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Tesla Cars, Technology, the Market Economy, and the Environment

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Everywhere we remain un-free and chained to technology, whether we passionately affirm or deny it. But we are delivered over to it in the worst possible way when we regard it as something neutral, for this conception of it, to which today we particularly like to do homage, makes us utterly blind to the essence of technology.
                                    –Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology”

Technology is never neutral, neither does it guarantee a good government either on a purely utilitarian or on an ethical basis…it is conceivable that technocracy could threaten democracy. The global crises of the economic markets demonstrate how right was Croce in not reducing liberalism to a mere economic system founded, in theory, on competition.
                                  –Ernesto Paolozzi, Interview with Mario Scarpa

 

The two quotes above by Martin Heidegger and Ernesto Paolozzi provide us with the essence of the problem that Western Civilization faces vis à vis technology. How are we to conceive of technology? If one conceive it as integral part of science, then the Positivists are on the right track in their assertion that science is the last cycle of a developing progressive civilization, superseding,  and rendering obsolete, the first cycle constituted by myth and religion, the second cycle constituted by reason and metaphysics, and ushering in the third, final and superior and triumphant scientific empirical method as conceived by Francis Bacon. Ever-perfectible science is the culmination of progress as the 18th century, the age of reason, would proclaim via reason and rationality. This explains why the third cycle is superior: it eliminates subjectivity and bias and arrives at the truth via a fail-safe method. The fruits of science, after all, are there for everybody to see. Via science we can now go to the moon and back. Nowhere are those fruits more apparent than in the technological innovations which currently keep on multiplying almost exponentially. It is technology which will save us by a few push button solutions, not religion, not philosophy, proclaim the starry eyed modern positivists.

 

Take the automobile which at first resembled carriages without a horse, almost as a throw back to the 19th century, but eventually became a symbol of inevitable progress for the 20th century, just as the train was the symbol of progress for the 19th century. Is now automotive industry becoming a part of a problem, not of a progress in 21st century? The youngest automotive company in the US and Western Europe is 90 years old. Do we here talk about conservative clubs? Rigidity in the dynamic environment of otherwise very promising 21st century?!

 

The automobile, as well as the train, proved to be problematic for the environment; coal and oil are not clean and environmental friendly. But that too seems to have been solved via the electric train and the electric car. Tesla Motors now produces battery cars that run just as fast, as far and as efficiently as internal combustion cars, are aesthetically pleasing and, most importantly, are pollution free. Who could ask for anything more? Indeed progress is inevitable and unstoppable. When the train arrives in the American prairie, not only the buffalo is to be exterminated to make room for progress and the future, but native American tribes, stuck in the first cycle of development, need to move over also. Those who refuse to enthusiastically welcome the religion of progress, are simply relegated to reservations, or worse, exterminated like the buffalo. So it turns out that despite its claims, technology is not so neutral and value free as the Positivists have claimed; it always implies a choice to use well or to use it for ignoble ends. As Paolozzi well puts it in the above quote: “Technology is never neutral, neither does it guarantee a good government either on a purely utilitarian or on an ethical basis… “

 

The 2012 Olympics opened with an image of a roaring train coming down the tracks. Somebody said in the 19th century that the greatness of England resided in its abundance of coal which allowed the industrial revolution and the building of the English Empire over which the sun never set; to which the poet Matthew Arnold replied that the true greatness of England was Shakespeare. Thus began the war of the two cultures: the scientific positivistic culture vs. the culture of the liberal arts, still ongoing in the 20th century with C.P. Snow’s The Two Cultures, a dichotomy that would have been inconceivable to a Leonardo, who was both a great scientist and a great artist.

 

Heidegger begins his Being and Time with the question Why is there something rather than nothing?; a question that any positivist would deride, if for no other reason that he cannot answer it via science nor does he care to answer it. He’d rather look at the cosmos than ask why the unexamined life is not worth living. And yet, neither Heidegger, nor Paolozzi, nor Vico whose masterpiece is titled The New Science, are anti-science luddites. Rather what they are saying is that knowledge and science are never neutral; there is always an interpretation and intentionality; they can be use for good or for evil. What made possible the horror of the Holocaust were people with much knowledge (9 of the 12 Nazis who planned the logistics of the event had Ph.D.s after their names) which was used for evil, so that the train would run on time and the ovens and the extermination chambers would function efficiently. Jacques Ellul’s The Technological Society is illuminating in this respect.  Heidegger, on the other hand, paradoxically joined the Nazi party and even worked for it for a short while. So, given that technology is never neutral unless it is in the hands of unthinking automatons, or zombies without a consciousness, the question persists: how shall we use technology in the 21st century? Tesla and its sleek electric motors is a solution of sort, but it is a scientific solution which does not solve the human problem; that problem is encapsulate in these questions: how do we live meaningful purposeful lives and assure our survival and salvation?

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.

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Economy

Summit of Business within Portuguese-Speaking Countries

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President of Equatorial Guinea, Teodoro Obiang.

Long before the Portuguese-speaking countries wrapped up their first business summit in Simpopo, Equatorial Guinea that gathered approximately 250 government officials and corporate business leaders from Guinea Bissau, Cabo Verde and Sao Tome and Principe, Portugal, Brazil and Mozambique, it was described as a step directed at bringing sustained business development.

Some argued that the gathering historically provided the chance for immense business networking opportunities and building strategies. It additionally offers an important impetus for strengthening future corporate business collaboration among the countries.

According to the organisers, the primary goal was to explore ways to attract investments to the countries in bloc, as well as strengthening economic ties between member states and improving the business environment.

Opening the two-day summit, promoted by the Confederation of Businesspeople of the Community of Portuguese-language Countries (CPLP), President of Equatorial Guinea Teodoro Obiang, said frequent militant attacks in Cabo Delgado, in northern Mozambique, should be of concern to the Community of Portuguese Speaking Countries (CPLP).

“The Republic of Mozambique is the scene of aggressions perpetrated, planned and financed from outside its borders, claiming human lives, displacing populations, destroying personal and public property, and sowing terror in the north of the country,” he said.

Obiang believes that the CPLP “should not remain oblivious to this tragedy, which goes beyond the dimensions of a simple internal conflict. It is an aggression”.

He characterised it as an opportunity to identify the challenges the bloc faces and seek ways to facilitate trade between CPLP countries as well as attracting more investment. “Our wish is that the business community takes this opportunity to form a common front when it comes to facing the challenges that affect its activity. It should also make the most of its respective advantages to participate actively in promoting economic cooperation among the CPLP countries, always having as priority the member countries of our community,” the Equatorial Guinea president said.

President of Cape Verde, Jorge Carlos Fonseca, who participated in the summit virtually, advocated for the creation of customs facilities for CPLP countries within the bloc. “There is an urgent need to create joint solutions for the reciprocal protection of investments, reducing, or even eliminating, where possible, double taxation, and facilitating the circulation of public documents within our community without excessive authentication and notarisation burdens,” he urged.

President of Sao Tome and Principe, Evaristo Carvalho, spoke of the need for investments in the CPLP countries to be sustainable, especially in Equatorial Guinea, which was experiencing a boom in mineral resources. “Our appeal is to look at the country with confidence, stripped of a culture of short-termism. With thought for the country’s development, let’s seek sustainable solutions and invest in the medium and long term, he advised.

While various issues were discussed during the two days, there was particular interest in mineral exploitation, oil and gas development within the bloc. The panel session spent time analyzing widely the various dimensions and aspects of the sector.

Equatorial Guinea’s Minister of Mines and Hydrocarbons has called for a common project of the Portuguese-language countries for gas exploration, stressing the need for a longer energy transition in some African countries. “Hydrocarbon producing countries such as Equatorial Guinea, Angola, Mozambique or Brazil and Portugal, as a major consumer, it is very important that we can work on a coordinated project at the CPLP level to be able to exploit the gas for use in our economies,” Gabriel Obiang Lima said.

“It will be increasingly difficult to get funding to develop our [oil] products because worldwide there is a great motivation to carry out the energy transition from hydrocarbons to renewable energy,” he noted.

Despite this, he said, in countries such as Equatorial Guinea and others in Africa, this transition will have to take at least another 20 years. “Only then will we be at the level of developed countries,” he said.

The Equatorial Guinean Minister was speaking at a panel with government officials from Guinea Bissau, Cabo Verde and Sao Tome and Principe, as well as representatives from Portugal, Brazil and Mozambique on the role of governments in attracting foreign investment.

Speaking at the panel session, Luís Moreira Testa from the Portugal’s Socialist Party in Parliament, explained that in the new advent of renewable energy, Portugal has the potential to move from energy consumer to producer. “Hydrocarbons will serve in the coming decades as transition fuels. Portugal is a major consumer of natural gas, mainly from Algeria, and the new generation of natural gas consumption in Europe foresees the mandatory inclusion of green hydrogen,” he said.

According Luis Testa, the pipelines that bring gas from Algeria may soon take the gas produced in Equatorial Guinea or Mozambique cut with green hydrogen produced in Portugal. “This could be a great opportunity for energy communion in the CPLP,” he said.

Cabo Verde’s Minister of Trade, Industry and Energy, Alexandre Dias Monteiro, considered mobility within the Portuguese-speaking community as a critical factor for creating a favourable framework for business and foreign investment. “Mobility is a critical factor for contacts and exchanges between companies and businesspeople,” he said, stressing the progress made in this area in recent years, which should make it possible to sign a mobility agreement at the next summit of heads of state and government, in July in Luanda.

Guinea-Bissau’s Economy Minister, Victor Mandinga, advocated the creation of an investment promotion agency at the community level to link up with agencies in each of the countries. “This mechanism is essential to make legislation on investment more homogenous and the distribution of investment opportunities between countries more harmonised,” he said, adding that businesspeople lacked transversal information about the CPLP as a whole.

Sao Tome’s Foreign Minister, Edite Ten Jua, noted the importance of creating a climate of trust for attracting investment, particularly in terms of legal protection and tax justice, as well as simplifying administrative procedures, along with the existence of infrastructure and means of transport and communications.

President of the Community of Portuguese Speaking Countries Business Confederation Salimo Abdula, speaking during the opening, urged the governments of member countries to speed up the process of creating the CPLP Community Development Bank to facilitate financing for bloc projects.

“The bank will be a tool which will support projects of small, medium or large size, thus overcoming the difficulty of access to financing, which often has a high cost in CPLP countries, making projects unfeasible,” Abdula argued.

Abdula further proposed the creation of a CPLP arbitration court, because, despite being united by the same language and economic interests, conflicts between stakeholders from different member states could arise.

“This court would make it easier to settle disputes between businesspeople in the community. At this moment, this project (the CPLP Arbitration Court) is at a very advanced stage. A team was formed that is working hard on the subject and has already produced several document proposals and prepared a questionnaire aimed at defining an ideal model for the construction of such an arbitration court,” Abdula told the gathering.

The opening of the summit coincided with World Portuguese Language Day. According to Rádio Moçambique, there is an estimated 300 million speakers spread across four continents. The first CPLP Business Confederation business summit held under the motto, “Together We Are Stronger and Move the World Forward” in Simpopo, Equatorial Guinea.

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Economy

Can Sukuk Match the Growth Trajectory of Green Bonds?

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As the socially responsible investing movement in fixed income began to take off a decade ago, a great deal of ink was spilled on the similarity of green bonds and Sukuk. Both products are explicitly ethical and appeal to investors’ social consciences over and above their desire for financial returns. The thesis at the time was that an ever-increasing number of investors would seek out these types of ethical investments, leading to a steep upward trajectory in demand for both green bonds and Sukuk. MICHAEL BENNETT writes.

***

To a certain extent, that thesis has played out. Between 2010 and 2020, the annual issuance of green bonds increased from less than US$5 billion to more than US$270 billion. They have successfully transitioned from being a highly niche product to one that has a role in the portfolios of major institutional investors across the globe. Green bonds became the product that mainstreamed socially responsible investing on the fixed income side of the capital markets.

Sukuk have also increased during that time-period, going from US$53 billion of annual issuance in 2010 to US$140 billion in 2020. While a 164% increase in annual issuance volume is impressive, it clearly lags the 5,300% growth for green bonds. This divergence in the growth trajectory of the two products can also be observed in Chart 1 that looks at annual issuance volumes between 2014 and 2020:

In absolute terms, it should come as no surprise that Sukuk volumes now trail green bonds, as there is a much larger market globally for conventional instruments than for Shariah compliant ones.

Even the most passionate supporters of Islamic finance accept that the potential market for Islamic products is only a fraction of that of their conventional comparators. However, that does not explain why, in percentage growth terms, Sukuk have fallen so far behind green bonds. Why has one product exploded while the other has made only a steady climb?

Many explanations have been offered for why Sukuk have not grown at a faster pace in recent years. These usually focus on global economic hurdles that have impacted the market (eg oil price declines, COVID-19-related slowdowns).

However, many of these same issues have impacted, to one degree or another, the conventional markets as well. In addition, some economic hurdles could reasonably be expected to increase issuance volumes (eg a decrease in oil prices could cause an oil-exporting sovereign to have greater need to tap the capital markets).

Therefore, these explanations seem insufficient to fully explain how green bonds have grown at such a faster clip than Sukuk.

I believe the reason for the difference may stem in part from the fact that the Sukuk market has simply not responded sufficiently to the socially responsible investing movement. As the remarkable growth of the green bond market proves, predictions a decade ago that socially responsible, fixed income investing was about to take off were correct.

In other words, the socially responsible investing wave did indeed come. The problem for Sukuk is the product has not found the best way to ride that wave.

Sukuk are ethical instruments. They cannot be used to finance impermissible activities like gambling, tobacco and weapons manufacturing. Also, they are structured to avoid high degrees of leverage and speculation, and therefore promote a sounder financial system.

Many investors who are motivated by ethics and feelings of social responsibility should be quite happy to add Sukuk to their portfolios, regardless of whether they are adherents of Islam.

A conventional bond has none of these built-in restrictions. Therefore, to make a conventional bond an ‘ethical investment’, additional steps must be taken, for example adding covenants to limit the potential uses of the financing. This building-in of these additional prohibitions is the genesis of green bonds and other labeled sustainable development bonds. In essence, these bonds adopt the types of restrictions on the use of proceeds that already to a certain degree exist for Sukuk.

However, the Sukuk market has not sold the standard Sukuk product as ethical. Rather, it has treated Sukuk as equivalent to a conventional bond (no better or worse from an ethical perspective), and therefore sought to develop green and socially responsible labels for certain types of Sukuk that mimic the labeling that is required to make a conventional bond ethical.

I believe such labeling of certain Sukuk can have the unfortunate impact of obscuring the ethical nature of the basic Sukuk product and, at the extreme, possibly throwing the social responsibility of most Sukuk into doubt.

In other words, if certain Sukuk are labeled ‘socially responsible Sukuk’, what does that imply about all the Sukuk that do not carry that label?

While I certainly would not advocate against green and other types of labeled Sukuk, I think the Sukuk market needs to spend more time and effort to be clear that such labeled Sukuk are simply a special use of proceeds instruments within a broader universe (ie all Sukuk) that is already ethical in nature.

Such an approach would mirror the one the World Bank takes in the conventional market. The World Bank issues green and other labeled bonds from time to time, but the priority always is to stress the ethical nature of all the issuances.

By focusing on the ethical quality of the Sukuk product itself, I believe Sukuk can best benefit from the ethical investing movement, and take its place, aside green bonds, as an ethical investing success story.

World Bank

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Economy

US Sanctions Against Russian Sovereign Debt: Possible Alternatives

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The US and the EU have imposed new sanctions against Russia because of the so-called “Navalny case”. The European Union has activated the human rights sanctions mechanism approved by the EU Council in December 2020. On March 2, the EU added four Russian security officials to its sanctions list. The sanctions include a ban on entry to the EU, an assets freeze in the EU and a ban on economic transactions with persons involved in the lists. However, such officials are unlikely to have assets in the EU. Even if they exist, such assets are not significant for the Russian economy. The sanctions were introduced as a reaction to the arrest and then imprisonment of Alexei Navalny, while restrictions on the topic of the alleged poisoning were introduced back in October 2020. At the time, six high-ranking Russian officials and the Research Institute of Organic Chemistry and Technologies were subject to the restrictions. Such sanctions have zero impact on the Russian economy.

Unlike the EU, the US has refrained from imposing sanctions following the alleged poisoning of the politician last year. However, on March 2, they were introduced, both in connection with the poisoning and in connection with his subsequent arrest. That is, the topics of the use of weapons of mass destruction and human rights violations were combined. The blocking sanctions targeted seven Russian officials who were already affected by EU sanctions, as well as three research institutes. Trade sanctions were imposed against 14 companies. US government agencies have been prohibited from lending to Russia and a ban was introduced on the supply of weapons and on the provision of US financial assistance. These measures have no impact on the economy. These companies are not the backbone of the economy, Russia does not need US help, it does not buy weapons from the United States, and it does not take loans from US government agencies.

However, the new US sanctions are still fraught with uncertainty. The key question is whether the United States is imposing restrictions on Russian sovereign debt obligations. Such a measure could cause more serious damage and have an impact on the world markets.

The prospect of sanctions against Russian government bonds is related to the specifics of the Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination Act of 1991. Properly it is used as a legal basis for the imposition of sanctions in the event that a country uses chemical weapons (in the US and the EU, it is assumed that Navalny was poisoned with a substance from the Novichok group). The CBW Law envisages the imposition of sanctions in two stages. On March 2, 2021, the first stage was implemented (a ban on aid, military supplies and loans from government agencies). If, within three months after the first stage, the President does not provide Congress with evidence that the target country has not abandoned the use of CBW and has not given reliable guarantees of their non-use in the future, then the second stage of sanctions will be introduced. It is important to note here that guarantees of non-use should be determined by UN inspections or those provided by another international organisation. Obviously, Russia will not give such guarantees and will not allow any inspections. Moreover, according to the statements of the Russian authorities, Russian chemical weapons were destroyed long ago. In other words, the second round of sanctions is inevitable. The CBW Law obliges the US President to impose at least three of the six types of sanctions. The most unpleasant of these is the ban on American banks from lending to the Russian government.

There has already been a precedent for using CBW against Russia. The sanctions were imposed in connection with the Skripals case. In 2018, the first stage was carried out, and in 2019 — the second. It was secured by Donald Trump’s executive order No. 13883. The decree reflected two types of sanctions — a ban on lending to the Russian government and blocking aid through the IMF. Then trade restrictions were added. If the last two measures were symbolic, then the ban on lending potentially had more serious consequences. However, this measure was applied in an extremely limited manner. The ban applied only to Russian government bonds denominated in foreign currencies, while most of them are denominated in rubles. The sanctions also did not affect the debt of Russian state-owned companies.

In general, the issue of sanctions against Russia’s sovereign debt has been raised many times on other occasions. In 2017, within the framework of Art. 242 of PL 115-44 CAATSA, Congress ordered the US Treasury to give an opinion on the appropriateness of such sanctions. Officials noted in their report that such sanctions would hurt Russia, but were also fraught with market fluctuations and costs for American investors. Such sanctions have repeatedly been proposed in sanction bills, including the most famous ones — DASKA and DETER. However, they have never been passed into law. In 2019, the State Department criticised DASKA.

The forthcoming second round of sanctions over the Navalny case will again raise the issue of restrictions on Russian sovereign debt. Two alternatives are possible. The first is the preservation of the existing restrictions already adopted by Trump in 2019, or their cosmetic expansion. The second is a more radical tightening, including bonds denominated in rubles. The second alternative cannot be ruled out, especially if there is another escalation in the Navalny case. If the status quo is maintained, the first option is most likely.

From our partner RIAC

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