7 December 2019   Leave a comment

One of the criticisms of the science behind the debate about climate change is that computer models cannot accurately predict the extraordinary complexity of the earth’s climate. But a new study which examined the computer models over the last 50 years indicates that the computer simulations have been on target. According to a report in Science:

“The researchers compared annual average surface temperatures across the globe to the surface temperatures predicted in 17 forecasts. Those predictions were drawn from 14 separate computer models released between 1970 and 2001. In some cases, the studies and their computer codes were so old that the team had to extract data published in papers, using special software to gauge the exact numbers represented by points on a printed graph.

“Most of the models accurately predicted recent global surface temperatures, which have risen approximately 0.9°C since 1970. For 10 forecasts, there was no statistically significant difference between their output and historic observations, the team reports today in Geophysical Research Letters.

I suspect, however, that those who deny that climate change is occurring because of human activity will be swayed by additional scientific evidence.

North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations, Kim Song, poured cold water on the US-North Korean denuclearization talks by saying that “We do not need to have lengthy talks with the US now and the denuclearization is already gone out of the negotiation table.” The statement could be simply a negotiating ploy, but it has become increasingly clear that North Korea has become frustrated with the lack of progress in the talks. North Korean leader Kim has said that he is considering offering the US a surprise by Christmas which could suggest another ballistic missile launch or even a nuclear bomb test. Both of those possibilities could pose a serious challenge to US President Trump. For his part, Trump seems to downplay the seriousness of the situation:

“U.S. President Donald Trump sought to play down a recent surge in tensions with North Korea, stressing what he said was his good relationship with its leader Kim Jong Un and saying he thought Kim wanted a deal, not to interfere in next year’s U.S. presidential election.

“’We’ll see about North Korea. I’d be surprised if North Korea acted hostilely,’ Trump told reporters at the White House before leaving for Florida.

“’He knows I have an election coming up. I don’t think he wants to interfere with that, but we’ll have to see … I think he’d like to see something happen. The relationship is very good, but you know, there is certain hostility, there’s no question about it.’”

It is interesting that President Trump places the North Korean decision within the context of the Presidential election in the US. I strongly suspect that worrying about Mr. Trump’s chances in the next election is on the minds of the North Koreans. The North Koreans have raised the level of personal rhetoric in recent weeks:

“But the bonhomie has been tested this week, with Mr Trump reviving his derisive “Rocket Man” nickname for Mr Kim and again threatening to use military force against North Korea.

“One of Pyongyang’s top nuclear envoys, who once praised the ‘mysteriously wonderful’ chemistry between the leaders, slammed Mr Trump for using words that had prompted ‘waves of hatred’ among the North Korean people.

“She also dusted off an old insult the state has used for Mr Trump.

“‘If any language and expressions stoking the atmosphere of confrontation are used once again on purpose at a crucial moment as now, that must really be diagnosed as the relapse of the dotage of a dotard,’ said Ms Choe Son Hui, first vice-minister of foreign affairs, as quoted by the state’s official Korean Central News Agency on Thursday.”

It is difficult to find a more seriously flawed negotiating process than the one we have witnessed between the two states over the last three years. There is precious little to show by way of progress–indeed, the situation has clearly deteriorated while the two sides have been talking.

Posted December 7, 2019 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

5 December 2019   Leave a comment

A coalition of 30 labor unions in France have launched a nation-wide strike to protest the government’s plans to reduce pension benefits. National Public Radio suggests that the strike also reflects dissatisfaction with the overall policies of President Macron:

“France’s official retirement age is 62, having risen from 60 in the past decade. But the government hopes to install a new universal points-based pension system, which would change how pensions are calculated and effectively give full pension benefits only to workers who retire at age 64.

“But beyond the push to preserve current pension terms, the protests also reflect ‘an anger and a dislike of Macron in society,’ Beardsley [NPR’s Eleanor Beardsley] says, noting the criticisms the president has faced in the wake of the Yellow Vest cost-of-living protests of last autumn.”

The Guardian estimates that about 800,000 people are participating in the strike which is scheduled to last until Monday. The newspaper quotes a protester’s views of the situation:

“Isabelle Jarrivet, 52, who had worked as an administrator in a town hall north of Paris for 20 years, said: ‘It’s a question of life or death for the French social system, which Macron is dismantling. We’re being taken back to a time before 1945, where we risk losing the social safety net. Private pension funds are waiting in the wings to benefit.’

She added: ‘The gilets jaunes protests got people thinking and talking more about politics and people determined not to let things pass. You can feel a defiant mood in the air.’”

The strike has affected train, bus, and airline travel, and hospital workers, firefighters, and teachers are also participating in the strike.

The US is accusing Iran of sending short-range ballistic missiles into Iraq. The charge, if true, suggests that Iran is taking advantage of the political turmoil in Iraq, despite the fact that much of the discontent comes from those opposed to Iranian influence in Iraqi politics. The missiles could pose a threat to both Israel and Saudi Arabia, as well as to US troops stationed in the Middle East. According to the New York Times: ” Intelligence officials would not discuss the precise model of ballistic missile Iran has sneaked into Iraq. But short-range missiles have a range of just over 600 miles, meaning that one fired from the outskirts of Baghdad could strike Jerusalem.” The missiles could pose a threat to global oil supplies as the attack by two cruise missiles–allegedly by Houthi rebels in Yemen–last summer proved. Those attacks reduced oil supplies by 5% globally for a brief period of time. Iran is clearly trying to leverage its position in the region in order to increase pressure on US allies to reduce the US sanctions on Iran. But we should view this report with caution. There are many reasons why the US wants to portray Iran as an aggressive power in the region. And we should remember that it was the US that broke the Iranian nuclear agreement and that US sanctions on Iran are not sanctioned by any international agreement or organization.

Posted December 5, 2019 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

4 December 2019   Leave a comment

Iran has been experiencing violent protests since the government announced fuel price increases on 15 November. For the first time, the Iranian government has admitted that protesters have been killed although it has been obvious for some time now that the government efforts have been violent. According to the AP:

“The demonstrations began Nov. 15 after the government raised minimum gasoline prices by 50% to 15,000 Iranian rials per liter. That’s 12 cents a liter, or about 50 cents a gallon. After a monthly 60-liter quota, it costs 30,000 rials a liter. That’s nearly 24 cents a liter or 90 cents a gallon. An average gallon of regular gas in the U.S. costs $2.58 by comparison, according to AAA.

“Cheap gasoline is practically considered a birthright in Iran, home to the world’s fourth-largest crude oil reserves despite decades of economic woes. That disparity, especially given its oil wealth, fueled the anger felt by demonstrators.

“Iranians have seen their savings chewed away by the rial’s collapse from 32,000 to $1 at the time of the 2015 nuclear accord to 127,000 to $1 today under the renewed U.S. sanctions. The cost of daily staples also has risen.

Iran has been under severe economic pressure from sanctions imposed on it after US President Trump pulled the US out of the Iranian nuclear agreement (the JCPOA). The protests may signal the success of the sanctions by undermining the Iranian government. But the protests may also harden the position of the Iranian government to ratchet up the pressure on the former buyers of Iranian oil. The Middle East Institute published an essay on what a hardline strategy could entail:

“Under these circumstances, the outcome of the protests could be twofold: on the one hand, Tehran will definitely be concerned about an escalation in the uprising and try to speed up the launch of negotiations with the U.S. to ease the economic pressure. On the other hand, however, the Iranian leadership likely still believes it has time to prepare by raising the stakes to secure a stronger starting position in the talks and enable it to demand an immediate lifting of secondary sanctions.

“To achieve these twin goals, Iran can intensify the tactics it has used for the past 10 months, alternately destabilizing regional security and using the gradual buildup of its nuclear program to raise the value of a possible deal and also warn the Americans about the potential consequences of further increasing economic pressure. In between of the use of these levers, the international community has usually been given time to reconsider its support for U.S. sanctions before Iran repeats the actions.”

The critical actors in this standoff is not either Iran or the US–they are more or less obliged to maintain their current policies since backing down will be seen by the polities as a capitulation. Indeed, there are reports that the Trump Administration is considering sending 14,000 additional troops to the Middle East to counter Iran. The actors we should watch closely are the European states, Russia, and China since they have powerful interests in stabilizing the situation.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) celebrated its 70th anniversary, and there was a great deal of controversy at the event. There was a videotape of several leaders of NATO states mocking US President Trump. Mr. Trump had a very contentious press meeting with French President Macron in which the two leaders disagreed openly about a variety of issues. Mr. Trump also answered questions for 40 minutes while Canadian Prime Minister sat next to him without being questioned. But the most contentious matter was President Trump’s decision to meet with Turkish President Erdogan who has violated NATO’s unwritten rule that members should not purchase sophisticated weaponry from Russia. President Trump cancelled his scheduled press conference at the end of the meeting and left abruptly. NATO has been adrift since the dissolution of the USSR in 1991 but it continues to serve as a focal point for strategic planning and coordination among an important group of states.

Posted December 4, 2019 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

3 December 2019   Leave a comment

In world politics we often talk about rich and poor countries and use economic data to sort out the two. I am not sure why we fell into that trap, but economic data actually tells us very little about the quality of life in different countries. One of the features of living in a “rich” country is longer life. A long life expectancy has been one of the lodestars of the idea of progress. And it is true that as a general rule, greater wealth allows better living conditions, greater access to improvements in medical care, and more control over threats from the environment.

But the US has now joined some other countries, such as Russia, that are experiencing a decline in life expectancy. National Public Radio conducted an interview with Dr. Steven Woolf who was the lead author of the study conducted by the American Medical Association. Excerpts from the interview are disturbing.

WOOLF: Well, what we found is that since 2010, all-cause mortality – that means the chances of dying before age 65 – have been increasing in the United States. And for the past three years, life expectancy has been decreasing. It’s a quite alarming recent trend. But our study shows that it’s been decades in the making, starting back in the 1980s.

GREENE: Is this happening in other wealthy countries, or is this a distinctly U.S. thing?

WOOLF: That’s the thing. This does appear to be a distinctly American phenomenon. There is some element of this happening a little bit in the U.K. and Canada but nothing on the scale of the United States. Life expectancy continues to climb in other wealthy nations.

GREENE: So what are the factors here? What do you think is happening?

WOOLF: Well, we did a pretty detailed analysis to peel back the onion and try to understand this. The trend in life expectancy is being caused, as you said, by increased mortality in working-age Americans from age 25 to 64. And the leading contributors to that is the drug addiction problem. Drug overdoses are a major factor in explaining this trend. However, we also found increases in deaths from alcoholism, from suicides and from dozens of organ diseases – all told, 35 causes of death where mortality rates had increased in this age group.

The demographic breakdown of the decline suggests that poor states in the US have suffered the greatest declines:

“In regard to regional impact, the largest relative increases in midlife mortality rates were observed in New England (New Hampshire, 23.3%; Maine, 20.7%; Vermont, 19.9%) and the Ohio Valley (West Virginia, 23.0%; Ohio, 21.6%; Indiana, 14.8%; Kentucky, 14.7%). Additionally, analyses revealed the increase in midlife mortality from 2010 through 2017 was associated with an estimated 33,307 excess deaths and 32.8% of these were attributable to the Ohio Valley.

“When examining cause, analyses revealed the midlife mortality from drug overdoses increased by 386.5% from 1999 to 2017 from 6.7 deaths per 100,000 to 32.5 deaths per 100,000. While age-specific increases were significant among those aged between 25 and 34 years (531.4% increase) the largest relative increase occurred in those aged 55 to 64 years (909.2%).

We need to rethink what we mean by “rich”. The data indicates that US society is in real trouble and indices such as the GDP should not leave us sanguine about the quality of life.

The International Monetary Fund published a report last September on the global problem of firms and individuals hiding money in shell companies in order to avoid paying taxes on the money. The IMF defines the practice of disguising Foreign Direct Investments (FDI) in this way:

“However, not all FDI brings capital in service of productivity gains. In practice, FDI is defined as cross-border financial investments between firms belonging to the same multinational group, and much of it is phantom in nature—investments that pass through empty corporate shells. These shells, also called special purpose entities, have no real business activities. Rather, they carry out holding activities, conduct intrafirm financing, or manage intangible assets—often to minimize multinationals’ global tax bill. Such financial and tax engineering blurs traditional FDI statistics and makes it difficult to understand genuine economic integration.”

The study indicates that about $15 trillion is hidden in these shell companies, effectively reducing the tax revenues for every state in the world. That $15 trillion represents about 40% of all the money identified as Foreign Direct Investment. Economic orthodoxy would have us believe that investments stimulate job creation. The money hidden in shell companies does not stimulate any additional economic activity–it just sits in bank accounts in any number of tax havens such as Luxembourg or the Cayman Islands. To get an idea of how distorting this practice is the IMF uses Luxembourg as an example: ” According to official statistics, Luxembourg, a country of 600,000 people, hosts as much foreign direct investment (FDI) as the United States and much more than China. Luxembourg’s $4 trillion in FDI comes out to $6.6 million a person. FDI of this size hardly reflects brick-and-mortar investments in the minuscule Luxembourg economy.” One would think that governments would seize the opportunity to tax all these revenues. That they do not is testimony to the power of great wealth in political decisions.

Posted December 3, 2019 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

2 December 2019   Leave a comment

Globalization has transformed the nature of work. For most of human history, work, and its corollary, income, was local, and most workers sold their products within a very small geographic range (before the emergence of industrial capitalism, the range of economic activity in Europe was mostly within a 10 mile range). With industrial capitalism, the world witness the creation of factories and technological changes–such as railroads and steamships–expanded the scope of possible markets. Now the entire world is a single market, albeit one with lots of roadblocks. The name of the game now is avoiding those roadblocks with seamless supply chains. When US President Trump imposed tariffs–a quintessential roadblock–on Chinese products, US firms that used Chinese products set up operations, often with Chinese help, in countries like Vietnam and Bangladesh.

But in domestic economies, we have also witnessed the growth of what is known as a “gig” economy, where workers are nominally independent but still subject to the rules of a larger corporate entity, such as Uber. Katrina Forrester has written a fascinating book review on the nature of the gig economy and what it means for modern capitalism:

” What is new about the gig economy isn’t that it gives workers flexibility and independence, but that it gives employers something they have otherwise found difficult to attain: workers who are not, technically, their employees but who are nonetheless subject to their discipline and subordinate to their authority. The dystopian promise of the gig economy is that it will create an army of precarious workers for whose welfare employers take no responsibility. Its emergence has been welcomed by neoliberal thinkers, policymakers and firms who see it as progress in their efforts to transform the way work is organised.

The fundamental issue is obscured by the gig economy. We have developed a system in which “income” can only be earned by working for an entity that honors private profit. There is much work to be done that does not yield a private profit–think of people working to ease the lives of disabled people, people working to protect the environment, and people who teach poor students in poor areas. We need to break the link between income and profit. There is much more to human life than the accumulation of private capital.

The German Social Democrat Party (SPD) has elected Norbert Walter-Borjans and Saskia Esken as the new leaders of the party. These two individuals are closer to the original idea of the SPD and far from the SPD that has worked as a coalition partner to Angela Merkel. The question now raised is whether Walter-Borjans and Esken will keep the SPD in the government. Angela Merkel has undoubtedly been a constant in European politics over her four terms and she has held the line defending liberal values in a continent that has a number of political parties that repudiate liberal values. But she has been weakened over time and has announced that she will withdraw from politics soon. It is likely that Germany will soon lose its singular role in European politics and, aside from French President Macron, it is unlikely that any country can take its place. This is a bad time for Europe to drift apart any further. With Brexit and the emergence of China as an economic counterweight and the desire of Russia to become a dominant force in Europe, Europe can ill-afford to lose its legacy as a protector of liberal values and institutions in the world. The US has decided to abdicate its role as the main protector of those values.

Posted December 2, 2019 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

30 November 2019   1 comment

This note has little to do with world politics, but I am fascinated by the reports of a new study that suggests that the essential elements of music seem to be universal and not solely culturally determined (a position I must admit I believed with no evidence). According to Reuters:

“The study, published on Thursday, focused on musical recordings and ethnographic records from 60 societies around the world including such diverse cultures as the Highland Scots in Scotland, Nyangatom nomads in Ethiopia, Mentawai rain forest dwellers in Indonesia, the Saramaka descendants of African slaves in Suriname and Aranda hunter-gatherers in Australia.

“Music was broadly found to be associated with behaviors including infant care, dance, love, healing, weddings, funerals, warfare, processions and religious rituals.

“The researchers detected strong similarities in musical features across the various cultures, according to Samuel Mehr, a Harvard University research associate in psychology and the lead author of the study published in the journal Science.

“’The study gives credence to the idea that there is some sort of set of governing rules for how human minds produce music worldwide. And that’s something we could not really test until we had a lot of data about music from many different cultures,’ Mehr said.”

I will wait until the study is more broadly confirmed by other researchers before I abandon my uninformed position.

After two months of increasingly violent protests, Iraq’s Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi has announced that he will resign. The resignation comes after two prominent Shia clerics, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and Moqtada al-Sadr, called for a change of leadership in the country. The change comes despite the strong support for Mahdi by Iran and the Iraqi Kurds. The protests have been sparked by concerns over corruption as well as the influence of Iran over Iraqi politics. But the laws governing succession after a Prime Minster leaves in Iraq are murky and it is not clear that the resignation will address the underlying causes of unrest. The Guardian looks at the unrest:

“Ever since 2003, Iraq’s governance had been apportioned along sectarian lines and its institutions used as fiefdoms by ministers whose allegiance to political groupings has often transcended fealty to the state.

“One result has been endemic corruption and nepotism throughout the country’s public sector, which has plundered the country’s oil wealth and left many Iraqis without opportunities. Looting of state revenues has been the main driver of the protest movement that has been led by a disenfranchised youth but joined by other sectors of society, and has on some days seen up to 200,000 people demonstrating peacefully in Baghdad and other cities.”

It is likely that a new Prime Minister will be appointed only after extended horse-trading by the various groups in Iraq. The turmoil in Iraq will also complicate US strategy in the Middle East, particularly after the change in the US position in Syria.

North Korea blasted Japanese Prime Minister Abe after he criticized the two missile tests conducted by North Korea last Thursday. The invective was vintage North Korean propaganda:

“North Korea responded with a blistering statement from an unnamed deputy foreign minister in charge of Japanese affairs, saying Abe didn’t know what he was talking about when it comes to military hardware.

“‘Abe is the only one idiot in the world and the most stupid man ever known in history as he fails to distinguish a missile from multiple launch rocket system,'” said the statement, which was carried by the state-run Korean Central News Agency.

“‘The wretched sight of Abe makes us regard him as a dog seized with fear or a puppy fawning over its master like the U.S.,’ the statement continued, adding, ‘he is none other than a perfect imbecile and a political dwarf without parallel in the world.’

“It concluded with a blunt warning that the Japanese leader ‘may see what a real ballistic missile is in the not distant future and under his nose.'”

North Korea has given the US a deadline of the end of the year to restart meaningful negotiations. The rhetoric coming out of Pyongang suggests that leader Kim is becoming quite disgruntled with the slow pace.

Posted November 30, 2019 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

28 November 2019   Leave a comment

North Korea, for the 13th time this year, has tested two nuclear-capable missiles. The launches come on the second anniversary of the launch of its Hwasong-13 intercontinental ballistic missile. The tests are viewed by many analysts as warnings to US President Trump to restart the denuclearization talks that have been stalled for months. North Korea has given Mr. Trump a deadline of the end of this year, but it is unclear what the consequences of inaction might be. But at the same time, North Korea has started military exercises along the North-South maritime border. The Washington Post gives one interpretation of the tests:

“Kim has called for relief from the international sanctions that hobble his economy, but the United States says North Korea has not taken sufficient disarmament steps to justify easing the pressure.

“’The deadlock in nuclear talks with the United States is pushing North Korea to ramp up the level of provocation,’ said Shin Beomchul, a researcher at Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.

“North Korea has previously used U.S. holidays to send messages to Washington. It launched its first intercontinental ballistic missile on July 4, 2017.”

There is no indication from Washington that these provocations are being taken seriously.

Protesters in Hong Kong gave thanks to the US for the passage of two laws passed to protect human rights in Hong Kong. The Chinese government, however, vigorously protested the US actions:

“The Chinese Foreign Ministry threatened to take ‘firm counter measures’ in response to the move and said the U.S. should consider the consequences of China’s retaliation if it continued to ‘act arbitrarily.’

“Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng also summoned U.S. Ambassador to China Terry Branstad to demand that Washington stop meddling in Beijing’s domestic affairs.

“‘The Chinese government and people firmly oppose such stark hegemonic acts. We have made stern representations and strong protests to the US side,’ Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said during a press conference.

“The foreign ministry spokesman called the move ‘a severe interference in Hong Kong affairs’ and ‘in serious violation of international law and basic norms governing international relations.'”

The Chinese government was likely not pleased to see the pro-US sentiments expressed by the protesters after the passage of the bills. Al Jazeera produced a video that shows the feelings of the protesters.

Posted November 28, 2019 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

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