Despite what Black Ops II says, rare earth minerals will not cause a U.S.-China cold war

Alright, I can't believe I need to say this, but the future will not look like Call of Duty.

The latest entry in the bestselling game series, Black Ops II, takes place in the not-too-distant future, a version of the year 2025 in which the United States and China are engaged in escalating tensions after a U.S. cyberattack hits the Chinese stock exchange, prompting officials in Beijing to halt exports of rare earth minerals. Chaos ensues. Drones! Invisibility cloaks! There's a villainous Nicaraguan drug lord pulling strings for good measure, and David Petraeus is the secretary of defense.

The technology is science fiction, but the politics, that's just fiction. You'd never know it by reading some of the responses, though. Probably as a result of game studio Treyarch's effort to bolster the game with the input of some high-profile consultants, including Brookings Institute future-warfare expert Peter Singer and disgraced gun runner-turned-media personality Oliver North, some people are taking the game's premise disturbingly seriously. Fox News' review points to the game development's "eerie resemblances with the serious war-gaming exercises conducted by the U.S. military and government officials," while CNN's review explains that the expert consultants saw the "dwindling supply of rare earth elements" as "a feasible backdrop for a new Cold War."

Yes, China controls 95 percent of rare earth mineral production today, and that does constitute an "undisputed monopoly," as Hal Quinn and Michael Silver wrote in their editorial for the Washington Times. But there's no reason for all this hyperventilating. Despite their name, rare earth minerals aren't all that rare -- the U.S. Geological Survey has estimated that the supply of these minerals, which are critical to high-tech gadgets from cell phones to advanced weapon systems, will last well into the next century, if not longer. Despite China's current market dominance, Chinese reserves constitute only half of global rare earth supplies, and other countries -- notably Brazil, Chile, Argentina, and Australia -- are beginning to exploit their deposits and become reliable suppliers in an increasingly diversified rare earth mineral marketplace.

As to whether competition over these resources could come to blows, Christine Parthemore, who now works in the office of the assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical, and biological defense programs and is also an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University, cautioned against cold war alarmism in a Center for a New American Security report on rare earth minerals. "History," she wrote in 2011, "indicates that conflict over absolute scarcities is unlikely." While supply disruptions are possible, the report argues, they'll look more like the 1973 oil crisis than the Cuban Missile Crisis.

So let's certainly open up different sources of rare earth mineral supplies, but let's not have a collective freak out about a potential cold war with China over iPhone batteries. It really is just a video game.



Canadian to run the Bank of England

The paranoid will surely just chalk this up to the global Canadian bankers' conspiracy:

Mark Carney has been named as the new governor of the Bank of England by Chancellor George Osborne.

Mr Carney, the governor of the Canadian central bank, will serve for five years and will hold new regulatory powers over banks.[...]

Mr Osborne told Parliament that Mr Carney, 47, would bring the "strong leadership and external experience the Bank needs" and added that the Canadian would apply for British citizenship.

The Washington Post's Neil Irwin notes that Cameron's willingness to look across the pond may signal tje relization that "being a central banker is a harder job in the post-crisis world than it ever was before, and to do it well calls on a mix of skills that few people on the planet possess." So what are Carney's skills?

He led the Canadian economy through perhaps the best performance of the major Western nations during the crisis itself; there were no major failures of Canadian banks at a time when their international counterparts were falling like dominos, and the economic downturn in Canada was relatively mild. Carney  is chairman of the Financial Stability Board, a group of leading regulators and central bankers who aim to deal with financial risks.

Apart from his time as a central banker, Carney has also been a creature of the financial markets. He spent 13 years at Goldman Sachs. While he has a PhD in economics from Oxford, he never worked as an academic economist. (He does not have British citizenship, though he has deep ties to the country, including his years at Oxford and a British-born wife).

Even so, the idea of importing a foreigner to such a high-profile position is bound to raise some eyebrows. As former FPer Annie Lowrey perceptively tweeted, "Would the United States mind having a foreign citizen be its central banker? (My guess, though not a confident one, is yes.)"

On the other hand, as I noted in this explainer, British law is pretty open to citizens of the commonwealth taking high government positions. For instance, to be a member of parliament according to British law, you need only be "18 years of age, and a British citizen, or citizen of a Commonwealth country or the Republic of Ireland." To date, the only prime minister born outside the British isles was New Brunswick's own Bonar Law.