherwise simply kill all of the arresting officers and then disappear.

This gets even more complicated when your job is to arrest the bad guys that are widely known to be bad, but who of course enjoy the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial. When you mix in Halo City’s high-diversity, low-trust environment, along with a dash of corruption, you get a lot of guys like Adam, who start to feel that the military way has its attractions. Adam clearly loves his city, but he also feels like there are good guys, and bad guys, and he isn’t particularly interested in watching the bad guys take advantage of a system that was designed for a high-trust environment.

Since I happened to read Hollow City at about the same time I read Timothy Zahn’s Dragonback series, I was struck by the differing trajectories the main characters in these books take. Jack Morgan starts as an outlaw, and over the course of the series eventually is reconciled to polite society. Adam Song starts out as a respected member of the community, and ends up becoming exactly what his detractors call him: a rogue cop, a vigilante, and a criminal defendant.

However, in many respects, what each of them do isn’t actually that different. Jack mostly tries to avoid killing, but his symbiont Draycos, the K’da warrior-poet who possesses the rights of judge, jury, and executioner in one person, kills a man in the first book because Draycos seems him commit a murder. This can only loosely be called defense of another, since the man was threatening Jack, but the book makes it clear that Draycos is like a monster of legend, as much greater in combat power than a human as a powerful Prime like Amp is. Also, Jack’s AI guardian, Uncle Virge, does lots of killing, it is just the kind where he shoots down other ships to protect Jack.

Once I realized that, my whole opinion of the weight of the Dragonback series started to shift. There are some real similarities, but also some real differences with Adam Song’s Halo City. Jack Morgan’s universe is a lot further down the path of societal dissolution that Halo City is only starting to tread. Is Adam’s vigilantism worth it if it prevents open slavery and corporations hiring mercenaries to fight literal turf battles over their commercial interests?

Even if we temporarily ignore the question of how probable the odds of success are for Adam’s attempt to stave off further dissolution, this is a worthy question. In the moral and legal framework of the United States, which is clearly the setting of Halo City, which I take to be an analogue of Los Angeles, Adam is pretty clearly beyond the pale. However, the reason I bring in Zahn’s more speculative universe here is that other arrangements that still seem just are imaginable.

Adam is pretty clearly doing what he finds to be his duty, in the circumstances he finds himself. We might judge that he has nonetheless crossed a line that should not be crossed, even if the results are otherwise just. That tension is exactly what makes this book fascinating. I don’t know what Cheah has in mind for Adam after this, but I would like to find out.

My other book reviews | Reading Log

Other books in the Heroes Unleashed series

by Morgon Newquist

Heroes Fall: Serenity City book 1

The Long View 2006-07-16: Bulletin Board; World War III; Progressive Realism; Spelling Reform Summer

The bulletin board that John Reilly set up in 2006 did end up being a major feature of his website. It featured lively discussion for a number of years. It was on that board that I first conceived of archiving and restoring John's writings after his death, since the bulletin board coasted on autopilot for some time after John mysteriously stopped posting.

Robert Wright  By The original uploader was Cardsplayer4life at English Wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41034329

Robert Wright

By The original uploader was Cardsplayer4life at English Wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41034329

I am also quite interested to read Robert Wright's foreign policy suggestions from 2006 in the New York Times. I find some things I really like about his suggestions, and a few ideas that have turned out not to be so. For example:

Yes, the Chinese government could probably reverse the growth in popular expression of the past two decades, but only by severely restricting information technologies that are prerequisites for prosperity. Meanwhile, notwithstanding dogged efforts at repression, political pluralism in China is growing.

China has clamped down quite effectively on both the Internet and political pluralism, with no obvious effect on economic growth. At least yet.

Wright also makes a point that John Reilly often made: political systems expand to cover the range of the economy. The same dynamic that produced federalization via the Commerce clause is likely to push for some kind of universal state in the next century or so, covering the developed bits of the world.


Bulletin Board; World War III; Progressive Realism; Spelling Reform Summer

 

Bulletin Board: Please note this new feature of the website. The link is above, to the right. I am not now requiring registration, but you might want to register anyway, in case I have to tighten access in the future.

This is my third attempt at greater interactivity. No doubt it is the charm. Yes.

* * *

Regarding the current unpleasantness in the Middle East, we have no reason to doubt that they will just bury the archduke and everything will be back to normal by September. That's what happens, 99 times out of 100. On that 100th occasion, of course, something worse than the worst imaginable happens. Could the war between Israel and Hizbollah be one of those occasions?

That seems to be the opinion of former Speaker of the House (and current presidential aspirant) Newt Gingrich, of whom we read this in The Seattle Times:

Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich says America is in World War III and President Bush should say so. In an interview in Bellevue this morning Gingrich said Bush should call a joint session of Congress the first week of September and talk about global military conflicts in much starker terms than have been heard from the president.

...He lists wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, this week's bomb attacks in India, North Korean nuclear threats, terrorist arrests and investigations in Florida, Canada and Britain, and violence in Israel and Lebanon as evidence of World War III. He said Bush needs to deliver a speech to Congress and "connect all the dots" for Americans.

He said the reluctance to put those pieces together and see one global conflict is hurting America's interests.

War all over the world is not the same as a world war. The difference between the Middle East now and during the 1970s and '80s is that, today, it is hard to tease a world war out of the Middle East. The major local power is Iran, and though it has international supporters, or at least defenders, no major power is willing to fight for it. In fact, despite all the talk about realignment against the United States, the interesting thing is that Russia, and China, and the EU have been willing, indeed eager, to punt these issues to Washington. Only if the major powers of the world lined up on different sides could we have a proper world war.

* * *

Robert Wright has a new model, or what he imagines is a new model, for foreign policy. It chimes well enough with his well-thought model of history. He applied it today's New York Times:

It’s now possible to build a foreign policy paradigm that comes close to squaring the circle — reconciling the humanitarian aims of idealists with the powerful logic of realists. And adopting this paradigm could make the chaos of the last week less common in the future.

Every paradigm needs a name, and the best name for this one is progressive realism. The label has a nice ring (Who is against progress?)

I like "progressive," too, but one might point out that the term was hijacked by Stalinists in the 1930s and never lost the undertone of duplicity it gained from the connection. In any case, Wright suggests that we restore and reinforce the authority of the multilateral structures that come to us from the post-World War II era. He particularly laments the loss of authority of the UN:

The administration’s misjudgment in Iraq highlights the distinction — sometimes glossed over by neoconservatives — between transparency and regime change. Had we held off on invasion, demanding in return that United Nations inspections be expanded and extended, we could have rendered Iraq transparent, confirming that it posed no near-term threat. Regime change wasn’t essential.

Let us put aside the fact that everyone in the UN who had anything to do with the sanctions regime on Iraq seems to have been on the take. I can only express astonishment that Wright has not taken on board the fact that the same post-invasion inspections that found no weapons of mass destruction also found that Iraq planned to go back into the WMD business as soon as the sanctions were lifted. That would have happened as soon as UN weapons inspectors satisfied themselves that there were no WMDs in Baathist Iraq. One might argue that such an outcome would be better than the current situation. Be that as it may, one of the features of that alternative outcome would have been the total discrediting of the UN system: UN involvement would have been see to neutralize the result of the Coalition victory of 1991. In other words, there was no way the UN could have come through the Iraq crisis with credit.

Still hoping to goad the dead horse into action, Wright makes this recommendation:

We need multilateral structures capable of decisively forceful intervention and nation building — ideally under the auspices of the United Nations, which has more global legitimacy than other candidates. America should lead in building these structures and thereafter contribute its share, but only its share. To some extent, the nurturing of international institutions and solid international law is simple thrift.

I know this must sound like American chauvinism, but the fact is that any recipe for world order that involves treating the US like any other country is just not going to work.

What has been happening since the turn of the century is that the post-World War II international system is falling apart. Anti-Americanism is just a reflection of that. Actually, the situation that Speaker Gingrich calls a world war is even worse than he describes. Among the other things that are now acutely different from 1950 is the demographic situation: the Voelkerwanderungen from the South into the US and EU are also part of the emergency.

And those who say, "What a shame that we do not have better leadership in this crisis," misunderstand what kind of thing it is. Many grinding tectonic plates are producing volcanoes in this historical transition, but one of the greatest faultlines runs straight through the center of American politics.

* * *

I continue to track the commentary regarding the Spelling Reform Summer of 2006 (in part, perhaps, so I don't have to project what happens if it it turns into the Nuking of Mecca Summer of 2006). Over at The Lexicographer's Rules, we find this old chestnut:

Any advocate of drastic spelling reform must have an insufficient understanding of just how differently English is spoken in the various groups that contribute to our various American English dialects.

I answered the point there (which I otherwise find a congenial site). I can deal with misunderstandings of that order, but I have no patience for the sort of willful ignorance we find at Campus Report Online:

Ef u kan reed this, u must saport tha simplefied speling system. If you couldn’t read the previous statement due to typographical errors, you must be for the current spelling system, which is as strong as ever before.

No doubt. In any case, if you would like to use the American Literacy Council's Soundspel system, you can download the macros here. Please note that it is phonics teaching software. One may use it for illustrative purposes in discussions of spelling reform, but not even its greatest fans say that it is a mature upgrade for English orthography .

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

The Long View: America Alone

habsburg-dynasty.jpg

If the National Intelligence Council really predicted that the EU will collapse by 2020, their prediction is looking like a real long shot at this point. Maybe that is why DARPA funded Philip Tetlock's superforecaster project: to improve the accuracy of things like this.

To be fair, if you had told someone in 2006 that a huge wave of migrants from the Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa would move into Europe in 2016, and that terrorism would be a regular feature of life in much of Western Europe, then a collapse of the EU might have seemed more likely.

I think it demonstrates that the neoliberal consensus is a lot stronger that it might otherwise seem. A relatively tolerant, multicultural, welfare capitalist global system [with a military/secret police enforcement system] seems to be the twenty-first century answer to the same problem the Habsburgs faced in Central Europe: how do you hold together a truly diverse polity?

There are a lot of people who suspect you can't. I think you can, but it's hard. I think this is one of the things that is likely to push us towards a truly post-democratic political order: the need to keep the peace.

Steyn's book talks about how we built a global system on the assumption that populations would keep growing forever. Large scale immigration is often advocated for precisely this reason: we need people to keep the system going. The controversy over immigration has become explosive, but what is interesting to me is that the model doesn't actually seem to be right.

The developed economies keep doing just fine, despite aging populations. If anything, there is too little work to be done, rather than too much. The assumption that Steyn and his political opponents share, the social democratic state needs to constantly grow to survive, may not be true.

In the eleven years since John wrote this, the average number of children across the world has continued to fall everywhere except Africa. So far, sub-Saharan Africa has proven unusually resistant to the demographic transition.


America Alone:
The End of the World as We Know It
By Mark Steyn
Regnery Publishing, 2006
224 Pages, US$27.95, Can$34.95
ISBN 0-89526-078-6

 

There is no way to put Mark Steyn’s view of the next few decades gently:

“The U.S. government’s National Intelligence Council is predicting the EU will collapse by 2020... How bad is it going to get in Europe? As bad as it can get – as in societal collapse, fascist revivalism, and the long Eurabian night, not over the entire Continent but over significant parts of it. And those countries that manage to escape the darkness will do so only after violent convulsions of their own.”

But who is this Steyn fellow, and why is he saying these terrible things? Mark Steyn is a Canadian-American journalist (he first attracted notice as an arts and music critic) who is now sometimes accounted the most influential conservative writer in the anglophone world. He owes that position in part to an epigrammatic style that bears comparison to that of the early G.K. Chesterton. America Alone is composed chiefly of Steyn’s scintillating columns of recent years, but he or his editors have accomplished something very rare: a compilation of previously published occasional pieces that reads like a connected text, with a lucid argument and surprisingly little repetition. This synthesis was possible because Steyn believes he has discovered the Key to World History, or at least the mechanism that will determine the history of the 21st century. To put it briefly:

“[D]emography is an existential crisis for the developed world, because the twentieth-century social democratic state was built on a careless model that requires a constantly growing population to sustain it... The single most important fact about the early twenty-first century is the rapid aging of almost every developed nation other than the United States.”

The magic number here is 2.1, as in the total fertility rate per woman that a developed society needs to maintain its population over time. The US fertility rate is at about that number, a fact explained only in part by immigration: the native-born population of Red State America is over that figure, while the figure for the Blue States is generally below it. It is almost uncanny how much of the rest of the world is below it, either slightly (like Australia) or catastrophically (like Italy and Russia and Japan; and don’t forget China, doomed to get old before it can get rich). It’s true even of most of Latin America. Aside from America, the only regions where it is not true are India, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Muslim world. Without the Muslim angle, this might be a story of economies freezing up and welfare states closing down as the percentage of working-age people becomes too small to support a growing majority of pensioners. The effect of Muslim immigration and conversion, however, coupled as it is with the spread of lethal jihadist ideology, is to raise the possibility that much of Europe could slip out of the Western world entirely. Steyn did not coin the term “Eurabia,” but in an age when a third of the young people in France have been born to Muslim parents, it comes in handy.

Several writers have raised these points in recent years. However, despite the title of the book, Steyn does not subscribe to the conclusion of many of his colleagues that the United States should simply turn inward:

“And I’m a little unnerved at the number of readers who seem to think the rest of the world can go hang and America will endure as a lonely candle of liberty in the new Dark Ages. Think that one through: a totalitarian China, a crumbling Russia, an insane Middle East, a disease-ridden Africa, a civil-war Eurabia -- and a country that can’t even enforce its borders against two relatively benign states will be able to hold the entire planet at bay? Dream on, ‘realists.’”

Neither is the book a call for an American Empire. Steyn tends to support the Bush Administration’s military policy, and particularly the invasion of Iraq; he faults the execution of that campaign principally for being too culturally sensitive. However, he tells us:

“This book isn’t an argument for more war, more bombing, or more killing, but for more will.”

Steyn’s Key to History unlocks not just a proper reading of foreign affairs, but reveals to him the need for a cultural and political transformation of the West. That part of the book, and particularly his prescriptions for the future, is the most problematical. As for the doomsday material, one might observe that it is in the nature of present trends not to continue. If the ones Steyn highlights do continue, however, his grim forecasts will be right.

Steyn has a short explanation for demographic catastrophe:

“In demographic terms, the salient feature of much of the ‘progressive agenda’ – abortion, gay marriage, endlessly deferred adulthood – is that, whatever the charms of any individual item, cumulatively it’s a literal dead end...In fact, [opposition to Islamization] ought to be the Left’s issue. I’m a social conservative. When the mullahs take over, I’ll grow my beard a little fuller, get a couple of extra wives, and keep my head down. It’s the feminists and the gays who’ll have a tougher time.”

The welfare state in Europe and Canada allows the political system to focus on satisfying “secondary impulses,” such as long, legally mandated vacations and government-provided daycare, or for that matter, responsibility for the care of the elderly:

“But once you decide you can do without grandparents, it’s not such a stretch to decide you can do without grandchildren...[T]he torpor of the West derives in part from the annexation by the government of most of the core functions of adulthood.”

As he never ceases to remind us, there is an important distinction between Europe and America in these matters, or at least between Europe and Red State America. The distinction, he argues, results from a recent historical accident:

“It dates all the way back to, oh, the 1970s. It’s a product of the U.S. military presence, a security guarantee that liberated European budgets...[however]...[u]nchecked, government social programs are a security threat because they weaken the ultimate line of defense: the free-born citizen whose responsibilities are not subcontracted to the government.”

To quote an authority that Steyn does not, Immanuel Kant once said, “Even a nation of demons could maintain a liberal republic, provided they had understanding.” If we are to believe Steyn, however, Kant was wrong about the degree to which rights and procedures could replace morality and religion:

“[B]y relieving the individual of the need to have ‘private virtues,’ you’ll ensure that they wither away to the edges of society...Almost by definition, secularism cannot be a future: it’s a present-tense culture that over time disconnects a society from cross-generational purpose.”

One may note that this would apply only to a form of secularism with no metahistorical script for the future. Thus, a Marxist society (if it did not starve), or a eugenicist society, or a society intent on colonizing the solar system, might make the connection between generations. A society that was just a gas of atomic individuals today and looked forward to being just a gas of atomic individuals tomorrow, in contrast, would have neither a past nor a future.

Steyn is not just another talkshow ranter (though he does that, too) because he sometimes slows down enough to express skepticism about his own arguments. He asks: does the loss of religion explain the morbid state of advanced and even moderately developed countries? That might seem to be an explanation within the United States, with its relatively sterile and aging New England versus, say, the burgeoning Mormon population of Utah. But what about Europe, where the relatively religious South has even lower fertility rates than the godless North? One might also adduce East Asia: the populations of neither Japan nor South Korea are sustainable, but South Korea is a hotbed of evangelism of all sorts, while Japan is as secular as Sweden.

If God is not the answer, could Mammon be? America as a whole has a somewhat more free-market economy than most of Europe, but the most laissez faire economies in the world are in East Asia, and they have birth rates lower than most Western countries. We should also note, as Steyn does not, that the prolific Red State populations receive more in federal subsidies than they pay in taxes: those family values are paid for with farm subsidies and often rather paternalistic business practices. Steyn also points out that the major anglophone countries all have birthrates either at or near replacement level, but he does not suggest that the birth dearth could be solved with Berlitz courses.

* * *

Among the most delightful features of America Alone is the blurb on the front bookjacket from Prince Turki al-Faisal, former Saudi Ambassador to the United States: “The arrogance of Mark Steyn knows no bounds.” The prince perhaps has reason to be miffed. Though he does not say so in this book, Steyn elsewhere likens the increasingly successful Islamization of Europe to an opportunistic infection, made possible by the simultaneous collapses in cultural confidence and fertility. He has many worthwhile things to say in this regard; he is certainly right to underline the fantastic level of mendacity among the people in the West who speak for and about Islam. In academia and on the evening news, “sophistication seems mostly to be a form of obfuscation by experts.” As for official appreciation of the threat, “government ministers in Western nations spend most of their time taking advice on the jihad from men who agree with its aims.” The problem is not simply a matter of immigrants with new ideas changing the nature of their new homes: “Islam,” not just in the West but around the world, increasingly means a brutal and hegemonic version of Wahhabism. The evangelization of this doctrine is lavishly subsidized by the government of Saudi Arabia, support that ranges from establishing local Islamic schools in Canadian and American cities to building mosques the size of cathedrals in Europe.

Steyn recounts many anecdotes of allegedly moderate Muslims in Western countries who turned out to be recruiting or fundraising for terrorist groups, but far more disturbing are the proliferating incidents of homegrown jihadis turning against the lands of their birth:

“If you’re a teenager in most European cities these days, you’ve a choice between two competing identities – a robust confident Islamic identity or a tentative post-nationalist cringingly apologetic European identity. It would be a mistake to assume the former is attractive only to Arabs and North Africans.”

As Steyn notes, multiculturalism was instituted not to acquaint Westerners with other cultures, but to criticize the West. One effect of multiculturalism has been to absolve students of learning any hard information about other cultures. The result is that the West has disarmed itself in the most critical arena:

“We have no strategy for dealing with an ideology...groups with terrorist ties are still able to insert their recruiters into American military bases, prisons, and pretty much anywhere else they get a yen to go.”

Western attempts to influence the development of Islam are usually exercises in self-delusion, beginning with the preferred choice of interlocutors: “’moderate Muslims’ would seem to be more accurately described as apostate or ex-Muslims.” As for more long-range efforts: “We – the befuddled infidels – talk airily about ‘reforming’ Islam. But what if the reform has already taken place and jihadism is it?”

The Islamization of Europe is no longer hypothetical, in part because of the determination of the anti-discrimination police to enforce accommodation to what often extremist and unrepresentative Islamic groups claim to be Muslim sensibilities: “there’s very little difference between living under Exquisitely Refined Multicultural Sensitivity and sharia.” Worse than that is the casual use of violence and threats against European writers and artists, or even against ordinary persons: non-Muslim women in heavily Muslim neighborhoods increasingly go about dressed in something approaching Muslim fashion in order to avoid insult.

* * *

How, you may ask, can the United States prevent much of the world from turning to theocratic rubble, like Taliban Afghanistan? Steyn suggests these priorities:

"In World War Two, the sands of Iwo Jima and Okinawa where the main event, and rounding up the enemy sympathizers in Michigan was the sideshow. One can argue that this time around the priorities are reversed -- that bombing Baby Assad out of the presidential palace in Damascus is a more marginal battlefield then turning back the tide of Islamicist support in Europe and elsewhere. America and a select few other countries have demonstrated they can just about summon the will to win on the battlefield. On the cultural front, where this war in the end will be won, there’s little evidence of any kind of will.”

Nonetheless, he says that the military dimension cannot be neglected: the worst thing to do is nothing. Even if the war is chiefly ideological, there are state sponsors of the hostile ideology, and something has to be done about them, either militarily or through devastating economic sanctions:

“[E]very year we remain committed to 'stability' increases the Islamists’ principal advantage: it strengthens the religion – the vehicle for their political project – and multiplies the raw material...So another decade or two of ‘stability and the world will be well on its way to a new Dark Ages...But the central fact of a new Dark Ages is this: it would not be a world in which the American superpower is succeeded by other powers but a world with no dominant powers at all.”

It is true that the United States is held in light esteem in many of the world’s better magazines, and even does increasingly badly in public opinion polls taken in countries whose leadership is not necessarily committed to America’s destruction. Steyn attributes the darkening of the American image to elites like those in France, who are obviously weighing their chances in a semi-Muslim future, or to other well-meaning people who live in a fantasy world, where the most pressing issue facing civilization is rising sea levels. One might also suggest that, if the post-World War II international system is decomposing, America has become the screen onto which are projected the anxieties and ambitions aroused by the decomposition. To the jihadis, America is the godless Great Satan; to much of Europe, and even to many Blue State Americans, America is a theocratic Jesusland. As Steyn puts it: “America is George Orwell’s Room 101: whatever your bugbear you will find it therein; whatever you’re against, America is the prime example thereof.”

In reality, though, what much of the developed world is going to experience in the next 10 or 20 years is re-primitivization: “The Serbs figured that out – as other Continentals will in the years ahead: if you can’t outbreed the enemy, cull ‘em.” Where states fail, private parties can be expected to step in:

“If a dirty bomb with unclear fingerprints goes off in London or Delhi, it’s not necessary to wait for the government to respond. As in Ulster, there’ll always be groups who think the state power is too [timid] to hit back. So unlisted numbers will be dialed hither and yon, arrangements will be made, and bombs will go off in Islamabad and Riyadh and Cairo. There will be plenty of non-state actors on the non-Islamic side. In the end the victims of the Islamist contagion will include many, many Muslims.”

To combat the Islamic dimension of the threat (and remember, it’s chiefly a demographic problem) Steyn has suggestions of various degrees of plausibility, of which the most intriguing is the proposal to create a civil corps to engage Islamism ideologically:

“If America won’t export its values -- self-reliance, decentralization -- others will export theirs. In the eighties, Paul Kennedy warned the United States of ‘imperial overstretch.’ But the danger right now is of imperial understretch -- of a hyperpower reluctant to sell its indisputably successful inheritance to the rest of the world.”

Steyn wants to scrap the post-World War II international institutions and replace them with an alliance of capable and committed democratic powers. He says the Saudis have to be stopped from financing their worldwide religious underground. He would also like to develop technology that would end the dependence of the developed world on Middle Eastern oil: a fine notion, and none the worse for having been suggested a hundred times before.

This brings us to the cultural front. It is a good bet that Steyn is prophetic when he tells us, “By 2015, almost every viable political party in the West will be natalist.” And what should the platforms of these Mewling Infant Parties contain? “We need to find a way to restore advantage to parenthood in the context of modern society. Shrink the state. If you got four dependents, your taxable income is to be divided by five. We must end deferred adulthood.” And how do we do that? “We need to redirect the system to telescope education into a much shorter period.” The upshot, apparently, is that educated people should be educated faster so that they will normally have children while they’re in their twenties. We hear not one word that these proposals, though perhaps inevitable, will mean that the life courses of men and women will diverge again.

Steyn has given us a fiery polemical introduction to the crisis of the first quarter of the 21st century. However, we recognize the limitations of his analysis when we come to statements like, “The free world’s citizenry could use more non-state actors.” Consider his view of the moral of September 11, 2001:

“What worked that day was municipal government, small government, core government -- fireman the NYPD cops, rescue workers. What flopped -- big-time, as the vice president would say -- was the federal government, the FBI, CIA, INS, FAA, and all the other hotshot, money-no-object, fancypants acronyms.”

Stirring words, but counterfactual. In reality, on 911 the World Trade Center’s security service killed many of the people in the buildings by urging them to return to their offices after the attack was underway. The radios of the various emergency services were not able to communicate with each other. The firemen died needlessly by charging into burning buildings that local fire experts had declared indestructible. The epitome of effective local government, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, was almost killed because the city’s emergency command center was located in the World Trade Center complex, despite the fact everyone knew the complex was the most likely target for a terrorist attack. The federal government did not cover itself with glory on that day, either, but at least the feds managed to close down and then restart the airline system within the space of a few hours.

Toward the end of the book, Steyn remarks, “You can’t win a war of civilizational confidence with a population of nanny-state junkies.” But the fact is that is how the world wars were fought and won, either by states that had extensive social-welfare systems, or that promised such systems to their citizens as part of the reward of victory.

It is certainly the case that the nanny state of the postwar developed world, with its therapeutic model of governance and its subsidy of victimhood, is a degenerate and unsustainable type of polity. But consider what it degenerated from: the war-and-welfare state of the era of the Great Wars that lasted from 1861 to 1945. The same powers of economic and political mobilization that allowed those wars to be fought permitted, indeed required, the domestic mobilization of education and public health and industry that allowed the governments of that explosive era to function effectively as military actors. Those governments commanded the most effective states that ever existed, and the mark of the societies they governed was precisely that, during the long lifetime from Lincoln to Churchill, the fortunes of the state and of the citizen increasingly merged. For a while, for just a few years, the mechanisms were in place to drive society in the service of urgent public policy.

The nanny state is a declension from that height of state fitness, and so is the libertarian state. In the face of an existential crisis, Churchill promised his people that their lives would be drenched in blood, sweat, and tears until victory was won. In the face of a comparable threat to civilization, George Bush made some fine public restatements of America’s now traditional Wilsonianism, but otherwise told the American people to support the tourist industry by visiting America’s beauty spots; while cutting taxes in the middle of two major wars, he reminded the taxpayers, “It’s your money.” Even if you accept the president’s economic model, surely it is obvious that such policies have no power to mobilize. The philosophy behind them diverts attention from the core functions of government, as the embrace of an open-borders policy by the Republican establishment illustrates. The small government that Steyn urges might be able to win conventional wars, but it would be unable otherwise to affect events. Increasingly, its irrelevance to the real problems, many of which Steyn has identified, would lose it the loyalty of its citizens. Thus we see that the libertarian state undermines patriotism quite as effectively as the European Union. They are parallel manifestations of the same phenomenon.

Many of Steyn’s specific proposals have merit, but they need a context he has not yet attempted to articulate. It might be possible for America to revive the Churchillian State within its own borders; maybe Japan could do that too, but neither Europe as a whole nor the nations within it could manage such a thing. In any case, it is not at all clear that even America should try. The work of regeneration needed to fight off the Muslim infection and save the threatened societies of the world from suicide cannot dispense with patriotism. However, it must be patriotism strengthened by some wider loyalty impervious to the subversions to which the Churchillian State proved subject.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2005-08-05: Generations & Revivals

Social survey data continues to show the trends John noted twelve years ago: young Americans are more prudish and conformist and statist than the Baby Boom generation.


Generations & Revivals:

 

Here is a bit of Marine Corps propaganda from a Captain B. Quinn about the Americans who are actually fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, A generation transformed. It appeared in the International Herald Tribune:

For all the mistakes in planning that have been made in this war, and all the acts of heroism that have (or more often have not) been reported, this war is transforming young Americans. We are forming a new "greatest generation" that will counteract the obsession with one's self that has characterized the last few decades...If the policy makers and politicians choose the right path, if they spend our lives wisely, this global war on terror will be a Normandy, and not a Vietnam. Through the actions of our service members and the sacrifices of our Maloneys, we are transforming Iraq. As we return home, we are also transforming the face of America.

Just because something is propaganda does not mean it isn't true. One notes that, even now, young Iraq vets are starting to get the same kind of deference that World War II veterans got in the aftermath of the war: my own city councilman is of their number. The number of new veterans is relatively small, of course, but the kind of change in the social weather that Captain Quinn is talking about does seem to be a real phenomenon, as David Brooks observed on the New York Times yesterday:

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the rate of family violence in this country has dropped by more than half since 1993....Violent crime over all is down by 55 percent since 1993 and violence by teenagers has dropped an astonishing 71 percent, according to the Department of Justice.

The number of drunken driving fatalities has declined by 38 percent since 1982, according to the Department of Transportation, even though the number of vehicle miles traveled is up 81 percent. The total consumption of hard liquor by Americans over that time has declined by over 30 percent.

Teenage pregnancy has declined by 28 percent since its peak in 1990. Teenage births are down significantly and, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, the number of abortions performed in the country has also been declining since the early 1990's.

Fewer children are living in poverty, even allowing for an uptick during the last recession. There's even evidence that divorce rates are declining, albeit at a much more gradual pace. People with college degrees are seeing a sharp decline in divorce, especially if they were born after 1955.

...I always thought it would be dramatic to live through a moral revival. Great leaders would emerge. There would be important books, speeches, marches and crusades. We're in the middle of a moral revival now, and there has been very little of that.

I cannot help but observe that these developments are eerily consistent with the scenario in Strauss & Howe's Fourth Turning, except for the vexed question of whether the Crisis Era they predicted began with 911. Actually, the fit is so eerily consistent for both the articles I quote that one must ask whether the authors were influenced by S&H's books. Be that as it may, though, we should recognize that all this youthful rectitude does not bode at all well for Movement Conservatism in the United States, if by that you mean the conservatism of low taxes and private initiative. The military virtues are not libertarian virtues; a generation that rode to power on the back of a great national effort is not going to think of government as something that needs to be kept off their back.

There is a great future for the cause of moral orthodoxy that the Republican Party has monopolized. However, the monopoly was granted by the Democrats, who continue to shoot themselves in the foot on this class of issue. This situation is not going to continue.

* * *

The connection between war and the character of a generation is hardly new. Consider, for instance, this passage from John Fitzgerald Kennedy's Inaugural Address, delivered on January 20, 1961:

We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans--born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage--and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.

These words were spoken long after the great crisis of Kennedy's generation had been successfully resolved, and of course some years before Kennedy's coevals came close to driving the country over a cliff. Kennedy was elected "to get the country moving again," but this address suggests that his instincts were profoundly conservative. We might contrast this generational self-consciousness with that of Ernst Jünger, the German Hemingway, who was one of a number of veterans of World War I who believed that their experiences had made them a people apart. John King says this in his doctoral dissertation on Jünger, Writing and Rewriting the First World War: Ernst Jünger and the Crisis of the conservative Imagination, 1914-1925, particularly in connection with In Stahlgewittern [Storm of Steel]:

By eliminating the old humanist distinction between Man and machine, Jünger was able to imagine that modern warfare did not involve the decentring of the individual by technology, but rather that technology itself was a constituent part of a new quasi-cyborg subject. Thus, he writes that the new race of warriors belong to ["a generation with an iron nervous system": 'ein Geschlecht mit eisernem Nervensystem'] (pp. 6-7), an aeroplane is referred to as ["this valuable unity of machine and man": 'diese kostbare Einheit aus Maschine und Mensch' (p. 8)], and the Stoßtrupps are characterised by ["a quasi-mechanical cooperation of weapon and man": 'ein maschinenhaftes Zusammenarbeiten von Waffe und Mensch'](p. 242). [The English is mine: JJR]

In their combination of commitment to their cause and technical expertise, this new race is said to blend instrumental rationality and passion...They thus represent a synthesis which would appear to represent an imaginary instance in which the two opposing aspects of his interpretation of the War could be sublated and the subject re-centred. His final step with this 'new race' is to make it into the new subject of history, casting it as the collective subject of that future action upon which Jünger pinned his hopes for a redemption of the War.

Jünger lived an amazingly long time (to 104!), during which his ideas underwent many modifications and improvements; he can be defended, and even admired. However, one cannot avoid the impression that something was not hitting on all eight cylinders in the heart of the early postwar Jünger, and the same seems to have been true of his whole generation. One of the great questions of Alternative History is whether this mutation occurred because World War I had gone badly for Germany, or whether there was some misfire in Germany culture that would have manifested itself even if Germany had won.

What is at stake for the United States in the War on Terror, and perhaps in a war with China a few years later?

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2005-06-27: Persian Populist Surprise; Terraforming; the Emerald City

By Unknown - تصاویر تسخیر لانه جاسوسی – 100تصویر با شرح revolution.shirazu.ac.ir, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44763608

By Unknown - تصاویر تسخیر لانه جاسوسی – 100تصویر با شرح revolution.shirazu.ac.ir, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44763608

Spengler [David P. Goldman] and John Reilly had sets of ideas that were mildly adversarial and mildly complementary. I don't know whether they ever corresponded. For example, Spengler was right that democracy in the Middle East would unleash terror and war. John Reilly was right that Iran is a far better country than most in the Middle East, with institutions that work and an economy that isn't purely driven by oil. Americans are still annoyed with Iran following the hostage crisis, but Iran used to be a firm ally in the Middle East, a counterweight to the Sunni majority.

John also looks further into the idea that something about China's role in world politics is a bit off. Here, John makes a distinction between an empire and the Empire, a universal state. The People's Republic is an empire in the first sense at present. Whether it can fill the second role remains to be seen.


Persian Populist Surprise; Terraforming; the Emerald City

 

There are many things that might be said about the overwhelming election victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran's presidential election. One notes the cosmic coincidences: President Ahmadinejad is just as surprising a victory for populism as the defeat of the EU constitution; or, to some people, the reelection of President Bush. However, the increasingly pessimistic Spengler at Asia Times has his own take in a piece called Iran: The living fossils' vengeance

That is the great gift of Islam, which offers much more to the faithful than the ordering of traditional life. It promises to impose the system of traditional life upon the world. Islam is the vengeance of tribal society upon the cosmopolitan empires, first against the Sassanids and Byzantines, then against the Holy Roman Empire, and now against the West. The Muslim does not cower in his village waiting for the inevitable encroachment of a hostile world, but seeks to impose his will on the world....In their provincial smugness, President George W Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice understand none of this. The more the Middle East opens its political process to the will of the people, the worse things will be for Washington.

By no means: democratic political processes contribute to world order even if the content of the politics being processed is reprehensible. That's what the Kantian Peace is all about. Granted, there is no special virtue in plebiscitary dictatorships. What we have in Iran is quite different: a populist theocrat who works under institutional constraints and who has a constituency to placate. Things could go very wrong with Iran, but not as wrong as when the Ayatollah was in flower.

* * *

On the subject of ways to improve the planet, Acta Astronautica is floating a solution to global warming that is slightly less crazy than it seems:

The power of scattering sunlight has been illustrated naturally, the scientists note. Volcanic eruptions, such as that of Mt. Pinatubo in 1991, pumped aerosols into the atmosphere and cooled the global climate by about a degree. Other researchers have suggested such schemes as adding metallic dust to smoke stacks, to flood the atmosphere and reflect more sunlight back into space.

In the newly outlined approach, reflective particles [in orbit in a ring] might come from the mining of Earth, the Moon or asteroids. They'd be put into orbit around the equator. Alternately, tiny micro-spacecraft could be deployed with reflective umbrellas.

And how much would the ring cost?

$6 trillion to $200 trillion for the particle approach. Deploying tiny spacecraft would come at a relative bargain: a mere $500 billion tops.

If that sounds too high a price, the article reminds us:

[T]he Kyoto Protocol, a global agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, is estimated to cost the world economy some $150 billion a year.

On the whole, I think that turning the Earth into a scale model of Saturn would be a bad idea. On the other hand, something like this around Venus might be really useful, if you have any interest in terraforming.

* * *

Usually, I either disagree with Mark Steyn or grind my teeth because I did not think of something he said first. Regarding the continuing embarrassment of the Flag-Burning Amendment, he hit the nail on the head:

The House of Representatives passed a constitutional amendment on flag burning last week, in the course of which

Rep. Randy ''Duke'' Cunningham (Republican of California) made the following argument:

''Ask the men and women who stood on top of the Trade Center. Ask them and they will tell you: Pass this amendment."

Unlike Congressman Cunningham, I wouldn't presume to speak for those who died atop the World Trade Center. ...maybe some would think that criminalizing disrespect for national symbols is unworthy of a free society. And maybe others would roll their eyes and say that, granted it's been clear since about October 2001 that the federal legislature has nothing useful to contribute to the war on terror, and its hacks and poseurs prefer to busy themselves with a lot of irrelevant grandstanding with a side order of fries, but they could at least quit dragging us into it.

If you could not burn it, it would not be worth saluting.

* * *

Students of the better newspapers, and indeed of many of the worse ones, will not have failed to notice the flurry of items about the Chinese Threat, which, apparently, grows daily on the economic, military, and diplomatic levels. Whenever you see this many stories and columns on the same subject but without an obvious news-hook, you have to wonder whether they are being orchestrated somehow. In this case, it is hard to imagine any puppet master who could pull the strings of both Mark Steyn and Paul Krugman.

Krugman, we should remember, is actually a pretty good economist during the brief periods when he takes his medication and is able to talk about something other than the malice and folly of President Bush. He notes that expansion of the Chinese economy is different in kind from that of Japan in the 1980s. The Japanese seemed to be buying up every thing in the world in those days, but Japan did not have geostrategic ambitions. China does.

There are ironies here. Donald Rumsfeld was made Secretary of Defense precisely so that the US would be ready for a war with China about Taiwan, if worse came to worst. The campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq have been one long distraction to him. He has always been keen to conduct the War on Terror on the cheap. China is the reason.

Citing Hardt & Negri just encourages them, but they do provide an important distinction between the roles of the US and China in today's world.

In their terminology, the US is "imperial," in the sense of working for the preservation of a world system with some claim to embody universal justice. The US actually does what the UN World Police is supposed to have done, had it ever existed. The current situation is institutionally unsatisfactory: it leads to challenges along the lines of, "Who died and made you boss?" The role of the US would be intolerable, if any other solution were on offer. There isn't. Probably, there won't be.

China, in contrast, is "imperialist" in the 19th-century sense. Its geostrategic aims are simply exported nationalism. To some extent, it regards those ambitions and the shaky rules of world governance as incompatible.

In its own way, China is just as much of a jellyfish empire as the EU: if it tries to act as a world power, it will break up. However, the process of break up would be quite compatible with a nuclear exchange.

If ever there is a New Rome, it might not be Washington, but some new capital in Kansas: Emerald City, perhaps.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2005-06-15: Conspiracy, China, and the Defenestration of the Clercs

Lots of fun stuff in this blog post from just over twelve years ago. Gordon Chang is still wrong, of course, but why is really the more interesting question. I don't believe Gordon Chang's predictions of doom for China, but I also don't believe china hawks like Steve Hsu. Something is just not quite right with the assertion that China will easily dominate the next century. It seems plausible, given the sheer number of people and the rapid economic growth and modernization of China. However, John Reilly suggested that China was at a point in its civilizational cycle that meant consolidation and retrenchment of past accomplishments rather than a huge burst of creativity.

Greg Cochran seems to be of much the same mind. He recently asked: what are the innovations coming out of China today. Not science, but technological marvels of the type that seemed like they were daily occurrences in the Victorian age. Nothing truly amazing was forthcoming, which seems like a point in favor of John's theory.

Sony Reader with e-ink

Sony Reader with e-ink

The next thing is the Sony Reader. I was sure that the Sony e-ink technology would be a huge win, but then it turned out that people really wanted to play Angry Birds on their tablets instead of read books, and e-ink is no good for that.

Finally, the notion of the West. President Trump's speech in Poland, evoking the concept of the West, appalled everyone with right-on politics. For all that, it isn't a terribly obscure notion in Western politics, and it has been used by many other politicians across the political spectrum. Ross Douthat argues that the mainstream of Western politics right now is neoliberalism, a protean word to be sure, but it aptly describes where the center-left has found itself.

In the American context, Reaganite conservatism is really part of this stream as well. Trump and Sanders represented the first real populist challenge to the dominance of this tradition in the United States. We should only expect more of this.


Conspiracy, China, and the Defenestration of the Clercs

 

Many readers of this page no doubt suppose that the Second Vatican Council was the point where the Roman Catholic Church began to go soft. This was not the case, according to Egyptian historian Professor Zaynab Abd Al-Aziz, in an interview that aired on Saudi Iqra TV [1] on May 26, 2005. According to MEMRI:

Abd Al-Aziz: "The decision to impose one religion over the entire world was made in the Second Vatican Council in 1965."

Host: "Huh?"

Abd Al-Aziz: "Yes. A long time ago...."

"When in January 2001, the World Council of Churches delegated this mission to the US - what did the US do? It fabricated the show of -- is it September 9 or 11?"

Host: "11. Please explain this to me."

Abd Al-Aziz: "Yes, of course--"

Host: "You mean to say that the World Council of Churches delegated the mission of Christianizing of the world to the US."

Abd Al-Aziz: "Yes. And how could the US win legitimacy for this without anyone saying that they are perpetrating massacres and waging a Crusader war? It fabricated the 9/11 show.

If this is how the World Council of Churches behaves, then what must the Bilderbergers be up to?

* * *

Mark Steyn recently asked and answered this question about the future of Asia: Who can stop the rise and rise of China? The communists, of course:

If the People's Republic is now the workshop of the world, the Communist Party is the bull in its own China shop. It's unclear, for example, whether they have the discipline to be able to resist moving against Taiwan in the next couple of years. Unlike the demoralised late-period Soviet nomenklatura, Beijing's leadership does not accept that the cause is lost:...

China won't advance to the First World with its present borders intact. In a billion-strong state with an 80 per cent rural population cut off from the coastal boom and prevented from participating in it, "One country, two systems" will lead to two or three countries, three or four systems. The 21st century will be an Anglosphere century, with America, India and Australia leading the way. Anti-Americans betting on Beijing will find the China shop is in the end mostly a lot of bull.

The prognosis that Gordon Chang made four years ago is not dissimilar. One notes, though, that Steyn's analysis is less driven by economics. Chang said that the current regime could not survive much past the middle of this decade because WTO rules would make China's hilarious financial system implode; Steyn is talking almost pure politics. Both strongly suggest, however, that the regime could attempt to settle the Taiwan issue by force, in order to maintain domestic legitimacy.

* * *

By the way, the eschaton has arrived on little cat feet: Sony's Librié text-display device seems very close to the realization of The Last Book. The reader is light, it's physically flexible, the text is as permanent as ink even when the power is off. Sony's version does have some annoying features, but something very like it could replace the codex.

* * *

Yet more evidence, if any were needed, of the perpetual unity of the West was recently presented in an essay by Frank Furedi, which appeared in Spiked, the most remarkable political ezine I have seen in a very long time. The essay is called From Europe to America: the populist moment has arrived. Its moral is given in the subtitle, On both sides of the Atlantic, the political class has become convinced that the people do not know what is best for them. We read in part:

'People getting their fundamental interests wrong is what American political life is all about', notes Thomas Frank in his US bestseller What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. Otherwise, Frank argues, how could they possibly vote for the Republicans? The belief that people are too stupid to understand the complexities of public life was also widely expressed during the heated exchanges that surrounded the recent referendums on the EU in France and Germany. Margot Wallstrom, vice president of the EU, commented on her blog that the Constitution is a 'complex issue to vote on', which can lead many citizens to 'use a referendum to answer a question that was not put to them'.

We should note that this populism (a word with a protean definition, but none better suggests itself) is by no means always in support of conservatism (an even slipperier word), or for that matter, that all elites are transnational socialists. In a way, President Bush's privatization plan for Social Security was just as much an elite notion as the EU Constitution ever was. Like the Constitution, electorates liked it less the more they heard about it. The saving garce for Bush and the Republicans is that they did not then claim that the privatization scheme failed because people were too stupid to understand it.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2005-04-28: China; Quagmire; My Folly

Shenzhen

Shenzhen

Contra John Reilly's prediction here: Gordan Chang is still wrong.


China; Quagmire; My Folly

 

Anyone in immediate need of a theory of the post-communist world, past and future, should take a look at David Brooks's column in today's New York TimesMourning Mother Russia:

When those totalitarian regimes fall, different parts of society recover at different rates. Some enterprising people take advantage of economic recovery, and the result of their efforts is economic growth.

But private morality, the habits of self-control and the social fabric take a lot longer to recover. So you wind up with nations in which high growth rates and lingering military power mask profound social chaos.

This is what we're seeing in Russia. It's probably what we would be seeing in Iraq even if the insurgency were under control. And most frighteningly, it could be what we will be seeing in China for decades to come.

One may question how closely the Chinese case parallels the Russian. Mao's People's Republic probably ranks higher than Stalin's USSR on the Lunacy Scale. (An 8.5 for Mao and a 7.5 for Stalin, perhaps, with a 9.5 for Kim Jong-il and an impeccable 10 for Pol Pot. Hitler ties Mao, but I would give Mussolini just a 3.0: a thug, not a monster.) However, at some deep level, Russia may have been injured more profoundly than China. That would be consistent with Mark Steyn's take on the matter:

I’d say the Chinese are doing it the right way round: historically, economic liberty has preceded political liberty...The real foreign-policy challenges in the immediate future are the stagnant EU, poor doomed Russia and China's incoherent market-communism. If you were betting on only one happy ending, I'd take China.

As is his wont, Steyn is at pains to emphasize that stability is neither likely nor desirable. The tensions occasioned by economic progress without democracy are really accidents waiting to happen, one of which the current autocracy will not survive:

Do you remember Sars? Big disease a couple of years ago. It started in rural China, leaping from livestock to people, because farm animals are highly valued and often sleep in the house...Sars spread to the cities because some rural dweller came up to town for the day, and before you knew it it had reached Hong Kong, where the infected lobby, elevators and other public areas brought the international clientele of the Metropole Hotel into contact with the disease...That’s a metaphor for the present-day People’s Republic.

Steyn, by the way, is not one of those who see China as a coming superpower. To some extent, its future may well parallel that of the USSR:

Calling it all ‘China’ sounds nice and homogenous, but it’s a China that has never previously existed in any functioning way; as a centralised nation state it’s as artificial an entity as the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia.

He has a point. Zhou En Lai once famously remarked that it was too early to say whether the French Revolution had succeeded. The same might also be said of the empire the Manchus created, of which China was and is only a part.

This is all the sheerest speculation. Still, Gordon Chang's Coming Collapse of China looks daily more prescient.

* * *

Meanwhile, the Bush Administration remains trapped in an unnecessary quagmire of its own making. In the May 2 issue of The Weekly Standard, Fred Barnes suggests an exit strategy:

If Bush is forced to accept defeat on Social Security, it's important he do it the right way. If he's petulant, it will only make things worse. And if he says the fight isn't over yet and he's going to try again in the next Congress to push through a reform measure, it will only make life easier for Democrats. They've become completely reactionary and have nothing to compaign on in 2006. Keeping Social Security reform alive would give them an issue to run on -- or rather against.

In reality, the Democrats will have a great deal to campaign on, from rising energy prices to an increasingly unaffordable health-insurance system.

On the upside, there is Iraq, and indeed the Middle East generally. I later learned that, when Thomas Friedman suggested recently that the Iraq War did in fact distract Al Qaeda from another major attack on the United States, he was only reflecting what security types were saying. (I also discovered that the security types don't routinely read the New York Times, or at least not the editorial page.) In any case, regarding what Mark Steyn sees as the happy instability of the Middle East since the invasion, it seems that the Domino Theory does work, at least when it its managed by Republicans.

There are ironies here.

* * *

Finally, to add another of the entirely too infrequent I-am-an-idiot postings to this blog, I find that I entirely misunderstood that letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the one I mentioned in my last entry, in which then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger defined the Church's jurisdiction over the investigation of allegations of sexual abuse. Here is what a canonist has to say about the matter:

[T]he CDF letter had as one important aim to settle certain procedural questions among canonists as to which canonical crimes are "reserved" to CDF per 1983 CIC 1362, that is, which ecclesiastical offenses are considered serious enough that Rome itself could adjudicate the case instead of allowing the normal canons on penal jurisdiction to operate (e.g., 1983 CIC 1408, 1412).

The letter is really about whether Rome or the local diocese should be handling these cases. Ratzinger said that Rome should. Considering the record of the dioceses in dealing with these cases, that was a good decision.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2004-12-13: McCain Ring; Perfect UN; Culture War Overseas; Chinese Bubble

I enjoyed a taste of Hillary Clinton's 2004 efforts to position herself as a future President:

On immigration she has begun talking tough on border security, accusing the administration of not spending enough, employing enough people, using the best technology. She recently called herself "adamantly against illegal immigrants," by which she no doubt meant illegal immigration, and has been inching toward support for a national ID card.

Oh how the times change.


McCain Ring; Perfect UN; Culture War Overseas; Chinese Bubble

 

Speculation about the presidential election of 2008 was well underway even before November 2. Today, one almost feels that time grows short. In any case, I was thinking of starting a purely exploratory "McCain for President" webring. If anyone is interested, please drop me a note.

Some candidacies are not at all speculative. Peggy Noonan's assessment of the protocampaign of Hillary Clinton is provocative on several levels:

She is taking care of her liberal base while cherry-picking key issues on which she can get to the right of the Republican party. This is most astute and quite effective. For the liberals she produces a steady stream of base-friendly efforts (Special Committee on the Aging, education funding, help for the emotionally disturbed, extended unemployment insurance) and classic pork barrel. To get to the right of the president she talks homeland security and immigration. On homeland security she fights for increased funding, better controls at U.S. ports, tightened security for nuclear power plants and chemical plants. She issues warnings about the use of weapons of mass destruction on American soil. She is a member of the Armed Services Committee and likes to talk about military reform. On immigration she has begun talking tough on border security, accusing the administration of not spending enough, employing enough people, using the best technology. She recently called herself "adamantly against illegal immigrants," by which she no doubt meant illegal immigration, and has been inching toward support for a national ID card.

Why does she want to get to Mr. Bush's right on these issues? [One reason] is that she knows another attack on American soil is inevitable and wants to position herself politically as The Wise One Who Warned Us.

This is why we have elections.

* * *

American foes of the United Nations are engaged in a campaign to prevent the organization from expanding its headquarters in New York, or even repairing its existing crumbly old modernist signature building:

Currently, there are several efforts under way to block the U.N.'s expansion and renovation of its building. Move America Forward has thrown its weight behind lawmakers and other community leaders to prevent the U.N. from growing in New York.

The United Nations' plan calls for a new 35-story building built on a park and the renovation of its current 52-year-old main headquarters.

The United Nations is not without its faults. Even people who approve of it in principle increasingly suspect that, like the pharisees, it neither enters the Kingdom, nor allows others to enter. In any case, those who believe the organization should be put out of its misery are barking up the wrong tree if they try to prevent the United Nations from creating a more palatial headquarters complex. Northcote Parkinson understood the matter perfectly:

One chapter [of Parkinson's Law], titled "Plans and Plants, or The Administrative Block," did deal with architecture. I remember it since it undermined much of what I was being taught in my classes. Parkinson's thesis, briefly put, was that when an organization commissioned an architectural masterpiece for itself, it was almost always done at precisely the moment when that organization was on its last legs. "During a period of exciting discovery or progress there is no time to plan the perfect headquarters," he wrote. "The time for that comes later, when all the important work has been done. Perfection, we know, is finality; and finality is death."

I know this, but I can't help myself.

* * *

For some time now, I have been waxing tedious about the link between the Culture War and the Terror War. Some anecdotal evidence supports the link, as we see from this report by Tyler Golson, an American academic teaching in Damascus:

One afternoon I was explaining the passive tense of verbs, and I used an example that came to mind from American culture. I asked them if they knew who was nominated by the two main parties to run for president. "John Kerry was nominated by the Democratic Party, and George Bush was nominated by the Republicans," replied one of the brightest in the class, a veiled Muslim engineering student named Rahaf. "Very good," I said. "Now, who do you think will be elected?" "Bush," cried several of the students at once, smiling. Abandoning my lesson plan for the moment, but curious at this sudden display of interest in the election, I ventured: "Who do you want to win?" "Bush," said Rahaf, while a number of others nodded in solid agreement. I pressed them further for a few minutes, asking individual students why they liked Bush. The same ideas came up again and again: he is a strong leader, an honest man, and, most of all, a believer. Like the winning margin of American voters this year, these Middle Easterners related to Bush's sense of religious conviction and his confident steering of a nation and culture they admired.

Supporting Bush may be as close as the students could come to openly opposing the Baathist government of Syria. Still, one wonders what they would have said about America if Kerry had been elected.

* * *

Perhaps I am not the only person whom the recent sale of IBM's PC business to the Chinese firm, Lenovo, reminded of the huge, ill-advised purchases of American assets by Japanese companies in the late 1980s. About the IBM deal, the analogy may not be apposite. The Chinese did not just ship oil freighters full of dollars to IBM, which was pretty much what the Japanese did. As the New York Times pointed out today, I.B.M. Sought a China Partnership, Not Just a Sale, and the deal was structured to give IBM a continuing interest in the future of Lenovo. However, other Chinese firms are doing deals just as appalling as the Japanese purchase of Rockefeller Center. As another New York Times story put it, China's Splurge on Resources May Not Be a Sign of Strength:

In one closely scrutinized deal, China's state-owned Minmetals Corporation is bidding to purchase Noranda of Canada, the third-largest zinc producer and ninth-largest copper producer in the world, for a reported $5.5 billion. The deal is expected to include assumption of a substantial amount of debt not reflected in the cash price, and appears to be based on the assumption that commodity prices will stay high indefinitely, said Jason Kindopp, a China analyst at the Eurasia Group, a New York-based political-risk consulting firm. Mr. Kindopp said that China risked waking up one day to find itself holding vastly inflated contracts in a global recession in commodities, much the way Japan suffered major losses after having overpaid for international assets during its boom in the 1980's.

Has there ever been a country with a big trade surplus that did not turn out to have more money than sense?

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2003-09-04: Twilight Phenomena

This is your regular reminder that Gordon Chang is still wrong. He may not be wrong forever. Jean Raspail ended up being extremely right 42 years later. Raspail got some of the details wrong, but the big picture is very right. 

John said a lot of things about Iraq and the Bush administration that were very, very wrong in retrospect, but here is something he got very, very right:

What we see in Islamicism is the hardening and darkening of these mistakes. It is the mark of the products of Winter that they have no capacity for growth. At best, they simply summarize the great creations of the past. At worst, they are bombs, with no power but to destroy the heritage of their civilization. Thus, there is no real hope of victory for the Jihad against the West. Even if Western armies were driven from the Middle East and a new Caliph proclaimed in Baghdad, the effort would turn ruins to rubble. This what the Taliban did to Afghanistan: just multiply it by a thousand.

John's intense interest in Spengler and macrohistory allowed him to predict that something like ISIS would be fundamentally hollow, utterly without any creative spark whatsover, doomed to spend its energies in mindless destruction.


Twilight Phenomena

Here's a headline I've been expecting to see: A Heated Chinese Economy Piles Up Debt. It appears on the frontpage of today's New York Times. While the story is not alarmist, it does point to the big economic story of the next few years: the impending bust of the last and greatest East Asian economy. There is nothing very mysterious about China's enormous recent growth statistics. If a government allocates capital on a political basis, there really is no problem generating export-driven growth of 6% to 10% every year. The problem is that the booming enterprises are literally a waste of money. The huge conglomerates of South Korea and Indonesia used to be capitalized at tens of billions of dollars, but produced returns on capital of less than one percent. The effect of all that manufacturing was just to turn the local currency into dollars. This makes a certain short-term sense, if there are tempting dollar investments to be made. That was the case in the 1990s. It is not the case today.

This is not just an Asian failing. The artificially low interest rates of the 1920s put America of the 1930s into a situation like that of Japan today, but worse. Closer to the current Chinese situation was the American savings-and-loan industry of the 1980s, when politics disabled the regulators but kept federal deposit-guarantees in place. The result was "see-through" office buildings and a lot of bankrupt institutions, for which the taxpayers were responsible. Of course, one of the lessons of the S&L collapse is that these things need not be the end of the world. The depositors got their money back, and the assets of the busted lenders were sold off, without enormous net loss to the Treasury. For that matter, the Pacific Rim countries have pretty much recovered from their own pre-millennial bust. Japan is a special case, but far from a lost cause.

There are people who say that China is a special case that is also a lost cause. So argued Gordon Chang two years ago in The Coming Collapse of China, which is the book that got me looking for those "It's later than you think" headlines about the People's Republic. His diagnosis is both ominous and persuasive. However, it is the nature of apocalypses to be averted by insightful predictions of them.

* * *

Speaking of disaster averted, I see that just a few days ago a reputable source warned that a 1.2-mile-wide asteroid could collide with Earth in 2014. I can easily imagine why there are so many warnings like this. The first observations of an asteroid will generate nothing more precise than a wide sheath of possible future positions. These sheaths are routinely big enough to hit Earth, but the relatively tiny asteroids in them are not. In any case, this latest warning was withdrawn within 24 hours.

Still, no matter how many times this happens, it's hard not to speculate about what would happen if the warning did not go away. That date, 2014, was particularly interesting. It's far enough in the future that we might be able to do something to avert the impact, but close enough that we would have to start doing it immediately. One imagines that steps would also be taken to move people out of harm's way, should deflecting the asteroid prove impossible. In any case, for some time the Rock would be what history is about.

As with nuclear weapons, which flickered in the world of science fiction long before someone actually built one, I sometimes get the sense the world is reaching for an organizing principle like this. That is part of the explanation for the genuine popularity of the idea of global warming. This is not to say that people are longing for some common challenge that would make the world one: far from it. Rather, some such global menace would make the world conceptually coherent for a while.

* * *

The controversy over Mel Gibson's upcoming film, The Passion, continues to grow. It is hard to understand the objection that the film will incite antisemitism. No doubt it will portray the Temple priesthood unsympathetically, but the portrayal will have to be very unsympathetic indeed to be worse than that in Jesus Christ Superstar, which is one Passion Play to which millions of people know the lyrics.

The truly bizarre element in all this has been the behavior of the Anti-Defamation League. For months now they have been trying to alter or suppress the film: now they are complaining about the angry mail they have been getting about their attempts to alter or suppress the film. They have also, under Providence, generated more publicity, for what would otherwise have been a minor art-film, than could have been bought for any money.

I could demonstrate at length that it has never been Catholic doctrine that the Jews are collectively to blame for the Crucifixion. (The Creed says "suffered under Pontius Pilate," not "Caiphas," for one thing.) There has been a popular tradition to that effect, of course, which sometimes found expression in Passion Plays. However, even judging only by hostile accounts of the rough cut, there is no reason to suppose that Gibson's Passion was made with that intent or will have that effect. Surely the ADL has better things to do with its time than pick fights with people who don't mean it any harm?

* * *

Passion Plays provide some insight into the Exploding Martyr phase of the disintegration of Islam. Spengler said, and I think he's right about this, that Jesus was the first great figure of a Culture that reached its spiritual culmination in Islam after AD 1000, and its final political definition in Ottoman hegemony. Spengler's name for this Culture was "Magian," and it includes the ancient eastern Churches, Rabbinical Judaism, and other, smaller communities as "nations."

21st-century Islamicism stands toward the time of Jesus as deepest Winter does toward earliest Spring. There are real continuities. Islamism addresses many of the questions Jesus did: about the relation of the World to the Kingdom, about ideal and practical moral norms, and about the importance of martyrdom. The cult of martyrdom is, in some ways, a fossil form of the Passion. Islam in general gets the answers backwards: it's a Reformation that went entirely off the rails, which the Reformation in Europe never quite did.

What we see in Islamicism is the hardening and darkening of these mistakes. It is the mark of the products of Winter that they have no capacity for growth. At best, they simply summarize the great creations of the past. At worst, they are bombs, with no power but to destroy the heritage of their civilization. Thus, there is no real hope of victory for the Jihad against the West. Even if Western armies were driven from the Middle East and a new Caliph proclaimed in Baghdad, the effort would turn ruins to rubble. This what the Taliban did to Afghanistan: just multiply it by a thousand.

* * *

Visitors to the top page of my site will see that I just did a short review of John Crowley's Little, Big. This is a wonderful "autumn book," a category that does not lend itself to precise definition. It has something to do with esoteric subject matter, at least in my case, but also with woodlands and shortening days.

One of the few books with which I would compare Crowley's novel is Mythago Wood, by Robert Holdstock. It is, of course, ridiculous to think that a small stand of woods might be a gateway to the collective unconscious. It is less ridiculous to think that a wood might be "haunted": there is evidence that some places are uncanny in a replicable, almost objective sense. One of the marks of a good autumn-book is that the author knows when to stop being plausible, however. Holdstock is particularly good at this.

There is a sequel to The Mythago Wood, by the way, even a sort of cult.

A novella that might interest some readers is William Hope Hodgson's The House on the Borderland. The story was one of the products of the Occult Revival of pre-World War One days; so, though it's fiction, it incorporates quite a lot of theosophical doctrine. The story has little in the way of spooky woods, but there is another Occult Revival stage property: an isolated mansion in the darkest West of Ireland. Anyway, I'm happy to see it's been reprinted in an anthology: All Gothic 1: The Boats of the Glen Garrig & The House on the Borderland.

Most items in this category are ambiguously related to Christianity at best, but that need not be the case. Indeed, my favorite book in the autumn-book category remains C.S. Lewis's That Hideous Strength. As I may have mentioned once before on this site, the book antedates George Orwell's 1984, but one may read Lewis's book as an answer to Orwell's. Plus you get to meet Merlin, and there is some conversational Latin. What else could you ask for on a darkening evening?  

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

 

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The Long View 2003-06-11: Unpalatable Measures

Let's talk about Korea. I don't know the area well enough to vouch for the accuracy of this article by Peter Lee, but one thing that seems clear is that a reunified Korea would be very rich, and very powerful, especially in comparison to Japan. The South Korean age distribution skews way younger than Japan's, and North Korea even more so, so we would expect to see Korea wax stronger even without reunification, but reunification would have a magnifying effect.

Korean and Japanese Age Pyramids 2015 CIA World Fact Book

Korean and Japanese Age Pyramids 2015 CIA World Fact Book

Economic strength wouldn't peak for a while, the North is in pretty sad shape right now, but there is tremendous opportunity in the Korean people. You could guess that eventually the North would converge with the South's level of development. There are about 50 million in South Korea, and about half that in North Korea. All else being equal, that will eventually result in an economy half again as big, or a little more once you subtract military spending that would no longer be needed.

Another thing that is clear is that some people would get very, very rich from reunification. Using China and Russia as models of what it looks like to modernize an economy held back by Communism, there will be immense opportunities, but the rewards will be distributed by political means, not economic ones.

Unpalatable Measures
Why may the current tit-for-tat attacks in the Levant be different from earlier tit-for-tat attacks? At the risk of sounding bloodthirsty, the latest exchanges may bring peace closer.
A quick review: President Bush just visited the region to preside over a handshake between the Israeli and Palestinian premiers regarding the "Road Map for Peace." Hamas almost immediately refused to take part in the cease-fire the agreement contemplates, and killed five Israeli soldiers over the weekend. Then the Israelis were rude enough to try to assassinate the Hamas leader Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi, which made him visibly cranky on television. Just as I was writing this, a suicide bombing in Jerusalem killed 16 people; Israel struck at another two Hamas leaders in Gaza City.
One lesson we might draw is that prominent American officials who visit that area better have an awfully good reason for going there, because there are likely to be several more dead bodies soon after they leave. Something is different this time, though: the people exchanging fire are not the interlocutors. Palestinian Prime Minister Abbas agreed to the new peace process. His very office was created to pursue it. The people the Israelis are shooting at are Abbas's political enemies. (The position of Chairman Arafat is, as usual, ambiguous but unhelpful.) Eventually, it will occur to the leadership of Hamas that they are not only putting their own lives at risk, but that Abbas is likely to be the beneficiary. At that point, a cease-fire might look like a better idea.
 
* * *
Reports of cannibalism have been coming from North Korea. Supposedly, the combination of another bad harvest and drastic reductions in foreign food-aid has pushed people over the edge. One never knows what to make of reports of this type. Every famine occasions stories of cannibalism, oftentimes quite similar stories about a more or less open market in people parts. Such accounts are particularly hard to believe in a society as anti-commercial as North Korea. Still, there are other recent stories that suggest something may be about to happen there.
For one thing, the country is under increasing foreign pressure. Without quite declaring an embargo, the Japanese have become fussy about the regulation of the shipping to Korea, which means the North Koreans have been substantially cut off from foreign remittances and smuggled military technology. Meanwhile, the US is moving its forces back from the demilitarized zone. When the redeployment is complete, it will be possible to make airstrikes into the North without putting Americans at risk from the North's artillery. (The people in Seoul wish they could say as much.) What does the government of North Korea say about all this? They announced that they want to develop a nuclear deterrent, so they can divert to civilian needs the resources now dedicated to the huge army.
There are two problems with this. The first is that North Korea already has a nuclear deterrent. Even if it does not have a nuclear-armed ballistic missile, the US is not sure of that, so the US is reluctant to act preemptively. The other is that the era of nuclear deterrence is almost over, at least for small arsenals. The US will have some measure of defense against ballistic missiles next year. The Japanese will have it slightly later. It's hard to say what the North Korean government knows, but they surely know that. If the conventional military is going to be reduced, that will be because it is more of a menace to the regime than the US is.
 
* * *
No, I am not going to read Hillary Clinton's new memoir, Living History, not when I still have a perfectly good collection of the speeches of Neville Chamberlain to get through. (I do: a fine hardcover, entitled In Search of Peace; G. P. Putnam's Sons 1939.) The reviewer for the New York Times seemed less than pleased with Senator Clinton's book. However, I am not going to pan a book I have not read, even when it is written by one of Those People, who are once again up to Their Old Tricks.
A more obscure publishing event later this month will be the appearance of my own book, The Perfection of the West. This is another anthology, like Apocalypse & Future. Also like that book, it's a print-on-demand work published by Xlibris. I still have to approve an actual printed copy of The Perfection of the West before it becomes available; the Xlibris procedure involves working with PDF files before I see a final proof. When the time comes, I will put up a short promotional page about the book, as well as various little buttons and graphics on my site to draw people's attention. Anyone who decides to buy it will have the satisfaction of knowing that Barbara Walters played no part in the decision.
By the way, if you are ever given a choice between editing your own book and taking out your own appendix, don't dismiss the second option out of hand.
 
* * *
Speaking of clueless people being up to their old tricks, I see that NBC is likely to do a sequel to its 1980s miniseries, The Visitors. That's the one about a fleet of flying saucers that arrives on Earth, bearing aliens who look friendly and human but are actually man-eating reptiles.
This is an outrage. I have nothing against man-eating reptiles, but that series was a missed opportunity. The problem with The Visitors was that the writers had obviously started to adapt Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End but then chickened out. Childhood's End has some claim to being the most disturbing science-fiction novel ever written. In that book, the end of history comes in a way that is reminiscent of Vernor Vinge's "Singularity," or even Teilhard de Chardin's "Omega Point."
From what I have been able to determine, by the way, Teilhard and Clarke did not influence each other. Both may have been influenced by Olaf Stapledon, whose works feature the idea that the crown of evolution may take the form of a sudden, worldwide jump to collective consciousness.
That story would not have been too hard to tell. It would have required two sets of characters: one for when the spaceships arrive "now," and one for the end of days that comes 80 years later. However, the basic premise would have been no harder to get across than that of Forbidden Planet. There was even an X-Files episode about the Singularity. The people guilty of The Visitors attempted none of this, however. They took the image of the big flying saucers hovering over the world's major cities, and they took the idea that the aliens Are Not What They Seem, and then they turned their brains off. They even made the UN Secretary General a Swede rather than a Finn, as in the Clarke book, perhaps on the assumption the audience is ignorant of geography. [The assumption may be correct, but the audience has no more idea where Sweden is than where Finland is.]
NBC may get its comeuppance for this. The subtext for The Visitors was anti-militarist and mildly paranoid. The implication was that anyone wearing a uniform is a Nazi. These sentiments have become anachronistic.
Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: A New Dynasty

This is a fine essay of alternative history by John Reilly, regarding an early twentieth century China in which someone managed to cobble together enough Confucian orthodoxy to proclaim themselves Emperor, of a sort, sparing China Chairman Mao and the Cultural Revolution.

In a fascinating aside, John gets at what is really interesting about alternative history: events across space and time in human history seem to exhibit patterns. In some ways, history is a panoply of detail, a pageant of colors. In other ways, the same damn thing just keeps happening over and over again, and the former can obscure the latter.

A New Dynasty in 1916?
 
by John J. Reilly
Like many what-ifs, this one was suggested by something that almost happened. The provisional president of China in 1916, a general named Yuan Shikai (1859--1916), actually did declare himself emperor, though he had to back down after a few months. As is also the case with many what-ifs, there are some pretty good reasons for why the attempt to found a new dynasty failed. What I would like to do here is sketch a historical configuration in which the successful launching of a new dynasty would have been easier. Then I would like to speculate for a bit about what the implications of continued monarchy in China would have been for the rest of the 20th century.
Before describing Yuan's unsuccessful dynastic project, I would like to thank the people who alerted me to errors in the original version of this essay that I posted to the newsgroups alt.history.what-if and soc.history.what-if. One of the things that I have discovered is that mention of this incident still excites emotional condemnation. Maybe for good reason. My only excuse for my errors is that the brief accounts in John King Fairbank's books, "The United States and China" and "China: A New History," are a bit misleading.
Additionally, I am calling the hypothetical new dynasty discussed here simply "The New Dynasty." In an earlier draft, I had cleverly called it "The Xin Dynasty," on the grounds that "Xin" means "new." Further research reminded me that the usurper Wang Mang had established a regime with the same pronunciation 2000 years ago. A little knowledge is an embarrassing thing.
Yuan Shikai was the chief architect of the New Army that was created in the terminal phase of the Qing Dynasty. Although considered to be a friend of the reformers who sought to establish a constitutional monarchy, he supported the Dowager Empress in her last, unhappily successful effort to stifle reform in the final years of the dynasty. He was involuntarily retired at the time of her death in 1908. At the time of the Revolution of 1911, however, he was recalled to Peking to save the dynasty. To the surprise of the last Qing officials, however, he supported the insurgents.
The end of the imperial system in 1911 seemed at first to have been accomplished without any major national calamity. At any rate, there were no peasant uprisings or civil war. The revolution was sparked by the revolt of a major army garrison; others soon followed suit. The provinces, led by local assemblies, essentially seceded from the central government. The leader of China's modernizing forces, Dr. Sun Yatsen, was briefly made provisional president by a national parliament. However, when the last emperor finally abdicated in 1912 under pressure by Yuan Shikai, Sun deferred to Yuan. Yuan, after all, did have greater governmental experience. He also had the army, at least in North China.
On becoming provisional president, Yuan quickly suppressed the national parliament and the assemblies. The government of the country at the local level was returned to the magistrates. During 1915, he took steps toward establishing a new dynasty. His bid for the throne was mildly favored by the British, but strongly opposed by the Japanese. The attempt to secure Japanese acquiescence was at least one factor in his agreement to most of Japan's very harsh "21 Demands," which severely impinged on Chinese sovereignty. In any case, there were other reasons for staying on the good side of the Japanese at that time. The British were wholly preoccupied by the First World War, so their Japanese allies at least temporarily had a free hand in East Asia. (Besides their Chinese initiatives, the Japanese used the opportunity to pick up Germany's colonial possessions in the region.)
Despite the unfavorable diplomatic situation, Yuan declared himself emperor at the beginning of 1916. It did not work. He could not get foreign support, military or financial, though investors had hitherto regarded him as a good credit risk. He was opposed by his own generals for a variety of reasons, and he had forfeited the support of the nation's reformers. He abandoned the monarchical experiment in March. He died in June, reportedly of natural causes.
Yuan was probably not the man to found a new dynasty in any case. His career had been made in the crepuscular world of the late Qing. One of the benefits of dynastic change is that it allows for a fresh start in policies and personnel; Yuan offered neither. Let us assume, however, that a more attractive personality had attempted a similar enterprise. Is there any plausible set of historical circumstances under which the New Dynasty could have been established in 1916?
Yuan's most pressing handicap was probably that the advent of the First World War left him to face the Japanese alone. While there is a good argument to be made that a war like the First World War was almost inevitable, there is no particular reason why the war had to start at the time and in the way it did. Worse marksmanship in Sarajevo in 1914 could easily have delayed the start of the World War by a year or more. Even had it started in 1914, a cease-fire might have been declared when the armies deadlocked in the West. For that matter, the war would have been over by 1915 had the Schlieffen Plan worked. A quick defeat for Britain, before it had invested heavily in men and emotions, would not have done the British Empire any immediate harm. Rather the opposite, in fact. One suspects that, like the Russians after their string of defeats in the Balkans and the Far East in the early years of the century, the British would have determined not to lose further ground anywhere in the world. This would have predisposed the British to oppose Japanese policy in China simply for the sake of opposing.
In any case, this was the direction in which British policy had long been evolving. By 1914, British were already dubious about their alliance with Japan and they scrapped it as soon as they decently could after the War. A unified China that needed the protection of the Royal Navy against Japan would not have endangered British interests at Hong Kong and Shanghai, but it would have been a formidable barrier to further Japanese expansion.
Rectifying the international situation, however, solves only the proximate problem. The deeper difficulty that a new dynasty would have faced would have been a crisis of legitimacy. Chinese dynasties made perfect sense in terms of Confucian ideology; they had been the only imaginable form of national government for upwards of two millennia. The Qing had indeed been overthrown in part because they were Manchurian foreigners. However, the movement against them had been informed, not simply by Han nationalism, but by a critique of the Confucian heritage itself.
Throughout Chinese history, successful brigands and ambitious generals had become acceptable as the founders of dynasties by signaling their intention to follow traditional precedents of government and morality. There was almost an established drill to go through, down to the wording of key proclamations. After a period of interdynastic chaos, even a personally horrible candidate who honored the forms could nevertheless get the support of the local gentry and magistrates. They did not have to like a would-be dynastic founder; they simply needed to be assured that government would again become predictable and comprehensible.
It was precisely this cultural consensus that reformers in China had spent the prior 50 years destroying. Though no democrat, Yuan Shikai still falls into this class. His modernized national army, and his use of it as the primary instrument of government, was as un-Confucian as the democratic assemblies favored by Sun Yatsen. There were plenty of tradition-minded people in China still in 1916, even among the literate elites. However, they were not for the most part the people who managed new enterprises or who understood modern administrative techniques. Yuan could not have created a dynasty on the traditional model without bringing the country back to 1800.
On the other hand, even if a traditional monarchy was not possible, it does not follow that no monarchy would have been possible. The 20th century has not lacked for monarchies that justified themselves by simultaneous appeals to tradition and the project of modernization. There was a gaggle of them in the Balkans between the First and Second World Wars, kings of shaky new states who make themselves dictators when parliamentary government stopped working. In practice, these regimes were not much different from the party dictatorships elsewhere in Europe.
The most successful example was not in Europe, but in the Middle East. There, the new Pahlavi Dynasty of Persia (which it taught the world to call "Iran") attempted a program of national modernization comparable to, but milder than, the reconstruction of Turkey undertaken by Kemal Ataturk and his successors. To be a Pahlavi Shah was not quite the same thing as being a Shah in prior Persian history had been. The Pahlavi Shahs had new bases of social support and a novel relationship with the outside world. Still, some of the ancient terminology of government lent a bit of credibility to the letterheads of the new regime. We should remember that it actually lasted quite a long time for a government of ruthless modernizers, until the late 1970s. It is conceivable that a competent candidate could have established an analogous government in China, and so might have become "emperor" in a similarly qualified sense.
So how would a new dynasty have affected Chinese history for the first half of the 20th century? Such speculation may require less imagination than might at first appear. The reality of the New Dynasty would be that, while in some respects traditional in form, the government would actually have been a moderately conservative military dictatorship. We don't have to speculate about what such a regime would have looked like: the Nationalist government provides the model. There would have been two major differences, however.
First, the New Dynasty would have had a far greater measure of legitimacy than the Nationalists ever achieved, even during the brief period before the Japanese invasion when they governed almost the whole country. Legitimacy and hypocrisy are often inversely related. The Nationalist government pretended to be running a republic; it delivered less than it promised. The New Dynasty, on the other hand, would have been pretending to be a Confucian monarchy. All it would have needed to do is govern the country better than did the Qing in the 19th century. This would not have been a tall order.
The biggest advantage, however, would be that a dynasty established around 1916 might have succeeded in preventing the warlord era entirely. This does not require a great leap of faith. After all, before 1916, even Yuan Shikai had shown some ability to put uppity provincial commanders in their place.
There are a few things that we might reasonably assume about our hypothetical New Dynasty. As we have seen, it would probably have had British support. Partly for that reason, it would have had more credibility with international investors than did the Republic. If it also had just enough features of a parliamentary democracy to garner some support among the business class and intellectuals, then it seems likely that a formal monarchy would have been better able to control potential warlords than was the Republic. Deleting the warlord era would not only have spared the country the damage and disorder of that period, it would also have probably spared China Communism.
Chinese Communism as an insurgent movement was able to gain a foothold only because of the breakdown of national authority in the 1920s. It was because the central government was in eclipse that the Communists were able to establish bases in south-central China, and then to escape to Yennan when those bases were attacked. There would still, of course, have been a Communist Party in some form, but the New Dynasty government would not have needed to make common cause with it, as the Nationalists did early in this period. (For a while, foreign observers tended to think of the Nationalist Party as a Communist front.)
If China had not fallen into disunity, one suspects that the Communist Party would have been more urban and less rural than in fact it was. After all, in this scenario the countryside would have been better policed. In all likelihood, its history would have paralleled that of the Japanese Communist Party; frequently suppressed, never destroyed, important primarily as an aggravating factor during episodes of civil unrest.
Would the New Dynasty have performed much better against the Japanese in the `30s and `40s than the Nationalists did? One of the axioms of world history is that military dictatorships have incompetent militaries. They use their armies as police, and cops are not soldiers. Still, it is hard to imagine that the New Dynasty army could have done worse than the Nationalists did. In any case, assuming that a revived Chinese Empire would have been a long-term client of Britain, the Japanese would have had to think twice before making provocative actions south of Manchuria.
The effect of a more coherent China, on the other hand, might have been to sharpen Japan's strategy toward it. The Japanese war against China was a meandering series of campaigns, often without discernible strategic purpose. A Chinese government that actually governed the country would have made a far more valuable target. Japan might have confined their Chinese operations to a single blitzkrieg campaign to compel China to neutrality for the great offensive of 1941, and it might have worked.
And as for the second half of the century? We will assume that the Japanese still lost the war. Despite the havoc the war caused on the Asian mainland, it was always a naval war, and there is no way Japan could have won it without forcing the United States to a negotiated peace in the first few months. Would China then have proceeded more or less directly to full modernization, on the model of Japan? Conceivably, but my own suspicion is that the second fifty years would have been surprisingly like the history of the People's Republic.
The New Dynasty would no doubt have been greatly energized by being among the victors in the war. This would be particularly the case if, as this scenario suggests, the country had been less damaged by the conflict. Doubtless there would have been a decade or so of very rapid growth, and the beginning of real prosperity in some regions. The problem is that a regime of this type does not, in the long run, benefit from improving conditions. As the history of the Pahlavi regime in Iran illustrates, the effect of modernization in an authoritarian context can often be to manufacture an opposition that would not otherwise have existed. At the beginning of such regimes, people are often grateful for the establishment of basic civil order. Later, when economic conditions improve, they are content to look after their private lives. Finally, there will be a self-assured middle class that asks the regime, "What have you done for us lately?" By that point, the chief benefit that the regime could bestow would be to abolish itself. Such situations lead to trouble.
The chronology could have been similar to that which happened in the real world: great disorder in the 1960s, the restoration of social peace in the 1970s, followed by relaxation in the 1980s. The jettisoning of the New Dynasty would probably have been the price of the restoration of order. As happened after the overthrow of the last Shah of Iran, the successor regime would probably have been more "conservative" in some ways. The conservatism, however, would have been of the "social conservative" type. Confucian tradition would have been quite as capable as Shia Islam of generating a critique of modernity. This sort of consideration never troubled the People's Republic much, but then the Communist regime is explicitly dedicated to uprooting Confucianism. The New Dynasty, in contrast, would have been based in part on a show of respect for tradition. In other words, the regime would have had to preserve the standards by which it would eventually be judged and found wanting.
There would, no doubt, have been vast differences from the China of today had an imperial regime of some sort been reestablished after the Qing. Still, the upshot could have been that, after about 1975, China would again have been a republic of sorts. Like India, it would have been a vast country with greatly varying levels of development. Because of a lack of local tradition, it would probably not have been a very democratic republic. Still, it would no doubt have been friendly to private economic initiative, carried out in the context of overall government planning.
There is a fashion in certain history departments to encourage speculation about alternative histories as a way of demonstrating the contingency and unpredictability of history. Fair enough, but I myself have doubts about how much contingency and predictability history actually manifests. No doubt it is true, as the chaos theorists tell us, that the flapping of a butterfly's wings at Peking can cause tornadoes in Kansas a month later. From this, many students of alternative history surmise that similarly tiny changes in the events of the past could create a whole different world farther down the line. The reality is that, while a butterfly may cause tornadoes, it cannot cause an ice age, or prevent winter from turning into spring. There are principles of conservation in history, whereby many different routes can lead to a similar destination. One of the uses of alternative history is to discern what was really inevitable.
Copyright © 1998 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Red Capitalism

China is going through one of its periodic financial crises, so this series of book reviews and essays by John Reilly seems appropriate. While I am skeptical about Gordon Chang's predictions of China's collapse [Chang is a Hedgehog in Isaiah Berlin and Philip Tetlock's terminology], eventually, it seems like events will probably eventually catch up with his predictions. Fundamentally, the Chinese financial system seems like the kind of thing that works until it doesn't. It is just really hard to know when that is going to happen.

Red Capitalism:
The Fragile Financial Foundation of
China's Extraordinary Rise
By Carl E. Walker and Fraser J. T. Howie
2011 John Wiley & Sons (Asia) Pte. Ltd.
256 Pages, $29.95
ISBN 978-0-470-82586-0
 
Famously, in 2001, the investment analyst Gordon Chang published a book entitled The Coming Collapse of China. Though by no means disparaging of the great progress that China had made since the beginning of Deng Xiaoping's reforms in the 1970s, the book dwelt on the fundamentally diseconomic nature of the country's State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) and on the hilarity that is the Chinese banking system. It also made many pointed comments to the effect that the Chinese Communist Party had become an essentially parasitic caste about which the Chinese people would eventually ask, "What have you done for us lately?" He suggested that the system would implode around 2006. By that time, he surmised, the transparency demanded by the World Trade Organization, which the regime imprudently insisted on joining, would reveal the phantasmal nature of the Party's attempt to maintain a communist-capitalist hybrid.
 
Now come Carl E. Walker and Fraser J. T. Howie, an investment banker and a financial writer respectively, with many years of experience in and around China. In effect, they seek to explain why China remains uncollapsed a good five years after Mr. Chang's doomsday date, though that is not quite how they put it; they do not even cite the earlier book. They wax effusive at times in their praise of the benefits that the People's Republic has brought and on the statesmanship of certain of its leaders. Indeed, their admiration for Zhu Rongji, premier from March 1998 to March 2003, is so complete that they sometimes seem like partisans in the bureaucratic battles they describe, particularly the struggle of the central bank, the People's Bank of China, against those fiends at the Ministry of Finance. The authors usually venture only subdued suggestions about the kind of event that might cause a crisis of the system. Their presentation is prosaic and detailed in a way that only an accountant could love, but it does make a very strong argument that China's sterling economic growth statistics by no means imply that China should be regarded as an inviting investment opportunity. Quite the opposite: terms like "debt," "capital," "stock," and "contingent liability" do not mean in China what they mean in the rest of the world. Economic China is a great cloud of unknowing, a region of financial opacity that will not grow less opaque as long as the Party remains in power.
 
The proof of this is that, during and after the financial crisis of 2008, China was the dog that did not bark. Any earlier economic Great Power in the midst of its expansive phase would have used such an event as an opportunity to buy up the suddenly cheap assets that littered the world's economic landscape. China did no such thing, beyond one or two modest overseas acquisitions. Not only did financial capital not flow out of China; neither did intellectual capital. Though the Chinese increasingly like to boast that they have devised an economic system that is different from and maybe better than that of the developed world, the fact is that their system cannot be exported. The issue is whether it is sustainable domestically.
 
The authors point out that the development of China has not been a smooth upward glide after the end of the Maoist era. There have been bubbles, panics, and periods of serious inflation. The banking system has collapsed at the end of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. The Tiananmen Square incident of 1989 was only the social expression of a period of monetary mismanagement. Indeed, the authors argue that the reforms that had been attempted earlier were essentially negated at the end of the first decade of the 21st century. At that time, the banks were directed to make an astronomically large aggregate of infrastructure loans, mostly to local governments through shell organizations, to make up for the sudden decline in the export market. The loans look solid only because they are new. In reality, there is no obvious way they can provide income streams to pay themselves off.
 
These practices simply repeat the post-Maoist pattern, and they are exactly what Gordon Chang was talking about. There are four big government banks, as well as lesser institutions. Banks do operate conventionally, especially when they deal with the outside world. However, the Big Four, either directly or through other institutions acting at their behest, ensure that the financing for the key elements of the economy takes the form of loans made on the basis of politics rather than of economic calculation. These are made principally to SOEs that are under no particular pressure to pay their arrears, much less to pay on time. The result is that the banks fill up with nonperforming assets that have to be disposed of periodically. They can be written off, or their repayment can be delayed into a future when the incumbent administrators will not be responsible for them.
 
The preferred Chinese solution has been to kick the can down the road. This can be done in various ways, but here is an unusually clear example of how it was done at the beginning of 1998:
 
In the first step, the [People's Bank of China, which is the central bank and not one of the Big Four] reduced by fiat the deposit-reserve ratio imposed on the banks, from 13 percent to eight percent. This move freed up RMB270 billion in deposit reserves which were then used on behalf of each bank to acquire a Special Purpose Treasury Bond of the same value issued by the [Ministry of Finance]. In the second step, the MOF took the bond proceeds and lent them to the banks as capital . . . This washing of RMB270 billion through the MOF in effect made the banks' depositors -- both consumer and corporate -- de facto shareholders, but without their knowledge or attribution of rights.
 
Premier Zhu's strategy was to make a clean break with the past by actually writing off the bad debt. That would allow the purged banks to take in real money, in contrast to fiat capital from the central bank or the Ministry of Finance, through IPOs and debt offerings to foreigners and to genuine entrepreneurs at home. This would not only provide a market-based reality check for the economy as a whole; it would also allow Chinese banks to develop world-class levels of expertise, which they in turn would be able to offer to the Chinese government's own financial regulators. The authors remark several times that the hopes for the import of foreign expertise were realized. The financial system of China today was built largely with the advice and enthusiastic collaboration of Goldman-Sachs and other institutions that they authors do not seem to realize have become names of ill omen. However, the crucial features of the premier's reconstruction strategy were not realized. The result was that Chinese finance became an artist's conception of a modern system, overlaying a mechanism that combined elements of the Soviet and feudal systems.
 
Premier Zhu's intent was to deal with the nonperforming assets by creating entities like the Resolution Trust Corporation (RTC). That institution was how the United States managed the savings-and-loan crisis. The RTC took on all the assets of the saving-and-loan institutions that had failed and whose depositors' had been paid off by federal deposit insurance. The assets were sold for whatever the market would offer. To most people's surprise, the RTC broke even. Encouraged by this success, the Chinese created one such "bad bank" for each of the Big Four banks. The idea was that the assets would be sold at a discount and the banks would then close. For bureaucratic reasons, however, these things did not happen. The values of the bad assets were never written down, and the bad banks were not closed. They have gone through various transformations over the years, but their worthless assets are still somewhere in the financial system, and are still marked at full value.
 
The Big Four from which the bad assets had been drained, however, now appeared to be in sterling condition, and able to make more loans. This they did, nationally and soon internationally. They raised capital for themselves in successful IPOs. They also continued to make political loans; which, again, when they are new, seem to be as good as any other asset. By and by, though, the banks require further infusions of capital to bring their ratio of capital to assets up to international standards. This is an inevitable result of ferocious lending; bank loans are assets to the banks, remember, so a bank must have a certain amount of capital on hand as a cushion against the loans that go bad. The authors point out that an amount equal to all of the money from the last big recapitalization of the banks, which happened about four years ago and was funded by sales of stock, was paid out almost immediately as dividends to the Ministry of Finance and to other government bodies that own a controlling interest in the banks
 
The banks are actually the feature of the Chinese financial system that most closely resemble their developed-world counterparts. The other two major components, the bond market and the stock market, are idiosyncratic institutions that could not interface with the wider world even if the government were inclined to let them try.
 
The interest rates on bonds are decided politically, as are the identities of the enterprises that can sell them; the matter has little to do with risk assessment by the lenders and underwriters. In any case, bond rates are not much higher than the derisory rates offered by bank accounts. Businesses acquire bonds to conform to some official policy, not as genuine investments.
 
The situation is a bit different with stocks. Along with real-estate speculation, stocks are the only way to better the return on bank interest rates. However, the actual ownership of the entities represented by the securities that are traded with such enthusiasm in the Chinese stock markets is never really at issue. The entities are SOEs, for the most part. This means that they are national property, if not quite the People's Property anymore. In any case, the price of stocks is not determined by estimates of the profitability of the SOEs. Prices rise in response to real or perceived changes in state policy, particularly monetary policy. All the retail stockowners are pure speculators; there are no "natural investors" in China, in the sense of people who invest for the long term. The long term is a political matter.
 
Not much of the real capital in the system comes from the stock speculators, of course. The basis of the system is what the authors call the "heroic savings rate" of the Chinese people. For the most part, there really is no place to put most of one's money except in the banks, even if the real interest rates are negative. Those savings support whatever real growth occurs in the system. However, this arrangement is predicated on a population that is overwhelmingly of working age and is little inclined to spend. This is one of the few contexts in which the authors allow themselves to sound apocalyptic. The fact is that the one-child policy means that the population is becoming quickly and dramatically older, and older people who cannot work have to spend.
 
For the moment, though, the authors say that the Party has arranged China in a way that is very satisfactory to itself and not intolerable to the population as a whole. The country does have a real market economy, principally in a few great urban agglomerations on the eastern coast. These are a source of foreign capital and expertise; at the same time, the arrangement allows the Party to insulate its beloved Inner Economy of SOEs and parastatals from all global events except commodity shortages. This arrangement is not so different from the state of things during the latter Qing Dynasty, when Treaty Ports were a feature of the coast but the interior of China was less affected by foreign influence. We might note some historical parallels that the authors did not mention. Today's debates within the Party about the desirability of state direction versus market forces is somewhat reminiscent about the debates during the Ming Dynasty about whether the Yellow River should be accommodated in a wide bed defined by dikes (the cheap, small government solution) or dredged deeply (the dirigiste favorite). An even better fit is the argument during the Former Han about whether the state's salt and iron mines should be privatized.
 
In any case, the Party is interested in the market economy only to the extent that it affects the Inner Economy. Readers will note the resemblance between the Inner Economy and the "commanding heights" to which Lenin alluded when he defended his New Economic Policy against the charge that the private enterprise it allowed was a form of counter-revolutionary backsliding. Essentially, Lenin argued that, as long as heavy industry and the utilities remained public property, then the economy remained socialist, no matter how many private traders there were. The rulers of China seem to be of similar mind.
 
The greatest irony in all this, the authors remind us more than once, is that China is now ruled by an oligarchy of old revolutionary families. This development was facilitated by a bureaucratic shuffle that occurred in connection with a reform of the SOEs. These had once been governed by state institutions, according to the Soviet command-economy model. The controlling bodies had been headed by persons who held ministerial rank, generally as vice-ministers, and often a place on the Politburo, if only as alternate members. In China, these controlling institutions were closed down, theoretically in the interest of economic freedom. Their place was taken by regulatory agencies with much less authority. The vice-ministers and politburo members, however, simply became the heads of the enterprises they had formerly overseen, while maintaining their positions in the state and Party. It is interesting to note that the Big Four banks did not benefit from this process of the old political bosses taking direct control. The Big Four and the financial system in general are subject to the state in a way that SOEs are not. That follows the Soviet pattern, too, which subordinated banks as mere payment systems.
 
Also conforming to the Soviet model is the way the classical Communist era was wound up. The oligarchs of the Russian Federation were essentially Soviet economic ministers who had contrived to walk off with the assets of their old ministries. Pretty much the same thing happened in China, but with notably greater tact.
 
In a way, the picture of China in Red Capitalism is even more disconcerting than that in The Coming Collapse of China. The latter book at least gave a clear picture of where the faults in the system were and when they could be expected to express themselves. In Red Capitalism, however, the authors suggest that the direction of the Chinese economy is no less wrong-headed, but the system successfully masks the fact. They end the book by likening the Chinese financial system to the layout of the Forbidden City. That complex is a maze of courtyards and narrow corridors designed to frustrate the line-of-sight on the ground, so that only people in the upper stories have a clear view of the whole. Readers may suspect this model to be too optimistic, however. If China really is as the authors describe, then no one, least of all the people in charge, knows what is really happening. This has never been a formula for success.
Copyright © 2011 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: The Coming Collapse of China

Gordon Chang keeps being wrong about China, he predicted in 2001 there would be a revolution by 2006, but I can see how his story is compelling, attractive even. There are lots of things the Chinese do that it seems like you just cannot keep doing, but they keep on doing it anyway.

Unlike with Eamonn Fingleton's work, I don't really have a good sense for what is going on in China. Thus, I cannot really comment on this book other than to say: this collapse Chang predicted keeps not happening. What little I do know suggests to me that traditional Chinese culture is slowly, slowly reasserting itself after Chairman Mao's attempts to stamp it out. I think of Mao as roughly analogous to Qin Shi Huang, the first Chinese Emperor, who is both widely influential and widely despised for his paranoia and tyranny.

The Coming Collapse of China
Gordon G. Chang
Random House, 2001
344 Pages, $26.95
ISBN: 0-375-50477
 
Shanghai is the most awesome city on earth. Twice the size of New York, and maybe already with more skyscrapers, it is the glittering pinnacle of the commercial transformation of China in the last quarter century. The author's father left China during the Second World War to live in the United States and is no friend of the Communist regime. Still, he remarked on viewing the city from its greatest skyscraper, "Foreigners must feel jealous when they see this." The emigrant's son, Gordon Chang, has worked in China for an American law firm since the 1980s, and he, too, is impressed. Nonetheless, in The Coming Collapse of China he makes this prediction:
"The leaders speak so loudly of what they have accomplished, and now, believing all that they have told us, have opted for membership in the World Trade Organization. They're unprepared for unforgiving globalization, that's for sure, but they press ahead anyway. It will be just like the Great Leap Forward – disaster brought on by self-deception."
The author gives the current regime five years, say about 2006, before it is overthrown. The proximate causes will be economic, as the residual command-and-control economic system crumples under the transparent trading rules required by the WTO. (China joined in December 2001. Most of the transitional rules expire in three years.) The book is particularly valuable for its witty case studies of two private-sector success stories, an Internet entrepreneur and a bowling-equipment manufacturer, and their travails in the not-quite-post-communist China of the late 1990s. Beneath economics are the irreversible corruption and irrelevance of the Communist Party of China. Beneath politics, though, are deep structures of Chinese culture that may distinguish the process from what happened in Eastern Europe in 1989.
To some extent, the biggest problem of reform that faced China after the turn from Maoist economics in the late 1970s was the same the post-communist European states faced in the 1990s: what to do with the State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs), which constituted almost all the industrialized economy. In classical Marxist states, SOEs were never just industrial concerns. Social services were functions of the SOEs, from schooling for worker's children to health care to old-age pensions. In China in particular, SOEs and local groups of SOEs were all encompassing and largely self-sufficient; only in the last few years has there been the beginning of a nationwide market. Chang says that, in a sealed world without much pressure to upgrade technology, Mao's world of SOEs and comparably self-sufficient peasant collectives might have gone on forever.
The Ming Dynasty had tried to do just that in the fifteen century by, among other measures, closing down China's oceanic merchant marine. The country ossified and the dynasty was overthrown by the Manchu invasion of 1644. This time around the rulers of China took a more flexible approach. Led by Deng Xiaoping (whom Chang greatly admires), on one hand they encouraged limited development of private enterprise. On the other, they began trying to make the SOEs act more like real businesses. Success has been mixed, particularly on the latter front.
First the government lent the SOEs money to subsidize modernization. Then the government directed the commercial banks it had created to lend them money. These loans are rarely repaid in more than token amounts. Usually, they are just rolled over and new loans are issued. The money pays workers' salaries, and the SOEs buy spanking new equipment, but often not to much purpose. The managers haven't a clue about the cost of capital, or even about the real demand for their products. The SOEs continue to make stuff, most of it unwanted and unsellable to any enterprise that is not ordered to accept it. There are SOEs that have modernized and that can compete with foreign producers. Success is penalized, however. Competent SOEs are promptly saddled with more social-service duties by the authorities in the localities where they operate. Ayn Rand used to write cautionary stories about situations like this.
China has not only a sick industrial sector, which it dare not downsize for fear of exacerbating the already difficult unemployment problem. It also has an insolvent banking system. How insolvent no one knows. The accounting system is worse than Enron's, and beyond that there are systemic problems. At least in America, creative accounting eventually catches up with you. In China there is no effective bankruptcy system to clarify the situation. Indeed, modern China as a whole seems to have a "culture of non-payment." A third of all home mortgages are in arrears.
Energy without clarity characterizes China in the early 21st century. I find it mysterious that a country can experience rampant deflation, the falling of prices from year to year, at the same time that the government is pumping liquidity into the economy fast enough to drain the South China Sea. How can there be massive unemployment in a country with a 7% economic growth and birthrate that is not far above replacement level? In any case, surely even the dimmest apparatchik must recognize that you cannot simultaneously run an economy on Five Year Plans and answer for non-tariff trade barriers to the WTO.
This brings us to the state of the private sector, which is perhaps half the economy these days. If you think that property is theft, The Coming Collapse of China will disabuse you. Theft is theft, and the lack of secure property laws just means that there is more of it. It is possible to do business in China, but you must do it without enforceable contracts or predictable regulation. Chinese businessmen are astounded at the small amount of time that American businessmen spend smoozing. In China, businessmen can function because of their personal contacts with Party cadres. They involve Party members in their enterprises as partners, or simply pay protection money. Chinese companies, including SOEs, issue "stock," but no one knows quite what this equity represents. The SOEs are not responsible to their shareholders, and private companies often find that their assets, acquired with the help of friendly local authorities, are never really private property in any final sense. Thus, business success is more a matter of patronage than of economic performance.
Most Chinese still live in the countryside, far from the lawyers and venture capitalists with whom Chang is chiefly familiar. Nonetheless, he does suggest that something bad is happening there. In the 1980s, immediately after the end of the Maoist era, people in the countryside benefited enormously when they were permitted to farm private plots and run small businesses. More recently, though, farming has become uneconomic, and the cities of the east now host over 100 million refugees from the countryside looking for work. There are several reasons for this flight from rural areas. Part of the problem is mandatory sales of commodities to the government at artificially low prices. A bigger problem, though, seems to be the staggering corruption.
After Mao, local officials were given far more autonomy, including responsibility for funding local government. Latterly, they have used this power to impose taxes and fees arbitrarily, and even to print their own money. They run public institutions as private businesses. In one appalling case, children at an elementary school were required to made fireworks for sale; many children were killed in an explosion. According to Chang, little uprisings are always happening throughout rural China. Sometimes they are put down by force, sometimes by negotiation. Sometimes, the Party cadres just withdraw until things calm down. In any case, the Party is profoundly unpopular in the countryside these days. It is just tolerated in the cities.
It's a paradox. Under Mao, China was a totalitarian state. Some representative of the Party was everywhere, on your block, in your work unit, in every government office. The Party was intrusive and it often enforced policies that were lethally unwise, but at least it was integrated into everyday life. Under Deng and his successors, however, the Party retreated. People could again have largely unobserved private lives. A measure of civil society returned, and not just in the economic sector. The Party has become unpopular because its relationship to this new China is entirely parasitic. People know the Party did not create the new prosperity. Furthermore, despite its continuing efforts to instill communist orthodoxy in the people, the Party does not believe what it says, and neither does anyone else. The Chinese people are not, at the moment, angry enough at the Party to overthrow it. However, if the Party is threatened, the people will not defend it.
What should the Party do in this situation? Chang has this suggestion:
"If only Beijing's bureaucrats had studied Chinese philosophy. Before laissez-faire there was wu wei. 'Practice not doing and everything will fall into place,' says the Tao Te Ching, Taoism's primer."
There is indeed a "free market" tradition in China, but here is another paradox: traditionally, the officials and scholars who opposed government interference in the economy were the party who opposed economic growth, which they thought was socially disruptive. The pro-growth faction were dirigists of the Legalist tradition. They were the ones who wanted to dig the canals and establish the government salt and iron enterprises. If growth were to occur, everyone assumed, it would have to be through official will.
Of course, even when Chinese governments act, they sometimes seem to rely as much on mimesis as on ordinary administration. Consider this description of how China began its last major bout of real reform:
"When residents of Kunming in southwestern Yunnan Province heard that Deng Xiaoping was talking economic reform during his Southern Tour of early 1992, the effect was immediate. Like a 'swarm of bees' the people took matters into their own hands. Overnight, private vendors put up strings of white lights along roadsides and began selling trinkets from card tables."
While this might seem like an odd way to run a country, it does chime with traditional Chinese notions about how societies work. The people are like a force field, or perhaps better, like a fluid in motion. China itself is like a great whirlpool, with the ruler in the still center. The people adapt by shaping their behavior to fit the circumstances, but in the end they sweep all before them. Philosophers can speculate about the causes of the tidal shifts of history and historians can describe them, but they have a dumb inevitability that cannot be resisted. Going with the flow of history has always been the acme of Chinese political theory.
When a season of deluge approaches, signs appear. The old rulers cease to promote morality. Corruption spreads at all levels. Public order declines. The people no longer support their leaders spontaneously, so the rulers maintain themselves by force and trickery. Wizards and holy men appear in the countryside, working miracles and denouncing the corruption of the times. Often they form cults and mount rebellions, sometimes with success. While of course deploring the suppression of the Falun Gong cult, Chang points out that the current regime is right to be afraid. Master Li Hongzhi "preaches ideas that are even zanier than those of the Party, but at least he appears genuine when he claims to be the incarnation of the supreme divinity." Delusional sincerity has put people on the throne of China before.
Chang rehearses scenarios that could end the People's Republic. The Chinese military talks about a war to acquire Taiwan as "certain" within the next few years. Chang assumes they will lose. This is probable, but not inevitable. Even if China cannot storm the beaches of Taiwan successfully, the military might be able to close down the island's economy enough to make it come to terms. However, if the war does prove an embarrassment, demonstrations much larger and more broadly based than that at Tiananmen Square in 1989 could occur. The Party probably no longer has the prestige to persuade the army to disgrace itself again by coming to the rescue of the leadership. Lesser disasters could call out a similar response, including even a general run on the state banks. (Runs on local branches occur from time to time already.) So could some particularly egregious piece of official oppression that miscarries. Another industrial accident at a school might do.
Always Chang returns to that image of the crowd at Tiananmen, like water in a reservoir. Sometimes he suggests that a leader will arise to set the people in motion, perhaps a Party leader who promises no more than to call a constitutional convention. Still, he speaks of the coming change as essentially spontaneous, unplanned, with no organization or theory. He even closes the book saying:
"'Thinkers prepare the revolution; bandits carry it out,' wrote Mariano Azuela. That may have been true in the author's Mexico of a hundred years ago but not in the China of today. The Chinese need no thinkers for their next revolution."
This is unsettling if true. Chinese dynasties do sometimes just evaporate. The generals desert and the officials out in the countryside stop answering their mail. In the final act, the old leaders may flee before trivial forces, or kill themselves. The easiest collapse of all was that of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, which ended with little more than a declaration and the storming of a few police stations. That coup, however, was brought off by nationalist forces, who had long prepared for that day. Dr. Sun Yatsen had a thought-out program for a transitional government, though he was frustrated by the reactionary general Yuan Shikai. For that matter, even the zaniest millenarian insurgent who achieved the throne of China came there with some sort of a plan. (If he lasted, the plan he eventually adopted was to restore Confucian orthodoxy.)
Chang talks about the burgeoning suicide rate in China. Apparently, the phenomenon is called “the death of the spirit.” While the Chinese people, egged on by their government, have never been more nationalistic, he says they are not inspired by their past, but haunted by it. Their frame of reference has shrunk to the humiliations by the West of the 19th and 20th centuries. Surely, somewhere, there must be some positive force to channel the deluge. If there isn't, the world is in greater trouble than it knows.
A book on this subject was published in 2011.
Here is a review of Red Capitalism.
Copyright © 2002 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2003-04-03: Consider the Alternatives

Here is an interesting one on the Euro and Germany. John felt that Germany couldn't pursue a sane fiscal policy because of the Euro. Twelve years later, this turned out to be very true, but not precisely for the reasons John thought. He did get the overall dynamic right however, the big economies, like Germany, are tied down by monetary union, and the smaller ones, the PIIGS, are overstimulated and prone to meltdown. Well, we proved that one right. John also was correct that no one dared question the idea of making Germany and Greece in some sense economic equals, at least until everything blew up.

A prediction that did not go so well is that China's financial system would also have blown up by now. There has been a market crash over there recently, but the kind of thing Gordan Chang has been going on about for fifteen years keeps not happening. John once pointed out that things like the unusual financial growth China has been experiencing of late tend not to go on forever. To date, the Chinese have been giving it their best shot.

I do think John was right to fear another nasty influenza epidemic. SARS looked pretty bad for a while, but it fizzled in comparison the the Spanish flu. Another pandemic of that magnitude would do very bad things to a word with daily international flights. We have just been lucky.

Consider the Alternatives
Here's an interesting point that Kermit L. Schoenholtz, the chief economist of Salomon Smith Barney, made about the decline in foreign investment in the US:
"If people believe that the events we've seen in Iraq are not one-off events, it will affect their investments."
The New York Times piece in which this appears deals chiefly with the failure of the gradual decline in the value of the dollar to spur exports. Currency fluctuations are temporary, but we could have a long-term problem. It is likely that the Iraq campaign will not be the last of the 911 Wars (though it may be the largest: North Korea could turn out to be surprisingly brittle). Will people decline to invest their money in the US if the country is conducting a string of military campaigns?
* * *
Well, as the ancient comedian George Burns used to say when people asked if he minded getting old: "Not when I consider the alternatives." There is a good article in the Spring issue of The National Interest by Adam Posen: "Germany's Path to Economic Perdition," which covers not only the German economy, but also Japan's. Most important, there is a critique of the euro system.
We won't dwell on Japan's problems. Posen endorses the familiar assessment that it's an institutionally "blocked" society that can't summon the political will to pump the bad debt out of its submerged financial system. He says that Germany has not quite reached the same point, but it is in danger of a deflationary spiral. The reasons are different from Japan's. Germany's markets are freer, and the economy on the whole is more dynamic. The problem is that the euro system prevents Germany from adopting a sane fiscal policy. Today we are in the sort of period in which a country with control over its own currency would run large deficits and reduce taxes. Germany, however, is biting the bullet by keeping its deficits within the range prescribed by the European Central Bank in Frankfurt.
The charter, not just the policy, of the Bank requires a deflationary bias. This might not have been such a bad idea, if Europe had consisted of many small, roughly equal economic units. Unfortunately, it consists of highly unequal ones. The pattern seems to be that the smaller economies in the euro system are overstimulated (hence the Irish "Celtic Tiger," now gone a bit mangy), while the larger ones are depressed. No one has dared address the fact that this is an inherent feature of the system.
The French deal with the fiscal prescriptions of Frankfurt by ignoring them. When the Germans start to do that, there won't be much of a system left.
* * *
Then there's Asia. We have already noted the problems of the Japanese financial system. The Chinese a similar situation, but exacerbated by an order of magnitude by the remnants of a command economy. Still, the economy posts large nominal gains, so people who you think would know better continue to pour money into the country.
At any rate, they did so until recently. Now the SARS pandemic has come along, which is going to make people reluctant to travel to southern China, or indeed to receive people from that region as guests.
As any epidemiologist can tell you, SARS is not a big deal as pandemics go. (I knew an old man who had been a teenager at the time of the influenza epidemic that occurred toward the end of the First World War. There were seven people in his immediate family before the epidemic; just he and his father survived it.) The Chinese problem is that their investment-based economy is still more prospect than actual return. It is not quite a Ponzi scheme, but it is vulnerable to an interruption in capital investment. It is conceivable that SARS could occasion the bursting of the bubble that Gordon Chang writes about.
* * *
Contrary to some expectations, the United Nations did not turn into a pumpkin when the Iraq War began; neither did NATO turn into six white mice. However, even though the UN is going to survive, it will be hard to take it altogether seriously hereafter. Ideas are surfacing for a supplementary organization that could be trusted with serious security issues, but which would be more than the telephone numbers on the American president's speed-dial.
Anyone in immediate need of a proposal might take a look at Adam Garfinkle's Democratic Union. He actually proposed this in the early 1990s, but to small effect. It is time to work out the details, I think.

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Interesting Times

John Reilly manages to keep some perspective [I'm looking at you Scheske] on the recent quantitative easing announced by the Federal Reserve:

Far more interesting in recent weeks is the expedition of President Obama to Ind and the Isles of Serendip; accompanied, it is said, by a locust swarm of security personnel and an armada that darkens the horizon. All this is happening just as the Federal Reserve is tossing the dollar into the Mariana Trench. At the end of his journey, President Obama gets to tell President Hu Jintao that if the latter is really so keen to maintain the parity of the yuan to the dollar then he is welcome to jump in after it.

It would be an exaggeration to say that the United States is no longer going to tolerate Chinese mercantilism. It would be closer to the truth to say that, for domestic reasons, the US is undertaking policies that will make mercantilism impossible to maintain.

I am intensely curious to see how the Chinese economy fares in the next twenty years or so. Majority opinion at present is that the Chinese Century is upon us. A vocal minority insists that China has been cooking the books and is futhermore at the wrong stage of their civilization to function as a universal state.

The Last Airbender Review

Created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko
Starring Zach Tyler, Mae Whitman, Jack De Sena, Dee Bradley Baker, Dante Basco, Jessie Flower, and Mako.


The mark of a good story intended for children is that adults can find it interesting as well. I still enjoy the Hobbit, and I appreciated the Narnia books much more once I was an adult. These stories, and many more like them, contain enough depth to satisfy a thoughtful reader while remaining accessible to almost everyone. There has been no greater curse upon our children than the rise of controlled vocabulary reader, containing nothing more advanced than the average knowledge of the targeted age-group, and usually insipid to boot.

I never gave The Last Airbender a chance because I assumed it would be a typical cartoon. In retrospect, this was unfair. I have liked many of the Nicktoons, going all the way back to Ren & Stimpy. Nickelodeon has managed to produce a remarkable number of children's shows that are watchable by adults. Sometimes, they have perhaps gone too far. Ren & Stimpy and Invader Zim were often bizarre and macabre, violating established canons of good taste in search of a gag. Yet these are shows also have the most enduring popularity. They are the kind of cartoons Dads love and Moms hate.

This show strikes a balance between humor and good taste that should satisfy almost any reasonable person. The Magistra and I laughed often. Yet The Last Airbender is also didactic in the best way. It almost never descends into preachiness [almost]. The dramatic arc of the show allows for genuine moral dilemmas. Given the brutal history of the world in which the show is set, these dilemmas often focus on revenge. Almost everyone has a score to settle with someone. The really interesting part is that most of these complaints are completely justified. At lot of people really do deserve to die. Now you you have your enemy at your mercy, what do you do? 

This world of war and injustice means that strife is endemic. The combat is largely bloodless, but I was surprised by just how many characters died offscreen. Death is a constant for everyone. The Last Airbender confronts death directly. It is amazingly intense. Yet never forced. I have never seen such a touching memorial for a lost son. The Magistra also cried a lot. 

While The Last Airbender is an American cartoon, it borrows from anime for its style and conventions. It even has a beach episode. The world is generically Asiatic, ranging from the Nepalese Airbenders to the Siberian Waterbenders. The bulk of the atmosphere comes from China, however. The martial arts, the overall mythology, the scenic mountain vistas are all Chinese. I approve of this borrowing, since the Han are one of the great civilizations of the world, and deserve to be honored in this way.

Unlike a great many anime series, The Last Airbender managed to stick to the story, and followed the arc to its end in 61 episodes. This itself is a remarkable achievement, so many series get lost on the way to their destination. I can understand why this is so. I wanted it to be longer, and I was sad when the story ended. But I was happy too, because it ended so well. Having the discipline to end it while the ending is good is an essential part of storytelling. 

I would be glad to share this show with my own children. It is a rousing good yarn, with astute judgements about human character, and sound moral reasoning. One of the best cartoons I have ever seen.