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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”)

Italy: The Enemy of my Enemy is my Friend

NOTE: THE NEW COALITION GOVERNMENT IS SUPPOSED TO BE ACCEPTED BY THE ITALIAN PRESIDENT TODAY, 21 MAY, BUT AT THE TIME OF WRITING IT STILL HAD NOT HAPPENED. CHECK.

From the European Union’s point of view Brexit, the impending departure of the United Kingdom, is a pity but not a disaster. Britain never joined the euro, the common currency used by most EU members, and the English were always the awkward squad in the EU’s march towards an ‘ever closer union’. Whereas the defection of Italy could threaten the EU’s survival.

Two and a half months after the election on 4 March, Italy is finally getting a new government. It is a bizarre coalition of the Five-Star Movement (M5S), a populist party of the left, and the League, a populist party of the far right. Moderates both in Italy and in the wider EU reassure themselves with the thought that it cannot survive, let alone cooperate, but they may be wrong.

There is actually a good chance that the new coalition will survive, at least for a while, because it is based on the ancient principle that ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’. And the enemy the two parties have in common is the European Union.

Until recently the M5S was promising to hold a referendum on Italy’s membership in the euro, while the League was advocating outright withdrawal from the EU. They have backed away from those extreme policies for the moment, but what they are promising to do will nevertheless bring them into direct and severe confrontation with the European Union.

The coalition’s ‘contract for change’, a joint programme agreed earlier this month, is a patchwork quilt of both parties’ favourite policies. It includes the M5S pledge of a minimum basic income of 780 euros ($917) a month for the poorest Italians, and the League’s demand for a flat tax of 15% on the incomes of middle-class Italians, and only 20 % even for the rich.

This will doubtless please a great many Italian voters (which was the whole point of the idea), but it involves an extra $132 billion per year of deficit spending. This blatantly violates the EU budget rules designed to keep the euro currency stable.

The Italian government’s foreign debt is already so big that only the implicit guarantee of eurozone membership keeps its borrowing costs down. A few more years of Italian over-spending, however, and the stability of the euro itself will come into question, so the EU will fight very hard to block the coalition’s spending plans.

A confrontation is also likely to erupt over illegal immigration, with the new coalition government pushing for a change in the ‘Dublin regulation’ that requires refugees to seek asylum in the first EU country they reach. For the great majority of the ‘refugees’ who make it across the Mediterranean each year, that first country is Italy, and most Italians want the
burden shared more fairly among all the EU countries.

That would seem to be enough dry kindling to get the fire going, and yet an open fight between the Five Star-League coalition and the EU will probably be postponed for a while. It
will get kicked down the road because the EU needs all the unity it can muster to resist the US assault on global trade.

The problem is not just the steep US tariffs on a variety of EU products that are due to kick in soon. The bigger issue is rapidly becoming how to protect European banks and companies trading with Iran from being forced to pull out of Iran by Trump’s promised ‘secondary sanctions’. That’s a sovereignty question, and the other big EU countries will bend over backward to keep Italy in line until this issue is settled.

In the longer run, however, a major confrontation between Italy and the rest of the EU is coming if the coalition government lasts. When it arrives, the two parties that make up the coalition are quite likely to fall back on their previous plans for quitting the euro currency and even the EU as a whole.

As Oscar Wilde remarked in a quite different context: “To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.” For the EU to lose first the United Kingdom and then Italy would certainly look like carelessness, but it should not be seen as an inevitable event. More like a chapter of misfortunes.

The narrow Brexit victory in the UK (52%-48%) was driven by a generation of English nationalists (‘Little Englanders’) that is rapidly ageing out, while the great majority of the under-35s voted ‘remain’.

The great majority of Italians want to stay in the EU, but their general discontent led many to vote for parties that are (among other things) anti-EU.

Some new EU members that spent almost half a century under Communist rule and very little time as democracies, like Poland and Hungary, are back under authoritarian rule, and the disease seems to be spreading.

It could turn into a perfect storm that unravels the European Union, but cheer up. At least Europe would recover some of its fine old traditions, like picturesque dictatorships, ultra-nationalism, sporadic wars, and maybe the occasional world war.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 10. (“A confrontation…countries”; and “The problem…settled”)

Migrants: The Borders Are Closing

There are actually fewer migrants crossing the Mediterranean and landing in European Union countries this year than in any other recent year: only 37,000 so far, although the flow will increase with good summer weather. But they are nevertheless the ‘last straw’ as far as some EU countries are concerned. Patience is running out.

Last week Italy’s new populist government stopped a ship that had just rescued 630 African migrants from the usual overloaded, sinking boats from coming into any Italian port. “Saving lives is a duty, turning Italy into a huge refugee camp is not,” said Matteo Salvini, Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister, in a tweet. “Italy is done bending over backwards and obeying – this time THERE IS SOMEONE WHO SAYS NO.”

Eventually the even newer socialist government of Spain volunteered to take the migrants instead, although they had to endure several more days on open decks in poor weather before reaching Valencia. But it may have been a once-only gesture: the Spanish are feeling very put upon too.

Around 2 million migrants have entered Europe claiming to be refugees since 2014, which doesn’t sound like an unbearable burden. After all, the EU has 500 million citizens. Turkey, with only 80 million people, has taken in about 2 million Syrian refugees. Heroic little Lebanon has let in about the same number, which is equal to almost half its own native population.

But there are three factors that aggravate the situation in Europe. One is that the refugees in Lebanon have the same language, culture and religion as most of the Lebanese themselves. Even in Turkey they tick two of the three boxes. Whereas the ones who reach Europe don’t tick any of those boxes.

The second exacerbating factor is that only a few of the EU’s 28 countries are carrying almost all of the burden: Italy, Spain and Greece, where the migrant boats arrive, and Germany, which took in almost a million migrants in the single year of 2015. (That generous act is probably what cost Chancellor Angela Merkel a clear victory in last year’s election and forced her to cobble together a shaky coalition instead.)

The final factor is that many of the migrants – maybe as many as half – aren’t traditional refugees fleeing war or persecution. They are simply people who hope for a better life in Europe than the one they left behind, and are willing to face great risks and hardships to get it.

About half the people on the migrant ship that Italy turned away, for example, were from Nigeria or Sudan. Neither country is at war, and Nigeria is actually a democracy. Even the great wave of Syrian refugees in 2015 was made up of people who were already safe, in Turkey or elsewhere, but chose to keep going because Europe was richer and freer.

So the humanitarian impulse is blunted by cynicism about the migrants’ motives, and the very unequal distribution of the migrant burden among the various EU member states breeds conflict both between and inside those countries. The politics is already getting poisonous – and this is only a dress rehearsal for the real migrant apocalypse, which is not due for another decade or two.

Even now many of the ‘economic migrants’ are really climate refugees, although they would probably not use that phrase themselves. The family farm dried up and blew away, and there are no jobs in the local towns, so some family member has to go to Europe, find a job and send cash home.

This phenomenon is going to get a lot bigger. Global average temperature reached one degree C higher than the pre-industrial average just last year, and it is bound to rise at least another half-degree even if we do everything right starting tomorrow morning. It may rise a lot more.

The subtropical parts of the world, including the parts near Europe – the Middle East and the northern part of the African continent – already have hot, relatively dry climates. Global warming will make them hotter and dryer still, and cut sharply into food production. These regions also have by far the highest rates of population growth on the planet.

The time will almost certainly come when large parts of the Middle East and Africa north of the equator will be unable to feed all their people, and far larger numbers than now will abandon their homes and head for Europe. Nobody talks about this in public, but every European government that does serious long-term planning is well aware of it.

This vision of the future colours every decision they make about migrants even now, for the tougher-minded among them know that the borders will eventually have to be closed even if it means leaving people to die.

Most European leaders are still trying to balance the immediate humanitarian concern against that long-term strategic perspective, but they are gradually losing the struggle. And some, like the Polish, Hungarian and Austrian governments, and now the Italian government as well, have effectively decided to close the borders now.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 11. (“About…freer”; and “The subtropical…planet”)

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

Italy: The Migrant ‘Flood’

Lucky old Italy just got two Donald Trumps for the price of one. One of the big winners in last Sunday’s Italian election was the Five-Star Movement, whose 31-year-old leader Luigi di Maio has promised to stop sending out rescue boats to save migrants from drowning when their flimsy craft sink halfway across the Mediterranean. A “sea taxi service”, he calls it, and promises to send all the survivng illegal immigrants home.

So does Matteo Salvini, the leader of the League (formerly the Northern League), the other big winner in the election. “I’m sick of seeing immigrants in hotels and Italians who sleep in cars,” Salvini told supporters at a recent rally in Milan. He pledges to send 150,000 illegal migrants home in his first year in government.

It is not yet clear whether Salvini and/or di Maio will actually be in government. A coalition between the Five-Star Movement and the League would command a majority in parliament and is one possibility, but other combinations are also possible. However, it’s already clear that these two populists won more than half the votes on openly racist platforms.

‘Openly racist’? Di Maio and Salvini generally stop just a millimetre short of that, but Attilio Fontana, the senior League member who has just won the governorship of Lombardy, Italy’s richest region, has no such qualms. “We have to decide if our ethnicity, if our white race, if our society continues to exist or if it will be canceled out,” he said recently.

Now it’s true that 600,000 illegal migrants, mostly from Africa and the Middle East, mostly Muslim, and mostly young men, have arrived on Italy’s shores in the past four years, which was bound to startle the older residents. On the other hand, there are 60 million people in Italy, so that’s just one percent of the population. Why is that such a big deal?

You might as well ask why it’s such a big deal that an estimated half-million illegal migrants enter the United States each year. That is only one illegal immigrant per year for every 600 people who are already in the country. Half of those illegals aren’t even Mexicans, and yet Donald Trump won a lot of votes by promising to build a Wall on the Mexican border to stop them.

Both in the United States and in Italy, the real fuel behind the populist surge is high unemployment (the official US figure is a fantasy) and long-term stagnation in the incomes of the lower-paid half of the population. The immigration issue just serves as a visible symbol of the displacement so many feel as the economy pushes them to the margins.

The popular discontent and the political malaise cannot be cured by sending a few hundred thousand migrants home, even if that were easily done. In many cases, it is practically impossible.

The Mexican government currently cooperates with the US, so at the moment it is relatively easy to send illegal immigrants back across that border. The illegal migrants in Italy and other European Union countries are a quite different story, because their countries of origin will generally not want them back, and EU human rights laws make it hard to just give them parachutes and push them out of planes.

What we are seeing now, however, is a foretaste of the time when the migrant flows grow very large and the politics gets really brutal. In the not too distant future the Mediterranean Sea and the Mexican border will separate the temperate world, where the climate is still tolerable and there is still enough food, from the sub-tropical and tropical worlds of killer heat and dwindling food.

This is a regular subject of confidential discussions in various strategic planning cells in European governments, and also in the grown-up parts of the US government.Ten years ago a senior officer in the intelligence section of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff told me that the US army expected to be ordered by Congress to close the Mexican border down completely within the next twenty years. And he was quite explicit: that meant shooting to kill.

This was many years before Donald Trump came up with the Wall, and even today it’s still not needed. But one day it will be, because global warming will hit the countries closer to the equator far harder than the fortunate countries of the temperate zone, and the main casualty will be food production in the tropics and the sub-tropics.

So the hungry millions will start to move, and the borders of the richer countries in the temperate parts of the world will slam shut to keep them out: the United States, the European Union, Russia, South Africa, Australia. If you think the politics is ugly now, just wait

Of course, a miracle could happen. There could be early and very deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, so that most of the catastrophe never arrives. But I’m having trouble even believing in the Easter Bunny any more. This is harder.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 9. (“Openly…recently”; and “The Mexican…planes”)