Amazon Fires, Social Media’s Good and Asia’s Debt

Listening to the news of the G7 meetings as we drove to the gym earlier this week we were reminded of just how complicated communication is and how it can lead to international misunderstandings, botched negotiations and even wars. As we drove, an older man, cigarette dangling from his lip, turned left out of the cross street cutting us off. Fine, fine. We put on our brakes and slowed down. He drove very slowly in front of us and the woman behind us honked her horn angrily. The man gestured furiously at us, thinking we were the horn honker. We shortsightedly made a motion to indicate we did not honk our horn, it was the person behind us. But it is difficult to communicate this with hand gestures and the man in front grew more angry and flipped us off with great fury and righteousness. This caused us to laugh, which made the man even more angry and he rolled his window down yelling and screaming at us, which made us want to laugh even more but we decided somber discretion was the better part of humorous valor. We looked in our rear view mirror and saw the woman behind us seething even more deeply as we all drove ever so slowly. The man in front finally turned left again and we carried on our merry way. While you determine which one of us was Trump, which one Macron and which one Merkel, Putin or Rouhani, we lift our arms in hope at the worrisome and confusing Amazon fires, give a tentative thumbs up to social media and thumb our nose at Asian debt. It’s this week‘s International Need to Know, looking for love and international news and data in all the right places.

Without further ado, here’s what you need to know.

Ethiopian Ents Strike Back Against the Amazon

The fires in the Amazon are distressing not only for environmental reasons but also because we’ve seen so much contradictory data about the extent of the fires and just how big a risk they are to the Amazon. So rather than weigh in with more data, we will do three things: 1) point you to an expert on the Amazon who admits even experts “don’t know how much of the Amazon forest is burning” but does describe what is verifiable and known and offers reasonable prescriptions of what needs to be done to protect the Amazon; 2) point to a report in Nature that found between 1982 and 2016, global tree canopy cover increased by 2.24 million square kilometers; and 3) remind you that a month ago Ethiopia planted 350 million(!) trees and aims to plant 4 billion over the next year to substantially restore forested land. Currently only 4 percent of Ethiopia is forested compared to 30 percent 100 years ago.  We point all of this out not to make you less concerned about the Amazon but instead to give hope and a path forward. You’re welcome.

Maybe Social Media Is Not So Bad?

When we first joined Facebook lo those many years ago, we very much enjoyed connecting with friends, seeing their cat videos, learning about their vacations and how their children are perfect in every way. We enjoyed getting the lowdown on Seattle Mariners trades on Twitter a few years later. Needless to say, social media has gone downhill and indeed these platforms are often thought of scathingly nowadays. And yet, here’s a new report from Pew Global showing that there are still salutary effects of social media use. “A Pew Research Center survey of adults in 11 nations across four global regions finds that, in many key respects, smartphone users – and especially those who use social media – are more regularly exposed to people who have different backgrounds and more connected with friends they don’t see in person.” One example the article gives is Mexican smartphone users more often interact with people from different political parties than people without smartphones and social media usage. Of course, maybe the way these Mexican smartphone users interact with people in different parties is to message them an angry emoji. Nonetheless, at least smartphone social media users are getting outside their bubbles.

McKinsey has a new report worrying about “Signs of Stress in the Asian Financial System.” The report notes increased corporate debt in the region, as the chart below illustrates with the mega-countries of China and India leading the way. McKinsey’s research finds that corporations in Asia are using a large share of their earnings to repay debt (Isn’t that good and portends a better future even if it makes for a problematic present?). The report also states that “households in Australia and South Korea have accumulated unsustainably high levels of debt.” In which industry sectors is the debt most concentrated? McKinsey’s research shows “that energy, industrial, and utility companies accounted for a significant share of stressed corporations in Australia, Mainland China, Hong Kong SAR, and India.” With a slowing global economy, this debt situation presumably worsens. Just how big a risk this all is we do not know but are sure we’ll find out whether we want to or not.

China’s Messy Apartment, Eyes on Prize, and Top Scrabble Country

We’re a sucker for an immigrant story. We can’t think of a movie about immigrants we don’t love. We’re probably the only person who thought The Namesake was the best movie of 2006. We’re also a Bruce Springsteen fan. So we feel like director Gurinder Chadha made the new movie Blinded By the Light specifically for us. And given its low box office receipts that apparently is the case. There are not enough Springsteen fans and unfortunately not enough immigrant fans to financially sustain such a movie. But never confuse popularity with quality. Blinded By the Light, although corny in spots, wonderfully tells the classic immigrant tale of trying to fit in while being discriminated against, the beauty of discovering music and the importance of dreaming. Perhaps paradoxically for a film that wears its heart on its sleeves, many of the main characters are more complicated than one would expect, neither merely good or bad but deeply human. So as we thank Chadha for making a movie for us, we direct you to China’s messy apartment, produce a list of the most spied upon cities, and act surprised on which country is number one in Scrabble. It is this week’s International Need to Know, refusing to meet with Indonesian leaders until they agree to sell us Bali.

BLINDED BY THE LIGHT – Official International Trailer
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Without further ado, here’s what you need to know.

China’s Messy Apartment

Many years ago when we first moved into our own place sans roommates for the first time, we discovered something. It wasn’t just our roommates who forgot to take out the garbage, wipe down the kitchen counters or clean up after themselves. It was us. We were the guilty party!—at least in part. We thought of this listening to people blame China’s slowing economy on the trade war. As we have noted before, China is not returning to high single digit/double digit GDP growth, and this is mainly due to demographic trends. China’s working age population has already peaked and will fall by 100 million people over the next 20 years. That’s a large reason for China’s slowing GDP the last five years. But even in the last year, it is unlikely the trade war is causing the current slow down. U.S. trade has not fallen overall, it’s just shifted some out of China. On the other hand, China’s overall trade has fallen. In looking at China’s economic condition, the one current driver increasing is investment in the real estate sector. As you see in the graph below, investments in infrastructure and equipment are way down. China’s economy is slowing but it’s not due to the trade war. And also remember, absent catastrophe, even a slower growing China is still hugely important. That’s the other mistake people make. Yes, China won’t be growing as fast but they will still be hugely important in the world.

Eyes On Our Prize

You ever get the feeling someone is watching you? Well, nowadays, they probably are thanks to surveillance technology. Comparitech recently set out to determine which are the most surveilled cities in the world. They did this by “collating a number of data resources and reports, including government reports and police websites, to get some idea of the number of CCTV cameras in use in 120 major cities across the globe.” Comparitech focused “primarily on public CCTV—cameras used by government entities such as law enforcement.” So what did they find? Not surprisingly, eight out of the 10 most surveilled cities in the world are in China with Chongqing, Shenzhen and Shanghai ranked first, second and third. You’ll guess one of the only two non-Chinese cities in the top ten: London. But, I bet you had no idea Atlanta is the 10th-most surveilled city in the world. Interestingly for those that somehow think surveillance and giving up our privacy and rights makes us safer, Comparitech found “little correlation between the number of public CCTV cameras and crime or safety.

The World’s Top Scrabble Country

We’ve probably played Scrabble only twice in our lives. So when we picture Scrabble players in our mind we see older women librarians’ friendly faces furrowed in concentration. Like most pre-conceived notions, ours is utterly wrong as we learned this week when reading that Nigeria is the Scrabble capital of the world. “The country is top-ranked in the world.” They are Scrabble mad in Nigeria and not just the librarians as this description of a recent tournament in Lagos testifies, “At one table sat Wellington Jighere, the 2015 World English Language Scrabble Players Association Champion, known for his quiet demeanor, fedoras, and Cheshire cat–like grin. At another, Olawale Fashina, nicknamed the Champion of Ten Continents, who won the African title, the Nigerian title, and the British title in the span of seven years — a rarity in the game — prepared to play. Bukunmi Afolayan, a Scrabble coach for Ogun state and one of the best female players in the league, sat nearby. Then there was Enoch Nwali, a university student studying human kinetics and health education, who at 22 is the youngest Nigerian in the masters category.” Our stereotypes of Scrabble players is matched by most people’s errant stereotypes of Africa in general, where a lot more is happening than people realize.

Chimes of Freedom, Unarmed Road of Flight, and Inside the Doorway

It’s easy to despair nowadays given the state of the world. We nearly succumbed to it ourselves at a baseball game over the weekend and not just because our team lost yet again…and again…and again. It was also because we felt an era ending with the celebrations of Edgar Martinez over and because we were bombarded by a seemingly endless stream of bad news on our phone between innings. Protesters violently attacked for speaking up for their inalienable rights in Hong Kong. The President of the disunited states employing an accent to mock Japanese and Korean allies. Our cruel and unusual prison system allowing yet another inmate to commit suicide. A nuclear weapons accident in Russia. And a rogues gallery of other flotsam catastrophes and jetsam disasters floating all over our earth. So yes, despair is easy, but then as we walked out of the baseball stadium we saw…well, you can see it for yourself below. And we dare you to frown and fret while doing so. So as you smile, we stand up for Hong Kongers, admire the world’s support for refugees and examine Ethiopia’s challenges. It’s this week’s International Need to Know, together since 2016.

Without further ado, here’s what you need to know.

Chimes of Freedom

Generally we try not to write about what is currently in the headlines but rather on what should be or sometime in the future will come to be. But the protesters of Hong Kong deserve our attention. It has become almost fashionable in recent years to disparage democracy and freedom, almost always by those who have it and are not at risk of losing it. Hong Kongers know better. They fight not just for their own liberty but are indeed on the front lines of the battle against authoritarianism. As we wrote last week, China is many things, like any complicated entity: some good, some indifferent, but make no mistake, some bad. China continues to reeducate torture millions of Uighurs The government sows seeds of censorship and propaganda across China’s fire-walled Internet that bloom like an invasive species. And, in Hong Kong, China now invokes the term “terrorism” while bloodying and blinding protesters who seek what billions have sought through the ages—freedom and liberty. America has never lived up to its ideals. But the idea it wrought painfully onto this planet is one still worth fighting for. Hong Kongers will not live up to their ideals either should, against all odds, they succeed in their protests. But they damn well deserve the right to fail.

Work in the Future, How to Save the Doomed World, and Space Spending

The greatest movie going experience of our life was opening night of Pulp Fiction in 1994 at the old Neptune Theater when the packed Tarantino-loving house cheered the opening credits and two of our friends walked out of the theater in disgust during The Gimp scene. Later a friend’s very liberal Mom (so far to the left she’s on the right) told us it should be illegal for Tarantino to make such movies. She was dead serious. We thought of all this when attending opening night of Tarantino’s latest, Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood—his elegy to 1969 Los Angeles. Like every Tarantino movie, Hollywood has three things: a) a great soundtrack; b) allusions and homages to movies, television and pop culture; and c) people attacking the movie based on their pre-conceived notions rather than the film itself (Tipper Gore lives!). Hollywood has many incredible scenes, including one much talked about of Margot Robbie, who plays Sharon Tate, watching the real Sharon Tate in a movie. But, our favorite scene features Brad Pitt’s character driving through the L.A. night from his boss’s mansion to his humble RV trailer. With each cut, a different song or commercial plays from the radio, showing how long it takes to get from point A to point B in L.A., and how much fun it is to listen to music while doing so, perhaps especially in that era of limited media distractions. For many it was probably a meaningless throwaway scene, but for us, it summed up everything that is great about Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood and leads us to drive our convertible through the world’s transformation to a service economy, give a foot massage to people worried about climate change and munch on the Big Kahuna Burger of space exploration. It’s this week’s International Need to Know, a glowing suitcase of international data and information.

Hong Kong protesters sing Les Miserables’ ‘Do you hear the people sing?’

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Unarmed Road of Flight

As of late, the chimes of freedom have not flashed for Bob Dylan’s refugees on the unarmed road of flight either in the United States or around the world. Which is strange because among broader populations—if not specific politicians—refugees generally elicit much sympathy and support. In a Pew Global survey,71 percent of respondents worldwide support accepting refugees into their country. Refugees are defined by Pew in the survey as people “fleeing violence and war.” Spain, the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden and Japan are most supportive with more than 80 percent of their populations in favor of taking in more refugees. Only a few countries had minority support for taking in refugees: Israel, Russia, Hungary, Poland and South Africa. Japan, who most people still think of as an insular country, is one of the most supportive of taking in refugees. And even 61 percent of Japanese are in favor of more immigration generally. Japan is what people used to think America was, although even America is far more pro-immigration and supportive of refugees than its current leader would have you believe.

Inside the Doorway, Thunder Crashing

Last week we quantified the amazing economic progress of the world’s most underrated country, Ethiopia. However, like the weather of Seattle, we live in a world of grays—there are no utopias, no pure hells on this orbiting globe. In other words, Ethiopia has great challenges too, as evidenced by a coup attempt in June. The attempt took place in the Amhara region, one of nine ethnic divisions of Ethiopia, and yes, it is these divisions that are a challenge.  Ethiopia has long been riven by ethnic strife (the fear of the other may have saved humans in pre-historic times but may destroy us here at the end of history). Bloomberg reports that “Almost three million Ethiopians were driven from their homes by conflict last year.” Reform minded though he may be, such tensions and problems have led the prime minister to cut off the Internet for long periods of time. Ethnic tensions are prominent in a fascinating Bloomberg article about the apparent suicide of the chief engineer of the “Renaissance Dam” which aims to bring a large swathe of power to the still more than 50 percent of Ethiopians without access to electricity. Ethiopia has increased its debt load significantly over the last ten years, but most of that debt has been productive by building up much needed infrastructure. But more infrastructure is needed as is more cohesiveness. If Ethiopia can navigate these challenges, it may become the first African Lion, a worthy successor to the Asian tigers. But it could also be swallowed up by these challenges.

Collapse of European Coal, Love in Time of CRISPR China, Ethiopia Update

President at May rally: How do you stop these people? You can’t.”

Someone in the crowd: “Shoot them.”

The audience of thousands cheered.

President smiles: “Only in the Panhandle can you get away with that statement.”

President in January, 2018: “Why are we having all these people from sh**hole countries come here?

President in June 2017 after being told Haiti had sent 15,000 people to the US: “They all have AIDs.”

President in June 2017 after being told forty thousand had come from Nigeria. “Once they have seen the United States they would never go back to their huts in Africa.”

Candidate in July 2015 regarding Jeb Bush: “He has to like the Mexican illegals because of his wife” (Bush’s wife is of Mexican heritage)

August 3, 2019: 22 people are killed in a mass shooting in El Paso, Texas by a shooter with an anti-immigrant manifesto

Without further ado, here’s what you need to know (internationally).

The Collapse of European Coal

Last week, we noted that scientists are worried we are running out of time to stop the worst consequences of climate change. But this week we present bluer skies, specifically the apparent collapse of coal usage in Europe. According to Sandbag.org, a European climate change thinktank with a vaguely dirty sounding name, “Coal generation in the EU collapsed by 19% in the first half of this year, with falls in almost every coal-burning country.” The report notes that half of this coal usage was replaced by solar and wind power and the rest by natural gas. The consequences for climate change emissions are large, “If this continues for the rest of the year it will reduce CO2 emissions by 65 million tonnes compared to last year, and reduce EU’s GHG by 1.5%. Coal generation already had fallen 30% from 2012 to 2018.” The key for combatting climate change, as noted last week, is to make transformations, such as large coal reductions in Europe, possible in China and India. This is where world policy must concentrate, not silly Swedes sailing instead of flying. Silly, silly Swedes.

Love in the Time of Chinese CRISPR

A large country, like a single human being, is complicated and can be described by no single adjective. Jane Doe is not merely bad or good, silly or serious, smart or dumb. She is all of these things at once and at different times. China is big. It is an authoritarian government that is threatening Hong Kong. It has a closed economic system stealing technology. But as we have noted before, it is a place of innovation and flourishing technology. Science Magazine breaks down China’s progress in CRISPR, the genetic swiss army knife, the duct tape of DNA. “Although the United States has had the most CRISPR publications—and continues to have the most cited papers—China is now a close second and is pouring money into CRISPR’s uses.” The article notes that the China CRISPR community is still feeling the repercussions of Chinese scientist He Jiankui’s altering of two human embryos last year, but at the same time is full speed ahead in pushing the technology forward. “…China is aggressively exploring genome editing in medicine, having launched far more clinical trials using CRISPR, mainly for cancer, than any country.” China continues to transform the world in ways helpful and troubling, sometimes all at once.

Underrated Country Update

Ethiopia’s fast growing economy and reform minded politicians garnered the country the coveted INTN Most Underrated status. Recently, an Ethiopian economist at the IMF, Abebe Aemro Selassi, gave a presentation on Ethiopia’s economic progress and continued challenges. Selassi compares Ethiopia’s economic growth with other Sub-Saharan countries as you see in the chart below. Ethiopia towers over its comparators, even other fast-growing Sub-Saharan countries (note there are a number of African countries doing well, flying under the radar). Economic growth and smart government investments have also led to big increases in life expectancy and infant mortality decreases. Ethiopia, however, faces continued challenges as a recent coup attempt last month illustrates. Next week we’ll delve into those challenges.

ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD – This Town

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Without further ado, here’s what you need to know.

Work in the Future

During our brief vacation, we ate In Utica, New York at the Tailor and the Cook, one of the best meals you’ll find in these united 50, so if you ever find yourself in Utica (and why wouldn’t you?), go there. Also prominent in Utica are the closed up factories that have sat dormant for decades. The World Bank recently published a graph showing that the highest percentage of jobs in the world are in the service sector, more than double manufacturing and far more than agriculture too. This is much different than in 1999 when there were far more agricultural jobs. The graphs (see below) also show the percentages for Low Income, Lower Middle Income, Upper Middle Income and High Income countries. Note that as countries become richer there is a big drop in agricultural jobs and a steady increase in service jobs. Manufacturing jobs also increase with wealth–until a country reaches High Income status. Then the percentage of manufacturing jobs decrease. That’s when countries complete the transition to service oriented economies. In fact, as we’ve noted in the past, all upper income countries have seen the same slope of decrease in manufacturing jobs whether it’s Germany, the U.S., France, and now even China. Policy makers will ignore all this, of course, in trying to save manufacturing jobs.

The World is Doomed, How to Save It*

The International Need to Know spouse alerted us to a headline that instead of the world only having 12 years to stave off the worst effects of climate change (last month’s alarming headline), we now only have 18 months (this month’s even more alarming headline). Our initial reaction is the world won’t come to its senses in 18 months so as long as we’re doomed let’s drain the bank account and have a good time. Of course, when we clicked on the headline, the story was a bit more complicated. So in the interest of not giving up hope, let’s reiterate again that though the United States needs to get its act together in confronting climate change, the real challenge going forward is other countries as the chart below illustrates. Sure it may be unfair that in the past the United States and Europe accounted for a large portion of CO2 emissions (the Soviet Union too) but going forward it’s China and India that are the largest culprits. Finding policies that help those and other fast developing countries to reduce emissions is the most important factor to combating climate change.

*Editor’s Note: So you’re saying we’re not doomed? INTN Response: We are always and everywhere doomed–eventually

To Boldly Go

During our travels a few weeks ago, the 50th anniversary of humans landing on the moon took place. And last week, India launched a rocket into space as they ramp up their space exploration. So which countries spend the most on space (outer we mean, not real estate, which would clearly be China)? As you see below, the U.S. is still the leader by a large margin with China and Russia a distant second and third. As a share of GDP, however, Russia is first, and India is sixth. And by this measure Israel pops into the top ten. Of course, there are many private space efforts as well. One of the great disappointments of our lifetime is the lack of progress in space exploration. Perhaps with the many new countries and companies joining in the adventure, that will change.

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