China and its Discontents

Archive for April, 2011

Idealism/Realism Reconciled

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Ryan Lizza writes a great piece on the Obama doctrine for the New Yorker:

“The project of the first two years has been to effectively deal with the legacy issues that we inherited, particularly the Iraq war, the Afghan war, and the war against Al Qaeda, while rebalancing our resources and our posture in the world,” Benjamin Rhodes, one of Obama’s deputy national-security advisers, said. “If you were to boil it all down to a bumper sticker, it’s ‘Wind down these two wars, reëstablish American standing and leadership in the world, and focus on a broader set of priorities, from Asia and the global economy to a nuclear-nonproliferation regime.’ ”

Trying to figure out the correct balance between realism and idealism is hard. And this article (among many others), complains about the lack of an Obama ‘doctrine’ or ‘vision’. But I almost feel like Clinton and the NSC staff quoted are apologizing for not being more clear about that. They don’t need to – even if it turns out that the Obama ‘doctrine’ is some messy combination of idealism and realism that fully satisfies neither camp. This doesn’t have to be a flaw, and it definitely could be a virtue. We have a large array of philosophical systems in our policy ‘toolbox’, and we should consider using all of them as appropriate. This is, as Obama notes, non-ideological. And it’s also smart. Here’s what Obama could say to break through the clumsy rhetoric, or at least, what I would say:

“I believe in values, but I also believe we should pursue the best policies to advance those values. Both domestic and foreign policy represent shared national values that we hold as a country. Policy makes a moral statement. But invading a country to instigate regime change may not be best way to serve those values – if democracy protestors in a given country retain credibility in the eyes of the people when the US does not interfere, then we should not apply military force, and pursue other means of promoting our values. It’s a philosophy that espouses an idealistic vision while retaining the ability to tailor our policies situation by situation.”

There. Isn’t that simple?

Or maybe, its simplicity lies in acknowledging we must embrace complexity.

Written by Will

April 27th, 2011 at 4:06 am

Where are the David Stockmans in the White House?

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This op/ed in the New York Times written by Reagan’s OMB director and former Republican congressman David Stockman is the best piece of writing I have read about the deficit in the past year. And Stockman even manages to be bipartisan in his criticism of the various deficit plans! It’s common knowledge at this point that Rep. Ryan’s budget makes the deficit worse immediately by extending the Bush tax cuts and not doing anything with Medicare until the 2020’s; furthermore he focuses on cost-shifting and raising the burden on seniors and the poor and not on actually making the delivery of healthcare cheaper. But what Stockman reintroduces to the debate is that the Obama budget has its own problems – it is too timid and doesn’t call for any shared sacrifice from the middle class in the form of raised taxes.

This is the liberal argument we have been missing. But it’s also a realistic argument that states the obvious. The deficit debate has measurably shifted to the right – first, the Simpson-Bowles Deficit Commission was supposed to be the centrist plan, the compromise. Then the Republican Study Group’s budget was labeled conservative, the Ryan plan was labeled ‘serious’ and moderately conservative, and the Obama plan came out to the right of the Deficit Commission. Viola – a new middle, seriously shifted to the right.

There seems to be two methods of leading and bargaining in a political context – first, “The American President”-Michael Douglas style, where a leader articulates his preferred outcome, negotiates and compromises. Or, the second, where a leader releases a bargaining position that is designed to appeal to the other side, already compromised from the ideal. The President embraced the second tactic from the get-go, and he’s received a lot of flak from the Left and the media for doing so. Personally, I’m torn – I’m sure the success of tactic #1 is idealized, where the perfect outcome only exists in movies, like “The American President.” At the same time, I think the country needs presidential leadership with an aspirational vision. I don’t see that vision articulated in the Obama White House. I see: “We’re cutting less spending than the other guy.”

So does the White House need more David Stockmans in the White House – and a more liberal-sounding president? Do we need more people like Jared Bernstein, Biden’s economic advisor who just resigned to join the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities? I’d like to think so, if only because I still believe policy is ultimately an extension of the values we hold as a country. And would that mindset cause negotiations to grind to a halt, and lose on every priority the president has? Ideological conviction doesn’t seem to have stopped the Republicans from winning the debate.

Chengdu is Construction Crazy

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China has some of the strangest development patterns in the world. The inner city is always the most desirable place to live. The migrant poor live in exurbs. Suburban tract homes are reserved as second or third homes for millionaires.

Driving through Chengdu a while ago on the way to the airport, I saw it all. There were miles of cranes. New apartment buildings not two years old that already looked shabby. The ubiquitous white tile. Ads for European style villas. Walls topped with shards of glass and cameras protected barren concrete apartments. (why?) The apparently new campus of the Southwest University for Nationalities stood alone. (the university was quite a sight – every building identical, all in red brick) On one corner of the campus, a field of yellow bok choy grew behind a small hut. Had this been the lone example in China were the local government had been unable to appropriate the land? Had eminent domain failed? The city has paved vast new roads, empty on either side, the sidewalks lined with perfectly groomed trees painted white around the base to show that they have already been trimmed. Even in this no-man’s land, special sidewalk tiles for the blind have been laid.

The development seemed to get more intense the closer we got to the airport. The temporary walls surrounding construction projects were lined with a continuously repeating poster of the airport of the future: gleaming new terminals, the roofs undulating naturalistically as the ocean waves so very far away from this inland city. The only terminal thus completed was packed with businessmen and the rising upper middle class. A few foreigners stood idly gawking at the bustle. As our plane took off, smoky haze slowly obscured my view.

I’ve seen many similar developments in Beijing – the subway lines that extend to yet-to-be-developed areas, the construction, the strange frontier where urban and rural collide. But Beijing seems almost mature and developed compared to what I saw in Chengdu. Beijing is only one side of the story; there is always somewhere else in China that is undergoing a more fantastic rebirth of construction. Nature no longer exists; it’s as if China is one big construction lot.

Written by Will

April 21st, 2011 at 8:30 am