Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Authentic Absurdity

Making the world safe for Japanese food?

I love Japanese food—it is one of the great exports of Japan. I am fortunate to live across the street from a restaurant that serves meals that closely resemble those eaten in Japan during lunchtime. As part of their teishoku (set meal) menu, you can even get chicken namban, a fried chicken dish that originates from Kyushu and is topped with tartar sauce. Tartar sauce, of course, is an egg-mayo combination that comes from the Russian Tartars… no wait actually, some claim it was invented by the French. It is also believed that, like Castella, chicken namban came to Japan through Portuguese sailors whose boat accidentally reached Japan in 1542. Which brings me to my point:

What is “authentic cuisine”?

To my dismay, an organization under the auspices of the Japanese agriculture ministry is starting to travel the world, looking for restaurants serving authentic Japanese food and rewarding them with seals that display chopsticks with a cherry blossoms and a rising sun in the background. Public relations alert! One of the criterion for authentication is that rice grown in Japan be used. The use of California rice makes sushi in the United States more affordable and environmentally friendly. (My local restaurant, which uses California rice, said it was not interested in certification.) Never mind the implied trade protectionism here, the whole argument is absurd.

Another criterion is that Japanese soy sauce is used rather than Chinese soy sauce, a sauce that originated in China. (The head of the nonprofit behind these efforts Yuzaburo Mogi is also the CEO of Kikkoman, Japan's top soy sauce maker.) I wonder if Japanese mayonnaise is required for chicken namban… after all mayo is thought to be from Spain. The real absurdity of this authentication drive is that it is logically deficient. How far back do you go in history to determine the origin of a food? Is chicken namban Japanese or Portuguese or Spanish? Frankly, it is hard to think of a culture that doesn't have some kind of fried chicken dish.

How about sushi? In an interview with Policy Innovations, Sasha Issenburg says the use of tuna was partly inspired by American steaks and traces it back to a flight from Prince Edwards Island:

I trace the birth of modern sushi to the day in the summer of 1972 when Japan Air Lines carried four Canadian bluefin to Tokyo's Tsukiji market, the first time Atlantic fish had arrived in Japan by air. In a sense, contemporary sushi culture was born as much on the shores of Prince Edward Island as in any Japanese restaurant.
Iseenburg also says that the California roll, snootily dismissed as a “vile imitation ” by the AFP, has been around about as long as the tuna roll. This AFP paragraph is particularly controversial, implying that Japan doesn’t want to be associated with trends coming from its neighbor across the East Sea:

Japanese officials and tourists have voiced growing alarm at what they see as vile imitations of their cuisine overseas, fearing that Japanese food will go the way of Chinese cuisine in North America and Europe.
Growing alarm?

Meanwhile, pubs (izakaya) in Japan are serving innovative dishes that mix various cuisines, riffing off of traditional Japanese meals. I don’t think anyone is alarmed by this creativity. In New York City, Momofuku, a restaurant with a Japanese sounding name, serves ramen, another dish with origins in China, and mixes Korean, Chinese, and Japanese influences to create its noodle dishes and its signature Berkshire pork steamed buns. The buns are filled with boiled pork, called kakuni in Japan, popular throughout Asia. There is no alarm. Instead, lines to get into this restaurant stretch outside the door.

Writer Bill Bryson shows in his book Made in America that many of the dishes we believe are from Europe, such as spaghetti and meatballs, hamburgers, and hot dogs, were likely invented in the United States. Can you imagine an American group traveling the world certifying authentic hamburgers with a seal perhaps depicting an American eagle clutching a fork and knife?

Aside from its absurdity, the real problem is that this effort is part of a provincial mentality that will push Japan to become a “forgotten power,” as it was put recently by Japanese participants at the World Economic Forum. Japan should be expanding and globalizing, not shrinking, regulating, and retrenching. Yet, openness is still a taboo subject in Japan. The Forum website captures it succinctly as it summarizes some of the possible policy responses to Japan’s shrinking population crisis:

Several remedies to Japan’s population decline are under discussion. First, the government can provide incentives for families to have more children, perhaps through tax benefits or via the provision of day-care facilities, which would enable women to remain in the workforce. Second, the gap can be partially filled by expanding the workforce to include older workers and women. This will require businesses to encourage a more flexible and open working environment. Third, Japan could open itself to large-scale immigration. However, this option requires a serious debate within Japanese society, which so far has been avoided.

(Photo Sushi Lunch by Harris Graber.)

Notice the avocado.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Make Global Body Broader

Timothy Garton Ash argued last week in the Guardian for expanding the G8 to a G14, adding Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, and South Africa. Though somewhat arbitrary and still exclusive, he believes this new configuration would be more representative of global trends and a more credible cast of characters for tackling global dangers and aspirations. He attacks the argument that expanding the G8 too far would "dilute the lifeblood of common values," citing the inclusion of Russia. But he believes shared values, albeit minimal, should unite the grouping:
[Countries] committed to ensuring a future for humankind on this planet; a reasonable stability of the world economic system; and as much human dignity for as many human beings as the self-interested policies of states and the selfishness of voters will allow? To those minimal goals, even Putin's Russia can commit. And undemocratic China, too.
Can such meetings ever evolve beyond the annual photo op, hot air, and puffed chests? Ash is optimistic:
At the very least, the world's emerging great powers would have to think about, and take positions on, matters of wider responsibility which they might not otherwise confront. And the world's waning great powers could get used to listening to what the waxing ones have to say.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Bill Bradley on Foreign Policy

Former Senator Bill Bradley spoke this morning at the Carnegie Council about his new book The New American Story. This talk was the first we broadcast on multiple radio stations. We also filmed it for video clips that will be coming out later.

Bradley’s main point was that an old American story has taken root in the U.S. national conversation that is obscuring the original American story that values two things: a can-do attitude and telling the truth. As he says in his book, we have to embrace an “ethic of connectedness:” collective action and individual responsibility.

He gave numerous examples. Jody Williams, for example, got a few average Americans together to launch a global movement to ban landmines. She won the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts.

The former Senator also suggested that the United States needs a fairer energy policy. If the United States were able to reach the fuel efficiency of cars driven in Europe, we would be able to eliminate oil imported from OPEC countries. He also recommended more accountability: people who buy fuel inefficient cars, such as Hummers, should be taxed and those who buy fuel efficient cars should get rebates. It’s not a tax on the rich. It's simply an incentive for efficiency.

The final question from the audience focused on foreign policy: How should the United States approach Iran and Russia? Bradley suggested more talk with Iran—after all talking to your enemies is the definition of diplomacy.

Russia seemed to be a topic close to the Senator’s heart. He slammed the expansion of NATO after the fall of the Soviet Union. Bradley recently spoke with Mikhail Gorbachev, who said U.S. officials had promised an expansion would not happen. Moreover, as Bradley put it, the key to diplomacy is not to kick a man when he is down. My professor at SAIS Michael Mandelbaum was a sharp critic of NATO expansion. You can read a transcript of him talking about it with Jim Lehrer in 1996 on NewsHour here. Here is an excerpt:

I think it [expansion] will re-divide Europe where Europe is now not divided. Second, it will poison our relations with the Russians, perhaps not irrevocably. The Russians are not going to refuse to speak to us. But already, the kind of close cooperation that we enjoyed during the Gulf War and made it possible for President Clinton to pick up the phone, ask President Yeltsin to remove Russian troops from the Baltic states, and have him exceed to his request, that kind of close cooperation is gone.

And that was how Bradley ended the talk: Think about the kind of mutual benefit we could be sharing with Russia given the world’s problems today: energy, climate change, oil. If there were more trust between these two big countries, the cooperation would benefit from their complementarities.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

There may be blood

For best performance in the face of a total disaster, the nominees are…

The twin faces of America’s global economic power stared into the abyss Tuesday morning. Profound fears about the possibility of a U.S. recession dovetailed with unfolding internal crises in the American financial and entertainment sectors, casting doubt on the status of each as dominant global industry players.

In Los Angeles, concern over the ongoing Writers Guild of America (WGA) strike overshadowed the normally festive Oscar nomination ceremony. The potential cancellation of the Academy Awards broadcast in February has cast a pall over the American film business since the WGA went on strike November 5. For industry insiders, one nightmare has already come to pass. Earlier this month, the Golden Globes awards ceremony was reduced to a press conference when actors and actresses refused to cross the WGA picket line.

"I could never cross a picket line. I think there's a lot of people who feel that way," Tony Gilroy told the Associated Press. Gilroy was nominated for Best Director for his work on the film Michael Clayton, starring George Clooney.

The Oscars are often the second-most-watched television program of the year following the Super Bowl. The film industry sees these broadcasts as more than an opportunity to promote individual films – they are commercials for the Hollywood brand name. According to the Motion Picture Association of America, worldwide box office receipts reached $25.82 billion in 2006, an all-time high. The big film studios see the loss of the awards season showcases as damaging to more than just the short-term bottom line.

Potential competitors could conceivably take advantage of this moment of weakness in Hollywood. In 2006, India's film industry had gross revenues topping $2 billion worldwide. But not everyone is convinced that the time is right for Bollywood to make a power move.

“There is a reason that Hollywood movies travel so well all around the world,” Dan Petrie, Jr., one time president of the WGA told me last week. “The best people – the writers, the directors, the actors – come to Hollywood to work. Any labor dislocation would have to go on so long that international talent would decide to stay at home.”

And how long would that be? The last writer’s strike, in 1988, lasted 5 months, costing the industry $500 million in lost revenue. But in Hollywood, hope springs eternal as nowhere else. News that talks between the WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers would resume on Tuesday cheered Academy president Sid Ganis. “[The February 24th Academy Awards show] will be a night to remember!” he pronounced.

Meanwhile, three thousand miles away, the other pillar of U.S. soft power was threatening to come unmoored. Wall Street market traders, fed watchers and financial professionals watched from the sidelines Monday as news of massive stock market sell-offs in international markets trickled in. Triggered by a 5.6 percent plunge of the Tokyo Stock Exchange, the threat of global economic recession moved quickly westward across the globe. Equity valuations fell like dominoes in Hong Kong, Seoul, Mumbai, Frankfurt, Paris and London. U.S. markets, closed for the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, were temporarily spared.

The worldwide market tumble grew out of concerns that the ongoing housing downturn and credit crunch could lead to recession in the U.S.. Overnight, central bankers and Ministers of Finance around the world struggled to enact emergency policy measures. In an early morning statement designed to cushion the impact on U.S. markets, the Federal Reserve announced it would slash interest rates by 75 basis points to 3.50 percent. This was the largest single rate cut in the U.S. since 1982.

The Federal Open Market Committee, the Fed’s monetary policy brain trust, released a statement explaining the historic move: “The Committee took this action in view of a weakening of the economic outlook and increasing downside risks to growth.” Like Sid Ganis, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson put on a brave face during a morning press conference. “This [rate cut] shows the world that our central bank is nimble and able to move quickly to respond to market conditions. That should be a confidence builder,” he said.

But reactions to the rate cut were mixed. The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 400 points after the opening bell. London’s FTSE 100 eked out a positive performance while Asian markets trended downward for the second straight day. The VIX, the Chicago Board Options Exchange Volatility index, often referred to as the “fear index,” rose to its highest level since 2002.

“The Fed has been lagging the curve in cutting rates up until now. This borders on panic,” David Jones, President and CEO of DMJ Advisors told Bloomberg Radio.

And whether in Hollywood or on Wall Street, panic is not a word that markets like to hear. Indeed, there has been considerable recent speculation – some would call it panic – that the world center of global finance could be shifting away from New York. For twenty years, London has been prepping for a return to international glory as the world’s money capital. Hedge funds and financial services firms have clustered in its city center. The London Stock Exchange has benefited from companies seeking to avoid onerous U.S. regulatory statutes, such as the Sarbanes-Oxley legislation, when listing their initial public offerings. The British capital also derives an advantage from its relative proximity to the emerging markets of Asia and Russia.

"New York is in danger of becoming a secondary city instead of the world capital it deserves to remain," said Dan Doctoroff, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Deputy for Economic Development, in 2007.

Recent news does not bode well for the continued global dominance of the U.S. film and financial industries. The risks to both are mounting by the day. If the Fed hopes its interest rate cut will stave off more than a damaging short-term recession, it would be well advised to keep its word by continuing to “act in a timely manner as needed to address those risks.” Otherwise, in New York and Los Angeles, there will be blood.

cc photo by jasonepink

Friday, January 18, 2008

Hard Power, Soft Power, and Bollywood Power

We published a thoughtful piece in Policy Innovations this week by Shashi Tharoor, who has spoken at the Carnegie Council recently about his book on India.

In his essay, “India’s Bollywood Power,” Shashi describes what I would call the “soft power assets” of India—its culture, film, food, etc. I agree that these assets are sometimes underappreciated and that soft power complements hard power to form what Joe Nye calls “smart power.” We also need to be mindful that India’s open society and freedoms give it a flexibility and universality that may be more appealing than what some call “authoritarian capitalism” promulgated elsewhere. As Shashi notes, a country must be able to “tell a story” but I would add that the story should be universal.

But to what end? I think the key point Shashi omitted from his otherwise excellent article is that power, of whatever type, is used to get something. Theoretically open societies possess more soft power assets, like freedom and pluralism, but they are also more receptive to outside influence (or to the soft power of others). If a country is democratic, the mood of its people will influence policy.

It seems that the State Department agrees that soft power or public diplomacy is indeed important. Still grasping for the right modality, the agency recently launched America’s website——tasked with, yes, telling America’s story. Its feature in focus? Innovation:

Fashion design might one day be adapted to protect the U.S. Army thanks to innovative work by a Cornell University student that has caught the eye of military scientists. The garments use silver nanoparticles in 2007 to eliminate health threats from microbes and palladium nanoparticles to reduce the effects of air pollutants.

(Bollywood star Aishwarya Rai as seen in Dil Ka Rishta. Photo by Horst-Mirjam von Linotype (CC).)

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Moral Instinct's Primary Colors

If you could flip a switch to save people riding a runaway trolley, would you do it? What if by flipping that switch, you might kill an innocent bystander? Now, what if the only way you could stop the trolley was by throwing a person in front of that train?

Steven Pinker's excellent piece today in the New York Times "The Moral Instinct" explores these scenarios and suggests that most people would have a problem with that final scenario. Even though you could save people by sacrificing one person, most people have a problem with being responsible for harming one. But it is tough for people to express why this is so.

It turns out that people have an innate moral sense, according to Pinker's article:

When anthropologists like Richard Shweder and Alan Fiske survey moral concerns across the globe, they find that a few themes keep popping up from amid the diversity. People everywhere, at least in some circumstances and with certain other folks in mind, think it’s bad to harm others and good to help them. They have a sense of fairness: that one should reciprocate favors, reward benefactors and punish cheaters. They value loyalty to a group, sharing and solidarity among its members and conformity to its norms. They believe that it is right to defer to legitimate authorities and to respect people with high status. And they exalt purity, cleanliness and sanctity while loathing defilement, contamination and carnality.

According to psychologist Jonathan Haidt, a universal sense of morality can be broken down into five primary moral "colors:"

The exact number of themes depends on whether you’re a lumper or a splitter, but Haidt counts five — harm, fairness, community (or group loyalty), authority and purity — and suggests that they are the primary colors of our moral sense. Not only do they keep reappearing in cross-cultural surveys, but each one tugs on the moral intuitions of people in our own culture.
Photo by slack12.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Product Recalls and Chinese Consumers

The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that many of the toys that were recalled in the U.S. last summer remained on stores' shelves in China:
The situation is a reminder that often the people most at risk from China's public-health and safety lapses are the Chinese themselves. It raises questions about the responsibility of multinational companies to keep dangerous toys off the shelves in parts of the world where consumer-protection laws are weak and the threat of legal liability is relatively low--but also about their ability to do so.
The article says that if companies are not diligent enough about ensuring that products are destroyed after a recall, many factories will try to make up costs by distributing the products in the local market. The lack of law enforcement and information distribution related to recalls facilitates the process.

Nonetheless, a McKinsey survey from October 2007 found that Chinese consumers still trust domestic brands over foreign brands:
According to the survey results, 53% of the 6,000 residents interviewed said they preferred Chinese brands, up from 46% when the survey was last conducted in 2005. Only 11% said they had a "strong" or "moderate" preference for foreign brands and nearly half of respondents said they would shift to a local brand if it offered a similar level of quality or price.
But it's unclear whether or not McKinsey's survey accounts for the tremendous income inequality in China. Similar research conducted by the China Market Research Group found that quality does in fact factor into the decisions of Chinese consumers. According to BusinessWeek:
...the China Market Research Group, has conducted more than 1,500 in-depth interviews with consumers in first- and second-tier cities over the past four months. Our findings run counter to McKinsey's. We have found that in light of the quality-control problems in China, the trust that Chinese consumers place in foreign brands is at an all-time high and increasing. Nearly 75% of consumers said they would prefer a multinational's product if they could afford it and if the product directly affected their health...

The concern that Chinese have over the safety of what they buy combined with increasing trust in foreign brands and rising disposable incomes has created a huge opportunity that multinationals can leverage. The market is clearly shifting toward the premium segment. By emphasizing that their products are safer and premium, foreign companies will continue to tap into China's emerging 250-million-strong middle class.
The article says that the role of multinationals in ensuring product safety must be to refrain from engaging in price wars with Chinese competitors. But what about the responsibility of Chinese firms and government officials?

Susan Aaronson, author of Trade Imbalance: The Struggle to Weigh Human Rights Concerns in Trade Policymaking, recently spoke at the Carnegie Council, and suggested that the Chinese government may find that improved human and labor rights are a prerequisite to the continued productivity and economic growth needed to pull the rest of the country's population above the poverty line.

But the China Market Research Group survey suggests that if more Chinese citizens develop the financial means to reject cheap, unregulated products, in the long term, Chinese firms will start enforcing quality control and labor rules to meet market demands.

Can these two ideas be reconciled?