Quotulatiousness

March 23, 2015

QotD: Simla

Filed under: India,Media,Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

It was a glorious spot then, before Kipling’s vulgarians and yahoos had arrived, a little jewel of a hill station ringed in by snow-clad peaks and pine forests, with air you could almost drink, and lovely green valleys like the Scotch border country — one of ‘em was absolutely called Annandale, where you could picnic and fête to heart’s content. Emily Eden had made it the resort in the ’30s, and already there were fine houses on the hillsides, and stone bungalows with log fires where you could draw the curtains back and think you were in England; they were building the church’s foundations then, on the ridges above the Bazaar, and laying out the cricket ground; even the fruits and flowers were like home — we had strawberries and cream, I remember that first afternoon at Lady Sale’s house.

George MacDonald Fraser, Flashman and the Mountain of Light, 1990.

March 16, 2015

Parallels between the Regia Marina of the 1930s and the PLAN today

Filed under: China,Europe,History,Military — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 02:00

In The Diplomat, Franz-Stefan Gady shows how it could be that China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) may be following a similar strategy to Mussolini’s Regia Marina (Royal Italian Navy):

The history of the inter-war Italian navy, the Regia Marina, which faced a strategic outlook similar to the PLAN and was also confronted by technologically superior naval opponents, provides a great lesson in why overestimating your enemy’s capabilities is maybe just as dangerous as underestimating military power.

In short, miscalculating the fighting strengths of Mussolini’s navy prior to and during World War II diverted precious allied resources from dealing with more important military challenges (and as a consequence it inadvertently contributed to various allied defeats in the first three years of the war, such as during the Battle of France, and especially during the campaigns in North Africa). It also influenced policy making by granting Italy too big of a say in European politics (e.g., look up the history of the signing of the Munich Agreement) in comparison to the country’s real military capabilities.

Like the PLAN today, the Italians were engaged in many military innovations throughout the 1930s. For example, one article notes: “The Italian navy was impressive for its pioneering naval research into radar and its prowess in torpedo technology — the latter resulting in powerful aerial and magnetic torpedoes and contributing to the maiali, or small human-guided torpedoes — the ultimate weapons in asymmetric naval warfare.”

Also, the post-World War I Italian Navy, similar to today’s People’s Liberation Army Navy, harbored regional aspirations. With the conclusion of the war in 1918, the Italian admirals agreed that the navy must first dominate the Adriatic Sea and then expand into the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. China has a similar sequential strategy with attempting to dominate the Taiwan Strait as well as the South China Sea, followed by a push beyond the First Island Chain, and finally projecting power all the way to the Second Island Chain and beyond.

March 11, 2015

China’s “Catch up” growth

Filed under: China,Economics — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

In Forbes, Tim Worstall looks at last week’s announcement that China is (slightly) lowering their economic growth forecast.

On that larger scale though what people are worrying about is this. Catch up growth is easier than growth from the technological frontier. What is meant by this is that it’s a great deal easier to generate economic growth if you have an example in front of you of how to do things. To take a trivial example, if you can go and buy a mobile phone, take it apart to see how it works, it’s a lot easier to copy that technology than it is to invent it for the first time. And this is true of how you make cement, how you put up buildings, how you farm a field and so on. And at root that’s what economic growth is: becoming more efficient at doing all of these things as well as everything else. Each time you become more efficient at doing one task you free up resources to be doing something else. Thus you get both the original thing plus the new one from the same resources: this is the very definition of economic growth.

However, there’s a limit to such catch up growth. In certain areas China is right at that technological frontier (in some areas ahead of the rest of the world in fact). Which is where things become more difficult: there’s no one to copy. Therefore that invention has to happen domestically. This is obviously more difficult. But also it rather requires a certain set of institutions. The rule of law, property rights and so on. These aren’t things that China notably has (although things are very much better than they were decades ago). It’s those headwinds that need to be beaten. Bringing in these new institutions, embedding them in the society and the economy, without causing so much disruption as to slow down growth while they are done.

The standard jargon for this is “middle income trap”. To be crude about it the general feeling is that it’s pretty easy to go from dirt poor to middling income. The essence is really just to stop doing stupid things that hold economic development back. China’s done that very well even though they did start from a very low level of an immense number of very stupid things that Maoism did to hold economic growth back. The middle income trap is where the transition over to those institutions that promote technological frontier growth don’t appear (or are not imposed). And thus the stunning growth peters out.

March 7, 2015

Indian government about to discover the Streisand Effect

Filed under: India,Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

The BBC made a film called India’s Daughter. The Indian government decided that the film made them look bad, so they banned the film in India and attempted to force the film out of worldwide circulation. In the internet age. It hasn’t been going well for the would-be censors so far:

The Indian government has remained defiant over its ban on a BBC documentary about the 2012 fatal gang-rape of a student in Delhi despite a groundswell of acclaim for the film from prominent Indians who watched it online.

After India’s Daughter broadcast in the UK on Wednesday night, the hour-long film surfaced on YouTube, where the Guardian was able to view it on Thursday afternoon despite reports in Indian media that the government had ordered it be taken down.

India’s home minister, Rajnath Singh, has threatened to take action against the BBC, though did not elaborate on what form this may take, save that “all options are open”.

Police in Delhi continue to pursue the investigation against filmmaker Leslee Udwin, who has left the country, and her Indian crew. Officers visited the homes and offices of Indian crew members on Thursday in a bid to collect the entire footage of the film.

Though online viewing figures for the documentary about Jyoti Singh’s death remained in the low thousands, there was much acclaim from influential literary and Bollywood figures who questioned the necessity of the government’s ban.

“It’s one of the best documentaries I’ve seen – it’s moving and makes you think,” said the novelist Chetan Bhagat. “It’s bone-chilling, yet it shakes you up – it’s a must-watch film.”

H/T to Perry de Havilland for the link.

March 5, 2015

QotD: Shalamar and the Khalsa

Filed under: History,India,Media,Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Between the Sutlej and Lahore lie fifty of the hottest, flattest, scrubbiest miles on earth, and I supposed we’d cover them in a long day’s ride, but Sardul said we should lie overnight at a serai a few miles from the city: there was something he wanted me to see. So we did, and after supper he took me through a copse to the loveliest place I ever saw in India — there, all unexpected after the heat and dust of the plain, was a great garden, with little palaces and pavilions among the trees, all hung with coloured lanterns in the warm dusk: streams meandered among the lawns and flower-beds, the air was fragrant with night-blooms, soft music sounded from some hidden place, and everywhere couples were strolling hand in hand or deep in lovers’ talk under the boughs. The Chinese Summer Palace, where I walked years later, was altogether grander, I suppose, but there was a magic about that Indian garden that I can’t describe — you could call it perfect peace, with its gentle airs rustling the leaves and the lights winking in the twilight; it was the kind of spot where Scheherazade might have told her unending stories; even its name sounds like a caress: Shalamar.

But this wasn’t the sight that Sardul wanted me to see — that was something unimaginably different, and we viewed it next morning. We left the serai at dawn, but instead of riding towards Lahore, which was in full view in the distance, we went a couple of miles out of our way towards the great plain of Maian Mir where, Sardul assured me mysteriously, the true wonder of the Punjab would be shown to me; knowing the Oriental mind. I could guess it was something designed strike awe in the visiting foreigner — well, it did all of that. We heard it long before we saw it, the flat crash of artillery at first, and then a great confused rumble of sound which resolved itself into the squealing of elephants, the high bray of trumpets, the rhythm of drums and martial music and the thunder of a thousand hooves making the ground tremble beneath us. I knew what it was before we rode out of the trees and halted on a bund to view it in breathtaking panorama: the pride of the Punjab and the dread of peaceful India: the famous Khalsa.

Now, I’ve taken note of a few heathen armies in my time. The Heavenly Host of Tai’ping was bigger, the black tide of Cetewayo’s legions sweeping into Little Hand was surely more terrifying, and there’s a special place in my nightmares for that vast forest of tipis, five miles wide, that I looked down on from the bluffs over Little Bighorn but for pure military might I’ve seen nothing outside Europe (and damned little inside) to match that great disciplined array of men and beasts and metal on Maian Mir. As far as you could see among the endless lines of tents and waving standards, the broad maidan was alive with foot battalions at drill, horse regiments at field exercise, and guns at practice — and they were all uniformed and in perfect order, that was the shocking thing. Black, brown, and yellow armies in those days, you see. might be as brave as any, but they didn’t have centuries of drill and tactical movement drummed into em, not even the Zulus, or Ranavalona’s Hova guardsmen. That was the thing about the Khalsa: it was Aldershot in turbans. It was an army.

George MacDonald Fraser, Flashman and the Mountain of Light, 1990.

March 2, 2015

Food naming oddities

Filed under: Cancon,India,Randomness — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

David Warren on the oddly named “Digby Chicken” and “Bombay Duck” along with a paean to the joys of food shopping in Parkdale:

Parkdale, which is to say, the inner core of the Greater Parkdale Area, in which the High Doganate is located, is a melting pot of innumerable overlapping ethnications. Among our most exotic immigrants are those from the far east: Nova Scotia, for instance, and Newfoundland. Shopping, at least for food in Parkdale, is a treat. We have every sort of specialist grocery, and in effect, groceries within groceries. One gets one’s Tibetan yak sausage, for instance, from a Serbian butcher whose store is cowboy-themed; ingredients for one’s Somali maraq from the Sinhalese grocery (via their Maldivian connexion); but the exhilarating, cardamom-infused gashaato instead via the Sikh Punjabis, as supplement to their Bengali sweets. Note, this culinary cross-dressing is the opposite of multiculturalism. Rather I would call it, “downmarket fusion.”

This being Lent, I try to avoid fish on Fridays. There’s enough of that for the other days, beans on rice will do, or perhaps sinfully on the last two Fridays, I indulged a craving for sweet potato in a Siamese red sauce. I woke this morning with a craving for salt, as well as protein, and as God is merciful, recalled to mind a little platter of Digby chicks in my fridge — obtained some days before from the Maritime ethnic section of a cheap local supermarket.

Digby Chicken has long been Nova Scotia’s answer to Bombay Duck. The latter, also salty, and so powerful in flavour and scent that it requires careful packaging, is actually a fish, the bummalo. Gentle reader may already be trying to construct an etymology from that, but there is no hope for him. The fish is actually harvested from the waters off Bombay. It was transported from there by rail, in the good old days of British Imperialism, aboard the Bombay Dhak (i.e. the Bombay Mail), which gave rise to such expressions as, e.g. “You smell like the Bombay Dhak.” Surely, that will be enough to go on.

February 18, 2015

QotD: The Honourable East India Company

Filed under: Business,India,Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

“John Company” — the Honourable East India Company, described by Macaulay as “the strangest of all governments … for the strangest of all empires”, was Britain’s presence in India, with its own armed forces, civil service, and judiciary, until after the Indian Mutiny of 1857, when it was replaced by direct rule of the Crown. Flashman’s definition of its boundaries in 1845 is roughly correct, and although at this period it controlled less than half of the sub-continent, his expression ‘lord of the land” is well chosen: the Company was easily the strongest force in Asia, and at its height had a revenue greater than Britain’s and governed almost one-fifth of the world’s population. (See The East India Company by Brian Gardner (1971).)

George MacDonald Fraser, Flashman and the Mountain of Light, 1990.

February 16, 2015

QotD: The impotence of the League of Nations

Filed under: Britain,History,Japan,Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Within a couple of months of the Invergordon mutiny, Japan intervened in Manchuria, deaf to all the entreaties of the League of Nations. While, today, we are used to the fact that a ringing denunciation from the United Nations is probably the single most ineffective tool in international relations, the revelation of its predecessor’s impotence came as a disagreeable surprise. So many statesmen had placed their faith in collective security that the naked aggression of the Japanese left them floundering for a response. In 1931 the British people had more pressing concerns than remote Asian wars, but the lesson was not lost on Germany’s rising political star Hitler, nor the posturing Mussolini in Italy whose Fascist Party dreamed of a new Roman Empire.

Max Arthur, The True Glory: The Royal Navy 1914-1939, 1996.

February 7, 2015

Now afflicting Chinese internet users – “Straight Man Cancer”

Filed under: China,Media,Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

At The Diplomat, Nancy Tang explains a sudden outbreak of “Straight Man Cancer” among China’s Weibo users:

“A woman only has one ambition. In her heart, she sees love and childrearing as the most important thing in life.” On January 12, 2015, scholar Zhou Guoping thus tweeted on Weibo, the popular Chinese microblogging platform. Zhou later responded to the backlash, saying, “I agree with women’s liberation and equality between women and men… However, no matter how talented [women] are or what achievements they reach, if [a woman] refuses to, or doesn’t know how to be a gentle lover, a caring wife, a loving mother, the sense of beauty she gives me will be greatly reduced.” Both tweets were subsequently removed by Zhou.

Chinese commentators quickly diagnosed Zhou, a popular public intellectual at the state think tank Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, with “Straight Man Cancer.” The term “Straight Man Cancer,” coined in mid-2014, refers to chauvinist, judgmental behavior and language that propels sexist double standards or belittles women. Zhou’s controversial tweets exposed him to public scrutiny and attracted state attention. Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily re-posted an editorial, calling for the use of law and public opinion in order to “prevent ‘Straight Man Cancer’” in the private realm from “spreading into the public domain.” State news agency Xinhua also published the transcript of a newspaper interview with Zhou, in which he shamelessly called himself a “feminist.”

Zhou is by no means the sole Chinese straight man afflicted with Straight Man Cancer. In the aftermath of Zhou’s tweets, Chinese netizens have dug up other notable cases of public figures infected by the “epidemic.” Han Han, popular author-blogger and youth icon, is another representative of the cancerous straight male among Chinese millennials. He has stated in an interview that “there is no way that my girlfriend would [be allowed to] work outside of the household.” The renowned Chinese translator of Haruki Murakami, Lin Shaohua, has warned men against housework, which he thinks of as detrimental to masculinity and having the potential to make men effeminate or gender-bent. Tsinghua University sociologist Sun Liping has suggested that decreasing female employment and facilitating earlier female retirement would alleviate the social pressure caused by China’s large population. New Confucian scholar Qi Yihu has also advocated that women work only half-time so that they can rear children. Meanwhile, even these infuriating sexist remarks are eclipsed by intolerable misogynistic violence: While most sexists perpetrate unfair stereotypes, some actively hate on women and harm women’s well-being. For instance, the celebrity English teacher Li Yang, misogynist and perpetrator of domestic violence, is considered a “terminally ill” case of Straight Man Cancer.

February 4, 2015

QotD: The retreat from Kabul, 1842

Filed under: Asia,Britain,Military,Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

POSSIBLY there has been a greater shambles in the history of warfare than our withdrawal from Kabul; probably there has not. Even now, after a lifetime of consideration, I am at a loss for words to describe the superhuman stupidity, the truly monumental incompetence, the bland blindness to reason of Elphy Bey and his advisers. If you had taken the greatest military geniuses of the ages, placed them in command of our army, and asked them to ruin it utterly as speedily as possible, they could not — I mean it seriously — have done it as surely and swiftly as he did. And he believed he was doing his duty. The meanest sweeper in our train would have been a fitter commander.

Shelton was not told that we would march on the morning of the 6th January, until evening on the 5th. He laboured like a madman through the night, loading up the huge baggage train, assembling the troops within the cantonment in their order of march, and issuing orders for the conduct and disposal of the entire force. It is a few words on paper: as I remember it, there was a black night of drifting snow, with storm lanterns flickering, troops tramping unseen in the dark, a constant babble of voices, the neighing and whining of the great herd of baggage animals, the rumble of wagons, messengers dashing to and fro, great heaps of luggage piled high outside the houses, harassed officers demanding to know where such-and-such a regiment was stationed, and where so-and-so had gone, bugle calls ringing in the night wind, feet stamping, children crying, and on the lighted verandah of his office, Shelton, red-faced and dragging at his collar, with his staff scurrying about him while he tried to bring some order out of the inferno.

George MacDonald Fraser, Flashman, 1969.

February 1, 2015

India’s experiment in improving how welfare services are delivered

Filed under: Bureaucracy,Government,India — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Tim Worstall looks at a recent book on an Indian experiment that investigated how to improve poverty relief programs:

In terms of the Indian experience one of the reasons that these trials worked well was because they were trials. Effort was put into making certain that those who were supposed to be receiving the cash were in fact receiving it. Such care and attention to people getting what they’re supposed to get is not an outstanding feature of the various welfare systems currently in use in India, as the book makes clear. So, just making sure that people were getting those modest amounts that they were supposed to get is going to be an advance. And it wouldn’t be possible to simply roll out such a scheme across the country, however beneficial, without a lot of preparatory work to make sure that the right people really would be getting the money.

It’s also true that the current systems fail badly in other ways. Purchasing grain to ship it around to special shops where it will be sold hugely under the market price is always going to be a leaky system. Some number of the middlemen will be sorely tempted to divert produce to sell onto the market and there’s considerable evidence that some succumb to that temptation. If people simply have money to buy on the standard market in the normal manner then it’s a lot easier to keep a control on that sort of thing.

However, the most important thing for the design of the American welfare system is the points they make about how the poor value being given goods as against being given money. $100 (far in excess of the amounts being discussed here) is worth more than $100 of food for example. Or $100 worth of medical care. There’s two reasons for this. One is simply that everyone values agency. The ability to decide things for oneself. And money does that. It’s possible to decide whether you want to purchase food, or to save a bit and buy a goat next week, or more fertiliser for the fields and so on. What the peasant on the ground would like to do with any increase in resources is most unlikely to accord with what some far away bureaucrat thinks said peasant ought to be doing. So, the choice itself increases value.

[…]

So, we could actually make poor people richer by abolishing food stamps. Assuming, of course, that we just gave them the same amount of money instead. The same would be true of Medicaid and housing vouchers of course. Yes, I’m aware that there are arguments against doing this. But it is still true: converting goods and services in kind into cash would make the poor richer at the same cost to the rest of us. So it is at least something we should consider, no?

And the main reason switching to cash from the current system is … paternalism. Governments really do think that they are better equipped than the recipients of aid in how to spend that money. And it’s quite true that some welfare recipients would blow the payments on booze or drugs or what-have-you, but the majority of peoples’ lives would improve if they got cash rather than food stamps or other in-kind assistance.

January 31, 2015

India and the INSAS rifle

Filed under: India,Military,Technology — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Earlier this month, I linked to an article about the low reputation enjoyed by India’s first domestically designed and manufactured assault rifle. According to Strategy Page, there’s a potential change of heart by the Indian military on the INSAS rifle:

In response to the growing combat losses because of flaws in the locally made INSAS (Indian Small Arms System) 5.56mm assault rifle, the Indian government seems likely to capitulate and allow the military to get a rifle that works. Unfortunately for nationalist politicians, this will probably be a foreign rifle, and the leading candidate is Israeli.

This all began in the 1980s when there was growing clamor for India to design and build its own weapons. This included something as basic as the standard infantry rifle. At that time soldiers and paramilitary-police units were equipped with a mixture of old British Lee-Enfield bolt action (but still quite effective) rifles and newer Belgian FALs (sort of a semi-automatic Lee-Enfield) plus a growing number of Russian AK-47s. The rugged and reliable Russian assault rifle was most popular with its users.

In the late 1980s India began developing a family of 5.56mm infantry weapons (rifle, light machine-gun and carbine). Called the INSAS, the state owned factories were unable to produce the quantities required (and agreed to). Worse, the rifles proved fragile and unreliable. The design was poorly thought out and it is believed corruption played a part because the INSAS had more parts than it needed and cost over twice as much to produce as the AK-47.

The original plan was to equip all troops with INSAS weapons by 1998. Never happened, although troops began to receive the rifle in 1998. By 2000 half the required weapons ordered were still not manufactured. Moreover in 1999 the INSAS weapons got their first real combat workout in the Kargil campaign against Pakistan. While not a complete failure, the nasty weather that characterized that battle zone high in the frigid mountains saw many failures as metal parts sometimes cracked from the extreme cold. Troops complained that they were at a disadvantage because their Pakistani foes could fire on full automatic with their AK-47s while the INSAS rifles had only three bullet burst mode (which, fortunately, sometimes failed and fired more than three bullets for each trigger pull.) What was most irksome about this was that the INSAS rifles were the same weight, size and shape as the AK-47 but cost about $300 each, while AK-47s could be had for less than half that. The INSAS looked like the AK-47 because its design was based on that weapon.

Update: Added the link to Strategy Page.

January 24, 2015

QotD: General Elphinstone in Afghanistan, 1842

Filed under: Asia,Britain,History,Military,Quotations — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

But looking back I can say that, all unwittingly, Kabul and the army were right to regard Elphy’s arrival as an incident of the greatest significance. It opened a chapter: it was a prelude to events that rang round the world. Elphy, ably assisted by McNaghten, was about to reach the peak of his career; he was going to produce the most shameful, ridiculous disaster in British military history.

No doubt Thomas Hughes would find it significant that in such a disaster I would emerge with fame, honour, and distinction — all quite unworthily acquired. But you, having followed my progress so far, won’t be surprised at all.

Let me say that when I talk of disasters I speak with authority. I have served at Balaclava, Cawnpore, and Little Big Horn. Name the biggest born fools who wore uniform in the nineteenth century — Cardigan, Sale, Custer, Raglan, Lucan — I knew them all. Think of all the conceivable misfortunes that can arise from combinations of folly, cowardice, and sheer bad luck, and I’ll give you chapter and verse. But I still state unhesitatingly, that for pure, vacillating stupidity, for superb incompetence to command, for ignorance combined with bad judgement — in short, for the true talent for catastrophe — Elphy Bey stood alone. Others abide our question, but Elphy outshines them all as the greatest military idiot of our own or any other day.

Only he could have permitted the First Afghan War and let it develop to such a ruinous defeat. It was not easy: he started with a good army, a secure position, some excellent officers, a disorganized enemy, and repeated opportunities to save the situation. But Elphy, with the touch of true genius, swept aside these obstacles with unerring precision, and out of order wrought complete chaos. We shall not, with luck, look upon his like again.

George MacDonald Fraser, Flashman, 1969.

January 22, 2015

China (barely) misses growth target … as if we can trust their numbers anyway

Filed under: China,Economics,Government — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Ah, well, I haven’t ridden this old hobby horse for a while, so let’s just let Tim Worstall explain why this time, we might be able to get a bit of perspective from the otherwise unreliable official Chinese government economic figures:

Many observers have been slightly sceptical of Chinese GDP numbers for some years now. Regional GDP numbers don’t seem to quite match with other regional numbers (say, oil consumption, other proxies for economic activity) and national numbers don’t necessarily reflect the sum of all of those regional numbers either. There’s absolutely no doubt at all that the place has been getting richer but whether quite so much or quite in the manner being reported is another matter. And then there’s another group of observers (this one including myself) who have some experience of how communists report economic numbers. There’s a plan, the Communist Party is in charge of executing that plan and, amazingly, the plan is always reported to have either worked or been exceeded. Anything less would reflected badly on said Communist Party. As I’ve also been exposed to the old Soviet accounting systems I’m more sceptical than most on this point.

So, there’s that slight worry that a slowing China (or one not growing at the former breakneck pace perhaps) will also lower growth in other countries. We’re pretty sure that’s going to happen. But we’ve also got this other thing to ponder. If the Communist Party is allowing the reporting of numbers that don’t meet the plan then what’s going on with that?

Is this some sea change in the management of the numbers? They’re actually reporting the correct numbers? Or are those suspected massages of the numbers still going on but they underlying reality is so bad that they just couldn’t get up to the planned target? This is, I agree, all wild surmise. But it is a surprise that the numbers came in below target because that’s just not what we’ve come to expect in such a political system. And that could be very bad news indeed.

The seductive appeal of the big project

Filed under: China,Railways,USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

In a Forbes post from a few years back, Warren Meyer looks at the appeal of the megaproject to those inclined to think that what society really needs is someone in control:

What is it about intellectuals that seem to, generation after generation, fall in love with totalitarian regimes because of their grand and triumphal projects? Whether it was the trains running on time in Italy, or the Moscow subways, or now high-speed rail lines in China, western dupes constantly fall for the lure of the great pyramid without seeing the diversion of resources and loss of liberty that went into building it.

Writers like Thomas Friedman and Joel Epstein in the Huffington Post have eulogized China and its monumental spending projects. These are the same folks who, generations ago, tried disastrously to emulate Mussolini’s “forward-thinking” economic regime in the National Industrial Recovery Act. These are the same folks who wanted to emulate MITI’s management of the Japanese economy (which drove them right into a 20-year recession). These are the same folks who oohed and ahhed over the multi-billion dollar Beijing Olympics venues while ignoring the air that was un-breathable. These are the same folks who actually believed the one Cuban health clinic in Sicko actually represented the standard of care received by average citizens. To outsiders, the costs of these triumphal programs are often not visible, at least not until years or decades later when the rubes have moved on to new man crushes.

These writers worry that the US is somehow being left behind by China because its government builds more stuff than we do. We are “asleep.” Well, here is my retort: Most of the great progress in this country occurred when the government was asleep. The railroads, the steel industry, the auto industry, the computer industry — all were built by individuals when the government was at best uninvolved and at worst fighting their progress at every step.

In particular, both Friedman and Epstein think we need to build more high speed passenger trains. This is exactly the kind of gauzy non-fact-based wishful thinking that makes me extremely pleased that these folks do not have the dictatorial powers they long for. High speed rail is a terrible investment, a black hole for pouring away money, that has little net impact on efficiency or pollution. But rail is a powerful example because it demonstrates exactly how this bias for high-profile triumphal projects causes people to miss the obvious.

Which is this: The US rail system, unlike nearly every other system in the world, was built (mostly) by private individuals with private capital. It is operated privately, and runs without taxpayer subsidies. And, it is by far the greatest rail system in the world. It has by far the cheapest rates in the world (1/2 of China’s, 1/8 of Germany’s). But here is the real key: it is almost all freight.

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