Boeing disaster and American decline

The twin tragedies involving Boeing’s flagship new 737 Max jets highlight the increasingly obvious corruption and incompetence pervading US industry and government. From Asia Times:

By now the whole world knows what pilots and aerospace engineers have known all along: Boeing stuck big modern engines on a 1950s airframe design, which made the 737 Max inherently unstable, with a tendency to go nose up and stall. It used a software kluge to compensate but didn’t retrain pilots in the new aircraft in order to speed sales. […]

The 737 Max scandal is a disaster for the United States, and it couldn’t have happened at a more delicate moment. China’s aircraft manufacturer COMAC already has nearly 1,000 orders for its C919 twin-engine passenger jet, designed to compete with the 737 Max as well as the Airbus 320. Not only has the prestige of American industry been tarnished, but the credibility of its air safety regulators, the Federal Aviation Authority and the National Transportation Safety Board, is compromised.

China was the first major nation to ground the new Boeing jets, followed by pretty much everyone else (except for Canada). Notably, the world was not impressed by the FAA’s assurances that the plane is safe to fly. The curious result is that China is emerging as a global leader in aviation safety.

The main reason that America’s military position has deteriorated relative to strategic competitors is corruption, pure and simple. The incestuous alliance of the defense industry duopoly (Boeing and Lockheed-Martin) and the Pentagon brass has saddled the military with backward-looking strategies and enormous costs.

The Pentagon’s budget was boosted by a horrendous $82 billion this fiscal year.

But America’s biggest problem is the erosion of its industrial capability. It appears that Boeing cut corners and eschewed a long-needed redesign of its most profitable product because the additional capital expenditures and longer lead times would not have been viewed benevolently by the stock market.

This is why we can’t have nice things.

The end of tourism?

International tourism arrivals grew by nearly 6% last year to 1.4 billion, according to figures from the United Nations World Tourism Organization.

Experts at the UNWTO predict that by 2100, the entire planet will be like a giant international airport, with a permanent floating population of billions of backpackers camping out in every Brazilian beach, Thai village and Mongolian yurt, turning the world into an extension of Instagram.

Backpackers

That is, of course, if current trends continue. But what if they don’t? We take it for granted, but the ease and safety of global travel today is really unbelievable, relying as it does not only on technology, but also the low cost of fuel, geopolitical stability, the openness of many countries to tourism, and a global middle class that can afford to vacation abroad. The problem is, none of the above conditions are set in stone. A large-scale war, economic depression, or energy shock, among other possible disruptions, could trigger a collapse in international travel, perhaps marking the end of the era of mass global tourism.

Consider this item from last week:

Americans traveling to Europe will soon have to add a new item to their packing lists.

Starting in 2021, the European Union will require US visitors to get a pre-approved, visa-like travel pass issued by the European Travel Information and Authorization System.

The permit will cost about $7.90 and will have to be requested at least four days before the journey—making romantic last-minute jaunts to Paris impossible.

The new requirement is described as a “security check.” It may be just a minor hassle for travelers, but a continued tightening of visa rules in Europe and elsewhere could put a serious damper on tourist flows. And as one blogger comments: “This throws a wrench into international travel, but the bigger wrench will come when the EU collapses.”

Nationalism is on the rise, and it’s possible that many countries will develop a sudden allergy to foreign backpackers, especially as concerns grow about “overtourism.” In this context it’s interesting to note that Thailand has closed Maya Bay, made famous by the Leonardo DiCaprio movie movie The Beach, indefinitely, while the Philippines shut down the popular island of Boracay for a six-month cleanup last year – it reopened with strict limits on tourist numbers.

Another factor is the state of the “rules-based international order,” which looks increasingly wobbly at the moment. The US State Department warns its citizens to “Exercise Increased Caution” when traveling to China owing to the latter’s coercive “exit ban” policy – thus international travel between the world’s two largest economies is officially fraught with risk. The situation could get far worse if geopolitical tensions continue to escalate, and it goes without saying that a world war would pretty much destroy the tourism industry. And global conflict is on the rise.

The takeaway? Enjoy Boracay while you still can!

US to shrink aircraft carrier fleet from 11 to 10

Might as well. China’s deployment of carrier-killer missiles effectively turns our aircraft carriers into floating, $4 billion targets:

The Pentagon reportedly plans to send one of its Nimitz-class aircraft carriers into early retirement, shrinking the carrier fleet to save billions of dollars.

The US military is set to scrap plans for a midlife overhaul of one of its carriers, The Washington Post’s David Ignatius reported Tuesday. That carrier is the USS Harry S. Truman, which was scheduled to have its nuclear reactor core refueled in 2024, Breaking Defense’s Sydney Freedberg reported Wednesday.

The Truman, which entered service in 1998, was designed to serve for half a century, as is the case with all the Navy’s nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. In 2024, the ship was to sail to the shipyard in Newport News, Virginia, for a refueling and complex overhaul, or RCOH, to be completed in 2028, Breaking Defense reported.

The cancelation of the midlife overhaul and retirement of the aircraft carrier — reportedly part of the 2020-24 budget plan — would see the US carrier fleet shrink in size, to 10 from 11.

The Monroe Doctrine in action

Breaking Bad territory

The US is reasserting the Monroe Doctrine in Venezuela, and some countries are not happy about this:

Russia and China pushed back against the U.S. recognition of Venezuela’s opposition leader as president and warned against further inflaming the political crisis in the Latin American country, which relies on billions of dollars in investments from the two countries.

Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed support to President Nicolás Maduro in a telephone call in which he said he favored peaceful dialogue to resolve the crisis, the Kremlin said Thursday.

[…]

China, another major investor in Venezuela, said it was highly concerned about the situation in Venezuela and warned against military intervention.

[…]

Beijing has extended some $55 billion in energy-related loans alone to Venezuela, according to calculations by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Unable to come up with hard currency to service these loans, Caracas has been paying in discounted barrels of oil—but struggled even to do that after prices collapsed in 2014. China agreed to extend an additional $5 billion credit line to Venezuela in September, 2018.

Russia has invested a total of over $4.1 billion in Venezuela. In addition to the two countries’ trade and joint investment in oil and gas projects, they are also cooperating on the military front: Russia provides Kalashnikov rifles, helicopters, anti-aircraft missile systems, and jet fighters to Caracas, and is building a Kalashnikov production plant in Venezuela that is expected to open this year. The WSJ article might have added that Russia sent a pair of nuclear-capable strategic bombers to Venezuela last month.

The US is being condemned in some quarters for, in effect, appointing a president for Venezuela. The reality is that the world tends to operate more along the lines of a collection of drug cartels than the principles of international law, and the US is not going to allow its two main geopolitical rivals to meddle in its neighborhood indefinitely. Like Walter White in that great scene in Breaking Bad, the US is telling Russia and China to stay out of its territory.

Refresher on the Monroe Doctrine:

In his December 2, 1823, address to Congress, President James Monroe articulated United States’ policy on the new political order developing in the rest of the Americas and the role of Europe in the Western Hemisphere.
President James Monroe

The statement, known as the Monroe Doctrine, was little noted by the Great Powers of Europe, but eventually became a longstanding tenet of U.S. foreign policy. Monroe and his Secretary of State John Quincy Adams drew upon a foundation of American diplomatic ideals such as disentanglement from European affairs and defense of neutral rights as expressed in Washington’s Farewell Address and Madison’s stated rationale for waging the War of 1812. The three main concepts of the doctrine—separate spheres of influence for the Americas and Europe, non-colonization, and non-intervention—were designed to signify a clear break between the New World and the autocratic realm of Europe. Monroe’s administration forewarned the imperial European powers against interfering in the affairs of the newly independent Latin American states or potential United States territories. While Americans generally objected to European colonies in the New World, they also desired to increase United States influence and trading ties throughout the region to their south. European mercantilism posed the greatest obstacle to economic expansion. In particular, Americans feared that Spain and France might reassert colonialism over the Latin American peoples who had just overthrown European rule. Signs that Russia was expanding its presence southward from Alaska toward the Oregon Territory were also disconcerting.

[…]

As Monroe stated: “The American continents … are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers.” Monroe outlined two separate spheres of influence: the Americas and Europe. The independent lands of the Western Hemisphere would be solely the United States’ domain. In exchange, the United States pledged to avoid involvement in the political affairs of Europe, such as the ongoing Greek struggle for independence from the Ottoman Empire, and not to interfere in the existing European colonies already in the Americas.

TLDR: “This is ARE hemisphere.”

Death of a nation

Social collapse intensifies as US life expectancy drops for the third year in a row:

Life expectancy in the United States declined again in 2017, the government said Thursday in a bleak series of reports that showed a nation still in the grip of escalating drug and suicide crises.

The data continued the longest sustained decline in expected life span at birth in a century, an appalling performance not seen in the United States since 1915 through 1918. That four-year period included World War I and a flu pandemic that killed 675,000 people in the United States and perhaps 50 million worldwide.

Public health and demographic experts reacted with alarm to the release of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s annual statistics, which are considered a reliable barometer of a society’s health. In most developed nations, life expectancy has marched steadily upward for decades.

Life expectancy for men declined year-on-year, while that of women remained the same. Women enjoy 5 more years of life than men. Kirsten Gillibrand is right!

Overall, Americans could expect to live 78.6 years at birth in 2017, down a tenth of a year from the 2016 estimate, according to the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics. Men could anticipate a life span of 76.1 years, down a tenth of a year from 2016. Life expectancy for women in 2017 was 81.1 years, unchanged from the previous year.

The growing drug epidemic has claimed more lives in one year than the total US combat deaths in World War I:

Drug overdoses set another annual record in 2017, cresting at 70,237 — up from 63,632 the year before, the government said in a companion report. The opioid epidemic continued to take a relentless toll, with 47,600 deaths in 2017 from drugs sold on the street such as fentanyl and heroin, as well as prescription narcotics. That was also a record number, driven largely by an increase in fentanyl deaths.

China is the main source of the illicit fentanyl in the US, raising an interesting parallel to the illegal opium trade which devastated Chinese society during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

A new Manhattan Project

US Army tent fabric

Do you ever get the feeling that the US will sleepwalk into a war with a great-power rival and lose?

The U.S. military has a tent problem.

The only domestic supplier of the specialist polyester fibre used in its tents has gone out of business with potential “significant impact to multiple tent and fabric systems”, according to a multi-agency assessment of weaknesses in the U.S. defence complex.

Tents are just one of nearly 300 strategic frailties identified in the country’s military supply chains. (“Assessing and Strengthening the Manufacturing and Defense Supply Chain Resiliency of the United States”, September 2018)

The list ranges from the cold-rolled aluminium used for armour plating through submarine shaft maintenance to the silicon power switches used in missile systems. And that’s just the handful of examples that made it into the declassified section of the report.

“All facets of the manufacturing and defense industrial base are currently under threat, at a time when strategic competitors and revisionist powers appear to be growing in strength and capability,” the report states.

Topping the list of “strategic competitors” is China.

The DoD report (PDF) thunders:

“China’s non-market distortions to the economic playing field must end or the U.S. will risk losing the technology overmatch and industrial capabilities that have enabled and empowered our military dominance.”

True, but why is this up to China? Instead of whining about the unfairness of it all, shouldn’t the US be proactively defending the supply chain for critical technologies? How hard would it be to jump-start (or restart) manufacturing of key technologies in the US? Bring it ALL back under the aegis of a new Manhattan Project for the 21st century. Incidentally, this would also help to reduce the trade deficit and create manufacturing jobs in the US.

The Trump administration has just begun to do this with steel and aluminum imports, invoking national security as a justification for tariffs. Back to Reuters:

Beneath the apparent chaos of U.S. trade policy lies a comprehensive rethink of the country’s industrial-military policy, specifically its raw material supply chains and its manufacturing sector.

Greg’s foreign media doctrine

The US is getting tough on Chinese state-owned media. But is it enough?

The Justice Department ordered two leading Chinese state-run media organizations to register as foreign agents, according to people familiar with the matter, as U.S. officials ramp up efforts to combat foreign influence operations and toughen their stance on a variety of China policies.

The DOJ in recent weeks told Xinhua News Agency and China Global Television Network—known as CGTN now and earlier as CCTV—to register under a previously obscure foreign lobbying law that gained prominence when it was used in the past year against associates of President Donald Trump, including Mr. Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, the people said.

The DOJ order comes as Washington and Beijing are involved in an escalating trade conflict, with China announcing on Tuesday it would retaliate for the U.S. tariffs unveiled Monday on $200 billion in Chinese goods. […]

The Justice Department told the senators it couldn’t comment on any potential continuing investigations and wrote that not all state-controlled media would necessarily be required to register as foreign agents, such as those that run news bureaus in the U.S. to report on events for an audience in their home countries.

“Unless there is an effort by the state-controlled media organization to use its reporting in the United States to target an audience here for purposes of perception management or to influence U.S. policy, there would probably be no obligation for it to register under FARA,” a DOJ official wrote in a letter dated Feb. 20 that was reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

It’s unclear whether Chinese media organizations like Xinhua and CGTN have significant audiences in America (although some of their messaging is clearly aimed at Americans). It’s also unclear what (if anything) separates normal “journalism” from “perception management,” and it’s unclear why media outlets such as Xinhua and Korea’s KBS America should be registered as foreign agents but not, say, the BBC.

The guidelines for FARA registration seem very vague. Another issue is that FARA-registered media entities are not required to stop producing content, including for American audiences (although they are required to disclose their funding and activities and pay a fee). Some laud this as a positive transparency measure, while others denounce it as a troubling assault on journalistic freedom, and yet others wish FARA had more teeth.

The whole situation is complex, murky, and unsatisfactory to a lot of people. I propose cutting through all the complexity by applying the principle of reciprocity. Quite simply, the US should treat foreign media outlets the way their respective countries treat US media outlets. For example, since China bans the publication and printing of foreign newspapers and magazines for sale in the mainland, the US should not allow China Daily to be sold from newspaper boxes on the streets of America’s major cities:

China Daily New York

(Benjamin Chasteen/The Epoch Times)

And since China would never allow CNN, for example, to broadcast US foreign policy propaganda on Beijing’s giant Sky Screen, neither should Xinhua be allowed to broadcast Chinese foreign policy propaganda on a huge LED screen in Times Square:

Xinhua Times Square

(The Nanfang)

The same principle would apply to Russia, in whose capital city you allegedly can’t find a major foreign newspaper. (It should be pointed out that Russia’s attempts to control and limit foreign media predate the Kremlin’s recent move to label foreign media outlets as foreign agents, ostensibly in retaliation for the US doing the same to RT and Sputnik Radio.)

Besides being irreproachably fair, this policy would also expose the severe hypocrisy of any authoritarian governments that complain that their media outlets are being muzzled in the US, since the US would simply be mirroring the restrictive policies of those governments. Optimistically, this could even prompt some authoritarian governments to relax their controls on US media to regain their American footprint.

Now, this policy would do little to curb the Russian information warfare and influence operations that so terrify America’s political and media elites, as social media is the main battlefield for those alleged activities, carried out by armies of invisible trolls and bots. The rule of reciprocity hardly makes sense in the context of Twitter and Facebook. But that’s another story for another day.