Chinese Prisoners Dilemma, Peak Oil by 2035, & Who is Learning

Twenty-years ago this week in a room on the 37th floor of the Sheraton Hotel during the WTO meetings in Seattle, we looked down at Donald Trump-supporters running rampant on the streets of Seattle as the governor of Washington state announced a state of emergency on television. Earlier that morning we braved the line of protesters with our seven-months pregnant colleague. The protesters, who were violent from the beginning, despite how they were depicted in the media at the time and in books and movies since, shoved our pregnant colleague who was trying to cross the street to get to a meeting. I was one of the staff helping to organize the WTO meetings in Seattle. At one point during the week I caused a U.S. State Department official to cry. Ordinarily I would feel bad about causing someone to weep openly but if you knew what the State Department official had done you might weep yourself. Donald Trump-supporters controlled the streets that day and have set the agenda for trade policy ever since. It took the protesters 17 years to gain complete control of the levers of power when they elected Donald Trump and made their dreams and wishes official U.S. trade policy. Pulling out of trade agreements, increasing tariffs on foe and ally alike, trashing the WTO and tearing down the post-World War II liberal economic order have all been accomplished. Donald Trump won in November 1999 and thus far is winning today. We take to the streets worrying that organ harvesting rumors in China are true, marveling that peak oil usage may be occurring and puzzling over education outcomes around the world. It’s this week’s International Need to Know, taking Thanksgiving off next week to eat our award-winning Louisiana cornbread stuffing, but back the week after.

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

The Chinese Prisoner’s Dilemma 

Generally we like our fiction grounded in reality and become annoyed when a TV show or movie makes it difficult to suspend disbelief. We’re like that with the real world too which is why we’ve refrained from writing about the allegations that China is harvesting organs from political prisoners—it seemed too crazy to believe. But a new study analyzing the data of China’s organ transplants gives us pause. By way of background, after international complaints that China was using prisoners to harvest organs for transplant surgery, China claimed to be using a new system in 2010 to prevent such abuse (they always denied killing prisoners, political or not, just to take their organs, though there have been accusations of that as well). Official Chinese statistics claim “volunteer deceased donors went from 34 to 6316 annually,” apparently proving that China was no longer using prisoners’ organs. However, three authors, including Matthew Robertson, published a paper in BMC Medical Ethics Journal that claims this “data is manipulated, and done in the crudest of ways: …it appears that all of this data was manufactured using the mathematics one learns in high school: a quadratic equation.” Yes they used math we learned in 8th grade to gin up data making it look like they were no longer harvesting organs from prisoners. Matthew Robertson concludes, “The goal of these elaborate efforts appears to have been to create a misleading impression to the international transplantation community about the successes of China’s voluntary organ donation reform and to neutralize the criticism of activists who allege that crimes against humanity have been committed in the acquisition of organs for transplant.” This is something to keep an eye on, eyes that have not been harvested from prisoners.

Peak Oil by 2035?

It’s been a while since we’ve written about peak oil—not the idea we are running out of it but instead that we are close to maxing out our use of it. Two years ago it seemed that the U.S. was near peak oil usage with American oil consumption essentially flat for three years, but alas the last two years have seen U.S. oil usage increase. Even when the U.S. was providing hope, world oil usage continued to increase each year. But via Kevin Drum we read that one of the world’s main oil producers, Saudi Arabia’s Saudi Aramco, believes peak oil demand will occur in 2035. That’s still 13 years from now which is too long a time period to address climate change concerns, but still remarkably soon. It may be statistical noise but the rate of world oil usage increase has been deceasing since 2014. In two weeks we’ll discuss how clean energy already appears to be warding off the worst estimates of climate change—the world is not going as badly as you think, unless you’re a San Antonio Spurs fan like us.

Who is Learning?

We work with colleges often nowadays so have a bias to the importance of education. So does the World Bank, which last year launched a Human Capital Project to measure education “not by years in school or degrees earned, but by actual learning outcomes” based on harmonizing test scores from countries all over the world. They recently released the latest data which analyzing is a learning experience in itself. The country with the highest score, that is the country with the students with the highest levels of learning outcomes, is Singapore, followed by Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Finland. Our American readers will note they don’t see the United States in the top 20 list below—that’s because it is ranked 22nd. That’s not the top percentile but it is higher than the UK, Spain, Italy, France and China. Vietnam, also not in the top twenty, still scores high for a developing country at 27th. Peruse the full list and increase your learning outcomes.

Top 20 from World Bank’s Human Capital Index

Korean Blood Thicker Than Japanese Water, The Almighty SUV, & Young Europeans Top Priority

We don’t want to belabor the Dolly Parton America podcast we discussed two weeks ago but in episode two at the very end, music producer David Foster discusses the making of The Bodyguard and how Dolly’s song, I Will Always Love You was chosen for the movie. Co-star Kevin Costner suggested to Foster the song be performed in a climactic moment by Whitney Houston. Foster had never heard of the song and sent an assistant down to the store to buy a copy of the record. But the assistant could only find Linda Ronstadt’s cover, who in her version did not sing the third verse. On the day they were filming the scene, Foster was talking to Dolly who said Whitney would kill the third verse. Foster was thinking to himself, “what third verse?” When he heard it, even though they were in the middle of filming the scene, he got Whitney to sing the full song and a legendary performance was born. What is interesting, however, is to remember that only a few years ago it was difficult to access music and data and information, even for a big shot music producer. It’s also, of course, an excuse to again present to you the greatest clutch performance in music history when less than 24 hours after Whitney Houston died, Jennifer Hudson sang I Will Always Love in tribute to Whitney Houston. Again, music connects everything from a Smoky Mountain woman to a black performer forced to sing “white people’s songs” to a black woman who idolized the black woman singing those songs. And while marveling at all three women, we present Korea’s thick blood, the unstoppable SUV and what young Europeans want. It’s this week’s International Need to Know, providing unimpeachable international information and data.

Jennifer Hudson performs tribute to Whitney Houston (2012) | ABC News

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

Korean Blood Thicker Than Japanese Water

We humans are troublesomely tribal. We were reminded of this yet again by a new poll showing that more South Koreas would support North Korea than Japan in a war between the two. The Japan Times reports that South Koreans were asked who they would support “Under a rather extreme hypothetical situation in which war may break out between North Korea and Japan.” As it turns out, 45.5 percent of South Koreans would choose to help North Korea, and only 15.1 percent would choose Japan. Meanwhile 39.4 percent responded that they ‘have no idea.’” Yes, Korean blood trumps Japanese democracy in favor of North Korean totalitarianism. It is true that Japan and South Korea relations are more tense recently because of trade disputes and other issues. But that does not seem to be what’s driving the results seen in this survey. Similar polls have been conducted since 2007 with all showing comparable percentages. In 2016, Xi Jinping famously said about Taiwan that “blood is thicker than water.” Perhaps everyone should drink some good Japanese whiskey or Korean soju and contemplate their tribalism for a moment.

Love the SUV, Learn to Drive the SUV

In the parking garage the other day, we yet again watched a guy unsuccessfully try to park an enormous SUV, blocking the rest of us for quite some time. If you can’t drive a vehicle that large, then don’t buy the SUV in the first place. But we better get used to it because SUV sales have skyrocketed this decade and not just in the United States. A transportation planning professor at UCLA reports that there has been a 410 percent increase in the use of SUVs around the world since 2010. The share of car sales that are SUVs has increased tremendously in Europe, China and India, not just in the United States. The good professor wants to eliminate SUVs because of their impact on climate change with the added benefit that I would be spared watching bad parkers. But, if the SUVs became electric, and the electricity was generated cleanly, that would do the trick for climate change…but alas I would still get annoyed watching people park…in Seattle, Bonn, Shanghai or Mumbai.

Young Europeans Top Priority

The young Swede, Greta Thunberg, has received great acclaim and publicity for her climate change efforts. While we disagree with her on her degrowth advocacy–urging the contraction of economies (degrowth is a view only someone in the developed world would hold—it would condemn hundreds of millions of people in the developing world to early deaths and lifelong poverty), she justly should be applauded for getting more people to pay attention to solving climate change. A Eurobarometer survey asked Europeans what the EU’s top priority should be. For only one country was fighting global warming number one: Sweden, Greta Thunberg’s home country. Interestingly, as Ian Bremmer’s Gzero website points out (you should make Gzero a part of your regular reading habit), for young Europeans, a majority of EU countries list fighting global warming as their top priority.

Sleeping with the Enemy, Doing Business in Pakistan, and Ethiopian Challenges

At a lunch event earlier this week, the person across the table from us kept calling us “Peter,” a fine name from the Bible but not ours. He was one of those people who constantly uses your name in a sentence. “Peter, can you pass the bread…that would be a great idea to do, Peter…If I were you, Peter, I would…” We eventually corrected him, even pointing to our nametag. Even though we thought he heard us this time, he kept calling us Peter for the rest of the lunch. A colleague of ours recently excitedly told us they were getting a puppy and were naming it Nala after the female lion in The Lion King. We told her how cute the puppy looked in the photos and what a great name Nala was. A week later she came into our office and said, “Hey Sam (notice she didn’t call us “Peter”) and sheepishly reported her puppy wouldn’t be called Nala anymore. We asked why and she explained her boyfriend wanted to call it Cardi, after the rapper Cardi B. To resolve the dispute, they put each name in a hat and out came Cardi. I asked who drew the name and she said her boyfriend. I asked how she knew her boyfriend didn’t cheat, but she assured me her boyfriend was honest. So as we wonder whether the guy seated across the table from us at lunch was our colleague’s boyfriend, we name names in China, present Pakistan(!) as a possible future business opportunity and worry about our favorite underrated country, Ethiopia. It’s this week’s International Need to Know, the puppies of international data, the kittens of global information.

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

Sleeping With the Enemy

This week America held another one of its regularly scheduled elections in which tens of millions of people voted across the country. Two weeks ago, rather than an election, the 19th Communist Party of China Central Committee concluded its fourth plenary session. Leading up to and following the three day session, Beijing analysts examined every word and movement to determine what, if anything of substance, happened at the meeting. The Communique of the Plenum says China’s governance system has many strengths, including: “Upholding equality between all ethnic groups, creating a strong sense of community for the Chinese nation to work jointly for common prosperity and development.” Meanwhile, Radio Free Asia reported that, “Male Han Chinese ‘relatives’ assigned to monitor the homes of Uyghur families in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) regularly sleep in the same beds as the wives of men detained in the region’s internment camps…” So we assume China is arguing to create “a strong sense of community,” Chinese strangers must share beds with Uyghur women. We also assume the pillow talk consists of Xi Jinping Thought*. Talk about challenging house guests. You now feel much better about your relatives staying with you over Thanksgiving. And don’t forget the Globe and Mail reports that China is staging prayers and street scenes for delegations visiting Xinjiang, where over a million Uyhurs are held in “re-education camps.” China’s government is paying Uyghurs to pray, when ordinarily they can’t, to show visiting outsiders there is no repression. Our forthcoming book will try to understand China’s role in the world, America’s democracy and more. In the meantime, be concerned about the China version of Airbnb in Xinjiang.

*For those who haven’t downloaded the app, this is the political theory of Xi that all party members must study daily

Doing Business in Pakistan

When thinking of markets in which you want to expand your business, you probably don’t think of Pakistan. And with good reason since it is full of challenges economically, socially and politically. But, in recent years there has been some improvement. Last week, the World Bank’s 2020 Doing Business index, which attempts to rank how easy it is to conduct business in a country, showed Pakistan jumping 25 spots from the previous year. Granted Pakistan was starting from a very low position—190 (there’s only 195 countries in the world), but still Pakistan had one of the best improvement rates on the list. According to the World Bank, Pakistan “improved in six areas measured which are: starting a business, dealing with construction permits, getting electricity, registering property, paying taxes and trading across borders.” Pakistan’s GDP growth rates have increased to a little over 5 percent each of the last two years from 3 to 4 percent previously. That’s not great for a developing country but at least things are on the upswing for a place we used to call in the early 2000s, the most dangerous country in the world.

First the Prize…and Then the Test

We first wrote about Ethiopia as the most underrated country in the world in July, 2018. So International Need to Know readers should not have been surprised when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed won the Nobel Peace Prize last month. But, as the 17,000th Spider Man movie tells us, with great prizes comes great responsibility. Prime Minister Abiy is being tested even as he instituted reforms, lifted repressive policies–including against ethnic groups–and made peace with Eritrea. Earlier this year, we noted ethnic tensions were rising and last week they exploded in protests with more than 80 civilians dying as the government tried to control the demonstrations. So far, Prime Minister Abiy is still planning to hold elections next year. Let’s hope he continues his conciliatory approach and policies that led to his award.