Category Archives: industrialisation

The meaning of Donald Trump

“It’s unbelievable.”
In the wake of Donald Trump’s rise to what is simultaneously the best and the worst job in the world, ‘yuuuge’ introspection has been going on in national capitals, foreign policy think tanks, economic think tanks, by firesides, on social media, everywhere. How did we get here? When did the rain start falling on us? Dear God, please forgive us our sins and deliver us from evil…

It goes without saying that the effects of a Trump government/administration/regime will be widespread and far-reaching. For starters he will control the US’s arsenal of nuclear weapons from Jan 21st, so if Putin ticks him off cockroaches could be running the world 100 years on from now. Cockroaches are the only creatures unaffected by nuclear fallout. US generals have been researching the constitution to cross-check how much they have to obey his commands. US generals can be a handful. During the Cuban Missile Crisis JFK, JFK himself, was one day away from losing control of them. Bush 2 followed hawkish advice, plunged into Iraq, then ended up having a rather public dust up with these generals.
Across the pond, someone said that one could hear a pin drop in the capitals of Eastern Europe as US election results came in. Eastern Europe has traditionally relied on the Cold-War NATO doctrine of ‘an attack against one is an attack against all’ to stand their ground in the face of the Russian military juggernaut. This doctrine has been questioned by Trump on the campaign trail. And so it remains to be seen whether and how much he will stand by US allies should Putin extend his reach beyond Crimea. Angela Merkel, as close to a philosopher queen as Europe has had in a while, has quickly and quietly taken up the mantle of the defender of Europe. Increased patrols on the Russian border have been agreed upon beginning in early 2017. Joint air force patrols have become a normal thing in Scandinavian countries.

In Asia things are a bit dicier. China’s military budget continues annual increments, alongside construction of airfields in the Spratly Islands. To say that these islands are hotly contested is a gross understatement. Their very name is an issue and reflects where a person is leaning on the matter. Besides Ghina, Japan and the Philippines also claim ownership and control. At stake are massive underwater oil reserves, besides territorial control of trade routes. The problem with this issue is that it threatens to draw in two big powers into a contest of egos, prestige and credibility despite it not being a core concern for the United States. This issue, by extension, serves as a litmus test for US containment of Chinese expansionism in Asia. Duterte, who has presided over a massive anti-drug pogrom in the Philippines, has flip-flopped between US and Chinese allegiance but `looks forward to working with’ Trump. Other countries reading into this are South Korea (North Korea’s neighbour) as well as India and Indonesia. These are not small populations.

In the Middle East, Iraq and Syria continue to present conundrums to any and all think tanks. Non-interference means continued bloodshed and chemical weapon usage. Engagement risks snowballing out of control. Russia’s only aircraft carrier is in the Baltic Sea threatening Turkey and the Baltic States. Saudi Arabia and Iran are backing opposing sides. Turkey, no longer the ‘sick man of Europe,’ is taking advantage of this transition to create a buffer zone for themselves. In the process the Kurds are losing hope of an independent autonomous state. And after all that Syria’s shared border with Israel could always serve as a flashpoint for Arab-Israeli conflict.

‘Out here’ in Africa, the prospect of a Trump presidency presents both an opportunity and a threat. The opportunity stems from the West finally understanding how electorates elect known demagogues and what post-poll protests are. Also, Trump is unlikely to stand by trade treaties such as AGOA among others, greatly reducing African sources of foreign currency as well as denying a leg up on the economic ladder. Africa will be forced to trade with herself, something which she is absolutely not doing enough. The threat is darker. A Trump presidency officially calls into question democracy as a system of government for man. Besides that the platform on which Trump ran is likely to embolden repression of human rights and strengthen autocratic regimes. The fall of the Iron Curtain meant that the US no longer needed to prop up pro-West dictators. As such democracy had a field day in the early 90’s in Africa. So now we may be looking at the sunset of that day.

Globally also, climate change is fast becoming the biggest threat to societal stability. The polar ice caps are melting faster and faster, reducing their reflection of solar insolation as well as raising sea levels. This has knock-on effects meaning the said warming accelerates. In terms of human effect it means unstable weather, exacerbated food scarcity, increased poverty, emigration from coastal areas and so forth. Climate change has been one of Obama’s most understated and undersold legacy areas, both in terms of what he was able to achieve as well as how he achieved it. His accord with China on this laid the groundwork for groundbreaking global agreements on this. Trump is a patent climate-change denier and looks set to appoint an EPA head who is a staunch fossil fuel advocate. In his world it’s all ‘climate be damned.’ China’s Xi Jinping is now officially on record warning Trump not to backtrack on this.

Someone once joked that death had the wrong list earlier this year. And someone else later clapped back that they now understood why death had that particular list. Jokes and effects aside we can now look at the causes. How did we get here? In this context ‘here’ means both Trump and Brexit. Polling has officially fallen into disrepute as a valid source of credible information. The media also has culpability in this matter and continues to mix up signal and noise. Before we go too far, it must be noted that Hillary lost white counties that voted for Obama twice. The implication is that the US has been voting for anti-establishment candidates since Bush senior or junior depending on how you look at it. The media is getting the narrative wrong in the sense that it is spotlighting Van Jones whitelash theory and the entire alt-right as opposed to the simple and basic economic anxieties theory.

That being said, this alt-right deserves a special mention for the wrong reasons. Now the danger with close elections is that the extreme wing of the winning side mistakes their side’s win as a direct mandate for them. This is what is happening with the alt-right. In a year when Republican messaging and communication strategists shed tears at the official appropriation of ‘American exceptionalism’ by the Democratic party during the DNC, the Republican Party’s fired up base had rather different views on what makes America exceptional. This happened in a year when 6/6 of America’s Nobel Prize winners in science and economics are immigrants. The beneficial effects of immigration on demographics, the economy and innovation among others, cannot be overstated.
But looking further out, how do we correct our assumptions and mental models? What social and philosophical outposts accurately pointed in this direction? Who was previously discounted or overlooked but turned out to be right? The least recent predictions should carry the most weight. I will start with homespun thinkers.
1. Oyunga Pala, one of Kenya’s foremost and controversial writers on Kenyan masculinity wrote a think piece all the way back in August about how human nature is drawn to bad boys. It’s kind of like the way spiders mesmerise flies against their will and then eat them up. I will admit that spent a portion of my teenage years filtering Pala’s views on masculinity. Most importantly he contrasts Obama and Trump as being different responses to the call to manhood. One response is to be a good man a la Obama, the other is to be good at being a man a la Trump – screw norms, survive, reproduce, rule.
2. David Ndii has written an insightful analysis on economics going back to the 1800’s. In summary his take is that globalisation (and I might add neo-liberalism) has hollowed out the industrial cores of Western society. As such globalisation can now officially be critiqued for its long term benefit to the majority of society. Ndii references Samuel Huntington and Francis Fukuyama, those widely acclaimed historical sages, while outlining their conflicting theories for us. Most importantly he quotes an oft-hidden and oft-discounted tenet of free trade ideas. That free trade depresses wages in industrialised countries. He references Greece as an ironic twist of history.
3. Michael Moore predicted Trump’s rise in a widely quoted article. It covered very accurately the Rust Belt, the place of the older white man in modern day America, and of all things the schadenfreude of reality TV! It sure is going to be an interesting ride these next four (or less hopefully) years. I think it says something that it is Oyunga Pala and Michael Moore; ie men who have spent time analysing the male psyche; who saw his rise before the rest of us.
4. Noam Chomsky predicted the rise of a Trump-like figure 6 years ago. Chomsky is the most widely quoted and cited scholar alive today. His Wikipedia article says that he favours anarcho-syndicalism. He also tends to think that the Republican Party, by virtue of being climate change deniers is the most dangerous organisation in human history.
5. Peter Turchin is the closest thing to Hari Seldon from Isaac Asimov’s fictional series called The Foundation. Hari Seldon was a historian-and-mathematician who would feed historical data into mathematical models and produce socio-political predictions accurate enough to almost be 100% correct. Peter Turchin has written several pieces on societal development and decline. He predicts a reckoning within the American system around 2020. The factors which he aggregates are ‘elite overproduction’ expressed in terms of elite income and wealth gaps (idle rich gentry who then aggregate into camps with increasingly polarised positions), societal economic inequality and finally the stagnation/decline in living standards for the majority of a populace.
6. Naval Ravikant, founder of Angelist, wrote two prescient think pieces on the American democratic system. He describes a two-party gatekeeping system to the castle of the American government. The system functions by distributing or re-distributing prosperity or poverty as the situation dictates. It claims to serve the masses, but all too often benefits the elites. His pieces, especially American Fall, dovetail quite accurately with Hillary Clinton’s statement ‘apres moi la deluge.’ An interesting caveat on the system – some of the sentinels guarding this castle included mass media. But mass media’s monopoly on news, truth and public opinion has now been disrupted by social media, a truth borne out by the fact that Clinton out-spent Trump in swing states 3-1. Trump’s twitter handle as well as fake news on facebook were a ruthlessly effective counter-strike. Naval’s theory is also backed up by the fact that Obama was the first social-media candidate. Unfortunately for us Trump has been the second. Despite the best wishes of the gatekeeper system, direct democracy as opposed to guided democracy, has officially arrived.
7. Balaji S Srinivasan a partner at Andreesen Horowitz places the new divide at the growing gulf between the nation-state and technology. His theory postulates that the Westphalian nation-state has been eroded over time in much the same way that the ‘divine right of kings’ was eroded over time. Balaji also proposes that technology has been eroding the boundaries of nation states and what it means to belong to a political grouping. He sees the rise of the EU and Mercosur free residence agreements as an accelerating trend which may be replicated here in Africa. With time, the power of trans-national corporations could exceed that of nation-states. (Goldman Sachs vs Greece comes to mind.) Balaji poses the question “Who will be around in 2025, Google or the EU?” He advocates a book called The Sovereign Individual which was written by authors who predicted Wall Street’s Black Tuesday, the pending collapse of the Iron Curtain and the Yugoslavian War. The book states that we have moved from an industrial society to an information society.
And with that, the main theories concerning the rise of Trump have been covered. So we can finally cover my personal hopes and wishes in this whole matter. On the one hand I wish Trump brings up the birther issue and forces Obama out of America. Then Obama can come home to Kenya. Then we can elect him president, bigly! Then we can live happily ever after. My plan is so good, it’s the best plan, it will make everyone happy. Everyone tells me this. It’s unbelievable.


Africa’s Moment is Also Our Choice

Psalms 90:12 Teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.

Matthew 1:17 … and from the carrying away into Babylon unto Christ are fourteen generations.

We as Kenyans at times display a singular ability to focus our attention on short-term hot-button issues while long-term tectonic issues go begging. Take for example the most recent uproar over #MyDressMyChoice. It was precipitated by some Kenyan youth who stripped someone naked for wearing a miniskirt. The moral issues of this incident are however not the purview of this piece.

The underlying tectonic issue here, which the sage Charles Onyango-Obbo pointed out in his article that week, is that there is a strong positive statistical correlation between such behaviour and lack of economic prospects for youth. In other words, this stripping is symptomatic of bleak prospects for youth, who proceed to vent their frustrations on the womenfolk around them. So while it is good activism to organise a march against such behaviour, it would behove us to deal with the underlying socio-economic issues of unemployment. Otherwise we will keep wandering from hashtag to hashtag, protest to protest and cause to cause without ever really solving anything.

It goes without saying that Africa has a serious unemployment problem. Our demographic charts are either pyramidal or ovoid, with bulging bases and middles. In the early 80’s the percentage of youth in the population was approximately 15%. A good friend of mine used to teach English at the time. She used to give students comprehensions which opined that this mild 15% of the population was headed for disaster if employment was not prepared for them. With our youth approaching 50% and unemployment close to 60%, it would be a safe guess that the disaster that was mentioned in those comprehensions might be just a short distance around the corner.

Much as this state of affairs might be viewed as dangerous in one light, literature from certain sources tells us that Africa is the only continent with a ‘demographic dividend’. Anecdotal evidence makes me believe that we just might be able to solve this problem in time and comprehensively.

A while ago, we found ourselves in the interesting circumstance in which we got to pick the brains of some senior Chinese banking executives. The circumstances surrounding this opportunity are a potent mix of ivory, ignorance and immigration worthy of a separate blog post. Most importantly, they shared with us some of the things that happen in industry in China. For example, there was a manufacturer who once approached them for financing because they had just gotten a contract to manufacture phone batteries for a Nordic mobile firm. Less than a year later the same manufacturer approached them for another loan because they had gotten a contract to manufacture vehicles for a European company! When Juliani sang his hit song Exponential Potential, this must surely be what he had in mind.

The world’s largest manufacturer, Hon Hai Precision Industry, otherwise known as Foxconn, was founded in 1974. As we speak they employ upwards of 1 million employees and is the world’s third largest IT company by revenue. They produce a vast majority of the world’s electronics. Apple, Blackberry, Nokia and Motorola for example manufacture through them. Your Sony TV or Toshiba laptop could also easily have been manufactured there. How does a company grow from 1 employee to 1,000,000 employees in 40 years?

In the lead up to World War I Japan is said to have industrialised in 50 brief years. Allow me to say that again. Japan industrialised in 50 years! It took Britain approximately a century to develop the capitalist foundations for industrialisation involving finance, the spinning jenny and the steam engine among others. Japan did all that in 50 years.

This brings us to the two verses from the Good Book above. It hit me the other day that the 14 generations from Babylon to Christ were some rather tumultuous times. In that time Babylon was conquered by the Medo-Persians under Cyrus the Great. Not too long afterwards Alexander the Great appeared on the scene like a flash in a pan leading the Greeks to world domination. After him came Judah Maccabeus, Hannibal and Julius Caesar. The common theme here is that these men and peoples bestrode their times like such colossi, that anyone else gets a footnote in history if they are lucky. Granted, these men had pivotal roles to play in history and history belongs to God. But what were other men doing with their lives in those times?

Or otherwise phrased, what were the generations of say the Chinese doing in the time of Alexander the Great? Or what were Turks doing in the time of Julius Caesar? The Greeks under Alexander the Great or the Romans under Julius Caesar had big hairy audacious goals which they set out to meet. They strategized, they cooperated and they put their shoulders to the load. History reports back to us that much like Admiral Nelson they “met the enemy… and he was theirs.”

The point here is that we could easily get so wrapped up in our own petty narratives, squabbles and parochialism that we miss out on our purposes and thoroughly fail to address the real challenges of our generation. From what I understand of African history, our fathers’ generation had the task of deciding on general directions and definitions after gaining self-rule. I think this poverty/unemployment thing is the real economic problem of our generation. Whether or not we address it is our choice. Perhaps in so doing we could reserve ourselves a slice of history, not for history’s sake, or glory’s sake, but because in doing something worthwhile, we make a difference which history deems important enough to record.

The economies of Asia which are being called the Asian tigers, (India, Indonesia, Singapore, South Korea, the Philippines) are claiming their place in history and at the bargaining table. It has been said that when Africa emerges, then our economies will be called the African lions. I personally really look forward to the day when we can hear that term ‘African lions’ and it actually carries a double meaning. Right now, it only means wildlife.

Obama made it to the White House. Foxconn is 40 years old. Japan industrialised in 50 years. We can do it too.