The Chinese New Year, often called the Lunar New Year, begins on Friday, February 16, 2018. Last year it began on Saturday, January 28, 2017.
The Chinese refer to it as the Spring Festival and it is, above all else, a time for celebrating the family. That, in turn, leads to the biggest human migration on the planet. Over the official 40-day travel period, according to the National Development and Reform Commission, the Chinese will take 3 billion distinct trips utilizing every form of transportation known to humanity. More than 390 million Chinese will travel by train alone, the equivalent of putting every man, woman, and child in America—and then some—on a train in a period of six weeks.
The US and most countries in the West follow the Gregorian calendar, created in 1582 by a slight modification to the Julian calendar in order to bring the date of Christian Easter in line with the date chosen by the First Council of Nicaea in 325. China adopted the Gregorian calendar as its official calendar in 1912, but Chinese culture and its holidays continue to be based on the Chinese calendar, sometimes called the Han calendar.
The Chinese calendar is neither a lunar calendar nor a solar calendar. It is a lunisolar calendar, defined by both the lunar phases and the solar seasons. The Chinese New Year falls on the second new moon following the winter solstice. Which means, if you do the math, the New Year can fall no later than February 19 and no sooner than January 21.
Most Westerners recognize that the Chinese years are each associated with one of the twelve animals of the zodiac. We’re leaving the Year of the Rooster and entering the Year of the Dog.
But it’s actually a little more complicated than that. The Chinese calendar, in fact, works on a 60-year sexagenary cycle. Each year is assigned two component designations. The first is the Celestial or Heavenly Stem, which are consecutive yin and yang versions of the 5 elements – wood, fire, earth, metal, water – and the second is the Terrestial or Earthly Branch corresponding to the 12 animals of the zodiac. Taken together these provide 10-year and 12-year cycles that run concurrently, resulting in a net 60-year cycle. (Sixty is the first number to be evenly divisible by both 10 and 12.)
Technically, therefore, this will be the Year of the Yang Earth Dog, which last occurred in 1958. Anyone born in that year will celebrate living for one life cycle, making the 60th birthday one of the most important in Chinese culture.
So, what can we expect in the year of the dog? Due to its yang component, the dog will have masculine energy this year, but feminine and masculine, as they relate to yin and yang, are not sexual. Masculine energy is more like what you’d expect from your typical house dog—barking at the window one second and sound asleep on the couch the next.
Given the inherent erraticism of the dog, it’s best not to chase the extremes but to connect to the center by studying hard, spending time with family, taking care on the job, and connecting to your inner self.
Good advice, but not likely to be followed by our friends in Washington. We can probably expect them to bounce from one crisis to the next for most of the year. The only saving grace is that the dog is not known for emotional stamina. Emotions will flare, die quickly away, and flare again. It may seem like a siege in the end, but rest assured that better days are coming.
This year, in fact, is really a setup for next year, the Year of the Yin Earth Pig. If we steady ourselves this year, it should be a year of light festivity and relaxation. While pigs are not considered intelligent by the Chinese, they are considered lucky. And it will all begin on February 5, 2019.
And what about all the red? Well, the legend has it that the Nian, the mythical monster that lived in the mountains, would come down into the village every New Year’s Eve to feast on the children. One year, however, one little boy was wearing red and the Nian left him alone. Voila, red it is!
And while you’re enjoying, please consider reading my latest book: We, Ourselves, and Us: Creating a More Just and Prosperous America. It’s now available on Amazon.
I guarantee my book will be worth your time. And if you agree, I would greatly appreciate it if you will take the time to post a review on Amazon, Goodreads, or whatever book site you enjoy. (It’s a binary world, after all. Authors, like everyone else, live by their clicks – whether they’re dogs or horses, like me.)
In China Christmas Day is just another workday. Even the government offices and the banks are open.
The Chinese are aware that it is Christmas, of course, and merchants have started promoting the commercial aspect of the holiday. They get it. And many wealthy Chinese have bought in. They do it entirely by choice, however. The Chinese just aren’t very gullible when it comes to money.
For the first few years that my family and I lived in China I always took the day off, we had plenty of Christmas decorations (That’s where they’re all made, after all.), and we always had plenty of gifts for my young daughters. As luck would have it I had to come to the US each December to present the following year’s budget, so I inevitably lugged three large suitcases full of Wii consoles, or whatever was the popular toy of the year, back with me.
I was never once stopped by China Customs. The government is strict in some ways, but it understands priorities. I was a foreigner and they were happy to let me be one. (Unfortunately, we seem to have abandoned our own empathy on that front.)
When my family moved back to the States without me, however, I stopped celebrating Christmas. I went to work. It wasn’t just another day, but the difference was within.
I still bought presents for my daughters, of course, but that wasn’t easy to do. You may not have heard this but if you want to shop online at an American retailer and the IP address you’re using originates in China, the store will automatically cancel your order. American business is a slave to process. China IP = cheating. They say that’s not profiling or racism, but that must be some kind of new math. (The same math, I suspect, that leads to the drug-related incarceration of African Americans at more than six times the rate of white incarceration despite comparable usage rates.)
I tried calling a couple of the biggest retailers on Skype and explained the situation. The people who answered were sympathetic, but in the end could do nothing. The computer just didn’t allow them the discretion to overrule my being blackballed. They did remind me, however, that a survey would be forthcoming and it would improve their Christmas if I could see my way to a good score. (It’s the commercialization of customer service, of course.)
I wasn’t deprived as a child, mind you. My mother loved Christmas. She worked on it for months. We went to church on Christmas Eve, my father took us caroling, my mother baked Christmas cookies, and we set out cookies and milk for Santa. I never saw Mommy kissing Santa Claus, but there were lots of hugs and the atmosphere was warm and loving.
This is my second Christmas back in the US. And my wife and I have consciously decided not to celebrate with decorations and gifts. We’re not atheists. We’re not even agnostics. We just don’t see the value in spending a lot of money on stuff we don’t need and destroying the environment in the process.
Our leaders, of course, tell us that we have a duty as Americans to spend money. The economy depends on it. And if we don’t, American workers will suffer. And yet it is somehow uniquely American that we don’t even see the problem with that logic. (Or that we don’t recognize that it is foreign workers who will suffer since that’s where most of the stuff we buy as gifts is actually made now.)
It’s addiction logic. If I stop it’s going to hurt so I’ll just have another drink or snort another line of coke. Reminds me of the old joke about the Irish woman who took her husband up to the top of the hill overlooking the local brewery one night to prove to him that he couldn’t drink it dry. “No, but I got ‘em working three shifts,” he noted. (I’m Irish, if you want to skewer me on Twitter.)
It’s no surprise that Christmas has become so commercialized. We’ve commercialized everything in America. We’ve even commercialized waiting in line. Pay a premium and you can stand in a shorter line. And who needs net neutrality? Let ‘em pay. (Just remember to give those same big corporations a nice tax break for Christmas.)
The commercialization of American life really hit home for me on Christmas Eve, however. I was feeling a bit nostalgic and thought I’d find the tv channel that shows the Yule log burning. Talk about Christmas traditions.
I went through each of the 163 channels I now get but never watch. I found a whole bunch of channels that are a testament to how out of control we are commercially but I could not find the Yule log. Until, that is, I got to the 153rd channel or so. And there it was. But it was on a premium channel that I don’t subscribe to so it was blocked. The friggin’ Yule log is now pay to play, just like everything else.
The real problem I have with Christmas in America these days is that it is just another reminder of our social and economic division. The rich are hobnobbing in Aspen and the rest of us are watching them on Facebook and wondering why our lives are so boring.
The secular Christmas, of course, is a pretty crappy time for many Americans. The pressure to keep up is overwhelming to many. That’s not Santa shouting from the rooftops. It’s our neighbors telling the world how lame we are.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a collective Christmas for once? Wouldn’t it be nice if we just took a time out and devoted all of that effort and money to helping the people who need our help most? Christ knows (pun intended) there are enough of them.
I’m actually not a Grinch. I’m quite content with my life. China just gave me a different perspective. It helped me take “I” out of my life and replace it with “we.” It’s not as hard as you might think.
And you’ll feel better for it. Remember, “we” is just “me” with the first letter turned on its head. It’s all in the perspective.
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In a recent survey reported by USA Today, one out of two American millennials preferred communism to capitalism, and 22% said they have a favorable impression of Karl Marx. For almost any American older than a millennial, this came as a complete shock, and, with few exceptions, has been characterized as a failure of the American education system to accurately portray history.
But is that a fair assessment?
I have a degree in Economics from Middlebury College, where I graduated with honors. I have spent an entire career in Corporate America, more than half of that in executive management. And I lived and worked for nine years in China, a collectivist state, where I managed a factory and a company, referred to as a Wholly-Owned Foreign Enterprise (WOFE), for a public American corporation. I believe, as a result, that I bring some experience and credibility to the topic.
Let’s start the assessment by dropping the labels. All of the relevant terms—democracy, capitalism, communism, socialism, and fascism—raise a lot of dust but have lost all of their original meaning. China is not a communist state. It is a collectivist state run by the Communist Party of China. The Chinese themselves refer to it as “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” I will refer to it simply as Chinese collectivism.
The United States, on the other hand, is not a pluralist democracy. The Founding Fathers went to great lengths to avoid the potential tyranny of the democratic majority. The three separate but equal branches of government (legislative, administrative, and judicial), the Electoral College, the unique structure of the US Senate, with two senators from each state regardless of population or economic strength, and the very specific and largely irreversible allocation of certain powers to state and local governments, all are designed to limit the power of the plurality.
Both China and the US allow free market forces to “manage” large parts of the economy. There are, however, two big differences. The first is that almost all property in the US, including intellectual property, is privately owned. In China, on the other hand, the government retains ownership of much of the common property, including all land and the natural resources it holds.
The Chinese collective also retains ownership and control of key strategic industries that have a broad social impact, including most of the banks and much of the energy sector. The Chinese government, moreover, maintains a well-defined national industrial and economic plan that guides public and private investment, in part through taxes, and provides strategic direction to the regulatory branches of government.
There are no government owned companies in the US, although the US Post Office and NASA are independent agencies of the US government. The General Services Administration (GSA), moreover, another independent agency of the federal government, oversees the expenditure of approximately $66 billion in government spending each year and manages about $500 billion of US property.
In total, government spending by the Chinese and US governments is about the same, at roughly $2.8 trillion per year; although the US economy is larger in total.
The US, however, has no national industrial policy, despite the amount of money spent by the government each year. While China targets key industries for development and protection in the interest of national security and social and economic development, the US, in theory, leaves such decisions up to the private sector.
That’s only in theory, however. In practice the US has a well-defined national industrial and economic policy. There has to be given the amount of money the government spends each year and the regulatory influence the government has over the economy. The real difference is that in the US government policy is left largely up to private individuals and corporations to define. Corporate lobbyists and corporate government relations staffers play an active role in actually writing government legislation and regulation, always, of course, in an attempt to promote the self-interests of their employers.
One of the primary vehicles for economic policy in the US is the US Tax Code. The Code itself, along with the supporting documentation and legal interpretation, runs to 70,000 pages in total, most of which is devoted to defining tax breaks and other financial considerations designed to favor one sector of the economy, or one segment of any given sector, over another. The 2017 Tax Reform recently approved by the US Senate itself required more than 400 pages to articulate what was supposed to be a simple reduction in tax rates. It wasn’t, of course.
That is why despite a top corporate tax rate of 35%, most large corporations pay considerably less. Google, in its last reported year, paid only 19%. Apple, one of the most profitable companies on the planet, and which holds $230 billion in cash in overseas accounts, paid only 25%. Asset rich ExxonMobil and GE both enjoyed tax credits, effectively sheltering all of their income from taxation, all based on provisions buried somewhere in those 70,000 pages.
Another way in which national policy is established in through government regulation and, once again, much of that has been turned over to the private sector, allowing business people and corporations to use regulation to benefit themselves and tilt the playing field in their favor. Many of these regulations are fraudulently sold to the public in the name of consumer protection, but the protection of certain businesses and their profits is the real objective.
In the state of California, for example, you cannot cut hair for a living unless you receive 5,000 hours of training at a state-accredited for-profit barber school. It’s doubtful that enough Californians complained about bad haircuts to push the state legislature into action. It’s far more likely, and almost certain, that the barber schools, in partnership with the existing barbers looking to sustain higher prices, lobbied for the legislation and were readily obliged.
In my own state of Michigan Tesla cannot sell its cars directly to consumers utilizing the business model it has built its business on. And the reason is not Ford, GM, or Chrysler. The reason is the independent automobile dealers association that has used its political muscle in Lansing to push for such protection. Michigan is not alone. Independent dealers in many states have successfully lobbied their state legislators for protective legislation that goes well beyond any legitimate consumer interest.
The list is endless. It was recently announced that a common medication for erectile dysfunction may soon be available over the counter in the UK, thus reducing its price and freeing up doctors to spend their time on more pressing health matters and thus reducing health care costs. In China, many common medicines, except narcotics, are available directly from pharmacists without a doctor’s prescription.
The US, on the other hand, has one of the most restrictive set of pharmaceutical regulations on the planet. It’s one of the reasons the US spends more on healthcare than any other nation despite the lack of universal insurance coverage. It’s all justified on the basis of consumer protection, of course, but it coincidentally maximizes the profit of the big pharmaceutical companies and, by the way, we have a huge opioid epidemic anyway. (Why don’t we treat prescription drugs like guns? Opioids don’t cause addiction. The people who abuse them do.)
In the end, as I’ve noted, the biggest difference between Chinese collectivism and what I will call Americanism is in who defines government policy and who owns the country’s collective assets.
No individual or corporation owns land in China. It’s owned collectively by all of the people of China and managed on their behalf by the Communist Party. As a practical matter, the distinction doesn’t have much impact on daily life. The feel is the same. Both my home in China and the factory I managed sat on land owned by the people of China but managing either one felt pretty much the same as it does here. As they say, possession is nine-tenths of the law.
If the day to day difference between collective ownership and private ownership of property is immaterial, it has a huge impact on who decides how to use that property. In the US, that right resides with the individual and the private corporation. In a collectivist state, that right resides with society at large.
Over time, of course, the US has discovered the inherent weakness in private ownership of property and has sought to restrict usage through zoning laws. The local zoning board, however, is entirely local and fairly easily swayed in favor of development by their aligned interests and political pressure, so the practical effect has been very limited. Wealthy developers still have the power to do what they want in the pursuit of profit.
What we can’t do as a country, however, is build new airports, new train systems, or more efficient highways. And that’s because the rights of the individual, the cornerstone of Americanism, are protected by a strong judicial system. Large infrastructure projects can be tied up in the courts for years, if not decades, effectively prohibiting the kind of large infrastructure projects that the Chinese excel at. (Many experts believe that this deficiency alone, will ultimately compromise America’s global leadership.)
America can’t, in other words, adapt to technological innovation. We didn’t have airplanes, automobiles, or high-speed trains, all of which require land-intensive infrastructure, at the time of the nation’s birth when the principle of private ownership of land was established. We had canals and roads and harbors, but these were easily accommodated through the legal concept of eminent domain. Even that collective protection, however, has been severely eroded by the courts and the politicians, both of which are easily exploited by wealthy developers and other corporate interests.
In theory, of course, the American government is accountable to the people. That theory, however, has been severely tested by the passage of time and the steep cost of running a successful modern political campaign. Money, not ideology, now controls the American political process. If there is anything to be learned by the recent rash of political resignations and decisions not to seek re-election it is that political power does not accrue to the men and women of the highest integrity and civic mindedness. It accrues to those who can harness the most money and power.
So, in the US, in theory, we have a paragon of free market capitalism and democratic freedoms. And in China we have the last remaining socialist superpower, where the press is censored, there are no free elections except at the local level, the government retains ownership of key industries and the country’s largest companies, and there is no private ownership of land.
In practice, however, the US, by its own admission, suffers from ongoing sexism, racism, and religious prejudice. Mass murder is almost a daily event. Drug addiction is rampant, wages are stagnant and have been for decades, inequity in wealth and income is expanding, and social unrest and general disillusionment is now the standard.
China, on the other hand, in practice, has raised 300 million people out of poverty in one generation, violent crime and mass murders are rare, the best schools are equally accessible to everyone, virtually everyone is employed, wages have been rising at rates far above the GDP, and the President’s approval rating is among the highest in the world, many times that of our own American president.
Why the disconnect? In a word, context.
Personal freedom and economic well-being do not exist in a vacuum. They exist in the context of a complex web of political, social, technological, and economic conditions that, in the case of the US, have changed dramatically since the country’s founding.
Consider this small sampling of facts:
There were 2.5 million people living in the US in 1776. There are 315 million people here today.
The entire landmass of the original thirteen colonies was 339,000 sq miles. The US today covers 3,678,000 sq. miles.
The only guns available when the Second Amendment was ratified in 1791 were the single fire musket and the flintlock pistol. In the hands of the most skilled operators they had a capacity of about three rounds per minute and were accurate only at very short distances. The Las Vegas shooter, who killed 58 and left 546 injured, by comparison, was able to fire 1,100 rounds in under ten minutes, massacring innocent civilians at a range of almost 500 yards.
The first train locomotive to run on US rails did not go into operation until 1829. The first American car was not built until 1893. The first commercial flight did not take place until 1914.
The pharmaceutical industry, as we know it today, did not come into existence until the mid-20th Century.
The Internet has been in widespread existence for less than thirty years.
The 16th Amendment, legalizing the income tax and creating a powerful tool for social and economic engineering, was not ratified until 1913. The tax system we know today did not come into existence until 1954.
In short, our world, and the context in which our political and economic systems operate, has changed dramatically. Yet we still attempt to manage it all with political and economic systems that are built on the ideological premise of the supremacy of the individual over the collective.
Advances in technology drove much of this change. Technology has entirely transformed how we work, how we live, how we travel, and how we communicate.
At the time of our founding, our news was limited to the local newspaper and the men and women motivated enough to grab a soapbox and stand on a street corner. Politics was a part-time profession carried on by people moved by a sense of civic duty. The world of the average American, in short, was a decidedly local world and he or she lived and worked with relative autonomy.
Technology, both directly and indirectly, has made the world both bigger and smaller, connecting us all in real-time. It has also, however, driven the commercialization of every aspect of our lives. It is no longer possible to live a dignified life of poverty, even if you so choose. There is virtually no alternative to money. Even the original social safety net—nature—has been taken away. Living as a self-sufficient farmer or hunter-gatherer in the wilderness is no longer an option. The socio-economic complex in which we live forces everyone into the economic game. Compete or perish, with perhaps a short and undignified stay in government entitlement along the way.
As America grew and prospered, however, an unintended consequence began to emerge. Most of the wealth creation went to a relatively small segment of the population. As time went by, moreover, the system was incapable of correcting itself. The rich, now called the 1%, continue to get richer while the other 99% struggles to get by. Many, in fact, have failed in their quest and are either homeless, addicted, or both. And, most importantly, their hope is lost.
There are more than 540 billionaires in the US today, who share a collective net worth of $2.4 trillion, more than the total GDP of India, a country of 1.3 billion people. Half of Americans, however, make less than $30,000 per year and have virtually no personal savings and sizable amounts of debt. (Student debt is a national crisis.)
Another unintended consequence of this massive wealth creation and its concentration is the creation of a permanent political class. An economy this big and a society this large require full time management.
The two developments—the enrichment of the economy and the creation of a professional political class—were fundamentally inter-related. Modern politics takes a lot of money and the Founding Fathers made no provision to provide it. The need for private funding, in turn, further embedded private citizens of wealth into the political process. And when, in 1886, the U.S. Supreme Court applied the 14th Amendment to give corporations the same legal rights, other than voting, of the individual citizen, the modern era of politics was born.
And it’s not working. And it’s not working because the context has changed. We live in a very different world than we did in 1776 and yet we are attempting to manage it with the same individual-centric political and economic systems developed more than two centuries ago.
The People’s Republic of China, on the other hand, has been in existence for a little over 60 years. And while the Communist Party of China is still in charge, the economic and social management systems have been entirely transformed. Chairman Mao himself would surely not recognize the modern China.
By adapting to change, however, China has emerged as a global superpower and many are predicting that the American Century will soon give way to the Chinese Century.
Many in America, of course, will argue that China transformed itself by following the example of the US and adopting many of the provisions of free market capitalism. It is these same people, moreover, who believe that the path forward should be to double down on what has worked in the past. We don’t need to adapt, in other words, so much as we need to go back to the perceived purity of the political and economic systems we employed two centuries ago.
It is pure folly, of course. Even if we could turn back the clock, which we can’t, those systems and ideals would no longer work. The result, in fact, would be disastrous; on a par with asking corporations to live without computers or teenagers to live without smart phones.
Technology has so empowered the individual that no single individual can be given the kind of power historically granted to the individual American. It is simply unworkable. What worked when we were few and largely isolated and spent our days farming and hunting, will simply not work today. It would be like giving every colonial soldier a nuclear bomb and telling them to go win the war. They would ultimately win the war, but like the 1%, would dramatically transform the country itself.
In the end, the millennials are right. They may have the details wrong. (The referenced study’s sponsor noted that most of the millennials who voted for communism were unable to define it correctly.) They are, however, right in their instinctive belief that in the modern world in which we live and work, the collective society, not the individual, must reign supreme.
Let’s not call it communism, or fascism, or any of the traditional –isms, because their critics are right; they didn’t work either. And libertarianism, the system of choice for both the alt-right and Silicon Valley, won’t work any better. That would be just doubling down on what we already have and would simply accelerate our decline.
And I am not suggesting we simply imitate the Chinese or try Marxism yet again. The former, for a lot of social and cultural reasons I don’t have space for here, won’t work in America. And Marxism, while ideologically attractive at some level, simply isn’t tenable.
What we need instead is a new form of collective governance that puts the interests of the collective society above the liberties of the individual and manages our collective interests and assets in a way that allows some level of individualism without allowing it to suppress or circumvent the collective good.
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With North Korea’s recent successful test of a Hwasong-15 missile that reached an altitude of 2,800 miles, more than ten times the altitude of the International Space Station, Kim Jong-un is back on the front page. This, experts suggest, gives the hermit nation the established ability to strike Washington, D.C. with a pre-emptive nuclear strike launched from within its own borders.
When confronted with the issue by reporters, Trump, characteristically, was dismissive: “We will take care of it.” How, exactly, no one knows. Sanctions clearly haven’t worked and whatever diplomacy Secretary Tillerson has been pursuing behind the scenes apparently hasn’t either. (Adding even more urgency to the issue, Tillerson, the one politician even broaching diplomacy, is rumored to be on the way out.)
According to The Washington Post, “A growing chorus of voices in Washington is calling for serious consideration of military action against North Korea,” although it is inconceivable that such options have not already been considered and ruled out as impractical. The loss of life, particularly in South Korea, would easily rival the 20 million Russians who perished during World War II, redefining the geopolitical landscape for decades to come.
China has clearly noted that it would consider any pre-emptive strike by the US to be an intolerable violation of sovereignty. Such military aggression, moreover, would be senseless unless the US was willing to follow its ordnance into the country to pick up the pieces and reshape the nation, and there is virtually no way the Chinese would allow this to happen without their strongest possible resistance.
Depending on whether Trump or China is higher on their derisory priority list on any given day, many Western media outlets have attempted to position the latest missile test as either indicative of China’s failure to follow through on the perceived commitment to resolve the Korean Peninsula issue, or Trump’s foolhardiness for believing he had that kind of personal pull in Beijing.
Personally, I think there is little incentive for China to do anything except sit back and watch. If it believes that Kim’s regime will ultimately collapse, it has little to gain by getting its hands dirty now, short of preventing the US from establishing a US military presence on the 880-mile border China shares with North Korea. Let it collapse and then step in to either push for a unification of the Korean Peninsula, with security and political assurances from the current South Korean government, or turn North Korea into an autonomous Chinese political zone not unlike Hong Kong, Macau, or Tibet. (The latter, I believe, is the more likely scenario, all things considered.)
Two things, I believe, we can say with certainty:
1. Given any say in the matter, the people of North Korea will choose a Chinese protectorate over a US protectorate. Unless South Korea takes significant steps to distance itself from the US they will not, in all likelihood, even choose unification over China. Dennis Rodman’s diplomacy aside, the North Koreans do not see the US as Donald Trump sees us.
2. China will do nothing to give Trump face. In other words, he will accomplish nothing with China’s help if they believe he stands ready to take credit for it. He is quite literally shooting himself in the foot by touting his relationship with Xi Jinping in the context of his great self-acclaimed negotiating skills. To give Trump credit would be to compromise the Chinese Dream that is at the heart of Xi’s political agenda and legacy. He won’t do it; he has no incentive to.
To this latter point, I am quite confident that China did not release LiAngelo Ball and his UCLA basketball teammates after being arrested for shoplifting in Hangzhou because Trump asked them to. They did so because they concluded that it was in their best interest. It may, in fact, have been a simple test to see how Trump would respond.
Trump’s reaction, in fact, could not have been worse in terms of his future ability to influence Chinese behavior. In his willingness to start a Twitter feud with LaVar Ball, Trump demonstrated beyond a doubt that he has no understanding of Chinese culture and the importance of face, particularly in the political arena. Certainly someone in Washington understands this.
I believe the most effective option for the US and the world remains the same. The US must withdraw its military presence from the Korean Peninsula unilaterally, while maintaining its commitment to protect South Korea from aggression using all of its resources, including nuclear weapons, if necessary.
Given the unlikelihood that a contained exchange of cannon fire along the 38th parallel will be sufficient to convince Kim Jong-un to dismantle his nuclear capabilities, it is hard to see how a military withdrawal from the Korean Peninsula would materially compromise the US’ treaty obligations to South Korea or Japan.
Nor would it, in fact, cause a US loss of face in the region. As famous Chinese military general Sun Tzu is often quoted to have said, “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” In the eyes of Asia, it would take a strong and courageous America to unilaterally to pursue such a strategy, putting the clear burden for resolution of the North Korean problem at the doorstep of Beijing’s leadership.
The proof is in the rhetoric. Why has China not seen fit to rattle its sword to the extent President Trump has? Why are there no anonymous quotes coming out of the Great Hall of the People? Is it because China is afraid? Or is it because China is clever and understands the importance of face in true diplomacy?
China can resolve the North Korean problem. And it will, if we allow them to solve it at their own pace and in their own way. In the meantime, North Korea is contained. There is no way that China will allow Kim Jong-un to unleash a single nuclear device on Guam, Japan, or the US. And there is no way that China would not know of such an attack long before the missile leaves the ground.
What is it that American diplomats are so afraid of? Does the Munich Pact still haunt the souls of our diplomatic core? The times and the circumstances could not be more different.
This would not be peace through appeasement. This would be peace through strength and confidence and a willingness to put humanity above any one individual’s standing in the polls. This is not an issue for Twitter. This is an issue for men and women of greatness to take the lead in the name of peace and stability.
If they fail to do so, history will not remember them kindly.
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My Chinese wife and I shared Thanksgiving dinner with several Chinese American families who live in the area. Most are naturalized American citizens and have teenage children born here. Nearly all are university professors or medical doctors.
We first came to know of this group because one of the people in the group is from the same hometown in northeastern China as my wife. They had never met, of course, and there is no relationship or acquaintance between their families. A common hometown, however, is enough to create an automatic social obligation in Chinese culture. You are almost family; particularly when that hometown is relatively small by Chinese standards (About 3 million residents as of the 2010 census.), and you both find yourselves in a foreign land 7,000 miles away.
This was not our first dinner with the group and I always enjoy them. They all speak fluent English, of course, although Mandarin is the language of choice for most of the evening. It is a warm and gracious group of people and all seem to share some self-imposed sense of responsibility to insure that the one foreigner in the group—me—is having a good time and not feeling left out.
It is a very light-drinking crowd although baijiu was brought out to allow everyone the chance to toast the health and prosperity of their friends, as is their custom. The bottle was capped and put away, however, after a mere quarter of a liter was consumed with the formalities of friendship.
There is zero interest in American football among the group, including the teenagers, and most of the evening is spent in small group discussions over tea, with a few of the men breaking off for karaoke and a few traditional Chinese ballads.
To a person, all of them feel blessed to be in America and to have the chance to raise their children here. None among them have any interest in leaving although all have family in China and stay in touch with all things Chinese.
The topics of discussion were and weren’t what I expected. There was, as I expected, some talk about Yingying ZHANG, the 26 year-old Chinese scholar who disappeared from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus on June 9 of this year. A local Caucasian man has been arrested and charged with kidnapping but has never admitted guilt and the whereabouts of Zhang or her body remains unknown.
Beyond the obvious fact that there is a human life involved, this is big deal for all Americans. There are roughly 900,000 foreign students studying at America’s universities today, and about one-third of those are Chinese. The Chinese student population in the US, in other words, is about the same as the entire population of Cincinnati, Ohio, and the monetary infusion into the US economy easily exceeds $10 billion per year. If those students, or their parents, collectively decide to stay home or go elsewhere out of fear that the American government will not or cannot protect them, the impact on our education system, our economy, and the educational opportunities available to our own children will be enormous.
What seems to perplex the Chinese about this case is not that one of their own came to harm. The Chinese know full well how dangerous life can be. It is that the police have not been able to solve the case and the man accused has yet to go on trial, now almost six months later.
Wherever you come down on the scale of personal rights, from libertarian to collectivism, the one job every government has above all else is to keep us safe and to punish those who violate the precept. And there is little doubt in most Chinese minds, or mine, that if an American student had disappeared in China, the case would have been solved long ago and the guilty punished, probably by immediate execution.
According to NationMaster.com, a global community of statisticians that The New York Times calls “astounding,” and the BBC refers to as “a statistician’s dream,” violent crime and murder occur at a rate 18 and 4 times higher, respectively, in the US than in China.
This, of course, is part of a larger discussion on the perceived trade-off between individual rights and freedoms and a strong government looking to protect collective stability and safety. The Western media, of course, has long treated the issue as a zero sum game in which government strength can only come at the expense of individual liberty. And both are inevitably measured, of course, by the freedom of the press. It is, however, a specious argument.
I have yet to meet the Chinese person that believes China should adopt the American political system. To a person they don’t believe it would work in China, not only because of the size and diversity of their country, but because it clearly doesn’t work here in the US. The 2016 election and subsequent events have only reinforced the conviction, although I don’t think a different electoral outcome would have had any impact on the observation of dysfunction.
On a related but very different aspect of strong government control, however, the part of the conversation that did surprise me related to the Internet.
The Chinese have long been chided by American media for the strict government control of the Chinese Internet. The Western media detests nothing quite so ardently as it does any attempt to make it responsible for what it reports.
In addition to controlling the use of social media for voicing political dissent and promoting social unrest, China has already taken strong steps to prevent digital anonymity, personal shaming, revenge porn, and the malicious spreading of rumors, gossip, and unsubstantiated accusations. (They do this, in part, they claim, by blocking access to Internet sites like Facebook and Twitter, which have traditionally refused to allow any government regulation of their platforms.)
Porn, which some estimates suggest accounts for as much as 30% of all Internet traffic in the US, is strictly forbidden and censored in China. Identity theft carries severe penalties and the government actively protects its citizens against malware and Internet schemes that prey on the elderly.
It was noted over tea, however, that Americans may now be realizing that strong government regulation may not be so dystopian after all. Beyond the constant threat of identity theft, ransomware, religious radicalization, adolescent bullying, and attempts by Russian operatives to influence American politics, it has become increasingly clear that the very structure of the American Internet is dividing us and enflaming our distrust and animosity through self-reinforcing media feeds, biased reporting, and outright fake news.
In our case, however, it is not the government that is controlling the information that divides and enflames; it is the oligopoly of Internet giants that government regulators have allowed to achieve such enormous scale and unfettered power that their ability to influence public opinion now dwarfs the control of government censors in China, Russia, or elsewhere.
The only difference between China and the US in terms of digital censorship is that in China it is the government that yields the control and in the US it is the corporate states of Google, Facebook, and Twitter, among others. Whether or not the Communist Party makes good on its commitment to sound governance, we know by their own admission and behavior that the Silicon Valley elite is driven by the insatiable drive for profit and personal wealth. Perhaps even more dangerous and minatory is the fact that in China, at least, the censorship is transparent. In Silicon Valley it is anything but.
It is doubtful, in fact, that even the engineers at companies like Google and Facebook have any idea how their algorithms actually work. How does anyone really know if their unfathomably complex algorithms aren’t themselves fanning the fires of racism and misogyny, for example, in the interest of getting more users to click on more advertisements?
Certainly no one would suggest that they are doing so intentionally, but who is to say what is really happening in the bowels of their server farms that they can only understand by processing test data and assessing the output against “rational” expectations, whatever those may be. Proxy causation, by definition, would be almost impossible to detect.
All of which might pose minimum risk if the US government regulated their activities and limited their scale and market dominance in the same way they regulate virtually every other industry. But they don’t. And one doesn’t have to think hard to come up with possible explanations.
Government dystopia comes in many shades and flavors. Nearly all, however, rely on controlling the flow of information. And whether that flow is controlled by an autocratic government or a free market oligopoly with little to no oversight, matters little. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding.
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While it may not be apparent at the level of one-to-one interaction, the Chinese are generally more philosophical in their worldview while Americans and Europeans are more inclined to a scientific interpretation of reality. That is not to say, of course, that the Chinese are in any way compromised in science or technology. They aren’t. Their philosophical bent, in fact, will liberate them to become, I believe, among the best scientists on the planet in the years ahead.
The difference flows from the distinct logic on which each worldview is built. I cover this in depth in Understanding China: There is Reason for the Difference and have referenced the distinction, perhaps to excess, in prior blog posts. I won’t tempt your patience, therefore, again here.
In many ways, philosophy and science are the yin and yang of thought. Science is an empirical methodology for distilling abstract observation down to specific, discreet bits of knowledge, presumed to be nuggets of truth. Philosophy, on the other hand, is the process of amalgamating discreet observations and measurements into broad abstractions of truth that are both all-inclusive and infallible.
Technology, of course, has greatly enhanced the speed and diversity of our ability to measure and record data, and search for patterns therein. This has, in turn, lead to an acceleration in scientific discovery that is rapidly obscuring all other perspectives; most notably the religious and the intuitive.
Philosophy, on the other hand, is constrained by language, on which it is reliant both for the fuel of thought and the ability to debate and share the results. Language, being a human convention created to facilitate the efficiency and effectiveness of communication, is entirely arbitrary and not up to the task of the larger philosophical questions that continue to face humankind. As a result, philosophy seems to be stuck in a time warp. Philosophers are debating the same questions their Greek counterparts did millennia ago, with some apparent progress, but little in the way of resolution.
Philosophy and science, however, much like yin and yang, cannot exist, at least not productively, in isolation. Each is reliant on the other. Because they approach abstraction and reality from the opposite directions, each provides balance to the other. Without one or the other, imbalance results, and thought, or, more specifically, the veracity of thought, suffers.
Many in science believe that philosophy is an antiquated and anachronistic mode of analysis that should be left by the roadside of progress. Just the opposite, however, is true. Science without philosophy is disaster in the making.
We know that many scientific discoveries ultimately prove to be wrong. Einstein was wrong about the static universe. Doctors were wrong for decades about the cause of peptic ulcers. And scientists, who initially thought that matter was made up of atoms, later discovered leptons and quarks, and now believe that 85% of the universe may be made up of dark matter, although it has never actually been seen or measured by anyone.
Marcis Angell, former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, has this to say: “It is simply no longer possible to believe much of the clinical research that is published.” Stanford researcher, John Ioannidis agrees. He has published a paper entitled, “Why Most Published Research is False,” noting that most research is better at cataloguing the prevailing bias than discovering new scientific truths. Pioneering medical clinician and author, Chris Kresser, sums it up like this: “In fact, it’s not an exaggeration to say that the history of science has been the history of most people being wrong about most things most of the time.”
The proof is in the pudding. The scientific method is based on replicability. Cause and effect, science holds, is fixed by the laws of nature. In one recent study, however, researchers attempted to replicate the results of 100 published psychological studies and failed to do so in 65 percent of the cases. Researchers from Bayer, likewise, attempted to replicate the research behind sixty-seven blockbuster drugs currently in use and failed in 75% of their attempts.
Philosophy is the natural counter-balance to empirical discovery. By inductively speculating the precise back to the abstract, philosophy will naturally unearth gaps in deductive conclusion that may result from faulty reasoning, or, more commonly, incomplete understanding of causation.
To jettison philosophy in the interest of science, therefore, is to throw away the best opportunity we have to validate and direct empirical analysis and conclusion. And since empirical reality is the reality we live in, it is to open the door to nothing less than our potential destruction.
That the US is a nation divided is beyond dispute. Everyone can see that we are hurtling down a path of eventual implosion that threatens to unravel all of the progress we have made to date as a society and a nation. Only the truth can save us, but truth, we must accept, is not the exclusive dominion of the empiricist.
Science without philosophy is the path to “knowledgeable ignorance.” It is an ignorance built upon a foundation of false certainty that doesn’t just inform our opinion, but defines it. Thought solidifies and hardens, losing its ability to adapt and, as a result, thought and leadership lose the predictive and probative power of wisdom and understanding. We are literally blinded by hollow empiricism.
It is the philosophical void created by imbalanced empiricism, articulated through public opinion polls and statistical analysis, and spread through the mechanics of biased reporting and self-reinforcing news feeds, that is at the heart of our current political paralysis and acute personal divisions.
Why are women, after decades of abuse at the hands of male predators, now coming forward? Why are ethnic and racial minorities finally, after generations of discrimination and abuse, concluding that now is the time it must end? Why are university students only now demanding safe spaces and trigger warnings and seeking to silence speech that is offensive?
The answer, in part, I believe, comes down to the current imbalance between our emphasis on empirical study and measurement and our lack of insistence that such empiricism be validated through the logic of abstraction. Our empirical knowledge has finally overwhelmed our willingness to make abstract excuses and rationalizations. And in the case of misogyny, racism, and intellectual bullying, that is indeed a good thing. We’ve finally cut through the clutter that has historically insulated unacceptable behavior.
In marginalizing philosophy and abstraction, however, we risk marginalizing productive debate in other important areas of worldview. We risk becoming so certain in our beliefs that we lose all sense of balance and proportion. We lose the ability to meet others half way. We lose the opportunity to exercise diplomacy and to work with other cultures and people with different life experiences in a collaborative and productive way.
The Chinese are not so constrained because they are not just extending their natural empirical perspective in the way that we in Westerners are. They are introducing science and empiricism on top of philosophy, not as an extension of itself. They have, as a result, a balance between science and philosophy that we have lost to empiricism.
The Chinese, despite a population that dwarfs our own, currently enjoy far greater social cohesion and political stability than either the US or the EU. And they have it not because of the autocratic socialist state that the Western media believes is behind all things Chinese, but for the simple reason that Chinese culture and politics retains a balance between empirical progress (e.g., China now leads the world in renewable energy investment.) and philosophical abstraction (e.g. President Xi Jinping’s Chinese Dream).
It is our Western empiricism, at the expense of traditional philosophical thought, by contrast, that is opening the door to the Chinese Century. By returning to their Confucian roots while embracing the empiricism of science, the Chinese will be in the best position to apply the knowledge they unveil through scientific discovery. The West, on the other hand, is likely to fritter away its sizeable early lead in acquisition of empirical knowledge to the certainty of empiricism without abstraction. Or, more precisely, certainty without the guiding hand of doubt.
We will be certain, but will we progress?
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I’ve taken a bit of heat for my recent blog post in which I intimated that the real Orwellian oppressor might be the American political, economic, and Hollywood elite rather than the Communist Party of China. In this post, therefore, I will attempt to put just a little more meat on the bones of my figurative and conceptual dragon.
Freedom exists at a number of levels and I can’t address all of them in one post. First, however, we must establish what American freedom is not. It is not one person, one vote; majority takes all. Nor do we want it to be. That would be oppression of the worst kind.
That is why we have three branches of government, the Electoral College, and the requirement that three-fourths of the states must ratify a new amendment to the US Constitution. That is why, in fact, we have the Bill of Rights and a total of twenty-seven existing amendments to begin with. They put hard limits on our democracy and the power of the majority.
So what is freedom? Let’s look at a few examples of what might be considered freedom and see how China and the US compare:
Government Social Engineering:
This is the freedom to live free of government interference and China does have some well known social regulations but they are quite transparent and are seldom hard and fast. At the head of that list, of course, is the famous one child policy, although it has been relaxed significantly in recent years and there have always been exceptions for ethnic and rural populations. And while there may have been cases of forced compliance in the past the frequency has undoubtedly been overstated in the Western media. Today, I believe, it is virtually unheard of.
In the US our social engineering is significant but far less transparent. Most of it is accomplished surreptitiously, largely through the tax code and regulations positioned as being in the public interest. People who decide to remain single, or couples who do not or cannot have children, for example, subsidize the living expenses of those who do get married and have children through tax provisions that favor marriage and procreation. There are no such tax provisions in China. Everyone in China is an individual taxpayer and there are no deductions for anything.
Women, moreover, have complete control over their own bodies in China. Abortions are readily available and cheap. And since everyone is essentially guaranteed a job there is virtually no woman who can’t get an abortion if she so elects. Women who work, moreover, enjoy generous maternity leave at full pay, have full job protection, and are even guaranteed time to breast feed after they return to work.
The US, on the other hand, is the only industrialized nation on the planet that offers no paid maternity leave. If you can find a place to have an abortion, moreover, you will probably have to pay for it and will undoubtedly be forced to suffer the indignity of protesters when you go for the procedure. (This would never be allowed in China.)
China does have a residency registration system called the hukou. It is designed primarily as a structure for providing government services but it is also designed to limit urban migration so that the infrastructure of the wealthy urban areas is not overwhelmed. You can still move your family where you want to but it will cost you more in schooling, medical care, and the like. I met my wife in Beijing, for example, where she was living and working, but her son remained in her hometown for these reasons. It’s a fairly common arrangement in China.
In the US, of course, there are no restrictions on where you can live but the residents of those states with low or no income taxes (e.g., Florida) subsidize the residents of those states with high income tax rates (e.g., New York). Trump is trying to change that but it hasn’t happened yet.
Urbanization in the US is nonetheless discouraged in several other ways. The public schools in urban areas are generally of inferior quality. People living in urban areas often pay higher taxes, largely due to additional sales tax. Crime rates are often much higher. And since urban dwellers are likely to rent, they are essentially forced to subsidize, again through taxes, all of the middle and upper class homeowners living in the suburbs who get to claim their mortgage interest and real estate taxes as tax deductions. (And who get the benefits of living in proximity to a major US city.)
Freedom in Education:
Education in China, including college, is open to everyone and largely paid for by the government. There is intense competition for entry to the best schools via standardized testing, but the opportunity and the cost is the same for everyone. If you can get in to one of the top schools, you can afford to go. Everyone pays the same low rate.
In the US, of course, standardized testing plays a role, but is not defining. Ivy League schools still give preference to the children of their alumni and donors, and admissions officers consider the quality of the secondary school attended, and largely subjective demonstrations of leadership, etc., which are disproportionately available to wealthier families. Poor children living in the inner city don’t often have a chance to join the debate club and even when they do may be required for family childcare or to work in the family business. The cost, moreover, between colleges varies widely, which, of course, is less of a burden to wealthier families.
The Chinese are more or less free to practice religion as they see fit. You will find Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Buddhists, Taoists, and practitioners of Chinese folk religion just about everywhere in China. There is, however, one simple restriction: The church must stay out of politics. There may be a lot of argument about that but even Jesus advised his followers to pay Caesar his due.
We have religious freedom in the US, of course, in that the church can be very actively involved in politics and can even organize political protests. All churches in the US, however, are essentially subsidized by the entire population, whether those citizens are religious or not. Even the building in which congregants worship is free of tax. In essence, we don’t have freedom of religion so much as we have government sponsored religion.
Freedom to Set Prices:
While China has moved decidedly toward a free market economy there are still some sectors that are government controlled. In the case of utilities, for example, the biggest providers are still government owned and the government sets prices. In China, however, the citizens generally pay less than the large corporations for things like natural gas and electricity. In the US, the opposite is true. That factory down the street is probably paying less for natural gas than you are. This is how the American “free” market works.
Freedom to Make a Living:
In China, if you want to make some extra money for your family by cutting hair on nights and weekends, you just do it. You have to pay taxes but it’s unlikely a barber would generate enough income to trigger a tax liability. Even if you do, the local tax collector is likely to ignore you unless you run afoul of the law in some other way.
In the US you cannot cut hair without a license. And in most cases, that requires a substantial investment of time and money. In California, for example, you must attend a government accredited barber school for 5,000 hours of certified instruction before you can cut anyone’s hair. The big winners, of course, are the for-profit barber schools, who undoubtedly pushed for the legislation to begin with, and the existing barbers, who can charge more due to the artificial limits on competition.
“Professional” regulation costs US residents far more than Bernie Madoff ever did, and it’s a scam that is both government sponsored and goes largely unnoticed. Tesla cannot sell its cars in the state of Michigan because the auto dealers, through their powerful lobbying group, have pushed through state legislation prohibiting the sale of cars directly to consumers. Ford can’t do it either. The consumers, in the end, subsidize the generally well-off car dealers. And, of course, the consumers have no practical choice in the matter.
Similar constraints exist in almost every industry. The current Republican tax overhaul is 429 pages in length. What could possibly take so much ink? Rest assured that corporate lobbyists wrote most of it and it’s surely laden with little tax goodies for powerful interest groups and political donors.
All of the professional regulation, of course, is, in theory, enacted in the name of consumer protection, although I’ve never known any consumer who needed protection from a bad haircut or manicure. If you do get an embarrassing haircut you can always switch barbers.
In the end, the US is probably the most regulated country on the planet, and most of that regulation exists not to protect the consumer, but to protect the established elite who lobbied for it. Why do you think we spend more than any other country in the world on health care and are nonetheless the only developed country that does not guarantee access to affordable health insurance? The drug companies and the for-profit hospitals love things the way they are. They largely designed them.
And how do they get away with it? It’s easy. It’s all done through the mechanics of American democracy—the basis of what we call our democratic freedom.
Buying Government Influence:
As every school child knows, the US government is made up of three largely equal branches – legislative, administrative, and judicial. Each provides an opportunity to shape the ways in which our lives are controlled by government interference. The legislature can pass laws and regulations, the President, as we now know, can determine how to administer those regulations through executive order, and the courts can step in at any time and change everything.
The net result is that vested interests, such as corporations and wealthy individuals, have three bites at the apple. They can effect change to their benefit in any of the three spheres of influence. Or all three, as is typically the case. And they are uniquely privileged to take such bites because each bite takes money. And the more you have the bigger the bite you are granted.
The politicians, of course, pander to money. But so do the courts. The latter wealth bias is not quite so transparent, but nonetheless real. You have to hire a lawyer to take advantage of judicial power. And a lawyer is not a lawyer. A talented lawyer with the right connections is going to cost you. And you, if you are an average citizen, probably don’t have it. The end result is that the wealthy, particularly large corporations, have more legal protection and influence than the average citizen, simply because they can afford better lawyers, and more of them.
In China, by contrast, government influence is available to everyone. There are cases of outright corruption, of course, but that’s true in every government, including our own, and the current government in China has taken very specific steps to reduce it, unlike our own, which frankly seems to be promoting it through pay to play and other similar schemes.
While living in Beijing I often saw older couples wearing hand-written sandwich boards in public venues protesting their treatment at the hands of the local government a thousand miles away. And I saw policemen without riot gear, tear gas, or military style weapons, often lead them away, but always with respect. I never once saw anyone dragged, threatened with a club, or even handcuffed.
The biggest difference, of course, is the relative power of the courts in China and the US. While there is reform underway, the courts don’t have much power in China to challenge the government. Which is why high-speed trains and new airports are still being built there and in an astonishing short period of time, and why three American college basketball players arrested for shoplifting could be released from detention without penalty or delay. That would never have happened, of course, if three Chinese basketball players had been arrested under similar circumstances in Los Angeles, because we are a “nation of laws.”
In theory a powerful judiciary would be nice if it were truly used to empower the powerless. But it’s not. It just further empowers the elite. Poor minority males end up in jail. Rich white male sex abusers go to luxury spas in Arizona for some quiet time.
Freedom to Roam:
The biggest impediment to American freedom, however—and this admittedly sounds strange coming from someone living in Michigan—is the simple fact that with very few exceptions you can not survive in America without a private car. Outside of a few urban areas, public transportation is virtually non-existent. Uber and Lyft are helping, but they, too, are largely limited to the larger urban areas. And they’re cheaper, but not cheap.
In China, by contrast, car ownership, and the expense that goes with it, are truly optional. There is cheap public transportation everywhere. And the country is laid out so that most people can pretty much walk or ride their bicycle to most places they need to go.
Whatever mobility Americans believe they enjoy, in other words, depends entirely on their ability to buy and maintain a car. It’s an incredibly regressive tax scheme that the banks and car companies love. You might decide to move to New Mexico for the weather, and you enjoy the democratic freedom to do so, but you will need to buy a car first.
If you can’t afford a car, you are, as a practical matter, forced to live in an urban area, probably in the poorest neighborhoods. And those, of course, are the neighborhoods with the highest crime, the worst public schools, and the fewest government services. (Ask the poor if they feel free.)
I could go on, and I will in future posts, but your attention is waning. Suffice it to say that I stand by my observation. The US might be one of the least free countries in existence. That’s not to say that I don’t love it; I do. I choose to live here. What we call freedom, however, is really privilege, available primarily to the country’s elite and already privileged. The old saw that them that has, gets, has never been truer than it is in the US today.
I haven’t forgotten freedom of the press yet, I assure you. Suffice it to say for now that there is less freedom of the press in the US than in China. The only difference is who does the censoring.
This will become more obvious in the future as Google, Facebook, and Twitter increasingly act on their almost limitless power to shape the news. As is typical of the American illusion, of course, they will do it in the name of consumer protection and the noble effort to eliminate Russian interference and fake news. The effect, however, will be censorship, pure and simple.
header photo credit: iStock.com/rarrarorro
You may contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org
Visit my personal blog at www.gmoreau.com
On the Internet, fake news and spurious intent are all the rage. The Russians are allegedly promoting it. Congress is investigating it. The alt-right is accused of it. Antifa, too. All of the evil “-ists” are polluting the world with it.
And we have science to blame. Or, more precisely, the scientific world view, which I, to be clear, fully embrace.
The scientific method is the progeny of deductive reasoning. It is the world of cause and effect. Data, and the patterns that reside within it, are its fuel and its purpose. Gather data; analyze it; discern the patterns; and apply them to larger and/or related questions and issues.
We call it intelligent reason. And while it is just what it claims to be, it will ultimately bring down the Internet and the culture and the economy we have built around it. The global economy will collapse. Geo-politics will be in turmoil. Culture itself will implode. And, yes, anarchy will prevail.
It’s simple, really. It is the duality—the paradox, if you will—of knowledge and its role in the acquisition of power. Knowledge liberates and oppresses. Knowledge is both the beginning and the end of the human tragedy of domination and enslavement.
The promise of the Internet is the promise of universal influence—the liberation of the influenced; the powerful and unstoppable rise of the everyperson. Everyone, in theory, gets a voice. Even Barney, sitting in his pajamas in Four Bears Village, North Dakota.
It’s now obvious, however, that having a voice is not the same as being heard. Influence is peddled not by those with a voice, but those voices that hold sway over the crowd.
Knowledge is acquired. It does not emerge spontaneously. It is granted, passed along, and used to create an impression. It is the essence of influence. And it can be weaponized.
The idea of Russian propaganda operatives buying political ads on Facebook is easy to condemn, although it was obviously not so easy to detect and will be difficult to stamp out in the future. And this, in the end, will inevitably prove to be the tip of the iceberg of fake news and unsubstantiated influence.
Reasoned intelligence holds that knowledge is factual—it is both singular and all-inclusive. The reality of science, we believe, is one-dimensional; it can be discovered and shared through scientific discovery and affirmed through peer review.
What we call scientific truth, however, is often a false dilemma. Reality is seldom digital. It comes in many shades and can rarely be captured or expressed by either/or selections. And the fact that language itself is a mythical invention, not common to the universe like carbon and hydrogen, further compounds the problem and the risk.
Inevitably, the umbrella of fake news is expanded to include news that is misleading, unsubstantiated, or promotes a perspective that does not enjoy consensus. (Or it enjoys the consensus of the wrong people.)
Words become weaponized. And where there are weapons, there are armies. Information arms the conflict. And the world, via the Internet, becomes a battlefield without dimension or borders.
War ensues, and eventually the gatekeepers of information—Google, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, etc.—are drawn into the battle. Divisions and defenses harden. The ante escalates. The apocalypse emerges.
It’s already happening. People are angry. They are disturbed. And it’s not some people, some of the time. It’s everyone, all of the time. Hate and frustration are 24/7. There are no holidays. There is no etiquette. Everyone and everything is fair game.
Facebook, for its alleged acceptance of Russian propaganda, is the current ground zero of the battle. But Google came under attack during the 2016 presidential election for allegedly helping Hillary Clinton through its all-powerful search algorithms, potentially influencing public opinion in a way the Russian propagandists can only dream of. (Google denies the accusations.)
Twitter has now joined the fray, recently blocking a video ad of Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) because of its “inflammatory” reference to her opposition to the sale of fetal tissue for medical research. Amazon, for its part, allegedly removed customer reviews of Hilary Clinton’s new book, What Happened, that were unfavorable, driving the average customer rating for the book, which had hovered just above three stars in the early hours of public availability, up to the maximum five stars (4.8), where it remains.
To be clear, each of these companies states adamantly that they are politically neutral and, in the case of perceived censorship, are merely enforcing clear and established policy. And there is little doubt that they could, and likely will have to, mount an effective defense of their actions in a court of law.
But the court of law is not the court of public opinion. Will the sheep see the shepherd and his dog for what they are. And what will be the shepherd’s reaction? Will he give the sheep freedom or will he train another dog?
None of which has anything to do with evil intent. All intent is dichotomal. It is neither good nor bad; it is merely intent. The giant tech companies are NOT evil empires. They simply can’t help themselves and are likely unconscious of any corporate bias and influence. We have simply and voluntarily given them a degree of power that no person or institution in history has been able to wield without favor and bias. It is beyond our abilities. We are, by nature and nurture, creatures, both personal and institutional, drawn to influence—as both givers and takers.
At the heart of all things online is the algorithm, named after the ninth century mathematician, Muhammad ibn-Musa al-Khwarizmi. The magic of Facebook, Google, Amazon and Twitter is the magic of algorithms, digital computations that provide answers to questions like those asked of a search engine or used to determine a ranking. They are not calculations, however, in the same sense that 2+2=4 is. They can answer a question but they are not inherently truthful. They can approximate truth, but hold no dominion over it.
Franklin Foer, the author of the seminal book, World Without Mind, makes the astute and far-reaching observation that, “The problem is that when we outsource thinking to machines, we are really outsourcing thinking to the organizations that run the machines.” All people have a perspective; all coders are people; all algorithms are inherently biased in one direction or another.
In the case of the Internet, moreover, the algorithm and the potential bias it empowers is hidden away from public scrutiny under the guise of intellectual property. Google does not tell us how it conducts its searches. Facebook doesn’t tell us the whole story as to how it loads our news feed or populates our potential friends list.
The bias feeds on itself. The meaning of words becomes more and more rigid and more partisan. Opinions harden. We seek shelter not just from aggressive behaviors but from thought that makes us uncomfortable or we do not wish to hear. We run for the shelter of safe places and safe friends who see the world just as we do. We demand that content providers provide trigger warnings so we can easily avoid content that we may not find comfortable to even be aware of.
It is no surprise, really, that social media is no longer social. A Tweet is both a witty meme and a cudgel with which to shame and destroy. Facebook is a community both to enjoy and to manipulate.
Reality isn’t even real any more. Selfies are staged and digitally altered. Even the social celebrities themselves complain that reality has been lost. Kim Kardashian, photographed while on holiday and allegedly without the services of her digital stylists, complained on national television recently that the picture taken and posted online is not of the “real” her. It’s her face and body, but it is not the allegedly digital body that her notoriety is built upon. “Like, I literally don’t look like this!”
The problem is not fake news. The problem is that technology has unleashed artificial forces that will eventually spiral out of control. Reality will become less and less real. Divisions will be hardened. The tech giants will more and more be forced to take sides. Divisions will harden further. Language and visual media will be further weaponized. The government will not have the courage or the political capital to step in.
Social media will implode. The stock market will crash. The world economy will come tumbling down. The post-apocalyptic dystopia, once the stuff of Netflix and video games, will be very real indeed.
If you doubt that, I challenge you to this simple test: Identify one single person who has a workable way to keep unsubstantiated information off the Internet. It can’t be done. Truth is, more often than not, a false dilemma. You will have your truth; I will have mine; but at some level each will be half of a duality.
In an article dated October 7, 2017, Bloomberg quoted Alex Stamos, Facebook’s chief security officer, saying “It’s very difficult to spot fake news and propaganda using just computer programs,” warning that the fake news problem is far more complicated and dangerous than the public thinks and Congress would have us believe. Adding people, of course, otherwise called censors, will only make the problem worse.
If we need more evidence we have only to look at the challenge facing China, which already has one of the most heavily regulated and censored social media spaces in the world. According to Bloomberg, “the country’s [China’s] social media employ technology and armies of vetters to scour its services for undesirable content, which in China’s case goes beyond rumors and unsubstantiated claims to include any and all information deemed harmful to social stability. Yet even the best-funded online operators have difficulty keeping up…”
“The problem persists despite China having some of the strictest rules aimed at preventing the spread of ‘false news,’ ” Bloomberg continues. The Chinese government, in reaction, has established regulations forcing forum-posters to register with their real identities and threatening jail time for posting defamatory false information, two fairly straight forward regulations that seem unfathomable in the US.
Fake news is a problem with no solution because the digital space, in the end, is not organic to the universe. The Internet is a human convention in the same way that language is. We made it up.
In the case of the online world, however, there is only one and it spans the globe, empowering friend and foe alike. And we have integrated it so far into our economy, our culture, and our institutions of learning and commerce, the inevitable exposure of its fallacy will bring everything crashing down.
As a human convention, the Internet is, by definition, a scientific fraud. It is built on a human consensus that has no basis in the natural universe. Within such a world, truth itself is ultimately a false dilemma that will eventually be exposed for what it is; a convention of human thought that exists in a context; and which context is defined by an unavoidably biased perspective.
The promise of the Internet was that it would overcome the manipulative power of influence. In the end, however, it has merely empowered it. And it will continue to empower it to the point where influence brings about its own destruction.
The Internet has nuclearized influence. The post-apocalyptic dystopia cannot be far behind.
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In the late 1980s I was granted a special visa to travel to Guangzhou, then called Canton. I traveled by plane (a fairly antiquated one, at that) from Hong Kong.
We landed at an airport where the terminal seemed no larger than a modest house. Today’s Baiyun airport, by comparison, handles 60 million passengers per year, more than New York’s Kennedy airport.
Bureaucracy and security were in full view. My paper work was passed along a row of officials, none of whom apparently spoke English or asked a single question. They did, however, stamp with big, loud, mechanical stamps that just sounded very official. Today, China is one of the most automated and digital countries on the planet. Many cities are very close to a cashless economy and there isn’t much you can’t do with just a mobile phone.
On the security side there were a lot of young men in military uniforms at the airport holding some fairly serious weaponry, and they had all apparently been trained to look menacing. We were supposed to put our hand luggage (in my case, a briefcase) on a conveyer for x-ray inspection, undoubtedly in search of contraband coming in from Hong Kong. I was so overwhelmed with the scene, however, that I didn’t see the sign directing everyone to do that until I was almost past. I continued to walk by at least three automatic weapons but no one said a word. (Probably because I was a foreigner, I know now.)
And then I walked out the door. There were bicycles and people everywhere. I still can’t put it in words. There were very few cars, although my official host, a representative of the Communist Party at some level, had a car, so I was a given a bird’s eye view of what a swarm of bicycles looks like.
What was most impressive, however, was the total lack of carnage. The cyclists were packed so close together that a single accident was sure to turn into a massive chain reaction. And there appeared to be no rules of the road. Cyclists ignored the cars, what few traffic signals there were, the pedestrians, and each other. And somehow it all worked.
Substitute cars for bicycles and you have the same scenario today. The traffic in places like Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou makes the traffic in any major American city pale by comparison. Imagine New York or Chicago with 25 million residents. And, to this day, while there are well-defined rules of the road, no one obeys them. Or even pretends. And the police don’t care.
This is China. It’s crowded and noisy. And it’s chaotic. (The Chinese don’t normally honor queues either.) But it works.
It works because the Chinese have learned how to cope with chaos. They live it every day. And yet things get done, usually at a speed Americans can’t quite fathom.
Bikes are now returning to the streets of China in the form of ride sharing platforms that work much like Uber and Lyft. It’s not a new idea. Bike sharing has been offered in major US cities for some time now.
The difference, however, is transformative—or disastrous—depending on your perspective. China’s popular bike ride sharing platforms, like Ofo and Mobike, don’t require pickup, drop off, and storage stations. You find the bike wherever the last patron left it, but the app on your smart phone will tell you where that is. And you drop it off wherever you like. And that’s where it sits until someone else wants to use it.
The obvious lack of structure is ideal in solving the last mile problem. It really doesn’t matter where your last mile is. You don’t have to live next door to the subway entrance or bike rental station.
That same lack of structure, however, Americans have already noted, can create visual and pedestrian anarchy. Bikes will just pile up at the entrance to other forms of mass transit, and since there are no racks, and the Chinese typically reject rules, that can create an inconvenience for people just trying to get into or out of the tube.
This, I suspect, will be a much bigger hurdle for the Chinese ride sharing companies trying to expand into the US than they probably realize. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if these companies aren’t banned in otherwise “progressive” cities around the country. A recent article in The Washington Post claimed, in fact, “Opponents have branded Ofo and Mobike a menace, a plague and a public nuisance.”
It will start with the bureaucrats. In San Francisco the City Supervisor referred to China’s Bluegogo, which put 20,000 bikes on the street without permission in January, a “public nuisance,” and threatened legal action. (Of course. It’s the American solution.)
Even though these companies require no support from the cities themselves, since they don’t need racks or real estate, they will have to get a license to operate and they will, without a doubt, be excessively regulated. Local governments will try very hard to tell them where they can leave the bikes, offer the bikes, etc. And the police, of course, will be called upon to enforce the regulations, giving the men and women in blue yet another regulation to occupy their time and dilute their efforts to stop crime.
One of the reasons that the Chinese economy is so resilient is that the regulators don’t worry about the little stuff. If you want to start a small business, just start it. Sure, you technically need a license, but chances are that no one is going to bother you unless you give them a reason to. The police are more likely than not to patronize your business than shut it down.
And the reason that the police are able to keep a tight rein on violent crime is that they do little else. They don’t waste time writing out traffic tickets or fining some hapless predestination for jay walking. If you’re not threatening the Party or public security, the police are likely to leave you alone.
We Americans, on the other hand, are a nation of rule followers and enforcers. And rules are rules. There are no moral equivalents, if you will, when it comes to controlling what people do. Take a trip to your local DMV office and try to do something even remotely out of line with the rules if you doubt that.
The third, and perhaps most significant difference, however, is not that the Chinese won’t eventually see the need to do something about the problem. It is that the people impacted will do something about it. They will figure out some way to overcome the problem without throwing away the benefits.
Americans, on the other hand, will, I suspect, look to the government to solve the problem. The government will inevitably over-reach, yet other people will get upset, and responsibility will just bounce around in that growing bin of social problems we just can’t seem to find a solution for.
The wealthy, of course, will get helicopter ride sharing apps or buy their own, if they can afford it. The mass middle will get prescriptions for higher doses of Xanax, and the poor will just shake their heads and get by.
Oh, one last thing. The regulators will tell you that they need to regulate these companies in the name of public safety and consumer protection. You will hear all kinds of dire concerns about the bikes being stolen, set afire in the middle of the street, or used in the commission of crime. These are all just red herrings. What is the price of climate change? What is the value of your time sitting in commuter traffic? What is the value of giving people just another simple way to get a little exercise without joining a fancy gym?
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On August 25th, China’s Internet regulatory body, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CPC), issued new rules to further limit anonymity and false identity on the net. The move immediately launched an outcry of “political censorship” among Western journalists.
But is the hue and cry truly warranted?
There is little question that while the Internet has opened the world to the individual citizen, it has also delivered the citizen to the crook. And, it seems logical, identity thieves and such are probably using false identities. And while it is theoretically true that you could outlaw the thievery without the identity restrictions, that presumes there is at least some overriding benefit to society of anonymity or false identity to begin with.
But what is that overriding benefit?
If you spend any time at all on any part of the web where public comment is possible, you’ll surely find a whole lot of angst. A lot of the people who use the Internet as their personal soapbox are just plain mean, uninformed, or both. And a good many of them, in fact, hide behind their anonymity. They can sit in their pajamas and give voice to all of their pent up self-pity and perceived ill treatment by the world.
And what good does it do? It’s doubtful they feel any better as a result. They certainly aren’t contributing to the kind of informed public dialogue we should be having. And they’re burning up resources in the process that could be put to better use.
The Internet and its infrastructure and administration, of course, do require energy to operate. Most of it, one can safely guess, is of the fossil fuel variety, which, one should point out, these town criers are not personally paying for. The collective net is paying for them through taxes, ISP fees, and the price of goods and services we buy from companies that use the net to promote their business. However we talk about it, the net is a public resource in the same way that utilities and regulated broadcasters are.
The scarcest resource for most Americans, moreover, is time. And we are all forced to waste far too much of it on news feeds like Twitter scrolling through the seemingly endless tweets and comments made by users seeking little more than notoriety. The law of the inverse, which serves to give the individual a voice, works in reverse as well. That voice has to cut through a very big mound of useless and often tasteless clutter.
The regulation-free net, moreover, quite clearly supports the idea of moral equivalency between all voices. And isn’t that what most of us rejected when President Trump commented about events in Charlottesville? I can think of few cases, in fact, where moral equivalency is anything more than a tool of obfuscation.
As political divisions in America widen and become increasingly bitter, it appears that a majority of Americans are beginning to agree. Even companies that profit from Internet access are starting to police themselves. In response to events in Charlottesville, companies like GoDaddy, Paypal, Airbnb, Google, GoFundMe, and Discord all took restrictive positions against hate groups that use or could use their services.
That’s a good thing, I believe, but do we really want to turn the Internet over to private police in the same way we have turned over much of our military to private companies that are essentially accountable to no one? I, for one, don’t know the name of the CEO of any of these companies, with the exception of Google, and would bet my last dollar I could not get even one of them to take my phone call to discuss the issue of censorship.
The government is hardly an unbiased arbiter. Politicians, we know from experience, are often driven by their self-interests. I think we can say, however, just as we say about the US judicial system; it’s better than the alternative.
To many Americans, of course, China represents that dreaded political alternative. The Communist Party of China is in control and will ultimately be the one to determine what can and cannot be on the Internet there. As an Internet user, however, I would rather fight a known agenda than a hidden one, which is, in fact, what’s happening in the US. Big money, in the end, is what drives American regulatory practices today.
As I have noted many times before, moreover, China has a built in self-correction device unavailable here in the US. Many of the critics of China’s recent move to restrict anonymity and false identity have complained that the new regulations are both vague and potentially all encompassing.
But that’s the good news. It’s intentional. Local government officials, for the most part, will be left to interpret the regulations as they see fit given local circumstances. Users and their lawyers cannot hide behind the loopholes inevitable when the translation of regulations is literal, as it commonly is in the US.
Beijing can and will step in at times, of course, and the approach does open the door to rogue and arbitrary behavior. Nonetheless, the average citizen can, without too much effort, meet with local government officials to plead their case. I’ve personally done it many times with a relatively high success rate. I’ve never convinced the local DMV, on the other hand, to compromise even a little on the paperwork required to transfer vehicle ownership, for example.
Local government regulators don’t have that kind of discretion in the US. They are programmed to follow the rules to the letter, even if it’s clear that justice is not being served in any particular case. “I don’t make the rules” is the classic bureaucratic cop out in most liberal democracies.
A rare independently minded government official may decide to stand up for justice in the US from time to time. Because it is not the norm, however, that only serves to undermine faith in the rule of law. It’s far better not to have a regulation than it is to have one that isn’t enforced. In the US at least. That’s not the paradigm. In China it is to be expected and, as a result, works reasonably well.
About the only benefit to protecting anonymity on the net that I can see is the protection it theoretically provides to the noble minded whistle blower. If the issue is important enough, of course, the anonymity is questionable anyway. The NSA or other government agency, we can assume, isn’t really restricted from stripping away anonymity when it wants to.
And, of course, there are other ways to both blow the whistle and to protect whistle-blowers. Honest public transparency, in fact, is one of the most effective ways to provide that protection.
In the end, I believe, Americans will see the need to regulate the Internet in the same way that Elon Musk and others have called upon the government to regulate artificial intelligence. They are really just two facets of the same issue.
In the meantime, I doubt that many Chinese are really worried about the new regulations. Some will be, and they will be given the microphone by Western journalists. Most of the Chinese web, however, will buzz along just as it has.
If hate and misinformation continues to dominate the Western Internet to the degree it does now, we might just have something to learn from the Chinese Communists. God forbid.
You may contact the author at email@example.com Author’s website: www.gmoreau.com