16 November, 2009

The nine nations of China

In honor of President Obama's first trip to China, Fallows links to a helpful multimedia presentation of China's "nine nations" - the nine very, very different regions that underly the modern fiction of a culturally homogenous Han China. Check it out, its fun and informative.

My favorite section is on the South Sea region, home to the perennial Cantonese rebel, Hong Kong:

The South Sea coast is China’s Back Door, far enough from the centers of power that nobody will notice if you bend a few rules. As locals put it, “The sky is broad and the emperor is far away.” Officials who were exiled to Yueh, as this land was once known, found it a fearful place whose inhabitants spoke strange dialects—Cantonese, mainly—and feasted on snakes, cats, and monkeys. But its clan-based villages, lush jungles, and rocky inlets offered ideal shelter for smugglers and secret societies to flourish. Unlike their staid northern cousins, these freebooters learned to take risks and profit from them. Other Chinese regard southerners as clever, sharp, and a bit slippery. But as rebels and renegades, emigrants and entrepreneurs, they infuse much needed flexibility and creativity into an otherwise rigid system.

God I miss Hong Kong.

05 November, 2009

Obesity epidemic as national security threat (Spencer bait II)

Over at the Atlantic Business Channel, Derek Thompson lists three reasons why skeptics should support a soda tax:

1) The Sin Reason
Sugary beverages account for up to 15 percent of the calories consumed by children, according to the New England Journal of Medicine. The authors wrote that "sugar-sweetened beverages ... may be the single largest driver of the obesity epidemic."

2) The Market Reason
There's a simple reason why sugary drinks and junk food are contributing to the country's obesity epidemic. They're very, very cheap... Raising the price of sodas, which plummeted relative to overall inflation in the last 30 years, strikes me as a responsible way to incent consumers to make healthier choices.

3) The Deficit Reason
But let's say it doesn't change anybody's eating preferences. Let's say Americans keep paying a couple cents more for the same amount of Pepsi. Well then fine, I say, at least they're helping to pay down the federal deficit. I hear the argument that a sales tax on soda (or alcohol) would be regressive, taking a larger percentage of poorer people's income and striking at the less fortunate demographic that is more likely to buy lots of soda in the first place. But health care reform would use those billions of dollars -- a 3 cent tax per 12-ounce serving could generate $24 billion in four years -- to pay for Medicaid and health care subsidies for less fortunate Americans, anyway.

I should say that out of those, I find (3) to be most persuasive. Thompson makes the under-appreciated point that those of us who want to see more aggressive spending on progressive social investments should be concerned less with the progressivity of any particular tax and more with the progressivity of the public sector as a whole. That means if the only way to eventually pay for, say, a single payer health system is through more consumption-side taxes, then liberals should take that deal. This broadly describes the equilibrium in many European countries, where very progressive public sectors are financed by regressive VATs.

But that point is really just an incidental set-up to the real point of this post which is an all-important 4th reason to support a soda tax:

The latest Army statistics show a stunning 75 percent of military-age youth are ineligible to join the military because they are overweight, can't pass entrance exams, have dropped out of high school or had run-ins with the law.

So many young people between the prime recruiting ages of 17 and 24 cannot meet minimum standards that a group of retired military leaders is calling for more investment in early childhood education to combat the insidious effects of junk food and inadequate education."We've never had this problem of young people being obese like we have today," said Gen. John Shalikashvili, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Fighting obesity isn't just about diabetes and the ability to wear sporty, slim cut attire any more. It has become critical to our very national security.

Kierkegaard, Despair, and Modern Happiness

Check out this article in the NYTimes by still-Kierkegaard Library curator at St. Olaf, Gordon Marino.

04 November, 2009

The slow revolution

Today was an important day in Iran's history - 13 Aban, the anniversary of the day that Islamicist students stormed the US embassy in Tehran and began a hostage crisis that would last 444 days. While this day has usually been marked in Iran by state-sponsored anti-US protests, today was a little different:

The pro-reform movement, again spreading news largely through social media, has once again turned out in what appears to be impressive force in an apparently deliberate attempt to embarrass the regime on one of its most mythologically potent days. Watching most of the news coverage of the past couple months, there's been a sense that the moment has passed, the movement has been surpressed and the momentum has died. In reality however, what we appear to be seeing is a long-term, cyclical pacing that eerily mirrors the 1979 revolution. Remember, it was more than a year, between 1978 and 1979, from when the protests started to when the Shah finally took his leave of Iran.

The reformists are not going away. The regime has missed its chance to crush them decisively, and it threw away its chance to co-opt them by allowing a run-off. The end result is still unpredictable, but Iran is a polity in tremendous flux, even when the movement isn't visible in the form of protestors and tear gas. Thats important to keep in mind when talking about the ongoing negotiating process - what kind of decisions is this regime capable of coming to at a moment like this? I am not among those who think that this should cause us to back off our policy of engagement, however - we must not do the regime that favor . The hard line elements of the revolution have always used noisy confrontation with the west to shore up support and justify draconian measures. Obama's open hand has thrown them off balance.