Congratulations, Mitt!

January 7, 2012

World Affairs:

Occupy Wall Street (and This, That, and the Other Place) might seem, at first video streaming glance, to be singular among protest movements. But—with its vaporous ends and its grounded means—“Occupy” is recognizable as yet another outbreak in history’s long list of peasant revolts.

During Wat Tyler’s Rebellion in 1381, the radical priest John Ball preached to angry members of the ninety-nine percent at Blackheath, an open space near London that sounds as insalubrious as Zuccotti Park would become. Ball’s words could be, with some lessons in vocabulary and explanation of biblical reference, spoken by one of Occupy’s non-leaders today:

When Adam delved and Eve span,
Who was then the gentleman?

Of course the nature of peasantry has altered. To judge by the Twitter feeds, Facebook postings, blog entries, YouTube uploads, and the nearly interminable scroll of the OccupyWallStreet website, modern hewers of wood and drawers of water can be fairly said to “serf the Internet.”

Yet the underlying causes of revolt haven’t changed since Sparta’s fifth century BC helot troubles or the Roman Republic’s First Servile War of 135–132 BC. The few have a lot. The many have little. Click reset.

Political revolutions are famous for their revolutionary effects on foreign policy. The foreign policy effects of peasant revolts are, like peasants, less obvious. Peasant revolts are different than political revolutions the way college football games are different than budget fights pitting a school’s athletic department against its a cappella choir. Rather than a struggle between the powerful there’s a struggle with the powerful, by those who proudly announce themselves to be powerless.

We know that when the peasants lose, as they usually do, things turn out badly for all concerned. Shakespeare’s Richard II was the head of state who had John Ball hanged, drawn, and quartered. And when the peasants win, as they arguably did with Chairman Mao, things turn out worse.

There isn’t much good to be said about the origins or the outcomes of peasant revolts, but there are good reasons they keep happening. Economic distress equals political unrest, on the perfectly reasonable assumption that politics and economics are joined at the hip. No matter if the wrong Siamese twin often takes the beating—any political unrest will have some influence on foreign policy.

As political unrest goes, the Occupy movement would seem insignificant. There’s something too smug, ironic, and self-admiring in the way it quotes the styles of protests with more substance, protests against racial discrimination, war, and dictatorship. A November 17th blog post at OccupyWallStreet.org claimed, “This is the climax of a decades-long battle for the soul of humanity itself.” But, according to the New York Daily News, when Joan Baez sang at Zuccotti Park many of the sleep-in’s youngsters didn’t know who she was. (And Occupy has more bongo drums than even an old beatnik like Joannie could tolerate.)

But we live in a virtual world. Action increasingly takes place in our imaginations. And Occupy Wall Street has tweaked the imagination of America even if most Americans can’t quite imagine sitting under tarps in front of the local T. Rowe Price office, talking about it all night.

The opinion polling data, at least as of October, is somewhat confusing about how much of the American imagination Occupy Wall Street has captured. A Time magazine poll found that fifty-four percent of Americans had a favorable impression, while a CBS/New York Times poll posited an approval rating of forty-three percent; Rasmussen said it was thirty-three percent, and Gallup put the figure at twenty-two percent. But even the Gallup number is impressive considering that Gallup’s twenty-two percent claim to “agree with the protest’s goals”—and the protest has categorically denied having any.

Nancy Pelosi said she supports the occupiers. Mitt Romney said, “I look at what’s happening on Wall Street and my view is, boy, I understand how these people feel.” Confusion and consensus are not mutually exclusive.

A dissatisfaction with the American business and financial system has made its way into the American mind. In this—as in so many things—John Maynard Keynes had it backward: When minds change, we change our facts. A change of facts has consequences for international relations. We can see it in the increasingly questionable fact of the euro.

To understand the kind of foreign policy thinking that Occupy Wall Street might lead to, we need to think with the peasant mind, employ the thought process that has been behind every peasant revolt. It isn’t hard. Beneath our thin cosmopolitan skulls we all have a peasant mind. We use it to watch reality TV. Or we can Google Occupy Wall Street.

It’s wrong to think of the Occupy movement—or the vassals or the villeins or the sturdy plowmen—as inchoate. Their guiding ideas are clear enough. Foremost is zero sum, the belief that there’s a fixed amount of material goods. What the one percent has was taken from me.

In the rustic world from which we all so lately came, this was an item of true faith. Pasturage and arable land were the source of wealth, and their ownership was indeed zero sum. But chemical fertilizers, mechanized farm equipment, irrigation pumps, hybridized seeds, and cheap transport of crops to markets made even clod-hopping infinitely expandable. The Industrial Revolution turned the notion of fixed amounts into a heresy for anyone able to think better than a Marxist. Supposedly ninety-nine percent of people can’t.

Then there is the assumption that the rich and powerful run the world, an assumption that the rich and powerful share. Perhaps they do run the world, though evidence—from Richard II to Jon Corzine—indicates they aren’t very good at it…

Read it all.

Der Spiegel:

For years, foreign automobile companies have reaped most of the profits to be had in the enormous Chinese market. But in a largely unnoticed change, Beijing is now ending their preferential treatment of carmakers from abroad to focus more on developing domestic technology and brands.

The sea change is coming slowly, as if to protect those affected from being startled out of their festive mood. At the end of last year, the Chinese government’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) approved a new industrial plan that could have a devastating effect on German car manufacturers like Volkswagen, BMW and Mercedes once it takes effect in late January.

These companies have worked to make China one of their most important and successful foreign markets, while Beijing industrial planning officials looked on in frustration. In the first 11 months of last year, VW alone sold more than 2 million vehicles in there — up more than 15 percent from 2010.

But this kind of growth could now be over. To protect the “healthy development” of their domestic auto industry, the NDRC said it would remove car manufacturing from the list of industries where it encourages foreign investment. The goal of the change is clear: Beijing wants to help its own carmakers break into the market.

Domestic Manufacturers Suffering

When compared to foreign manufacturers, domestic Chinese carmakers such as BYD (“Build Your Dreams”) are suffering from the current slow-down in the market there. After Beijing cut state benefits for car purchases, the entire Chinese auto market grew by only about 3 percent in 2011 — compared to 30 percent the previous year.

It was not exactly what the communist government had in mind for its car industry when it was opened up to foreign manufacturers in the 1980s. They stipulated that foreign automakers could only produce vehicles in China if they established equal joint ventures with Chinese partners — and this still hasn’t changed. Beijing hoped to harness the foreigners to act as mentors to their own companies. At the same time, they also hoped to nurture some of China’s more than 100 carmakers into becoming internationally competitive companies.

The plan, though, didn’t quite work. Instead of learning modern technologies and creating their own attractive brands, Chinese government enterprises often took the opportunity to comfortably earn money through the joint ventures. Chinese car brands managed to capture just 30 percent of the domestic auto market.

Companies like Shanghai Automotive Industries (SAIC) decayed into cumbersome holding companies, even though the state-run colossus maintained joint ventures with VW and General Motors (GM). They left most business operations up to the foreigners. Only after political pressure from Beijing in the last few years have Chinese auto companies redoubled their efforts at producing their own brands.

But they were too late. In the meantime international companies like VW had already started squeezing Chinese manufacturers with their own discount brands like Skoda. VW also plans to strengthen its more affordable offerings with models from their Spanish subsidiary SEAT.

Foreign Models Preferred

Beijing’s next tactic was pressuring foreign carmakers to build domestic brands with Chinese partners. Thus joint ventures with GM and Nissan produced the Baojun and Venucia, respectively. And VW promised to offer an electric vehicle called Kaili beginning in 2013, a pledge that reportedly resulted in approval to build a new factory in Foshan, in the country’s southern Guangdong province.

Chinese consumers, though, haven’t been excited by these “domestic brands,” still preferring foreign originals. Plus, in the interest of security, foreign companies develop their main technologies at their headquarters back home.

This means that China’s auto industry planners have widely missed their ambitious goals. If Beijing had its way, the domestic auto industry would be as successful as their high-speed train production.

Restricted Factory Construction

Through clever negotiating tactics the Ministry of Railways skilfully played German, French, Canadian and Japanese manufacturers against one another, getting them to relinquish their core technologies. The result: In other international markets China’s trains have long become serious competition to their former mentors.

Now, everything is set to change with the new rules for foreign investment. The plan could indeed accelerate the transfer of technology in the auto industry.

The activities of foreign carmakers will still be allowed in China, and for certain components like motors, automotive electronics and transmissions, Beijing will still allow foreign investment. Companies such as VW are already well established on the Chinese market anyhow, making the withdrawal of state support unlikely to damage their business…

Read it all.

New York Magazine:

I’m standing on a podium, with an enameled wand cocked between my fingers and sweat dampening the small of my back. Ranks of young musicians eye me skeptically. They know I don’t belong here, but they’re waiting for me to pretend I do. I raise my arm in the oppressive silence and let it drop. Miraculously, Mozart’s overture to Don Giovanni explodes in front of me, ragged but recognizable, violently thrilling. This feels like an anxiety dream, but it’s actually an attempt to answer a question that the great conductor Riccardo Muti asked on receiving an award last year: “What is it, really, I do?”

I have been wondering what, exactly, a conductor does since around 1980, when I led a JVC boom box in a phenomenal performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony in my bedroom. I was bewitched by the music—the poignant plod of the second movement, the crazed gallop of the fourth—and fascinated by the sorcery. In college, I took a conducting course, presided over a few performances of my own compositions, and led the pit orchestra for a modern-dance program. Those crumbs of experience left me in awe of the constellation of skills and talents required of a conductor—and also made me somewhat skeptical that waving a stick creates a coherent interpretation.

Ever since big ensembles became the basis of orchestral music, about 200 years ago, doubt has dogged the guy on the podium. Audiences wonder whether he (or, increasingly, she) has any effect; players are sure they could do better; and even conductors occasionally feel superfluous. “I’m in a bastard profession, a dishonest profession,” agonized Dimitri Mitropoulos, who led the New York Philharmonic in the fifties. “The others make all the music, and I get the salary and the credit.” Call it the Maestro Paradox: The person responsible for the totality of sound produces none.

My guides through this mystery are Alan Gilbert, the music director of the New York Philharmonic, and James Ross, who with Gilbert runs the Juilliard School’s conducting program. I’ll be leading a student orchestra in a half-hour rehearsal of Mozart’s six-minute overture to Don Giovanni. Throughout the fall, I drop in on Gilbert and Ross’s course, in which four students take private lessons and meet for seminars, attend Philharmonic rehearsals, and conduct the school’s lab orchestra in weekly two-and-a-half-hour sessions.

Pianists can work through their failures in solitude; conductors live each one in public. As the students take turns on the podium, Gilbert prowls the room, giving cues from the sidelines—“You’re not showing that pizzicato!”—or sneaking up and grabbing a proto-maestro’s wrist. Ross stays behind the violins and lobs little flares of wisdom: “A lot of great conductors are shy, even though you wouldn’t know that from how they handle large groups of people. That shyness can actually help in intimate music. You have to let people see what’s inside you, even if you don’t do that in the rest of your life.”

I’m not a naturally demonstrative person, so I find this idea both consoling and counterintuitive. Not only am I letting the musicians in on my own inner life, I’m also asking them to express it for me. The idea of conducting as a kind of emotional ventriloquism helps deal with one especially thorny bit of the Maestro Paradox: Leadership requires confidence that is difficult to acquire and impossible to fake. Orchestras are psychic X-ray machines. They judge a new chief within minutes, and once scorn sets in, forget it. I’m going to have to project the sense that I am entitled to be there, and first, I must convince myself.

“Knowing the score”—the expression implies mastery, but it doesn’t suggest the sustained and solitary study that’s required to achieve it. There are a few miles of roadway that I have driven often enough to navigate them faultlessly in my mind: I know every pothole, every deer crossing. A conductor needs similarly detailed recall of an enormous musical terrain. In the weeks I spend fussing over just my six minutes of Mozart, Gilbert conducts Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande; symphonies by Mahler, Brahms, Dvorák, and Beethoven; and assorted pieces by Webern, Bruch, Berg, Bach, Corigliano, Dutilleux, Haydn, Sibelius, Wagner, Janácek, and Mozart—dozens of hours, millions of notes, pieces he has performed for years and pieces he’s never seen before. During one session, Gilbert demonstrates for a percussionist how to get the right sound on the triangle, corrects a bowing in the violin part, sings the bassoon line, and points out a subtle harmonic shift—all without glancing at the score. “I haven’t looked at this piece in five years,” he says, “but it’s still in there somewhere.” If the entire symphonic tradition were incinerated, a team of conductors could write it all out again…

Read all.

Second Quarter Strategy

January 7, 2012

This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.

Shame The Nation

January 7, 2012

This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.

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