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Joe Biden

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The Plague: A Few Changes

They teach you in journalism school never to use the phrase “…X has changed the world forever”. Or at least they should. Covid-19 is certainly not going to change the world forever, but it is going to change quite a few things, in some cases for a long time. Here’s nine of them, in no particular order.

1. The clean air over China’s cities in the past month, thanks to an almost total shutdown of the big sources of pollution, has saved twenty times as many Chinese lives as Covid-19 has taken. (Air pollution kills about 1.1 million people in China every year.) People will remember this when the filthy air comes back, and want something done about it. India too.

2. Online shopping was already slowly killing the retail shops. The lock-down will force tens of millions who rarely or never shop online to do it all the time. (Yes, all the websites are crashed or booked until mid-April now, but there will be lots of time to scale them up to meet the demand.) Once customers get used to shopping online, most of them won’t go back, so retail jobs will be disappearing twice as fast.

3. Not so radical a change with restaurants, but basically the same story: more take-aways and home deliveries, fewer bums on seats. Habits will change, and a lot of people won’t come back afterwards. Food sold out the door generates much less cash flow than food served at the table, and half of the waiters’ jobs are gone. There will be a severe cull of restaurants.

4. Once it becomes clear that ‘remote working’ actually works for most jobs, it will start to seem normal for people not to go in to work most days. So a steep drop in commuting, lower greenhouse-gas emissions, and eventually a lot of empty office space in city centres.

5. There will be a recession, of course, but it probably won’t be as bad or as long as the one after the financial crash of 2008. It isn’t a collapse of ‘the market’ that has cost people their jobs this time. It was a virus that made them stop working, and governments are doing far more than ever before to sustain working people through what will probably be a long siege.

When the virus is tamed and they can go back to work, the work (in most cases) will still be there. Although there will also be a few trillion dollars of extra debt.

6. Don’t worry about the debt. Banks have always created as much money as the government requires. Put too much money into the economy and you’ll cause inflation, which is bad, but just replacing what people would ordinarily be earning so that the economy doesn’t seize up is good.

So President Macron can tell the French that no business, however small, will be allowed to go bankrupt. Prime Minister Johnson can tell the British that the government will pay them 80% of their normal income, up to a limit of £2,500 ($3,000) a month, if their work has vanished. And President Trump can talk about sprinkling ‘helicopter money’ on the grateful masses.

7. What is being revealed here is a deeper truth. ‘Austerity’ – cutting back on the welfare state to ‘balance the budget’ – is a political and ideological choice, not an economic necessity. What governments are moving into, willy-nilly, is a basic income guaranteed by the state.

Just for the duration of the crisis, they say, and it’s not quite a Universal Basic Income, but that idea is now firmly on the table.

8. Collective action and government protection for the old and the poor will no longer viewed as dangerous radicalism, even in the United States. Welfare states were built all over the developed world after the Second World War. They will be expanded after the Plague ends.

Indeed, if Joe Biden were to drop out of the presidential race tomorrow for health reasons, Bernie Sanders would stand a fair chance of beating Trump in November.

9. Decisive action on the climate crisis will become possible (although not guaranteed), because we will have learned that ‘business as usual’ is not sacred. If we have to change the way we do business, we can.

So it’s an ill wind that blows no good (a saying that was already old when John Heywood first catalogued it in 1546). Some of the anticipated changes are definitely good, but we are going to pay an enormous price in lives and in loss for these benefits. It could have been dealt with a lot better.

And the West should learn a little humility. Taiwan, South Korea and China (after the early fumble) have handled this crisis far better than Europe and North America. These are already more dead in Italy than in China, and America, Britain, France and Germany will certainly follow suit.

To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 16. (“So…masses”; and “And the…suit”)

US Election: Not Another Corbyn

Psephology – the statistical study of elections and trends in voting – is the darkest of the dark arts, and you can lose your soul if you delve into it too deeply. But sometimes you have to do it a bit, and this is one of those times.

On Wednesday the US Senate acquitted President Donald Trump of both charges in his impeachment trial on a straight partisan vote, with only two members of the 53-strong Republican majority even voting to hear more evidence. But this doesn’t mean that the other 51 really think Trump is innocent. They may be cowards, but they’re not stupid.

Republican Senator Lamar Alexander acknowledged that Trump’s attempt to blackmail Ukraine’s president into launching a fake investigation that would smear Joe Biden, then the leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, was “inappropriate”. In fact, he had only voted to shut the trial down because “There is no need for more evidence to prove what has already been proven.”

It just wasn’t a grave enough offence to justify impeachment, Alexander said, and besides, there is an election next November. “I believe that the constitution provides that the people should make that decision in the presidential election that begins in Iowa on Monday,” he concluded.

Alexander was only brave enough to say even that much because he will retire from the Senate this year. But he is right in saying that the upcoming presidential election is the only way that Trump can now be brought to book. That would require the Democrats to nominate a candidate who can actually beat Trump. Does such an animal actually exist?

The shambles of last Monday’s Democratic ‘caucuses’ in Iowa, the first step in the process of choosing the party’s presidential candidate, leaves much unclear, but it is becoming obvious that Joe Biden, the early front-runner and alleged ‘safe pair of hands’, is not the right man.

If you think a middle-of-the-road candidate is the best bet to beat Trump, Pete Buttigieg is your man. He came first overall in the Iowa caucuses with 27% of the votes; Biden trailed far behind with 16%.

If you think that only a radical break with the Democrats’ traditional MOR stance can beat Trump, then you also have two choices: left-wing Bernie Sanders (who actually says the word ‘socialism’ in public), or centre-left Elizabeth Warren (who at least doesn’t flinch when Bernie says the s-word).

Again, however, there was a gulf in Iowa between the two more radical candidates: Sanders got 25% of the vote, Warren only 15%. These number may change slightly when Iowa finally sorts out the mess in the vote-counting, but probably not by much.

They may change a lot more when the primary elections move to states that are not, like Iowa, 90% white and relatively prosperous (meaning slightly below the US median household income, but with much less inequality than in most states). But it would require a minor miracle for the leaders and the trailers to change places in either case.

So let us assume that the real choice, after a few more primaries, is starting to look like it’s between Sanders and Buttigieg. Which of these men is likelier to beat Trump?

Money is a big factor in any US election, and Sanders can certainly raise money, as he showed in his 2016 run for the nomination. Maybe Buttigieg will turn out to have the same knack now that he’s a front-runner, but that remains to be seen.

There are a couple of problems with Bernie Sanders. He would be 79 if he took office next January (and he had a heart attack last October). More importantly, he may frighten as many voters as he excites. Think: who in politics does he most resemble?

What other left-wing politician in an English-speaking country spent decades in the political wilderness, trying to sell hot-gospel socialism to a largely inattentive audience?

Who then suddenly caught the attention of the nation’s despairing youth, trapped in a stagnant, low-wage economy, and built a national following that suddenly delivered him onto the main stage?

And who led his party into a national election on a radical left-wing programme – and went down to the worst electoral defeat it had suffered in half a century?

Jeremy Corbyn, the English Bernie Sanders, that’s who. It was Corbyn who put Boris Johnson, Britain’s mini-Trump, back in office for another five years with a huge majority in parliament. That’s not the sort of outcome the Democrats want.

So what will the elders of the Democratic Party do if they find that Sanders, not Buttigieg, is the popular favourite going into Democratic Convention in July. They will probably throw their support behind Michael Bloomberg, the ultimate MOR candidate.

It could work. He’s far richer than Trump.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 12. (“They…case”; and “Money…seen”)

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

An Obama-Biden Foreign Policy

24 August 2008

 An Obama-Biden Foreign Policy

 By Gwynne Dyer

Barack Obama, we are told, chose Joe Biden to be his running mate because he needed an older man, more experienced in foreign policy, to fill the gaps in his resume and reassure American voters that the United States would be safe under an Obama presidency. That’s true, but it is assumed that he also chose him because Biden’s views on foreign policy are not radically different from his own. Since American foreign policy still affects almost everybody in the world, that makes Biden’s views very interesting.

Joe Biden, now 65, has been a senator since he was 29. For almost half that time he has been a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which he now heads. He has been around long enough to leave plenty of evidence about his view and his reflexes, and it is safe to say that he qualifies as a liberal interventionist (or, as they say on the other side of the Atlantic, a liberal imperialist). He has never met an international problem that he didn’t think the US should help to solve.

Unlike the neo-conservatives, who are brothers under the skin to the liberal interventionists, Biden does not believe that every problem in the world can be solved by the application of US military power, but he does think that many of them can. He backed the US military intervention in Bosnia, the bombing of Serbia during the Kosovo crisis, the invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11, and the invasion of Iraq (although he subsequently had the grace to admit he was wrong and apologise for that).

Indeed, the Democratic vice-presidential candidate has even called for the use of US troops in Sudan, unilaterally if necessary. He would doubtless agree with Obama’s famous remark (over Iraq) that he was not against all wars, just against dumb ones — but Biden’s criteria for which wars are dumb wars are not very discriminating. A unilateral US military intervention in Sudan would make the Iraq fiasco look like a wise act of statesmanship.

On larger issues, by contrast, Biden has usually been a voice of moderation among the chorus of Democratic hawks vying to outdo their Republican colleagues in their hostility to Russia and their enthusiasm for the “war on terror.” He did support the expansion of NATO right up to Russia’s frontiers (and visited Georgia immediately after the recent fighting), but he has resisted the temptation to paint Russia as the Soviet Union in sheep’s clothing. And his contempt for the “war on terror” has been consistent and exemplary.

“Terror is a tactic,” Biden has said. “Terror is not a philosophy.” It is a mantra that everybody in US politics should be required to chant each morning before work, even if it is slightly inaccurate. (“Terror” is actually an emotion. “Terrorism,” however, is a tactic — a political tool or technique, more precisely — that can be used in support of a wide variety of causes. It is as misleading to declare war on terrorism as it would be to declare war on propaganda.)

Knowing this has enabled Biden to concentrate (most of the time, at least) on the need to eliminate the particular groups of terrorists that had attacked the United States, who were mostly located in Afghanistan and Pakistan. When he briefly supported the invasion of Iraq, he did not do so out of an ignorant belief that Saddam Hussein had links with those terrorists. It was his liberal interventionism that drove his decision, combined with a naive belief that the US intelligence services would not bend the evidence on Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction to serve the president’s purposes.

So that is Joe Biden’s take on foreign policy, and it probably isn’t vastly different from Barack Obama’s. The difference lies mostly in the “experience” factor, which tells you all you needed to know about the value of experience in these matters. It is Biden’s long residence at the heart of the Washington political/military/intelligence machine that makes him such a conventional character.

All that stuff about Obama being “not ready to lead” is simply a coded warning that he might not lead in the time-honoured, conventional way. John McCain certainly would, and so would have Hillary Clinton if she had won the Democratic nomination The selection of Joe Biden as his running mate is intended to allay those fears by linking Obama to someone who is deeply embedded in the conventional wisdom, but it doesn’t actually prove that Obama is too.

There is still room for suspicion that Barack Obama harbours a secret desire to lead move American foreign policy in a quite different direction, away from the traditional great-power realpolitik and the occasional forays into liberal interventionism. That would probably appal Biden, and it would horrify the rest of the Washington establishment.

Vice-presidents don’t have a veto, so the choice of Biden poses no problem there. But the Washington establishment probably does have a veto, so whatever Obama intends, Biden will not be disappointed by the outcome.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 4. (“Indeed…statesmanship”)