Monday, April 14, 2014

The Problem with China

I must admit having been fascinated with China for some time. Similarly as a young man I was fascinated with the Soviet Union, you know they had all those nuclear missiles pointed at us and all. The USSR was a construct nation, not unlike America in that it was built on an idea not necessarily on a culture. Russia aside the Soviets only lasted 70 years. America is just a few hundred years old. China on the other hand is an ancient culture, thousands of years old. China's known history extends back further than any in the west, rivaling the Middle East's pre-biblical times. China's history is as rich and intriguing as any in the West. So one might be compelled to ask - what happened? It seems that China failed to progress on pace with the West. Is it as simple as China was looking inward while the West and Great Britain was looking outward? Whatever the case may be it's safe to say China is not merely looking inward any more.

Since the great cultural and economic awakening of the past 40 years China has made incredible strides, now rivaling the United States as a dominant economic power. Take a look at these comparison charts for a moment.

However remarkable China's ascent has been the problems facing the emerging giant are huge. The causes span the range from as simple as the growing pains of a rural society transforming into and urban society to rampant corruption from the top of the Communist party down to the local building inspector. Look at these headlines randomly pulled from the Internet...

China’s Massive Water Problem

There's no denying it: China's got a debt problem.

China's Massive Pollution is Indicative of Broader Problems

There's just one problem with China's economic recovery 

The Ten Grave Problems Facing China

The Real Problem with China’s Ghost Towns

Why Americans Should Worry About China’s Food Safety Problems

 True, several of these could easily have America replacing the word China and no one would bat an eye. However, when you add them up and understand the depths of the issues you start to see not everything is coming up roses in China these days.

It's hard to say which of these challenges China will rise up to face, but the pollution problem and the debt problem float to the top. The pollution in China is worse than industrial America at it's peak. Rivers are choked with industrial run off and the air in the major cities is literally toxic. These things seem odd to Westerners who began to tackle these issues decades ago. Air pollution was a huge concern when the Olympics were held in Beijing in 2008. The problem does not end at the Chinese borders, toxic clouds easily traverse the Pacific Ocean and have bee detected in Canada and the U.S. China is an ecological disaster by any standards. Recently the central government announced pollution was a top concern, it remains to be seen if industry and locals make it one.

The debt problem is trickier, just as it is in the U.S. and the West. Debt is obviously vital to economic growth and it's been badly mismanaged in the West and there's no doubt it's being mismanaged in China too. In China the concern is that the Shadow Banking system rising up at the local level will have nothing to back it up when the credit market collapses in the face of slower growth - which is inevitable as the economy matures. The issue with debt fueling economic growth for the sake of economic growth - to keep workers working - is a question of demand and therefore repayment. You need one to achieve the other. Yet building continues even when demand is light or non-existent as is the case of the famous Ghost Cities. It would be like building Detroit (or re-building as the case may be) with no one being able to afford to live there. There is zero demand for the new buildings, shopping centers and housing in these Ghost Cities. Overbuilding is one thing, but to do it over and over is bizarre.

Despite all the problems one cannot fail to be awed by the rise of China in such a short time. As American's struggle to find anything on the shelves of our big box stores not made in China we wonder what will become of our workers, our economy. Clearly China can manufacture quality stuff, particularly consumer electronics under the guidance of American and Japanese companies. They also produce a lot of cheap junk. Junk so cheap we don't get too upset when it falls apart or breaks, we just buy another.

Therein lies the problem.

American's can look high and low for American made products but they aren't likely to find them. The very nature of the cheap junk paradigm means that American manufacturers have pulled up stakes and left for China too. Only the suits live back in the States. Their former workers have the luxury then to go to Walmart and buy - very cheaply - what they used to make and pay for it with their government assistance check. Is it me or is there something very wrong with this picture?

American companies are between a rock and a hard place. To stay in the picture they have to abide by the laws of jungle which means capital will follow the cheapest labor when all else is equal. For low cost consumer goods there's not much that can be done. Cheap labor is cheap labor. American companies can choose then to go with quality and high end luxury goods where the margins are higher. The problem with that is the Europeans and the Japanese have already staked that territory out and they do a pretty good job of it.

Well then, American companies can rely on innovation, right? We've always been the innovators, right? Not so fast. An increasing number of research facilities have moved to China too. It only makes sense to innovate in the same place you manufacture.

What's left? If it wasn't for the defense industry, aerospace and industrial machines there wouldn't be much left for high end, high quality manufacturing in the United States. It's true that there's a lot of manufacturing still taking place in the U.S. but the trajectory is heading in the wrong direction and the current national government is of no help at all. The gutting of the defense sector will have a domino effect on good paying jobs across the country. The animus between the current regime in Washington and our last great aerospace company Boeing makes you wonder to what depths will they sink to destroy what's left of our high end manufacturing industries.

There is hope that cheaper and more reliable energy will be the difference maker for the U.S. but again the current government despite all their claims to have presided over an incredible energy boon has done nothing but stand in the way. The Keystone Pipeline being one huge case in point, of course. Additionally they are on the record with a desire to kill the coal industry. They continue to deny any access to government lands for advanced oil and gas extraction. They are not so quietly turning "fracking" into a dirty word. They spread enough disinformation about potential environmental catastrophes to get the public to put the brakes on further domestic energy development. Will America snatch defeat from the jaws of victory? Yes, if the current leadership gets it's way.

All this will result in China's continued ascent and continued job losses in middle America. China's ghost towns are shiny and spectacular, America's ghost towns are sad remnants of a once great nation sold down the river for reasons a once great people don't really understand.

Will the world be better off with China holding the leadership mantle?


Tuesday, April 08, 2014

I see smart people

Modern Man knows everything except himself...

The shame of our schools not teaching history through the eyes of the brilliant thinkers of antiquity is that students come to think John Stewart and Stephen Colbert are smartest people that ever lived. This is not to say Colbert and Stewart aren't wickedly smart people, but they are not thinkers. They are mockers. They make fun of the reasoned notions and the time worn conclusions of everything and everyone that came before them. Whatever value they may add to the culture is meager and fleeting. So be it, they're entertainers.

To single out Stewart and Colbert is unfair, there are multitudes of sharp minds in the modern culture. A sharp mind like Howard Stern's in my eyes has been completely wasted on self aggrandizement and pornography. You can say he's an entertainer and he's just doing his job, besides people like pornography. That doesn't mean it isn't a waste. So too with Chelsea Handler. Clearly this woman is sharp, but like Stern she wallows in put downs and lowest common denominator observations. She appeals to basest parts of our psyche, and because she is a woman it's interesting, but no less a waste. Again these two are just entertainers doing their part to lower discourse and encourage thoughtlessness. Besides, they are cool, and cool is all that matters. Being a Mr. Smartypants is so uncool.

This is as much an indictment of the greater culture, particularly parenting and the educational system as it is anything else. It's entertainers not parents and teachers who inform and literally shape the minds of the young with their flippant and cynical representations of everything good and decent. Eternal truth and beauty are replaced with degeneracy and mental pornography.

It wasn't always like this. There was a time when striving for knowledge, truth and beauty were cool. Before the advent of electronic mass media people like Edison, Tesla and Einstein were stars. The value to the world these people made is incalculable. Contrast and compare to the Kardashian's or JayZ and Beyonce of today. Even just narrowing on entertainment, consider that Charles Dickens, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson to name a few were as revered for their contribution to the intellect of the young mind as much as for the entertainment value of their work. One would hope they are still teaching about these great minds in schools.

People today want to think that we are so intellectually superior to the generations that came before that it's pointless to even consider the value of  past genius. We are not superior, not by a long stretch. Our technology is but our thinkers are not.

In this age of enlightenment that began in the last half of the 18th century it was the separation of science from natural theology that has lead inexorably to this cultural phenomenon. How many know that the field of "science" was only professionalized within the last 150 years? Natural sciences had been the realm of theologians in the Western world since long before the dark ages. Theology was the most professionalized field in existence for centuries. Every scientific truth uncovered in antiquity that we still recognize today was brought forth by theists and theologians. These facts are no less valuable today. It was theists like Galileo, Copernicus and Issac Newton who set the foundations for astronomy that we still rely on today to send men into space.

There were countless great minds of the past like Blaise Pascal and John Locke and others, theologians and believers whose contribution to modern philosophy is immense. If they are taught in schools at all their Christianity is suppressed. Great thinkers like St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas are shunned completely in public schools. Even the modern saint Rev. Martin Luther King (named after the great Christian reformer Martin Luther) has his pastor title stripped in all public discourse. More modern thinkers and Christians like CS Lewis, Walker Percy and Peter Kreeft are merely lost in the cosmos - so to speak - as far as younger generations are concerned.

The old phrase throwing the baby out with the bath water comes to mind. In the all out effort to secularize the culture all the societal and moral value of the Christian era is being systematically wiped out. As if no redeeming societal significance comes from Christianity itself or the great minds of it's believers, past or present. As if washing the hands of the crimes committed by the overarching Christendom that proceeded the historical figure of Jesus Christ is justified, it is the height of insanity to erase the greatest single influence of the Western world. The Jesus of the Gospels never condoned many of things done in his name.  

As such it's one thing to downplay or suppress "God" or "Jesus" in every aspect of modern life, it's quite another to be openly hostile to the point of making laws against it - which is where we are heading. There are school districts that are planning to ban Jesus Christ - the historical figure - from the curriculum. The Jesus of the Gospels is probably the greatest cultural teacher that ever lived. Whether one believes in the deity of Christ or not to pretend he or his legacy never existed is a crime perpetrated on children.

The question is why is this happening? Well... Do we really not know?

Anyway, as the natural sciences separated and emerged as a distinct profession outside of theology the false narrative emerged that Christianity was somehow always at odds with reason and rationalism. It is now a given that there is a warfare between "religion and science". It's not true now and it has never been true. Even the battle over Darwinism is a false narrative spoon fed by intransigent atheists on one side and equally intransigent Christians on the other. Most of Christianity sees no real conflict between evolutionary concepts and the providence of God - yes, and especially the Catholic Church.

Modern man thinks he knows so much, but he doesn't or won't know himself; an unexamined soul sees no sin and therefore rejects it. He lives in a culture based on moral relativism, where nothing is more true than anything else, it only matters where you are seeing it from, and more importantly how you feel about it. Therefore nothing can really be known, especially about the self. With his mind steeped in relativism he rejects sin and the existence of evil. He can't draw the line between what is good and righteous and what is vile and disgusting.

For all the smart people alive today do any of them bother to question why the culture is adrift in a sea of turmoil with nothing to guide it to safe shores? I thought not.