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The Crowd and the Law

In Romania, after five straight nights of mass demonstration in Bucharest’s main square, the government agreed to withdraw an emergency decree that decriminalised various abuses of political power (on the grounds that the jails were too crowded). If you defrauded the state of less than $47,500, under the new rules, you might have to pay it back, but you wouldn’t go to jail.

More to the point, those already serving sentences or facing charges for stealing, say, $47, 499 would be released from jail or see the charges dismissed – including the leader of the governing Social Democratic Party, Liviu Dragnea, who was convicted of stealing only $27,000. (That’s not necessarily how much he stole; just how much they could PROVE he stole.)

Romania used to be one of the most corrupt countries in Europe, but since it joined the European Union in 2007 it has been under great pressure from Brussels to clean up its act. There was also huge domestic pressure from ordinary Romanians who are sick of their venal politicians, and the anti-corruption drive was making real progress.

Then last Tuesday Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu’s government issued its decree freeing hundreds of jailed politicians, officials and even judges. It was due to go into effect next Friday, but right away the crowd came pouring out into the streets in Bucharest and all the other big cities.

After five nights of mass demonstrations, the government cancelled its decree on Saturday. The Crowd won, and both justice and democracy were well served.

The other very dodgy decree of recent days was in Washington, where President Trump signed an “executive order” imposing a 90-day ban on citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries seeking to enter the United States (even if they were legal US residents or had been issued visas after vetting by US embassies) and an indefinite ban on Syrian refugees.

Like the Romanian decree, its legality was doubtful. As in Romania, the protesting crowds came out in large numbers in the United States (though proportionally in much smaller numbers, and certainly not for five successive nights). But what really brought Trump’s plan grinding to a halt, at least for the moment, was a judge.

U.S. District Senior Judge James Robarts of Seattle issued an order suspending the Trump ban – and even President Trump obeyed it (although he did refer to Robarts, with typical graciousness, as a “so-called judge”). The whole machinery of government went into reverse, entry visas are being re-validated, and even Syrian immigrants are being admitted to the United States again. The rule of law has prevailed.

Two crises in two democratic countries, and two reasonably satisfactory resolutions. It was the Crowd that did the heavy lifting in Romania, and the Law that did the crucial work in the United States. But they should not be seen as alternatives; sometimes you need them both.

Robarts was not required to make a full legal case for his action at this stage in the proceedings: he simply ordered the ban suspended to avoid serious harm being done to individuals by an executive order that may contravene the First Amendment to the US Constitution.

When the case goes to the appeals court, and possibly then to the Supreme Court, the argument of those opposing the ban will doubtless be that it flouts the First Amendment requirement that one religious denomination cannot be officially preferred over another.

This may persuade the Ninth Circuit Appeals Court in San Francisco, which is relatively liberal, and even to the Supreme Court, which will continue to be split evenly between liberals and conservatives until Trump’s nominee for the ninth seat on the Court is approved by Congress. Or it may not.

Even if the appeal courts ultimately rejects Robarts’s argument and reimposes the ban, the Law will have successfully curbed the abuse of executive power. It always has to be curbed, because even with the best of intentions those who hold power will inevitably try to expand it – and sometimes they do not have the best of intentions.

The US Constitution has won the first round of the battle against Trump’s authoritarian tendencies. Full marks to James Robarts (who was nominated, by the way, by George W. Bush’s Republican administration).

But four years is a long time, and there will be occasions when lawyers won’t be enough. The Crowd will be needed as well: demonstrations as large, as disciplined and as patient as those in Romania. And as suspicious of being betrayed once they have gone home.

The night after the Romanian government cancelled its “emergency decree”, there was the biggest demonstration of all: half a million people in Victory Square in Bucharest. Why? Because the government had muttered something about addressing the same “issue” of allegedly crowded jails through normal legislation in parliament, which would still really be about getting crooked politicians out of jail.
So they won’t go home until Prime Minister Grindeanu promises not to bring the subject up again.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“Two…Constitution”)

Climate Change and Trump’s America

Even before Donald Trump hijacked the Republican Party, he was loudly declaring that the science of climate change, like Barack Obama, had not been born in the United States. It was, he insisted in 2012, a Chinese hoax “created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”

The implication is clear. Back in the late 1980s, when climate change was first publicly identified as a threat, those sneaky Chinese must have bought or blackmailed prominent Western leaders and scientists to perpetrate this hoax. People like NASA scientist James Hanse, who made a landmark speech to Congress on global warming in 1988, and British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who spoke at the United Nations about it in 1989.

Some other people, especially in the coal, oil and automobile industries, have been denying the reality of climate change for decades, but only The Donald realised it was a Chinese plot. (He does have a big brain, as he frequently points out.) At the time, most grown-ups wrote him off as a harmless crank – but they certainly have to take him seriously now.

Trump has promised that within 100 days of taking office he will “cancel” the Paris Climate agreement of last December and “stop all payments of US tax dollars to UN global warming programmes.” He will also rescind the executive actions that President Obama has taken to limit US emissions of carbon dioxide, especially in the field of electricity. (In effect, this would have closed down almost all coal-fired power stations in the United States.)

Now in practice, Trump can’t cancel the Paris Agreement, which has been signed by 195 countries. He can pull the US out of the treaty (as George W Bush, another climate change denier, pulled the US out of the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change in 2001), but he can’t stop other countries from carrying on with the agreed cuts in emissions – which they may well do, because they understand how dangerous the situation is.

He certainly can cancel all of President Obama’s executive orders and encourage Americans to burn all the fossil fuels they want. Indeed, he has already appointed Myron Ebell, a professional climate-change denier, to be the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Ebel’s mission is to gut it, and he will. But even Trump cannot save the American coal industry, because it has simply become cheaper to burn natural gas.

The net effect of a Trump presidency will certainly be to slow the rate at which American greenhouse gas emissions decline, but simple economics dictates that they will not actually rise, and might even fall a bit. Renewable energy is getting cheaper than fossil fuels in many areas, and even Trump would find it hard to increase the large hidden subsidies to oil and coal any further.

So how hard will the American defection hit the Paris agreement, whose target is to stop the average global temperature from reaching 2 degrees C higher than the pre-industrial level? Will it cause everybody else to walk away from it too, because the US is no longer doing its share? And even if they do carry on, what does that do to their hopes of staying below 2 degrees?

The United States is the second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases (after China), accounting for about 16 percent of global emissions. Its commitment under the Paris deal was to cut that amount by just over a quarter in the next ten years, so what is actually at stake here is around 4 percent of total global emissions in 2025 if the US just lets it rip. It could be considerably less in practice.

That is not a make-or-break amount, particularly given that all the pledges of cuts made in Paris last December did not get us down to the never-exceed plus-2-degree target. They got us a lot closer to it, but we would still be heading for around plus 2.7 degrees if everybody kept all their promises. Without American cooperation we are probably heading for plus 3, but in either case there was still a lot to do.

The unwritten assumption at Paris was that everybody would be back in a few years with bigger commitments to emission cuts, and so we would eventually stagger across the finish line just in time. It was always a dangerous assumption, but the other major players might simply refuse to go any further if the US is not doing its share. Especially China, which is responsible for 26 percent of global emissions.

On the other hand, China is terrified of the predicted local impacts of climate change, and has installed more solar and wind power than any other country. It already gets 20 percent of its power from renewables, and is aiming much higher. The Chinese will resent the Trump administration’s refusal to carry its share of the burden, but it will not cut off its nose to spite its face.

The world has grown wearily familiar with this aspect of American exceptionalism, and the effort to avoid a climate disaster will stumble on elsewhere even while Trump reigns in Washington.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 3. (“The implication…now”)

United States: The Wells Are Poisoned

Donald Trump may not win the election next week – although he is at least going to come close – but even if he loses, the wells are poisoned. Either “Crooked Hillary” becomes president, and spends the next four years fighting off legal challenges and fearing assassination by some of Trump’s more deranged admirers. Or Trump becomes the 45th US president, and the United States becomes the world’s biggest and most dangerous loose cannon.

The race was probably always closer than the opinion polls suggested. The last-minute decision of FBI director James Comey to hint publicly that he MIGHT reopen the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s “extremely careless” (his words) use of a private email server when she was secretary of state has undoubtedly made it closer.

Inevitably, the media took this to mean that he HAD reopened the case, and it is hard to believe that he did not act with malice aforethought. As John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign manager, said: “Director Comey’s letter (to Congress) refers to emails that have come to light in an unrelated case, but we have no idea what those emails are, and director himself notes they may not even be significant.”

So what did Comey think he was doing when he sent Congress a letter stating that maybe, when he had the time to look into these emails, and if they turned out to be from or about Mrs Clinton, and if there was new information in them that changed his previous conclusions, then he might consider reopening an investigation against her?

It was contrary to FBI policy to publicly trail a possible investigation like that, and both Comey’s own staff and the US attorney-general advised against it. But Comey was a lifelong Republican until he let his registration lapse some time after he was appointed to the FBI job three years ago by President Obama.

Trump was already claiming that the election was “rigged” against him, and that he might not accept a Clinton victory. Comey has created an equal and opposite likelihood that Democrats will regard a Trump victory as illegitimate, and refuse to accept him as president. Either way, it will be the “birther” conspiracy all over again, but this time in seven-league boots.

This is almost entirely Trump’s fault. With constant lies and threats and personal abuse, he has brought the entire electoral process into disrepute, and the American media have let him get away with it because he was “entertaining”. As Les Moonves, chairman of the CBS television network, admitted eight months ago, when Trump was just starting out: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”

Many billions of dollars of free publicity later, this ignorant and bombastic “sociopath” – the word that Tony Schwartz, the ghostwriter of Trump’s premature autobiography “The Art of the Deal”, uses to describe him – stands on the threshold of great power. And Schwartz, in an interview with The Observer last weekend, was very frightened about the possibility that he would become president.

“Staggeringly dangerous. Worse than I imagined when he began to run….He’s way more out of control in the last couple of months than I’ve ever seen him. He doesn’t have any core beliefs beyond his own aggrandisement and power.” Schwartz didn’t even find it over the top to talk about a Trump presidency in terms of martial law, an end of press freedom, and nuclear war.

We must hope that really is over the top, but we should also bear in mind that Tony Schwartz has probably spent more time actually talking to Donald Trump (while writing the book that launched him as a celebrity) than any other non-family adult has done in the past thirty years.

But the omens are not good if Trump loses the election either, because that doesn’t mean that Clinton wins it. At least not for the very large chunk of the American population who will have voted for The Donald.

Hillary Clinton would have to preside over a bitterly divided country in which almost half the population believe she has stolen the presidency – and there is a strong possibility that Trump would start sending out coded calls for violence.

He already did this once, in August, when he was whipping up a crowd with accusations that Clinton would override the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, which most gun-owners believe enshrines the right of American citizens to own weapons.

If Clinton created a majority in favour of gun control on the US Supreme Court, Trump warned the audience, then that’s it: “Nothing you can do, folks.” The pro-gun crowd started to boo, and after a little hesitation Trump added: “Although the Second Amendment people — maybe there is, I don’t know.”

Like most public incitements to violence, it was veiled and oblique, but it was also unmistakable. It would be heroically optimistic to believe that Trump would not serve up more of the same if he loses the election. One way or another, it is going to be an ugly and frightening time in the United States.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“So…Obama”)

AIDS Is Not Over

Four years ago optimism was high that AIDS was in retreat, and could ultimately be eradicated. Back then the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) was boldly predicting “the end of AIDS by 2030.” Nobody is feeling that optimistic now.

New HIV infections, after dropping steadily for the ten years to 2005, more or less stabilised at 2 million a year in the last decade, and the annual death toll from AIDS has also stabilised, at about 1.5 million a year. But the future looks grimmer than the present.

Two-thirds of all HIV-positive people (24 out of 36 million) are in Africa, and an even higher proportion of the AIDS deaths happen there. If it were not for Africa, the predictions of four years ago would still sound plausible. So what’s wrong with Africa? Two things: it’s poor, and there are “cultural practices” that facilitate the spread of the HIV virus.

The great achievement of the International AIDS Conference that was held in Durban sixteen years ago was to break the grip of the big pharmaceutical companies on the key drugs that were already making HIV-positive status a lifelong nuisance rather than a death sentence in other parts of the world. Unfortunately, the drugs were so expensive that the vast majority of Africans simply could not afford them – so they died instead.

In a diplomatic and media battle that lasted for almost a decade in the late 1990s and early 2000s, African countries managed to shame the big pharmaceutical countries into accepting the importation of much cheaper “generic” versions of the main anti-retroviral drugs, mainly from Brazil, India and Thailand, for use in poor African countries.

The Western drug companies not only dropped their collective lawsuit against the South African government in defence of their patents. Some of them even began providing their own patent drugs to the African market at one-tenth or even one-twentieth of the price they charged elsewhere. A widely used course of treatment that cost $10,000 a year in the US at the time became available to Africans at a price of about $100 a year.

Many HIV-positive Africans could not even afford that amount, but Western governments and private foundations also began providing major funding for anti-HIV programmes in Africa: $8.6 billion in 2014. (80 percent of the money comes from the United States and the United Kingdom)

Even today half of Africa’s HIV-positive population is not using the basic cocktail of anti-retroviral drugs on a regular basis. There is still a stigma attached to having the virus, and many of the non-users who have been diagnosed as positive don’t go the clinics to collect their drugs because it involves standing in line and being seen by people they know.

The continent’s death rate from AIDS went into a temporary steep decline, but it is now heading back up for a number of reasons. The main one is that resistance to the standard mix of drugs has grown into a major problem.

The second-line treatment, using newer drugs that are still available at the “African discount”, costs $300 per person per year – and resistance is also apparent in 30 percent of those cases. The third-line or “salvage” treatment costs $1,900 a year even in Africa. The governments can’t afford it, and very few Africans have medical insurance.

Drug resistance has been growing in the developed world too, of course, but the solution there is to move HIV-positive people onto newer combinations of drugs that are far more expensive. The cost of treatment in the US today can be higher than $20,000 a year, and not one African in a thousand can afford that.

African governments will probably have to wage another long diplomatic and media battle to access generic or cut-rate versions of the best new drugs. In the meantime, a great many people will die. And this is happening just as the amount of funding from Western sources for anti-HIV programmes in Africa has gone into decline: donations last year were down by almost one billion dollars.

The other specific reason for sub-Saharan Africa’s much higher rate of HIV infections is “cultural”. What that means, in plain English, is that sexual traditions are different there: pre-marital and extra-marital sex is commonplace. Moreover, older men often exploit their relative wealth and power to have unprotected sex with many young women and girls.

This may explain why in southern Africa, uniquely in the world, 60 percent of new HIV infections are among young women. And it is striking that HIV infection rates are far lower in those parts of the continent that have been Muslim for many centuries – or Christian for many centuries, like Ethiopia – and where the sexual rules of engagement are therefore much stricter.

The situation in sub-Saharan Africa is almost bound to get worse, not better, because the 15-24 age group, the most likely to become infected, is growing explosively fast. They number about 200 million now, but that will double to 400 million by 2040. Africa has long been the world capital of HIV and AIDS, and it will remain so for the foreseeable future.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 14. (“Even…know”; and “This…stricter”)