Preview of a blueprint of a vision

Guangzhou central business district

Guangzhou (Source)

…so to speak. I am referring to the news that the Chinese government will “unveil” a “blueprint” for the 11-city “Greater Bay Area” initiative in southern China, which is believed to contain the planet’s largest concentration of humans in a single urban area. The blogger Big Lychee weighs in:

The basic proposition is that you have a bunch of coastal cities clustered around a river delta/estuary, and if you do something (to be revealed on Feb 21, fingers crossed) it will start to perform a similar ‘powerhouse’ economic function as the Silicon Valley area around San Francisco Bay, or maybe the vast industrial region around Tokyo Bay, because an estuary is sort of like a bay. Voila – the world’s top bay area.

Regional geography types might point out that the Pearl River Delta is already performing such a function, with its vast swathes of factories, banks, sea ports, airports, power stations, residential areas, road and rail links, malls, schools, 7-Elevens, pet-grooming salons and everything else an economic dynamo needs.

Promoters of the concept excitedly insist that the extra yet-to-be-announced something can unlock the area’s great additional potential. They note that it is currently divided among a dozen or so municipal jurisdictions, whose mayors and other leaders compete with one another, and two of which are de-facto city states with their own currencies and laws, separated by international-style borders.

Linking a bunch of cities together into a seamless megalopolis is certainly a compelling idea, but the enormous amount of propaganda surrounding the extremely nebulous and inchoate Greater Bay Area concept suggests an ulterior motive. What that motive might be is astutely suggested by the blog:

Skeptics point out that while merging Guangzhou, Zhuhai, Shenzhen and other mainland cities’ planning and other functions might produce economies of scale and efficiencies, it is difficult, if not unconstitutional, to absorb Hong Kong and Macau into the Mainland this way.

Some fear the whole thing is a plot to subsume Hong Kong politically and economically within a bigger cross-border entity. Others suspect the idea is more psychological or symbolic – aimed at encouraging the idea or feeling that Hong Kong is just a part of something bigger. In other words, to dilute Hong Kong’s separate identity. As in ‘We will no longer be Hong Kong people, but Greater Bay Area people’.

That sounds about right. I guess we’ll find out. By the way, I love how Guangzhou is assigned the role of “a national central city” while flashy Shenzhen gets to be “a special economic region and an innovative city.” Poor Guangzhou. At least it’s visually interesting, and the Cantonese culture is great, if you’re into that sort of thing. (It’s also the Guangdong provincial capital.)

China’s population begins to shrink

Beijing traffic jam

Welcome news for some

China’s population is believed to have shrunk last year for the first time since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. Despite the loosening of the one-child policy in 2016 to allow for two children per couple, new findings from a researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison indicate that China’s population dropped by 1.27 million in 2018. The number of live births nationwide dipped by 2.5 million last year, after being projected to grow by 790,000. Thus, China is on track to get old before it gets rich.

This is most alarming:

The number of women of childbearing age is expected to fall by more than 39 percent over the next decade and China’s two-child policy isn’t enough to shore up dwindling birth rates, [Yi Fuxian] added.

That is an absolutely colossal decline in 10 short years. For reference, a Chinese newspaper gives the total number of women of childbearing age (15 to 49 years old) as 346 million. If we apply Yi’s 39% reduction to this figure, that would mean a net removal of almost 135 million women from the childbearing population. That’s more than the whole population of Japan. In a decade!

He is now urging the government to get out of people’s bedrooms by scrapping the two-child limit and offering more incentives including generous maternity leave and tax breaks for parents.

If the government doesn’t intervene now, “China’s aging crisis will be more severe than Japan, and the economic outlook will be bleaker than Japan,” Yi said.

China’s labor force is becoming smaller as the population grays, putting intense strain on the country’s fragile pension and health care systems.

[…]

“The U.S. economy will not be overtaken by China, but by India, which has a younger population,” he said.

“China’s economic vitality will continue to decline, which will bring about a disastrous impact on the global economy.”

Ditching the two-child limit would be most welcome. It’s questionable, however, whether pro-natalist incentives like maternity leave can make a significant dent in the problem. Chinese women have to really want children.

Here’s an insight from the financial blogger Luo Zhen (罗臻) way back in August 2013:

Consider the bigger picture. China is urbanizing and one plan for keeping growth from collapsing to near 0-3% is to push more people into cities. The fertility rates in the cities is already low by choice. China increasingly looks like Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore, where the fertility rates are 1.1, 1.1 and 0.8 children born/woman, respectively. China’s fertility rate is currently about 1.6 children born/woman.

If they want to raise fertility, they should deurbanize. China’s fertility rate is headed lower, one child policy or not.

There’s an idea: deurbanization. Perhaps it’s time to ease back on the crazy city-building drive and start ushering people back to the countryside. It’s been done before, sort of: China sent roughly 17 million youths to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution.

Guangzhou photos

In early 2013, I spent several days ambling around Guangzhou with my Nikon D5100. One of the best, but most underappreciated, ways to experience a city is by walking across it, so that’s exactly what I did (it took more than one session). The southern Chinese megacity formerly known as Canton has well over 80,000 restaurants and the whole place revolves around food. You may get a sense of that from some of the pictures below.

 

No relief for Chicago

Illinois governor Bruce Rauner rules out sending the National Guard to restore order in the nation’s most notorious open-air shooting gallery:

Gov. Bruce Rauner says he will not dispatch the Illinois National Guard to Chicago to stem gun violence.

The Republican said Wednesday that “the National Guard is not for neighborhood policing.”

He dismissed suggestions that he call up the Guard after more than 70 people were shot in the city last weekend. At least 11 were killed.

Chicago police have said 600 additional officers will be patrolling the affected neighborhoods.

Rauner told reporters in Peoria that “the violence in Chicago is heartbreaking, it’s got to end.”

But he says state troops would only be appropriate for “a riot or some issue like that.”

Rauner says improving economic opportunities will help end the violence.

Economic opportunities! That’s the ticket.

In the meantime, a Chicago pastor asks Trump to mobilize (federalize) the National Guard to relieve the Second City. Here’s a Chicago Tribune op-ed from last year demanding intervention by the Illinois National Guard:

What in the world is wrong with us in Chicago? How many lives must be lost before we mobilize to end the insane carnage in our streets? A thousand deaths a year? Two thousand? […]

Most Chicagoans, particularly those who live in killing fields like Englewood and North Lawndale, may be unaware of an experiment that virtually stopped the bleeding for one blessed weekend in November 2016.

On those amazing few days, Chicago police, Cook County sheriffs, state police and federal agents saturated the three most dangerous police districts in the city. Shooters were silenced. Open-air drug markets closed. Gangs couldn’t loiter at liquor stores, vacant lots and viaducts.

The strategy worked. The killing ceased. That weekend there was exactly one shooting — one — in the area under patrol.

If we are truly serious about ending gun violence, we need this kind of bold action. We have to unpack the plan created by Robert Milan, former first assistant state’s attorney in the Cook County state’s attorney’s office, and former deputy U.S. Marshal Jim Smith.

The mission: crush the violence with a six-month saturation deployment of law enforcement that mirrors the November 2016 weekend experiment.

But we live in a city that is broke. We don’t have the money or the manpower to repeat the tactic, let alone sustain it.

Worse, perhaps, we don’t seem to have the courage to swallow our pride and our politics to keep our people alive. Why else would Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the City Council reject the idea of seeking assistance from the Illinois National Guard?

In fact, the city should ask that guardsmen be deployed, along with local police, to the South and West sides, not to militarize them, but to restore public safety and save lives.

When living in Chicago, I was amazed at the lack of beat cops in the downtown. You could go a week without seeing a single police officer or cop car.

It’s rather astonishing that America is incapable of maintaining basic law and order in its third-largest city. Serious countries do not allow large swaths of their major cities to descend into anarchy, while citing budget problems as an excuse for failing to take appropriate law enforcement action.

Distinctive national architecture vs the Borg

Before:

After:

What happened?

“100 years ago it was reasonable to talk about national architecture. Today it almost doesn’t make sense, how is it possible that everybody build the same things?” Suggest [Rem] Koolhas. Absorbing Modernity: 1914-2014 is this year main challenge offered to all 65 national pavilions taking part at the Biennale. Each of them has been called to investigate and show how countries have been welcoming (or refusing) contemporary challenges.

Talk amongst yourselves. But I just wanted to point out that I happen to have worked in the China office building pictured above. It was alright, but the elevators needed a serious upgrade.

This will end well

Illinois is on track to become the first state to declare bankruptcy since 1933:

Now Comptroller Susana Mendoza is warning that new court orders in lawsuits filed by state suppliers that are owed money mean her office is required to pay out more than Illinois receives in revenue each month. That means there would be no money left for so-called “discretionary” spending — a category that in Illinois includes school buses, domestic violence shelters and some ambulance services.

“I don’t know what part of ‘We are in massive crisis mode’ the General Assembly and the governor don’t understand. This is not a false alarm,” said Mendoza, a Chicago Democrat. “The magic tricks run out after a while, and that’s where we’re at.”

It’s a new low, even for a state that’s seen its financial situation grow increasingly desperate amid a standoff between the Democrat-led Legislature and Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner. Illinois already has $15 billion in overdue bills and the lowest credit rating of any state, and some ratings agencies have warned they will downgrade the rating to “junk” if there’s no budget before the next fiscal year begins July 1.

Good job, guys.

Now imagine this crisis on a national level, when the national debt exceeds $30 trillion and the interest payments cost more than defense (about a decade down the road).

Related:

The Chicago Teachers’ Pension Fund (CTPF) paid out $1.5 billion last fiscal year, mostly on benefits to retirees.

But it only earned $7.8 million on its investments, according to a filing it made with the Illinois Department of Insurance.

The Chicago Teachers’ Pension fund operates like a Ponzi Scheme, but it is allowed to do so because the fund is taxpayer-backed. Bernie Madoff’s private Ponzi scheme cost investors $18 billion; he received 150 years in prison.

In addition, it cost CTPF $35.8 million in investment expenses to earn that $7.8 million, according to the filing, meaning it actually lost $28 million between July 1, 2015 and June 30, 2016.

Years like 2016 elucidate how the fund, which is supposed to pay for the current retirements of some 28,000 former CPS teachers and administrators as well as provide future benefits to another 29,000 active ones, is running out of money, and time.

This caught my eye:

Annual payouts to beneficiaries have risen 61 percent since 2007, from $906 million to $1.46 billion. The average CPS teacher salary has risen, too, by 58 percent, from $59,458 to $94,064.

A 58% average salary increase in 10 years? Yeah, that’s perfectly normal and sustainable.

How to manage a budget

Chicago in one sentence?

Paul Graham on the subtle messages that great cities send:

Great cities attract ambitious people. You can sense it when you walk around one. In a hundred subtle ways, the city sends you a message: you could do more; you should try harder.

The surprising thing is how different these messages can be. New York tells you, above all: you should make more money. There are other messages too, of course. You should be hipper. You should be better looking. But the clearest message is that you should be richer.

What I like about Boston (or rather Cambridge) is that the message there is: you should be smarter. You really should get around to reading all those books you’ve been meaning to.

When you ask what message a city sends, you sometimes get surprising answers. As much as they respect brains in Silicon Valley, the message the Valley sends is: you should be more powerful. […]

The big thing in LA seems to be fame. […]

In DC the message seems to be that the most important thing is who you know. You want to be an insider.

As a resident of Chicago, this naturally made me wonder what message the Windy City sends to people. A couple of excellent candidates are proposed on the Y Combinator message board:

Chicago: You went to the wrong fraternity

And:

Chicago: There’s nothing wrong with second place.

But seriously, folks. Chicago is a great global city, it’s just hard to sum it up in one sentence because it’s such a mixed bag of industries. Chicago is said to have the most diversified economy in the US; its “industry mix most closely matches the nation’s, with no single industry employing more than 14% of the workforce,” according to World Business Chicago. Top industries in Chicago range from finance and insurance, to food processing and manufacturing, to publishing and biotech. The city is also a major logistics and transportation hub, as well as a cultural and academic powerhouse.

Chicago has a protean quality that makes it somewhat hard to pin down. There may be no tidy way to summarize the city’s “message.” Part of the issue is that Chicago is a regional magnet for talent, but not a national one. People don’t flock to Chicago from across the country. (That has a lot to do with the weather, among other things.) Thus, while Chicago is a great city, it may not be a true hub of ambition in the way Graham is talking about.

This comment gets the last word:

As a cartoonist covering life in the Chicago area for the past 20 or so years, here is what Chicago says; “You really need to be successful here, but if not, someone just might help you.”

Is it really that hard?

Is public wifi going out of style? I often bring my laptop to cafés and coffee shops in downtown Chicago, intending to surf the internet and work. Almost invariably, I discover one of three things:

  1. There is no wifi at the café/coffee shop in question.
  2. There is wifi, in theory, but it’s so insanely slow and dysfunctional as to be unusable. (After spending several minutes trying to get online, I’ll gripe to the server and get a reply like: “Oh yeah, the wifi is terrible here. I’ve asked the manager to look into it.” Of course, it never gets better, even months later.)
  3. Wifi is available, but you’re not “supposed” to use it, because it’s not for customers, or the network belongs to an adjacent shop. (In these cases, the server will give me the password, sometimes scribbled on a ragged scrap of paper, with a conspiratorial whisper: “Don’t tell anyone I gave you this.” I am not making this up.)

Starbucks usually has fast and reliable wifi – but not always. Any other establishment, probably not.

Now, I’m not complaining. Life is good. A dearth of public wifi is very much a First World Problem that I wouldn’t even mention, except that I’m genuinely curious as to why this would be an issue in the bustling downtown of America’s third-largest city.

Seriously, what’s the deal? Is wifi just becoming a thing of the past? Are people so fixated on their phones that they don’t use their laptops for internet browsing or social media anymore, thus obviating the need for wifi?

My observation is that the few places that do offer wifi are often teeming with people on their laptops, suggesting that establishments with crappy or nonexistent wifi are leaving money on the table.

Is the technology really that daunting? Or is there something else going on?

Just askin’…

Photos: Chicago architecture

Chicago is one of the world’s great cities for architecture. Below are some photos of the downtown landscape that I took with my Samsung phone in Sept-Dec 2016:

 

And some more from 2017:

 

And a few more from the Nikon (the better to take night shots with):

Blast from the past

This is an amazing film about Chicago released by the city’s Board of Education circa 1945-46, with great images of architecture, commerce and industry in what was then allegedly the world’s second-largest city. (By contrast, Chicago doesn’t even make the Wikipedia list of the world’s 91 most populous cities today.)

Much of the urban landscape of today’s Chicago is recognizable in the film, but of course, a lot has changed. It’s a glimpse into a mostly vanished world.