Bears and Dragons

Hello! This one’s a Deluxe Newsletter™ to compensate for last week, and because there’s so much good stuff being written. Archives are here.


I saw this article in the Atlantic yesterday. China and Russia have just finalized 32 separate cooperation pacts. This after their nearly half-billion dollar natural gas deal last year and the two countries’ increasing solidarity against the West in UN Security Council. But perhaps most disturbing is the fact that next week, Russia and China will conduct their first-ever joint military training exercises. These two countries, the two most powerful authoritarian states in the world, are drawing closer and closer together and farther and farther from the international norms established by the West after World War II. And considering the state of the world today, that’s scary.

Russia took the Crimean Peninsula. Now it is fighting an undeclared war in Ukraine. It supplies arms, credit, and diplomatic cover to Syria, Iran, and Venezuela. There have been virtually no consequences. Sanctions? Putin doesn’t care about sanctions. He’s got an eighty-five percent approval rating with his economy in the tank and he’ll take as much from Eastern Europe and the world as he can get away with. To compound the issue, his government has whipped the populace into a state of ultra-nationalism and is going to find it politically difficult to return to a “normalized” peacetime footing. Who opposes him? So far, Europe, wracked with economic malaise and paralyzed by collective action issues, has been unwilling to remove its head from the sand. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, putative face of Western Europe against Russia, has finally admitted that Putin is up to no good, but will not commit to a powerful united front against Russian aggression.

China has noticed the West’s paralysis in Ukraine and Syria, and they have territorial ambitions of their own. There are vast oil and natural gas deposits around the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. Japan has them, China wants them. Same deal in the South China Sea, where China is illegally building outposts in an effort to seize the Spratly Islands. Either of these could erupt into a low-level regional war involving a U.S. ally, and China increasingly believes the West will not intervene. And then, of course, there’s Taiwan, the missing limb in the Chinese body politic. Cross-strait tensions are rising again, and given China’s modernizing military and recent trends in Chinese nationalism, odds of a two-China war in the coming years are not bad.

It’s also worth mentioning that the days of ten percent Chinese growth are over. The Middle Kingdom is transitioning to a modern consumer economy, and that change will require extremely careful economic management. For decades, journalists have written about the implicit agreement between the Chinese government and its people: growth in return for obedience. What’s going to happen if the economy slows down? If there are protests? Many scholars believe Putin has started wars to deflect domestic criticism. China has been taking notes.

For the first time since 1991, there is space for an authoritarian bloc on the global stage serving as a real alternative to Western liberal democracy, in terms of both political and economic clout. What created this space? The West is really on its heels, boy. The Iraq war, the 2008 financial crash, and the Greek debt crisis have done immeasurable damage to the West’s standing in the world. Right now the United States is mired in political dysfunction, which the Chinese press loves to point out, but at least it is stable, growing, and powerful. Europe, which for decades has stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the States to promote democracy, discourage wars of conquest, and preserve a law-based international order, is in a myopic tailspin. The immense financial burden of funding welfare regimes has forced European leaders to gut their militaries. Even Britain, traumatized by the Iraq war and faced again with the prospect of an independent Scotland, is retreating from the world.

The old determinist myths about the inevitable triumph of liberal democracy are ringing a little hollow these days. The world is getting scarier, a multipolar power structure is becoming a reality, and there are going to be some real wars again pretty soon. This provokes a series of questions with no answers. Will the West defend liberal democracy at a time when historical trends seems to be favoring illiberalism? Or, as Europe seems to favor, will it turn inwards, content in a managed decline? From another perspective, will the United States overreact to China’s ascendance and incite a war? Interesting times, folks.

In other news, Britain chooses to continue beating its head against a wall for another five years, the next governor of California is running a secret Templar army, San Francisco ruins baseball, people are just stealing kangaroos left and right, that Bong Hits 4 Jesus guy is looking mighty prescient, and Texas prepares to finally sink into the ocean.

And an Uplifting News Story from Ms. Laura Hughes! Stephen Colbert is funding teacher’s grants (EVERY teacher’s grant!) in his home state of South Carolina.

Interesting Stuff

1. Joe Kovacs, Jr., “Relentless: Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills chases a killer” for Atlanta Magazine.

Awesome detective story and profile of a Southern lawman. Choice quote: “‘My community is going hog-wild with rumors,’ Sills said later. ‘We are inundated with unnecessary foolishness.'”

2. Jeffrey Goldberg, “The Dangerous Myths About Charlie Hebdo” in the Atlantic.

I think this is important stuff, what with the protests against Charlie Hebdo‘s freedom of expression award and that shooting in Texas. If you like this, check out David Frum’s article “The Right to Blaspheme”, also in the Atlantic.

3. Hadley Freeman, “Chris Rock: ‘I’m doing OK, but some days I’m sad outta my mind’” for the Guardian.

Interview. I’ll listen to anything Chris Rock says. Good stuff about Hollywood, pop culture, and life. Also watch his Real Sports segment on black folks and baseball.

4. Terrence McCoy, “Meet the outsider who accidentally solved chronic homelessness” in the Washington Post.

Apparently they’ve solved chronic homelessness? This is a fascinating story.

5. Nick Kolenda, “The Psychology of Pricing: A Gigantic List of Strategies” on his blog.

This is a terrifying but very readable list of the ways marketers know how to manipulate us. Enjoy.

6. Ryan Devereaux, “Ghosts of Iguala” for the Intercept.

Powerful longform investigation into the disappearance of 43 students last September in the Mexican state of Guerrero. Great reporting of a shocking story.


1. Lucero plays “Texas and Tennessee” at the Masquerade in Atlanta.

2. Roger Ridley sings Sam Cooke’s “Bring it on Home To Me” in Santa Monica.

Raw street performance. What a voice.

3. Jason Isbell kills Kris Kristofferson’s “The Pilgrim” for Skyville Live.

… with Kris in the front row, looking like a White Walker these days. Jason’s got a new single out in front of his new album. It kind of sinks down into you, like all his good music.

4. Tom Waits burning up “16 Shells from a 30-Ought-Six” on British TV in 1985.

Unsettling and awesome.


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