Monday, January 28, 2008

The Changing China

In an earlier post, I mentioned China briefly and would like to open that can of worms just a little bit further today. When I was in college, I wrote a paper which detailed why I believed China would continue to integrate itself into the world economy and power structure in a peaceful manner. I argued this in light of China's emerging economy, its liberalizing labor laws, and China's changing attitudes toward trading on a global scale. In many ways, I still stand by this assessment, but it is also disturbing to note that China is becoming a dichotomous country in terms of its outlook on the world around it.

One, China's economy needs outside sources for technology and outside markets. Chinese companies are beginning to invest in other countries in the region and the world, trying to integrate themselves into an already strong Occidental market. With China's manufacturing ability and immense manpower, production is not a problem. What is a problem is the lack of the technological base possessed by the West, specifically the educational and scientific advantages in the United States. China can buy the technology it needs, but this can be costly. They can also reverse engineer or steal the technology they need, but this can be dangerous. Just because they know how we make something does not mean that they can replicate it. Yes, they can follow the plans but they may not have the high quality equipment to make it correctly, leading to low quality copies, almost like a dirty Xerox copier where you can see what its supposed to be, but you can't use it nearly as well. Also, as part of China's search for a market for its goods, they will sell to anyone who can buy, including states which have a historically strained relationship with China, such as North Korea, and states with a strained relationship with the United States, such as Iran.

G. John Ikenberry points out that China can grow into the current world structure, or can grow in opposition to it. He uses several examples, first that the United States grow into the world structure around the turn of the 20th century, and subsequently changed the world power structure peacefully and without damaging the countries in Europe where the power had formerly resided. Second, he points out that Germany in the same time frame grew its economy and military at a high rate, and then challenged the rest of Europe. I think that China can learn from this history lesson, because, even though Germany had a much larger and better trained military as well as a larger economic base, the old guard still defeated them resoundingly. Unfortunately that defeat led to Germany's rise in the 1930's and Hitler's attempt to lead the country into its former glory. It would be to China's advantage to grow within the current world economy, as it already has a large stake in it. To disrupt that trade and anger those sources of income would unnecessarily hamper economic growth.

However, no matter what China's new economic policies are, we must remember that it is a socialist state and does not always do what we as capitalists would consider is in its best interest. As a developing country, the largest portion of its economy is still agriculture, however the policies which drive economic growth also mirror socialist Russia's environmental degradation. In order to become a major world player, China is destroying itself. Accordingly, the good of the country is to the detriment of the people. The aggressive state lead growth has lead to other aspects falling by the wayside, something that in a truly capitalist economy is much less likely to happen due to consumer and workforce pressures.

I think that this is all for now. I will continue in a later post with a, hopefully, more structured analysis.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Hardly Normal

Hardly what we would consider normal people, terrorists are in a class of insanity all to themselves. They believe that, through their extreme actions and horrendous displays of disregard for their fellow man, they can actually bring about lawful change through unlawful measures. The US military released records of al-Qaeda recruitment in Iraq of foreigners to fight for their beliefs. These documents, seized in Sinjar, remind us of how well organized international terror actually is. They also point to some hopeful signs for Iraqi development.

First, the papers have forced a revised estimate of not only where the terrorists are coming from, but also which kind of attack is perpetrated by whom. The revision of the nationalities of suicide bombers from 75% foreign to 90% is a glimmer of hope for that troubled country. Suicide bombings are probably the most effective killer in the jihad-ist's arsenal and the fact that the vast majority of those willing to perpetrate such acts are not Iraqi speaks volumes for the Iraqi peoples' commitment to the emerging government and the faith they put in its ability to improve their lives.

Second, the demographic distribution of the recruits should not be terribly surprising. A large number were students. Think about demographics here in the United States; which one is the most likely to adamantly and vocally support ideological causes? Students, being younger, less experienced, and more likely to arrogantly believe that they are the only ones able to see the "truth" and must therefore be the voice of whatever their cause is, are more prone to becoming activists the world over. They are young enough that they still search for role models, and old enough that they can be manipulated into making foolish decisions without fully considering the ramifications of their actions. In the case of Islamic terrorism, this demographic can be molded into the perfect martyr, someone who blithely believes in the twisted ideology of the terrorist network, someone who can be convinced to put their life on the line for the teachings of an extreme sect of one of the world's largest religions.

Finally, the documents point to the level of organization that the largest Islamic terrorist organization in the world really has. As the article (linked above) points out, bin-Laden was a businessman before he was a terrorist, a very successful one at that. That background, as well as a need to coordinate strategy, lends itself to a structured approach to terrorism. I believe that the papers found in Sinjar do more for our intelligence networks than merely identifying areas to keep an eye on. We already knew that areas where there is conflict centering on Islamic fanaticism are areas to watch for those same fanatics becoming terrorist leaders elsewhere, using the strategies they implemented at home. Recruitment records may also help us focus on not only where, but who and how terrorists are enlisted. Records of any organization help us to understand how it works, and if al-Qaeda really does operate more like a corporation than we originally thought, that makes it that much more predictable and easy to track. Unfortunately, as we have learned with the drug cartel, it also makes it that much more effective.

My food for thought for the day, however, is a reflection on the mindset of a terrorist. The now famous saying "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter" offers insight into what really drives a terrorist. Belief. No man willingly fights for a cause he does not believe is right. No amount of "focusing on the root causes" of terrorism will stop certain groups from forming. When people talk about alleviating the economic disparity or the foreign policy of western nations being the cause of the rise of terrorist cells, they ignore the fact that many terrorists (especially the leaders) are from affluent backgrounds and highly educated, many through the western university system. Most people are uncomfortable with the idea that to really stop terrorist growth, you must stop the belief that gives rise to it. To do this however, would also lead to the ability to stifle any beliefs that run contrary to what the governing authority wants you to believe. I am in no way supporting the radical thoughts that give rise to terrorism, nor am I supporting the groups themselves. I am saying that unless we as a culture change our way of thinking, there is no feasible way to end terrorism.

This essay offers an interesting and fairly accurate insight on why we are unable to end our generations plague. Many of my generation are hung up on the concept taught to most of us in government schools that we must tolerate everyone else's beliefs. What is not discussed is when it is appropriate to stop tolerating and confront a dangerous ideology, when toleration of others leads to compromising one's own beliefs because the others believe they need not tolerate your beliefs. People in our country need to remember the words of John Stuart Mill, "War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling that thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself."

Then again, deep down I think all of us understand the idea of dieing for a cause.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

From Russia With Love

In my last post I briefly mentioned my concerns over Russia and its actions in the Middle East, I would like to take this space to comment on my growing concern over Russia's actions and political developments. When the Cold War ended almost two decades ago, it seemed that the USSR under Gorbachev and then Russia under Yeltsin would be able to slowly re-integrate itself to the expanding global economy. Gorbachev started the trend toward real economic development and integration with the glasnost and perestroika policies, gradually pulling his government away from state domination of the internal markets, allowing for foreign competition, and releasing the communist strangle hold on civil liberties. With the demise of the Soviet Union and the election of Boris Yeltsin as the first ever popularly elected leader of Russia, the country continued to attempt a decentralization of economic power and the privatization of corporations. Unfortunately, much of the corruption present under communist rule remained in place and derailed the planned economic development, centralizing it once again. After Yeltsin's resignation, Putin was elected by the people to contain the corruption and expand economic freedom. Here is where Russia's progress becomes cloudy.

Putin has led an interesting life, and I think it offers insight into the man's leadership style and goals. He has a history of combining state positions, but only to consolidate his own power. Beyond that he has ballooned the size of the bureaucracy (11-17% in 2005 alone) and nationalized corporations in an attempt to regulate and control economic growth. By statistical standards, he has succeeded in leaps and bounds with an economic growth rate of 6.7%, compared to the US's rate of 2.9%. Growth in personal incomes has been approximately 12% per year. While these figures are good, there are some problems. The most well known problem in Russia's economy is the well-publicised corruption and organized crime network, both of which act as a funnel for wealth away from the Russian labor force. Also, there is the problem of not having a diverse basis of exportable products. The majority (80%) of exports consists of market driven commodities, such as oil, natural gas, metals, and timber. With any sort of global downturn in the market, or even a recession within one of Russia's major trading partners, a major source of income could vanish. As I mentioned in the last post, much of the state's exports in industrial goods comes in the form of military technology and equipment. Lastly, while productivity and income are up, they still lag far behind the rest of the developed world. Russia's work force is about half of that of the United states and the total GDP is one thirteenth of ours. Russia's GDP per capita in 2006 was just over $12,000, as compared to the United States GDP per capita of around $43,000. None of that can sit well with the world's only former-superpower.

In addition to the economic troubles, some of Russia's policies are disconcerting as well. Putin has developed such a cult-of-personality (his 2000 election was with a 56% majority vote, followed by the 2004 election by over 70% of the vote, along with a high approval rate) that he can organize the wildly popular youth movement, the Nashi, and even name his successor, Dmitri Medvedev. Putin's nationalistic youth movement indoctrinates the next generation of leaders to state (read: Vladimir Putin) approved ways of thinking and revisionist history, glorifying the exploits of the USSR. The group is strikingly reminiscent of the Hilter-Jugend in the 1930's, even being accused of silencing dissenting voices within the country. Also, Russia's handling of the situation with Chechnya demonstrates the lessons in diplomacy Putin learned during his time in the KGB. Finally, Putin's ability to virtually assure Medvedev's election this year tells me that the former state security officer become president will continue to be a major player in the formation of policy and diplomatic affairs.

Let us not forget, Putin is a man who was trained by one if the best propaganda machines the world has ever seen, the KGB. Win the hearts and minds of the people, or beat them into agreement, all is fair in the secretive and brutal world of the secret police.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Increasingly Irate Iran

Today I found yet another example of Iran's (or the Iranian government's) distaste for America and a dangerous willingness to attempt teasing a tiger. Contained in this article MSNBC ran today is an account of Revolutionary Guard boats trying to play pin the tail on the donkey with American warships. According to MSNBC, Iran’s Foreign Ministry seemed to claim a case of ignorance on the part of its forces. For the men of these five boats to have deliberately tried to provoke a confrontation with U.S. military forces would be disturbing enough, but for them to have not realized the ships they were accosting were a United States Navy destroyer, frigate, and cruiser would be down right frightening. Iran has a history of trying to provoke responses from its neighbors, see Ahmadinejad's statements regarding Israel, and trying to provoke the militaries currently in the region, see the capture of fifteen British troops last year.

For a country that has behaved erratically in the international political arena and supports terror and tyranny to become so brazen spells out a recipe for another cataclysmic conflict, not only inside the borders of one Middle Eastern country, but one that boils out of the region and pulls in supporters from all sides and for all side. Russia, with its internal politics increasingly mimicking the politics of a generation ago, has already drawn its line in the sand by selling arms to Iran. China's shaky relations with Iran and burgeoning trade with America only puts a cloud over where that county's imposing military may find itself, should conflict erupt.

I'm afraid it's not so much an "if" Iran will cross the line, it's a "when." When that happens, the world must decide how to deal with this tyrannical state. Will we have the moral superiority of Chamberlain and achieve peace in our time? Ahmadinejad has consistently shown that he has very little respect for diplomatic measures. Why should we extend him that courtesy?

Friday, January 4, 2008

Production and Consumption

As I spent part of the day lazily flipping from link to link this article on the New York Times' website caught my eye. The article itself is well worded but somewhat deceptive in its presentation. It effectively presents the same style of Malthusian argument that we have been plagued with for centuries, merely using statistics rather than theoretical and philosophical statements. The problem I have always had with arguments based on statistics is that very few people understand the field of study of which those numbers are products. Therefore, a concrete integer, quantifying a problem in a way that looks simple and easy to understand, can be used to fool people into thinking that they know the basis of an argument without ever actually having to show them any real data. In the case of this article, the now-classic statement about dwindling oil supplies echoes the argument Thomas Malthus made over two hundred years ago about the human population outgrowing the world's capacity to supply food, thereby starving the population. In the same way, the argument that the world has x years before we deplete our fossil fuel supply has been around since the 1970's. Since the early 70's x has stayed roughly the same. Does that mean we have found better ways to extract oil? Does that mean we had horrible estimates of the world's reserves? Does that mean that we have better production methods? Or does it mean that we have no idea what forces are behind the creation of crude and are using fear as a motivator?

Essentially, the statement that we must cut our consumption in order for the rest of the world to be able to increase their own consumption has a few flaws that should be glaringly obvious to anyone who wishes to look at the argument from a purely logical perspective. First, the assumption that the world will run out of resources is flawed. Yes, the world has a finite amount of natural resources, that I will not argue. I will, however, take issue with the assumption that we know what those limits are. One, the estimates of the world's resources vary wildly from report to report, depending on who is running the numbers, how they run them, and the sort of outcome for which they are looking. Two, according to the science upon which these estimates must be based, there is no way to destroy matter. Therefore, we never actually use up resources, we merely convert them to another form of material. (Flippant and pedantic, I know, but true none-the-less.)

The next problem I have with the argument is the underlying elitism in the idea that we must cut back in order for the rest of the world to catch up. Do we really think that we are so far advanced that others can't make it to our level without us lowering the bar? Does it not seem unfair to developing nations that we impose the Kyoto Protocol on them? A plan in which we would be required to cut back on emissions, true, but also a plan which would restrict the use of technology that the developing world could use to bring themselves up the level of technology we take for granted in everyday use. One last thing about the pretension evidenced by this particular argument is the concept that all other people in the world want to live as we do. Even if one can define what it is to live as an American lives, given the disparity in lifestyles in our country, one can by no means claim to know that every one wants to have that way of life. Whether it is because they have a belief system which prevents them from aspiring to aspects of our culture, in the same way that the Amish in America have no desire to live the "American" lifestyle, or something as simple as they have a personality that militates for a simpler life, it is arrogant to assume that we live the ideal.

The simplest of the fallacies to notice, and the simplest to fix if necessary or possible, is the assumption that consumption and population will continue to grow while all other factors remain static. If population grows, then not only will consumption grow, manpower and the work force will expand. With the technological advances of the last century production grew at not merely proportional rates but at exponential rates relative to the workforce. To assume that this trend cannot continue as the rest of the world population grows would be foolhardy. Not only would production increase along with the increased demand of world markets, technologies also will multiply and improve at exponential rates.

While I think that the argument for conservation must be made, I believe it should not be made in such a way as to say that we must conserve or be forced to conserve, as in a statist's plea for the government to make our decisions for us. It seems that the economic remonstration for conservation is more effective than a pseudo-moral appeal to people's emotion. Does it not make more sense to say "Conserve, and you will save money through cutting your wasteful and unnecessary consumption," than to say "Conserve and cut your consumption so that those who are less fortunate may have more?"