China Bubble?

Much of China’s economic miracle is here to stay. The country is a manufacturing powerhouse and is fast becoming a ubiquitous presence on the international financial stage. Overall this is a net positive. Millions of Chinese people have been lifted out of dire poverty, Americans are made wealthier from a more affluent China, and the possibility of war is greatly reduced by the volume of trade between us. However, we shouldn’t live under any illusions. China is a brutal, repressive society with minimal political freedom (best seen in their blatant refusal to even acknowledge that the atrocities of Tiananmen Square ever happened). There is also some doubt as to the veracity of China’s claims of economic expansion and concern over its increased reliance on credit to finance its growth. All of this fuels worries about a potential bust across the Pacific. This article from Friday is a perfect example of the kind of results that stem from the misguided planning Chinese leaders have engaged in for some time now.

The skyline of Yujiapu in the Chinese city of Tianjin looks more like an expensive, abandoned movie set than it does “China’s new Manhattan,” as the financial district was once billed. A patina of dust covers the glass doors of the 47 office buildings and hotels that still sit empty, and in come cases unfinished.

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World War I

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Last weekend saw the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo by Serbian nationalists. In response to this act of aggression Austria-Hungary declared war. Russia had long considered Serbia under its protection and was also concerned with the potential for increased Austro-Hungarian influence in the Balkans. It mobilized and declared war on Austria-Hungary soon after. Concerned with Russia’s mobilization and required to come to the defense of its ally, Germany declared war on Russia. Germany, believing it impossible to sustain a two-front war and assuming that France would soon join in favor of its ally, Russia, attacked France first, conquering neutral Belgium along the way. This prompted Great Britain to declare war on Germany in an effort to preserve Belgium’s neutrality and contest German aggression.

The end result was a “Great War” between the Central Powers – Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, the Ottoman Empire – and the Triple Entente – Great Britain, France, and Russia (the United States later joined on their side). It lasted from 1914 to 1918 and is now known as World War I. Before the assassination all countries in Europe were involved in various alliances and understandings. Many observers felt that this made war inevitable, but they foolishly believed that such a war would be quick and decisive and even necessary to realign power.

The war was worse than anyone could have imagined. A combination of terrible military tactics (think U.S. Civil War maneuvers with 20th century weapons), deadly new technology, and civilian targeting shattered the illusions many held of a prosperous, conflict-free, near-utopian future for Europe.

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Stephen Crane

There’s a new biography of late 19th century writer Stephen Crane reviewed in the New Yorker. Crane is best known for his short stories “The Open Boat” and “Maggie: A Girl of the Streets,” and his short Civil War novel “The Red Badge of Courage.”

Crane is one of my favorite writers and, if pressed, I would say that the “The Open Boat” is best short story I’ve ever read. The story is about a small crew of survivors on a small lifeboat trying to get to shore after a shipwreck. It has the depth of a novel and the kind of unsparing, minimalist prose that only grows in your mind the more you read it and think about it. The overarching themes of his writing are described well in the review of the new bio:

Existential compromises fascinated Crane. Does an alcoholic choose to drink? Is a soldier blameworthy if he flees an attack that scatters half his regiment? In the eighteen-nineties, during a brief and fiery literary career—he died before he was thirty—Crane explored these questions with vividly imagined detail and little moralizing. In narratives of the hopeless and the near-hopeless, of human beings experiencing powerlessness and self-delusion, he managed to record a new kind of consciousness, giving the reader glimpses of the self as an opaque and somewhat mechanistic thing.

These themes have become even more gripping to a contemporary reader. In harsh, but thrilling ways Crane manages to get to the bottom of who we are.

Rethinking Drug Addiction

A new book from Columbia neuroscientist Carl Hart reassesses the company line on drug addictions. It also rightly redirects our attention from viewing drugs as a cause of poverty and personal strife to viewing drugs as a symptom of an unstable environment, certain mental states, and bad luck. The American Conservative magazine reviews it here. Money quotes:

For most of the 1980s and 1990s, drugs were portrayed as the driving force behind high crime rates, lack of educational achievement, and urban decay. Government propaganda during that time period consistently portrayed drug users more or less as zombies held in thrall to an addictive substance, against which they were powerless.

And:

Hart does not peddle any panaceas. His biography and research show drug abuse and the other social problems associated with it to be complex phenomena that will not be remedied or even ameliorated by simplistic solutions. However, Hart has at least demonstrated how we can begin to understand and substantively address those problems, instead of naively scapegoating certain politically convenient chemicals for all of society’s ills.

More nuance is needed on this subject, but after decades of fruitless policies, we’ve come a long way in a short time.

ISIS: More Sophisticated Than You Think

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has been all over the headlines lately – fighting the Assad regime in Syria, capturing cities in northwestern Iraq, and driving toward Baghdad while committing atrocities along the way (more info). This has alarmed most Western observers and prompted debate over whether the U.S. should re-intervene to stop their advance in Iraq (one of the subjects of a post yesterday). This interview with a Canadian-born member of the organization (yes there are many Westerners and English-speakers in their camp) provokes a certain kind of disturbed fascination. This line really got me:

During our wide-ranging interview on the chat platform Kik Messenger, he came across as relatively casual, using words like “no problemo,” “homie,” and even at one point telling me to “holla” at one of his boys if I needed more information.

As did this:

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“The Definitive Take on Obama’s Second Term” by David Bromwich

The latest attempt to write history as it’s happening comes from The London Review of Books. It’s hard to know what to make of it. As observers and thinkers we naturally make connections and see patterns in events. We form these into narratives and this is how we understand. But when do we start manufacturing our narratives and imposing our own order onto chaos? At what point are things too complicated to make sense of and best left undefined until hindsight grants us 20/20?

David Bromwich is an English professor at Yale University, the author of a book about British political philosopher Edmund Burke, and has a long history of political commentary at various highbrow publications. While impressive, absent from this resume is any hands-on front line work in the business of politics. This makes one wonder just how much weight to give some of his claims about Obama’s presidential style. As he says: Continue reading