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Confronting The Entitlement Conundrum – Why Social Security May Be America’s Financial Weapon of Mass Destruction

April 18, 2010 67 comments

By Marquis Codjia

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Warren Buffett, the billionaire investor and long-time Chairman of conglomerate colossus Berkshire Hathaway, emphatically stated in 2002 that derivatives were “time bombs, both for the parties that deal in them and the economic system”. Given the deleterious role these securities had in the recent economic crisis, the “Oracle of Omaha” certainly evinces prescience in addition to his mythic business acumen.

Yet, what will likely choke off economic growth in the U.S., and by percolation, usher in global economic disequilibria, is managing mammoth entitlement benefits due to – or rather, promised to – millions of Americans over not only a year or two, but decades in their lifetimes, once they face thorny existential episodes such as illness, old age, disability, or loss of employment.

Of all government-steered social schemes, Social Security – the federal Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance (OASDI) program – is the largest, claiming 20% of the national budget in 2009 or $678 billion, right after defense (23%). Other known schemes are unemployment benefits, Medicare and Medicaid.

A conceptual understanding of Social Security is helpful to gauge the dynamics at work in the entitlement debate. Simply explained, Social Security allows retirees to earn pension income from contributions made by current workers – via specific payroll taxes. Understandably, the system remains balanced if contributions made exceed benefits paid – as is currently the case.

However, current projections posit a funding gap starting in 2016 – in other words, expenses will outrun revenues, thus coercing the country into seeking external funds (from new loans or cuts in other programs). Worse, successive governments have borrowed and used up over the years cumulative surpluses held in the Social Security Trust Fund.

The funding deficit is caused by a panoply of factors, the most important of which are the increase in life expectancy, the lowering birth rate, and aging baby-boomers (resulting in fewer workers paying for more retirees).

What’s flummoxing is that the current political elite – like their forerunners in both parties – seem to be voluntarily embroiled in partisan ramblings, and gladly enjoying esoteric rhetoric that renders the populace obtuse, and discredits the urgency and criticality of the social security debate. Consequently, our most intellectually dynamic citizens do not give this topic the socio-economic import it deserves.

The ensuing status quo threatens to turn a tractable conundrum into a veritable crisis – a “time bomb” into a “financial weapon of mass destruction” against America’s social fabric. Former and current Fed chairmen, fortunately, fathom the essence of the matter; thus, Alan Greenspan advocates a mix of measures to bring entitlement programs under control and ensure long-term economic prosperity, while Ben Bernanke warns that “Americans may have to accept higher taxes or changes in entitlements… to avoid staggering budget deficits.”

Several elements form the disquieting body of thoughts that justifies the hyperbolic, or apocalyptic, formulation used in this analysis.

First, the absence of a real, serious forum to gauge the merits of viewpoints engaged in the Social Security overhaul disputation. As noted earlier, this status quo seems to be furthered, at the very least, by consecutive administrations for the past three decades, because either the issue is thorny and politically unpalatable to constituents or elected officials deem it of lower priority. In sum, they dare not venture topics that may derail re-election prospects.

To fill the rhetorical void, snippets of partisan parlance are interjected here and there, mainly to polarize citizens and eschew a thorough debate. One such snippet is the notion that Social Security should be privatized and entrusted with professional portfolio managers because the government should let free-market decide and any form of public management of the behemoth fund is a type of communist intervention intolerable in capitalist America. In this article, the pros and cons of this argument cannot be evaluated with granularity but factual observations reveal the latter’s practical limits. It’s easy to wonder what financial devastation the country would have suffered had the Fund been invested in the stock market before the recent mini-crash. It’s also easy to observe how effective a manager the government can be by analyzing operational results at the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS), the Army Medical Department, Medicare, and Medicaid, all of which remain sound programs.

Second, the much needed overhaul of the IRS and the country’s tax collection scheme is taking longer to occur, and this delay, coupled to the ongoing government waste at the federal, state, and legislative levels, annihilates any serious endeavour to cut budget deficits.

Next, the systemic spectre of a vicious cycle looms. If the ratio of retirees to active workers grows excessively, there will be fewer contributions to pay pension benefits, and such a reduced purchasing power will yield lower private consumption. Companies will then be forced to cut their workforce if sales are lethargic, and the smaller remaining workforce will contribute even less to the Social Security Fund, and so forth.

Fourth, the Fed – as the lender of last resort – can lend to the U.S. Treasury should public finances deteriorate but it can’t sustainably keep printing money via its quantitative easing tactic lest the dollar tumble on defiance from capital markets and heightened inflation.

Fifth, the country’s incapacity to lower its trade deficits will likely not be solved in the near future because the American industrial complex is currently unable or disinclined to produce superior goods affordably, and opening up U.S. markets to foreign suppliers serve as geostrategic levers in international discussions.

In the end, entitlement specialists and those well-versed in the Social Security issue ask the following: why aren’t authorities implementing the Social Security Trust Fund’s proposal (2009 Report) to marginally raise the tax rate or the salary cap on payroll tax in order to fix the funding gap? For example, raising the payroll tax rate to 14.4% in 2009 (from 12.4%) or cutting benefits by 13.3% would fix the program’s gap indefinitely, while these amounts increase to ca.16% and 24% if no changes are made until 2037.

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Obamanomics vs. Reaganomics – Which Can Save the Economy?

April 2, 2010 70 comments

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By Marquis Codjia

President Reagan in the Oval Office delivering his Tax Reduction televised address in July 1981 (Photo courtesy of the Reagan Library, Official government record)

In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan asserted emphatically that “government is not a solution to our problem,” but rather, “government is the problem.” Nowadays, many specialists revisit the soundness of such avowal in light of the mammoth government-engineered bailouts that questionably helped safeguard the global economic fabric.

Those experts are not alone. The current White House chief denizen, who uttered openly during the 2008 presidential campaign his admiration for Reagan’s political persona – much to the ire of some diehard Democrats – , has so far spearheaded policies overmuch adversative to Reaganomics.

Many Americans remember President Reagan for his debonair, articulate and Hollywoodian public posture; yet, the former leader had developed a sophistication in economic analysis that served him throughout the recession that hallmarked his presidency.

Faced with a dysfunctional economy at the onset of his mandate, President Reagan ingrained his policies in supply-side economics, advocating a quartet of measures that revolutionized America’s social dynamics and reignited its growth machine.

First, he proposed vast tax cuts on labor and capital to incentivize corporations and entrepreneurs to invest and innovate, whereas citizens, freshly cash awash due to increased savings, were heartened to spend. Next, deregulation in targeted economic sectors aimed at eschewing unnecessary costs to investors. Third, he steered a package of major budget cuts approximating – from 1981 onwards – a 5% reduction in government expenses (circa $150 billion today). Fourth, Reagan sought to tighten monetary policy to combat inflation.

The late president’s plan delivered mixed results.

Inflation experienced a spectacular fourfold decrease from 1980 to 1983 (13.2% vs. 3.2%), federal receipts grew higher than outlays (at an average rate of 8.2% vs. 7.1%), and the 16 million new jobs created helped shrink unemployment by 3 points (to 7.5% from a 1982 peak of 10.8%). Other accolades from the Cato Institute, a libertarian think thank, include a real median family income rise of $4,000 and a higher productivity.

This said, Reaganomics and its no holds-barred canons structurally devastated parts of America’s socio-economic fabric: fiscal cuts coupled with a surge in Cold War military spending created a yawning abyss in the nation’s finances (e.g.: large budget deficits, trade deficit expansion). In addition, some culpability can be attributed to the Republican leader vis-à-vis the 1987 stock market crash and the Savings and Loans crisis, merely because, at a minimum, both pandemonia occurred under his watch. In order to cover budget shortages, the administration then embarked on a borrowing spree that catapulted the national debt to $3 trillion from $700 billion, part of which (circa $125 billion) subsidized an S&L industry crippled by the failure of 747 thrifts.

The portmanteau Obamanomics – used to depict economic policies espoused by current U.S. President Barack Obama – is a new concept, which understandably needs more time to develop before a studious analysis can be conducted on its merits.

Clearly, the current administration – also faced with a chaotic economy – has so far adopted, or is envisaging, policies diametrically opposed to Reagan’s precepts: higher taxes, increased regulation, more spending, and a loose monetary policy.

President Obama’s plan to save banks was the correct initiative for two reasons: decrepitude in capital markets would have metastasized into a more costly, general chaos, and the fact that banks are now relatively stable attests to the program’s effectiveness, notwithstanding the remaining work to be accomplished in the bank bailout’s scheme.

Even if the current economic recovery plan will take a while to reach its desired goals, preliminary results so far are altogether mixed: banks are loath to lend, the mortgage sector is still lethargic, the lackluster private consumption is hampering corporate investments and the global economic productivity. The economy is gradually adding thousands of jobs but the unemployment rate still stands at 9.7%.

So, which of Reaganomics or Obamanomics can save the economy today?

The answer is none.

No economy policy ingrained in political partisanship can save the economy; to be efficient, authorities must use a combination of ideologies, extirpating the best areas of each and amalgamating them into a coherent plan deep-rooted in sound economics.

First, the government must balance its budget by reining in bureaucratic waste at the federal and state levels, seeking higher efficiency in its social programs and maintaining a tax base able to provide sufficient inflows. The recent nomination of Jeffrey Zients as U.S. Chief Performance Officer is a welcome decision.

Second, the government and the legislative branch must agree to suppress or significantly reduce pork-barrel spending; even if some of the projects subsidized are valid, the lack of transparency and the fact that too much power lies in the hands of one lawmaker are troubling. Citizens Against Government Waste, a private, nonpartisan watchdog, estimated in its latest report that 2009 pork-barrel spending amounted to $19.6 billion, up from $17.2 billion the previous year.

Third, the government must invest in education, sciences, health, and recreation services to assure a productive labor force and educated populace. Every citizen appreciates a good local school system, an efficient police, and functional social services. Fourth, a gradual and well-balanced regulatory framework for critical sectors is needed to level the playing field for all economic agents and eschew the negative effects of systemic risks.

Finally, the tax code should be more efficient and easier to understand so more revenues are collected. Currently, it is estimated that it costs the IRS between 25 and 30 cents for every tax dollar collected, without counting the billions spent by citizens in tax compliance and planning. We have a simplified property tax code in our cities; why can’t we engineer a similar scheme at the federal level?

SPECIAL REPORT – The art of economic espionage: why China is crushing America’s global supremacy

February 5, 2010 44 comments

Cyber-security warfare is a growing field in today’s strategic planning apparatus where emerging military colossi utilize asymmetric conflict tools to thwart or cripple the ability of established leaders. This article explores china’s massive IT investment in light of its geopolitical standing with the US.

by Marquis Codjia

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Modern historiography specialists have long argued that an essential segment in the study of human evolution is inextricably tied to the basic understanding that societies generally emerge, progress and fall cyclically. Such frequency in social evolution is not just a consequence of endogenous factors, it also results from the impact of the external environment, be it close – neighboring constituencies vying for the same resources – or far – as part of a larger geographical area.

History teaches us another fundamental truth, predominantly unveiled in social sciences: humans are inherently prone to believing in the danger of the unknown, the fear that uncertainty – when present in life – brings an intolerable level of complexity in handling daily activities. Economists, in tandem with the larger group of social scientists, ascribe the word “risk” to this angst.

Risk lies in everyday life. From birth to death and in between the terrestrial episode called life, humans experience a sophisticated relationship with risk and utilize it as a powerful catalyst to furthering their interests. We fear the unknown not just in temporal terms – e.g.: what will tomorrow be? – but also in more practical, present-day terms, that is, what will happen today?

In assessing the rectitude of our daily decisions, the analysis of the environment we live in becomes of critical importance. There emerges then the need to know, understand and act on a variety of variables that make up our ecosystemic reality. Neighbors are a major part of that reality.

The indubitable observation that humans are ‘sociable animals’ implies a life in community, which in turns posits the sharing of interests, destinies and geography. We share our lives with neighbors, other humans whom we don’t fundamentally know and whom we believe are different from us. Neighbors, in continental philosophy, are the ‘constitutive other’ as opposed to ‘same’. Neighbors are different, and because of that, they must be hazardous to our very existence, hence “hell is other people” (Jean-Paul Sartre).

Consequently, our desire to know the ‘other’ and what they’re undertaking forces us to constantly be in a question mode: ergo, we resort to spying. Espionage is ingrained in basic human instincts from cradle to grave. First, we ape our relatives, then our acquaintances and later our neighbors. In that quest for knowledge, humans recklessly spy on each other in a bid for power. Once they determine with a reasonable degree of comfort the neighbor’s strengths, the overwhelming tendency is to match it, surpass it, annihilate it, keep it at a politically acceptable level, or use a combination of all these options if the socio-historical continuum of events demands it.

Doubtless, the need to control the military and economic standing of neighbors is the quintessential, albeit hidden, dogma of modern geopolitics. Doctrinal differences may abound, but a studious analysis of contemporary events demonstrates clearly that wars and other man-engineered crises have historically proven to be good ways to rebalance powers among neighbors, or more precisely, within geographical zones. Crises, facts have shown, drive innovation and quality of life.

Espionage is not a recent discipline within political science. It has been a staple of human history for the past 2,000 years and even before. Throughout history, nations have risen or fallen based on their ability to collect data from rivals and use that body of knowledge to gain a competitive edge. History also suggests that societies that show a disinclination for ‘outer research’ of their environment, and consequently, a significantly lower number of exogenous interactions – be it cordial or belligerent – with others have been weakened over time. The high frequency of wars between nations in the ‘Old Continent’ explains the relative superiority that Europe had over, say, Amerindians and Africans for the past few centuries, first in slavery and then colonization.

Espionage is rooted in modern life

After two atrocious global wars, countless medium-size conflicts and a dogmatic cold-war between capitalism and communism, political and military leaders seem to have finally gauged the idiocy of lethal conflicts with planetary implications. The notion of ‘détente’, that is, the easing of strained relations in the political phraseology, gives nations the imaginary assurance that they may all coexist pacifically and a major conflict is preventable once greater cooperation between societies subdues the inherent quest for power that causes hostilities.

Acquiescing that there exists a permanent détente within the current geopolitical landscape is an optical illusion because it goes counter the very human urge to monitor the neighbor in order to know him or dominate him, if not annihilate him. This can be very easily illustrated in instances where spies are caught in so-called ‘friendly’ territories. Take the example of Israel’s Mossad agents being arrested in the United States.

The nuts and bolts of modern state espionage lie in a sophisticated and complex apparatus that all nations, and peculiarly global superpowers, have invented to carry out data-collecting and monitoring activities in peace time. Embassies, with their massive bureaucracies, specialized technocrats and their diplomatic inviolability, are preeminent on that list. They are essential in monitoring the host country’s social dynamics and report to their respective governments. Simply put, an embassy is, de jure, a stranger turned neighbor.

Next are supranational organizations that populate the global political, social and economic sphere. Their local representations and periodically published studies may also serve an intelligence purpose. Finally, aid agencies and so-called ‘humanitarian’ organizations are critical in gauging so-called ‘underdeveloped’ nations’ economic ability and progress in their development. It is no coincidence that major countries in the developed sphere do not customarily accept ‘aid programs’ from their counterparts unless excruciating circumstances dictate that such refusal would be politically unacceptable.

Strategic studies and the modern economic literature are replete with topics referring to Japan’s, and to a lesser extent, Asian dragons’ ability to use economic espionage at the end of the Second World War to gain a competitive edge over erstwhile powers such as the United States and Great Britain. The necessity to monitor and direct the continent’s economic reconstruction, and the panic of a potential dominance by communist Russia, also led the United States to implement the Marshall Plan in Europe from 1948 through 1952.

Businesses thrive from spying more than the military

A noteworthy myth in today’s world is that espionage is principally the province of military strategists and national armies. Evidence from authoritative business intelligence magazines, leading governmental studies and a massive body of knowledge from academia have clearly explained the causal relationship between firm profitability and espionage. Differently stated, governments tend to always transfer intelligence data to their domestic industries, whether they are at war or at peace.

As a result, the military-industrial complex benefits considerably from intelligence and such prerogatives are then disseminated into other firms in the economic fabric. As an illustration, it would be fairly understandable that a firm like Boeing, which derives a substantial portion of its revenues from government’s contracts and sale of military aircrafts, is more attuned to certain developments in US intelligence gathering than a financial services giant like Citibank.

Nevertheless, businesses have also parlayed their gargantuan economic clout into a very successful data-collection enterprise. The plethora of tools available to business executives nowadays is strikingly sophisticated and effective. Even if it is not exhaustive, a good analysis of such tools must look at their source and their degree of macro-economic interconnectedness.

On one hand, external mechanisms allow at the macro-level business enterprises to gather information from competitors and control how such information can be utilized to thwart rivals, increase their own market primacy, or do both. When they share a community of interests vis-à-vis a new market or are in an oligopolistic situation, companies are routinely willing to join hands provided, of course, that the risk-payoff ratio of a single venture is not immensely superior to that of a joint venture. Tacit collusion, that is, the market situation where two firms agree to play a certain strategy without explicitly saying so, is a fine illustration of business intelligence sharing.

In practice, firms engage in economic espionage via economic sections of embassies, chambers of commerce, lobbying groups, industry groups, specific studies from consultants, and monies granted for academic research in particular fields of interest. Concomitantly, they guard against intelligence threats by massively supporting intellectual property laws.

On the other hand, a sophisticated internal approach allows companies to stay abreast of latest developments within their industry. First and foremost, they hire to their corporate boards or for senior positions, experienced former government officials and high-rank military leaders who had been privy to high-value strategic insights during their public tenure.

This is immensely beneficial to the hiring side because a former cabinet member, a congressman or a four-star general, can possess a breadth and depth of experience and knowledge of past, present and future topics that is considerably worth more than countless external consulting reports. Second, economic intelligence departments and government relations departments also fulfill data gathering roles through research, lobbying and interacting with industry groups.

Cyber-warfare, the new cold war

As the planet becomes technologically more intertwined, novel tools and modus operandi are being made available to governments and private interests to collect specific intelligence. These tools and procedures are an intricate combination of old and new procedures which simultaneously penetrate nations’ military, economic and social constructs to extirpate valuable bits of knowledge.

Defense experts are calling these emerging asymmetric conflict tools ‘cyber-warfare’. Due to the plethoric ramifications they present and the simultaneous dual tasks they may serve to fulfill (attack and defend) when engineered in certain ways, I label this group Modern Cyber-warfare Gear (“MOCYG”).

MOCYG, as it stands, involves the offensive use of various techniques to derail a nation’s infrastructure, perturb the military and financial systems of a country with the aim of crippling its defense responsiveness and the integrity of economic data, or accomplish other destructive aims based on the attacker’s incentives and strategy. Security specialists and military researchers have classified these techniques into 5 major groups: computer forensics, viral internet tactics, assault on computer networks or software, hacking and espionage.

The idiosyncratic power of cyber-crime lies in its ‘stateless’ nature, its capacity to be inexpensively controlled and deployed, and the vast damage it can exert. Given the judicial vacuum created by cyber-warfare techniques, nations are rushing to build up legislative safeguards to prosecute offenders even though criminologists argue such undertakings are largely inefficient at the moment.

A memorable cyber-criminal event occurred in Estonia in 2007 when more than 1 million computers, allegedly from Russian-based servers, were used to simultaneously cripple state, business and media websites in a modus operandi analogous to the “shock and awe” military tactic. That attack ended up costing Tallinn’s authorities tens of millions of US dollars.

China, a cyber-giant in progress

Upward socioeconomic trends in the People’s Republic of China are well known to international masses and covered profusely in western news media. So are Chinese authorities’ singular understanding of democracy and human rights as well their overt wish to play a bigger geopolitical role in world affairs. However, the quiet revolution China is experiencing lies within the astronomical investment country authorities are making in top notch universities so as to catapult China into the top league of technological giants, along with the United States and Japan. Given the size of such educational outlays, Chinese authorities must believe that a major competitive edge can be gained in the technology field and such advantage can be converted or transferred into other sectors of their mushrooming economy.

Top western sinologists and other think tanks are closely monitoring these academic developments because they understand the basic notion that future geopolitical dynamics will inextricably be tied to how successful Chinese will be at leveraging technology to boost their future ‘global penetration’.

The smart tactic is that, while future chief engineers are being trained at world-class institutions such as University of Science and Technology at Hefei, Harbin Institute of Technology, Beijing University and Tsinghua University, China is concurrently putting a veil of secrecy around its information systems and cyber-infrastructure. The country may be notorious today for its copyright infringement cases or intellectual property violations, but it is inconspicuously gearing up for tomorrow’s technological primacy that its expansionist aspirations may dictate.

China also investigates currently available ways and means to unearth state-of-the art synergy tools that can be leveraged between its major government departments and state agencies as it prepares to enter the ‘knowledge economy’. Authorities view this coordination effort as an indispensable step forward because it adds another layer of centralization to a government structure that is built around the canon of ‘consolidated power’.

More specifically, country leadership has summoned top minds in technology and auxiliary fields to synergistically engineer the future cyber-infrastructure that will solidly mark China’s imprint in the digital landscape. This task is colossal, and the vastness of it effects precludes obviously an analytical granularity. Several hundreds of thousands of Chinese computer engineers, regrouped under ad hoc commissions, think tanks and strategy centers are the backbone of this emerging ‘digital army’.

They work under the aegis of brilliant specialists whose unquestioned patriotism and in-depth expertise are unparalleled at such high seniority levels; this group includes Liang Guanglie, Wan Gang and Li Yizhong. The first is the current minister of defense, who works in conjunction with the People’s Liberation Army and the Central Military Commission to manage the largest military force in the world (ca. 3 million) and oversee its strategic evolvement.

The second is the head of the Ministry of Science Technology and is mechanical engineer and auto expert. The third is the Minister of Industry and Information Technology, a cabinet position pivotal for the country’s information systems development.

Anemic US IT investments

Equipped with this super cyber-security gear, China seems to be winning, or is in a significant position within, the ongoing global cyber-war. In a sense, the country is not an ‘emerging’ superpower as western analysts and social science specialists would like to call it. It is already a superpower in the fullest sense of the concept.

The term ‘emerging superpower’ is presently preferred in academic and business literature as well as in media parlance because it is more politically palatable to the elite and other classes of citizens in traditionally influential economies (G8) who fear the psychological and social implications of welcoming new colossi in the select club of the powerful.

Security experts and top military minds in the United States are truly concerned that the Chinese massive IT investment dwarfs America’s and do not hesitate to point to the geopolitical implications of such a chasm. They note that the countless cyber-attacks from China and Russia are just a start of the new cyber ‘Cold War’ of the 21st century.

It is a fact that many foreign-engineered digital attacks have targeted many industrialized countries’ military systems, power grids, and financial infrastructure in the past few years. Yet governments and military forces at present have limited capacity to detect or infiltrate the attacker, counter the attack, and prevent future assaults.

US defense officials and business leaders understand the looming threat but believe its intensity and gravity constitute a hyperbole. However, authoritative statistics from the Government Accountability Office, US Congress reports, and academic studies indicate evidently that the world leader has not shown hitherto the political willpower to tackle the digital gap in its cyber-security infrastructure.

Truth be told, politicians in Washington, Pentagon strategists, and the intelligence community at large have long known of and understood the nature of the menace. Notwithstanding, a series of geopolitical events forced them to transfer certain topics into budgetary oblivion at the credit of more pressing, more ‘visible’ national security threats that are effortlessly noticed by constituents (e.g.: terrorist attacks).

A few factors explain Washington’s inability, or budgetary lethargy, in addressing the cyber-warfare threat. First is the geostrategic complacency derived from the fall of communist Soviet Union and the ensuing inertia that global unipolarism usually creates.

Second, America’s military apparatus is currently ‘distracted’ by two ongoing wars and engaged in a host of relatively minor security missions around the world. Adding to those involvements, there is the corollary ‘war on terror’ that has mobilized since 2001 colossal resources to thwart further domestic attacks.

‘Domestic’ in this sense refers to an incredibly enormous geographical area because it encompasses US conventional soil and the related territories, American overseas diplomatic missions, its military bases, transnational organizations where the US holds significant strategic interests (e.g.: NATO headquarters and military stations), and the countless aid, religious, and humanitarian outposts around the world.

Third, the diversity and criticality of issues at hand force the US government and congressional leaders to prioritize their budgetary efforts. The current economic despondency bodes ill for any serious endeavor in tackling underinvestment issues in information technology because the country is pecuniarily limited and cannot afford to continuously print money (risk of inflation and currency devaluation) or borrow from… China.

US budding cyber-security grid is solid

Despite the socio-economic gloom, the Obama administration has shown in the past 6 months a strong level of commitment in assuring the integrity of the nation’s information assets. He appointed late December Howard Schmidt, a renowned computer security specialist and former Microsoft security executive, as White House cyber-security czar. Other high-profile nominations have followed in the army ranks and other key departments and government agencies such as Homeland Security, Treasury, the FBI and the CIA.

The efforts appear to be coordinated and effectively reaching their desired goals, from the Pentagon’s launching of a giant “cyber-command” unit to the CIA’s and FBI’s massive ‘hiring spree’ of computer engineers and cyber-security specialists. International cooperation with other allies is also part of the undertaking; US intelligence agencies are thus partnering with foreign counterparts such as Britain’ MI5 and MI6, Israel’s Mossad, Germany’s Bundesnachrichtendienst (Federal Intelligence Service, BND) and Militärischer Abschirmdienst (Military Counterintelligence Agency, MAD) to address emerging threats.

Private interests are equally gearing up. Businesses are investing massively in IT infrastructure and upgrading computer networks, and working jointly with government agencies. They are also granting rising subsidies to think tanks and academia to help in this effort.

The combination of efforts has to be successful because an absence of effectiveness in cyber-warfare measures can be ‘lethal’ to US global supremacy. Judging by the great havoc cyber attacks had catapulted onto Estonia in 2007, hyperbola ought not to be barred in this topic.

Based on the latest estimations, US nominal GDP is nearly 3 times that of China ($14.5 trillion vs. $4.5 trillion), but the latter’s healthier growth rate is helping bridge that gap gradually. Thus, many forecasters – and the proverbial ‘conventional wisdom’ – assume that it will take Beijing many decades to attain America’s economic clout and level.

That said, in the hypothetical scenario that a cyber-warfare erupts between both countries, a stronger China may only need to considerably crush US economic productivity and therefore its GDP to claim victory and financially surpass its rival. Absent effective security systems, China, or any other foe, may only need to assault vital arteries of the US military-industrial complex: power grids, financial transaction systems, Federal Reserve System, US Armed Forces’ computer systems and networks, Congress’ and White House’s IT infrastructures, etc. It’s easy to imagine the massive damage electricity failure can do to a country’s transportation, financial, and military systems.

Is Greece still viable for the Eurozone?

February 2, 2010 3 comments

What’s next for Greece?

Faced with record debt levels and a dwindling economy, Greece is gradually becoming a financial pariah in the European monetary zone. For the past few weeks, capital markets have not seemed convinced one bit about the feasibility of the mix of measures taken by country leaders.

What’s even more flabbergasting is that many Euro countries are not willing to lend a helping hand to their counterpart even though many economists posit that, absent an external macro-intervention, Greece will unquestionably fail and such a collapse will be followed by a dire domino-effect on other peripheral economies such as Italy, Spain and Portugal.

Greek authorities don’t have a panoply of good options but the sad truth is that they seem to be losing the PR game to market ‘ill-wishers’, that is, short sellers! Short sellers are traders who bet that the price of a security will fall and thus sell it when such price is still high.

European markets haven’t so far responded well to Athens’ actions and believe Prime Minister George Papandreou needs to act more boldly in tandem with ECB and other Eurozone leaders to assuage concerns of a default. The quintessential fear of European Union founders – the nightmarish scenario where a few countries sabotage growth within the rest of the Union – is alas taking shape.

What options Athens really have? They need to manage their record debt levels by assuaging market scare and putting the country’s economy under control. That means fiscal tightening, which in turn will spark social unrest amidst an already recession-saddled economy.

A bailout from the ECB would also damage Greece’s reputation within the union and also vis a vis financial markets. Ditto for some “structural loans” from other more solid economies like Germany or France. What about exiting altogether the Eurozone and go back to the ‘good ole’ drachmas. Unthinkable!