December 21, 2013

NSA Violations Undermine the US Abroad: Is this Obama's Legacy?

After the American Century
This is the 400th blog entry for After the American Century.

More revelations about the NSA's snooping are being discussed in the world press, and it is increasingly clear that the NSA has undermined US relations with allies. How much distrust it has created cannot be quantified, but every Danish person I have discussed this with dislikes what the NSA is doing, including colleagues, teenagers, pensioners, students, neighbors, and taxi drivers. All can see that some spying is needed for national security, but hoovering up all the data available seems not just expensive, not just overkill, not just excessive, but the actions of a rather paranoid international bully.  Sorry, my American readers, but this is the bad news the domestic press is not saying too much about.

Because the underlying reputation of the United States in the world has been adversely affected, news is beginning to appear about American businesses losing contracts abroad because of fears of NSA surveillance, fears that trade secrets are being stolen, fears that negotiations and bidding on lucrative contracts are being spied on, and so on. Many foreign businesses want to avoid saving data on US systems, because of these fears. Some estimates suggest that the IT industry alone may lose $180 billion in foreign business because of the NSA revelations. Little wonder that the largest technology companies wrote an open letter to President Obama protesting the NSA's over-reach.

Likewise, many ordinary people abroad wish they could stop using American-owned sites, such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, and all the rest, because the newspapers have confirmed that all these corporations are compromised. In the end, it matters little whether they intentionally shared date with the NSA or were hacked by the NSA. The lack of privacy is more than disturbing; it is driving a wedge of distrust between the US and the rest of the world.

The average person assumes that if the German Prime Minister is not safe from NSA snooping, if the Israeli Defense Minister is not safe, if the diplomats of the EU are not safe, then of course no one else is safe either. The assurances that  information gathered is not shared with other government agencies rings rather hollow. After all, Mr. Snowdon was able to obtain huge amounts of information about all sorts of things. There appear to be thousands of others with the same security clearance. Have none of these men and women ties to other US government agencies? Are all of them able to resist pressure to help out a friend in another government agency? Are none of them corrupt? Who can seriously believe that the federal access to information is limited to NSA?

Unhappily, this ongoing scandal may become what President Obama is remembered for. On the one hand, he spent hundreds of billions on a global paranoia project to gather more information on more people than ever before in history. On the other hand, he did not allocate sufficient funds or find sufficient expertise to put Obamacare into working order. This is bad leadership.

The conclusion I reached in June still seems valid. Then I wrote that "The problems of the Obama Administration are to a considerable degree of its own making. Presidential second terms are often difficult, and this one seems to be no exception. Think of Lyndon Johnson after his re-election, when antiwar protests dogged his every step. Think of Richard Nixon's second term, engulfed by Watergate. Think of Reagan's second term, and Irangate. Think of Bill Clinton's scandal-ridden second term and the attempted impeachment. And finally, think of George W. Bush's second term, when his approval ratings sank below 25%. Since 1963, not one  president found a way to escape controversy and unpopularity in a second term. Obama unfortunately seems headed toward a similar fate." President Obama's popularity rating has sunk by more than ten points since this time last year. Recent second-term presidents have often had ratings around 50% at the end of their fifth year. Obama's rating is 43% according to CBS, but only 40% according to Gallup.

What an irony it will be if the American economic recovery is compromised by the NSA and Obama's slow correction of its excesses. How ironic that a president who began his term with tremendous good will abroad has squandered it.

The sad spectacle seems to justify the title of this Blog itself. The American Century perhaps could be dated from 1918, when the US emerged from World War I as the wealthiest power, with the world's largest industrial plant. The US reached the apogee of its economic power in the early Cold War, but its hegemonic position has gradually eroded as a percentage of the world's economy since then. To some extent this was unavoidable, as other nations industrialized and digitized. But there is also a purely internal decline into dysfunctionality that is not primarily due to external foes. No outside power eviscerated public education. No foreign government forced the US to have unworkable immigration laws. No international agency failed to monitor and control its banks. No nefarious outsiders are responsible for the foolish tax policies of the Bush years or the problems created by the "sequester." No outsiders force Americans to purchase ever more weapons for personal use. These egregious and unnecessary errors are just part of a catalog of mistakes that would drag down any nation, if persisted in long enough. The United States seems intent on undermining and defeating itself. The excesses of the NSA are part of that pattern.

December 05, 2013

Education: Pisa Test Results, 2012

After the American Century   

Pisa rankings have been developed, based on extensive testing in 65 countries.  Students at age 15 were tested in math, reading and science. When taking all three tests scores into account, the first forty nations are ranked as shown in the list below. Note that the first three scores are for cities, not nations. Impressive as they are, they cannot easily be compared to entire countries. South Korea and Japan have high scores for a much larger sample, including a cross-section of the entire population.

In general, the top twenty are improving, in some cases remarkably. But most of those with composite scores below 1520 are not improving or only improving a little. Geographically, Asia leads, followed by Eastern Europe, and then Western Europe plus New Zealand and Australia. Well below the middle one finds the United States. There is a dismal tie between Latin America and the Moslem World for the weakest showing. The real last place may be somewhere in Africa, which was not included in the study.

                                                        score in 2009        improvement
1. Shanghai                   1783             1731                     52
Above 1600
2. Singapore                  1666            1630                    - 36
3. Hong Kong               1661             1637                   - 24
4. South Korea             1628              1623                   -  5
5. Japan                        1621              1588                    33
6. Taiwan                     1606               1558                    48
Above 1550
7. Finland                     1588               1631                  - 43
8. Estonia                     1578               1541                    37
9. Liechtenstein           1576                1555                    21
10. Macau-China         1568               1523                    45
11. Canada                   1566               1580                    14
12. Switzerland            1565               1552                    13
13. Poland                    1562               1503                    59
14. Netherlands            1556               1556                    no change
Above 1500
15. Vietnam                  1547                n.a.                     
16. Germany                 1546               1530                   16
17. Ireland                    1534                1489                   45
18. Australia                 1534                1556                   22
19. New Zealand          1528                1559                   21
20. Belgium                  1519                1528                  - 9
21. United Kingdom     1507                1500                    7
22. Czech Republic       1500                1473                  27
23. Austria                     1502                1503                   1
Above 1475
24. France                       1499              1491                    8
25. Slovenia                    1496              1496                   no change
26. Denmark                   1494              1497                   -3
27. Norway                     1488              1501                  -13
28. Latvia                        1482                n.a. 
29. United States             1476              1489                 -13
From 1422-1469
30. Italy                          1469
31. Luxembourg             1468
32. Spain                        1468
33. Portugal                    1464
34. Hungary                   1459
35. Lithuania                  1455
36. Iceland                     1454
37. Croatia                     1447
38. Sweden                    1446                1486                 - 40
39. Russia                      1443
40. Israel                        1422

Latin America (selected scores)
Chile                            1309
Costa Rica                   1277
Mexico                        1252
Uruguay                      1236
Brazil                          1206
Argentina                    1190
Colombia                    1178
Peru                            1125  (last place in all categories)

Moslem World (selected scores)
Turkey                        1386
Unit. Arab Emirates   1324
Tunisia                        1190
Jordan                         1188
Qatar                          1148
Indonesia                    1153 (next to last place overall)

With the notable exception of Finland (which declined from a high position), the Nordic nations made a poor showing. They have collectively fallen toward the bottom of the league table. If their decline continues, within another decade one of them might be relegated and formed to move en masse to Argentina.

Decline in education may well be a predictor for a decline in economic development a generation later.