Monday, 28 October 2013

China & the Papacy Are… Similar?

Pope-Francis-and-Xi-Jinping

Credit: The Guardian

This evening, a rather interesting link from The Economist popped up in my inbox. It’s from their Analects blog, and the piece is a comparison between Chinese leaders and the Vatican. The article, as the writer(s) notes, is borne from a number of “amusing if inconsequential parallels between the leaders of China and the leaders of the Catholic church.” It’s a theme the blog has returned to a couple of times (fun with a headline for example, and again when the papal conclave met at the same time as the Chinese leadership pageant). It’s a playful theme, but it’s also an interesting one.

“… [N]ow that Pope Francis and Xi Jinping have had time to settle in at their respective helms, it turns out there are rather more substantial comparisons to add to the superficial ones. Any China-watcher who pays attention to recent news from the Vatican cannot help but notice them.”

The most recent example of a parallel is the German “Bishop of Bling”, who spent millions of dollars/euros to pimp out his residence and other church buildings. The pope, naturally decided to suspend the felonious monk. The ostentation exhibited in this bishop’s spending was certainly against all church teachings, and especially the current pope’s focus on frugal living. Longtime China watchers should have no trouble seeing how Analects drew a parallel to the Chinese leadership – after ten years of researching and studying Chinese politics and international relations, an almost constant thread is official corruption. Analects points to new Chinese President Xi’s crack-down on the lavish lifestyles of Chinese officials – fancy banquets and frivolous junkets have been ruled out for Party members, and have been admonished to be frugal, and to “resolutely curb hedonism and extravagance”. Another example that the Analects writer could have pointed to was the New York Times exposé about Wen Jiabao’s family’s incredible wealth, which was amassed largely as a result of family and political connections. Chinese history is littered with examples of this – indeed, part of the whole reason for Mao Zedong’s revolution was the decadence and corruption of the regime he eventually toppled. Both the Catholic Church and Chinese Communist Party have preached frugality and sacrifice. The leadership of neither can really be said to have practiced what they’ve preached.

“Pope Francis and Mr Xi both claim to stand for the cause of transparency. So far the pope seems to have done more about it, ordering a clean-up at the secretive and scandal-ridden Vatican bank, which this month published its accounts for the first time in its 125-year history. But China in its own way is experimenting with measures aimed at increasing transparency. There are pilot schemes under way that would require officials to disclose their personal assets.”

“With all they seem to have in common, it is a pity that Mr Xi and Pope Francis are unable to get together for a chat,” Analects writes. Given that there are no official relations between the world’s most populous nation and the West’s most populous religion (is that right? I’m not 100% sure – although, the population of China is roughly the same as the number of Christians in the world).

The article, while perhaps flippant at the start, finishes on a strong point, regarding the CCP’s treatment of Chinese Christians (and religious persecution as a whole). The Guardian’s Nick Spencer offered a similar article, comparing the two leaders as well. It’s another good article, and well-worth reading.

“Of course, there are a few differences. Xi Jinping is married to a celebrity singer, Peng Liyuan, whereas Pope Francis isn't. Xi Jinping is an atheist whereas one presumes Pope Francis isn't. However, surely the most significant difference is that one of the men has power, whereas the other has authority. The division isn't quite as clear as that, of course. Pope Francis has the power to promote and to sack within clerical ranks, whereas Xi Jinping, despite having no democratic mandate, has a certain authority in that de facto he speaks for a billion of his countrymen.”

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Obamacare “Doomed from the Start”, according to CFR…

The roll-out of the Affordable Care Act, more commonly known as Obamacare, has been covered ad infinitum by the US media. As can be expected from such a lightning-rod topic, not all the coverage has been praiseworthy – sometimes, the complaints and critiques have been legitimate, but other times not (unsurprisingly, Sean Hannity’s coverage on Fox News has come under considerable scrutiny).

A couple of days ago, the Council on Foreign Relations published an article by Kimberly J. Morgan, “Doomed from the Start”, which I thought was rather interesting. Morgan pays attention to the general sense that the rollout was not a success. The summary from the email newsletter, which doesn’t appear in the article itself, was pretty good:

“Obamacare is a typically American concoction: a complicated program jerry-rigged to appeal to people with little faith in government. The result is a self-fulfilling prophecy — a messy government system that only fuels deeper cynicism about the welfare state.”

From the article, and a little longer:

“But the fact that the White House is having trouble implementing Obamacare also should not come as a particular surprise. It is not that the Obama administration is especially incompetent. Rather, the program it is charged with executing is a complex public-private hybrid that has no real precedent elsewhere in the world. The blend is purely American: Policymakers in the United States have a history of jerry-rigging complicated programs of this sort precisely because they have little faith in government. The result is a self-fulfilling prophecy that fuels only deeper public cynicism about the welfare state.”

It’s an interesting, short piece, which discusses the unique attributes of the program, the global context, and the complexity of the law, and the “labyrinthine quality of U.S. social policy”. If you’re interested, I’d recommend you go read it.

“The larger irony here is that administering a complex public-private health-care system often requires more government, not less. Yet the very same impulse that created this system also impairs the government agencies that could effectively oversee it. The programs, as a result, are messy and confusing. It should be no surprise that trust in government is so low. Obamacare’s early difficulties may provide an easy target for politicians, but those politicians have only to look into the mirror to see who bears responsibility.”

Friday, 18 October 2013

Reading “The Operators” by Michael Hastings (Plume/Phoenix)

Hastings-OperatorsI finally got around to reading Michael Hastings’s gripping, sensational and provocative The Operators, his book on the United States’ troubled, continuing adventures in Afghanistan, and the Pentagon-White House conflicts on the campaign’s execution. It’s a few years old, now, but I thought I’d write something up nevertheless. It is, I believe, one of the best, most accessible books on the subject, and would therefore recommend it to everyone. It is a story of dysfunction, intra-governmental conflict. It is also, a story that “changed history”, as Rolling Stone referred to Hasting’s reporting on General Stanley A. McChrystal and his crew.

The article that this grew out of, published in Rolling Stone, resulted in General Stanley McChrystal’s ousting: “The Runaway General” (June 22nd, 2010). The article certainly didn’t offer a flattering picture of President Obama and his administration. That being said, much of the media furor (and therefore damage done) took place before the article was available to the general public. The whole affair smacked of a media-induced scandal frenzy. Yellow journalism at its worst, perhaps. If the article had just come out, I have no doubt McChrystal would have just received another wrap on the knuckles, as he had before, when he said Vice President Biden’s proposed counterinsurgency plan was “short-sighted” (see below). Instead, after a week or more of frenzied, ecstatic media coverage of a scandal for which the general public didn’t have easy access to the cause, it was far too late for anyone to stick up for McChrystal, or do anything but send him packing.

I will accept that, after reading so much coverage of the as-yet-not-public article, my expectations had been raised extraordinarily – I was expecting some fire-and-brimstone vitriol and diatribes from the General and his staff. What was included was certainly not flattering, but after the media-hype, it felt a little bit underwhelming, ultimately.

Now, if The Operators had been published first, that would have been an entirely different matter. The book is filled-to-bursting with criticism, examples of Administration incompetence, super-sized egos without the intelligence or knowledge to back up their arrogance, and any number of other examples that could have given more legitimate grounds to fire a general (or, at least, ask him to quietly retire). Hastings presents plenty of examples of indelicate and unpolitic utterances from the General and his hero-worshiping staff members. And yet, to my eyes and mind, most of what was said to Hastings (R.I.P.) was... well, entirely expected.

RS-RunawayGeneralMainImage

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

National Weather Service gets Subliminal about Shutdown

I caught this over on the eclectically-excellent io9.com, who picked up on it from the Washington Post. I thought I’d share it, as it’s an example of levity and cheekiness that rarely come together in a political news story.

The National Weather Service is continuing to work, unaffected by the US Government Shutdown. But, 3,935 NWS employees were kept at their desks during the Shutdown – “by far the organization with the most employees excluded from a possible shutdown.” Unfortunately, the employees, who “forecast the weather, issue warnings, support radar, satellite and other weather monitoring, and are involved in computer model operations”, aren’t actually sure when they might next get paid.

In this environment of confusion and no-doubt frustration, an enterprising scamp at the NWS’s Anchorage office decided to express the general displeasure through a hidden message in the Forecast Discussion. Here’s the ‘evidence’:

NationalWeatherService-PleasePayUs

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

CNN to GOP Reps: Will you take a pay cut to get a Continuing Resolution passed?

This has been doing the rounds, I’m sure, but I thought it was a good example of Representatives being completely divorced from reality. On Monday, CNN host Ashleigh Banfield grilled two GOP representatives about the impending government shutdown. She put a simple question to Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA):

“So you are both paid $174,000 a year, and that is the salary… Would you be prepared to add some rider or amendment on to a continuing resolution that would take you out of the essential services category and stop payment on your paychecks in order to get a continuing resolution through — and yes or no?”

Naturally, neither representative was able to answer the yes-or-no question, and instead Blackburn wittered something about the national debt (Rush to Talking Points for the Win?), and Rohrabacher just stood there like a big galoot.

Given that the shutdown will cut off pay for hundreds of thousands of government employees who are deemed “non-essential”, and given that this whole SNAFU surrounds some exaggerated and (often) demented ideas about government funding and spending, I think this is an entirely valid question. Not to mention, an entirely valid penalty – they obviously cannot do their jobs. So why shouldn’t they be penalised for helping shut the government down? Too often, members of Congress and the Senate are exempt from penalties that should result from their own fecklessness or bad behaviour. Surely the first place to look for savings in a time like this, would be in the House? [As I have clarified in the past, during similar disputes in the US Government, I do only aim this at Representatives’ salaries, and not their staffers.]

Since this clip aired, the US Government has, of course, now been shut down. Roll on the Debt Ceiling Crisis! It’s going to be another end-of-year carnival of infantile posturing and idiocy on the Hill…