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Robot Take-Over?

Wittenberg is the German city where Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door 500 years ago and launched the Protestant Reformation. To mark the anniversary, the local Protestant authorities have installed a robot called BlessU-2 to deliver blessings in 5 languages.

The robot priest has a touchscreen chest, two arms and a head. After you have chosen your language the robot raises its arms, recites a verse from the Bible, and says “God bless and protect you.” It also beams light from its hands.

Just what we needed – and it comes with the full support of the Protestant Church in Hesse and Nassau. “We wanted people to consider if it is possible to be blessed by a machine, or if a human being is needed,” explained spokesman Stephan Krebs to the The Guardian’s religion correspondent, Harriet Sherwood. “The idea is to provoke debate.”

When pressed, Krebs admits that they are not planning to replace human pastors with machines: “We don’t want to robotise our church work, but see if we can bring a theological perspective to a machine.” Good luck with that, then – but most people will just see this as another, rather comical example of robots taking over what used to be human jobs.

There’s been much talk about the “robot revolution” in the media recently. Automation has already killed millions of jobs, we are warned, and cannot be stopped. To former assembly-line workers and bank tellers whose jobs were automated out of existence two decades ago, that has the ring of truth. Ten years from now, it will probably also ring true to millions of former taxi-, bus- and long-distance truck-drivers.

And automation may also be bringing us a political revolution. Many people suspect that shocking polical events like Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, and a 30 percent vote for the ultra-nationalist Marine Le Pen in France’s recent presidential election are linked to the growing numbers of angry, jobless people in the Western industrialised countries.

But wait a minute. What “growing number of jobless people”? The official unemployment rate in the United States is now down to 4.5 percent. That statistic, however, only counts those who are actively looking for work. It does not count those who have given up looking for work.

If you include all those who are not working and not just the job-seekers, then 17.5 percent of American men of prime working age (24-55) are, to use the old word, “unemployed”. The last time US unemployment was at that level was in 1936, in the middle of the Great Depression.

Moreover, this hidden reef of unemployed people is biggest in the former industrial heartland of the United States, now known as the Rust Belt, where a critical number of ex-Democratic voters were so angry that they switched to Trump and put him into the White House.

This new reality is partly hidden by the fact that so many of these unemployed people have managed to wangle their way into disability benefits: one American worker in sixteen is now certified as disabled, whereas in 1960 (when health and safety standards were far lower) only one worker in 134 was. But back then the official statistics on unemployment were pretty close to the truth.

Exactly the same applies to the United Kingdom, where unemployment is officially only 4.8 percent. But Sheffield Hallam University’s Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research reckons that almost one-third of the people on incapacity benefits in Britain would actually be working in a full-employment economy, and that the true jobless rate in some northern post-industrial areas reaches 17 percent.

The “angry men” (and angry women) who make up this hidden reef are the key group who voted for Trump (and Brexit, and the National Front). The Americans among them have been told by Trump that their jobs were stolen by foreigners, but both in the United States and elsewhere they were actually mostly taken by automation.

Not all the jobs will go, of course, but a study released in March by financial services firm PwC (PricewaterhouseCoopers) predicted 38 percent job losses to automation in the United States in the next fifteen years.

The risk is not just mass unemployment, but the political radicalisation that comes with it. We’re not going to stop the automation, so we will have to redistribute the remaining work. We also have to find ways of putting real money into the pockets of those who have no work, or else the whole capitalist business model will collapse. (Not enough customers.)

And we have to find ways of subsidising people without treating them like “losers”, because that’s what really drove the the anger that put Trump in office. Otherwise, the populist demagogues who get elected in twenty years’ time may make us look back fondly on the Trump years.

But cheer up. We won’t really have robot priests.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 11. (“When…jobs”; and “Exactly…percent”)

Coal is Dead

“My administration is putting an end to the war on coal,” said Donald Trump, surrounded by the usual gaggle of officials and (in this case) coal-miners, as he put his super-size signature on the Energy Independence Executive Order. But coal is dying as a major energy source in the United States for reasons far beyond the reach of executive orders.

“The miners are coming back,” Trump boasted at a rally in Kentucky last week, but no less an authority than Robert Murray, founder and CEO of Murray Energy, the biggest US coal company, promptly rained on his parade. “I suggested that (Trump) temper his expectations,” he said. “He can’t bring them back.”

Trump’s latest executive order is not just about coal, of course. It’s a frontal assault on all the Obama-era regulations that aimed at curbing climate change. But while it will slow the decline in US greenhouse gas emissions, it will not have a major impact on global emissions.

That is partly because US accounts for only 16 percent of global emissions. Compared to China’s 29 percent, it doesn’t matter all that much, and China remains committed to big cuts.

In January China scrapped plans for 104 new coal-fired power plants, and it intends to invest $361 billion (equal to half the US defence budget) in renewable energy between now and 2020. The Chinese government is spending that kind of money because it is rightly terrified about what global warming will do to China’s economy and above all to its food supply.

Like the Indians, the Europeans, and pretty much everybody else, the Chinese remain committed to the climate goals agreed at Paris in December 2015 even though the United States has defected. Their own futures depend on meeting those goals – and they know that the American defection does not destroy all hope of success. Globally speaking, it’s not that big a deal.

It would seem like a much bigger deal, however, if they were not confident that American greenhouse gas emissions will continue to decline under Trump, though not as fast as they would under a less ignorant and less compromised administration. Coal provides an excellent example of why.

In 2009, when Barack Obama entered the White House, coal provided 52 percent of US electricity. In only eight years it has fallen to 33 percent, and the decline has little to do with Obama’s Clean Power Plan. First cheap gas from fracking undercut the coal price, and then even solar power got cheaper than coal – so 411 coal-fired plants closed down, and more than fifty coal-mining companies went bankrupt.

Half the 765 remaining big coal-fired plants in the United States were built before 1972. Since the average age when American coal-fired plants are scrapped is 58 years, half of them will soon be gone no matter what Trump does, and even he cannot make it economically attractive to build new ones. (Only 9 percent of American coal-fired plants were built in the past quarter-century.)

Coal is by far the most polluting of the fossil fuels, producing twice as much carbon dioxide as gas does for the same amount of energy, but that alone wasn’t enough to turn the energy industry against it. It’s the cost per per kilowatt-hour of electricity that matters, and coal has simply been overtaken by cheaper forms of energy.

Even in India, the most heavily coal-dependent of the big economies and a country with vast amounts of coal, solar energy prices are now on a par with coal. Sheer inertia means that India will go on expanding coal-fired generation for a few more years, but its National Electricity Plan projects no further increase in coal-based capacity after 2022. King Coal truly is dead.

You don’t need good intentions to do the right thing for climate safety any more; just common sense. From fuel efficiency in automobiles to replacing coal-fired plants with natural gas or solar arrays, saving money goes hand-in-hand with cutting emissions. The economy is not your enemy; it’s your ally. So Trump won’t do nearly as much harm as people feared.

President Obama promised last year to cut US greenhouse gas emissions by about 26 per cent from the 2005 level by 2025. About half of that 26 percent cut would have come in Trump’s first and maybe only term (2017-20), so say 13 percent. The US accounts for 16 percent of global emissions, so do the math: 13 percent of 16 percent equals about 2 percent of global emissions.

That’s what would be at stake over the next four years if Trump’s presidency stopped all the anticipated reductions in greenhouse emissions that Obama based his promise on – but it won’t. A lot of those emission cuts are going to happen anyway, because they just make economic sense. At a guess, around half of them.

So how much damage can Trump do to the global fight against climate change over the next four years? He can keep global emissions about one percent higher than they would have been if the United States had kept its promise to the Paris conference. And that’s all.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“Coal…dead”)

Everybody Take a Valium

When Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812, he took more than half a million troops with him, and he still lost. When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, he used four million troops, but he lost too. And now the United States has deployed just one thousand American into Poland.

So did the Russians giggle and snort at this pathetic display of American “resolve”? Of course not. They pretended to be horrified by it.

“We perceive it as a threat,” said Dmitry Peskov, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman. “These actions threaten our interests, our security, especially as it concerns a third party building up its military presence near our borders. (The United States) is not even a European state.”

The Russians have not suddenly caught a severe case of timidity. They know perfectly well this handful of American troops poses no danger to them. But building up the American “threat” helps to mobilise popular support for Putin – and he will be even more popular when Donald Trump enters the White House and makes a “deal” with Putin that ends this alleged threat.

Pantomime threats like this are a standard part of international politics, and should not be seen as a cause for panic. It is also quite normal for great powers to bury an inconvenient dispute and move on, as Trump will probably do with Putin after he takes office. As long as Trump does not formally recognise Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, international law will survive. Indeed, it would survive, perhaps limping a little, even if he did.

As Trump’s inauguration looms, there is great panic among American commentators and strategic analysts (and quite a lot of people elsewhere) about the grave danger that the ignorant and impulsive Trump will pose to world peace, but this ignores two important facts.

One is that the other world leaders he is dealing with will still be grown-ups. The other is that the real US government – the tens of thousands of senior civil servants and military officers who actually make the machine work – are people with a lot of real-life experience, and they instinctively resist extreme policies and grand visions.

Even Trump’s most radical ideas, like threatening to end America’s 45-year-old “One China” policy – and implicitly, therefore, to recognise the independence of Taiwan – will only destabilise the international order if OTHER national leaders are panicked by his demands. In most cases, they will not be. (Indeed, many of them are already taking up meditation or practicing deep breathing in preparation for having to deal with him.)

None of this guarantees that Trump will not blunder into a big international crisis or a major war during his term, but the chances of his doing so are relatively low – maybe as low as one-in-ten. You wouldn’t freely choose to live with this level of risk, but people did live with it for decades during the Cold War, and they survived it.

As for the ‘Manchurian Candidate’ nonsense: while Trump may have had significant Russian help of one sort or another during his election campaign, he is almost certainly not an ‘agent of influence’ for Moscow. The intelligence report by a British ex-spy that is causing such a fuss is actually TOO detailed: senior Russian officials do not give that much away to each other, let alone to Western spies or the Russians who work for them.

Even if the lurid accounts of Trump’s alleged sexual games with prostitutes in a Moscow hotel were backed by Russian-held film of the event, Moscow could never blackmail Trump with a threat to make it public. He would know that it was a bluff, because Putin’s rational strategy must be to put and keep Trump in power, not to discredit him.

The real cost of the leaked allegations for Trump is domestic, it is high, and he has already paid it. He can indignantly deny the story until his thumbs are sore, and he may actually be telling the truth, but mud sticks. People think of him as the sort of man of whom it MIGHT be true, and so the ‘lentil and chickpea’ jokes will not stop. He has suffered grave and lasting reputational damage even among his own supporters.

Many people will be very frightened about the future when Trump swears the oath of office on Friday. They are certainly right to be concerned, and the economic damage may be very bad, but the risk of war, even with China, is probably lower than they fear.

Back in 1976, when the Quebec separatists won an election for the first time, English-Canadians were terrified, and the anglophone minority in Quebec itself saw it as the apocalypse. It was only six years, after all, since there had been dramatic terrorist attacks in Quebec by a different brand of separatists. But cartoonist Aislin (Terry Mosher) in the Montreal Gazette had the right idea.

It just showed a close-up of the separatist leader, René Lévesque, smoking his usual cigarette and telling the entire country: “OK, everybody take a Valium.” It was better advice than even he knew: Quebec never left and the heavens never fell.

We need Aislin again.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“Even…supporters”)

Yemen: The Stupidest War

“They hit everything, hospitals, orphanages, schools,” Hisham al-Omeisy told The Guardian newspaper six months ago. “You live in constant fear that your kids’ school could be the next target.”

No, he’s not talking about the wicked Russians bombing the eastern side of Aleppo in Syria, which is stirring up so much synthetic indignation in Washington and London these days. He was talking about the air force of Saudi Arabia, that great friend of the West, bombing his friends and neighbours in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen.

The Saudi Arabian bombing campaign in Yemen is now eighteen months old, and is responsible for the great majority of the estimated 5,000 civilian fatal casualties in that time. The Saudi authorities swear that it wasn’t them every time there is an especially high death toll – “(our) forces have clear instructions not to target populated areas and to avoid civilians” is the familiar refrain – but they are the only side in the conflict that has aircraft.

A case in point is last Sunday’s strike on the Great Hall in Sana’a, a very large and distinctive building of no military importance whatever. Last Sunday it was crowded with hundred of people attending the funeral of Ali al-Rawishan, the father of the current interior minister, Galal al-Rawishan.

The younger al-Rawishan is the interior minister in the government that sits in the capital, which is supported by “rebel” Houthi tribesmen from the north of Yemen and by the part of the army that still backs the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. His father’s funeral was therefore attended by many senior Houthi officials and supporters of the former president, as well as large numbers of other people.

By the sheerest coincidence, we are asked to believe, an air-strike accidentally hit the Great Hall at just the right time on just the right day to kill 150 people and wound 525, among whom there would probably have been a dozen or so “rebel” government officials.

Even the White House, which has loyally backed Saudi Arabia’s war against Yemen, said that it is launching an immediate review of its policy. US National Security Council spokesman Ned Simon said it was part of a “troubling” pattern of Saudi air attacks on civilians, and warned that “US security cooperation with Saudi Arabia is not a blank cheque.” But it is, actually.

This war is really about Saudi Arabia’s ability to control Yemen’s government. The two neighbours have about the same population but Saudi Arabia is thirty times richer, so that should be easy.

Yemen’s long-ruling dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was hostile to Saudi Arabia, so the latter took advantage of popular protests against him in 2011-12 (part of the “Arab Spring”) to engineer his replacement by a Saudi puppet, Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi.

Saleh then made an alliance with his former enemies, the Houthi tribes of northern Yemen, and struck back. When the rebel forces seized Sana’a in late 2014 and eventually drove Hadi out of the country, Saudi Arabia put together a “coalition” of conservative Arab states and launched the current military intervention to put Hadi back in power.

However, none of the “coalition” members wants to risk the casualties and the consequent unpopularity at home that would come from fighting a major ground war in Yemen. The intervention therefore consists mostly of air strikes, which produce lots of civilian casualties – some deliberate, some not.

The other motive behind this foolish war is the Saudi belief (or at least claim) that Iran, its great rival in the Gulf, is the secret power behind the rebel forces in Yemen. No doubt Iran does sympathise with the Yemeni rebels, since they are mostly fellow Shias, but for all the talk of “Iran-allied Houthis”, faithfully repeated in Western media, there is no evidence that Iran has given them either military or financial aid.

So, then, three conclusions. First, the Saudi-led coalition will not get its way in Yemen if it remains unwilling to put large numbers of troops on the ground – and it might not win even if it did. Second, the relentless bombing of civilians is largely due to the coalition’s frustration at the failure of its political strategy (although the sheer lack of useful military targets also plays a part).

And third, this is the stupidest of all the wars now being fought across the Middle East. Who runs Yemen is not a matter of vital strategic importance to Saudi Arabia, and the Saudi obsession with the Iranian “threat” is absurd.

Yemen is of no imaginable strategic value to Iran, nor could the Iranians help the rebel government there in any concrete way even if they wanted to. And while Iranian influence has undoubtedly grown in the Gulf region in the past decade, that is entirely a result of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, not of some nefarious Iranian plot.

Does the Washington foreign policy establishment finally understand all this? Only on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Old habits die hard, and it’s all too easy to condemn Russian air strikes in Syria while condoning similar Saudi air strikes in Yemen.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 7, 11 and 15. (“Even…actually”; “However…not”; and “Yemen…plot”)