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Donald Trump

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The Great Dying, the Little Ice Age, and Us

The Black Death killed about 30% of the European population in a few years in the middle of the 14th century. A century and a half later the native people of the Americas were hit by half a dozen plagues as bad as the Black Death, one after another, and 95% of them died. The plagues of the ‘Great Dying’ had much less terrifying names like measles, influenza, diphtheria and smallpox, but they were just as efficient at killing.

When the tens of millions of native Americans died, the forests grew back on the land they used to farm. All those forests absorbed so much carbon dioxide that the average global temperature dropped, and what would otherwise have been a minor cyclical cooling became the Little Ice Age. It got so cold that lots of Europeans starved to death – so maybe there is such a thing as ‘climate justice’ after all.

The lead researcher of the team at University College London who joined up all these dots is doctoral candidate Alexander Koch. (He hasn’t even got his PhD yet.) He borrowed the phrase ‘The Great Dying’ from the paleontologists, who use it to describe the mass extinction event at the end of the Permian era 252 million years ago, the worst of them all. It works just as well for human beings.

When Christopher Columbus arrived in the Caribbean in 1492, there were about 60 million people living in the Americas, and 99% of them were already farmers. Eurasian civilisations had a bit of a head-start on them – iron tools, ocean-going ships, even gunpowder – but their numbers and their economies were very similar: there were 70 or 80 million Europeans, and most of them were farmers too.

A century later there were only 6 million native Americans left: a 90% fatality rate. Yet at that time, there were still only about a quarter-million Europeans in the Americas. They clearly couldn’t have killed the other 54 million natives – but their diseases did.

Even now journalists reporting on this story go on referring to the European ‘genocide’ of the native peoples, but that’s nonsense. The Europeans killed some tens of thousands of Incas, Aztecs and others in various battles, and they took slaves to work their mines and grow their sugar, but why would they cause a genocide?

The problem was that the native Americans had absolutely no inherited resistance to the quick-killer Eurasian diseases that the Europeans brought with them. Those diseases had emerged in the densely populated countries of Europe and East Asia one at a time over thousands of years, passing from the herds and flocks of domesticated animals to their human owners, who now also lived in herd-like conditions.

Each one of these new diseases killed millions before the survivors developed some resistance, but the Asian, European and African populations had time to recover before the next one emerged. The native Americans got all the plagues at once, and they had no comparable plagues of their own to give back to the invaders because they didn’t keep large herds of animals.

The tragedy was inevitable from first contact. If the only Eurasians to reach the Americas had been peace-loving Spanish nuns – or peace-loving Chinese monks, for that matter – the Great Dying would have happened anyway. And the farms of those who died would still have been abandoned.

What really interests Alexander Koch and his colleagues is that this caused the largest abandonment of farmland in all history. The six million survivors didn’t need all those farms, so the forests came back quickly. As they grew they absorbed huge amounts of carbon dioxide, cutting the amount in the global atmosphere by about ten parts per million (10 ppm).

That dropped the average global temperature, which was already a little lower than usual because of cyclical changes in the Earth’s orbit. The Little Ice Age lasted for more than two hundred years and probably caused a couple of million extra deaths in local famines in Eurasia, so at least a little bit of the misery travelled the other way.

But our impact on the environment has now grown so large that a ten ppm cut in our emissions is almost meaningless. We are currently adding around ten ppm of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere every four years.

On the other hand, if we were to reforest all the land that was cleared around the world in the past 150 years but is not prime agricultural land, we could sequester 50 ppm of carbon dioxide. That might win us the time we need to get our carbon emissions down without triggering runaway warming.

Instead, the Brazilians elect Jair Bolsonaro to clear-cut the Amazon, and the United States elects Donald Trump to outsource US climate policy to the fossil fuel industry. We know a great deal more than the native Americans did about the elements that would decide their fate, but we may be no better than they were at avoiding it.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 9. (“Even…genocide”; and “The tragedy…abandoned”)

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

Populism: It’s the Automation, Stupid

Five of the world’s largest democracies now have populist governments, claimed The Guardian last week, and proceeded to name four: The United States, India, Brazil and the Philippines. Which is the fifth? At various points it name-checks Turkey, Italy and the United Kingdom, but it never becomes clear which. (And by the way, India’s prime minister Narendra Modi is not a populist. He’s just a nationalist.)

It’s embarrassing when a respected global newspaper launches a major investigative series and can’t really nail the subject down. Neither can the people it interviews: Hillary Clinton, for example, admits the she was “absolutely dumbfounded” by how Donald Trump ate her lunch every day during the 2016 presidential campaign. She still doesn’t get it.

“We got caught in a kind of transition period so what I had seen work in the past…was no longer as appealing or digestible to the people or the press. I was trying to be in a position where I could answer all the hard questions, but…I never got them. I was waiting for them; I never got them. Yet I was running against a guy who did not even pretend to care about policy.”

Yes, Trump is a classic populist, but why did he beat her two years ago when he wouldn’t even have got the nomination ten years ago? She doesn’t seem to have a clue about that, and neither do other recent leaders of centre-left parties interviewed by The Guardian like Britain’s Tony Blair and Italy’s Matteo Renzi. So let us try to enlighten them.

Populism is not an ideology. It’s just a political technique, equally available to right-wingers, left-wingers, and those (like Trump) with no coherent ideology at all.

In this era, populism seems to partner best with right-wing nationalist ideologies like those of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Viktor Orban in Hungary and the Brexiteers in England, but even now there are populist left-wing parties like Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain.

How does this tool work? It claims to be on the side of ‘ordinary people’ and against a ‘corrupt elite’ that exploits and despises them. It’s light on policy and heavy on emotion, particularly the emotions of fear and hatred. It usually scapegoats minorities and/or foreigners, and it only works really well when people are angry about something.

We know that a politically significant number of people are angry now, because populism is working very well indeed, but people like Donald Trump can’t take the credit.

In politics, as in ecology, every niche is always filled. There are always dictator-in-waiting, would-be martyrs, and everything in between, but they only get a chance to shine if the political situation creates an opening for their particular kind of politics. So what is creating that opening now?

The anger is about the fact that the jobs are disappearing, and what’s killing them is automation. The assembly-line jobs went first, because they are so easy to automate. That’s what turned the old industrial heartland of the United States into the ‘Rust Belt’. What’s going fast now are the retail jobs, killed by Amazon and its rivals: computers again.

The next big chunk to go will probably be the driving jobs, just as soon as self-driving vehicles are approved for public use. And so on, one or two sectors at a time, until by 2033 (according to the famous 2013 prediction by Oxford economist Carl Benedikt Frey) 47% of US jobs will be lost to automation. And of course it won’t stop there.

Why don’t clever politicians like Hillary Clinton get that? Perhaps because they half-believe the fantasy statistics on employment put out by governments, like the official 3.7% unemployment rate in the United States. A more plausible figure is American Enterprise Institute scholar Nicholas Eberstadt’s finding in 2016 that 17.5% of American men of prime working age were not working.

That’s three-quarters of the way to peak US unemployment in the Great Depression of the 1930s, but it goes unnoticed because today’s unemployed are not starving and they are not rioting. You can thank the welfare states that were built in every developed country after the Second World War for that, but they are still very angry people – and they do vote. A lot of them vote for populists.

Populism thrives when a lot of people are angry or desperate or both. Donald Trump and people like him are not the problem. They are symptoms (and beneficiaries) of the problem – yet they dare not name it, because they have no idea what to do about automation.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“We know…now”)

US Mid-Term Elections

Barack Obama said of the US mid-term elections that “the character of our country is on the ballot,” and the outcome proved him right. The United States is a psychological basket case, more deeply and angrily divided than at any time since the Vietnam War.

It’s not evenly divided, of course. The popular vote saw the Democrats lead the Republicans nationwide by an 8 percent margin, but that translated into only a modest gain in seats in the House of Representatives and in state elections because of the extensive gerrymandering of electoral districts in Republican-ruled states.

The more important truth is that the Republican Party is now almost entirely in the hands of ‘white nationalists’, and totally controlled by Donald Trump. It’s no longer ‘conservative’. It’s radical right, with an anti-immigrant, racist agenda and an authoritarian style – and about 90 percent of the Republicans in Congress are white males.

The Democratic Party is multi-cultural, feminist (84 of the 100 women elected to the new House of Representatives are Democrats), and even socialist. Only one-third of the Democrats in the new Congress will be white men – and almost half the Democrats in the House of Representatives can be classed as Democratic Socialists.

Donald Trump will get little further legislation through Congress, and a Democratic-controlled House will be able to subpoena his tax returns and investigate his ties to Russia, but he didn’t lose spectacularly on Tuesday. Indeed, he proclaimed that it was “a great victory” (because that’s what he always does, win or lose).

But Trump didn’t lose all that badly, either. The Republicans’ losses were within the normal range for a governing party in mid-term elections, so the political civil war continues unabated.

The divisions will continue and even deepen because neither of the major American parties understands what is making Americans so angry and unhappy. Donald Trump knows that it is fundamentally about jobs, but he is barking up the wrong tree when he blames it on ‘off-shoring’ and free trade and promises to make the foreigners give the jobs back.

Many Democrats suspect what the real problem is, but they won’t discuss it openly because they have no idea how to deal with it. What is really destroying American jobs is automation.

It’s destroying jobs in other developed countries too, with similar political consequences. The ‘Leave’ side won the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom because of strong support in the post-industrial wastelands of northern and central England. The neo-fascist candidate in the last French presidential election, Marine Le Pen, got one-third of the vote because of her popularity in the French equivalent of the US ‘Rust Belt’.

But the process is farthest advanced in the United States, which has lost one-third of its manufacturing jobs – 8 million jobs – in the past 25 years. Only 2 million of those jobs were lost because the factories were ‘off-shored’ to Mexico or China, and that happened mostly in the 1990s. The rest were simply abolished by automation.

The Rust Belt went first, because assembly-line manufacturing is the easiest thing in the world to automate. The retail jobs are going now, because of Amazon and its ilk. The next big chunk to disappear will be the 4.5 million driving jobs in the United States, lost to self-driving vehicles. Et cetera.

The ‘official’ US unemployment rate of 3.7 percent is a fantasy. The proportion of American males of prime working age (25-54) who are actually not working, according to Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute, is 17.5 percent. Or at least that’s what it was when he did his big study two years ago.

Maybe the allegedly ‘booming’ economy of the past couple of years has brought that number down a bit, but it’s a safe bet that it’s still around 14-15 percent. This is a rate of unemployment last seen in the Great Depression of the 1930s. Why isn’t there blood in the streets? There certainly was in the 1930s.

The Great Depression led to the rise of populism, the triumph of fascism and the catastrophe of the Second World War, so almost all developed Western countries created welfare states in the 1950s and 1960s in order to avoid going down that road again. The economy might tank again, but at least people would not be so desperate and so vulnerable to populist appeals.

It kind of worked: there is plenty of anger among the unemployed (and the under-employed), but they do not turn to violence. They do vote, however, and their votes are driven by anger.

Until the major parties can acknowledge that it is the computers that are killing the jobs (and that it probably can’t be stopped), the anger will continue to grow. You can’t begin to fix the problem until you understand it.
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To shorten to 650 words, omit paragraphs 134, 14 and 15. (“Maybe…anger”)

Khashoggi: Worse Than a Crime

If Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), really did sent a hit team to Turkey to murder dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul ten days ago, what will happen next? Perhaps history can help us here.

A little over two centuries ago, in 1804, the armies of the French Revolution had won all the key battles and the wars seemed to be over. The rest of Europe had decided in 1801 that it would have to live with the French Revolution and made peace with Napoleon. Everything was going so well – and then he made a little mistake.

Many members of the French nobility had gone into exile and fought against the armies of the Revolution, and the Duke of Enghien was one of them. In 1804 he was living across the Rhine river on German territory.

Napoleon heard an (untrue) report that Enghien was part of a conspiracy to assassinate him, and sent a hit team – sorry, a cavalry squadron – across the Rhine to kidnap him. They brought him back to Paris, gave him a perfunctory military trial, and shot him. After that things did not go well for Napoleon.

The idea that Napoleon would violate foreign territory in peacetime in order to murder an opponent was so horrifying, so repellent that opinion turned against peace with France everywhere. As his own chief of police, Joseph Fouché, said, “It was worse than a crime. It was a blunder.”

By the end of the year every major power in Europe was back at war with Napoleon. After a decade of war he was defeated at Waterloo and sent into exile on St. Helena for the rest of his life. So is something like that going to happen to MbS too?

Nobody’s going to invade Saudi Arabia, of course. (Not even Iran, despite MbS’s paranoia on the subject.) But will they stop investing in the country, stop selling it weapons and buying its oil, maybe even slap trade embargoes on it.

Since it seems almost certain that Khashoggi was murdered by the Saudi government – Turkish government officials have even told journalists off the record that they have audio and partial video recordings of Khashoggi’s interrogation, torture and killing – all of Saudi Arabia’s ‘friends’ and trading partners have some choices to make.

Donald Trump immediately rose to the occasion, declaring that he would be “very upset and angry” if Saudi Arabia was responsible for Khashoggi’s murder, and that there would be “severe punishment” for the crime.

He even boasted that Saudi Arabia “would not last two weeks” without American military support. Presumably Trump was talking about the survival of the Saudi regime, not the country’s independence, but he was still wrong. He is as prone to overestimate his power as MbS himself.

The Saudis struck right back, saying that “The kingdom affirms its total rejection of any threats or attempts to undermine it whether through threats to impose economic sanctions or the use of political pressure. The kingdom also affirms that it will respond to any (punitive) action with a bigger one.”

But Trump was only bluffing. He really had no intention of cancelling the $110 billion of contracts that Saudi Arabia has signed to buy American-made weapons, because “we’d be punishing ourselves if we did that. If they don’t buy it from us, they’re going to buy it from Russia or… China.”

People have been turning a blind eye to the weekly hundreds of civilian deaths caused by Saudi bombing in Yemen for three years now. Why would they respond any differently to murder of one pesky Saudi journalist in Istanbul, even if he did write for the ‘Washington Post’?

The difference is that it’s intensely personal – this is an absolute monarch ordering the killing of a critic who annoyed him but posed no threat to his power – and it’s brazenly, breathtakingly arrogant. MbS really thinks he can do something like this and make everybody shut up about it.

He is probably right, so far as the craven, money-grubbing foreigners are concerned – like former British prime minister Tony Blair, who could barely even bring himself to say that Saudi Arabia should investigate and explain the issue, because “otherwise it runs completely contrary to the process of modernisation.”

But if the foreigners will not or cannot bring Mohammed bin Salman down, his own family (all seven thousand princes, or however many there are now) probably will. It is a family business, and his amateurish strategies, his impulsiveness and his regular resort to violence are ruining the firm’s already not very good name.

He rose rapidly out of the multitudinous ranks of anonymous princes through the favour of his failing father, King Salman, but he could fall as fast as he rose. Killing Khashoggi was definitely a blunder.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 14 and 15. (“The difference…modernisation”)