Public Debt as Temporary Burden & Long-Term Capital Investment

logoViet Nam’s infrastructure, including its roads, bridges, and airports, plays a major role in the country’s continued economic development.  Japan – through the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), is the top ODA (Overseas Development Assistance) sponsor to Viet Nam.  ODA is a key part of its visionary foreign policy for Viet Nam in particular and Southeast Asia in general.  (Follow this link to view a JICA map of its nationwide activities as of 25 July 2019.)  

After arriving at the Noi Bai International Airport Terminal 2 the other day, I noticed this plaque just outside the exit.  

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This $900 million dollar project was begun in December 2011 and completed in 2014.  It’s a notable example of ODA projects that have either been completed or are currently in progress around the country. 

According to this 4 December 2011 JICA press release, it was considered to be “one of the most important transport infrastructure projects being implemented with Japan’s ODA.”  The Noi Bai-Nhat Tan expressway and Nhat Tan bridge were built at the same time.  All three projects made life much easier and more convenient for the legion of Vietnamese and foreign passengers arriving and departing from Hanoi.  

Public debt, like reasonable levels of personal debt resulting from solid long-term investments, makes possible what would otherwise be impossible in the here and now.  It is a frequent topic of discussion in the media, both positive (a key driver of economic growth) and negative (a risk and potential obstacle to the same). 

On the bright side, Viet Nam’s public debt is the lowest level since 2015.  Specifically, the Viet Nam Ministry of Finance estimates public debt at the end of 2018 at 58.4% of GDP, or $136.75 billion.  (Compare that with the US, where the national debt of $22 trillion is a staggering 107% of GDP.)  As of December 2018, 90% of Viet Nam’s bonds had a maturity period of over 10 years, with the average maturity period for all bonds coming to 12.7 years.

The Noi Bai International Airport Terminal 2 is one small piece of that multi-billion dollar puzzle.  

Shalom (שלום), MAA

 

 

 

Guns are US(A)

A Vietnamese version of the article below appeared on 6 August in the Voices section of Zing.vn, a major media outlet in Viet Nam.  This is the unabridged English version with photos.  

Shalom (שלום), MAA

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Stores that sell guns and related items are common in many US states.  Photo by Mark Ashwill

Unless you’ve been offline or haven’t picked up a newspaper for a few days, you’re probably aware that history in the United States has once again repeated itself with two consecutive mass shootings.  On 3 August, a gunman murdered 22 people and injured 26 at a shopping center in El Paso, TX in what is being handled as a domestic terrorist case.  The following day 9 people were killed and 27 injured in a shooting in Dayton, OH. 

As of 4 August, there have been 253 mass shootings in 2019 resulting in 1,047 people in 35 states being shot. Of those people, 280 died. (A mass shooting is generally defined as 3-4+ people shot in one incident, excluding the perpetrators, at roughly the same time, excluding organized crime, as well as gang- and drug-related shootings.)  This works out to about 1.17 shootings per day.  They have become so common that many involving fewer casualties are not reported in the national or international media.  Another day, another mass shooting, as if it’s become the new normal in US society. 

Gun Ownership as a Constitutionally Protected Right

While it’s difficult, if not impossible, for most non-US Americans to fathom much less to imagine, the right to own guns, including those designed with the express purpose of killing human beings, is enshrined in the US Constitution.  The oft-quoted 2nd Amendment states that “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”  

Keep in mind that was in the late 1700s when there about 4 million non-native people living in the US with no police or army and no grocery stores.  In other words, the weapons of the day, primitive as they were by modern comparison, were necessary for self-defense and hunting.  There was sporadic conflict between Native American tribes and European settlers.  Slavery was legal (until 1863) so the right to bear arms also meant that slave owners, who included a number of Founding Fathers, could defend themselves against those slaves who wanted their freedom and were willing to spill the blood of their white masters to obtain it. 

The US Constitution was ratified 231 years ago at a time when common guns included muskets and flintlock pistols.  A typical musket had a one-round magazine capacity, could fire about three rounds per minute, at best, and had a range of 50 meters.  Fast forward to the present.  A-15 semi-automatic rifles have a magazine capacity of 30 rounds, can fire 45 rounds per minute, and have a range of 550 meters.    

Guns, Death, & Profit

The United States’ love affair with guns is so passionate that the country has 20% more guns than people at 393 million.  Owning guns is not only a constitutional right that was granted in a very different time and place, but also an extremely lucrative industry.  In 2016, the gun industry contributed about $51.3 billion, both directly and indirectly, to the US economy.  (That’s a staggering 21% of Viet Nam’s 2018 nominal GDP.) 

With so many guns floating around, it’s not surprising that the USA is #1 in this unenviable category:  gun-related death rates among high-income countries.  In 2017, nearly 40,000 US Americans were killed in shootings, 60% of which were suicides.  

The US was one of six countries that contributed to half of the world’s gun-related deaths in 2016.  It ranked 2nd to Brazil (43,200), followed by Mexico (15,400), Venezuela (13,300), Colombia (12,800), and Guatemala (5,090). 

To put this in historical perspective, there were slightly fewer US casualties on D-Day (2,811 deaths and 13,564 wounded) as part of the Allied invasion of Normandy 75 years ago this month, than the total number of casualties from shooting incidents through June 6, 2019.  This includes the a mass shooting in Virginia in which 13 souls perished, including the gunman, and one on 16 June in Pennsylvania in which seven people were injured and one killed. 

The high level of gun violence is one of the reasons why the US ranked 36th among 163 countries, according to the latest Global Peace Index (GPI).  (Note:  Countries are ranked in descending order from most to least dangerous countries.  Afghanistan is #1 and Iceland is #163.)  The index, produced by the Institute for Economics & Peace (IEP), measures global peace using three broad themes: the level of safety and security in society, the extent of domestic and international conflict, and the degree of militarization.  Viet Nam (1877) ranks 107th, while Australia (1419), Canada (1327), the UK (1801) & the USA (2401) rank 151, 158 & 119, & 36, respectively. 

Citizens Armed to the Teeth

The day after I drove by the store pictured above during a recent trip to the US, I encountered the scene below in a big-box store.  (MAA:  Yes, the same kind of store where the El Paso shooting occurred.)  My initial reaction, one of someone who lives in a country in which only the police and military have handguns, was “Maybe he’s a policeman,” but then I thought, code-switching to my US cultural mindset, “Maybe this is an open carry state.”  I later asked a cashier that question.  Her answer was a blank stare and shrug of the shoulders.  The short answer is It is.  In fact, you can carry a handgun anywhere – without a permit – except state and national parks, courthouses, police stations, and prisons. Why would this man need it while shopping?  No doubt he wants to seem more important than he is (he certainly caught my attention but not in a good way) or is waiting for the chance to be a “hero”, if this occasion arose, in a country in which this term has been cheapened beyond recognition.  

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Man standing in the car oil section of a big-box store with a handgun on his right hip and what appears to be an ammunition clip on the left.  Photo by Mark Ashwill

My follow-up reaction was that I had to have a picture of this wannabe tough guy because it was so surreal yet somehow so US American.  My interior monologue continued at rapid-fire pace:  “What if he sees me and becomes angry?”  The heat he was packing, which appears to be a CZ 75, according to two cops I spoke with in both the US and Viet Nam, one of the few “that combines function with form to make an effective and eye pleasing firearm,” in the words of a Gunbacker online review, is designed with one purpose in mind:  to injure or kill human beings.  “He could pull the trigger and claim that he felt threatened by me and my smartphone.”  Maybe he’d beat the rap or serve a light sentence.  Meanwhile, I’d be moldering in my grave having become yet another statistic in the annual slaughter that is US gun violence. 

Color me old-fashioned but I prefer not to see people in my midst, who are not law enforcement officers, carrying guns.  This is one of a number of symptoms of a collective insanity that has gripped the US.  No sane country allows its citizens to run around with handgun in a holster, as if it’s still the Wild West.  Statistics don’t lie, in this case, and there’s no way to spin the truth.  

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Photo courtesy of Pew Pew Tactical

Of Thoughts, Prayers, and the Status Quo

Whenever there’s a mass shooting in the US, and they come and go with tragic predictability, it’s always the same old song and dance, as if most people are following the same tired, old script.  More thoughts and prayers.  No solutions, no change.  More funerals, more sadness, more psychological trauma.  The beat goes on, waiting for the next one, a matter of when, not if.  It’s as if US society is afflicted with an incurable case of societal psychosis.  A country with 65 million more guns than people does not meet the definition of civilized. 

Since information is power, let’s see what the open carry picture looks like.  California, Florida, Illinois, New York, and South Carolina prohibit open carrying of handguns.  The nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., also falls into this category.  These states require a permit or license to openly carry handguns:  Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, and Utah.  Finally, these states restrict the open carrying of handguns in public places:  Alabama (some private property restrictions), Missouri, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Washington. 

Guns for Sale

How to obtain a handgun in my home state of Delaware?  A piece of cake.  Just head on over to your nearest gun store, like the one pictured above, 1) be 21 or older; 2) provide state-issued ID (e.g., driver’s license); and 3) submit to a background check, which could completed within 90 seconds. 

You are not allowed to purchase a firearm if you are younger than 16, unless you are under direct supervision of an adult; have been convicted of a crime of violence including bodily injury to another, including misdemeanors, unless the misdemeanor was over 5 years ago; have been convicted of an offense involving narcotics, dangerous drugs, or controlled substances; have been committed to a mental institution or hospital for a mental disorder and do not have a certificate of rehabilitation; or were adjudicated as delinquent for conduct which would constitute a felony as an adult unless you are 25 or older. 

All of this information and much more is available on a website called Pew Pew Tactical, which contains detailed information about buying, owning, and using guns.  It is run by Eric Hung, an entrepreneur who gushes in the “About Us” section, “I really love my guns because…they are just fun.” 

Oligarchy, Not the Will of the People

What do US Americans think of this endemic problem?  According to a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll, nearly 70% want strong or moderate restrictions placed on firearms.  However, only 8% were “very confident” that their elected representatives would do anything about it.  This is what happens when a political system becomes an oligarchy, whereby the wealthy dictate policy and the average citizen has little influence, at least at the national level.  That was the conclusion of a 2014 study by two professors from Princeton University and Northwestern University.

The National Rifle Association of America (NRA), a gun rights advocacy group founded in 1871, is a case in point.  The Washington, D.C. area-based organization reported 2018 revenue of $412 million and spent a record $10.2 million lobbying lawmakers and federal agencies in 2017 and 2018.

Gun Violence in Viet Nam:  A Moot Point

Viet Nam is faced with an array of pressing challenges, some of which are related to its status as a rapidly developing country.  Fortunately, Vietnamese shooting other Vietnamese or themselves with a handgun and all of the medical and psychic trauma that result from gun violence are not among them. 

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Illustration by Hà My.  Courtesy of Zing.vn

Coming to Terms with the Past by Honoring Historical Truth: The Case of Fulbright University Vietnam

Here’s my latest essay about Fulbright University Vietnam.  Below is an excerpt from the conclusion to whet your appetite (or not).

Education is one way to heal the past, assuming it is objective, comprehensive, and truthful. FUV has yet to live up to its billing as a university with a mission grounded in the liberal arts. If it is ever to truly become an independent international university, it must jettison the US exceptionalist mindset that infuses so much of its thinking and actions at the highest levels. If not, lingering suspicions of the institution as a US Trojan horse bent on molding Viet Nam into the United States’ image will continue to simmer.

Shalom (שלום), MAA

“Global garment firms no longer bullish on Vietnam as costs rise”

So goes the title of a recent article about international textile companies operating in Viet Nam.  The first thought that always pops into my head whenever I read about rising labor costs is how much by local standards and how much is enough in terms of net profit?  Why not pay your employees a living wage and stop exploiting them in the name of a fatter bottom line? 

That, of course, is one of the fundamental problems with global capitalism.  Low labor costs used to be a major selling point for Viet Nam.  There’s nothing wrong with low labor costs by international standards if the local wage is more than enough to live on. 

As the article notes, Vietnam raised its minimum wage by an average of 5.3% last January to VND 4.18 million ($181).  I can assure you that $181 a month for a back-breaking job is not very much, not in 2019.  

Here’s an example that illustrates just how large the profit margin is in the clothing industry.  You can go to a market in Phnom Penh, Cambodia that sells Dockers pants, among many other products, and get a pair for $12, bargained down from $16.  The seller probably still makes 100% profit for slacks that sell for $50 or $60 in the US.  I mentioned that to a saleswoman in the men’s section of a Macy’s in the US and she just gave me a blank stare.  Minus source and destination country overhead and shipping costs, that’s still a huge profit. 

The silver lining in this rather dark and ominous cloud is that these greedy companies will eventually run out of countries and workers to exploit.  Maybe not in my lifetime but it will happen.  People over profit!  

Shalom (שלום), MAA

The Hustling Culture of International Education: Conference Sessions for Sale

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Here’s my latest article, this time on LinkedIn.  This introduction might whet your appetite for more (or not):  

As one digs deeper into the national character of the Americans, one sees that they have sought the value of everything in this world only in the answer to this single question: how much money will it bring in?

-Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835

This prescient observation by Alexis de Tocqueville is a reference to the US as a “nation of hustlers,” a theme that various historians and social critics, including Morris Berman and Walter McDougall, have embraced and explored in their work. Not surprisingly, this mercenary mindset has also infected the field of international education in the US, including its non-profit wing. 

Shalom (שלום), MAA

Number of Vietnamese Students in the US Rebounds

For those US colleagues who recruit in Viet Nam, there is some good news in challenging times. According to the latest SEVIS by the Numbers update from March 2019, there are 30,684 Vietnamese students studying in the US at all levels, an increase of 3% over August 2018.

pie logo-newerHere is my latest update about US-bound Vietnamese students, published on 29 May 2019 by The PIE Blog.

Shalom (שלום), MAA

Article: “Albright & Powell to Speak at Major International Education Conference: What Were They Thinking?”

NAFSA can do better, much better, than Albright and Powell, tired old US military and political establishment figures who disgraced themselves by lying in the service of their country and who have the blood of innocents on their hands for what they said, did, or failed to say or do.

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Courtesy of NAFSA:  Association of International Educators

Follow this link to read an article I wrote about Madeleine Albright and Colin Powell, who were invited by NAFSA:  Association of International Educators to speak at its annual conference next week in Washington, D.C.  

Shalom (שלום), MAA