Coverups, Corruption, and inCapacity

China has some impressive institutions. One can decry the immorality of the CCP’s concentration-camp-building surveillance state and obfuscation of a burgeoning global pandemic while also acknowledging, for example, that China’s disease tracing program bore impressive results. (Query whether the U.S. or any Western state would or should (!) tolerate the involuntary commitment of babies and the publishing of an infected person’s entire post-infection whereabouts on a municipal WeChat account.)

Repeatedly, intellectuals in Western democracies embarrass themselves salivating over the perception of uber-competence in authoritarian competitor states. Nonetheless, it can be true, for example, that the Soviets both built Potemkin props to seduce Western useful idiots and also built a genuinely impressive roster of mathematicians (though query whether the Soviets or a deeper Russian civilization did the latter).

While there is something to admire in the speed with which China can stand up a new rail station or construct an airstrip on an artificial island, there is also reason to believe the edifice of CCP state capacity has cracks in its foundation. Literally.

Interesting analysis by Ian Storey in The Diplomat argues that the runways on China’s ostensibly fearsome forward operating bases in the Spratly islands may be too poorly built (hastily laid and at risk of subsidence) to sustain a viable jet fighter presence to establish local dominance.

In addition to inherent engineering challenges with artificial islands, corruption may have hurt the strategic project. Storey writes:

Doubts about the structural integrity of the artificial islands are amplified when the issue of corruption is considered. Despite President Xi Jinping’s anti-graft campaign, corruption in China remains endemic, including in the military-industrial complex. For instance, in July 2019 Su Bo, who oversaw the construction of China’s first domestically produced aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, was convicted of corruption and jailed for 12 years. And in May 2020, Hu Wenming, the head of China’s aircraft carrier construction program, was arrested and charged with corruption and passing secrets to foreign powers. Corruption in the building industry leads to short cuts and shoddy construction.

Ian Storey, “Why Doesn’t China Deploy Fighter Jets to the Spratly Islands?,” The Diplomat (Aug. 14, 2020).

While there is much to admire (and perhaps fear) in the glittering hardware markets of Shenzen, do not underestimate the extent to which corrupt institutions will bring down even the most technically competent civilizations. Even the most positive interpretations of China’s failure to warn the world about the COVID-19 outbreak pin the blame on the perverse incentives within the CCP regime. As the New York Times reports, “Local officials often withhold information from Beijing for fear of reprisal, current and former American officials say.” This is a manifestly unhealthy and unsustainable information conveying mechanism. Much is made of the Chinese surveillance state’s panoptic omniscience — and yet at best the story of COVID-19’s escape is one of Beijing’s inability to discern that middling bureaucrats from the provinces were hiding the onset of one of the greatest human crises in a century.

There will always be dark truths within a society. In many (if not most, if not all) cases, acknowledging and handling that reality is the best path forward. A civilization with institutions too corrupt to detect, surface, and mitigate internal and global threats in a timely fashion is not one that anyone desiring a healthy future should wish to emulate.

My latest for Exponents: Green Tech and the Post-Decadent Society

I argue in Exponents:

Ultimately, it is alchemy – cultural and technological creativity – or as Douthat puts it, the capacity to “imagine and work toward renewal and renaissance” that counteracts decadence. So where to begin the post-decadent project? Well, green technology – to avoid the worst of climate change and, perhaps, transcend yet more spiritual disillusionment.

In the discussion of stalled growth, Douthat paraphrases Tyler Cowen for the proposition that green technologies are “defensive” in nature – helpful for sustainability but “not a world-altering innovation in the style of the steamship or the airplane or the gas-powered automobile that it aspires to replace.”

Douthat’s reservations here are overstated, as sustainability is underrated. In Cowen’s own case for the morality of economic growth, Stubborn Attachments, the watchword is “Wealth Plus,” with the “Plus” encompassing the essential feature of environmental and societal sustainability. To the extent the crisis in cultural confidence Douthat depicts is the result of deceleration and subtle backsliding, even modest steps forward are vital inflection points and potential origins for yet greater ambition. With further imagination, green tech is the beginning of our renaissance.

Imagine a grand bargain that sees a carbon tax enacted alongside wise deregulation – of the Saul Griffith, not C. Montgomery Burns, variety – to make nuclear and solar energy more affordable and devote a greater share of national GDP to research and development. Imagine, as Peter Thiel invokes in a review of The Decadent Society, compact nuclear reactors cheaply powering, with zero carbon emissions, the factories to produce and the electricity to fuel Teslas for mass consumption. Imagine those same reactors powering hyperloops to carry commuters from abundant, affordable, and aesthetic carbon-sink housing to prosperous urban cores. Imagine in the heart of the city (as well as the cloud) Stripe University – educating minds for creativity, not credentialism – where the Department of Progress Studies is pioneering institutional incentives to speed the replacement of compact fission with fusion reactors.

Imagine a reporter from the Srinivasan Post – her retirement fund and children’s college funds secured with assets from initial coin offerings that seeded transformational technologies – delving into her latest in a series of investigations of fusion technology, which help scientists, regulators, venture capitalists, and the public parse PR puffery from bona fide breakthroughs. Imagine students and researchers the world over inspired by those articles to make significant contributions to fusion and other digital science hub repositories – from the COVID-25 vaccine to the Martian Excursion Module repos – in return for their own coin stakes in that technological progress via the a16z “It’s Time to Build” exchange.

Is this future far-fetched? As Douthat might say, have some faith – and let’s get to work.

Check out the rest!

The Transience of Memory: Let’s Remember Where We Parked

In a win for innovation, Eric Schmidt apparently helped the U.S. Air Force apply software to mid-air refueling. The New York Times reports:

At an Air Force facility in Qatar in 2016, Mr. Schmidt visited officers who scheduled flight paths for the tankers that refueled planes. They used a white board and dry-erase markers to set the schedule, taking eight hours to complete the task.

Mr. Schmidt said he recalled thinking, “Really? This is how you run the air war?” Afterward, he and others at the Defense Department worked with the tech company Pivotal to ship software to the officers.

This sounds like a welcome efficiency gain. I just hope we remember how to use the white boards. I would bet there is accumulated knowledge and cognitive skill embodied in the expert flight path whiteboarders that we can’t fully understand or replicate without either carefully recording the current state of knowledge or having to retrace over time the same slow path by which the knowledge evolved in the first place.

Don’t underestimate our incapacity to recall how to perform complex and essential processes following a periodic lapse in use. There was a period when we lost the knack for manufacturing a key ingredient in nuclear warheads. At one point, there were fears we lost the capacity to manufacture F-22s. While those fears proved unfounded when an audit uncovered the necessary tooling, the concern itself proves the difficulty of regaining embodied knowledge that goes missing.

This is where Schumpeter meets Hayek. Creative destruction can birth a better way, but it also means that gradually-accumulated and embedded knowledge will be razed.

Even elephants can go missing from the historical record. In the jaws of the COVID-19 pandemic, historians and economists ponder how much civilization forgot about the 1918 flu, not to mention the 1957 flu, not to mention our 2006 preparations for pandemic flu.

Given the difficulty of holding onto low-frequency, high-amplitude knowledge, one might expect competent civilizations to produce and then hold sacred value-laden documents, such as constitutions, religious texts, and commandments.