Saturday, January 25, 2014

Guam and Black Swan Crazy Risk

A Black Swan event is something that is so improbable that it doesn't even register until it happens. It's an event that has an extreme impact, arrives as a surprise, is an outlier, appears unpredictable but is understood in hindsight. A big asteroid strike, or a solar storm powerful enough to knock out the electric grid, are examples of Black Swans.

Some wars may be Black Swan events.

We owe the term "Black Swan" to Nassim Nicholas Taleb and his 2001 book Fooled By Randomness. It's a great metaphor. They once believed all swans were white, but in 1697 there black swan was discovered in Australia.

Black Swan is now used to describe the risk of unexpected, high-impact events. The National Intelligence Council cites some examples of potential black swan events in its Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds. It's a very accessible and interesting read.

No one seriously, truly, expects China and Japan to engage in conflict over disputed islands in the South China Sea, called Senkaku by Japan and Diaoyu by China. Both countries claim them. Japan controls the islands, but China recently initiated an air defense zone over them. The idea that China may simply take the island by military force does not seem far-fetched.  The possibility of inadvertent conflict arising out of these tensions is a worry as well.

China's moves are troubling but Japan isn't helping. Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may be stoking nationalist sentiments by his recent visit to a shrine that is connected with some war criminals. At the World Economic forum in Davos, Switzerland, Abe reportedly compared the relations between China and Japan to those of Britain and German in World War I and invoking the fear of a parallel drift to war. The comparison was subsequently blamed on an interpreter's error, but still. You wonder.

Where does this leave Guam? The U.S. has a defense agreement with Japan so if China were to do something really aggressive, it may force a U.S. response. It's difficult to imagine what may arise. But for Guam it may be one more source of worry (North Korea being another) for an island that may have front row seat to a Black Swan event.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Tourism from China has a ways to go

Interesting piece at Quartz that cites some data forecasting a rise in tourism from China.

It reports that 21,000 Chinese tourists traveled to Guam in 2012, a figure that can rise substantially in time.

It's not far-fetched to think so, or to hope for. Japanese tourism has been immensely important to Guam's employment base, but it also made Guam too vulnerable to changes in Japan's economy. If China's tourism can grow, it might give Guam more stability.

But tourism from China has a long way to go. As the Japan Times reports: In 2012, nearly 929,000 visitors came from Japan to Guam, 71% of the annual total and a 12.7 percent increase from the prior year.

The First Hawaiian Bank economic forecast for Guam reported this:
A total of 1.278 million visitors came to Guam in 2012, up 12.81% over 2011. This level of arrivals has not been reached since 1995-1997. In 2013, visitor arrivals are up more than 5% through April compared to the same period last year, suggesting this year will top 2012’s total despite some challenging events.  
The "challenging events" affecting tourism pre-2012 are related to Japan's recovery from its earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power plant incidents.

Guam government is making some bets in its 2014 budget that tourism will increase, and points to how critical it is: "Economic stability in the near term for Guam is contingent on a projected modest increase in tourist arrivals as well as continued strong levels of construction activity," it notes

Monday, February 18, 2013

Guns, Guam and Gun Tourism

An Associate Press story about Guam's gun ranges serving as an attraction for Japanese tourists caused me to wince.

Let’s start with this third graph:
The U.S. territory of Guam — a tropical island often described as a cheaper version of Hawaii — has long been the perfect place to put guns in the hands of tourists, especially from Japan, where gun ownership is tightly restricted and handguns are banned 
Is Guam, as this story claims, “often described as a cheaper version of Hawaii?”  It’s kind of like describing North Dakota as just like North Carolina except with fewer people.

Guam is place with its own unique history, culture, cuisine, traditions and may be more polyglot than Hawaii. It is not Hawaii-lite.

The story goes on to say: “But this Pacific island halfway between Tokyo and Honolulu is America.”

It’s America with an asterisk and it would be nice if the story explained what being part of America really means for Guam, because that's an important point in a story about American gun culture.

Guam is an unincorporated territory with only symbolic representation in Congress, and very little say over the military’s use of the island. Hawaii doesn't have its own entry in the CIA Factbook’s list of countries; Guam does.

But the thing that made me feel very uncomfortable was the idea that Guam is getting a reputation as a place for gun tourism. Evidently, there are a lot of Japanese tourists who want to do something they can’t do at home, and that’s fire off guns.

Japan’s gun laws are very restrictive. The Japan Times explains: “It’s almost impossible to get to a gun in Japan, and selling one or owning one is a serious crime.”

But on Guam, writes AP, it's much different.
Guam's gun ranges are to the Japanese what Amsterdam's cannabis cafes are to backpackers from the world over.
This story didn't probe the underlying problems around this issue.

What's missing in this tourist-from-Japan-love-going-to-Guam-gun-ranges is whether  people on Guam are comfortable with shooting ranges.

Does Guam really want gun ranges to proliferate? Is there concern about the influence of the ranges, the entirety of the gun culture, on the island itself?

Will media attention on Guam’s gun ranges increase gun tourism and, in turn, spur the creation of more gun ranges?

Will the growing wealth of gun range owners influence local laws, relaxing restrictions on gun use?

Shooting ranges have the potential, I suspect, of becoming as much as a turn-off for tourists as they are a potential draw. There’s something discordant about exploring pristine ocean waters, enjoying gorgeous sunsets and vistas, and then running off to a gun range.

The problem with the AP story is it will become one more thing for Guam to deal with. The story, and others that will follow, assume that because Guam is “America” it is somehow representative of America’s excessive gun culture. Guam becomes, through these news stories, a caricature of what it is not.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The status of Guam's war reparations

It's time for Guam's political leadership to be frank about the status of war reparations. The $100 million being sought has an absolutely less than zero chance of being approved by Congress.

U.S. Rep. Madeleine Bordallo recently announced that her latest attempt to advance this issue has failed.

Supporters of reparations have a compelling case to make. The stories of what happened during the war are terrible and heartbreaking. The U.S. was too quick to settle with Japan. The needs of Guam weren't properly accounted for. But the politics of the issue in Washington are too impossible.

The continuing pursuit of reparations, at this point, is just political theater. Congress is not going to fund war reparations as it cuts programs for the poor, the medically uninsured, and others in desperate need.

Guam's political leadership needs to ask whether continuing pursuit of war reparations is becoming a political liability to other legislative efforts in Washington.

A better strategy may be for the island's political leadership to see if they can use to failure of war reparations as leverage on other issues. It may help them bolster the case to improve education and infrastructure on the island.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Guam as a 'strategic hub'

Takeaways from the “Joint Statement of the Security Consultative Committee."

“In view of the increasingly uncertain security environment in the Asia-Pacific region … 

“... the U.S. intent to rebalance defense priorities toward the Asia-Pacific region ...”

“.. support the development of Guam as a strategic hub ...”

“In order to develop Guam as a strategic hub ...”

What this means: 

-- The “increasingly uncertain security environment” is a clear reference to China’s naval development. Other than the pirates, there’s not much else going on in this region unless you look afar to Pakistan.

-- The references to Guam as a “strategic hub” is in context to Okinawa's diminishing importance, but also defines Guam's new role.

The New York Times has a forum running that ask: Are We Headed for a Cold War With China?

Among its writers is Zhu Feng, a professor in the School of International Studies and the deputy director of the Center for International and Strategic Studies at Beijing University.

Feng sees the military rebalancing in Asia-Pacific as the creation of military programs "that very specifically target China."

Another is Stephen M. Walt, a professor of international affairs at Harvard University, who sees increased security competition with China but believes economic needs will keep the rivalry within bounds.

Map source: CIA analysis on China's naval capabilities, 1965

Saturday, April 28, 2012

One Guam, Green Guam, Glow Guam

Nuclear power generation on Guam must be opposed with all heart and soul.

For sure, energy prices are high on Guam but that’s because the island is excessively reliant on fossil fuels. It should turn its attention, instead, to alternative sources. This is not a knee-jerk response to the obvious risks that nuclear power brings.

After Katrina hit New Orleans, architects and builders began to imagine a different city, one that’s less dependent on fossil fuels.  New Orleans is a good city to compare to Guam.

New Orleans is ecologically fragile. Although it is part of the continental U.S., it is nonetheless separate, below sea level and uniquely vulnerable to storms. Similar to Guam, New Orleans is also culturally rich, diverse, with a modest economy and wage levels.
Since Katrina, there has been a concerted effort to build homes that use energy efficient technologies; to create housing that registers net-zero, or low energy consumption. They have been successful at doing this.

One effort by Brad Pitt, the actor, led to the Make it Right foundation, which builds highly energy efficient homes for as little as $150,000. They use solar and other energy saving technologies to dramatically reduce power usage.

Homes that have solar technologies have reverse electric meters. There are points in the day when the solar systems produce more energy than is being consumed, and this excess energy is sold to the power company. Some of these meters will literally show the amount of money that you are making.

Nuclear energy will not deliver a Green Guam. It will deliver a new set of hazards to Guam.

The recent decision by the Consolidated Commission on Utilities to even consider the feasibility of nuclear power for the island is a colossal mistake. It is astonishing that one of the most solar rich places on the planet would even consider such a move.

Let’s look at this as an economic issue alone. One estimate puts the cost of a nuclear facility at about $250 million.  With that amount of money, you could provide $10,000 grants to 25,000 homes and businesses on Guam to install solar panels.

This is really about where Guam wants to invest its energy dollars. A $250 million investment to build a nuclear power plant equals about $1,400 for every man, woman and child on Guam. One way or another, the bill for nuclear power will get paid.

The Utilities Commission can’t simply look at nuclear power in isolation, detached from alternatives. It needs to consider, as well, the rapidly improving efficiency and declining cost of solar and what an equal investment into solar might produce.

Here are some other issues to consider as well.

One: A nuclear plant will concentrate investment and jobs. Solar energy has the potential of disaggregating the island's energy production and creating new employment opportunity for people, locally trained, to install and maintain solar energy systems. Green energy is self-reliant and represents, at the very least, symbolic decolonization. 

Two: A nuclear facility will require land and ample security. The needs of the military shooting range may be modest by comparison.

Three: A nuclear facility generates hazardous waste that remains hazardous for tens of thousands of years. It will have to be transported and stored somewhere. 
Four: The risks associated with nuclear generation are not zero. Guam doesn’t need to increase the risk the government is already creating by its expanding military presence. Remember, the U.S. has given serious consideration to the need for a missile defense system for Guam. Does Guam want a missile defense system and a nuclear power plant?

Five: Guam may be an unsafe environment for nuclear energy. It is seismically unstable. It is subject to massive typhoons.

The Utilities Commission should drop its investigation into the feasibility of nuclear power. It has to be opposed now, not later.

Once this feasibility study delivers its predictable conclusions, the lobbying will begin in earnest and the opposition to nuclear power will face increasing odds, not unlike the build-up.  By the time the build-up’s environmental impact statements arrived, it was already too late.


Saturday, March 5, 2011

Climate change and the lost islands

The U.N. says it is vowing to help Pacific island states affected by climate change.  Its options are not good.

The U.N. can't help these islands unless Washington comes to terms with climate change. But the U.S. seems to be in complete denial about it. The newly elected House Republicans want to cut climate science funding and strip the EPA of much of its regulatory power. It’s just amazing, really, how self-destructive we've become on this issue. 

This issue is entirely political unless you live in the Federated States of Micronesia, with many vulnerable sea level population areas.

Climate change is a real, real issue in the FSM.

In 2009, H.E. Emanuel Mori, the president of FSM, gave a speech at the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. He said:
We are not certain if our biggest threat is from ocean acidification that will erode our islands from underneath, OR from sea-level rise that could submerge our islands under the sea, OR from changes in weather and typhoon intensity that could make inhabiting our islands impossible. But we know that our continued peaceful existence is totally at risk. We know that the enemy that gives rise to these threats is climate change. And we know that to survive, we must act now.
The only way to protect FSM and other Pacific islands is through adoption of climate mitigation and reduce the causes of global warming, namely Co2 levels due to emissions from fossil fuels. Adaptation may be an impossibility in low level Pacific islands. 

That means the future of the Pacific islands is dependent on the U.S. response, as well as that of other industrialized nations, to climate change. But that won't happen as long as the political process in Washington stays in denial and gridlock on this issue. U.S. leadership seems committed to accomplishing as little as possible for as long as possible. 

Here’s what H.E. Alik L. Alik, the vice president of FSM, said at a U.N. meeting in September about “Millennium Development Goals” (MDGs) and climate change:
We cannot meaningfully talk about the MDGs unless the international community addresses the real danger that Micronesia and other Small Island Developing States will disappear because of the adverse impacts of climate change. In short, Mr. President, we are the least responsible but most vulnerable.