Excerpts from recent editorials in the United States and abroad:
The Washington Post on microchips, the U.S. and the future
When President Biden visits a microchip factory under construction in Arizona, it might look like a political victory lap: The factory will bring $12 billion and thousands of jobs to an important swing state that just elected a Democratic governor and senator. But the chips the factory will manufacture carry far more significance than being a partisan maneuver. They are essential to U.S. security.
Silicon chips, or semiconductors, the tiny integrated circuits that power electronic devices, are the reason we can send texts or turn on the television. They are the means by which pilots can fly aircraft safely and militaries can monitor missiles on radar. The potency of every chip depends on the number of transistors squeezed onto its surface, and because that number is growing exponentially, so too is what the chips can accomplish. The inventions that emerge, especially in artificial intelligence and supercomputing, will determine not only who will lead the global economy but also who will win wars. The future, in short, depends on chips.
The problem is that, right now, the United States can’t depend on a steady supply of chips, even though the design and software are mostly developed here. After half a century of global outsourcing, the manufacturing process has been dispersed, with each step along the way becoming highly concentrated in a few countries. The silicon wafers that carry the transistors are mainly made in Japan. The lithography tools that pattern chips are mainly made in Japan and the Netherlands. Processor chips themselves are fabricated largely in Taiwan, notably by the company TSMC (which is building the factory in Arizona). The chips are then tested and packaged into devices, primarily in China.
The dangers of such a system are obvious: Taiwan plays an important role in the production of all types of chips, but it produces a whopping 90% of the most advanced semiconductor chips — the ones essential to innovation. In the industry, these are called “leading edge.” This puts the United States in a tenuous position. If China were to invade Taiwan, which it claims is an “inalienable part” of its territory, the United States could lose access to the bulk of the tiny components that make our country run. We got a taste of that when the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted supply chains and, suddenly, it took half a year for a new refrigerator to arrive. An invasion of Taiwan would mean a repeat — but on a catastrophic scale and with control in the hands of an adversary. The Pentagon, let’s not forget, deems China the top threat to U.S. security.
The Chips and Science Act passed by Congress this summer is supposed to help address the problem by funneling more than $50 billion in subsidies to onshore manufacturing as well as bolstering research and development. Whether it will work depends on implementation. The key will be directing the subsidies not just toward the fabrication of chips but to testing and packaging, too; otherwise the United States would remain reliant on China. Another challenge will be ensuring that research and development money produces results beyond shiny new buildings at universities. Innovative technologies must move — as the jargon puts it — from the lab to the fab(rication). Oversight of how the money is spent is crucial.
In a parallel move, in October, the Commerce Department banned the export of leading-edge chips used in military applications as well as advanced chipmaking tools. The export controls also forbid “U.S. persons” from servicing advanced chipmaking facilities in China. Taken together, these steps could suffocate China all along the supply chain. Even foreign companies are barred from selling their leading-edge chips to China without a U.S. government license if they want to continue using American technology — which almost every semiconductor firm does.
The aim is not only to make it harder for China to buy chips but also to make it harder for China to build chips — thereby stymying both its work in AI today and its hopes of harboring an entirely domestic microchip industry tomorrow. Xi Jinping’s regime has already invested heavily in this effort.
If China did achieve supremacy in advanced chip manufacturing, military and economic supremacy could easily follow. That kind of power, wielded by a regime defined by its dystopian surveillance systems and the violent repression of a cultural minority, is a frightening specter. But we’re far from that reality. China spends as much money importing chips as it does oil. China may be able to outcompete the United States when it comes to building the most ships or the most drones — but this country can probably beat it in building the best systems to control them. That’s the edge we must maintain.
Some argue that the White House’s aggressive actions risk what could have been a permanent U.S. economic advantage by forcing China to develop its own chipmaking capabilities that may eventually surpass our own. But China was already building its domestic industry. The export controls are intended to put China so far behind that catching up will prove difficult. However, that depends on the measures actually being effective.
One challenge is enforcement. The Commerce Department’s plate is overflowing. Congress should not underfund it. Another challenge is bringing allies on board. At the moment, the United States is so integral to the semiconductor supply chain that pretty much no country or company can produce leading-edge chips without its involvement. But the controls could create pressure for companies in Japan and Europe to manufacture the kind of tools that are restricted and provide them to China themselves, rather than accept the loss of a valuable customer. Diplomacy matters here.
The good news is this: In the public mind, software has long been the big story — why has the Chinese company TikTok so consumed members of Generation Z? How should Facebook and Twitter treat posts from former president Donald Trump? There has been far too little focus on the hardware without which none of these platforms could exist at all. Now, as the beginnings of comprehensive semiconductor strategy come into view, it looks like that’s finally changing.
The Wall Street Journal on Biden nixing a railroad strike
A looming national rail strike was narrowly averted, after the Senate voted 80-15 to impose a bargaining agreement on intransigent unions. Brokered by the Biden administration, the deal includes an extra paid day off, along with a 24% pay raise through 2024. Eight of the 12 rail unions ratified it, but four voted it down.
After President Biden called on Congress to impose the agreement, the House voted to do so. But progressives also insisted on passing a second measure to rewrite the deal and add seven paid sick days. That failed in the Senate, 52-43.
Six Republicans voted yes, including Sen. Marco Rubio, who was elected as a free-market Tea Partier, but who long ago replaced his tricorn hat with a red Trump cap. Three of the six — Rubio, Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley — have designs on the White House. After Cruz voted yes, Bernie Sanders quipped: “I always knew you were a socialist.”
Some estimates say a rail strike could have cost the economy up to $2 billion a day. Based on an economic study, Biden said 765,000 people might have been thrown out of work within two weeks. He also warned that Americans “could lose access to chemicals necessary to ensure clean drinking water.”
Congress simply can’t allow one-third of the unions in one industry to hold hostage the economy and public safety. The Senate also rejected, 25-70, a proposal by Sen. Dan Sullivan to delay a strike for 60 days so the parties could keep negotiating. But at this point the rail talks have already gone on for three years. How would another two months have improved on the deal brokered by the Presidential Emergency Board? The priority was to keep the trains running.
Give credit to Biden for going against political type. He promised to be “the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen,” and his wife belongs to a teachers union, the National Education Association, that does lifetime harm to millions of American students.
Railroad employees who wanted more will no doubt shout that they have been betrayed. But they had ample opportunity to exercise their right to collectively bargain, and the deal offers the generous raise, plus a freeze on healthcare co-pays and deductibles. Name another industry where the latter is true.
Biden had a choice: Side with the special interests of four recalcitrant rail unions, or do what’s best for millions of American workers and consumers in the broader economy.
He chose right. This isn’t a prediction, but if Biden wants it to be, this could be the start of his long-delayed turn toward the center. Why defend the Jones Act, which is protectionism for waterborne shipping at the expense of the climate and many industries? Why side with steel companies that want endless tariffs, when more jobs depend on using steel? Why side with K-12 teachers unions, instead of families that want a better education in charter schools?
OK, that won’t happen, but we can still dream, can’t we?
The consequences of a railroad strike were damaging enough to break through ideology, but if Biden wants to help his sagging approval rating, the same principle applies elsewhere.
The Los Angeles Times on the GOP and the Constitution
House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy said that if he becomes the next speaker, members of the House of Representatives will take turns reciting the Constitution in its entirety on Jan. 3, the first day of the new session. It’s a stunt apparently calculated to promote GOP members as the true constitutional guardians, as they replace Democrats as House leaders.
Republican speakers began conducting similar readings in 2011 and repeated them every year after their party won a House majority. Members generally jockey for position, vying to read the 2nd Amendment as a signal to their conservative constituents of their right-to-bear-arms credentials or the 10th Amendment to underscore their belief in limited government.
Who will get to recite Article II, Section 1, Clause 8 this time? We’d like to suggest that it be McCarthy himself.
That clause includes the presidential oath of office: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
It’s one of the places in which the Constitution directly centers itself as the bedrock of the nation’s laws and the ultimate limit on official abuse of power. Every president has taken the oath, including Donald Trump, who is running again and would presumably take the oath again should he win the election — or otherwise take the office.
That’s noteworthy because of Trump’s dangerous (and yet, somehow, unsurprising) statement on Saturday that the Constitution should be “terminated” for getting in the way of his quest to retain or regain the White House.
It’s tempting to say that Trump finally revealed his contempt for one of the two central documents of the American experiment — the other being the Declaration of Independence, which warns tyrants that their unlawful overreaches will not be tolerated.
But that’s not quite right. Trump’s contempt for the Constitution and all institutions of American law and democracy has been on display for years and was especially clear in his statements and actions on Jan. 6, 2021.
For anyone who didn’t quite get the message — McCarthy, for example — Trump recently sat down to dinner at his Mar-a-Lago estate with white supremacist Nick Fuentes, a critic of democracy.
If at that point there still were Republican supplicants who wouldn’t criticize their former president, he has finally played, if you will pardon the expression, his Trump card.
Characteristically, it came in the form of a tweet-sized post on his Truth Social site:
“So, with the revelation of MASSIVE & WIDESPREAD FRAUD & DECEPTION in working closely with Big Tech Companies, the DNC, & the Democrat Party, do you throw the Presidential Election Results of 2020 OUT and declare the RIGHTFUL WINNER, or do you have a NEW ELECTION? A Massive Fraud of this type and magnitude allows for the termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution. Our great “Founders” did not want, and would not condone, False & Fraudulent Elections!”
There it is: termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution, which he swore, so help him God, to protect and defend.
The supposed massive fraud was an apparent decision by Twitter to block circulation of a widely reported New York Post item about Hunter Biden’s laptop, three weeks before the 2020 presidential election. For the record, nothing in the recent “revelations” about the private company’s decision regarding the item implicate his father, Joe Biden, who was not yet president, in any wrongdoing. Still, for Trump it amounts to fraud and deception so terrible as to warrant throwing out the Constitution and declaring him president.
The obvious move for any Republican official at this point is to unequivocally break with Trump, who is still the presumptive party leader.
But few said a word against him, including McCarthy, who has tried to ride Trump’s coattails into power and is on the verge of finally becoming speaker. He sets the tone for a House roster that includes people who are — hard to believe — even riskier guardians of the Constitution, such as Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia. And his leadership is being challenged by five members who are even further to the right.
McCarthy may think that he must keep quiet to secure his speakership, but doing so ties his party tightly to Trump’s outrageous and blatantly un-American statement. It could only help the GOP, and certainly the country, if McCarthy cites the key clause from Article II — “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” After all, he swore to do the same thing when he took office. So did every other member of Congress.
The Guardian on Alzheimer's and a possible treatment breakthrough
Finding a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia, is the Holy Grail of medical research. The incurable malady is — along with other dementias — the leading cause of death in the U.K. Until now, no therapy had emerged that could even slow its lethal brain shrinkage, let alone stop or reverse its grim progression. Treating dementia has also been an underfunded cause. By some estimates, more research has been done on COVID in the past three years than on dementia in the past century. Yet, a drug that works for Alzheimer’s has appeared on the horizon, raising hopes that there may be some relief from a deadly and cruel condition.
The drug, lecanemab, is a landmark in medicine, and the first treatment to slow cognitive decline in Alzheimer’s patients. People understandably focus on breakthroughs that deliver a cure. Dementia is a frightening disease. It may begin innocuously enough, with a little forgetfulness. But the sickness gnaws away at a person’s mental agility, their memory and ultimately their personality. Patients can end up delusional, incontinent and incapable of looking after themselves. Death arrives on average about eight years after the initial diagnosis. Lecanemab’s effect is modest. In a clinical trial involving 1,800 patients in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, the drug slowed its development over 18 months by about a quarter.
Some scientists say that while the results are statistically significant, individual patients might not perceive much — if any — difference. Others have questioned whether the drug’s side-effects outweigh its benefits. The drug, significantly, points to a possible cause of the illness. The theory is that a protein, beta amyloid, and another it encourages, called tau, harm brain neurons to such an extent that they die off. Because lecanemab is an antibody therapy that removes beta amyloid, it provides a much-needed fillip for the hypothesis that the protein might be a key that could unlock Alzheimer’s secrets.
This is no academic discussion. Between 2007 and 2019, more than a dozen final-stage trials of amyloid-targeting drugs reported results. None slowed cognitive decline; some even made it worse. When, last year, a therapy that targeted beta amyloid became the first new Alzheimer’s drug in two decades to receive U.S. approval, because it might help moderate symptoms, the decision became a flashpoint in a vexed scientific debate.
U.S. regulators are expected to approve lecanemab for use in January. Britons will have to wait longer. First, U.K. medical watchdogs would have to judge the drug’s safety, and then if its cost could be justified. If the benefits of lecanemab could be sustained, experts suggest, a patient might have seven and a half years of independent living — rather than the current six — before they need support at home. The arrival of dementia treatments will need more NHS resources. Hospitals would require accurate diagnostic tests to swiftly identify patients likely to benefit, specialist staff to provide regular drug infusions, and MRI scans to keep tabs on patient progress.
Dementia becomes more common in old age. As life expectancy rises, the number of people suffering with the illness will surge. This recent scientific advance is good news. Yet patients will still need to be cared for, often for many years. Dementia is perhaps the greatest medical and ethical challenge of the age. One can only hope that the British state, after a decade of ministers failing to fix the broken social care sector, is up to the test.
China Daily on the antagonistic policy toward China
Prior to and during both French President Emmanuel Macron’s state visit to the United States and the third U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council Ministerial Meeting, there have been plenty of signs of European discontent with the U.S. disregard of its allies’ interests.
The dissatisfaction ranges from the military conflict in Ukraine to the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, and it prompted the French leader to appeal for “re-synchronizing” the U.S.-European relationship.
But just as their fierce partisan competition has in no way prevented the Democratic and Republican parties in the U.S. from demonstrating a striking unanimity when it comes to confronting China in congressional legislation, the apparent current crack in the transatlantic alliance has hardly affected the two sides’ consensus on the perceived need to confront China.
The fourth high-level meeting of the U.S.-EU Dialogue on China and the third meeting of the U.S.-EU High-Level Consultations on the Indo-Pacific, which were held slightly earlier than the trade event, revealed a clear outline of a future U.S.-EU approach to relations with China that is worth serious concern on Beijing’s part. Together they sent the worrying message that, in spite of all the differences across the Atlantic, the U.S. and EU have developed similar, if not identical, outlooks on China and China policies, which may further complicate endeavors to rectify recently frayed ties.
Considering the concept of the “Indo-Pacific” itself and subsequent “Indo-Pacific strategies” have both been created as a part of the U.S.-led West’s initiative to deal with a China they have increasingly identified as an emerging “threat”, both events were to a great extent about China.
Although Macron’s call for “re-synchronizing” came three days afterward, it is appropriate to consider the convergence of their China policy as the first successful step in that direction.
Throughout their communication over China, the “Indo-Pacific”, and other global topics, U.S. Deputy State Secretary Wendy Sherman and European External Action Service Secretary General Stefano Sannino, who co-chaired the meetings, made sufficiently clear there is a shared interest in what U.S. and European decision-makers take as moves to shape China’s strategic environment.
A daunting task facing Beijing, therefore, is not only to push back against the unfair allegations that mislead Western perceptions and decision-making, but, more importantly, to work hard to dismantle the erroneous cognitive foundations for the antagonistic China policies of the Western countries.
The multiple challenges the world faces are caused and intensified by wrong judgments to some extent, such as the proposition that China will be the root cause of all tomorrow’s troubles. Both the EU and the U.S. should realize that colluding to impede China’s development will not solve the problems, but only make them worse.
The recent meeting between the heads of state of China and the U.S. was said to be “candid, in-depth, constructive”. It should serve as a springboard for greater communication that clearly and directly clarifies interests, intentions and policies.
And if there is, as both the U.S. and EU claim, no desire for confrontation, they should work with Beijing to manage tensions and differences, and advance exchanges and cooperation.