Friday, 20 April 2012

“Becoming China’s Bitch” by Peter D. Kiernan (Turner)

Kiernan-BecomingChinasBitchTen “Catastrophes” America Must Avoid Right Now

A Manifesto for the Radical Center. America is frozen. We have failed to face our nation’s most crucial challenges – and we are about to pay the price. When it comes to solving our country’s problems, we have become utterly paralyzed: bipartisanship has lulled us into a deadlock, preventing us from taking action. Yet we can no longer ignore the inevitable catastrophes or hand them off to Washington to fix – they must be addressed now, or we will suffer the long-term consequences.

An unflinching manifesto exploring five factors that have sustained our national paralysis, and uncovering the ten challenges that pose the greatest threat to the future of America. Presented from a Centrist perspective, these ten impending catastrophes include our semiconscious dependency on China, our lack of a centrally coordinated intelligence effort, our downward-spiralling health-care system, and the continually expanding problem of illegal immigration.

Kiernan’s book is split into two parts. Each is further divided into clearly identified and self-contained chapters. In the first part, Kiernan identifies five reasons he believes America is so divided. In the second part, each chapter deals with a different “catastrophe” that is facing America. The book is filled with plenty of one-liners – some excellent, some a bit glib. This is only a minor complaint, as the book is one of the most accessible on American politics I’ve read in a long time. However, while accessible and an enjoyable read, I did not think it offered that much in the way of really new information or prescriptions. So, a book with merit, just not enough to stand out in a crowded field.

The first part of the book offers a decent primer on the movers and shakers of political society and also how the government works. It is separated into chapters addressing the media, lobbies, think tanks, religion, and the two-party system.

The chapter on the Media was very good. Kiernan writes of how polarizing figures have been able to rise in influence and notoriety, because of a new, “subtle... narcotic” – that of “exclusionary safe zone of cocooning with those who think just like you”. Kiernan also bemoans the decline of serious news reporting devoid of partisan pandering and objectivity.

The chapter focussing on the role of Lobbies reads like a digest edition of So Damned Much Money by Robert Kaiser (no bad thing, as Kaiser’s book can get bogged down in certain sections and chapters), and Kiernan illustrates how “lobbyists amble through every trail and tributary of the federal government’s agency structure.” Kiernan also discusses the difficulty of regulating lobbying and the fact that it is nigh-on impossible to prove influence peddling, even when everyone knows it’s happening.

Kiernan identifies Think Tanks as the “fourth branch of government”, institutions that were set up by wealthy benefactors as “universities without students”, they have morphed over a century into the “largely unregulated... hidden persuaders” of American government – “in the marketplace of ideas, Think Tanks have become the brokers”. Kiernan makes a strange observation that Think Tanks are never identified by their ideological leaning, which is quite false – there are innumerable examples of Think Tanks being introduced as conservative or liberal, or labelled by way of association (for example, the frequent mention of Centre for American Progress’s links to a large number of Obama officials and appointees).

The chapter dealing with Religion in politics was, I’m afraid, not very good at all. Kiernan ignores a number of key arguments and positions, not to mention “evidence” that would have informed and improved his position considerably. He also misses some key documents that would have blown his argument out of the water (for example, James Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments). Kiernan doesn’t discuss freedom from religion, nor does he identify a difference between religion and faith. He does make one excellent point, though: “In a plural society, politicians must make their case to people irrespective of whether or not they share their religious views.” Not particularly original, but an excellent point nonetheless.

The Two Party System appears to be one of Kiernan’s particular concerns in American politics, a factor he refers to, echoing George Washington’s Farewell Address, as “baneful” and “truly [a government’s] worst enemy”, which can only lead to a “frightful despotism” of a different kind. Kiernan continues, suggesting that political parties are “a symptom... symbolizing our inability as a nation to find the common ground.” Kiernan offers an engaging history of the two-party system, and addresses the political atmosphere stating that since 1800, “Political parties have grown vastly larger and more sophisticated but they are no less nasty”, putting paid to the false notion that today’s politics is more spiteful than ever.

In Part II of Becoming China’s Bitch, Kiernan finally gets onto the subject of the ten catastrophes facing America. These include China, the Aging of America, the Devolution of the Labor Movement, Same-Sex Marriage, Intelligence Reform, Tobacco, Healthcare, Education versus Incarceration, Homeland Insecurity, and Energy Policy. As with Part I, there was not a whole lot of new information contained in Part II, but it is nevertheless an accessible and engaging explanation of these potential threats facing America. Kiernan offers some interesting ideas and information, though.

The chapter on China begins with an interesting, brief history of the ultimate political survivor, Deng Xiaoping (who was always my favourite Chinese politician to learn about at university). Despite the alarmist title of his book, Kiernan is rather calm and even optimistic about future US-China relations: “Having lived and worked throughout the region, I can assure you that nothing in Asia is predetermined. Becoming China’s bitch is not a foregone conclusion.” In this respect, Kiernan is a valuable voice on foreign affairs. All too often will so-called experts ring the alarm bell about the impending China threat. “Our economic rapport with China can be cooperative rather than adversarial, but it will take work and a dose of ancient Chinese medicine we typically abhor: long-term perspective.” This is by far the strongest chapter in the book, and I think it should have been the main focus and formed the central core and thesis of the whole work.

In his Aging of America chapter, Kiernan addresses quickly the issues presented by an aging population. He offers some interesting proposals, for example the idea that richer Americans should expect a reduction in Social Security and Medicare coverage (making him starkly in opposition to Paul Ryan Republicans on this issue). In this chapter, and others, Kiernan has a refreshing belief in speaking hard truths, admitting that there’s never likely to be a politician who will do the same (at least, not more than once), and he uses some interesting historic parallels to make certain arguments. This was a pretty good chapter.

“Whether you are right or left, you have to appreciate that... unions mean increasing cost, less flexibility of public finances, and a misallocation of resources.” The chapter on the Devolution of the Labor Movement is another one that left me a bit confused as to the author’s actual feelings on the subject. He excoriates unions (usually specific ones and especially those who represent public employees) for being inflexible and bullish, stating that “we are frozen by unionists’ unwillingness to make accommodation” and that unions are “losing the moral high ground”, given the disparities between public and corporate employee wages and benefits. It’s probably accurate to say that Kiernan is a little more on the ‘side’ of business than unions, voicing the uncomfortable truth that unions can be as much trouble as corporations. He does not, however, concede nearly as clearly of forcefully that there is often reason for unions to be so suspicious of corporate agendas, given the widespread corporate abuses throughout American history whenever regulation is scaled back. Given that Kiernan uses the example of unions demonising “earnest state treasurer[s]” who are just trying to balance their books, he makes no mention of the Wisconsin case, which is transparently bullshit – public employees were required to take considerable cuts to their salaries on the grounds of “fiscal responsibility”, whereas concurrently businesses and the top one-percent were given huge tax cuts? Please.

On the subject of Same-Sex Marriage, Kiernan’s view is that “Americans of the same sex will, and should be able to, marry”, and that “America's haphazard distribution of same-sex marriage rights creates something we have tried to avoid since we assembled in 1776 as a stew of second-class citizens and outcasts: the countryman of lesser rank.” This, Kiernan calmly argues, cannot stand and is antithetical to everything America stands for. It was refreshing to have a calm and non-invested defence of same-sex marriage. “Eventualism happens, and in time, gays will be happily married in our nation,” Kiernan concludes. “The Supremes will rule long after they should have, but they will rule despite powerful dissent from the conservative court. Not to worry." (228)

In his well-researched and detailed chapter on Intelligence and Terrorism, Kiernan offers a good explanation of a couple of terrorist threats facing America (particularly the Taliban and Jihad), but the chapter is more descriptive than prescriptive. I thought it interesting that Kiernan mention the fact that “Some believe media coverage enables terror.” This was a new argument for me, one that I have never considered. After all, given the sheer number of global terrorist attacks each year, “how can the media be complicit if it neither covers the attacks nor know which groups are culpable?” What I would suggest is that the media enables fire-breathing politicians who enjoy shrieking “TERRORISM!” as a rallying political cry (see, for example, George W. Bush Administration).

One of Kiernan’s statements I find I have a real problem with, regarding the military response to 9/11: “The national mood meant it was impossible in practical terms for President Bush not to authorize a major military response. Someone was going to get invaded." This is quite possible the stupidest rationale for an invasion, as it suggests that the US went to war out of a fit of exaggerated, bloodthirsty pique.

Instead, Kiernan suggests that Radical Centrists support the Powell Doctrine, which includes the “idea of an articulated exit strategy that permits U.S. forces to leave an engagement as quickly as possible,” and a need for a “clear and reasonable objective.” In other words, he’s a rational realist. The chapter offers a number of suggested ways to respond to the issue of terrorism, addressing key ideas already proposed (cutting off the head of the snake, intelligence consolidation, following the money, and so forth). Again, it’s an accessible, fine introduction to the issues, but it is not exactly ground-breaking.

Kiernan’s chapter on the threat of Tobacco was an unusual inclusion, but it fails on one very clear point: “Whatever you think you know about cigarette smoking, you do not know the facts. You have been professionally, expertly, and fiendishly misled.” Really? That’s not only rather insulting, considering how much people today know about the harmful, likely-fatal impact smoking can have, but also a bizarre statement to make when you then proceed to outline what everyone today knows about the hazards of smoking. There may have been a few new facts and figures, but I would be amazed if people weren’t familiar with the dangers of smoking and the general argument of Kiernan’s chapter.

“Our health-care system is an odd series of contrasts and ironies, caring and disinterested, patient-focused and indifferent.” Kiernan says that Medicare and Medicaid, “vast bureaucracies”, need an “extreme makeover” and Kiernan believes that they can be remade to serve more people with better service. He believes that health-care in America is ultimately going to lead to individual accounts that follow you throughout your life. In a rare example of referring to previous chapters, Kiernan ties in the discussion of health-care with that of the Aging of America. “We need to change the discourse on health care from caring for me to caring for others”. Kiernan includes an interesting sub-chapter on the politics of Stem-Cell Research and the impact of President George W. Bush’s meddling with funding of said research (it was just wasteful, ultimately).

In his chapter on Education versus Incarceration, Kiernan makes some interesting and important observations about the stark contrast between what politicians claim is so important for the future of America (education) and what they actually do. The American education system is falling behind, and things are only getting worse. Kiernan includes a considerable amount of data and statistics to back-up his points, and one gets the feeling that this is one of his key interests. He offers twenty possible reforms for both education and incarceration policies, most of which are sensible and intelligent (can the same be said for many politicians’ proposals?). “Our schools are slipping and our prisons are bursting at the seams.” This has to change.

In the Homeland Insecurity chapter, Kiernan ties the levels of migration to the availability of jobs, and suggests that an apparent drop in illegals/undocumented workers in America is most likely due to the tightening of the economy, rather than the result of any enforcement policy. The author counsels restraint and level-headedness when thinking about immigrants: “Illegal and legal migrants do many jobs that Americans do not wish to pursue” – which is also true in Britain, but doesn’t prevent some BNP supporters from whining about foreigners stealing their jobs. Ultimately what this chapter aims to do (and succeeds at) is pull back the curtain on the falsehoods that politicians feed to voters about illegal immigrants. It’s neither 100% negative, nor is it 100% positive. There’s a middle ground, and we have to be better at filtering out the hyperbole and disinformation.

In the Energy Policy chapter, Kiernan lays out a good explanation of America’s Oil Addiction and the “Three Uglies” that come with it (“Pay Ourselves vs. Pay OPEC”, “Cheap Gas vs. Paying for Climate”, and “Cost of Displacing Oil vs. Cost of Buying It”). Again, there’s nothing particularly ground-breaking in the chapter, but it’s clearly laid out and explained. “In short,” Kiernan laments, “we love our planet, but we just aren’t in the mood to pay extra for it.” The government needs to step in, and “the solution cannot lie only with the market” but the author nevertheless believes it will persevere.

“Where do we go from here?” Kiernan asks in the final chapter of the book... and proceeds to not really answer it. The final, barely-five-pages chapter was a little waffley and unsatisfying. His language is grander, perhaps in an attempt to end on a soaring, stirring note, but really he just muddies the water and doesn’t really say anything. A pity, as I had been hoping that Kiernan would use the final chapter to really say something. Instead, he wastes that opportunity.

My biggest issue with the book is that there’s no real unifying thesis running through it, despite the title: each chapter is self-contained and there’s little reference through the chapters to what’s come before. For example, Kiernan spends 46 pages providing mini-bios of influential conservative and liberal pundits (which I admit were pretty interesting), but then never refers to these commentators again. Why did we spend so much time learning about them, only for them never to appear again in relation to the issues he discusses in Part II? The same goes for lobbies and think tanks. There’s nothing really in Part II that tells us why Kiernan spent 134 pages on Part I, only to never refer back to it. The book feels like disparate chapters on things that frustrate the author, and that’s all. There’s nothing wrong with this per se, but in order to have really elevated this book, the author would have to tie things together better. I’d recommend he reads Matt Taibbi’s last two books (The Great Derangement and Griftopia) as examples on how to do this – both of these volumes are made up of collected articles, but they have been re-tooled to contain a single, unifying theme throughout that creates a whole, clear, larger thesis.

After finishing Becoming China’s Bitch, I can’t say with confidence that I know who Kiernan’s intended audience is. Despite his use of a handful of uncommon case studies and examples, members of academia, students and political elites will probably be familiar with most of these arguments and themes. As an introduction to some of the key issues facing America today, then yes, this book has value. But beyond that, I’m not sure what to make of it.

The book is accessible, quickly-paced, and with a nice personal touch to each chapter in the form of anecdotal epigraphs. Some might think Kiernan too fond of pith, having strewn the book with self-consciously quotable one-liners; equally, the author is too reliant on framing anecdotes and analogies, often where simple explanation would suit best.

It would have been better, I think, if Kiernan had made the arresting, attention-grabbing title more central: instead of having China feature in only one chapter – albeit a good one – I think Kiernan could have made a better case by taking China as a unifying case study for the whole book, and addressing the role of the media, lobbyists, government and others in making China policy. Additionally, he could have addressed how America’s domestic political environment impacts that relationship and what impact, if any, China has in return on American domestic politics, society and life.

The book is filled with interesting information and data, but it has some clear faults. I think I would recommend this to undergraduate, and also casual enthusiasts looking for a place to start.

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