Category Archives: Trade & Finance

TKR’s Holiday Guide to Talking International Politics

If you stuff your mouth full of food at all times, you won’t have to talk to anyone!

The upcoming holiday season means family time, and thus plenty of opportunities for giant fights to break out around the dinner table.  Or perhaps your family is more civilized than ours (and by some happy coincidence, share the same opinion on everything) and can discuss the world’s on-going events without someone leaving the dinner table and storming out the door.  Or maybe you’re sharing the holidays this year with your spouse/best friend/partner/college roommate’s family and they are brave enough to discuss global politics.

In the event that you’re not quite up to speed on why the NSA is pissing off the world, the U.S.’ current relationship with Iran, what’s going on in Syria, or other goings on in the international community, The Korbel Report is here to help you successfully navigate your way through the holidays.

 To start, let’s determine if you need this article. You don’t need this article if:

  • Your Dad can name more than 5 heads of state;
  • Your uncles can explain the intricacies if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict accurately;
  • Your grandma understands that less than 1% of the U.S. budget is allocated to foreign assistance;
  • Your sister dismantled chemical weapons factories in Syria; or
  • Those at the table who have studied abroad outnumber those who haven’t.

You do need this article if:

  • Your aunts think Africa is a country, not a continent;
  • Your cousins mistook Chechnya for the Czech Republic;
  • Anyone at the table thinks that the Fukushima disaster had anything to do with Pearl Harbor;
  • You have a cousin who just finished his/her first semester of college and took one political science class and is suddenly an expert on Israel and Palestine;
  • Your brother in law thinks Benghazi is still worth impeaching Obama; or
  • You’ve fallen down a job-specific rabbit hole, and aren’t sure what’s going on in all parts of the world.

We’ve broken down some of the most pressing, headline-catching international stories that might come up around the holiday punch bowl in the hopes that you can drop some knowledge on your relatives, impress your in-laws, or at minimum, give you a little ammo against the ill-informed. 

SYRIA
What’s going on there:
It hasn’t grabbed U.S. headlines since President Obama’s threat to intervene, but the conflict in Syria continues to rage on.  On August 21, Government forces in Syria used the nerve agent sarin to attack the town of Ghouta near Damascus.  A UN team of chemical weapons investigators later confirmed the attack.  In the wake of the chemical weapons attack, President Obama warned Syrian President Asad that it would face American military intervention if there were signs that its chemical weapons arsenal was used.  After President Obama’s threat, Russian President Vladimir Putin urged Syria to allow weapons inspectors into the country and take control of their stockpile, resulting in a deal in Geneva in September.  Since then, Syria has handed over control of their chemical weapons (prompting the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize to go to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons), and the Syrian Army and its allies have launched offensives near Damascus and Aleppo.  As winter approaches the nearly 2.2 million Syrian refugees in neighboring countries, food, water, shelter, medicine are still scarce, coupled with freezing temperatures.  Many (especially children, who comprise of half of Syrian refugees) lack food, fuel, shoes, blankets, for decent shelters that are necessary to live in what is expected to be one of the harshest winters in years.  According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, approximately $4.4 billion is needed to support refugees for the upcoming winter, and only half of that amount has been raised.  Finally, in the most recent news regarding Syria, a report was released this weekend that concluded that over 11,000 children in Syria have been killed during the conflict, and are being targeted intentionally, by snipers, as well as being summarily executed and tortured.  

What you may hear at the dinner table:
“Mark my words, the Syrians will have nuclear weapons next.”
“Those people are barbarians.  We should just stay out, because they just all want to kill each other.”
“You know who’s the real winner in all of this?  RUSSIA.”
“Why don’t we just bomb them?”

How to respond:
Option A) You can get into a debate over intervention vs. non-intervention, even though the possibility of military intervention by the U.S. seems non-existent at this point in time.  Of course, this could lead to a real dark place in which you and your relatives get into a deep discussion about previous U.S. military and humanitarian operations (Somalia, Vietnam, Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo), which then in turn, may lead to a discussion about American exceptionalism and the U.S.’ place in the world.  However, this could also lead to accusations about one’s level of patriotism and result in someone leaving the table.  Proceed with caution.
Option B)  Casually mention with a hint of snark that you play Call of Duty and you think you can figure out how to end the conflict based off of your video game experiences.
Option C) Make an impassioned plea to your family to donate to organizations like Oxfam, the Red Cross, the UNHCR, and other credible organizations to help Syrian refugees this winter.

THE NSA & EDWARD SNOWDEN
What’s up with that?
In early June the world found out something shocking: all this information we are transmitting to each other via email, phone, Skype, and snapchat (ok, maybe not snapchat…that’s secure) is being recorded—and guess what? The government wants to look at it! And they do look at it. Edward Snowden, a private contractor with Booz Allen Hamilton worked for the National Security Agency, broke ranks and leaked massive amounts of information to the London newspaper, The Guardian, about the NSA and the extent of its spying on everyone from US citizens to world leaders, all in the name of keeping ‘Murica secure. Snowden reveals his identity days after the first leaks, and then pisses off his girlfriend by running away to Moscow from Hong Kong, where he had gone to escape U.S. law enforcement. In a turn of events that anyone who has had to travel via Miami International can empathize with, he then realizes the transit area of Moscow area is far more punishing than any U.S. jail and starts to seek asylum elsewhere.

What you may hear at the dinner table:
“Snowden is a hero/Benedict Arnold.”
“I’m with France/Germany/Britain/Canada on this one. Spying on your own people is just wrong!”
“This whole thing is just made up. There’s no way the wizard in the computer box could do all that. I can’t even set up my own email.”
“What’s that? Well, of course it snowed in Russia.”
“I don’t want Obama listening to my conversations with grandpa!”
“Why don’t we just bomb him?”

How to respond:
Option A) Point out that as Snowden remains in Russia with temporary asylum, his revelations have sparked a much needed debate about how we balance information privacy against national security in an age where all of us so willingly hand over the most intimate details about our lives via the Internet. Whether you consider Snowden a patriot, a dissident, a traitor or a vain-glorious celebrity-seeker, what is undeniable is that his actions have sparked a contentious but necessary discussion about what governments do in the name of our own protection, about the reach of corporations, and the relationship between the two.
Option B) Go more direct, and suggest that it is utterly contrary to any notion of democracy for a government that we elect to steal our personal information without our consent, whether in the name of our own good, or not. Just ask me first, okay?
Option C) Deflect: Because at the end of the day, why was Auntie Sheila Googling “octopus porn”?
Option D) Write an exasperated Facebook status update about how backward “the other side” of your family is. When your cousin reads it out over dessert, self-righteously accuse him/her of spying on you NSA-style, once you’ve had a few more seasonal libations.

THE GLOBAL ECONOMY
What’s going on with that:
This Labor Day, Business Insider gave a great overview of the global marketplace, touching on a few key themes. The United States has experienced better than expected growth. The EU is making a steady comeback, putting the Euro back on stable footing. Amid concerns that the Chinese government was going to crash–hard–the Chinese economy is still growing at a pretty steady rate. But even amid positive growth, many are still concerned about the number of jobs at home, and how an increasingly globalized world impacts the national economy.

What you may hear at the dinner table:
“Why don’t we just sell more bombs? That’d make up some room in the budget!”
“This is all Obama’s/Bush’s/Wall Street’s/ high taxes’/China’s/Europe’s/the foreign aid budget’s/the military budget’s/etc. fault.”They took our jobs!

How to respond:
Option A) Ugh, getting into the technicalities of the global economy and its impact at the local level (say, on your poor uncle who just got laid off) is truly challenging. Heck, most economists don’t even agree on exactly what’s going on in the economy most of the time! If you’re reading this because most members of your family don’t know the difference between a fixed and floating exchange rate, this might be a good time to give ’em one of these:

Option B) The economy, by-and-large is getting better in the United States, the EU, and China. The real concern is that many developing economies (Brazil, India, etc.) that were on the rise before the 2008 recession were hit hard, and haven’t recovered well. This not only hurts those countries and the people in them, but it weakens the overall global economy.

U.S. – IRAN RELATIONSHIP
What’s going on there:
The US and Iran have been at odds with one another for over three decades, and many believe now is the time to act. Iran’s new president Hassan Rouhani assumed office in August and many believe a rapprochement is now possible. Serious talks have been taking place between Iran and the P5+1 countries (comprised of the US, Russia, China, the UK, France, plus Germany) on reaching a compromise on Iran’s nuclear program. Major improvements were made during the Geneva talks at the beginning of November, but a deal was not formally made due to hesitations by France (not by Iran or the US). While President Obama has stated many times that military action is not off the table, many see a diplomatic resolution as the only viable solution. Given the American public’s wariness of another war in the Middle East, Iran’s threats of an all-out regional war and the blockage of the Strait of Hormuz if Israel or the US were to strike, and the innumerable logistical issues with striking a country as vast as Iran, military action would be both naive and dangerous. As for Prime Minister Netanyahu, over twenty years ago, he solemnly swore that if action were not taken, Iran would have nuclear weapons within five years. And this same rhetoric has been used nearly every year since. It is becoming very clear that Israel’s uncompromising stance is becoming more and more unpopular as both Iran and the US seek common ground.

What you may hear at the dinner table:
“Israel is going to attack Iran if the US doesn’t take a more firm stance. They seem really serious this time.” (Try not to spit mashed potatoes on great-aunt Janet when you try to stifle your scoff after hearing this one.)
“Why don’t we just bomb them?”
anigif_enhanced-buzz-14447-1385051049-19

How to respond:
Option A) Discuss how great it is that last weekend, the U.S., Iran, and 5 other non-important world powers signed an agreement that would temporarily halt Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for an easing of economic sanctions on the country.  Because, hey, global compromises on nuclear programs are something to be thankful for!
Option B) Sit back and roll your eyes while your family calls Obama weak and powerless while discussing how much this hurts Israel.
Option C) Mention to your family you can look up on the internet how to build a nuclear weapon.  However, proceed with caution on this one, since the NSA is probably watching.

CHINA
What’s going on there:
China is at a crucial point in its planned development. The model that has caused its economy to grow at stupendous rates for the last couple of decades appears to be starting to falter, and the Communist Party is currently deliberating on which reforms to introduce in order to increase the sustainability of its growth and eventually overtake the US as the world’s leading economy, which has been a goal since the Mao era. The Chinese military is also rapidly modernizing and expanding its power projection capabilities, particularly in the South China Sea and Yellow Sea. This past weekend, China demarcated an “air-defense identification zone” over an area in the East China Sea, which covers the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.” Japan has protested this escalation in setting up such an airspace.

What you may hear at the dinner table:
“The Chinese are going to try to compete with us militarily! I’m telling you, it’s going to be another Cold War if we’re lucky or another hot war if we’re not.”
“We owe so much money to the Chinese that it’s inevitable that at some point they’re going to come calling, looking to repossess – Sarah Palin said so.”
“Just look at what Communism does: hundreds of millions of people suffering from human rights abuses, toxic air and water, and a completely corrupt government that values money over human life.”
“We should all just start speaking Chinese now.” “We should stop them now, when they’re still weak.”
“You know, we have the Chinese to thank for Pacific Rim’s making enough money to warrant a sequel. I say, let them keep developing.”

How to respond:
Option A) Explain that China has mostly been an aggravation to its neighbors, and its economic ties to the US make future conflict between the two very unlikely. In discussing US-China relations, it is important to note that diplomacy is not a zero sum game, and in the future, there will be more that the US and China can accomplish together, rather than apart. For your McCarthy family members, it can be appeasing to note that the US still remains in a very integral and relevant role in the international community. Our soft power – encompassing our values, culture, and convening abilities – continues to outpace China. The US capacity for foreign aid is still the largest in the world, and it continues to be the largest donor to international, multilateral efforts.
Option B) Stare are your family as they eat Chinese food and complain about immigrants and just. say. nothing. 
Option C) Pick this to be the perfect moment to announce that you’ve recently acquired a Chinese girlfriend/boyfriend. If you want, say that things are getting really serious, so your parents should get ready to not only accept your new partner, but potentially half-Asian grandbabies!

THE UNITED NATIONS’ RELEVANCE
What’s going on:
Despite a recent bi-partiasan Gallup poll demonstrating that most Americans have a positive view of the UN, it’s certainly not uncommon to hear people screaming about how the UN is undermining U.S. sovereignty.  In 2012, Texas voters and voter fraud groups criticized the deployment of UN-backed election monitors for the 2012 Presidential Election.  There are a million and a half examples of how citizens, Members of Congress, and conspiracy theorists think the UN is destroying America and the rest of the world, but we don’t have time to get into all of them.

What you may hear at the dinner table:
“Why don’t they just use bombs?”
“The UN is destroying America!  All that good for nothing organization does is support terrorists trying to destroy this country/take our money/undermine our ability to do what we want!”

How to respond:
Option A) Acknowledge that yes, we all know the UN has a less than perfect record (ok, a downright awful record) when it comes to peacekeeping, addressing climate change, Syria, and a whole host of other issues.  However, the UN isn’t a crazy, independent organization run by aliens, it’s run by Member States (plot twist: The UN is the U.S. brain-child, created after the failure of the League of Nations), and if the world wanted the UN to work, it would.  If Members wanted to address climate change, they would.  If they wanted peacekeeping operations to work, they would.  You’ll recall the UN said no to George W. Bush when he wanted to invade Iraq; it didn’t seem to stop him when the UN said no.
Option B) Ignore the comment and pour more wine.

CUTTING U.S. FOREIGN AID TO FIX THE BUDGET
What’s going on with this:
American opinion towards foreign assistance has been polled since 1995. And the result? Americans have consistently overestimated the percentage of federal funding allocated to international aid. The overall median estimate is that the government spends 20% of its budget on assistance. Some more recent polls, perhaps reflecting our engagements in the Middle East, show that figure rising to 25%.

The same individuals were also asked to state what they believe a more appropriate level of funding is. Their response? 10% of our budget, which is 10 times greater than actual spending. Secretary Kerry would leap for joy if his funding could reach the levels that Americans believe to be appropriate (and for the sake of job security, we’d love it too). Though public estimates grow in accuracy with education level, those who have completed a college education or higher still estimate spending to be around 15%. It is extraordinary that these levels of overestimation are so persistent, though perhaps it is because there are no strong domestic constituencies calling for their Congressmen to send money abroad. But in this increasingly globalized world, what happens elsewhere impacts the factories and farmlands of America. And the Department of State and USAID contribute to the health and security of individual Americans, and their local economies, all while having less staff than all the members of military bands combined. So this holiday season, do your part to educate your loved ones, and spread some foreign policy cheer for the growth of American soft power abroad.

What you may hear at the dinner table:
“These morons in Washington, all they do is spend, spend, spend!  We’ve got $17 trillion in debt, and we’re still giving money to countries that hate us?  I know how to solve the debt crisis – just stop giving terrorists like Pakistan money!”

How to respond:
This one is rather simple.  Politely point out that, give or take, 1% of the total U.S. budget is spent on Official Development Assistance (ODA), and wouldn’t have much of an effect on the U.S. budget.  If you’re feeling bold, you can always point out that in 2011, the U.S. spent 20% of its federal budget on the military and steer the conversation towards reducing military spending (which is currently happening).  However, if you’ve got a few Hawks in your family, this could be problematic.

Also, on a related note, please feel free to spread this graph, which shows that Obama has been keeping his pursestrings tighter than any of his recent predecessors, including both Bushes and Reagan.

DOMESTIC POLITICS

Ron-Swanson-Re-Think-That-Move-Son-Parks-and-Recreation

On the whole, Americans know more about domestic affairs than foreign affairs (or they at least think they do). Most people are more likely to care or know about the things that are impacting themselves and their family: education, the economy—things like that. It’s much more personal than talking about what’s going on “over there.” There’s a lot that could come up here, but regardless of the partisan stripes found at your family’s table, misinformation is bound to rear its head.

What could potentially come up:
Immigration reform, the recent government shutdown, the debt ceiling, filibuster reform, the Tea Party, the American Care Act (ACA) aka “Obamacare,” the miserable ACA website rollout, new Common Core curriculum, weird conspiracy theories involving the Kenyan government, Ted Cruz, America is “morally corrupt” (please, someone, tell me what that even means!), Sarah Palin, gun control, abortion, the JFK assassination, Area 51…the list is almost endless.

How to respond:

Option A) Don’t walk—RUN. Remember that part where these issues are really personal to all the people sitting at your table? Remember how no one can even agree on how to roast the turkey? Yeah. Unless you have one of those families who miraculously agrees on all political issues, or who can—perhaps more miraculously—calmly and rationally discuss their differences, stay far, far away from discussing things like healthcare, the Government Shutdown, abortion, gun control, or comparisons of Obama or Ted Cruz to Hitler.  It will only end in head-banging frustration as one or more of your relatives angrily flips over a table full of poultry and stuffing.
Option B) Go for it. Either you’re from one of those miracle families, you’re very brave and on a “but I can teach them” kick, or you’ve got some metaphorical kerosene and match ready to burn up those familial bridges. We’ll leave it up to you to represent the point of view you find most pertinent on the issues of the day. Just try to remember that you’re probably going to have to see all of these people again.
Option C) Enjoy yourself, and devil’s advocate the heck out of everyone. “Troll” your family, as the kids say. If you make everyone’s politics into a big laugh fest, maybe you’ll steer the conversation back to something more tame and make it through dessert with everyone still on good terms.

You are now ready for a battle royale with your family.  We hope that we were able to help prepare you for your upcoming holiday obligations.  Eat, drink, passionately argue, and be merry!

Taylor Gibson worked as lead author on this post, with input from several TKR staff: Alexander Bowe, Morgan Day, Maryam Kar, Alison Lowe, and Xian Zhang, with input from guest writer Michael Briggs.

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Rebalancing Act, Part Two – On the Extremity of China’s Investment-led Development Model

DANIEL ROARTY

The recently released data on China’s 3rd quarter growth seems optimistic on the surface – while many analysts have been predicting a gradual slowdown in the Chinese economy, 3rd quarter figures show it accelerating from 7.5% growth in the previous quarter to 7.8% this quarter. However, rapidly expanded credit enacted earlier this year is mainly responsible for this acceleration – industrial output, energy output, and exports all slumped in the same period. Conversely, investments in transportation infrastructure and sewage systems skyrocketed. These figures lead to the conclusion that China is still heavily dependent on investment for economic growth and that it has yet to begin a long-awaited rebalance away from investment-led growth to consumption-led growth.

This post will investigate China’s rebalancing from a historical perspective, comparing China’s consumption to GDP ratio to that of other countries using data from the World Bank, and will end with some conclusions that can be derived from this comparative historical analysis. Continue reading

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Today in Trade History: How Mexican Cowboys Prove Tom Tancredo is an Idiot

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HANNA CAMP

Today in trade history, I’m going back to my roots. On October 20, 1835, the American trading vessel Pilgrim anchored in a Mexican harbor, and on October 21, its crew went ashore to do business. The local community was a diverse mix of Mexican ranchers, descendants of Spanish missionaries, and the native Acjachemen tribe, whose economy began and ended with cows. When trading ships like the Pilgrim came to ports all over the coast, pretty much all they were looking for was cattle hides, tallow, and other cow-related products. The bluffs around this port, however, were so steep that the sailors just tossed the hides over the cliffs onto the beach below like giant leather frisbees, getting a few caught halfway down. The captain, not wanting to lose money, heroically demanded one of his men climb down the cliffs to free them. The sailor who did so, Richard Henry Dana, went on to write one of the best records of that region and its trade that exists, a book entitled Two Years Before the Mast. The city that now sits on that harbor is named Dana Point in his honor, and the neighboring city of San Juan Capistrano is my hometown. The Mexican cattle ranching haven was California.

There are two reasons this story is important and not just self-indulgent. One is that despite Dana being a raging leftist who wrote his book as an honest account of the miseries of shipboard life for a common crewman, the American people happily missed the point entirely in favor of the romanticism of a foreign land, thus setting the stage for The Grapes of Wrath and The Real Housewives of Orange County. The second reason is that the story is a nice illustration of why America has nothing to fear from Latino influence. There has never been an America with California in it that did not include Latino influence.

You’ve probably never heard of the California Hide Trade, but it is the reason California’s major cities became major. The Hide Trade lasted just a couple of decades as the Mexican ranchers flourished, extended from Boston to Peru to Alta California to Hawaii to China, and included trade assists from the British and Russians. Foreign sailors and traders often settled and intermarried with local Mexican and indigenous groups, linking up the disparate peoples who would one day build the gayest city in the Western Hemisphere (excepting maybe Rio).

The list of interesting things about this trading route is endless. One Boston company (Bryant, Sturgis & Co., which owned the Pilgrim) so dominated the hide and tallow trade that the local name for the United States was “Boston.” American ship captains made evading Mexican tariffs into an art form, primarily through bribing the hell out of the tariff collectors and competing with each other for who could get away with paying the least. And the pelts of cute little Californian otters were so popular in Canton that the otter population got drastically reduced, so good one, China.

The Pilgrim sailed the Hide Trade route carrying Richard Henry Dana, who was not your typical sailor. Son of a prominent Cambridge family and a Harvard boy, he betrayed some nascent hippie tendencies when he supported a student protest as a freshman and received a six-month suspension in return. In his junior year, he contracted measles and suffered vision loss. Instead of doing a rich boy tour of Europe to recover, he let his hippie flag fly and joined a two-year voyage out of Boston, around South America, up to California and back again. He resolved to live the life of a common sailor and see what it was like.

Turns out, it sucked. The hours were long, the conditions were horrible, and the food was legendarily bad. The story of the ship captain pressuring crew to climb down cliffs and retrieve cow hides for his own gain illustrates how little sailors’ lives were worth, but during the voyage Dana also witnessed a crewmember getting severely beaten by a superior, and had an activist epiphany. He returned to Harvard, got his law degree, and spent the rest of his life defending common sailors in court and helping found the anti-slavery Free Soil party. Publishing Two Years Before the Mast was supposed to help the cause, and in some ways it did. But much like Upton Sinclair later found, the reading public often decides all on its own what it will be interested in, and in Dana’s case, the reading public was roughly 1,000 times more interested in the pretty coastline and shiny, shiny gold of California than they were in the rights of ship crews. And who can blame them?

Kids who grew up in or next to Dana Point generally know a little bit about this. Most of us were taken to see Dana’s statue in the harbor as a field trip, some were made to read Two Years Before the Mast by an ambitious English teacher. A few were hardcore and spent a weekend bunked up in the replica of the Pilgrim that floats in Dana Point Harbor today, a kind of educational hazing service the Harbor offers in order to give 6th graders a taste of what it was like to be a sailor back then. In general though, the legacy of Dana in Dana Point is very much adventure and cowhides, and very little labor rights advocacy.

Dana’s accounts of Mexican California, not coincidentally, make it sound pretty American. Its economy was basically an American cowboy fantasy. When Mexico secularized the missions, it promised to give half of the Church’s land and property to the Native Americans, but mostly did not do any of that. Immigration policy in Alta California was more or less “if you can get here, you can stay (but getting here’s the hard part)”. What’s more American than all of those things?

The reason we share so many similarities is that we share a complicated history, which really kicked off with trade. Every street name in my hometown is in Spanish for a reason, but it doesn’t make the place any less American, as this weirdness can prove. Anyone who complains about the Spanish language in America or the rising numbers of Latino Americans should remember the California Hide Trade, and find something better to be worried about.

Richard Henry Dana: Fighting for the Common Sailor and Looking Good Doing It

Richard Henry Dana: Fighting for the Common Sailor and Looking Good Doing It

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Should We Fear the GMO?

Photo source: AP.

MORGAN DAY

Few debates in the realm of agricultural development are more challenging (and aggravating) than that surrounding genetically engineered crops. Largely, the debate has been reduced into “point-counterpoint” style argumentation—should GMO foods be labeled?  Are GMOs detrimental to human health and/or the environment? Are GMOs the economic answer for agricultural and food security growth throughout the developing world? You likely have your own answers to some of these questions, with reasonable explanations for why you fall down on one side or the other.

My key frustrations with the GMO debate derive from an overwhelming  “us versus them” mentality in which “my team” has to win, even if the “other team” has some good ideas or points. As Jonathan Foley once said, “You’re either with Michael Pollan or you’re with Monsanto, but neither paradigm can fully meet our needs.” This is a nuanced issue, but the politicization of GMOs often results in emotionally-charged, ideologically-hard lined discussion. I certainly have my own biases, and generally am more in favor of traditional crossbreeding techniques than genetically engineering (GE) crops or animals. And I understand why GMOs are scary—there are many areas of uncertainty or of potential negative impact in their use. But fear alone should not be the driving reason behind opposing their use. In my time working and debating at The World Food Prize Foundation in Des Moines, IA, and over the course of my studies at the Josef Korbel School, three key “fears” surrounding GMO use arise again and again

1. Fear of environmental impact.
Remember Gregor Mendel and his pea plants? While he methodically selected for genetic robustness in his crops, he was not a genetic engineer in today’s sense of the term. GE or GMO crops, “are plants or animal created through the gene splicing techniques of biotechnology” which cannot otherwise occur naturally or through traditional crossbreeding techniques. This leads to philosophical questions about our role in modifying nature—do we get to play God(s)?—and if these modifications pose true threats to our environment and our health.

Apart from potential existential crises caused by considering our role in modifying (or not modifying) nature, GMOs do pose a threat to naturally-occurring flora and fauna, as their introduction to stable ecosystems can result in outcrossing or loss of biodiversity. For instance, many GMOs are created to be weed- or pest- resistant. Introduction of these resistant crops may lead “the [natural] development of more aggressive weeds or wild relatives with increased resistance to diseases or environmental stresses.” Biodiversity loss is a complex issue in and of itself, but increased GMO is one of the many drivers that leads to “the displacement of traditional cultivars by a small number of genetically modified cultivars,” either through farmer selection to grow GMOs, by GMO cross-pollination, or by market- and price-based marketing and consumer decisions to prefer GMO products over traditional cultivars.

For many fearful of GMOs’ environmental impact, the use of pesticides and fertilizers necessary to maintaining healthy GMO crops is the most alarming. Although many biotech firms maintain that their product lines both effectively control weeds and decrease the overall use of pesticides, herbicides, and other harmful chemicals, studies show that GMO technology has risen since the wide-spread availability and use of GMO crops. (This impact has been most studied on RoundUp Ready crops). When considered in the context of general problems with commercial agriculture—labor codes or lack thereof, poor safety precautions for workers, environmental regulations to monitor and control agrichemical run-off into waterways—there are a number of negative impacts on environmental and human health inevitable with increased use of GMOs.

2. Fear of health impact.
Many of the environmental fears dovetail with fears about GMOs’ impact on human health. (We’ll side-step the issue of animal health for the time being, as the implications for animal well-being warrant their own nuanced debate). The World Health Organization determines the safety of GM foods by investigating “(a) direct health effects (toxicity);  (b) tendencies to provoke allergic reaction (allergenicity); (c) specific components thought to have nutritional or toxic properties; (d) the stability of the inserted gene; (e) nutritional effects associated with genetic modification; and (f) any unintended effects which could result from the gene insertion.” GMOs which are currently on the market have passed these investigations, and are currently deemed safe for human consumption. However, rigorous scientific studies have produced mixed results on whether GMO foods are safe for humans: “some have vindicated no safety differences between GE and non-GE varieties, while others have demonstrated potential harm.” This ambiguity among the scientific community about the safety of GM products (and about the best methods to test for safety) has led to fears about ingesting GM foods. Caution in this instance is sound, but I find myself wondering why consumers are eager to trust science to make us more healthy through pharmaceuticals, innovative surgeries, and other medical means, but not through directly modifying our food sources.

3. Fear of dependency or economic oppression.
Part of the argument in favor of GMO use is the promise of increased crop yield through minimizing pestilence and maximizing the amount of crop grown per acre or hectare. This has clear positive impacts for farmers, especially for smallholders with small amounts of land and resources. By growing more of a crop, farmers are able to maximize their economic gain, to reinvest in the farm, and to purchase necessities for their family like schooling, food, health care, clothes, and shelter upgrades. This can also result in an increase stock of food at local, national, and regional levels, allowing consumers access to more food and allowing governments more security in protecting national food stocks against the vicissitudes of the international commodities market. These impacts of GMO use seem relatively positive. Poor farmers can grow more, make more money, and potentially generate more food for their fellow man.

In the context of human and economic development, fear of GMOs is based on a fear of creating dependency on GMO crop inputs and the multinational agribusiness firms which purvey them. Agribusiness firms which sell GMOs and their associated products—seeds, pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, etc.)—often carry strict patents and intellectual property protections which necessitate annual rebuying of seed (and the fertilizer, pesticide, and herbicide made specifically to complement and support the seed), or the payment of a technology royalty to the company to continue using patented seeds. (As an aside, not all GMO seeds are sterile, although the technology to create sterile seeds exists. Many so-called “facts” about GMO seeds are actually more myth than reality, as Dan Charles’ article outlines.) Given the protections on seed technology and their relatively high level of enforcement, many fear that a dependency on agribusiness firms and their wares will outweigh the potentially positive outcomes of GMO use for farmers.

These fears exist for legitimate reasons, and I am truly concerned about GMOs’ impact on the livelihoods of smallholder farmers, and on the environment. But we know these risks, and in identifying an ill we have the power to alleviate or eliminate that ill. As with any technological breakthrough, we should exercise an abundance of caution in how it is woven into the fabric of society. GMO use has resulted in Norman Borlaug’s Green Revolution in the 1960s, to increased crop yields and increases in farmer livelihoods, and to more abundant food stocks in countries once depending on imports for the majority of their food. And what’s more, each GMO presents its own unique case, making it dangerous to declare all GMOs safe or unsafe. For each positive outcome GMOs have brought, there are hidden risks and obvious costs. But the moment we allow our fear of the unknown to deter scientific advancements—advancements with life-saving capabilities for huge numbers of people in the developed and developing world—is the moment that we give up on developing a better global food system, and a less-hungry world.

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Today in Trade History: How Carnival Destroyed the Parthenon

The Parthenon (1871) by Frederic Edwin Church

HANNA CAMP

If you’re like me, you’ve gone through life innocently believing the Parthenon slowly but inevitably crumbled into its present state of dignified ruination over the course of many thousands of years. It didn’t. On September 26th, 1687, a bunch of Venetians blew it up. You might object that this series is not called Today in War History, and you’d have a point. But this story is too good not to tell, and in telling it I can talk about the extremely relevant and amusing history of Venetian trade.

Venice, as everyone knows, is composed pretty much entirely of water, marble, and gondolas. Therefore, if the Venetians wanted to eat and have Carnivals (and they did) they needed to engage in a lot of trade. What is less well-known is what complete hucksters they were about it. By the 9th century CE the city had risen to prominence on the back of its ship-building industry, and in the course of sailing their ships around looking for food and Carnival masks, the Venetians conned pretty much everybody in the Mediterranean. They got the Byzantines to grant them tax-free trading privileges and control of Byzantine harbors, all in return for promises of military aid which they never delivered. They convinced the broke and hapless soldiers of the Fourth Crusade to sack the then-Christian cities of Zadar and Constantinople for them, causing all of the soldiers to get excommunicated. In an episode worthy of Mission Impossible, Venetians stole the remains of St. Mark out of Alexandria by covering the relics with pork so the Egyptian border guards wouldn’t look too closely. At one point Venice was even ruling Jerusalem, “Kingdom of Heaven”-style.

In short, Venetians were crafty and mercenary, and after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453, it should come as no surprise that they made new trade treaties with them and kept the river of money flowing. This generally worked out well for both sides. The Ottomans couldn’t match the Venetians for seafaring trader experience, and the Venetians wanted both the products Ottomans could supply and access to the markets they controlled. Yet predictably, the relationship between a sneaky city-state with a number of highly valuable trade outposts and a neighboring empire on a winning streak (True Fact: the Turks tangled with the real-life Dracula at this time – and beat him) ended up featuring a lot of warring. Almost three hundred years of periodic warring.

In 1687, in the course of one of these wars, a Venetian force advanced on Athens after driving the Turks out of the Peloponnese. In Athens, the Turks had already evacuated the main town and withdrawn their people and garrison to the Acropolis, where the Parthenon sits. It should be noted at this point that the Parthenon was not ruined, but was actually in pretty hot shape for a 2,000-year-old monument, with walls and a roof and all the things today’s Parthenon decidedly lacks. But the Turks, like fools, had placed their gunpowder magazine inside it, and on September 26th the Venetians, like fools, mortared it. Hundreds were killed, either by debris or by the resulting fires. The question of whether the Venetians caused this destruction purposefully, or presumably got the shock of their lives when a simple volley blew the thing sky-high, is a surprisingly open one. What is not debated is that the they then looted the place so much that by the time Lord Elgin came along he basically had to pry sculptures off whatever stones had remained standing in order to get anything good.

Religious fervor, lingering resentments from the Crusades, regional power-brokering and entrenched alliances all no doubt contributed to both sides’ constant explosive bickering. Yet the land-based objects of that bickering could not be said to be religious in nature – they were economically strategic. Between them, the two powers pretty much owned the direct land and sea routes between Europe and Far East, and they spent most of their time cooperating in that trade. “Being merchants,” the Venetian ambassador to the Ottoman Empire wrote, “we cannot live without them.” He said that in 1553, at which point they had already fought three wars within a space of less than 80 years, and would fight a few more before Venice finally gave way to Portugal as the top trading power of Europe.

And perhaps if Portugal had moved a little faster, the Parthenon would still be intact today.

For more on the complicated and occasionally hilarious relationship between Venice and the Muslim world see this video, from the wonderful Crash Course World History YouTube series. For previous entries in the Today in Trade History series, see this archive.

Possibly the world's greatest monument to thievery.

Possibly the world’s greatest monument to thievery.

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The Korbel Report’s Weekly Link Roundup

Happy Monday! The staff of The Korbel Report spends its fair share of time on the internet staying up-to-date on a wide-range of international news and trends. Here’s a list of the articles, blog posts, and resources we found interesting, enlightening, or infuriating over the past week:

Did we miss your favorite link from this week?  Let us know in the comments, on our Facebook page, or Twitter @korbelreport.

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The Korbel Report’s Weekly Link Roundup

The staff of The Korbel Report spends its fair share of time on the internet staying up-to-date on a wide-range of international news and trends.  Here’s a list of the articles, blog posts, and resources we found interesting, enlightening, or infuriating this week:

Did we miss your favorite link from this week?  Let us know in the comments, on our Facebook page, or Twitter @korbelreport.

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The 2020 Tokyo Olympics – Hopes and Challenges

DANIEL ROARTY

While the excitement, energy, and what some even deem “euphoria” in Japan over Tokyo’s selection to host the 2020 Olympic games have yet to subside, time is beginning to open up the complexity of Japan’s hosting of these games. After all, us Korbel Report writers spent two years in the only city to ever be awarded an Olympics only to later decline, so many of us have heard the arguments for why Coloradans chose this course of action. While Tokyo’s 2020 games could prove to be financially and spiritually fulfilling for Japan, issues such as the continuing crisis in Fukushima, Japan’s massive public debt, and tense regional relations must be dealt with ensure a successful event. Continue reading

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Myanmar’s Ports: 3,000 Kilometers of Coast in Developing Asia

DEREK SARCHET

Located between a country that has become synonymous for export-led economic growth and a region that is now attempting to follow their lead, Myanmar finds itself in a prime position to transport the produce of the region’s factories all over the world. Exports, of course, require efficient and high-capacity ports, especially those that can handle modern, massive shipping liners with relative ease. The recipe is in the name.

Any list of Asia’s top ports resembles a who’s who of Asian Tiger economies. Singapore, Shanghai (China), Kaohsiung (Taiwan), Hong Kong, Tokyo (Japan), Busan (Republic of Korea), and Kelang (Malaysia) have all proved to be invaluable engines to their respective economies’ growth. As the world trends ever more towards increased global trade and shorter production cycles, the efficiency of ports can be the deciding factor in whether or not a venture is economical. It can also ensure livelihoods by enticing foreign capital to stay, even in the face of rising incomes. This is one reason that Chinese manufacturing continues to flourish despite galloping wage increases. Notably absent from these lists are the traditionally silted and poorly maintained ports in South Asia.  Continue reading

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The Korbel Report’s Weekly Link Roundup

The staff of The Korbel Report spends its fair share of time on the internet staying up-to-date on a wide-range of international news and trends.  Here’s a list of the articles, blog posts, and resources we found interesting, enlightening, or infuriating this week:

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