Foreign Influence Dispatch Ep030

Protests Continue • Contact Tracing In Singapore • Restoring the US Reputation

Thanks for reading the Foreign Influence Dispatch, the newsletter of the Foreign Influence Podcast! Here’s our follow-up to episode 30 with links and additional commentary. A bit USA focused again this time, but lots of action there. A bit too much. Let’s go…

George Floyd was laid to rest yesterday. Floyd, of course, was the man killed by a police officer during an arrest which has sparked off two weeks of protests against police brutality, particularly against blacks.

Like many Americans, I’ve really struggled these past two weeks. F*ck, I’m angry. Sad. Disappointed.

Although I’m not on the frontlines of any protest or having to put a stop to looting (and I certainly don’t have to contend with racism in policing directed at me), it’s still horrible to be abroad and watch your country get torn apart from the inside, struggling with racial fissures and injustices that - no matter how many years and words we throw at them - we seem incapable of resolving.

As I’ve mentioned on the podcast a couple times, we’re moving back this month to the US, and many friends here have asked why we wouldn’t look for ways to stay abroad? Why not wait until these tensions and the violence have calmed down? Especially given the erratic, insufficient, and highly politicized response in the US to the coronavirus? (For whatever reason, Americans seem to be okay with the level of death we’re seeing and ready to move on. 🤷🏻‍♂️) Are you crazy?, they ask. It’s a hot mess of violence, disease, economic calamity, and broken politics!

It’s hard not to say that’s a fair question. After all, think if you were reading news reports about a country that was in the state the US is right now. Would you consider moving there?

My guess is no. You’d wonder, “Who in the hell would ever choose to live there?!” (Some might even call it a hellhole or a shithole.)

Well, if you’re American, now you know the answer.

Because, no matter the flaws, it’s where you came from. It’s family. It’s friends. It’s roots.

It’s home.

The Reputation of the US on the Global Stage

The US is not unique in struggling with racism, racism in policing, or with police brutality. But we sure do like to present ourselves as uniquely special. Good old-fashioned American exceptionalism - the “shining city on the hill” and all that.

The thing is, many people abroad do still view the US as a model. I’ve had more than one person express disillusionment and disappointment with the US to me. And of course, you can only feel those emotions if you thought highly of it before.

Some polling backs these anecdotes up. According to the Pew Research Center’s latest Global Attitudes Survey, a majority (54%) of people worldwide still have a favorable view of the US:

Publics around world express little confidence in Trump but maintain relatively favorable views of the U.S.

Of course, at the same time, I’m sure you’ve already spotted that they don’t think much of Pres. Trump. He can claim, as he always does, that the US is getting more respect around the world. But it’s not true, and he’s a big part of the reason. I can think of a fellow American saying something like, “Hey, he didn’t run as president for the world!” Okay. But don’t delude yourself into thinking he’s improving our image abroad.

Now, of course, police violence, rioting, and looting don’t help with our international reputation, either. But as we discuss in this week’s episode, I don’t think that will be decisive on the world stage. After all, America has been through this before. Some argue that we’re entering a new Cold War with China. (I sure as hell hope not.) During the prior Cold War with the Soviet Union, we went through the tumultuous 1960s - with war protests, protests and uprisings over racial oppression (making today’s events even more depressing), and political assassinations. (At least we haven’t gone that far yet.) Through all of that, the US kept some of its global standing. We can do it again.

In case you’re interested, here are the results of Pew’s global survey on China. It’s more mixed and basically breakeven.

In here, I see a lot of history and current geopolitics. For example, Japan and China are not always on the best terms - see: World War II. And China has made special efforts to cultivate relations in Africa, which seem to be paying off.

Solutions to Police Violence

Since the protests against police brutality began, I’ve had a handful of arguments with people about what is justifiable and unjustifiable in these situations. I cannot condone looting and rioting, and I refuse to choose sides that require you to compromise morally. That said, in a conversation with a friend on Twitter, I was persuaded to accept this:

As a society we pour all kinds of resources into, and generally heap all kinds of respect on, these people. In return, we can reasonably expect them to be better.

Brutality by authorities is no way to create lasting trust and peace in our communities. There’s an old joke about workplaces that can easily be repurposed here:

Our police must be seen as serving the community, not as an occupying force (like militaries are seen in war zones). If any given set of cops are not up to the job, then they should get the hell out.

To accomplish this goal, “defund the police” has become the rallying cry of many protestors. I think that’s unfortunate. It’s an unrealistic policy goal to me. But certainly police departments can be dissolved if they’re too far gone with violence and/or bigotry. In fact, we have a successful example from Camden, New Jersey. I urge everyone to give this story from NPR a listen.

Comparing Cop Killings

One way the US is indeed exceptional is the level of gun violence committed by police and, seemingly, Americans’ tolerance of it. As discussed in the episode, this story from Vox lays it out and includes this chart from the Economist magazine:

The Economist police shootings

This is not a record to be proud of. It certainly begs the question of what’s wrong with Americans. Are we an exceptionally violent people that requires this sort of counter-response? That strikes me as unlikely. As the Vox article lays out, the far more likely reason is the prevalence of guns in the US:

Another way of looking at that: Americans make up less than 5 percent of the world’s population, yet they own roughly 45 percent of all the world’s privately held firearms.

We are practically swimming in weaponry. And as with every social crisis, we’re stocking up on even more.

Gun advocates tell us more guns make us safer. It doesn’t seem to be working.

The Ugly Truth

To wrap up, we featured audio of a man being pushed by police in Buffalo, New York. He tripped after being shoved, and his head violently hit the concrete. It’s sickening. I’m not encouraging you to watch it, but it helps to understand what’s happening.

Just to be clear, there are many, many examples of peaceful black protestors being injured, as well, including in New York City. This particular incident in Buffalo has caught the public imagination because it was caught so clearly and graphically on video - as was the seeming indifference of the police to the man’s injuries.

Cellphone video has truly been the game-changer in the recent movement for racial justice in police treatment. Of course, video/film made all the difference in the protests of the 1960s, as well.

Seeing is believing. And horrifying. And activating. Let’s hope it’s reforming.

Singapore and Wearable Contact Tracing

Also in this week’s episode, we discussed contact tracing and how it’s being implemented in the fight against SARS-Cov-2. Singapore tried to get people to install an app - TraceTogether - that would help track coronavirus cases by showing who had been near one another.

But not enough people installed it, in part because Apple’s security features wouldn’t let it work in the background on an iPhone. So now the country is turning to wearable devices. It’s unclear exactly what they will look like, but as we talk about, hopefully it’s some sort of cool helmet with antennae.

The Great Gazoo™ from the Flintstones™. Yeah, I’m a Gen Xer.

Links to other stories we discussed

France has had its own struggles with protest and police violence, especially during the “yellow vest” protests. That includes the incident Nikolaj mentioned in which Pres. Macron faced criticism for seeming to blame an elderly protestor for her own injuries at a demonstration.

It turns out Nikolaj was right about the British colonies in North America being a destination for many convicts. Apparently up to 10% of people coming to the future United States from Britain during much the 1700s were convicts. In fact, Australia only started its history as a penal colony because of the American Revolution. You learn something new every day!

If you wanted to find out more about the Dutch prime minister changing his mind about “Zwarte Pete” in the era of Black Lives Matter, look here. White people dressing up in black face is also an issue in Belgium.

Finally, in our good news, we noted that South Korea has given ten thousand masks and other personal protective equipment to US Native American veterans as a thanks for their service during the Korean War. These soldiers were known as “code talkers”. Native American languages were largely unknown outside the US, so they were perfect for communicating sensitive military information. I knew they served in the two World Wars, but didn’t know they served in Korea and Vietnam.

Thanks for reading and listening! If you like what you see, please remember that sharing is caring! 

Please consider subscribing to both the Dispatch:

And the podcast, as well! You should find it your favorite listening app. Thanks!

Foreign Influence Dispatch Ep029

The 'Merica Edition • Protests and Riots • 100k Dead • SpaceX Launch

Thanks for checking out the newsletter for episode 29 of the Foreign Influence Podcast. No, you don’t necessarily need to hear the episode to enjoy this, but really, why wouldn’t you? It’ll be the best half hour of your day. Promise.

Choose sides.

You have to choose sides.

The US is on fire. Protests and riots and peacekeeping and police violence.

You must choose sides.

But I can’t. I won’t.

A maddening fact about the stupid world is that multiple, seemingly contradictory facts about a situation can all be true at once.

  • There is substantial evidence that blacks face unequal treatment and outcomes under the US judicial system.

  • Not all cops are racists.

  • Protests against injustice are an absolutely vital part of our system of democracy. Most protestors are peaceful and trying to make a better world.

  • Peaceful protests are almost always hijacked by people who want to commit violence against police or property and who want to loot. Some people just like to watch the world burn - both on the left and right.

  • Police are essential. In normal times they do a job I certainly wouldn’t want to do. Every traffic stop could prove fatal. There are truly dangerous people in the world. And I wouldn’t want to face an angry crowd.

  • Far too often the dangerous people are the police - again, especially for people of color. And if they want to devolve a peaceful protest into chaos, well, they have the gas canisters.

  • I think many people go into policing because they like the sense of power.

  • I think many do the job out of a sense of service.

  • A few cops are indeed bad apples.

  • Most aren’t. But a code of silence protects them.

  • Police should try to de-escalate situations more often.

  • Protestors shouldn’t throw objects at them.

  • Burning and looting are wrong. Period.

  • Unprovoked attacks on peaceful protestors are wrong. Period.

You must choose sides. Protestors or police. Pick.

No. I refuse.

It’s always tempting to mix outrages together and use them as excuses. But you don’t have to excuse bad acts to win the day. You shouldn’t excuse bad acts to win the day. If you make those excuses - moral excuses - then the ultimate victim is the truth. And that’s no way to build a just society.

So, I refuse to choose sides. At least, not the sides as they are defined for me.

If you make me choose one of these sides - protestors or police - I question your motives, your judgment, and your values - perhaps all three.

Regarding motives, my first guess is that you have political goals. You’re seeking partisan advantage and are trying to activate and solidify your base. I won’t play that game.

As for judgment, blindly excusing bad acts makes me question your ability at moral reasoning.

And finally values, as I mentioned, I resist political tribal loyalties, but I’m not some sort of moral relativist. Instead, I’m a believer in the promise of the Enlightenment tradition upon which the United States was founded:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

That commitment to equality and reason and dialogue guides me. It clearly does not leave room for bigotry of any kind, even despite the hypocritical history of the Founding Fathers. And it transcends tribal loyalties and temporary political advantage. At least, it should.

Speaking of tribalism, I have a non-American friend (nationality obscured to protect the innocent) who is struggling to understand how Americans can’t find common ground. Surely everyone agrees there’s a problem? Here was my response, make of it what you will:

I think both extremes might agree things are messed up, but for completely different and incompatible reasons. Speaking stereotypically of the extremes, the right would say blacks are lazy complainers who can't get their own house in order, as they choose to be criminals, have broken families, do drugs, etc. The left would say all white people are irredeemably racist, even if they don't know it consciously, and will do everything in their power to keep blacks down, even to the point of being okay with cops murdering them. Now, there's a vast spread in the middle that feels some of these things, but maybe not all or not as intensely. But finding common ground is very, very hard when your tribe is pulling you in those directions.

By the way, the flag flying upside down, as above, is very much on purpose. According to military code:

The flag should never be displayed with the union down, except as a signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property.

Seems fitting.

On with the show

Of course this is a newsletter for the latest episode, so let me include some links to what we talked about.

Here’s the video of the George Floyd being arrested and dying. It’s horrific. All of the officers at this scene were eventually fired, and the police officer who had his knee on Floyd’s neck has been arrested and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter. The other three might face charges eventually, as well.

As we mentioned, Pres. Trump did provide some appropriate, measured, and sympathetic remarks on the death of George Floyd:

Unfortunately, since then, much of his tweeting has not been about reconciliation, but instead inflaming violent action against protestors. If only he had stuck with this tone, maybe further violence could have been defused. But as I mention in the episode, I think, for him, being a peacemaker is political loser, so we get what we have.

By the way, to repeat, burning and looting are wrong. I have no respect for those people. But let’s be clear, it’s not always the original protestors. Instead, they’ve had to defend their protests against people would foment violence and confrontations with police for their own purposes, both left and right. You can find examples of that here, here, here, here, and here.

I’m sure you’ve already seen plenty of images of protestors and rioting. Here’s a useful round-up of police violence occurring across the country. It’s ugly. And it’s causing some people to say we’re not living through a nationwide protest but a nationwide “police riot”.

Also discussed in the episode:

  • Reporters are getting arrested, live on TV, and injured.

  • In a discussion of the language of these events - is it a protest, riot, uprising, insurrection? - I brought up Ferguson, Missouri. You can find out more about how the police were abusing their power in order to fund the city here.

  • Regarding Singapore and how it manages race relations, find out more about its ethic integration plan and more on how it clearly places discussion of race “out of bounds”.

We also mentioned that recent incident in Central Park in New York City in which a white woman outrageously called the police when faced with a black man simply asking her to put her dog on a leash, as required by park rules. Watch the video. Just unbelievable.

By the way, she has been fired from her job, and she might face charges.

And finally, in the section where I discussed redlining, I was wrong. I indicated that it wasn’t official government policy, but nope, it sure was. And under the administration of my personal political hero, FDR, too - dammit.

US Coronavirus Deaths in Proper Perspective

As we discussed on the show, the US has the greatest number of deaths connected to the coronavirus pandemic of any country in the world. (If you believe the numbers out of China, that is.) In fact, headlines blared this fact for several days. Look, I think the Trump administration response has been erratic and inadequate and likely led to far more deaths than we might have otherwise had. But let’s at least put numbers in context. You have to adjust for per capita of some kind. If you do that, according to the tracking website Worldometers, the US is only #12 in deaths per million people. Still horrific, but we are certainly not the worst country in the world - yet.

The Good News

As you might already know, we always finish the show with some good news, because man, we all really need some.

Of course, Space X successfully launched two astronauts into space and has now docked with the International Space Station. Just inspiring. Elon Musk has said and done some stupid things during the coronavirus outbreak, but full credit to vision and his team here. You can soak it up on the SpaceX YouTube channel.

And finally, some good news from the ongoing protests.

An example of protestors protecting police:

And there are several examples of some officers trying to de-escalate the situation - here, here, and as we played on the program, one sheriff in Michigan laid down his helmet and baton and walked with protestors:

That’s the way to do it.

Alright, 2020, honestly, I think you can just calm down now. Take a break.

Thanks for reading and listening! If you like what you see, please remember that sharing is caring! 🙏🏻

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And the podcast, as well! You should find it your favorite listening app. Thanks!

Foreign Influence Podcast Ep028

Hong Kong Requiem • Checking Your Expat Privilege • Masks as Middle Fingers

Thanks for reading the newsletter of the Foreign Influence Podcast! If you haven’t already subscribed to the newsletter or the podcast, do it now. You know you want to. See the buttons and links at the bottom. But first…

Nikolaj and I were back in the Zoom saddle for episode 28, laying down the truth bombs and chuckling asides.

Requiem for Hong Kong

News broke last week that the Chinese government plans to implement a new national security law that some Hong Kongers and many observers think could be the end of the freedoms enjoyed by the city. Hong Kong used to be a British colony, and as such, it enjoyed more civil liberties than those found in the People’s Republic. Those freedoms were supposed to be preserved until 2047 under the “one country, two systems” model both countries agreed to. But in recent years, China began taking steps seemingly to wind down that arrangement sooner, prompting protests. Almost a year ago, another round of protests began - the biggest ones yet - specifically opposing a law that would have allowed some criminal extraditions to the PRC, potentially undermining Hong Kong’s independent set of laws.

Shot during a trip to Hong Kong. What a city.

Now, the Chinese Community Party seems to have had enough. While the CCP argues the new national security law is narrowly tailored and won’t affect the city’s freedoms, many Hong Kongers and outside analysts are skeptical. A fresh round of protests occurred over the weekend, and the new law could lead to the US ending a set of special trading and economic privileges enjoyed by Hong Kong.

As Nikolaj and I have discussed many times on the podcast and this episode again, we have seen the protests as a frontline, 21st century defense of freedoms worldwide. By the end of the 21st century, China is likely to be the most powerful country on earth. While I have no particular concern that the US will eventually be #2, I do worry about the future of civil liberties. There’s no way around it - global powers have global influence. And if that influence leads to a furtherance of authoritarian regimes worldwide, I think we’re in trouble. Once upon a time, we might have believed that Hong Kong’s experience as a free, Chinese territory could have an influence on the PRC itself. But it appears that fairy tale is coming to a sad end.

But What if the CCP Does Good Deeds?

As Nikolaj and I discuss, it’s not necessarily all milk and honey for Hong Kongers under their current system. Housing is a huge issue, with most people living in extremely small and extremely expensive apartments. This situation might be the result of the plutocratic power structure in Hong Kong. Four very wealthy property and business families dominate. If that power can be curtailed and people can have improved housing, is that so bad? At least, that’s what Beijing wants you to consider.

Singapore Standing in the Wings?

For quite some time there’s been a bit of a friendly rivalry between Hong Kong and Singapore, as they jostle to be the lead city in South China and Southeast Asia, especially in financial services. Will the troubles in Hong Kong rebound to Singapore’s benefit? Maybe. But for its part, Singapore claims it doesn’t want that kind of help. The argument is instability doesn’t help anyone. Why court disaster?

The Privileges of Being an Expat and the Limits of Being a Good Guest

The New York Times has created a mini-stir here in Singapore by publishing an opinion piece by an American writer on the city-state’s response to the coronavirus. While much of the piece was a fairly standard recounting of what has happened here and what went wrong (particularly in the migrant worker dorms), at the end the piece turns into a complaint about how the author was wronged because a Singaporean scolded her and photographed her for not wearing a mask. Masks are required outside in Singapore now unless you are actively running for exercise. She apparently had just stopped outside her apartment.

This kind of incident and article often surfaces a substantial amount of underlying friction between Singapore’s 1.4 million foreign workers of all classes and types and its roughly four million citizens and permanent residents. If you want a sample of Singapore’s reaction to the article, look here. Reflecting on those numbers for a moment, that’s a huge foreign population. It’s a testament to how welcoming this country is. Nikolaj and I discuss the issue more thoroughly in the episode.

INCYMI, Crushing the Coronavirus Curve in South Korea

Wow, I avoided talking coronavirus all the way until the end! And it’s a relatively positive story, as well. In case you missed it, check out the previous episode, in which I interview science journalist Mark Zastrow about how South Korea has had success in controlling the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak in the country. Some takeaways:

  • Once burned, twice shy - Asia's experience with SARS 1 and especially Korea's recent experience with a MERS outbreak in 2015 (also a coronavirus) led South Korea to put the legal and technical infrastructure in place to fight a novel coronavirus.

  • That infrastructure involves an extensive use of already collected commercial data - like mobile phone location information and credit card transactions - to track precisely where infected people were. It does not involve a dedicated tracing app.

  • Koreans are generally on board individually and as a society with doing what it takes to fight epidemics, but they don't like lockdowns anymore than anybody else.

Also, read some of Mark's coverage of the covid-19 outbreak at these links:

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Journalism, Objectivity, and Transparency

A Bill confessional

I consider myself a journalist. If you listen to the podcast or read my posts, you might be wondering how I can say that. Many people have a notion that journalists have to "objective". I get it. I was raised in that tradition myself.

But of course, none of us can truly be objective. All of us have basic commitments - moral positions and cultural influences, for example - that mold our thinking and evaluation of information. (In fact, how could we even operate in the world without moral positions?)

That said, it’s still possible to do these three things:

• To the greatest extent possible try to deal with verifiable facts and evidence
• Give those facts a fair reading and interpretation
• Be transparent about your prior commitments

The first two are personal moral virtues. The third is a public act.

So, in the interest of transparency, as the US election season is upon us, I posted on Twitter a tweetstorm detailing where I’m coming from. I’ve copied it below.




As we enter the election season, let me lay down a few markers. There’s a politics tweetstorm coming... 1/37

I am going to vote for Joe Biden. I encourage you to vote for Joe Biden. 2/37

Joe Biden was not my preferred candidate. I voted for Bernie Sanders. 3/37

Bernie Sanders has spent decades fighting for what I believe to be the best system yet developed to maximize human security and flourishing. 4/37

That system is a Nordic-style liberal democratic capitalist social insurance state. Long description, but that’s the way it is. I believe this because of the evidence. 5/37

I do not believe Joe Biden supports this vision. Yes, I’m voting for the lesser of two evils. Consciously. 6/37

I will never identify as a Democrat. 7/37

I didn’t vote Donald Trump. If you did, I encourage you not to again. He has proven himself to uniquely unfit to be president. 8/37

He is deeply narcissistic and self-absorbed. He lies constantly to improve his image or distract attention from his corruption and failures. 9/37

This has proven especially true with his response to coronavirus. 10/37

He’s erratic and ill-informed. Still, he could have chosen to be a leader once the danger was understood. Instead he chose to give out misleading and inaccurate information and shirk responsibility. This is not how a president acts. Surely thousands have died that wouldn’t have because of his choices. 11/37

(Let’s be clear, even Democrats weren’t on board with the seriousness of the virus until late February or early March.) 12/37

In general, I support Trump's confrontation with China, but he has gone about it so poorly that we are losing international stature just when we need our democratic allies more than ever. 13/37

I will lose respect for anyone who does vote for Trump a second time. Don’t expect me to be nice about it. 14/37

I believe the conclusions of the Mueller investigation and the Senate Intelligence Committee investigation that found that the Russian government interfered in the 2016 election in order to improve Donald Trump’s chances of winning. 15/37

I also believe the Russian government is trying again, and I believe the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress aren’t doing enough to stop it. And I worry about the capacity of the American public to counter it. 16/37

I refuse to believe conspiracy theories that Trump's a Russian agent. But he and his campaign clearly wanted Russian help. I don’t know how they get to call themselves patriots. 17/37

I am not convinced Russian interference was decisive in the 2016 outcome. Wins and losses come from many sources, especially in an election that came down to such a small margin in a few states. Three examples: Black turnout, union members, white women. 18/37

The Electoral College is an outmoded institution. Any honest Republican or conservative would admit it. 19/37

I refuse to believe the intelligence community is my friend. Many of these same people will gladly spy on Americans illegally and were complicit in the Bush administration’s turning the US into a nation of torturers. I refuse to forget. 20/37

I refuse to resurrect the reputation of George W. Bush just to oppose Trump, either. 21/37

I have ended up disappointed by Obama. He hired Wall Streeters and establishment economists to restore and/or shore up a system that fails most Americans. He stripped the public option out of Obamacare for nothing in return. He refused to prosecute anyone on Wall Street for fraud or in the the Bush administration for torture. 22/37

He failed to conclude the Iraq War, and he expanded the illegal drone war, even reserving the right to kill American citizens abroad. 23/37

I am disgusted by the Republican Party, which descended first into a postmodernist, truth-denying, power-only operation, then did that one better by turning into a cult of personality. 24/37

Republicans who know better continue to enable Donald Trump because they get tax cuts and judges, no matter what happens to the republic in the long-term. 25/37

I believe Obamagate is a Trump campaign tactic, even though it’s unnerving that the Obama administration was investigating political rivals. That said, I return to this: Why was the Trump campaign so welcoming to Russian help? It’s hard not to think that counterintelligence investigators were right to try to find out. 26/37

Biden is a weak candidate. 27/37

I’m worried he will fail to excite the Democratic base. 28/37

Biden’s touching people is creepy. That said, I don’t believe Tara Reade’s sexual assault allegation. Trump is far worse. Multiple allegations of sexual assault and bragging about it when he thought he wasn’t being recorded. (Is this really the best we can do?) 29/37

I believe the sweetheart deals that Hunter Biden was able to get through his father’s connections are a potent symbol of our corrupt system run amok. At the same time, Trump’s relatives in positions of power in the White House. Our entire system of merit seems to be breaking down. 30/37

I am worried about Biden’s mental capacity. 31/37

I am worried about Trump’s mental capacity. 32/37

I will always thank evangelicals for their stalwart support of Donald Trump, thus proving that they are completely hypocritical and bankrupt when it comes to issues of character or morality. 33/37

We should be committed to getting everyone to vote who wants to vote. If you’re not, you’re un-American. 34/37

I believe many of the problems we face we have tipped over into living in a plutocracy, in which the rich rule. And it’s a global plutocracy, not strictly national. It’s the source of most of our problems. 35/37

Disagree? Convince me. 36/37

I have other tweet storms queued up, but I’ll let this one stand for now. 37/37

Foreign Influence Dispatch

Confounding Corona Counts • Workers in the Spotlight • Space Force!

Welcome to the newsletter of the Foreign Influence Podcast - your seriously humorous and humorously serious romp through the week’s international events, with your co-hosts Bill Poorman (the American) and Nikolaj Groeneweg (the Dutchman). Let’s get to it!

How Shall We Count the Corona?

Many of us follow the daily coronavirus numbers, but there’s reason to be cautious. I discussed in the last dispatch how counting methods can seriously distort a country’s performance. Now, one of the most prominent case number sites is facing some questions over its data. CNN looked at the quality of the numbers at Worldometer and found reasons to be careful.

For me it’s just another important reminder that this situation is constantly evolving and that the data will be messy. Scientific American takes a look at that, as well. Personally, the metric I focus on is hospital capacity. After all, the point of flattening the curve was to prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed and to buy us time to come up with treatments and vaccines. If hospitals aren’t overwhelmed, then maybe we’re doing something right.

Geopolitical Wrangling

The US and China continue to use the coronavirus as a vehicle to spar over geopolitical issues. Donald Trump threatens to permanently withhold funding for the World Health Organization, continuing his administration’s program of disrupting international institutions. Under pressure from Europe and Australia, China agrees to an investigation of the origins of the virus in order to get ahead of international opinion and stake out a leadership position.

China has its “Wolf Warrior” diplomats, “named for a nationalistic Chinese film franchise about a Rambo-like soldier-turned-security contractor who battles American-led mercenary groups,” according to the Wall Street Journal. Meanwhile, top Trump trade official and China opponent Peter Navarro accuses the country of “seeding” covid-19 across the globe.

Wow. Somehow the world is going to have to find a way to tone this all down, or I start to worry about where this is headed.

Economic and Worker Watch

Of course, the terrible economic predictions keep piling up. European business leaders say the recovery will take one to three years. Meanwhile, the US Congressional Budget Office projects US GDP will have dropped 38% in the second quarter.

But that’s the high level. The economy, of course, actually gets done when people do jobs and are productive. Massive unemployment has been devastating, but the coronavirus has wrenched the world of work in countless other ways, as well.

I love first-person accounts of something that desperately needs to happen: redeployment. One man lost his job, took a different job as a hospital cleaner, and shared his insights. Another lost his job as a massage therapist and became an Amazon warehouse worker. In the US, Wal-Mart had to add 235,000 temporary workers to cover the massive increase in demand. In Singapore, the city-state has been hiring people to swab patients for testing.

But of course, in this disrupted environment, workers are also exposed to greater risks.

In developed nations, some workers received hazard pay to keep working during the depths of outbreak, but now employers are phasing out that extra pay. Other workers are having to contend with customers who refuse to wear a mask or practice social distancing or with customers that take out their anger over new rules on them. Other workers are seeing insufficient safety protocols from their employers. One Amazon warehouse in Pennsylvania became a hot spot. With medical care, some nurses in Singapore are saying those new swabbers are getting paid more than they are, despite lower skill. And even some doctors with smaller practices that have been unable to see patients or perform procedures are suffering. Other healthcare workers are losing their jobs for much the same reasons, as “normal” medical treatments have been delayed or suspended.

But the conditions in developing nations in many cases are far worse. Migrant workers leave their home countries to move elsewhere for higher pay. But that doesn’t mean it’s high pay, and when the job disappears, these workers often need to make an arduous journey home with few resources. India is having to repatriate hundreds of thousands of workers from the Middle East and elsewhere. Indonesia is having to contend with tens of thousands of workers returning. On the high seas, tens of thousands of workers on the ships that drive global supply chains are trapped on their ships and in need of relief. China had its own, internal migration of workers. India has internal migration, as well, with one powerful image capturing the despair in the Guardian.

And of course, perhaps adding insult to injury, some employers are turning to robots to fill in the gaps left by the absence of some workers. I’m not a Luddite, and I actually think all people would be better off with robots doing the most dangerous, hardest jobs. But the benefits are likely not to be widespread, especially for lower-income workers.

Space Wars

Last week in the US we were treated to the unveiling of Pres. Trump’s new Space Force flag. I’ve been thinking it’s all a bit silly. (It doesn’t help when Trump also talks about building a “super duper missile”. 🙄) But it turns out Japan has had a similar idea. Their program has military applications, but also focuses on the dangers of space debris - errant bits of old space junk that can threaten data, GPS, and other satellite services. Now that makes sense to me.

Joe Rogan Cashes In

This might seem like inside podcasting baseball, but this is a newsletter connected to a podcast, so I feel obliged to say a few words about Joe Rogan signing an exclusive deal with Spotify for a reported $100mm. One of the long-standing features of podcasting was how open it was. You could use any podcasting app to listen to shows, and similar to blogging, anybody could start a podcast on the open web and make a go of it. In fact, that’s exactly what Rogan did. He’s been at this for more than a decade and has become one of the biggest podcasters in the world with a huge number of devoted listeners. Now, with this deal, you can only listen to his show if you use Spotify. Other big shows are likely to follow. Maybe we’re seeing the start of podcasting becoming like the various TV streaming services with multiple subscriptions required.

Some Good News

We always like to finish with some good news, and this time it’s going to be covid good news. First off, a Gallup poll shows that Americans are on board with the efficacy of social distancing:

Gallup's coronavirus tracking poll finds that most Americans are either "very confident" (54%) or "moderately confident" (31%) in this belief. A relatively small minority (14%) express skepticism, saying they are either "not at all confident" or "not too confident" in it. 

That bodes well for opening up, at least in the US. Beyond that, there’s evidence that social distancing and proper hygiene helps with more than just covid-19. In Singapore, it’s helping reduce cases of the flu and the common cold.

And finally, if you’re wondering about the efficacy of masks, look, they work. And hey, it’s now proven - in hamsters! Please, think of the hamsters. I mean just watch them.

Thanks for reading! If you like what you read or hear on the podcast, remember, sharing is caring. 🙏🏻


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