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China’s losing the soft power war

While China avoided losing its trade war with America, it is shooting itself in the foot when it comes to the war of ideas.

China recently resumed broadcasting NBA games, after a long hiatus sparked by an obscure tweet by an official who works for the Houston Rockets.

If China had not responded, no one would have paid any attention to the tweet on Hong Kong. After their hysterical overreaction, the international news media focused even more attention on China’s crackdown in Hong Kong. Not only did China look bad for its actions in Hong Kong, now it also looked bad for trying to squelch free speech in the US. Even if China were to win a limited victory by pressuring a specific group to remain silent, they lose far more by triggering much more negative commentary by the broader international community.

China uses these tactics against many countries. In the end, the Chinese government generally caves in and ends their boycotts. But the price is a steady erosion in public support throughout the world. Polls show that the public in many countries has shifted toward a much less favorable view of China in recent years. Xi’s policy is not working.

I don’t know whether this policy was Xi Jinping’s idea, or if he was advised by people in the Chinese government. But the attempt to pressure foreign countries has backfired badly, and China is losing the soft power war.

When countries do things that are clearly not in their interest, many people look for some sort of rational explanation, some sort of sophisticated and subtle strategy at work. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize that even great power governments are not very smart. If a country is acting foolishly, the simplest explanation is that its government made a mistake.

Banana republic watch

Yes, I know, I’m just being hysterical:

President Donald Trump’s order to his secretary of state to declassify thousands of Hillary Clinton’s emails, along with his insistence that his attorney general issue indictments against Barack Obama and Joe Biden, takes his presidency into new territory — until now, occupied by leaders with names like Putin, Xi and Erdogan.

Trump has long demanded — quite publicly, often on Twitter — that his most senior cabinet members use the power of their office to pursue political enemies. But his appeals this week, as he trailed badly in the polls and was desperate to turn the national conversation away from the coronavirus, were so blatant that one had to look to authoritarian nations to make comparisons.

He took a step even Richard Nixon avoided in his most desperate days: openly ordering direct immediate government action against specific opponents, timed to serve his reelection campaign.

BTW, the Democratic Party’s flirtation with court-packing is also banana republicanism. But the unique awfulness of Trump has overshadowed that scandal. (And yes, the GOP is partly to blame–they behaved disgracefully in holding up a nomination in 2016.)

PS. Go Jaime Harrison!

Off topic: I took the NYT language/location test, and this is where they predicted I’m from:

Correct answer is Madison. But then just one of the 25 questions could have produced this map. Can you guess which one?

Did China win the trade war?

Tyler Cowen has a new post entitled :

No, China did not win the trade war

He cites a recent study on the economic impact of the trade war:

This paper estimates that the trade war costs China $35.2 billion, or 0.29% GDP, costs US $15.6 billion, or 0.08% GDP, and benefits Vietnam by $402.8 million, or 0.18% GDP.

Does that indicate that China did not win the war? Look at the following data, and tell me who won the Civil War?

For 110 years, the numbers stood as gospel: 618,222 men died in the Civil War, 360,222 from the North and 258,000 from the South — by far the greatest toll of any war in American history.

This data has recently been challenged, but I think you get the point.

The primary objective for Trump and Navarro was a reduction in the US trade deficit. The deficit actually got larger, and the trade war also seemed to slow the growth of manufacturing jobs in the US. So it certainly looks like the US lost the war. Whether China won is another issue.

I’d say it’s too soon to draw any firm conclusions on who (if anyone) won the trade war. If Biden wins, I expect him to continue the recent cold war with China, mostly fought on issues ranging from technology to human rights. On the other hand, I’d expect Biden to wind down the trade war with China, for several reasons.

First, there’s a widespread view in the Democratic Party (and among economists) that the trade war was a failure. Second, polls suggest that Trump’s trade polices were not very popular among the general public—where support for free trade agreements has recently surged much higher. (You and I may not trust polls, but politicians do.) Third, the policy is associated with Trump, which makes it toxic in the Democratic Party. Fourth, if I’m right that Biden will continue the cold war with China, dumping the trade war is a convenient way to distinguish his policy from Trump’s.

If Trump wins, it’s anyone’s guess as to what the second term will look like.

My wife is currently in China, and says that things there are back to normal. She and her mother saw a movie where the theatre was so crowded that they couldn’t even sit together. The roads, the restaurants, the stores are all packed. In contrast, the US economy is horrible. If Biden abandons the trade war, a war that failed to reduce our trade deficit, it’s certainly going to look to most people like China won, even though the disparate economic performance is primarily due to Covid-19. If people want to say both sides lost, I’m fine with that claim.

Tyler commented on the trade war study as follows:

Those numbers should not come as a surprise, they do indicate that both countries are worse off, but they also show that a lot of the bargaining power does in fact reside on the side of the United States.

Sure, “a lot” of the power resides in the US. But it’s also likely true that “a lot” of power lies in the country ruled with an iron fist by a dictator for life who is negotiating with a democratic country containing a soft and spoiled electorate that is not used to the extreme sacrifices made by the Chinese at various times in their recent history.

I’m an anti-anti-anti-Trumper

Imagine a large rectangle, divided into two portions. On one side is written, “reduce interest rates”. On the other side is written “raise interest rates”. A turtle is placed right on the dividing line. Over time, it wanders into one of the two specified areas. If the turtle wandered into the area that expressed your personal views on monetary policy, would you say that the turtle in question is “right about monetary policy”?

I suppose you could make that claim, but in everyday use the phrase “being right about something” usually implies there’s been actual mental deliberation that led to a correct conclusion.

Trump is sort of like that turtle. He’s never actually considered what view on any issue is correct; rather he always considers which view is most beneficial to him. If you take 100 issues where there are binary choices, Trump may seem correct in about 50 cases. But that’s not really being “right” in any meaningful sense of the term.

Trump opposed low interest rates back in 2015, when we actually needed lower rates. Then he favored low interest rates after becoming President. That might have been correct in some sense (although the case for lower rates was weaker in 2018 than in 2015). But he was no more “right” in 2018 than the turtle that wandered into your preferred square.

Trump opposed more Covid testing because he thought it would make him look bad, and supported an accelerated push for a vaccine because he thought it would help him get re-elected. He was correct about the vaccine and incorrect about the testing. But let’s be honest, terms like ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ have no meaning when applied to Trump. Trump lies almost every day, and his statements on which policies he prefers are all about his personal interest. It makes no sense to even talk about whether Trump is “right” about what’s best for society as a whole. Trump’s never given the question any thought.

Here’s Matt Yglesias:

I have no problem with libertarians criticizing Nancy Pelosi on this issue. I have a big problem with libertarians taking an “anti-anti-Trump” stance, that is, libertarians claiming that anti-Trumpers are hysterically overreacting to the man. Hell no! Even anti-Trumpers like me are underreacting to the man.

Trump is so appallingly bad that his awfulness won’t actually be known until after he’s left office and we can start lifting up the rocks to find all the worms underneath. The only reason Trump is not a Nazi is that he doesn’t have enough power to impose Nazism. This is a man who encouraged Xi Jinping to put a million Muslims into concentration camps. He favors torture. He praises war criminals. I could name 100s of other examples. And there are many more that will be revealed once he’s lost power and it’s possible to investigate all his crimes, his abuse of power. (Crimes that he is currently covering up, often in violation of the law.) There’s no possible way any sane person could overdo their anti-Trump hysteria. Descriptions of his behavior by his own aides (off the record) read like something out of The Onion.

Some anti-anti-Trumpers make the fundamental mistake of looking at Trump as follows: “Hmmm, there are 347 issues where there are binary options. On how many of those issues do I agree with Trump?” You don’t agree with Trump on any other those issues, because Trump literally has no views on what’s best for the country.

In 2016 we were told by conservatives to focus on the “issues”, that Washington/Eisenhower-style competence and integrity only matter during a major crisis. Hmmm . . .

I predict that anti-anti-Trumpers will look just as discredited after Trump leaves office as Joe McCarthy supporters looked in the late 1950s. And that’s despite the fact that McCarthy was right that Soviet spies in the US were a problem. Don’t be lulled into thinking that just because Trump is “right” about this or that, he is anything other than the worst president in history.

BTW, just as McCarthy hurt the anti-communist cause, Trump will end up hurting the conservative cause.

PS. I’m not accusing all libertarians of being anti-anti-Trumpers. Many of those I’ve read agree with my overall view of Trump.

PPS. Despite being anti-Joe McCarthy, I’m actually an anti-anti-anti-communist. I’m no fan of anti-anti-communists like Noam Chomsky. The left has its own problems.

Trump’s performance while taking steroids shouldn’t count

When future historians decide whether Trump belongs in the Presidential Hall of Fame, his performance under the influence of steroids should not count.

Just look at Trump’s rapid and complete acceptance of Matt Yglesian fiscal policy:

No president could achieve that sort of head-spinning result without taking drugs. It would not be fair to compare Trump’s fiscal performance with Presidents like Obama and Bush, who did not use any artificial stimulants.

PS. Biden better start taking some stimulants or he might lose this thing.

PPS. Does his neck look thicker?

HT: David Beckworth