The Coming Trade Wars

Robert Reich warns of "coming trade wars" in a recent blog, also carried by Big Think. It is an important contribution in as far as it recognises that a debate is beginning to stir over previous unmentionables. These unmentionables would include selective tariffs and exchange controls, and as such their mere mention will throw the advocates of globalisation into an absolute frenzy.

Many countries, including the United States, maintain some tariffs, often under the guise of trade policy, sanctions or just plain protecting the poorest of the poor being exploited even more. The last President Bush famously invoked tariffs to protect the American steel industry, and of course many other countries are openly reluctant to open themselves up to free trade agreements lest they are flooded by cheap imports.  The US in recent years acted as a magnet for cheap Chinese imports. I remember covering an event at the White House two or three years back, and afterwards inspecting the Stars & Stripes which graced the press backdrop. It was made in China.

South Korea is a good example of a country in fear of being flooded – where the political class would like to offer China some form of ‘Free Trade Agreement’ , in return for the country changing tack over supporting North Korea. But South Korea’s industrial and manufacturing bosses most certainly don’t.

For as we know, free movement of goods is also accompanied by a free movement of labour and capital. In times of economic growth, cheap money, cheap goods and cheap labour tend to be welcomed with open arms. But come a recession, particularly one as severe as we are all living under, that is a very different matter indeed. Britain, for instance opened her doors wider than other European countries to migrant labour from Central Europe during the boom years. I remember Tony Blair telling us at a meeting that only around 30,000 people would come. In fact over half a million arrived, largely filling the jobs that had been created by Government. Many were skilled workers who filled gaps in the labour market, but it was also undoubtedly true that they were not unionised and exerted a downward pressure on wages.

Loosely, the free traders would like us to believe that ‘globalisation’ is universally a benign force for good, as indeed some aspects of it are. If ‘globalisation’ can mean universal access to the Internet for instance, that can only be seen as a ‘good thing’. But in reality ‘globalisation’ doesn’t really mean this. At its heart lies the great driving force that seeks out the cheapest production platforms for the maximum profitability. It requires the movement of cheap labour on a massive scale, or the movement of production to where labour is cheapest.  The net effect – maximised in times of recession – is a race to the bottom.

Which is why Robert Reich is correct in predicting new Trade Wars, although I wouldn’t necessarily describe them in such stark language. Take Europe for instance, which only owes money to itself, not China or the United States. It would make absolute sense to begin to regulate the flow of capital in and out of the Euro zone by adopting Exchange Controls. It would also make good sense to begin to introduce some selective trade tariffs for a period, in order to build successful European companies that provide proper, reasonably well paid jobs to citizens. It would also make sense to begin to control the flow of labour, which to some extent is already beginning to happen. From these beginnings, we then may get a semblance of economic growth. Without it Europe will flat-line like Japan for a decade.

It is high time that we begin to protect ourselves from the disciples of the free market, for economics is not a pure science, and global trade is grossly imbalanced despite over a quarter of a century of letting the market rip. Which is not to argue for a retreat behind the walls of trade barriers, but to argue for selective interventions for the common good.

At the core of this approach must be the understanding that we the people are master of the market, not its slaves.

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The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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