Twofish's Blog

February 1, 2008

So what is this democracy thing anyway….

Filed under: china, iraq, politics — twofish @ 12:47 pm

I dislike using the word “democracy” in arguments because it’s an emotional term that people have different definitions about, and those rarely are useful in discussions.  One thing that is clear is that my definition of what a “good democracy” is is quite different from an lot of other people’s.

My definition of a democracy is a constitutional system in which people in a political community manage to resolve differences in opinion in a way that no one ends up dead or in jail,  The United States is much closer to that ideal than China is, and a lot of what I try to do is to promote institutional building in China so that you can incorporate some of the good aspects of the American system.

One important thing about China is that it really doesn’t have a “model”.  The economic and political systems in China have been put together by trial and error, and Chinese officials really understand the difficulties in translating one system from one area to another.

One major problem is that the political system in the United States works so well, that Americans don’t realize how difficult it is to implement it.  It took the United States two hundred years and a Revolution and a Civil War to get to where it is.  It’s unfortunate that most Americans don’t have a good grasp of their own history, because reading the writing of the American historical figures, one is struck by how difficult it was to get things working as well as the do now.

The thing that I find encouraging about Chinese officials is that there is really not that much resistance to adopting parts of the “American system.”  There’s far less resistance for Chinese to copy something that was invented in the United Statest, than vice-versa.  Chinese banking and securities law is copied wholesale from the United States, and it seems pretty obvious that the China Investment Corporation is a direct copy of Calpers.

What irks people is the tendency of Americans to be moralistic preachers and to be unwilling to listen to other people, and to realize that some parts of the United States simply can’t or shouldn’t be copied in the rest of the world.  The United States has a wonderful judicial and higher education system, but that doesn’t mean that the world should copy the US’s health care system.  One of the few good things about Iraq is that it has taught the United States some humility.

The United States had total control of a nation, had a chance to turn it into a total democratic paradise, and now realizes how hard it is to create a political system in which people can work with each other in a community without anyone ending up in jail or dead.

October 14, 2007

Reply to Howard French

Filed under: china, iraq, politics — twofish @ 7:39 am

Howard French asks:

Beijing gives its own people an offer they can’t refuse, for now: trust us to make all the decisions that need making, behind closed doors. We’ll fill you in on an as-needed basis, no questions asked.


The outside world need show no such patience, however. China’s rising prominence and its growing importance to the rest of the world give rise to a natural sense of uneasiness about a closed system that remains a throwback to the first half of the last century, and the normal response to Beijing’s trust-us proposition is: “Why?”

Because for all it’s faults China has a more or less functional system of government, unlike the some places in the world like…..  I don’t know…… Iraq????

October 13, 2007

It looks really bad….

Filed under: iraq, war — twofish @ 7:32 pm

It looks really bad for democracy promotion when Blackwater falls into a legal loophole and can’t be prosecuted while people seem to be stuck in Guantanamo.

September 24, 2007

Notes on academia, power, and influence

Filed under: academia, economics, harvard, iraq, massachusetts institute of technology — twofish @ 5:19 am

Some notes that I made on the admissions system of elite universities

The way that the admission system works is that your kid’s application to Harvard gets placed in one of several queues, based mainly on the part of the country that you apply from. If you have a relative that went to Harvard or if you donate a huge amount of money, then you get put into a special queue, in which you are compete against the other people who have rich and connected parents. Only a small fraction of people who go to Harvard go through that “legacy queue” but the people who get into that queue is even smaller, so your chances of getting in are far higher if you get into that queue. Also, this is only for undergrad admissions, none of the professional schools do this.

And the people designed this system, *did* intentionally set things up to perpetuate their power and status. If it is one constant in history that is that people with power and status do everything that the can to keep their power and status, and this often involves making deals with people who can challenge them. The admissions systems of the elite universities can been seen as a deal between the upper class power elite, and the upper middle class “want to be’s”. The upper class needs to keep the upper middle class happy since the upper middle class has the means and resources to overthrow the upper class if they wanted to. By making most of the positions in Harvard open to the upper middle class, their threat is neutralized.

What makes the system work also is that US has a Federal multi-party system. If you want to be among the people who run the United States, you can get there directly through Harvard (graduate Kennedy School, get a job in a think tank or in a staff position in a federal agency). However, if you don’t make it to Harvard, you can be one of the people that run the state of North Carolina by going to University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill (become a local lawyer, or state assemblyman, or state court judge), and if you are hungry, ambitious, and lucky enough, you can get to Washington through the local elites. There is also a Republican establishment and a Democratic establishment, and the two groups really don’t like each other that much.

This makes the dynamics of power in the United States vastly different than in Japan or France which don’t have regional elites.

Yes there is a conspiracy in which people with power seek to keep that power. That’s the way that it’s always been, that’s the way it always will be. From time to time, you need to change who is in power, but don’t expect the new people to ultimately behave much better than the people they replaced.

Now the reason I blog is that I don’t like what goes for “news” and “debate” in the media.  What’s there is just professional wrestling and bread and circuses.  The real stuff happens behind closed doors and in quiet discussions.  I do think it is important to talk about how power and influence work in America, and part of what I’m doing is to make some points about how I see it working.  I think society works better if people have enough information to make good decisions on what role they want to play in society.  As for me, the thing that makes me different is that I don’t really think that America has such a bad system.  OK, there is a power elite that runs the country.  So there’s a power elite in every country that runs the country, and the way that the power elite in the United States behaves and responds to external stimuli isn’t particularly bad.  I’ve seen worse.  I’ve seen a lot worse.

I lot of my views on how society works comes from reading Chomsky and Marxist critical theorists.  And I think they have some very good points about how there is a ruling elite, and how that ruling elite runs America. Where I part ways from the critical theorists, is that I really don’t think that they’ve come up with a better system.  Someone is going to end up in charge, and whenever it’s been Marxists, they result hasn’t been very pleasant……

There is one thing that I should point out.  You will notice that the media has been very quiet about Iraq lately.  It’s because the people that really run the country, they know how bad the situation is, and they really have no clue what to do about it.

June 4, 2007

From the brilliant planners of the war in Iraq…..

Filed under: china, international law, iraq, taiwan — twofish @ 5:48 pm

This is a scary article about how high level Department of Defense officials were lobbying Taiwan to declare independence. It sounds frighteningly plausible. 

I probably won’t read the original article for a while, since it would be too stressful to think about it. On the other hand, it is interesting that it is coming out a week after the DOD issued its “China plans to take over the world” report.

One of the few good things about the war in Iraq is that it has took up the energy and then totally discredited the people that had in mind a much larger and scarier war.


From a post I made in Tom Barnett’s blog

What is interesting is that China has had several thousand years of experience doing grand strategy, and every Chinese political and economic thinker since the Warring States period has emphasized the importance of 1) a strong economy 2) learning from your mistakes and 3) learning from your enemies.

The thing that I find both sad and distressing about the United States is how many people in the political leadership are just playing the wrong game. I’m just amazed that the DOD would issue a report that says that China’s military strategy is “non-transparent” and it’s “motives are unclear.” This says some really sad things about the people that wrote the report. China’s motives are clear as day (become a rich and powerful great power) and has been the same for the last 150 years. It’s strategy is transparent as day (make people rich). If DOD can’t figure out what China’s goals and strategy is (and they aren’t being secret about it), then we are really hosed against al-Qaeda.

April 5, 2007

Thought provoking article

Filed under: china, iraq, politics — twofish @ 8:35 pm

Here is a thought provoking article

Thinking is hard.  Scholarship is hard.  What makes  it hard is that it’s easy to be blindly in favor of the Chinese Communist Party, but it is just as easy to be blindly against the Chinese Communist Party, and the conclusions that you come up with by assuming that everything that the Party says or does is wrong are likely to be as incorrect as the conclusions that you come up with by assuming that everything that the Party says or does is right.  Trying to sort through and  figure out what is going on is hard work.

The way that the Chinese Communist Party manages to co-opt people is interest.  They just talk.  If you talk with most Chinese officials, you end up finding that they are normal, decent, well-meaning people, and if you spend a lot of time talking with someone that seems nice, normal, and decent, you end up starting to see the world in the same way that they do.
Let me point out one thing that  Dr. Holz didn’t mention and that is the huge impact that Iraq has had on discourse.  Before this Iraq thing, there was a clear coherent ideological alternative to the Chinese model of development.  Now there isn’t.  If you open your mouth today and talk about freedom and democracy spreading across the world, the first thing that people will think about is George W. Bush and the war in Iraq.  The amount of damage this has done to democracy promotion efforts throughout the world is incalculable since Beijing looks infinitely better than Baghdad at this point.

March 23, 2007

House vote on Iraq – Irresponsible

Filed under: china, iraq — twofish @ 5:43 pm

The House just voted to set a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq by 9/2008, and I think this is one of the most irresponsible moves that they could make.  The reason is that no one is thinking twenty years ahead.  Right now Iraq looks like a hopeless mess, but twenty years from now memory will fade, and people will be talking about how “we almost won if we didn’t get stabbed in the back by the evil Democrats.”  That is how Germany remembered World War I, and how the United States remembered Vietnam, and it is vital when you pull out that you do it in a way that doesn’t create a “back stab” legend.

It may or may not be a good thing to get out of Iraq, but to make a decision like that requires a national consensus and effectively a national vote.  It is important that the United States make no irrevocable decisions before the Presidental elections in 2008, and “what do you think we should do about Iraq?” should be *the* major question that every Presidential candidate needs to be asked.  Yes, it may be uncomfortable to have the debate now, but if we don’t have the debate now, we’ll be having it twenty years from now, when people talk about “back stabs.”  If the plug is pulled, it needs to be made clear that it was because of the collective decision of the American people, and that there is no way that you can blame this on a few politicians.

This points out one serious weakness of the American character.  Americans tend to have this incredible and shocking inability to think ahead more than a few months at a time.  When people in East Asia and the Middle East think about policy, they are thinking ahead decades and if not centuries.  If you ask an American politician what he wants the world to look like in 2100, he probably couldn’t tell you.

This is really, really scary, because if you ask bin-Laden or someone in the Iraqi insurgency what they want the world to look like in 2100, or 2200 they can.

February 28, 2007


Filed under: academia, china, iraq — twofish @ 6:03 pm 

February 7, 2007

Cool website

Filed under: academia, china, iraq, neoconservative — twofish @ 4:56 pm

Also that web site had a link to the think tank run by Arthur Waldron, a person whom I don’t quite see eye-to-eye

But I was rather impressed by the website.  Once you strip away the “China wants to take over the world” lens that Waldron sees things through, there is actually a lot of clear analysis in it.  The article on what the consequences of Iraq are is quite interesting.

Quite a few of those articles, I started reading through the articles and thinking to myself, “yes I agree with your analysis, I just don’t think that this is a bad thing like you do.”

The thing that I found pleasant in reading the articles that Waldron writes is that it seems like the “blue team” is in disarray about what to do.  There were all these articles about how “China is basically evil and trying to take over the world” (a point that I obviously disagree on), but not a single coherent strategy for how the United States can or should stop it.

The reason for this is that until about six months ago, the “blue team” was under the belief that the Chinese economy was going to collapse, and one thing that I’ve gotten in reading the blue team websites is that they finally figured out that maybe the Chinese economy won’t collapse.

The other reason that the “blue team” is in disarray is that Iraq was the centerpiece of their strategy to make the world safe for democracy, and obvious China was the evil anti-democracy force that they were trying to undermine.  Iraq is now a total mess.  We might be able to salvage a “mere failure” rather than a “total catastrophe” but in any case the vision of democratic change that the neo-conservatives had is dead, and they are struggling to find some sort of new vision.

Another good article in the “I agree with your analysis but unlike you, I think that X is a good thing” is

February 5, 2007

The warrior-intellectual

Filed under: academia, china, iraq — twofish @ 11:29 pm

Here is a very interesting development, the fact that the team assembled to prevent Iraq from becoming a catastrophe has a huge number of Ph.D.’s

Whether this works or not is going to be interesting. This has a lot of emotional resonance for me because my recent family history (and by recent I mean the last 100 years) has been the history of a combination of war and academia that isn’t found in the West.

I’m reminded of the Chinese warrior-intellectuals of the mid-19th century, who organized the militia armies that ultimately saved the Qing dynasty, for a while at least.

It’s interesting to try to think of what will happen if Petraeus is successful, or what happens if he isn’t. The analogy between the warrior-intellectuals of the 21st century and those if the 19th is an interesting analogy, and also a somewhat scary one. Do a search on “Colonel Dunlap’s Coup” to see why.

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