Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

12 February 2017

Down Under

[For a note on what the Exclusion-Order fiasco says about Trump’s competence, click here. For some popular recent posts, click on the links below: Sometimes you have to get away from it all to put things in perspective. Today my native USA is a boiling cauldron of angst and hostility. It’s riven by racism, multiple tribalisms, bigotry, conflicting simplistic ideologies, and well-justified economic jealousy. The rage evoked by the Crash of 2008 and its self-evident causes is ever-present. And now we have a new focus of rage: the probability that Russia manipulated our election with tried-and-true spying, propaganda and disinformation techniques.

We are like a boxer who has endured multiple blows to the head—some of our own making—and can no longer think straight. And we have elected a leader who accurately reflects our enraged, confused and disoriented mental state.

So I find myself Down Under, in a corner of the world where calm Reason and Hope still prevail. I’m here for a vacation and to look for a route of escape from a possible nuclear exchange between major powers, which now seems more probable than at any time since 1962.

If you want to see a city that can think straight, go to Sydney. For several years, I taught a month-long course there each year, into the early part of this decade. Now the multiple construction sites that I had passed on my way to classes are fully built out. In their places are vast new condominiums and office buildings, gleaming with modernity.

The city’s transit system is a marvel to ride. Unlike most every above-ground and subway train I have ridden, its subway has no “clickety-clack.” With welded-rail technology and superb suspensions, the subway cars seem to float above their tracks, with no wasted motion and very little noise.

Riding Sydney’s subway trains is a bit like riding a magic carpet. At least it’s more so than any subway system I had ridden before, whether in the Bay Area, Moscow, New York, Paris, Tokyo or Washington, D.C. Maybe, just maybe, our new Second Avenue line in New York (which I haven’t ridden) is as good.

For dinner we went to a first-class Chinese restaurant in a big department store across the street from the University of Technology Sydney’s Faculty of Law, where I used to teach. By sheer accident, we came on a night when Sydney’s Chinese Chamber of Commerce was having a gala dinner to celebrate Chinese New Year. (We were relegated to a side room, but the food was still good.)

In the cavernous main room of this sometime dim-sum restaurant, 300 to 400 elite were gathered. Most were of Chinese descent, but there was a significant scattering of other ethnicities. Everyone was dressed to the nines. Most of the ladies wore red—the traditional Chinese color for prosperity and good fortune. It was a radiant crowd.

From our perch in the side room, we could eavesdrop on the proceedings, which were in English. Among the things we overheard was a reading of a message from Australia’s Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, thanking Sydney’s large Chinese community for its contributions to Australia’s commerce and culture.

After dinner, we saw some sights and took the marvelous train back to our hotel, the new Pullman Sydney Airport. The hotel had been finished less than eight months before, with a modern, open “new age” design. From our window we could see four huge construction cranes building mammoth high-rise structures nearby.

As we went to sleep, we remarked on an interesting phenomenon. Except in the tourist areas, we had encountered very few people of our own age, the early seventies. The vast majority of those we saw were in their twenties and thirties. They were of all colors and races, rushing here and there with the speed and élan of people on a mission. They were clearly involved in building Australia’s future and becoming part of it.

We stayed in Sydney only a day and a half. But the impression it left was indelible. What is going on there today is as strikingly different from what’s happening in the US as was the prime minister’s message to Sydney’s Chinese Chamber of Commerce from President Trump’s relentless China bashing. We Yanks seem to have fallen into the trap of many people as they age—blaming others for our own faults and life’s mistakes.

We Yanks also seem to have adopted a new negotiating style, along with our new president. He negotiates from extremes, like a hard bargainer in an Arabian souk. In my day, the book Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving In taught us a much more principled, reasoned and professional approach to negotiating, befitting a nation in the prime of its enterprise, professionalism and self-confidence. In comparison, our new method is much like its author, relying primarily on ego, bluster and showmanship.

It’s odd that, just as our great circus Barnum & Bailey breathes its last breath, our nation’s president brings its hustle and showmanship into our politics and statesmanship.

Thinking of all that had happened in our happy day-and-a-half, and comparing it with all that had happened in America in the last three weeks, my mind focused on Horace Greeley’s advice in mid-nineteenth century: “Go west, young man!” Today, anyone conscious of the state of the world would advise an English-speaking youngster to turn his attention ninety degrees counter-clockwise. “Go South, young man,” to Australia or New Zealand, is the best prescription I can think of today for a happy life, at least for native speakers of English.

As many have pointed out, the United States has only about 4% of the world’s population. Life goes on—a lot of life!—elsewhere. For the next four years, the trick for thinking Americans and the rest of the world will be to make sure we angry, confused and disoriented Yanks don’t spoil things for everyone else.



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