Academic Journal

Obama’s Presidency—Looking Back

Posted on January 10, 2017 by Rucheka Jain

Irrespective of political affiliation, it is undeniable that the 2016 U.S. presidential election has been truly overwhelming, with its implications still uncertain and unfolding. It is understandable that other events that otherwise would have received much attention are being overshadowed by this behemoth of an election. Despite this however—or perhaps precisely because of it—we should take the time to consider the U.S. presidency that is now coming to an end. During his eight years in office, Barack Obama was surrounded with both high expectations and many controversies. With his term in office coming to an end, it is finally possible to have a retrospective review of the validity of both.

Much of Obama’s initial focus had been on the economy and rightly so in light of the state of the economy when he took office in 2007 being the worst since the Great Depression. Judging by the numbers alone, President Obama’s efforts have been a major success. The unemployment rate has fallen to a level lower than what was present before the economy crashed in 2007; the stocks and asset values are at record highs. While there are a number of possible causes of this that would lessen the extent to which these numbers would suggest a successful recovery—from the number of individuals seeking employment being exceptionally low, to the manufacturing sector in the U.S. still declining—it cannot be denied that President Obama has taken an economy on the brink of collapse and turned it around to a remarkable degree, especially when compared to his European counterparts over the same period.

The other notable policy that took centrepiece for much of Obama’s presidency has been his proposed expansion of state healthcare, dubbed ‘ObamaCare’ by his adversaries and proponents alike. The focal problem Obama aimed to address was of no small concern. With private healthcare in the U.S. being the most expensive in the world and with alternatives scarcely available, the lack of a public option had a major impact on a great portion of the population. No less than half of the bankruptcies filed in the States have been caused by health-related issues. Many have been denied insurance on the count of pre-existing conditions, leaving them an illness away from losing everything. While hard-won and riddled with compromise, ObamaCare succeeded in providing approximately 22 million Americans otherwise uninsured with healthcare cover. Under one of the most obstructive government in recent history—with the 112th Congress being the least productive on record—ObamaCare can certainly be considered a major success for President Obama.

Yet despite the worth of the other achievements, it is nevertheless Obama’s efforts in foreign policy that stand out to me the most. Almost as a response to the policies of George W. Bush and their failures, Obama’s foreign policy centred on championing diplomacy over an imperialist dogma which places the U.S. at the top. Beyond working on changing the perception of the U.S. by the other states, Obama made great strides domestically by devilifying the perception of other nations and debunking the idea of the United States of America serving as a ‘Global Guardian’. Although not without backtracking on his part, his efforts had a major and in all likelihood lasting effect, having contributed to the U.S. citizens being far more accepting of diplomatic solutions in the years to come.

Unfortunately, the stance that the world is better served without the U.S. acting as an imperial power is not without challenge. Some point to the many horrid travesties that took place during Obama’s presidency in a number of nations, including Syria’s usage of chemical warfare and Libya’s instability. The idea implicit in those points is that a more aggressive involvement from the States would somehow result in lessening the damage in the long run. Yet the outcomes of Bush’s presidency alone show how misguided such simplistic conceptualization of the problem is. The issues surrounding those nations are often, complex and multi-layered. One can never be sure of the implications of any major action.

Even with the cases that were dubbed ‘successes’ by some, the U.S. has failed to produce sustainable results without needing to permanently station their troops and effectively take control of the region indefinitely. Replacing crimes against humanity with rule by a foreign nation is not a trade that should be taken lightly—a point surprisingly difficult to accept by those that profess freedom above all else. Yet this is only the best possible outcome. U.S. military operation is by no means guaranteed to succeed and rarely does so without much bloodshed and further destabilization of the region. Combined with the way America does not, at the very least, always act based solely on normative principles—made evident by the nations they targeted for issues relating to terrorism and nuclear proliferations alone—it should not be seen as acceptable for the U.S. to take aggressive international action without at the very least the support from the international community. President Obama’s appreciation of this point is what stands out to me the most.

Although not without failures, Obama’s presidency overall has been one worthy of praise. He brought a number of notable success and left his country in a state much better than when he inherited the office. I expect that history will judge President Obama favorably in the coming years.

At the same time, it is important to not treat Obama’s end of term as retirement. Whether spent fulfilling his initial plans of going back to community work or defending his policies from the current President-elect, it is highly likely that we will hear more about President Obama in the years to come.

 2016: The People We Lost

With another year closing in, the time for reflection is once more upon us. As we look back at this significant chunk of time, it is important to reflect on what it has brought. With this belief sturdily stationed at the helm, this article looks at that which has been lost.

And indeed much has been lost in 2016: from political battles for women and minorities fought zealously and economic stability as a result of the demonetization, to tragedies brought about by natural disasters. Yet while all of these may be a cause for sorrow and regret, none are unalterable. Through continuing effort and strong determination, all these may be overturned in the years to come. However, the one thing that will never return are the irreplaceable people that 2016 has taken with it.

It is no exaggeration that the world in which we live today may be traced back to the actions taken by a number of remarkable and visionary people. To illustrate this point, there is no better place to start than with Vera Rubin who passed away only a few days away—on the 25th of December. Praised as one of the greatest female scientists of all time, Vera Rubin was a pioneer in the fields of astronomy and women’s rights alike.

From a young age Vera had been unstoppable. Propelled by her passion for astronomy, she drove through any and all blockages and ceilings alike, paving the way for other women to follow in her footsteps. Once she established herself as household name in the field of astronomy, Vera did not rest there—from encouraging women to enter the field of sciences, to spearing efforts to eradicate gender requirements for scientific club memberships, Vera worked tirelessly to promote women’s rights. In an inspirational message, Vera wrote:

“I live and work with three basic assumptions:

  • There is no problem in science that can be solved by a man that cannot be solved by a woman.
  • Worldwide, half of all brains are in women.
  • We all need permission to do science, but, for reasons that are deeply ingrained in history, this permission is more often given to men than to women.”

In the field of science, her crowning achievement has to do with revolutionising our understanding of the cosmos. Specifically, she confirmed the existence of the invisible material known as dark matter, which the majority of our universe consists of. It fills me with both pride and pain to say that with her passing we have all suffered a tragic loss.

Yet the remarkable people worth mentioning are not limited to those universally loved. There are figures that, although controversial, may unite people in recognition of their importance in shaping the world. There may be no better testament to this than Fidel Castro, who died in November. His passing was met with both great sorrow and joyful cheer across the world. Ruling over a previously unstable country, Castro held on to power for longer than anyone else since Queen Elizabeth the Second. Despite presiding over a small island of 10 million people, he became one of the few leaders to be recognised in most regions of the world and almost escalated the cold war into a nuclear conflict.

While he undoubtedly had been a cause for more than one grievance, his ability to overcome difficulty and his work ethic has earned him recognition from even his greatest adversaries. In the words of Henry M. Wriston, notable American academic and international relations expert, Castro “was everything a revolutionary should be.”

Many other people whom we lost this year deserve our respect and attention: from Rogers Nelson, the musician known throughout the globe as Prince who single-handedly redefined music for a generation, to Elie Wiesel who fought tirelessly for peace and moved millions with unforgettable quotes, including “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference”. Reflecting on such great individuals is both inspiring and humbling. As we take what has been brought about through their efforts and move forward into 2017 and beyond, I hope we will continue their efforts and ensure that they have not been in vain.

Donald Trump’s Election: What it Means for India

Whilst I have not had the privilege of living through a great number of elections—possibly making my opinion slightly biased—I strongly believe that the 2016 U.S. Presidential election has been truly unprecedented. From the countless controversies surrounding the election to its outcome, many are left feeling disorientated and demoralized. Although it may be difficult to make sense of it, it is nevertheless essential that we consider its implications.

However, this is not an easy task. Between the extreme claims made by the now President-elect that many believe to have been empty promises for the purpose of winning the election and the vast contradictions in the policies he has advocated to implement, no one short of Trump himself may tell what’s to come. To put this into perspective, the recent Oxford University Press (OUP) conference is quite illustrative. When asked about their contingency plan for Brexit, back when Britain’s exit was still considered to be a rather unlikely possibility, the OUP representative replied by listing a number of steps taken to ensure that OUP is prepared for such an eventuality—steps including the formation of committees as well as commissioning research. Then, when asked a similar question about the possible Trump presidency, the reply was simply “we have no idea”. In much the same way, most companies and experts alike accepted that the implications of Trump being elected are beyond their ability to grasp.

Nonetheless, it is important to contemplate the possible implications of Trump’s presidency, which is now a certain eventuality, especially with regard to India’s future, where Trump’s stances have been far less ambiguous. Whilst it is possible that he will either not pursue those policies or that his government will stop him, it is relatively clear what India may need to prepare itself for.

Yet before delving into the election’s likely impact on India, I would first like to acknowledge the irritation many feel about the level of attention given to this topic; something I hope to have addressed by the end of this article. The reason behind this, as I understand, is usually a combination of the belief that the U.S. Presidential election has minimal bearing on India and the feeling of discontent towards the very notion of U.S. influence.

It is understandable why many do not view U.S. elections as particularly important. Within a historical context it may appear largely inconsequential considering how U.S.-India political relations have remained broadly constant since the beginning of Clinton’s presidency in 1993. Despite this trend, however, there is good reason to doubt its continuation under the Trump administration.

One of Trump’s main talking points, going back as far as 2010, has been to “bring back American jobs”. This statement is with reference to the fact that many jobs previously held by Americans are now held by workers from countries such as India. Putting aside the argument that these are intrinsically “American jobs”, the implementation of this rhetoric will have major implications on India’s economy.

One of the major policy moves that Trump is likely to implement is the reduction of corporate tax from 20%, down to only only 15%. Through this, Trump aims to discourage other U.S. firms from moving their headquarters abroad, whilst simultaneously providing an incentive for international companies to move their operations to the U.S. With India’s corporate tax rate at 30%, such a drop in U.S. tax rates would make America more attractive to international firms. Although the easy availability of labor does play in India’s favor, it may be easily offset by the low transport costs and availability of better infrastructure in the U.S.

Donald Trump is also contemplating raising tariffs substantially for commodities manufactured by jobs that are somehow “intrinsically American”. To cite an example, Trump pledged to slap a 35% import tax on Ford automobiles manufactured in Mexico and other countries. Considering Ford’s scale of operation in India and the fact that U.S. is India’s single greatest export market, such a policy will be a hard blow on the Indian economy. This tariff combined with the drop in the rate of corporate tax will encourage companies such as Ford to move a substantial part of their operations back to the States.

Beyond the impact to the current levels of prosperity, Trump’s policy will likely have a considerable impact on India’s economic growth, which is currently heavily dependent on encouraging international firms to move their operations to or increase their operations in India.

An equally alarming policy pledged by the President-elect involves the visa permit that currently allows U.S. companies to outsource high skilled jobs to Indians and other foreigners, which Trump intends to completely abolish. This would hit the Indian economy hard considering the fact that in the financial year 2014-2015, $82 billion worth of exports came from the Information Technology industry, with a large portion coming directly from work performed in the U.S.

Trump’s combined foreign policy objectives may have a significant and lasting impact on India’s export sector.

Coming to the question of the President-elect implementing these objectives, there isn’t much to take comfort in. Whilst previous Presidents have been restrained by the opposition on such issues—the recent failed attempts by President Obama to reform the aforementioned visa system being a good example—Trump is unlikely to be equally restrained. Having ran the election on a rhetoric of extreme change and what has been described as a “hawkish negotiation style,” it is very likely that if Trump decides to make good on his promises, he will use the full breadth of powers bestowed on him by the U.S. Constitution and brazenly ignore counterargument.

Having established the likelihood of Trump fulfilling his campaign promises and highlighted the severity of its impact on India, I can now turn to the other reason for the feeling of frustration inherent in this topic. It is important to begin by noting that I, for one, sympathize with the sentiment. It is indeed disheartening that the world’s largest democracy may be so easily swayed by the policies of another nation. However, in the day and age of globalization and liberalization, we must accept the interdependent and interconnected world that we live in and cannot ignore the impact this election will inevitably have on the Indian economy. Instead, we should fuel our fellow citizens and thrust our government into action, so that we may effectively control the situation and minimize the negative implications.

Demonetization in India

Less than two days ago, the entirety of India’s population was shocked at the bold policy move announced by our Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. In his unscheduled TV appearance, PM Modi informed his citizens that all 500 and 1000 rupee banknotes—accounting for 86 per cent of the country’s entire stock of physical money—may no longer be exchanged for goods. That is not to say that the money is now without any value, as they may be traded for new banknotes that can be exchanged for goods freely. The intended consequence of this policy is to effectively force all of India’s citizens to disclose the amount of cash they are in possession of.

This policy decision, commonly known as demonetization, is one frequently debated by economic experts across the world. There are many reasons to be in favour of the move, with many proponents of demonetisation already having voiced their support of PM Modi’s decision. In the case of India, this policy represents a direct assault on the black market. With every Indian resident forced to exchange their money, the government will effectively gain a snapshot of the earnings made by its citizens. With this information, the government hopes to be able to pin down those individuals with cash holdings far beyond what they have disclosed, or otherwise what they may reasonably justify holding given their stated income sources. Beyond simple tax evasion, the government aims to use this information to uncover individuals involved in despicable acts—drug and slave trafficking being one of the chief targets.

With the severity of black market trade in India—amounting to between 30 and 55 per cent of the economy—it is understandable why the government would attempt to curb the problem; a case made very powerfully by PM Modi himself. Yet, the likely effectiveness of demonetization in achieving this aim is not certain. Combined with the likely cost to the Indian population—which PM Modi himself recognized, dubbing it the ‘50 days of pain’ – some, including the opposing party, show concern over the soundness of this policy. Although a worthy consideration, with the decision already made and a reversal unlikely, I instead wish to focus more on the exact implication of the policy to the law abiding citizens.

The impact of this decision to the people of India cannot be overemphazised. With cash payments accounting for 98 per cent of transactions in India, demonetization has effectively made 85 per cent of the nation’s means of completing transaction invalid. While decommissioned banknotes will eventually be replaced with a new run of notes, the issues surrounding this extend far beyond the need for people to que outside a cash exchange. Due to a number of reasons, it will likely be months before the majority of people are able to exchange their money. The task of printing the new legal tender alone will likely take several months, with the distribution of this cash across India likely to pose a greater problem. In a nation with over 1.2 billion people, very limited means of communications in certain regions and overall limited access to banking institutions, the implementation of demonetization will face great challenges. These will range from security concerns involved in transporting such large sums of money, to the logistics issue of knowing how much cash will need to be sent to each region.

With most of India’s populace needing to wait months before being able to use the vast majority of their money, the immediate implication for many will be quite serious. In effect, a vast portion of the population will be left for months without sustainable means to purchase even basic necessities. This is what PM Modi referred to when speaking of the 50 days of pain.

Unfortunately, the policy will also have a far more long-term impact. The more serious repercussion relates to the impact of liquidity shortages on India’s economy as a whole. A substantial number of businesses across India will have to close down as they will be unable to pay their workers salary. One of the reasons will be that businesses with unstable cash-flow will be unable to borrow even against guaranteed future earnings. This factor shouldn’t be underestimated, as it is believed to be one of the key reasons why the recent economic recession in the West persisted for the length that it did. More obvious include the way in which firms will no loner have ‘valid’ currency with which to pay their employees and, as others will similarly not have valid currency to purchase goods with, sales will plummet. This will have far reaching implication for India’s economy as many of these business will not be able to reopen and the resulting uncertainty and economic conditions will make investment into India far less attractive.

All this will disproportionately impact the less developed areas of India—the poor in particular. In those areas, the points raised above will be more potent. Specifically, it will take substantially longer to supply the new banknotes and distribute them amongst the population. As such, individuals will not have access to substantive means of transactions for a far more substantial period of time. This prolonged period will also mean that the impact on the local economies in those regions will be far more severe and long lasting. The poor in those regions will be especially vulnerable as, unlike their better off counterparts, they do not possess foreign currency, or other assets that may be used for trade.

Of course, there exists the possibility that people will disregard the announcement—at least until people are provided with the ability to exchange their banknotes for their valid counterpart. Currency after all is something that does not intrinsically hold value. Hence, if people accept that no other means of transaction exist and that they will eventually be able to exchange the money they received for legal tender, they may be willing to continue trading with the now invalid currency.

The reality of the situation, however, is not as clear cut. The logistical issues aside, people will have a strong incentive not to accept demonetized currency. As they will have to deposit this currency eventually, they will be under suspicion if the amount of invalid currency they possess is beyond what may reasonably be expected of them. In the worst case scenario, people may be substantially penalised through fines. If people do continue trading as usual with the invalid currency, this is likely to happen, as people holding large sums of the currency through the black market are now looking to unload it in return for assets and other goods that will allow them to avoid the aforementioned penalty. More generally, given the importance placed on the ‘surprise element’ by the administration, evident by the lack of prior warning and the swiftness of its implementation, it is likely that the government will crack down and punish attempts to trade with the now invalid currency. As such, it is unlikely for people to be able to continue in a ‘business as usual’ manner, especially in the long-run.

To summarise, people in India will have trouble trading in the short-run and experience bad economic conditions for a long period of time. The extent to which they will be affected depends on the level of difficulty the government will face to transporting and distributing money to their region, as well as their level of wealth. During this time, it is important to avoid using the now invalid currency, as otherwise much of it will be taken away as penalty come time to exchange it for the new notes. With the government aware of the troubles ahead, I urge India’s vulnerable to seek help that the government will no doubt offer in the coming months.

 Population Ageing in India

When confronted with the question of population related issues, most Indian citizens will instinctively think solely of overpopulation. In many respects this is understandable. Indian citizens are fairly familiar with the problem as it has had a very direct and tractable impact on their lives. From the steadily rising cost of food driven by demand, to the overcrowding in public areas, the issue of overpopulation is very tangible to the Indian people. With the population expected to grow by another 33 per cent between 2012 and 2050, the issue may understandably overshadow other population-related concerns.

Nevertheless, it is far from the only area concerning India’s population worthy of attention. The matter of population ageing, defined as an increase in the average age of the population, is one that every nation will inevitably face if they have not done so already. India is no exception, made evident by numerous reports from the UN and others. Although not felt as directly and more difficult to grasp, it is essential that Indian citizens come to grips with population ageing and its implications.

To do this, it is key to first grasp what population ageing actually means. In effect, population ageing is caused by a combination of two trends—dropping fertility rates and rising longevity rates. An increase in longevity raises the average age of the population by increasing the numbers of surviving older people, while a decline in fertility does so by reducing the number of younger people. Put simply, it is caused by the number of young people born declining, the number of old people increasing and the age to which old people generally live to rising. In the case of India where the population is still growing, the problems arises primarily from the increase in life expectancy.

While it is certainly welcomed news that Indians are living longer, this has major implications for the infrastructure of our society. The rise in life expectancy has two sources, each with its own implication. One is that people are less likely to die. As a result, greater portion of the population makes it to old age, usually considered to be 65 or over. The other is that people are surviving until an older age. This latter group is commonly defined as the ‘oldest old’, and refers to individuals aged 85 and over. Combined, it is estimated that this group will grow 3-fold by 2050, reaching 300 million. The oldest old constitute a relatively greater portion of that increase and is, in general, one of the fastest growing portions of the national population. To put it into context, the oldest old now constitute 7 percent of the world’s 65-and-over population, over half of which live in India, China, the United States, Japan, Germany, and Russia.

Such a rise in the number of elderly will have a very serious implication on the organization of families in India. Specifically, the increase in elderly and their expected life span will place greater pressure on their working relatives tasked with taking care of them. This will be especially true for the oldest old that usually require a high level of support; both physically and financially. The current family support structure may crumble with some working adults being increasingly subjected to the financial and emotional pressures of supporting their children, older parents and possibly grandparents simultaneously.

The possibility of losing this support network is particularly concerning for women, who now—and increasingly so over time—make up a disproportionally greater number of the oldest old. With the majority being either unmarried or widowed, and with no pension of their own to depend on, they are left with little support and nowhere to live if extended family will not take them in. Further, there are broader concerns related to young adult migration to urban areas, as this greatly limits the kind of support that they may offer.

The population ageing trend is equally problematic for the state government. The increasing cost of providing health and welfare aside, the biggest problem is that India currently does not have the infrastructure to accommodate the expected increase in the older population. There is simply not enough facilities and medical staff to accommodate an estimated 3-fold increase in the number of patients of over. Without serious investment, India will be left unable to take care of a large portion of its elderly population.

As such, without proper steps being taken, the cornerstone of Indian society that is the family support structure and elderly people in need of either welfare or medical support will be in grave danger. With sufficient preparation and preemptive action, these and other problems associated with population ageing may be overcome. It is up to us to ensure this takes place by beginning to take action now.