My Summer Reading

John DeQ. Briggs

We have been quiet since May and are now just reemerging after a long hot summer largely dominated by news of presidential legal matters. But below the fold over the summer were some interesting and noteworthy news peaks. 

1. Last Spring the big threat was China. A significant segment of the Republican party was against providing further financial support to Ukraine because “we need to focus upon the extreme threat from China.” Apart from the fact that support for Ukraine is almost certainly the front line against the threat from China (the other front-line, Afghanistan, having been abandoned), it is fascinating now to see that the August stories are all about the coming multidimensional collapse  of China.. Among the scores of stories along this line, the August 19 News Items by John Ellis curated a worthwhile collection of short takes from other publications. A few of the money quotes: 

The deep cause of China’s economic slowdown — and the strongest reason to believe it will be lasting — is its demographic collapse. Last year, the country’s population fell for the first time since 1961, a landmark that had not been expected until 2029 or later. From here on, China’s demographic decline will accelerate: The United Nations projects that the country’s head count will plummet from today’s 1.4 billion to below 800 million by century’s end. You have to go back to the plagues and famines of the late medieval period to find a loss of population so severe. (Washington Post)

There can now be little doubt that just as the conventional wisdom way overstated the economic prospects of Russia in 1960 and Japan in 1990, so have China’s prospects been greatly exaggerated in this decade. Indeed, I think there is a good chance that, measured at market exchange rates, U.S. gross domestic product will exceed China’s for another generation. (Larry Summers)

China’s financial system is one step away from a full-blown crisis. Unless radical action is taken to stem contagion through the shadow banks and halt the contractionary slide in demand, China risks tipping into a classic liquidity trap. (Ambrose Evans-Pritchard)

Global stock managers are bracing for pain as China’s dramatic slowdown undermines the prospects for companies elsewhere that rely on the world’s second-largest economy. Once the most promising bet of the year, investments linked to China have turned into a bane as its property market slump risks spiraling into a systemic crisis. (Bloomberg)

China’s economy is unlikely to recover anytime soon because President Xi Jinping’s inner circle is mostly filled with apparatchiks rather than technocrats with the know-how to revive sagging growth, warns noted China watcher Willy Lam. The slowdown in the world’s second-largest economy will likely be exacerbated by Xi’s policy of prioritizing geopolitics and national security over economics in the face of rising competition with the U.S. and its Western allies, says Lam, author of the new book “Xi Jinping: The Hidden Agendas of China’s Ruler for Life,” which was released last week. (Asia.Nikkei.com)

2. Then there is Russia. It was fascinating to watch Prigozhin’s insurrection and to see the stunning weakness and vulnerability of Putin in the circumstances. But no less interesting was to learn that Prigozhin owned and operated a global empire. As reported by the Wall Street Journal

His  Wagner group and the hundred-some shell companies it was linked to were mostly known for their mercenary operations, but by the end of his life had also expanded into finance, construction, supply and logistics, mining, and natural resources—and even a thoroughbred racing firm, Sporthorses Management, controlled by his daughter, Polina. Its income derived from exports of Sudanese gold to Russia, and diamonds and wood from the Central African Republic to United Arab Emirates and China, Western and African officials said.

The entire episode, including the flamboyant assassination of Mr. Prigozhin by plane bomb, revealed even more clearly than has been appreciated that Russia is a gangster’s paradise and the most significant openly mafia state in the world. It is plain now that the rule of law has completely disappeared and there exists only the law of the jungle. 

Just as the decline of China might be dangerous for the United States and the rest of the world, so the isolation of Russia and the vulnerability of Putin might bring to the surface something even worse. 

3. Whether you like him or hate him (full disclosure, I like him), there is little doubt that Elon Musk is one of the most interesting people of the last 100 years. He is now the subject of a New Yorker hit piece by Ronan Farrow. While the article has an obvious anti-musk spin, it is nonetheless enormously interesting given that the objective facts are probably accurate. The editorial introduction to the story is something of a “grabber,” and reads as follows:

The meddling of oligarchs in the fate of nations is not new. But Elon Musk’s current influence on global affairs is especially “brazen and expansive.” As Ronan Farrow explains in a deeply reported story from this week’s issue, Musk’s SpaceX is currently the sole means by which NASA transports crew from U.S. soil into space. The govern­ment’s plan to move the auto industry toward electric cars requires increasing access to charging stations, many of which are owned by another Musk enterprise, Tesla. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian military has relied on Musk’s Starlink mobile Internet terminals for communications in its fight against Russia. “We are living off his good graces,” a Pentagon official said, of Musk’s role in the war. “That sucks.”

While the government might have developed an uncomfortably strong reliance on Musk and his companies, that did not stop the Biden administration  from pandering to immigrants by suing SpaceX just two weeks ago for alleged hiring discrimination against asylees and refuges.

Wherever you stand on Elon Musk, he is a fascinating story. 

4. Also of interest is this piece by Andrew Sullivan titled Liberal Democracy in the ICU. The opening paragraph is this:

There are many times in attempting to understand the Trump phenomenon that I simply return to the lessons of his very first day in office.

On Inauguration Day in 2017, the crowds on the Mall were large but understandably not as hugeas the masses who showed up when the first black president took office back in 2009. This was not in dispute by any sane person. You could see and compare the photos. The National Parks Service confirmed it. Yet Trump was unable to accept this. He insisted his crowds were larger. He required  Sean Spicer to reiterate this untruth to the press again and again. Trump tried to force the NPS to revise their count. I think it’s fair to say that he still believes his crowd was bigger — with absolute certainty and mindless passion.

The upshot of the piece is that Trump has no reference point to reality and truly believes everything he says. Thus, he truly cannot and does not “lie” in the ordinary sense of that word. 

5. Matt Taibbi had a piece on substack in early August with the following headline: Campaign 2024: Not Left versus Right, but Affluent versus Everyone Else. His thesis is that the alignment of major parties away from blue against red and toward a rich versus poor dynamic is America’s most uncovered political story. 

6. Finally, in recent days there have appeared some very thoughtful stories pooh-poohing the corporate media’s seeming obsession with an ongoing threat to democracy. One of the best of these stories is from the Financial Review. The headline is “Rotting rule of law a bigger problem than threat to democracy.”  The secondary headline is “Liberals front too much about dictatorship and not enough about chaos on the streets.” Readers who remember various of my past writings will know that since at least early 2020 I have long been worried about the collapse of the rule of law in this country, and the fact that some of the global media are catching up with this point strikes me as a very good thing.

A few of the money quotes:

Because the emergence of Trump and other demagogues has been such a shock to liberals over the past decade, one consoling thought has got rather lost. As a technical feat, at least in the modern West, a coup d’état is unimaginably difficult to execute.

A subtler, almost invisible menace is the corrosion of the rule of law. Were Trump to be convicted of one or more of the criminal charges against him, a large minority of Americans either won’t believe in his guilt or won’t mind it. Tens of millions of citizens who hold the judicial system cheaper than one man: that is a more present threat to the republic than a coup.

Being above the law is a familiar enough concept. Republicans would cite Hunter Biden. But there also seem to be wrongdoers who are under the law: that is, too expensive or small-time to pursue.

San Francisco’s record of tacitly tolerated crime is part of its masterclass in urban misgovernment. 

The popular impression cannot be allowed to set in that criminal laws, let alone ones pertaining to national borders, are so much idle paper. That way lies not just free recruitment work for the far right, but the poisonous notion that obeying the law is a mug’s game.

Finally, while it made headlines for only about a day during the summer, the downgrade of our country’s sovereign debt by Fitch Ratings was notable, especially for the stated reason. 

“In Fitch’s view, there has been a steady deterioration of standards of governance over the last 20 years, including on fiscal and debt matters…. The repeated debt-limit political standoffs and last-minute resolutions have eroded confidence in fiscal management.

In addition, the government lacks a medium-term fiscal framework, unlike most peers, and has a complex budgeting process. These factors, along with several economic shocks as well as tax cuts and new spending initiatives, have contributed to successive debt increases over the last decade.” 

John Ellis’ August 3 News Items summarizes the political reaction from the liberals on this situation and the apparent bewilderment of the administration at the voter’s continued disapproval of its economic management. 

But as Nikky Haley pointed out so forcefully during the Republican debates last month, the massive debt of the United States and the mismanagement of that debt has been altogether bipartisan. I do not doubt that there will be a terrible price to pay in due course absent an adult takeover  of the Congress and the White House, which seems improbable.   

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