Waves of the Future – Ripples of the Past

My post last week on the Third Iraq War, resulting from Stratfor’s report based on anonymous Defense Department sources, was followed by the DOD discussing the initial preparations in a little more detail. It’s a start, but hardly enough. At least the subject is beginning to get more attention. Again, I am not calling for support of, or opposition to, this Third Iraq War.  I only ask that whatever is done, is done well.  We owe that to the men and women of all nationalities and backgrounds who must put their lives on the line.

And the public deserves to be kept informed as well.  We don’t need to know the details, but we do need to know what is being done in our name.  I have no love of these Islamo-fascists at all, but this administration at least has a responsibility to provide some transparency for its efforts. The prior administration did a far better job of that.  How sad.

The Islamic State is not a wave of the future, it is a ripple of the past, the distant past.  They offer nothing constructive to the rest of us or their own people, only pain and misery.  Future Brief is focused on the future, particularly the rest of this decade and the next.  I will be looking carefully at the major global trends that will affect all of us, very likely far earlier than most of us think.

But there are at least two other “ripples of the past” that are causing damage today and threatening more in the very near future that warrant mentioning here as they take our eyes off a future we need to contemplate now.

The first is Vladimir Putin’s Russia.  Leader of a nation with a declining population, a variety of foreign and domestic problems, and a struggling economy (thanks to Mr. Putin in great part; he is his own worst enemy), his attempt to create a pale imitation of the last century’s Soviet Union is nothing short of pathetic, another ripple of the past.

Lost in the present, fearful of the future, Putin is doing what we all sometimes do at times like that.  To borrow from the late Marshall McLuhan, “We look at the present through a rear-view mirror.”  That is no way to drive a car, but that is a pretty good way to set up a crash.  This approach will not succeed for Putin either, but it will force us to keep an eye on him, just like the Islamic State, when we have far more important things warranting our attention.

The second is much more of a concern.  The European Union.  Past names like “Common Market” and “European Economic Community” made sense to me in general, but “European Union” never made sense to me.  The idea that any one of its 28 members is allowed to veto a foreign or security policy supported by the other 27 is ludicrous and was reason enough to reject “union” as a noun too far.

In its early stages following World War Two, this experiment was often called a “United States of Europe”.  Well, I feel sure if any single US state government had had the power to veto any federal foreign or security policy, the US would not have survived for long.

Worse yet, Europe’s idea of setting up a single currency to be overseen by a European Central Bank “cooperating” with (currently) nineteen national central banks was and remains an open invitation to fiscal and monetary chaos.  In case anyone doubted that at the time, the last half-dozen years serve as a lesson.

I will not go into this in any detail today.  That has been done elsewhere and often.  But there is a basic point that unfortunately needs to be made.  Europe’s leadership seem determined to turn their former wave of the future into a ripple of the past on their own.  As the years come and go since the financial crisis of 2009, Europe seems incapable of coming to grips with reality.

It reminds me of the victim who is offered two ways to die.  He can be slowly strangled or he can be shot in the back of the head.  The former will be very painful, but allows for the possibility that someone might come to his rescue, no matter how unlikely.  The latter is fast and as painless as possible, but eliminates the hope of rescue.  The EU has chosen strangulation and, frankly, I have no idea who they expect to come to their rescue.

But what makes this different than the victim who chooses strangulation is that the EU, including its eurozone, had and still has a third alternative.  Their leadership can sit down and recognize that the EU and euro have been hugely successful in many ways, but obviously terribly damaging in others.  They need to restructure both and fast.  Like the old English saying, “You don’t want to throw out the baby with the bath water”, European leaders should focus on saving the baby and getting rid of the bath water, but they just cannot do it.  And they cannot do it because the EU is not a “union” and they have no commitment to it that can overcome their commitment to themselves and their immediate political careers.

Yet this melodrama cannot go on forever.  If their leaders can’t do it, the European public will have no choice but to intervene.  The results of that could be very counter-productive.  In that event, it will not be the leadership “elite” who decide or the poor, it will be the European middle class.  They are intelligent and well-educated, but they demand leadership.  The failure of their current elite to provide it is forcing them to look elsewhere.  Therein lies the threat to both the Union and its “zone”.  The elite knows that, but they are still paralyzed.  If that continues, future historians will not look back on them kindly, and neither will we.

The Stratfor report on the plans for a Third Iraq War provided a segue to today’s discussion of Putin’s Russia and the EU/eurozone.  In turn, they provide a segue to the focus of this weblog in the weeks to come.  I will be discussing this old 20th century term, “middle class”.  It remains a useful generalization sometimes, but, more and more often, it is what I call a “glittering generality”, a term that sounds right because it is common and we think we know its definition, but a term which is in the process of quietly being redefined by the very people it pretends to describe.

The shift of “middle class” from useful generalization to glittering generality is not an event, it is a process that is already underway and will continue to unfold over time, but far less time than we might like.  It offers great potential, but that leaves us with a question – potential for what?   There is more than one possible answer to that question now, but there will be a final answer soon enough and it will have a massive impact on every one of us.  That answer, that “wave of the future”, is my focus here at Future Brief.

If you would like to join me on this journey, feel free.  I will be walking it anyhow, but congenial company is always welcome.

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This is a personal blog, more of a personal notebook, unadvertised and without promotion.  I try to post on a weekly basis. Should you stumble across it and wish to be notified of new posts, just enter your email address at the upper-right of this page. I have no other use for email addresses.  Rest assured, yours will be kept private.  You are welcome to make comments, if they are on topic and polite.  I have no time or space for insults, foul language, or anything I judge to be offensive to readers.

 

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Preparing for the Third Iraq War

As I work on a more comprehensive, global forecast for the next ten to fifteen years, I try to avoid spending time on matters of immediate media interest. The war in the Ukraine is an example.  I will make an exception today as the topic is simply too important to ignore – war in Iraq.

When I wrote a guest editorial on the second Iraq War for Barron’s in June of 2004, Talking the Talk – Communication is the real failure in Iraq, my first paragraph pointed the finger at the person responsible for that war.

“Who’s being blamed for failure in Iraq? The list is long. George Bush. Dick Cheney. Donald Rumsfeld. Colin Powell. Paul Bremer. An assortment of generals and diplomats. Europeans. Iraqis. Other Arab leaders. And let’s not forget Saddam Hussein, without whose lunatic regime none of this would have been possible.”

Well, the Islamic State has replaced Saddam Hussein.  Saddam used to love to pretend as if he was the innocent victim of American lies.  Fortunately, in a perverse way, the IS has left no doubt as to its real nature. They have the YouTube videos to prove it and so do we.

Okay, but what “preparations” am I talking about?  For those like myself, who follow events in Iraq on a daily basis, this is no surprise, but it will be for many people.  Making my job much easier, Stratfor provides a brief, but excellent, overview of this coming Third Iraq War.  My comments from hereon will assume you have taken the five minutes necessary to read their summary.  Please do that.  It is worth it.

Okay. Do I need to explain that this could be a genuine catastrophe if they blow it?  I don’t think so.  I can’t say I blame the anonymous source at DOD for “leaking” this info to Stratfor.  They must be beside themselves with anxiety.  After all, if it fails, they will take a hit, and the potential for failure is clear.  The “coalition” they have to work with is totally unlike the two they worked with in earlier wars.  In the past, we never had to worry about our coalition partners fighting with each other, much less killing each other.

I am not going to waste space and my time discussing the political consequences in the US.  Let it suffice to say that if this occurs prior to November of 2016, as is clearly planned, then the coming campaign season will be an interesting one indeed.

Let me be clear.  I have no doubt that, unless there is an internal break-down within the IS, there will be a war.  They want a war, as Graeme Wood explains so well in his Atlantic article, What ISIS Really Wants, and they will get it.   It’s already underway, if on a small scale compared to what we are discussing here.  And there is no question that Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, must be taken away from the Islamic State.  I do not favor war, but I do understand that it is almost a certainty at some point and that we cannot wait for two years.  But if we are going to do it, we have to win it.

My fears are simple.

First, although there hasn’t been a census in more than a decade, Mosul and the nearby cities surrounding it represent roughly 3,000,000 urbanites.  This will be an urban war and there will be plenty of civilian casualties under the best of circumstances. This will not be a pretty war in any way.

Second, and even worse, those lives may be lost in our defeat, not the defeat of IS, if we are not prepared.  I am sure you remember that one major criticism of the G.W. Bush administration was that they had not prepared a sufficiently powerful force to successfully complete what they were contemplating.  But I can barely imagine what a disaster it would have been if Bush had depended on a coalition of the Shi’a, the Kurds, disgruntled Sunnis, and the Iranians without any American “feet on the ground”.  That kind of scheme would never have gotten Senate approval at that time and for very good reason.  But make no mistake about it.  Perhaps the US could claim not to be a belligerent in this war, but it will provide the leadership, try as we may to hide that obvious fact.  None of our “coalition partners” could possibly take that role.  We will hold responsibility.

Third, failure is not an option.  Even a long, drawn-out battle for Mosul that stretches over many months is not an option.  It must succeed or the consequences will be too many and too negative to contemplate right now.  This war cannot “get out of hand”.

One thing that definitely must be dealt with is securing the support of the American people.  Thanks to the IS and its public thuggery, the foundation is in place as is shown by this list drawn from a Gallup report of two weeks ago.

https://i0.wp.com/content.gallup.com/origin/gallupinc/GallupSpaces/Production/Cms/POLL/-cz-bhaj_eqrdh4jazm-eq.png

That foundation may be sufficient to support current bombing raids, but its strength is very questionable for something far more dramatic and far more dangerous.

I will leave it at that for now.  There is much more to be said and to be heard on this topic.  And no doubt about it, it will be said and it will be heard. At the very least, we should be prepared.

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This is a personal blog, more of a personal notebook, unadvertised and without promotion.  I write when time and spirit allow. Should you stumble across it and wish to be notified of new posts, just enter your email address at the upper-right of this page. I have no other use for email addresses. I already have too many in my “address book”. Rest assured, yours will be kept private.  You are welcome to make comments, if they are on topic and polite.  I have no space for insults, foul language, or anything I judge to be offensive to readers.

Posted in Global analysis, Global politics, US politics | 6 Comments

Jay Ogilvy on “Mind the Gap”

I am republishing the following essay by Jay Ogilvy of Stratfor, with Stratfor’s permission. I will very rarely do this, but I will today because I think it is a very intelligent and thoughtful essay, related to much of my own thinking. By adding it here to my “notebook”, I will be able to refer to it quickly and easily as needed in the future. In addition, I hope you will find it interesting too.

Mind the Gap
By Jay Ogilvy

The Charlie Hebdo attack and its aftermath in the streets and in the press tempt one to dust off Samuel Huntington’s 1996 book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. Despite the criticisms he provoked with that book and his earlier 1993 article in Foreign Affairs, recent events would seem to be proving him prescient.

Or was he?

While I am not about to deny the importance of religion and culture as drivers of geopolitical dynamics, I will argue that, more important than the clashes among the great civilizations, there is a clash within each of the great civilizations. This is the clash between those who have “made it” (in a sense yet to be defined) and those who have been “left behind” — a phrase that is rich with ironic resonance.

Before I make my argument, I warn that the point I’m trying to make is fairly subtle. So, in the interest of clarity, let me lay out what I’m not saying before I make that point. I am not saying that Islam as a whole is somehow retrograde. I am not agreeing with author Sam Harris’ October 2014 remark on “Real Time with Bill Maher” that “Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas.” Nor am I saying that all religions are somehow equal, or that culture is unimportant. The essays in the book Culture Matters, which Huntington helped edit, argue that different cultures have different comparative advantages when it comes to economic competitiveness. These essays build on the foundation laid down by Max Weber’s 1905 work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. It is only the “sulfuric odor of race,” as Harvard historian David Landes writes on the first page of the first essay in Culture Matters, that has kept scholars from exploring the under-researched linkages between culture and economic performance.

Making It in the Modern World

The issue of the comparative advantages or disadvantages of different cultures is complicated and getting more so because with modernity and globalization, our lives are getting more complicated. We are all in each other’s faces today in a way that was simply not the case in earlier centuries. Whether through travel or telecommunications or increasingly ubiquitous and inexpensive media, each and every one of us is more aware of the cultural other than in times past. This is obvious. What is not so obvious are the social and psychological consequences of the inevitable comparisons this awareness invites us to make: How are we measuring up, as individuals and as civilizations?

In the modern world, the development of the individual human, which is tied in part to culture, has become more and more important. If you think of a single human life as a kind of footrace — as if the developmental path from infancy to maturity were spanning a certain distance — then progress over the last several millennia has moved out the goal posts of maturity. It simply takes longer to learn the skills it takes to “make it” as an adult. Surely there were skills our Stone Age ancestors had to acquire that we moderns lack, but they did not have to file income taxes or shop for insurance. Postmodern thinkers have critiqued the idea of progress and perhaps we do need a concept that is forgivingly pluralistic. Still, there have been indisputable improvements in many basic measures of human progress. This is borne out by improved demographic statistics such as birth weight, height and longevity, as well as declining poverty and illiteracy. To put it very simply, we humans have come a long way.

But these historic achievements have come at a price. It is not simple for individuals to master this elaborate structure we call modern civilization with its buildings and institutions and culture and history and science and law. A child can’t do it. Babies born into this world are biologically very similar to babies born 10,000 years ago; biological evolution is simply too slow and cannot equip us to manage this structure. And childhood has gotten ever longer. “Neoteny” is the technical term for the prolongation of the period during which an offspring remains dependent on its parent. In some species, such as fish or spiders, newborns can fend for themselves immediately. In other species — ducks, deer, dogs and cats — the young remain dependent on their mothers for a period of weeks. In humans, the period of dependency extends for years. And as the generations and centuries pass, especially recently, that period of dependency keeps getting longer.

As French historian Philippe Aries informed us in Centuries of Childhood, “in medieval society, the idea of childhood did not exist.” Prior to modernity, young people were adults in miniature, trying to fit in wherever they could. But then childhood got invented. Child labor laws kept children out of the factories and truancy laws kept them in public schools. For a recent example of the statutory extension of childhood known as neoteny, consider U.S. President Barack Obama’s announcement that he intends to make community college available for free to any high school graduate, thus extending studenthood by two years.

The care and feeding and training of your average human cub have become far greater than the single season that bear cubs require. And it seems to be getting ever longer as more 20-somethings and even 30-somethings find it cheaper to live with mom and dad, whether or not they are enrolled in school or college. The curriculum required to flourish as an adult seems to be getting ever longer, the goal posts of meaningful maturity ever further away from the “starting line,” which has not moved. Our biology has not changed at anywhere near the rate of our history. And this growing gap between infancy and modern maturity is true for every civilization, not just Islamic civilization.

The picture gets complicated, though, because the vexed history of the relationships among the world’s great civilizations leaves little doubt about different levels of development along any number of different scales of achievement. Christian democracies have outperformed the economies and cultures of the rest of the world. Is this an accident? Or is there something in the cultural software of the West that renders it better able to serve the needs of its people than does the cultural software called Islam?

Those Left Behind

Clearly there is a feeling among many in the Islamic world that they, as a civilization, have been “left behind” by history. Consider this passage from Snow, the novel by Nobel Prize-winning Turkish author Orhan Pamuk:

“We’re poor and insignificant,” said Fazul, with a strange fury in his voice. “Our wretched lives have no place in human history. One day all of us living now in Kars will be dead and gone. No one will remember us; no one will care what happened to us. We’ll spend the rest of our days arguing about what sort of scarf women should wrap around their heads, and no one will care in the slightest because we’re eaten up by our own petty, idiotic quarrels. When I see so many people around me leading such stupid lives and then vanishing without a trace, an anger runs through me…”

Earlier I mentioned the ironic resonance of this phrase, “left behind.” I think of two other recent uses: first, the education reform legislation in the United States known as the No Child Left Behind Act; the second, the best-selling series of 13 novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins in which true believers are taken up by the Rapture while the sinners are “left behind.” In both of these uses, it is clearly a bad thing to be left behind.

This growing divide between those who have made it and those who are being left behind is happening globally, in each of the great civilizations, not just Islam. To quote my fellow Stratfor columnist, Ian Morris, from just last week:

Culture is something we can change in response to circumstances rather than waiting, as other animals must, for our genes to evolve under the pressures of natural selection. As a result, though we are still basically the same animals that we were when we invented agriculture at the end of the ice age, our societies have evolved faster and faster and will continue to do so at an ever-increasing rate in the 21st century.

And because the fundamental dynamics of this divide are rooted in the mismatch between the pace of change of biological evolution on the one hand (very slow) and historical or technological change on the other (ever faster), it is hard to see how this gap can be closed. We don’t want to stop progress, and yet the more progress we make, the further out the goal posts of modern maturity recede and the more significant culture becomes.

There is a link between the “left behind” phenomenon and the rise of the ultra-right in Europe. As the number of unemployed, disaffected, hopeless youth grows, so also does the appeal of extremist rhetoric — to both sides. On the Muslim side, more talk from the Islamic State about slaying the infidels. On the ultra-right, more talk about Islamic extremists. Like a crowded restaurant, the louder the voices get, the louder the voices get.

I use this expression, those who have “made it,” because the gap in question is not simply between the rich and the poor. Accomplished intellectuals such as Pamuk feel it as well. The writer Pankaj Mishra, born in Uttar Pradesh, India, in 1969, is another rising star from the East who writes about the dilemma of Asian intellectuals, the Hobson’s choice they face between recoiling into the embrace of their ancient cultures or adopting Western ways precisely to gain the strength to resist the West. This is their paradox: Either accept the Trojan horse of Western culture to master its “secrets” — technology, organization, bureaucracy and the power that accrues to a nation-state — or accept the role of underpaid extras in a movie, a very partial “universal” history, that stars the West. In my next column, I’ll explore more of Mishra’s insights from several of his books.

Mind the Gap is republished with permission of Stratfor.

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This is a personal blog, more of a notebook, unadvertised and without promotion. It is where I jot down thoughts that are important to me and may potentially be used in other commentaries for general publication. I write when time and spirit allow. Should you stumble across it and wish to be notified of new posts, just enter your email address at the upper-right of this page. I have no other use for email addresses. I already have too many in my “address book”. Rest assured, yours will be kept private.

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Time to get out of The Box

Most people call it futurism.  I call it “futures analysis”, the plural indicating that there are many different possible futures.  Whatever you call it, we all do it in one form or another.  Do I get married?  Should we have children now?  Should I quit and look for a new job?  The list is endless for all of us.  And some of us do it professionally.

In analyzing and forecasting ahead, there is a need for focus or the analysis becomes so complex, it is impossible to judge.  But focus can unwittingly become tunnel vision and that is an even bigger problem.

Recently, the Boston Consulting Group published the first of a series of reports on a subject of real interest to me.  Well-written, thoughtful, and with statistics unavailable elsewhere, they discussed the simple fact that although money, goods, and services can move more quickly around the world than ever before, labor cannot.

As a result, there are “aging nations” that will face labor shortages in the next fifteen years, but there are also nations that will face growing numbers of unemployed workers.  BCG emphasizes the need to deal with this and soon or there will a high price to pay for both types of nation.  By their estimate, it may cost us as much as $10 trillion in lost GDP if not confronted.  I understand their point well and have seen this develop over the nearly five decades that I have worked in nations all over the world.

But when I was finished, I was unsatisfied. I also read many analyses that focus on something else – automation.  I am told that millions of jobs have already been lost to automation and tens of millions more will be lost during the same fifteen years.  How does this factor into the BCG analysis?

I expect BCG to tackle this question in their remaining reports in this series, but it helps make a point.  It is getting harder and harder to make recommendations for the future based on a trend that may be trumped by another trend gaining strength at the same time. And heaven help you if there is more than one.

Let me give you a much more modest example from the nation where I live as an American expatriate – Panama.  In recent months, there has been a lot of talk regarding a new canal proposed for Nicaragua, the so-called “Grand Canal”.  As someone who provides economic and investment analysis to those interested in investing in Panama, I am frequently asked if we are afraid that this canal will seriously damage the future of the Panama Canal.  The short answer is, “No.”

Given fifteen or twenty minutes, I can go through a list of serious potential problems with its execution.  The presence of some rather odd Chinese investors makes no difference at this point. There are sufficient problems in Nicaragua, regardless of who provides the money.  This is not the first time we have been through this.  In 2011, it was a Chinese proposal to build a “dry canal” (a railroad) across Colombia.  No one talks about that anymore.

However, if I am speaking with a client with patience and no time limitations, I explain the real “threat” to the Panama Canal.  A little over 40% of Panama Canal tonnage is to and from Asia and North America’s Atlantic coast, or to and from Europe and North America’s Pacific coast.  Here the Canal’s real competitor is not the route around the tip of South America.  It is the US itself.  Freight can be unloaded on either coast of the US and moved by truck to the other side of the country.  That sounds faster, so why isn’t that normal?  The problem for shippers is sometimes port congestion, but the primary problem is trucking.

There is a perennial shortage of truckers.  It costs a lot to recruit new drivers, keep them, pay costs resulting from accidents, pay for insurance and more.  The long-haul trucking system, as it is now, is hard-pressed to meet its obligations currently.  It therefore often pays to have your goods shipped through the Canal to the opposite side of the US or Canada and avoid transcontinental trucking completely.

But there is a new trend, one that has great potential impact on shipping of all kinds.

We all know about Google’s self-driving cars.  Well, rest assured that this is of great interest to trucking firms.  Removing the majority of truckers and their associated costs from the equation will dramatically reduce costs and increase the efficiency of the trucking system.  Having your truck on the road 24/7, other than maintenance, will dramatically impact both your bottom line and your pricing.

Mercedes-Benz already has proposed its first prototype of a self-driving semi. Mercedes assumes the truck will not be practical until 2025, ten years from now. Well, perhaps, but it’s impossible to predict this trend’s commercial fulfillment. In any case, 2005 was not that long ago and you know how much changed in just the next five years.

That isn’t the only line on the corporate cost spreadsheet, but it is an important one that the Panama Canal will have to deal with.

Is that all?  No, there is a second competitor coming along – 3D printing.  This new industry has amazing potential and that’s no secret. Just look what the Chinese have already done with it.

3D-printing a house is pretty impressive, but ships typically carry much smaller things. Toys for Christmas by the tens of millions is just one example of many. In the future, to be able to print your own goods, toys among them, rather than order and wait for them to be shipped to you is exciting, You will download designs from the Web and print them out at home. Until then, I expect stores to arrive in communities where we can go, make an order, and pick it up when it’s finished.

Each year, 3D printing will become more sophisticated and more useful to more people.  Like personal computers not so long ago, it may not be obvious how an individual or even a small business can profit from the technology as it is today, but tomorrow is another story and tomorrow will probably be here far sooner than many of us expect. And with it will come a challenge to every canal, every trucker, and a lot of other people who ignore it as “trivial” or “far in the future” today.

As for the folks in Nicaragua, even if the tens of billions of dollars are spent and a canal of some sort is in operation in a decade or so, it will open deeply in debt and just in time to run head on into the new competition.

Down here, I am not losing sleep worrying about the Panama Canal.  The Panama Canal Authority is one of the most impressive institutions I have ever seen in operation. They know how to compete with alternatives. And if, in the future, their contribution to the national economy begins to shrink, the nation can handle it.  Panama’s economy has been growing rapidly for more than a decade and is far more diversified than it was in 1995 or even 2005.  While the rest of the world focuses on the Canal’s expansion, the story of Panama’s diversification has been overlooked too frequently.  Panama will find its way through these changes.

But this essay is not about canals.  They just provided me with a familiar (to me) example.  I’m writing about futures analysis. Many of us grew up during the Cold War.  Those were very complex times too, but you could depend on most nations, if not all, looking to Washington and Moscow before making an important decision.  That certainly didn’t make those decades easy or simple to analyze, but at least it provided a structure and I think too many of us who remember that period have never completely recovered from its loss.  Its end was a true blessing, but it makes futures analysis much more difficult today.

So read predictions and forecasts for 2025, 2050, even 2100, and accept them as food for thought, but don’t believe them.  They are all wrong, we just don’t know how wrong yet or why.

Today, too many analysts are still warm and comfy thinking inside that simpler 20th century box. It’s so much easier than stepping outside the box, into the real world of the 21st century.

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This is a personal blog, more of a notebook, unadvertised and without promotion. It is where I jot down thoughts that are important to me and may potentially be used in other commentaries for general publication. I write when time and spirit allow. Should you stumble across it and wish to be notified of new posts, just enter your email address at the upper-right of this page. I have no other use for email addresses. I already have too many in my “address book”. Rest assured, yours will be kept private.

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You can’t build a successful community without a middle class

First it was Thomas Piketty with his call for a global wealth tax. Now it’s Oxfam with a 7-point program that is as unlikely to be adopted as Piketty’s global tax. A socialist approach (it would have to be government-mandated to have any chance of working), it would require a level of international cooperation far in excess of any treaty on climate change. And pigs will fly. It is not going to happen and it shouldn’t.

When I hear people come up with such unrealistic global “solutions” that require nations as different as Iran, China, the US, Italy, Jamaica, Singapore, and Nigeria to agree to a sweeping reduction in their sovereignty to meet the needs of the fading elite of the North Atlantic, I suggest they first go to school.

The classroom is Europe. When and if the European Union (sic) and its eurozone are able to work out a common policy on financial matters and implement it successfully, that will still not be enough to guarantee adoption of a global policy, but at least it can be called a “proof of concept”. Until then, these calls for global action are just a means of gaining publicity and maybe funding. Well, that’s the free market in ideas at work. I have no problem with that, but it won’t work and it doesn’t confront a fundamental problem.

I also am very unhappy with this concentration of vast wealth in the hands of a small minority too. It is dangerous and such an extreme imbalance has a very bad track record. A similar situation seemed to require a massive global intervention in the 19th century and some people (Karl Marx comes immediately to mind) could only see it as a conflict between their definition of “capitalism” and their definition of “socialism”. Terms like “private enterprise”, “market economy”, and “mixed economy” never occurred to them and, as a result, their simplistic views collapsed in the face of changes beyond their comprehension. They did not create the new world of the 20th century. A rising middle class with a sense of being “stakeholders” in their community did the real work, regardless of the ideological outcome.

Don’t worry about the folks at Davos. Whatever their ideological perspective, they are totally globalized. The wealthy can afford to “go global” and they have done so with great enthusiasm as the collapse of the Soviet Union and the opening of China to the outside world have allowed.

Unexpectedly, the poor have become more globalized as well. In search of employment or relief from authoritarianism, many of them have more experience living in nations other than their home nations than is true of most Americans.

If the wealthy face problems, they can buy their way around them. If the poor face problems, they have organizations (like Oxfam) to represent their interests.

The missing element in this emerging global community is a globalized middle class. I say “globalized” because without experience outside their home nations, they won’t fully appreciate the need for change or feel any stake in seeking it. Addressing wealth disparities does not benefit from either the fiat of governments or foreign NGOs. It will come from a middle class that insists on it from its own experience, and it is far more likely to be balanced and successful as well. The proof of concept lies in the histories of many economically successful nations with far less of an imbalance in wealth today.

Through neither fiat nor design, we are developing a “global community”. It does not require a world government and will not. In nearly five decades of work in economic development, frequently for NGOs like Oxfam, in nearly as many nations that included interaction with politicians at every level, I never met one who was the least bit interested in turning over their authority, at whatever level, to some distant “world government”. Forget it, they’re not interested. If Europe can’t do it, the world isn’t even thinking about it.

If you believe, as I do, in the growth of a sense of global community (the need to work together for a common human cause) than focus on the middle class. Many of them are willing to relocate. I have written twice on this topic for Barron’s with statistics demonstrating that desire in the US and others have done the same for other nations. Once again, look to Europe and you will see it in action.

Although money can move freely across borders and goods and services can now move far more easily across borders, middle class people still face major obstacles. They don’t have to be forced to “go global”, they want to and by personal decision, not by fiat. Yet from visas and work permits to moving their personal effects, they face major problems without the money to get around them easily or the special interest groups to plead their case.

Many of these problems have solutions that aren’t obvious to newbies, but there are substantive things that can be done to make the transition easier and acceptable to the host nation’s people too. But no one gives the middle class any help, they have no global advocate, so we lose many who never even visit, convinced that it won’t work. It can work and it does.

For those who think the middle class can be ignored while this nascent global community is being built around them, I can only say what I have said before.

Watch Europe.

——-

This is a personal blog, more of a notebook, unadvertised and without promotion. It is where I jot down thoughts that are important to me and may potentially be used in other commentaries for general publication. I write when time and spirit allow. Should you stumble across it and wish to be notified of new posts, just enter your email address at the upper-right of this page. I have no other use for email addresses. I already have too many in my “address book”. Rest assured, yours will be kept private.

Posted in Global analysis, Global politics, migration/relocation | Leave a comment

Beyond the Glitter – Living and Working Overseas

We all have seen them. Stories, typically of young people, out to travel around the world on only a few dollars. Stories about couples who set up a bed and breakfast in Thailand or another exotic location. Stories about a stockbroker who decides to leave New York City behind for the glories of a simpler life overseas.  They are often written in a style that could be called “romantic”.  Beautiful photos and inspiring stories.  But are such stories real?  Do people actually do this beyond a handful of hopeless romantics?

Yes, they do.  Here in Panama where I am an expat, you can be four young Americans taking an idea from home and turning it into a success that won them an award a few years ago as “Entrepreneurs of the Year” in Panama, despite being expats.  Or you can be older and a Canadian who has set up the traditional North American dream, a small hotel, or you can be from Denmark or from Thailand or from Britain, as just a few examples.  You can even be from Venezuela and set up a foreign franchise in Panama, one of eleven of this business here.  Yes, Venezuelans are as much “expats” in Panama as Americans in Australia, as are the many Latin Americans from Argentina, Ecuador, Colombia and others who have moved here in recent years, many of them setting up businesses.

Does this have any significance to the global community and its future?  Two recent studies suggest it does.

The Boston Consulting Group has recently released a report available in PDF form at their site titled, “The Global Workforce Crisis: $10 Trillion at Risk”.  They look at the coming five to fifteen years and discuss the growing imbalance between those nations with surplus labor and those with a deficit, and the need for the two to find each other, so to speak.  The “$10 Trillion ar Risk” is their estimate of the loss of global GDP between now and 2030 if this is not addressed.

McKinsey has released a report also available in PDF form at their site titled, “Can long-term global growth be saved?” that takes a broader view, but includes as one of the ten “enablers” that can help “save” that growth the relocation of labor from one nation to another, stating, “Being open to flows of people can do more than contribute much-needed additional labor to an economy whose own labor pool is eroding. Countries that are more open to immigrants have experienced faster expansion in their labor forces, and will continue to do so, than those that are more closed.”

As you might imagine, there is an emphasis on large nations with a surplus of labor and others with a growing deficit of labor.  But the fact is that many nations need labor too, but they are not large enough to catch the attention of major consulting firms.  Panama has nowhere near enough trained people in many areas to meet the needs of an economy whose inflation-adjusted GDP has more than doubled since I first visited in 2004 and which continues to rise well above the average of the so-called “advanced economies”.  You know, the ones up to their ears in debt and can’t make up their minds what to do about it.

These are the nations, some growing rapidly, others not yet but with real potential, that can give an individual or couple the opportunity to find a job or build a business and a new, more interesting life without being the “drop in a bucket” they may be the case in a nation like Brazil.  Some assume that size means wealth, but Panama has a per-capita GDP (PPP) a third higher than Brazil.  For small businesses, total wealth is not the question; it is the availability of disposable income to the local household that makes the difference for them.

So how do you find a job?  There are the global “job sites” that offer a variety of positions from firms in other nations.  But get real.  You are not likely to get a job, anywhere, without showing up in-person for an interview.  You are going to have to get there on your own dime and, trust me, success is not guaranteed!  But that raises yet another problem.

Too many people think they have to be employed to live and work in another nation.  Yes, that can be true.  Most nations, including the US, require that you already have a solid job offer and a corporate sponsor to get a work permit, visa, or similar document and, even then, nothing is guaranteed.  The basic reason is simple.  Nations are not interested in foreigners competing for jobs with their nationals, even if they are short of labor themselves.   It’s a socio-political thing and I think you can understand that.

But were those businesses I mentioned above and many, many other similar businesses begun by foreigners coming to Panama for employment?  No.  They came and set up corporations.  In Panama, you can do that while still on a tourist visa.  Why is that so much easier than getting a work permit?  You are not taking a job that might go to a Panamanian, you are creating a company that, if successful, can provide jobs to Panamanians.  That is completely different and acceptable locally.

But are there that many people interested in relocating to another nation?  Yes.  Mostly rich people and retirees looking for warmer weather?  No.  I am very familiar with this as my former US firm had nine professional surveys of Americans conducted on the subject.  I wrote about it twice at Barron’s, got interviewed at CNBC, and finally set up a website at AmericaWave.com to post some of the results, freely available to anyone.  Some of the surveys included statistically-valid samples of 20-25,000 adult Americans, a couple only 2-5,000, still much larger than most surveys you read in your daily newspaper or favorite news site.

From 2005 through 2011, the results changed here and there, but two things were very clear.  The great majority of Americans interested in relocation are not retirees and they are not rich.  Our US firm closed its doors as the principals, including me as its CEO, relocated themselves to other nations.  And, frankly, we got tired of being someone’s “soundbite” or interesting “factoid”.  We decided to live the experience.  It’s a lot more fun and much more productive, but we leave the site up for anyone doing research on the topic.

Those surveys were aimed at Americans who had not yet relocated.  For practical purposes, it’s impossible to get a statistically-valid sample of Americans who have already relocated.  There is no database with that information that allows for such a survey.

Many other nations keep much better records.  After all, unlike the US, most nations do not tax their citizens on overseas income, so they really need to know that you are outside the nation if you don’t want to pay.  One excellent (and I suspect very expensive) survey was undertaken by the UK’s Institute for Public Policy Research in 2006.  Even then, before the global financial crisis, they found that nearly 10% of British citizens lived outside the UK.  The report is still up at the BBC site.  Numbers can be found here and text can be found here.  And there is plenty more to be found from other EU nations, particularly since the global financial crisis, if not so well-organized and extensive as this.

Enough on the general topic, the important point is that, if you are actually interested in doing something like this without depending on finding employment first, you will have a challenge finding accurate and up-to-date info at an “international” website on a nation that interests you without being constantly hit by grossly over-hyped claims of “paradise found”, that pretend to know “secrets” (usually about real estate, but anything they want to sell) that are already well-known to those of us living in that nation and certainly aren’t secret, and with expensive “conferences” that can run into the thousands of dollars for an individual, more for a couple, when transport, meals, and accommodations are added to the steep conference fees.  And if you ever write these sites with a specific question expecting a specific answer, good luck to you!

I am fed up with all this. It’s the 21st century, but you wouldn’t know it from these outfits who use a tired old 20th century approach because they make a lot more money doing that, although they are missing and will continue to miss the very age groups that represent the majority of people seriously interested in relocating and who are very much of the 21st century.

Instead of offering a multi-thousand dollar conference in a physical location, I asked myself, why not an Internet conference with a live stream where people can ask specific questions and get them answered directly?  And could it be done on a very small budget?  At 69, I haven’t been employed for several years.  My business partner here, 37, earned his place through “sweat equity” and our strategic partner, an excellent videographer, is 28 and has a thriving small business in Panama, but not up to funding a conference like this. But nothing ventured, nothing gained.

We did it at PanamaWave.com.  We are keeping it going for a full two months to allow late-comers to get into the mix.  An important aspect is the ability to ask questions in live sessions, so this gave more people the chance to find out about it (our marketing budget was almost non-existent) and still profit from that aspect.  We only charge $37.   This is “proof of concept” and it worked.  The feedback has been powerfully positive.  We won’t make any money on it.  The profit is in the experience.  We would like to do it again and even better, maintaining a low double-digit price, if we can fund the next level.  The important thing is that the approach works and people love it!

So I will leave you with two messages to two different groups.

What we did for Panama, we cannot do for other nations.  This should be done by people who live and work in the target nation, so I”m addressing those of you who do. Take a look at our approach, but be open to something better and let us know if you find it!  Use videos.  You can have pre-recorded videos where expats describe their experiences and so forth, but use live streaming for the nitty-gritty topics that interest almost everyone (visa requirements, how to incorporate a business, the availability of health insurance, etc.) and where specific questions are most likely.  Put your nation’s best foot forward, but avoid the hype that you probably already know is so common to sites aimed at your nation, and don’t neglect to mention the pitfalls and challenges too.  Relax, be informal, be responsive.  Have sponsors, you will need them to make any real money, and let them make their pitch, but don’t let them highjack your conference and turn it into one long video ad.  But above all, if you don’t like the way your second nation is being presented on the Internet, do something constructive about it and who knows?  You may have your own new small business.

For those of you sitting at home, interested in relocating, here is a suggestion.  Use search engines, Facebook, whatever and do as much research on the Net as you can.  Eventually, you will probably find a nation that seems especially attractive.  When you do, try to avoid those expensive conferences, including those in your home nation, that are basically money machines and not interested in you as an individual.  Instead, get in a car, a ship, a plane or whatever is relevant and GO!  That money you would have spent sitting in a crowded conference room surrounded by people who know as little as you do can go a long way to paying for your trip (probably pay for it) and getting you where you can get the best information…personal experience.  You will probably be surprised to arrive and find that you are staying at a hotel or hostel full of people like you, and meet many expats who have lived there for years by just walking around and talking to people.

I was once asked by an expat in Panama if he wasn’t a “pioneer”?  I said, no, not in one sense.  This has been going on longer than you have been alive, just in much bigger numbers now.

But in another sense, he and you are pioneers.  You’re pioneering your lives.  And that, when all is said and done, should be the point.

——-

This is a personal blog, more of a notebook, unadvertised and without promotion. It is where I jot down thoughts that are important to me and may potentially be used in other commentaries for general publication. I write when time and spirit allow. Should you stumble across it and wish to be notified of new posts, just enter your email address at the upper-right of this page. I have no other use for email addresses. I already have too many in my “address book”. Rest assured, yours will be kept private.

Posted in Global analysis, migration/relocation, retirement | Leave a comment

A Question

I just sent this as an email to friends. A simple, complex question.

As you all probably know, North Korea is thought to be behind the attack on Sony Entertainment due to a movie that mocks Kim and his fascist state. The attack is truly monumental and unprecedented in its sophistication and damage done. This has raised the issue of at what point does such an act constitute an act of war (the North Koreans already refer to the movie as act of war).

Now, as you may have heard, the same group responsible for the attack has issued a warning of retaliation aimed at the opening of the film in New York this Thursday evening, along with a not-so-subtle reminder of 9/11. Although they have come through on their prior threats to release information (including their “Christmas gift” just released today), this hopefully is bluster.

But let’s stop for a moment and ask ourselves if, in the event of some incident that takes lives and given the evidence (both known publicly and known to the government privately) that North Korea is behind this affair, how should the President respond?

Posted in Global analysis | Leave a comment