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Magnetic Reversal: No Panic

For a moment there I thought we had a new global threat to deal with, alongside the old favourites like climate change, nuclear war and pandemics. This would have been welcome from a journalistic point of view, since there is a constant need for scary new topics to write about. Otherwise we would fail in our primary task, which is to provide material to hold the ads apart.

I was also experiencing some personal indignation, since the putative new threat, the imminent reversal of the Earth’s magnetic field, was undermining one of the few practical skills I have retained from my early career in various navies: the ability to navigate by magnetic compasses.

My naval career did not extend back to the Age of Sail: we had gyro-compasses and long-range radio positioning systems (although not the full satellite-based GPS of today). However, the navy in its wisdom foresaw that in a major war all the externally-based navigational aids would quickly be shut down or blown away.

We would still have our gyro-compass, which would tell us where True North is – but just one internal power failure and we would lose that too. If that happened, we would have to fall back on the primary pre-20th century navigational tool, the magnetic compass, which does not depend on an external power supply.

Unfortunately, the magnetic compass points to the Magnetic North Pole, which is in a different place from the true North Pole. But it was, for all of my life and indeed for many lifetimes before that, in more or less the same place. The Magnetic North Pole wandered a bit over time, but it followed a fairly predictable path around a relatively small tract of territory among Canada’s Arctic islands.

So all the charts showed the difference (‘variation’) between True North and Magnetic North in the part of the world covered by the chart, and even how much that difference would change each year. We were trained to add the annual shift of the Magnetic Pole since the chart was printed to the local ‘variation’ from True North, and by applying that difference we could steer and navigate accurately using the magnetic compass.

It was a skill for which there was a very limited demand, but potentially useful in an emergency. Alas, the Magnetic North Pole left home about 30 years ago, and is now heading for Siberia at a speed of 60 km. a year.

It is moving fast because it is movements within the Earth’s molten outer core that generate the planet’s magnetic field in the first place. The currents within this vast volume of liquid nickel-iron change from time to time, and when they do they can shift the magnetic poles as well.

Navigators can cope with this because it’s now easy to update the information about changes in the local magnetic variation from True North. The charts are actually computer programs these days, and the relevant authorities are just updating them more frequently than they used to. The worry is that this sort of behaviour by the magnetic pole may be signalling an impending ‘flip’ in which the north and south magnetic poles change places.

This has happened before – indeed, the Earth’s magnetic field has reversed its polarity at least 183 times before, according to the geological record – and it makes no long-term difference. It will now be the other end of the needle that points to ‘Magnetic North’, but the magnetic field will still fulfil its primary function of trapping the high-energy particles that would otherwise bathe the planet’s surface in radiation.

The scary bit is the transition, which can take as long as a thousand years or as little as one lifetime, because during that transition the strength of the planet’s magnetic field falls to around 5% of normal. If the ozone hole worried you a bit, this should frighten you to death – and the strength of the magnetic field is already falling.

That was my initial reaction to the news. Every decade seems to bring news of yet another way that the universe can kill us. But not, it turns out, this one.

The consensus among scientists is that the surface of the planet is not bombarded by hard radiation during the intervals when the Earth’s internally generated magnetic field all but disappears for a time. Instead, the solar wind itself induces a magnetic field in the extreme upper limit of the planet’s atmosphere (the ionosphere) that stops incoming high-energy particles from reaching the surface.

We may have the opportunity to check the validity of this prediction in the relatively near future, but for the moment there is no need to panic. And if you’re lost in the woods (or at sea), you can still trust your compass. More or less.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 8. (“It is…well”)

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

The Khashoggi Tapes

How odd! Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sends an audio recording of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul to the governments of all Turkey’s major NATO allies, and the only one that gets it is Canada.

What happened to the copies that President Erdogan sent to the United States, France, the United Kingdom and Germany? Lost in the mail-room, no doubt, or maybe just lying unopened on somebody’s desk. Or perhaps the Turks just didn’t put enough stamps on the packages.

“We gave them the tapes,” said Erdogan on Saturday. “They’ve also listened to the conversation, they know it.” But still not a word out of Washington or London acknowledging that they have heard the recordings, and French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian denied that France has received a copy.

When asked if that meant Erdogan was lying, Le Drian replied: “It means that he has a political game to play in these circumstances.” Like most Western politicians and diplomats, he is desperate to avoid calling out Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as a murderer.

The French have a highly profitable commercial relationship with the oil-rich kingdom, mostly selling it arms, and they don’t want to acknowledge the evidence on the recording (which may directly implicate the Crown Prince) because it could jeopardise that trade.

Erdogan was furious when the French foreign minister issued his denial, and his communications director insisted that a representative of French intelligence had listened to the recording as long ago as 24 October. But it was all just ‘he said/she said’ stuff until Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau blew the game wide open on Monday.

Yes, Trudeau said, Canadian intelligence has the recording, and he is well aware of what is on it. In fact, Canadian intelligence agencies have been working very closely with Turkey on the murder investigation, and Canada is “in discussions with our like-minded allies as to the next steps with regard Saudi Arabia.”

Why did Trudeau come clean? One popular theory is the nothing-left -to-lose hypothesis. Last August the tempestuous Crown Prince killed all future trade deals with Canada, pulled thousands of Saudi Arabian foreign students out of Canadian universities, and generally showered curses on the country after Canadian officials called for the release of detained Saudi campaigners for civil rights and women’s rights.

Canada’s bridges to Saudi Arabia have already been burned, according to this theory, so Trudeau felt free to say the truth. But he’s not really free: Canada still has a $13 billion contract to build armoured vehicles for Saudi Arabia that the Saudis might cancel, and this is a real contract, not one of Trump’s fantasy arms sales.

Maybe Trudeau is just braver than the others, but his purpose is clear. He waited more than three weeks after getting the recording for the “like-minded allies” to agree to a joint policy towards the murderous prince – nobody believes Khashoggi could have been killed without Mohammed bin Salman’s consent – and then he spilled the beans.

Of course all the major NATO governments have the recordings. They have had them for at least three weeks. They were just dithering over what to do about them, and Trudeau decided it was time to give them a push. Good for him, but what exactly can they do about Mohammed bin Salman’s crime?

It almost certainly was MbS (as they call him) who ordered the killing. Since his elderly father, King Salman, gave him free rein to run the country less than three years ago, he has become a one-man regime. Nothing happens without his approval, least of all the murder of a high-profile critic in a foreign country by a 15-strong Saudi hit squad including several members of his personal security team.

No Western leader (except perhaps Donald Trump) will be seen in public with MbS any more, foreign investment in Saudi Arabia this year is the lowest in several decades, and the price of oil is falling again. So he has to go, if it’s still possible for anybody in Saudi Arabia to remove him from power. But that’s the big question.

The Saudi royal family is no longer a tight, united body that can just decide MbS has to go and make it stick. It’s a sprawling array of people many of whom scarcely know each other, and without the agreement of King Salman any smaller group within the family that organised a coup against the Crown Prince would almost certainly fail.

So he may go on for while despite the disaster of his military intervention in Yemen, his pointless, fruitless blockade of Qatar and even this ugly murder. He wouldn’t be the only killer in power. But the bloom is definitely off this particular rose.
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To shorten to 675 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“Why…sales”)

Trump’s Trade Delusion

Halfway across the Pacific Ocean, Donald Trump heard the closing statements from the G7 summit in Quebec (which he had left early to meet North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un in Singapore).

All the G7 countries had signed up to an anodyne closing communique that papered over the huge gap between the United States and the other six on world trade – but Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau then said once again that he would answer Trump’s big new tariffs on steel and aluminum imports with new Canadian tariffs hitting US exports just as hard.

He had said it before, including to Trump’s face just the previous day. The other national leaders present in Quebec said exactly the same thing, and none of them had changed their positions before the final communique was agreed. But Trump flew into a rage.

No jumped-up leader of a rinky-dink country like Canada was going to get away with talking to the president of the United States like that. Trump retracted his endorsement of the joint communique, called Trudeau “very dishonest and weak”, and hinted heavily that his next target would be Canada’s car-making industry (which is almost completely integrated with its US counterpart).

No surprises here. The other countries of what used to be called ‘the West’ have grown used to Trump’s tweeted outbursts, and French President Emmanuel Macron restricted himself to saying that “international co-operation cannot be dictated by fits of anger and throwaway remarks.”

True enough, but what also needs to be said loudly and often (but generally isn’t) is that the whole confrontation over trade is irrelevant to Trump’s real political concern, which is vanishing American jobs. He’s not just barking up the wrong tree on this issue; he is baying at the Moon.

Trump’s line is that the very high unemployment rate in the United States (which he is almost alone among American politicians in acknowledging) has been caused by free trade. The evil foreigners took advantage of gullible Americans to make free trade deals, and then lured ruthless American manufacturers to relocate their factories in their low-wage homelands.

This only made sense for American manufacturers if there was more or less free trade between their new base and the United States, so that they could still sell their products back home without tariffs. For Trump, therefore, free trade is the mother of all evils. But while more than a million American jobs did get sent abroad like that in the 1990s, very few have been exported in the past fifteen years.

In the first decade of the 21st century, the United States lost one-third of all its manufacturing jobs, and the vast majority of them were killed by automation. They didn’t ‘go’ anywhere. They just vanished.

It happened first in what became known as the Rust Belt, because that was the main centre of assembly-line industry in the US. Assembly lines, which break a complex task down into a series of simple and highly repetitive actions, are the easiest thing in the world to automate.

Job destruction then slowed down until other new computer-driven technologies matured: self-driving vehicles, on-line shopping, ‘dark’ factories and warehouses. But they are ready now, and the carnage in retail jobs, driving jobs and warehouse jobs is just getting underway. To worry about free trade while this is going on is pure folly.

Not only has the ‘offshoring’ of jobs virtually stopped, but there is a new phenomenon called ‘reshoring’. Some American manufacturers are bringing their factories home, because with full automation you have to hire only one-tenth of the high-paid American workers you used to employ, and by reshoring you get to work in a predictable legal environment in your own language.

Trump can do a lot of damage to employment both elsewhere and in the United States by launching a trade war, but he cannot ‘bring the jobs back’. They are gone for good, and a lot more will follow. Automation may be slowed down here and there for a while, but eventually it will eliminate at least half the existing jobs – and the notion that it will create equivalent numbers of new good jobs is an amiable myth.

So while the leaders of other rich countries will have to divert some attention and effort to coping with the negative impacts of Trump’s trade war, they must not let that become their obsession too. It’s a side issue, though potentially a very expensive one.

In Canada, in France, in Japan, in all the developed countries, the real problem is the same as it is in the US: the inexorable advance of automation and the resulting hemorrhage of jobs. So devote most of your attention to that, and only respond to Trump’s declaration of trade war to the extent that is politically unavoidable.

In the end, you’ll be glad you did.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 12. (“It happened…automation”; and “Not only…language”)

Trump and Trade

Like Mexico, Canada is in the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Donald Trump has described as “the worst trade deal…ever signed in this country.” Unlike Mexico, Canada thinks that Trump is not planning to hurt it. But no good deed goes unpunished, so Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau should be very careful.

Canadians felt good when Trudeau responded to Trump’s ban on Syrian refugees by tweeting: “To those fleeing persecution, terror and war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength. Welcome to Canada.” Feeling morally superior to Americans is one of Canadians’ favourite pastimes, and in this case it is self-evidently true.

The United States took in 12,587 Syrian refugees last year; Canada, with one-ninth of America’s population, accepted almost 40,000. Yet there have been only two “lone wolf” Islamist attacks in Canada in this century, each killing one person and neither carried out by an immigrant. Terrorists have just murdered six Canadian Muslims in Quebec City, but Muslim immigrants pose no appreciable danger to non-Muslim Canadians.

In reality, there is no significant danger from Muslim immigrants to America either. Most of the 28 major massacres in the United States since 9/11 were carried out by white right-wing extremists, and those that did involve Muslims were almost all committed by native-born Americans.

But Trump’s “executive orders” are not just driven by ignorance and panic. He is consciously manipulating public opinion, and Canada’s response to his ban on Muslim immigrants undermines the script he is working from.

If Trump’s domestic opponents use the Canadian example to discredit Trump’s story about the mortal danger posed by Muslim immigrants, the man might claim that lax Canadian immigration policy is a threat to the United States and apply “extreme vetting” measures to Muslim Canadians who want to cross the border.

He might even ban Muslim Canadians from the United States entirely, or require visas for all Canadians. That would impose huge inconvenience and cost on Canadians, but Donald Trump can basically do whatever he wants to his next-door neighbours. So Justin Trudeau would be wiser to do good by stealth and not attract too much attention in the US.

Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto has a much bigger problem. He was well aware of Trump’s campaign promise to build an “impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful, southern border wall” to keep out illegal Mexican immigrants, and to make Mexico pay for it. But like most people, he couldn’t believe that Trump meant it literally.

After all, who in their right mind would want to build a 10-metre high concrete wall, also extending a couple of metres underground, along more than half of the 3,100-km US-Mexican border? (The rest is mountains and rivers.) It would cost between $10 billion (Trump’s estimate) and $30 billion plus (construction consultants Gleeds Worldwide).

Building the wall isn’t going to stop the estimated 45 percent of illegal Mexican immigrants who arrive quite legally by car, bus or plane, but overstay their visas. It isn’t exactly urgent either, given that the net flow is now southward: since 2014 more Mexicans have been going home each year than arriving in the US.

The wall is really just symbolic, a demonstration of political will, but Trump has promised to build it and he will. Can he also make Mexico pay for it? Actually, he probably can.

Last Thursday Mexican officials were in Washington preparing for President Peña Nieto’s visit when Trump suddenly tweeted: “If Mexico is unwilling to pay for the badly needed wall, then it would be better to cancel the upcoming meeting.” Peña Nieto, deeply humiliated, did cancel the meeting. He had no choice.

But on Friday, the two presidents had an hour-long phone call that the joint statement described as “productive and constructive”. There were no details, but they did discuss “the current trade deficit the United States has with Mexico,” among other things. “Fixing” that trade deficit is probably how the circle will ultimately be squared.

Mexico’s exports to the US were $271 billion last year; its imports were only $213 billion. Trump wants to change that, and Peña Nieto has no option but to submit. And somewhere in the deal that there will probably be a clause that lets Trump claim Mexico is paying for the wall while Mexico can still deny it.

Canada-US trade is roughly in balance, so Canadians will probably not suffer severe pressure unless Trudeau really irritates The Man. The total volume of US-China trade is about the same, but China sells the US four times more than it buys from it.

That can’t be “fixed”, and Trump cannot be persuaded to let it ride. There will be tears before bedtime.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 9. (“After…Worldwide”)