Do Tariffs Make Us More Competitive?

David Firestein dropped by last week’s “World Spins” session to reassure us that at about $1 trillion, give or take a few million, the U.S.-China trade relationship is too big to fail. But he had some thoughts on where we’re taking it.

Firestein‘s credentials in U.S.-China relations are wide and deep — the State Department, EastWest Institute, and now, president and CEO of the George H.W. Bush Foundation for U.S.-China Relations — in addition to his role in academia launching the LBJ School of Public Affairs’ China Public Policy Center.

Perceptions of growing authoritarianism

“China’s rising authoritarianism colors U.S. views in a profound way.”

David Firestein

The Uighur minority and the telecom giant Huawei are the poster children of American perceptions of China, prompting national security concerns that have underpinned both the administration’s trade narrative and domestic regulatory actions. On the heels of watching China use facial recognition software to persecute the Uighur and other Muslim minorities, San Francisco banned the technology. Last week those same concerns spread to Washington, bubbling up at the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.

Blacklisted by the administration, Huawei typifies China’s state-supported hybrid economy. The telecom giant sits on a deepening Maginot Line between the Internet of the East and that of the West, drawing a line between American interests and increasingly, everyone else’s.

“In public and private statements, American intelligence officials and telecommunications executives and experts have begun to concede that the United Sates will be operating in a world where Huawei and other Chinese telecom companies most likely control 40 percent to 60 percent of the networks over which business, diplomats, spies and citizens do business.”

David Sanger, The New York Times

There’s a silver lining for Big Tech. Nothing unites like a common enemy, and China has provided Qualcomm, Facebook, Google et. al. with a new “America First” narrative to relieve regulatory threats.

The missing quid pro quo

“China is vastly more closed to us than we are to them,” Firestein said. “When someone from China gets off a plane in San Francisco, they have immediate access to their email through WhatsApp. But an American landing in Beijing can’t access their Gmail.”

David Firestein

For an administration determined to deliver on its “America First” campaign promises, protecting America from China is a top priority. Vice President Mike Pence’s watermark speech at the Hudson Institute frames the U.S. response to Chinese “economic aggression.”

With China, all silk roads lead to intellectual property. In the absence of any Chinese quid pro quo to American openness, in 2018 the administration has expanded its powers to protect domestic technology from foreign investment. The Treasury Department’s Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) began to block mergers and acquisitions considered a threat to national security. The Export Control Reform Act (ECRA) and the Foreign Investment Risk Review Modernization Act (FIRRMA) are charged with protecting tech sectors that map with its “Made in China 2025” strategy — advanced manufacturing, artificial intelligence, self-driving vehicles, semiconductors and telecommunications.

Applying worst-of-breed practices

Unintended consequences abound. The ban on Huawei network technology hits rural areas the hardest because the small network providers have to swap out cheaper Huawei equipment for more expensive offerings. And faced with its American supply chain being cut off, China will accelerate its build-your-own strategy, a trend that is already impacting U.S. tech companies’ stock prices.

Which brings us to where Firestein breaks rank. A trade strategy based almost exclusively on punitive tariffs has penalized American producers by eliminating lucrative markets, disrupted supply chains and cost consumers at check out.

“The United States is adopting “worst of breed” practices that are destructive to the economy … Our trade deficit with China is the largest good and services deficit dating back to 1776.”

David Firestein

Nowhere is the cost of the trade war more obvious than in the agricultural sector. Last week at a “hats on” event, President Trump announced a $16 billion farm aid package in a robbing Peter to pay Paul strategy to offset farmers’ losses with taxpayers’ dollars.

In fact, tariffs can make industries less competitive.

It breeds a kind of laziness here,” said Simon Lester, director of the Herbert A. Stiefel Center for Trade Policy Studies at the Cato Institute.  Tariffs are taxes on outside goods, so they inherently protect some U.S. businesses from foreign competition. “You don’t have to compete with the best in the world you can just relax you don’t have to work that hard and face any competition,” he says.

Marketplace, May 27, 2019

Despite the national security narrative, the relationship between China and the United States is not about military might. Certainly, the U.S. technology industry is rooted in federal defense funding, and the Department of Defense continues to fund innovation. But this is a 21st century struggle not a 20th century one. China’s goals are economic.

“Military interests are a function of power. China is building its military to define its power … But let me assure you, China has no interest in becoming the world’s policeman.”

David Firestein

Relationships make the world go round

The conversation closed with a reminder that relationships grease the wheels that make the world go round. Firestein brought up a flash point from his first few weeks in Austin when two U.S. Congressmen, a U.S. Senator, numerous professors and the University of Texas student newspaper protested an offer from the Confucius Institute to make a donation to the CPPC. Firestein noted, however, that the United States has similar practices, and that in the end:

“Relationship matters. We have to get it in sync.”

David Firestein

What does the future look like?

A year ago, Firestein cautioned that competing with China was like a no-holds barred cage fight in wrestling. China knows what it wants its future to look like. State control provides a longterm planning horizon. It has a clearly written industrial strategy, state funding and a non-interference strategy with its people. The United States operates from tweet to tweet. As for a strategy?

In the end, we’re going to have to step up and compete. China is not our enemy but it is our fiercest competitor.

David Firestein, in a May 2018 talk at the “World Spins”

In the not too distant future artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, advanced manufacturing, semiconductors, telecommunications will shape not just American competitiveness but what our world will become. Even the current administration, loathe to cooperate on much of anything, went so far as to endorse a set of international AI guidelines sketched out by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. To echo a comment made by Senator Richard Burr at the University of Texas’ Fifth Annual Texas National Security Forum:

If we don’t create a framework for this technology, who will?

Senator Richard Burr, chairman, Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Nov. 2018

Policy Weirding: Climate Change and National Security

Will the military drive our national climate change agenda?  Dr. Joshua Busby dropped by a session of the World Spins for an update. Just last week, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that new regulations on toxic chemicals and soot are to be based on data and science generally available to the public (otherwise known as “pop science”). In the past six months, the EPA deleted climate change from its strategic initiatives. President Trump announced the United States’ intention to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accords, making it the only nation on earth unwilling to voluntarily reduce its carbon emissions, identified as the major contributor to global warming.

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A military weather-tracking station. Photo courtesy of the United Nations Climate Change report.

Whiplash contradiction over how to address changing weather patterns 

Over roughly the same time period, the National Defense Authorization Act identified climate change as a national security issue. The Center for Climate Change and Security published a chronology of over 12 separate concerns raised by senior Dept. of Defense officials, including:

I agree that the effects of a changing climate — such as increased maritime access to the Arctic, rising sea levels, desertification, among others — impact our security situation. I will ensure that the department continues to be prepared to conduct operations today and in the future, and that we are prepared to address the effects of a changing climate on our threat assessments, resources, and readiness.”

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis

An associate professor at the University of Texas’ LBJ School of Public Policy and an internationally-recognized expert on climate change policy and national security, Busby remains unperturbed in the face of whiplash contradiction. A veteran of climate research and negotiation, he recommended substituting “climate weirding” for “climate change” to cultivate civil discussion — not so easy in a world where the weather is mentioned in the same breath as terrorism.

 “It’s (climate change) a super-wicked problem, characterized by greed, lots of actors and short-term actions.”

Dr. Joshua Busby

The military perspective: assess and plan for risk   

From a military perspective, the risks posed by climate change are unequivocal. They can be assigned a dollar figure. The 2017 hurricane season was the costliest in U.S. history. Damages topped $200 billion, not including cost of calling out the National Guard for the three most expensive hurricanes in recent history — Harvey, Irma and Maria.  Tasked with managing installations from Newport News to Africa and Antarctica, it must contend with rising sea levels, temperature and humidity; agricultural production; and  massive migration.

“In the Arctic, the combination of melting sea ice, thawing permafrost, and sea-level rise is eroding shorelines, which is damaging radar and communication installations, runways, seawalls, and training areas. In the Marshall Islands, an Air Force radar installation built on an atoll at a cost of $1,000,000,000 is projected to be underwater within two decades.”

The National Defense Authorization Act

Busby and his team are helping the military pinpoint trouble spots before they occur. Using a composite mapping tool, they identify the countries most vulnerable to a combination of weather, famine, poverty and weak government — India, Sri Lanka, Burma, Bangladesh. In this way, military can more effectively plan and direct help where it will be needed, as well as measure results over time.

Meanwhile in private sector, opportunity

While the military sees threats, the private sector sees opportunity. Rich Sorkin, CEO of Jupiter, a risk assessment firm recently profiled by NPR, raised $10 million and hired top scientists from the federal government in a bid to help businesses and property owners prepare for a changing climate.

“Hugely important, globally significant, gigantic economic problem, not currently being addressed.”

                                                    Rich Sorkin, CEO, Jupiter

And of course, defense contractor Raytheon forecasts a boon in weapon sales:   “Domestically, the effects of climate change could overwhelm disaster-response capabilities. Internationally, climate change may cause humanitarian disasters, contribute to political violence, and undermine weak governments.”

Want to learn more?

The Center for Climate and Security

Publications

Slides from the presentation

NOTE:  If you haven’t followed NPR and Frontline’s coverage of the economic devastation wrought be Hurricane Maria and the inadequacy of the federal response, I recommend reading/watching it here.  Maria, of course, was the third major hurricane that required federal aid in the fall of 2017.

 

 

 

Blockchain’s Promise: Trust

Pete Harris stopped by a session of the World Spins to share his take on blockchain, the software technology generally overshadowed by its trendier spawn, bitcoin and the Bitcoin network. Harris, who bears a striking resemblance to Bilbo Baggins, has a relationship to hype similar to mine with spreadsheets. That is, he is clear and takes  sticks to the facts as he sees them. Even so, it doesn’t take long to recognize blockchain’s promise. If it’s possible to transact business based on a series of permanent (i.e. they can’t be changed), transparent interactions, then our trust-starved world may have a chance of recovering its footing.

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The blockchain network: can it build trust?  Photo courtesy by Gerd Altmann via Pixabay, courtesy of Forbes

 

“We’ll have to wait and see” 

Harris’ blockchain CV dates from his Wall Street consulting days over a decade ago. These days, having sworn off airplanes, he spends much of his time with the Austin startup community where over 70 young cryptocompanies are  tackling data integrity issues where they find them — finance, healthcare, contracts.

I watched a handful present at Harris’ Monday night meetup. They ranged from Po.et, copyright/intellectual property protection, to GovernanceChain, an accounting network and CityShare, a digital shopping/hospitality network for member cities. Among the more visible is Wanchain, a Chinese nonprofit that’s figuring out to securely connect separate smart contracts, each with its own blockchain, a pivotal step in supporting a currency-agnostic global financial network. Interestingly, Wanchain’s technology is developed in China; the company’s U.S. headquarters is in Austin.

One of the best parts of these presentations is listening to company execs say, “I don’t know,” and “We’ll have to wait and see” — something I hear very often.  But I suppose that’s the beauty of a working with a nascent technology.

Privacy is implicit in the design

Speaking of wait-and-see, someone asked about blockchain’s impact on GDPR, the  European Union’s toughened privacy requirements known as the General Data Protection Rules. With the compliance deadline looming next month, that too is a wait-and-see. But since transactions are permanent, transparent and traceable, the blockchain ledger eliminates the need for centralized control. The integrity of the information is inherent in the software design.

A peek at a mobile citizenry in a digital world 

Today, 10% of the world’s GDP is in block chain. But it’s not all business. In the public sector, tiny Estonia has fashioned itself what the New Yorker magazine labelled a digital republic. Its citizens are free to live and work wherever they please while continuing to  vote, maintain their health, pay taxes using digital IDs.

Curious? Here in Austin, check out the: