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Democracy in Decline?

23 November 2020

There’s no hurricane coming, but the windows of downtown Washington are covered with plywood. They were initially boarded up due to fear of street violence during the election, but that fear lingers three weeks after the vote because the restaurateurs and shop-owners (whose premises remain open behind the plywood) think the violence could still happen.

They know their town; they may be right. It’s clear that President Trump’s Infinitely Extendable Last Stand is making people nervous.

Even Judge Matthew Brann, a former Republican Party official, lost his cool. Rejecting Trump’s plea for seven million Pennsylvania votes to be set aside last Sunday, he called the case a Frankenstein’s monster “haphazardly stitched together,” which presented only “strained legal arguments without merit and speculative accusations…unsupported by evidence.”

Some senior elected Republicans are also losing their patience. Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie called the president’s legal team a “national embarrassment ”. They claim fraud outside the courtroom, he pointed out, “but when they go inside the courtroom they don’t plead fraud and they don’t argue fraud.” That’s because there wasn’t any.

The view from abroad is scathing, with an undertone of panic. Scathing, because in German or Japanese or even Russian eyes American democracy is simply falling apart. Panic-stricken underneath, because all of them (even the Russians) secretly see the United States as the flagship democracy. If that goes under, what hope is there for the rest of us?

The anxiety is all the greater because other populist snake-oil salesmen, mini-Trumps, having been coming to power by electoral means in other countries recently: Bolsonaro in Brazil, Johnson in Britain, Orbán in Hungary, Duterte in the Philippines. You could even include Modi in India, except that he has much better manners. It’s a political pandemic, and we’re all doomed!

So I have been summoned, at considerable expense, to soothe the collective fevered brow. My message is simple, but strangely reassuring. The United States is in deep trouble, but democracy isn’t.

The United States is the oldest democracy, but it’s a pretty primitive one. Consider the antique and ridiculous Electoral College, or the rudimentary social welfare system, or the fact that it has the most gerrymandered electoral districts on the planet, or that there is literally no limit on how much money American politicians can spend on getting elected or whom they can take it from.

But if somebody came running up and told you that Brazil, Hungary and the Philippines had ultra-nationalist populists in power, would you panic? Thought not.

Adding India would furrow your brow a little, perhaps, but the Chinese regime is a shameless dictatorship and we don’t see that as putting democracy in danger.

Britain in the hands of reckless populists would be more worrisome if it were a precedent of some sort, but the UK hasn’t been a serious country for quite a while now. Brexit, remember?

When we get right down to it, it’s only the fate of democracy in the United States that worries you, isn’t it? Well, stop worrying, because the US is neither the custodian nor the guarantor of democracy.

There was a time, when the world seemed at risk of being overrun by fascists or communists, that the military and industrial strength of the United States was very important, but the real issue in those Europe-centred confrontations was ‘balance of power’, not political philosophy.

In Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America, the United States has been instrumental in crushing democracy just as often as it has saved it. The US is not evil, but it’s just another great power – and when it comes to safeguarding democracy, we’re all on our own.

That’s no cause for despondency, because democracy in not a fragile flower. It is the default political system of the modern world, spreading relentlessly since the first democratic revolutions more than two centuries ago.

It has swept all other political ideologies aside almost everywhere except in parts of East Asia and the Middle East. Even most dictators feel obliged to hold fake election every few years to show their ‘legitimacy’. It has universal appeal because it best reconciles the core human values of freedom and equality. It will survive – and don’t even write off American democracy yet.

Donald Trump has been defeated, although he continues to deny it. He has done much damage to the United States and he will probably yet do more, because the current charade is designed to set him up as the ‘king over the water’, the legitimate monarch wrongly exiled (if only to Mar-a-Lago). But he is not immortal, and the country effectively is.

Polarisation of the kind America is experiencing now is disruptive and tenacious, but it tends to be intergenerational (this episode certainly is), and generational turnover usually erases it in ten or twenty years. The ‘Sixties’ passed, and in all likelihood so will this.

To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 16. (“Some…any”; and “It…yet”)

Armenia Ceasefire

11 November 2020

This time, the truce will last. The 2,000 Russian troops flying into Armenia this week and fanning out to police the ceasefire lines in Nagorno-Karabakh are being sent there for five years renewable, and neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan will challenge them.

Armenia is in shock, but what remains of the Armenian enclave in western Azerbaijan would quickly be overrun if the Russian troops were not there. As Arayik Harutyunyan, Nagorno-Karabakh’s separatist leader, admitted on Tuesday, “had the hostilities continued at the same pace, we would have lost all of (it) within days.”

Azerbaijanis are jubilant about their victory, but they will abide by this ceasefire. It’s enough: about three-quarters of the Armenian-occupied territory in Azerbaijan has fallen into their hands already, or will be handed over by Armenian forces by the end of this month. Besides, the Russians would be very cross if they broke their word.

Armenia won all that territory in a war that was almost inevitable after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan were ‘republics’ during the Soviet era, but the borders that Stalin had drawn for them left a significant ethnic Armenian population inside the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic.

The Armenians living in the ‘Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (Province)’ accounted for about four-fifths of the local population. They declared their independence in 1991, and when fighting broke out between them and the Azerbaijanis, Armenia proper, also newly independent, sent troops and weapons to help them.

That war ended in an Armenian victory in 1994, after Armenian troops drove all the Azerbaijanis not only out of Nagorno-Karabakh, but also out of three times as much territory to the north, south and west of it. Armenia wound up with a large territory extending about 50 km east from its own eastern border.

The analogy with Israel’s situation immediately after the independence war in 1948-49 is irresistible.

There were only 800,000 Jewish Israelis in former Palestine in 1949, surrounded not only by a million Palestinian Arabs but by another 50-100 million Arabs in other countries within military reach of them.

There were 3.3 million people on the Republic of Armenia in 1994, and another 145,000 Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh. There were no Azerbaijani minorities left in Nagorno-Karabakh nor in the large occupied territories around it, but there were about 75 million Turkish-speaking Muslims in Azerbaijan and Turkey who saw the outcome as an outrage.

That was worrisome, especially for people who were survivors of a recent genocide (the Armenians in Ottoman Turkey in 1915-18, the Jews in Nazi-ruled Europe in 1941-45).

However, both Armenia and Israel are supported by very large ‘connected’ diasporas: around 7 million people in each case, the great majority living in relatively prosperous countries like the United States, France, Canada and Russia. So how did they fare in terms of holding on to their lands?

Both countries have held their core territory as defined at independence. They are likely to do so indefinitely thanks to great-power guarantees, for Armenia by Russia and for Israel thanks to French guarantees until 1968 and subsequently by the United States.

Israel conquered quite a lot more territory in 1968, some of which (the West Bank) it is busily settling with Jews and will probably keep forever. Armenia also conquered extra territory in 1994, but it is losing most of it right now.

The ceasefire lines will probably become de facto borders. All the formerly occupied territories around Nagorno-Karabakh will be repopulated by Azerbaijani refugees, including the one road linking it to Armenia proper (but Russian peace-keeping troops will hold it open).

About a quarter of Nagorno-Karabakh itself was also captured by Azerbaijani forces, and will stay in their hands. Most Armenians have already fled the enclave, and only a minority are likely to return given the precarious lifeline through the Lachin corridor and the fact that Azerbaijani troops will remain within 5 km. of Stepanakert, the capital.

Why such dramatically different outcomes? The obvious answer is that Azerbaijan is oil-rich and was spending nine times as much Armenia on ‘defence’. But the Arab world is oil-rich too. How did Israel manage it?

By mobilising the support of its diaspora a great deal better. Immigration has grown Israel’s Jewish population from 800,000 to seven million since independence. In contrast, the population of the Republic of Armenia has actually fallen by a quarter-million, and there was no big influx of Armenians from overseas to Armenia proper, Nagorno-Karabakh or the empty occupied territories.

As with immigrants, so also with money for defence. Why Armenia couldn’t exploit its diaspora more effectively is a mystery, but that’s the difference. The military defeat was the eventual, inevitable result of a long-running political failure.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 12. (“That…1941-45”; and “Both…states”)

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

Herd Immunity, Reinfection and the Great Barrington Declaration

14 October 2020

After eight full months of the global pandemic, the pressure to keep the economies open and let the chips (or rather, the elderly) fall where they may is growing strong.

The ‘Great Barrington Declaration’ of 4 October was signed by three medical professors from Oxford, Harvard and Stanford universities and by tens of thousands of other people. It demands a return to “life as normal” – no mention of masks, social distancing, contact tracing or Covid-19 tests – for everybody except “the vulnerable”, who would presumably self-isolate semi-permanently.

Never mind that the sponsor is the American Institute for Economic Research, a libertarian think-tank funded by the Charles Koch Foundation and other hard-right American groups whose main business is climate change denial.

Never mind that the declaration advocates ‘herd immunity’, a blessed state that is normally achieved by mass vaccination, not by exposing the entire population to a disease with a 3% mortality rate.

Never mind either that re-infections with Covid-19 are now a documented fact, which means that ‘herd immunity’ is not really possible with the various strains of this coronavirus. Forget the ideology and look at what is really happening with Covid-19 death rates.

The leading indicator for vulnerability to Covid-19 is speaking Spanish. Among the countries with the highest death rates per million people, six out of the top ten are Spanish-speaking: Peru (1,010 deaths per million), Bolivia (711), Spain (710), Chile (699), Ecuador (691), and Mexico (649).

If you include Portuguese-speaking Brazil (709 deaths per million), then seven out of the worst ten speak the languages of the Iberian peninsula. Two others are English-speaking countries with populist governments: the United States (666) and the United Kingdom (633). The tenth, mysteriously, is Belgium (880).

How weird is this? Well, no other country on the planet is above 600 deaths per million. And equally curious is the fact that none of the other developed countries that speak English have exceptionally high Covid death rates: New Zealand (5 deaths per million), Australia (35 ), and Canada (255).

You can account for the very low Australian and New Zealand death rates by the sheer geographical isolation of these countries, but you could not find two countries closer or more alike (except in their politics) than Canada and the United States. Yet the US death rate is almost three times the Canadian rate. How can we explain all this?

The great majority of the countries with under 100 Covid deaths per million people are Asian and African nations with fast-growing populations and a median age of well under 30. Covid-19 selectively kills elderly people, and such people are very scarce in these countries.

A few richer East Asian countries in this under-100-deaths-per million group have much older populations (China’s median age is 37.4 years, Japan’s is 43.4 years). But these are all countries with well developed medical systems, strong social discipline, and recent experience with similar pandemics.

Then there is the broad group of countries with between 100 and 500 deaths per million. Most are rich countries with relatively old populations and good medical systems, but lower social discipline (or, if you prefer, more social freedom).

They range from Germany (117 deaths per million) and Russia (157) to Ireland (369) and France (500). Elderly people are a big chunk of the population, and how many actually die seems to be determined mainly by how well each government manages the pandemic. The wrong policy or a few days’ delay in acting can make a huge difference.

And the final group are the Latin American countries (almost all over 500), where median ages are as high as in the rich countries but medical services and government competence tend to be worse. Lots of old people die, and even many younger people who would have survived in better run and less unequal countries don’t make it.

How did the United States and the United Kingdom end up in the same sad group? Both countries have populist governments so obsessed with their own popularity that they reflexively delay or avoid unpopular but necessary decisions. Too little, too late on the way into lock-down; too fast on the way out.

And what about Spain and Belgium? Maybe that was just poor management: there are always a few outliers. But the general conclusion is clear.

What really matters is the age profile of the population. In poor countries with fast-growing, very youthful populations, the economic cost of lock-down probably outweighs the harm done to the relatively few elderly people. In Uganda, only 2% of the population is over 65: protect them by wearing masks and so on, but don’t close down the economy.

In Germany, half the population are over 47, and almost a quarter are over 65. Taking the Great Barrington Declaration’s advice could cost half a million lives. Horses for courses.*
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 3, 11 and 16. (“Never mind…denial”; “A few…pandemics”; and “And what…clear”)

Trump: The Odds

7 October 2020

Now is when it gets interesting.

The announcement last Friday that US President Donald Trump had fallen ill with Covid-19 hardly came as a surprise. His political strategy of playing down Covid-19 required him to be reckless about his own health, and other Republicans were already dropping like flies. Fourteen Republican Senators and Representatives have now tested positive, compared to six Democrats.

Some journalists who were up against a deadline started speculating right away about what would happen if Trump died from Covid, but that felt kind of ghoulish. Besides, the odds were long against it.

The death rate for people in their 70s who are hospitalised with Covid symptoms is much higher than for younger people, but it’s still only 8.5%. Being male and fat with a heart problem are all additional risk factors for Trump, but they are probably counterbalanced by the fact that he gets excellent medical care 24 hours a day. So wait and see.

Wait how long? After a million deaths (almost a quarter of them in the United States), we now know a good deal about the pattern of this disease, and it is rarely life-threatening in the first week after symptoms develop. Some suffer from a constant dry cough, fever, headache, fatigue, and/or a loss of the sense of smell and taste, but at worst there’s a certain shortness of breath.

We know that Trump was briefly put on oxygen last Friday and again on Saturday, but that does not mean he’s deathly ill. On the other hand, the fact that the doctors let him go home to the White House on Monday doesn’t mean they are hugely confident either.

Trump would have put immense pressure on the doctors to let him go, since that would let him do some macho posturing about having defeated the virus. They would have shrugged their shoulders and given in, because the real crisis was not due until later anyway.

Trump did indeed indulge in some major chest-beating when he got home. “Feeling really good!” he tweeted. “Don’t be afraid of COVID! Don’t let it dominate your life!… I feel better than I did 20 years ago!”

Well, of course he’s feeling better. He’s on a steroid high. His doctors have put him on dexamethasone, a steroid medication that is not normally given to patients who are non-critical.

(He’s also taking remdesivir, monoclonal antibodies, zinc, vitamin D, famotidine, melatonin and aspirin, but none of those makes you feel like Superman.)

The doctors doubtless told Trump that the real make-or-break time with Covid-19 is seven to ten days after symptoms first develop, when some patients who have been feeling reasonably well suddenly go into a steep decline, with severe lung problems. That’s when you get put on the ventilator. But it probably didn’t register.

“Now I’m better, and maybe I’m immune,” he said at the White House. Then he took his mask off and, still highly contagious, walked back into the White House among the staff who were standing by inside. (Or to be more precise, those who were still standing at all. A dozen White House staff have already gone down with the disease.)

If Day 1 for Trump was last Thursday, as his doctors say, then Days 7 to 10 are this Thursday to Sunday. So it’s now reasonable for us to discuss how those days might define the future of the presidential election, and perhaps of the United States. Tastefully, of course, and with no ghoulishness.

Outcome A: Trump dies. Probability: less than 10% (see above). Consequence: Vice-President Mike Pence takes his place, and loses the election.

Outcome B: Trump gets very ill and is re-hospitalised. He survives, but cannot resume the campaign. Probability: around 10%. Consequence: Joe Biden wins the presidency with a margin big enough that Trump’s people cannot plausibly dispute it. Normal service is resumed, and Trump spends the rest of his life in court.

Outcome C: Trump recovers, and is back out campaigning within a week. Probability: more than 70%. Consequence: he still loses the election (just look at the numbers), but he is fit and able to build on the foundations he has already laid and lead a campaign from the White House (not necessarily non-violent) to dispute the postal vote.

He is desperate enough, and ruthless enough, to comprehensively muddy the waters, possibly with the help of his carefully packed Supreme Court. Perhaps the United States becomes a banana republic, perhaps not.

And we must recognise the possibility that Outcome C in some form is already inevitable because Trump contracted Covid days earlier, concealed it, and is already safely past Day 10. In which case this entire drama is just pantomime.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 10. (“Wait…breath”; and “He’s also…Superman”)