Sep 19, 2021Liked by Noah Smith

Great takes here, Noah.

A related thought: I've always gotten the vibe Chinese leadership in general fears a brain drain to the the West (especially US). So, when Washington's discriminatory policies make it harder for talented Chinese researchers (and well-educated people in general) to come to the United States, Xi and the Standing Committee aren't upset. In the least (their public rhetoric notwithstanding). Rather, they're doing high fives.

America should be doing everything in its power to attract the world's best and brightest: more student visas, more green cards, special visa programs for foreign graduates of US colleges, more H1s. All of it. And yes, that should include lots of China's best. STEAL THEIR TALENT. I personally guarantee many top Chinese brains will LEAP at the chance to trade in Chinese smog, crowds, low wages and totalitarian constraints for the freedom, clean air, potable water, wide open spaces, higher wages, and detached houses of Silicon Valley, Boston or Seattle. This is a complete no-brainer.

(Ok, so maybe not many will be able to buy a house in Palo Alto, at least right away! But it's getting pretty tough in Beijing or Hangzhou, too!)

PS — Completely non-scientific observation here, but, personal experience to me suggests China's educated classes are indeed getting a bit nervous, and there's a general increase in top level talent trying to get out. I've got five well-educated friends here who are finalizing exit strategies: three to Canada, one to the US, and one to Europe.

PPS — Preemptive reply to the inevitable objection based on national security: fears of Chinese espionage are overdone for a variety of reason; our people (FBI) in any event know how to handle this stuff, but if their budget needs to be increased, so be it; cutting ourselves off from an increasingly large portion of the planet's smartest folks isn't going to just help China: it'll also directly weaken US science.

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Great point.

When I read the line "nor did we rely purely on the strength of our bristling weaponry — we..."

I expected a line about migration. We recognized migration as a geopolitical tool and supported the exodus of talent, which was most powerful for those who place a higher than average value on free thought: scientists, explorers, artists, all those who are key to building a better society.

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Just to play DA, I think this is a strategy to play cautiously, though. The Soviets pre-empted brain drain with the Iron Curtain, and I don't think it's impossible for Xi to decide to institute a Jade Curtain if we explicitly go gung-ho on brain drain as a strategy to deal with him.

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That's partly the point. The US has been remarkably stupid about such things. Ideally what you want to do is make it harder for Xi to govern. You want to CCP to be as unpopular as possible. So, here's your choices, comrade Xi: watch many of your best and brightest leave, or take an action that will prompt wide swaths of the Chinese bourgeoisie to loathe you and your party.

The CCP's rule is strong but brittle.

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Yes, and even stricter controls on entry and exit for Chinese citizens will make the party regime less popular than it is.

Force your enemy to do unpopular and painful things. Do popular and beneficial things. That's how you win.

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> Force your enemy to do unpopular and painful things. Do popular and beneficial things. That's how you win.

Not to put too fine a point on it, cuz I agree, but that’s the easy part. You have to have an actual theory underlying the strategy to make sure the things you force your enemy to do are actually painful.

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the berlin wall was built because 20% of East Germany used the interconnectedness of berlin to get to the capitalist west

those who left were overwhelmingly well-educated and cost the state billions in 1960s dollars because of lost education https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berlin_Wall#Brain_drain

definitely worth giving it another shot

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While I agree with the premise, I think you get some of the details wrong.

Liberty and justice

- while I understand your commitment to police reform, you giving it undo emphasis in a greater cold war battle. First of all, our competitor is China, and I don't think there is any one who thinks that the Chinese police state is in anyway fairer than ours. And if you look at the developing countries whos support we are aiming to win (Asia, Africa, Latin America)... the vast majority of these have police forces that are ineffective or corrupt. That's not to say that we shouldn't work on improving our police, but I suspect that our crime rates are a bigger impediment to our world image than the quality of our policing.

- Gender roles/LBGT... I think you overestimate the desire for youth to break gender roles. Revealed preferences show that girls are still spending time on Instagram posting photos of them looking feminine. Boys spend their time playing video games, but games like Call of Duty, or other shooter type games where the characters overwhelmingly conform to masculine stereotypes. Even in the media... the top movies in the world are things like Fast and the Furious. I think in some ways China sees this more clearly, even though they obviously are making a forced error by the way they are going about it. The advantage of western culture is that these traditionally masculine tropes win, but in a world where there is the freedom to be anything that you want. It's the best of both worlds.

Equality and Security

- While, I personally agree with all your prescriptions for a better America, these aren't the sort things that make America such an example for the rest of the world. In fact, in some ways our inequality is tangently related to our greatest strength. I am working in Argentina right now, and yesterday I went out to lunch with my local counterpart engineers. These are young (20s to 30s) educated middle class Argentinians. All of then would gladly emigrate to the United States if they got a sponsored job offer. The reason wasn't social services... they are acutely aware that they get a guaranteed health care and hand have universal welfare systems in Argentina, the answer is because they know that America is one of those places where immigrants who work hard can get ahead. They weren't interested in equality as much as they were interested in climbing to the top.

What the US really needs to do is concentrate on making the playing field more equal, without in anyway reducing the perception of what it is to win. We need more examples of immigrants, and people of color, and just plain middle class dudes, rising to the top through talent and hard work.

While I didn't ask, I suspect that the view of China is the game is rigged far more than in the US. I don't think there are many immigrants who thing.... if I move to China, and I work hard, I will get rich. People don't look at China and think of success stories where a poor kid rises to the top. Instead they think... the successful are those with connections. That's not to say the US doesn't have that... oh we do... but its not universally that. Most of our richest Americans (Gates, Zuckerberg, Bezos, Musk, etc...) didn't inherit their wealth, or get doled out favors by being in the "right" political party.


- you are spot on here. This is actually the United States biggest problem. You and others have gone on great lengths about why we have such a big problem doing big projects cost effectively. Every once and a while, when our back is against the wall, we might come through (vaccine development)... but infrastructure wise, nothing that we do is the best in the world. And its certainly not the most efficient in the world.


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Bill Gates absolutely did inherit significant wealth. His father was a prominent lawyer with his own law firm, he went to a private school, and his father provided significant seed capital to found Microsoft. He got his big break when his mother suggested his company to a high-level executive at Microsoft at a party to supply DOS. Zuckerberg isn't from the middle class (his family was wealthy). Musk and Bezos are more self-made. Gates and Zuckerberg went from the 1-5% to the 0.001%, but don't kid yourself that they didn't have connections.

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You'd be surprised. I lived in one border province, and China was definitely seen as a hot education and economic destination for immigrants from Africa and neighbouring southeast Asian states. One particularly ambitious Vietnamese schoolmate of mine practically mastered the language in 6 months. For developed countries, of course it's not going to be attractive, but China is a very America-like magnet in the East in many ways.

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I’m willing to bet that any of those people would’ve chosen to go to the US over China.

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China's net migration rate is negative.

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>> "but I suspect that our crime rates are a bigger impediment to our world image than the quality of our policing."

I think that's more of a marketing problem than an actual crime problem.

On one side, we have a whole political party dedicated to selling our own citizens propaganda about how terrible our crime rates are. On the other, we have a half-dozen activist factions with their own idiosyncratic reasons for pumping it up: making gun violence seem like a more dire problem than it is, publicizing hate crimes in order to shame racists in the other party, centrists trying to steelman themselves against the right's propaganda with "tough on crime" cred, etc.

One of the difficulties of judging authoritarian regimes is reading between the lines of their propaganda - it's notoriously bad with NK, and probably was a major factor in why Saddam misjudged his bargaining position*. In America, we appear to be reproducing this problem through our own partisan media.

* For context: The best take I've ever seen on Iraq is that Saddam probably kept kicking out weapons inspectors because he thought that he was still playing the pre-9/11 game of "make it look like you have WMDs so the West will bargain with you". Instead of bargaining with him, though, we invaded him.

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I’d add that a lot of the time America acts as a pretty ideal hegemon, in that it doesn’t interfere in our business (here in Australia), has a strong military, imports freely, and exports lots of great software and TV shows. The popularity of this idea is weakened every time America elects a terrible president, which happens with alarming regularity. Really wish you guys would stop doing that.

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Yup. A big part of American strategy needs to be not electing Donald Trump (or TrumpLikes) again.

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I'd add a major issue is that China's rentier class hasn't caused GDP or real wage growth to stagnate, whereas in America rent-seeking kelopocrats are enough of a problem they've caused our economy and by and large society to stagnate. Take American companies have consolidated to the point where they're oligopolies who basically live off of IP rents.

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The FBI and CIA have been reformed? Where is the evidence for that? And as for racial/ethnic justice you conspicuously don’t mention the Uighurs

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The US failed to deal successfully with Islamist terrorists in Afghanistan by attempting to bomb them into submission. In contrast, China is re-educating the terrorists among the Uyghurs, while creating good jobs for all in Xinjiang.

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Yeah, by imprisoning anyone who doesn't acquiesce to every govt directive (about banning beards, burning korans, etc. etc.) and sticking a million or so people into forced labor camps. And forcibly sterilizing undesirable ethnicities en masse.

But hey, the gdp is growing.

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The battle will be won by the country which will invest more in STEM and China is on track to be graduating twice the number of US PhDs in these crucial fields by 2025.

A look at stats shows that over 80 % of post graduate STEM students are immigrants with the Chinese being 40 % of that.

The US is doing a very good job of presuming all Chinese academics guilty before trial and they will inevitably return home at the slightest chance.

Again Chinese salaries for these researchers match those of the US and the CCP is very generous with research grants.

During the cold War, America presented a very curated view of herself to the world. This is the age of social media and the ugliness of the US is laid bare everyday for the world to see. From mask protests, political divisions, to police brutality to election of Trump to unilateral withdrawal from multilateral agreements America is not an attractive proposition that it once was.

America knows that it cannot compete on the economic front that's why you see her flexing the military muscle.

I mean, 75 % of the world trades more with China(a country with only 10,000 usd per capita) than with the US.

Imagine the kind of economic behemoth she will be at $ 20,000 per capita in 2030 with still huge room for growth . The world's trade will be centered around China and Beijing will have an economy that will vastly out spend the US on virtually every front.

This realization is why the US is moving fast to try and contain China and confine it to the Middle income trap. The window is fast closing.

China is a competent USSR

US there a way out?

Sure but Americans would need to swallow their pride and realize that the era of restrained hegemony are long gone.

This cold war is China's to lose

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Our top politicians claim this is a classic battle of autocracy vs. democracy, but we are not a democracy - that was an "ideal of the framers."

Einstein told us we were an oligarchy in 1949, and I think Citizens United sealed that deal. By the way, Princeton confirmed the oligarchy declaration several years ago.

I believe Piketty also confirmed how our oligarchs manage the economy with the outcomes tilted in their favor, including neutering the free press in the 70s and unions in the 80s. Once Clinton sold the DNC to Wall Street, it was official.

Also, if you noticed, after spending $2.3 trillion on "nation-building" in Afghanistan, it would appear that only the MIC and their subcontractors profited off that endeavor. Twenty years and trillions were extracted from US/UK taxpayers, yet Afghanistan is in worse shape than when we entered. Imagine that - just as Jullian Assange told us in 2011.

Within days, we pivoted to a money-making scheme for the MIC with Australia, stepping all over our European allies, specifically France. This was done without one single declaration in front of Congress. Instead, the MIC made the decision, and the POTUS announced it even though he forgot the name of the Prime Minister of AU.

As you mentioned, we have serious issues that require fixing, but I've not witnessed any progress in fixing those items. Instead, we seem to be picking up speed in the other direction because some of the oligarchs are Neo-Nazis who still believe in the superiority of white Euro genes.

You would think the oppositional party with the Greek names 'demos' and 'kratia' would at least put up the slightest bit of resistance, but they are controlled by hedge fund managers and Wall Street CEOs. There is no people power in the USA - it's a scheme.

Now, that means one leader Xi against many leaders in the USA. After seeing what happened in Afghanistan and reading the SIGARs reports, neither the physical or ethereal wars against China are looking good.

I like your term, "kludgeocracy," considering I call the USA a kakistocracy/kleptocracy.

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> You would think the oppositional party with the Greek names 'demos' and 'kratia' would at least put up the slightest bit of resistance, but they are controlled by hedge fund managers and Wall Street CEOs.

This is what happens when you don’t read David Shor. Democratic donors are left of their voters and their larger donors are upper-middle class who are more to the left. Most of the rest is fantasy or comes from people who can’t read donation records and think employee donations come from their employer.

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"Democratic donors are left of their voters and their larger donors are upper-middle class who are more to the left."

This is what happens when you can't read for yourself and let someone else tell you what they think. Read the campaign statements yourself. Wall Street and Obama took down Occupy Wall Street. That doesn't even require much critical thinking to dispel your statement above. The financial oligarchy is just fine with the status quo.

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Occupy Wall Street was not the end of reform. It wasn't even a beginning. It was a bunch of white new york college students who thought they could speak for a nation when they could barely speak for themselves.

The only nice thing I can say about it is that it helped thrust the debate about income inequality front and center. But they were far from the only or most important reason we all talk about inequality as one of the preeminent challenges facing America right now.

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Hey Daniel, thanks for sharing what you know about OWS. Were you in high school when it occurred?

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Nobody in Europe gives a single fuck about France losing a submarine deal. The French themselves barely care. They'll make nice supportive noises about EU autonomy all day, but you're smarter than to think a submarine deal matters at all to the fundamental dynamics.

Annihilate the pessimists.

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The Soviet Empire broke up because it stopped being profitable in the 1970s. As George Orwell pointed out, empires are about making money. I'll cite "The Costs of the Soviet Empire"; Charles Wolf, Jr.; Science 29 Nov 1985 Vol 230 No 4729 as my source. (I could also cite Emmanuel Todd's "The Final Fall" from 1979, but I didn't discover this until recently.) By 1985, the USSR was moribund. It was just a matter of a proximate cause, like Cherobyl, to trigger it. Basically, the oil crises in 1973 and 1979 raised to cost of subsidizing the empire in Eastern Europe. It made financial sense to invade Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, but not Poland in 1980.

China does not have an external empire to subsidize. It has its Belt and Road initiative, but this is about financial control, not political control. If the whole thing collapsed, it would have minor consequences in China. Russia, you may have noticed, is still there much as it was in the days of tsars. It is much reduced from the "glory days" of the USSR when its empire swept across the Asian steppes to the gates of Vienna, but it is still a major power. I'll cite Kipling's “The Bear That Walks Like a Man" here.

China has never built a similar empire. It is geographically much more isolated. It is not going to collapse and free millions of Tibetans to go on shopping sprees in neighboring Bhutan or release politically and culturally repressed Chinese to the sex, drugs and rock-and-roll life of North Korea. Having taken and adapted what it wants from the west, China is rapidly closing in on itself just as it has repeatedly over thousands of years. We aren't in a cultural competition with China. There will be no massive rebellion over loss of access to the outside world save as filtered by the censors.

China may be poorer in some ways after it finishes its closure, but it will do well enough for political stability even as it loses some of its trade advantage. Even if the US and its allies get past the current impasse and develop an attractive model for the 21st century, there is no reason the Chinese leadership can't simply pick and choose what to allow into China.

P.S. For an entertaining look at cultural rebellion in the USSR, I'll recommend "Hipsters" aka "Stilyagi".

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Good post. One point: China's dislike of 'state welfarism' is mirrored in MMT's concept of a Job Guarantee, which eliminates the requirement for state-delivered, morale-destroying, poverty-level 'welfare'.

The US should certainly implement a JG as posited in MMT, if it wants to eradicate generational, entrenched poverty largely caused by the current neoliberal NAIRU economic orthodoxy (defended by the likes of Summers who you interviewed last week); note the letter 'U'.....

Especially since I think China can indeed achieve 'common prosperity' if the CCP wills it...baring a collapse caused by following Western mainstream economic orthodoxy - see Evergrande, a repeat of the US' subprime-housing-lending disaster.

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It is quite funny when people suggest a JG to promote wealth, since the original point of the idea in MMT (and what it actually does) is to make people poorer.

Have an inflation problem? Just fire everyone and give them a JG job - it pays minimum wage, but nothing more. And of course it uses up all their time they could be using to search for a better paying job.


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The JG enables morale-restoring, above-poverty participation in the nation's economic development. Your neoliberal, neo-Keynesian orthodoxy is THE problem.

Inflation can be managed in ways other than by deliberately creating an unemployed pool of workers to control price increases, as asserted by the NAIRU dogma. You have macroeconomics back to front, of course......I suppose if Summers and Krugman can get it so wrong, then so can you.

Enjoy watching Biden's spending package being dismantled in Congress, as a result of your economic debt/deficit/inflation orthodoxy, irrespective of the nation's actual productive capacity.

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“Deliberately creating an unemployed pool of workers” is exactly what the JG does, except instead of unemployment you pretend to give them a fake job that wastes their time, doesn’t give them a raise or let them do non-economic work like raising their children.

Luckily in the real world, just giving people welfare doesn’t create “dependency”, it raises their wages because they can invest in themselves and have increased bargaining power.

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1. "Giving people welfare" entrenches generational unemployment.

2. Unemployment always exists in a NAIRU economy.

3. A JG wage is rewarded at well-above the current below-poverty-level minimum wage. Btw, raising kids should be paid work for an unemployed parent , as in effect recognized in Biden's child-care support package. (OTOH, people on a JG wage experience the need to limit propagation, in order to preserve their living standards - a good thing in an over-populated world.

4. JG jobs, though temporary for most who access the scheme, are work which is desired by the local community. (people and environment care) not fake jobs.

5. You have to be heroic to invest in yourself on poverty level welfare, in a dysfunctional family.

6. In your "real world". inequality is soaring and Bezos is now many times richer than the entire population of poverty-ravaged Haiti.

Your complacent economic orthodoxy is sickening. In rich countries, poverty can be eradicated with the stroke of a pen, by authorizing creation of money in the public sector 'ex nihilo' , along-side money creation in private banks, without casing inflation, because the nation has the resources and productive capacity to eradicate poverty (with a JG, subsidized public housing and transport).

You are in effect demanding wealth creation must be confined to competition among self-interested individuals in "invisible hand" private sector markets. Wake up . the pandemic and climate emergency will sweep your self-interested market economy into the dustbin of history, because the planet will be cooked long before the 'market' can effect a timely transition to a green economy.

Enjoy watching Biden's package being dismantled in Congress, as a result of the 'flat-earth economics' you follow.

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Before all this, it will be vital to put the U back in "USA".

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"... and refused vaccines until 0.5% percent of our population (and counting) perished from the plague."

Math correction: that should be "0.2% of our population".

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Yes, the right way to think about this "Cold War II" is as a frame for domestic reform that has the political potential to co-opt/interest/neutralize enough of the US center-right that they won't be an insurmountable obstacle to the structural reforms that need to be made to simply make the US a functional, decent, at least minimally attractive society (and my bar for "minimally attractive" is "quiets the thoughts of 'I hate it here', 'the most American things are vicious systemic racism and 'inequality', and 'I want to move to an actual developed country').

Basically, we need to think structurally, and we need to think about social values. Early in US history and then renewed in the Progressive and New Deal eras, there was a genuine sense that the "common man" was the center of virtue and of politics. White common men, yes; Black men and other men of color and women of all races no.

I think that when we talk about inequality we now put way too much emphasis on a narrow idea of economics. How a society functions is about virtue and values, and while American society has made some halting improvement in the distribution of respect and virtue to non-straight-white-men, we've gotten away from seeing ordinary wage workers of all demographics as the proper virtuous agents of our society.

But a genuine emphasis on the virtue of the actual common working people -- people who earn wages and do not own houses, let alone businesses, let alone corporations -- would be helpful in this new Cold War.

Just good old democratic republicanism. Then low housing costs, universal public healthcare, unions, efficient development, etc all flow from that, because they benefit working people.

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The 'gap in institutional competence' you mention is nowhere more evident than in the governments themselves. As Dr. Sun Yat-sen observed a century ago: 'Members of America’s House of Representatives have often been foolish and ignorant people who have made its history quite ridiculous. … This would seem to be entirely due to the inadequacy of its public service examinations.' Of course he should have said 'non-existence' rather than 'inadequacy'.

The technocrats in the upper echelons of the Chinese Communist Party may be authoritarian, but at least they're well educated and informed — not a climate denier among them. And their extensive previous experience in local and provincial government ensures that they're competent in governing.

These are features of the Chinese system that American democracy could well learn from — just as the former could benefit from incorporating some checks and balances.

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Except that climate denial (and denial of evolution) aren't about lack of education or meritocratic testing, they're ideological beliefs as much as Maoist beliefs are. They are beliefs that flow from an ideology that says that human society is a natural hierarchy in which straight white-American evangelical Christian men are under God's rule but above everyone else and the rightful ruler of nature.

Increased education -- which I am an advocate for in the US context at the elementary level -- is not going to convince a white American evangelical Christian man to give up his ideology.

Exams for political office are especially not only not going to improve the situation, they are perfectly designed to give an advantage to these ideologues, because as part of their worldview they loathe centralized bureaucracy and liberal education.

Think about it this way: could better civil services exams have prevented the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution? These were manifestations of ideology, not academic ignorance in any narrow sense.

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Oh come on. As if well-educated and informed people can't hold ridiculous ideological beliefs.

If you want to talk about ridiculous things, shouldn't we talk about how China still pretends to be communist while being clearly capitalist and being more unequal than the US?

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Surprised you didn’t cover more on capital flight out of China, which is probably the best thing America has going for it now and the foreseeable future.

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Hi Noah; Just make you notice that you seem to forget a small detail: Not only must the American system be a better system than the Chinese system, but it must also seem so, and you will lose much of your advantage if China organizes a troll army to poop the networks western socials; You cannot prohibit or censor social networks, you can only teach your citizens from the earliest childhood to defend themselves from lies, manipulations and deceptions.

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A lot of useful thoughts here but I am amazed that climate change is not mentioned and the clear need for collaboration there. And of course, the US is not exactly doing a great job on this front.

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Herb Simmens

Climate breakdown will radically exacerbate each country’s deficiencies in ways we can barely imagine. The US with a lack of any kind of central planning, its increasingly understaffed and incompetent public sector and lack of consensus that the climate crisis even exists will suffer immensely and likely begin to break up as millions internally migrate and flee to Canada.

I don’t know enough about China to even describe the kinds of responses they are likely to make to severe climate breakdown. Cooperation between the two countries will become even more unlikely as elites in both countries will increasingly demonize the other country to divert attention from internal chaos.

Many other scenarios are possible and must be closely analyzed in an attempt to avoid climatastrophe.

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