The Agenda

Stray Links for 30 August 2011

(1) A friend of mine, an art critic and curator based in Beijing, recently observed that Ai Weiwei’s short essay on life in Beijing “plays perfectly to the American right,” and I don’t think he said this approvingly. You should judge for yourself. He also noted that the cadences were off, and I would like to read another translation. As a part of the American right, I can say that the essay played perfectly to me:


The worst thing about Beijing is that you can never trust the judicial system. Without trust, you cannot identify anything; it’s like a sandstorm. You don’t see yourself as part of the city—there are no places that you relate to, that you love to go. No corner, no area touched by a certain kind of light. You have no memory of any material, texture, shape. Everything is constantly changing, according to somebody else’s will, somebody else’s power.

To properly design Beijing, you’d have to let the city have space for different interests, so that people can coexist, so that there is a full body to society. A city is a place that can offer maximum freedom. Otherwise it’s incomplete.

There is something very direct about the essay, which I imagine some will find crude:

Every year millions come to Beijing to build its bridges, roads, and houses. Each year they build a Beijing equal to the size of the city in 1949. They are Beijing’s slaves. They squat in illegal structures, which Beijing destroys as it keeps expanding. Who owns houses? Those who belong to the government, the coal bosses, the heads of big enterprises. They come to Beijing to give gifts—and the restaurants and karaoke parlors and saunas are very rich as a result.

We’ve all read many critiques of American life written in a similar spirit. And it’s hardly surprising that I find those accounts hysterical and overblown while I find this one affecting. I suppose this reflects a certain attitude on my part regarding the uses of moral urgency, and when a polemical stance is defensible. The unfreedom Ai Weiwei describes strikes me as very important. He is painting in broad brushstrokes. But I can see why.

(2) David Brooks has written a really beautiful column about spontaneous sociability and the ways in which elegance and refinement can serve as a barrier to it:


When we’re shopping for a vacation we’re primarily thinking about Where. The travel companies offer brochures showing private beaches and phenomenal sights. But when you come back from vacation, you primarily treasure the memories of Who — the people you met from faraway places, and the lives you came in contact with.

I can’t resist concluding this column with some kernels of consumption advice accumulated by the prominent scholars Elizabeth W. Dunn, Daniel T. Gilbert and Timothy D. Wilson. Surveying the vast literature of happiness research, they suggest: Buy experiences instead of things; buy many small pleasures instead of a few big ones; pay now for things you can look forward to and enjoy later.

I can’t resist observing that David’s great contribution to our national conversation lies in his emphasis on the non-material aspects of private and public life. This column is a sterling example. 

(3) Don Taylor has written an absolutely terrific post comparing the National Flood Insurance Program to Medicare:

In the case of the NFIP, we need an explicit discussion of whether such an extreme cross-subsidy of dwellings in high flood risk zones is worth it (do the benefits outweigh the costs, are the distribution of same acceptable?). In particular, should subsidies of insurance premiums for properties built prior to flood risk assessments in the early 1970s continue?* The same questions about benefits, costs and distribution of same can of course be asked about Medicare. However, in the case of Medicare, if you are worried that you are not receiving enough health care and you resent cross subsidizing the sick, just wait, you may shift groups tomorrow.

My platform is simple: phase out the NFIP as soon as is practicable. 

(4) Ramesh Ponnuru makes the case for lowering the corporate income tax. I’m now convinced that we should abolish it, even if it means raising taxes on dividends and capital gains to make up for the loss of revenue. 

(5) Andrew Biggs has been remarkably consistent in his opposition to a Social Security payroll tax holiday. 

(6) Half of Americans use social networking sites. What’s taking the other half so long?

(7) Though I disagree with him on a number of issues, I’m beginning to think that Kevin Carey is right up there with Rick Hess as the most indispensable wonk in America today. His article on “the end of college admissions” is fascinating, and I intend to revisit it.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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