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Archive for April, 2018

If The Model Is Broken, Fix It

If the model is broken, should you try to fix it, or should you scrap it and get a new one?

In questions of technology, increasingly the answer is: scrap it. Computer repair shops are dying out: if your laptop doesn’t work, just buy a new one. What applies to consumer technology, however, does not necessarily apply to politics.

The political model of Western-style democracy, which grew up alongside and then within a capitalist economic model, is now broken. Exhibit Number One is Donald Trump, but there’s lots of other evidence too.

One-third of French voters backed Marine Le Pen, a cleaned-up, user-friendly neo-fascist, in last year’s presidential election. In last September’s German election, one-eighth of the electorate voted for Alternative for Germany, a party whose more extreme wing is neo-Nazi – but it is now leads the opposition in the Bundestag, the German parliament.

Last month in Italy, the two biggest parties to emerge from the election were both led by populist rabble-rousers, one from the left and one from the right. Not to mention Brexit in Britain. And in every case the themes that dominated the populists’ rhetoric were racism, nationalism, hostility to immigrants – and jobs.

Trump rarely talked about anything else during the presidential election campaign: immigrants are stealing the jobs, free-trading American businessmen are exporting the jobs, the foreigners are eating America’s lunch. Down with free trade! America First! Etc.! (Hint: Donald Trump is not a Republican. He is a populist.)

Trump may not know a lot, but he knows One Big Thing. We are living in a new era of mass unemployment, and nobody has noticed. As Trump said the night after he won the New Hampshire primary in February 2016: “Don’t believe those phony numbers when you hear 4.9 and 5 percent unemployment. The number’s probably 28, 29, as high as 35. In fact, I even heard recently 42.”

It’s not really 42 percent, but it’s not 4.1 percent (the current official US rate) either. According to Nicholas Eberstadt’s ‘Men Without Work’, the real unemployment rate among American men of prime working age (24-55) – including those who don’t get counted because they have given up looking for work – is 17 percent.

Why didn’t we notice? Because the unemployed weren’t protesting in the streets like they did in the Great Depression of the 1930s, although the rate is getting up to Depression era levels. After the Second World War, all the Western democracies built welfare states, mainly so a new generation of radical populist leaders would not come to power the next time there is mass unemployment.

It has worked, in the sense that there is not blood in the streets this time around, but the jobless millions are very angry even if the welfare state means that they are not starving. They do vote, and unless something is done to ease their anger, next time they may vote for somebody who makes Trump look good by comparison.

But if the problem is unemployment, then the answer is not obvious, because the main cause of unemployment in Western countries is not immigration or ‘offshoring’ jobs, as Trump pretends. It is computers.

One-third of American manufacturing jobs have vanished in the past 20 years, and the vast majority of them (85 percent) were destroyed by automation. The algorithms and the robot arms have already killed the Rust Belt, and there is a plausible prediction that almost half of existing American jobs may be automated out of existence in the next 20 years.

What would our politics look like then? Not very democratic, unless we do something to ease the anger of the unemployed. This doesn’t just mean giving them more money – a massive expansion of the welfare state – but also finding way of taking the shame out of unemployment, because it is the humiliation of being seen as a loser that breeds the anger.

The leading proposal on the table right now is called universal basic income (UBI). Every citizen would get enough to live a decent life whether they are working or not, although most people would probably keep working as well in order to have more money. And making it ‘universal’ takes the shame and anger out of it: UBI would be a birthright, not charity handed down to those who have lost their jobs.

UBI may not work in practice, but at least it is addressing the right problem. And there is enough money to take this approach: the jobs are being destroyed, but Western economies are still growing richer.

Whatever the solution is, it has to tick two boxes: putting money in the pockets of those without work (which is very much in the interest of the owners and managers, whose business model is also broken unless their customers have money to buy their goods and services), and doing it in a way that does not breed humiliation, resentment and radicalism.

Some may argue that this is saving capitalism, not smashing it, and they would be right. But evolution is better than revolution, and fixing the model that is currently broken, essentially by a major expansion of the welfare state, is a better bet than abandoning it.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2, 11, 15 and 16. (“In questions…politics”; “But if…computers”; and “It may…radicalism”)

The Old Man Rages

I will do such things,—
What they are, yet I know not: but they shall be
The terrors of the earth.
King Lear, Act II, Scene 4

There are occasions when only Shakespeare will do, and Donald Trump was really, really cross.

There’s still no proof that the Assad regime was responsible for the poison gas attack that killed, according to various reports, forty or seventy-five or even more people in the besieged Syrian town of Douma. Indeed, the Russians, Bashar al-Assad’s faithful ally, maintain that the attack did not even happen.

Moscow suggests that the video footage was faked by the Islamist rebels, or perhaps taken from some previous occasion. There has been no proper investigation, although the Russians offered to escort a team from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to the site of the alleged attack as early as Tuesday. But Trump saw the footage on Fox News, and he was determined to punish the evil ones.

And he did act, although his actions were not exactly ‘the terrors of the Earth’. The missile strike, according to the US defence secretary, General James Mattis, involved “double” the number of missiles that were used in last year’s similar attack. So that’s around 120 Tomahawk cruise missiles, costing around $100 million, delivered on three or four targets that were almost certainly evacuated last weekend.

There were also a few smaller missiles, delivered by British or French aircraft that tagged along after the Americans. They probably came within range of the Russian S-400 air defence system, by general assent the best in the world, but there was no risk of their being shot down. The Russians didn’t turn their system on.

It was a big enough attack to re-arrange the landscape around the alleged “chemical weapons-type targets”, even if Syrian anti-aircraft fire shot down a few of the unmanned missiles (as the Syrians claim). Essentially, however, it was a pantomime event designed to impress a small and unsophisticated audience: Donald J. Trump.

It would appear that the grown-ups really are still in charge in the White House. They couldn’t actually disobey orders, but they could arrange things so that nobody got seriously hurt. They specifically chose targets that would “mitigate the risk of Russian forces being involved,” and the Syrians obviously had time to get their people out of the likely targets too.

The United States even warned the Russians to clear the airspace along the tracks the missiles would follow, so that there would be no accidental encounters with Russian (or Syrian) aircraft. “We used the normal deconfliction channel to deconflict airspace,” explained the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Joseph Dunford. And the Russians obligingly turned off their air defences, since the Western attacks weren’t going to do any serious harm anyway.

President Trump did say that “We are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents,” but that is a perfectly meaningless commitment since Syria is not using them now. If it did use them last week, it has already stopped. As General Mattis said: “Right now, this is a one-time shot.”

So move along, folks. Nothing more to see here. And spare us all the talk (most recently by United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres) about a ‘new Cold War’. There can’t be a new Cold War, because the Russians don’t have the resources to hold up their end of it.

The Russian Federation has half the population of the old Soviet Union, and its economy is about the same size as Italy’s. If Italy spent its budget the way Russia does, it too could have big conventional forces and a nuclear striking force big enough to deter even the United States from attacking it – but it could not sustain a global military confrontation with the NATO powers for even one year. Neither could Russia.

Moscow only commits its forces to areas that really threaten its security (or at least appeal to its own sometimes paranoid definition of what constitutes a security threat). Syria is quite close to Russia, whose own population is more than one-tenth Muslim, so Moscow was unwilling to let Islamist extremists win the Syrian civil war, and in September 2015 it intervened to stop them.

The Russia intervention in Syria has been almost entirely successful: Bashar al-Assad has won the war, and already controls all the big cities and most of the country’s ‘useful’ land. The Washington foreign policy establishment hates this outcome, but it never had a plausible alternative to peddle, nor (after Afghanistan and Iraq) was there the political will in the United States for a major military intervention in Syria.

The Syrian war will end in a year or two, and fleabites like this week’s air strikes will have no influence on the outcome. And Moscow will stop there: it has no further ambitions in the Middle East.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 12. (“There were…on”; and “The Russian…Russia”)

Syria: Two Unconvincing Explanations

The FBI raid on the office, home and hotel room of President Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, may persuade the president that a larger, longer-lasting distraction is needed, but it’s still likely that his response to the alleged poison gas attack by the Syrian government in Douma on Saturday will be short, sharp and soon forgotten.

That’s how it worked last April, when Trump ‘punished’ Bashar al-Assad’s regime for another alleged poison gas attack in rebel-held Idlib province by dropping 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles on the Syrian airbase at Shayrat from which the attack supposedly originated. Lots of explosions, not many hurt, no lasting political consequences.

Trump is talking tougher this time. Asked on Sunday if military action was possible, he said: “Nothing is off the table…If it’s Russia, if it’s Syria, if it’s Iran, if it’s all of them together, we’ll figure it out.” And what if Russian President Vladimir Putin bears some responsibility for the attack? “He may, yeah, he may. And if he does, it’s going to be very tough, very tough. Everybody’s going to pay a price. He will, everybody will.”

It may just be the usual Trump bluster, but the Russians are so concerned that their UN envoy, Vasily Nebenzia, warned on Tuesday that the use of “armed force under mendacious pretext against Syria, where, at the request of the legitimate government of a country, Russian troops have been deployed, could lead to grave repercussions…I would once again beseech you to refrain from the plans that you’re currently developing.”

Now, it’s hard to believe that the Russians would not know if the Syrians were using poison gas: after all, they are using the same air bases. American advisers certainly knew what was going on when they were giving Saddam Hussein targeting data for poison gas attacks against Iranian troops in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.

“The Iraqis never told us that they intended to use nerve gas,” said retired US air Force Col. Rick Francona, who was a military attaché in Baghdad during the 1988 strikes. “They didn’t have to. We already knew.” The Russians would know, too – but then why would they go along with it?

The great puzzle about poison gas use in Syria is that it has no plausible military purpose. The targets are never fighters. The victims in the various videos are always civilians, and using poison gas obviously has a big political price. Why would the Syrian regime pay it, especially when it has already won the military battle?

It just doesn’t make sense for the regime to be deliberately killing civilians with poison gas. Maybe it doesn’t have to make sense: you will often hear explanations that essentially say that Assad and his partners-in-crime are simply evil. They do it because it’s wicked, and because they can. But even then you have to explain why the Russians would let them do it.

Moscow says that the Douma gas attack didn’t actually happen. “Our military specialists have visited this place, along with representatives of the Syrian Red Crescent… and they did not find any trace of chlorine or any other chemical substance used against civilians,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Saturday.

Instead, Lavrov suggested, it was a ‘false flag’ operation in which the besieged rebels deliberately staged a gas attack and blamed it on the Assad regime, or at least used video footage from somewhere else and pretended it had been shot in Douma.

Can you really believe that Syrian rebels would kill their own innocent civilians in such a horrible way? Well, if they are losing the war, and the only way to turn the tide is Western military intervention against Assad, and the only way to mobilise Western opinion to support that intervention is to get him blamed for using poison gas, then maybe they would.

Getting the poison gas would be no problem: the rebels overran about half of Syria in the early stages of the war, and gained control of a number of chemical weapons facilities belonging to the Syrian army. They are almost all Islamist radicals by now, and would be comfortable with the argument that the end justifies the means.

I don’t know which of these explanations for the gas attacks is true. Is it the brutal, incredibly stupid Syrian regime that unfailingly undermines every one of its successes by making a pointless gas attack on civilians just as it wins a major battle fought with conventional weapons?

Or is it ruthless Islamist rebels making false-flag chemical attacks because that is the only thing that might trigger a Western military intervention big enough to save them from ultimate defeat? Very stupid monsters or very clever monsters, or maybe both. Who knows?

What I do know is that I feel as isolated, writing this, as I did back in early 2003 when I was one of the few Western journalists questioning all the nonsense and outright lies about Saddam Hussein’s nuclear and chemical weapons that provided a justification for the invasion of Iraq.

And I know that the evidence is not strong enough either way to justify a major Western military attack on the Assad regime now.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 6 and 12. (“Now…it”; and “Getting…means”)

Three Presidents Face Jail

Presidents and prime ministers who start wars still don’t go to jail, but in democratic countries it is getting common to see presidents facing jail for corruption. In fact, we have had three since last Friday.

In South Korea, former President Park Geun-hye was sentenced to 24 years in prison and fined $17 million on Friday for bribery, extortion, abuse of power and other offences. She is guilty as charged, but she is also a victim.

On Saturday, former South African President Jacob Zuma appeared in a Durban court to face corruption charges over a $2.5 billion arms deal soon after his own party forced him to resign a year before his term ended. Since Zuma’s former financial adviser has already served jail time on identical charges, his chances of a happy retirement seem rather slim.

And on Sunday former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, universally known as ‘Lula’, began serving a 12-year jail term for corruption. However, he’s probably not guilty of anything that would justify his imprisonment.

That’s three gone or going in one weekend, and there are others in the queue – like former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who faces charges that the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi illegally funded his 2007 presidential campaign.

Running a country is clearly a high-risk job, and the people who get the job tend to be risk-takers. Not all of them are rich, and they are exposed to many temptations. Nevertheless, not all cases of corruption are about simple self-enrichment.

Ex-president Park’s was not, although she collected at least $35 million in bribes from major Korean companies including Samsung and the giant retailer Lotte. But Park Geun-hye was doing it all at the behest of her confidante, Choi Soon-sil, the daughter of a preacher and cult leader who won the trust of Park’s father more than forty years ago.

The ex-president’s father, Park Chung-hee, ruled South Korea as a military dictator in the 1970s. When Park Geun-hye’s parents were both assassinated, the orphaned girl was befriended by the preacher’s daughter, Choi Soon-sil, who established a comparable control over her.

In 2013 Park Geun-hye was elected to the presidency, but Choi Soon-sil’s influence never weakened. The bribes that Park received while in office almost all went to foundations controlled by Choi. Both women have gone to jail, and both deserved to, but Park was as much a victim as a villain.

Jacob Zuma’s is a simpler story. He was a major figure in the African National Congress during the decades of struggle against apartheid, first in prison on Robben Island and then in exile as the ANC’s head of military intelligence. (His former chief of staff in that job once described him to me as a “military genius”.)

But Zuma had no money, and when he got political power in post-apartheid South Africa he set about to remedy that problem. There has never been any real doubt that he benefited enormously from the arms purchase deal, and he was forced to resign the deputy presidency in 2005 – but after he was elected as leader of the ANC in 2007 he managed to get the charges dropped.

By 2009 he was the president of South Africa, and for the next nine years the charges remained in abeyance. When he was forced out of office two months ago for further brazen acts of corruption and for general economic mismanagement of the country, the charges were resurrected almost instantly, and now he faces a world of woe. About time, too, many would say.

And Lula? There probably was no crime in the first place. Brazil is going through an enormous corruption scandal and more than half the members of Congress face charges, but so long as they control Congress and the presidency they can probably stave them off. An election is due in October, however, and Lula would probably win it – if he were not in prison.

The crime he is charged with is petty by Brazilian standards: accepting free renovation work when his wife moved to a bigger holiday apartment in the seaside town of Guaraju. His judgement may have been clouded at the time, because he was fighting cancer, but in any case
he was no longer in office and unable to do any political favours in return. He denies the whole thing, but at worst it was foolish to accept the help, not corrupt.

Lula still lives in the industrial city of Sao Bernardo do Campo, 20 km from Sao Paulo, in a modest house within walking distance of the steelworkers union headquarters where I first interviewed him almost forty years ago. He is an honest man of simple tastes, but at the moment he is sitting in jail.

He still has an appeal working its way up through the courts, but it’s unlikely to set him free. The real reason he is in jail is to keep him from contesting the election, so there he will stay.

The rule of law is an excellent thing, but no system devised by human beings is invulnerable to manipulation by other human beings.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 8 and 15. (“That’s…campaign”; “The ex-president’s…her”; and “Lula…jail”)