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Archive for June 15th, 2020

Russian Referendum

28 June 2020
“The very existence of an opportunity for the current president (to be re-elected in 2024), given his major gravitas, would be a stabilising factor for our society,”, said Valentina Tereshkova, former Soviet cosmonaut, first woman in space, and now, at 83, a member of the Russian Duma (parliament).

She was talking about President Vladimir Putin, of course, and she was proposing a constitutional amendment to let him bypass the existing term limit and be re-elected in 2024 (and again in 2030, if he likes). The Duma obediently passed the measure, and Russians are now voting on the new constitution, but she paid a certain price on social media for sucking up to Putin.

“Tereshkova – the first woman who bravely travelled into cosmic cold and darkness, and then brought the entire country there,” read one post, retweeted by opposition leader Alexei Navalny. But Putin will win the referendum on the new constitution without even having to cheat.

The vote was delayed for two months because of the coronavirus: Russia has the world’s third-highest number of infections, although it only admits to 9,000 deaths. Voting is being spread out over a week to minimise the risks, and the results won’t be known until early July.

Government ads urging people to get out and vote (or stay home and vote – for this time only they can do it online) barely mention that the new constitution will ‘reset the clock’ for Putin. That means he will be entitled to run for two more terms as president, which might let him stay in office until 2036, but his advisers reckoned that was more information than people actually needed.

This referendum is rather like a lottery, and all you have to do to win is vote. Text messages told Moscow voters this week that there will be ‘millions of prizes’, from hair-dryers to washing machines and on up. Provincial governments and even private employers are also offering prizes, and the central government is raising pensions and the minimum wage.

Yet Putin was bound to win this referendum even without all these incentives: in twenty years in power, his approval rating has never gone below 65%. The result might drop below that figure this time, because the country’s oil income has halved in recent months and lots of people were already having a tough time economically, but it’s hard to believe that it could fall below 50%.

So why this circus to achieve a big turnout and a large majority? Could Putin be feeling insecure? His abrupt dismissal of the entire government including the prime minister in January might be a clue, and his various public changes of mind on what the new constitution should contain might be another.
But trying to read Putin’s mind like latter-day Kremlinologists is a futile pursuit, and in any case it’s obvious that he has to keep his options open. It must be legal for him to run for re-election when his present term expires in 2024, because if he becomes a lame duck the struggle to succeed him starts now. No mind-reading is necessary to know that.

I would hazard a guess, however, that Putin doesn’t actually know what he will want to do in 2024, when he will be 71. He might have to stay in power because he has made too many enemies to be safe in retirement, but he has never had a grand plan beyond restoring Russia’s status as a great power. If it feels safe, he might just pick a promising successor and quit.

The main point of this discussion, for those of us who aren’t Russians, is to remind ourselves that it isn’t always about us. Russia has its own internal politics and priorities, and most of them are not about foreign policy.

Like any great power of long standing, Russia has a large ‘intelligence’ branch of the government that gets up to various bits of skulduggery overseas. The latest allegations are that the GRU offered bounties to Taliban fighters for killing American and British troops. (But why pay them when they’ll do it for free?)

More plausible claims allege that Moscow’s spies tried to kill Russian exiles in Britain with nerve poison, and that in 2016 they tried to influence the British referendum in favour of Brexit and the US election in favour of Trump. So what? Washington’s spies have overthrown governments from Vietnam to Iran to Chile, and spent a lot of money (along with their British colleagues) trying to influence Russian elections in the 1990s.

It’s what great powers do, and it doesn’t mean they are plotting global conquest. In particular, it doesn’t mean that the Russians are trying to take over the US or British governments or planning a new Cold War. For the most part, they are just busy with their own affairs.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“The vote…needed”)

Four-Day Work Week

As countries in Europe and North America emerge from lock-down and start trying to rebuild their devastated economies, the great concern is jobs.

Unemployment in the US and Canada is over 13%, a post-Second World War high. If it weren’t for subsidies that keep up to a fifth of the working population in paid ‘furloughs’ from their jobs, jobless rates in Europe would be as high or higher. That can’t go on forever, so there is a frantic search for job-saving strategies – and the ‘four-day work week’ keeps coming up.

Like that other proposed magic bullet, the guaranteed basic income, the notion of a four-day working week has been kicking around for a long time. The current emergency has given both ideas a second wind, and neither is nearly as radical or extreme as it sounds.

Less than a century ago the whole industrialised world transitioned from the traditional six-day working week (Saturdays included) to a five-day work-week, for the same pay, with no political upheaval and no significant loss of production. So why don’t we do that again, spread the work around, and save lots of jobs?

Because it doesn’t work like that. The four-day week is not about spreading the load. It is about finding ways for people who already have jobs to squeeze the same work into four 10-hour working days instead of five 8-hour days, or to work ‘smarter’ so that they can get the same work done (or more) in only four 8-hour days.

The 40-hour week done in four days is the only available option for most process workers on assembly lines or other repetitive physical tasks. Ten-hour workdays are even harder than they sound, but the prize is a three-day weekend and some people are willing to pay the price.

If everybody buys into that, then management can shut the plant down one extra day and save on power. If only some do, then management has the headache of scheduling some 10-hour shifts and other 8-hour shifts, plus the cost of the mistakes that may accumulate when exhausted people are approaching the end of a 10-hour shift. And no saving on electricity costs.

Nevertheless, it does make for a happier workforce, by all accounts, and maybe therefore a more efficient and productive one. There are already a few examples of this kind of four-day working in every industrial country, and now the prime ministers of Finland and New Zealand are both talking it up. Neither woman, however, is proposing to impose it nationally, and nobody is suggesting that it will create more jobs.

The four-day week is an easier and more attractive package for people in administrative and sales jobs, because everybody knows that there is a lot of wasted time in office work: social media, pointless emails, long boring meetings, etc. You could get the job done a lot quicker if everybody was motivated to concentrate on the bits that are actually useful and skip the rest.

So motivate them. Tell them that they can drop to four 8-hour days a week for the same pay as the old five days if they can still get the same work done – and leave it to them to figure out how. If they can’t, then it’s back to the same old five-day grind.

Miraculously, they almost always do manage to find the time. In many cases, indeed, productivity actually rises: happy workers do better work. The four-day week is an excellent idea whose time may finally have come, but it is not a magic bullet. Companies don’t ever hire more people just to spread the work around.

So what might spread the available work around? The US Congress had a brilliant idea in 1938, when it passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which required employers to pay overtime at 150% of the normal hourly wage for anything over 40 hours of work a week.

The idea was to make employers hire more people. If they had 40 employees working 50 hours a week, they would have to pay each of them overtime for the last 10 hours. So why not just hire another 10 people and save all that overtime pay? It worked quite well at the time, but it would not work now. Don’t hire more people; just put in more automation.

The coronavirus is just an accelerator. The real problem with employment ever since the 1990s has been automation, which has been eating up good jobs and excreting low-paid, insecure ones instead – or none at all. Six million good manufacturing jobs were automated out of existence in the US in 2000-2010, which led fairly directly to the election of Donald Trump in 2016.

The current pandemic is speeding the process by driving more jobs online, especially in sales (a different kind of automation), and fiddling with working hours or minimum wages is not going to stop it. So what’s left? Maybe a guaranteed basic income would help, but that’s a discussion for another day.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 12 and 13. (“So what…work now”)