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Donald Trump

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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”)

Palestinian Despair

When all is lost, entire communities sometimes engage in suicidal gestures. It happened as recently as 1906 in Bali, when the local royal family and thousands of their followers, knowing they could not defeat the Dutch conquerors, dressed in their best finery and walked straight into the Dutch gunfire. Thousands were killed.

It has been happening again in the past six weeks in the area in front of the border fence that divides the Gaza Strip from Israel. It reached at least a temporary climax on Monday, when some 2,000 Palestinians were wounded, around half by gunfire, and 60 were shot dead by Israeli soldiers.

That’s at least a thousand unarmed Palestinian civilians struck by Israeli bullets in a single day. One Israeli soldier was lightly injured by a rock or a piece of shrapnel.

Even before the ‘March of Return’ began in late March, the Israeli government said that the march was just a cover for terrorists to cross into its territory and carry out terrorist attacks. Soldiers would therefore be allowed to fire live ammunition against anybody trying to damage the border fence, which included anybody coming within 300 metres of it.

There have been unconfirmed reports that the army was later told to shoot only people coming within 100 metres of the fence, which would involve maybe only half the people in the crowd. But the basic story was unchanged: those clever Hamas terrorists had figured out that the best way to sneak into Israel is to break through the border in broad daylight and make their way past thousands of heavily armed Israeli soldiers on full alert.

So anybody in the crowd could be shot if identified as a ‘key agitator’, even if he or she posed no immediate threat to the soldiers. Indeed, the army, presumably using top-secret equipment that let them identify the dead while other Palestinians carried them away, claimed that 24 of the 60 Palestinians killed on Monday were “terrorists with documented terror background.”

Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu defends the slaughter on the grounds that Hamas “intends to destroy Israel and sends thousands to breach the border fence in order to achieve this goal.” If he truly believes they could destroy Israel that way, then the country must be far weaker than anybody thought. But he’s getting away with this nonsense because Israel’s allies refuse to call him on it.

The French government has called on Israel to “exercise discernment and restraint in the use of force that must be strictly proportionate.” The British government said that “the large volume of live fire is extremely concerning. We continue to implore Israel to show greater restraint.”

The comments of Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, who was in Israel to celebrate the opening of the new US embassy in Jerusalem, were even more anodyne. He just ignored the carnage happening at the border and restricted himself to saying that “The United States stands with Israeli because we both believe in freedom.”

But the prize for Most Revealing Remark must go to Khalil al-Hayya, a senior official in the Hamas party that rules the Gaza Strip: “We say clearly today to all the world that the peaceful march of our people lured the enemy into shedding more blood.” Note the word ‘lured’. At the leadership level, both sides see this ghastly event mainly in terms of political theatre.

Hamas WANTED the Israelis to commit a massacre of innocent civilians for its propaganda value. The Israeli army, well aware that this was Hamas’s goal, ordered its soldiers to shoot to injure, not to kill, whenever possible. The final score shows that they largely obeyed: if they had just randomly fired into the crowd, around one in five of the victims would have been killed, not one in forty.

Nevertheless it WAS a massacre, but the Palestinian civilians who were being maimed or killed were willing victims. The mostly young men and women in the crowd milling around in front of the border fence, which peaked at an estimated 40,000 people, knew they stood a fair chance of being killed or crippled, but they just didn’t care any more.

It’s 70 years now since the grand-parents of these young Palestinians were driven from what is now Israel, and they know that they are never going back to their ancestral homes. International law says that refugees have that right, whether they fled voluntarily (as Israel insists) or were expelled by force or the threat of force (as most other people believe), but in practice it’s just not going to happen. Israel is far too strong.

Most of the current generation know that they are never going ‘home’, and will have to live out their lives in what amounts to a not-very-large open-air prison: the Gaza Strip. It’s only natural that they are in despair, and inviting death or injury at the hands of Israeli troops seems like an honourable way out.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“So…it”)

Marx at 200

“Karl Marx was right: socialism works. It is just that he had the wrong species,” wrote sociobiologist E.O. Wilson, the world’s leading authority on ants. But it’s really a little more complicated than that, and now is a good time to discuss it, because last weekend was the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth.

Marx died in London in exile in 1883, so he cannot be blamed for the tens of millions who were killed in his name in the Soviet Union, China and elsewhere in the 20th century. But he did want to change the world, and his goal was equality: the ‘classless society’.

At its peak, in the mid-1980s, ‘Marxism’ ruled the lives of one-third of the world’s people. Now it is the official ideology in only five countries, and even there it is mainly an excuse for authoritarian rule, not a real belief system. But the principle of equality remains a central value in human politics, and now we sort of know why.

Egalitarianism among human beings poses a problem that cultural anthropologist Bruce Knauft dubbed the ‘U-shaped curve’. He observed that all non-human primate species – chimpanzees, gorillas, etc. — are intensely hierarchical (a vertical line), whereas for up to 100,000 years before the rise of civilisation our hunter-gatherer ancestors were extremely egalitarian (a horizontal line).

But as soon as mass civilisations arise five thousand years ago, it’s back to chimpanzee values. Until quite recently, all civilised societies were steep hierarchies of privilege and power. So draw another vertical line, and you have the U-shaped curve.

This raises two questions: how did human beings break away from the primate norm, and why did they succumb to it again as soon as they became ‘civilised’? The best answer to the first question came from another anthropologist, Christopher Boehm, who pointed out that humans were intelligent enough to realise that the usual primate dominance struggle among all the adult males could only have one winner.

Everybody else was bound to lose, and to be bullied and dominated by the dominant male. Since each individual was far more likely to lose than to win, it was in their collective interest to shut the whole dominance game down – and unlike other primates, humans had language, which enabled them to conspire in mini-revolutions that achieved exactly that goal.

All of those little hunter-gatherer societies were egalitarian because they were, in Boehm’s phrase, ‘reverse dominance hierarchies’: the rank and file got together and overawed the would-be alphas. Even today the customs of aboriginal societies reflect this old revolution: they are fiercely egalitarian, and have strong social mechanisms for taking down those who are getting too big for their boots.

Human beings lived in tiny bands with no hierarchies, not even any formal leaders, for long enough to entrench those egalitarian values in our cultures and maybe in our genes. But even the earliest civilisations had many thousands of people, which disabled all the social control mechanisms that relied on spotting and discouraging the would-be alphas. Moreover, mass societies had complicated economies that needed centralised decision-making.

So the alphas took charge, and the millennia of tyranny began. They only ended in the past couple of centuries, when democratic revolutions started to overthrow the kings, emperors and dictators. Why now?

Probably because the rise of mass media (just printing plus mass literacy, in the early phase) gave the millions back their ability to organise, and to challenge those who ruled over them.

They were still egalitarians at heart, so they seized the opportunity; and by now more than half the world’s people live in countries that are more or less democratic. But it’s only political equality; we never got the material equality of the hunter-gatherers back, and the social hierarchies persist.

Marx’s goal was to reconquer the remaining lost ground (though he would never have put it like that), and create a classless society that lived in absolute equality. It was such an attractive goal that millions sacrificed their lives for it, but it was a pipe-dream.

The only way to achieve that kind of equality again in a modern mass society was by strict social controls – and the only people who could enforce those controls were ruthless dictators. So we learned something from the collapse of Communism. Absolute equality comes at too high a price.

But too much inequality also exacts a price. People living in modern democratic societies will accept quite a lot of inequality, especially if there is a well-developed welfare state to protect the poor. But if the income differences get too great, the politics gets ugly.

Why did Canadians elect Justin Trudeau as prime minister, while Americans chose Donald Trump as president? The two countries have similar cultures and almost identical per capita incomes, but the richest 20 percent of Canadians earn 5.5 times as much as the poorest 20 percent – whereas the richest fifth of Americans earn 8 times as much as the poorest fifth.

Inequality is inevitable, but you have to manage it.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 8. (“At its…why”; and “All…boots”)