Cancel culture? Internet culture? Human culture?

Not all innovation makes things better. I doubt that WWI would have been as bad if not for the invention of guns. If soldiers had still used swords in 1914, it seems unlikely that trench warfare would have dragged on for 4 years, with nearly 10 million deaths.

At the same time, war has been around for thousands of years, and the percentage of humans dying in war seems to be trending downward over the very long run.  So technology is not the primary problem.

This story on cancel culture in China made me wonder whether social media is sort of like guns, a dubious form of “innovation”:

Censors have not only kept their grip on entertainers with rules. Lately, the very nature of the modern Chinese internet, a hyper-commercial place patrolled by thin-skinned bullies, is helping them succeed. This is a perilous time to be famous in China. In the first few weeks of 2021, fans, prominent bloggers and state media have united to rebuke so many celebrities that a recent item on Tencent News, an online platform, was headlined: “The era of stars saying sorry is upon us: whatever you did wrong, apologise.” Those who have said sorry this year include an actress accused of abandoning two infants born via surrogacy in America and a comedian who made a sexist advertisement for women’s underwear. Other apologies have come from a comic actress who posed in a cardigan over the caption “husband-snaring gear”, leading to charges of objectifying women; and from a 20-year-old Tibetan horseman caught smoking on camera. Months earlier his good looks and shy smile had shot him to fame and helped him into a job as a goodwill ambassador for his hometown.

When market forces help the Communist Party to rule

Chaguan spoke recently to entertainment-industry veterans. They described famous friends on medication for depression, and explained why. Once, stars were on show only when they made a new film. Now, fans want to scrutinise every detail of actors’ lives on social media, and expect perfection from their idols.

Back in 1968, there were massive student protests in places as diverse as the US, China, Mexico, France and Czechoslovakia.  Within each country, people focused on the specific factors motivating domestic dissent, and thus missed the bigger picture of how modernization was reshaping society.

Within the US, cancel culture is often seen in narrow parochial terms.  Woke people trying to impose their definition of anti-racism, or conservatives trying to cancel professional athletes for insufficient patriotism.  But I wonder if that misses the bigger picture.

People have always wanted to physically harm other people, and guns provided a more effective way of doing so.  People have always wanted to verbally bully and shame other people, and social media gives them a more effective tool for doing so.

It’s not surprising that the US and China have cancel cultures; what would be surprising is if there were a country that did not have cancel culture.

PS.  Tyler Cowen links to a study suggesting that things are getting worse in America:

The worsening physiological and mental health profiles among younger generations imply a challenging morbidity and mortality prospect for the United States, one that may be particularly inauspicious for Whites.

I’m agnostic on the question of whether happiness in America is increasing, decreasing, or staying about the same.

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The two China policies

The Economist has an article showing a dramatic difference in economic growth between northern and southern China:

There has been some migration to southern China, but nowhere near enough to fully explain this divergence.  The southern provinces really have done better, even in per capita terms.

The Economist provides a number of explanations for this gap, but barely even alludes to the most important; southern China is considerably more capitalist than northern China.  That oversight would not have occurred in the Economist I read when I was young.  Someone should revive the Far Eastern Economic Review.

PS.  Of course there are more than two Chinas.  Taiwan is even more capitalist than the southern mainland, and is even richer.  Hong Kong is even more capitalist than Taiwan, and is even richer.  Funny how that works.

PPS.  I said, “barely even alludes to” as this is the only reference to free market policies in the article:

In 2013, the peak of China’s building frenzy, investment in assets such as roads and factories reached an eye-watering 66% of gdp in the north versus 51% in the south. Southern officials have been more hands-off.

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The Great Divergence: A Fork in the Road for the Global Economy

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China won the trade war

A year ago, Tyler Cowen claimed that President Trump won round one of the trade war with China:

I’m not entirely convinced we won even the first round of the trade war, although the claim might be true.  The stated goal of President Trump and his advisers was to reduce the US trade deficit with China.  A secondary goal may have been to slow the growth of China’s economy.  A third goal might have been to weaken the position of Xi Jinping, who has been moving China in a more repressive and nationalistic direction.

Today, we know that the US failed spectacularly on all three counts.  Indeed the last year has been an unmitigated disaster for Trump administration protectionists.  Today’s Bloomberg has an article arguing (correctly) that China ended up winning the trade war:

The trade deficit has risen to record levels in 2020:

 

 

The goal of slowing the rise of the Chinese economy has also failed.  The Chinese economy (in dollar terms) is now expected to overtake the US in 2028, five years earlier than estimated just a year ago.  (In PPP terms they overtook us years ago.)

And the prestige of Xi Jinping has risen dramatically relative to the prestige of President Trump, even before the recent fiasco on Capitol Hill.  In China there’s a widespread view that our botched handling of Covid-19 shows the superiority of an authoritarian system, at least on questions of public health.  (That’s not my view, as Taiwan did better than China.)  The prestige of America has never been lower.

Here’s what Tyler said a year ago:

A third set of possible benefits relates to the internal power dynamics in the Chinese Communist Party. For all the talk of his growing power, Chinese President Xi Jinping has not been having a good year. The situation in Hong Kong remains volatile, the election in Taiwan did not go the way the Chinese leadership had hoped, and now the trade war with America has ended, or perhaps more accurately paused, in ways that could limit China’s future expansion and international leverage. This trade deal takes Xi down a notch, not only because it imposes a lot of requirements on China, such as buying American goods, but because it shows China is susceptible to foreign threats. . . .

It is too soon to judge the current trade deal a success from an American point of view. Nevertheless, its potential benefits remain underappreciated, and there is a good chance they will pay off.

It’s no longer too soon to judge.  Perhaps without Covid-19 the outcome would have been more favorable to the US, but as of today the trade war looks like an own goal for the US.  The correct policy would have been to join the TPP back in 2017.  And increase high skilled immigration from China (including Hong Kong.) Let’s hope the Biden Administration learns the right lessons.

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On “Intimidation”

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