Monday, January 31, 2011

Start the Revolution Without Me

Among those wishing for the end of the ChiComs, no one can rival Gordon Chang. Here is how he ends his Forbes article on the recent democracy movement in the Arab World:
Twice in their past—in 1911 and 1949—China’s people opted for radical political change.  After the unexpected events in Tunisia and Egypt—and after more than sixty years of Communist Party misrule at home—we could see the third Chinese revolution this year.
And, if not this year - next. And, if not next, then the year after that. ... 

Chinese history is cyclical – stability, chaos, stability, chaos. China had the good fortune to time her current 35-year streak of peace and stability with a worldwide decrease in the costs of communication and transportation. In the latter decades of the 20th Century, it suddenly became profitable to set up factories in the Western Pacific Rim, and hire low-wage workers to make junk that can be shipped economically to North America and Europe. Thus, this period of stability has also brought China some prosperity (at least for the top third), and many think it is on this foundation that the 21st Century’s superpower will be built.

While it is true China has a huge amount of manpower to draw upon, her demographics give two reasons for alarm. First, China had a baby boom in the 1950s and 60s. That generation will be retiring over the next two decades, causing many burdens for the remaining workers who will be left to support their parents and grandparents. This is because China’s One Child Policy, instituted in the late-1970s, has been so successful. Pretty soon, China will consist of two retirees with one child, and one grandchild. Japan and South Korea are going through the same process, but China’s per capita income is far behind her wealthy neighbors. China is growing old before she is rich enough to support her aged dependents.

The second demographic issue is also a side-effect of the One Child Policy – Chinese society’s preference for males has produced a skewed sex ratio among the younger generations. There are not enough brides to go around, and while the middle class might court poorer neighbors (Vietnam, Cambodia, etc.), the vast underclass won’t have that outlet. Unlike its aging population, this demographic issue has the potential to destabilize, as unmarried men labor to support their retired parents rather than a family of their own.

China won't be a superpower any time soon, but what about Chang's point? Has modern China outgrown its stability-chaos cycle? It’s doubtful. Are there other flashpoints that can cause an implosion? Many. A trip to the bookstore will reveal volumes predicting the coming collapse, with a variety of explanations (demographics, corruption, income inequality, one-party rule, etc.). Will a period of chaos come this year? Who knows? We've all heard the stories of Chinese officials maintaining foreign passports and offshore accounts. They fear something. I just wouldn't presume to know exactly when it is coming. China has profound structural defects beyond mere demographics, but the collapse and chaos could be decades away.

FL Judge Says Obamacare is Unconstitutional

From Reuters, a half hour ago:
A judge in Florida on Monday became the second judge to declare President Barack Obama's healthcare reform law unconstitutional, in the biggest legal challenge yet to federal authority to enact the law.
U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson, appointed to the bench by President Ronald Reagan in 1983, ruled that the reform law's so-called "individual mandate" went too far in requiring that Americans start buying health insurance in 2014 or pay a penalty.
"Because the individual mandate is unconstitutional and not severable, the entire act must be declared void. This has been a difficult decision to reach, and I am aware that it will have indeterminable implications," Vinson wrote.
Ultimately, the Supreme Court will decide this (most likely in 2012). The President is going to spend the next two years defending Obamacare from the machinations of Congress, but the third branch is the ultimate arbiter of these things. 

Sputnik Moment?

President Obama's State of the Union address last week contained the following passage:

Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik¸ we had no idea how we'd beat them to the moon. The science wasn't there yet. NASA didn't even exist. But after investing in better research and education, we didn't just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs.
This is our generation's Sputnik moment. Two years ago, I said that we needed to reach a level of research and development we haven't seen since the height of the Space Race. In a few weeks, I will be sending a budget to Congress that helps us meet that goal. We'll invest in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology – an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people.

Already, we are seeing the promise of renewable energy.
Already? We've been promised the promise of renewable energy for nearly four decades. Government involvement in subsidizing these technologies helped to create the ethanol boondoggle. Government has a poor history of picking technologies because its decisions are not based on viability, but politics.

It's true that government put a man on the moon - and that was indeed a great thing. Exploration into the unknown is one of the few endeavors in man's history where government is better equipped than the private sector. The expense is enormous and the risks huge. Fifteenth Century Portuguese exploration around the Cape of Good Hope was driven by Prince Henry the Navigator. Columbus's journey was funded by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. Once the path had been opened, privately funded endeavors followed. The same is beginning to happen today as we enter the era of for-profit space travel.

Nevertheless, the left will be citing Sputnik and the Moon Shot for the next millennium as a justification for their big government spending programs ('we needed government to put a man on the moon, now we need government for X'). However, big government programs are only justified for a narrow range of focused projects. President Obama's speech didn't contain one. This is not a Sputnik moment. It is out generation's duty to end deficit spending instead. It might not be as glamorous, but it's of vital importance. 

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Do the Recent Arab Protests Discredit the 2003 Invasion of Iraq?

The recent civil unrest in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen has tempted commentators to point to these events as evidence of the foolishness of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Chris Matthews, on Friday, began the program Hardball with the following statement:
Leading off tonight: Unrest in Egypt. Proving the Iraq war wasn`t needed, these protests in Egypt, as well as in Yemen and Tunisia, are all aimed at dictators supported by the U.S. The demonstrations have not yet turned anti-American, but they could. These are the events the Bush administration hoped to encourage by lying about weapons of mass destruction and invading Iraq.
 Powerline rebuts:
Two weeks ago Egypt and Tunisia were quiet; was that evidence that the Iraq war was needed? Libya is quiet still; is that evidence that the Iraq war was necessary? This is all a bizarre non sequitur.
Indeed. Go to the site for the full takedown.

A day earlier, former New York Times blogger, Robert Wright, made a more seductive argument that recent events discredit the invasion. In a conversation on Bloggingheads he had this to say (it’s at 44:10 in the video):
I do want to get in one point I just haven’t heard. Which is that - when the Tunisian thing happened, naturally some supporters of the Iraq War said – well, had we not implanted democracy in Iraq, this might never have happened in Tunisia. I think in a certain sense it is the exact opposite. I think Tunisia is the case against the Iraq War because what it tells you is - let nature take its course. The drift of technological evolution is – it doesn’t guarantee you’ll get democracy in every case - but, it tends to be anti-authoritarian. So, it was silly to think that if we don’t personally get rid of Saddam Hussein, he will be there forever.
The first objection I have to Mr. Wright’s argument is that it ignores the fact that Saddam’s cruelty was not contained within his own borders. He was a dictator who had attacked four neighbors. Tunisia was not an international menace. So, waiting for the Iraqis to remove Saddam himself would have costs for the international community.

More importantly, Wright’s analysis treats all dictatorships the same, whereas the success or failure of protest movements rests on the character of the regime they are demonstrating against. Is the regime willing to give the order to fire on unarmed civilians? Is the military willing to follow those orders in defense of the regime? Regimes collapse when there aren’t enough willing to kill to protect it – particularly when the military shares bonds of ethnicity, language, religion and culture with the protestors.

The 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square failed because the regime had troops willing to fire on the protestors. The local forces were seen as unreliable, so government officials trucked in soldiers from the Mongolian border. They were told the students were reactionaries threatening the revolution. There were fewer ties of ethnicity or language to cause hesitation. They fired.

The Shah collapsed when his troops wouldn’t fire. Thirty years later, the Mullahs stayed in power because they had an outside force willing to commit acts of violence – specifically, foreign-born paramilitary members in the Basij.

The August 1991 attempted Soviet coup failed for several reasons – one being that the troops wouldn’t fire on the protestors in Moscow.

Tunisia is a homogenous country. There are few religious or ethnic divisions a dictator can exploit. The troops wouldn’t fire and the regime collapsed. My suspicion is that the same is true in Egypt, and Mubarak won’t make it through this crisis.

But, that leaves us with Iraq. Could a protest movement ever have brought down the Saddam Hussein regime if we had "let nature take its course"? Would Saddam’s military have fired on protestors?

I can’t think of a regime where nonviolent protests would be less likely to succeed. Saddam's forces were willing to commit acts of genocide against the Kurds.  His troops slaughtered the Shia when they rose up at the end of the 1991 Gulf War. The Sunni insurgency contained a large contingent of former Iraqi soldiers willing to kill Shia women and children in order to provoke a civil war. It’s clear to me Saddam had enough Sunni troops who feared Shia rule who would kill in order to protect his regime. What happened in Tunisia could never happen in Saddam’s Iraq.

I’m not saying this means one has to be for the Iraq War. I’m merely saying that what happened in Tunisia is not an argument against it. Matthews’ assertion was incoherent. Wright’s was seductive, but dubious. My guess is it will become conventional wisdom within a week.