China’s Taste for Soybeans Is a Weak Spot in the Trade War With Trump

.. XIAOWUSILI, China — For all its economic might, China hasn’t been able to solve a crucial problem.

Soybeans. It just can’t grow enough of them.

That could blunt the impact of one of the biggest weapons the country wields in a trade fight with the United States.

.. Last year, soy growers in the United States sold nearly one-third of their harvest to China. In dollar terms, only airplanes are a more significant American export to China

.. Over all, she is not producing much more today than she was a decade ago. Her fields are small and not irrigated. The new, supposedly higher-yielding seeds promoted by the government are not much better than the older varieties, she says.

.. Farm goods could be a big weakness for China should the trade conflict with the United States turn into an all-out brawl.

.. China’s increasingly wealthy people want more and better food on their plates. But the country’s farms are generally too small and underdeveloped to keep up.

..Nearly 90 percent of the soybeans China consumed last year came from overseas — more than 100 million tons in total. (Mexico, the world’s No. 2 importer, bought just five million tons.)

.. To increase the availability of other types of animal feed, China’s customs authority removed inspection requirements on a variety of agricultural byproducts, including peanut meal, cottonseed meal and rapeseed meal

.. the provincial government offered generous subsidies to farmers both for growing soybeans and for switching their fields to soy from corn.

.. his farm cooperative requires that members rotate their crops to keep the soil healthy.

.. China would need to dedicate a huge fraction of the entire nation’s farmland — between a quarter and a third, by various estimates — to soy if it wanted to be self-sufficient.

.. Many people from Heilongjiang are already growing soybeans across the Amur River in the Russian Far East, where land is cheap and plentiful.

.. farmers in Heilongjiang acknowledge they are a long way from being as productive as farmers in the United States, where agriculture is more mechanized and genetic modification is embraced.

.. Modern farming is expensive, however. And in Mr. Hou’s case, it involves a secret weapon: American technology.

.. a yard full of bright-green John Deere farm machines, which Mr. Hou buys with the help of government subsidies. Chinese machinery is cheaper but more prone to breakdowns, he says.

Even some of the fertilizer Mr. Hou uses comes from the United States.

.. “We rely first on the heavens,” the saying went. “We rely second on American diammonium phosphate.”

The President’s Self-Destructive Disruption

his repeated use of the word “fake” to describe news coverage when he actually means “unpleasant” and his style of rhetoric in front of the United Nations, where he called terrorists “losers” and applied a childish epithet to the head of a nation in whose shadow tens of thousands of American troops serve and with whom nuclear war is a live possibility, are all cases in point. There is no way to formalize conventions of maturity and dignity for presidents. Custom fills that void.

.. When he violates such customs, Mr. Trump is at his most impulsive and self-destructive. It may sound ridiculous to invoke James Madison or Edmund Burke when we talk about this president, but that is part of the problem. Mr. Trump could profit from the wisdom of his predecessor Madison, for whom the very essence of constitutionalism lay not in what he derided as “parchment barriers” — mere written commands there was no will to follow — but rather “that veneration which time bestows on every thing.” The Constitution, in other words, would be only as strong as the tradition of respecting it.

.. Burke is generally seen as the progenitor of modern conservatism, but Mr. Trump, who came late to the conservative cause, is said to be so hostile to custom that his staff knows the best way to get him to do something is to tell him it violates tradition.
.. demagogic campaign rallies masked as presidential addresses
.. because many elements of his base associate these customs with failed politics, every violation reinforces the sense that he sides with them over a corrupt establishment.
.. Historically, conservatism has tended to value light governance, for which custom is even more essential. Aristotle writes that “when men are friends they have no need of justice.” In other words, rules enter where informal mechanisms of society have collapsed. The philosopher and statesman Charles Frankel summed it up powerfully: “Politics is a substitute for custom. It becomes conspicuous whenever and wherever custom recedes or breaks down.”
.. Since Woodrow Wilson’s critique of the framers’ work, progressive legal theory has generally denied that the meaning of the original Constitution, as endorsed by generational assent, wields authority because it is customary. Much of libertarian theory elevates contemporary reason — the rationality of the immediate — above all else.

.. The president’s daily, even hourly, abuse of language is also deeply problematic for a republic that conducts its business with words and cannot do so if their meanings are matters of sheer convenience. The unique arrogance of Mr. Trump’s rejection of the authority of custom is more dangerous than we realize because without custom, there is no law.

What’s the Matter With Republicans?

Why do working-class conservatives seem to vote so often against their own economic interests?

My stab at an answer would begin in the 18th and 19th centuries. Many Trump supporters live in places that once were on the edge of the American frontier. Life on that frontier was fragile, perilous, lonely and remorseless. If a single slip could produce disaster, then discipline and self-reliance were essential. The basic pattern of life was an underlying condition of peril, warded off by an ethos of self-restraint, temperance, self-control and strictness of conscience.

.. Today these places are no longer frontier towns, but many of them still exist on the same knife’s edge between traditionalist order and extreme dissolution.

.. Many people in these places tend to see their communities the way foreign policy realists see the world: as an unvarnished struggle for resources — as a tough world, a no-illusions world, a world where conflict is built into the fabric of reality.

.. The virtues most admired in such places, then and now, are what Shirley Robin Letwin once called the vigorous virtues: “upright, self-sufficient, energetic, adventurous, independent minded, loyal to friends and robust against foes.”

.. The sins that can cause the most trouble are not the social sins — injustice, incivility, etc. They are the personal sins — laziness, self-indulgence, drinking, sleeping around.

.. Moreover, the forces of social disruption are visible on every street: the slackers taking advantage of the disability programs, the people popping out babies, the drug users, the spouse abusers.

.. In their view, government doesn’t reinforce the vigorous virtues. On the contrary, it undermines them — by fostering initiative-sucking dependency, by letting people get away with their mistakes so they can make more of them and by getting in the way of moral formation.

The only way you build up self-reliant virtues, in this view, is through struggle. Yet faraway government experts want to cushion people from the hardships that are the schools of self-reliance. Compassionate government threatens to turn people into snowflakes.

.. a woman from Louisiana complaining about the childproof lids on medicine and the mandatory seatbelt laws. “We let them throw lawn darts, smoked alongside them,” the woman says of her children. “And they survived. Now it’s like your kid needs a helmet, knee pads and elbow pads to go down the kiddy slide.”

.. they perceive government as a corrupt arm used against the little guy. She argues that these voters may vote against their economic interests, but they vote for their emotional interests, for candidates who share their emotions about problems and groups.

.. I’d say they believe that big government support would provide short-term assistance, but that it would be a long-term poison to the values that are at the core of prosperity.

Frugality Isn’t What It Used to Be

One of Westacott’s central preoccupations in the book is why, if so many smart people have championed frugality, it hasn’t become the global norm.

.. Spartan laws and culture, Westacott explains, were fine-tuned to make citizens courageous, disciplined, and uninterested in wealth. At those same tables, Westacott writes, “The rations were meager to keep the young men lean and supple and accustomed to functioning on an empty stomach.”

.. the bulk of how present-day Americans think about frugality—or really, how they think about anything—was established during two especially fertile philosophical periods, in Greece two and a half millennia ago and in Western Europe a few centuries ago.

.. Thinkers in the first of those two periods were preoccupied with material wealth, and whether securing it could bring happiness, as aristocrats of the era seemed to think it could. This is the time when Epicurus warned of having to brown-nose in order to make money, and a number of his contemporaries chimed in with other critiques that echo today’s skepticism of acquisitiveness. Plato, for his part, advocated for modesty in housing, clothing, and food, arguing that simplicity in those realms would encourage moral purity. This vision of the ideal life is one that has proved extremely durable. Plato’s position essentially set the precedent for every homespun lifestyle blogger with a garden, a kitchen table made of reclaimed wood, and a penchant for serving drinks in Mason jars.

.. Whereas the ancient Greek philosophers were for the most part skeptical of selfishness, the 18th-century theorists Adam Smith and David Hume spun it as a virtue. Smith contended that when men acted purely in their own interest, “an invisible hand” ensured that they would contribute to the greater good.

.. “What has always been condemned as private vices came to be reassessed … on the grounds that they confer public benefits,”

.. “It seems,” Westacott writes, “that our culture is still torn between accepting acquisitiveness as a necessary condition of economic growth and denouncing it as an undesirable character trait that bespeaks false values and encourages unethical conduct.

.. Baking one’s own bread, for instance, has become a potent symbol of wholesomeness and self-sufficiency, but, Westacott argues, it’s hardly an act of pure independence. Since most home bakers are not growing their own wheat, grinding their own flour, constructing their own ovens, and so on, they are aided by labor-saving technologies that are miraculous and yet commonplace. It’s perfectly valid to bake bread because it’s cheaper, fresher, and less connected to processed-food supply chains, he suggests, but don’t get carried away: Baking bread at home is the result of the remarkable interconnectedness of the modern economy.

.. generation after generation has yearned for a simpler version of life that they imagined to have come before them. Two and a half millennia ago, the Greek poet Hesiod wrote longingly of the era of the first humans, a “golden race of men” who were “free from toil and grief.” Seneca, writing 500 years later, pined for “the age before architects and builders,” before humans felt that their happiness depended on such luxuries as “hewing timbers square.”

.. Some who desire more radical social change might even argue that the advocates of frugal simplicity effectively encourage people to accept an unfair economic system

.. Some who desire more radical social change might even argue that the advocates of frugal simplicity effectively encourage people to accept an unfair economic system. … But this criticism is misguided. The teachers of frugal simplicity criticize avarice and consumerism on the grounds that working ever harder to make ever more money to buy ever more stuff is not the road to a satisfying life. … The alternative is to argue that working, getting, and spending are the essential ingredients of human happiness.

.. However, the actual argument is that public policies should ensure that the poor can afford their first house before the rich can afford their third or fourth.

.. Olen describes how personal-finance coaches and large banks popularized the idea that by cutting back on small daily luxuries—a latte at Starbucks being the quintessential example—anyone could retire a millionaire; all they had to do was invest the money they saved from not buying a coffee into the market (and, preferably, let the personal-finance coaches and the banks manage those funds). “Collectively,” Olen writes, “they fed into the American streak of can-do-ism, our Calvinist sense that money comes to those who have earned it and treated it with respect.”

Housing, health care, and education cost the average family 75 percent of their discretionary income in the 2000s. The comparable figure in 1973: 50 percent.

.. The acts on Extreme Cheapskates are socially unacceptable, and besides, they are pointless economic rebellions, doing little to affect people’s financial security in any meaningful way. Mr. Money Mustache had saved up $250,000 by the time he’d been working for five years—no amount of cleaning plastic straws with T-shirt shreds would have gotten him there.

.. Westacott at one point dwells on how wealthy people spend money to acquire status. It used to be that a fancy car or a country-club membership sufficed. But as these became available to more and more people, the acquisition of physical things has mostly taken a backseat to the acquisition of exotic experiences. Now, Westacott writes, because “not working is in itself no longer a badge of honor,” what the economist Thorstein Veblen in 1899 called “conspicuous leisure” is being displaced by conspicuous recreation.