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Germany, Japan and the War on Rationality

Germany and Japan are finally winning a war together. Unfortunately, it is the War on Rationality.

Coal, as everybody knows, is by far the most damaging source of energy we use, in terms of both the harm to human beings and the impact on the climate. It’s twice as bad as natural gas, and dozens of times worse than solar or nuclear or wind power. Yet both Germany and Japan have been building lots of new coal-fired power stations. Why?

Would it upset you if I said it’s because they are, despite their apparent sophistication, superstitious peasants at heart? Well, go ahead and get upset.

Germany still gets more than a third of its energy from burning coal, and most of it is ultra-polluting lignite or ‘brown’ coal. If most of Germany’s seventeen nuclear power had not been shut down after 2012 (the last are scheduled to close within two years), then at least half that coal would not have been needed.

There had been an active anti-nuclear power movement in Germany for some time, but what triggered the 2012 decision to shut the entire sector down was the Fukushima incident of the previous year.

I am deliberately avoiding the words ‘calamity’, ‘disaster’ and ‘catastrophe’, because while the Fukushima tsunami killed 19,000 people, the subsequent problem with the four nuclear reactors on the coast killed nobody. Yet the German people, or at least a large number of German anti-nuclear activists, insisted that any nuclear reactor anywhere was a mortal danger, and the government agreed to shut all the German nuclear plants down.

The same thing happened in Japan. The Japanese planners were foolish to put four reactors on the coast in a region where earthquakes and consequent tsunamis were to be expected from time to time, but what needs to be condemned is Japanese planners, not nuclear power. Nevertheless, all fifty Japanese nuclear reactors, which supplied 30% of the country’s electrical power, were immediately shut down.

The Japanese are not as blindly dogmatic as the Germans: two of those nuclear plants reopened in 2015, and seven more reopened recently. A further seventeen are in the lengthy process of restart approval, so by 2030 the Japanese government hopes to be getting 20% of its electricity from nuclear power again.

But that’s only half the amount of nuclear power that Japan originally planned to have available by 2030, and the gap between 20% and the planned 40% of the country’s energy needs will be made up by burning coal. Japan recently announced that it plans to build 22 new coal-burning power plants in the next five years.

This is deeply irresponsible behaviour, and the worst thing is that the decision-makers know it. They are just deferring to public opinion, which in this instance is entirely wrong. The ‘superstitious peasants’ should really be frightened of global warming, for which coal-burning is a major driver, not of relatively harmless nuclear power.

That’s not to say that nuclear power is the solution to all our problems, or even most of them. It is generally the most expensive option because it is costs so much to build the reactors and the associated controls and safety devices. Indeed, nuclear is no longer cost-competitive with other ‘clean’ sources of power like wind and solar.

So there is a case for not building any more nuclear power stations, at least in regions and countries that have ample resources in terms of sun and wind. But there is no case for shutting down existing nuclear stations and burning more coal to make up the difference. That is so stupid it verges on the criminal.

Other countries can be idiotic too. Due to an administrative glitch, Chinese provinces are currently building hundreds of unnecessary coal-fired power stations that may never be used, since the central government expects the country’s coal use to peak this year – and most existing Chinese coal plants already sit idle more than half of the time.

At least China is also building nuclear plants as fast as it can, and last year accounted for more than half the world’s output of solar panels. (On the other hand, it is providing work for the Chinese construction industry by building a planned 300 coal-fired power stations in other countries, presumably on the unspoken assumption that carbon dioxide emissions elsewhere won’t affect China’s climate.)

But nobody is as crazy as the Germans and the Japanese, who have been shutting down nuclear plants and replacing them with coal-fired plants. France will close its last coal-fired station in 2022, and Britain will do the same in 2025, but Germany says 2038 and Japan just says ‘eventually’. That’s far too late: by then the die will be cast, and the world will be committed to more than 2 degrees C of warming.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 14. (“This is…power”; and “At least…climate”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

A New Ireland?

Bertie Ahern, who was the taoiseach (prime minister) of the Irish Republic from 1997 to 2008, was a brilliant machine politician, not a nationalist or an ideologist. In fact, if you said the word ‘principle’ in his presence, he might have to look up the meaning. But here’s what he said after the Sinn Féin Party came first in last Saturday’s Irish election.

“I think a border poll (on the unification of the Republic and Northern Ireland, which is currently part of the United Kingdom) is inevitable. If you ask me when that is, I think it’s probably five years off at least….but it will be inevitable over this decade.” Are we about to see the final, peaceful solution to the 400-year-old ‘Irish problem’?

Not necessarily, but the long, frozen stability of Irish politics both north and south of the border is definitely dissolving. In Northern Ireland the Catholics have finally achieved the ‘revenge of the cradle’, displacing the Protestants as the majority population – at a time when, coincidentally, the turmoil of Brexit is making all the old certainties about the province’s ties to the UK open to question.

In the south, independent from the UK for a century and home to almost three-quarters of the island’s 6.6 million people, almost everybody is of Catholic heritage and matters have long seemed more settled. Politics was dominated by two centre-right parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, neither of which gave more than lip-service to the notion of unification with the North.

Nobody in the Republic wanted to hear about that. The ‘Celtic Tiger’ years (ca. 1995-2008) had finally made the Republic a prosperous place, after a long history of genteel poverty. Most of its citizens had no desire to see a united Ireland if it risked bringing the North’s chronic violence (‘The Troubles’, 1968-1999) to the south as well.

In these circumstances Sinn Féin, an all-Ireland leftist and nationalist party that operated as the political front of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) during the ‘Troubles’, had little attraction for voters in the Republic. It was Northern-dominated and linked to terrorism, and both of the major parties in Dublin refused to have anything to do with it.

And now, suddenly, Sinn Féin ends up with more votes than any other party in the Republic. What happened?

This political revolution is NOT driven by Irish nationalism. Few of the people who voted for Sinn Féin cared much about the North, or unification, or any of that old stuff.

They voted for Sinn Féin because they were fed up with high rents, housing shortages and long hospital waiting lists. Their only alternative was to vote for the same two old parties that have been passing power back and forth for a hundred years, so they ignored Sinn Féin’s IRA links and voted for it anyway.

Those links recently became easier to ignore because Gerry Adams, Sinn Féin’s leader for 35 years and simultaneously a senior officer in the IRA (though he always denied it) finally retired in 2018. His successor, Mary Lou McDonald, definitely has no blood on her hands, and she was born in the Republic, not in the North. She’s voter-friendly, not scary, and she got the votes.

Irish politics is clearly now a three-horse race, in the sense that Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael each got between 21% and 25% of the vote. But that leaves each of them with fewer than half the seats they would need for a majority in the Dáil (parliament).

Prospects for viable coalition-making were looking grim after the election, with both traditional major parties saying they would never enter a coalition with Sinn Féin. The only viable alternative was yet another deal between the two traditional major parties – but that is what the voters had just revolted against.

Now it’s looking a little saner, with Micheál Martin of Fianna Fáil saying that he’s open to talks with Sinn Féin. But the sheer tribal truculence of Irish politics is embodied in the very names of the Republic’s major parties: ‘Ourselves Alone’ (Sinn Féin), ‘Tribe of the Irish’ (Fine Gael), and ‘Soldiers of Destiny’ (Fianna Fáil ).

It will therefore take some time to make a deal, but one will be reached eventually, and it will probably include a place for Sinn Féin. Mary Lou McDonald, the Sinn Féin leader, said it plainly – “We are going to have a unity referendum” – and Fintan O’Toole, the best Irish political commentator of his generation, explained what that means in his column in the Irish Times.

“(The voters) have gone where they were warned not to go,” he wrote, “and in doing so they have redrawn the map of Irish politics to include territory previously marked ‘Here Be Dragons’.”

To shorten to 675 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 13. (“Nobody…well”; and “Now…Fáil”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Is the ‘Devil Virus’ a ‘Black Swan’?

China officially went back to work on Monday, after an extended two-week Lunar New Year holiday, while the authorities struggled to get the spread of the new coronavirus under control. But a lot of Chinese are not going back to work yet, and the spread of the ‘devil virus’ (as President Xi Jingping called it) is manifestly not under control.

This virus has already killed over 800 people – more fatalities in two months than the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak of 2002-03 caused in seven months– and it’s accelerating. The last few days have seen more than 80 deaths a day, and the death rate in the city of Wuhan in Hubei province, the point of origin of the disease and still its epicentre, is now 4% of those infected.

The death rate is still only 2% nationally, but infections elsewhere are generally more recent than those in Hubei province and may not reflect the final death rate. And it’s still spreading fast within China: four large cities in Zhejiang province on the coast are now also locked down.

Significantly, President Xi is no longer claiming that he is “personally commanding” the anti-virus fight. If this is going to be a complete disaster, somebody else should take the blame, and the man in charge of the national campaign against the virus is now vice-premier Sun Chunlun.

Well aware that he is now the designated fall guy, Sun immediately visited Wuhan and declared that the city and country now face ‘wartime conditions’. Waxing full-on hysterical, he warned: “There must be no deserters, or they will be nailed to the pillar of historical shame forever.” But mere rhetoric won’t save him if the epidemic goes nationwide.

It probably will: the two or three weeks that were wasted after the virus was first detected cannot be recovered. But the enforced holidays, travel curbs and lockdowns, belated though they are, may still limit the spread of the virus beyond China.

Or maybe not, but even if the virus is largely contained within China the risk of financial infection is high. High enough, in fact, to qualify as a potential ‘black swan’.

A ‘black swan’ is an unforeseen event that has a huge impact on the normal course of events. The SARS epidemic in 2002-03 was a black swan: it knocked about two percentage points off China’s economic growth that year. However, that epidemic did not cause a global recession, because back in those days China was only a small part of the global economy.

Now the Chinese economy is the world’s second-biggest. It takes up four times the space in the global economy that it occupied in 2002, so a 2% fall in Chinese economic growth translates into at least a half-percent hit to the entire global economy. Which would not be a big deal if the global economy was in good shape, but it isn’t.

Indeed, twelve years after the 2008 sub-prime financial crisis the global economy is still in the intensive care ward. There has been no return to the pre-crisis high growth rates, and interest rates, except in the United States, are still at rock-bottom. That means the banks have no room to cut the cost of borrowing and stimulate demand if the economy is starting to tank.

This applies in particular to China itself, where the banks have been forced by the government to finance huge amounts of unproductive investment as the regime continuously ‘primed the pump’ in order to ward off a recession.

It worked, in the sense that the loans financed a further orgy of construction that has now equipped the country with 100,000 km of under-used expressways and four half-empty 60-storey apartment towers at all four corners of every major intersection in each of the country’s hundred biggest cities. China was the only major country to avoid a recession after 2008 – but it left the banks staggering under a mountain of bad debts.

By now China has a Potemkin economy where the official economic growth rate is 6% a year but the true number, as measured by electricity use or megatons of freight carried by the railways, is between 2% and 3%. Knock 2 percentage points off that and you have no growth at all – and a crisis of survival for the regime.

That would be the biggest black swan you ever saw, but remember that the lies and official incompetence that surrounded the Chernobyl disaster played a big part in making the Soviet public ripe for regime change a few years later. Could the coronavirus have a similar effect? It’s not likely, but it is conceivable.

The immediate and short-term deaths from the Chernobyl melt-down amounted to sixty people. The Wuhan coronavirus has killed a dozen times as many Chinese citizens already.
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To shorten to 675 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 13. (“The death…down”; and “It worked…debts”)

US Election: Not Another Corbyn

Psephology – the statistical study of elections and trends in voting – is the darkest of the dark arts, and you can lose your soul if you delve into it too deeply. But sometimes you have to do it a bit, and this is one of those times.

On Wednesday the US Senate acquitted President Donald Trump of both charges in his impeachment trial on a straight partisan vote, with only two members of the 53-strong Republican majority even voting to hear more evidence. But this doesn’t mean that the other 51 really think Trump is innocent. They may be cowards, but they’re not stupid.

Republican Senator Lamar Alexander acknowledged that Trump’s attempt to blackmail Ukraine’s president into launching a fake investigation that would smear Joe Biden, then the leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, was “inappropriate”. In fact, he had only voted to shut the trial down because “There is no need for more evidence to prove what has already been proven.”

It just wasn’t a grave enough offence to justify impeachment, Alexander said, and besides, there is an election next November. “I believe that the constitution provides that the people should make that decision in the presidential election that begins in Iowa on Monday,” he concluded.

Alexander was only brave enough to say even that much because he will retire from the Senate this year. But he is right in saying that the upcoming presidential election is the only way that Trump can now be brought to book. That would require the Democrats to nominate a candidate who can actually beat Trump. Does such an animal actually exist?

The shambles of last Monday’s Democratic ‘caucuses’ in Iowa, the first step in the process of choosing the party’s presidential candidate, leaves much unclear, but it is becoming obvious that Joe Biden, the early front-runner and alleged ‘safe pair of hands’, is not the right man.

If you think a middle-of-the-road candidate is the best bet to beat Trump, Pete Buttigieg is your man. He came first overall in the Iowa caucuses with 27% of the votes; Biden trailed far behind with 16%.

If you think that only a radical break with the Democrats’ traditional MOR stance can beat Trump, then you also have two choices: left-wing Bernie Sanders (who actually says the word ‘socialism’ in public), or centre-left Elizabeth Warren (who at least doesn’t flinch when Bernie says the s-word).

Again, however, there was a gulf in Iowa between the two more radical candidates: Sanders got 25% of the vote, Warren only 15%. These number may change slightly when Iowa finally sorts out the mess in the vote-counting, but probably not by much.

They may change a lot more when the primary elections move to states that are not, like Iowa, 90% white and relatively prosperous (meaning slightly below the US median household income, but with much less inequality than in most states). But it would require a minor miracle for the leaders and the trailers to change places in either case.

So let us assume that the real choice, after a few more primaries, is starting to look like it’s between Sanders and Buttigieg. Which of these men is likelier to beat Trump?

Money is a big factor in any US election, and Sanders can certainly raise money, as he showed in his 2016 run for the nomination. Maybe Buttigieg will turn out to have the same knack now that he’s a front-runner, but that remains to be seen.

There are a couple of problems with Bernie Sanders. He would be 79 if he took office next January (and he had a heart attack last October). More importantly, he may frighten as many voters as he excites. Think: who in politics does he most resemble?

What other left-wing politician in an English-speaking country spent decades in the political wilderness, trying to sell hot-gospel socialism to a largely inattentive audience?

Who then suddenly caught the attention of the nation’s despairing youth, trapped in a stagnant, low-wage economy, and built a national following that suddenly delivered him onto the main stage?

And who led his party into a national election on a radical left-wing programme – and went down to the worst electoral defeat it had suffered in half a century?

Jeremy Corbyn, the English Bernie Sanders, that’s who. It was Corbyn who put Boris Johnson, Britain’s mini-Trump, back in office for another five years with a huge majority in parliament. That’s not the sort of outcome the Democrats want.

So what will the elders of the Democratic Party do if they find that Sanders, not Buttigieg, is the popular favourite going into Democratic Convention in July. They will probably throw their support behind Michael Bloomberg, the ultimate MOR candidate.

It could work. He’s far richer than Trump.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 12. (“They…case”; and “Money…seen”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.