Oh; ye of little faith

The sly and neurotic Kentuckian Hong Konger Lyman Stone has recently written a piece arguing that China’s population is destined to fall and converge with that of the imperialist countries and their Pacific puppets. While I do agree with some of this argument -China’s high economic growth isn’t going to last forever, much of its demographic stagnation for the next couple decades is built in, and it is doubtful whether the whole country can economically converge with the typical European First World- it suffers from vastly insufficient faith in the Party’s mechanisms to implement its goals. Never mind the specifics of alliances, which can be debated later, I want to argue against this idea that China, of all countries, is destined toward demographic doom.

Throughout the 2010s, the party has been encumbered with at least three major problems, completely irresolvable by any of the imperialist countries had such problems been faced by them. Consider Xinjiang. In 2009, the province was chaotic and volatile, with hundreds of Chinese being killed by marauding Uyghurs.  Today, in a stunning demonstration of the success of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics, the problem is completely solved, Uyghur fertility has been forced to sub-replacement, nonstate violence in Xinjiang  is nonexistent, the population has been almost completely reeducated in the virtues of Xi Jinping Thought and the necessity of assimilation into Chinese society. Could anybody back at the beginning of the decade have predicted that China would solve its Uyghur problem so thoroughly? Hundreds of American and European ghettos remain -and, indeed, today they are expanding with vicious speed with the enthusiastic encouragement of the state; this does not mean that such a thing would be possible in the People’s Republic of China.

The government faced a severe crisis due to the 2019 autonomist protests in Hong Kong, which crippled that city’s status as a major zone of interaction between East and West. Today, Hong Kong is on its way to being a triumphant showpiece of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the Twenty-First Century, with resistance crushed and the city pacified, with all the American State Department’s promotion of the riots and demonstrations gone to waste.

The People’s Republic of China was, as is well known, the first country to experience a major outbreak of the novel coronavirus. Today, it has, unlike all the countries greater than 50 million other than Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, Burma, and South Korea (not coincidentally, all neighbors of China), nearly eliminated the virus, while it continues to spread completely unabated through vast swathes of the United States, its foremost imperial rival.

Anybody who did not have faith in the will and means of the party to achieve its goals of preventing chaos, mass death, and disaster in China utterly failed in his predictions in each of the above three events. While there is no guarantee the Chinese state’s will shall not fail in the question of demographics, its growing comfort in the use of authoritarian methods to enforce its social vision certainly seems likely to grow, not shrink, over the coming decade, and there is no reason to believe this comfort will not extend to the question of increasing Han fertility.

The party state’s will and control of the means of force appear firm. Thus, in a country as willing to use state power as China, the future total fertility rate is entirely dependent on the Party’s preferences. If it wants it to be 12, it will be 12. If it wants it to be 4, it will be 4. And if it wants it to be 2, it will definitely be 2. The methods to achieve heightened fertility are straightforward -bans on women from employment if they fail to bear a sufficient number children, strict and large fines on urban couples if they fail to have children after a certain age, strong incentives for young men to marry, a lowering of the age of marriage, promotion of marriage and childbearing in the means of mass information and among the elite. Given the party state’s already excessive inconveniencing of the public with checkpoints at public transportation, there is no reason to believe the party would sacrifice such a vital national goal as increasing fertility for the sake of some trivial public inconvenience about performing such a biologically necessary and ancient task.

Never mind experiencing demographic doom. With such methods as the party state has already very recently tried and used, China could (and likely will) comfortably expand its population while sending tens of millions of friendly emigrants directly to the West to promote its interests there.

Now, certainly, talk is cheap, it is, thus, firmly appropriate here for me to make a concrete prediction. I thus make two. While America’s White population will certainly decline between today and 2040, China’s Han population will rise. And while America’s White total fertility rate will stay consistently below 2 between now and 2040, China’s will rise to above 2.2 by the year 2035.

We’ll see who’s right soon enough. All I know is that when Xi has talked before, he meant business.

Real names are poison, or, freedom is slavery

French blogger Philippe Lemoine recently wrote a Twitter thread defending the idea that those with views against the dominant faction should write under their real names. Though I cannot judge each individual case, I must lay out why widespread posting of political opinions under real names is so damaging to current discourse.

All speech not written under a pseudonym is either an expression of power or an expression of obedience to power. The question of whether real names are appropriate is thus a question of if the system of power is built to advance correct views or works along different incentives entirely. The answer to this is clear enough. Politics is not academia; academia generally seeks truth; political discourse, even in its most academized form (court opinions) has no relation to it whatsoever. Indeed, it is a truth doubted by noone that the rise of real names on social media resulted in the dominance of the current bioleninist cult, due to the ability of those writing under their real names to more quickly advance their personal power. A strict real name policy does not reduce the existing asymmetry in favor of the dominant faction, it only expands it (would the “frogposting” wave of 2014-16 been possible under a real name policy?). It is no coincidence that Econ Job Market Rumors, one of the most anonymous forums on the Internet relating to personal power, remains one of the best and free, where purity of argument rather than one’s personal reputation is decisive in persuasion.

Also, the expression of any political truths in this current climate is, without any doubt whatsoever, absolutely personally catastrophic if one is in any sort of public position subject to elite competition. Just look at Harald Uhlig, sacked from his post at the Chicago Fed for making the most banal and self-evident conservative remarks. Consider David Shor, one of the most learned of men, who was fired from his job for expressing the least objectionable (if, this time, largely wrong) of centrist opinions. Even pseudoerasmus has been forced to mouth the slogans of the cult as he has come closer to publicly revealing his identity. As Spotted Toad writes, “what produces better writing? To write under your “real name”- (your slave name!)- to staple your job, your mortgage, your college, your family photos to every word you post”? In the realm of academic publications, this is largely beneficial, as academics search for truth, and each paper either cements or destroys one’s personal reputation as a dedicated seeker of truth. But politics is not about truth, it is about power and status. Consider the multitude of ways xenocrypt, one of the greatest of men, might have suffered had his identity been more public. It is, thus, no wonder that I fully support Scott’s recent decision to shut down his Slate Star Codex blog in protest of the New York Times’ attempted use of its institutional power against him.

Power structures promoting personal accountability to power, in short, do not always create good incentives.

Why the Soviet System Failed

1. The economy was bad

2. The leadership quality was garbage

3. The leadership experienced no negative incentives for bad performance

1. and 2. are quite natural properties of Classical Leninism, which emphasizes socialism in regards to economic matters and the promotion of the working class and ideological dogmatists in matters of government. Though the Soviet economy did experience substantial economic convergence with the West from the end of the Civil War to the mid-1970s, and, due to 2. and 3., it clearly could have squeezed out a few more points of convergence with the imperialist countries, it is very clear the Classical Leninist system has inherent disadvantages over capitalism. 2. and 3. also resulted in the influx of antileninist subversive elements into the sinews of the polity, which ultimately resulted in its destruction politically as well as economically.

America currently experiences 2. and, despite elections being more competitive than ever before in its history, 3. So far, it does not experience 1, which saves it from being discredited from a purely economic standpoint, though by no means saves it from political collapse. Individual parts of the American system may experience penalties for bad performance, but the leadership structure as a whole never does, as the electoral penalty is usually over only one axis of bad performance. The competition is also, quite often, literally over if a person with a red or a blue colored hat, who differ with each other on about 1% of the policies they could realistically diverge on, gets to implement the exact same stupid policy in exactly the same fashion. Even primaries totally fail at producing competent leadership, due to ability to please the crowd being at best imperfectly correlated with ability to competently govern. Consider Cuomo. Also, term limits and powerful incumbency advantage, both de facto and de jure, make it impossible for there to be any political advantage in doing a good job relative to doing a bad job. Thus, no state governor except Steve Bullock so much as bothered to contain the coronavirus. Western-style democracy, as well as the current sovereign democratic Russian system, have failed. Chinese Communism has, so far, succeeded. It is, of course, essential for the thriving of the Chinese economy that the party’s control be laxened in certain areas, but, so far, the leadership has prioritized the economy over the extent of its reach, and has sought to find ways to ensure that there is no contradiction between the two goals.

How do we ensure the economy is good? Select the best economic policies. The economy is a machine for producing goods and services; finding ways to maximize output is relatively straightforward.

How do we ensure the leadership quality is good? Make the sovereign body (in the United States, the sovereign body is the overly large and unwieldy Congress, which should clearly be much smaller if it is to have impact) run by a council of superforecasters, who all believe exactly the same things and deviate from their understanding of future reality neither to the right nor to the left, which should make resolutions of questions of values much easier.

These superforecasters should freely design incentives for bad performance not just for themselves, but for all levels of society. They should understand the public will is quite malleable and hard to determine, so it is best not to rely too much on that thin reed.

China’s coronavirus response was basically Korea-level

We knew very little about the Chinese response to the coronavirus or about its appropriateness as of the first of January. We knew a lot more as of the first of February. Today, after the experience of over ten dozen countries, we know a lot more than we did on the first of February. It consistently reflects well on China relative to all but half a dozen or so countries, most of which border China- Mongolia, Burma, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Slovakia, and consistently reflects poorly on the imperialist countries.

The novel coronavirus was first discovered in the city of Wuhan on December 26 and was first reported to the WHO on December 31. At the time, the government had almost no information to make decisions off of. How fast did it spread? How did it spread? What was the length of spread? For how long had it been spreading? What was the time from infection to symptom onset? Most importantly, was this basically H1N1 flu (a notorious overreported nothingburger which required no action whatsoever) or a highly deadly infection like MERS? None of the answers to these questions were known in late December. They are known now. It is now known the virus results in a large number of asymptomatic cases. It is now known that asymptomatic spread is quite common, except in children. It is now known that spread varies greatly depending on the nature of activities a person engages in, with mass gatherings with close face to face contact like a seafood market being far more likely to result in a large cluster of symptomatic cases than public transportation on which mask-wearing is universal and talking is rare. It is now known that universal mask-wearing is a great aid to helping keep the reproductive number of the virus down. It is also now known that when a significant spike in deaths is noticed in a city, the number of infections there immediately starts declining, not because of herd immunity, but due to rising social distancing due to growing awareness of the new deaths. It is also now known that counts of cases and deaths are notoriously lagging indicators of actual infections. None of this was known to Chinese authorities at the beginning of this year. Considering all this massive and fully excusable ignorance, their missteps make a great deal of sense and their overall response from December to this day appears quite admirable. The city of Wuhan was limited to some four thousand deaths and four hundred thousand infected, the latter number consistent with by seroprevalence tests and basic logic. Wuhan has the same population as Belgium, but, due to China’s much better response, less than half as many coronavirus deaths. Much worse undercounting took place in Italy; every country that experienced a major pandemic undercounted both coronavirus deaths and cases. The situation in the rest of China isn’t really relevant, since China’s government put out all the sparks emanating out of Wuhan (China’s most important transportation center) successfully, more or less as I expected them to at the time. I was correctly worried about Indonesia and India, though I overestimated the reproductive number in the southerly climes and incorrectly worried about Thailand and Malaysia.

It is pretty clear that China’s original response was less proactive than that of most of its neighbors -Thailand, Korea, Burma, Mongolia, Vietnam, Taiwan, etc. The only truly good way to have prepared for this possibility was to have mandated mask-wearing in indoor areas in public every winter. Ideally, once the novel coronavirus was discovered, Chinese authorities would have engaged in a Vietnam-style strategy to contain its still minor outbreak -massive isolation of contacts combined with a quick rampup of testing to discover asymptomatic cases in order to quarantine them and their contacts, as well as shutting down outbound travel from Wuhan. But given the lack of existing knowledge of sustained community transmission with a high reproductive number until mid-January, this is a rather tall order for a country with no pre-existing knowledge about the peculiar features of the virus, and would have been well above typical First World levels of competence. I, for one, consistently favored the somewhat deficient, but still generally functional Korean-style approach from mid-January until April. Such proactive, affirmative, offensive measures to curb the spread of a virus causing just a few pneumonia cases was an approach only such a sublime republic as Mongolia could pull off with no error. Korea didn’t even begin testing all pneumonia cases for the coronavirus until February 18, more than twenty days after the first recorded case in the country. New viruses are discovered every day. It seems Chinese authorities chose not to respond proactively until more information about the virus could be known to confirm it would neither burn itself out nor would be as as much of a nothingburger as H1N1 flu. The high age of those most severely hit by the pneumonia must also have struck the authorities into some degree of complacency. As a result of mistakes committed by the Chinese authorities, Wuhan had as many as a hundred thousand infections by January 15, when overcrowded hospital videos began to become prominent on Chinese social networks. The long lag between infections, symptoms, and deaths combined with the high rate of asymptomatic cases and spread blindsided the authorities. Wuhan eventually had some four thousand deaths (or possibly as much as 2-3x more). Hong Kong, the pro-CCP leadership of which began to be concerned about the new virus as soon as it was reported and the first government in the world to Tweet out concern over it in English, had four deaths. New York City already has over twenty five thousand, and this pandemic isn’t even over. The situation in Wuhan roughly paralleled that in New York City with a difference of two months, with the exception that Wuhan’s infections obviously fell much faster than those in New York City once the Chinese government began taking anti-pandemic measures there. In both cases, infections during the portion of the epidemic during which they were still increasing were clearly undercounted by the authorities because of lack of early mass testing. It is questionable to the extreme that any but half a dozen other countries could have been as effective in countering the virus had its first superspreader event been within their borders. Overall, I am forced to agree with Ren Yi that “On a 10-point scale, I grade the Chinese government a 9 to 9.5.”. Certainly it confirms China has extraordinary levels of state capacity, far superior to those in any of the imperialist countries, and certainly far superior to any of the other BRICS. Of all the great countries exceeding seventy million in population, it’s clear only China, Vietnam, Japan, and, to a lesser extent, Germany and Turkey have any real ability to combat epidemics (we have yet to see about Ethiopia).

The decision to restrict within-country travel was easily the smartest decision Chinese authorities made relative to most of the world. It greatly decreased the number of sparks the various provincial governments had to put out in the majority of the country while the situation in Wuhan was getting under control. Very few other countries prevented outbound travel from their leading pandemic epicenters. Ultimately, however, the Chinese authorities’ delay in restricting internal travel might have been a highly salutary thing. It demonstrated to the entirety of the world that democracy had no impact whatsoever on good governance, that the Chinese system (so far) is largely superior to that of the First World, and that the West’s riches did not result from current “good institutions” so much as a set of past institutions that resulted in the creation of an innovative private sector in much earlier days. Had the Chinese government snuffed out its pandemic without it spreading to the rest of the world, the rest of the world might have thought China’s mistakes during its pandemic were demerits against its system, rather than common problems the rest of the world currently faces. The Chinese lockdown (or stay-at-home order), the portion of the response that most hurt its economy, was, in retrospect, a blunt, dumb, and unnecessary measure, and was seen as so by Western media at the time. But given the sheer number of supposedly competently administered countries that adopted it, it may well have been one of China’s smartest moves, as it demonstrated the imperialist countries were too racist to learn from their own vassals in Korea and Taiwan. Without the mass unemployment caused by the American lockdown, would the Anglo-American riots of May-June 2020 have even happened? Today in America, Britain, and Sweden, ideologues on both the left and right are actively encouraging people to spread the virus and work to obstruct contact tracing. But Biomaoist America and its English and Swedish pals are so much better than Dengist China!

On a related note, Australia has once again proven itself to be by far the most dynamic country in the Anglosphere in general, and, thus, the White world.

Thank Xi Jinping

Five years ago, I wrote my “strange utopia”, doing a bit of forecasting into America’s grim future. The situation now has become much worse than I ever expected it to be.

I was clearly right on one thing: the rise of China both in income and (relatively) in morals. Thousands of Taiwanese have moved to the mainland. Communist China has been praised by over fifty countries for its remarkable achievements in the field of human rights. Rather than supporting mass bloodshed around the world, deadly pandemics, and social anarchy within their own country, the Communist Party of China has used its traditionally blunt tactics to prove that simple methods can work, and are often superior to the toxicity of the imperialists. The jihadist problem in Xinjiang was quelled, to the consternation of every al-Qaeda supporter in America’s Congress (i.e., every member but the two Kentucky libertarians – proof that libertarians are the only anti-establishment force operating to any degree in American politics). Rather than being rapidly multiplying forces for instability in both China and the rest of the Muslim world, the Uyghurs of Xinjiang were made to become model Chinese citizens. The Hong Kongers were, instead of being coddled, forced to become involuntary members of the reality-based community. Despite being the first country to notice a mass pandemic of SARS-CoV-2, China managed to limit its fallout to less than ten thousand deaths -at least twenty times less than the United States, which itself, despite making every possible attempt at failure, fared substantially better than Western Europe, which failed to even keep even remotely believable statistics. The leadership of Chinese diplomats in the public sphere has become a model for the whole world. China is now attempting (though far too late) to restore its total fertility rate to a respectable level, and will likely succeed in this task by 2035. The next step must be reunification with homosexualist Taiwan, before sclerosis sets in its own system.

America, in contrast, is fundamentally a bad country run by bad people. It is a nation of orange pigs, with its president not being its occupier, but its apotheosis. It has been Number One at causing so much blood and death over the past two decades -in Venezuela, Bolivia, Syria, Ukraine, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Libya by war and in its own country due to the virus. It is its two great failures in the first half of this year that convinced me of this most fully: the coronavirus and the riots.

The reaction of the Republicans to the coronavirus problem was so well-documented as to need no elaboration. The outbreak of a newly discovered and rapidly spreading virus in China’s most important transportation center was treated as a non-issue until it already hit pandemic levels in both Western Europe and the United States. The Republicans then proceeded to say the president did nothing wrong and everything was the fault of China, the only country in the world to go so far to hurt itself to protect the rest of the world from the virus as to bar outbound travel from a strategic city of over eleven million people, and even unto this day be so thoroughly concerned with combating the spread of the virus both within its country and without as to mandate quarantine for anyone attempting to travel between provinces. The reaction on the Democratic side was yet more amazing. Rather than doing the obvious things -calling for an expropriation of Trump’s wealth and using it to compensate COVID victims and championing their only half-decent administrator (Steve Bullock)- they proceeded to praise their own party’s biggest killers, create tremendous and lengthy economic damage for no justifiable reason other than to help Amazon, and not directly attack Trump at all for killing over a fifth of a million Americans -something which in most countries is called a “crime against humanity”. And yet, the polling evidence clearly indicates that Americans are as oblivious to their leaders’ failures as ever, Republicans more so than others, but don’t doubt for even a tenth of a second that Democrats would be enthusiastically supporting the exact same response were Joe Biden in office instead. Regardless of all evidence, Americans still think other nations are their subjects and that the metropole has nothing to learn from its colonies. This, combined with an almost early 19th century Chinese sense of their superiority, turned crisis into catastrophe, while Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma, Tunisia, Korea, Thailand, and the vast majority of China combined experienced barely more deaths than a year’s worth of American mass shootings. Of all the nations of Southeast Asia, only lackadaisical Indonesia and Albophilic Singapore experienced any real trouble with the virus.

As the virus was continuing to rage and unemployment spiked to the highest level since the Great Depression, the accidental police killing of a negro criminal, newsworthy precisely due to its extreme rarity, sparked massive outbursts of concern in this country not for the people victimized by him… but demands for the arrest of the police officer who restrained him! Rather than accepting and loudly promoting the simple fact destructive and violent riots complaining about an altogether imaginary problem have no legitimate grievances whatsoever, that appeasement invariably breeds aggression, and that random acts of violence by a totalitarian establishment against people’s livelihoods might, in fact, be bad, what rotten chunk of flesh that passes for the right in this country demanded “Those responsible for George Floyd’s death must be brought to justice“. Indeed, rather than learning from the events of Ferguson that rioters complaining about imaginary disproportionate police killings of unarmed negroes do not have even the slightest shred of a legitimate grievance and must never be given the slightest inch, the so-called “right” in America didn’t even so much as advocate for even the most basic measures of self-defense before Donald Trump -an orange conman as useless as he is malicious. Xi Jinping, at least, learned from China’s 2014 protests and their escalation in 2019. The leadership of Thailand learned from the protests against its regime, and that of Burma certainly has no sympathy to its own minority terrorists. On the Democratic (or cultural ruling party) side, a great many, though far from all, politicians as well as all America’s social media companies and much of its media class enthusiastically supported the rioters and their destruction of their very own congressional districts, a move supported unanimously by the falsely called “anti-establishment” left. This support for arson, looting, and vandalism was something that we never saw at all except among the fringes of the fringe during the Ferguson riots. Say what you will about the Romans, but they never possessed the stupidity to support its Vandals or their cause. No wonder I so enthusiastically supported the riots from the start. They are laser-targeted to hit exactly the individuals who most deserve experiencing some life and property damage from them. Anybody who didn’t learn from Ferguson that police are useless and that relaxing around Blacks is never a good idea deserves every last thing he or she gets.

I do not sympathize with these orange pigs. Any Sinophobe or Ameriphile deserves not a shred of respect from anyone. From now on, the death of every American will fill me with joy, from whatever the cause, in whatever the context. They deserve it, and much more. They support Cuomo, they support Trump, they support the spread of ghetto crime, they support the virus. Their desire for their own deaths, as well as the deaths of those who support them, should not be opposed. To all leaders of foreign countries, I beg of you: Americans are pigs. Expunge them from your realm. Block their propaganda. Save yourselves from this plague. Liberate yourselves from your slavery.

It is no wonder, then, that I changed my avatar from Michelangelo’s David to Prayut chan-o-cha. He is the man of the time we need. His government, as well as those of Xi Jinping and Moon Jae-In remind us, the inhabitants of the White countries, that a better world is still possible. And that is a powerful insight everyone should embrace. The world has a lot of potential, despite its occasional collapses. The vision of progressive improvement should never be abandoned.

The China shock did hurt the American economy, but not in the way most explain

There is a common meme, true but misstated, that the rise of China 2003-2011 reduced the consumption of Americans. Behind it, though never explicitly stated, can only be the idea that newly rich Chinese consumed goods and services that would otherwise have been consumed by Americans.

The much more common statement of the view that the rise of China reduced the consumption of Americans is that the exchange of Chinese manufactured goods for American assets resulting from the U.S. capital account surplus with China transferred wealth from U.S. manufacturing workers and domestic industrial capitalists to U.S. construction workers, governments, and landlords. This is true enough. However, it does not constitute an overall consumption transfer from Chinese to Americans. Rather, it constitutes consumption transfer within the United States, e.g., from Michigan to Florida. Even the increasingly high price of U.S. assets (e.g., housing) resulting from the American capital account surplus with China could not have possibly decreased overall U.S. consumption on net. It would simply have been another within-country consumption transfer, that is, a transfer from domestic asset buyers to domestic asset owners. In a two-country model, anything other than perfectly free trade between the U.S. and China would only make economic sense by making tariff incidence fall on the producer, something only possible given very high importer levels of monopsony power (cf. economists’ optimal tariff theory).

However, the two country model does not apply for the 2003-2011 period. The rise of China did transfer overall consumption from Americans to Chinese, as well as to Russians, Saudis, and Brazilians. This was the case because the rise of China reduced U.S. export prices and increased its import prices.

Imagine three countries, the U.S., China, and Saudi Arabia. There are two commodities, oil and manufactured goods. Both the U.S. and China export manufactured goods and import oil, while Saudi Arabia imports manufactured goods from both and exports oil to both. An increase in Chinese exports increases the price of oil, thus hurting Americans by increasing import prices and helping Saudis by increasing export prices. It also decreases the price of manufactured goods, thus hurting Americans by decreasing U.S. export prices and helping Saudis by decreasing Saudi import prices. This is, more or less, what happened to the U.S. during the 2003-2011 period, though I will not try to quantify the effect here. Between 2003 and 2011, the U.S., Portugal, and Italy all experienced unusually slow economic growth, while Brazil, Russia, Saudi Arabia, etc. and, of course, the engine of this entire movement, China, all experienced unusually fast economic growth. Developing countries in South and Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe also experienced unusually fast economic growth due to greater credit supply during this process (Greece and Spain experienced this before 2009, but not after).

American protectionism against China in the period 2003-2011 would have worked to increase its consumption only insofar as it decreased U.S. import prices and (less plausibly) increased U.S. export prices. For this to be true, it would require a substantial amount of American monopsony power over Chinese manufactured goods, as well as smaller U.S. consumption gains from cheaper domestic prices of manufactured goods than U.S. consumption losses from more expensive imported commodities.

After 2011, the U.S. increasingly began to remedy its heavy reliance on imported oil while U.S.-China trade as a percentage of U.S. GDP stagnated, thus bringing an end to (though obviously not a full reversal of) the China shock. If the U.S. becomes a net commodities exporter, it will definitely economically benefit, on net, from the rise of China, and protectionism would be indisputably economically counterproductive.

Review of Henri Pirenne’s Mohammed and Charlemagne

I began summarizing this book more than half a decade ago, but, due to laziness, never finished. In a burst of interest in Late Antique history, I finally read the book over a couple days yesterday. It’s very good, if somewhat exaggerated in parts of its thesis.

This is a book about Gaul in general and southern Gaul in particular from the late fifth century to the mid-ninth. Other barbarian kingdoms do make their appearance, but only tangentially, if at all, as they had a tendency to not survive for very long, either being conquered by other barbarians (Sueves, Burgundians), conquered by Byzantines (Vandals, Ostrogoths), or conquered by Arabs (Visigoths). The most discussed, thus, of the non-Frankish barbarian kingdoms by Pirenne are the Lombards, as they are the only barbarian kingdom to survive past the Umayyads, followed closely by the Visigoths, the longest lasting of the non-Frankish barbarian kingdoms. Pirenne, though certainly a very good historian by any measure, doesn’t care about the Arabs, nor does he particularly want to. His Arabic focus, so far as it exists, is exclusively on how the Arab conquests transformed Core European civilization. The book has three major points. The first is to demonstrate the Romanizing, non-Medieval nature of the barbarian kingdoms as of c. 500 from the fiscal, social, and commercial perspectives, and their complete lack of cultural influence by Germania. This portion of the book is almost entirely correct, marred only by the failure to sufficiently note the degradation of the Late Antique economy and society in both the barbarian kingdoms (e.g., Arles was abandoned c. 550) and the lands reconquered under Justinian over course of the sixth century (rural Tunisia and Italy show substantial declines) and by an exaggeration of sixth century continuities. If anything, Pirenne would be surprised to what great extent the Franks adopted Roman civilization and the continuity of north Gaulish exchange networks following the Frankish conquest; it is today known that the population of Flanders almost entirely arrived there from the North after c. 390 and that Late Roman pottery exchange networks persisted in northern Gaul well into the sixth century (see Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages). The second point is a theory of the end of the Late Antique economy, state, and society in the West. Pirenne attributes this degradation to, firstly, the Arab conquests reducing international trade and commercial tax revenue and, secondly, the degeneracy of the Frankish monarchy between c. 550 and c. 650 giving an opening to the growing power and militarization of the landed aristocracy. The third point is to describe Carolingian civilization. Pirenne takes a highly exaggerated, almost comically dim view of it. In Pirenne’s view, the economy of Gaul in general, and Southern Gaul in particular, declined between c. 550 and c. 750 (this is almost certainly wrong), international trade, interregional trade, education, and Roman civilization in general becoming tightly restricted over those years. Instead of a Mediterranean-focused, secular, popular education system of the time of Isidore of Seville, clerical High Latin based on the works of Germanic scholars had become dominant in the extremely elite-focused education system of the time of Charlemagne, as foreign to Gaul as to Anglia. The emphasis on Latin poetry under the Merovingians shifted to one on Germanic songs under the Carolingians. This description of Gallic cultural change may well be correct, but the excessively dim view of the economy, which Pirenne frequently contrasts with the eighth century Romano-Greek sphere (which, if we recall, was far more damaged by the Arab conquests than the Gallo-Frankish, even if it started from a higher level), cannot be right. Dorestad and Quentovic, which Pirenne minimizes as short-lasting, unrepresentative, and regionally limited, had a much more widespread trade than any part of the Mediterranean (including even Umayyad Palestine) after c. 720 (when it continued to greatly expand until the Viking raids, see on this, Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages, p. 680-690). As Wickham states, on the basis of archaeological evidence,

in northern Gaul the period 450–600 can probably be seen as a general nadir for urbanism, the seventh century and especially the eighth as a period of revival; this trajectory certainly distinguishes the north of Gaul from the south.

(Framing the Middle Ages, p. 677)

The appearance of new towns in sixth- and seventh-century northern Gaul, together with the striking commercial wealth of Cologne, are among the first signs that the old northern frontier of the empire was turning into a political heartland, that of the Merovingian Franks

(Framing the Early Middle Ages p. 681)

Given the grave error of Pirenne’s ironclad connection of cities with international trade, it is clear he cannot be right on Gaul as a whole experiencing urban decline from c. 550 to c. 750, though he is quite correct that northern Gaul experienced more positive changes than southern Gaul at this time. If anything, the growing power of the aristocracy from c. 550 to c. 850 was the result, not of the degradation of commerce, but the recovery of landed aristocratic wealth combined with the aristocracy having been militarized during the course of the sixth century. Pirenne’s description of the Late Antique/Early Medieval monetary system is also limited. He unnecessarily neglects the localization and debasement of Western gold coinage during the late sixth/early seventh centuries and his view of the Carolingian silver standard is dim beyond any plausible reason.

Despite its very brief length by modern standards, the book is breathtaking in scope. It is a must-read for anyone studying the period, both for its largely solid content and for its massive future influence. If anything, Pirenne offers a much more coherent picture of Late Antiquity than most of its exponents offer today; he views the growing orientalization of Roman culture as a product of Persian influence and as essential in explaining the cultural shifts of Late Antiquity in the Mediterranean. Pirenne is surely entirely correct on the disastrous impact of the Arab conquest on the Mediterranean trade and the Byzantine Empire. If fact, he understates his case for the East; the Arab conquest of Egypt and Syria was much more economically devastating for the Byzantine Empire than for the Visigothic, Frankish, Lombard, and Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Even for Italy, it caused a collapse in fineware production (see Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages, p. 732) and caused extensive economic disasters in Carthage (Framing the Early Middle Ages, p. 641). Pirenne’s description of the extreme Arab-caused eighth century nadir in Mediterranean trade and travel as the time Medieval European (Latin in particular, but the case, which the author doesn’t make, could also be made for Greek) civilization was born is fascinating. Perhaps, however, Pirenne’s greatest sin is overstating the effect of the Mediterranean trade on the Gallic economy, which was already quite self-sufficient as early as the third century (see Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages, p. 800-801). Of course, even small degrees of economic contact can and do coincide with major cultural effects. But that is no reason to exaggerate the Mediterranean trade’s purely economic importance for the West.

The book does demonstrate powerfully that the Arab conquest of the country from Spain to Syria prematurely forced trends which would increasingly become visible over the course of the period c. 1200-1850. The break of Core European civilization with that of Greece and Egypt was inevitable. But it need not have come so soon.

Five myths of COVID

EDIT as of June 20: Though much of the reasoning in the below post has been proven wrong, especially Russia/Hungary/Poland having the best European responses to coronavirus (the actual best responses in Europe were in Greece, Finland, the Baltics, former Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia -the best response in Western Europe was Ireland’s), each of the five points clearly and firmly stands. I will, however, leave the post up for posterity without emendation. Pakistan, Nepal, and Afghanistan performed terribly (though Burma, Laos, and Cambodia did very well). The general pattern of coronavirus cases as of June 17 is here. Once again, there no evidence at all populism solves anything. The virus has been controlled by democracies (New Zealand, Australia, Korea, Mongolia, Taiwan, Uruguay, Paraguay, Tunisia, the Baltics, Ireland, Czechoslovakia, former Yugoslavia, Greece, Lebanon, Georgia), traditional monarchies (Morocco, Jordan, Brunei), hybrid regimes (Malaysia, Thailand, Burma, Uganda, Cambodia), and Communist regimes (Cuba, Laos, China, Vietnam). Not a single “populist” government handled the crisis well, other than perhaps Serbia and Hungary, both of the governments of which are less “populist” and more “ethnonationalist”. “The exception that proves the rule” was much larger than I originally thought.

These are the five most pernicious myths I have seen regarding the COVID crisis from sources I regularly read. All are contradicted plainly by the facts.

1. Libertarians are at fault

The central problem in containing the epidemic in America in its early stage was a lack of testing. This lack of testing was not a natural process. It was a product of CDC incompetence and FDA overreach. America has many great healthcare companies, who would have loved to step up to the plate in the fight against COVID (as the great South Korean companies did in South Korea). They were prevented from doing so by the FDA delaying approval and the CDC deciding it would do all COVID testing for the United States, delaying the mass production of its own test, and creating testing criteria that guaranteed the virus would, unlike in Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, the United Arab Emirates, or Russia, spread entirely undetected. The failure to contain the epidemic in its early stages in America was not primarily a failure of libertarianism or capitalism. It was a failure of socialism. Further deregulation- on state licensing, on remote diagnosis, etc. will be the most lasting consequence of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States. Those claiming current problems with the FDA and CDC are products of underfunding must explain how greater funding for these agencies would have fixed anything of importance in relation to this crisis. Taiwan, Singapore, Australia, Russia, the United Arab Emirates, and Korea all have smaller governments as a percentage of GDP than the United States, Spain and Italy both have larger.

The current shortages of personal protective equipment in the West are primarily a product of price gouging laws and export restrictions (and import taxes) by overzealously nationalist governments, not to mention FDA regulations on mask sterilization, not primarily failures of libertarianism or offshoring. If these restrictions did not exist and never had a chance to exist, then having redundant productive capacity for medical equipment around the world would be entirely improper. The expansion of capitalism around the world (“offshoring”) has dramatically increased the world’s capability to supply needed personal protective equipment. It is not a liability for the world in countering the pandemic, but perhaps its greatest asset.

2. Chinese lies are at fault

Of all myths of COVID, this is perhaps the least true and most pernicious. The Russian government, one of the friendliest neighbors of China, did not trust its lies one bit and unilaterally shut down travel from China even before Russia recorded its first cases. South Korea, the single friendliest country to China and Russia in the developed world, had one of the most competent responses in the world with the mildest travel bans. The United Arab Emirates, a tireless champion of China’s policies towards its Uyghur minority, had one of the best responses to the pandemic in the world and shut down travel to all China except Beijing on February 3. Italy, also friendly with China by Western standards, was one of the first countries to shut down travel with it. The less relevant countries with strong China ties- Pakistan, Nepal, Afghanistan, etc.- all got a huge dose of coronavirus fears -and, just as importantly, a sense of identification with the struggles of China- from the messaging spread by their respective Chinese ambassadors. From this evidence, it seems much more that lack of listening to Chinese truths -and, just as importantly, lack of empathy with China was the central disease of the West. Chinese messaging primarily hurt China, mostly prior to mid-January. It had either no (Russia, Italy, the UAE) or a beneficial (South Asia) impact on China’s closest partners. The countries that had the worst responses were precisely those that have a tendency to least listen to “Chinese lies” and to least empathize with Chinese concerns.

3. Populism could have helped things

One of the best responses to the pandemic came from South Korean President Moon Jae-In. He might be considered a “populist” in a loose sense, but is closer to the opposite of the current vision of the “populist” in the Western media. Relatively China-friendly, left-wing, liberal, and skeptical of restrictions on migration, Moon’s government, unlike American authorities of both and of no parties, recognized the inevitability of the spread of the epidemic into the country and prepared for it without greatly disrupting the economy at any point by massively expanding testing and the tracing of infected. The people most responsible for the spread of the pandemic in Korea turned out to be not Chinese, but local cult members. For this, Moon was berated by the Western media, even as his approach proved to be among the most successful in the world.

Some have suggested the crisis represents the failure of parts of the West to maintain its domestic manufacturing. Say what you will, but globalization expands world production; it does not contract it. By allowing one country to manufacture medical supplies when another is down, it makes the world more resilient to disasters, not less. The only reason one would want to make products at home at higher cost than elsewhere is if countries elsewhere refuse to abide by the norms of globalization and resort to beggar-thy-neighbor policies.

Immigration restriction, another core element of populism, is at best tangentially relevant to the current crisis. While it’s certain the early spread of COVID was primarily due to Chinese immigrant communities, a future pandemic may originate anywhere on the globe. The benefits of normal global trade and travel substantially outweigh potential vulnerability to once-in-a-decade pandemics, especially to immigrants themselves.

There is only one grain of truth in the meme that populism could have alleviated the spread of the pandemic. It is this: the three most demonized countries of Europe in the Western press -Russia, Hungary, and Poland- had by far the best responses to the pandemic in Europe. But the sort of populism practiced in powerful countries aligned with imperialism, as exemplified by Trump, Johnson, and Bolsonaro, could never have countered the pandemic. Fundamentally, resistance to countering the illness relies on a sort of cultural chauvinism -as exemplified by Western advice against mask purchasing, rabid Sinophobia, and resistance to disruption in normal Western ways of life that are part and parcel of the drug of exceptionalism peddled by the merchants of imperialism in powerful countries. To these merchants of exceptionalism, the successful response of the East Asian and Arab countries to the virus did not provide inspiration for dealing with the virus in their own countries, but, rather, only confirmed the supremacy of ways of life introduced by Western imperialists- and, therefore, the mode of life existing within the core of the imperialist countries- over Chinese Communism. In contrast, the central ideology of the governments of Europe (once again, Russia, Hungary, Poland) that had the best responses to the pandemic was substantially closer to resistance against Western cultural overreach than the proud championing of Western cultural chauvinism universal among Western powerful-country “populists”.

Taiwan is the exception that proves the rule- the island is suffering a severe brain drain to the mainland, and the current government’s identity is so strongly embedded in literal Sinophobia -not hatred of Communist China, but actual, near-psychotic fear of it that any new strange illness coming out of the mainland rapidly becomes a source of concern at every level of government. Something similar can be said for Australia.

4. The media is particularly blameworthy

By polls, the media is one of the least trusted institutions on the pandemic. Though the Western media certainly had its failures, it is not the job of the media to respond to pandemics. It is the job of the media to report on them. The Wuhan pandemic was covered in fairly decent quantity in most mainstream Western sources, as was the spread of the virus to Korea, Iran, Italy, etc. Though many news sources did try to downplay the pandemic, this downplaying was assuming a competent response by the authorities actually responsible. It is not the job of the news media to replace the leaders in power, and it would have been quite difficult for anyone in January to have guessed how utterly stupid the authorities in the Western countries truly were. It is these authorities, not the media, who primarily failed in responding to the COVID pandemic. News media speculation about the stupidity of the people in power in the developed West would almost certainly have been just that, speculation, not reporting. The CDC, the FDA, the Surgeon General, the President of the United States, the Secretary of Commerce, state governors, the American public, etc., and their counterparts in Western Europe are all far more at fault than news sources giving the public information about the pandemic’s spread. In fact, many reporters did a fantastic job of covering how China contained its own crisis. Had the media been in charge of containing the pandemic, despite its flaws, I think the Western response would have been substantially superior to that in real life.

5. The danger of fear and misinformation

This is more a myth of the past, but still retains a surprising amount of currency among those more prone to trust authority. As anyone today understands, fear of fear turned out to be a substantially more damaging emotion than actual fear of the virus. The powerful today also tend to substantially underestimate how much more centralized the online media ecosystem is today than it was a decade or a decade and a half ago. There was (is) substantial concern from people in power about “misinformation” during the pandemic. In fact, misinformation from unofficial sources had almost no harmful impact on the public at all. Actual disinformation generally (and all influential disinformation) came from the people up top -the Surgeon General, the CDC, the WHO, Boris Johnson with his “herd immunity” strategy, the President of the United States, state governments, health officials, etc. It is worth remembering that the country that did most to counter “fear” and “disinformation” within its own borders was… China in December-early January. If there is anything this pandemic shows, it is the danger of trusting the people in power and of ignoring intelligent and powerless people on Internet.

On China’s Economic Potential

The best functional equivalent of today’s China isn’t India or the E.U. or the United States. It’s the Roman Empire, were it still around today. Both have ancient origins. Both are fairly diverse both climatically and demographically, but not as diverse as the post-1492 European empires. The Roman Empire region’s population today is half that of China (at the Roman Empire’s height, its population was basically equal to that of China). Like China today, the Roman Empire was a nominal Republic that was in practice a despotism. Both empires were similarly technologically advanced when the Roman Empire was at its height.

This comparison is extremely useful today in understanding where China will end up over the next few decades, first economically and secondly in terms of national power. China’s current per capita GDP is similar to Mexico’s. The best predictor of per capita GDP in a country is its human capital. Both China and the Roman Empire region contain areas of very high and very unimpressive human capital. As a result, we should expect China’s GDP per capita to end up around where Roman Empire’s would be were it a modern-day Mediterranean state.

All evidence shows math is a special strength of the Chinese (especially Southeastern Chinese, e.g., Hakka and Fujianese), but math scores as not a useful predictor of economic development once one already has Verbal/Science scores. Korea and Japan are basically as rich as Britain and France, even though their math scores are obviously superior. Beijing-Shanghai-Jiangsu-Guangdong’s 2015 smart fraction for PISA Science was right between Britain and Belgium (verbal scores were relatively worse). The population of B-S-J-G is around 240 million. Half of this would be 120 million -precisely as one would expect if China were comparable to the Roman Empire region and England, France, and the Netherlands were comparable to B-S-J-G. The 2018 numbers released last year were clearly gamed (as the Chinese leadership is wont to do) and are, thus, worthless for analysis. Fujian and Zhejiang are, I presume, comparable in non-math human capital to Switzerland, Northern Italy, and the formerly Roman-occupied parts of Germany.

So where is China’s equivalent of the Muslim Mediterranean? One would expect it to exist. China is, after all, the fairly recent origin of the Filipinos/Maori/Polynesians, as well as of the Thais and Laotians. None of these groups have large smart fractions. And, indeed, though evidence is far from conclusive, there are strong indications that China’s equivalent of the Muslim Mediterranean does exist in the regions of Guangxi, Guizhou, Yunnan, Jiangxi, Anhui, Hebei, and Sichuan. Though the test used in the paper linked to isn’t particularly predictive of national outcomes, and the idea intellectual will and ability in these provinces are actually the lowest in the world seems extremely doubtful, the assumption that the state of human capital in Guizhou and Jiangxi is not much different from that in -and these regions are not richer than- Indonesia and Egypt seems a fairly safe one to make.

Since China for obvious reasons cannot hope to economically surpass the most successful post-Communist countries -Slovenia and Czechia- and since it is already almost at Bulgaria’s (≈Mexico’s) level of GDP per capita, a reasonable observer should conclude China will probably stop its above-trend growth with its current institutions at a level of GDP per capita somewhere in between these -say at around that of Croatia, Latvia, or even Hungary. Given China’s not as impressive as advertised human capital state, this indicates a rather positive assessment of current Chinese Communist economic institutions- that they are at least as good as those that can be expected from the post-Communist European Union. Further institutional reform (since all agree China’s economic institutions are far from ideal -an identical Chinese worker will never earn as much in real terms in a comparable part of China as in Taiwan, and especially not under current Chinese Communist economic institutions) would thus surely guarantee China’s economy being at least as large as the U.S. by exchange rates, and more than twice the size of the U.S. by PPP.

Predictions for the 2020s

1. China’s growth will be slower than in the 2010s (60%)

2. Russia’s growth will be faster than in the 2010s (70%)

3. Indonesia’s growth will be slower than in the 2010s (70%)

4. India’s growth will be slower than in the 2010s (90%)

5. U.S. forces will withdraw from Syria (70%)

6. Idlib will be fully terrorist-free (95%)

7. The Communist Party will continue to rule in China (70%)

8. Kim Jong-Un will be ruler of North Korea (80%)

9. The Saudi monarchy will remain in power (95%)

10. Trump will lose in 2020 (80%)

11. Democracy will not come to Venezuela (60%)

12. The U.S. economy will fall into recession in 2020 (70%)

13. Japan’s population will fall (95%)

14. There will be no major (unemployment 8% or higher) U.S. recessions in the 2020s (95%)

15. The president’s party will have less than 200 seats in the House in 2023 (80%)

16. Democracy will not come to Cuba (90%)

17. The machine will retain power in Russia (70%)

18. The machine will retain power in Turkey (50%)

19. The machine will lose power in Bangladesh (60%)

20. Africa will grow in population (100%)

21. New Cold War continues (90%)

22. More states will recognize Crimea as part of Russia (80%)

23. The Iran Deal will be restored (70%)

24. The machine will retain power in Iran (90%)

25. There will be no major anti-establishment left elected officials in the United States at the end of the decade (95%)

26. There will be no major anti-establishment left elected officials in the United States at any point in the decade (90%)

27. There will be no FUNDAMENTAL changes in Republican Party ideology (70%)

28. Trump’s approval rating will be above water at the end of the decade (80%)

29. Marijuana will be legalized nationwide in the United States (80%)

30. Religion in the United States will continue to decline (90%)

31. The U.S. Non-Hispanic White population will continue to decline (80%)

32. No resolution of the Palestinian question (95%)

33. No resolution of the Kashmiri question (100%)

34. No Russian military incursion into Ukraine (70%)

35. No major (1 million+ dead) wars in Africa (70%)

36. No major (100,000+ dead) wars in Asia outside the Middle East (Middle East includes Afghanistan and Central Asia) (70%)

37. No public option or Medicare For All in the United States (80%)

38. Pakistan’s per capita GDP grows faster in the 2020s than in the 2010s (70%)

39. No third Iraqi Civil War (70%)

40. No military invasion of Taiwan (95%)

41. Labour recovery in the next election (this means by seats) (80%)

42. At least one major U.S.-based social network will decline to insignificance in the coming decade (60%)