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Archive for April, 2017

(Not Quite Universal) Basic Income

In Switzerland last June, they had a referendum on a universal basic income that would have given each adult Swiss citizen $2,500 per month. It was a truly universal basic income, because it would have gone to everybody whether they were working or not – and the horrified Swiss rejected it by a majority of more than three-to-one.

In Finland last January, the government actually launched a pilot programme for a “basic income”, but it was a timid little thing that gives the participants in the trial just $600 per month. It certainly isn’t universal: it only goes to jobless people who are receiving the lowest level of unemployment benefit.

And in Canada last Sunday, the province of Ontario launched a pilot programme that sits somewhere between the other two. It pays out more than the Finns – CAD $1,400 a month (US $1,050). Moreover, you don’t have to be unemployed to get it, just poor.

“The project will explore the effectiveness of providing a basic income to people who are currently living on low incomes, whether they are working or not,” explained Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne. But it’s still far from universal, and its supporters are keen to stress that the ultimate goal is to get people back into work. As is Finland, they believe (or at least profess to believe) that the only real solution to poverty is full employment.

In the early 21st century, this quaint belief is about as credible as the Easter Bunny, but in last November’s US presidential election campaign both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were still peddling the same sepia-tinted fantasy of crowded assembly lines and the return of the Good Old Days.

Trump was even promising to “bring back the jobs” from abroad, as if they were all now sitting in China or Mexico. He may or may not know that most of the missing jobs whose loss created the “Rust Belt” were killed by automation and simply don’t exist any more, but he certainly doesn’t mention it in public. And Clinton was equally reticent about the fact that full employment is not a realistic option for the future.

A lot of other people have finally focussed on the real future, however, because if you want to understand the rise of Trump you first have to acknowledge what automation is doing to jobs, especially in the United States. And then you have to figure out how to prevent this huge shift from causing a great political, economic and social disaster.

That is why Universal Basic Income is now a hot topic in political circles throughout the developed democratic countries: it might prevent that disaster. But the curious thing is that none of trials now being undertaken is actually universal, with everybody getting the same “basic income” regardless of what other income they may have. Why not?

UBI is not meant to be merely a more effective and less bureaucratic means of helping the poor. It is also intended to abolish the stigma of “unemployment” and the misery, anger, and political extremism it breeds. If everybody gets the basic income as a right, the argument goes, then receiving it causes neither shame nor anger. And if the anger abates, then maybe democratic political systems can survive automation.

But nobody really thinks we should introduce UBI at a national scale today. We will need a majority of people to go on working for a long time to come, and we don’t even know whether enough people would choose to do so after they start receiving the basic income. That is one of the questions that the current pilot programmes are designed to answer.

However, these UBI test programmes are being smuggled in disguised as anti-poverty projects, with the announced objectives of streamlining the system and encouraging people to re-enter the job market. That’s because the public really isn’t ready for full-blooded UBI. There is a very strong popular belief that people should work for a living, even if the society as a whole is very rich and the work doesn’t actually need to be done.

This prejudice applies especially strongly to the poor. As Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith once put it, “Leisure is very good for the rich, quite good for Harvard professors – and very bad for the poor. The wealthier you are, the more you are thought to be entitled to leisure. For anyone on welfare, leisure is a bad thing.”

So these early experiments with guaranteed income pretend to be aimed solely at getting people back into work. But meantime they will be gathering valuable data about the actual behaviour of people who have a guaranteed basic income.

When the supporters of UBI come back with concrete proposals for national systems in five or ten years’ time, they may have much more solid arguments than they do now.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 6. (“Trump…future”).

So Much for the Populist Wave

In his victory speech on Sunday night Emmanuel Macron, the next president of France, said: “I want to become…the president of the patriots in the face of the threat from the nationalists.” The distinction would be lost on most Trump supporters in the United States and on the “Little Englanders” who voted for Brexit in Britain, but it’s absolutely clear to the French, and indeed to most Europeans.

In the United States the preferred word is “patriot”, but it usually just means “nationalist”, with flags flaunted and slogans chanted. “America First” says Trump, and the crowd replies “USA all the way!”

You can’t imagine a British election rally doing that – the United Kingdom is too close to mainland Europe, where that sort of thing ended very badly – but the English nationalism behind Brexit was painfully obvious. For some in both countries it’s actually “white nationalism”, but even the many non-racists who voted for Trump or Brexit draw the line at the border or the water’s edge. There’s “us”, and on the far side there’s “them”.

Whereas the French men and women who voted for Macron understand the difference between patriotism and nationalism very well. They will have to vote for Macron again in the run-off election on 7 May, when his opponent will be the neo-fascist candidate, Marine Le Pen, but in that round they will be joined by almost all the people who voted for other presidential candidates in the first round. She is a nationalist; they are patriots.

In Europe, nationalism is linked in the collective memory with the catastrophe of the last century’s great wars, and the racism that is often associated with it triggers images of Nazi extermination camps. Not all Europeans are immune to that kind of nationalism or political phenomena like Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Beppo Grillo in Italy could not exist, but they remain a minority almost everywhere.

That was not obvious four months ago. After the Brexit vote last June and Trump’s election in November, Europe’s ultra-nationalists were convinced that their moment had finally come – and many observers feared that they were right. Brexit seemed like the first step towards the break-up of the European Union, and from the Netherlands to Austria it felt like the fascists were at the door.

Not so. Wilders’s party gained only a few seats in last month’s Dutch election and remains very much a minority taste. Marine Le Pen is no closer to the French presidency than her openly fascist father was fifteen years ago: the National Front vote never breaks through the 25 percent ceiling. And the hard-right, anti-immigrant, anti-EU “Alternative for Germany” party has lost its leader and one-third of its popular support in the past month.

Some of this is simply disillusionment. Significant numbers of Europeans were initially tempted to back local populist parties by the sheer flamboyance of Trump’s US electoral campaign. After all, Europeans also worry about immigration and terrorism and unemployment, and his rude and crude rhetoric seemed to validate the similar language of their own populist leaders.

But the reality of the dysfunctional Trump White House has turned off most of those recent European converts to populist politics. By and large the hard-right parties of Europe are back where they were before The Donald burst upon the scene, with almost no chance of gaining real political power. It was a false alarm.

The “populist wave” that seemed to be sweeping through Western politics turns out to be merely a storm in the much smaller teacup known as the “Anglosphere”. It’s only known this way to Europeans, who use the word, often tinged with contempt, to describe the deregulated economies and market-obsessed politics of the post-Reagan United States and post-Thatcher United Kingdom. (Australia occasionally gets an honourable mention too.)

For a quarter of a century the politics of the Anglosphere has been consistently subservient to “the market” even when purportedly left-wing leaders like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair were in power. The result, as you would expect, has been somewhat higher economic growth rates, and a rapidly widening gulf between the incomes of the rich and the rest.

The rest of the West has not been immune to this political fashion, but it has been far less prominent in the countries of the European Union (and even in deviant anglophone countries like Canada and New Zealand). Now the disparity in incomes between the 1 percent and the 99 percent has grown so great in the heartlands of the Anglosphere that the political chickens are coming home to roost.

The response in both the United States and the United Kingdom is not real populism, which for all its faults does at least try to shrink income inequalities. It is standard right-wing politics in a populist style, using nationalism to distract the victims from the fact that these governments actually serve the rich.

Move along, please. There’s nothing new to see here.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“Some…alarm”)

The French Election

Here’s how the French presidential election is going to work. This Sunday’s vote will pick the leading two candidates, who will then have another two weeks to campaign for the run-off vote. But the leading four candidates are now bunched together so closely in the polls that any two of them could make it through to the second round. Including a couple of quite worrisome people.

The permutations and combinations are mind-bendingly complex. One reporter interpreted the pollsters’ latest attempt to predict the second-round outcome as follows: “Macron would win the run-off against any opponent, while Le Pen would lose. Melencthon would defeat everyone except Macron and Fillon would lose to all except Le Pen.”

The point, however, is that nobody knows which two will actually be in the second round. The four main candidates are all predicted to win beween 19 and 22 percent of the votes this Sunday, a spread that is no greater than the polls’ margin of error. And as of last weekend, one-third of the voters were still undecided.

So there are six possible outcomes to this Sunday’s vote – and one of them, just as plausible as the others, would see the fascist and the crypt-communist fighting it out for the presidency in the second round.

Two of the candidates, Emmanuel Macron and Francois Fillon, are worthy centrist figures in the traditional mould of French presidents. Macron, a former investment banker, has a younger, more modern vibe, something like a French Justin Trudeau, but neither man poses any serious threat to the status quo. Whereas the other two….

Marine Le Pen inherited the National Front from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded it in 1972 as an anti-immigrant, ultra-nationalist, neo-fascist movement. He gloried in outraging mainstream opinion, even indulging in Holocaust denial, but fifteen years ago he made it into the presidential run-off.

And that’s as far as he got. Every other party’s voters united in support of the rival candidate, Jacques Chirac (some holding their noses – one slogan was “vote for the crook, not the fascist”), and the senior Le Pen was resoundingly defeated, getting only 18 percent of the run-off votes. Which taught his daughter that anti-Semitism doesn’t win votes any more. But anti-Muslim rhetoric still does, and extreme nationalism still works too.

“My first measure as president will be to reinstate France’s borders,” she said this week. Out-Trumping Trump, she promised to stop all immigration to France right away, and to allow only 10,000 a year to come in when the total ban is relaxed. She also promises to pull France out of the euro common currency, and to hold a Brexit-style referendum on leaving the European Union altogether.

If France followed Britain out of the EU, the organisation would probably not survive. With the EU’s second- and third-largest economies gone, Germany would utterly dominate the remaining 25 smaller economies, which would prove an unsustainable relationship in the end. And without the discipline of EU membership, it’s likely that former Eastern European members would drift into internal repression and external conflicts.

Jean-Luc Melenchon, the other rogue candidate, also dislikes the European Union. He says he would rather change the EU radically than leave it, but in practice he is just as nationalist as Le Pen, and a good deal more radical socially. As a student, he was a Trotskyist activist.

Today Melenchon is just hard left, but very hard. He wants to quit the NATO alliance, the World Trade Organisation, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, all of which are “instruments of a failing global capitalism”. He wants to limit pay for CEOs to 20 times the salary of their worst-paid employee, and impose an absolute income ceiling of 400,000 euros ($425,000), above which the tax rate rises to 100 percent.

He’s as enthusiastic about Vladimir Putin as Trump was until a few months ago. He’s also a fan of the late Hugo Chavez of Venezuela (whom Trump does not openly admire, but whose political style he closely emulates). Melenchon is sharp and innovative: on some days he appears in half a dozen cities as once, speaking as a live-action hologram.

He’s funny, too. “Once again, they are announcing that my election win will set off a nuclear winter, a plague of frogs, Red Army tanks and a landing of Venezuelans,” he wrote in a recent blog post. That’s not true, of course, but it certainly would make Europe a very different place politically.

So how likely is this apocalyptic Le Pen-Melenchon run-off in May? Maybe one chance in six, because the voters can only choose one candidate, not which two they want to see in the run-off. And who would win a Le Pen-Melenchon contest? Probably Melenchon, because he could persuade more people to hold their noses and vote for an ex-Trotskyist than Le Pen could convince to vote for the unshriven daughter of a fascist.

The Trotskyists, you see, never invaded France.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 13. (“If France…conflicts”; and “He’s funny…politically”)

Burma’s (Not) Mother Teresa

12 April 2017

Burma’s (Not) Mother Teresa
By Gwynne Dyer

“I’m just a politician,” said Burma’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, in a BBC interview last week; “I’m no Mother Teresa.” Fair enough: she has a country to run, and an army to hold at bay. But she’s no Nelson Mandela either, and that has deeply disappointed some people (including fellow holders of the Nobel Peace Prize) who expected better of her.

The issue that most upsets them is her refusal to take a firm stand on the mistreatment of the Rohingya minority, Muslims of Bengali descent who live in Rakhine state in south-western Burma. Since an outbreak of communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims in the state in 2013, the army has treated the Rohingyas with great brutality, and at least a hundred thousand have fled into neighbouring Bangladesh for safety.

The repression has been particularly bad in the past year, with many Rohingyas in the northern part of the state raped or murdered by the army, and foreign critics have begun to describe the events in Rakhine state as “ethnic cleansing”. “I think ethnic cleansing is too strong an expression to use for what is happening,” she said in the BBC interview, and a new wave of (foreign) outrage swept over her.

It is not too strong an expression at all. There is great prejudice among Burmese Buddhists against the country’s 4 percent Muslim minority, and especially against the Rohingyas. It is the one issue on which the majority of the population agrees with the generals, not with Aung San Suu Kyi – and she has no control over how the army behaves.

After decades of house arrest and years of campaigning, “the lady” (as she is known in Burma) finally took power from the army last year. But the army-written constitution gives the solders complete control of all “security matters”, and indeed does not even permit her to be the president. (They wrote it specifically to ban Burmese citizens with foreign relatives, like her British-born sons, from becoming president.)

So the “state counsellor”, as she is officially known, is in power, but not very securely. The army could decide to take power back at any moment, alhough it would probably face massive popular resistance if it did. For that reason, she doesn’t go out of her way to pick fights with the generals.

Even when she was asked by the BBC whether the Burmese army’s actions in Rakhine were aggressive, she refused to agree. Instead she produced the kind of diversionary talk that the Sean Spicers of the world spout under pressure: “I think there’s a lot of hostility (in Rakhine). It’s Muslims killing Muslims as well, if they think that they are collaborating with authorities … It’s people on different sides of a divide.”

No it’s not. It’s the army torturing and murdering Muslims almost at random in northern Rakhine in retaliation for a terrorist attack on police outposts that happened months ago, and that the victims had nothing to do with. Most of the local Buddhists support the attacks on Muslims, but it’s men in uniform who carry them out.

Aung San Suu Kyi didn’t order the soldiers to commit these crimes, and she can’t order them to stop. She can’t even publicly condemn them, because the army might turn against her – and because most Buddhists in Burma probably approve of the army’s actions too.

Burmese Buddhists are paranoid about the perils of a Muslim take-over. It’s ridiculous, given the tiny size of the Muslim minority, but there is real fear about what happened centuries ago to other once-Buddhist, now-Muslim countries from Afghanistan to Indonesia. If Suu Kyi ignores that ugly fact, she risks handing the country back to the army.

Nelson Mandela had it easy by comparison. Like her, he gained his status as a secular saint by steadfastly demanding democracy through decades of imprisonment, but when he became South Africa’s first freely elected president in 1994 he really had the power. There was no fear that the apartheid regime might come back and evict him. He made wise decisions, gave up the presidency after one term, and died still a saint.

Aung San Suu Kyi has no such luck. She has, miraculously, persuaded a clique of greedy, autocratic, hyper-nationalist generals to surrender most of their political power voluntarily. But it was a deal in which she had to guarantee them freedom of action in their own domain, although she intends to re-write that constitution when she can.

In the meantime, she is undoubtedly doing what she can to limit the army’s cruelty in Rakhine state, but she is not going to throw away Burma’s first chance of a real democracy after almost sixty years of military rule by going public about it. It’s not sainthood, but it does qualify as wise political leadership.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“No…too”)