Archive for year: 2019

Honest to Goodness, AI vs. the UN and Arab Views

Summer is our favorite season. We bask in the warmer weather, luxuriate in the longer days and enjoy the greater variety of fruit at our local produce stand. So there should be an extra bounce in our step this week as the calendar turned to a more friendly page. And yet twice in the last week, we were so alarmed and angered by the news that our step plodded rather than sprung and we turned off all media to avoid the anger-inducing distractions. This, of course, is a selfish thing to do. If we are moved so emotionally by what is going on in our world, the proper step is to try to change the world for the better. But occasionally one throws up their hands in dismay and apparent powerlessness, search the fridge for Rainier cherries and distract oneself with loud music. But the world and its problems remain. And so an idea we had not too long ago germinated as we spit out a cherry pit and turned up the music just a bit louder yet. The idea is not quite ready for prime time, alas. Most of our ideas are quarter baked, half baked at best. But we hope soon to present this one after it has broiled in the oven a bit longer. And even as we toil in the kitchen, we serve up a dish of the state of honesty in the world, spice things up with some UN AI, and throw onto the grill what the Arab world thinks.  It’s this week’s International Need to Know, a bit calmer now while listening to our favorite Frank Sinatra song.

Summer Wind (Remastered 2008)

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

Honest to Goodness

If we ever find a wallet with money in it, we like to think we would work to return it to the owner. Three researchers, who weren’t about to take our word for it, conducted experiments in 40 countries to determine which people are most honest and “whether people act more dishonestly when they have a greater incentive to do so” by leaving wallets with varying amounts of money in them in public places. Honestly, we were surprised by the results and we bet you will be too. It turns out the more money in the found wallets the more likely a person will turn in the wallet. Most people, including economists, according to the research, predicted it would be the opposite. We were all wrong. There are differences in rates of honesty by country. The northern European countries were most likely to return wallets. China was least likely. What causes this difference in honesty among countries? The researchers suggest “that economically favorable geographic conditions, inclusive political institutions, national education, and cultural values that emphasize moral norms extending beyond one’s in-group are also positively associated with rates of civic honesty.” The researchers plan on conducting more studies to delve into population differences—so if you see a wallet lying on a park bench…you are being tested, one way or another.

Is that Boutros Boutros-Ghali or a Computer?

In news that we found completely believable, researchers have created an AI program that can create UN speeches indistinguishable from the real thing (or maybe we are living in a software simulation and these speeches have always been AI generated?). Researchers “used a readily available language model that had been trained on text from Wikipedia and fine-tuned it on all the speeches given by political leaders at the UN General Assembly from 1970 to 2015. Thirteen hours and $7.80 later (spent on cloud computing resources), their model was spitting out realistic speeches on a wide variety of sensitive and high-stakes topics from nuclear disarmament to refugees.”   AI created speeches on general topics such as climate change that were almost impossible to differentiate from the real thing. Speeches on “inflammatory” topics only produced realistic speeches 60 percent of the time. Articles in INTN are impossible to replicate using AI.

The Warm and Cold Waters of the Arabian Sea

The waters we swim in affect who we are. The arguments in America, for example, as polarized as they may be, are constrained within a certain spectrum*. That spectrum is different in various parts of the world as a recent survey shows. The poll conducted by a partnership of BBC News and the Arab Barometer finds that in certain countries the number of non-religious has risen significantly, including in Tunisia, Libya Morocco and Egypt. But note that the number of non-religious is far fewer than in Europe and the U.S. There is a Persian Gulf sized difference between the Arabian Sea and the Atlantic and Pacific. Strikingly, in most Arab countries, honor killings are more acceptable than being gay, though honor killings are not particularly popular which means being gay is really unpopular. And finally, Turkey’s weak strong man Recep Erdogan is more popular in the Arab world than either strong weak man Trump or silly strong man Putin. In fact, given the recent election, it’s safe to say that Erdogan is more popular in Algeria than Istanbul which means he’s likely to be unpopular there soon too.

*The spectrum has been widening in recent years

Chinese Tariffs, Closed China Market and Renewables Vs Coal

For reasons that may become apparent in the future, we’ve been listening to lots of 1970s New York City Puerto Rican salsa music. Essentially Puerto Ricans living in the Big Apple adopted and adapted Cuban Salsa music, popularizing it to the world even as they made it their own. Tino Puentes is perhaps the most famous example from this era but there are plenty of others including Ray Barretto, Willie Colón and Eddie Palmieri. New York was an amazing incubator of creativity and innovation in that day and age–from disco to punk to rap in music, to Keith Haring, Tseng Kwong Chi and others in art, to gay rights and other social causes. Since the late 1980s, New York has ceased to be an interesting place with the West Coast becoming the incubator of innovation and now at the end of the first fifth of the 21st century, other countries are beginning to pick up the American cultural and innovation slack. But that NYC Puerto Rican salsa still moves the hips and pounds the hearts of listeners. For New Orleans music aficionados like ourselves, you’ll note the Caribbean rhythms that helped jelly-roll the Crescent City beat. So even as we tickle the keys to China’s lowering tariffs, shake the marimbas of China’s closed market and blow the horn on increased use of coal, we turn up a little Che Che Colé by Willie Colón. It’s this week’s International Need to Know, grooving to the many tunes of this complex world.

Willie Colón – Che che colé

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

We See Your Ace and Lower You Three Kings

We are reading Bruno Macaes book, Belt and Road, A Chinese World Order, that describes how and why China is becoming assertive in the world, or as Macaes puts it, “China is transforming from a participant to a shaper of globalization.” This is true and the U.S. – China trade war is accelerating this phenomenon like two teenagers drag racing on the city strip, t-shirt short sleeves rolled up above their biceps, a cigarette dangling from each of their lips (wait, is tobacco on the tariff list?). The Peterson Institute documents that as China has raised tariffs from 8% to 20.7% on U.S. goods, it has slightly reduced tariffs on non-U.S. goods from 8% to 6.7%. That’s not a huge reduction, but on a host of goods the difference is greater than that as you see in the chart below. In other words, China is working to help other countries compete against America. The rest of the world may become more tied to Chinese trade as the U.S. and China decouple with all the consequences, intended and unintended on both sides, that will bring. Of course, the most challenging barriers to doing business with and in China are non-tariff barriers. Read on!

You’re Not Allowed in the Game

Count us among the many who think the way the current U.S. Administration is countering China is wrong-headed. But there are reasons to challenge China. The country continues to be a very closed market as the graphic below from Visual Capitalist shows. There are certainly examples of successful U.S. companies in China (hello Starbucks), as well as other countries’ companies, but in any strategic industry it is well-nigh impossible for a foreign company to succeed in China. Analysts will note that many countries protected their industries when developing, including the U.S., but China has done so on a larger scale and more deeply than most.

Coal Races Renewables

Renewable energy, led by solar and wind, saw the largest increases in electricity generation in 2018. Unfortunately, just behind was coal. In fact, coal-based electric generation increased by 3 percent last year to a new record total of 19,000 TWh (TerraWatt Hours). Electricity generated by coal actually decreased in the developed world last year, primarily because of large reductions in the U.S. and Europe. But in Asia, coal-generated electricity is increasing, led by the two most populous countries in the world, China and India. That coal-generated electricity decreased in the U.S., even as overall U.S. electricity usage increased, is a great sign for the future. It’s further evidence that any effective Green New Deal must be one that finds ways to develop, export and spread new clean technologies throughout the world.

Trade Waits for No One, India’s False GDP, and Japanese Chair Racing

While drinking and eating from a bar and grill based on the back of a pick-up truck (only in New Orleans), as we waited for the Mardi Gras Indians on St. Joseph’s Day a few years ago, we felt a stir in the crowd. And there was Mac Rebbenack, otherwise known as Dr. John, rambling, a little unsteady on his ornately carved walking stick, through the neighborhood. The locals greeted him like an old friend, which of course, he was. We said hello too. It feels as if we’ve known Mac Rebbenack our entire life. First probably through Dr. Teeth on Sesame Street and The Muppet Show but then through the man’s music itself. But it wasn’t until later in life that we saw him perform live. We were front row in a small club, seated at the foot of his piano–we could practically touch the voodoo skull sitting atop it–and grooved to one of the tightest bands we’ve ever had the honor and pleasure to listen to. We have a thing for voices, and Mac had one of the most unique talking voices in the world. It was as if it was baptized out of the canals, saloons and dirty back streets of New Orleans on a full-moon night. And, of course, it was. As The Times-Picayune obituary wrote, “Mr. Rebennack was a man whose style and outlook were shaped, too, by voodoo, that mysterious and mystical spiritualism that developed from the city’s Afro-Caribbean roots. And in New Orleans, that meant he stood out so much he fit right in.” The word “legendary” was invented in some bayou swamp thousands of years ago just so we would have a way to describe him. Rest in peace Mac, and the rest of us will continue to groove because of you. And we groove to a new troubling world order beat, listen to the funky sounds of inflated Indian GDP growth and totally get down to Japanese office chair racing. It’s this week’s International Need to Know, carrying an umbrella even on a sunny day.

Dr. John – Goodnight Irene

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

Trade Waits for No One

As China rises and the U.S. is run by a short-sighted, transactional presidency, the world is shifting and twisting like an alligator breaking into a Floridian’s kitchen. When we were in Vietnam a few weeks ago, we met with someone the U.S. government hired to examine how goods were being smuggled into China so as to avoid U.S. tariffs. Business people don’t sit idly watching leaders drunkenly move their chess pieces—they act. Meanwhile, Huawei, the controversial Chinese IT company, acted recently by buying one of Russia’s leading face recognition technology companies. As the world splits into divided Internet spheres, it would be short-sighted to believe our globe will remain static. In fact, just last week, reported that “For more than two hours on Thursday, one of China’s largest internet providers forced a huge chunk of European mobile traffic to be rerouted through its own servers.” This included U.S. military traffic, data to and from companies such as Microsoft, and almost all traffic to and from France and other European countries. All of this activity, illicit and otherwise, occurs in an era when most large challenges are transnational—climate change, refugees, health (see China’s under-covered swine flu epidemic which is now an Asian epidemic) and others. Alas, our world’s short-sighted leaders have not made appointments at Warby Parker’s.

India Goes All “China” On Us

In March, we noted a new study that quantified how much China was inflating its official GDP statistics (1.7% per year from 2008 to 2016) and compared China’s revised GDP with India’s higher GDP growth rates during that same period. But what if India was also inflating its official GDP growth figures? Well, a paper published in Harvard’s Center for International Development by Arvind Subramanian, a former economic advisor to the Indian government, claims, “A change in the method used to calculate India’s GDP led to a significant overestimation of growth.” How much? The report claims instead of an average of 7% growth from 2011 to 2017, the average was actually 4.5%. This changes the chart we presented in March considerably (see below). Who else has been inflating GDP growth? And how much grade inflation is there at Harvard? We await answers.

Japan Chair Racing Grand Prix–the Greatest Grand Prix

In a week where memorials and second lines were held for two New Orleans icons—Leah Chase and Dr. John—and should have been held for Kevin Durant’s Achilles’ tendon and perhaps for democratic hopes in Hong Kong, we feel we must end on a lighter note. And so we present the Japan Office Chair Grand Prix. This is a race held in Hanyu, Japan in which “teams of three battle it out on ordinary office furniture across two grueling hours to see who can complete the most laps of the 200 meter course.” We are ashamed to admit that this race was first started in 2009 and we have yet to watch it. Or even better, we are searching for two teammates to join us in the 2020 race. Send us your credentials and applications immediately.

Office Chair Grand Prix Sees Racers Scooch, Slide and Glide

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The Coming Robot War in China, African Manufacturing, and No Coal in U.K.

Over the weekend we were headed to a baseball game and got stuck behind a large pick-up truck driving very slowly. As we grumbled at its lack of speed we noticed two stickers on its back window. One read “Redneck” and the other read “White Pride.” We are sure many people feel such thoughts but it appears that now that there is a president who gives loud and obnoxious voice to such emotions that people are emboldened to slap them on their vehicles for all to see their racism. It’s a bit scary. After the baseball game, we went to a comedy show (when you are a fan of the Seattle Mariners such antidotes are necessary) to see Helen Hong of Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me and Netflix comedy fame. We short-sightedly sat in the front row and at one point Ms. Hong, who continually involved and engaged with her audience, looked at us and said we were the “whitest person she had ever seen.” It was a joke, of course–and we even laughed at the time. But, later we wondered what she meant when she said we were the “whitest.” Surely she’s seen whiter skinned people than us–she lives in Brooklyn after all. Was it the way we were dressed? She had no way of knowing our cultural tastes or ideas or inner thoughts. Of course, it was all a set up for her to tell jokes, but we wonder if her joke was a sticker on the back of her pick-up truck full of gags. But whatever our level of whiteness or any other color, we note China’s robot war, Africa’s manufacturing gains and Britain’s lack of coal.  It’s this week’s International Need to Know, vowing to fight institutional racism while misjudging the content of people’s character (we are a bad judge of character) of people all over this complex, diverse world.

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

The Coming Robot War in China?

The great robot phobia began approximately four years and seven months ago. Humanity is increasingly scared robots will take over, kill us and take our jobs. Two years ago we reported that automation and robots may harm developing countries by eliminating manufacturing jobs before these countries leverage these jobs to develop into mid-income countries. Now comes a study focusing on how automation and robots are affecting China. Remember China is gung-ho for AI and robots with, as the report notes, President Xi himself calling for a robot revolution to boost productivity (though no robots will be allowed to be members of the Chinese Communist Party and definitely are not allowed to be General Secretary). China is the largest user of industrial robots in the world (per capita South Korea is the largest) and recent studies have found that 77 percent of Chinese jobs are susceptible to automation. This study, by the Institute of Labor Economics, finds that increases in industrial robots in a Chinese city reduces employment in those cities, and “reduces annual wages by 7.7 percent.” The study also claims that social unrest increased dramatically in places in China where there were large increases in robots. This is probably one of the reasons for Xi’s clampdown on society–the worry over social unrest, some of which will be caused by automation. All countries are likely to face a reckoning with automation and robots—China’s may be more challenging than most.

Never Mind the Robots–African Manufacturing

Last month we told you about the great book, The Next Factory of the World, which details how Chinese investors are helping African countries become the next manufacturing hubs. Now that you’ve read the book (you have, right?), we’re here to tell you via a Noah Smith Twitter thread that the African manufacturing revolution continues (even with the threat of robots and automation) with Indian, Japanese and Korean investors playing a part. Smith points to an article describing Isuzu Motors opening a vehicle assembly plant in Ethiopia (our world’s most underrated country—please someone start an Ethiopian ETF we can invest in), as well as Hyundai opening an assembly plant. And Nissan has opened a plant in Ghana. Can Africa develop before the robots take over? Also, if a significant percentage of manufacturing shifts to Africa from Asia, what will this mean for U.S. West Coast ports? We await answers.

Bad Kids Breathe Easier in Britain

The world continues to change quickly and despite what people may tell you, some of these changes are for the better. Take the U.K. for example—it’s not all about Brexit and political upheaval. For the last two weeks, “Britain has not used coal to generate electricity—the longest period since the 1880s,” according to the BBC. Yes, Britain will still burn lots of coal this year but it is on pace to eliminate all coal usage by 2025 as it continues to bring renewable energy online and relies on natural gas and nuclear power. Below is a snapshot of Gridwatch’s real-time energy usage in the U.K. Notice the coal gauge is on zero. New technologies will continue to improve clean energy generation, in the U.K. and elsewhere. But what will Santa do in the future? Kids will be able to act as badly as they want by 2030.

One of the Four Most Important Countries, Ms. Nguyen is Evidence, and the Trade Philosopher

When we first traveled to Vietnam nearly two decades ago, the roads were filled with bicycles and scooters. Over the years we began to see more scooters and fewer bikes. This week during our trip to Ho Chi Minh City, cars entered the great race to middle class status. Back in the day, crossing a street in Vietnam was akin to walking across hot coals, always scary, often painful, and deadly if you took a wrong step. But while it is not exactly safe nowadays to cross the street in HCMC, it is certainly safer than it used to be. Lanes seem to exist and drivers occasionally even use them. And there are often–praise be the Great Urban Planner in the Sky–crosswalks and stoplights! Crazy town. There are drawbacks to all of this, of course. The increased number of cars are adding to our world’s climate change problems. But nonetheless, there is something gratifying and hopeful to periodically visiting a country and seeing its economic progress. In a few years, we hope those cars will be powered by electricity, and the electricity generated cleanly not by coal as is currently the case. So this week we bring you three tales of our trip to Vietnam, including why it is one of the four most important countries in the world, tangible evidence the world is better than it was, and the importance of the international trade philosopher. It’s this week’s International Need to Know, offering dragon fruit and Vietnamese fresh rolls to all who will have them.

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

One of the Four Most Important Countries

The notion slipped across our gaze, at first merely a bud, than blooming into a Da Lat Rose during our trip to Ho Chi Minh City last week. Vietnam is one of the four most important countries in the world. Until recently the world had grown comfortable (complacent?) in the model of an emerging country growing economically then liberalizing politically. Taiwan and South Korea, for example, each helped to set that pattern. Many of us assumed it was the new way of the world, like prestige TV or exotic flavors of ice cream. And then came China. Or rather it did not come–to liberalize. Instead, even as China’s economy grew, in recent years it has become more authoritarian. It broke the trend of economic liberalization followed by democratization. Some worry this is the new vogue of the world. That future emerging markets will remain authoritarian. And so we turn to Vietnam, and note its up and coming economy. Will it follow the post-World War II pattern and liberalize as it develops economically or follow China’s precedent and rule ever more authoritatively? How the world will look and operate in the future may hinge on the answer.

We are fond of reminding you that more people have climbed out of poverty the last 40 years than at any other time in human history. Ms. Nguyen* could be a poster child for this wonderful trend. Thirty years ago she sold fruit from a small cart on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. Last week we met in her gorgeous home full of expensive wood carvings across the street from the main wholesale produce market for the region. One of her sons is off to study at Cambridge this fall, the other studied in Boston. She is now a major importer of fruits and vegetables, including Washington state apples, for the increasingly large Vietnamese middle class. We get that our world faces major challenges and we understand that things are not perfect, but for those who threw out the post-World War II order, and for those railing at market economies, they do so at our own peril. When the angry among us rage against that fading market-produced light, please think of Ms. Nguyen, and the hundreds of millions like her.

*Not her real name

The Trade Philospher

Since we have not asked his permission to write about him, we will not use his real name, but Mr. Linh is an archetype of a certain international trader ex-pat we have come upon over the years in our travels and work. Such a person starts out from nothing, travels to another country, founds a business and a home there by working hard and smart. Add in some good luck with that industrious intelligence and these ex-pat traders establish a good life for themselves. Our man in Vietnam, originally from Singapore, is one such example. Over much of a day meeting with, dining with and sharing a beer with Mr. Linh, we certainly learned about a segment of the Vietnamese market (the reason for our meeting), but we also learned much about Asia, politics, how people act and react and many other useful concepts and ideas. Mr. Linh is not an educated man but he is well-read, and experienced. He can delve into history and relate it to his adopted country’s situation and how the world works in general. He is a true trade philosopher. I would swap many a professional policy wonk for such a man.

The New World Progresses, Where the Wealth is, and Venezuelans Destinations

We raise a new and troubling trend that we need your help to understand. We talk, of course, about waiters’ insistent desire to take our plate away before we are finished eating. This happened again to us last night. Interestingly, we were at a private club not a restaurant. We once assumed restaurants do this in an effort to turn tables more quickly and bring in more revenue. But we’re not sure what the incentive is for a private club to do this. At any rate, it has been happening more and more frequently over the last year. Food will still be on our plate, we may be engaged in conversation with our meal mates, and the waiter, often without even asking, will whisk our dish away. So why are restaurants and even private clubs doing this? Is there a plate shortage we are unaware of, perhaps a result of one of the many trade wars the United States has engaged in? Perhaps it’s just a corporate fad, making no sense, like the open office craze that swept work places for a few years. Or maybe there is something more deep and mysterious occurring, some X-Files scenario. Or perhaps it is foreign interference into American dining morés or even some secret society of wait staff engaged in a revolt against the eating masses? Whatever the cause, we aim to get to the bottom of it and stop this madness. While we await your theories, we offer a dish of the new world, an entrée of where the world’s wealth is and an unappetizing dessert of the Venezuelan diaspora. It’s this week’s International Need to Know, your maître d’ to a world of information and data.

We will be speaking in Spokane next week to the Washington Public Ports Association and then off to Vietnam for a week. INTN will return on Thursday, May 30th.

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

The New World Progresses

With the abdication of leadership in the world by the U.S., the rest of the world adapts and adjusts accordingly like the Golden State Warriors without Kevin Durant. This week brings word of Japan and Vietnam forming new alliances to address China’s South China Sea ambitions. The Japan Times reports that last week Japan and Vietnam’s Defense Ministers met in Hanoi and announced the two countries “will work together to peacefully resolve the issue of China’s rapid expansion in the South China Sea.” The two countries more generally are deepening their alliance to address a host of security and policy issues. The two countries signed a Memorandum of Understanding to cooperate on “maritime security, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and cybersecurity.” We are interested in whether our new world will be safer and more peaceful than the old one. But either way, it is happening.

Where the Wealth is (Our Underrated Country)

Over the last ten years, where is wealth congregating? Or as VisualCapitalist phrases it, where are the best and worst performing wealth markets in the world, defining “wealth market” as “the total assets owned by individuals within a jurisdiction.” You will not be surprised that China tops the list but the number three country for wealth markets over the last ten years is, yes, our favorite underrated country, Ethiopia, which saw a 102 percent increase since 2008 in the size of its “wealth market.” Number 2 Mauritius is probably surprising too. India is a no-brainer for this list as is Vietnam (where we are headed in a week). The worst performing market is not surprising either—nice work Venezuela.

Venezuelan’s Destination

Speaking of Venezuela, that slow burning trash fire has led to a diaspora. Where are Venezuelans fleeing to? Check out the Council on Foreign Relations handy map below. With 1.1 million, Colombia is home to the largest group of fleeing Venezuelans, followed by Peru, the United States and Ecuador. Simon Kuestenmacher tells us that about 10 percent of Venezuela’s population has fled the country in the last three years. Venezuela was once a prosperous, stable country. We hope it will be again someday.

Chinese Helping Africa, Tokyo’s Housing Affordability, Baby Driver

Truth and facts are much debated in public discourse today with various parties claiming ownership over them. We are a data person by nature–Lou Dobbs once called us an empirical bast**d in front of a crowd of hundreds, a badge we wear proudly. But it is easy to become overconfident in data so that it can obscure the truth. Nearly all data is open to interpretation, incomplete or a smaller sample size than we realize. We see national writers such as Noah Smith or even entire basketball teams such as the Houston Rockets making this mistake on occasion. Almost all theories and ideas succumb to what we call the Tyranny of Narrative. Art contributes to this but also can mitigate it. Not too long ago we said to someone that nonfiction books provide us with facts, but novels with the truth (we believe we were quoting or misquoting someone but can’t find the source). The person we were talking with looked at us like we were crazy. And maybe we are but we are nonetheless eager to see the new movie Bolden that is being released tomorrow (but not in backwater Seattle) about the near mythical New Orleans cornetist Buddy Bolden who some claim invented jazz. He did not. No one person invented anything–but The Tyranny of Narrative makes us think so. However, Bolden was probably a key evolver of music that eventually became known as jazz. And for the truth, if not the facts, we look forward to seeing the movie. And we look forward to presenting you one of the most enlightening books we’ve read in recent years, how Tokyo keeps housing affordable and the surprising reason for Japan’s low birth rate. It’s this week’s International Need to Know, blowing our horn about international data and information and trying to remember to not be too confident about it.

Bolden – Official Trailer

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

Book it: Chinese Helping Africa

When discussing China’s activities in Africa, most of the attention focuses on large government influenced projects such as loans that can’t be paid back or China taking control of ports or other worrying activities. But the 2017 book The Next Factory of the World: How Chinese Investment is Reshaping Africa, focuses on the individual Chinese business people who are opening factories throughout Africa. For us it is the most enlightening book we have read since The Warmth of Other Suns. The author, Irene Yuan Sun, in the best way melds individual stories of Chinese investors and Africans she has interviewed with a broader macro data view to develop a current picture of Africa and a possible vision for its future. As she notes, these private Chinese investors are not part of the geopolitical games of the Chinese government, “They are instead driven by the economics of their individual businesses and the momentum of their own remarkable life trajectories. These are Chinese who rose from working in the early factories of China to developing their own in Africa.” Sun’s hope is just as Japan begat Taiwan which led to South Korea and China, that a variety of African countries are now poised to become the next manufacturing powerhouses with all the economic and social development that entails. Sun’s glasses are not rose-tinted. She explains the trade-offs, challenges and possible pitfalls of Chinese investment in Africa. But the book changed how I view the ascent of China and the prospects for Africa. The book notes there are now more than 10,000 Chinese firms active in Africa (mostly privately owned) each transforming the localities in which they’ve set up shop. From flip-flop factories in Nigeria, to ceramics manufacturing in Lesotho to drug capsules in Ethiopia (yes, our most underrated country plays a role in this narrative), Sun’s book, notes the “confluence of rising labor costs in China, the relocation of Chinese factory owners with valuable life experiences to Africa, and Africa’s demographics make it possible for us to imagine that Africa might very well become the next factory of the world.” Buy and read this book.

Tokyo’s Housing Affordability

As many cities wrestle with housing affordability issues, including here in Seattle, home of INTN’s worldwide headquarters, perhaps it is time for policymakers to meet Mr. Demand and Ms. Supply. They’re an ever shifting Virginia Wolfe type of couple that we all too often forget in our rush to economic Tinder and eHarmony. But Jim Gleeson of the London Housing Authority creates an instructive animation to remind us of their importance, as you can see in the two screengrabs below (click on them to see the full animation). In 1970, Tokyo, Paris, London and New York had similar housing supplies. By 2013, Tokyo nearly doubled its housing stock while the other three cities had barely increased theirs. Consequently, Tokyo housing prices have been relatively stable while in the other three cities, housing has become crazily expensive. Get building if you want less inequality and more affordability.

Baby Driver

More than once we’ve discussed Japan’s low birth rates and consequent aging demographics. But, we haven’t delved into why Japan has such low birth rates. Fortunately, college student Trevor Grayeb (the future is in good hands) has and shows that much of the reason for Japan’s low birth rate is due to the “low proportion of children born out of wedlock.” Yes, non-married Japanese are not having enough irresponsible sex. Okay, maybe that’s not his conclusion. But Grayeb shows that married Japanese actually have children at a higher rate than the OECD average. Japan’s aging demographics aren’t due to the establishment having fewer children—they actually do this better than the rest of the west—it’s due to those not married having fewer children.

Who Owns Huawei, Japan’s Obi and Road Initiative, and Africa’s First Bullet Train

We attended the Washington Council on International Trade’s annual Trade Summit earlier this week. As always, it was informative and educational and we especially appreciated and were informed by the sage Spencer Cohen and legendary David Tang’s words. In these times of transition–from a U.S.-led world, a post-World War II global architecture, an era of established civic norms–discussing the importance of international trade amongst mostly like-minded people, was a bit of a shelter from the storm. But the squall continued to rage outside the hall of the conference, and occasionally inside it. Even speakers sympathetic to trade claimed that trade had been disruptive. There are always some losers in trade but the vast, vast majority gained from open trade. Those attempting to blame trade for the loss of manufacturing jobs in the U.S, must grapple with the graph below–every country lost manufacturing jobs over the last forty years. Even China has fewer manufacturing jobs. This has nothing to do with international trade or any liberalization of it, otherwise the slope of manufacturing job loss would not be the same for every country. We know that introducing facts and data into the debate will not stop a single nonsensical statement or policy from presidential candidates of both parties. But we tilt at our windmill–the blades built in Japan, the generator in Pennsylvania, the base in Germany and finally assembled in China–nonetheless. And at the same time we tilt in the direction of who owns Huawei, Japan’s Obi and Road Initiative and Africa’s first high speed rail. It’s this week’s International Need to Know, turning to Sancho for comfort as we travel the rocky road of international information and data.

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

Who Owns Huawei?

In the storm drain of new information in today’s world, it’s hard to keep track of continuing stories of importance. Take Huawei, for instance. Remember that the company’s CFO was arrested in Canada? Her case continues through the Canadian courts and Huawei’s 5G technology contends in the court of world opinion. Through it all there has been debate about who actually owns Huawei, whether it’s a private company or actually state-owned, an important question for a company which hopes to manage information networks in countries around the world. But government control is often difficult to discern in the Chinese corporate world. A new paper by Donald Clark and Christopher Balding claims to solve this mystery. The paper states, “The Huawei operating company is 100% owned by a holding company, which is in turn approximately 1% owned by Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei and 99% owned by an entity called a “trade union committee” for the holding company.” Clark and Balding assert this holding company is really the state. “Given the public nature of trade unions in China, if the ownership stake of the trade union committee is genuine, and if the trade union and its committee function as trade unions generally function in China, then Huawei may be deemed effectively state-owned.” Huawei has ineffectively pushed back against the paper and the CIA has weighed in. We await more information on this point. [Last minute update: This morning Huawei’s Chief Secretary spoke to reporters with what he claimed was evidence showing Huawei is employee owned. Reporters did not seem to buy it.]

From Clark/Balding Paper

Japan’s Belt (Obi) and Road Initiative

As 29 countries gather in Beijing this week for a Summit on China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a provocative article at details Japan’s own Obi and Road initiative. It turns out that even now Japan owns far more overseas assets than China. According to the article, “At the end of 2016, Japan’s stock of foreign direct investment in major Asian economies (excluding China and Hong Kong) was nearly $260 billion, exceeding China’s $58.3 billion.” And Japan is working to increase its investments in infrastructure projects in Asia, nearly doubling its infrastructure exports since 2017. At the same time, Japan is cooperating when it can in the Belt and Road with Prime Minister Abe saying, “Under this Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy, we believe that we can cooperate greatly with the Belt and Road plan touted by China.” But Japan is also distinguishing itself from the Belt and Road by emphasizing “quality” and environmental concerns. Note the U.S. is nowhere in all of this. The Asia Century progresses.

Via Mike Bird, WSJ

Sub-Saharan Africa’s First Bullet Train

When we drive to Portland, Oregon from Seattle, which once we could do in less than three hours, but with increased traffic now can take anywhere from three and a half hours to six days (our math may be exaggerated), we dream of a high speed rail between the two cities. It will never happen, at least not in our lifetime, for political, regulatory and economic reasons. But you may be surprised to hear that sub-Saharan Africa’s first bullet train project is getting underway that will connect land-locked Rwanda with the port in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. Each of these two countries has agreed to split the $2.5 billion costs nearly evenly. Construction was originally to have begun last year but has been delayed. Will it start soon and how overbudget will it be? If Rwanda and Tanzania pull this off, it will be a major milestone for these African nations. We will keep an eye on it while stuck in traffic–and we will soon report to you on some additional eye opening Africa progress. Stay tuned!

China’s Planet of the Apes, Its Notre Dame Problem and Europeans View of the EU

Many years ago, we decided to transplant a dwarf maple tree from one part of our front yard to another. We began digging. And digging. And…the tree’s roots were much deeper and wider than anticipated and before we knew it perhaps half of the front yard was a rather deep and wide hole. But the roots were not yet free and clear so once more we thrust the shovel deep into the ground and—clang!!!. We hit metal. We looked up from our toils and saw we were lined up perfectly with the natural gas meter. We had hit the main gas line into the house. But fortunately had not broken it. We, of course, stopped digging, snipped the remaining roots and moved the mighty dwarf to its new, what we considered, much better location. Not too long after that we started dating, then got married and moved to a new house. One night we drove by our old home and saw that all our work had been uprooted, including the dwarf maple, which had been moved yet again. It was then we truly understood the impermanence of life.* We thought of the dwarf maple when watching Notre Dame burn this week. Like our tree, we assumed it would live forever. We have visited this 800-year-old structure, and stayed in an apartment but a few blocks from it. But, like everything on this earth and off, Notre Dame shall someday pass away and be lost to the vestiges of time. Until then, we bring you China’s Planet of the Apes, China’s own Notre Dame destruction and Europeans views of the EU. It’s this week’s International Need to Know, singing Ava Maria to all our world’s wonders while you read the Mueller Report.

*Perhaps you believe the moral of this story is to call the gas company before digging in your yard.

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

China’s Planet of the Apes

The old cliché that given enough time a monkey typing on a keyboard would eventually write Shakespeare is being transformed by Chinese scientists who have introduced human brain genes into macaque monkeys. The Chinese researchers claim these monkeys are smarter as a result of the new genes. According to Vox, “In a study published last month in Beijing’s National Science Review journal, researchers took human copies of the MCPH1 gene, which is believed to play an important role in our brain development, and introduced it into monkey embryos by means of a virus that carried the gene.” This, of course, is controversial, especially since six of the 11 monkeys they tried this on died. The researchers claim that the monkeys with the human gene performed better on short-term memory tests and that their brains “developed over a longer period of time, which is typical of human brains.” Where this will all lead and whether these Macaque Monkeys are really smarter we do not know, but we expect in the future macaque monkeys will conduct strange experiments on other animals. Or as a future macaque monkey might say, “Ay, in good sadness is he; and talks of the basket too, howsoever he hath had intelligence.”**

**Merry Wives of Windsor

China’s Notre Dame Problem

The venerable Notre Dame is not the only historic building recently felled by man. Notre Dame was an accident but the destruction of the Keriya Mosque in Xingjiang, China was not. Yes, in the same area where some one million Uighurs are in concentration camps, in an attempt by the Chinese government to stamp out Islam, the Chinese government last year destroyed an historic religious building even older than Notre Dame. Rachel Harris in The Guardian reports this mosque “dating back to 1237…a towering architectural monument” was bulldozed leaving nothing but metaphorically scorched earth. Man is both careless and cruel in nearly equal measure.

European Views of the E.U.

The EU is 26-years-old which is still young by country standards. In fact, it is still so young that PEW Global surveyed the EU’s constituent countries on what they think about it.  Three-fourths of Europeans believe the EU promotes peace, nearly two-thirds believe it promotes democratic values, and a majority believe it promotes prosperity. From there, the EU’s popularity goes down with a majority of Europeans believing the EU is intrusive, inefficient and does not understand the needs of its citizens, making Europeans sound like employees in the movie Office Space (all hail 20th anniversary). Unsurprisingly, Greece has the least favorable view of the EU followed by the U.K. Since we don’t remember seeing polls of whether Vermont or Arkansas has a favorable view of the United States, we assert we will know the EU has fully made it when Pew no longer needs to survey European countries’ views of the E.U.

Hungry to Curb Hunger, Renewables Revolution and The Empire Strikes Back

Public perceptions are a strange commodity. We admit to perverse amusement at the college entrance cheating scandal, including the arrest of two Hollywood actors. One of them, Felicity Huffman, has now pled guilty and given the best apology we’ve seen by any public figure in the last eleven years and seven months. The contrition was complete and genuine, accepting full responsibility with no hedging or excuses. Which means, we suppose, given the way of our world, that she will be forever shunned. Certainly her public persona will be forever tarnished. On the other hand, NBA basketball player Dwayne Wade, who retired yesterday, was feted in a Budweiser commercial for all the good deeds he’s done off the basketball court. And though one of those kind acts was to fund someone’s college tuition (not Lori Loughlin’s daughter), we found the whole thing distasteful. We prefer people like Ken Griffey, Jr. or Prince who toil in good acts quietly without fuss over those who tout their accomplishments in a nationwide beer commercial. We are not saying in a life review that Felicity Huffmann should be ranked above Dwayne Wade–we do not know either person or all their deeds and misdeeds–we merely assert that at least this week we appreciate her more than him And now that your perceptions of us are substantially lowered we launch a branding campaign on the continued need to fight hunger, market the progress on clean energy and advertise the continued challenges of energy. It’s this week’s International Need to Know, wishing we were attending French Quarter Festival even as we sing the world’s praises and perform dirges about its faults.

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

Hungry to Curb Hunger

More than once in this space we have trumpeted that we are living in the most peaceful, prosperous time in human history. And it is true–you and I have hit the generational jackpot. However, the last few years have seen some worrying trends and so in the interest of full transparency we present the latest data on hunger, which is one of those new worrisome trends. As you see in the chart below from Ourworldindata, far fewer people around the world are undernourished than 15 years ago, but unfortunately there has been a slight increase over the last three years. Much of the increase is due to sub-Saharan Africa where there has been some backsliding over the last few years, apparently due to climate change issues and increased conflicts. So, there you have it, we live in a great era but if we don’t get our act together, we could be entering a new, less great one. We could end up like Kevin Durant leaving the Golden State Warriors.

Renewables Revolution

There has been talk of getting a back-up generator at the INTN worldwide headquarters. But, it is quite expensive to buy and install one capable of powering the entire house that is hooked into our electrical system. And, we remember that since the early days of INTN, we have noted the possibility that renewable energy will transform power generation more quickly than people realize. Former Microsofter (softie? softist?) Naam Ramez brings us the latest data which startingly shows that not only are wind and solar now often cheaper than installing new coal and gas oil plants, but that they are starting, in some places, to be cheaper than “existing coal or gas.” And, a number of entities are predicting this will be true in most geographical locations by the mid-2020s, including in China and India. As Naam points out, this has revolutionary implications for our world. There are still intermittency problems to address (when the sun does not shine and the wind does not blow—this sounds like a Mel Brooke’s Blazing Saddles joke somehow), but there continues to be progress in storage issues and smarter grids. It is a definite possibility that most power will be generated by renewables within 15 years…and sometime during that timeframe it would make more sense to install solar rather than a backup generator at INTN’s headquarters. In the meantime, no earthquakes, wind storms or electromagnetic pulse attacks allowed.

The Empire Strikes Back

Okay, that’s the good news on clean energy. Now for the bad. First, despite the more competitive price of renewable energy, China’s current plans are to add another 290GW in coal-fired power over the next five years, according to a study by Global Energy Monitor, Greenpeace and the Sierra Club. And, even though the world will increasingly use renewables to generate energy, the world is also using more energy so we will need to generate more and more clean energy in the future. Case in point, last year world energy use increased 2.3 percent, which is twice the annual growth rate of previous years. The main culprits for increased energy use? China, India and the United States (though over the last twenty years, U.S. per capita energy use has remained flat—but it has rapidly increased in China and India). This is why, as analyst Noah Smith and others have pointed out, any Green New Deal, or any climate policy, must concentrate on how the U.S. can help the rest of the world, perhaps by developing and spreading new technologies or through other means.