The Death of Expertise


March 27, 2017

While the internet has allowed more people more access to more information than ever before, it has also given them the illusion of knowledge when in fact they are drowning in data and cherry-picking what they choose to read. Given an inexhaustible buffet of facts, rumors, lies, serious analysis, crackpot speculation and outright propaganda to browse online, it becomes easy for one to succumb to “confirmation bias” — the tendency, as Nichols puts it, “to look for information that only confirms what we believe, to accept facts that only strengthen our preferred explanations, and to dismiss data that challenge what we accept as truth.”

Citizens of all political persuasions (not to mention members of the Trump administration) can increasingly live in their own news media bubbles, consuming only views similar to their own. When confronted with hard evidence that they are wrong, many will simply double down on their original assertions. “This is the ‘backfire effect,’” Nichols writes, “in which people redouble their efforts to keep their own internal narrative consistent, no matter how clear the indications that they’re wrong.” As a result, extreme views are amplified online, just as fake news and propaganda easily go viral.

Today, all these factors have combined to create a maelstrom of unreason that’s not just killing respect for expertise, but also undermining institutions, thwarting rational debate and spreading an epidemic of misinformation. These developments, in turn, threaten to weaken the very foundations of our democracy. As Nichols observes near the end of this book: “Laypeople complain about the rule of experts and they demand greater involvement in complicated national questions, but many of them only express their anger and make these demands after abdicating their own important role in the process: namely, to stay informed and politically literate enough to choose representatives who can act on their behalf.”

 

Focus on Policies, not Partisan Politics


March 26, 2017

Focus on Policies, not Partisan Politics

by Bunn Nagara@www.thestar.com.my

Image result for Trump and Xi

Beyond the noisy protests over Trump’s presidency, there are important policy issues and implications that need better understanding – but which are still neglected.

NOT too long ago, there was hope, even a belief, that the fuss about Donald Trump’s fitness for presidential office would fade away after his inauguration. But even after more than two months into the presidency, critics are still carping and cynics are still canting. The real issues affecting people’s lives, badly neglected by the US media, are still being ignored.

Since US policies have a global reach, its actions affect other countries in various ways. So what can we expect from the Trump White House?In strategic terms, Trump has inherited some foreign policy challenges from the preceding administration. Then there are issues he has created on his own.

Nearest home is the controversy over the Mexican border “wall”. This is a typical issue blown out of proportion by Trump’s own grandstanding and his opponents bent on inflating it.

Trump first said he would build a wall, then added it could be a fence in parts. Since there is already a part-wall, part-fence on the border, what is his proposal and the objection to it about?

On Syria, Obama had already shifted from insisting on President Assad’s immediate removal to accepting his place as head of government. From being regarded as “part of the problem,” an Assad still popular with his people came to be seen grudgingly by Obama as part of the solution – but still one that had to resolve itself.

Trump is not keen on ousting Assad either. Assad has even suggested that Syria may host US troops dispatched by Trump to fight terrorism together.

For both leaders, exterminating such terrorist groups as IS is top priority while welcoming Russian support in the fight. Trump would openly receive what Obama would haltingly accept, with little or no difference on the ground.

Where differences largely comprise rhetoric, they become unbridgeable. In non-official Washington, this concerns “Russia”: not as a large Eurasian nation with a rich history, but as the bogeyman Other.

“Russia” is also a way for Trump’s enemies to dredge the swamp for issues to hit him with. This would at least deter any attempt at “resetting” relations with Moscow that would alarm the US deep state.

Since the issue of Syria is mostly a function of US-Russia relations, the Trump White House will soon have to decide what to do and how to do it. Beltway ideologues have already put a pugnacious Trump on the defensive over “Russia”, so his room for manoeuvre is limited.

Developing a clear and coherent position on Iran is just as delicate, especially after Trump had pledged to tear up the Iran nuclear deal. His primal aversion to Iran derives from a lack of familiarity, images of hardline mullahs, and limited contact with the Syiah sect.

Iran, however, can breathe a sigh of relief now that Lt-Gen Mike Flynn has been replaced as National Security Adviser. Flynn was exceptionally caustic about Teheran and dismissive of it.

Image result for Trump and Xi and North Korea

Since US-China ties are the world’s most important bilateral relationship, China should command most of Washington’s attention among all its foreign relations.The relationship was never pristine as Trump blamed China for currency manipulation and unfair trade terms. It crashed to a low after Beijing criticised Trump for speaking to the Taiwanese President, and Trump responded by questioning China’s core strategic interests.

China then moved to salvage the situation. President Xi Jinping spoke personally to Trump on the phone, followed by a visit to Washington by State Councillor Yang Jiechi to arrange a summit.

The White House is now planning to host Xi at Trump’s opulent Florida estate over April 6 to 7. Among the issues they will discuss is a lethally recalcitrant North Korea.

As expected, Trump will say China needs to do more to rein in North Korea, and Xi will say China is already doing all it can with this Jong-un of an upstart. On the economic front, matters may be less predictable but just as important.Trump may reach for a new deal with Xi in an early bid to establish his legacy in world trade. And nothing beats striking a new, productive deal with a rising China.

Elsewhere, Trump will be fettling the terms of new trade deals with various countries. These distinct new bilateral relations will be the “spokes” of a customised world trade wheel, with the US as the hub.

The question for Xi and Trump will be where China would be in the wheel, since it is too big to be just a spoke. The economic reality could be that China is fast becoming the axle for the entire wheel.

On the yawning trade deficit and colossal US debt, Trump will try hard to close the issues. Unlike most previous presidents, he sees their successful conclusion as a vital mission and a measure of his competence.

Given the circumstances, pledging to balance the budget and eliminate national debt in eight years as Trump did would be a fool’s errand. It may be no more than an incentive for voters to elect him for a second term.

Independent analysts expect Trump’s tax-cutting and public expenditure policies to add US$6tril (RM26tril) to US national debt over the next decade. At the same time, the Congressional Budget Office said Obama’s fiscal trajectory would have added US$10tril (RM44tril) debt over the same period.

Trump’s plan to cut taxes across the board is said to encourage business growth. This is expected to affect SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) if no other industry sector to expand their businesses.This approach to revive US industry is deemed conservative, but also somewhat unconventional. It is still trickle-down economics but in a different way.

Unlike most Republicans’ (and Democrats’) preference for encouraging corporations to expand abroad, reap economies of scale, multiply profits and then be taxed more on their higher turnover, Trump would cut taxes and encourage them to return home, hire more American workers and energise the economy that way.

This would mean less outsourcing abroad, fewer foreign relocations for manufacturing, more job creation at home and a healthier economy. Some of this has already begun.

Trump would also cut foreign labour content in the manufacture of US goods. This comes in restricting the entry of foreign migrants and the “export” of US jobs.

In the short to medium terms, this would see a measure of economic recovery as wages rise and consumption picks up. However, since the global economy is an integrated planetary entity, it would also mean higher prices for US goods and a decline in US competitiveness.

Developing sets of bilateral trade deals with various countries will also take time. Meanwhile, this region will see development of the ASEAN Community, besides the ASEAN-proposed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement and the China-proposed Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP).

The US will be without the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) and the TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership). Other countries averse to this situation for their own interests must now learn to accept it.

Superpowers act in their own self interests and not out of a charitable impulse to assist another country. Smaller and less able countries may want to ally with a larger and more powerful one, but not vice-versa.

Bunn Nagara is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia.

Assessing the ASEAN Economic Community


March  24, 2017

Assessing the ASEAN Economic Community

by Somkiat Tangkitvanich and Saowaruj Rattanakhamfu

http://www.eastasiaforum.org

Image result for asean economic communityMaking Progress Slowly–The ASEAN Way

East Asia continues to sustain a high level of economic integration, yet a significant proportion of intraregional trade is still uncovered by agreements to guard against current and possible future protectionism. Without multilateral movement under the World Trade Organization, further regional integration can proceed only through agreements that reduce trade barriers within the region.

ASEAN appears to be leading the Asia Pacific in FTA formation. The ASEAN Free Trade Area was implemented in 1993 and the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) was officially launched in late 2015. The AEC aspires to go beyond typical trade agreements, aiming to create a single market and production base with equitable development across its 10 member countries.

 

ASEAN will celebrate its 50th anniversary in August, 2017. While ASEAN has made some significant political achievements during the past five decades, its economic integration project is still very much a work in progress, and could remain so for many years or even decades to come.

Image result for asean leaders 2017

The ASEAN Secretariat claims that the implementation of the AEC Blueprint 2015 — the community’s formal agenda — has been substantively achieved in many areas. In reality, the levels of integration vary greatly by sector. The only clear success ASEAN can claim is the reduction of tariffs among member countries. Since the implementation of the Common Effective Preferential Tariff agreement in 1990s, about 99 per cent of tariff lines between member countries have been reduced to zero.

Still, the free flow of goods among ASEAN member countries continues to be hindered by the use of non-tariff measures (NTMs). These may have adverse consequences on the sourcing decisions of firms and the structure of trade and related industries.

Countries such as Indonesia or Malaysia that employ active ‘industrial policy’ apply more NTMs. Car assemblers in Thailand, for example, have long complained about Malaysia’s restriction of the number of cars imported into Malaysia.

Image result for asean in the philippines 2017

While minimising non-tariff barriers is an action target in the AEC Blueprint, ASEAN has relied on a voluntary approach to reduce them — with very limited success. Under the voluntary approach, member countries can have an adverse incentive to under-report the barriers they are using. What’s more, there is no effective monitoring system to keep track of the changes of NTMs among member countries.

ASEAN has been negotiating services liberalisation since the creation of the ASEAN Framework Agreement on Services in 1996. The AEC Blueprint has established clear targets to remove all restrictions on trade in services by 2015. But some ASEAN countries, including Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia, could not meet their targets by the deadline.

Critically, service liberalisation under ASEAN contains no commitment to address behind-the-border issues, such as interconnection for telecom services or access to ATMs for banking, which are crucial to the creation of competitive markets. The difference in laws and regulations among member countries is also problematic.

Service liberalisation under ASEAN in its current form would fail to create a single service market. Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia, still could not meet the targets by the 2015 deadline. Indonesia and Thailand’s specific commitments under the latest offer contain many services that are inconsequential or even useless.

In terms of promoting cross-border movement of labour, ASEAN has achieved very little. From an economic development perspective, the opening up of unskilled labour markets through FTAs would be a useful policy option, given the relative abundance of unskilled labour in many ASEAN countries, but the AEC Blueprint attempts to facilitate only the mobility of skilled professionals, currently comprising just eight professions. The arrangement to facilitate the movement of these professionals is also problematic. In the case of Thailand, for example, the requirements imposed on ASEAN professionals are the same as those of the non-ASEAN countries.

To critical observers, ASEAN integration has so far produced very few tangible results. The Asia Trade Centre’s Deborah Elms concludes that ‘ASEAN officials shifted the rhetoric as the deadline loomed to argue instead that the AEC itself should be viewed as process and not a destination’. In September 2016, The Economist mockingly wrote that ‘[w]hen it comes to elevating form over substance, and confusing a proliferation of meetings and acronyms for a deepening of ties, ASEAN is the Zen master’.

The lack of momentum to deepen regional integration in ASEAN is largely a consequence of most member countries’ protectionist stances, perhaps with the sole exception of Singapore. Many ASEAN countries view one another as rivals in their pursuit of exporting to the global market or attracting foreign direct investment.

Domestic political conflicts, along with a lack of strong and stable government, have led political leaders in many ASEAN countries to look inward and lose their appetite for regional integration. Without confronting the core problems of its integration project squarely and urgently, ASEAN will not realise the AEC Blueprint vision of a single market and single production base.

ASEAN prides itself on being the ‘hub’ of bilateral FTAs in East Asia. The concept of ‘ASEAN centrality’ espoused in the group’s initiatives emphasises its role in facilitating economic integration in the region. But the economic integration among ASEAN countries has so far focused on creating a more attractive package for multinationals looking to operate in the region, rather than on creating stronger bonds between member economies.

When it comes to economic integration, ASEAN has to aim at achieving critical targets while ignoring trivial ones. In other words, ASEAN needs to be much more focused than it is now. Its current agenda is overly ambitious considering its limited resources.  The AEC Blueprint has established 17 core elements and set 176 priority actions, covering the free flow of goods and capital, movement of skilled labour, equitable development and protection of intellectual property rights, to name just a few.

A sharper focus would help ASEAN to deliver meaningful and tangible results without depriving member countries, especially less developed ones, of their limited resources. This requires ASEAN to return to the core missions of an FTA: reducing barriers to trade and facilitating cross-border trade in goods, services and the movement of labour and inputs to production.

Yet the real challenge for ASEAN is not economic but political. Full national sovereignty and economic integration are incompatible. The success of the European Union’s trade integration, for example, is based on pooled sovereignty.

The idea of ‘pooled sovereignty’ is not all-or-nothing in nature. When started, the EU was a comparatively modest project. It had few members and only one policy area for pooling sovereignty: a common market for coal and steel. Only gradually did it expand its membership and its mission.

Unless ASEAN countries are willing to increasingly pool their sovereignty and meet political challenges head on, the AEC project will go nowhere and ASEAN will be little more than a talking shop.

Somkiat Tangkitvanich is President of the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI). Saowaruj Rattanakhamfu is a Senior Research Fellow at TDRI.

This article summarises a paper prepared for the 2016 Pacific Trade and Development Conference in Australia.

 

Malaysia-North Korea Diplomatic Row–Wisma Putra left out of the loop as confusion reigns


March 21, 2017

Malaysia-North Korea Diplomatic Row–Wisma Putra left out of the loop as confusion reigns

by Dennis Ignatius

Image result for Malaysian Foreign Minister out of the loop on Malaysia--North Korea Diplomatic Row

Is Foreign Minister Anifah Aman  being left out the loop?

In just one day, the continuing confusion and conflicting messaging relating to the ongoing standoff with North Korea was aptly captured on a single page of a local newspaper. It suggests a disquieting level of disarray in the upper reaches of government at a time when the security and well-being of Malaysian diplomats and their families in Pyongyang are in question.

Image result for Apandi Ali
Attorney-General Apandi Ali–The new Foreign Policy spokesperson? If so, Anifah Aman should resign

At the top corner of the page was a statement by Attorney-General Mohammad Apandi Ali that “no minister or government official is allowed to make any statement on the negotiations between Putrajaya and Pyongyang” due to its sensitive nature. He indicated that only Prime Minster Najib Tun Razak would be commenting on the issue because “if too many people make statements about the matter, it will cause confusion.”

Too many statements, too much confusion

 

What Games are these guys playing?

That did not, however, appear to deter others from having their say, as was evident from other reports on the same page.Deputy Prime Minister Zahid Hamidi and Tourism Minister Nazri Aziz publicly disagreed with each other as to exactly how many North Koreans are in Malaysia under the Malaysia My Second Home (MM2H) Programme. Zahid, who also oversees the Immigration Department, and ought to have access to the relevant data, had said that there were 193 North Koreans in Malaysia under MM2H while Nazri insists that only four are enrolled in the programme.

What does it say about inter-agency coordination if the Home Minister and the Tourism Minister cannot even agree on just how many North Koreans are here?

Still on the same page, Zahid announced that the government is considering deporting some North Korean citizens who are still in the country. He said that there are currently 315 North Koreans still in the country and some of them have expired work visas. “I will make a decision today whether to arrest or deport them,” he was quoted as saying.

Arrest North Korean citizens while Malaysian diplomats are being held hostage in Pyongyang? How smart is that? Zahid also intimated that thus far the government has yet to receive any official request from the next-of-kin to claim Jong-nam’s body. He then went on to add that “if there is a claim, we will adopt several approaches and obtain confirmation from the Attorney-General’s chambers on the handling of the remains.”

How one adopts several approaches when dealing with a single body was not explained.

Who speaks for the deceased?

Our Health Minister, in the meantime, whose role, if any, was confined to the autopsy, was reported, again on the aforementioned page, to have indicated that the government is giving two to three weeks for the family to claim the body before it decides on the next course of action. “We are told that he has wives and children. We hope that they respond and come forward to claim the body.” Continuing, he said that if the family does not come forward to claim the body, “we will address it as a government-to-government matter.”

To further add to the confusion, the Deputy Inspector-General of Police announced the next day that the next-of-kin had in fact left it to the government to decide what to do with the remains of the victim.

We have our advantages 

And finally, the Defence Minister, perhaps feeling neglected by the press, issued a fatuous statement declaring that while “we can’t fight a country like North Korea which focuses so much on defence assets … we have our advantages which will allow us to move forward in any eventuality.” Reassuringly, he also “ruled out the possibility of both countries going to war as negotiations have been positive.”

Was war with North Korea ever even a remote possibility? As well, it is hard to fathom what negotiations he was even referring to seeing as none have as yet taken place (according to the Prime Minister).

Who’s in charge?

Both Malaysians and foreigners alike reading all these reports must be shaking their heads in utter bewilderment at the way our government works.

Leaving aside the sometimes asinine nature of these remarks, don’t they realize that nine of our own diplomats and their families are being held hostage by a reckless, ruthless and unpredictable regime and that in such a situation quiet diplomacy must be given the time and the space to go forward?

With the well-being of our citizens at stake, they should know better than to try to score brownie points with unnecessary if not silly remarks.

Most of these issues – the disposal of the body, the fate of North Korean citizens in the country, the future bilateral relationship – are undoubtedly going to feature in the negotiations between Wisma Putra and the North Korean mission here; it only makes Wisma Putra’s job that much harder if our ministers keep jumping in this way. One has to wonder as well how much weight the Prime Minister’s instructions now carry and even whether the Prime Minister has lost control over his own cabinet.

How not to manage a crisis

Of course, it may be that the remarks of our ministers were somehow misreported. The general decline in professional standards that is increasingly evident across the board naturally affects the media as well. However, having witnessed too many silly statements on this and other matters over the years from our senior officials, it is more than likely that the fault lies with the officials themselves.

Whatever it is, somebody ought to write a book on how not to manage a crisis based on Malaysia’s continuing response to our very own North Korean saga.

 

East Asia must now overcome its geo-political challenges


March 20, 2017

East Asia must now overcome its geo-political challenges

by Jean-Pierre Lehmann

http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2017/03/01/in-search-of-an-east-asian-geopolitical-miracle/

East Asia has amazed the world with its economic miracles. But the region must now overcome its geopolitical challenges.

Image result for The United States in East Asia missile defence system for Korea

 In the wake of World War II, Japan was widely assumed to be ‘finished’, South Korea was a basket case of underdevelopment and China was chaotic and poor — indeed the terms ‘Chinese’ and ‘poor’ were held to be synonymous. Taiwan was hardly worth consideration economically notwithstanding its importance geo-politically. When I first visited Taipei half a century ago its main economic activity seemed to be as a base for US soldiers on rest and recreation from the Vietnam War. As to Southeast Asia, it was mired in poverty, instability and conflict.

Reflecting the perception of backwardness accompanied by a degree of condescending hopelessness, the Swedish Nobel economics laureate Gunnar Myrdal published in 1968 a three-volume magnus opus entitled ‘Asian Drama: an Inquiry Into the Poverty of Nations’. In 1993, 25 years later, the World Bank published its report entitled ‘The East Asian Miracle’.

Apart from confirming the fact that, yes, economists believe in miracles, the term has been quite widely used in describing economic developments in East Asia.

The first use of the term ‘economic miracle’ (to my knowledge) was applied to Japan in the 1960s. Contrary to expectations, the phoenix did rise from the ashes: in 1964 Tokyo held the Olympic Games, in 1965 it joined the OECD, in 1967 it surpassed West Germany in GDP, and from then on went about conquering international markets.

Following Japan’s rise there were the four ‘tigers’ — Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea — which rank among the few economies worldwide that succeeded in rising from third world status and overcoming the middle income trap. Over the course of the late 1970s and 1980s, Southeast Asia transformed from a battlefield to a marketplace with the notably high growth rates of Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia. And then came the most awesome miracle of all — China.

These East Asian economic miracles had significant positive social consequences: tremendous reduction of poverty, rise of a robust urban middle class, increased life expectancy, improvements in education, cultural achievements (for example in music) and increased leisure activities such as foreign travel.

There are, however, a number of egregious qualifications to this.While the region’s economic edifice remains impressive, its institutional, historical and geopolitical foundations are alarmingly weak. The contrast between the post-war settlement in Europe and the post-war settlement in East Asia illustrates the East Asian situation.

One begins with the starkest contrast of all in post-war Germany’s attitudes towards its neighbours and those of Japan. One cannot imagine a senior German politician paying respects to a memorial dedicated to former Nazi leaders, as Japanese political leaders repeatedly do in respect to war criminals at the Yasukuni Shrine — most recently the Minister of Defence Tomomi Inada. One cannot imagine the mayor of Berlin publicly denying the existence of the Dachau concentration camp, as the former long-serving governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, publicly and repeatedly denied the occurrence of the Nanjing massacre. One cannot imagine a German chain hotel proprietor installing in every room a book praising Germany’s past military prowess as Toshio Motoya has done in his chain of APA hotels with a book he authored praising Japan’s past imperialist militarism.

Whereas Germany has been a major source of peace, reconciliation and stability in Europe, Japan, through its hubristically un-contrite behaviour is a source of friction, suspicion and instability in East Asia.

This is especially critical in a region that is the world’s most geopolitically explosive. A number of situations in East Asian could foreseeably degenerate into World War III. Offensive military action in the Korean Peninsula, US intervention in the conflict between Japan and China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea or Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s threatened blockade on the South China Sea could all be triggers.These are the biggest flashpoints in the region but there are others.

Image result for The United States in East Asia missile defence system for Korea

Every East Asian state has tense relations with one or more of its neighbours. As ASEAN celebrates its 50th anniversary this year it can be commended for the significant achievements it has made in neighbourly confidence-building. Yet even the most ardent ASEAN fan would admit there are fragilities.

Since the end of the Vietnam War, the impact of the United States in East Asia has been on balance benign. This is partly due to the economic dynamism of the region and its integration with global markets and especially the US market. It is also because the United States has been militarily bogged down in the Middle East following its interventionism and thus limited in its ability to do harm in East Asia.

Not just China but the whole region can be construed as the proverbial ‘china shop’ into which the US presidential election has unleashed a bull. Great delicacy and diplomatic sophistication is required. Following East Asia’s economic miracles, what is urgently required in the Trumpian era is a geopolitical miracle.

Jean-Pierre Lehmann is Emeritus Professor of International Political Economy at IMD, Switzerland, founder of the Evian Group, and Visiting Professor at Hong Kong University. You can follow him on Twitter at @JP_Lehmann.

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