Sunday, November 27, 2011

Liberal Education

The education of Bo Guagua (son of Chongqing mayor and rising star in the CCP Bo Xilai):

At age 12, he attended the British prep school Papplewick;
followed by several years of secondary education at the Harrow School (Winston Churchill is an alumnus);
matriculated from Oxford University;
and is now studying at the Kennedy School at Harvard.

We'd better get a liberal out of this kid. It's scary to think, but one must pose the question: if an open-minded, broad-based liberal education doesn't work, then what will?

I mean, it's possible his privileged upbringing and early childhood development can outweigh all of that. But hopefully the British and American education systems have something to offer. (Otherwise is political outlook determined by age 12?)

From an article in The Wall Street Journal about the rise of the "princelings" -- the sons and daughters of leaders of the Communist political class in P.R. China. Interesting quote:

"there is a widespread perception in China that they [the princelings] have an unfair advantage in an economic system that, despite the country's embrace of capitalism, is still dominated by the state and allows no meaningful public scrutiny of decision making."

Some of this might resonate with Occupiers; it's just a much grosser extreme in China. The direction of influence is also different: in the United States, there are worries that plutocratic monied interests (personified by Wall Street and Goldman Sachs types) have captured the government and are undermining the democratic system by using their wealth to buy politicians and legislation.

In China, it's the opposite: officials and political leaders are extracting most of the surplus of the country's rapid economic expansion, and they are using government powers to protect those gains. But they were in a position to capitalize on growth and rake in the dough because they held political power in the first place. They have access to/can force through preferential treatment. Something smacks of unfairness, of exploitative or fraudulent ascension.

At least in the US, most rich people rose through a competitive capitalist system. Whatever you think of the social contribution of investment bankers, their outsize remuneration, or society's misplaced priorities in elevating these individuals, these bankers got where they were through their hard work and smarts at providing the skills desired in this (flawed) system. They weren't necessarily born with entre to the banking world; for instance, cue former New Jersey Governor Corzine, who came from a Midwest farming community and worked his way up the ladder at Goldman Sachs. (By the way, as someone who took excessive risk, lost billions, and now currently under investigation, he is still not a good poster child for the financial industry).

Though these financial elites are now perceived as attempting to rig the system to prop themselves up and give themselves special protections, they didn't get exceptionally favorable bank loans/tax breaks/policies via pre-existing political connections by virtue of their birth to propel them to the top. Indeed, that may be what's at issue today: now that Wall Street investment bankers are on top, they are pushing on the levers of government to cement in what many consider to be unfair practices, in order to tilt the playing field and insulate themselves, while the ordinary American suffers the effects of their risky (sometimes fraudulent) actions.

It's possible that in recent years (starting from the last decade), financial firms and Wall Street already started the rigging, but at least it's not inborn: they have to gain economic clout before they can seize government power. In China, it's precisely the opposite: this class is born with political advantage, and can wield it to capture  economic wealth, and defend this privileged position with political power and money. No one else even had a chance.

It's the problem of an entrenched elite getting to the top of the hill and keeping others out. But one of these situations is just even more egregious than the other.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

American Dysfunction

Hi folks:

We live in a democracy, a system of government based on tolerance, pluralism and political compromise. If we don't wake up and recognize that we need to respect those principles and get our government functioning again, we are kind of screwed, and the American project is going to founder.

This article from The Atlantic Monthly highlights this problem quite cogently:
"the inability to make even quite small changes in our levels of taxes or spending should worry the hell out of everyone. Yes, yes, I know--the other side is evil and intransigent and you don't trust them anyway. The fact remains that we're married to those jerks in the other party, and there's no prospect of divorce. "Stick to your guns, dammit!" is not a workable policy agenda for either side ... and no, I don't really care how much better things could be if we were more like Europe/19th century America ...

In a modern democratic state, two things are true of any policy agenda:

1. You eventually have to pay for it, with actual money.
2. You have to get those bastards on the other side to agree to it.

We seem to have an electorate who believes neither of these things, and the political class has followed them."

That's just plain irresponsible. As leaders, you should defuse the partisan hate-mongering and pull citizens back from the brink. Have some courage, have some guts, have some decency! We need you to lead public opinion, not just blindly follow it off a cliff, or seek to profit from it. Otherwise that's demagoguery.

Rise to the occasion and help move our nation in the right direction!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

What will be left

In the run-up to COP17, the British Embassy in China is holding a postcard design competition and soliciting entries from the public. There's something poignant and moving about this enterprise of writing messages to the future -- to the children and grandchildren of this world not yet born.

The top prize is a seed rod, which could not be more perfect. A tiny gem, frozen in time, representing the hope that the brilliant and immense biodiversity in our world can be preserved, and if needed, someday restored. Depending on the actions taken today by societies everywhere, succeeding generations may actually need these capsules and their precious cargo. It is possible that the world 50 years from now will be vastly different. We could lose the groves, the thickets and glades, the forest slopes and open meadows covered with plants whose genetic code is captured in the seed rod.

In such a time, this chapel of ecology is both a promise and an artifact bearing witness to a planet that once was. It holds memory, a reminder of humanity's choice and the world we had enjoyed.

The Seed Cathedral under construction in Shanghai (Despoke)

The seed pods, stored in fiber optic rods (British Council)

The e-mail invitation from the British Council:

Dear BEN friends,

You are invited to join a postcard competition called “Our Climate,
Our Future” co-hosted by the Cultural and Education Section of the
British Embassy and the Green Channel of The competition is
open to the public, aiming to encourage members of the public to

- their opinions on messages from China to COP17, via

- their own climate change stories, what impacts they have
seen/experienced and what actions they have undertaken

- their messages to people in the year of 2100, what they
want to say to next generations and future about climate change

The top 100 winning designs will be printed as real postcards and
displayed at the British Council stand at COP17 with postcards from
other counties (Bangladesh and some European countries), top 30
winners will receive their own postcards delivered back from COP17
stamped with Durban postmark and signed by delegates of COP17. Each of
the top 2 winners will be awarded a seed rod of the Seed Cathedral,
part of the UK Pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo 2010.

Please send your designs to before 22 November
2011. More information about the competition could be found at You can download the design
template both in jpg and ppt formats as well as the registration form

Please feel free to distribute this message to your friends who might
also be interested. Join us to highlight your creativity, share your
stories with the world and convey your messages to the decision makers
attending COP17!

Best regards,

Cathy Sheng 盛少岚
Project Manager, Climate and Sustainability 气候变化与可持续发展项目经理
British Council Beijing 英国文化协会北京办公室
Cultural & Education Section, British Embassy 英国大使馆文化教育处

Friday, November 11, 2011

In Italia si dice 'democrazia'

The undermining of democracy in Italy. Tragic! Even in Europe we need to be on guard against democratic decay. Features that Huntington and Fukuyama consider politically immature, part of a pre-modern rather than modern system of governance, are manifested in Italian political life today: the personalization of power, subversion of the rule of law, patron-client relations among other concerns. (Arguably, this might not actually count as "backsliding" if Italy simply never outgrew this phase of politics.)

This article in The New York Times is a great commentary on the underpinning principles of democracy, which is actually a fusion of three trends -- liberalism, republicanism and democracy. [1]

In a republic, political leaders ought to serve the public interest. In Italy today, "Mr. Berlusconi’s behavior and his own words eloquently reveal how his government is based on gaining loyalty through private favors. He truly feels betrayed that elected politicians would put the voters’ interests over their loyalty to him."

Indeed, you have the classic description of caciquismo, the author continues:

"He can be forgiven for feeling this way. Because of his enormous personal power — built on an immense fortune, the proprietorship of a media empire, the rhetorical skills of a demagogue and the control of a political party that he created — Mr. Berlusconi has been able to attain the loyalty of many people. The system he has built has the features of a lordly court: a signore sits at the center, surrounded by a large number of courtesans and servants who owe him their power, their wealth and their fame.

Many of the people Mr. Berlusconi has surrounded himself with are corrupt and servile, all the easier for him to dominate them. People with principles are regarded as dangerous enemies."
However, now that Berlusconi will step down:
"This provides Italy with a chance to begin a process of civic and political regeneration. To do so it must liberate itself not only from Mr. Berlusconi, but also from his system of power, and from the political and moral bad habits that he has reinforced and relied on in the political elite and in large sectors of public opinion.       

The first step should be to abandon the belief, promoted by Mr. Berlusconi’s elite, that to be a free citizen means to be free from the law and civic duties. Italians must also reject the other fundamental dogma of Mr. Berlusconi’s doctrine, namely that the people are not only the sovereign but the judge, and that politicians must therefore be responsible to the people, and not merely to the magistrates. And finally, Italians must rediscover a healthy republican and liberal wariness of any sort of enormous power.

This means going beyond a few necessary reforms. It must be a serious process of moral renewal inspired by the true principles of citizenship."
Amen. Viva la Repubblica.

[1] See "The Self-Restraining State: Power and Accountability in New Democracies" by Andreas Schedler, Larry Jay Diamond and Marc F. Plattner, eds. On page 32, "democracy (in its equalizing impulses), liberalism (in its commtiment to protect freedoms in society), and republicanism (in ist severe view of the obligations of those who govern) each in its way supports another fundamental aspect of polyarchy and of the constitutional state that is supposed to coexist with it: rule of law."

Sunday, November 06, 2011

"Smart" does not equal "wise"

Yes, "smart" is better than "ignorant." But I'd prefer someone far-sighted and grounded, rather than merely clever, as a leader. Wise choices made by people who apprehend the realities of life and are sensitive to the needs of people usually lead to better outcomes.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011