The unexpected effectiveness of Donald Trump

Judged on the enactment of his own aims, the US president is succeeding

Janan Ganesh


If Donald Trump were wholly inept, he would incur only liberal derision, not liberal fear. In fact, he attracts plenty of both © Reuters


It was said of John Updike that he could review a book at great length without mentioning whether he liked it or not. In his diplomatic correspondence — that other literary genre — Kim Darroch does the same with Donald Trump. At no point do his leaked memos say if the president is a good or bad thing in moral or philosophic terms. Leaving such judgments to columnists and other windbags, Britain’s outgoing ambassador to Washington majors on what is useful to his masters: Mr Trump’s methods, his foibles, his prospects. The analysis is technical, not normative.

Those hamming up their rage at Sir Kim are only entitled to challenge him, then, on one point. Is he right? Judged on its own terms, is this administration “inept” and “uniquely dysfunctional”?

To answer in the affirmative seems natural enough. Mr Trump had a Republican Congress for two years and could not build his wall against Mexico. He falls foul of the judiciary so often that no one blinks when the Supreme Court rebukes his tinkering with the census. Abroad, his flattery of the leader of North Korea seems to intensify the less it is rewarded.

As the examples mount, Sir Kim’s view seems the plainest common sense — faultable only for stating the obvious. Just one thing gives me pause. If Mr Trump were wholly inept, he would incur only liberal derision, not liberal fear. In fact, he attracts plenty of both. It suggests he has been, if not effective in absolute terms, then more effective than some of us had hoped.

In December 2017, Mr Trump passed a tax cut that did not seem probable just a week or two earlier. It was budgetary folly and awful politics: Republicans made no great mention of it in last year’s midterm elections. But if we are judging him on the enactment of his own aims, it must rate as a win.

He also secured his first-choice nominee to the Supreme Court on two occasions. Even Ronald Reagan tasted defeat on that score, and in an era of near-unanimous confirmations. George W Bush had to sheepishly withdraw a name.

Then there is the attritional war against what Steve Bannon, who once advised Mr Trump, calls the “administrative state”. Through deregulation, the wilful understaffing or mis-staffing of the executive and the appointment of judges who construe the government’s powers narrowly, the president has worked to enfeeble Leviathan. It is dry stuff, this, but it matters. Mr Trump has been a trooper for the anti-government right. It is a particular effort to keep up with the environmental rules he has either scrapped or loosened.

Even if he had pulled off none of these domestic ruptures, his foreign policy would be enough to mark him out as a consequential leader. To harden the US line on China is no feat by itself. A president has more latitude on foreign affairs than in any other field. More remarkable is the extent to which Mr Trump has popularised this animus throughout the governing classes. Political, diplomatic and corporate elites now countenance a lasting struggle with China. This was not just unforeseeable in 2016. It was unforeseeable at the start of 2018. And its implications include nothing less than the gumming up of the globalisation that Mr Trump defines himself against.

To say this is not to credit the president with a bureaucratic guile that is somehow lost on other observers. What he does have is an obsession with a few priorities — which is strategic behaviour of a kind — and a personal force that is difficult to thwart. It is customary to bemoan the Republicans’ servility towards him as though they were under no duress. But it is precisely his aggression, his ability to turn his multitudinous flock of voters on enemies, that causes lawmakers to fold. It is a grim kind of political effectiveness. But it is a kind of political effectiveness.

Better President Trump than President Mike Pence, Democrats used to say, reasoning that the vice-president would chase rightwing aims more successfully. You hear less of that now. It is not clear that a more seasoned politician would have achieved a great deal more.

Remember how much of the cultural weather is against the GOP. Americans are ever more liberal on social issues. They are ever more “European” on healthcare and inequality. The party has won the presidential popular vote once since the end of the cold war. In inhospitable times, conservatives are grateful for small mercies. Mr Trump gives them quite a few.

“Dysfunctional”? Judged by normal standards, Sir Kim was right. Judged by the expectations of 2016, the administration is all too functional.

Innovation

How the U.S. Can Regain Its Manufacturing Edge

BCG's Justin Rose discusses what the U.S. can do to regain its manufacturing edge.



Manufacturing in the U.S. has often been assumed to be in long-term decline, with the competitive advantage moving to low-cost countries such as Mexico and China. However, with advanced technologies likely to automate as much as 60% of factory tasks, in the future low-cost countries may no longer enjoy a competitive advantage, and the U.S. could well regain lost ground.

Still, the U.S. needs to be more aggressive in developing and adopting robotic technologies, according to Justin Rose, a partner and managing director in the Boston Consulting Group’s Chicago office. “If we want to remain a manufacturing powerhouse, I truly see this as the only choice. And the U.S. needs to lead here. It’s not enough to just let it happen naturally over time,” says Rose.

In a conversation with Knowledge@Wharton, Rose, who leads the operations and digital clients practice for BCG’s industrial clients globally, talks about the future of U.S. manufacturing and other related issues.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.


Knowledge@Wharton: Could we start by talking about your own background? How did you get interested in American manufacturing and its future?

Justin Rose: Growing up, I was always interested in big issues like geopolitics, energy, environment and so on. During my time at BCG, I was lucky enough to work with a meter solar panel manufacturer, which was my dream assignment. I was blown away at the intricacy and sophistication of manufacturing assets. A lot of people think about manufacturing as hard, dirty labor — but what I saw was intricate, sophisticated operations. And I realized that for many things in the world that I wanted to happen, products needed to be made to enable it.

That really intrigued me.

Knowledge@Wharton: The conventional view is that manufacturing in the U.S. has been in long-term decline, and that competitive advantage in this industry has moved to countries like Mexico and China. Do you think that perspective is still valid or is it out of date, and why?

Rose: It is both valid and outdated. It is valid in the sense that many basic and low value-add products have moved out of the U.S. It is outdated in the sense that the U.S. still has an incredibly thriving manufacturing sector with more than $4 trillion in annual output. In aggregate, we produce the vast majority of what we consume in the country.

What’s changed in the U.S. is that our focus now is different. We have moved on to innovative products that require engineering and sophistication. While that transition has been painful in many parts of the country, it is not necessarily a bad thing. We just need to make sure that we support our workers so they can continue to support their families and communities.

Knowledge@Wharton: Since you look at what is happening in manufacturing from a global lens, how have changing cost structures altered the map of global manufacturing?

Rose: For the last 30 years, people have talked about the globalization of supply chains. My belief is that in the next 30 years we are going to see that unwind. There are three main reasons.

First, costs are evening out globally. In 2004, in say, China, they were about 15% cheaper on average from a manufacturing cost standpoint than the United States. The average wage for a manufacturing labor was less than a dollar an hour. There weren’t any safety or environmental standards to speak of. But that has changed. Now China is only about 5% cheaper, and that doesn’t include the extra cost of shipping goods across the Pacific to U.S. consumers.

Second, there are clearly trade tensions, and intentional reordering from “free trade” to something that we refer to as managed trade. So, you see things like Brexit having an impact, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, USMCA [United States – Mexico-Canada Agreement], and so on. All of these are creating frictions in the global supply chain in the immediate term.

And probably most interesting is the forward-looking perspective, and that is all about technology. Industry 4.0 or advanced manufacturing is mostly a set of technologies that allow labor to get removed from manufacturing processes. So, if a country, and let’s use China again, has labor that is 50% cheaper, and a product where 20% of the cost is labor, that means it would have a 10% cost advantage overall. But, if that percentage of labor falls from 20% to 10% because of automation and other advanced manufacturing technologies, then that advantage is cut in half.

Our view at BCG is that 60% or more of the tasks in a factory can be potentially automated.

Therefore, over the long term, the advantage from being a low-cost country starts to go away. If I take a step back, what does that all mean? It means we move from global supply chains to regional ones.

There is still a role for lower cost manufacturing, but that would be served more by near shore countries. Mexico for the United States, Eastern Europe or North Africa for Europe. As you can imagine, that is a pretty dramatic shift, a real unwinding of the last 30 years of international order.

Knowledge@Wharton: What are the implications of these changing cost structures for U.S. manufacturers? 
Rose: In general, it’s good news. The western hemisphere in general and North America in particular, is an enormous trading block. U.S. manufacturers should have an opportunity to win more business there while continuing to compete on the global stage for high-tech and highly engineered products. But it is important to remember it is not a given. Just because of these longer-term trends, U.S. manufacturers can’t lose focus on deploying and integrating technology, and reengineering processes to drive productivity gains. That is a place where we have seen a lot of slippage in the United States in the last 10 years that needs to really be re-energized.



Knowledge@Wharton: One thing we keep hearing, especially when people talk about manufacturing in China becoming more expensive, is that the competitive advantage may not necessarily shift back to the U.S., but elsewhere in Asia like Vietnam, or India. As you know, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had launched this program called Make in India. Do you think initiatives like Make in India and the ascent of manufacturing in other parts of Asia have a chance of succeeding?

Rose: A lot of people say China is becoming relatively more expensive, and therefore manufacturing is going to shrink there. I don’t believe that is at all true. The fact that they are getting more expensive does not spell doom for them. The Chinese consumer market is mushrooming. In a world of regionalizing supply chains, I see Chinese manufacturing simply reorienting to make more of what they would have historically exported, for their own Chinese consumers.

In terms of other countries like India, Vietnam and Thailand, there is absolutely a great deal of opportunity for them. I see real progress in all those countries. My clients are increasingly considering sourcing from them for basic parts. But there are real structural issues there. Several years back, I looked at Vietnam, and it turns out they only had one-twentieth of the port capacity of China. So realistically, how much manufacturing could overnight, or even in the short term, pick up and move from China to Vietnam?

In India, there are documented cases where it has taken longer for goods to get from the center of the country to the port in Mumbai than it has for that ship to sail from the Mumbai port to the United States. They are working on those things. There is a big infrastructure push across Southeast Asia and South Asia. But it will take a long time and a lot of investment for them to become a plausible replacement for the volume of manufacturing that happens in China.

Knowledge@Wharton: Coming back to the U.S., you say that the U.S. needs a more aggressive approach to developing and adopting robotic technologies. Why do you think this is important for U.S. manufacturers?
Rose: I don’t just think it is important, I think it is critical. It can be intimidating to drive technology into the workplace. Jobs go away, or change, and humans feel left behind. But if we want to keep up as a manufacturing powerhouse, I truly see this as the only choice. And the U.S. needs to lead here. It’s not enough to just let it happen naturally over time. Look at what other countries are doing — Germany, Japan, and of course China — they are actively driving advanced manufacturing technologies into their supply bases, into their OEMs. The U.S. needs to actively promote this as well.

Knowledge@Wharton: Does the U.S. have enough skilled workers who know how to work with these innovative manufacturing technologies? How serious is the skills gap and what should be done about it?

Rose: We researched this several years ago. As part of this research, we pulled headlines from Germany, from China, from Japan. We looked at newspapers and blogs and magazines. And they all say there is a crisis, we don’t have enough skilled workers. And yes, there is a skills gap in the United States, and this will be a huge challenge and a growing challenge going forward.

The more interesting question is whether it is a relative disadvantage to others. I am less sure on this. Nevertheless, we need action here too, especially as we think about the impact of technology that is staring us in the face. Government and academic institutions have a role, and they need to lean into that. But I think more than ever, companies need to do that as well.

For a long time, companies have treated the manufacturing workers as disposable, in a sense.

They come out of a training program, they stay for a bit, and they move on. This has got to change. Workers, especially in a highly skilled manufacturing world, are a true competitive asset for a company. What does that mean? Companies need to own the problem, and they need to start to build tools to grow their own experts, rotate them as they would executive teams to keep them engaged, retrain them when their job changes, and not rely on federal or local government assistance or community college programs and so on. The companies that do this well and really lean in there are going to have a huge advantage because they are going to have a work force that is energized, loyal, and capable. And everyone else is going to be struggling around trying to pick up people on the margins.

Knowledge@Wharton: Is that what you mean by a relative disadvantage of the other countries?

Rose: Precisely.

Knowledge@Wharton: Could give us some examples of companies in the U.S. that are well positioned for the future in terms of manufacturing? What have they done differently, and what can other manufacturers learn from their experience?

Rose: Let me give you three examples. Two are manufacturers and one is a retailer. The first manufacturer is John Deere. They are making impressive efforts to integrate technology both into their products and also into their processes. They are building their work force in a lot of rural areas where people would typically say it’s been hollowed out by past economic downturns, and perhaps the skills don’t exist. And they are deploying technology into their plants that is really cutting edge. They are taking a long-term view, and they are making smart investments. It is not that they are reengineering every factory wholesale today, but they know what the roadmap is, and what the game plan is, for the next five and 10 years.
Another example is Ford. In addition to some of the things that Deere is doing, Ford has an entrepreneurial culture at the plant level. They have plant managers and supervisors who by themselves, are experimenting with new things like 3D printing or additive manufacturing for different parts or components, or for tooling. And then they have a coordination overlay staffed by a very senior gentlemen who is in charge of testing many of the cutting-edge technologies, sorting out what the roadmap for deployment looks like, and managing the innovation campus and activities that they have dedicated to this.

The retailer example is Walmart. Walmart has been very public over the last several years about increasingly sourcing product from the United States. They are not manufacturing themselves, but with their size and scale what they are doing is going through their supply chain and understanding in detail things like what would the relative cost be for many different potential sourcing locations. And beyond that, where are the gaps in the supply chain.

So, if I want to manufacture bikes in the United States, do I have tire manufacturing capabilities? Can I make the gearbox? Can I make the pedals? And where ever they find gaps — because one gap can keep the whole supply chain from moving in some cases — they are encouraging suppliers to come back. They are promising them volume commitments to start to move entire supply chains back. I find that very thoughtful and very disciplined. It is something that I think others could learn from, and something that would benefit U.S. manufacturing broadly.

Knowledge@Wharton: Historically, America’s lead in manufacturing was driven by its lead in innovation and R&D. Do you think the U.S. still leads the world in research and emerging technologies, or has that competitive advantage moved to other countries like China, for example?

Rose: The U.S. still leads the world in R&D by some distance. But you must unpack it to really see what is going on, and to see where there is risk involved. The way I think about it is breaking it into three categories. One, there is basic research. This is things like studying how the universe was formed. The purpose of basic research is to build the foundational scientific knowledge without any real focus on a product or a process. The U.S. has always led there and continues to lead there by a wide margin. This is hugely valuable work because it sets the foundation for almost everything that comes after it.

The second step is applied research. This is science that is more focused on addressing a particular need. It is about trying to solve a practical problem. For instance, finding a cure for a disease, boosting agricultural production, and improving energy efficiency. The U.S. continues to do well there as well.

But the real gap, or the emerging gap, is on the third category, which is developmental research. That is about taking the knowledge that was established in the first two steps and turning it into materials, devices, systems, or processes or methods specifically. For example, how do I increase processing speed on a chip, and so on. Compared to the U.S., China has invested very heavily on downstream developmental research. And that downstream developmental research links very closely to creating products, to reengineering manufacturing processes, and ultimately to selling goods. The U.S. needs to consider how to balance the R&D overall between those three buckets, and ramp up some of the developmental research to help support U.S. manufacturers and U.S. manufacturing interests.

Knowledge@Wharton: Does that mean that the U.S. needs to become better at execution along the third dimension that you mention? And how can the U.S. do that?
Rose: That’s right. There is a huge lack of coordination. It is almost startling. Many times you will find there is upstream research in basic and applied areas that downstream companies that might monetize it have no idea about or access to. There is no process to systematically focus on the important topics and move it through that funnel, if you will, down to things that we can use to sell or integrate into our processes. There is a real lack of coordination there, and there is a real need to continue to drive that more effectively.

Knowledge@Wharton: What do you think are some of the most promising areas of basic research that could lead to manufacturing breakthroughs in the future?

Rose: I am not a scientist or a researcher, so it is dangerous for me to hazard guesses on these things. But I would suggest a starting point might be to look at a group of people that have examined this very closely. And again, that is our friends in China. The good news is that they make their intent very clear in their five- year-plans. I would encourage people to read the current one and look back at the last few. China is focusing on areas like green energy, biotech, and AI and how that will drive and transform supply chains and manufacturing processes.

These areas feel like pretty good calls to me.

Knowledge@Wharton: If you were to look at American manufacturing five or 10 years from now, what do you think it would look like, and what should be the top priorities for U.S. manufacturers to get ready for that future?

Rose: I have a lot of hope for American manufacturing. There are some real tailwinds that we have laid out around the long-term evening out of costs and the future technologies to help us stay competitive. There is a lot of hope, not just for large companies but for small and medium sized enterprises as well.

Where I think we need to focus is the following: The U.S. has always been reluctant to create a coordinated industrial policy. We are very reluctant to “pick winners.” That is something that is going to increasingly hamper us as you have to invest at a greater scale to find the breakthroughs and drive them to completion.

Does that mean that we need a command and control economy? Absolutely not. That’s not what I am saying. But is there a way that we can organize our scientific research community to be a bit more directed, and a bit more thoughtful about advancing the knowledge we are building from basic to applied to developmental research? Is there a bit more emphasis that we want to give on areas that we think are strategically critical, like artificial intelligence, or like new energy technology? How do we do that, and how do we drive that forward as a society?

Another area that I think is critical for us to continue to push is around our workers. At the end of the day, technology has the potential to rip us apart in that it will displace jobs and create haves and have-nots. But it also has the potential to move us forward as a society and create a great deal of wealth that many different segments of our society should be able participate in and benefit from. We need to continue to train our people aggressively, to build new programs and reconsider what it means to have a lifetime learning process. Ultimately, we must equip workers with the skills that they need to succeed and win as we move forward through the rest of the century.

Between Japan and South Korea, a Trade War Lurks 

The two seem to have every reason to cooperate. Yet here we are.

By Phillip Orchard

 

Last week, Tokyo abruptly placed new restrictions on exports to South Korea of high-tech materials essential to the country’s booming tech industry. Japanese firms now need to apply for a license to sell fluorinated polyimide (critical for making TV and smartphone displays) and etching gas and resists (critical to semiconductor manufacturing) to firms in their longtime frenemy across the Sea of Japan. With the approval process expected to take around three months – an eternity for industries built around lean, “just in time” supply chains – this spells major trouble for South Korean tech titans like Samsung and SK Hynix. These two companies alone account for around 60 percent of global memory chip production, meaning the spat may also create headaches for companies far and wide, including U.S. giants like Dell, HP and Apple. Meanwhile, Tokyo is also considering making South Korea the first country ever to be axed from Japan’s list of 27 “friendly” countries that are exempt from export controls on products that could be used for weapons manufacturing, threatening a wider array of Korean products and potentially the country’s upstart arms sector.
Tokyo has justified the move on national security grounds, arguing, without providing much evidence, that some of the materials have been making their way to chemical weapons factories in North Korea and elsewhere. Framing the move in national security terms may help Tokyo avoid a World Trade Organization challenge and diminish international opposition more broadly. But Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe admitted that the primary motivation is a series of recent South Korean court decisions requiring Japanese firms to compensate workers conscripted during Imperial Japan’s 35-year occupation of the Korean Peninsula. Already, assets belonging to two Japanese firms have been seized and are expected to be sold in the coming months. Seoul has rejected Japan’s request to settle the matter with third-country arbitration.

Japan, it seems, just can’t convince South Korea to let 80-year-old bygones be bygones. The U.S.-led regional alliance structure, along with the well-oiled regional economic system, may pay the price.

And there’s no reason to think the dispute will be resolved quickly. Tokyo insists there’s nothing to negotiate, and South Korea’s president has cautioned South Korean firms to prepare for a long fight. A prolonged spat may ultimately hurt Japan as much as South Korea, economically and strategically, and that Japan is digging in anyway reflects the depth and complexity of the historical, cultural and strategic divides shaping East Asia today. It’s yet another illustration of the inherent exposure of the region’s tightly integrated supply chains to geopolitical risk.
 
What Made Japan Snap?
Japan’s move may appear to be out of character. After all, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has spent much of the past two and a half years spearheading multilateral efforts to stabilize regional free trade amid threats from U.S. and Chinese protectionism by, for example, rescuing the Trans-Pacific Partnership and signing a landmark free trade agreement with the European Union. At the G-20 summit in Osaka, just two days before he moved against South Korea, Abe pledged again that Japan would lead the charge for “free, fair and indiscriminate” trade. The restrictions also appear out of step with core Japanese geopolitical imperatives. The island nation, famously, is almost wholly bereft of natural resources. It owes its survival to the free flow of commodity imports, and it owes much of its wealth to the free flow of exports of high-tech products. Its very strategy for securing its future is embodied in Abe’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” concept, which South Korea endorsed at the G-20.

Yet, here we are. What made Japan snap?

For one, Japan has never really been able to live down the sins it committed as a colonial power – sins that have routinely dogged bilateral ties with South Korea, even after the two signed a treaty in 1965 in which, according to Tokyo, Seoul agreed to refrain from pursuing reparations. In the 1990s, Japan issued vague admissions of responsibility for past wrongs and has even made repeated (if sometimes token) efforts to right them. Tokyo thought it put the issue to rest for good in 2015, when the two sides resolved in writing “finally and irreversibly” the issue of Japan’s conscription of wartime “comfort women,” with Tokyo agreeing to establish a fund for survivors and Seoul agreeing basically to just shut up about it.



 




Yet, powerful political factions in South Korea haven’t been so quick to forgive. Reconciliation has frequently fallen victim to dramatic political swings in Seoul.
 
The 2015 agreement on wartime comfort women, for example, fell apart shortly after the president who signed it, Park Geun-hye, lost her position after a corruption scandal. Meanwhile, nationalist factions of Japan’s own have made it difficult for governments to show the appropriate level of contrition. Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party will be counting on support from some of these factions in Upper House elections later this month.

In general, strategic and economic necessity has contained tensions to little more than political and diplomatic posturing, particularly during the Cold War. More recently, though, it has frustrated U.S. efforts to get its two most important East Asian allies to work more closely together on defense matters. In 2016, for example, the U.S. finally forged a trilateral intelligence-sharing mechanism, which Seoul had resisted for four years for political reasons. But just a year later, Tokyo claimed Seoul was refusing to share intelligence on matters like Chinese activities in the East and South China seas. (The pact was extended for a year in 2018 but will be up for review again this fall.)
 
With Allies Like These
It might seem like the time for Japan and South Korea to put the past to rest. Security threats from China and North Korea threaten them both, and both have every reason to insulate global trade from U.S. protectionism and from Chinese state-backed competition. And besides, other countries where Japanese wartime abuses took place – Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan – face the same threats and are nonetheless actively courting Japanese military and economic support. Why not South Korea?

The answer isn’t so simple. South Korea’s distrust of Japan isn’t just a case of colonial resentment. It’s about South Korean geopolitics. The Korean Peninsula is the proverbial “minnow between whales.” Historically, China, Japan and even Russia repeatedly sought to prevent the peninsula from being used by one power to threaten the others, putting it at constant risk of invasion. Today, South Korea is strong and independent, but still perpetually uncomfortable. It’s certainly wary of China’s ascent – Beijing’s maritime assertiveness, along with its recent attempts to use its economic heft to bully South Korea into relatively minor strategic concessions, have dashed any illusions in Seoul about Beijing’s approach to winning friends. But it’s also wary of another side effect of China’s rise – namely, Japan’s own increasingly urgent remilitarization – and the rising risk that Korea once again finds itself caught in the middle. No amount of performative penance from Tokyo can overcome Seoul’s inherent need to keep its distance.

For Japan, two issues besides domestic politics are at play. One is strategic divergence over threats from North Korea and China, with Tokyo feeling sidelined and exposed by the U.S. and South Korean diplomatic detentes with Pyongyang and frustrated with Seoul’s relative passivity over Chinese maritime behavior. The other involves economic changes – and the feeling in Japan that it helped cultivate South Korea’s breakneck industrialization to its own detriment.



 




And there’s a case to be made that it did. In the second half of the 20th century, Japanese aid, combined with unfettered exports of high-tech component parts, machinery and materials, contributed to the rise of South Korean sectors like consumer electronics, automobiles and shipbuilding. In the 1990s, Japan looked the other way as South Korea started restricting imports of Japanese finished goods like automobiles and TVs. By the turn of the century, with Japan mired in its “lost decades,” South Korean firms in these sectors had begun to outperform Japan’s own. (Many of them enjoyed considerable state assistance.) Since then, as the dominance of South Korean firms grew, they began to increasingly route supply chains through China, which replaced Japan as the South’s largest trading partner in 2007. Naturally, as South Korea’s dependence on Japanese firms declined, so too did Seoul’s incentives to keep diplomatic spats contained.

But South Korea’s manufacturing success has not extended to all parts of the supply chain, concentrated instead around a handful of family conglomerates exporting mostly finished products. The country has yet to become a major player in key industries further up the supply chain. Japan, for example, accounts for nearly 90 percent of the global supply of fluorinated polyimide and around 70 percent of the world’s supply of resists and etching gas. As a result, South Korea is in a position similar to China’s, gobbling up market share but still highly dependent on outside, potentially adversarial suppliers.

Japan is trying to exploit what little leverage it has left over South Korea to try to nudge Seoul into a more mutually beneficial economic and strategic relationship. Doing so may damage Tokyo’s effort to portray itself as a steady champion of free trade. (Japan is arguing that this isn’t a free trade issue, pointing out that South Korean firms will merely face the same import hurdles as Chinese and Taiwanese firms already do.) It may give China’s embattled tech industry a much-needed and timely boost, creating an even bigger long-term problem for Japan. Samsung’s loss could be Huawei’s gain, for example. The problem with weaponizing supply chain dependencies is that it can hurt domestic firms as much as foreign by accelerating the development of alternative suppliers and risking the permanent loss of market share. Japanese firms are claiming that the restrictions may force them to move more production offshore.

But Tokyo thinks it needs quite a bit more from South Korea as a regional partner – and, at minimum, to make clear that there’s a cost to keeping Japan perpetually at arm’s length. Evidently, it thinks this makes the risks worth taking.

What Makes This Advanced Technology Indistinguishable From Magic

by Doug Casey



International Man: Doug, you’re an aficionado of history and technology. What does the big picture look like to you?

Doug Casey: Let’s look at civilization from the long-term point of view.
 
Since the appearance of Homo sapiens about 200,000 years ago. Tech has actually been advancing exponentially since Day One, although that’s not immediately obvious. Imagine a huge stadium, with a drop of water at the bottom. The drop doubles in an hour, then doubles again in 15 minutes, and doubles again in 10 minutes, and so forth. By the time you notice the water even exists, you’re moments from drowning.
 
In that context, things improved at only a glacial pace until the end of the last ice age about 12,000 years ago.
 
Then, with the start of the Neolithic era and the Agricultural Revolution, things started getting better every millennium.

Then, since the start of the Bronze Age about 5,000 years ago, they started getting better by the century.
 
Then, with the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, by the decade.
 
Since the Industrial Revolution, about 200 years ago, they’ve been getting better every year. It’s been an accelerating trend. Exponentially accelerating.
 
Most people don’t keep up with these things, but important advances are now being made weekly. Even daily. Perhaps hourly.
 
Radically new technologies are coming into existence—not gradually at an arithmetic rate, but at a geometric rate. So things are on the verge of becoming much, much better, and very, very quickly. Not only better than you imagine, but better than you can imagine.
 
I may be a serious bear on some markets, the economy, and most aspects of politics. But those trends are completely overshadowed by the advances in science and technology.

It’s likely the very nature of life itself is going to change, for the better, almost unrecognizably, over the next 20 years or so. It’s been said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. I believe that’s true.
 
You might analogize this to what happens to water as it gets colder. There’s not much difference between water at, say, 45 and 33 degrees Fahrenheit. But once it gets to 32, it has a change of state, into ice, a transformation in what it is. Its very nature. And it happens very, very quickly.
 
Moore’s Law was formulated in 1965; it states that computational power will double, and costs will halve, about every 18 months. But it appears to apply to a number of areas besides computing. Bioengineering seems to me the most important one.
 
Our brains are accustomed to thinking arithmetically: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, etc. But technology is compounding geometrically: 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, etc. You’ve seen this happen in the realm of computing and electronics just in our lifetimes. But—partially enabled by those things—it’s happening in many areas.

Notwithstanding various drags on our progress, mankind has been expanding its powers exponentially since about the time it learned to make fire. But, let me say it again, the nature of the math is that the real growth doesn’t come until the end, at which point it seems instantaneous.
 
We can see what’s happening intellectually, but very few can picture it in reality.
 
Recall the fable about the mathematician who invented chess and got a king to reward him by giving him double the amount of wheat for each of the 64 squares of a chessboard, starting with one grain.
 
How much grain might that be? The answer is over 18 quintillion grains, which is around 1,000 times the world’s annual production of wheat. It’s counterintuitive because intuition can’t deal with geometric increases beyond a low level.
 
Maybe humanity is now (wild guess) at around the 50th chessboard square. Exactly where things start getting interesting.
 
International Man: There has been a lot of talk about a new technological development called CRISPR, which allows for the editing of genes. It seems very promising. It can be used to prevent and treat diseases like cystic fibrosis and sickle cell disease, as well as possibly other major conditions like cancer, HIV, and heart disease.

What are your thoughts on this?
 
That begs the question of, "How are you going to pay for this?" The answer, from political leaders has been that Big Business and "the rich" should be expected to pick up the tab, as it’s a part of their paying "their fair share." Voters who would like to receive these benefits understandably like the sound of this, as it means even more free stuff, at others’ expense.
 
Doug Casey: I think it’s absolutely fantastic. It’s part of the geometric advance in technology that I just described.
 
Manipulation of genes will be to biology what computers have been to things like physics and chemistry. It’s part of the rush towards the Singularity. In some ways it’s the most important development yet. Among other things, it may cure the most persistent of all diseases: aging.

The creation of not just new body parts, but new bodies, made to order, is in the works. And new species. And much more. Who really knows what can be done with DNA? But the answer is probably: almost anything, in lots of ways.
 
So the cat is really out of the bag now, and it’s going to be fantastic. I’m all for it.
 
International Man: What are your thoughts on the ethical considerations of editing the genes?
 
Doug Casey: Gene editing not only can be done but should be done. Why? Because the ultimate problem of life is death.

I’ve long been marginally involved in the life extension movement, which believes it’s technically possible to extend human life indefinitely. It’s not just diet and exercise and various supplements that are going to make this possible. It’s clear that the keys to the kingdom are actually genetic engineering.
 
It’s clear we’re now on the edge of solving the problem of aging; it should be addressed as a degenerative disease. All other diseases are simply footnotes to aging. If you live long enough, you can be, do, and have everything that you can imagine. It’s likely to be possible soon.
 
If any disease that attacks you—including the worst disease, which is aging—can be conquered, it’s likely to be done through genetic engineering.

I have no doubt that there are teenagers right now working in a garage, playing with genes with CRISPR, who will learn to control aspects of aging.
 
You can go beyond this. They may be able to do everything from create entirely new forms of life to reconstituting dinosaurs. The realm of science fiction, taken into the real world.
 
At present we typically have only four score years on this Earth, and then that’s the end of the story. My point of view is that’s not nearly enough. I say full speed ahead.

Sure, there are risks and dangers. There were risks to the Industrial Revolution, the computer revolution, and every other advancement in technology. But the risks are trivial relative to the rewards. Again, I’m all for it. I don’t want to see any regulation of any type in this area.
 
It’s not even a question that can be argued. Although there are certainly people out there who try to do so. In particular those who style themselves "bioethicists." They pretend to prudence and wisdom, but in fact they’re just busybodies and central planners. They’re far more dangerous than the topics they pontificate about. I did a piece on them a few years ago, for those who are interested.
 
In any event, the potential rewards outnumber the realistic risks by not just two to one, but something on the order of a thousand to one or ten thousand to one. We’re quite literally talking about a matter of life and death, and each of us—as individuals—is in a race against the clock.
 
I’d say the people who want to slow down, regulate, or stop this revolution amount to criminal personalities. But the good news is that it’s impossible to stop. The knowledge is widely available, and the technology is cheap enough for anyone to afford.

International Man: Who are the people in a position to take advantage of this new technology?

Doug Casey: Rich people are going to be best able to take advantage of these technological advancements. And they’ll get it first. That’s as it should be because—with the exception of politicians, their cronies, and criminals—people are generally rich because they’ve produced wealth for society. It’s only just and ethical that they’re first in line to take advantage of these things.

The quest to live forever, or at least live for a very long time, is intimately tied up with becoming wealthy. You want to be able to afford the technologies as they develop.

Let me sum up. It’s likely we’re only 10, 20, or 30 years from what will turn out to be the biggest change in human history. I understand that sounds unbelievable to 99% of people. But I urge you to consider it seriously.

International Man: How are you positioning your portfolio to profit from this trend?

Doug Casey: The same way that one might have profited from people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. Among other things, it’s crucial to monitor the companies that engage in genetic engineering and analyze their shares.

My only caveats have to do with the questions, "When?" and "What?" As to When, we’re in a fiat money-driven tech bubble at the moment, and share prices might come down a lot before ultimately going much higher. As to What, remember that not every CRISPR or biotech company will make it.

Editor’s Note: New technologies with the potential to advance human life have already arrived. In this next big wave of medical and pharmaceutical breakthroughs, the way diseases like Alzheimer’s, heart disease, and even cancer is treated will change forever.