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Saturday Commentary and Review #138
The Quickening Collapse of South Africa, Facts on US-Chinese "Decoupling", France's 18th Century "Baby Bust", "Father of the Big Bang Theory", No Country For Smokers
Every weekend (almost) I share five articles/essays/reports with you. I select these over the course of the week because they are either insightful, informative, interesting, important, or a combination of the above.
An overused analogy is “like watching a train wreck in slow motion”, but I cannot think of a better one to describe the state of South Africa today.
We’ve discussed South Africa and its descent toward “failed state” status before on this Substack, but it would be remiss of me not to share with you this Der Spiegel investigation for the simple fact that it paints such a bleak picture of the country, with nary a silver lining to be seen. South Africa is falling part thanks to three decades of one-party rule (the ANC), who have helped themselves to the riches of this very rich land. What was predicted to be a success story of multi-racial democracy is instead a tragedy made of corruption, greed, and poor governance.
The future is holds little promise for South Africa, as it is stripped to its bare bones, whether in government or on the street, and at all points in between. There is still quite a lot of wealth in the country, particularly when it comes to mining, but its inclusion in BRICS is a farce considering that it cannot even keep the lights on for long periods of time.
South Africa, the most developed economy on the continent – a nation that in the 20th century didn’t have to shy away from comparisons to Europe – now finds itself, following decades of economic malpractice and political incompetence, on the brink of the abyss. The reasons for the collapse aren’t difficult to find, says Gwarube. "At the top of all our problems is governance. Governance has broken down in South Africa."
Gwarube is now sitting in her wood-paneled office, a portrait of Nelson Mandela hanging on the wall behind her. The leather-bound volumes of past parliamentary debates are lined up in the bookcase. Most of the representatives from the African National Congress (ANC), the party that liberated the country and now holds an absolute majority in parliament, pay little mind to the needs of the people who elected them, says Gwarube. In fact, she continues, many of them have little understanding of how parliament works and don’t even know what the separation of powers actually means. "It’s greed and corruption," she says.
Cronyism and clientelism are rampant, and have burrowed themselves deep into the bones of the post-Apartheid state.
The failures of the ruling elite has plunged South Africa into a dire political and economic crisis. Six out of 10 young South Africans are jobless and more than half of the country’s 60 million residents live in poverty, according to the World Bank. Furthermore, South Africa’s murder rate is one of the highest in the world, with around 25,000 victims per year. Since Apartheid, more than half a million people have met a violent death.
For the fiscal year 2021-2022, the auditor-general found that 219 of the country’s 257 municipalities did not have clean audits. In countless cities and municipalities, the infrastructure, administration, education system, health system, sewage and garbage collection are all subpar or completely dysfunctional. In many places, not even the trains are running, while some regions are forced to go for days without running water.
There is a gentleman’s agreement among the ruling elite whereby the President doesn’t dare do anything, lest he get turfed from office, and possibly put on trial for the sake of retribution.
The power utility, Eskom, has been used by the ruling elites as a bank machine for their own personal use:
The damage caused by theft, sabotage, incompetence and mismanagement has been particularly severe at the country’s railway operator Transnet and the nationwide power utility Eskom. On some days, there is no electricity for 12 hours at a time in some places and large cities sink into inky blackness at night. The South African Reserve Bank estimates that such outages cost the economy the equivalent of almost 45 million euros per day.
The government long treated Eskom as a convenient and fecund source of easily accessed lucre. According to the company’s former CEO, government ministers were also part of the cartel that plundered the utility’s coffers. The executive had hoped to be able to save Eskom, but he was ultimately forced to resign and only barely managed to survive a poisoning attack. Gwarube says her party recently petitioned for the establishment of a parliamentary committee to investigate what happened to Eskom. "The ANC representatives voted against it," she says.
You can watch an interview with the ex-CEO of Eskom who survived a poisoning below. He details not just that attempt on his life, but just how deep the corruption ran, and how it is tied into the ANC.
This corruption is not new, and was in fact present during the late Apartheid era:
Now 77, Kleinschmidt says he often wonders what caused honorable fellow anti-Apartheid campaigners to mutate into such horrible politicians. A photo from 1990 hangs above his desk showing him together with Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie, the icons of the South African fight for freedom, a photo from those years of transformation. "Things have gone badly wrong," he says. "We now see every day how the ruling elite lies, steals and cheats."
But the moral decay, says Kleinschmidt, began far earlier. Even during the resistance period, he says, not all of those involved were quite as selfless as they would later seek to appear. Aid money was embezzled, there was intrigue, resistance members suspected of spying were liquidated and, Kleinschmidt says, some criminal transgressions were glorified as acts of heroism.
Even Nelson Mandela didn’t turn his back where there was personal advantage to be gained. "In 1990, he called me in London and asked for $60,000 from our aid fund for the criminal proceedings against his wife." Winnie Madikizela-Mandela had been charged with kidnapping and was suspected of murder. "I refused, because we only supported victims of the Apartheid regime."
Tarnishing St. Mandela’s halo in a major western publication is quite the act!
Systemic and endemic corruption:
During Mandela’s tenure, senior ANC officials began to enrich themselves without restraint, in accordance with the motto: "Now it’s our time to eat." "They had no scruples. They saw it as their reward for the fight for freedom," says Kleinschmidt. Under the leadership of President Jacob Zuma, from 2009 to 2018, the new power elite was particularly brazen, a time when the term "state capture" began making the rounds, referring to systematic corruption whereby narrow interest groups take control of state functions for personal gain.
Stripping infrastructure for copper and scrap metal:
Furthermore, in the fiscal year of 2021-2022, around 1,500 kilometers of copper cable was stolen, says Transnet, the state-owned company responsible for rail service in the country. Infrastructure theft has become a lucrative revenue stream for organized crime, and they don’t just target the high-voltage lines owned by the railway. In the townships, gangs dig down to the power cables and pull them out of the ground using pickup trucks. The power utility in Johannesburg registered more than 2,000 such cases and similar that same fiscal year alone. Copper wiring is even stolen from hospitals, likely destined for sale abroad.
South Africa now exports more copper than its mines produce.
Many rail lines are no longer operable.
The following bit is quite the heretical outburst!
"9910. That was the train I used to take to work every day. The last one ran six years ago," an aging Black man says in disgust as he walks past the station entrance. He adds caustically: "We used to have work when the whites were in charge, and life was better."
It’s hard to believe: A 60-year-old Black man, who was oppressed and exploited for half his life, misses the Apartheid era?
One last fact in this brutal report:
An aptitude test recently conducted in the province of KwaZulu-Natal seems to back up Khusta’s assessment. Fully 298 of 1,944 city and municipal councilors in the region are illiterate – a rate of 15 percent.
Almost everything that could be plundered has been plundered. History teaches us that when there is nothing left to steal, that’s when the killings begin.
I mentioned recently that it’s tough to get a good handle on actual facts regarding US-Chinese relations, especially in the areas of manufacturing and technology. Limited by relying on English-language (and sometimes other western language) sources, I know going in that I am not getting the full picture. This admitted limitation is further limited by the barrage of contradictory reporting that is published. One day you’ll read that the China economy is collapsing, the next day you’ll read the opposite, and so on, and so on. It’s this “fog of infowar” (my term, just made it up now) that makes me very reluctant to state any strong opinions on these subjects until I have a better understanding of them.
One foggy issue is the idea of the Americans “decoupling” from China, economically. Some will say that it is not happening at all, while others will claim that it is happening, albeit at a slower pace than desired by those in favour of the strategy. I’ve written two essays on the subject already:
CEPR has done us all a favour by asking four academics to dig into the story and to excavate the actual facts about the current status of this decoupling:
It shows that some aspects of decoupling are real: US import growth from China was significantly slower than US import growth from other countries in the set of products subject to US tariffs. But there is no consistent evidence of reshoring or diversification of imports. In fact, supply chains – especially for strategic products – remain intertwined with China. Exporters that have replaced China in the US market have also increased their import-dependence on China.
Trade continues, despite calls for “decoupling” and “re-shoring”:
Deglobalisation appears to be everywhere except in the (aggregate) trade statistics. Goods trade was at an all-time high in 2022, after years of slow growth. US imports in 2022 were close to 40% above pre-COVID levels, providing little support for the notion of reshoring. Even if we focus just on US-China bilateral trade relations, US merchandise imports from China in 2022 were more than 30% higher than levels in 2017, despite the tensions and the tit-for-tat tariffs imposed during the Trump administration.
According to this study, “tariffs are causing decoupling, but are not ending dependence on China”.
From the concluding remarks:
A full reshuffling of global supply chains is not only a long-term process, it is also costly and could only be induced by pronounced and prolonged government intervention. Moreover, decoupling in direct trade may only serve to deepen the indirect linkages between US and China through the industrial supply chains of their trade partners.
Starving China of semi-conductors via “friendshoring” to US allies in East Asia, plus “re-shoring” (e.g. Arizona facility) is still in its early days, just like the larger US-Chinese “decoupling”.
“The future belongs to those who show up” - Mark Steyn
Demographic decline is a very hot-button issue in the West (and beyond) these days. An aging workforce has economists worried as to 1) who will take their places once they retire? and 2) who will pay the pensions of retirees?
Unlike Japan, the West has largely decided to import populations from the rest of the world in order to fill in these gaps, among other reasons. This has led to serious opposition, as societies are naturally upended when trying to absorb large numbers of new arrivals. Hungary is an outlier in the West in that it is attempting to succeed where others have up to this point failed: pursuing a pro-natalist policy instead of immigration.
No European countries at present are experiencing natural growth as all are under the necessary replacement of 2.1 children per adult couple. All growth is the result of immigration. Europe is dying, or, at least, transforming into something unrecognizable. Demographic decline seems to go hand-in-hand with economic growth and stability.
I was long under the impression that demographic decline in Western Europe was largely uniform from country to country. Then I had learned that France experienced demographic decline a century before anyone else in Europe. Guillame Blanc teases out of the available data a point in time when this decline began to occur in France, and speculates on why it happened when it happened, fully a century before it began in the rest of the continent.
Background and claim:
In the eighteenth century, France was the China of Europe. But after a thousand years of dominance based on particularly fertile land, she declined over the next 250 years to be just another European power. Around this time, more than 100 years before the rest of Europe, French women began to have fewer children. In 1700, almost 1 in 25 inhabitants on Earth, and one in five in Europe, was French. Today, less than a percent of humanity is French. Why did France’s population decline in relative terms so dramatically, and did it really mark the decline of France?
The demographic transition is usually thought to be driven by economic forces, but – in France at least – culture came first. Using data from online family trees, my work shows how the loosening of traditional religious moral constraints in Ancien Régime France drove the decline in fertility, setting France off on a wholly different course from England, which was about to see a dramatic increase in its population.
A century before anyone else:
The historical decline in fertility took hold in France first, in the mid-eighteenth century and more than a century earlier than in any other country in the world. At the time, there were 25 million inhabitants in France and 5.5 million in England. Today, there are 68 million inhabitants in France and 56 million in England. Had France’s population increased at the same rate as England’s since 1760, there would be more than 250 million French citizens alive today.
According to Alfred Sauvy, the French demographer who coined the term ‘third world’, in 1962, the decline in fertility is ‘the most important fact of the history of France’. France was eclipsed as Europe’s only real superpower by the relative growth of its rivals, most importantly England and Germany, in the nineteenth century.
Strength in numbers:
The gap in demographic power and military might stood perhaps at its widest during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars from 1792–1815. The French fought against most of Europe at once and could regularly field over a million soldiers, often outnumbering its opponents, which formed more than six successive coalitions before they could eventually prevail.
Economic development cannot be used to explain the French Exception:
And yet the early decline in fertility in France is not well understood. Economists tend to view economic development as the primary driver of the demographic transition, by increasing would-be parents’ incentives to invest in human capital instead of having children (trading quantity for quality). But France was still a developing country in the eighteenth century; it was mostly poor, rural, and illiterate, and one to two centuries behind England on all of these metrics, while about 30 percent of babies died before they were one, and half before they reached age five.
Using this genealogical data, I estimate that the decline in fertility took hold in France in the 1760s, more than a century earlier than in any other country. The average number of children per woman declined from more than 4.5 to 3.5 in less than 40 years. In the meantime, the average English woman was bearing six children. There, as in the rest of the world, the Malthusian mechanism was very much alive and would be for an additional century. In England, the industrial revolution made people richer, but they spent their additional wealth having more children.
The author points to the decline of the influence of the Catholic Church in parts of France, that then spread to the whole by the time of the French Revolution:
With the loss of influence of the Church, the clergy could not oppose fertility controls anymore. In the eighteenth century, Casanova resorted to condoms (English riding coats, which were were made of linen or animal intestines, and weren’t too effective or widespread) and the enlightened elites and bourgeoisie of France practiced libertinage, les plaisirs de la petite oie (the pleasures of the little goose, to refer to mutual masturbation), and plenty of other pleasures alike. Ordinary people, liberated ‘from the teachings, the restrictions, and the yoke of the Catholic Church’, simply used coitus interruptus.
The regions that secularized experienced a much earlier decline in fertility than those that did not. The difference between Provence, a stronghold of dechristianization, and Brittany, a stronghold of Catholicism, is almost as large as that between France and England. According to the genealogical data, these places did not have lower fertility before: the fertility transition only took place after dechristianization. I also find that the effect persisted for generations, as persons born in secular places passed their secular values on to their children, even after moving to places with different institutional and cultural norms. This means that dechristianization was not only institutional but rather, and above all, cultural.
By 1870, the Germans had caught up to the French in numbers, and had defeated them in war, annexing Alsace and Lorraine. By the First World War, French politics was full of “doomerism” regarding demographic decline relative to its rivals and enemies. This is one of the main reasons why the Maginot Line was built after WW1 in the east of the country, along its border with Germany.
Scott Locklin, a favourite of this Substacker, has a stinging polemical style that he brings to his writings on science and technology. His writing is not for everyone, but for those with a thicker skin and who are not as shocked by naughty words and ideas, he can be a very fun read.
This time around he brings forth out of the shadows of history the Catholic Priest Georges Lemaître, aka the “Father of the Big Bang Theory”.
After the war he studied physics, was ordained as a diocesan priest (aka a humble priest who says mass and hears confessions at a local church), working with men like Eddington and ultimately getting his PhD from MIT.
His early astronomical work integrated Leavitt’s Cepheid variable star data, with Hubble’s Galaxy data, and Silpher’s data on redshifts; a masterful integration of seemingly unrelated data. Hubble’s law, despite the name, was first discovered by Lemaître. It was from observations he made while at Harvard, and unfortunately published in an obscure Belgian astronomical journal. The paper was translated by Eddington, but Lemaître humbly asked him to leave out his Hubble law results because Hubble had published better calculations since then. Eddington, the model of a good thesis advisor, made sure Lemaître got credit for this later. Lemaître also worked on the cosmic ray anisotropy and correctly deduced (using the early differential analyzer) it was due to the Earth’s magnetic field. He (incorrectly, but Einstein agreed with him) thought cosmic rays might have been a sort of fossil record of the big bang, which he called ‘the primeval atom.’
Lemaître was an early innovator in computard use and numerical methods in physics; his cosmic ray work used the differential analyzer and he later helped develop the fast Fourier transform. He also used early relay/mechanical computers to calculate the spectrum of monodeutero-ethylene, a considerable technical achievement at the time, and even now a non-trivial calculation. He also innovated in iterative solutions to differential equations long before that sort of thing was in textbooks. While he was at it, he and his nephew wrote an early programming language.
Interestingly, Lemaître developed methods and techniques of teaching arithmetic to children involving a combination of decimal and binary. The idea of this was to make it easier to calculate without remembering anything; just use fingers. There was a brief revival of a variation of this idea in my childhood days, right before calculators rendered the idea obsolete.
He was also excellent at classical pencil and paper calculations: he did solid work in General Relativity in the early days when it was poorly understood -also a considerable achievement considering his many other interests and works. In addition he came up with a quaternion extension to the Dirac equation; helping to develop spinor theory.
In the public realm:
One of the interesting things about his character, while he never spoke of his religious beliefs in front of scientific audiences, he was often reviled and his theory was more or less discounted by fedora-atheist types because he was a priest. He did have ideas on the subject of the conflict between faith and science; in fact he fairly bravely rejected an earlier Catholic idea that the Bible was a good guide to science. He had an unusual frienemy relationship with fedora-atheist Fred Hoyle who actually coined “big bang” as a sort of insult. (Hoyle believed in stuff considerably weirder; remember he’s the guy who thinks the flu is from space). Oddly, Hoyle’s idea of a steady state universe was more favored by other Christian scientists like Millikan. Another point on his character; he refused an offer of a grant to fund computer research from the US Air Force for reasons of independence of thought.
Click here to read the rest.
We end this weekend’s Substack with the popular topic of smoking and how there are calls to ban it outside of premises such as bars and restaurants in the UK:
Now they want to ban this merry little luxury. “Councillors at more than a dozen authorities have demanded the clampdown in a bid to help people quit smoking,” reports The Mirror, after a “Government-commissioned review last year recommended a ban on smoking outside any premises that sell food and drink.” This is all part of an attempt for England to “reach its target of being smokefree by 2030”.
Is that your target? I’m afraid it is now. People online have been debating whether the smell and “second-hand smoke” produced by people lighting up outside Britain’s bars and restaurants mean that it is not a matter of individual choice — but the goal is to prohibit individual choice. In that “Government-commissioned review”, Dr Javed Khan declares that “to truly achieve a smokefree society in this great country of ours, smoking should be obsolete”. Of course smoking would be obsolete in a smokefree society. But he means that this must be made the case.
Look — there’s no point shimmying around the blunt facts. Smoking is a very addictive and physically destructive habit. It’s killed millions of people years before they would have otherwise expired. I’m a fortunate man to have remained a social smoker and not felt compelled to let cigarettes seep throughout my life.
It’s no bad thing if smoking becomes rarer in society as people choose to step away from its consequences. But the top-down drive for its eradication is not just obnoxious in the abstract terms of liberalism but in its disruptive impact on people’s social existence. They are not transitioning into a different set of habits but just having habits swiped from them. (Many young people have decided to smoke vapes instead but it looks like these are going to end up being banned as well.)
I have never smoked a single cigarette in my entire life because I know that I would never be able to quit. At the same time, I don’t mind others smoking them in my presence, as my father was a heavy smoker (now down to one pack a day). Yes, the impact on your health is brutal, but I will always defend it as a cool habit. Some of the best conversations that I have ever had have been with smokers outside of venues who step out for a smoke. I always join them to keep them company, and to see just how much it relaxes them.
Click here to read the rest.
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