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Archive for December, 2016

2016 Year-Ender

The main message of 2016 was that we are entering a period of economic and political upheaval comparable to the industrial revolution of 1780-1850, and nothing expressed that message more clearly than Donald Trump’s appointment of Andrew Puzder as Secretary of Labour. Even though it’s clear that neither man understands the message.

Puzder bears a large part of the responsibility for fulfilling Trump’s election promise to “bring back” America’s lost industrial jobs: seven million in the past 35 years. That’s what created the Rust Belt and the popular anger that put Trump in power. But Puzder is a fast-food magnate who got rich by shrinking his costs, and he has never met a computer he didn’t like.

“They’re always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age-, sex-, or race-discrimination case,” he rhapsodised. They also never take lunch or toilet breaks, they’ll work 24 hours a day, and they don’t have to be paid. So out with the workers and in with the robots.

It was not evil foreigners who “stole” most of those seven million American jobs, and will probably eliminate up to 50 million more in the next 20 years. It’s the ‘intelligent machines’ that did most of the damage, starting with simple assembly-line robots and ATMs. (”Every Automated Teller Machine contains the ghosts of three bank tellers.”)

But the automation keeps moving up the skill sets. The first self-driving cars are now on the road in the United States. That’s another four million jobs down the drain, starting with taxi drivers and long-distance truckers. In recent years eight American manufacturing jobs have been lost to automation for every one lost to “globalisation”, and it will only get worse.

A 2013 study concluded that 47 percent of existing jobs in the United States are vulnerable to automation in the next 20 years, and the numbers are as bad or worse for the other developed countries. This is what is really driving the “populist revolution” that caused two of the world’s oldest democracies to make bizarre, self-harming political choices in the past year. First Brexit, then Trump.

Leaving the European Union will hurt Britain’s economy badly, and putting a man like Donald Trump in the US presidency is a serious mistake. Yet half the voters in each country were so angry that they didn’t care about the likely negative consequences of their vote.

There is more to come. Beppe Grillo’s populist Five-Star Movement may win the next election in Italy. Marine Le Pen’s National Front (no longer openly anti-Semitic, but still basically neo-fascist) could win the French presidential election next spring. The Netherlands and Germany may see hard-right, anti-immigrant parties in governing coalitions after their forthcoming elections.

Some people fear that we are seeing a re-run of the 1930s. Economic growth has slowed since the crash of 2008, and unemployment is much higher than it looks. The official US unemployment figure is only 5 percent, but almost one-third of American men between the ages of 25 and 54 are “economically inactive”. So angry populist leaders are popping up again all across the developed world.

The ‘Dirty Thirties’ ended in the Second World War, and there are obvious parallels today. The European Union is fraying at the edges, and Donald Trump has talked about curtailing US support for NATO. He has also threatened to slap huge tariffs on Chinese exports to the US, and it’s probably a bad idea to push China too hard when it is already in grave economic trouble.

But this is not the 1930s. There are no ranting dictators promising revenge for lost wars, and government benefits mean that unemployment is no longer a catastrophe for most people in Western countries. The old white working class (and some of the middle class) are angry because jobs are disappearing and because immigration is changing the ethnic balance in their countries, but they are not angry enough to want a war.

Trump’s election means that we are in for a wild ride in the next four years, but he will ultimately disappoint his supporters because he is barking up the wrong tree. He cannot bring back the jobs that were lost, because most of them were not lost to his favourite culprits: free trade and uncontrolled immigration.

Even if Trump understood this, he could not admit it in public, because there is nothing he can do about it. He might ban immigrants coming in to “steal American jobs”, and he can tear up free-trade deals to his heart’s content, but his own cabinet contains people who have built their careers on eliminating jobs through automation.

This is change on the scale of the (first) industrial revolution, and you can’t fight it. But then, you really don’t need to. American industry has shed seven million jobs since 1979, but the value of US factory production has more than doubled (in constant dollars). It is only jobs that are being destroyed, not wealth.

It is not a disaster for a rich society to reach a point where the same goods are being produced and the same services are being provided, but most people no longer have to work 40 or 50 hours a week (in jobs that most of them hate). Or rather, it’s not a disaster UNLESS HAVING NO WORK MEANS HAVING NO MONEY OR SELF-RESPECT.

The main political task for the next generation (post-Trump) in the developed countries will be to ensure that those without work have an income they can live on, and don’t lose their self-respect. Other ways will doubtless be suggested, but one way of achieving this that is already getting attention is a Universal Basic Income (UBI).

The UBI would provide everybody with enough to live on. Since everybody got it, there would be no stigma involved in living on it. And 53 percent of today’s jobs will still be there in 2033, so those who really wanted to work could top up their UBI with earned income. There would still be millionaires.

The first national referendum on UBI was held in Switzerland last June. It was a radical new idea, so of course it was overwhelmingly rejected. But this idea will not go away, and there will be more like it. The rich countries can stay rich and stable if they understand the nature of the task – but the developing countries may face a grim future.

No UBI for them — they are not rich enough, not even China. But automation is eating into their newly gained industrial jobs too. A recent Citibank report estimated that 77 percent of Chinese jobs are at risk from automation, and in India there is talk of “premature deindustrialisation” (i.e. industrial jobs in India may be peaking right now, and will then go into decline).

That would not just mean continuing poverty for many, but huge political turmoil – populist revolutions and super-Trumps. The future (including the near future) will be quite interesting.
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This article is longer than usual at 1175 words. To shorten to 850 words, omit paragraphs 7-11. (“Leaving…a war”)

To shorten further to 725 words, omit also paragraphs 5 and 13. (“But…worse”; and “Even if…automation”)

Netanyahu, Obama and the UN

Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is very, very cross about last Friday’s United Nations Security Council resolution condemning the creation of illegal Jewish settlements all over the occupied West Bank and in East Jerusalem.

He called in the ambassadors of all the Western countries that voted for the resolution to tell them off: Britain, France, Spain, even New Zealand. He also had the US ambassador on the carpet, although Washington merely abstained in the Security Council vote. But, Netanyahu said, Donald Trump’s incoming administration has promised to fight “an all-out war” against the resolution.

The resolution is only words, of course, but they are words that have not found their way into any UN Security Council resolution since 1979, because the United States always used its veto to kill any resolution that contained them. Words that describe the settlements as having “no legal validity” and constituting a “flagrant violation under international law and a major obstacle to the achievement of the two-state solution.”

This is a restatement of a truth that was once almost universally accepted even in Israel. When Israel’s astonishing victory in the 1967 war put the entire remaining area that had been granted to the Palestinians by the UN partition agreement of 1948 under Israeli control, most Israelis initially saw it as an opportunity for peace.

Israel now had a powerful bargaining card. If the Arabs wanted their lost territories back, they would have to sign peace treaties with Israel – and probably agree to demilitarise those territories into the bargain.

To a generation of Israelis who had lived in permanent, existential fear of losing a war, that looked like a good bargain. But even then a minority of Israelis wanted to keep the conquered territories forever and repopulate them with Jewish settlers.

Some of these expansionists were motivated by religion, others by security concerns, but they all understood that the way to thwart any give-away of these territories was to fill them with Jewish settlers.

The settler movement began slowly: 15 years after the conquest there were still only 100,000 Jews living in the occupied territories, but the number had doubled to 200,000 by 1990, and doubled again to 400,000 by 2002. It is now at least 600,000, and may be as high as 750,000.

If the settler population continues to grow at the current rate, there could be as many as a million Jews in the occupied territories by 2030. At that point, the long-term prospect of a Jewish majority heaves above the horizon. And that is what the current confrontation between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is really about.

Netanyahu avoids any actual peace talks with the Palestinians because a peace deal (if it could be achieved) would mean the end of the settlement project. He can’t say that out loud, of course, but it is the openly expressed view of the settler leaders whose support has been essential to Netanyahu’s various coalition governments.

This is why Netanyahu has to lie all the time, and it drives Obama crazy. In a conversation caught on an open mike in 2011, France’s then-president Nicolas Sarkozy told Obama: “I can’t stand him (Netanyahu). He’s a liar.” And Obama replied, “You’re tired of him? What about me? I have to deal with him every day.”

But Obama’s decision to abstain on the Security Council vote condemning Israeli settlement policy in the Palestinian occupied territories was not just a childish last slap at Netanyahu. Obama has a fundamentally different view of what constitutes long-term security for Israel – one that he shares with most other outside observers, but a shrinking proportion of Israelis.

Long-term does mean long-term. It cannot be assumed that Arab states will always be relatively poor and incompetently led, and that Israel will always be the unchallengeable military superpower of the region. So, in the view of Obama and other outsiders, Israel’s long-term security still depends on making a fair and lasting peace with its Arab neighbours – including the Palestinians.

The settlements fatally undermine the prospects for such a deal. For a growing number of Israelis, that is irrelevant, because they have a fundamentally demonic view of the Arabs and do not believe that a lasting peace with them is possible. In which case, of course, Israel might as well grab all of East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

The Jewish settlements are indeed illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention, and there is not a single government outside Israel that believes they are legitimate. But the recent Security Council resolution will have no effect on Israeli policy, nor will the state of Israel suffer grave consequences as a result.

President-elect Donald Trump will stop any further such resolutions with the US veto, although he is unlikely to be able to undo this one. And we will all have to wait a long time to know whether it is the perspective of Netanyahu and Trump, or that of Obama and almost all other world leaders, that ultimately defines Israel’s future.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7, 8 and 15. (“Some…750,000”; and “The Jewish…result”)

The Berlin Provocation

Twelve people were killed in a Christmas market in Berlin on Monday, mown down by a terrorist in a big truck. Elsewhere in Germany, if it was an average day, another ten people were killed in or by motor vehicles. They are all equally dead; the only difference is the motivation of the man in the truck.

Oh, sorry, there’s another difference too. On Tuesday, if it was an average day,
another ten people were killed on German roads, and another ten on Wednesday, and another ten on Thursday, and so on ad infinitum — 3500 in the average year. So is traffic a bigger threat than terrorism?

Does this comparison offend you? Why? Would you be offended if I said that driving is more dangerous than flying, because 3500 Germans die on the roads each year and only fifty a year die in plane crashes? Of course not. Yet if I say that traffic accidents are a much bigger threat to human life than terrorism, it sounds almost transgressive.

Three other people have been killed in terrorist attacks in Germany this year, so the total this year will be probably end up at fifteen. That’s the highest number since 1972, but there are 80 million people in Germany, so the average German’s risk of being killed in a terrorist attack is considerably less than the risk of drowning in the bathtub.

The sensible response to such pinprick attacks is prevention: good intelligence-gathering and smarter security measures, not mass arrests and foreign wars. That will reduce the number of attacks and hopefully keep them small (no more 9/11s). It’s not possible to eliminate terrorism entirely, any more than a “war on crime” can end all crime. It can, however, be kept down to nuisance level.

Terrorism is a very small threat that is designed to look very big. It achieves that goal by attracting massive media coverage that inflates it into an apparently huge threat.

The media provide that coverage because they know that people are fascinated by violent death: a single murder is more newsworthy than ten thousand peaceful deaths. I’m contributing to that massive media coverage right now. It’s not the content that matters, it’s the volume of coverage. (“If everybody is writing about it, then it MUST be very important.”)

Terrorists want that wall-to-wall media coverage because it may provoke a huge over-reaction that ultimately serves their own purposes. In the case of the current wave of Islamist terrorism, they hope it will build support in the Muslim world for their revolutionary project and ultimately bring them to power.

In the early phase, they wanted to provoke Western invasions of Muslim countries that would drive more Muslims into their arms (as in the case of the 9/11 attacks). Now they are trying to panic Western governments into abusing and oppressing their own Muslim citizens. The basic strategy remains the same, and it has proved very successful.

Without the Western over-reaction to the 9/11 attacks (especially invading Iraq), there would be no Islamic State today. And they aren’t doing too badly with the present attacks either.

Chancellor Angela Merkel knows that, and her response to the Berlin attack was deliberately low-key: “I know that it would be particularly difficult for us all to bear if it turned out that the person who committed this act was someone who sought protection and asylum in Germany.”

But Horst Seehofer, the leader of the Christian Social Union, the permanent political partner of Merkel’s own Christian Democratic Union, urged the chancellor “to rethink our immigration and security policy and to change it.” He was implicitly saying that she was wrong last year to give shelter to almost a million refugees, a majority of them Muslims.

Frauke Petry, the co-leader of Germany’s far-right ‘Alternative for Germany’ party (AfD), said it more plainly: “The milieu in which such acts can flourish has been negligently and systematically imported over the past year and a half.” Angela Merkel is now under great political pressure to “crack down” on Germany’s Muslims, including millions who have been born there.

As for Donald Trump, he was tweeting within hours: “Today there were terror attacks in Turkey, Switzerland and Germany – and it is only getting worse. The civilized world must change thinking!” (He says he has a “big brain”, but even so he should attend the intelligence briefings. The Swiss attack actually involved a Ghanaian-born Swiss citizen shooting Muslims in a mosque.)

The US Precedent-elect later expanded on his thoughts: “Isis and other Islamist terrorists continually slaughter Christians in their communities and places of worship as part of their global jihad. These terrorists and their regional and worldwide networks must be eradicated from the face of the Earth, a mission we will carry out with all freedom-loving partners.”

So how will he do that? Invade some more Muslim countries? Round up Muslim Americans and put them in camps, like they did to Japanese-Americans in World War II? If he did anything like that, he would only be serving the purposes of the Islamist terrorists. He would be, in Lenin’s famous phrase, a “useful idiot”.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 7. (“Does…transgressive”; and “The media…important”)

Aleppo and the Media

The stop-go evacuation of rebel fighters and civilians from Aleppo had begun again as I write, but the reason for the last interruption was instructive. It was Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda) that burned the buses coming to evacuate the wounded from Foah and Kefraya.

The same organisation dominates the rebel forces in Aleppo, and its propaganda has worked very well. According to Western media, the city of Aleppo has not just been “destroyed”; it has been “annihilated”. There has not only been a “massacre”; there has been a “genocide”.

Official sources have not been much better. Last week at the UN Security Council, US ambassador Samantha Power compared what was happening in Aleppo to other scenes of slaughter “that define modern evil, that stain our conscience decades later…Rwanda, Srebrenica and, now, Aleppo.”

Really?

In Rwanda, an estimated 800,000 people, most of them from the Tutsi minority, were murdered by the militia of the Hutu regime in 1994 in a period of three and a half months. About 20 percent of the country’s population, and up to 70 percent of its Tutsis, were killed.

In Srebrenica in 1995, 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys, civilians who had been living under UN “protection”, were systematically shot and buried by Serbian troops in a single day. That was a genocide too, although the numbers were far smaller than in Rwanda. The victims were killed BECAUSE they were Muslims.

So does Aleppo really belong on this grim list? We don’t know the exact number of civilians who died there, but a reasonable guess would be that between one thousand and several thousand civilians were killed by bombs and shellfire during the final four months of the siege.

That would be a dreadful toll even if eastern Aleppo had really held 250,000 civilians, as the rebels claimed. The real number of civilians was far lower than that, maybe as little as a quarter as many, which would mean that the civilian death rate was even worse.

But that is what happens in sieges, even when they are conducted by people much nicer than Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Does anybody really believe that the civilian death toll will be lower if and when the Iraqi army retakes the besieged city of Mosul?

Nothing that has happened so far in either city is a patch on what happened to civilians in Leningrad in 1941-42, or in Manila and Berlin in 1945. And by the way, Aleppo has not been “annihilated”, although there has been massive destruction in the eastern suburbs and considerable damage in the centre.

In the western half of Aleppo, where the regime never lost control, around a million people have gone about their daily lives almost as normal, losing only a dozen or so dead a month to the shells and rockets that the rebels fired into their zone.

I’m not writing this as a defence of the Assad regime, but because we need to understand why the Western media peddled such a distorted picture of what was going on.

The problem was that the ten thousand fighters who controlled eastern Aleppo (but were never mentioned or seen in any of the reports that came out of there) also controlled the people who were doing the blogs and uploading the images. The civilians were the rebels’ most valuable resource. Indeed, they frequently killed civilians who tried to leave.

Some of the bloggers and videographers probably supported the extreme Islamist groups who dominated the rebel forces in eastern Aleppo. Others may have been less keen on their local rulers, although they all backed the revolt against Assad. But they all knew that the penalty for saying or showing things that displeased their juhadi rulers would be arrest and torture, perhaps death.

The rebels wanted the siege to be portrayed as a senseless and brutal assault on civilians (and only on civilians) because their only hope was to shock and shame foreign powers, especially the United States, into intervening militarily and stopping the siege. It was never likely to happen, but they obviously thought it was worth a try.

And the Western media ran this propaganda because nothing else was available. Foreign journalists did not dare to enter eastern Aleppo because they knew they would be killed. If they were allowed to report freely, it would spoil the rebels’ game.

A lot of news editors understood just what the game was, but they used the material anyway – and they did not warn the audience that it was, in effect, propaganda. So it’s not surprising that even normally sensible grown-ups are resorting to the apocalyptic rhetoric we have been hearing recently.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 9. (“That…worse”)