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An October Surprise

5 August 2020

An ‘October Surprise’ in the United States is now almost inevitable, because that will be Donald Trump’s last chance to get re-elected legitimately. He might try to cling to office even if he loses the vote, but it would be a lot easier and neater if he actually won a majority in the Electoral College on 3 November.

‘October Surprise’ is the American political term for a fake crisis, usually involving foreigners, that is ‘discovered’ by a president trailing badly in the polls in the last few weeks before an election. All other issues are forgotten, Americans rally around the flag, and the incumbent wins on a surge of patriotism. Or that’s the theory, at least.

The same thing happens elsewhere too, of course, and not necessarily in October. That’s when it needs to happen in to win a US presidential election, but there’s a ‘July Surprise’ happening in Belarus right now (because the election there is set for 9 August).

Last week Alexander Lukashenko, the strongman who rules Belarus, ‘discovered’ Russian mercenaries in his country. They were unarmed and on their way to Istanbul, but Lukashenko says there is a plot: “So far there is no open warfare, no shooting, the trigger has not yet been pulled, but an attempt to organise a massacre in the centre of Minsk is already obvious.” Only I can save our country! Vote for me!

Trump will need something like that because otherwise the coronavirus is going to kill him politically. This was not true as recently as early June, because up until then the United States was not performing especially badly in dealing with the pandemic.

It LOOKED a lot worse because of Trump’s bizarre behaviour – the endless, shameless lies, the narcissism, the suggestions that people should inject bleach, etc. – but in terms of Covid-19 deaths per million people the American fatality rate was still lower than any other major Western countries except Germany and Canada.

The United States was late to go into lockdown, but so were they all, at least compared to most Asian countries. Until recently, if you were a Trump supporter, you could still believe he was doing a good job.

It was Trump’s rush to end the lockdown, not all the earlier nonsense, that did the real damage. He believed that he would lose the election if the economy didn’t revive, but by opening up too fast he managed to revive the pandemic at the same time.

The numbers tell the tale. This week America will record its 160,000th death from Covid-19. That’s almost a quarter of all the coronavirus deaths in the world. Much worse, US deaths are still going up while deaths elsewhere in the developed world have fallen steeply. That’s almost entirely due to Trump.

Take Canada, for example. It’s very similar to the US in economy and demography, but different in social and political terms. Canada has universal health care and a much less drastic divide between the rich and the rest, for example, which probably explains why America’s cumulative death rate per million is 484, while Canada’s is only 237.

The history is therefore an American death rate twice as high as Canada’s: not great, but not utterly awful. By now, however, Canada has managed to get its deaths down to ten a day, whereas America is back up around a thousand a day. Even allowing for Canada’s much smaller population, that is ten times worse. This is what coming out of lockdown too early did to the United States, and it is all down to Donald Trump.

The pandemic is raging again in the United States, and there may be a quarter-million deaths there by election day in November. US ‘deaths per million’ are going up three per day, which means that the US will overtake Chile (now 509) in less than two weeks, Italy (582) in a month, Spain (609) in five weeks. It might even catch up with the UK (682) by election day.

Most of those newly dead Americans will be over 60, so probably Trump supporters. Their relatives and friends are bound to to notice eventually. Joe Biden’s lead over Donald Trump in the polls has already widened to 10%, and there is probably no good news Trump could engineer in the remaining ninety days that would be big enough to turn that number around.

His only hope, therefore, is to manufacture some really bad news: a restaged ‘Gulf of Tonkin’ incident with China, perhaps, or a terrorist ‘threat’ so humongous that it gives Trump a pretext to declare martial law nationally. Or maybe he will arrange the premature certification of a magical new Covid-19 vaccine so he can roll it out just before the vote. If it kills a lot of people later on, who cares? He won.

Trump knows that if he loses the election he will spend the rest of his life in court, possibly even in jail. An October Surprise is practically guaranteed. It isn’t over yet.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 4. (“The same…me”)

Spain, Coronavirus and Basic Income

In times of great emergency, when the normal rules have been suspended, all sorts of things that used to seem unthinkable suddenly enter the realm of possibility. A national health service paid for by taxes and free at the point of delivery in the United States, for example – or a guaranteed basic income in Spain.

“We are going to implement a minimum basic income as soon as possible,” said Nadia Calviño, Spain’s deputy prime minister and economics minister, on Monday. She added that it will not “just be for this special situation, but for good.”

Plenty of governments are providing what amounts to a basic income to millions of laid-off employees for the duration of this ‘special situation’. Britain is covering 80% of people’s normal salaries for at least three months, up to a maximum of £2,500 ($3,000) a month, if their employers will just keep them on the books.

Even freelancers and ‘gig’ workers are not being forgotten (80% of the income they reported for taxes, averaged over the past three years). And all this from a Conservative government.

Canada is paying workers affected by the coronavirus outbreak $C2,000 a month for up to four months. Even the US government will be providing its citizens with two $1,000 cheques over the next three months (plus $500 extra for each child) – and they don’t even have to be out of work to get them.

But all these benefits are temporary, to be withdrawn again when things are back to normal. The question is: do we really want to go back to ‘normal’, if that means that many people live on welfare and barely scrape by, and a great many more (the ‘working poor’) do have jobs and work very hard, but still don’t have enough to live a comfortable life?

In normal times, this is a highly ideological issue, with a lot of people convinced that those below them on the income ladder are just lazy and undeserving even of charity, let alone welfare payments. Yet those convictions are easily put on hold when some unforeseen emergency means that those higher up the ladder also need government help.

Calviño is clearly using this crisis to advance a project that she and many others in her party have long favoured: a basic income that nobody can fall below, with any shortfall made up by the government. (Not, as some have incorrectly reported, a ‘Universal Basic Income’ that goes to everybody regardless of need).

There’s nothing wrong with exploiting the disruption caused by a crisis to launch new policies. As Niccolo Machiavelli said 500 years ago: “Never waste the opportunity offered by a good crisis.” But is Basic Income a good policy?

It’s certainly a good policy politically, because those who benefit from it will probably vote for you. It’s probably a good policy economically, because the beneficiaries, still being relatively poor, will immediately spend the money and boost the economy.

And it may well be neutral fiscally, because the money doled out in various unemployment and welfare programmes, plus the cost of administering all those programmes, may be around the same as the cost of bringing the poorest fifth of the population up to the level of the slightly higher earners in the next fifth in a single, simple payment.

If it should turn out to cost a bit more, it would still be a small price to pay for raising so many people out of desperation and giving their children better opportunities for the future.

This was the kind of thinking that motivated the people who had lived through the Great Depression and the Second World War to build welfare states in all the developed countries in the quarter-century after 1945. They wanted to improve the lives of their citizens, but they also wanted to head off the populist anger and nationalist demagoguery that had made the war possible.

Those things are on the rise again, because the gap between the rich and the rest has widened steadily for the past forty years in the developed countries. Fixing it will require a reshaping of the welfare state, and nothing will narrow the gap faster than raising the incomes of the poorest.

Making that kind of change in normal times is a Sisyphean task, but when the government must confine much of the population to their homes because of the pandemic and many of them lose their incomes as a result, it tends to broaden people’s minds about the possibilities.

A small wager. The Spanish government will be only the first of many to propose a basic income as a permanent part of the economy before the current crisis is over.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 1 and 4. (“In times…Spain”; and “Even…government”)

Collateral Damage

One of the main causes of death for airline passengers in recent decades is being shot down by somebody’s military. Not the very biggest, of course: accidents account for nine-tenths of all deaths in civilian airline crashes, and terrorist attacks and hijackings cause most of the rest. But a solid 2.5% of the deaths are due to trigger-happy people in military uniforms.

The statistics are pretty reliable for so-called ‘major incidents’ (more than 50 deaths): 1,379 airline passengers killed in civilian planes shot down because they were off-course or simply mis-identified, out of a total of 57,767 deaths in 594 crashes since the first ‘high fatality’ crash in 1923.

The first was an El Al plane that strayed into Bulgarian airspace in 1955, the second an off-course Libyan airliner shot down by Israel over the Sinai Peninsula in 1973. The last of the military shoot-downs in which actual fighters were involved was an off-track Korean Air Lines jumbo jet shot down by a Soviet fighter in 1983. All 269 passengers and crew were killed.

Since then the killing has been done by surface-to-air missiles, with no visual identification. The first of these was in 1988, when the US Navy ship Vincennes, operating illegally in Iran’s territorial waters, shot down an Iran Air jet bound for Dubai with 290 people aboard in the mistaken belief that it was a fighter plane. They all died.

Ukrainian Air Force missiles shot down a Siberia Airlines flight over the Black Sea in 2001 during a military exercise, killing 78. In 2014 Russian-backed rebels fighting in eastern Ukraine shot down a Malaysian Airlines plane and killed all 298 passengers and crew.

And now 176 people, the great majority of them Canadian citizens or residents, have been killed just off the end of the runway in Tehran by a young Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps technician who thought he was shooting down an American drone. At least his commander acknowledged his personal responsibility – “I wish I was dead” – but the Iranian government lied about it for three days.

Technically, this kind of mistake is inexcusable. You don’t even need high-cost military technology: a free Swedish app called Flight Radar 24 will give you real-time flight data on your phone for all civilian airliners in the air in your vicinity. What we are dealing with here is mostly human error – but human error driven by paranoid politics and huge time pressure.

You can’t do anything about the time pressure: decisions really do sometimes have to be made in seconds if you suspect that you have a ‘hostile’ incoming on the radar. The paranoia might be easier to address in principle, but it’s equally inevitable in practice: all the shoot-downs happen in countries that are in acute military confrontations of one sort or another.

And that’s the point, really: all these shoot-downs are fundamentally a political and military phenomenon, not a technical malfunction or mere human error. We live in a far more peaceful world than our distant ancestors did, but our deepest cultural traditions are still tribal. Once a confrontation gets going, we quickly turn into Yanomamo villagers.

You can’t imagine an ‘accidental’ shoot-down of a civilian aircraft over Canada nowadays, for example. Back in the Cold Days, however, there were surface-to-air missile systems in Canada, designed to shoot down Soviet bombers but perfectly capable of making the same sort of mistake that killed a plane-load of Canadians over Tehran last week. Nobody is invulnerable, and nobody is immune to the paranoia.

On the other hand, don’t despair. The great majority of the world’s people now live in countries where the risk of war is very low or entirely absent, and the cities are not surrounded by anti-aircraft missiles. We have already travelled a very long way from the time when every human society lived in constant fear of all its neighbours.

This is still a work in progress. The past century has seen the most destructive wars in history– which was inevitable, given the growth in technology, wealth and population. But it was also the first time that people ceased to see war as natural, honourable, and potentially profitable, and latterly warfare has gone into a steep decline.

There could still be back-sliding, especially if the climate crisis overwhelms us, but so far the trend line is promising. The world’s population has more than doubled in the past half-century, but the number of people killed in war is less than a tenth of what it was in the previous half-century.

However, the planes are much bigger, and there are now around a million people in the air at any given moment, so there are also more people being killed in shoot-downs. It’s never any consolation to tell people that things are getting better on average when they have been devastated by a personal loss. But for what it’s worth, they are.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 12. (“You…paranoia”; and “This…decline”)

The ‘Immigrant Problem’

In a recent survey of potential adult migrants worldwide, 47 million said they would most like to move to Canada. There are only 37 million people in Canada. The same goes for Australia: 36 million would like to move there; only 25 million do live there. Most of these would-be immigrants are going to be disappointed. In fact, Canada lets in just 300,000 immigrants a year; Australia 200,000.

Other developed countries are significantly less popular destinations, but potential migrants amounting to around half the existing populations want to move to the United States, France, Britain, Germany and Spain. They too are going to be disappointed.

In its most generous year, 2016, Germany let in a million immigrants, mostly Syrian refugees, but 80 million Germans are never going to let in the 42 million foreigners who also want to live there. Indeed, former US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said bluntly last November that “Europe has done its part, and must send a very clear message: ‘we are not going to be able to continue to provide refuge and support.’”

Clinton was mainly concerned about how anxiety about mass immigration has fueled the rise of populism in Western countries. That’s hardly surprising, given how Donald Trump’s tight focus on the alleged criminal and job-stealing propensities of Latino immigrants won over enough formerly Democratic voters in the Rust Belt states to give him the presidency.

It didn’t just work for Trump. It helped the Brexiteers win their anti-European Union referendum in the United Kingdom, it brought the populists to power in Italy, and it underpins Viktor Orban’s ‘soft dictatorship’ in Hungary (even though Hungary has never let immigrants in, and they don’t want to go there anyway).

But the fact is that the levels of immigration are not particularly high in the United States and most European countries at the moment. Net migration to the United Kingdom has been stable since 2010; in both the United States and in Germany (with the exception of 2016, in the latter case), net migration is down by half since 2000. Something more is needed to explain the level of anger in these countries.

It is, of course, unemployment, which is much higher than the published (official) figures in every case, and is particularly high in the post-industrial areas that voted so heavily for Trump in the United States, for Brexit in Britain, and for ultra-nationalist parties in Germany. In the United States, according to Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute, 17.5% of American men of prime working age (24-55) are not working.

But unemployment will continue to rise, because it is increasingly being driven by automation. The Rust Belt went first, because assembly lines are the easiest thing in the world to automate, but now Amazon and its friends are destroying the retail jobs, and next to go are the driving jobs (self-driving vehicles). Automation is unstoppable, and the anger will continue to grow.

So you can see why Hillary Clinton is concerned, but she seems unaware that the pressure of migration is also going to grow rapidly.

According to the UN’s International Labour Organisation, there are currently 277 million migrants in the world (defined as people who have left their home countries in search of work, or to join their families, or to flee conflicts and persecution). How many more are still in their home countries but would like to leave? At least a billion, maybe two.

More than half of Kenyans would immediately move to another country if they could, a 2017 survey by the US-based Pew Research Centre discovered. More than a third of Nigerians, Ghanaians and Senegalese are actually planning to emigrate in the next five years, according to the same survey. (Good luck with that!)

Even a third of Chinese millionaires would like to emigrate (half if you include moving to Hong Kong as emigration). And all this is before climate change kicks the numbers into the stratosphere.

The chief impact of global warming on human beings is going to be on the food supply, which will fall as the temperature rises. And the food shortages will not affect everybody equally: the supply will hold up in the temperate zone (the rich countries), but it will plummet in the tropical and sub-tropical countries where 70% of the world’s people live. They will be desperate, and they will start to move.

That’s when the pressure of migration will really take off, and the rich countries are simply not going to let the climate refugees in. Not only would it stress their food supply too, but the numbers seeking to get in would be so large – two or three times the resident population – that it would utterly transform the country’s character. So the borders will slam shut.

It’s a myth that you cannot close borders. You can, if you’re willing to kill people. (Think of the Iron Curtain, which successfully divided all of Europe for 40 years.) And the rich countries will, in the end, be willing to kill people.

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 10. (“But unemployment…grow”; and “According…two”)

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