Playing the Indian Card

Wednesday, December 27, 2017


Always the sucker, I am going to make predictions for the coming year.

Noting that my predictions and everyone's predictions are almost always wrong.

It is the current conventional wisdom that China is going to take over world leadership, and Islam is going to demographically overwhelm Christianity, or at least the Christian population in Europe.

I doubt it.

I have heard this before. I remember when the Soviet Union was going to take over world leadership. I remember when Japan was.

I predict both China and Islam are on the verge of crisis and collapse.

China faces a demographic bomb. They are not having enough children. Rapid growth has been due to starting from a very low base, and a huge supply of relatively cheap labour. This has its limits. As happened to Japan a couple of decades ago; but the Chinese demographic cliff is more extreme.

At the same time, there is little popular goodwill towards the government; unlike in a democracy, the people are not invested in their government. Because of this, things can get ugly fast if there is an economic downturn. This is the situation in which revolutions happen: people have become accustomed to things getting better, then it stops happening.

The new concentration of power around the single figure of President Xi makes things more brittle. It suggests, first, that the party itself does not know what to do, and are looking for the proverbial “man on a white horse.” It also means that, if things go badly, even the party and elite will not feel very invested in the government. Ceaucescu in Romania shows how quickly and easily things can turn when a government is too closely identified with one man.

At the best of times, under the best of circumstances, China has always been difficult to govern, and difficult to hold together.

China's recent adventurism in the South China Sea also suggests trouble. Rartionally, it is in China's best interests to keep a low profile and look unthreatening—if growth is assured. If growth is assured, it simply follows that China's chance to prevail grows with every year peace can be preserved. That China is nevertheless making its neighbours nervous, and is not ready or able to rein in North Korea, suggests either that the leadership does not expect growth to continue, or it is feuding internally.

As to Islam: a simple calculation. Oil has been funding fundamentalism. Without expensive oil, the cash dries up. Islam also no longer looks like the strong horse. This matters a great deal in Muslim culture. Unlike Christianity, in Islam, there is no sense of moral superiority in the underdog. Just the reverse: visible material prosperity and military success is a sign of God's favour.

So if the tide goes out, for ISIS and for the oil-rich states, it makes a big difference. That tide, thanks to fracking, is going out.

Even without this, there was always a tone of desperation about Muslim fundamentalism. It looks like a tacit admission that Islam is incompatible with the modern world. It looks like trying to hold back the tide. It relies on a rejection of foreign, non-Islamic influences. But, for purely technological reasons, the modern world really can't be held off. Thanks to vastly and rapidly improving communication. Ban books, ban movies, ban music on the radio; no matter. The kids are going to get it all on the Internet one way or another, and they are. My experience is that the current generation of kids in the Persian/Arabian Gulf think of things just about the same way kids their age do in North America or Europe. What we have is one generation in culture shock; that culture shock will probably not last for more than the one generation. Within a few years, the Muslim world will be within the global conversation.

We have seen similar nativist movements in the past, in countries and cultures struggling with expanding global contacts. We saw it in Imperial Japan, in Maoist China, in Nazi Germany. Ugly, but it passes. It is almost a predictable phase.

A lot of people, especially within Islam, say Islam is the “fastest growing religion in the world,” and will swamp the rest of us demographically.

I don't think so. Islam is not growing due to conversions. On conversions, Christianity is growing faster. Islam has been growing because in many Muslim countries people are having a lot of children.

This probably will not continue. It is an artifact of a certain stage of development. Already, Iran, where population growth was recently extremely rapid, is below replacement level. When infant mortality is reduced dramatically over a generation, it takes a generation or two for populations to adjust: for a generation or two, there are large families, as more children than expected survive, then the next generation scales down accordingly. At the same time, as populations urbanize, children go from being a financial asset to a financial liability.

I read recently that, although it gets little publicity, there is actually a large swing from Islam to Christianity going on in sub-Saharan Africa. I am also hearing of Muslim immigrants and refuges in Europe seeking to convert.

Islam traditionally punishes apostasy/conversion with death. That may have artificially sustained numbers. But if that wall breaks, there might be a stampede from Islam, to Christianity or to secularism. Like steam under pressure.

I also expect a dire future for Saudi Arabia. Everything was going well so long as oil was subsidizing it all; but the current pivot by Crown Prince Muhammed seems to me unlikely to work. Like Xi in China, he is the man on a white horse who appears because the ruling elite knows they are in trouble. Without big oil revenues, Saudi Arabia is probably going to be a very poor country.

I think I smell another bubble in Elon Musk. He seems to be everywhere, like the modern Thomas Edison. But has he really produced anything? It all looks like future promises, and all heavily dependent on government largesse. I suspect he is just a really good, fast-talking salesman. I expect him to go bust.

Apple lost its soul when Steve Jobs died. He was irreplaceable, and Apple is just going to slide from now on. Amazon and Google/Alphabet are where the new things are going to show up for the foreseeable future. Maybe Samsung.

I would not put money into Facebook. Facebook's position is fragile. Their product is not that good; it survives, like Microsoft did, on its established user base. Everyone else is on Facebook, so you have to be on Facebook. That can change quickly, and it has: MySpace. Facebook users do not love Facebook, the way Apple users used to love Apple, or Android users love Android. There is no brand loyalty there.

Some are saying that economies that have been growing in recent decades based on cheap and plentiful labour, most notably China, are soon going to hit a wall because robotics will soon become cheaper than the cheapest human labour. If so, manufacturing will quickly move back to the more developed countries, to be closer to market and for the sake of stability. That could be a massive global shift. If so, it seems likely that Japan will be in the forefront. They have avoided the drive for more immigration, due to the supposed need for cheap labour. If they are right, other countries may simply be left with more relatively unproductive mouths to feed.

Some undeveloped countries may still do fine—because there will be a continuing need for outsourced services, as opposed to manufacturing, at least for some time longer. These will be countries where English is widely spoken: India, the Philippines.

Universities in North America and Europe are, in one sense, living on fumes. They should have entered a crisis some time ago, because after the baby boom the supply of potential students started shrinking, at least locally. They dropped standards to attract more students, but over time, this will drop the value and prestige of a university education.

It all seems pretty shaky, now that you can essentially get the same education free online. Or rather, a better education. If you stick with online courses, you can choose the best possible prof for each subject, instead of being stuck with whoever teaches Differential Calculus at that particular institution.

On this model, the university of the future might become an aggregator or advisor on available courses, primarily responsible for certifying competence, through examination, thesis, or project.

But there is another factor, which may keep the traditional university going for some time to come. International students: rich kids from China and the Arab world want the cachet of an American or British degree, plus the excitement of a few years in that culture. Traditional universities, especially those with some cachet, like Harvard or Oxford, may be able to continue indefinitely as, in effect, expensive tourist destinations.

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