Britain shrinks government

As our government is trying to be more “European” in asserting government control over the economy, Europe is going in the other direction.  Earlier, we looked at what Germany has done to prosper economically while the United States flounders.  Now Great Britain, in a coalition government of conservatives and moderates, is launching on a great experiment to shrink government and empower individuals.  From The Washington Post:

The Obama administration might be reasserting the government’s place in American life. But on this side of the Atlantic, the so-called Big Society vision of Britain’s new Conservative prime minister is of a nation with minimal state interference.

David Cameron’s 100-day-old ruling coalition is launching an effort to reduce the role of government, seeking to vest communities and individuals with fresh powers and peddling a new era of volunteerism to replace the state in running museums, parks and other public facilities. Supporters and opponents describe the campaign as the biggest assault on government here since the wave of privatizations by Conservative firebrand Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.

The idea, one with distant echoes of the “tea party” movement in the United States, is to pluck decision making out of the hands of bureaucrats. Groups of like-minded parents and teachers, for instance, are being invited to open their own taxpayer-funded schools. The groups — not government school boards — will be able to determine the curriculum at these “free schools,” using their own discretion to make some subjects compulsory while omitting others they find objectionable or unnecessary, such as lessons on multiculturalism.

But the government’s push is also about pinching pennies in an age of austerity in Britain, which, like many nations including the United States, is heavily indebted and increasingly broke. Through the toughest budget cuts in generations, the new coalition is moving quickly to shrink the size of the state, with some estimates indicating as many as 600,000 public-sector job losses — or one in 10 — by 2015. At the same time, Cameron is backing legislation that would allow communities to take over, for instance, post office branches, staffing them with volunteers instead of paid workers.

“The Big Society is about a huge culture change, where people, in their everyday lives, in their homes, in their neighborhoods, in their workplace, don’t always turn to officials, local authorities or central government for answers to the problems they face,” Cameron said last month in a keynote speech on the issue.

In what it calls a “radical extension of direct democracy,” the new government is moving to give citizens the right to veto property-tax increases above certain limits. In an effort to hold the public sector more accountable, it is also pressing forward with plans to have communities directly elect police commissioners while forcing the publication of more-detailed crime statistics to give residents a better picture of how local forces are doing.

The new coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats is set to present legislation to dissolve the government health boards that once determined needs at public hospitals, which would allow doctors to become the ultimate deciders.

via Britain’s David Cameron seeks smaller government, more citizen involvement.

What China must learn from America

 The prominent Chinese general Liu Yazhou, possibly at great risk to himself, is calling upon his country to adopt American-style democracy and rule of law:

A Chinese general has warned his conservative Communist Party masters and People’s Liberation Army colleagues that China can either embrace American-style democracy or accept Soviet-style collapse.

While officers of similar rank have been rattling their sabres against US aircraft carriers in the Yellow and South China seas, General Liu Yazhou says China’s rise depends on adopting America’s system of government rather than challenging its presence off China’s eastern coast.

”If a system fails to let its citizens breathe freely and release their creativity to the maximum extent, and fails to place those who best represent the system and its people into leadership positions, it is certain to perish,” writes General Liu in the Hong Kong magazine, Phoenix, which is widely available on news stands and on the internet throughout China.

His article suggests China’s political and ideological struggles are more lively than commonly thought, and comes before a rotation of leaders in the Central Military Commission and then the Politburo in 2012.

”The secret of US success is neither Wall Street nor Silicon Valley, but its long-surviving rule of law and the system behind it,” he says. ”The American system is said to be ‘designed by genius and for the operation of the stupid’. A bad system makes a good person behave badly, while a good system makes a bad person behave well. Democracy is the most urgent; without it there is no sustainable rise.”

General Liu was recently promoted from deputy Political Commissar of the PLA Airforce to Political Commissar of the National Defence University. His father was a senior PLA officer and his father-in-law was Li Xiannian, one of China’s ”Eight Immortals” and one time president of China.

While many of China’s ”princelings” have exploited their revolutionary names to amass wealth and family power, General Liu has exploited his pedigree to provide political protection to push his contrarian and reformist views.

But his article is extraordinary by any standards. It urges China to shift its strategic focus from the country’s developed coastal areas including Hong Kong and Taiwan – ”the renminbi belt” – and towards the resource-rich central Asia. But he argues that China will never have strategic reach by relying on wealth alone.

”A nation that is mindful only of the power of money is a backward and stupid nation,” he writes. ”What we could believe in is the power of the truth. The truth is knowledge and knowledge is power.”

But such national power can only come with political transformation. ”In the coming 10 years, a transformation from power politics to democracy will inevitably take place,” he writes.

”China will see great changes. Political reform is our mission endowed by history. We have no leeway. So far, China has reformed all the easy parts and everything that is left is the most difficult; there is a landmine at every step.”

General Liu inverts the lesson that Chinese politicians have traditionally drawn from the collapse of the Soviet Union – that it was caused by too much political reform – by arguing reform arrived too late.

”Stability weighed above everything and money pacified everything, but eventually the conflict intensified and everything else overwhelmed stability,” he writes.

This is extraordinary by any standards, and it contains lessons for us Americans who have possibly taken for granted what we have.   “A bad system makes a good person behave badly, while a good system makes a bad person behave well.”  What a brilliant observation!   Our constitutional system of checks and balances minimizes the harm that a particular office holder or citizen can do, and our economic system channels even self-interest into a force for the greater good.  Conversely, corrupt systems–defined in part as lacking the rule of law–create corrupt people.

HT:  Adam Hensley (from one of the leading Australian newspapers)

War games are “on” in Korea

Despite North Korean threats to go nuclear, the U.S. and South Korea are going on with their naval exercises.  See S. Korea, U.S. stage anti-sub exercises in 2nd day of joint naval drills.

North Korea threatens nuclear response

The naval exercises are set to begin on Sunday.

North Korea said it would counter U.S. and South Korean joint naval exercises with “nuclear deterrence” after the Obama administration said the government in Pyongyang shouldn’t take any provocative steps.

North Korea will “legitimately counter with their powerful nuclear deterrence the largest-ever nuclear war exercises to be staged by the U.S. and the South Korean puppet forces,” the National Defense Commission said, according to the Korean Central News Agency.

The maneuvers, which involve 20 vessels and 200 aircraft from the U.S. and South Korea, pose a threat to the country’s sovereignty and security, Ri Tong Il, an official with North Korea’s delegation to the Asean Security Forum, told reporters in Hanoi yesterday.

via North Korea Warns of Nuclear Response to Naval Exercises – Bloomberg.

Should we cave, just to make sure, or call their bluff, risking South Korea?

Trains

I rode trains in Europe, including a 200 mph bullet-train between Cologne and Frankfort, taking me right to the airport on a ride smooth as an airplane, reducing a two-and-a-half hour drive to  one hour.  Why can’t the USA have a good train system?  Well, we do.  But it’s geared for carrying freight.  And, as this article shows, freight trains and passenger trains, especially these new highspeed jobs, just don’t mix:

U.S. trains may not be the best at moving people, but they’re great at moving everything else. More than 40 percent of U.S. freight miles are done by rail, compared with less than 15 percent in Europe, according to Christopher Barkan, a professor who heads the railroad engineering program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In terms of carbon footprint, that’s a great statistic. The railroad industry likes to brag that it can carry a ton of freight 436 miles on a single gallon of diesel — three times better than a truck can do — but even that is just an average. Some freight lines manage 517 miles.

The problem is that freight track and high-speed track are built with completely different considerations in mind, making it difficult for a country to maintain both a world-class freight network and a first-rate passenger system.

Freight track is familiar to most Americans. The two steel rails are connected by hardwood crosses, known as ties to railroad aficionados. A bed of crushed stone, called ballast, undergirds the ties. This arrangement is extremely durable, and it needs to be. Freight trains weigh several times as much as their high-speed, passenger-carrying cousins. A fully loaded freight car weighs about 150 tons, compared with just 42 tons for the average car in a French high-speed train and even less in Japan.

Freight track can take the punishment of rumbling freight trains for decades with little maintenance, but that doesn’t mean the track doesn’t experience little changes. The wheels push out against the rails, increasing the gauge. (That’s the distance between the rails.) Other forces tend to create horizontal waves or vertical ripples along the track.

Curved sections are a special problem. Think of a NASCAR track. The road is banked around the curves, with the outside of the track higher than the inside to prevent the cars from sliding into the wall. Engineers do the same thing with curved train tracks. In sections where the tracks are banked, the train’s weight falls more heavily on the inside rail. Over time, it drops lower than it should, making the tracks uneven.

A stout freight train, which typically cruises along at about 60 mph, can handle those changes in track conditions. But modern passenger trains that streak over rails at more than 200 mph can’t. Everything has to be precise, or the train could derail with disastrous results.

Most high-speed passenger trains travel along a completely different medium called slab track, in which the rails are bolted into sections of concrete. The concrete holds the rails still, assuring safe travel at high speeds, but it simply can’t handle the tonnage of a freight train. It’s also extremely expensive to build, about 50 percent more than typical freight tracks.

The layout of our tracks is also a major problem. U.S. rails run across roadways at lots of places. Because a collision between a car and a super-fast train would be catastrophic for everyone involved, high-speed rail simply cannot cross roadways.

Our system of rails is also way too curvy for high speeds. Because 19th-century transit engineers didn’t envision trains traveling much more than 60 mph, they built lots of bends into the tracks. High-speed trains have to slow down substantially to negotiate even a banked curve. But in order to straighten out track around population centers — precisely the places where high-speed rail is needed — government would have to extensively use its power of eminent domain to take private property, which would be expensive and politically unpopular.

via Stimulus funds give high-speed rail a kick in the caboose.

Land of the Freon

Although I had a good time in France and Germany and came to appreciate their people, their culture, and their history, I have to say that the experience also helped me to appreciate even more what America stands for and what makes America great. And what America stands for and what makes America great, among other things, is air-conditioning!

They just don’t have air-conditioning much in Europe. The stores don’t. The restaurants don’t (which explains the sidewalk cafes). The houses and apartments don’t. At one point, I splurged on a rather nice hotel in Germany, and it didn’t have air-conditioning either. Maybe the Europeans are hardier than us Yanks, or at least closer to nature. But it sure got hot.

An enterprising salesman who could sell refrigerators to the Eskimos could surely sell air-conditioning units to the Europeans and make a fortune. In fact, air-conditioning Europe could solve our balance of trade problem, as well as helping with unemployment and getting the U.S. economy going again.

Also, screens. You open the window and you experience the outside directly. I heard an Eric Hoffer interview in which he said that nature is harsher in the New World than in the Old. They don’t seem to have so many mosquitos and other things you would want to screen out.

Then again, Europeans have things that Americans don’t. Two-hour lunch breaks, in France; castles; gothic cathedrals.


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