Yesterday Reuters reported that a big urbanization push in China, once thought essential to the country's economic growth model, may be in jeopardy:
China's plan to spend $6.5 trillion on urbanization to bolster the economy is running into snags, sources close to the government said, as top leaders fear another spending binge could push up local debt levels and inflate a property bubble.
Premier Li Keqiang has rejected an urbanization proposal drafted by the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), seeking changes to put more emphasis on economic reform, according to the sources, who are familiar with the matter.
First, let's stop and think a minute about the number quoted here: $6.5 trillion. That's "trillion" with a "t". To put this number in perspective, it's higher than the GDP of every country in the world, except for the United States and, of course, China. This was no modest little plan.
But the figure is more than just yet another gaudy number in a country famous for mind-blowing statistics. In fact, the sum earmarked for investment -- and Premier Li's skittishness about it -- neatly encapsulate the dilemma at the core of China's economic future.
In China, economic growth and urbanization have gone hand in hand. When Deng Xiaoping initiated Reform and Opening in 1978, the vast majority of the population lived and worked in the countryside -- just as Chinese people had for centuries. But over the past three and a half decades, as special economic zones churned out exports and China modernized its cities, hundreds of millions of people migrated to urban areas seeking work in the manufacturing and service sectors. This has, in short, has made China -- and the Chinese -- much wealthier.
(This trend, by the way, is hardly unique to China: urbanization has accompanied wealth generation practically everywhere in the world, from India to Turkey to Brazil. There's a pervasive myth -- call it the Slumdog Millionaire effect -- that people living in urban slums have the lowest standard of living in the world. In fact, it's rural poverty that is really the problem. But back to China.)
China now has a lot of huge cities, with more on the way: the management consultancy McKinsey & Company estimated in 2009 that by 2025, the country will boast 221 cities with over a million people. But there's still a lot of room for more; in 2010, for instance, 36 percent of the Chinese population worked in agriculture, compared to just 2 percent for the more developed United States. If historical patterns repeat themselves, most of the hundreds of millions of people still working in the countryside will eventually migrate to cities, and China will grow even wealthier.
At least that's the plan. But while urbanization serves as an engine for China's economy, migration to the cities has spread worry that the country's boom is unsustainable.
That's because the problems with urbanization are numerous. China's municipal governments, which financed the fixed-asset infrastructure that enabled the economy to grow, now sit on a mountain of bad debt, which won't be easy to untangle. The construction of so many houses has led, in many cities, to a housing bubble no less troubling than the one plaguing the United States pre-Lehman Brothers.
Then there's income inequality. China's Gini coefficient eclipsed that of the United States, and the difference between rich and poor are likely even greater than the reported figures indicate. This is an economic program with the potential to destabilize the whole of Chinese society. And, of course, there are China's famous environmental woes. Each of these problems grow worse with economic growth -- and with urbanization.
So what can China's leaders do to resolve this thorny dilemma? Tweaking the hukou -- a household registration system that prevents rural migrants from obtaining social services in cities -- would be a start, as this would help bring China's migrant workers in from the shadows of the country's urban areas. The government has also established new regulations intended to cool the housing market, understandably fearful of how a burst bubble would wreak havoc throughout Chinese society.
Will these moves work? This is the big question in China, and given how quickly things change in the country it'd be foolish making a prediction one way or another. But Li's apparent refusal of the NDRC urbanization proposal at least signals Beijing's unwillingness to plow forward with its usual spending binge and brings hope that the Xi Jinping administration may be more willing than its predecessor to launch needed reforms.
The number of American teens who excel at advanced math has surged. Why?
On a sultry evening last July, a tall, soft-spoken 17-year-old named David Stoner and nearly 600 other math whizzes from all over the world sat huddled in small groups around wicker bistro tables, talking in low voices and obsessively refreshing the browsers on their laptops. The air in the cavernous lobby of the Lotus Hotel Pang Suan Kaew in Chiang Mai, Thailand, was humid, recalls Stoner, whose light South Carolina accent warms his carefully chosen words. The tension in the room made it seem especially heavy, like the atmosphere at a high-stakes poker tournament.
Stoner and five teammates were representing the United States in the 56th International Mathematical Olympiad. They figured they’d done pretty well over the two days of competition. God knows, they’d trained hard. Stoner, like his teammates, had endured a grueling regime for more than a year—practicing tricky problems over breakfast before school and taking on more problems late into the evening after he completed the homework for his college-level math classes. Sometimes, he sketched out proofs on the large dry-erase board his dad had installed in his bedroom. Most nights, he put himself to sleep reading books like New Problems in Euclidean Geometry and An Introduction to Diophantine Equations.
From Flint to New Hampshire, an angry American public is determined to challenge the status quo.
The first politician punished for the poisoning of Flint, Michigan, was Dayne Walling, the 42-year-old Democratic mayor who lost reelection in November by fewer than 2,000 votes. When he dug into the numbers, Walling discovered what he considers the source of his demise: 3,000 new voters.
In a predominately African American city, 3,000 Flint residents who did not vote for the nation’s first black president in 2008 or 2012 cast ballots in last year’s mayoral election. What motivated them? The water crisis, of course, but Walling offers another explanation—one deeply embedded in the American body politic and yet related to the lead poisoning.
“Angry, frustrated citizens raised their voice,” he said. “Trump-type voters came out of the woodwork.”
Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.
And if thy brother, a Hebrew man, or a Hebrew woman, be sold unto thee, and serve thee six years; then in the seventh year thou shalt let him go free from thee. And when thou sendest him out free from thee, thou shalt not let him go away empty: thou shalt furnish him liberally out of thy flock, and out of thy floor, and out of thy winepress: of that wherewith the LORD thy God hath blessed thee thou shalt give unto him. And thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt, and the LORD thy God redeemed thee: therefore I command thee this thing today.
— Deuteronomy 15: 12–15
Besides the crime which consists in violating the law, and varying from the right rule of reason, whereby a man so far becomes degenerate, and declares himself to quit the principles of human nature, and to be a noxious creature, there is commonly injury done to some person or other, and some other man receives damage by his transgression: in which case he who hath received any damage, has, besides the right of punishment common to him with other men, a particular right to seek reparation.
Issued last summer, the rules are the centerpiece of the White House’s climate-change-fighting agenda, and they play a big part in the recent, tepid optimism about global warming. Without the proposal of the plan, the United States couldn’t have secured the Paris Agreement, the first international treaty to mitigate greenhouse-gas emissions, last December. And without the adoption of the plan, the United States almost certainly won’t be able to comply with that document. If the world were to lose the Paris Agreement—which was not a total solution to the climate crisis, but meant to be a first, provisional step—years could be lost in the diplomatic fight to reduce climate-change’s dangers.
Everything that was supposed to be silenced is suddenly being said.
The tight grip of oligarchy upon the American political system slipped a little last night in New Hampshire.
On the Democratic side, voters cast their ballots for one of the most implausible candidates in modern presidential history—less because his rhetoric was so mesmerizing or his program so inspiring than as a protest against an expected winner perceived as a lavishly compensated servitor of organized wealth.
In her concession speech, Hillary Clinton boasted of her small donors. More than 70 percent had given less than $100, she claimed: “I know that doesn’t fit with the narrative.” As Ken Vogel of Politico immediately tweeted, the claim also distorts the facts. Clinton may have a lot of donors, but the bulk of the value of her donations—85 percent—has come from the biggest givers. And her family’s personal wealth, and its foundation’s assets, can also be seen as built on the largesse of banks, corporations, and foreign governments.
When he tweets “BILL COSBY INNOCENT !!!!!!!!!!” is one example.
There are quite a few plausible theories for why Kanye West tweeted “BILL COSBY INNOCENT !!!!!!!!!!” last night. One might be that during a late night in the studio working on an album scheduled to be released in less than 48 hours, he decided to procrastinate and grab some publicity by tweeting out the most trollish thing possible (closely preceded and followed by more banal missives about sneakers and Michael Jordan). Another might be that he’d seen the news that a judge had dismissed Janice Dickinson’s defamation suit against Cosby’s ex-lawyer and mistook that small victory for the Cosby camp for a larger one. Or maybe he wanted to remind people of America’s innocent-till-proven-guilty paradigm, as if the entirety of the Cosby conversation in the past two years hasn’t already engaged directly with it. Or maybe he really believes Cosby is innocent, despite, as Sarah Silverman put it, the testimony of around 50 women with nothing to gain due to the statute of limitations on rape.
Most people in the U.S. believe their country is going to hell. But they’re wrong. What a three-year journey by single-engine plane reveals about reinvention and renewal.
When news broke late last year of a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, most people in the rest of the country, and even the state, probably had to search a map to figure out where the city was. I knew exactly, having grown up in the next-door town of Redlands (where the two killers lived) and having, by chance, spent a long period earlier in the year meeting and interviewing people in the unglamorous “Inland Empire” of Southern California as part of an ongoing project of reporting across America.
Some of what my wife, Deb, and I heard in San Bernardino before the shootings closely matched the picture that the nonstop news coverage presented afterward: San Bernardino as a poor, troubled town that sadly managed to combine nearly every destructive economic, political, and social trend of the country as a whole. San Bernardino went into bankruptcy in 2012 and was only beginning to emerge at the time of the shootings. Crime is high, household income is low, the downtown is nearly abandoned in the daytime and dangerous at night, and unemployment and welfare rates are persistently the worst in the state.
Donald Trump is back, Bernie Sanders is blowing up, and Marco Rubio is battered after the New Hampshire primary.
Trump is back, baby! The man who has made his business career by recovering from disasters did the same in his new political career Tuesday, setting aside his weak second-place showing in Iowa and delivering a commanding win in New Hampshire. The victory sets Trump up as the frontrunner for the Republican nomination once again.
How strong a frontrunner is he? There are still those who think he’s an unlikely nominee, but the wind is at his back for the moment. The next GOP contest is February 20 in South Carolina, where polls show him far ahead. And Marco Rubio, who the establishment hoped could rally an anti-Trump, anti-Ted Cruz coalition, had an awful night in the New Hampshire primary, finishing fifth—well short of his stated goal of second. Suddenly, Rubio seems less like the man who can unify the disparate party forces and more like, well, a robot.
The ancient civilization may have tracked Jupiter using sophisticated methods, but their reasons for stargazing were very different than ours.
We’ve never escaped the influence of the Babylonians. That there are 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour, and 360 degrees in a full circle, are all echoes of the Babylonian preference for counting in base 60. An affinity for base 12 (inches in a foot, pence in an old British shilling) is also an offshoot, 12 being a factor of 60.
All this suggests that the Babylonians had a mathematics worth copying, which was why the Greeks did copy it and thereby rooted these number systems in Western tradition. The latest indication of Babylonian mathematical sophistication is the discovery that their astronomers knew that, in effect, the distance traveled by a moving object is equal to the area under the graph of velocity plotted against time. Previously it had been thought that this relationship wasn’t recognized until the fourteenth century in Europe. But since historian Mathieu Ossendrijver of the Humboldt University in Berlin found the calculation described in a series of clay tablets inscribed with cuneiform writing in Babylonia during the fourth to the first centuries B.C.E., where it was used to figure out the distance traveled across the sky by the planet Jupiter.
This article appears in the March print edition alongside the cover story, “Can America Put Itself Back Together?”—a summation of James and Deb Fallows’s 54,000-mile journey around America in a single-engine plane. More dispatches from their ongoing reporting trip can be found here.
By the time we had been to half a dozen cities, we had developed an informal checklist of the traits that distinguished a place where things seemed to work. These items are obviously different in nature, most of them are subjective, and some of them overlap. But if you tell us how a town measures up based on these standards, we can guess a lot of other things about it. In our experiences, these things were true of the cities, large or small, that were working best: