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Germany at Thirty

30 September 2020

I have just spent two weeks driving around Germany interviewing people (mostly climate scientists, since you ask), and I have come to the conclusion that it is the best-run – and quite possibly just the best – major country in the world right now.

Some small countries are absolute jewels, of course, but it’s easier if you’re small. Big powers fight more wars, contain more divisions, suffer nastier and more ridiculous delusions of grandeur. But if you only consider countries with more than 50 million people, then Germany today is the fairest, the least conflicted, the most peaceful, actually the nicest major country on the planet.

That wasn’t true thirty years ago, and it may not be true thirty years hence, but it’s worth noting because Saturday marks the thirtieth anniversary of the unification of Germany in 1990, just one year after the Berlin Wall came down. Compared to what happened after the first time it was unified, it has all worked out rather well.

The first unification of Germany, in 1871, was achieved by war, and led to more and much bigger wars – not entirely Germany’s fault, of course, but certainly the consequence of the sudden appearance of a highly nationalistic new great power in the heart of Europe.

After the Second World War, Germany was divided into three. The eastern third was emptied of Germans and given to Poland (in compensation for the eastern third of pre-war Poland, which was kept by the Soviet Union). The middle part, also under Soviet occupation,
became Communist-ruled ‘East Germany’, while the rest, with most of the population, became ‘West Germany’.

The ‘two Germanies’ became the cockpit of the Cold War, with huge armies of tanks ready to roll and nuclear weapons not far behind them. Many people understood that this could not go on forever, that some day the country would have to be reunited – but they were terrified by the prospect. They feared that the process of reunification might trigger a war, and they also feared a reunited Germany.

Lord Ismay, the British general who became the first secretary-general of the NATO alliance (which included West Germany), put it bluntly: “NATO exists to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” French journalist and poet François Mauriac said it more elegantly: “I love Germany so much that I’m glad there are two of them.”

If the trigger to end the East German Communist regime had been in British, French and American hands, it might never have been pulled. But it was actually in the hands of the East Germans themselves, and in 1989 they brought down their oppressors without a shot being fired. All the other Communist states of eastern Europe followed suit.

There was great joy in both parts of Germany – the street party after the Berlin Wall came down was probably the best and certainly the longest I have ever attended – but there was considerable trepidation elsewhere. However Mikhail Gorbachev, the reformist Soviet leader, reassured everybody by declaring that Moscow had no objection to German reunification, and the deed was done thirty years ago this week.

It has worked out very well. There are sad people and even wicked people in Germany, like everywhere else, but as a society it radiates contentment. Unflustered competence lubricated by a general tone of good-will make minor daily transactions less of an ordeal, and the strident nationalism that now disfigures so many other countries is conspicuous by its absence.

In the place of that the Germans have a dedication to the European project: like ‘Amens’ in a church, invocations of ‘Europe’ punctuate political conversations. And if you say this is a defensive reaction against Germany’s terrible history in the two generations before 1945, I would probably agree – but what’s wrong with that?

Even the economic contrast between the formerly Communist-ruled east and the rest of the country, to the great disadvantage of the former, is gradually eroding: average incomes among ‘Ossis’(easterners) are now up to almost 90% of ‘Wessi’ earnings. All the ‘coolest’ cities, the magnets that attract the young, are in the former east: Berlin, Dresden, and now Leipzig.

It’s not paradise, but when you compare it with the incompetent, belligerent populism that prevails in formally democratic countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, Brazil and India, it looks pretty good. ‘Wir schaffen das” (We can manage this), said Chancellor Angela Merkel when over a million mostly Muslim refugees arrived in Germany in 2016, and four years later it looks like she was right.

‘Mutti’ (Mommy), as Germans call her, has been chancellor for half of the past thirty years, so there will be a collective holding of breath when she retires next year. But the world would be a better and safer place if there were more countries like Germany.

Plus there’s no speed limit at all on the autobahns. Where else can you drive at 160 kph and have cars whooshing past you all the time?
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 11, 12 and 15. (“In the place…Leipzig”; and “Plus…time”)

Of Plagues and Genocides

8 July 2020

Last Sunday in the city of Baltimore, they tore down a statue of Christopher Columbus and threw it into the harbour.

According to the Baltimore Sun, the protesters who yanked it down with ropes were
dedicated to removing statues “honoring white supremacists, owners of enslaved people, perpetrators of genocide, and colonizers.”

We could waste a lot of time discussing the many ways this was wrong. In terms of the goals of ‘Black Lives Matter” it was a pointless distraction that merely provided fresh material for Donald Trump’s campaign of racist incitement and slander – but it may have been a deliberate provocation: the ‘protesters’ were almost all white.

For Little Italy, the inner-city Italian neighbourhood whose second- and third-generation immigrants paid to erect the statue 36 years ago, it was just mean and contemptuous. All they wanted to do was put up a statue of a famous Italian, and they knew that Christopher Columbus was the only one most of their fellow-Americans would recognise.

It was wrong because Columbus was not a slave owner (no Europeans owned slaves in his time). He was not a ‘coloniser’ (his geography was mistaken, but he was just trying to find a direct trade route to Asia). And he was certainly not a ‘white supremacist’: 15th-century Europeans had virtually no contact with people of other colours, so the issue didn’t even arise.

But let’s get to the point. There is one item in this indictment that is worth talking about, not because it is historically correct but because it shines some light on our current predicament. It’s this business about ‘perpetrators of genocide’ – the alleged genocide that wiped out 90% of the people living in the Americas within a century after Columbus’s arrival in the Caribbean.

In the course of conquering the civilisations of the New World during the 16th century – Aztecs, Incas, Mayas, etc. – the conquistadors undoubtedly killed tens or even hundreds of thousands of people. That’s what conquests do, and practically every human society has gone through that experience at one time or another.

A lot of other native Americans, perhaps hundreds of thousands in the course of the first century of Spanish rule, were worked to death, especially in the silver mines of Mexico and Bolivia. But there is no record or evidence of mass killing on the scale of the great conquerors of Eurasia like Genghis Khan and Tamurlane, nor is there any reason why the conquerors would have wanted to kill on that scale.

Yet 90% of the population of the Americas – let’s say 45 out of 50 million people – perished between 1500 and 1600. Most of them were farmers, of course, and as the forests grew back on their abandoned farms it drew so much carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere that the global temperature dropped, causing (or at least exacerbating) the Little Ice Age of the 1600s and 1700s.

What killed the great majority of those people was not violence but waves of quick-killer Eurasian diseases to which they had no immunity: influenza and pneumonic plagues, enteric fevers, smallpox, even measles. Just one wave of ‘cocoliztli’ (probably salmonella enterica, an enteric fever similar to typhoid) killed 80 percent of the Aztec population of Mexico in 1545-50.

Quick-killer diseases only thrive in species that live in dense herds, where the killer virus or bacteria has a good chance of being passed on before its current victim dies. The native American populations mostly lived in densely populated civilisations by Columbus’s time, but they hadn’t left the common hunter-gatherer past behind long enough to develop such diseases.

By 1500 Europeans and Asians had been farmers living in dense populations with lots of cities for almost 5,000 years: plenty of time for those diseases to make the jump from their herds of cattle, sheep, and pigs to new human hosts. With each new disease, millions died: the Antonine plague devastated the Roman empire in the 2nd century AD, and the Black Death killed about one-third of the populations of both Europe and Asia in the 13th century.

In the Americas, however, farming cultures with dense populations and cities were thousands of years more recent, and there were few herd animals. The populations had not yet developed quick-killer diseases of their own, and they had no defences against the Eurasian ones. They got hit by them all at once, and it almost wiped them out.

It wasn’t a genocide. In fact ‘first contact’ would have had the same devastating effect on New World civilisations if Aztec explorers with sea-going ships had ‘discovered’ Europe.

But the whole process has a serious message for us, because the current pandemic is just a later example of the same problem. New, highly infectious diseases are a chronic problem in mass societies like the current global civilisation. There will be more, and some will be more lethal.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 14. (For Little…recognise”; and “It wasn’t…Europe”)

Four-Day Work Week

As countries in Europe and North America emerge from lock-down and start trying to rebuild their devastated economies, the great concern is jobs.

Unemployment in the US and Canada is over 13%, a post-Second World War high. If it weren’t for subsidies that keep up to a fifth of the working population in paid ‘furloughs’ from their jobs, jobless rates in Europe would be as high or higher. That can’t go on forever, so there is a frantic search for job-saving strategies – and the ‘four-day work week’ keeps coming up.

Like that other proposed magic bullet, the guaranteed basic income, the notion of a four-day working week has been kicking around for a long time. The current emergency has given both ideas a second wind, and neither is nearly as radical or extreme as it sounds.

Less than a century ago the whole industrialised world transitioned from the traditional six-day working week (Saturdays included) to a five-day work-week, for the same pay, with no political upheaval and no significant loss of production. So why don’t we do that again, spread the work around, and save lots of jobs?

Because it doesn’t work like that. The four-day week is not about spreading the load. It is about finding ways for people who already have jobs to squeeze the same work into four 10-hour working days instead of five 8-hour days, or to work ‘smarter’ so that they can get the same work done (or more) in only four 8-hour days.

The 40-hour week done in four days is the only available option for most process workers on assembly lines or other repetitive physical tasks. Ten-hour workdays are even harder than they sound, but the prize is a three-day weekend and some people are willing to pay the price.

If everybody buys into that, then management can shut the plant down one extra day and save on power. If only some do, then management has the headache of scheduling some 10-hour shifts and other 8-hour shifts, plus the cost of the mistakes that may accumulate when exhausted people are approaching the end of a 10-hour shift. And no saving on electricity costs.

Nevertheless, it does make for a happier workforce, by all accounts, and maybe therefore a more efficient and productive one. There are already a few examples of this kind of four-day working in every industrial country, and now the prime ministers of Finland and New Zealand are both talking it up. Neither woman, however, is proposing to impose it nationally, and nobody is suggesting that it will create more jobs.

The four-day week is an easier and more attractive package for people in administrative and sales jobs, because everybody knows that there is a lot of wasted time in office work: social media, pointless emails, long boring meetings, etc. You could get the job done a lot quicker if everybody was motivated to concentrate on the bits that are actually useful and skip the rest.

So motivate them. Tell them that they can drop to four 8-hour days a week for the same pay as the old five days if they can still get the same work done – and leave it to them to figure out how. If they can’t, then it’s back to the same old five-day grind.

Miraculously, they almost always do manage to find the time. In many cases, indeed, productivity actually rises: happy workers do better work. The four-day week is an excellent idea whose time may finally have come, but it is not a magic bullet. Companies don’t ever hire more people just to spread the work around.

So what might spread the available work around? The US Congress had a brilliant idea in 1938, when it passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which required employers to pay overtime at 150% of the normal hourly wage for anything over 40 hours of work a week.

The idea was to make employers hire more people. If they had 40 employees working 50 hours a week, they would have to pay each of them overtime for the last 10 hours. So why not just hire another 10 people and save all that overtime pay? It worked quite well at the time, but it would not work now. Don’t hire more people; just put in more automation.

The coronavirus is just an accelerator. The real problem with employment ever since the 1990s has been automation, which has been eating up good jobs and excreting low-paid, insecure ones instead – or none at all. Six million good manufacturing jobs were automated out of existence in the US in 2000-2010, which led fairly directly to the election of Donald Trump in 2016.

The current pandemic is speeding the process by driving more jobs online, especially in sales (a different kind of automation), and fiddling with working hours or minimum wages is not going to stop it. So what’s left? Maybe a guaranteed basic income would help, but that’s a discussion for another day.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 12 and 13. (“So what…work now”)

Turkey: The Empire Strikes Back

The Ottoman Empire, like many of its Middle Eastern predecessors, had the bad habit of moving entire peoples around if they were causing trouble. And sometimes, as happened to the Armenians during the First World War, what started as deportation ended up as genocide.

The empire collapsed a century ago, but old habits die hard. Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdoǧan (whose admirers often call him ‘the Sultan’) has a new plan: he’s going to move a million Kurds away from Turkey’s southern frontier with Syria, and replace them with a million Arabs.

And if his Western allies don’t like that, he’ll dump another million or so Arabs in Europe. “Either this happens (in Syria),” he said last week, “or we will have to open the gates (to Europe).” This is a blackmail threat with teeth: it was the sudden arrival of a million Syrian refugees in Europe in 2016 that energised extreme right-wing populists from England to Hungary.

Very few of those refugees ever wound up in either England or Hungary – the great majority of them were given shelter in Germany – but their arrival gave nationalists and racists all over Europe a stick to beat their opponents with. Erdoǧan, who is an accomplished nationalist rabble-rouser himself, knows exactly what he is doing, and he may well succeed.

All this is happening because Erdoǧan is obsessed about the Kurds – or at least he knows that a lot of other Turks are obsessed about the Kurds, and he’s in political trouble at home so he needs to feed their fantasies. You can never tell with the ‘Sultan’, who has a Trump-like ability to genuinely believe whatever he happens to be saying at the moment.

To be fair, the Kurds are a real problem for the Turks. They are about a fifth of the country’s population, concentrated mostly in the south-east, and they have been mistreated and their very identity denied by the Turkish state for so long that many of them would rather be independent.

Some of them have even taken up arms against Turkey in an organisation called the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), which is now mostly based across the border in Kurdish-speaking northern Iraq. There was a ceasefire and peace talks early in this decade, but Erdoǧan started bombing the PKK again in 2015 when he had a tricky election to win and needed to appeal to Turkish nationalists.

Now he’s in trouble again: his party lost control of all Turkey’s big cities in the last election. Time to whack the Kurds again, and this time it’s going to be the Syrian Kurds, another fragment of the Kurdish people that lives in northern Syria, just across the border from Turkey’s Kurds. But not for much longer, if Erdoǧan has his way.

The Turkish strongman says that the Syrian Kurds are really ‘terrorists’ allied to the PKK, although there have been absolutely no attacks on Turkey from Syria during the entire eight-year Syrian civil war. What the Syrian Kurds were actually doing was defeating the real terrorists of ‘Islamic State’ in Syria, with strong air support and some ground support from the United States.

However, there is no gratitude in politics. Erdoǧan now wants to evict the Syrian Kurds from their homes and drive them south, away from the Turkish border. And to make sure they don’t come back later, he wants to settle a million Arabs there permanently instead.

There are four and a half million Syrian Arab refugees in Turkey. They’d like to go home, of course, but most of them are afraid of living under the control of Bashar al-Assad, the cruel dictator who has won the Syrian civil war. And here’s that nice Mr Erdoǧan, offering them homes in a ‘safe zone’ in northern Syria.

That’s not where their real homes are, but maybe they’ll be happy there once Erdoǧan has driven the Kurds out. As he said recently in Ankara, “we can build towns there in lieu of the tent cities here.” The only hitch in the plan is that the United States may feel queasy about betraying the Syrian Kurds who fought alongside American troops to destroy Islamic State.

To solve that problem, Erdoǧan is threatening to send a million or so Arab refugees west into Europe. The Europeans will panic and make the Americans go along with his plan, or so he believes. He’s probably right.

The European Union promised Turkey 6 billion euros to keep the Arab refugees in Turkey in 2016, but Erdoǧan claims that half of it was never paid (which, if true, was very stupid of the Europeans). He doesn’t owe the EU any favours, and it truly will panic if he opens the gates and sends the Arabs west.

Donald Trump wants US troops out of Syria before next year’s election, so he’ll probably give in to Erdoǧan (and the Europeans). But the Syrian Kurds will probably fight to protect their homes.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 14. (“Very…succeed”; and “The European…west”)