201605

May 31, 2016 4:15PM

China Military Build‐​Up Threatens U.S. Dominance, Not Its Security

The U.S. dominates the globe militarily. Washington possesses the most powerful armed forces, accounts for roughly 40 percent of the globe’s military outlays, and is allied with every major industrialized state save China and Russia.

Yet the bipartisan hawks who dominate U.S. foreign policy see threats at every turn. For some, replacing the Soviet Union as chief adversary is the People’s Republic of China. They view another military build-up as the only answer.

The PRC’s rise is reshaping the globe. Of greatest concern in Washington is China’s military build-up. The Department of Defense publishes an annual review of China’s military. The latest report warns that the PRC “continued to improve key capabilities,” including ballistic and cruise missiles, aircraft and air defense, information capabilities, submarines, amphibious and airborne assault units, and more.

This program may sound menacing, but Beijing’s ambitions are bounded. Observes DOD, China’s leaders “portray a strong military as critical to advancing Chinese interests, preventing other countries from taking steps that would damage those interests, and ensuring that China can defend itself and its sovereignty claims.” Which is precisely what U.S. policymakers do.

In the short-term Beijing’s principle objective is to advance its territorial claims in the Asia-Pacific without provoking conflict. In the longer-term the objective, says DOD, is “to deter or defeat adversary power projection and counter third-party—including U.S.—intervention during a crisis or conflict.” That is, deterrence.

Even the Pentagon does not believe Beijing is planning an aggressive war. America enjoys a vast military lead, possessing a significantly larger nuclear force, 10 carrier groups compared to China’s one carrier, and much more. With Washington spending roughly $600 billion annually on the military, compared to an estimated $180 billion by Beijing, China is not overtaking America.

The PRC’s economic predominance is not guaranteed. Moreover, even a more powerful PRC would not easily threaten the U.S. Projecting force across oceans and continents is extraordinarily expensive. America is uniquely secure, enjoying relative geographic isolation—in contrast to China, which is surrounded by nations with which it has been at war over the last century: Russia, Japan, Korea, India, and Vietnam.

In fact, only Washington’s desire to dominate China along the latter’s border (imagine the Chinese navy patrolling America’s East Coast) is likely to trigger war. The U.S. understandably favors its friends in their disputes with the PRC, but none of the ongoing territorial controversies is worth conflict with nuclear-armed China.

As I point out in National Interest: “The U.S. should be watchful and wary of China’s rise. But the best way for the U.S. to prepare for the future is to husband its economic strength and respond militarily only if a serious threat develops. Otherwise Washington should seek to accommodate rather than combat such an important rising power.”

May 31, 2016 10:02AM

Misunderstandings on Brexit and the WTO

One of my pet peeves is how some people seem to think the WTO and other trade agreements are used to impose high tariffs. In fact, these trade agreements involve promises to lower tariff rates. For example, if the U.S. and Canada both charge a 20% tariff on car imports, a trade agreement between them might involve a promise that neither will charge more than a 10% tariff. This would mean the existing 20% tariff would have to be lowered to 10% or less. It's not a perfect solution to the problem of tariffs, but it does move us in the right direction.

I bring this up because of something I read by Tim Worstall about the Brexit debate. He quotes the Director General of the WTO, Robert Azevedo, but appears to misunderstand Azevedo's point. Here's how Worstall puts it:

In the barrage of bloodcurdling tales we’re having thrown at us about the costs of Britain leaving the European Union this one really does have to take the biscuit. The head of the World Trade Organisation, Roberto Azevedo, is stating that British consumers will have to carry a heavy burden of up to £9 billion of import tariffs on the goods that they purchase. This is an entirely nonsensical assertion, a ludicrous one. Azevedo then goes on to state that it would be illegal for Britain not to charge such tariffs. This is seriously absurd. Because his claim is that it would be the rules of his organisation which make it so: but his point is that Britain would not be, on Brexit, a member of his organisation. I would prefer to believe that there’s been some mistake in translation, possibly reporting, than to believe that a major world organisation might be in the hands of someone so confused. A sovereign state is only bound by the rules of those international organisations which it belongs to, not those which it doesn’t.

The allegation:

World Trade Organization chief Roberto Azevedo warned about the potential economic cost of a Brexit, stating that leaving the EU would cost UK consumers £9 billion in annual additional import tariffs.

Azevedo told The Financial Times that a Brexit would require the UK to negotiate its membership of the WTO, as it is currently represented by the EU – this is on top of having to strike new trade deals with countries around the world.

That’s claim one: that it is the EU which is part of the WTO, thus if Britain leaves then it would be necessary to negotiate entry into the WTO. OK, fair enough. But then there’s claim two:

Mr Azevedo said: “The consumer in the UK will have to pay those duties. The UK is not in a position to decide ‘I’m not charging duties here’. That is impossible. That is illegal.” 

But under whose rules must Britain charge such duties? The WTO ones, the organisation Azevedo has just insisted that Britain is not a part of and therefore whose rules do not apply.

Thus, as Mr. Worstall sees all this, WTO rules would prevent the UK from eliminating tariff duties. But as noted, that's completely wrong, and I've heard this kind of thing enough that I wanted to correct the record. An independent UK is certainly free to eliminate all of its tariffs, and would be applauded at the WTO if it did so.



As to why there was a misunderstanding in this instance, let me give the full quote from Azevedo in the underlying Financial Times article:

An exit from the EU, for example, would cause the UK to lose the preferential access to other markets covered by 36 trade agreements with 58 countries negotiated by the EU. As a result, to remain compliant with WTO rules the UK would have to impose higher “most favoured nation” tariffs on imports from those 58 countries, while they would have to levy their own surcharges on British exports, Mr Azevêdo said. 


A WTO analysis had calculated the cost of the additional tariffs on goods imports to British consumers at £9bn, while British merchandise exports would be subject to a further £5.5bn in tariffs at their destination. 

“The consumer in the UK will have to pay those duties. The UK is not in a position to decide ‘I’m not charging duties here’. That is impossible. That is illegal,” Mr Azevêdo said. 

The only other option available to the UK would be removing all barriers for all WTO members, effectively turning its economy into a duty-free one like Singapore and lifting the protections politically sensitive domestic industries enjoy under the EU. “That is possible. But that is also very unlikely,” he said. 

It's a little complicated, but here's what's going on. Generally speaking under WTO rules, countries have to charge the same tariffs to all trading partners. For example, the U.S. can't charge a 10% tariff on Canadian car imports and a 20% tariff on Mexican car imports. Discrimination of this sort is generally prohibited. But there is an exception for comprehensive free trade areas, such as the NAFTA. In those situations, countries can charge lower tariffs to specific trading partners.

This is relevant here because the EU has negotiated various free trade agreements already, and can charge lower tariffs on imports of goods from countries with whom it has signed an agreement. Azevedo was just saying that if the UK leaves the EU, it cannot, without negotiating its own free trade areas, charge the lower tariffs offered by the EU through its FTAs.

Of course, that doesn't mean the UK cannot get rid of its tariffs more generally, and, as noted above, if it actually did so, it would no doubt receive thunderous applause at the next WTO meeting.  (Azevedo notes this possibility, and its unlikely prospects, in the last quoted paragraph). In addition, the UK would be free to negotiate its own FTAs, and reduce tariffs that way.

Unfortunately, it's not clear if Brexit would lead us in this direction, as there is talk about how the new UK power over trade policy after Brexit could actually be used to impose higher tariffs. But if an independent UK wanted to lower tariffs, which is what it should do, it will certainly be able to do so.

May 31, 2016 9:56AM

When Washington Should Say Nothing

North Korea appears headed for a fifth nuclear test. The U.S. joined South Korea and Japan in warning Pyongyang against violating its international obligations. Just as the three governments have done for the last quarter century.

Alas, they cannot stop the North from moving forward with its nuclear program, at least at reasonable cost. Washington should learn the value of saying nothing

The U.S. stands apart from the rest of the world. American officials circle the globe lecturing other nations. Yet other governments rarely heed Washington. It doesn’t matter whether they are friends or foes. Other states act in their, not America’s, interest.

Perhaps the most famous recent “red line” set by Washington was against Syria’s apparent use of chemical weapons in the ongoing civil war. However, the president’s off-hand comment promising action never made sense, since America would have gained nothing by going to war.

Syria’s death toll has reached 400,000, the vast majority from bombs and bullets. Use of chemical weapons only marginally adds to the horror. And weakening the Assad regime effectively strengthens the Islamic State.

Anyway, since 2011 the Obama administration has said that Syrian President Bashir al-Assad must go. But the administration has done little to force him out. So much for U.S. credibility.

Washington suffers the same problem when addressing its nominal friends and allies. For instance, Washington long demanded that its allies spend and do more. But most states sheltering behind America continue to do what they always did, live off of the U.S. Washington responded by doing what it always did, whine while underwriting its nominal allies. America’s complaints had no impact on its friends’ behavior.

Now North Korea is in the news again. For a quarter century U.S. presidents—Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama—insisted that the North cannot, must not, dare not, develop nuclear weapons. The North proceeded to accumulate nuclear materials, test nuclear weapons, miniaturize warheads, and expand missile development. Which led Washington to … insist, yet again, that Pyongyang comply with its demands.

American officials should stop making demands which they are unwilling to enforce. An occasional bluff might pay dividends, but U.S. officials will retain credibility only if they exercise restraint and reserve threats for issues of serious interest to America.

As I wrote in Conservative Review: “The world always will be unmanageable and messy, well beyond America’s control. After all, the U.S. was created by a few angry, determined colonists who took on the world’s greatest power. It should not surprise their descendants that governments and peoples elsewhere are willing to similarly defy the world’s current greatest power.”

In most cases, the U.S. should say nothing and work behind the scenes to achieve its goals. Rather than highlight its impotence, Washington should demonstrate humility and prudence, virtues too often missing in U.S. foreign policy.

May 31, 2016 8:30AM

The Royal House of Kim

Anna Fifield of the Washington Post found Kim Jong Un's aunt and uncle and profiled them at length. Ko Yong Suk was the sister of Ko Yong Hui, who was one of Kim Jong Il’s wives and the mother of Kim Jong Un, the third-generation leader of North Korea. She and her husband were close to the Kim family, living in the same compound in Pyongyang, raising their sons together, and taking care of the future leader when he was at school in Switzerland. But when Ko Yong Hui got cancer, her sister and brother-in-law worried about what might happen to them if she died. So they managed to get out of North Korea and eventually made it to the United States, where they now run a dry cleaning store somewhere in the eastern part of the country.

But read Fifield's story, and see if it isn't a familiar story of royal intrigue and excess while peasants starve:

The Kim family has ruled North Korea for 70 years, through a repressive system built on patronage and fear. The royal family and top cadres in the Workers’ Party benefit from this system — and have the most to lose if it collapses or if they run afoul of the regime.

So the couple decided to flee — not to South Korea, as many North Koreans do, but to the United States....

Traveling on a diplomatic passport, Ri went back and forth between North Korea and Switzerland, sometimes ferrying their youngest daughter and Kim Jong Un’s younger sister back and forth.

The family spoke Korean at home and ate Korean food but also enjoyed the benefits of an expatriate family in an exotic locale. Ko took the Kim children to Euro Disney, now Disneyland Paris. Kim Jong Un had been to Tokyo Disneyland with his mother some years before — and her photo albums are full of pictures of them skiing in the Swiss Alps, swimming on the French Riviera, eating at al fresco restaurants in Italy....

The world did not know that Kim had been anointed his father’s successor until October 2010, when his status was made official at a Workers’ Party conference in Pyongyang. But Kim had known since 1992 that he would one day inherit North Korea.

The signal was sent at his eighth birthday party, attended by North Korea’s top brass, the couple said. Kim was given a general’s uniform decorated with stars, and real generals with real stars bowed to him and paid their respects to him from that moment on.

“It was impossible for him to grow up as a normal person when the people around him were treating him like that,” Ko said....

“We lived the good life,” Ko said. Over a sushi lunch in New York, she reminisced about drinking cognac with sparkling water and eating caviar in Pyongyang, about riding with Kim Jong Il in his Mercedes-Benz....

Stories about the couple in the South Korean news media have suggested that they sought asylum in the United States because they were concerned about what could happen to them after either of Kim Jong Un’s parents died. This was their link to the royal family, and without that link, what would happen to them?

Walking through Central Park on a bright Sunday morning, Ko seemed to imply that this was a concern.

“In history, you often see people close to a powerful leader getting into unintended trouble because of other people,” she said. “I thought it would be better if we stayed out of that kind of trouble.”

They had reason to be scared, given Ko’s sister’s position, said Michael Madden, editor of the North Korea Leadership Watch website.

“Ko Yong Hui was an ambitious woman — she wanted her sons to be promoted, and she made enemies in the process,” Madden said. “If you were her sister or her brother-in-law, you would feel threatened. Someone could easily make you disappear.”

The courts of Richard III, Henry VIII, and Caligula had nothing on the House of Kim. And indeed the House of Kim can live better than those earlier monarchs, because now royals can enjoy cognac, caviar, Mercedes-Benz, movie theaters, and travel to the Swiss Alps, Euro Disney, the French Riviera, and Italian cafes.

May 29, 2016 6:18PM

Academic Intolerance: A Progressive Speaks Out

The academic year now closing has seen more than its normal share of student, professorial, and administrative moral posturing, so much so that we’re seeing signs of a healthy backlash. Two recent invitations came to me to speak on the subject, for example, one on academic freedom, the other more broadly on tolerance. And very recently we’ve seen that the campus protests over naming the George Mason University Law School after the late Justice Antonin Scalia were just settled after Virginia’s State Council of Higher Education declined to block the name change. 

But don’t think the battle against leftist academic intolerance has been won. Witness Nicholas Kristof’s op-ed in today’s New York Times, “The Liberal Blind Spot.” In a column a few weeks ago, Kristof offered “a confession of liberal intolerance” in which he criticized his fellow progressives for their hypocrisy in promoting all kinds of diversity on campuses—except ideological. The reader reaction? 

It’s rare for a column to inspire widespread agreement, but that one led to a consensus: Almost every liberal agreed that I was dead wrong.

“You don’t diversify with idiots,” asserted the reader comment on The Times’s website that was most recommended by readers (1,099 of them). Another: Conservatives “are narrow-minded and are sure they have the right answers.”

NYT readers aside, how skewed are the numbers in academia? Well at Princeton during the 2012 presidential election, 157 faculty and staff donated to Barack Obama’s campaign, 2 to Mitt Romney’s—a visiting engineering professor and a janitor. From 2011 to 2014 at Cornell, 96 percent of the funds the faculty donated to political candidates or parties went to Democratic campaigns; only 15 of 323 donors gave to conservative causes— perhaps a product of Cornell’s agricultural school. And that same ratio, 96 percent, describes the contributions of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences to Democratic candidates during that same period. For a broad picture of the ideological complexion of American law schools, see the splendid article by Northwestern University Law School’s Jim Lindgren in the 2016 Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, published by the law school’s Federalist Society chapter. 

Numbers that skewed don’t come about by accident. As Kristof notes, “When a survey finds that more than half of academics in some fields would discriminate against a job seeker who they learned was an evangelical, that feels to me like bigotry.” Fortunately, a noted progressive has had the courage to call this for what it is. Kristof’s piece is worth reading.

May 27, 2016 1:50PM

Big Bureaucracies Beget Bad Behavior

One of the problems with big government is that it stimulates the worst sort of behavior from people and attracts legions of cheaters on the inside and outside.

On the outside, the more than 2,300 federal subsidy programs are under constant assault by dishonest individuals, businesses, and criminal gangs. The improper payment rates for the earned income tax credit and school breakfast programs, for example, are more than 20 percent. Medicare and Medicaid are ripped off by tens of billions of dollars a year. It’s a sad reality that when the government dangles free money, millions of people will falsify application forms to try and get some of it.

On the inside, the bad behavior of some federal bureaucrats never fails to amaze me. The official responsible for recent security failings at the TSA apparently bent the rules to line his own pockets and bullied his subordinates to silence any dissent. Kelly Hoggan was the person in charge when “undercover agents from the inspector general’s office … were able to penetrate security checkpoints at U.S. airports while carrying illegal weapons or simulated bombs, 95 percent of the time.”

The Washington Post describes how Hoggan filled his pockets with an extra $90,000 on top of his regular salary of $181,500:

The downfall of a top official in the Transportation Security Administration this week came amid allegations of under-the-radar bonuses and targeted retribution at the highest levels of the agency.

One of the practices that led to Kelly Hoggan’s removal as head of the TSA’s crucial security division is common enough to have a name: smurfing. ... Hoggan received bonuses of $10,000 on six different occasions, and three others just above or below that amount, over a 13-month period…

The inspector general, in a report last year, outlined a convoluted process through which Hoggan received the bonus pay. His boss, then-TSA Deputy Administrator John Halinski, told one of Hoggan’s subordinates to recommend Hoggan for the bonus money. That subordinate, Deputy Assistant Administrator Joseph Salvator, recommended that Hoggan receive bonuses. Halinski then approved them.

As for the bullying, the Post reports:

Hoggan also was identified as one of the senior TSA officials who used forced transfers to punish agency employees who spoke out about security lapses or general mismanagement. Those allegations, first raised by TSA whistleblowers, caused considerable anger among members of Congress at three hearings held this month and last. Three of the whistleblowers appeared before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on April 27.

“Many of the people who broke our agency remain in key positions,” testified Jay Brainard, the TSA security director in Kansas. “These leaders are some of the biggest bullies in government.”

Mark Livingston, a manager in the Office of the Chief Risk Officer at TSA headquarters, told the committee that his pay was reduced by two grades after he reported misconduct by TSA officials and security violations.

“If you tell the truth in TSA you will be targeted,” Livingston said.

Directed reassignments have been punitively used by TSA senior leadership as a means to silence dissent, force early retirements or resignations,” said [Andrew] Rhoades, a TSA manager at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

The solution to the TSA mess is to demonopolize and decentralize aviation security, as I discuss here and here.

For more on the federal government’s failing bureaucracies, see here.

May 27, 2016 11:18AM

You Ought to Have a Look: Smoke, Clouds and Snowfall

You Ought to Have a Look is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science posted by Patrick J. Michaels and Paul C. (“Chip”) Knappenberger.  While this section will feature all of the areas of interest that we are emphasizing, the prominence of the climate issue is driving a tremendous amount of web traffic.  Here we post a few of the best in recent days, along with our color commentary.

----

In this week’s YOTHAL edition, we’ll focus on some recent climate science findings that deserve further mention and are worthy of a deeper dive. If and when you have the time and/or inclination, you ought to have a look.

First up is a collection of papers that describe the results of a several experiments looking into cloud formation—or rather, into the availability and development of the aerosol particles that aid in cloud formation. The tiny aerosols are called cloud condensation nuclei (CCN) and without them, it is very difficult for clouds to form. 

It’s well known that sulfate particles, formed as a by-product of fossil fuel burning (primarily coal and oil), make for a good source of CCN. In fact, the change in cloud characteristics resulting from this form of air pollution are thought to have asserted a cooling pressure on the earth’s surface temperature—a cooling that has acted to offset a certain portion of the warming caused by the co-incidental emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

Just how much warming has been offset by human-induced changes in cloud characteristics is one of the great unknowns in climate science today. Which is unfortunate, as it is a key to understanding how sensitive the earth’s climate is to increasing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. The less warming offset by enhanced cloud cooling, the less warming caused by greenhouse gas increases.

What the new research found was even in the absence of sulfate aerosols, there are plenty of other sources of potential CCN—a primary one being chemical emissions (known as volatile organic compounds, or VOCs) from plants. Through various processes, which the researchers found involve cosmic galactic rays, the plant VOCs can pretty efficiently transform and grow into CCN.

The bottom line from the new research findings is that the world was probably a cloudier place in the pre-industrial period than it has been generally realized. The implication is that human sulfate emissions haven’t altered cloud characteristics to the degree currently assumed—which means that current assumptions overestimate the magnitude of the anthropogenic cooling enhancement and thus overestimate the warming influence of greenhouse gas emissions (that is, the earth’s climate sensitivity is less than previously determined).

A good review of these three new experimental results (two of which were published in Nature and the other, simultaneously, in Science) and their implications is found in this news piece in Science that accompanied the papers’ publication. Here’s a teaser:

In other words, Earth is less sensitive to greenhouse gases than previously thought, and it may warm up less in response to future carbon emissions, says Urs Baltensperger of the Paul Scherrer Institute, who was an author on all three papers. He says that the current best estimates of future temperature rises are still feasible, but "the highest values become improbable." The researchers are currently working toward more precise estimates of how the newly discovered process affects predictions of the Earth's future climate.

At the very least, the Science overview article is worth a read. If you are interested further, you can have a look at the papers themselves (see links in reference list)—although, fair warming, they are quite technical.

Next up is an excellent review paper on wildfire occurrence in a warming world. The article, jointly authored by Stefan Doerr and Cristina Santín of Swansea University is part of a special issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B dedicated to “The interaction of fire and mankind.” Doerr and Santín take us through the extant literature of the trends and variability of fire occurrence and the factors influencing them. What they find is in stark opposition to the conclusion that you’d come to by reading the mainstream press. To hear the authors tell it:

Wildfire has been an important process affecting the Earth's surface and atmosphere for over 350 million years and human societies have coexisted with fire since their emergence. Yet many consider wildfire as an accelerating problem, with widely held perceptions both in the media and scientific papers of increasing fire occurrence, severity and resulting losses. However, important exceptions aside, the quantitative evidence available does not support these perceived overall trends. Instead, global area burned appears to have overall declined over past decades, and there is increasing evidence that there is less fire in the global landscape today than centuries ago.

This is an eye-opening read in light of the hype surrounding the Ft. McMurray fires of recent weeks and the general warming-is-causing-more-fires-trope that is paraded out every time there is a fire burning somewhere in the US.  The authors go on to note that “[t]he media still promote perceptions of wildfire as the enemy even in very fire-prone regions, such as the western USA...”

And finally is a paper examining what the paleo-history of Greenland tells us about the relationship between higher temperatures and snowfall there. A research team led by University at Buffalo’s Elizabeth Thomas analyzed “aquatic leaf wax” records from sediment cores extracted from a lakebed in western Greenland to reconstruct a temperature and precipitation profile there over the past 8,000 years. Thomas and colleagues found that winter precipitation (snowfall) during a multi-millennial period of warmer-than-current temperatures in Greenland (extending from about 4,000 to 6,000 years ago) was substantially increased.

The proposed mechanism is that the warmer temperatures resulted in reduced sea ice in the nearby Baffin Bay and Labrador Sea which raised the regional moisture availability and increased snowfall.  The enhanced snowfall acted to offset some of the summer ice sheet melting that occurred with the higher temperatures, thereby slowing sea level rise. The authors suggest that a similar mechanism should accompany the current period of rising temperatures. They summarize:

The response of the western GrIS [Greenland Ice Sheet] to higher summer temperatures may have been muted due to increased accumulation in the middle Holocene. Our results suggest that in the future, as Arctic seas warm and sea ice retreats, increased winter precipitation may enhance accumulation on parts of the GrIS and partly offset summer ablation, particularly in areas close to modern winter sea ice fronts.

This result would seem to temper the scare stories of several meters of sea level rise in the coming century that have been circulating around the press—but, predictably, it’s been crickets from those press outlets.

Read more about in this press release, and/or from the paper itself.

 

References:

Bianchi, F., et al., 2016. New particle formation in the free troposphere: A question of chemistry and timing. Sciencedoi: 10.1126/science.aad5456.

Doerr, S. and C. Santín, 2016. Global trends in wildfire and its impacts: perceptions versus realities in a changing world.Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, doi: 10.1098/rstb.2015.0345.

Kirkby, J., et al., 2016. Ion-induced nucleation of pure biogenic particles. Nature, 533, 521–526, doi:10.1038/nature17953.

Thomas, E., et al., 2016. A major increase in winter snowfall during the middle Holocene on western Greenland caused by reduced sea ice in Baffin Bay and the Labrador Sea. Geophysical Research Letters, doi: 10.1002/2016GL068513.

Tröstle, J., et al., 2016. The role of low-volatility organic compounds in initial particle growth in the atmosphere. Nature, 533, 527–531, doi:10.1038/nature18271.