Foreign Influence Podcast Ep019

Covid-19 Resignation • AgTech Startups & Sustainable Food

Hi, all! Finally getting back on track with the regular newsletter. Thanks for your patience and for subscribing! 🙏🏻

Becoming Resigned to the Covid-19 Coronavirus

Recently, on our latest episode, like pretty much everybody worldwide at this point, we couldn’t get away from the covid-19 coronavirus. Since we published, Italy has implemented a lockdown on 60 million people (matching China’s lockdown of Hubei Province, where this all started), markets collapsed (partly from coronavirus, but also from an oil war), the United States is ramping up its response, and if a visit from President Xi Jinping is any indication, China might be seeing a turning point.

If you’re looking for a summary way to track what’s going on in Europe, Nikolaj has begun a separate newsletter and website. For the big picture, we recommend the dashboard from Johns Hopkins University, which is also the source of Nikolaj’s data.

The coronavirus could end up being a geopolitical test. Chinese officials tried to ignore and downplay the outbreak at first, and that’s likely the reason it got so out of control. But thanks to severe restrictions on its people, China claims that that it’s bringing its outbreak under control. So much so, that President Xi felt he could take a “victory lap”:

Now western democracies and their citizens are facing similar restrictions. We’ll see if it’s possible for non-authoritarian regimes to pull off similar results.

At this moment, both Nikolaj and I are resigned to significant spread of the novel coronavirus covid-19. But that doesn’t mean it needs to be a disaster. Individuals and societies, by adopting the correct measures, can “flatten the curve”, as the medical community is now calling it. The objective is avoid overwhelming any given hospital system. That way not only coronavirus patients, but “ordinary” sick people and accident victims can get needed care. Basically, what we’re say is:

Among other interventions, of course - social distancing, event cancellations, school closures, quarantines as necessary, etc. And for heaven’s sake, do try to resist the allure of Smurfdom!

But Let’s Talk About Something Positive - AgTech!

While covid-19 seems likely to define global events for a while, much of life will go on, of course. That includes technological development. Everyday we hear about various techs. InfoTech, FinTech, BioTech, AI, etc. All of these fields are reshaping human life. But hey, bottom line, we all gotta eat. Which means we need agriculture. And that’s a space seeing tech developments as well.

For our last episode, we talked with the Naveen Sikka, the ceo of TerViva, when he was passing through Singapore on a tour of Asia to meet potential new investors. TerViva is working to develop a new food crop out of an ancient tree. The pongamia tree has been part of the human experience for thousands of years and goes by many names in many different cultures. It’s hardy, grows in poor soil, and produces a lot of oil-rich bean pods. But it does not taste good. At all. So mainly it’s been used to create lamp oil, in soap-making, or more recently, as a possible source of biodiesel. But TerViva has come up with a way to process the oil so that it’s more palatable and can used in place of other cooking oils and food products. The company has been test-piloting in various locations around the world, including the US state of Florida, where an incurable disease is wiping out the state’s signature orange crop. (I guess we couldn’t escape plagues, after all…) Sounds like a sounder approach than other AgTech interventions out there.

Check out the interview for more insight into the AgTech space, how new crops can help feed a growing population in the face of climate change, how Sikka says consumers have moved on from GMO, and more.

Thanks for reading and listening!

If you received this newsletter directly, check out the Foreign Influence Podcast, our seriously humorous and humorously serious romp through international events, developments, and culture.

Find the podcast website here, go directly to our Podbean podcast hosting site, or find it in your favorite podcast listening app. Make sure to subscribe, and if you like what you hear or read, remember: Sharing is caring. 🙏🏻

Bill & Nikolaj

Foreign Influence Podcast Ep017

Coronavirus Capers in Singapore • China’s Legitimacy at Stake • US Politics Any Better?

Thanks for subscribing to the newsletter of the Foreign Influence Podcast, your seriously humorous and humorously serious romp through the week’s events, with your co-hosts Bill Poorman and Nikolaj Groeneweg!

Coronavirus Capers

The novel coronavirus continues to dominate the discussion here in Asia where we live. The number of deaths is now higher than the SARS coronavirus epidemic, and cases continue to stack up, especially in mainland China. The hope is the rate of the number of new cases will begin to slow, but there’s plenty researchers still don’t know about this new virus. That said, so far the death rate from this coronavirus seems to be fairly low. No doubt it’s quite infectious, but it seems likely that it's no more deadly than the seasonal flu (which kills thousands of people each year because it is so widespread). 🤞🏻

That didn’t stop us from having a semi-freakout here in Singapore over the weekend. At the beginning of the infection here, the cases were people from or closely connected to Wuhan, China, which is where this outbreak started. But then we started seeing people with no connection to China get sick, which meant the disease was out in the “wild”. So, the city-state raised it’s threat level on Friday afternoon to implement new measures regarding large public gatherings, etc. What few if any people saw coming was a huge food panic. People crowded stores to stock up on basics like rice, dried noodles, cooking oil, and - of all things - toilet paper. (Hong Kong has seen similar panics in the last few days.)

(A grocery near my place in central Singapore. No more paper products for you.)

The Singapore government quickly moved to reassure people that there was enough food, and one grocery chain limited purchases of some items. To be fair, in this sort of situation, there could be supply problems if, for example, ships refused to dock here and the two bridges across Straits of Johor were closed. (Singapore remains an island nation, after all.) But there’s absolutely no evidence of any of that. The only shortages were the ones that were created by people’s fear.

Several people I’ve spoken with think a key difference during this outbreak is social media. Bad information - sent innocently or on purpose - can travel faster than good information. It’s all part of the growing up process in our new smartphone world, I guess.

Coronavirus Challenges the Legitimacy of the Chinese Way

The coronavirus outbreak has also been threatening to disrupt the Chinese government’s approach to governing the country and its system of information control. Many people were already frustrated with delays by the Wuhan local government in addressing the crisis (blame for which the local mayor placed back on the government in Beijing). Then an early whistleblower on the outbreak died, crystallizing many people’s unhappiness. Li Wenliang was an opthamologist in Wuhan who started seeing cases of a new virus early on. He decided to message some of his colleagues about it to warn them. For that act, he got a visit from the police. The whole episode could threaten the legitimacy of the system the Chinese Communist Party has built, which offers stability and prosperity in exchange for limited political freedoms and freedom of speech. Whether this will have long-term impact remains to be seen.

Yeah, but the American Way Is Totally Legit and High Quality

Today, Democratic voters get their second crack at choosing which candidate will face off against Donald Trump later this year. This time it will be a primary in the small northeastern state of New Hampshire - which means it’s regular old voting, unlike the caucus meetings in the Midwestern state of Iowa. As you likely heard, the Iowa caucuses were a shit show. Not a good look for a party trying to present itself as an alternative to Trump and hoping to use government to further the fortunes of the American people. But wait, there’s more. You have the biases built into our Electoral College system, which gives more representation in the presidential contest to rural and conservative, aka Republican, areas. You have Michael Bloomberg able to spend $300 million of his own money to become competitive in a democratic (nominally not plutocratic) race. And you have the continued rancor between the centrist and progressives wings of the Democratic Party. It’s the World’s Greatest Democracy™, folks. It’s all blue skies from here.

Thanks for reading and for listening to the podcast! Reach out to us at or through social media. You'll find Nikolaj and I on Twitter, but also check out our Facebook page, where you can continue to the conversation with us:

And if you want to go one step further, we now have a Patreon page. We would appreciate any support you can afford.

Please remember that, if you like what you hear or read, sharing is caring. 🙏

Take care, wash your hands, and enjoy this pretty picture of a recent Singapore sunset. Some beauty to offset the gloom.

Right Now, Trump Is Certain to Win Re-Election

After a busy week in US politics, the world continues to wonder how Trump is possible. Let us explain.

Right Now, Trump Is Certain to Win Re-Election

It happened again today. I got asked whether I think Trump will win re-election this year. The question often comes from nervous and/or incredulous non-Americans who are desperately trying to understand what is going on in the World’s Greatest Democracy™. Since I have a ready answer, I figured I’d go on the public record with my prediction.

Yep. For sure. He’s getting four more years.

Here’s why.

Even though Trump overstates how well the economy is doing – and he’s largely the beneficiary of a continued expansion that has somehow managed to weather his trade wars – there’s no doubt that it’s also strong enough to give his campaign some lift. Absolutely, the economy can be better structured to benefit more people and not just the wealthy, but the Democrats messaging on that is muddled. More on that below. (Plus, absolutely no decent person is going to root for a collapsing economy just to win one election.) 

Trump has also delivered just enough on some of his campaign promises to hold his voting bloc together. The depressingly long list:

  • He got massive tax cuts passed. (Aggravating the federal deficit, of course. Remember when Republicans cared about that?)

  • He tried to kill the Affordable Care Act (only to be thwarted by John McCain).

  • Working with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, he has helped to make the federal judiciary far more conservative for many years to come. (McConnell and Republican stymied Pres. Obama for years in this area, mostly famously with a Supreme Court seat, until they got the president they needed.)  

  • Using a legally suspect maneuver, he took funds from the military budget to begin building structures that he claims constitute a wall with Mexico.

  • He has continued to limit immigration and travel to the US in ways celebrated by conservative activists.

  • Perhaps most importantly, he has kept right-wing Christian evangelicals happy. Again, he delivered on two Supreme Court justices that might, eventually, overturn the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion. He continues to speak their language unapologetically (though almost certainly hypocritically.) And he is delivering on some of their theologically-inspired foreign policy goals for Israel.

  • Also in foreign policy, he’s gotten “tough” in the Middle East, confronting Iran by walking away from the nuclear agreement negotiated by Obama and Europe and, of course, risking starting a war by assassinating Iranian major general Qasem Soleimani.

  • Also in the Middle East, let’s not forget the killing of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (even if that might not matter too much).

  • He has confronted China, all the while speaking in ways that could have come from old-fashioned union Democrats by promising that plants will be saved (even if he hasn’t really delivered).

  • With the Democrats help(!), he even got a revision to the NAFTA trade agreement with Canada and Mexico passed (which was very controversial with unions at the time of its passage).

That’s just what I can think of off the top of my head without one single internet search. I’d probably find more that would ring his supporters’ bells.

Even without some of those accomplishments, his grip on his voting base seems absolutely secure. Despite multiple gaffes, offensive remarks, nutball tweets, wild staff turnover and recriminations from former employees, massive pain among farmers from the trade wars, outright lies, and scandals that led to impeachment, the grip of the personality cult of Trump is just as tight as ever. Hey, Mexico isn’t even paying for the wall. Doesn’t matter.

Oh, and lest we forget, the GOP still has that structural advantage in the Electoral College. Rural states, which lean GOP, have outsized importance, so much so that even when Democratic candidates win the popular vote, they can’t win the White House.

Which naturally leads me to Trump’s opponents – the Democrats. What to say? Frankly, the Democrats just don’t seem very good at politics. Despite winning the House in 2018, they’re still digging outfrom thelosses of the Obama years, and getting the Senate back any time soon is a long shot. Clearly the Democrats need a new playbook, but they can’t agree on what that is. Personally, I think it’s by embracing more policies of the left, specifically repudiating the 40-year, bi-partisan program that has left most Americans in stagnant or declining economic conditions. Others argue that we need a solid return to the center, which will attract enough Democrats and disaffected Republicans to break the Trumpian spell. I’m going to leave this debate here for now. Plenty more to come.

In the end, I don’t think it looks good. As of now, I’m certain Trump is going to hold on to the White House.

Here’s to hoping that this analysis is as spectacularly bad as an Iowa Democratic caucus. 

Foreign Influence Podcast Ep016

Living with the Wuhan Corona Virus • Plagues of Today & the Past • Brexit Ho!

Thanks for subscribing to our brand new newsletter! Look soon for more links, content, and commentary from both of us. Also, naturally, look for our announcements about the latest episode…

American Bill Poorman and Dutchman Nikolaj Groeneweg, both living in Asia, take you on a humorously serious and seriously humorous romp through the week's international news! This week, a special focus on the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak:

  • The novel coronavirus out of Wuhan, China continues to spread, and all Bill wants is an antibacterial wipe for his phone

  • Keeping a proper assessment of risk in your head is really hard

  • The animals don't ask to be eaten

  • Diseases have shaped human history

  • China has imposed quarantines of cities equalling entire countries

  • And our twisted take on happy news - Brexit is finally here!

Thanks for listening!

Reach out to us at or through social media. You'll find us on Twitter, but also check out our Facebook page, where you can continue to the conversation with us:

Please remember that, if you like what you hear or read, sharing is caring. 🙏

Bill & Nikolaj

Aging into a China implosion?

Despite the recent conclusion of the "Phase 1" trade deal between the United States and China, it still seems likely that the 21st century will be defined by the geopolitical rise of China and the ongoing tensions that will create. As has been pointed out in many places, one of the few policy issues that's getting enduring bi-partisan support nowadays in Washington, D.C. is opposing China. What exactly that means isn't exactly clear, but along with this general attitude comes a general interest in ways China might implode, rather than be confronted directly.

Among those is the idea that China will become too old to continue to grow into much of a threat, thanks in part to the last effects of the now-ended one-child policy. Economist Dean Baker with the US-based Center for Economic and Policy Research has a counter-argument to that view. In it, he outlines how China's continued growth in productivity will likely swamp the impact of an aging population, allowing the country to enjoy a higher standard of living into the future. If China is able to maintain a high level of productivity growth, then it might be that portions of the US foreign policy community could be banking on wishful thinking.

But beyond the US, the aging of China might have implications for Southeast Asia economies, as well. It can be difficult to make dramatic improvements in elder care (and health care, in general). For example, it's likely that most people would like to keep the ratio of elder care workers to the elderly fairly low. The human touch matters in these settings. So where could an aging China that still has relatively rich citizens (thanks to those productivity improvements) get younger workers? Southeast Asia.

For example, Singapore already imports younger labor from other countries for its domestic and construction workforces. Those same workers are also used often to help the elderly. China could do much the same. This could be advantageous to those workers, as well, if they were able to move permanently to a richer country. However, the knock-on effects could be difficult. While China might import younger labor to solve its problem, it would simultaneously be exporting an elderly crisis in those countries, where family members would not be available for care.

Loading more posts…