The Runoff

On yesterday’s elections: 1. the French have rejected both traditional parties in an election for the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic. And 2. the pollsters largely got it right, which is more than can be said for their British and American counterparts these last couple years.

While the next two weeks are potentially fraught, for the moment the idea of a functioning European project survives. But headlines like

“Macron to ‘blow Le Pen out of the water’ in final round of French election – Not even a terrorist attack could increase Front National’s chances, experts believe”

in this morning’s Independent are exactly what forces of moderation don’t want to see over the next two weeks. Because, as Der Spiegel explains,

“if only a fraction of those who believe that Macron’s victory is a given end up staying home on May 7, then Le Pen has a shot at becoming France’s next president. Because there is one certainty that has survived: Front National supporters will turn out in force.”

While the periphery frays (Brexit, the Turkish referendum), you can at least make an argument this morning that the core still believes in the European idea. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves with this ‘blow her out of the water’ kind of loose talk. Two delicate weeks lie ahead for an entirely untested would-be leader in a world full of surprises.

French Election Watch

A good “if you only read one article about the French elections” article: Extremists on Left and Right Push France to the Brink in Spiegel Online.

Excerpt:

(Marine) Le Pen was asked in a recent TV campaign special what she would do if the French voted to remain in the EU in a referendum she has said she would hold. She normally has an answer ready for whatever question might be asked, but this time she said nothing for a long moment, before responding: “I would resign.” When the moderators then asked what the point of a referendum is if she wanted to determine the outcome beforehand, she became angry and quickly switched to her favorite topic: the media’s vicious attacks on Le Pen and her party.

Free-ish Bird

This week’s United Airlines debacle raises questions besides the violation-of-decency-in-search-of-corporate-efficiency one. The Libertarian blog Reason makes a salient point under the headline Why Should Police Help United Airlines Cheat Its Customers?

Blurring the lines between private enterprise and quasi-law enforcement bodies makes me nervous. When it’s just you and me, hapless Joes trying to catch a flight, who really knows who has what authority in airports?

The men who hauled that United passenger down that aisle were Chicago Aviation Police, unarmed, sorta real cops who play “an important, supplementary role in keeping [Chicago airports] safe by overseeing access points.”

Would you know that at the moment they muscled their way down the aisle? Does it matter? Should you just instantly cave in forfeiture of your rights to anybody in uniform? It seems like that’s what the enforcement cadres would prefer, in the name of keeping you safe.

There are God knows how many entities said to be looking out for your best interests in airports. Homeland Security people, uniformed TSA people, your local police, anybody an airline or rental car agency or for that matter, TGI Fridays down in the food court might slap a uniform on. If the guy who drives the Marriott shuttle and wears the official cap yells and screams real authoritatively, what about him, too?

In a sympathetic article from many years ago, “Chicago-area airport security chief Jim Maurer” says “What I think is unique about airports is this is a business. And our job is to make sure that that business is conducted efficiently. We’ve got to get people in and out of the airport and we’ve got to get them to their destinations. There’s a whole different perspective.”

Sure is a different perspective. We’re not enforcing laws. We’re making sure business, like United Airlines’ business, is conducted efficiently.

So why are they called police? Why are government bodies in service of private profit-making?

•••••

I was flying around doing reporting trips for my book Out in the Cold in 2015, and once after returning from the Arctic, I found a card the size of the customs form inside my bag.

Notice of Baggage Inspection from the Department of Homeland Security: To protect you and your fellow passengers your bag and its contents may have been searched for prohibited items. At the completion of the inspection, the contents were returned to your bag.”

Come now.

They say “may have been.” I’m pretty sure that if they didn’t open the bag I wouldn’t have found the notice inside. You figure?

“If the TSA security officer was unable to open your bag for inspection because it was locked, the officer may have been forced to break the locks on your bag.”

May have been.

“TSA sincerely regrets having to do this, however TSA is not liable for damage to your locks….”

Of course not.

•••••

The Department of Homeland Security claims their entitlement to the inside of your property in the name of your security. This is unsettling because what might they need to seize next to keep you safe? Your social media passwords?

Oh, wait.

Unsettling too because this week cops can haul you bleeding from your paid-for flight. Note that after auditioning all the other options, United CEO Munoz finally apologized, but no enforcement organization I’m aware of has distanced itself from the Chicago Aviation Police.

You just wait for the day that TGI Fridays cop splays you out on the floor on account of your complaint about the cold fries.

YOU’RE IN THE AIRPORT. I’M HERE TO KEEP YOU SAFE.

•••••

Also published here on Medium.

System Demise, and What Happens Next?

“Democratic capitalism no longer works well enough to keep together a country of 325 million people and to guarantee domestic peace,” the German journalist Holger Stark declared in the news weekly Der Spiegel, trying to explain Donald Trump’s America to his German readers. I think Mr. Stark is right; our way of governance is under deep systemic stress from both sides of the money/power equation.

The disrobing of the financial Emperors began with the financial collapse of 2008. As the elite who run the financial world stood naked amid their misdeeds, we glimpsed how, among many other things, they had packaged and sold bad real estate loans under false pretenses, for profit, with the complicity of the ratings agencies. (Iceland suffered mightily. See deeper coverage in my book Out in the Cold.)

The moment lasted no longer than it took their Maitre d’s to sweep the crumbs from the Emperors’ Michelin-rated dinner tables. The systems of financial governance they support patched things up, bailed them out and dispatched that nasty little business, and fast.

But the markets were left in turmoil. The elite’s solution was austerity, which resulted in rising unemployment. This led to mass protests and the Occupy Wall Street movement. Occupy seized on rising inequality as a rallying device, calling themselves “the 99 percent,” pointing out that the top one percent of income earners, who are less affected by austerity measures, are generally the decision makers who caused the problem in the first place.

I think to watch the nascent Obama administration repair the Emperors’ balance sheets was a revelation for middle America. The former party of the working man, made up of all those out-of-work cadres to whom Donald Trump would later appeal, showed flyover country that whichever flag of political leadership flies over the land, the infestation of money has rotted the system clear through.

••••

It’s ALWAYS About the Money

In a Maslow’s hierarchy, the Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf ranks capitalism as more fundamental than democracy. He writes, “Democracy cannot function without a market economy.”

“In today’s world, it is not capitalism that is in imminent danger, but rather democracy. A predatory form of post-democratic capitalism, not the end of capitalism, is the threat.” By this Mr. Wolf means we should fear authoritarianism.

Mr. Wolf works for a newspaper whose focus is money, so it is not surprising that he might overlook flaws in the workings of the money part of the money/power question. But there are glaring flaws, and they give rise to alienation.

An alienated center’s loss of faith in institutions invites the rise of the fringes, the peripheral haters and dividers that always rise at times when the disillusioned are too crestfallen to keep up their guard. Opportunist would-be leaders are always ready to exploit such an electoral mood, and this is what we call the rise of populism, an affliction from which we currently suffer.

••••

The post-post-Cold War world is well and truly in flux. Conflicting signals are everywhere. Vladimir Putin’s unapologetic Russian nationalism has brought along bits of east Europe, notably Victor Orban’s Hungary and a grudge-wielding conspiracy theorist whose destructive policies seem driven by personal vendetta, the power behind the throne in Poland, PiS chairman Jarosław Kaczyński.

Brexit deflated proponents of the European project. Donald Trump has NATO rightly alarmed. Mr. Putin’s loans to Marine Le Pen’s Front Nationale seek and may attain influence over a Europe teetering on terminal division.

We all see the challenges facing the German chancellor, who looks more tired by the day, after her fateful acceptance of 1.1 million refugees (or was that 890,000?) in the summer of 2015. A narrative is emerging that she “represents what many voters consider the failings of the past.” Her painful audience with the U.S. president could scarcely have bucked her up before the September electoral challenge from the SDP head Martin Schulz, who has the clear and canny benefit of having been away in Brussels and untainted by the immigration wars.

Still, for every Orban in Hungary there is an Austria, where 73-year old Alexander Van der Bellen ultimately won the presidency last December with 53.8 percent over Norbert Hofer, heir to Jörg Haider’s anti-Muslim, anti-immigration Freedom Party. In Bulgaria the center-right has held, with the pro-E.U.-integration (and corruption-plagued) Boyko Borissov likely to retain his premiership after elections at the end of March. Then too there is the Dutch rejection of the nasty, isolated Geert Wilders. It appears the power side of the money/power question could go either way.

••••

An epic, scene-setting battle is being fought right now, before our eyes, and it is historic. After the 25 year lull we called the “post-Cold War,” this is the world-defining struggle for what comes next. It is history on fast-forward. For now, it is hard to see the emerging landscape for the early spring fog. The 7 May runoff in France and September elections in Germany will help to illuminate the path forward.

The potentially good news on this side of the Atlantic is that Donald Trump’s act wears thin as fast a Wal-Mart t-shirt. We have fast come to know him as a slight-of-hand president, a purveyor of diversion, and there is every chance that his dissipation of the common trust will in time bring the country to a crisis that will not end well. In the context of the times we live in, if there could be a worse time for my country to have installed an ignorant, self-involved unsteady hand on the presidential tiller, I can not think of when it would be.

His rank dissimulation may – just may – prevent our president from being trusted long enough to cause physical harm. How we get from here to there is plenty fraught. But surviving the Trump threat won’t be the end of our woes, for they are systemic. We will still be left to repair our system’s corrupted relationship between money and government. A subject for future consideration.

 

Note: Less than an hour after publication of this post the U.S. Senate did its part in the institutional disassembly process by changing its rules so that sixty votes are no longer needed to confirm a Supreme Court Justice.

This article also appears on Medium.