2017 has been a tough year for the thoughtful, for those who believe in the power of reason to navigate the complexities of the human condition.
The following comment from Scott Pruitt, Administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency, in June of this year on NBC’s Meet the Press, is just one of the jewels in a pantheon of travesties:
“Since the fourth quarter of last year until most recently, we’ve added almost 50,000 jobs in the coal sector. In the month of May alone, almost 7000 jobs.”
In pursuing the narrative that this administration is always winning, he managed to represent the growth of coal jobs as fifty times greater than reality. The total number of coal jobs in the United States is approximately fifty thousand according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It grew by one thousand in the last year.
The key takeaway from this small fragment of Trumptopia is the importance of the big lie in moving the needle of truth so far from the true north that the popular psyche becomes unmoored. Facts and fact-based understanding are replaced by the perception of truth – what feels right must be right because facts have become partisan tools wielded in service of tribal loyalty.
The Wrong Choice
There were many reasons to vote against Hillary Clinton. She was the product of the Democratic Party machinery. She was entitled. She defended her husband’s reprehensible behaviour towards women. She lacked charisma. She was guilty of living in a bubble, so convinced that she would ascend to the office of President that she failed to connect with the very people who should have been her base – who would have been Joe Biden’s base. Many reasons; but no excuse. Because there were only two choices and one of them was Donald Trump.
There were many reasons to vote against Donald Trump. His behaviour and attitude towards women should have been sufficient. His lack of candour about his financial position – failure to release his tax returns – should have been disqualifying. His racist slander of an immigrant judge should have been sufficient; his mocking of a disabled supporter should have been sufficient.
And yet, faced with this inauspicious choice, America made the wrong choice. One Trump voter, known well to this author, is satisfied with the results of that choice: Supreme Court Justice; Muslim Ban and recognition of Jerusalem as capital of Israel. There is no illusion as to Trump’s unsuitability; just naked self-interest. Other supporters, no doubt, have similar feelings.
The Long View
And so, in pursuit of such ends, America charts its decline. There are moments of hope. Apparently, there are standards for being a United States Senator: being a racist, misogynist, homophobic child molester did not sit well with the majority of Alabama voters and so a state that was about to be consigned to the international gallery of rogues redeemed itself a little.
The Trump administration may win its first legislative victory if it succeeds in passing a tax bill agreed between House and Senate. It will not be the tax reform that the President campaigned for. It will end up being much more generous to the wealthy and to corporations than was advertised. It will be anything but simple and will, therefore, be a tremendous gift to tax professionals. It will not deliver to the middle classes the tax breaks they may have hoped for. But it will be the best tax bill that money can buy.
Legislative victories ought properly to be judged through the long lens of history and ought to form a base on which a country can rely for the long term. Obamacare was passed with no Republican support and so has been a primary target for repeal upon a change of power. Tax reform will likely suffer a similar fate. This is not good for the country. One of the key aspects of a thriving economy is a stable structure of laws that promote investment with confidence that the rules will not be in a state of constant flux.
The Broader View
The world beyond the United States has continued to experience the traumas of Brexit; North Korea; withdrawal by the US from the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership and the Paris Accords; the conflict in Syria; in Yemen; the emergence of a more explicit strategic competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran; terror attacks in Europe. The list of events is long and troubling. The thoughtful mind searches for some balance: an urgent need to fight the bias of news organisations to report the dark side. (There is such a thing as the Good News Network. It meets a need).
The context of current affairs can be discouraging and lacks perspective. A century ago, the world was in the agonies of World War I: the Bolshevik revolution was sweeping away centuries of Tsarist rule; the collaboration of the allied powers in carving up the Ottoman Empire was exposed; millions of young lives had been wasted in a grinding conflict that had broken new ground in horror and human destruction. Vladimir Lenin moved in a brief six-month period from living next to a sausage factory in Switzerland to leading a revolution.
In the same year, the United States abandoned its doctrine, laid out by John Quincy Adams of “… [going] not abroad in search of monsters to destroy…” in favour of Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, a statement of progressive internationalism that was used to justify the entry of the United States into World War I. It was a speech that has had profound consequences in shaping US foreign policy ever since.
Effective leadership in world affairs must be based on moral authority. Raw military superiority projects differently, more narrowly. The United States has held both since at least World War II. The sense that power can be wielded not with the goal of territorial expansion but rather with the goal of conforming the word to the liberal democratic ideals that the United States holds dear has underpinned its role on the world stage.
Sadly, that is changing. Elections have consequences. Obama was pilloried for dialling back intervention in the Middle East. His rationale was that recent interventions had not produced unambiguously good results: Iraq; Libya. There was no reason to think that Syria would be different.
There was some focus on trying to reverse the “Great Satan” perception; to evolve from the position of being either perpetually at war in the Middle East, or engaged in an ongoing project of democracy building. It is more honest to act in one’s own enlightened self/national interest, but that requires a thoughtful, strategic sense of what that interest is and how, tactically, it might be accomplished.
The legacy of the Bush years caused Obama to pause, thoughtfully, and, subject to much criticism of fecklessness and embarrassing apologies, to pull back. The legacy of the Obama years is… well, that is not clear yet because there is no discernible foreign policy in the Trump administration. Nicki Haley is doing good work at the UN: tearing down some of the hypocrisies and trying to articulate a more strategic vision for the US and its relationships with its allies.
She has, however, embraced the #metoo movement in suggesting that women accusers should be heard, even if the accused is the President. It remains to be seen how this impacts
her relationship with her boss. The fact that Donald Trump was elected, Access Hollywood notwithstanding, has proven to be a watershed moment where women have
found the courage to speak up against powerful men such as Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer. The United States has had laws against such behaviour for many years. 2017 is the year where those laws have begun to bite among those who thought their power placed them above the law.
As the thoughtful mind searches 2017 for the signs of hope and progress, perhaps the most significant is #metoo. The IMF has authored a report on the importance of narrowing the gender gap in developing nations. Its findings and conclusions apply to developed societies also. It is not only the potential of women that is imprisoned in a culture of rape and sexual abuse but the potential of society as a whole. Power is rarely ceded willingly: it must be wrestled from the hands of the privileged. It is rare to be in the midst of a movement that has such consequences for societal progress. It appears that is where we are.
An Update on Trumptopia: What’s Going on in the USA?
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (WTF)
This 2016 movie, produced by and starring Tina Fey, is based on a book that was written as a memoir by the main character, Kim Barker. It follows a period of three years between 2003 and 2006 – it was initially supposed to be a three-month assignment – when Kim takes an assignment to be a war reporter in Afghanistan.
The premise of the movie is that one’s perspective shifts to adapt to the circumstances, however bizarre, in the manner of the proverbial frog in increasingly hot water. Kim exits before she is boiled, but only just. The most poignant moment in the movie (there are not that many – the emotional tone is mostly flat), is when Kim returns home to visit a marine who lost his legs to an IED in Helmand Province. She had been told by a fellow reporter that the marine’s assignment to Helmand resulted from a segment she reported where he discussed his habit of keeping his weapon unloaded. He had greater fear of an accidental discharge than of an engagement with the enemy.
Barker felt guilty and wanted to give him the opportunity to reproach her. His response was not to blame her at all: “You embrace the suck. You move the f**k forward. What other choice do we have?” He gives her a brief history lesson on the murky issue of causation of the war in Afghanistan and the Middle East.
It is a telling lesson on the complexity of the human condition, people’s tendency to overestimate the magnitude of their own causal contribution to world events and a reminder that there are fewer easy answers than might be desirable.
Fire and Fury
The recent book by Michael Wolff is an excellent read not because it reveals anything the reader has not already heard or suspected, but rather as a sober chronicle of dysfunction and a reminder of what government should be about and what it should not be, but all too often is about.
There was drama in the LBJ administration. There was inappropriate behaviour; foul language; manipulation; ego. LBJ’s time as Vice President was a marked contrast to his stature as Master of the Senate. The transition to President in the wake of JFK’s assassination was remarkable. As the world watched, wondering how this would go, Johnson worked the levers of power to bring in a budget below the level of $100bn demanded by Harry Byrd, Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee as the price for releasing JFK’s tax cut bill that was holding up consideration of the Civil Rights Bill. LBJ continued to work his inside the ropes knowledge of the legislative process to get the Civil Rights Bill passed into law. This was American government at its best.
The picture Wolff presents is American government at its worst. The legislative initiatives that have been undertaken by the current administration are healthcare reform; tax reform; immigration reform. Healthcare struggled and failed; tax reform passed and immigration reform is caught up in the politics of funding the government.
The President’s approval ratings are in the doldrums; he is forced to deny the racism revealed by his vulgar language and he is fighting with his Chief of Staff via twitter. In the meantime, those whose deportation hangs on immigration reform live in fear of arrest and infrastructure reform is on hold.
Unified Field Theory
Steve Bannon, the early architect of the Trump administration policy (since ousted and discredited by the President) and the author of the President’s Inaugural Address, was widely considered to be a proponent of a comprehensive policy to take the country back – a kind of unified field theory. His premise was that the American people had spoken through the election of Donald Trump. His organizing philosophy was a robust ‘America First’ policy on trade; a very restrictive immigration policy (widely interpreted as White Nationalist and anti-Muslim) and generally tearing down the administrative state to restore power into the hands of the executive branch.
This political philosophy was well targeted to flatter the ego of the President. Wolff’s book reveals that the President does not read and rarely listens. His attention wanders quickly and the passage to his understanding is apparently a narrow window defined by short-burst images and soundbites frequently played out on his favourite cable news network, Fox News.
There could not be a sharper contrast to the skill set required to approach the long-term issue of, for example, infrastructure repair. There could not be a sharper contrast to the achievement marked by the Civil Rights Act. There is no unified field theory of human progress. It is about hard work, incremental steps and the occasional watershed victory. Bannon was short-lived.
How Hot is the Water Right Now?
Kim Barker refers in her book and in the movie to the concept of “Kabubble”, the world in which the reporters are analogized to frogs in boiling water. The need to keep the war top of the media’s mind at home requires ever more extreme assignments at increasing levels of risk to the reporters and their teams.
The US is currently living in its own Kabubble: Trumptopia, a land where hours of media coverage are devoted to discussions of whether the President used the word “shithole” or “shithouse” to describe certain countries whose populations are considered unsuitable for immigration by the President on the basis simply of their geography (and perhaps, coincidentally, the colour of their skin).
Senators sacrifice their credibility in the cause of loyalty to a President who never repays it. If the key issue is which word was used, the story has missed its mark. If the public wishes the coverage would end because, not surprisingly, it is tired of the noise, then the essence of Trumptopia is revealed: the use of the bizarre to distract from the appalling.
Heads are spinning, and the frog has only a little time left…
Brexit Phase Two: EU-UK Trade Talks
What unites European political parties across the political spectrum is a demand that while Britain discusses its future with the EU, it adheres to the principle of freedom of movement throughout the phase two transitional period. This is together with all the other rules of EU membership, including compliance with decisions of the European Court of Justice (ECJ).
While Brussels conducts day to day negotiations, it will fall to rotating EU presidents to secure cohesion and solidarity among EU27 member states holding diverse agendas for the conduct of Brexit talks. For the next six months, this leadership task falls to Bulgaria. Romania – the EU’s fastest growing economy (in 2017) – takes on the role in January 2019 at what will be a critical time when Britain (finally) leaves the European Union.
On the 29th March next year, Britain will become a ‘third country’ putting its relationship with the EU on a par with Turkey subject to any refinements on single market entry or a ‘bespoke’ customs union granting limited rights for its financial services sector. Business confidence continues to focus on going concerns that without regulatory alignment with the EU, few benefits will be provided from Brexit. It lobbies for ‘frictionless’ trade, which effectively must keep it in line with single market rules for both goods and services.
Car manufacturers have constantly reminded government ministers of potential damage to supply lines by the imposition of trade barriers. They would assert that decades of foreign investment (FDI) in the UK car industry was made in good faith in the knowledge that Britain, with its flexible and liberalized economy, provided the best entry point for the more lucrative EU market. In fairness, other factors also played a part – not least that UK employment laws were less restrictive than in mainland Europe as a result of the Thatcher government’s reforms in the 1980s.
There is still a question whether Britain leaves next year without a deal. Although this looks unlikely, Michel Barnier’s team at the EU Commission prepares for this scenario – taking repeated threats from the hard Brexit camp at face value. Tracking progress for the shape of an eventual deal is not easy, but clues are already appearing. French President Macron’s visit to London on Thursday 18th January helped to re-invigorate the ‘Entent Cordiale’ which historically focused on European military defence cooperation. A renewed Calais Agreement to maintain a tight border on migration would also help to improve Franco-Anglo relations.
But on a post- Brexit trade agreement Macron stands firm in stating:
“If you want access to the single market – including financial services be – my guest. But you need to contribute to the budget and acknowledge European Jurisdiction. There will be no hypocrisy in this respect otherwise it would not work. It would destroy the single market.”
It is hard to see from this statement that the EU27 will weaken from this stance, or that France can be persuaded of a more pragmatic approach by other EU members.
However, this did not stop PM Theresa May from re-iterating her desire for a deep and special partnership with the EU: “I believe it should cover goods and services.” She went on to say “I think the city of London will continue to be a major global financial centre… That is an advantage not just for the UK, it’s actually good for Europe and good for the global financial system.”
In the coming months, understandably, Britain will seek to pick off different EU states to push forward its vision of future trade relations. It is unlikely this “divide-and-rule” strategy will ultimately succeed, and it may well delay the satisfactory outcome of negotiations within the agreed timeline. It is in the interest of both sides to hammer out a deal for the stability of the EU and UK economies.
Sweden Issues War Pamphlets
The Swedish government is preparing a brochure on how to act in wartime due to fears over Russia.
Editor’s Remarks: The pamphlet is to be sent to 4.7 million homes and will explain how Swedes can participate in a “total defence” during a war and ensure that their basic needs – water, food and shelter – are tended to. The last time a document such as this was given out to Swedish citizens was in 1961 at the height of the Cold War. In recent years, Sweden has upped its military spending, reintroduced conscription and placed a garrison on the island of Gotland as fears over Russian aggression have mounted. For the first time ever, the country’s four right-leaning opposition parties agree that Sweden must now join NATO.
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