American Institutions Are Strong Enough to Handle a Muddled Transition


This op-ed originally appeared in Barron’s on 11/17/20


Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images

Outgoing President Donald Trump does not appear close to conceding the election. But for the incoming Biden-Harris administration, it doesn’t matter whether the president goes through a full cycle of election grief before he leaves office. Court case after court case challenging the election results has failed. The final state tallies will be official within weeks. And Republican leaders in key states have assured the public that there will be no switching of Electoral College votes against the demonstrated will of the electorate. 

Nothing Trump does will stop the arrival of a new administration. A career federal service, maligned and weakened over the past four years, will have prepared for the arrival of a new administration. That is the hallmark of a functioning democracy—institutions prevail.

. . . for the full commentary head to Barron’s (outside the paywall)


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The great American experiment in democracy will survive Trump’s best efforts to end it


This op-ed originally appeared in the SCMP on 11/2/20.


Illustration: Craig Stephens

With only days left before the US presidential election, fears are growing of voter intimidation, drawn-out legal challenges to vote counts, and even the potential for political violence. These concerns are usually reserved for struggling democracies around the world, not a country long considered the leader of the free world.

That leadership position has been thrown into question as the US has withdrawn from a number of multilateral engagements and favoured a myopic nationalism rather than the internationalist orientation the country had followed since the end of World War II. There’s a lot more at stake in this election than just who becomes the next president. Democracy itself is on the ballot.

In far too many places, political freedom is an exception rather than the norm. Over the past 14 years, it has been declining according to Freedom House research. The reasons are many, but the results are the same – the rule of law is weakening in high-, medium-, and low-income countries around the world. The US is not immune to this trend.

. . . for the full op-ed head to the SCMP.


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How China’s growing power and ambitions are burning the bridges of global cooperation


This op-ed originally appeared in the SCMP on 9/27/20.


Illustration: Craig Stephens

In the past few weeks, China’s decades-long relationship with Europe has taken a significant hit as negotiations stalled over investment and human rights issues. Chinese fighter jets have flown dangerously close to Taiwan. And talks with India over their border dispute have reached a stalemate after the deaths of soldiers on both sides.

Add to this the continued trade war with the United States and a clear trend emerges. At no time since China’s reform and opening up that began over four decades ago has its relations with the world been so strained. Beijing has alienated practically every major power in the Asia-Pacific – JapanAustralia and India – as well as most of Western Europe, Canada and the US all at the same time.

China’s growing ambitions are bumping up against its neighbours with increasing frequency, calling into question attempts by Beijing to establish itself as the leader of a new multilateral order. The backlash to this more aggressive approach has begun, and will only increase if Beijing continues down this path. China will increasingly feel more isolated, not by any grand Washington containment strategy, but by its own policies.

. . . for the full op-ed head to the SCMP (limited free articles).


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America’s Trade Chief Has a Bold New Plan. U.S. Companies, Beware


This op-ed originally appeared in Barron’s on 9/14/20


Anna Moneymaker/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Robert Lighthizer has set out a bold new plan for U.S. trade policy that, if implemented, could effectively end America’s leadership in promoting open, free, and fair trade. In a recent op-ed, the U.S. trade representative railed against the World Trade Organization and trade deals. Some of his themes are familiar; others new. But unless Washington stops trying to make the entire world follow its rules rather than working toward consensus, U.S. companies are going to face tough times abroad. If “America First” continues to mean that America goes it alone, U.S. consumers will eventually feel the pain as well. 

Lighthizer’s new approach to trade policy takes particular aim at bilateral trade deals that he says “discriminate in favor of preferred trading partners.” That’s an odd argument to make considering the administration has pursued new bilateral deals, including one with the United Kingdom that has stalled while London attempts to leave the European Union, and initiated negotiations with Kenya in July. The White House has also relied on a bilateral deal with Japan to gain access for U.S. beef exports. I asked the U.S. trade representative’s office to comment on these inconsistencies and other issues raised by Lighthizer’s op-ed, but they did not respond. 

. . . for the full op-ed head to Barron’s (outside the paywall)


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Right to vote: US must lead by example in presidential election to showcase its democracy


This op-ed originally appeared in the SCMP on 8/31/20.


Illustration: Craig Stephens

It’s not every day that the US Postal Service becomes national, even international, news.Mail delivery has never been a major global foreign policy issue. But in the pandemic year of Covid-19, delivery of mail-in ballots for the November US presidential election has turned into a serious concern. With social distancing still a priority, many voters are expected to avoid going to polling stations and instead rely on mailing their ballots.

The consequences of a botched election go well beyond Washington. Whoever occupies the White House in 2021 will be overseeing the lasting effects of the pandemic, a rapidly accelerating climate change crisis, and shifting great-power geopolitical risks. Even the perception of an illegitimate US election will further erode what’s left of Washington’s global influence.

. . . for the full op-ed head to the SCMP (limited free articles).


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Authoritarian Spin Could Derail the Global Economy


This op-ed originally appeared in Barron’s on 6/30/20


A truth, rarely discussed, about the geopolitical risks posed by authoritarian leaders is that they are especially bad at managing crises. The U.S., Brazil, Russia, and India have the largest coronavirus outbreaks in the world. It is no coincidence that they are led each by populists who practice or at least admire authoritarianism. These leaders’ nativist political instincts have led to disastrous results as the Covid-19 pandemic intensifies and the global economy spirals deeper into recession. Without a scientific breakthrough, this populist wave may intensify as leaders exploit virus-driven outrage and inequity, people struggle to recover, and experts are pushed further to the periphery of policy.

Sergey Guneev/Getty Images

The disparity between authoritarian hubris and expert advice shows up in the data. Taken together, these four countries are home to one-quarter of the world’s population, but nearly 50% of the global coronavirus cases. That shouldn’t be a surprise since coronavirus denial has been front and center of their policies. They have downplayed or outright ignored the dangers of its spread and extolled their own knowledge over the advice of experts—a classic authoritarian move according to researchers who study this phenomenon. 

Early on U.S. President Donald Trump said the virus would simply disappear. He refuses to wear a mask despite his own staff and Secret Service becoming ill and has held rallies in Oklahoma and Arizona, where cases are spiking. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has also politicized wearing a mask and held rallies with little regard for the chaos it would cause. Asked about rising infections and deaths, he said, “So what?” And he fired two health ministers who had warned of the crisis. [continued]

. . . For the full commentary head to Barrons (outside the paywall).


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Chaotic White House Response to Coronavirus Hinders Effective Policy



This is where we are in the United States of America. The novel coronavirus is wreaking havoc on major cities across the country. No one knows if it’s too late to stop the worst of the tsunami-like wave to come. By the end of March, if current rates of growth do not drop significantly, the US will have more than double China’s official total.US President Donald Trump has now called himself a “wartime president”. He signed into force the Defence Production Act, which gives him broad authority to direct private-sector production of critical supplies and set prices to combat price gouging. He has chosen not to use it, and that will put frontline medical workers at risk of illness and ultimately cost lives.

It is high time he applied the leverage of the federal government to fight this crisis with all the power it possesses. Hospitals are already begging the public for medical supplies and overpriced equipment is busting budgets.

New York City, which alone has over 10,000 cases, is on the verge of running out already. New York State governor Andrew Cuomo has highlighted the crushing effects of states competing with each other to purchase supplies. N95 masks that are essential protective equipment now cost US$7 each, up from US$4 only days ago and a mere 85 cents before the crisis began.


The full commentary is available here


Coronavirus vs Trump: the US president’s authoritarian bluster has hit the cold, hard wall of a disease he can’t control

  • From the Trump administration’s disbanding of the National Security Council’s epidemic response team to the president’s garbled messaging and the convoluted organisation of his coronavirus task force, the buck will finally stop at the very top



There are now over 400 confirmed cases of coronavirus infections identified in the United States and the numbers are climbing quickly. Cities across the country are scrambling to prepare their emergency services and are questioning when the federal government will get its act together.

The White House response has mainly been to reassure everyone that all is fine and, in meeting after meeting, US President Donald Trump’s team praise him for his expert leadership.That praise has been directed at Trump’s first and apparently only instinct, which was to control who could enter the country via travel bans.

On the surface, that looks like a credible first response: who wants potentially infected people entering the country and spreading the disease?But this focus was at the expense of initiating broad access to working test kits, which, had they been available and used, would have indicated that the virus was already in the general population weeks ago. Based on the abundance of evidence from China and other countries, the virus would quickly spread, and now it has.


The full commentary is available here


In-Sourcing the U.S. Middle Class

In-Sourcing the U.S. Middle Class

Welcome back American manufacturing. U.S. in-sourcing (global companies bringing jobs back to the U.S. that were previously sent overseas) hit the mainstream news cycle again this month. An in-depth Atlantic article by Charles Fishman on GE’s plans to manufacture  high-end appliances has drawn exceptional attention. James Fallows, also in The Atlantic, provided the China context.

President Obama gave a January speech on bringing jobs back to the U.S. where he said:

 

“I don’t want the next generation of manufacturing jobs taking root in countries like China or Germany.  I want them taking root in places like Michigan and Ohio and Virginia and North Carolina.”

Among the notable companies announcing in-sourcing plans this past year Apple plans to spend $100 million on new domestic (U.S.) production capabilities and Starbucks’ $172 million investment in a Georgia plant (net 140 jobs, that’s some capital intensive, high-productivity work). White-collar workers appear to be gaining as well. General Motors plans to hire up to 10,000 U.S.-based IT workers, starting with 500 employees at an Austin, Texas innovation center.

The in-sourcing or reshoring “trend” isn’t exactly new. Otis Elevator announced plans to move jobs from Mexico to a new highly-efficient plant in South Carolina more than a year ago. Chesapeake Candle, one of the featured companies at the White House event actually opened its first U.S. factory back in July, 2011.

These jobs mostly aren’t the same ones that went overseas for lower-wage, low-skill workers overseas in the first place either. Garment manufacturing, for example, won’t be making a comeback.

What companies are finding, however is that the total cost for manufacturing abroad to sell back into the U.S. were never fully accounted for (shipping, training, quality control, etc.) When they are, it turns out, semi-skilled to high-skill work closest to where the products will be sold is more profitable than manufacturing overseas and sending them back.

Significant obstacle remain for these anecdotes to turn into a trend.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First and foremost worker’s need re-training. Without significant investment in, dare I say it during these tough fiscal times, education, the skilled workforce won’t materialize to make these now isolated cases cascade into a wave of better jobs for America’s workforce.

Beyond education there remains a stultifying restriction on educated immigrants. Vivek Wahda in a July Foreign Policy piece makes the case for focusing on reform as many talented students leave the U.S. after finishing their studies because they can’t get green cards to stay. And if they could stay they’d likely either fill the numerous unfilled tech jobs still floating around in this glum economy, or start businesses of their own.

The Republican-led House passed legislation in November to give 55,000 science and tech grads per year an immediate path to permanent residence. That’s a start but not nearly comprehensive enough. Millions of illegal immigrants on which this country depends need to be turned into tax-paying members of the workforce. The legislation is unlikely to pass both the Senate and the President’s desk without major additions.

Without changes to education and immigration the U.S. risks a serious and long-lasting hollowing out of the middle class. That would prove disastrous for an economy that relies on consumption for 70% of its annual gross domestic product.

 

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons, depression-era soup line.

Mfg Data: http://unstats.un.org/unsd/snaama/dnllist.asp

Half-Time in America is Over, It’s Decision Time

Half-Time in America is Over, It’s Decision Time

They lined-up half a block down the street, forty to fifty people at first, in 35 degree weather well before 8:00am. Parent’s with young children bundled up against the cold, women and men in business suits, in old jeans, in work-out clothes. Hispanic, White, African American, and Asian. No one forced them to show up. No one cut the line. All stood as strangers to each other in a simple, silent procession of cooperation and civic pride.

They came and they waited and then one by one they went inside. All the while the line outside grew longer, the wait half an hour or more. Some held coffee or a paper, but most looked around every time a person who entered came back outside, as if something important had just happened.

On election day everyone who votes is a celebrity, a representative, an agent of change in a social ritual that renews hope, promises a better future and gives an incomparable feeling of freedom.  Something important did happen behind those doors. Volunteers donated their time to help forge a more perfect union between citizens and their government. People voted and they were transformed.

And no matter what their beliefs, their race, their religion, education or profession, or how much money they have in their pockets, on this day, in this line, at this moment, they stand equal among their peers – one person, one vote.

Then it’s over, sticker in hand, back out into the cold to go their separate ways. That’s America and that tens of millions of people will voluntarily go out of their way and spend time in civic ritual at polling stations all across this country renews a hope in the experiment of democracy that grows stronger, every vote, every election.

Half time in America is over. It’s decision time. Choose wisely, but choose.