We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

The death clock

A few years ago I remember the arrival of a sort of clock that measured the terrifying rise of the UK’s public debt, a pile that has got much heavier and scarier as a result of the splurge of spending enacted by the new UK finance minister last week. The idea of some dial on the dashboard of our lives, so to speak, which rises constantly, or maybe eventually slows and reverts, is an interesting one. In the media, some newspapers seem to have these daily counts of the number of people dying of coronavirus. On some of the TV channels there is a scrolling feed at the bottom of the screen (I saw this on Sky News, which is arguably even worse than the BBC these days) do this. It was rather like the tickers for the level of the S&P 500 or the latest cricket scores from Lords.

A writer on Linkedin, whom I quote from here but I won’t name as I am not sure I have permission, has written this, and I do sort of sympathise:

Is the news going to report every single death which include a majority of elderly people each day death by death? Many have cancer or asthma or weak immune systems or underlying health issues and many may be on respirators in assisted living or hospitals so how do we know the real cause of death? Smokers who harmed their lungs. Rx’s that damaged lungs and organs such as the heart. Every person is different. The news or government doesn’t report the 109 Americans who die everyday or the 660,000 deaths of individuals from cancer each year. How about the 47,000 plus individual deaths by suicide and illicit drugs? How long is the scare mongering going to linger on? Will be it be until July or August or longer? Viruses and diseases are always popping up…Influenza, Asian Influenza 1950’s, Hong Kong flue 1960’s, Meningitis, AIDS, Mers, Sars, Swine Flu, Ebola…..We don’t know what else may have contributed to the death. Just sayin’.

Of course the State should not in any way ban or try and interfere with such reporting, whether it is crass, hysterical, or sober. At least in the West the media is covering this outbreak heavily, whereas in China, as appears to be the case, people who blew the whistle on what was going on have been punished or just disappeared.

Viruses and globalisation

The virus outbreak in China and the clampdown on travel and other activity by a Communist country is inevitably going to cause some political commentary about the implications, and it already has. One comment I am bracing for is how this proves how dangerous globalisation can be because of extended supply chains, long-haul flights, etc. In fact I expect some on the Green, anti-trade side might make such points. What the episode shows is that all advanced societies need “firebreaks” that can be imposed – hopefully by public consent for a limited period – (I mentioned firebreaks in my previous item about the Australian bushfires). There may also be lessons to come out about local food and hygiene, as well as what is done to immunise young children and so forth. This echoes what I wrote the other day about how forest fires in Australia got more deadly because the “immunity” of the forests was undermined by neglecting to do controlled burns and thin out dead trees.

But it is wrong in a broader sense to say that viruses are a point against greater human interaction via trade in general. One might as well draw the conclusion that we should all live in sealed boxes. When the Black Death raged, it killed a huge number in relative terms of the population in affected areas, and other plagues in early history have been as deadly, and yet most people at the time did not travel far from home. Some did of course, and human cities were dirty and unsanitary. But overall, the world of the 14th Century wasn’t as globalised in terms of human interaction as it is now.

Let’s not forget that trade also increases options when a population is hit by a local disaster. Take the case of food supply if the local produce goes wrong. Lack of imported food access was fatal for Ireland in the 1840s because Corn Laws hampered imports of wheat into the country.

It is true that people who even friendly to the free market economy and global trade use words such as “contagion” to describe how an issue in country X can affect a nation Y, and so on. (Some have even claimed that Chinese savings “surpluses” helped cause the 2008 financial crisis by funding the US housing binge. And writers such as James Rickards have even attempted to defend protectionism and capital controls on the same basis that one might defend a fire safety door.)

There are also implications for the effectiveness or otherwise of “transnational” organisations (aka “tranzis”), as this article at Pajamas Media states.

China is still a deeply oppressive place in many ways, and the disaster today is grim, and worrying. But bear in mind dear reader how far that nation has come since Mao, one of the greatest mass murderers in recorded history, has gone. The virus breaking out is horrible, but far less horrible than anything that bastard brought about. China is now much richer, and has the resources to tackle this plague. I wish them well.

The rewards of compliance

The headline you see when you click on this BBC new story is “Macau: China’s other ‘one country, two systems’ region”, but the headline on the BBC front page that takes you to the story is “HK’s model neighbour that stays loyal to China”.

The rest of the story follows that line.

We hear that Macau has the third highest per capita GDP in the world and that China “has expanded its economy phenomenally”. The government hands out cash to residents “as part of a wealth-sharing programme”. A lady called Mrs Lam – not that Mrs Lam – says of Macau’s relations with China, “We understand the boundaries quite well” and “there has been a big focus on improving the region’s economy as well as its education system”. Even the democracy activist found by the BBC says, when reference is made to the Hong Kong protests, “This dissent does not exist in Macau.”

President Xi Jinping of China is quoted as saying, “I wish to stress that the handling of [Hong Kong and Macau] affairs is strictly China’s internal matter, there is no need for any external force to dictate things to us.”

The article reads as if Mr Xi dictated it to the BBC.

Samizdata quote of the day

“We didn’t always know it at the time, but Hong Kong has been a kind of bellwether for the state of freedom in the wider world.”

Tyler Cowen.

He’s right, which is why, despite the mockers, I am writing about this topic quite a bit and intend to keep doing so.

Terrible arguments excusing what is going on in Hong Kong

On social media I have come across this sort of “argument” used to justify Beijing’s attempt to put its boot fully on the face of people in Hong Kong:

Britain has no right to interfere in any way, even to protest. That’s because the evil British conquered Hong Kong in the 19th Century, got the locals hooked on opium, and ran it as a colony. Colonies are evil, even if they have the benefits of the English Common Law, reasonably non-corrupt officialdom, and all the rest of it. So it is better that Hong Kong be taken over and turned into the rest of China, with all its charming qualities.

If I wanted to engage in “whataboutery”, I could respond (and did, to wind up a couple of particularly nasty interloctors) with the following points:

China has conquered places of its own. Its treatment of Muslims, Christians and others in different parts of China, including the use of internment camps, etc, has been a disgrace. If today’s Chinese want to play the imperial victim card about Scotsmen taking over Hong Kong and turning it into a capitalist dynamo, they might want to look in the mirror a bit first.

China is a repressive state – and while by far from being unique in that regard, its practices (organ harvesting, internment, intense state surveillance, etc, etc) makes it an egregiously bad place by any sort of pro-liberty metric. Whatever the real or alleged sins of the British Empire, what is happening now is clearly a threat to liberty, and we should judge it on its merits.

There is also a curious sort of moral inversion one sees here. A place (Hong Kong) is a former colony and another place (China) takes it back from said former imperial power. Hong Kong is gradually squeezed; there are protests, and the fears of protestors are widely discussed. And the best that those who try to defend China is to say “oh, but Opium Wars!”

Of course, there is a distinct possibility that some of the people making the Opium War point are in fact bots produced by the Chinese state, or trolls working for Beijing. That point cannot be ruled out.

Samizdata quote of the day

“When the U.K. handed back control of Hong Kong to China in 1997, Beijing promised the city that it could maintain an independent legal system, democratic freedoms and a “high degree of autonomy” for at least 50 years. This “One Country, Two Systems” formula has underpinned the city’s success because it allowed Hong Kong to maintain access to global markets as a separate, law-abiding and free-trading member of the World Trade Organization. But as President Xi Jinping has concentrated more power than any Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, Hong Kong’s autonomy – and therefore its economic raison d’etre – has come under ever greater threat.”

Ben Bland.

My expectation is that if China does indeed fully crush what autonomy Hong Kong has, business will flee to the benefit of Singapore, mainly, and possibly other jurisdictions along the Pacific Rim. It will be commercially dumb of China to do this, but bear in mind that what is dumb commercially is not always dumb if your main agenda is nationalism and being a general asshole. In the meantime, I will go to Hong Kong and do business there and have a good time, but I fear the good times aren’t going to last forever.

Samizdata quote of the day

“So well done to them all as they mass on the safe, sunlit and tank-free streets of London in their courageous anti-Trump protest. And on the thirtieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre of thousands that the (actual fascist) Chinese government pretends never happened, maybe at least some of the more cerebral protesters will allow themselves a bit of pause for thought. These thoughts in particular: I really ought, in the name of consistency, to have been kicking off about the red carpet for Xi Jinping in 2015; and if there’s just one thing I suppose at a push I will give to Trump, he’s got to be right about the whole Chinese government-Huawei-5G business. Happy Tiananmen Anniversary. Happy, easy, safe protest against the non-fascist President of the United States.”

Julie Lynn.

In Hong Kong, the gruesome anniversary of the Tianamen Square killings were commemorated yesterday. Given that HK is sort of part of China (its autonomy is being eroded), future vigils to mark this day of infamy may not take place.

A distant mirror

“Turkey officials order re-run of Istanbul election, voiding win for Erdogan opposition”, reports the Independent:

Turkish authorities on Monday ordered a redo of an election won by an opponent of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s political party, snatching away a major victory from the country’s opposition.

Under heavy pressure by Mr Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) Turkey’s High Election Commission (YSK), which is described as packed with the president’s loyalists, cancelled the results of 31 March Istanbul mayoral elections narrowly won by Ekrem Imamoglu, a rising star in the Turkish opposition.

The news was reported by Turkey’s state-run Anatolia News Agency. It sent the Turkish lira, already battered by inflation and high borrowing costs, tumbling.

Mr Imamoglu appearing before a crowd of supporters struck a defiant tone.
“We won this election by the hard work of millions of people; they attempted to steal our rightfully won elections,” he said. “We are thirsty for justice. The decision-makers in this country may be in a state unawareness, error or even treason, but we will never give up.”

The Times has also reported on this story: “Election chiefs order re-run of Istanbul poll Erdogan lost”.

Imamoglu, the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate who won the March 31 poll by 14,000 votes, of the office and duties that he had already assumed.

In a statement to crowds waving Turkish flags in the city’s Beylikduzu district hours after the announcement was made, Mr Imamoglu, 48, urged his supporters to “stand up against what you know to be immoral”.

Street protests broke out across the middle-class, secular neighbourhoods of Istanbul where support for Mr Imamoglu and his party runs highest.

The Guardian has followed Mr Imamoglu’s rise closely in recent months, not surprising given that Mr Imamoglu is a liberal secularist standing up for democracy against the Islamist demagagogue Erdoğan. For instance this admiring profile of Mr Imamoglu by Bethan McKernan appeared last month: “Ekrem İmamoğlu: a unifying political force to take on Erdoğan”. As it usually is, the Guardian‘s straight reporting of the story that the election is to be run again is fair enough: “Outcry as Turkey orders rerun of Istanbul mayoral election”. But something tells me that the newspaper’s liberal, secularist columnists may not leap with their customary vigour to defend Mr Imamoglu’s hard-won democratic victory against those in power who would use their control of procedure to make him fight it again. On the other hand, perhaps I am too pessimistic. They are all devotedly pro-EU, after all, and the left-wing MEP who might be thought of as the European Union’s spokesperson on Turkish affairs has spoken clearly and well:

Kati Piri, the European parliament’s Turkey rapporteur, said the decision “ends the credibility of democratic transition of power through elections” in the country.

The Art of (No) Deal

Via Instapundit I came across this fine editorial from the New York Sun:

“Sometimes You Have To Walk”

The collapse of President Trump’s summit with the North Korean party boss, Kim Jong Un, certainly takes us back — to October 12, 1986. That’s when President Reagan stood up and walked out of the Reykjavik summit with another party boss, Mikhail Gorbachev, of the Soviet Union. We can remember it like it was yesterday. The long faces, the dire predictions, the Left’s instinct to blame the Americans.

“What appears to have happened in Iceland is this,” the New York Times editorialized. “Mr. Reagan had the chance to eliminate Soviet and U.S. medium-range nuclear weapons in Europe, to work toward a test ban on his terms, to halve nuclear arsenals in five years and to agree on huge reductions later. He said no.” The Times just didn’t see that the Hollywood actor turned president had just won the Cold War.

It’s too early in the morning — this editorial is being written at 3 a.m. at New York — to know whether that’s the kind of thing that just happened at Hanoi, whence news reports are just coming in. Messrs. Trump and Kim were supposed to have a working lunch, to be followed by the signing of some sort of agreement. The next thing you know, Mr. Trump is heading home.

It’s not too early, though, to caution against over-reacting to this development. What appears to have happened is that the Korean Reds wouldn’t agree to the complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization that we seek. Absent that, we wouldn’t agree to the dismantling of all the sanctions the North Koreans seek. “Sometimes you have to walk,” Mr. Trump told the press.

Good for him, we say. It would be a fitting epitaph for any statesman.

The tags I chose for this post will serve as my only further comment.

Yes, a certain perspective is in order

“It’s entirely true that China’s economic growth rate has fallen to the lowest levels in 28 years, back to the dreadful stagnation of 1990, when China was only growing at 4 percent or so. That’s more than the U.S. is growing even in the middle of the Trump boom. We’d all kill for a gross domestic product growth rate as high as what China calls low. This is not, though, a commentary on how bad our own economic policy is, nor really one on how good China’s is today. Rather, it’s one on how terrible, appalling, and truly awful China’s economy used to be.”

Tim Worstall, writing in the Washington Examiner.

It is indeed worth noting, in these times of trade protectionism worries, concerns about Chinese building of runways and facilities in the South China Sea, its surveillance state apparatus, and so on, to step back and reflect on just how far that nation has come since the mass murdering rule of Mao. Tens of millions died from war and Man-made famines and dislocations during the “Great Leap Forward” and the “Cultural Revolution”. These are grim realities that, by the way, appear not to be as well known among Western-educated folk as they should be. It does not do any harm, and might even give us all a bit of calm, to realise that what has happened in China, with all caveats thrown in, is infinitely better than what happened before. The rise of a large middle class in China is, or should be, a positive force in the world.

So what should we do about North Korea?

By “we” I mean the American government of course.

Let’s try some Q and A:

Does North Korea currently possess the means to destroy cities in South Korea, Japan and even the United States?
I’m guessing that’s a “no”. My understanding is that building a missile is one thing, building an atomic bomb another thing and combining the two really difficult.

If not, are they likely to acquire those means any time soon?
Well, they seem to have spent a hell of a long time just getting to this stage. So, it could be a while yet.

Were they to acquire them how likely would they be to use them?
I suppose the question here is whether or not the threat of instant nuclear annihilation would deter them. The point is that the Norks are atheists. They do not have a heaven to go to. They want to receive their rewards in this world. There is no upside to being nuked. So, they can be deterred.

Of course, I say they are atheists but their system of government is clearly a hereditary monarchy. Monarchies tend to have gods attached. But as yet (to the best of my knowledge) the Norks haven’t come up with a heaven. But when they do… watch out.

So, the best approach is probably to do nothing and let deterrence do its thing?
Probably. Of course, it doesn’t have to be the US doing the deterring. Japan and South Korea could do much the same, after they had developed nuclear weapons of course.

Getting back to this god stuff, the Iranians aren’t atheists are they?
No they’re not. And they believe in heaven. And they believe they would go to heaven if they nuked Israel. And rumour has it that the Norks are helping them with the tech. But my guess is that the Israelis have the means to deal with this threat before it becomes serious.

So, what you’re saying is that the US’s best approach is to do nothing?
Yes, I guess I am.

I would just add that it is remarkable how difficult smaller tyrannies find it to replicate 60-year old technology.

Globalisation is very weird.

The above picture is the most commonplace thing in the world. There is a gift wrapped car in a shopping mall. Obviously, this is a prize in a competition, designed to encourage people to visit the shopping mall and spend money in the shops. The car is first generation Daewoo Matiz – later known as the Chevrolet Spark – an old design now but one of the cheapest cars in production in the world. It’s an utterly awful car to drive, but it is A NEW CAR!. If you are a shopping centre owner, then the main thing is that it is a new car. That it is the cheapest new car in existence is not the point. The point is that the prize in our competition is A NEW CAR! It’s a city car, also. If you are in a place where the traffic is bad enough, a lack of acceleration and an inability to drive above 80km/h matters less, anyway.

Well, yes. And no.

There is, of course a story.

I live in London by myself. My family are in Australia. London is cold, dark, and deserted between Christmas and New Year, and it can be depressing to be here by yourself. Although I don’t need much of an excuse to go travelling at the best of times, I particularly try to get out of town, ideally to somewhere where there is no Christmas. Last year this led to my finding myself in Tehran, Iran. I didn’t quite entirely escape Christmas – there was still a Christmas tree in the lobby of my hotel – but I mostly escaped Christmas. Certainly, the traffic gridlock on December 25 was horrendous, as indeed the traffic gridlock is horrendous in Tehran on most days. There is a metro in Tehran, but Tehran is a sprawling city which makes it only so useful, a little like the metro in Los Angeles. Tehran is a sprawling city of multi-lane freeways and horrendous traffic in a basin surrounded by mountains, a little like Los Angeles. In the expensive suburbs of north Tehran, it’s not especially hard to find yourself in achingly hip cafes that might almost be in Silver Lake, too, but let’s go there some other time.

The whole “enormous, car-centric sprawl with an immense freeway system” makes Los Angeles a polluted city by American standards, but in all honesty it is much less polluted than it used to be. Modern cars are more efficient and have more advanced emissions control systems than was the case even a few years ago, and like all developed world cities, the air in Los Angeles is much cleaner than it once was.

In Tehran, though, imagine a rapidly growing city, that despite sanctions is getting richer. Demand for cars is high, but due to those sanctions Iran is unable to import cars from many industrial countries. Cars stay on the road longer, which means the pollution will remain worse for longer than in many other cities of similar levels of development. Sanctions are uneven, so it is much easier to do business with carmakers in certain other countries than others. When you look around, you find that most of the cars are Korean, or French, or will be oddly familiar things or brands you haven’t heard of.

This gets us back to the overtly Korean car in the shopping mall.

→ Continue reading: Globalisation is very weird.