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24 April 2018   Leave a comment

It is very difficult to assimilate much of what was said by US President Trump in today’s press conferences.  He referred to the nuclear deal with Iran as “insane” and “ridiculous” even as his guest, French President Macron was hailing the agreement as viable and successful.  He further threatened Iran if it restarted a nuclear enrichment program if the US pulled out of the agreement: “If Iran threatens us in any way, they will pay a price like few countries have ever paid.”  The Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, responded by saying that “”If the United States were to withdraw from the nuclear deal, the immediate consequence in all likelihood would be that Iran would reciprocate and withdraw…..There won’t be any deal for Iran to stay in.”  Zarif also warned North Korea from making any agreements with the US if the US withdraws from the nuclear agreement.   Bizarrely, Mr Trump changed his rhetoric about North Korean leader Kim Jong-un who he had earlier referred to as “Rocket Man”.  Today he said: ““Kim Jong Un, he really has been very open and I think very honorable from everything we’re seeing.”  Finally, Mr Trump flicked some dandruff off Macron’s shoulder in front of the press, saying “We have to make him perfect”.

Did You Get Your Invitation to Tonight’s State Dinner at the White House? (Click to Enlarge)

 

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has published a new paper entitled “Automation, skills use and training“.  The paper is based on “the risk of automation…for the 32 OECD countries that have participated in the Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC) so far.”  The findings are unsettling:

“Across the 32 countries, close to one in two jobs are likely to be significantly affected by automation, based on the tasks they involve. But the degree of risk varies. About 14% of jobs in OECD countries participating in PIAAC are highly automatable (i.e., probability of automation of over 70%). Although smaller than the estimates based on occupational titles obtained applying the method of Frey and Osborne (2013) this is equivalent to over 66 million workers in the 32 countries covered by the study. In addition, another 32% of jobs have a risk of between 50 and 70% pointing to the possibility of significant change in the way these jobs are carried out as a result of automation.”

These findings are consistent with earlier studies that came to similar conclusions.  But the paper also found one deeply unsettling result which has not been noticed before: “A striking novel finding is that the risk of automation is the highest among teenage jobs. The relationship between automation and age is U-shaped, but the peak in automatability among youth jobs is far more pronounced than the peak among senior workers. In this sense, automation is much more likely to result in youth unemployment, than in early retirements.”  This conclusion has profound political implications since youth unemployment is highly correlated with political unrest.

 

I am supposed to be commenting on events of momentous significance, but there are some news stories that are simply irresistible in their stupidity.  Scientists have discovered that the seventh planet in the solar system has clouds that are made of hydrogen sulfide.   Or, to use the common tongue, those clouds smell like human flatulence.  In other words, according to Time magazine, “Uranus smells terrible”.  I sincerely apologize.

Uranus

 

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Posted April 24, 2018 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

23 April 2018   Leave a comment

Patrick Iber has written a fascinating essay for the New Republic on the meanings of the term, “neoliberalism”.  He goes through the lineage of the term which he traces to the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and brings us up to contemporary meanings.  The essence of his argument is that that perspective on market capitalism is incompatible with representative democracy.  He writes:

“What neoliberalism misses or ignores is that a world of apparently neutral rules is still a world of power inequalities. When capital has more freedom than people, serious democratic deficits are guaranteed. Voters may prefer a strong welfare state, but they may get austerity instead. In many nations, including the United States, the power of money in politics gives concentrated wealth a sword to hold over democracy’s neck. As the wealthy exert ever more influence over the political process, we may be closer to William Hutt’s plan for weighted voting than we would probably admit. In the neoliberal view, this is how it is supposed to work. It is, in Hayek’s language, the “discipline of freedom.” But it makes the goal of achieving relative equality through democracy very difficult.”

Democracy and capitalism started and grew up together as fundamental pillars of liberal society.  They may have evolved into incompatible institutions or they each may have been implemented incompletely or poorly.  That question is worthy of deep consideration.

 

French President Emmanuel Macron is in Washington today for US President Trump’s first state dinner.  The two leaders apparently have a good relationship (I have been struck by how many media outlets refer to Macron as “The Trump Whisperer”), but Macron came with a message from his European allies and Russia: do not pull out of the Iranian nuclear deal.  President Trump has to declare on 12 May whether he will certify that Iran has upheld the terms of the agreement.  Mr. Trump does not support the agreement and his nominee for US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, who also opposes the agreement, was approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  Mr. Pompeo is likely to be approved by the full Senate very soon.

 

Microplastics were discovered in 60 per cent of wild flathead grey mullet consumed by Chinese people.  The fish bottom-feed and the plastic fragments often sink to the bottom of the ocean where the fragments end up in the digestive systems of the fish.  There have been similar findings in a variety of fish species as people continue to be careless in disposing of plastic which does not easily degrade–Hong Kong resident throw away 5.2 million plastic bottles every day.  I suspect that we would find similar amounts in fish all around the world.

Wild Flathead Grey Mullet

 

The Pacific's Prolific Plastic Problem

 

Posted April 23, 2018 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

22 April 2018   Leave a comment

Scott Ritter was one of the UN inspectors prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.  At the time he did not believe that Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction, the argument used by the George W. Bush Administration to justify the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.  He has written a very detailed analysis of the evidence used by the US, France, and Great Britain used to justify the recent attack on Syria.  Ritter has an extraordinary amount of information that raises serious questions about the way the evidence to support the attack was assembled and interpreted.  The article is a great example of investigative reporting which will likely not receive the attention it deserves.  Another analyst, Paul Pillar, who worked at the US CIA at the time of the Iraq invasion and who argued that the evidence supporting the invasion was “cherry-picked” has written an essay on the “non-accomplishments” of the Syrian strike.  He argues that:

“But a glaring fact in the recent history of the Syrian war is that one year ago the Trump administration fired a salvo of cruise missiles for the same ostensible purpose, and that attack evidently failed to have much, if any, deterrent effect on Assad.  The administration is emphasizing that the new attack, which used 105 missiles, is larger than the earlier one, which used 59.  So 46 more cruise missiles is supposed to make the difference between deterring or not deterring a regime fighting to defeat rebels and regain control of its country’s territory?”

The two essays together raise serious questions about whether the US has anything close to a policy on the conflict in Syria.

 

Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said that one of Iran’s options if the US pulls out of the nuclear agreement–the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action–signed with Russia, China, Great Britain, France, and Germany, would be to restart its nuclear program.  US President Trump has threatened to pull out of the agreement unless the parties can fix what he describes as “flaws” in the agreement: 1) that Iran stop its missile development program; and 2) that Iran stop funding Hamas and Hezbollah which the US considers terrorist organizations.   Zarif made the statement in an interview with CBS News.  A resumption of nuclear enrichment by Iran would likely precipitate a harsh reaction from Israel, an ominous development since the two countries are already at the brink of war.  The oil markets are also nervous if the US re-imposes oil sanctions on Iranian oil if the US pulls out of the agreement.

Posted April 22, 2018 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

21 April 2018   Leave a comment

Fadi al-Batsh, a Palestinian engineering lecturer, was assassinated in Malaysia and there is speculation that the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence organization, was involved in the killing.  Batsh was reportedly a member of Hamas, the Palestinian group in control of the Gaza Strip and which is currently involved in widespread protests against Israeli control in the Gaza.  Israel did not comment on the speculation but The Times of Israel stated that “Israeli reports said the dead man was an expert on attack drone and rocket systems.”  Hamas charged that Israel was “internationalizing” the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

A Poster of Fadi al-Batsh being Hung in the Gaza Strip

 

Every year the World Bank publishes the World Development Report which summarizes the Bank’s views on the global economy particularly as it affects poorer countries. The Guardian has published an article on a working draft for the bank for this year’s Report which proposes “lower minimum wages and greater hiring and firing powers for employers as part of a wide-ranging deregulation of labour markets deemed necessary to prepare countries for the changing nature of work.”  Labor groups have sharply criticized the draft which apparently regards the diminishing power of labor as an inevitable consequence of globalization and automation.  Let’s hope that this draft is significantly changed before it is adopted by the Bank as official policy.

Austerity doesn't work... we need to stop listening to right wing lies.

 

Adam Mount and Ankit Panda have written an excellent article raising many questions about North Korea’s declaration that it would stop nuclear bomb and missile testing.  The article outlines all the issues that were not covered by the declaration and some of them–like the issue of enriching uranium for additional nuclear bombs–are likely to be highly contentious.  If the negotiations with US President Trump are to be effective, these issues have to be very specifically and tightly nailed down.

Posted April 21, 2018 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

20 April 2018   Leave a comment

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has announced that North Korea will suspend all nuclear testing and that it will also shut down the testing site at which its previous atomic bombs had been tested.  The statement comes after his meeting with Chinese President Xi and prior to his proposed meeting with US President Trump.  He is also scheduled to meet with South Korean President Moon next Friday for the first visit by a North Korean leader to South Korea.  It is difficult to interpret this statement.  The simple fact that it was announced was an important symbol of intent and, as a symbol, it should be warmly embraced.  But it was highly unlikely that North Korea would conduct any tests prior to the meeting with President Trump since Trump would likely have refused to meet under such circumstances.  The US Administration will likely interpret the statement as proof of the correctness of its hard-line strategy.  That may ultimately be the case, but it is too soon to make that conclusion.

 

We still do not have hard evidence that chemical weapons were used against Syrian citizens in Douma two weeks ago.  Inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons  (OPCW) were invited into Syria to collect evidence, but so far the inspectors have not been permitted to investigate the site of the alleged attack.   Every day that passes reduces the chances that evidence can be collected since the chemical agents were volatile liquids.

 

The deaths of Iranian militiamen in Syria in an Israeli air attack two weeks ago have raised fears that the Iranians will feel obliged to retaliate.  Fortunately, that retaliation has yet to occur, but Iran has a number of options to pursue: they can retaliate from Iran or through their proxies in Syria or Lebanon.   Dror Michman and Yael Mizrahi-Arnaud have written an essay on those options and how to evaluate their costs and benefits.  The decision to retaliate is highly consequential since Israel will undoubtedly counterattack with a vengeance.

Posted April 20, 2018 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

19 April 2018   Leave a comment

China has conducted a live-fire naval drill, including its aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, around the island of Taiwan.  The exercise was designed to dampen any thought of independence on the part of Taiwan’s government as well as to protest the passing of the Taiwan Travel Act. by the US.  Asia Times  characterized the drills in these terms:  “Chinese papers said the number of vessels assembled was ‘the largest of its kind in 600 years’, following fleet admiral Zheng He’s expeditions to Southeast Asia and further afield during the Ming dynasty era.”  Zheng He’s expeditions reached the east coast of Africa and occurred during 1405 to 1433, long before the European expeditions which were similarly far afield. The exercises were clear messages to Taiwan, the US, and those states who are concerned by Chinese activities in the South China Sea.  The exercise was also a message of concern about the proposed visit of the US National Security Adviser, John Bolton, to Taiwan in June.

The Liaoning Carrier Group

 

The Washington Post has a  fascinating article on the demographics of China and India which discusses the consequences of both countries having roughly 70 million more men than women.  That imbalance is extraordinary and is a result of cultural attitudes toward favoring male children over female children as well as governmental policies governing reproductive freedom.  The imbalance is stark:

“Out of China’s population of 1.4 billion, there are nearly 34 million more males than females — the equivalent of almost the entire population of California, or Poland, who will never find wives and only rarely have sex. China’s official one-child policy, in effect from 1979 to 2015, was a huge factor in creating this imbalance, as millions of couples were determined that their child should be a son.

“India, a country that has a deeply held preference for sons and male heirs, has an excess of 37 million males, according to its most recent census. The number of newborn female babies compared with males has continued to plummet, even as the country grows more developed and prosperous. The imbalance creates a surplus of bachelors and exacerbates human trafficking, both for brides and, possibly, prostitution. Officials attribute this to the advent of sex-selective technology in the last 30 years, which is now banned but still in widespread practice.

“In the two countries, 50 million excess males are under age 20.”

The article is very substantive and has some very dramatic graphs–definitely a fascinating read.

 

Researchers have found that glaciers are melting and receding at an increasingly rapid rate due to global warming.  Glacier melt is a very important source of fresh water for many societies in the world so the health of glaciers is of profound importance.  The Guardian has published a graph (below) which shows the rate of glacier melt which is very worrisome.

Changes to water content of glaciers.

 

A Photograph of the Lagoon Nebula from the Hubble Telescope

Posted April 19, 2018 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

18 April 2018   Leave a comment

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called for snap elections a year and a half before they are required.  He has led the country for 15 years, both as President and Prime Minister, and is riding a wave of popularity that seems to assure his re-election.   If he is elected, he will become President with enhanced powers due to constitutional changes approved in an earlier referendum.  The opposition parties seem to be disorganized at this time and the Parliament has approved the extension of a state of emergency which has increased Erdogan’s powers considerably.  Even though the decision was a surprise, the initial reaction of the markets in Turkey was quite favorable.

 

President Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, made a secret trip to North Korea to make arrangements for negotiations between the US and North Korea.  At this time it is not clear at what stage the negotiations are, but it seems as if the process is moving much faster than usual given the complexities of the issues.  But North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has unquestionably achieved what he and his predecessors have longed desired:  recognition by the Great Powers.  Since his meeting with Chinese President Xi, there is no question that Kim has accomplished a great deal and has given up very little in return.  At his meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Abe today, US President Trump declared that he was prepared to walk away from the negotiations with North Korea if he was dissatisfied with the progress of the negotiations.  That very well may be the case, but it will be Mr. Trump who leaves and Mr. Kim will have the implicit recognition of the US.

 

Recent research indicates that up to a third of the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia has died because of global warming.  The research was conducted after the record-breaking heat wave in 2016 and, according to Nature:

“‘The world’s largest coral reef is unlikely to recover soon. The damage is a harbinger of what a warming future might hold for a wealth of tropical reef ecosystems’, says lead study author Terry Hughes, director of the coral-reef centre at James Cook University in Townsville, Australia.”

The fear is that the damage may be permanent and it is difficult to determine what changes will result from such dramatic changes to an important part of the earth’s ecosystem.

 

Posted April 18, 2018 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

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