Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Why I Don't Fear Chinese Hegemony

As Chinese economic power continues to grow, more people are talking about the threat of Chinese hegemony. I think the fears are overblown. China has neither the means nor the will to dominate the globe, and China is already facing a lot of the same long-term problems that are now afflicting the United States.
If you follow a doctrinaire conservative website like The Federalist, you’ll notice that Red China is a regularly-appearing villain, taking turns alongside congressional Democrats, climate activists, the transgender movement, Planned Parenthood, teachers unions, Muslims, and the leftist media as the daily object of contempt.

Some of China’s villainies are genuine – i.e. the bad treatment of the Uighur Turks. Some are clickbait – for instance, just yesterday The Federalist ran an article entitled “How A Chinese Space Experiment Almost Caused A Massacre In The United States,” in which the uncontrolled deorbit of an empty rocket, which actually ended up hitting the Ivory Coast, was trumped up into a reckless attack on American lives. Is this sort of thing routine for countries with a space program? Yes. Did the American Skylab station do the same thing in Australia? Again, yes. Has space debris ever actually killed anyone? No. Will any of this get in the way of a good headline? Again, no.

Then there are the China stories which you have to really think about – for instance, is China to blame for the Coronavirus? Well, the authorities there did cover it up for the first month or so, but once they realized what a big deal it was, they were pretty tough on it. This mixture of competence and lackadaisicality is pretty standard for government response to crisis, and I don’t think that western countries like the US or Italy are in a position to complain.

What about China being a currency manipulator and running up a trade surplus with the US that puts American laborers out of work? Again, you have to remember that China is not the only actor here. Nobody is forcing the US to consume more goods than it produces. In fact, it would be impossible for us to even have a trade deficit without the huge amounts of fiat money and government debt that we export in lieu of actual goods or services.

America keeps doing this because our own industrial plant is so badly decayed that we couldn’t maintain a first-world standard or living without cheap imported goods. Do the workers whose role has been taken over by the Fed’s printing press get to share in that standard of living? No, they don’t, but then again, the lower classes have never had much of a say in monetary policy.

What is the Chinese’ role in all this? It is simple: they are lending us the money to buy their own products. It isn’t something that’s going to work out well for China in the long term. We certainly aren't being bested us in any kind of ‘trade war.’

So what is my point here? Well, the overarching theme is that China doesn’t have all that much influence on the United States. Currently, we are Top Nation – and the uncomfortable thing about being Top Nation is that you don’t get to blame anyone else for your problems: conditions in America are what they are because Americans in positions of wealth and power have decided that those conditions are acceptable.

For example, we have a big trade deficit because the financial interests that control the supply of dollars have both the desire and the power to fund that deficit.

Needless to say, they won’t have that power forever. China is already ahead of us in population and (real) domestic product. One of these days, China will be ahead in trade and military power as well. When this happens, the Yuan will probably replace the dollar as the preferred international currency. After all, somebody has to be Top Nation.

But China will start its era of dominance in a weaker position than the United States ever was. Owning all that bad American debt will take a bite out of the Chinese economy. Furthermore, China’s present-day oil reserves are about three-quarters the size of America’s – which on a per capita basis is a mere 17 percent as much oil. While the need for foreign energy is going to be an incentive to develop hegemony (it certainly was for the US) its also going to make it a lot harder for China to have the sort of sustained economic boom that launched America to the top of the global order in the first three decades after World War II.

Then you have to look at the Chinese military. The Chinese have not fought a war since the 1970s, when they had some skirmishes with Vietnam. Nor do they seem to have much interest in changing that. They have chosen not involve themselves in Middle-Eastern conflicts the way that the Americans and the Russians do.

Right now, the main emphasis of China’s foreign policy is on trade. The Belt and Road Initiative has stirred up controversy because a lot of third-world leaders, most importantly Narendra Modi, dislike the idea of having China own infrastructure in their countries. But the Chinese aren’t interested in using military force to impose the Belt and Road on countries that don’t want it – they’re confident that the persuasive effects of commerce will be sufficient on their own. It’s all a soft power thing.

Will this change in years to come? Certainly. China will get bolder as American power wanes. Taiwan will probably fall – the Taiwanese might be able to hold out if they were willing to fight on the beaches like the Japanese at Okinawa, but that is a very doubtful scenario; not much can be said in favour of a country so apathetic about its future that the people only have 1.05 children per family (for comparison, Red China’s fertility rate is 1.68).

I instead expect the following anticlimactic end: the Chinese will blockade Taiwan with their navy and tell the Taiwanese that they can have a normal economy again if they accept the same status as Hong Kong. Thus Taiwan’s story will end, not with a bang, but with a whimper.

Perhaps you think that I am being short-sighted in my insistence that China’s present preference for soft power will change little during its era of dominance. After all, the United States of 1890 wasn’t exactly dreaming of global domination, but we still managed to grow into that role over the next hundred years.

The problem for China is that China doesn’t have a hundred years. Remember that 1.68 fertility rate? Well, China has been at sub-replacement levels since 1992, and that isn’t about to change. The number of men at prime military age is shrinking, and it will keep shrinking. The combination of peak oil and a declining and aging population will knock the wind out of the Chinese economy sometime around mid century.

Who will be the global leader after China? Most likely no one. India will be the most populous country by that time, but notwithstanding all that the Indians have contributed to philosophy, religion, mathematics, and art, their culture has never done engineering or mass-organization as well as the Chinese, which is why India is, and will likely continue to be, an economic backwater.

Russia, for the moment, is militarily and technologically strong, but despite the striking recovery in Russia’s fertility rate after it bottomed out at 1.16 in 1999, the number has since plateaud at 1.76 children per family. Unless the Russians get it above 2 sometime really soon, I don’t expect them to even end the century with their own borders intact.

Who will be trying to take land away from Russia? Hordes of fecund Indians and Pakistanis, fleeing drought and climate change and pouring forth into a warmer and greener Siberia. Will these people be the dominant force in every place they manage to invade? You bet. Will they be a global hegemon in the style of the British and the Americans of old? Not by a long shot.

So that, then, is what I expect: decentralization and, in some places, anarchy. Not a new hegemon waiting to step into America’s role like America stepped into Britain’s.

What, then, should a proactive American do? Stop worrying about China or other foreign powers, and admit that the problems worth caring about are local or personal in scale.

Be realistic about how much money you can expect to make in a declining economy, and modify your lifestyle accordingly. Be choosy about where you send your children to school. Decide ahead of time that if your ex decides to do something screwy and raise one of your children as the wrong gender, you will flee the country rather than submit.

Learn to grow your own food, and learn to use a rifle, because you will need those skills in the days when nationwide order breaks down and both farming and defense become local matters.

Eventually, local politics will revolve around questions like whether or not your town can get its act together and form a militia in time to stop the nearest drug lord from looting your storehouses and burning your crops. And when that happens, local politics will be the only politics that’s left.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Covid Vaccines and the Myth of Progress

A lot of influential people are saying that the Coronavirus shutdown shouldn’t end until someone develops a vaccine. But despite decades of research, nobody has ever managed to create a vaccine for any member of the coronavirus family. Insisting that the future will be different is magical thinking.
Perhaps you have noticed that the news these days is rather dull. Almost all that anyone does is report on the same things they’ve been reporting on since the end of March: the economic freefall caused by the covid shutdown, debates over the appropriateness of the shutdown, the antics of the President, the occasional arrest, the attempts by Senate Democrats to spend $4 to $6 trillion on handouts (as if the $1.2 trillion bipartisan bill wasn’t enough), and the insistence, by a large number of talking heads, that it would be totally unacceptable to return to normalcy until someone creates a vaccine for the Coronavirus.

Some experts have predicted that developing a vaccine will require two years – and then advocated keeping the shutdown going that long anyway! It’s hard to find a better example of how out-of-touch the comfortable classes have gotten from the Deplorables – that is to say, from the hundred million or so poor and middle-class Americans for whom a year without work does not mean safety and comfort, but rather poverty, homelessness, lack of health care, domestic violence, and more deaths by suicide and overdose.

 But I digress. The comfortable classes won’t end up getting the multiyear shutdown they want. The Coronavirus panic has lost its hold on the common people; they’re already flocking to restaurants and beaches whenever they get the chance; the flyover states are reopening right now, and the non-flyover states will follow in short order.

Also, I have no expectation whatsoever of a covid vaccine.

Why? Well, like I said back in January, the best way to predict the outcome of a viral outbreak is to look at the facts of history and biology, and compare the outbreak to similar events in the past.

The present Coronavirus is not the only coronavirus out there. It’s part of a whole family of coronaviridae which, among other things, includes the viruses which cause SARS and MERS, a pair of diseases much deadlier than covid-19. (SARS killed about 10 percent of the people who got it; MERS between 20 and 40 percent). On the other extreme, this family also includes the common cold. The coronaviridae have been around for a long time, they mutate rapidly, and no one has ever created a vaccine for any coronavirus.

So why does the media talk as if it’s inevitable that this time, things will be different? And why does anybody feel confident enough about the knowability of the future to state how many ‘years away’ such a breakthrough is?

Here’s my answer: they do it because they believe in the myth of progress.

Chances are, when you hear the word “myth,” you think of a story that people tell that isn’t true. This is not, however, the way that serious thinkers use the word – rather, to a real student of mythology, a myth is a story that people tell to explain how the world works and how it got to be the way it is.

Hence the myth of progress – the idea that history generally moves from worse to better, and that the perpetual adoption of new technologies, new customs, and new ways of doing things is the key to improving the human condition.

The near-universal acceptance of this myth, in contemporary culture, is the reason why saying that someone wants to “turn back the clock” is such a serious insult.

Do I, personally, have a skeptical view of progress? You bet. Read this blog for a while and you’ll start to see some of my reasons for believing that many of the changes that pass for beneficial “progress” in a typical view of American history were, in my own view, grave mistakes.

So why is the myth of progress so popular? Like I said earlier, myths are stories which try to explain why the world we live in is the way it is. And the myth of progress has gained so much clout because, for a long time, it has done a good job of explaining our world.

Just look at the improvements in life expectancy, material well-being, personal safety, personal freedom, literacy, education, and so forth between, say, an Englishman in 1400 and his descendants in 1900. Or look at all the useful things that were invented during that timespan.

The problem with the myth of progress comes when you start seeing improvement as inevitable. Thus stripped of your capacity for independent thought, you start accepting every change that comes along, without considering whether it is good or bad. And you hardly even comprehend the possibility that a much-talked-about change may never come at all.

For obvious reasons, it is easiest to fall into this mental trap if you have little or no sense of historical perspective. Most human cultures have had good reasons not to believe in the myth of progress. Just think about it: a Roman stuck in the progress mindset would be oblivious to the signs of his civilization’s decline and fall. A medieval man, on the other hand, might spend his whole life thinking that the discovery of the Philosopher’s Stone was just a few years away.

And as for us moderns? Well, we generally do believe in the myth of progress. Which is why you get people who claim that there is no need to worry about peak oil because fusion power is only twenty years away. (It’s been twenty years away since the 1960s). And you get people who think that the answer to the problems caused by the sexual revolution is to improve the technologies that fooled people into thinking that casual sex was a good idea in the first place.

And this is the same reason why so many people think that the F-35 must be oh-so-superior to the F-15 and F-16 (and their Russian counterparts) because it was designed four decades later and cost a lot more money. And why most people trust the psychiatric industry when it redefines natural variations in children’s behavior as mental disorders like ADHD and says that they can be chemically suppressed without any nasty effects.

The ironic thing about me saying all this is that I am not opposed to innovation per se. I am an engineer myself, and I think that the world has a need for smart and level-headed thinkers who know how to meet a challenge with the most effective design.

What we don’t need is people who confuse most effective with newest or most expensive. We don’t need people who think that every problem in life has a technological solution, or that nobody ought ever to go back to an older and more sustainable way of doing things, or that any invention we may happen to desire is bound to show up at some knowable time in the near future.

In the movies, this attitude gives us the Star Trek future. But in real life, it is giving us a near-endless economic shutdown in response to a mild viral outbreak, for the simple reason that people are afraid to come out and face a world very much like the world that their ancestors lived in day by day. That is to say, they are afraid to face a world where the future isn’t all that different from the past.

Friday, May 8, 2020

V-E Day 2020

Today, 8 May 2020, is the 75th anniversary of the surrender of Germany at the end of World War II. For the first few years after the war, the holiday was a big deal in every country that was involved. It’s still a huge occasion in Russia and almost as big as Britain. (The British, for some reason, no longer put on military parades complete with tanks and rocket launchers.)

In America, we get crickets. To be fair, V-J day, celebrating the Japanese surrender on 1 September, was always a bigger deal in America, where the war started with a Japanese attack. The British, French, and Russians were, for obvious reasons, much more concerned about Germany. But let’s be honest, you don’t hear much about V-J day in modern America, either.

There’s an old saying that goes something like this: “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” People like me, who talk a lot about decline, are among those who most frequently invoke that saying.

Nevertheless, I myself do not like it. First of all, history doesn’t really repeat. I mean, it comes close sometimes, but today’s situations never map neatly onto yesterday’s, and as I’ve gotten older I’ve gradually replaced my earlier view of history-as-cyclical with a new view of history-as-chaotic.

But the second, bigger problem with that saying is that it implies that history is a dreary subject and that the past, generally speaking, is bad. You study it to avoid it.

I prefer a different attitude – the attitude that says we should study the past because it is full of good things.

The past is full of people like George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Davy Crocket, Sam Houston, Frederick Douglas, Emilio Aguinaldo, and Martin Luther King Jr. – all of whom, driven by a desire to defend the rights and freedom of their people, took risks and made sacrifices to a degree unknown among contemporary American statesmen.

During World War II specifically, we had Winston Churchill, Charles De Gaulle, Franklin Roosevelt, Douglas McArthur, Dwight Eisenhower, Theodore Roosevelt Jr, George Patton, Bernard Montgomery, Georgy Zhukov, and Klaus von Stauffenberg. Yes, we also had  Hitler and Mussolini – and if we only looked at Hitler and Mussolini, we probably wouldn’t come away thinking that ‘the past is full of good things.’

But at the end of the war, thanks to the heroism of the men I named and millions of other men, women and children, Hitler and Mussolini were dead and their empire was a smoking ruin.

So the purpose of celebrating V-E Day is to keep the memory alive of a time when there were Nazis, and also of a time when there were men brave enough to fight to the death to rid the world of Nazis.

That, then, is why I study history. Not as a dreary attempt to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past (which is never a serious risk anyhow - people today don't make the same mistakes as people in the past, they make different ones.) Rather, I study it to draw inspiration from the bravery of those who confronted the challenges of their time. That way, we can say, “They were willing to do hard things then, what hard things am I willing to do now?