Archive for year: 2019

Big Business in 2008 and 2018, Rwanda on the Rise, and Imprisoned Journalists

Earlier this week we found ourselves driving after midnight out of Bellingham to Seattle. We’ve made this drive eleven thousand four hundred fifty three and a half times (we once got stuck in a snow storm) over the years. Many years ago when driving south it was a quiet ride all the way until Everett (about 20 miles north of Seattle for our non-Puget Sound area readers). Over the last five years we now find ourselves mired in traffic the entire drive, distracting us from the amazing natural beauty just south of Bellingham. But until this week it had been a while since we made the drive so late at night. For the first twenty-five miles no head beams blinded us from behind, no red tail lights distracted ahead. We devoured open road and on a bright moon-lit night, the trees glimmered, Lake Samish shimmered and the clarifying horns of Satchmo guided us on our way. It is a more prosperous, healthy world we inhabit, but it is also easy to long for the quiet days gone by. We are tempted to find a job working graveyard to bring them back to life but then the Staunton Lick shuffled onto our playlist and we returned to the world to compare big business today and ten years ago, the surprising success of Rwanda, and who jails the most journalists. It’s this week’s International Need to Know, wishing you and yours an internationally happy holidays.

Lemon Jelly – The Staunton Lick

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Like the good Brit/Canadian we are not, INTN takes Boxing Day off next week. We’ll see you in 2020.

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

Big Business in 2018 and 2008

As we near the end of the teens (tens?), and prepare for 2020 (how did that happen?!!), let’s examine changes in the list of the largest companies in the world from over the last ten years. The handy list below shows the largest companies in 2008 compared to 2018. Interestingly and not surprisingly because historically these lists change quickly, there is only one that was in the top ten in 2008 that was still one of the largest companies in 2018, Microsoft. Perhaps they should have been broken up after all…of course, where they derive their revenue today is far different from 2008–they are practically a new company compared to ten years ago. China has two fewer companies in the top ten than ten years ago, both of which are Internet based businesses. In fact, seven of the ten companies in the 2018 list are technology companies, although Amazon could be classified any number of ways. We expect the list in 2028 will be just as different as 2018 is to 2008 no matter whether or not Elizabeth Warren gets her wish to break up big companies such as Facebook.

Rwanda on the Rise

We’ve talked up Ethiopia a fair amount here as the most underrated country in the world. Rwanda is also too often ignored, one of a number of African countries that are increasingly locations for manufacturing and fast growing economies. Last week, it was announced that Rwanda’s economy grew over 11 percent in the third quarter year over year. It is expected that the Rwandan economy for all of 2019 will grow at a rate of over 8 percent. Since the end of the civil war in 1994, poverty has decreased in Rwanda 40 percent. In October, an iPhone manufacturing plant opened in the capital Kigali. Rwanda has many challenges (don’t we all?), but it’s one of a number of potential African Lions lurking in the world’s tall grass.

Information Wants to Be Jailed

We hope that 2020 will be a better year for journalists than 2019 was. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), “For the fourth consecutive year, at least 250 journalists are imprisoned globally.” China, which likes to be number one in everything, beat out Turkey to rank first on the list with 48 journalists currently imprisoned there. But Turkey was no slouch, just behind at 47, followed by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Eritrea. CPJ points out that while most of these journalists were jailed for so-called “anti-state” activities, the fun new trend is for journalists to be arrested and imprisoned for producing “false news.” Thanks be to the impeached for that, I suppose.

Last minute addendum: This morning while driving in the dark to our office we listened to a new special episode of the podcast In The Dark. It is easy to make fun of reporters these days, especially political ones, but so much of journalism is more than about presidential politics. Madeleine Baran and the rest of the In the Dark Team make a real impact on our world. The wrongfully convicted Curtis Flowers is out of jail because of a hard working group of reporters. Those that imprison journalists deserve our ridicule and scorn. Journalism like In the Dark, deserve our support. 

What We Think About China, Checking Your Blood, and Eat to Win

Who is the best person in the world you may be asking yourself? Well, if you weren’t before you are now that we’ve posed the question. Some would pick Greta Thunberg. Others would choose a recent Nobel Peace prize winner or a medical researcher who cured some disease. We’re here to tell you the best person in the world is the trombone player for the touring version of Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Ronell Johnson. We were first blown away (all pun intended) by him at a show last year. Though he’s clearly eaten a beignet or two, we don’t understand how he’s not skinny as a rail since he was constantly moving, bopping, dancing and lifting his horn up while on stage. We originally thought he must sit quietly when not performing, but no, in the fun documentary, A Tuba to Cuba, which chronicles Preservation’s trip to Cuba to examine the common roots of New Orleans and Cuban music, Ronell’s wife says he is the most joyful person in the world and that everyone loves him. He’s a solar panel of a human being, lighting up every room he enters, making it a better, more rousing place than how he found it. So if the world ever gets you down, if you’ve got the holiday blues, just think of Ronell, and as the song below, instructs, Keep Your Head Up. It’s this week’s International Need to Know, your tuba of international information, sousaphone of international data.

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.

Preservation Hall Jazz Band – Keep Your Head Up [OFFICIAL VIDEO]

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

What We Think About China

In our upcoming book about the U.S. and China (it will be required reading for INTN readers—there will be a test), we discuss alliances. The latest Pew Global survey of people’s opinions on China shows that given the world’s worries about China, there are increased possibilities to create alliances to mitigate some of China’s challenging practices. Eight countries have seen double digit decreases in their favorability rankings of China. Indonesia, Canada and Sweden all have 17 percent decreases. Canadians, of course, surely have taken note that two of their citizens have been held incommunicado for more than a year in retaliation for Canada’s justice system using the rule of law to adjudicate Huawei’s CFO, who is out on bail living in one of her two mansions in Vancouver, BC with full access to lawyers, Tim Horton’s and hockey on demand. The Pew Global survey was conducted before China announced retaliation for Sweden’s Minister of Culture attending an awards ceremony honoring the bravery of a Chinese-Swede journalist now imprisoned in China. We’re guessing China’s popularity has decreased even more since the survey. China’s party-state aggressive behavior may seed its own destruction.

We’re Checking Your Blood, We’re Checking it Twice…

When we come home from an international trip using our Global Entry status, we now have to place our fingers on a scanner that checks our fingerprints. Besides being a good way to transmit disease, we find the increasing use of biometric data annoying which probably indicates we are old and easily annoyed–but even so right to be concerned. Which countries are most invasive in their use of biometric data? Comaratech analyzed 50 countries and to no one’s surprise China is the most invasive user of biometric data. Number two is Malaysia, followed by Pakistan, the good ole USA and then a four-way tie for fifth among India, Indonesia, the Philippines and Taiwan. Biometric data will perhaps make security more efficient and, well, secure, but we wonder if all the trade-offs have been properly assessed.

5 Worst Countries for Invasive Use of Biometric Data

5 Best Countries (least invasive use)

Eat To Win

Earlier this week we tried to carve a chicken. We watched a Youtube video first to make sure we got it right. Let’s just say our carving of the chicken bore little resemblance to the instructional video by the chef. Which got us to thinking as we prepare to spend a holiday season eating, which world city has the best restaurants (given our carving skills, we’re looking to eat out more)? We’ve often told people Tokyo is one of the best cities to eat in and data proves us right. Tokyo tops the list of cities with the most Michelin star restaurants, topping out at 234. Paris is second but given its population is six times smaller than Tokyo’s, Paris is pound for chicken pound arguably greater than Tokyo. Rounding out the top five are Milan, Vienna and London. Whet your lips with the full list below.

Chinese Prisoner Dilemma Escalates, Clean Energy Is Saving Us, and South Korean Inequality

After seeing a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, the new movie about a journalist’s relationship with Mr. Rogers, we read the most recent article of the real life inspiration for the journalist in the movie. Tom Junod notes many people ask him what Fred Rogers would say about Donald Trump. Junod asserts Mr. Rogers would say what he said about many problematical or complicated people, “He would say that Donald Trump was a child once too.” We should have thought about that when playing basketball with our eight-year-old niece and seven-year-old nephew late Thanksgiving day afternoon. The basket was set to nine-feet-tall at their request. At one point my nephew commanded me, “Play hard mode,” by which he meant I should try to beat him, not go easy on him, as if I were a setting on a basketball video game. We were reluctant to do so but he kept repeating it so finally we drove past him and leapt up to dunk the ball as we once could have done easily on a nine-foot hoop.  When we landed, barely having put the ball through the basket, pain shot through our good knee, it felt like we had suffered a hernia down somewhere below our gut which may have been a manifestation of all the Louisiana cornbread stuffing, mac and cheese and sweet potato pie we had just eaten, and marshaled all our energy to not crumple to the ground in agony. While our nephew trash talked us a bit, we tried to maintain our dignity, and transitioned to soft mode. Painfully dribbling the ball, looking at our young nephew, we wanted to say, “We were once a child too.” Today, as we rub our knee wistfully recalling our youth, we try to remember that the Chinese authorities forcibly harvesting organs were once children, that children are counting on us to implement clean energy technology to ward off the worst effects of climate change and that South Korean children hope for less inequality. It’s this week’s International Need to Know, Knives Out to find the most important happenings around the world.

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

Chinese Prisoners Dilemma Escalates

The last time we gathered in this space, we questioned our doubts about accusations that China is harvesting organs from political prisoners. We did so after reading data analysis of China organ transplants showing official Chinese transplant numbers are made up. Now comes news that gives us even more pause. An International Tribunal assembled by the International Coalition to End Transplant Abuse in China (ETAC) has gathered evidence and listened to witnesses (all of which are available on a website to allow others to make their own analysis). The Tribunal’s conclusion?  “On the basis of all direct and indirect evidence, the Tribunal concludes with certainty that Forced organ harvesting has happened in multiple places in the PRC and on multiple occasions for a period of at least twenty years and continues to this day.” Rarely have we seen a more chilling and damning conclusion of a country’s current day practices. Along with the atrocities in Xinjiang against Uyghurs (one of the groups allegedly targeted for forced organ harvesting), the practice of forced organ harvesting is causing us to reassess how the world should relate with China. The principal group targeted so far for forced organ harvesting is the Falun Gong, a religious group deemed a cult by China’s government. One of the many pieces of evidence presented at the Tribunal was the fact that imprisoned Falun Gong have their blood tested and organs examined and other prisoners do not.* Blood testing is needed so that donor and recipients can be matched. The world faces important choices on how best to confront this conclusion. The worst option is to ignore it.

*Falun Gong have been targeted but it appears Uyghurs are being prepped: “Ethan Gutman gave evidence to the Tribunal in December 2018 stating that ‘over the last 18 months, literally every Uyghur man, woman, and child – about 15 million people – have been blood and DNA tested, and that blood testing is compatible with tissue matching.’”

Clean Energy is Already Saving Us

At dinner recently, a friend told us of their Gen Z son who believes the world is doomed due to climate change, and believes we are fated to starve and burn up in ten to twenty years’ time. Maybe it is the contrarian in us but while everyone else goes all doom and gloom, we don’t exactly see sunshine but certainly abundant rays of hope. Advances in clean energy may already have mitigated the worst case scenarios for future warning. The world is currently tracking for warming of 1.5 – 2.5 Celsius which is far less than the UN’s worst case scenarios, and that is due to current installations of clean energy technology. And, although a few weeks ago we noted our over optimism that the world was reaching peak oil emissions, others believe we are now near it. “Over the past 5 years, the global economy grew by 3.5% per annum, but emissions grew by only 0.8% per annum. One more push during the next decade, and we’ll set off on the down-slope.” Would we feel better if the U.S. president believed in climate change and took steps to prevent it? You bet. But there’s hope yet, Gen Z. (“Okay Boomer,”—our Millennial editor.)

Parasite and South Korean Inequality

Over the long Thanksgiving weekend, we watched the movie Parasite, a parable of South Korean income inequality by the director Bong Joon-Ho. It is one of the best movies of the year—unpredictable with 3-D characters (the useful kind, not the Marvel movie 3-D you pay four dollars extra to see). Although we do look forward to someday seeing a movie allegory about how a market-driven economy raised living standards in South Korea (and elsewhere) to remarkable heights in forty years, concerns about inequality are understandable in South Korea. It has one of the higher levels of income inequality among developed countries with rising poverty levels in recent years, especially among the elderly. This is all made worse by a population aging as quickly as Japan’s and stark gender inequality. South Korea has made remarkable economic progress in the last 50 years. But it is currently facing serious economic and sociological challenges, the only upside of which is to spur great cinema like Parasite.

Gini Coefficient of OECD Countries

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.

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.

The Geopolitics of Business, The Unseen Dead and Heavy Concerns on Plastic

Listening to the first episode of the podcast Dolly Parton’s America (brought to you by the geniuses of Radiolab) reminded us of the book* we would like to write about how all music is connected, which is to say that we are all connected. Dolly is a woman of the mountains as is her music but of course early on such music was informed by the banjo, an instrument brought to America from Africa. The trumpet, a foundational instrument of jazz, that great American art form originated by blacks in New Orleans, is as old as Ancient Egypt but became a truly musical instrument (rather than a mere war horn blown in battle) in Europe in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance. The predominant current musical genre, rap, has sampled everything from R&B to classic rock and roll to other genres. New Orleans Hot 8 Brass Band who we saw perform at the Crocodile Cafe last week did a cover of Love Will Tear Us Apart by Joy Division, a post-punk, gothic rock British group. One of our favorite Dolly Parton songs is a cover of The Grass is Blue by Norah Jones, the daughter of an Indian sitar player and American record producer, with a voice as sultry as an August evening and as gentle as a lake’s lapping shores. It’s all connected as are the geopolitics of business, decisions on Fukushima and how plastic flows into our oceans. It’s this week’s International Need to Know, handing out mounds bars of international data, candy nuggets of global wisdom.

Italy and Vietnam’s Futures, Ents to the Rescue and Dying Indian Coal

As we gazed with wonder at Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s sculpture depicting Apollo consumed with desire chasing after the unreachable Daphne in Rome’s Borghese Gallery, we came to realize we must make an apology for our most recent edition of INTN. We regret any offense we may have caused for claiming China’s economy has slowed down. Similarly, we were out of line to imply that other countries are taking actions to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Clearly we were uneducated and misinformed. We apologize profusely for implying the Belt and Road is not embraced at all times everywhere. And we lie prostrate begging for forgiveness for touching the third rail of politics in talking about the separatists in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Xinjiang. We recognize, as President Xi said in Nepal this week, that rightfully “anyone attempting to split China in any part of the country will end in crushed bodies and shattered bones.” We did not intend for the October 3rd issue to cause any offense to INTN fans and friends of ours in China. We were merely voicing one thought, based on one interpretation, of one complicated event. We have had a lot of opportunity since to hear and consider other perspectives. But we don’t apologize for comparing Italy and Vietnam, how Ents may rescue us from climate change and how coal is losing in India. It’s this week’s International Need to Know, willing to serve on Ukrainian gas company boards in return for good international information and data.

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

Italy and Vietnam’s Futures

We enjoyed tremendously, as we always do, our trip to Italy last week. We ate delicious meals, saw amazing sights and generally drank up both Italian culture and its wine. And yet it was striking to see both Italy and Vietnam in a month’s time. Italy’s GDP per capita is ten times higher than Vietnam’s, but in many ways feels more like a developing country than Vietnam, or at least Ho Chi Minh City. Crumbling infrastructure, inefficient bureaucracies, laundry hanging from windows, dodging Vespas instead of Ho Chi Minh City’s Honda scooters—Italy’s future worries us. Don’t get us wrong, by almost any economic measure Italy is still far above Vietnam, but one country’s line is sloped upwards and the other’s is at best flat. We have traveled to both countries for over 20 years and wonder whether Vietnam will surpass Italy before our travels are done. Of course, that is only if Vietnam continues to liberalize, one of the world’s six most important pivot points.

Ents to the Rescue

While you despair at mitigating the worst consequences of climate change, we turn to Treebeard for hope. We noted recently that Ethiopia planted 350 million trees to reforest the country and combat climate change. Now comes a study from the Crowther Lab of ETH Zurich, which investigates nature-based solutions to climate change, that shows how much land in the world is suitable for reforestation and where. According to the study, 2.2 billion acres could be reforested that would “ultimately capture two-thirds of human-made carbon emissions.” But we need to act quickly since the forests need to grow for two decades to reach their full carbon capture potential. Below you see the countries with the most suitable land. Trudeau, if he can stop partying in brown face for a moment, should make this a major policy priority, given his vocal support for climate change initiatives. Similarly, President Xi could take a break from hectoring basketball executives and make a big contribution to climate change. The U.S. has major potential but we’re curious how much of this could be done federally and how much must be done by states. Check out their interactive map and list of reforestation organizations to think through how you can help.

Dying Indian Coal

India is one of the five most important countries in the world, partly because of its impact, one way or another, on climate change. Currently, coal supplies 80 percent of India’s power but that is likely to change significantly over the next ten years. This is because new renewable energy “is now 20 percent cheaper than existing coal-fired generation’s average wholesale power price” and “65 percent of India’s coal power generation is being sold at higher rates than new renewable energy bids.” Renewable energy is not only cheaper than coal nowadays, it is, of course, cleaner. And that will drive the change from coal but not necessarily over concerns for climate change but instead because of pollution. Remember that India has eight of the ten most polluted cities in the world. “Coal is responsible for 80% of India’s mercury pollution, 60% of airborne particulate matter, 45% of Sulphur dioxide emissions, and 30% of nitrogen oxide levels.” People don’t clamor about climate change but they do about air pollution which they can see and taste. Air pollution is being cleaned up in China and other places due to these complaints and the same too will happen in India.


We Want a Good Economy, World’s a Stage of Hams, and Acting Good is Not Bad

In the era of continual accusations of fake news, sometimes we wonder if we understand what is really news at all, at least in America. Last week, when newscasters were literally breathless about impeachment proceedings (I was worried Mara Liasson might actually be having coronary problems), we read about Google’s apparent breakthrough in Quantum computing. As important as impeachment is, we wonder 100 years from now what has more ramifications for human kind? In fact, we speculate, as others have, that history focuses too much on political figures and not nearly enough on inventors, business people and even certain cultural personalities. Was not Steve Jobs more important than Bill Clinton? Tarana Burke more than Mike Pompeo? Jawed Karim more than Barack Obama?8 But our news media is fixated on politics. Impeachment is, as our spouse noted, the Super Bowl for journalists. But that begs the question of whether our journalists are playing the right sport (we’re an NBA and MLB fan ourselves). Perhaps the problem is most journalists in America are located in Washington, D.C. and New York and believe they are at the physical center of what is important. They are not. We need a national newspaper headquartered in Oakland, a radio show in Seattle, TV news in Atlanta…oh, wait a minute. We need to think this through some more and will next week during a trip to Italy. But before we leave, and as China celebrates the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China—not quite old enough to qualify as a U.S. Presidential candidate—we focus on the Middle Kingdom: the yin and yangs of its economy, the recalibration of the world to China’s new assertiveness and China’s continued repressive policies. It’s this week’s International Need to Know, the Three Body problem of international information and data.

*I’ll bet most of you don’t know who two of these three non-politicians are? QED

As noted above, next week we’ll be sipping Montepulciano while gazing on the ruins of Pompeii and the splendor of the Vatican. INTN will make its drammatico return on Thursday, October 17th.

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

We Want a Good Economy

For forty years, China has been an economic marvel, achieving high levels of economic growth and not coincidentally pulling hundreds of millions of women, men and children out of abject poverty, something of which they should be proud and that is worth celebrating. But its economy has slowed and in recent months wearisomely so. This is not due to the U.S. – China trade war, or at least not mostly. China’s imports have slowed considerably but that is not the case for the U.S., which means China’s slow down is more than just a trade war problem. Something is happening with China’s economy in particular. As we’ve noted before, for demographic reasons, China will no longer experience rapid GDP growth. This is challenging because China may grow gray before it becomes rich. Remember that China’s per capita GDP is still below the world average. Yes, there are millions of successful households in Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen and other Chinese cities, but China is a country of 1.3 billion with hundreds of millions of Chinese still not sharing in prosperity. And, there are other worrying signs. China’s real estate development market will likely continue to be a positive driver for the economy but even here there are concerns with Alicia Garcia Herrero noting, “…the leverage of Chinese developers is almost four times higher than global peers, and this gap continues to widen.” Meanwhile, both household and corporate debt have risen significantly. To counter the economic slow down, China will presumably insert both fiscal credit and monetary easing into the economy, but increasingly China has to inject more Yuan to achieve more GDP. China continues to be a marvel of innovation and economic dynamism, but it is hitting headwinds. I know some people view the Chinese and U.S. economies as in competition and some in America root for China to lose. But remember that the world economy is a bakery, not a pie with a finite number of pieces. The more bakers, the more treats–if China loses, the world economy loses.

All the World’s a Stage…With Lots of Hams

China has become more powerful economically and militarily. The U.S., under the current administration, is not as interested in exercising world leadership. This has made China more assertive on the world stage but other actors want their own lines, taking lessons from Stanislavski. Japan, for example, Brando-style, in its annual defense review now lists China as a bigger threat than North Korea. At the same time, the EU and Japan signed an infrastructure development deal designed in part to combat China’s Belt and Road Initiative. At the signing ceremony, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said, “Whether it be a single road or a single port, when the EU and Japan undertake something, we are able to build sustainable, rules-based connectivity from the Indo-Pacific to the Western Balkans and Africa.” The rest of the world is not content to just let China act like a bull in a China shop (China in a bull shop?) imposing its own plans of how the world should be ordered. Meanwhile, there is beginning to be push back on its Belt and Road initiative from Pakistan, once an ardent supporter. Farooq Tirmizi opines, “because the China Pakistan Economic Corridor is not an investment into Pakistan, it is structured as a resource extraction exercise.” It is easy to be an economic upstart without global ambitions. But once one strides onto the world stage, matters become ever more complicated. As people have noted, it’s easy to be a manager except for the people, or in this case countries.

Acting Good Is Not Bad

And finally, despite China’s remarkable 40-year run of revitalizing their economy and bringing hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, the country remains ruled by an authoritarian government, one which in recent years is embracing its inner Darth Vader. China’s heavy hand of oppression has been noted in Xinjiang, it looms over the freedom protests in Hong Kong and it is an ever gathering shadow over Taiwan. It also has the potential to kill the golden goose. The Asian Swine Flu which some estimate has killed up to 50 percent of pigs in China has spread so wide and deep in part because of lack of transparency in China. A few weeks ago it was reported that in Hangzhou, a major center of China’s tech world, and where Alibaba is headquartered, that the local government is sending representatives into the top 100 companies to “coordinate policy and investigate problems.” And increasingly China is exporting its surveillance technology to other less than savory regimes and interfering in other countries such as Sweden. Can China continue its economic success if it does not reform politically? This is one of the four most important questions in the world today.

Norah Jones – The Grass Is Blue

Watch the Video

*Alas that book awaits our retirement many years from now, but we have a book in the wings that will be of great interest to International Need to Know readers–stay tuned!

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

The Geopolitics of Business

China is more assertive internationally nowadays in a whole host of ways. Case in point is the Chinese video game company NetEase which makes an online role playing game called Onmoyji. We have never played it and bet neither have you, but it is a very popular game. However, NetEase recently introduced an update to the game that did not go down easily in Vietnam. The Chinese company added a map showing the “Nine-Dash Line” that depicts China’s view of borders in the South China Sea. China’s envisioned borders, as you know, are expansive (ruled illegal by an Intl Tribunal btw) and disputed by other countries, including Vietnam. Consequently, Vietnam has shut down Onmoyji. Vietnamese can no longer access the game there. The world rightly worries about China’s growing assertiveness but often China’s aggressiveness backfires. Even in the NBA imbroglio, mostly what China has accomplished so far is to create awareness among millions of NBA fans, who probably never thought about China at all previously, of how un-free, aggressive and silly the Chinese government can be. In the mid to long term their strategy may prove more successful but as we have said before, striding onto the world stage brings many complications for a country.

The Unseen Dead

The Fukushima nuclear accident was tragic. The reaction to it may have been tragic as well. A new paper published in the Institute of Labor Economics found that there were negative consequences to Japan pulling back from nuclear power in the wake of the accident. The paper states, “We estimate that the increase in mortality from higher electricity prices outnumbers the mortality from the accident itself, suggesting the decision to cease nuclear production has contributed to more deaths than the accident itself.” We’ll let that assertion sink in for a moment. Go ahead, think about it. Higher prices led to decreased energy consumption, especially during extreme weather, which led to more deaths during such weather. We are conflicted about nuclear energy. On the one hand, we have never understood how one can guarantee the safety of nuclear waste since it must be stored for such a long time*, long after we and our children and their grandchildren and the grandchildren’s grandchildren are all gone. On the other hand, if the world had been using nuclear energy more the last 30 years, climate change challenges would not be so great, and as this paper shows, there are other risks to not using such energy. Humans continue to not be very good at weighing risk.

*Some of the new nuclear energy technology recycles waste so reduces this challenge to a certain extent

Heavy Concerns on Plastic

Like any dutiful Seattleite, we somewhat carefully divide up our household waste in recycling, yard/food waste and garbage containers (the process for selecting INTN stories is eerily similar). Plastic, of course, goes into recycling and we’ve been limiting our use of plastic to begin with to do our part to prevent the mounds of plastic floating in the ocean. But, it turns out, the U.S, which has 4 percent of the world’s population and 25% of its GDP, is only responsible for one percent of the plastic going into the world’s ocean. So while we need to continue to be vigilant of our plastic use, the real progress must come from the countries listed below who account for most of the ocean polluting plastic. In fact, just eight countries are responsible for 63 percent of plastic disposed into the ocean. China, unsurprisingly is the number one culprit, dunking not only plastic arguments on Daryl Morey but also actual plastic into oceans. Indonesia is second, followed by the Philippines and Vietnam (plastic was a big topic of discussion when we were there last month). As with climate change, the U.S. can and must do more and should be a leader, but real progress will come from other countries.

We Missed the Forest, Asian Recession Where Are The Eu’s Unicorns

In the future, instead of 15 minutes of fame, everyone will loudly declare they are morally superior to 15 other people. Of course, there’s no time like the present as Marty McFly would attest, and as the NY Times and a congressional committee proved this week. After someone texted us that the CEO of Boeing Commercial Airlines had resigned. We quickly did an Internet search and saw the New York Times headline, “Boeing Executive to Leave as 737 MAX Crisis Swells.” It was a curious headline for the NYT to write since the crisis “swelled” due to the newspaper and other media mis-reporting that Boeing had hidden texts which revealed the company knew the 737 was unsafe back in 2016. Within days that story was debunked by pilots and aviation experts but not before cementing in public opinion that Boeing was an evil company. After the initial release of the texts, the Chair of the House Transportation Committee Peter DeFazio said, “This exchange is shocking, but disturbingly consistent with what we’ve seen so far in our ongoing investigation of the 737 MAX.” Thus far he has neither amended nor retracted that statement. Now we are not defending Boeing’s behavior throughout the rollout of the 737 MAX–we await the completion of the investigation before making any final judgements on the extent of Boeing’s mistakes and how its organizational structure and/or culture may have contributed. But we do wish a compulsion for truth would outweigh the desire of people to feel morally superior to others. Too often the desire to express moral outrage is what drives people nowadays in news, politics, social media and elsewhere. Everyone craves a Marvel movie-like villain and thought those texts gave them one. Let’s aim for 1970s movie complexity instead. And in such spirit, we admit to overselling reforestation as a solution to climate change, ponder the possibility of an Asian recession and wonder at the absence of EU unicorns.  It’s this week’s International Need to Know, you talking to me, you talking to me…and my international information and data?

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

We Missed the Forest Through the Trees

Last week we pointed to another resource and study on how planting trees can be a contributing solution to climate change. We were a bit too enthusiastic in our Treebeard love it turns out. All this tree planting mania was based on a July Science article claiming reforestation as a climate change champion. But the paper overstated things considerably according to a new paper in Science Magazine criticizing the original July paper. Among the criticisms are that they “inflated soil organic carbon gains, failed to safeguard against warming from trees at high latitudes…and considered afforestation of savannas [etc] to be restoration.” On that last point about savannas, a number of scientists have expressed alarm that planting trees in grasslands and savannas will actually harm the environment. The original paper writers dispute the criticisms. We do not have the science chops to referee this dispute but since the original authors have now changed their paper from claiming “tree reforestation is the most effective climate change solution” to “one of the most carbon drawdown solutions” we’d have to say they oversold reforestation as a solution. To the degree we’ve done the same, we apologize.

Asian Recession?

All the pieces matter, we imagine the Lester Freamon of economists muttering to themselves as they examine a slowing economy. This is especially true in Asia where both the Japanese and Korean economies are slowing down even amidst their own bickering over trade issues. The latest data shows exports from Japan contracted for the 10th straight month in September. According to Ministry of Finance data, “exports in September slumped 5.2% from a year earlier.” Meanwhile in Korea, the economy grew just 1.9 percent in the first half of this year and exports plunged there too, down 19.5 percent so far in October from a year earlier. The biggest culprit for both countries’ economies? China. Exports from both Japan and South Korea to China are way down. China continues to export at a fairly robust pace but its imports are down. If Asian countries were an NBA basketball player, they might be making different statements than LeBron James. Oh, and by the way, this is evidence that China’s GDP is not growing at the 6 percent rate they claim, but probably at a much lower rate. All the pieces matter.

Where are EU’s Unicorns?

We continue to disparage the overuse of the word unicorn in economics and sports but since our eight-year old niece, the cutest little girl in the world, loves them, we turn to a list of all the unicorn companies in the world and discover it tells much about the global economy. Remember that a unicorn company is a private business with a valuation of over $1 billion. The list of unicorns in the world is full of U.S. and Chinese companies which makes sense given they are the world’s two largest economies. This is one reason why so many of us keep a worried eye on the U.S. – China relationship. When one looks at the 50 largest unicorns, we need magical glasses to find EU unicorns. There is one UK company, but of course, the UK may not be long for the EU. Sweden is the only other EU country that is home to a unicorn in the top fifty. Interestingly, Indonesia has two among the top fifty, as many as the EU combined. Indonesia is the fourth-largest country in the world and the possibility of its continuing to develop economically is one of the nine most important economic pivot points of the next decade.