Captain Caveman Meets Jetsons? Trump@Davos

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 1/21/2018 12:13:00 PM
Unga bunga...build the wall...it's all the same.
A few days ago--before the US government shutdown became inevitable at least--Donald Trump was announced as an attendee at the annual Davos shindig of global movers and shakers. Obviously, the leader of the world's wealthiest country hobnobbing with the elites of this world makes sense. However, once you factor in the attitudes and behaviors of Trump, things become rather more interesting. What exactly do Trump and Malala Yousafzai have in common...except that he'd want to ban the Muslim woman from America like all the rest?

In most ways, Trump espouses views opposite of the cosmopolitan (the proper Bannonite-Trumpist insult is "globalist") Davos crowd: Trump is parochial instead of global in his outlook on politics and economics as well as bigoted instead of multiracial in terms of cultural disposition. His social attitudes are, of course, also decidedly prehistoric in championing white, male supremacy on a regular basis. If you grew up watching Hanna-Barbera cartoons, you will know exactly what I mean when I say Trump is Captain Caveman to the regular Davos attendees who are--or at least claim to be--more progressive like the futuristic Jetsons.

So this is the setup we have for Trump attending Davos--or at least until the government shutdown put some uncertainty as to his attendance:

Donald Trump was set to be the first U.S. president to attend the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in nearly two decades, but the government shutdown might have scrambled those plans. White House budget chief Mick Mulvaney said Saturday that Trump's plans to travel to Davos next week are up in the air while Congress scrambles to strike a deal to fund the federal government."We're taking Davos, from the president's perspective and the Cabinet's perspective, on a day-by-day basis," Mulvaney told reporters during an impromptu briefing.
With a theme of "Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World" [this is too funny for an event Trump will attend], this year's event would certainly generate considerably more interest from the attendance of the person doing more than his fair share of the fracturing by withdrawing from or threatening to withdraw from any number of trade arrangements; denying the shared menace of climate change; proposing to wall off the United States from foreigners; and generally withdrawing his country from institutions of global governance.

Old school European internationalists are also set to attend to counteract Trumpism. I believe that this part is the interesting one since Trump's absence would given them sole voice, albeit at an event that US audiences usually ignore:
European leaders will be out in force at the World Economic Forum in Davos this week to defend multilateralism before U.S. President Donald Trump arrives to deliver his “America First” message...

The charge will be led by French President Emmanuel Macron, the new star of European politics, who in an audacious move, has invited many of the business leaders who will be in Davos to the Palace of Versailles on Monday to press them to invest in France.

When he speaks in Davos on Wednesday, the former investment banker will offer his own “diagnosis” of globalization and set out a vision for addressing widening inequalities, global warming and the rise of nationalism, his advisers say. “I don’t think Macron will be able to resist being the counter-Trump,” said Robin Niblett, director of the Chatham House think tank in London. Macron will be joined by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, returning to the world stage after months of political limbo at home
In years past, the French have often been those critical of global economic elites. Neoliberalism and all that jazz. With Trump and Macron--a former investment banker, mind you--the United States and France appear to have switched places with the former now led by a self-styled protectionist and the latter by an unabashed internationalist.

Times change. While Trump likes the opportunity presented here to poke a finger in the eye of the so-called globalists as he is wont, it may yet backfire: his prehistoric views may further alienate very influential people around the world just as the United States' international reputation is in the dumpster thanks to him. Showcasing ignorance proudly is Trump in excelsis. Then again, being "America First" is a play to domestic audiences first and foremost, so even if he offends his hosts and their progressive sensibilities, it may not matter to Trump for as long as it plays well to his political supporters espousing similarly Trumpian views.

But will he be able to attend? The dynamics of the government shutdown--whether it approaches resolution, as well as its optics--should the president be seen as fleeing the arena when the action is at its peak--will help determine his presence or absence. As they used to say on TV, stay tuned for the continuing misadventures of Captain Caveman, I mean...Donald Trump.

Of Sh--holes & Trump-Era USAID

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 1/15/2018 02:08:00 PM
No matter how offensive Trump's opinions of developing countries is, it's probably for the best that the developing world understand the viewpoint held by the leader of the United States. Let's face it: racism is the reason why many Americans voted for Trump in the first place. Trump may claim not to have said the term, but few believe him. So, what's the American institution that's supposedly dedicated to help other countries develop do? The United States' reputation worldwide is going to receive a Trump-sourced battering. The impression made is that Americans pretend to help, but actually couldn't care less if you rot in hell. (Just don't send anyone over.)

Given his druthers and, by extension, most of his supporters, Trump would rather defund the US Agency for International Development (USAID). Actually, he's been trying to do exactly that as his more sane advisers warn him against doing so. The likely result of this tug-of-war is that USAID will remain in existence, but by significantly smaller funding. While they're at it, Trump's reluctance at giving money away to these hopeless countries can perhaps better match his internal conflicts. On one hand, his white supremacist leanings (and base) have no intention of giving white people's money to colored people. Even if the amounts which actually go to American aid are very small compared to what most these ignoramuses believe, the very idea goes against their way of thinking. On the other hand, even Trump needs to maintain a veneer of international respectability by trying to "help" less fortunate countries. He even claims to be a "Christian," after all [more laughter].

What's the solution for Trump playing to both racist and internationalist views? The above is the best guess. It's just too bad they're probably not honest enough to adopt such Trumpian wording reflecting how the American leader views the rest of the world and, by extension, the executive agencies he leads like USAID.

IMF: From ‘Washington Consensus’ to ‘Soak the Rich’

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 1/14/2018 02:34:00 PM
Even the IMF has moved on from the 80s-vintage "Washington Consensus." Trump, however, still adores it.
In many ways, Donald Trump is a throwback to the past. Unfortunately, he wishes to bring back a lot of what was regrettable and not desirable about the past: militarism, racism, sexism, etc. Even in the international economic realm, he's a throwback to the 80s (your choice: 1980s, 1880s, 1780s or even before that) in bashing massive trade deficits with Japan, wishing for the "return" of American manufacturing, re-prioritizing the burning of fossil fuels over renewable energy sources and so on.

Instead of acting on his populist campaign promises to reduce inequality, Trump has actually brought about a lot of the things which reinforce it: Giving corporations massive tax cuts which working-class citizens will have to pay for in the future, gutting healthcare benefits provided by the state, selecting an education secretary whose cause is eviscerating public education in favor of private education...the list goes on and on.

Strangely enough for us at the IPE Zone, one of the international financial institutions that has long championed Trumpified, inequality-increasing policies no longer seems to be doing so. The IMF once pushed "Washington Consensus"-style policies that were said to worsen inequality by assuming that wealth will inevitably trickle down after liberalization, deregulation and privatization. These were, of course, massively controversial policies. I have colleagues who've made entire websites devoted to criticizing the IMF over such policies taht are still going strong. Sure, inequality may increase in the short run, the theory went, but in the long run more would benefit. The implication is that inequality itself should not be the focus of policy attention.

Actually, what Trump actually does nowadays--pursue policies widening inequality even further--is contrary to modern IMF policy prescriptions (at least in writing). Has this onetime bastion of economic orthodoxy gone all Marx on us? On fiscal policy, a report which came out late last year explained:
Rising inequality and slow economic growth in many countries have focused attention on policies to support inclusive growth. While some inequality is inevitable in a market-based economic system, excessive inequality can erode social cohesion, lead to political polarization, and ultimately lower economic growth. This Fiscal Monitor discusses how fiscal policies can help achieve redistributive objectives. It focuses on three salient policy debates: tax rates at the top of the income distribution, the introduction of a universal basic income, and the role of public spending on education and health.
Does the IMF really advocate "soak the rich" policies now? In so many words, yes, via the euphemism "progressive taxation" which it now regards as a positive with few caveats by deriding its opposite:
A substantial share of the differences in inequality across economic groups and over time can be attributed to differences in redistributive fiscal policies. In advanced economies, direct taxes and transfers reduce income inequality on average by about one-third, with three-quarters of this reduction achieved through transfers. In developing economies, fiscal redistribution is  much more limited, reflecting lower and less progressive taxation and spending and greater reliance on regressive indirect taxes.
You can read the rest, but the implications are clear: IMF member states should make inequality reduction a core concern in the interests of generating growth regardless of whether it's equitable or not. Taxing the rich more is part of the policy prescription package [gulp!]. By contrast, Trump is "Washington Consensus" in full pomp. The point is that if even a supposedly ideological and insulated institution can change, it remains to be seen if Trump can. After all, he is still, like Steve Spears who I have a much higher opinion of, stuck in the 80s.

Trump's USA & Norway: What's the 'Sh--hole' Country?

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 1/12/2018 03:42:00 PM
Trump should dress in more appropriate garb...but we can do more sensible things.
(UPDATE: A new poll finds Norwegians have the lowest opinion of American leadership of any country surveyed, to no one’s real surprise.) I am utterly appalled, but not surprised, by American President Donald Trump's reported characterization of a number of developing nations as "shit--hole countries." In his rhetoric, Trump can be argued to subscribe to a global racial hierarchy which goes roughly like this:

White American > White European > White Australian/New Zealander > Japanese > Other East Asian > Southeast Asian > South Asian > South American > Caribbean > African

Variations on this kind of racist thinking have a long tradition, basing human capabilities on skin color, geography, or some other questionable criteria. While reducing immigration from non-white nations has been a central plank to Trumpism--AKA "terrorists," "drug dealers," "rapists," and "killers," his claimed desire to re-prioritize European migration is interesting. For a long time in its history, the United States of course gave preference to white European settlers. Aside from the demographics of aging European countries not being ideal for sending migrants, the question comes to mind as to whether today's United States can attract these more "desirable" people. Trump made the comparison himself when speaking about how people from Norway--whose leader recently visited the US--would make a far better source country for migrants to America.

The answer is a clear no. Statistically speaking, there are next to no reasons as to why a Norwegian national would desire to become an American national. Let's look at the numbers:

1. Norway has the highest human development index (HDI) rating in the entire world, the United States rather less so. The United States barely makes the top 10. The HDI is a useful indicator of human progress insofar as it not only considers economic measures--production per capita--but also those for health and education. I can go on and on about "American health" (an oxymoron if there ever was one). The United States has the fattest people among OECD nations and, on a related note, is remarkable in declining among the aforesaid nations in terms of comparative life expectancy. In other words, its momentum is sinking rather than rising in HDI judging by the health component. As for education, do you really have to ask? Of course Norwegian students outdo American ones in science, reading and mathematics.

2. Norway is so wealthy that its government has earmarked over $190,000 to each citizen. By contrast, the United States saddles each of its citizens with over $63,000 in debt (and rising). The United States is said to be a country rich in natural resources as well as human capital. For any number of reasons, however, the country has never had a sovereign wealth fund accumulating state revenues from resource extraction activities. As it so happens, Norway has one of the world's largest--which is exceptional for a country with such a small population. If you allocate holdings of the Government Pension Fund (~USD1 trillion) to its ultimate beneficiaries, each Norwegian citizen (~5.2 million), then each Norwegian has over $190,000 to bank on.

The United States is a rather more sobering story. Its national debt has climbed above $20.5 trillion and is set to rise much more quickly in the near future due to various health and pension obligations which have been largely unplanned for (unlike, say, by Norway). Distributed to each citizen, that's $63,000 so far. So, someone with a Trump-like worldview trading Norwegian for American citizenship instantly loses $253,000. What a deal.

3. The idea that greater inequality is tolerated in the United States because opportunities there are greater has long since been debunked. Economic mobility in Scandinavian countries like Norway is much greater than in the United States, where your financial condition is more significantly correlated to that of your parents. This finding is repeatedly shown in study after study; see Pew for a recent one.

So, here's the question for Trump since he's the one who brought up Norway in the first place: What reasons are there for Norwegians to move to what appears to be the "shit--hole" country here by way of comparison? The answer is very few, and that's actually what's happening. Instead of assuming how great the United States is and how others would die for the opportunity to become part of it, Trump and his ilk should see that it's really pathetic relative to other [OECD] countries in its peer group by most objective standards of human well-being.

Geography Flunkies: UK in Trans-Pacific Partnership?

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 1/07/2018 10:40:00 AM
Can the UK join these Pacific nations in a regional FTA? It's far-fetched.
I am utterly befuddled by British officials giving lip service to the idea that they wish to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) deserted last year by the United States. Now formally known as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership or CPTPP with its 11 remaining parties working towards an agreement, its inclusion of the UK would be an eyebrow-raiser in many respects.

First off, and this is quite obvious, the UK is an outsider in geographic and organizational terms. Since it's neither in Asia or in the Pacific Ocean, it is obviously not qualified to be in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) which all CPTPP members are part of and which gave rise to the idea of a TPP. Or so I believe...
Britain is reportedly exploring joining the Trans Pacific-Partnership (TPP), as part of efforts to map out its trade future after Brexit. Ministers have held informal talks on joining the proposed free trade group that includes 11 countries bordering the Pacific Ocean, according to the Financial Times. And International Trade Secretary Liam Fox has not ruled out the UK joining the TPP.
Its qualifications to join CPTPP aside, the economic rationale may not be there despite Asian countries which form its backbone being faster-growing than mature European economies. Having complained about "Brussels" shaping UK policy without meaningful input, how do you think Asian countries would regard a European Johnny-come-lately making a long list of demands to join an FTA it isn't a natural fit for? Simply put, it would likely receive next to no concessions:
However, the very possibility of the UK entering into these talks has drawn criticism. Labour MP and Open Britain supporter Chuka Umunna says new trade deals "would not come close to making up for lost trade with the EU after a hard Brexit".

And if the UK did join the TPP, it risks holding "little leverage" in talks, according to Aaron Connelly, research fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy. He says nations are highly unlikely to reopen negotiations on sensitive matters, simply to accommodate the UK. Given the urgency to seal a deal, Mr Connelly warns the UK would be a "price taker" on the terms of the pact, particularly in areas like pharmaceuticals, state-owned enterprises, labour and the environment. "If Brexit was about symbolically taking back control in these areas, then joining the TPP would do little to accomplish that," he added.
If the UK was in such a hurry to get out of its region's integration effort, why is it in such a rush to get into another one where it doesn't geographically belong? That is the question. To most impartial observers, it was better off staying in the grouping where it already was instead of thinking the grass is greener on the other side of the world. Sure, it can make a bilateral FTA with CPTPP member countries if and when the latter is formed, but its chances of being a CPTPP "founding" member are rather iffy.

On CFIUS Dissuading Jack Ma's MoneyGram Purchase

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 1/03/2018 04:27:00 PM
Is this ant a PRC Communist apparatchik? The CFIUS apparently thinks so.
There is a long history of Chinese companies being prevented from purchasing American firms on highly questionable "national security" grounds. The source of this discrimination is the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS). What is interesting here, though, is that the PRC national attempting to buy an American firm was no less than Chinese multibillionaire Jack Ma. Unlike the often faceless heads of Chinese state-owned enterprises, Ma is a global icon and the founder of his own immense business empire.

What's more, he actually visited the orange-hued Donald at Trump Tower prior to the latter assuming the presidency in hopes of gaining better business treatment  Stateside. Promising to create a "million jobs," Ma appeared to be successful at sucking up to Trump then. Well, I guess the story continues: Ma tried to buy the US money transfer firm MoneyGram to append to his online financial services concern Ant Financial. However, the US government foreign investment watchdog CFIUS again raised longstanding concerns about a privately-owned Chinese firms' alleged Communist Party ties to deny the purchase of a fairly minor US company (its market capitalization is well under $1B at the time of writing):
Ant Financial’s plan to acquire U.S. money transfer company MoneyGram International Inc (MGI.O) collapsed on Tuesday after a U.S. government panel rejected it over national security concerns, the most high-profile Chinese deal to be torpedoed under the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump[...]

Ma, a Chinese citizen who appears frequently with leaders from the highest echelons of the Communist Party, had promised Trump in a meeting a year ago that he would create 1 million U.S. jobs[...] 

The companies decided to terminate their deal after the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) rejected their proposals to mitigate concerns over the safety of data that can be used to identify U.S. citizens, according to sources familiar with the confidential discussions.
If you are persistent enough, the identity of anyone using a commercially available cash transfer service can likely be revealed. However, the real security-related question is whether Jack Ma would have motives to obtain this kind of information. It is here where CFIUS' reasoning goes off-track in my opinion. First, you have to believe that the Communist Party would be interested in obtaining the identity of MoneyGram users. Given that the amounts transacted are usually small ones among retail clients, it's kind of hard to believe that the PRC would have interested in the transactions of economic migrants and suchlike.

Second, you would also have to believe Ma's Communist Party ties are such that he would willingly give up such information. Again, this is unlikely in that such a breach, if revealed, could torpedo the operations of MoneyGram/Ant Financial altogether. Why pay for the brand if you were to tarnish it in this manner by forking over identities to the reds?

It's truly farfetched that Jack Ma would have acted as a Communist infiltrator. Maybe CFIUS watches too many spy movies, but I believe that the security risk would have been negligible insofar as MoneyGram doesn't handle the transfers of exceptionally large amounts of money for clients whose financial transactions would be of interest to inquiring minds like those of the Communist Party.

Hijab-Wearing Barbie and Social Responsiveness

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,, at 1/02/2018 11:52:00 AM
Is so much ado about a Barbie doll warranted?
There's a hard-hitting op-ed in al Jazeera criticizing a move one of the United States' largest toymakers has made to produce a hijab-wearing Barbie. On the face of it, this action is a long-overdue one in recognition that the world's population is nearly a quarter Islamic. So yes, any move to make Barbie more "representative" of the countries Mattel sells this toy should include one who is appropriately dressed:
Earlier this month, it launched its first Barbie in hijab. Designed after Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, this doll is part of its "Sheroes" series. Mattel portrays this doll as serving as an "inspiration for countless little girls who never saw themselves represented in sports and culture". Many Muslims and non-Muslims alike welcomed the doll as a sign of inclusion and diversity. In the words of Miley Cyrus, "Yay Barbie! One step closer to Equality! We HAVE to normalize diversity!"

Given the current context of large-scale demonisation of Muslims through institutional policies such as the "Muslim ban" and the dismantling of DACA, a Barbie in hijab (a headscarf worn by many Muslim women who feel it is part of their religion) appears to be a welcome respite. According to Pew Research Center, hate crimes against Muslims in the US have surpassed the 2001 level.
The author, Shenila-Khoja-Moolji, expresses several reservations about this move one would generally associate with an anti-capitalist perspective. First and foremost, it is an act of commercial exploitation of culture. Second, the design of this item has not been undertaken by groups of Muslim women presumably more aware of the intertwined nuances of gender and culture. (Rather, it was modeled after an idealized [read: more "active"] woman.) Third, Mattel does not really do anything about denigration of Islam in an age of xenophobia:
The assimilation of articles representing Muslim identity or religious life by for-profit corporations is, then, just a marketing/re-branding strategy, not a move informed by social justice concerns. It does little to disrupt racial hierarchies that undergird discrimination of Muslims in the first place. Significantly, it also stabilises a particular notion of Muslim womanhood. When influential organizations select the hijab as representative of Muslim women, those who do not don the hijab find themselves on the defensive about their authenticity as Muslims. They come out all guns blazing at the hijab, delegitimising women who actually choose to wear it for multiple reasons. Such moves then create fissures within Muslim women as well.

Rather than taking on the mantle of providing inspiration to Muslim girls, perhaps organisations such as Mattel should engage more Muslim women in their creative and production processes. Perhaps such engagements will enable them to not only understand the diversity of Muslim women globally, but also to provide much-needed opportunities to Muslim women to thrive economically and socially.
On the first point, I actually agree that it's a product borne of marketing spin. However, I do not see anything necessarily "wrong" with such a commercial move. If legitimization and mainstreaming are partly achieved by commercialization, then it actually helps the cause.  Unless you're a dyed-in-wool anti-capitalist, there is nothing essentially sinister here. On the second point, yes, Mattel could have improved its products' claims to authenticity if it had consulted more widely with Muslim women about the doll's presentation (and probably improved its commercial prospects).

On the third point, however, I disagree. Mattel is a for-profit enterprise, not a social enterprise. As such, "changing the world" is not its purpose by resolving the prejudices wrought by the current wave of Islamophobia. It suffices to recognize a well-intentioned move to counter such prejudicial sentiments, which Mattel is actually doing here. So, overall, it's a laudable action, though it could have been improved by more inclusiveness during the design process.

Given Islam's ethnic diversity as a globe-spanning religion, it should also be noted that blue-eyed, blonde-haired women are also followers of the faith.