A farewell to China

From an interesting parting shot by an American libertarian academic who has taught in China for some years and is now returning home.

China is a rising power but probably more importantly is a deeply illiberal, expansionist, authoritarian, police state opposed to human rights, democracy, free trade, and rule of law. Just as we need to consider the state, speed, and direction of change in the United States, China has been deeply illiberal authoritarian for many years, is becoming increasingly illiberal, and is accelerating the pace of change towards greater control. It both puzzles and concerns me having lived in China for nearly a decade as a public employee to hear Polyanna statements from China “experts” in the United States who talk about the opening and reform of China or refuse to consider the values being promoted. I was left mouth agape once when someone I would consider a liberal internationalist who values human rights informed me he was focused on business and would leave those other issues aside. The values represented by China cannot be divorced from its rise and influence. The rise of China represents a clear and explicit threat not to the United States but to the entirety of liberal democracy, human rights, and open international markets.

We see the world slowly being divided into China supported authoritarian regimes of various stripes that support its creeping illiberalism across a range of areas. The tragedy of modern American foreign policy is the history of active ignorance and refusal to actively confront the Chinese norm or legal violations. The Trump administration is utterly incapable of defending the values and assembling the coalition that would respond to American leadership as they face even greater threats from China.

The concern is not over Chinese access to technology to facilitate economic development for a liberal open state. The concern is over the use of technology to facilitate human rights violations and further cement closed markets. That is a threat for which neither the United States or any other democracy loving country should apologize for.

Even while making allowances for the author’s ideological position, some of his observations about everyday like in China are fascinating — at least to me. For example:

One of the most interesting thing to me was to see how my thinking evolved over time in China. Prior to coming, I was and still am a libertarian leaning professor. I had not given a lot of thought to human rights either in the United States or in China. While many are aware of a variety of the cases that receive attention, I think what struck me is how this filters down into the culture. There is a complete and utter lack of respect for the individual or person in China. People do not have innate value as people simply because they exist. This leads most directly to a lack of respect for the law/rules/norms.

One thing I began to realize over time is, while not German, how law, rule, and norm abiding Americans are with minimal fear of enforcement. Cutting in line [I think this means barging in] is considered extremely rude because there is a sense of fairness and that people have equal rights. In China, line cutting is considered nearly standard operating procedure. There is a common and accepted respect for others even if just it is as simple as standing in line.

In a way, I sympathize with Chairman Xi’s emphasis on rule of law because in my experience laws/rules/norms are simply ignored. They are ignored quietly so as not to embarrass the enforcer, however, frequently, the enforcer knows rules or laws are being ignored but so long as the breaker is not egregious, both parties continue to exist in a state of blissful ignorance. Honesty without force is not normal but an outlier. Lying is utterly common, but telling the truth revolutionary.

I rationalize the silent contempt for the existing rules and laws within China as people not respecting the method for creating and establishing the rules and laws. Rather than confronting the system, a superior, or try good faith attempts to change something, they choose a type of quiet subversion by just ignoring the rule or law. This quickly spreads to virtually every facet of behavior as everything can be rationalized in a myriad of ways.

Before coming to China, I had this idea that China was rigid which in some ways it is, but in reality it is brutally chaotic because there are no rules it is the pure rule of the jungle with unconstrained might imposing their will and all others ignoring laws to behave as they see fit with no sense of morality or respect for right.

If it’s the case — and I believe it is — that American’s position as a global hegemon is eroding, and that China might be its successor, then it’s worth thinking about what that might mean. While many of us are sceptical about — or critical of — aspects of American dominance, we understand and to some extent share many of the values that the Republic embodies (or aspires to). Coming to grips with Chinese hegemony will be traumatic, unless the West has been softened up by generations of home-grown authoritarian rule. (Now a distinct possibility for some of our democracies, I fear). It will be like living in a parallel universe which has a different kind of gravity.

Let’s get real

I’m increasingly irritated by British (and US) media’s shock-and-horror reaction to every latest Trump outrage. It’s as if reporters (and their editors) still can’t believe that the US has a delusional criminal as its president. Which is why I warmed to Todd Gitlin’s rant in the Columbia Journalism Review:

Trump is not just eccentric, ignorant, vicious, self-dealing, and preeningly deceptive. He doesn’t just lie—not randomly. He may or may not be delusional. He has long surrounded himself with criminals. His history of racketeering connections and his lies about them was reported decades ago by Wayne Barrett and other reporters, though subsequently discarded presumably because it was “old news.”

But the core of the matter now is what leads a former director of the CIA not only to call the president of the United States “treasonous” and ‘imbecilic” but to say he “rises to and exceeds the threshold of ‘high crimes & misdemeanors.’” Whenever asked a straight question about his relationship to Putin and Putin’s cronies, Trump has ducked, scammed, and systematically obscured the findings of God knows how many professional investigators and investigative reporters. Is it not time that when faced with these facts, journalists stop asking fatuous questions? Should they not adopt, as a working hypothesis going in, the assumption that his lies and evasions are clear hints of what drives him?

Yep.

The key to understanding Trump’s psychosis

If there is a single unifying thread in Trump’s splenetic surges, it is a visceral hatred of Barack Obama. It started early — with Trump becoming a leader of the ‘birther’ conspiracy theory — and it’s got worse with every passing year. He’s still obsessed with Obama and everything he stood for and did as president. (Including appointing Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State.)

So what’s at the root of this psychosis?

Answer: Obama’s elegant mockery of him at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner. For a narcissist like Trump, this was a truly traumatic experience. And now the US — and the rest of the world (apart from Russia) is paying for it.

LATER Some people think that the humiliation at the dinner was the reason Trump decided to run for President. But that seems unlikely — as the WashPo pointed out. Also, I seem to remember that he gave an interview years ago to Polly Toynbee in which he talked about running.

That Helsinki ‘summit’

From Dave Pell’s newsletter:

Vladimir Putin could have inserted an ethernet cable into the base of Donald Trump’s brainstem, and still, the performance by the American president could not have been worse. In recent days and weeks, President Trump has heaped endless praise on Kim Jong Un, humiliated America in front of our NATO allies, called the European Union a key US foe, and fist-bumped Turkish president Recep Erdogan, saying, “He does things the right way.” And yet, none of these ominous markers on the ever-accelerating descent down a near-treasonous mountain of idiocy and lies could have fully prepared America and its allies for the disgrace we saw on the international stage today. Trump held Russia blameless for their election hacking, sided with Putin over America’s intelligence agencies, brought up Hillary’s emails, criticized Democrats and past administrations, and touted his own election victory. About the investigation that has led to indictments of dozens of Russian operatives, Trump said, “I think the probe has been a disaster for our country. It’s ridiculous what’s going on with the probe.” George W. Bush once said he saw into Putin’s soul. Donald Trump just stared into his colon.

It’s been clear for two years that Trump is at worst mentally ill and at best a sociopath. Why are we still surprised by his behaviour? (Answer, I suppose: because he’s President of the United States.)

And here’s James Fallows (who doesn’t seem to think that Trump is unwell):

There are exactly two possible explanations for the shameful performance the world witnessed on Monday, from a serving American president.

Either Donald Trump is flat-out an agent of Russian interests—maybe witting, maybe unwitting, from fear of blackmail, in hope of future deals, out of manly respect for Vladimir Putin, out of gratitude for Russia’s help during the election, out of pathetic inability to see beyond his 306 electoral votes. Whatever the exact mixture of motives might be, it doesn’t really matter.

Or he is so profoundly ignorant, insecure, and narcissistic that he did not realize that, at every step, he was advancing the line that Putin hoped he would advance, and the line that the American intelligence, defense, and law-enforcement agencies most dreaded.

Conscious tool. Useful idiot. Those are the choices, though both are possibly true, so that the main question is the proportions.

Still, all this sound and fury signifies nothing, unless the Republicans in Congress conclude that Trump has outlived his usefulness to them.

Fallows again:

For 18 months, members of this party have averted their eyes from Trump, rather than disturb the Trump elements among their constituency or disrupt the party’s agenda on tax cuts and the Supreme Court. They already bear responsibility for what Trump has done to his office.

But with every hour that elapses after this shocking performance in Helsinki without Republicans doing anything, the more deeply they are stained by this dark moment in American leadership.

My guess is that they’re not all that bothered — so long as they get re-elected.

Hofstadter’s Law and self-driving cars

This morning’s Observer column:

In 1979, Douglas Hofstadter, an American cognitive scientist, formulated a useful general rule that applies to all complex tasks. Hofstadter’s law says that “It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s law”. It may not have the epistemological status of Newton’s first law, but it is “good enough for government work”, as the celebrated computer scientist Roger Needham used to say.

Faced with this assertion, readers of Wired magazine, visitors to Gizmodo or followers of Rory Cellan-Jones, the BBC’s sainted technology correspondent, will retort that while Hofstadter’s law may apply to mundane activities such as building a third runway at Heathrow, it most definitely does not apply to digital technology, where miracles are routinely delivered at the speed of light…

Read on

Back to Henry VIII

Brad de Long has been reading Trump’s tweets about Harley-Davidson.

In a later tweet, Trump falsely stated that, “Early this year Harley-Davidson said they would move much of their plant operations in Kansas City to Thailand,” and that “they were just using Tariffs/Trade War as an excuse.” In fact, when the company announced the closure of its plant in Kansas City, Missouri, it said that it would move those operations to York, Pennsylvania. At any rate, Trump’s point is nonsensical. If companies are acting in anticipation of his own announcement that he is launching a trade war, then his trade war is not just an excuse.

In yet another tweet, Trump turned to threats, warning that, “Harley must know that they won’t be able to sell back into U.S. without paying a big tax!” But, again, this is nonsensical: the entire point of Harley-Davidson shifting some of its production to countries not subject to EU tariffs is to sell tariff-free motorcycles to Europeans.

In a final tweet, Trump decreed that, “A Harley-Davidson should never be built in another country – never!” He then went on to promise the destruction of the company, and thus the jobs of its workers: “If they move, watch, it will be the beginning of the end – they surrendered, they quit! The Aura will be gone and they will be taxed like never before!”

Needless to say, says Brad,

Trump’s statements are dripping with contempt for the rule of law. And none of them rises to the level of anything that could be called trade policy, let alone governance. It is as if we have returned to the days of Henry VIII, an impulsive, deranged monarch who was surrounded by a gaggle of plutocrats, lickspittles, and flatterers, all trying to advance their careers while keeping the ship of state afloat.

The nightmare continues, in other words. Yesterday, we had his attack on Germany at the NATO Summit. What’s happened is that the US has acquired a president who is deranged, and the world (including the UK) has to stand by and watch, open-mouthed, as he raves.

Google, Facebook and the power to nudge users

This morning’s Observer column:

Thaler and Sunstein describe their philosophy as “libertarian paternalism”. What it involves is a design approach known as “choice architecture” and in particular controlling the default settings at any point where a person has to make a decision.

Funnily enough, this is something that the tech industry has known for decades. In the mid-1990s, for example, Microsoft – which had belatedly realised the significance of the web – set out to destroy Netscape, the first company to create a proper web browser. Microsoft did this by installing its own browser – Internet Explorer – on every copy of the Windows operating system. Users were free to install Netscape, of course, but Microsoft relied on the fact that very few people ever change default settings. For this abuse of its monopoly power, Microsoft was landed with an antitrust suit that nearly resulted in its breakup. But it did succeed in destroying Netscape.

When the EU introduced its General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) – which seeks to give internet users significant control over uses of their personal data – many of us wondered how data-vampires like Google and Facebook would deal with the implicit threat to their core businesses. Now that the regulation is in force, we’re beginning to find out: they’re using choice architecture to make it as difficult as possible for users to do what is best for them while making it easy to do what is good for the companies.

We know this courtesy of a very useful 43-page report just out from the Norwegian Consumer Council, an organisation funded by the Norwegian government…

Read on

How to tell if you’re rich

From a recent NBER study:

The brand most predictive of top income in 1992 is Grey Poupon Dijon mustard. By 2004, the brand most indicative of the rich is Land O’Lakes butter, followed by Kikkoman soy sauce. By the end of the sample, ownership of Apple products (iPhone and iPad) tops the list. Knowing whether someone owns an iPad in 2016 allows us to guess correctly whether the person is in the top or bottom income quartile 69 percent of the time. Across all years in our data, no individual brand is as predictive of being high-income as owning an Apple iPhone in 2016.

Hmmm…I must be better off than I realised.