Cable-Cars: The Third Way

So imagine it’s the wonderful future, and everyone has the option of being ferried everywhere by autonomous cars.

The places that were once parking lots have been converted into parks, shops, or homes; the places that were once useless archipelagos of land trapped within highway cloverleafs have been converted into vertical parking lots for autonomous cars, which are capable of holding far more cars within a given space than any traditional parking lot ever could.

Getting Around

Upon entering a car at the front door of one’s home, and perhaps after deciding whether or not to drive the car or let the car drive itself instead, passengers will be confronted with a choice of three basic transportation options:

The most expensive, but also simplest and most private, option is to travel directly by car to one’s destination.

The second most expensive, but generally fastest, option will be to travel by car to a train station, then travel by train to another train station and, if necessary, travel by another car from the station to a destination.  In this future, the middle lanes of many urban highways will be converted into surface rail lines, making trains more widely available. (Also, subway systems will likely continue to expand over time). After dropping off passengers at these highway train stations, cars will be able to drive on to the nearby vertical parking lots.

Finally, the cheapest but slowest option will be to travel by car to a cable-car station. Cable-car stations will often be located within highway vertical parking lots, and also directly above highway train stations. After travelling by car to the nearest one, passengers will ride a cable-car to the train station.

In some places, cable-cars will also diverge from the highway, in order to link the highway to nearby areas that would otherwise be hard to reach as a result of barriers like rivers, escarpments, or valleys.

These cable-cars will not be eyesores — as are some current urban cable-cars, such as London’s Thames River cable-car; and as a monorail would be — as they will travel low to the ground in the middle of wide highways, rising higher only on occasion, mainly to pass over bridges that cross over highways.

Cable-cars will be the third option, for those not in a rush who are looking for a cheap way to travel. Their main purpose will be to link highway parking lots with highway train stations. This will be useful given that highway train stations will be spaced quite far apart from one another (since building train platforms in the middle of wide highways will be relatively expensive), and given that many parking lots will be located within the otherwise difficult-to-reach archipelagos of highway cloverleaf intersections.

As a bonus, cable-cars will increase the overall transportation capacity of a highway by roughly 2-4 thousand people per direction per hour, as well as overcome any topographic barriers adjacent to the highway. They will be particularly useful for highways that run along the floors of valleys, as many urban highways do.

What About Without Autonomous Cars?

This future arrangement does not even necessarily require fully autonomous cars. Semi-autonomous cars would be sufficient:

So long as cars could function autonomously from, say, 4am-5am, and so long as cars could function autonomously within vertical parking lots (which, unlike traditional parking lots, would be able to fill almost every last cubic metre of their volume with cars), the system could work. Passengers could order a car,  and it would be delivered directly to their home overnight.

The Witching Hour: How To Fix Traffic in 3 Easy Steps, Without Resorting To Autonomous Cars

 

1. Allow autonomous cars during “the Witching Hour”: from 4 am-5 am. They can drive slowly in order to be safe and quiet; say, at no more than 10 km per hour when in residential neighbourhoods. Even at these slow speeds, this will allow car-sharing  cars to be delivered to peoples’ homes for use the following morning. (In fact, the cars themselves do not even necessarily need to have an autonomous capability. They could instead just hitch a ride on top of slow-moving road roombas). In the case of electric cars, this will also allow them to drive themselves to and from battery-charing stations at night, when electricity tends to be cheap and road-traffic sparse.

2. On main streets, have both an express LRT lane — with stops very far apart from one another — and a non-express bus lane. On narrower streets, have the non-express busses share a lane with regular car traffic.

3. Next to many of the LRT stops, as well as next to train stations, construct “take a car, leave a car” vertical parking lots. These will be “valet” lots: you drive a car-sharing car to the lot’s entrance, then get out of the car and have it drive itself (or be carried by a road roomba) into the lot to park. This will not only save drivers time in parking, but will also allow the lot to hold far more cars than any traditional vertical parking lot could, since without humans it can have much shorter ceilings, more tightly winding ramps to get cars up or down floors, and many more parking spots per floor. It will allow easy pick-up or drop-off of car-sharing cars. Along with the Witching Hour, this will overcome the “first mile-last mile” problems that otherwise tend to limit public transit’s effectiveness and appeal.

…So, there you have it. Three easy steps! With the Witching Hour, and car-sharing, and vertical parking lots, we can finally help to get rid of our cities’ spooky traffic problems.

Go East, Young Canuck!

Atlantic Canada, where lives 30 percent of the Canadian population in five of the country’s ten provinces (Quebec*, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, and PEI), has had slower population and GDP growth than central or western Canada in recent times.

(*I’m including Quebec in “Atlantic Canada” here. This is for three reasons: first, Quebec is  geographically an Atlantic province; Quebec City is an Atlantic city. Second, Quebec has shared in the Atlantic trend of relatively low population and GDP growth. Third, the French-speaking area of Canada in a sense spills over into New Brunswick, where about a third of people speak French).

Population Growth .png

Canada province gdp per capita.png

Atlantic Canada’s slower growth has been the result, more or less, of four factors: climate (Quebec’s winters are cold, the Maritimes’ snowy), commodities (fossil fuels are mostly in western Canada); language (much of Atlantic Canada’s population does not speak English well), and location (Atlantic is relatively far from East Asia or the US).

can-us 50 land:water
Source: Ontario, the Borderland Economy
average snow in canada
Source: Fasten Your Snowbelts

Population and GDP Growth Ahead? 

I’m sorry, but I got real lazy here. So I’m just going to make pie-in-the-sky predictions, in point form:

  1. Migration and EnergyWith fossil fuel prices low today:

    — the Maritimes (apart from Newfoundland) benefit, as they tend to be the most dependent on fuel imports among Canadian provinces
    — Maritimers may move home from western Canada
    — Migrants from Romance-language developing economies and the Arab world, which depend heavily on energy and other commodity exports, may move to Quebec or to New Brunswick. This is particularly true given current politics in the US (where many do not want more immigration from Latin America), France (where many don’t want Muslim immigration), Veneuela (a country of 32 million people, in turmoil right now), Algeria, Libya, Angola, DRC, and Brazil
    — Migrants need affordable housing; Ontario and BC don’t have it, Atlantic Canada does
    — Migrants need employment; France, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Belgium don’t have it
    — Demographics: whereas today most of the world’s people of prime emigrating or studying-abroad age (20-40 years old) in the world are East or South Asian, over the next decade or two the biggest growth in this category by far will be in Sub-Saharan Africa. Much of this, in turn, will be in Atlantic countries (notably Nigeria), many of which speak English or French.
    — In the Americas, the biggest relative growth in 20-40 year olds will be in Haiti (pop. 11 million)
    — Even Romania, a Romance-language country with a population of 20 million, is an oil-exporting economy

2. Trade and Technology

— Brexit: England and/or Scotland and/or Ireland may look west to its ex-colonies in the Maritimes for new trade (or travel) relationships
— Trump: the Republicans have brought some uncertainty to NAFTA, and also seem poised to help keep energy prices low by allowing the US fossil fuel boom to continue. Atlantic Canada is less dependent on trade with the US than Ontario is, and less dependent on high fuel prices than western Canada is
— New Fur Trade: Europe is looking for commodities in order to wean itself off of Russia and the Arab world, and ports in Atlantic Canada may be able to provide it with the supplies to do so. In recent decades, most Canadian trade has been along north-south lines, a result of the significant barriers that are the Rockies (especially in winter), northern Appalachians (especially in winter), and the Canadian Shield’s lakes/rock formations/Great Lake Snow-belts. New technologies, however, notably autonomous trucks (or at least, “smarter” trucks) may help to overcome these barriers, allowing for more east-west trade
— Meanwhile, trade with Asia is unlikely to grow relatively quickly like it did in recent decades, given that Asian growth is shifting more from the northeast (Japan, South Korea, coastal China), which is relatively near western Canada, to the south and west (India, Southeast Asia, inland China) which is not so easily accessible from western Canada. Western India, in fact, is several thousand km closer to Halifax by sea than eastern India is to Vancouver
— Autonomous ships, aircraft: small autonomous ships, combined with climate change, might open up new North Atlantic sea lanes (Northwest Passage, Northeast Passage). Autonomous aircraft, similarly, might help open up the aerial Northwest Passage (by air, St. John’s-to-Beijing is only 20-25 percent further from than Victoria-to-Beijing). Autonomous cargo planes, when combined with modern precision airdrop technology, may also allow the Maritimes to benefit from being located along the aerial routes between North America and Europe — not entirely unlike how, in the pre-jet age, cities like Gander benefited from these routes
— If North America is to move in a direction away from fossil fuels, it will need abundant energy alternatives, as well as abundant energy storage to support intermittent sources like solar and wind. Quebec’s hydro industry is one of the world leaders in electricity production and storage
— If robots/autonomous vehicles become common, then the amount of energy that is in demand in the wee hours of the night will skyrocket, since robots don’t need sleep. This will benefit energy production that today cannot be turned off at night, such as nuclear and (in many cases) hydropower, in contrast to gas plants or, especially, solar. Outside of China and Russia, which produce prodigous amounts of nuclear and hydro but an even more enormous amount of fossil fuels, the leaders in hydro and nuclear are Atlantic economies: Brazil, France, Scandinavia, and the eastern half of Canada
— E-commerce: in a world of globalizing digital interaction, a region bilingual in both English and a Romance language might be in a good position
— Robotic factory workers: the Maritime provinces have excellent, abundant natural harbours to use as ports, but relatively small populations and, thus, small labour forces. Robots could, pehaps, change this equation, making ports (and energy) a more decisive asset

ocean-drainage-basins
Source: United States Geological Survey

Atlantic_Ocean_laea_relief_location_map

3. Climate and Tourism

— driving in snow or rain, both of which Atlantic Canada gets a lot of, may become much safer and more comfortable than in the past (good, among other things, for the 35 km drive between Halifax and the Airport)
— Atlantic Canada has an enormous amount of waterfront land. With people perhaps being able to spend more time in the countryside, as a result of automation (doing jobs for people), the Internet (e-commuting), and demographics (Baby Boomers cutting down their work hours), this waterfront land could help in tourism
— with more flexibility (because of technology), people from Canada, the US, and Latin America can become snowbirds: summering in Atlantic Canada and wintering down south
— cross-country skiing boom will continue over the next ten years, as Baby Boomers enter their 60’s and 70s
—Much of Atlantic Canada is islands and peninsulas. Airplane travel, particularly with small airplanes, may become cheaper if autonomous planes really do become a reality — or if it becomes easier to become a pilot because of high-tech modern flight simulators. Traveling by boat may become easier if people get more time on their hands, if technology increases safety, and if technology can address sea-sickness

Atlantic Canada.png

Canada_2015_
The Liberals swept the Maritimes; the Conservatives fared most poorly in the Maritimes and Quebec

Should Hockey Fans Be Keynesians?

One of the most common things NHL players tell the media during the playoffs is that, when on the road, they want to play well during the first period in order to “take the fans out of the game early”.

If we assume that the players are correct in thinking that the fans can have strong influence over the game (even though home-team advantage has been quite a bit less significant in the NHL than in the NBA, and arguably has more to do with biases in officiating than anything else) it begs the question of whether some teams’ fans are better at cheering than others.

Usually most of the focus here gets put on sheer loudness: the louder the fans, the better, is the general assumption.  In this year’s playoffs, for example, sportscasters have been talking a lot about how the Rangers’ struggles at home may be due in part to renovations that have made Madison Square Gardens a quieter arena to play in than it used to be.

But what might, perhaps, be lacking in these discussions is a focus on the timing of fans’ cheering. In the NHL, most cheering tends to occur when the home team is already playing well. When a team is doing poorly, however, it is more likely to hear only a brief, classless “Refs You Suck” chant, rather than the more sustained, energizing, and joyous “Go Leafs Go!”

It is not, or at least it does not  appear to be, the fans as a whole who tend to shift the momentum in the game. Rather it seems more often to be individual achievements that do so: a timely goal to get the home team back in the game, a big hit being landed or power play started, or a super-determined (and probably drunk) fan who just wont give up cheering until everybody sitting around him — and then, ultimately, the entire arena — joins in too.

The way fans cheer may be the worst nightmare of the honest, god-fearing Keynesian. Rather than provide stimulus during teams’ recessions, and restraint during their boom times, fans cheer when teams are already playing well, and are often quiet when things look grim.

This raises questions that are usually more associated with economics and politics than hockey. Can stimulus lead to mistakes borne of overconfidence? Is stimulus always equally good, or does it succumb to diminishing returns — and if so, how soon after it begins? And how much better are some governments (or fans) than others at doling out stimulus at the ideal time?

Obviously, these are contested, and more or less unsolved, or even insoluble, questions in economics. In sports, though, we cannot even begin to approach the question, since nobody (as far as I know) has gathered the data that would be necessary to make a start of it. If we want to know more — and yes,  I admit it: this is obviously not really an issue of burning importance — we’re going to need a hockey-loving economist who possesses the skill and resources to do so.

Malcolm Gladwell, if you’re out there somewhere, get to work.

Oil and the Ouroboros

Today, at $45-50 a barrel, the price of crude oil has risen significantly from the $30 lows it reached around the start of 2016. Still, it remains quite far below the $80-110 range in which it resided during most of the past decade, prior to its crash in mid-2014. Gas and coal prices, meanwhile, have in most areas of the world fallen even more than those of oil has. China, because it is the world’s largest net importer of oil and of fossil fuels in general, has often been viewed as a country that is likely to benefit from these cheaper prices.

This view may be incorrect. Not only do China’s energy imports not equal a large share of its GDP, but the growth of China’s energy imports going forward may be slower than many predict. Moreover, there is an enormous discrepancy in the amount of fossil fuels produced by various regions and provinces within China. As such, the crash in energy prices may excacerbate, or at least influence, some of China’s preexisting geo-political divisions.

Energy Imports

China may be the world’s largest energy importer, but it is has also become its second largest energy producer, and as such only relies on energy imports for an estimated 15% of its total energy consumption, in contrast to 94% in Japan, 83% in South Korea, 33% in India, 40% in Thailand, and 43% in the Philippines. In 2014 imports of oil were equal in value to just around 2.4 % of China’s GDP, according to the Wall Street Journal, compared to 3.6% in Japan, 6.9% in Korea, 5.3% in India, 5.4% in Thailand, 4% in the Philippines, and 3.3% in Indonesia.

South Korea and Japan also imported more than two and four times more liquified natural gas, respectively – the prices of which tend to track oil prices more closely than conventional natural gas prices do – than China did. China’s LNG imports barely even surpassed India’s or Taiwan’s. China’s imports of natural gas in general, meanwhile, were less than half as large as Japan’s and only around 20% percent greater than South Korea’s.

China, furthermore, tends to import energy from the most commercially uncompetitive, politically fragile, or American-hated oil-exporting states, such as Iran, Russia, Iraq, Angola, and other African states like Congo and South Sudan. In contrast, Japan and South Korea get their crude from places that will, perhaps, be better at weathering today’s low prices, namely from Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia. (Granted, China gets an enormous amount of oil from Saudi Arabia too; however, Saudi oil does not count for nearly as large as share of China’s oil imports as it does for Japanese or South Korean oil imports). Similarly, China gets much of its natural gas from Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Myanmar, whereas Japan imports gas from Australia and Qatar and South Korea imports gas from Qatar and Indonesia. China’s top source for imports of high-grade anthracite coal, and its third largest source for coal in general, is North Korea.

China has, in addition, invested capital all over the world in areas hurt by falling energy and other commodity prices, both in developed countries like Australia and developing economic regions like Africa. With energy prices cheap, it may get low returns on these expenditures.

Energy, History, and Politics

Another mistake the financial media makes is looking at China as if it were a country, rather than what it really is: both a country and a continent. Continents contain deeply-rooted divisions along regional, linguistic, and ethnic lines. China is no exception. China’s main division, roughly speaking, is between  areas south of the Yangtze River, which tend to be mountainous, sub-tropical, and dependent upon importing fossil fuels, and areas north of the Yangtze, which tend to be flat, more temperate, and rich in fossil fuels.

China’s Physical Topography                     China’s Population Density

Northern China, stretching over 1000 km from Beijing southward to Shanghai on the Yangtze, is the country’s political heartland. It is densely populated and home to most of China’s natively Mandarin-speaking, ethnically Han citizens. When compared to southern China, the north has historically been somewhat insulated from foreigners like the Europeans, Americans, and even Japanese. Beijing’s nearest port is roughly 5000 km away from Singapore and the Strait of Malacca; Hong Kong, in contrast, is only around 2500 km from Singapore and Malacca. Beijing is rougly 2600 km from Tokyo by ship, whereas Shanghai is 1900 km from Tokyo and Taipei (in Taiwan) is 2100 km from Tokyo.

Japan’s Ryukyu island chain and the Kuroshio ocean currents historically allowed for direct transport from Japan to Taiwan and the rest of China’s southeastern coast; the Japanese controlled Taiwan for more than three and a half decades before they first ventured into other areas of China in a serious way during the 1930s. Even today, Japan accounts for a larger share of goods exports to Taiwan than do either China or the US.

Southern China has often depended on foreign trade, since much of its population lives in areas that are sandwiched narrowly between Pacific harbours on one side and coastal subtropical mountain ranges on the other. In northern and central China, in contrast, most people live in interior areas rather than directly alongside the Pacific coast.

People in the northern interior often did not engage in as much foreign trade as those on the coast, as, in the past, transportation in the interior was often limited by the fact that northern China’s chief river, the Huang-he, is generally unnavigable and prone to flooding northern China’s flat river plains, destroying or damaging roads and bridges in the process. In southern or central China, by comparison, even people living far inland could engage with the coast by way of the commercially navigable Yangtze and Pearl Rivers, which meet the Pacific where cities like Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong are located.

Northern China, however, was most directly exposed to the land-based Mongol and Manchu invaders who ruled over the Chinese for most of the past half-millenium or so, prior to the overthrow of the Manchu-led Qing Emperor in 1912. Today, of course, the north continues to retain China’s political capital, Beijing, and a disproportionally large majority of Chinese leaders were born in northern China — including Beijing-born Xi Jinping and Shandong-born Wang Qishan, a former mayor of Beijing). This is in spite of the fact that most of China’s leading political revolutionaries in the twentieth century, including Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Sun Yat Sen, Chang Kai-Shek, Zhu De, Ye Jianying, Hong Xiuquan, and the writer Lu Xun, hailed from southern or south-central China.

At present, out of China’s seven Standing Comittee top leaders, only seventh-ranked Zhang Gaoli was born in southern China; whereas five of the seven were born in northern China and one, Premier Li Keqiang, was born in central China. Zhang Gaoli may in fact be the first person born outside of northern or central China in thirty years to have made it to the Standing Committee. He is also the only person currently in the 25-member Politburo born outside of northern or central China. Meanwhile, among the 11-man Central Military Commission, seven were born in northern China, while two were born in north-central China and two in south-central China. By my count, out of the 205 active members of the Party Central Committee, fewer than 15 seem to have been born south of central China.

Indeed, the southern half of China, stretching from islands in Taiwan, Hainan, Hong Kong, Xiamen, and Macau in the east to the plateaus of Yunnan, Sichuan, and Tibet in the west, seems to be politically peripheral. It is home to a majority of China’s 120 million or so non-Han citizens (most of whom are not Tibetan or Uyghur, though those two groups recieve almost all of the West’s attention), as well as home to China’s 200-400 million speakers of languages other than Mandarin, and to China’s tens of millions of speakers of dialects of Mandarin that are relatively dissimilar to the Beijing-based standardized version of Mandarin, and to most of China’s 50-100 million recent adopters of Christianity, and, finally, to most of China’s millions of family members of the enormous worldwide Chinese diaspora.

Southern China is closer to Southeast Asia, a region with an enormous, economically active Chinese population (many of whom speak southern Chinese languages like Cantonese), than is northern China. Southern China’s Fujian province, in particular, is both linguistically and economically close to Taiwan, and southern China’s Guangdong province—the largest province in China—to Hong Kong. A large share of China’s GDP comes from the coastal areas of China from around Shanghai south to Guangdong, particularly if you include Taiwan as part of the country. Guangdong alone accounts for an estimated 10% of mainland China’s GDP and over 25% of its exports. This creates, arguably, an unbalanced dynamic: China’s political periphery is also its main economic engine.

Fossil Fuels

As it happens, northern China produces almost all of China’s fossil fuels. Most Chinese energy is, in fact, produced in and around the province of Shanxi, 300 km or so west of Beijing, where a tremendous share of China’s (and, indeed, the world’s) coal is mined. Shanxi has also seen the biggest political shakeup of any province from Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign thus far. When combined with the northern “Autonomous Regions” of Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang, as well as China’s north-easternmost province Heilongjiang, Shanxi produces a gigantic of China’s fossil fuels in general. Other northern areas, such as Shandong, Liaoning, and Tianjin, are also significant oil producers.

Southern and central China, in contrast, account for most of China’s imports of fossil fuels—especially if you include the economy of Taiwan as being part of southern China. Taiwan, in fact, may be more dependent on oil imports than any other significant economy in the world, according to data from the Wall Street Journal. Falling energy prices may weaken the historical political heartland of China relative to its periphery, in that case. Whether or not this will generate political instability going forward remains to be seen.

Looking Ahead

If (a big if) energy prices remain low for a sustained period, then the question of China’s future dependence on imported energy also becomes relevant, as does the question of the future dependence on imported energy of China’s most important neighbours. In that case, how dependent on energy imports will countries like China, Japan, and India be in a decade or two from now?

While it is impossible to know what the future will be like, it is not difficult to imagine that China will remain less dependent on energy imports than India and/or Japan during the years or decades ahead, as a result of India’s still-emerging economy and Japan’s still-roboticizing economy.

China is not likely to be a major adopter of energy-intensive robots, in per capita terms, because China has a far larger cheap labour force than any country in the world apart from India. Japan, in contrast, will likely help lead the robot revolution, as its labour force is expensive and aging rapidly. This could make Japan even more dependent on importing energy, as machines that are both highly mobile and capable of sophisticated computation require an enormous amount of energy to run — and indeed, one of their main advantages over human labour is that they can and frequently will be tasked to run 24-7, without even taking any time off for holidays or sick days.

China is not certain to increase its energy imports nearly as much as less-developed economies like India, meanwhile, as the Chinese inudstrial sector is facing challenges as a result of its past generation of energy-intensive growth. China faces rising labour costs in many of its cities; a pollution problem; a US that is concerned with Chinese industrial power; and countries throughout the world afraid of China’s world-leading carbon emissions.

In addition, China is located much further away from the Persian Gulf and Caspian Sea oil and gas fields than the Indians and other South Asians are, and so might have difficulty accessing them in a pinch.

China may also, for the first time, have to face industrial competition from resource-rich economies such as Australia, Norway, Canada, Texas, or even the Gulf Arab states,which may be able to use energy-intensive robots of various kinds to build up their manufacturing sectors in spite of their small, expensive domestic labour forces.

All this could make China’s industrial growth rate slip, which in turn might reduce China’s resource imports and thus prevent China from becoming the leading beneficiary of low energy and commodity prices.

Such a shift will be especially likely if the United States or European economies decide to enact tariffs on goods coming from places that generate power by using coal in inefficient ways, a prospect that has become increasingly likely as a result of America’s triple-alliance between environmentalists opposed to coal consumption, shale gas producers competing with coal miners, and energy companies trying to pioneer more expensive but cleaner ways of consuming coal and other fossil fuels. China may then have to focus on growing its service sectors instead of its energy-intensive industrial sectors.

China, Japan, and Siberia 

Japan, lastly, might benefit from Russia’s energy-related woes more than China will. This is not only because the Chinese have to a certain extent often looked to Russia as an ally against the West, but also because the areas of Russia that China is close to are mostly irrelevant to China: they are landlocked, Siberian, and for the most part located far from China’s population centres.

Pacific Russia, in contrast, which is located next to the Sea of Japan on the East Asian side of Russia’s Pacific mountain ranges, has a far more liveable climate than does most of the continental Siberian interior. It is home to several small or medium-sized port cities, such as Vladivostok and Petrapavlovsk-Kamchatsky, which are very, very far away from Moscow. This region accounts for much of the oil and nearly all of the Russian gas exports to Asia—especially energy-rich Sakhalin Island, which is just 40 km away from Japan and was half-owned and inhabited by the Japanese prior to the Second World War.

Russia may, in fact, be somewhat better prepared to fight another border war with China like it did in 1969—which might not be too different than the many other wars Russia has fought within or near its borders both prior to or since then—than it would be to face off against Japan again within the far-eastern, mountainous, archipelagic and peninsular Pacific Russian region, as it did in 1905 and then again during the 1930s and WW2. Of course this does not mean Japan will attack Russia — though it has certainly toyed with the idea of eventually making some bolder moves in the Southern Kuril Islands, which both countries claim as their own. Even the remote, unstated possibility of conflict, however, may help grant Japan leverage in any negotiations with Russia regarding commercial or political issues.

Conclusion

All of this is not to be bearish on China’s future. Energy-intensive industrial growth, after all, woud not necessarily mean an improved quality of life for Chinese citizens. Ideally Chinese standards of living will rise at a considerably faster pace than its energy usage. It does seem, though, that China’s economy may not turn out to be a major beneficiary of the fall in energy prices. The PRC’s neighbours on the other hand, such as Japan and Taiwan, which are less rich in fossil fuels or in labour, may benefit greatly. So too might the poorer countries that depend on energy imports, like India and the Philippines. Just as important, however, yet often overlooked, are China’s domestic geopolitics. Internal Chinese divisions—including along north-south and east-west lines—have been, and might remain, of paramount importance. Energy prices could impact them too.

The Giving Tree: Tu Bishvat and Israeli Economics

As in most religions, there is a tradition in Judaism to relate contemporary events to scriptural tales and holidays. In the story of Chanukkah, two miracles are celebrated: the Jewish Maccabbees winning over the Syrian Greeks in spite of the Jews being heavily outnumbered, and the Jews getting a lot of light out of a little bit of oil. Many therefore see the existence and economic success of modern-day Israel as a similar miracle. The Israelis are outmanned more than 40 to 1 by the inhabitants of the Arab world, and out-oiled more than 1000 to 1. Yet Israel has managed anyway not only to survive, but also to join the  small class of 25 countries in which per capita incomes have reached above 30,000 dollars per year. For many, this is thought to be not just a secular or national miracle, but also a true, God-given one.

Such Channukah analogies tend to be drawn mainly by conservative supporters of Israel. When it comes to Purim, however, it may be that liberal Jews will have more fun this year, when they realize that Trump’s public persona seems to  be similar to that of Achashverosh. Trump, after all, appears to be a superficial, misogynistic, ostentatious and retributive insomniac, who values loyalty in his servants, public nudity in his wives, and is an ally of Jews against Persian rivals more out of happenstance rather than as a result of any moral consideration. (Trump’s Orthodox son-in-law Jared Kushner would, I guess, have to be Mordechai in this comparison; Ivanka is clearly Esther, a beautiful young woman who conceals her Judaism and is the only person at court who is able to make the king see any sense. And certainly, many liberals already believe that Steve Bannon is a modern-day Hamman).

About a month before Purim however, and about a month after Channuka, is Tu Bishvat, a more earthly and apolitical holiday than either of the two which flank it. Whereas Channukah commemorates right-wing values such as conviction, traditionalism, and militarism, and Purim left-wing values like diplomacy, feminism, and secularism, Tu Bishvat celebrates only natural, as opposed to man-made, forces. Tu’Bishvat could be a fitting metaphor not only for the fact that political truths in Israel  may lie somewhere between left and right-wing perspectives, but also for the fact that Israeli success is due more to natural forces than many realize.

With Tu Bishvat approaching this weekend, let’s take a closer look at why this may be the case.

tubishvat

When I was in Hebrew school, we were frequently shown maps of the Arab world, meant to display to us just how tiny Israel’s territory is. This was meant to bolster our view of Israel as an underdog; a “start-up nation”, which had first helped to make the desert bloom and later helped to make the Nasdaq boom. Israel certainly is an underdog country in many ways, but still these maps were hugely misleading. They did not differentiate between relatively useful and relatively useless land. The Arab world owns a huge amount of beautiful but uninhabited desert or rugged mountains, but Israel enjoys the advantage in terms of the amount of arable coastal land it possesses, on a per capita basis.

The area of Israel outside of the Negev is roughly 8000 square kilometres in size, most of which is a part of the country’s Mediterranean coastal plain. 8000 square kilometres is very small, of course–only not when compared to most of Israel’s neighbours. The West Bank, which is 3.7 times smaller than Israel, is landlocked, mountainous, and most of its eastern half is desert. Gaza, which is 57 times smaller than Israel, is nearly a desert as well. Gaza receives about half the rain that most of Israel’s coastal plain does, per square foot of land, and only a third of the rainfall that many areas in the Galilee in northern Israel receive.

Lebanon, which is half as large as Israel, has a coastal plain that extends only a very short distance inland in most areas, before meeting the high mountain ranges and mountain valleys which make up most of the Lebanese terrain.

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Topography of Israel (left) and Lebanon (right)

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Yet Lebanon also shows the importance of being a coastal country, even if only a very small one. Lebanon’s per capita income is around $10,000, which is substantially higher than most other Arab countries apart from oil-rich Gulf Arab monarchies. Israel’s is an estimated $36,000; Egypt’s is just $3600.

In Syria too, the coastal plain — where lives most of the minority Alawite population from which the Al-Assad family comes — does not extend very far inland before it reaches mountain ranges. Syria’s coastline is also only  around 90 km in length from north to south; Israel’s is around 110 km long.  Eastern Syria, meanwhile, is largely a desert, so that approximately half the country’s territory is unpopulated.

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Jordan, in spite of having a remote, tiny coastline along the Red Sea’s Gulf of Aqaba, is effectively landlocked. Most of its population lives far from Aqaba, in the relatively small part of the country that is not a desert. Jordan is separated from Israel, the West Bank, and the Mediterranean by the Jordan Valley, a steep-walled, incredibly deep canyon containing a number of the points on earth that are the furthest below sea level, through which the Jordan River flows into the salty Dead Sea.

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While the Jordan Valley is not an impenetrable barrier, its usefulness as a defensive line does help to make Israel more insulated from its neighbours than the country may seem to be. The border of Israel and the West Bank with Jordan is significantly longer than Israel’s combined borders with Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria.

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Finally there is Egypt, a country with a population twice as large as those of Israel, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan put together. Egypt’s territory is 48 times larger than Israel’s. However, when you strip away the deserts of both countries, then Egypt’s territory is only a little more than four times larger than Israel’s. Moreover, Egypt is capital-poor in the extreme. Because it receives virtually no rainfall (see map below), its population has to live immediately next to the Nile. More than 20 percent of the Egyptian population lives five metres or less above sea level. In Israel, by contrast, only around 1 percent of the population lives five metres or less above sea level. This presents several significant challenges for Egypt, including flooding and the need to build expensive bridges and irrigation networks. Egypt remains potentially more powerful than does Israel, but not by as much as one might assume.

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There is, also, a tendency among some analysts to overestimate Israel’s economic achievements. Although Israel’s dynamic mix of intellectual ability and entrepreneurial chutzpa is rightly admired, Israel’s success in technology sectors and in launching start-up companies is sometimes wrongly confused with general economic success. For instance, Israel and Italy have basically equivalent per capita incomes, yet Israel is often considered an economic miracle whereas Italy today is seen as something of a basket-case. Israel’s per capita GDP level is pretty much boilerplate Mediterranean: Spain, southern France, and Italy are all at relatively similar levels, and even coastal cities in Turkey and Lebanon are closer to Israel in terms of their wealth levels than they are to many other areas in the Middle East.

When talking about Israel, economics, of course, is political. The Left often claims that Israel is at an unfair advantage in its relationship with Arab states, as Israel has access to capital in Europe and especially America that has empowered it. The Right, on the other hand, usually claims that if Israel’s Arab neighbours would stop being so obsessed with Israel and instead concentrate on bettering their own societies, they would not be lagging so far behind the Israelis in terms of economic development.

There may or may not be a decent amount of truth in both these claims, yet both are predictable in that they highlight the personal values each side prizes most highly in general — for the Left, equality (or, at least, equity), for the Right, competence (or, at least, conscientiousness). This tendency of each side to bring their own ethics to the debate often leads both to overlook one of the most significant and obvious, but least ethically relevant, foundations of Israel’s economic development when compared with that of its neighbours: that Israel has much more useful land than they do. With Tu’Bishvat being celebrated this week, now is the time to appreciate how the land itself has contributed to Israeli success.

Canada Needs A Red-Green Party

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Watching the candidates for leader of the Conservative Party debate in Halifax last week was interesting. Thirteen out of the fourteen leaders in the debate argued against the implementation of any cap-and-trade systems or carbon taxes, on the basis that the Conservative Party should remain against tax increases in general.

Quebec MP Steven Blaney said: “they say you can put the lipstick on a pig and it’s still a pig, well you can add Green to tax and it’s still a tax. So no, there is no need to have such a tax in Canada…we’re all conservative after all.”

Brad Trost said: “taxes must go down. Taxes do not need to go up on anything, particularly not on heating and driving and lighting our homes”.

Andrew Saxton said his first act as Prime Minister would be to “axe the tax”. He did also say that he would try to work with Trump toward a “harmonized” North American solution to climate change. Of course, that may be trickier than he suggests, given that Trump often claims to be a climate change denier and is not known for pursuing harmonies of any kind.

When Michael Chong, the sole dissenter on the issue, pointed out that it might be more desirable to adopt a revenue-neutral carbon tax model similar to the one that exists in British Columbia, calling carbon taxes “the most conservative way, the cheapest way, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions”, he was challenged by several of his fellow candidates.

Rick Peterson, for example, told Chong that the BC carbon tax is not truly revenue-neutral, because it disproportionately hurts residents in towns like Dawson Creek, who lack the alternative means of transport like “SkyTrains and bike lanes” that Vancouverites have access to. Yet this was an unsatisfying rebuttle even if one does accept Peterson’s premise that small towns should drive Canada’s tax policies, since other types of taxes could still be reduced in order to fully compensate small towns for any new carbon taxes they have to pay.

Kevin O’Leary, meanwhile, argued that carbon taxes are not needed because Canada’s forests mean that it is already a net carbon sink for the world. In other words, that because we as Canadians are blessed with forests that we did not build, we have the right to emit lots of greenhouse gasses from power plants and cars we did build.

O’Leary also argued that we should not have carbon taxation because Canada only contributes a small portion to global emissions. This same argument was also mentioned by a number of the other Conservative candidates in the debate, none seeming to be aware of the existence of straws or of camels’ backs. Yet not a single candidate seemed to think it relevant enough to point out the fact that, on a per capita basis, Canada has the highest emissions of any significant economy in the world, apart from Saudi Arabia, the United States, or Australia. (Canada emits an estimated 1.5-2 times more carbon dioxide per person than is emitted in the European Union or Japan, 2.5 times more than China, and 9 times more than India).

The debate drove home a certain point about Canadian politics: there is no way of voting for a party or party leader who is Conservative on issues like government spending but at the same time Green on issues concerning the environment. While left-wing voters are given at least one, and arguably three, Green parties to vote for —most obviously the Green Party, but also arguably the Liberals or the NDP, and certainly the Leap Manifesto faction within the NDP — right-wing voters are presented with no such option.

A Red-Green voter — a voter who loves the outdoors as much as he or she hates tax increases or having to debate young social activists; the type of voter that a character like Red Green would himself probably approve of — has nobody to vote for in today’s system.

(This assumes that Red is the colour of the Right as in America, rather than the Left as in Europe. I know, I know, Canada tends to use the European colour code, but I’m willing to look past that for a moment because I really want this reference to the Red Green show to hold up…)

This is a real shame, and not only because left-wing parties may not win enough MPs to enact Green policies on their own. It is also a shame because it might, at least in certain circumstances, be the case that right-wing policies would actually serve the cause of environmentalism more usefully than left-wing ones do.

Most economists, for example, would be in support of a conservative proposal to use carbon taxes to reduce other taxes such as sales taxes, capital gains taxes, or corporate taxes, rather than use carbon taxes to grow the overall size of government budgets as some left-wing leaders might be more inclined to do.

Trudeau’s plan, in contrast, which is to allow cap-and-trade rather than carbon taxes in provinces like Ontario and Quebec, and also to allow the provinces to decide on their own whether or not their systems will be revenue-neutral, most economists are less thrilled about.

Ontario’s cap-and-trade plan, for example, will not be revenue neutral, for a number of reasons including that Ontario is going to spend some of the revenues on projects like wind farms rather than give the money back to the population of Ontario in the form of tax rebates.

An even more pressing environmental issue than carbon taxes is animal welfare. It is, sadly, the case that the food industry in Canada tortures or mistreats tens of millions of mammals and birds each year, and that poor treatment of animals can be dangerous to humans as well because of the overuse of antibiotics and risk of poor farm conditions allowing dieases like Avian bird flu to spread. The environmentalist Left, however, which cares about this issue dearly, is not large enough to have yet made animal welfare a government priority. And some of the solutions that many on the Left champion, namely vegetarianism, veganism, local farms, and small-scale farms, may not be the most practical courses of action, even if they are the most laudable ones.

A more conservative approach, such as mandating that large-scale industrial farms adopt humane methods — the “large pastoral” approach championed by Canadian writer Sonia Faruqi in her excellent and hilarious book, Project Animal Farm — may prove to be more successful in providing a more effective model for animal welfare than would the promotion of small or local farms. Yet among the modern Conservative Party, the issue of animal welfare is generally not even viewed as urgent or worthy of discussion. If only there was some sort of barbaric cultural practices hotline we could call to report the Conservative Party for such a cruel negligence…

An environmental issue that the Left has been particularly negligent on, meanwhile, but which the absence of a Red-Green movement means that the Right has not at all stepped in to fix the Left’s mistake, is the marijuana industry. Because the Left has long seen smoking weed as being cool and weed prohibition as a bad policy — and, by the way, they are correct on both those points — it has for the most part turned a blind eye to the vast environmental destruction that marijuana production often causes. This destruction is actually needless in most cases: it stems from the desire among consumers for weed that is both cheap and blemish-free, rather than for coarser “shwag”, even though the former is of only slightly higher quality. (Read Stanford professor Martin Lewis’s article on the topic to get a fuller picture of this key issue).

With legalization impending, this issue should be addressed in government. But instead what we have mainly gotten from leaders like Trudeau is tough talk on the need to keep THC away from the developing brains of young adults. The truth, though, is that it would be far easier to prevent needless environmental destruction than it would be to stop students from taking drugs.

There is, finally, the issue of local pollution and quality of life. It seems odd that the party that claims to best represent salt-of-the-earth Canadians puts relatively little priority on maintaining landscapes that these same Canadians might otherwise be able to enjoy themselves. It would, again, seem only sensible that Conservatives should prefer taxing things like air pollution, noise pollution, and visual pollution, rather than taxing sales or middle-class income. That way at least Canada’s GDP can grow, even if its oil sands or suburban sprawl grows too.

The argument you frequently hear Conservatives imply, that the economy and environment are at odds with one another because eco-taxes would imperil economic growth, misses the point entirely. The status quo —the Harper majority government status quo — is one of medium-high taxes in general, which limits economic growth, and intensive resource extraction and suburban sprawl, which harm the environment. A Red-Green movement would ideally serve market-lovers as well as nature-lovers. Today’s Conservatives, in some respects, often do neither.

Who will lead this new movement? I hereby nominate Robert Herjavec, the self-made business mogul and surfer with Trudeauesque hair, who sits to O’Leary’s right in the Tank/Den. (If nothing else, a sharkfight between Herjavec and O’Leary could raise Canada’s profile south of the border). While a Red-Green Party might have little chance of electoral success at first, the creation of such a party by a prominent Canadian could help to chip the Conservative Party towards the Green. It’s time to step up and serve your country Robert!

A Look Back At Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy

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Obama was elected at a time when political anxiety in America was relatively high, particularly among Democratic voters who disliked George W. Bush’s seeming lack of sophistication. The feeling was that the US had wasted trillions of dollars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and thus helped to ruin America’s economy and divert attention away from more serious adversaries like Russia and especially China. The economic failure was seen as being confirmed by the financial crisis, which began with the collapse of Lehman Brothers only a month or so before the election. The foreign policy failure was seen as being confirmed by, among other things, Russia’s invasion of Georgia three months before the election, followed one day later by the extravagant opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. Even during the presidential lame duck period leading up to Obama’s inauguration, a number of politically or symbolically negative global events occured, including the throwing of a shoe at Bush in Iraq, the 2008-2009 Israel-Hamas War in Gaza, and the Mumbai Attacks in India.

Obama ran against Clinton in 2008 as an upstart candidate in the Democratic primary. He attacked her where she was least popular, which in foreign policy was her support for invading Iraq while in the Senate in 2002. The primary was a close one: Obama won 53 percent of the delegates but actually lost the popular vote as well as the largest state of California. As such, though it is always hard to untangle political strategy from principled belief, it does not seem so far-fetched to imagine that Obama’s campaign policy of Afghanistan being “the good war” and Iraq “the bad war” was, at least in part, devised in order to exploit Clinton’s Iraq weakness without making Obama appear to be too dovish or isolationist. We do know that Obama was not above abandoning his own principles for the sake of victory; he publicly opposed gay marriage until mid-2012, for example, when for intellectual and dispositional reasons it was obvious he was privately in support of it even at the time.

Upon coming into office, Obama formed three main foreign policy positions. One was the “pivot to Asia”, which included both the re-prioritization of Afghanistan over Iraq as well as the rhetorical move to acknowledge the 21st century as ”America’s Pacific Century” (which became the title of a widely heralded article in Foreign Affairs written by Secretary of State Clinton). While both the withdrawal from Iraq and the public assumption of a rising Asia preceded Obama’s arrival in office, he was a natural fit to promote such policies given that he never supported the invasion of Iraq (as 42 percent of the Democratic politicians in Congress had done in 2002), and given that he had personal experience in the Pacific, having grown up in Hawaii and Indonesia and attended college in Los Angeles.

While Obama’s pivot to Asia was mainly rhetorical — it had to be, since the American military never left Asia in the first place and so could not truly pivot back to a region it was already in — he and Clinton did begin healing American relations with a very important Asian country, Myanmar (aka Burma), a diplomatic feat similar to the one Obama would repeat in his second term with both Cuba and Iran.

Another policy was the “Reset with Russia”, which, as with the later reset with Iran, centred around nuclear de-proliferation but was intended as a broader political reconciliation between countries. Obama was attacked heavily by Mitt Romney and Republicans in the 2012 election for having carried out this Reset, to which he and the Democrats successfully responded by ridiculing the Republicans for being “stuck in the Cold War”. This now appears tragically ironic, given how the 2016 election campaigns turned out. But Obama’s Reset with Russia was quite rational.

America needed Russia in order to effectively carry out the surge of US troops into Afghanistan between 2010 and 2014. Russia retains, among other things, a substantial amount of political influence within countries like Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, which neighbour Afghanistan—and an estimated 30-40 percent of Afghanistan’s population is either ethno-linguistically Tajik or Uzbek. The US was also more concerned with containing China than it was with containing Russia at the time, since China’s economy had not yet appeared to slow down and since Russia had not yet formally annexed Crimea or involved itself forcefully in other areas of Ukraine or in Syria.

Moreover, Obama’s Reset with Russia eventually contained a big caveat: the doubling-down of America’s growing military relationships with East European countries like Poland and Romania. Today, with US-Russian tensions having risen tremendously and with the European Union no longer seeming like a potentially potent force, these relationships seem crucial and continue to grow. At the time, they were meant to reassure countries like Poland that they were not being abandoned in the Reset, and at the same time to return the favour that some East European countries had provided when they sent lots of soldiers (relative to the size of their populations and economies, and relative to countries in continental Western Europe) to fight alongside the US in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Among other things, this move included Obama planning missile defence system components in Poland, Romania, and Turkey. The Russians objected loudly to any missile defence program, since they did not want to see the US military presence in Eastern Europe grow. Obama responded that the Russians were being paranoid and that the defence systems were in fact intended only to block future Iranian missile capabilities. This was a ridiculous claim, given that most of the countries involved in the plan surrounded Russia. But the American media mostly ate it up, either because they did not bother to look at a map, or because most Republicans preferred to attack Obama as too weak on Russia rather than too strong on Russia, or because many Democrats did not want to question Obama in general.

While the systems would not be able to block the Russian missile arsenal if it ever came to war, they were an important symbolic gesture and another step in the growing US military alliance with states like Poland. When Obama had earlier, in 2009, backed down on the missile defence issue — announcing, on the 70th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Poland in 1939, the cancellation of missile defence in Poland and the Czech Republic, and later being caught on a hot mic in 2012 saying to Dmitry Medvedev that he would have more flexibility in missile defence planning once re-elected — Romney attacked Obama sharply for doing so. But Romney’s campaign was ridiculed for mistakingly using the name Czechoslovakia, taken as a another proof of his being trapped archaically in the Cold War. Romney was especially reproached, even by Republican Congressional leader John Boehner, for declaring Russia to be “America’s number one geopolitical foe”. (That Romney might now become Trump’s Secretary of State boggles the brain). And while Obama may have Reset with Russia early on, he has definitively broken with Putin since.

The third major policy early in Obama’s first term was an attempt at reconciliation with the Muslim world, and particularly with the Arab world, intended to reverse the negative feelings that had grown there — and that Liberals in the West had perceived to have grown there — during the Bush years. Obama was the right man for this job, given his moderate and liberal personality as well as his personal experiences in Indonesia, his middle name Hussein, his grandfather’s conversion to (Shiite) Islam, and his family in Kenya, a partially Muslim country. Obama went to Turkey, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt during parts of his first and second overseas trips as president, and gave one of his most famous speeches, A New Beginning, in Cairo, the largest city in the Arab world, at an event co-hosted by Cairo University and Al-Azhar University. Obama’s first-ever presidential television interview was with Al-Arabiya, a Saudi-owned, UAE-based news channel.

This “apology tour”, as Obama-bashers call it, earned him the ire of Republicans for not having stopped in Israel while in the region (though he visited the site of the Buchenwald concentration camp the day after making the Cairo speech). It also helped racist or extreme right-wingers in their attempt to portray Obama as a hidden Muslim, quasi-Muslim or, in the case of those like the shameless, shameful Donald Trump, as possibly foreign-born and therefore not a legitimate president. (This was especially shameful given that the man Obama had beaten to become president, John McCain, was actually not born in an American state, but rather in Panama’s Canal Zone). Incidentally, Shiite Muslims have a centuries-long history of publicly pretending not to be Shiite for fear of being persecuted by the majority Sunnis; this, combined with Obama’s family background, has now led some in the Arab world to accuse Obama of being a secret Shiite with an agenda to allow Shiite Iran to emerge victorious over Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies.

Of course, Obama’s outreach to the Arab public was put to the test two years later in the Arab Spring, which also centred in Cairo. Predictably for an American president, Obama chose more or less to stand by America’s main allies in the Arab world — the Egyptian military and the royal families of the Arabian Peninsula. Obama only abandoned Hosni Mubarak (a former general) during the middle of the 18-day protest in Tahrir Square, earlier only suggesting that Mubarak not run for re-election following the end of the term he was serving as Egypt’s president at the time.

In the years since, Obama has not pushed back much against Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who threw out the elected Muslim Brotherhood government of Muhammad Morsi in a military coup and has since declared the Brotherhood to be an illegal terrorist group. (The Sisi government also had support from the political parties which got the second most votes in the post-Mubarak elections, namely the Saudi-backed religious Nour bloc). Similarly, Obama did not limit the Saudis from sending troops to break up Arab Spring protests in neighbouring Bahrain, a Shiite-majority state ruled by a Sunni monarchy. Maintaining the power of Bahrain’s royal family was a key issue for the Saudis, as Bahrain is connected by a causeway to Saudi Arabia’s remote, vast, sparsely populated, Shiite-majority Eastern Province, which is where most Saudi oil and gas is located.

Given that his support for Arabian kings and Egyptian generals was in some ways arguably an abandonment of the “Arab Street”, which Obama had previously supported rhetorically and which the Western media was going gaga over during its coverage of the Arab Spring, Obama’s war in Libya showed that he was still not entirely pro-dictator in the Arab world. This is not to say that Obama waged the war for cynical political reasons, however. The case for the Libya war was fairly straightforward: Gaddafi was an aging tyrant who had ruled for four decades, his impending death or incapacitation due to old age would have risked a war anyway given the enormously divided nature of Libyan geo-politics, and any spillover from a war in Libya was unlikely to be too large given that Libya only has six million inhabitants and is surrounded by the Sahara.

Thus, eventually, we arrive at the events of September 11, 2012, in Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city. Bengazhi is the largest city within a vast radius of itself, especially to the south; it was the city that was initially the centre of the anti-Gaddafi movement—the very city Obama had been aiming to protect from a massacre of Arab Spring protestors when he ordered the US military intervention in Libya. Of course, the Democrats are correct when they say that the Republicans shamelessly used Benghazi in order to try to tar the reputation of Hillary Clinton in order to win the White House in 2016. (If Trump boomerangs on the Republican Party at some point, they might finally get what they deserve for this). Republican cynicism notwithstanding, however, supporters of Obama have arguably misunderstood the Benghazi affair. It is now seen entirely, or almost entirely, as an anti-Clinton or anti-Obama stunt. To understand why this may be an incorrect view, it is important to recall how the war in Libya was interpreted between Gaddafi’s death in 2011 and the Benghazi attack ten and a half months later; a period that overlapped with most of the Obama-Romney presidential race and immediately followed Bin Laden’s death.

The Libya war was, at the time, seen as an enormous success by both the centre-left and the centre-right (and the centre-centre). The centre-right liked the war because the centre-right is hawkish. The centre-left liked the war because it was portrayed as a counter-argument to the Bush-era invasion of Iraq they so despised: Libya did not become a quagmire involving US ground troops, it was fought by a coalition that included European and Middle Eastern countries which had refused to be involved militarily in Iraq, it did not involve misleading claims about weapons of mass destruction (Gaddafi had already given Libya’s WMD program up in 2003, following the US invasion of Iraq), and it was part of a broader anti-tyranny movement, the Arab Spring. With Bin Laden too having just been killed — another feat Bush failed to achieve — Obama seemed to be moving from strength to strength. As Biden put it in the campaign: “Bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive”. As Clinton put it (regarding Gaddafi): we came, we saw, he died”.

Wars almost always boost a president’s popularity in the short term. Given that the US economy was still reeling from the Great Recession and thus Americans ready to vote for change (which they did eventually, with Trump), and given that the Republicans had controlled Congress since 2010 and so were able to block most of Obama’s non-military initiatives, having Libya be seen as a quagmire-free foreign policy success was a boon for Obama. Though Obama went on to crush Romney in the electoral college, his victory was in fact not a large one: Ohio, Virginia, and especially Florida were extremely close, Obama received just 51 percent of the popular vote nationwide, and the Democratic Party did not succeed in winning back control of the Senate or the House.

Not long after Gaddafi was killed, the media largely stopped paying attention to Libya. The Republicans began to pin more of their hopes on portraying the withdrawal of troops from Iraq as having been destabilizing and a sign of Democratic weakness. However the Benghazi attack, just 25 days before the election, risked showing the American public that Obama’s war in Libya — along with the various other conflicts in the Arab  or Muslim world, including Iraq — was going to be somewhat messier than it had been portrayed as. This was an “October Surprise” that terrified the Democrats, since Obama was ahead in the polls.

Obama and the Democrats, it appears (though it is difficult to be sure), tried to obscure the Libya issue by exploiting the fact that the media was at the time spending most of its attention obsessing over an offensive, low-quality movie posted on Youtube, called the Innocence of Muslims. The claim was that the video had outraged Muslims and thus spontaneously caused protests that in turn caused the Benghazi  attack — a somewhat ludicrous claim, though plausible, and maybe even accurate, given that the attack was relatively sophisticated and, more importantly, that the attack was carried out on the anniversary of 9-11 and came in the wake of months of small attacks and attempted attacks on US and Western targets in Benghazi and in post-Gaddafi Libya in general. The Obama administration was later forced to walk this  claim back — and Susan Rice was forced to give up her bid for Secretary of State because of the claim, at least ostensibly — because the Republicans would not let the issue drop. However that same Republican relentlessness arguably ended up backfiring, since most people saw that the Republicans were mainly concerned with exploiting a tragic event in order to tarnish Obama and Clinton.

(The Republicans also purposefully confused the issue because of the unpopularity of their own hawkish political ideology. The Republican stance on Libya had, in general, not been that entering Libya was a mistake, but rather that it was not forceful enough: they argued that Obama should not have “led from behind” the British, French, and Italians, and that the US should have committed more Special Forces. Yet the Republicans also knew that this stance of theirs was very unpopular among the US public, given that at the time the Iraq War was still extremely fresh in people’s minds and given that the troop surge in Afghanistan was occurring at the time. Thus, the Republicans were on the one hand worried that dwelling on Benghazi would make Americans voters realize that the Republicans were too hawkish, but on the other hand the Republicans were unwilling to pass up the opportunity to use Benghazi (and more generally, Libya) to catch Obama and Clinton in a potential lie over this potential new Middle Eastern quagmire. To square this circle, the Republicans resorted to making only vague, yet intense, accusations over the Benghazi issue. In turn, this left many Republican supporters across the United States to form their own conspiratorial versions of what exactly Obama or Clinton’s sins over Benghazi had been. Not that people needed any extra incentive to start forming conspiracy theories. In fact, maybe my whole opinion on this issue is nothing more than a conspiracy theory…)

Moving on to Syria, and specifically to Obama’s “Red Line”: it is difficult to know whether or not the US should have intervened more forcefully in Syria, and it is also difficult to know how much truth there is to Obama’s claim that he extracted significant concessions from Assad as a result of bluffing during the Red Line affair. What we do know, though, is that in spite of the fact that most Republican supporters and even many Democrats claim that Obama was either weak for not following through on the bluff or stupid for bluffing in the first place, it is in fact not at all clear that bluffing in matters of war is stupid or that failing to follow through on a bluff in the event that it is called — even despite the risk of losing credibility as a result — is a weak thing to do. Thus while Syria remains an immense tragedy and Obama’s role in it is open to debate, the certainty with which many claim that Syria will be remembered as Obama’s top mistake appears to be unfounded.

Finally, let’s talk about Obama’s position regarding Iran, which, in the long term, will possibly be considered his most significant legacy in foreign policy, the equivalent of Jimmy Carter’s reacquaintance with Anwar Sadat’s Egypt or even of Nixon’s reacquaintance with Maoist China. The Obama stance on Iran has often been misunderstood in at least one of the following three ways. One, that it is primarily about Iran’s nuclear weapons program. It is not (though this is of course not to say that nukes are not a very real issue). Two, that Obama and Netanyahu were at odds over America’s stance on Iran. They were not (though this is not to say that relations between Obama and Netanyahu have been hunky-dory or that Israel is not rightfully wary about the improving US-Iranian relationship and Iranian weaponry). Three, that Obama’s policy came from a place of dovishness. In fact, it came just as much from a place of hawkishness: Iran is in some respects a crucial potential US ally.

The conflict between America and Iran began to heat up after the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. This was because both invasions had created overlapping spheres of influence between US soldiers and Iranian proxies, and because both invasions had strengthened Iran’s regional influence. Iran had been enemies of both Saddam Hussein and the Taliban. Saddam’s regime had been led by part of Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority, whereas as most of the rest of Iraq are Shiites like the Iranians or else Sunni Kurds (and Kurds are ethno-linguistically closer to Persians than to Arabs). Iran had fought a war against Iraq in the 1980s in which hundreds of thousands of its citizens were killed; the Iranians are now been interfering in Iraq in order to ensure this never happens again. The Taliban in Afghanistan, meanwhile, are predominantly composed of Sunni Pashto-speakers, yet Afghanistan also has a sizeable minority of Shiite Muslims and is more than a quarter Tajik (and Tajik is mutually intelligible with Persian). Iran had threatened to go war with the Taliban in 1998, following the group’s killing of Iranian diplomats. Apart from Pakistan, Iran is the crucial Muslim neighbour of Afghanistan. Iran’s border with Afghanistan is half as long as the enormous US-Mexican border, and even harder to build a wall across.

With Saddam’s Baathists and the Taliban out of power in cities like Baghdad and Kandahar, the Iranians were free to spread their political wings within the region, especially once the US left Iraq. To clip these wings, the US enforced sanctions on Iran and played good-cop bad-cop with the Israelis in threatening to carry out strikes against Iranian military and infrastructural targets. At one point, around 2010-2013, it was commonly expected that Israel and/or America would attack Iran imminently. This good-cop bad-cop role also served both Obama and Netanyahu quite well in their own respective domestic politics. It allowed Obama to avoid appearing to be a warmonger, and allowed Netanyahu to portray himself as firmly standing up to both the White House and the mullahs in Iran in an attempt to ensure security for the Israeli public at any cost.

Indeed, Israeli-Iranian tensions were declining even before Netanyahu’s famous speeches in New York or, later, in Washington. Hamas’s relationship with Iran weakened as a result of Iran’s backing of Assad, which Hamas was not happy with (Hamas’ leadership moved out of Syria in 2012, to Qatar). Iran’s proxy Hezzbolah, meanwhile, became too distracted with helping to prop up Assad in Syria to focus on Israel as it had in its war with Israel in 2006. Moreover, around this same period Israel’s relationship with Turkey deteriorated sharply as a result of the Gaza Flotilla incident in May 2010, and later because Turkey was angered by the coup against Muhammad Morsi of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, the organization from which the Hamas movement was originally sprung. The Iran-Hamas breach over Assad, Hezzbolah’s distraction, and Israel’s growing wariness of Turkey brought a thaw between Iran and Israel. But politics is politics; for now, both countries remain boogeymen in the eyes of one another’s medias.

Many, similarly, believe Obama and Netanyahu to be hated rivals, or, at least, frenemies, when it is not at all clear that their opinions of one another are really so low as they are portrayed. Those who watch NBA basketball (as Obama does) would be familiar with the “hold me back” strategy Obama and Netanyahu arguably used against Iran in the years leading up to the signing of the US-Iranian deal on nuclear and sanctions reductions. The real breach between the US and Israel, if indeed there is to be one in the years ahead, is likelier to occur over issues like Palestine or even Pakistan (where the larger nuclear threat to Israel is located, arguably) than Iran, given Iran has a number of important shared interests with both Israel and the US.

The Obama rapprochment with Iran occured as a result of the fact that Iranian influence was curtailed by the Arab Spring, with the Saudis quelling Shiite protests in the Persian Gulf state of Bahrain and, even more importantly, with large chunks of territory within Syria and Iraq being taken over by militant Sunni groups, including but not limited to ISIS and Al-Nusra. Iran is no longer in a potentially dominant position in the Middle East. As a result, Obama has in recent years has been able to have warming relations with Iran and work, in effect, alongside the Iranians in containing ISIS and in trying to have US troops withdraw from Afghanistan without sacrificing major cities to the Taliban.

While the media now gives a lot of attention to how the US and Iran share an interest in blocking ISIS, the shared US and Iranian interests that exist within Afghanistan are generally overlooked. But the US desperately wants to avoid a situation akin to when the Soviets left Afghanistan in the late 1980s—which brought civil war, the mutilation of the Afghan Prime Minister, a spillover of violence into Pakistan and between Pakistan and India, and eventually Al Qaeda’s attack on the US on 9-11.

The Republicans, who continue to try to make Obama’s deal with Iran appear to be Munich-style appeasement rather than typical presidential diplomacy, do not usually point any of this out. Instead they focus on the Iranian regime’s tyranny and religiosity. Bringing up the extremism of Iran’s government should not be an irrelevant point, of course, but still it comes across as a rather weak excuse to fault the deal, given America’s closer alliance with countries like Saudi Arabia; an alliance the Republicans have played a part in. Their response that Iran, unlike Saudi Arabia, should be resisted mainly because it has the potential to become a regional power, ignores not only the fact that Iran’s position has been set back by the ongoing war in Syria, but also the fact that the US wants Iran to help it contain more plausible regional powers, namely Turkey or Russia.

The US-Russian relationship has, of course, suffered seriously in recent years as a result of the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, as well as because of the the meddling of Russia in the recent American election (assuming that either Putin or supporters of Putin were indeed behind the hacking of the DNC’s emails, as appears highly plausible). The Iranians are useful to the US in parrying Russian influence in both Central Asia and the Caucasus, in spite of the fact that Iran, Russia, and even the United States have in effect been working on the same side of the Syrian civil war at times. Iran has significant ties to a number of countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union, most notably Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan. Given that large Muslim populations in the Caucasus border large Muslim populations living within Russia, and given that Putin himself presided over the Second Chechen War, Iran’s position if of significance here. Reviving the stagnant energy industries in Iran and in Iran’s Shiite-majority ally Iraq also helps reduce the price of oil and, in the long-run, of natural gas, both of which Russia depends highly upon.

Turkey, meanwhile, is a country that has a far larger economy than Iran, an economy that is not at all based on oil exports and is therefore much less exposed to the recent crash in oil prices than Iran’s is. Turkey is also, unlike Iran, a country that is dominated by a single ethno-linguistic group, “the Turks”, who by comparison to Iranians inhabit a fairly compact, non-mountainous region. Partly as a result of this, Turkey is not home to numerous separatist or regionalist movements like Iran is (the PKK, in Turkey’s eastern, mountain regions, being the major exception). An estimated 75 percent of people in Turkey are “Turkish”, whereas an estimated 60 percent of people in Iran are “Persian”. Iran is also a Shiite country, setting it apart from the large Sunni majority in the Middle East and in the Muslim world in general.

In recent years, a number of areas that were once part of the Ottoman Empire have been hit hard by crises; notably Syria, Iraq, Libya, Greece, Ukraine, Cyprus, and Georgia. Turkish politics, led by Erdogan, have also become more Islamic than at any time since the empire fell in WW1. Recently, with Erdogan’s accusation that the Turkish cleric Gulen was behind the failed 2016 coup, and his demand the US extradite Gulen, Turkey’s Islamic politics may be becoming more unified and anti-American. US-Turkish ties have also become strained over America’s close ties to the Kurds in Syria and especially in Iraq. While relations between Turkey and America are still decent in spite of this, in part because the US wants Turkey to help block both Russia and Iran as well as re-establish a semblance of order within Syria and Iraq (where Turkey has troops), the writing is clearly on the wall: Turkey is more likely to be a major regional power than Iran is. Obama’s attempt at a political reengagement with Iran most likely reflected an understanding of this fact, given that Obama is a keen and “realist” policymaker, as most recent US presidents have been.

Ultimately, it is often said presidents are most important in their symbolism rather than in any specific deals they manage to hammer out. If that is correct, Obama appears to score quite well on the short roll of post-Cold War presidents. Obama has been more articulate and likely more sophisticated than George W Bush was, and also more scandal-free and likely more genuine than Bill Clinton was. Obama’s critics too tend to claim that Obama’s most notable decisions in foreign policy were of the symbolic sort, whether it be his refusal to use the term Islamic terrorism, attend funerals in solidarity with the Charlie Hedbo and kosher supermarket victims in France (two weeks before attending King Abdullah’s in Saudi Arabia), or decline the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to him by starstruck Norwegians in the first year of his first term. Even those that do believe the worst of Obama, however — and there really is little reason to do so — should acknowledge he has done less harm to America’s reputation in eight years than Trump now has in the past eight months.

Electoral College Blues

Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama

In the recent presidential election Donald Trump received the support of 45 percent of voters who have college diplomas, 37 percent of voters who have graduate degrees, and 35 percent of college-age voters. Trump won the presidency in spite of these relatively low numbers, however, because he is set to receive 57 percent of the votes within the electoral college.

Democratic voters are not at all happy about this. Many are now calling for the abolition of the electoral college, or at least, wishing that it was not so incredibly difficult to abolish. They are unhappy that both Donald Trump and George W Bush were able to reach the White House even after losing the popular vote.

I am sympathetic to this view, and if it were up to me I would agree to replace the electoral college with another type of voting system — though what system exactly would be best I am not certain about. That said, I would like to point out a few things to the Democratic supporters who have been discussing this issue of late, if only because I have yet to hear anyone mention them:

1) Obama lost the popular vote in the Democratic primary of 2008. He received roughly 0.7 percent fewer votes than Hillary Clinton received in that race, but won because he got 53 percent of the delegate count. This was not as large a margin as Trump’s 2 percent popular vote loss to Clinton, but it was greater than Bush’s 0.5 percent loss to Gore.

Granted, a primary is obviously not as important as general election, and involves many fewer voters.There is also the complicating factor of the several states which caucus rather than vote directly in primaries, as well as the fact that Obama was not on the ballot in Michigan. This has led some to claim that Obama would have beaten Clinton in a popular vote if there had been a fairer and more direct primary system.

All the same, it does perhaps speak a bit poorly of some of the Democratic supporters, who did not make such a fuss when Obama came to power after appearing to have lost a key popular vote. They do not even mention Obama’s popular vote loss now, even as they complain frequently about Trump’s and Bush’s.

(Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, did well in the 2008 primary in part by winning in the Rust Belt states and Florida, states which have now propelled Trump to electoral college success. Trump’s victory was the second time Clinton has won a key popular vote and still lost an election)

2) It is not at all clear that the unfairness of the electoral college is deserving of the huge amount of attention it has been receiving of late, when the unfairness of the voting system in the Senate is in certain respects enormously greater than that of the electoral college, yet by comparison tends to receive almost no attention in the national media.

Senators, of course, are not as important as presidents, but still, anyone complaining about the presidential voting system should probably also be complaining about the fact that tiny states like Rhode Island and Wyoming receive as much representation in the Senate as do giants like California and Texas.

George W Bush and Trump, after all, only lost their respective popular votes by approximately 0.5—2 percent, whereas California and Texas have nearly 40 and 28 million inhabitants, respectively, yet receive the same amount of representation in the Senate as do each of the six American states which have fewer than one million inhabitants, or the 14 states which have fewer than two million inhabitants, or the 20 states with fewer than three million inhabitants.

3) It is not clear that the Democrats would actually benefit from getting rid of the electoral college. While most Democrat supporters who want to get rid of the electoral college would like to do so because they feel it is unfair, rather than because they feel it hurts Democrats, some do want to change the system mainly because they feel it has been hurt their side during the Bush and Trump elections.

What is interesting here is that the Democrats have spent much of the past decade telling themselves that they are well-placed to win future electoral colleges because they have a “coalition of the ascendant” — notably, that they may be set to benefit from having young Spanish-speaking, black, and white-liberal populations continue to grow quickly within  swing states like Florida, Colorado, Virginia, or possibly even Georgia. Trump’s electoral college victory does not change this trend. What is more, Trump’s popular vote loss to Clinton may not prevent the Republicans from winning future popular votes by receiving high support from white voters.

Indeed, this recent election might, counter-intuitivitely, indicate that Republicans could be able to win the popular vote in the future because of white voters being willing to switch from Democrat to Republican, or because of Democrat voters staying home on election day. If, as hopefully will not happen, electoral politics continue to become more divided along racial lines, then it is not inconceivable that white Americans would remain a predominant voting bloc even if they eventually no longer account for a majority of the electorate.

Of course, it is probable that for the foreseeable future Republicans will continue to fare better in the electoral college than in the popular vote, a result of the fact that most Democrat voters tend to live within Northeastern or Pacific coastal cities, outside of typical swing states. Still, any Democrats who hope to somehow get rid of the electoral college in order to benefit their own party should, maybe, be a bit careful in making this a Christmas wish.