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Bernie Sanders

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The Plague: A Few Changes

They teach you in journalism school never to use the phrase “…X has changed the world forever”. Or at least they should. Covid-19 is certainly not going to change the world forever, but it is going to change quite a few things, in some cases for a long time. Here’s nine of them, in no particular order.

1. The clean air over China’s cities in the past month, thanks to an almost total shutdown of the big sources of pollution, has saved twenty times as many Chinese lives as Covid-19 has taken. (Air pollution kills about 1.1 million people in China every year.) People will remember this when the filthy air comes back, and want something done about it. India too.

2. Online shopping was already slowly killing the retail shops. The lock-down will force tens of millions who rarely or never shop online to do it all the time. (Yes, all the websites are crashed or booked until mid-April now, but there will be lots of time to scale them up to meet the demand.) Once customers get used to shopping online, most of them won’t go back, so retail jobs will be disappearing twice as fast.

3. Not so radical a change with restaurants, but basically the same story: more take-aways and home deliveries, fewer bums on seats. Habits will change, and a lot of people won’t come back afterwards. Food sold out the door generates much less cash flow than food served at the table, and half of the waiters’ jobs are gone. There will be a severe cull of restaurants.

4. Once it becomes clear that ‘remote working’ actually works for most jobs, it will start to seem normal for people not to go in to work most days. So a steep drop in commuting, lower greenhouse-gas emissions, and eventually a lot of empty office space in city centres.

5. There will be a recession, of course, but it probably won’t be as bad or as long as the one after the financial crash of 2008. It isn’t a collapse of ‘the market’ that has cost people their jobs this time. It was a virus that made them stop working, and governments are doing far more than ever before to sustain working people through what will probably be a long siege.

When the virus is tamed and they can go back to work, the work (in most cases) will still be there. Although there will also be a few trillion dollars of extra debt.

6. Don’t worry about the debt. Banks have always created as much money as the government requires. Put too much money into the economy and you’ll cause inflation, which is bad, but just replacing what people would ordinarily be earning so that the economy doesn’t seize up is good.

So President Macron can tell the French that no business, however small, will be allowed to go bankrupt. Prime Minister Johnson can tell the British that the government will pay them 80% of their normal income, up to a limit of £2,500 ($3,000) a month, if their work has vanished. And President Trump can talk about sprinkling ‘helicopter money’ on the grateful masses.

7. What is being revealed here is a deeper truth. ‘Austerity’ – cutting back on the welfare state to ‘balance the budget’ – is a political and ideological choice, not an economic necessity. What governments are moving into, willy-nilly, is a basic income guaranteed by the state.

Just for the duration of the crisis, they say, and it’s not quite a Universal Basic Income, but that idea is now firmly on the table.

8. Collective action and government protection for the old and the poor will no longer viewed as dangerous radicalism, even in the United States. Welfare states were built all over the developed world after the Second World War. They will be expanded after the Plague ends.

Indeed, if Joe Biden were to drop out of the presidential race tomorrow for health reasons, Bernie Sanders would stand a fair chance of beating Trump in November.

9. Decisive action on the climate crisis will become possible (although not guaranteed), because we will have learned that ‘business as usual’ is not sacred. If we have to change the way we do business, we can.

So it’s an ill wind that blows no good (a saying that was already old when John Heywood first catalogued it in 1546). Some of the anticipated changes are definitely good, but we are going to pay an enormous price in lives and in loss for these benefits. It could have been dealt with a lot better.

And the West should learn a little humility. Taiwan, South Korea and China (after the early fumble) have handled this crisis far better than Europe and North America. These are already more dead in Italy than in China, and America, Britain, France and Germany will certainly follow suit.

To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 16. (“So…masses”; and “And the…suit”)

Jez and Bernie

Jeremy “Jez” Corbyn and Bernie Sanders are very much alike, and so are their ambitions. Corbyn wants to lead Britain’s Labour Party into the next election and become prime minister; Sanders wants to win the Democratic Party nomination and become the next president of the United States. And then each man plans to turn his country sharply to the left.

To the vast surprise of practically everybody, Corbyn has just achieved the first stage of his master plan: on Saturday, he became the leader of the Labour Party. When he entered the leadership contest, the bookmakers were quoting odds of 200-to-one against him, but he ended up winning the leadership by a landslide.

Senator Sanders was also seen as a complete no-hoper when he threw his hat into the ring: 74 years old (Corbyn is 66), no money and no well-honed political machine behind him (ditto), and far too left-wing to win the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, let alone the presidency. But something unexpected is also happening with Sanders’s campaign.

There were no other high-profile candidates for the Democratic nomination: most people assumed that it was Hillary Clinton’s for the asking. But then Sanders began to creep up on her, especially in the two states where the first primaries will be held, New Hampshire and Iowa. The last three polls have shown Sanders leading Clinton in New Hampshire by an average margin of 7.5 percent, and he is now one percent ahead in Iowa too.

Sanders is not as far left as Corbyn, of course. No elected US politician is as far left as Corbyn, who promises to nationalise the railways and energy companies, scrap university tuition fees, bring back rent controls, raise taxes and introduce a national maximum wage to cap the wages of bankers and other high earners, impose an arms embargo on Israel, and get rid of Britain’s nuclear weapons.

When asked if there were any circumstances under which he would deploy British armed forces abroad, Corbyn replied: “I’m sure there are some but I can’t think of them at the moment.” He’s a republican, although he says that ending the monarchy is “not the fight I’m interested in.” He’s a vegetarian who does not own a car, and he looks a little like Obi-Wan Kenobi. He is, in other words, the Real McCoy.

Bernie Sanders, by contrast, lives in the United States, where many people regard “democratic socialism” as akin to devil worship. He favours universal healthcare funded by taxes (supported by all parties in Britain) and publicly funded elections with strict limits on corporate donations (ditto), and he too advocates free higher education and higher taxes on the rich. That’s already “socialist” in an American political context.

But he’s not planning to nationalise anything, bring in rent controls, end all American military interventions overseas, or ban arms sales to Israel. Whatever his private opinons may be, he is running for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, and nobody in the Democratic Party has advocated anything that radical within living memory.

Sanders is as far left within the American political spectrum (which doesn’t extend very far in that direction) as Corbyn is within the broader British spectrum. Could he really pull off a Corbyn-style upset and win the Democratic nomination?

It depends on whether Hillary Clinton’s current stumbles end in a big fall in her support. It could happen. Last week’s opinon polls revealed that she had lost her lead over her two likeliest Republican opponents in next year’s presidential election, Jeb Bush or Ben Carson – and even Donald Trump was drawing level with her.

The Democratic National Convention is still ten months away, but it’s already late for anybody other than Vice-President Joe Biden to enter the race with a good chance of winning – and Biden is deeply conflicted about running. So if Clinton fades, Sanders would have a chance: the odds against him are already a good deal shorter than 200-to-one. Whether he could actually win the presidency is a different question.

British pundits were unanimous in saying that Corbyn has no chance of winning a national election and becoming prime minister. Former Labour leader and prime ministerTony Blair went further: “If Jeremy Corbyn becomes leader it won’t be a defeat like 1983 or 2015 at the next election. It will mean rout, possibly annihilation.”

But Labour just lost the last election, and the next one is five years away. There is still time to change horses if Corbyn isn’t working out. Whereas the US election is next year. Could Sanders win it? The professional pundits and pollsters in the United States say no, because he’s too far from the mainstream.

Sanders just points to the despair that grips so many middle-class Americans as the rich get ever richer and their own living standards stagnate. “Don’t let anybody tell you that we’re radical, that we’re outside the mainstream. We are the mainstream.” He could be right: it’s the same despair with business as usual that has pushed Donald Trump out in front of the Republican nomination race.

And that would be something, wouldn’t it? Bernie Sanders vs. Donald Trump for the presidency. At last Americans get a real choice.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 8. (“When…McCoy”; and “But…memory”)