My right to detest other people's aesthetic preferences by mattsteinglass
May 11, 2010, 1:20 pm
Filed under: Architecture, Design, Development, Vietnam

Here’s a sight I saw in Ha Giang province last week.

This is how people all over the hilly parts of northern Vietnam are making room to build the cement and brick houses they can suddenly afford: they bring in a bulldozer and wipe out part of a hill. I find it disgusting. I understand that the new landscape reflects the autonomous preferences of a person who, for the first time in their lives, has access to a modicum of wealth and well-being. To me, this is less important than the fact that it is an ugly and irreversible despoilment of the landscape. The long-term erosion problems are a significant but in a sense separate issue.

Here, in contrast, is how the landscape looks when it hasn’t been bulldozed and people are living in wooden, rather than concrete and brick, houses.

What is the moral basis for the claim that I should welcome the transformation of the latter landscape into the former?

Is China an ideological alternative? by foarp
July 19, 2009, 10:40 pm
Filed under: China, Development


A couple of weeks back Matt wrote a piece asking whether the Chinese political/economic system (i.e., a single-party dictatorship combined with relative economic freedom) should be considered an alternative to liberal democracy and the free market which might appeal to people in other countries in the third world where democratisation has seemingly brought little benefit. I have a few problems with this.

First off the current Chinese political/economic system is one that has been formed pretty much accidentally after the death of Mao. There is no way that any sane person would wish to put their country through the various stages of political oppression, strife, and brainwashing, merely to arrive where China is now. Basically only countries which have already suffered under a single-party system can hope to reproduce China’s current system. The Chinese Communist Party even tacitly admitted this in its recently promulgated “6 Whys” saying (in what is also obviously a classic expression of the Marxist dialectic) that:

“The guiding role of Marxism in China has not been decided by any certain person or by the will of one party, rather it is a choice and circumstance of history”

The whole point of the Chinese system is that it is supposed to be suited to China and not transferable to other places, and that examples from other countries are not applicable to China. The Chinese leadership has long abandoned support for communist rebel groups in other countries using this exact excuse. The current Chinese system is in fact an increasingly-obvious anachronism rather than a new and revolutionary development.

Secondly, whilst it is fashionable to talk of China as almost a former-communist country now under a new system of its own devising, this ignores the way in which communism is both an economic system and a political system. Essentially whilst socialism has been abandoned, Marx-Leninism is still the basis of the political system. China is still run by the ‘democratic centralism’ of the ‘revolutionary vanguard party’, or, in plain speak, a single-party dictatorship. As such there is nothing new about China’s political system, and for this reason it is unlikely to be attractive to people who have not grown up under such a system.

Thirdly, this ignores the essential glue that holds together the Chinese state under circumstances not dissimilar to those which tore Yugoslavia and the USSR apart: nationalism. Firstly under the nationalists and now under the communists China has been subject to the greatest and most successful program of nation-building ever seen. Whilst in India there are reportedly still whole villages in which nobody has ever heard of the country ‘India’, since 1912 the Chinese nation has steadily been built up, with ethnic and regional loyalties largely subsumed into the Chinese identity or race (中华民族). Whilst it is generally believed in China that this identity has existed for thousands of years, it is in fact an invention of nineteenth century theorists like Liang Qichao (梁啟超), intended to replace an imperial system fairly similar to the one that existed in the Austro-Hungarian or Russian empires. This has largely succeeded, and it is only in those areas with ethnic identities so entirely different to that of the majority as to be incompatible (such as Tibet and Xinjiang) that it has failed. The high level of nationalism in China (Australian China-hand Ross Terrill described it as “the nearest thing China has to a national religion”) has allowed the Chinese state to survive pressures which would shatter other countries, as such the Chinese model cannot simply be transplanted to countries with strong regional identities.

A far more important question to ask, therefore, is what system will be adopted once the anachronism of communist rule is finally done away with?

Border adjustments in cap-and-trade by mattsteinglass
July 1, 2009, 2:17 pm
Filed under: Development, Environment, Uncategorized

Like Paul Krugman and Ezra Klein, I think the border adjustment amendment to the Waxman-Markey bill, which would impose tariffs on countries that have no carbon emissions limits beginning about a decade from now, makes perfect sense. It seems particularly logical with regard to China and Southeast Asia. The whole anxiety over imposing cap-and-trade carbon emissions limits has been that China will refuse to go along. What better incentive to encourage them to join the rest of the world and impose some limits? The potential tariffs appear to be legal under WTO rules, and economic theory argues they make perfect sense — they simply equalize the playing field by preventing countries from exploiting a lower environmental standard to gain an unfair advantage.

If there’s any reason for the US to fear the idea of border adjustments for carbon reductions, one would think the fear should be directed towards Europe and Japan, rather than China. If Europe and Japan get they idea that they could impose tariffs on US goods based on their much lower carbon emissions per dollar of GDP and the US’s vastly lower gas taxes, that might hurt US exports. But it would also be good for the planet.

IP in the developing world by mattsteinglass
June 4, 2009, 3:19 pm
Filed under: Development, Law, United States, Vietnam

Matthew Yglesias and Megan McArdle find a rare point of agreement in opposing the extension of copyright law to time periods long after the death of the author, where the only goal is rent-seeking behavior by big corporations that want to make more money off of their government-created monopoly.

As it happens this issue is live this morning in Hanoi, with representatives of the US Trade Representative’s office meeting with Vietnamese officials to discuss enforcement of IP law. One issue is recent opposition in the Vietnamese National Assembly to a 75-year copyright term. The deal is, the Berne Convention only requires a 50-year term of copyright for certain works (notably movies and sound recordings). But the terms of the US-Vietnam Bilateral Trade Agreement (BTA), signed in 2000, demand a 75-year term. Vietnam is in the process of amending its IP legislation, and several representatives in the Assembly pointed out Monday that having a longer term of copyright doesn’t seem to serve Vietnam’s interests.

The arguments made by the representatives were a bit confused, but they’re essentially right: the main beneficiaries of the longer term would be foreign media corporations like Disney and Warner, who could continue to demand royalties on properties like “Bambi” and “Twist and Shout”* that would otherwise be in the public domain now, or within a few years. There are no Vietnamese likely to benefit from 75-year copyright terms at the moment with the possible exception of the heirs of ’60s folk-pop musician Trinh Cong Son.

But in actual fact, all of this debate is rather pointless, because IP law simply isn’t enforced in Vietnam. I talked to a US Embassy official today who was in the talks, and he said whatever was said in the National Assembly seems to be irrelevant. First of all, the terms of Vietnamese legislation probably can’t invalidate the terms of the BTA and Vietnam’s WTO commitments. But more important, the discussions this morning focused entirely on beefing up enforcement of existing IP law. The piracy rate for software in Vietnam is falling — from over 90% down to a current rate of 85%. The piracy rate for DVDs and CDs is still well over 90%. (I’d make a rough guess at something like 98% for DVDs.) Discussions of the consequences of different IP regimes in the developing world still seem largely theoretical and irrelevant, because where enforcement doesn’t exist, copyright doesn’t exist.


* Under EU and Berne rules, the performance rights on the Beatles’ version of “Twist and Shout” will expire 50 years after its recording, i.e. in 2013. That means you could use the song as the soundtrack to a TV commercial without paying anything to Paul McCartney. The rights to the underlying composition will last longer. Bertrand Berns, who co-wrote “Twist and Shout”, died in 1967. Under Berne rules his half of the royalties would lapse in 2017, but the EU now sets copyright term at 70 years from the death of the author, which would be 2037. The other composer, Phil Medley, died in 1997, so even under Berne rules his heirs will still be living it up “About A Boy”-style in 2047. I don’t want to deal with what the US terms of copyright will be — I’ve wasted enough time looking this up already.

I don’t even understand why this is supposed to seem like a waste of money by mattsteinglass
May 24, 2009, 10:40 pm
Filed under: China, Conservatism, Development, Health

While we’re talking spam, this post from something called Turner Radio Network (I assume that’s as in “Turner Diaries”) somehow made it to the front page of Google News a few minutes ago. Entitled “Should we overthrow the gov’t on July 4?”, the post notes that Barack Obama noted in a press conference that the US is “out of money” (in the sense that the Federal Government is running a deficit — stop the presses!). It goes on to note a few instances of “absurd” Federal expenditures that are supposed to infuriate the reader:

Despite this admission, that very same federal government is presently throwing away literally millions as follows:

* The National Institutes of Health are paying researchers to cruise six bars in Buenos Aires to find out why gay men engage in risky sexual behavior while drunk — and just what can be done about it. (Source)

* The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAA), a part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), will pay $2.6 million in U.S. tax dollars to train Chinese prostitutes to drink responsibly on the job. (Source)

* The National Institutes of Health is conducting a two-year study costing $178,000 in which 60 Thai sex workers are being interviewed to understand what makes them so succeptible to HIV, including economic pressures and their heavy use of drugs (Source)

So here’s the thing. Even before checking the “source” links on these items, I failed to see what was unreasonable about any of the above expenditures. Full disclosure: my wife is an HIV/AIDS researcher here in Vietnam. So I’m not exactly your average not-particularly-informed voter when it comes to HIV/AIDS research. But even on their faces, as tendentiously described in a conservative blog post trying to ridicule them, each of these studies seemed perfectly logical to me. The price tag on the China study does seem rather high, but in principle, if you want to find out whether Chinese prostitutes are being led to practice unsafe sex because of alcohol use, and whether changes in alcohol rules might enable them to better insist that customers use condoms, how would you propose to do that except by studying it? If you’re spending a lot of money on programs to stop the spread of HIV in China, but those programs are being hampered in some locations, wouldn’t it be wise to spend some money studying the factors that are hampering the program, rather than continuing to throw money at it with no understanding of why it’s going wrong?

And then one heads to the article describing the research program:

Dr. Xiaoming Li, the researcher conducting the program, is director of the Prevention Research Center at Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit. 
The grant, made last November, refers to prostitutes as “female sex workers”–or FSW–and their handlers as “gatekeepers.” 

“Previous studies in Asia and Africa and our own data from FSWs [female sex workers] in China suggest that the social norms and institutional policy within commercial sex venues as well as agents overseeing the FSWs (i.e., the ‘gatekeepers’, defined as persons who manage the establishments and/or sex workers) are potentially of great importance in influencing alcohol use and sexual behavior among establishment-based FSWs,” says the NIH grant abstract submitted by Dr. Li.

“Therefore, in this application, we propose to develop, implement, and evaluate a venue-based alcohol use and HIV risk reduction intervention focusing on both environmental and individual factors among venue-based FSWs in China,” says the abstract.

The research will take place in the southern Chinese province of Guangxi.

Guangxi is ranked third in HIV rate among China’s provinces–and is a place where the sex business is pervasive, Li said.

This is all completely solid stuff. Owners and managers of brothels have proven extremely useful partners in preventing the spread of HIV in many countries, including Thailand and Vietnam.  They have no interest in seeing their brothels spread HIV, killing their workers and clients. Informal instructions to Communist Party members to practice safe sex when visiting brothels, and Party encouragement of safe sex practice at brothels, has led to high rates of condom usage in Vietnamese brothels. If, for example, it is found that allowing prostitutes to drink heavily (which may culturally be part of the commercial sex environment in China and elsewhere, where “hostesses” and “karaoke girls” are expected to drink with guests before providing sexual services) is leading to breakdowns in safe-sex policies, brothel managers may set new rules for customers, exempting sex workers from pressure to drink; sober sex workers will no doubt be better at stopping the spread of HIV.

So this seems in principle like a worthy study. But what really struck me is that it didn’t even seem like a boondoggle at first glance. Looking back at a few recent examples — bear DNA research, volcano monitoring — it just seems like conservatives are having a hard time these days finding government programs that actually are, or even sound, ridiculous. This seems strange — there are certainly plenty of government programs wasting money out there. But they are mainly wasting money in complicated or business-friendly ways that conservatives will not find rhetorically useful.

“No history, no respect for this great little motor lodge” by mattsteinglass
May 24, 2009, 1:28 pm
Filed under: Asia, China, Development, Europe, United States

This is a pretty powerful video interview with a graphic designer named Aaron Draplin. Draplin laments the destruction of a vintage 1960s motel billboard and its replacement with a nondescript computer-generated piece of junk. “This is why America is f***ed,” Draplin says.

I think about this stuff every day — probably every hour — in Hanoi. About two years ago I started to get the feeling that there simply isn’t anywhere in the world apart from Europe and a few scattered sections of the US that does historical preservation right, or thinks it valuable. It’s a European cultural trait, an inheritance of Romanticism. In Vietnam and China, in all likelihood, there’ll be nothing left of the historical country in a couple of decades; most of it will be indistinguishable from a mediocre shopping mall in Singapore, at best.

Weirdly, though, Japan seems to be great at historical preservation. Perhaps because they industrialized earlier and slower, and had more time to think these issues through?

How democracy happens by mattsteinglass
May 21, 2009, 7:42 pm
Filed under: democracy, Development

Apparently, first your country gets rich, and then it has a crisis involving a drop in economic growth. Also, it helps to be located next to other democracies, and it hurts to be an exporter of fuel. And once you’ve been back and forth a few times between democracy and autocracy, you tend to keep going back and forth.

Sounds right to me.

The third world will get on board with climate change reduction. by mattsteinglass
May 21, 2009, 9:52 am
Filed under: Development, Environment

Those ignorant hippies at MIT have just published their new revised climate change projections in some crazy socialist peer-reviewed scientific journal, the American Meteorological Society’s Journal of Climate. As Joe Romm summarizes, they’re projecting 5.1℃ average warming by 2095, with 12℃ at the poles and 866 ppm of CO2. (Via Kevin Drum.) That’s double their 2003 estimates, and it’s well above the catastrophic 450 ppm level and ultra-catastrophic 700 ppm limits people often refer to when they’re talking about the upper bound humanity can afford. (CO2 levels of 450 ppm probably mean “an ice-free planet”, according to a recent study by NASA and Yale authors.) The reasons: the carbon “sinks” are maxed out, and positive feedback loops are stronger than previously understood. Romm writes: “How could Greenland’s ice sheets possibly survive that?” Melting the Greenland ice sheet would raise global sea levels by 7 meters.

The latest fad among climate-change “skeptics” and “non-orthodox” thinkers has been to throw up one’s hands and declare that China, India and the rest of the developing world will never go along with serious efforts to reduce greenhouse gases, so there’s no point trying to stop the warming. We should just adapt. On another front, orthodox environmentalists are saying that China will never voluntarily go along with serious efforts to reduce greenhouse gases, so we should threaten them with trade sanctions.

I think this is wrong. Paul Krugman has talked to far more influential people in China than I have. But here in Vietnam, influential people are extremely worried about climate change and eager to participate in international efforts to slow it down. Climate change is spelling disaster for Vietnam, and people are already starting to feel it. A 1-meter sea level rise, which is now considered less than the mean forecast for 2100, would sink the entire Mekong Delta, which produces the overwhelming majority of rice in Vietnam — the world’s second-largest rice exporter. Rice producers are already suffering from salinization caused by rising sea levels, and fishing villages are caving into the sea. Typhoons have been unusually devastating in each of the past three years. Strange cold spells have hit the mountainous northern regions; in the winter of 2008 they had week-long frosts in areas where the temperature almost never falls below 0, killing water buffalo, wrecking the winter-spring rice crop, and threatening famine in remote regions.

These weather events are always covered in Vietnam’s press as effects of climate change. And politicians and the public are paying attention. A month ago at the press conference held by Sens. McCain, Graham and Klobuchar in Hanoi, the Vietnamese press didn’t ask a single question related to McCain’s Vietnam War experiences. They asked Klobuchar about references she’d made to anti-climate change cooperation. Three weeks ago I talked to the chairman of the relevant committee in the National Assembly, and he said Vietnam has to start setting CO2 emissions limits in accordance with international efforts. I asked what the benefits for Vietnam were — after all, Vietnam’s tiny $85 billion economy hardly has any influence on global climate change, and if the Mekong goes under it won’t be because of Vietnamese emissions. He said: If we expect the rest of the world to do anything about climate change, we have to show that we are doing our part.

Caveats: As a small country, Vietnam is exceptionally conscious of the need to cultivate international goodwill. And to some extent Vietnamese receptivity to action against greenhouse emissions benefits from the fact that the world’s biggest CO2 emitter is China (the ancient frienemy!). The nice talk on greenhouse-gas reductions hasn’t yet been matched by action, but that’s in part because the global community hasn’t really started to lay out terms yet for the developing world to take part. First, the US needs to get on board. But once the world’s leading developed economies can present a united front on the need to curb greenhouse emissions, I am dead sure that developing nations will get on board as well. And perhaps Krugman is right and China will be the last to come around. But come around it will.

First-world climate change skeptics and freethinkers who deny that third-world countries will reduce greenhouse emissions often make a big mistake: they conflate the interests and capabilities of individuals in the developing world with the interests and capabilities of developing-world governments. This comes out clearly in the Nordhaus and Shellenberger article referenced above. In much of the developing world — think sub-Saharan Africa — governments are weak, and so the fact that individual villagers aren’t going to stop using wood-burning cookstoves to save the planet really is the dominant factor. But developing-world governments like Vietnam and China, and increasingly Indonesia and Thailand and India, are not weak. They can act to fight perceived collective threats in ways that their individual citizens can’t. And when they do take action, their effectiveness can shock the world. In 2004, when avian influenza began cropping up in Southeast Asia, the widespread prediction was that it would be almost impossible for third-world governments to fight it; their farmers were too scattered and poor, they lived intimately with their animals, it was a cultural thing. Two years later, Vietnam was vaccinating every domestic fowl in the entire country. China has a similar capacity to effect staggering shifts in behavior on issues the government views as a national priority. The question is: does the government view global warming as a national priority? At the moment, no. But that is going to change. It’s going to change rapidly. And when it does, I firmly believe that the question will not be whether China can change its economy fast enough. The question will be whether the US can keep up.

The opposite of a flame war by mattsteinglass
May 20, 2009, 12:55 am
Filed under: Afghanistan, Development, Vietnam

BruceR writes that he agrees with me on the teachers vs. buildings thing, and I agree with him too! But I just remembered this great and apposite quote from Ho Chi Minh, so I’m posting one more time just to have a chance to use it. William Duiker’s “Ho Chi Minh: A Life” (P.242) recounts that in late June, 1940, Ho, then living in southern China under the umbrella of the Chinese Communists, traveled to the town of Guilin (hey! I was in Guilin 2 weeks ago!) to meet with other members of the Vietnamese Communist Party and discuss how to use Germany’s conquest of France to advance the Vietnamese independence struggle.

“…We must seek every means to take advantage of it. To delay would be harmful to the revolution.” When one of his colleagues pointed out the necessity of obtaining weapons, Quoc [Ho's nom de guerre at the time - ed.] replied,

We’ll have the weapons when we launch our general uprising. That is one of the most important problems for the revolution. But if we had weapons now, who would bear them? So we must first find a way to return home and mobilize the masses. When the masses are aroused, they will have weapons.

In other words: don’t worry about the equipment. Worry about organization and mobilization, and the equipment will take care of itself.

Nordhaus and Shellenberger: poor people poorer than rich ones by mattsteinglass
May 19, 2009, 3:19 pm
Filed under: Development, Environment

I have never understood what people find appealing about the work of Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger. It seems to me like empty contrarianism, the Mickey Kaus of environmentalism. They’re like two guys trying so desperately to stand the conventional wisdom on its head that they end up dropping it, breaking it, hastily gluing it back together, and pronouncing: ta-da! Take this little insight from their piece in the current TNR:

Despite the rhetoric about “one planet,” not all humans have the same interests when it comes to addressing global warming. Greens often note that the changing global climate will have the greatest impact on the world’s poor; they neglect to mention that the poor also have the most to gain from development fueled by cheap fossil fuels like coal. For the poor, the climate is already dangerous. They are already subject to the droughts, floods, hurricanes, and diseases that future warming will intensify. It is their poverty, not rising carbon-dioxide levels, that make them more vulnerable than the rest of us. By contrast, it is the richest humans–those of us who have achieved comfort, prosperity, and economic security for ourselves and for our children–who have the most to lose from the kind of apocalyptic global-warming scenarios that have so often been invoked in recent years. The existential threat so many of us fear is that we might all end up in a kind of global Somalia characterized by failed states, resource scarcity, and chaos. It is more than a little ironic that at the heart of the anti-modern green discourse resides the fear of losing our modernity.

What is that supposed to mean? The reason the poor are more vulnerable is because…they’re poor? Nordhaus and Shellenberger get so twisted up trying to construct a paradox that they end up restating the obvious.


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