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Archive for August, 2019

Brexit: Johnson Makes His Move

Shock! Horror! Johnson prorogues Parliament! End of democracy in Britain! The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, says he was not even consulted, and calls it “a constitutional outrage.”

Or, to put it a little less dramatically, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has cut the amount of time that parliament will meet before he crashes the United Kingdom out of the European Union in a ‘no-deal’ Brexit on 31 October by six working days.

Johnson will face parliament for the first time as prime minister on 4 September, but they will all go off on holiday again on 10 September, not on the 13th as scheduled. And then parliament won’t meet again until 14 October, not on the originally planned date of 9 October. So no need to panic, and a rather small constitutional outrage.

Great commotion in the media, of course, but the reports that zombies will roam the streets of London eating the children of Remainers after Britain’s ‘no-deal’ departure from the EU on Halloween are absolutely untrue. (There have, however, been some werewolf sightings in the City.)

Johnson is an accidental prime minister. Few people even in his own Conservative Party thought he was fit for the job, but they panicked after the Conservatives came fifth – fifth! – in last May’s European Union elections.

The British only voted in those elections at all because Theresa May’s government still hadn’t managed to leave the EU after three years of trying. It lost so badly because a lot of Brexit-backing Conservatives defected to Nigel Farage’s single-issue Brexit Party in exasperation, and to win them back the Conservatives had to change leaders.

So out goes May and in comes Johnson, who may be a liar and a clown but is popular with Conservative voters. And this new prime minister, chosen only by a vote of Conservative Party members, inherits the task of keeping the Party’s promise to take the UK out of the EU. Alas, the parliamentary arithmetic to do that still does not work.

The Conservative government has only a one-vote majority in parliament, but that’s the smaller part of the problem. The bigger part is that Conservative members of parliament are so split on the question of Brexit that there is no exit deal that all of them will vote for.

Theresa May did actually negotiate a realistic exit deal with the EU late last year that allowed for a smooth continuation of trade and avoided the danger of re-creating a ‘hard’ border in Ireland. Unfortunately, that enraged the extremist ‘head-bangers’ on the far right of the Conservative Party so much that they voted May’s deal down three times.

The alternative is simply to leave without a deal. That means accepting a huge hit to British trade (half of which is with the EU), a crash in the value of the pound, and a great many lost British jobs. Johnson himself is no head-banger, but he is a chameleon who will change colour if it serves his purposes, and he has adopted the no-deal policy in order to become prime minister.

This still does not end the Conservative Party’s civil war over Brexit, because a small number of moderates on the other wing of the party will rebel and vote against a no-deal Brexit rather than see the country dragged into economic ruin. They may be as few as a dozen, but that might be enough to bring the government down.

So where are the opposition parties in all this? All over the place, is the answer. There are four of them, and they can’t agree on the time of day, let alone on a common strategy for stopping ‘no-deal’.

Given time they might, because it is really their duty to avoid economic disaster in Britain, avert a new war in Ireland, and hold the United Kingdom together. (Scotland will probably secede if there is a no-deal Brexit.) But they are taking their own sweet time about it.

That’s why Johnson thinks it’s worth taking flak for cutting down the number of days parliament will meet between now and 31 October. The fewer days the opposition has to work on the problem, the less likely they are to get all their ducks in a row. It’s as simple as that, and it’s entirely legal.

So what are the odds that Britain will really commit this massive act of self-harm? About the same as they were last week, actually. On learning of Johnson’s new move on Wednesday morning, analysts at the Royal Bank of Canada raised the probability of Britain crashing out of the EU without an exit deal to 44%. Last week it was 41%.

Small crisis, not many hurt.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 13. (“The British…leaders”; and “Given…about it”)

By Gwynne Dyer

Shock! Horror! Johnson prorogues Parliament! End of democracy in Britain! The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, says he was not even consulted, and calls it “a constitutional outrage.”

Or, to put it a little less dramatically, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has cut the amount of time that parliament will meet before he crashes the United Kingdom out of the European Union in a ‘no-deal’ Brexit on 31 October by six working days.

Johnson will face parliament for the first time as prime minister on 4 September, but they will all go off on holiday again on 10 September, not on the 13th as scheduled. And then parliament won’t meet again until 14 October, not on the originally planned date of 9 October. So no need to panic, and a rather small constitutional outrage.

Great commotion in the media, of course, but the reports that zombies will roam the streets of London eating the children of Remainers after Britain’s ‘no-deal’ departure from the EU on Halloween are absolutely untrue. (There have, however, been some werewolf sightings in the City.)

Johnson is an accidental prime minister. Few people even in his own Conservative Party thought he was fit for the job, but they panicked after the Conservatives came fifth – fifth! – in last May’s European Union elections.

The British only voted in those elections at all because Theresa May’s government still hadn’t managed to leave the EU after three years of trying. It lost so badly because a lot of Brexit-backing Conservatives defected to Nigel Farage’s single-issue Brexit Party in exasperation, and to win them back the Conservatives had to change leaders.

So out goes May and in comes Johnson, who may be a liar and a clown but is popular with Conservative voters. And this new prime minister, chosen only by a vote of Conservative Party members, inherits the task of keeping the Party’s promise to take the UK out of the EU. Alas, the parliamentary arithmetic to do that still does not work.

The Conservative government has only a one-vote majority in parliament, but that’s the smaller part of the problem. The bigger part is that Conservative members of parliament are so split on the question of Brexit that there is no exit deal that all of them will vote for.

Theresa May did actually negotiate a realistic exit deal with the EU late last year that allowed for a smooth continuation of trade and avoided the danger of re-creating a ‘hard’ border in Ireland. Unfortunately, that enraged the extremist ‘head-bangers’ on the far right of the Conservative Party so much that they voted May’s deal down three times.

The alternative is simply to leave without a deal. That means accepting a huge hit to British trade (half of which is with the EU), a crash in the value of the pound, and a great many lost British jobs. Johnson himself is no head-banger, but he is a chameleon who will change colour if it serves his purposes, and he has adopted the no-deal policy in order to become prime minister.

This still does not end the Conservative Party’s civil war over Brexit, because a small number of moderates on the other wing of the party will rebel and vote against a no-deal Brexit rather than see the country dragged into economic ruin. They may be as few as a dozen, but that might be enough to bring the government down.

So where are the opposition parties in all this? All over the place, is the answer. There are four of them, and they can’t agree on the time of day, let alone on a common strategy for stopping ‘no-deal’.

Given time they might, because it is really their duty to avoid economic disaster in Britain, avert a new war in Ireland, and hold the United Kingdom together. (Scotland will probably secede if there is a no-deal Brexit.) But they are taking their own sweet time about it.

That’s why Johnson thinks it’s worth taking flak for cutting down the number of days parliament will meet between now and 31 October. The fewer days the opposition has to work on the problem, the less likely they are to get all their ducks in a row. It’s as simple as that, and it’s entirely legal.

So what are the odds that Britain will really commit this massive act of self-harm? About the same as they were last week, actually. On learning of Johnson’s new move on Wednesday morning, analysts at the Royal Bank of Canada raised the probability of Britain crashing out of the EU without an exit deal to 44%. Last week it was 41%.

Small crisis, not many hurt.
_____________________________________
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 13. (“The British…leaders”; and “Given…about it”)

Amazon Fires

The Amazon is not on fire. There are fires in the Amazon rainforest, as there are every year in July-September, because this is the dry season. There may be more fires than usual this year, and it may even be the fault of Jair Bonsonaro, the Trump mini-me who became the president of Brazil last January, but that is not clear.

Yet there now is a great outcry, with French president Emmanuel Macron saying that Bolsonaro lied to him about his stance on climate change. Macron is even threatening to withhold French ratification of the recently signed free trade agreement between the European Union and Mercosur (of which Brazil is the biggest member).

British prime minister Bori Johnson declares that it is “an international crisis”, and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel calls the fires “an acute emergency…for the whole world.” The Finnish foreign minister even suggests that the European Union should boycott Brazilian beef. Concerted international action at last!

Well, no. They might have done it at the G7 summit of the world’s richest countries last weekend in Biarritz, but they all knew it would just prompt another Donald Trump walk-out like last year’s. And some of their advisers may be warning them by now that they are not on very safe ground when they paint Bolsonaro as the sole culprit of the piece.

Bolsonaro is not a good person. He is an obtuse and obnoxious bully who doesn’t give a fig about the climate and advocates ‘developing’ the Amazon in ways that would ultimately destroy the rainforest.

When environmental activists claimed that farmers encouraged by Bolsonaro’s incendiary rhetoric were setting fires to clear Amazonian land for ranching, he blamed the activists themselves, saying that they were setting the fires to discredit him. He had no evidence, he admitted, but he had a “feeling” about it.

Of course Brazilian farmers and the agribusiness interests behind them are setting fires to destroy bits of the forest, but this is not new with Bolsonaro. The amount of forest they destroyed annually went into steady decline after the Workers’ Party (PT) took power in 2003, but the damage has been trending back up again since the last PT president, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached by Congress (on spurious charges) in 2015.

Bolsonaro is definitely the icing on the cake, but it’s questionable how much impact he has had after less than eight months in power. The number of fines handed out for illegal burning has dropped by a third this year, but the great majority of illegal burns always went unpunished anyway.

When Brazil’s National Space Research Institute reported an 88% increase in deforestation in June compared with the same month a year ago, nobody except Bolsonaro questioned the data. But that was before this year’s burning season (Queimada) began, and presumably referred to losses of forest due to illegal logging and land-clearing for mining operations, not to fires.

When the same Brazilian space institute claimed more recently that satellite data showed an 83% increase this year in forest fires, mainly in the Amazon region, Bolsonaro promptly fired its director, claiming that he was manipulating the data for political reasons.

Bolsonaro’s relationship with the truth is as distant as Trump’s, but it must be pointed out that NASA’s Earth Observatory, also relying on satellite data, reported on 22 August that “total fire activity across the Amazon basin this year has been close to the average in comparison to the past 15 years.”

There is, to be sure, a pall of smoke hanging over Sao Paulo, Brazil’s biggest city, at the moment. It’s as bad as Singapore six years ago or Vancouver last summer, and there’s no doubt that it comes from forest fires. They are, however, fires in the Bolivian part of the Amazon, not Brazil’s.

What the hell, you may say. Bolsonaro may not be guilty this time, but he’s guilty of lots of other things, so let’s hang him anyway. This is not a wise way of proceeding, even if you are doing it with the best of intentions.

The data about the climate crisis are always complicated and open to dispute, because the planet is a very complex system. Those who claim to understand enough about it to offer policy advice must be above suspicion, and to go along with the assertion that ‘the Amazon is on fire’ and that it’s all Bolsonaro’s fault is neither prudent or provable.

Although I must admit that it’s very tempting.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraph 6. (“When…it”)

Converging Crises

Maybe we can get through the climate crisis without a global catastrophe, although that door is closing fast. And maybe we can cope with the huge loss of jobs caused by the revolution in robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) without a social and political calamity.

But can we do both at the same time?

We should know how to deal with the AI revolution, because we have been down this road before. It’s a bit different this time, of course, in the sense that the original industrial revolution in 1780-1850 created as many new jobs (in manufacturing) as it destroyed (in cottage industries and skilled trades).

The AI revolution, by contrast, is not producing nearly enough replacement jobs, but it is making us much wealthier. The value of manufactured goods doubled in the United States in the past thirty years even as the number of good industrial jobs fell by a third (8 million jobs gone). Maybe we could use that extra wealth to ease the transition to a job-scarce future.

The climate emergency is unlike any challenge we have faced before. Surmounting it would require an unprecedented level of global cooperation and very big changes in how people consume and behave, neither of which human beings have historically been good at.

These two crises are already interacting. The erosion of middle-class jobs and the stagnation (or worse) of real wage levels generates resentment and anger among the victims that is already creating populist, authoritarian regimes throughout the world. These regimes despise international cooperation and often deny climate change as well (Trump in the US, Bolsonaro in Brazil).

And there is a recession coming. Maybe not this year, although almost all the storm signals are flying: stock markets spooked, a rush into gold, nine major economies already in recession or on the verge of one, an ‘inverted yield curve’ on bonds, and trade wars spreading. Even Donald Trump is worried, which is why he postponed the harsher US trade tariffs against China that were due next month.

Economists have predicted nine of the past five recessions, as they say in the trade, so I’m not calling the turn on this one. But a recession is overdue, and a lot of the damage done by the Great Recession of 2008 has still not been repaired. Interest rates are still very low, so the banks have little room to cut rates and soften the next one. When it arrives, it could be a doozy.

So what can we do about all this? The first thing is to recognise that we cannot plot a course that takes us from here and now through all the changes and past all the unpleasant surprises to ultimate safety, maybe fifty years from now.

We can plan how to get through the next five years, and we should be thinking hard about what will be needed later on. But we can’t steer a safe and steady course to the year 2070, any more than intelligent decision-makers in 1790 could have planned how to get through to 1840 without too much upheaval. They might have seen steam engines, but they would have had no idea what a railroad was.

We are in the same position as those people with regard to both AI and the global environmental emergency (which extends far beyond ‘climate change’, although that is at its heart). We know a good deal about both issues, but not enough to be confident about our choices – and besides, they may well mutate and head off in unforeseen directions as the crises deepen.

But there are two big things we can do right now. We need to stop the slide into populist and increasingly authoritarian governments (because we are not going to stop the spread of AI). And we have to win ourselves more time to get our greenhouse gas emissions under control (because we are certainly going to go through 450 parts per million of carbon dioxide equivalent, which would give us +2̊ C higher average global temperature).

The best bet for getting our politics back on track is a guaranteed minimum income high enough to keep everybody comfortable whether they are working or not. That is well within the reach of any developed country’s economy, and has the added benefit of putting enough money into people’s pockets to save everybody’s business model.

And the best way to win more time on the climate front is to start geo-engineering (direct intervention in the atmosphere to hold the global temperature down) as soon as we get anywhere near +2̊ C. To be ready then, we need to be doing open-air testing on a small scale now.

There will be howls of protest from the right about a guaranteed minimum income, and from the greener parts of the left about geo-engineering. However, both will probably be indispensable if we want to get through these huge changes without mass casualties or even civilisational collapse.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 8. (“And there…doozy”)

Greenland’s Gamble

From his purchase of New Jersey casinos to his proposed acquisition of Greenland, Donald Trump’s real estate deals have always been plagued by bad timing. The United States could probably have bought Greenland from Denmark in 1917 (when it did buy the US Virgin Islands from the Danes), but he’s a century too late now.

Nevertheless, his latest bad idea does give us an incentive to catch up with what’s been happening in Greenland, and it’s quite interesting. Trump may not know this, since he rarely reads intelligence reports, but in November 2017 Greenland’s premier, Kim Kielsen, led a government delegation to Beijing to seek Chinese investment.

Greenland, the world’s biggest island, is not yet fully independent, but it is autonomous from Denmark in everything except foreign affairs and defence. Kielsen was looking mainly for Chinese investment in mining enterprises, but he was also interested in attracting a Chinese bid to build three modern airports in the island, which currently depends on World War II-era airstrips.

This set off a security panic in NATO, involving implausible nightmare visions about Greenland getting so deep in debt to Chinese banks that it would end up letting China (which has comically declared itself a ‘near-Arctic nation’) operate military aircraft from those airports.

The US military, which has a large air base at Thule in northern Greenland, then took fright. Washington strongly urged the Danish government, which provides two-thirds of Greenland’s budget revenue, to nip this threat in the bud. Copenhagen had previously refused to fund the new Greenland airports, but late last year it suddenly came up with very low-interest loans for them. End of panic.

By then Kim Kielsen’s government in the tiny capital of Nuuk (pop. 17,000) had collapsed, but his Siumut Party came out ahead in the election last April and he is back in power. And the issue of Chinese mines in Greenland is still on the table.

In fact, there already is one in southern Greenland, producing uranium and rare earths for a Chinese-Australian consortium. Other projects potentially involving Chinese capital (and Chinese workers) are under discussion, including a huge open-cast iron-ore mine near Nuuk, a zinc mine in the north, and both offshore and onshore oil and gas leases.

For the 56,000 Greenlanders, 90% of whom are Inuit (Eskimo), the geostrategic implications of Chinese investment are irrelevant – and they are probably right about that. What worries them, and occupies a central place in Greenlandic politics, is the cultural and social implications of foreign investment by anybody, Chinese or not.

The Greenland Inuit are one of the few indigenous society in the world that has full or almost full control over its own destiny, but the impact of the modern world on their traditional culture has been as destructive as it was for all the others: depression and other psychological illnesses, rampant alcoholism and drug use, and an epidemic of suicides.

So they face a choice. Do you go on trying to preserve what is left of the old Arctic hunting and fishing culture, although it’s already so damaged and discouraged that it has the highest suicide rate on the planet? Or do you seek salvation in full modernisation through high-speed economic growth, while keeping your language and what you can of your culture?

What’s remarkable about Greenlandic politics is how aware the players are of their dilemma and their options. “If you want to become rich, it comes at a price,” says Aqqaluk Lynge, one of the founders of the Inuit Ataqatigiit (Community of the People) party that ran the government until 2013.

Lynge and many others didn’t want to pay that price, and under the Inuit Ataqatigiit administration all mining was banned in Greenland. Quite apart from the environmental costs of large-scale mining operations, they believed, the many thousands of foreign workers they would bring in would have a devastating impact on the already very fragile Greenlandic culture.

The decision was made in 2013, when the Siumut Party took power. It believes that modernisation has gone too far to turn back now. Better to gamble on solving the current huge social problems by enabling everybody to live fully modern, prosperous lives. If you’re no longer marginalised and poverty-stricken, you’ll feel better about yourself.

As Aleqa Hammond, Kielsen’s predecessor as premier, said in 2014: “The shock will be profound, but we have faced colonisation, epidemics and modernisation before. The decisions we are making (to open the country up to mining and oil drilling) will have enormous impact on lifestyles and our indigenous culture. But we always come out on top. We are vulnerable, but we know how to adapt.”

Let us hope so, but the die is cast. Greenland will modernise, and in due course we will find out if that helps. It makes little difference to Greenlanders whether the foreign investment comes from Denmark, China or the United States, so long as they have political control – but they certainly don’t want to become Americans.

The ‘Greenland Purchase’ is not going to happen. As Soren Espersen, foreign affairs spokesman of the Danish People’s Party, said last week: “If (Trump) is truly contemplating this, then this is final proof that he has gone mad.”
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 11, 12 and 14. (“What’s…culture”; and “As…adapt”)