Thursday, June 24, 2010

Prepping for the Pain, Part I


For very different reasons, Britain and Iran were in the news this week for macroeconomic decisions that cause their citizens pain in the near term while positioning each country better to face looming hazards.

In Britain, the Conservative-led unity government unveiled a budget that will cut nearly all public spending by a quarter over the next five years while re-jiggering the country's tax structure to spare the poorest and squeeze the wealthiest. The lone bright spot is a reduction in corporate taxes to encourage job creation in the hope of not sending the country spilling back into recession. The move helps soothe bond-rating agencies chary of a Greece-style meltdown in northern Europe, and puts the country onto a more solid financial footing in the future.

Meanwhile Iran has been rationing gas and increasing its refining capacity in response to potential U.S. sanctions targeting fuel imports. The new sanctions would probably have little effect on Iran, and none at all on Iranian leadership, but workaday Iranian citizens are undoubtedly grumbling. (The story above notes that Tehran may even use U.S. sanctions as an excuse to remove an economically inefficient fuel subsidy, which will turn the grumbles into screams, but will still improve Tehran's economic posture in the long run.)

Britain's moves may still hurt its poorest citizens while Iran's help continue the country's outlaw nuclear program, but both countries are acting to ensure their longer-term good.

One can only hope U.S. federal government—which like the UK is laden with debt, legacy wars and an aging workforce—will somehow find a way to take unpopular but necessary economic steps to get out of debt and right its sagging balance sheet.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Love Letter to Northern China


Saw the remake of Karate Kid over the weekend. The plot is the same as the 1984 original: Young Jaden Smith, fresh off the plane from Detroit, embarks on a coming-of-age slash hero's journey after being bullied at his new middle school in Beijing. He needs to learn self-defense and who better to teach him than the gracefully aging, universally popular Jackie Chan?

Doubts are overcome, skills learned, discipline inculcated etc. with a merciful lack of the soundtrack-driven montages parodied so viciously in Team America: World Police.

But as Chan leads Smith hither and yon to learn the True Meaning of Kung-Fu, the movie's uncredited costar emerges: northern China.

Visually, the movie is a love letter to the north; the credits should have a notice from the China National Tourist Office thanking you for watching. A half-hour into the movie we've already seen Beijing's modern airport in all its glory, the Olympic "bird's nest" stadium, daring new buildings, construction cranes dotting the skyline, idyllic crowd scenes of Beijing residents doing tai chi, playing ping-pong and otherwise looking both peacable and industrious, and a potential Chinese love interest for 12-year-old Jaden.

Now, though, Chan and Smith take a train journey that leads them past rice paddies hemmed in by dramatic mountains, to training atop the Great Wall of China, to drinking from a "dragon fountain" at a mountaintop temple that's so photogenic you want to put down your popcorn and walk into the frame.

Combine those beautiful visuals with the movie's ending, where Smith's tormentors turn out to be okay guys--they not only present him with the winner's trophy but pay respect to Jackie Chan's character, implicitly renouncing their current, cruel sensei--and you've got a very nice boost for PRC soft power around the world.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Old Recipe: European Muslim Stew

Perhaps I was a bit hasty last December when I wrote that France is eager to welcome everyone.

While the country's official face is still welcoming, country officials are not, especially Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux. He wants to amend France's constitution to make it easier to strip (Muslim) welfare cheats of their French nationality and send them back to wherever they came from.

The recipe for coverage of European Muslims always, always, always starts with either a veil, a hijab or a minaret, and this morning's story in the Post is no exception. Throw in what reads like a green-card marriage and a healthy dose of polygamy, and you've got a meal.
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