Good? Not Really?

It strikes me that posting this tweet might be viewed by some folks as supporting the Biden campaign’s money raising efforts, and by others as if it shows an unhealthy emphasis on money in American politics. Anybody?

Election Road Trip

After being holed up at home like everybody else since March, we’ve busted out this last week on a pre-election survey of the political landscape. (If you’re a fan of the electoral process you might be interested in my Iowa caucuses column at 3QD, from back in February.)

We’re driving, distancing and choosing suite hotels, with kitchens, so that we may be as self-contained as we feel we need to be. We have yet to be anywhere indoors besides convenience stores along the way, a couple of restaurants, to walk through to outdoor seating, and briefly today, a funicular railway in Pittsburgh.

It’s a little bit more of a challenge to connect with socially distanced people with masks on, and those without masks kind of scare me (I’m talking about you, Ohio). We’ve spent time in Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and are bound for West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina on the way back home. This reporting trip will inform the rest of the posts here between now and the election.

Cincinnati on Wednesday.

Ain’t Gonna Happen

With their breathless talk of crisis, protests and turning points in Belarus, pro-democracy pundits are making their most common mistake, namely, prematurely declaring victory over authoritarianism because they want it to be so. In the Belarusian protests it’s particularly important to consider the position of Vladimir Putin, for whom a functioning democracy on Russia’s border is utterly impermissible.

Note that after he took in the fleeing Ukrainian Viktor Yanukovich (tour Mezhyhirya, Yanukovich’s former residence outside Kyiv here), as he doubtless would Lukashenka, Putin found it necessary to seize Crimea and disrupt the Donbas, in order to be able to upend the larger Ukrainian political situation as he sees fit, at a moment’s notice, until further notice.

Kudos to the Belarusian people, credit to their bravery, and a paean to the heart’s indomitable spirit. And apologies for my cynicism. I may be wrong, and it would be nice if it turns out that way, but in this case it’s hard to imagine the Russian president permitting free elections, leading to something close to democratic rule, in his fellow Slavic, White Russian buffer state.

Belarus Votes

The campaign toward elections next weekend in Belarus is giving Aleksandr Lukashenko more fits than usual as he “competes” for a sixth term as president. After authorities jailed one of the main opposition candidates, vlogger Syarhey Tsikhanouski, for “committing actions to incite social hatred and the assault of law enforcement officers,” his 37 year old wife Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya was allowed to register as an opposition candidate.

RFERL has a report. If you’re looking for coverage as the election approaches this week, watch RFERL, and a leading Belarussian opposition website, from the group Charter 97, for more on the story. See also the Riga-based site Meduza. The screen grab above comes from Meduza’s coverage of a Tsikhanouskaya campaign rally, which Meduza estimates drew some 63,000 people.

Personally, the Belarussian capital of Minsk gave me the creeps.

Virus Diary VI

As long as we’re shut in with time on our hands, here is another installment of a sort of rolling diary to consider consequences of the virus. It’s true that with a virus that spreads exponentially, each day’s events seem like a week’s worth. In the knowledge that all this may be overtaken by events next week, here are some observations today. Please add your thoughts.

Today is 7 April, 2020:

• It is remarkable how self-evident it is that the entire intellectual framework that ran our economic world until last month was wrong.

We’ve all seen the photos, clear waters instead of used condoms in Venetian canals and so on. The virus shakes politicians by the shoulders considerably more starkly than the scolding teenaged Swede (bless her just the same). Perhaps the virus can help the planet self-correct, if just a bit. Or at least incrementally slow its death march.

• German experts contemplate April under the coronavirus. The view from Germany.

Let old and sick people out of prison if they’re not under the death penalty. For if we don’t, perhaps by our lack of action, we are imposing that penalty.

• Branko Milanovik is surely right about this, in Foreign Affairs:

“The longer the crisis lasts, and the longer obstacles to the free flow of people, goods, and capital are in place, the more that state of affairs will come to seem normal. Special interests will form to sustain it, and the continuing fear of another epidemic may motivate calls for national self-sufficiency.”

• Tomas Sedlacek says we might as well try to take advantage of a situation we can’t do much about anyway. There are advantages to disadvantages. Like, in his case, Prague without the tourists.

• Winners: hands, and dogs. Neither has ever had as much attention.

What do you think?

Here are the firstsecondthird, fourth and fifth Virus Diary installments.

Take care and wash your hands.

Virus Diary IV

As long as we’re shut in with time on our hands, here is another installment of a sort of rolling diary to consider consequences of the virus. It’s true that with a virus that spreads exponentially, each day’s events seem like a week’s worth. Things we speculated a week ago now look naïve. Still, we can give it a go. Please add your thoughts.

Today is the first day of Thursday, 26 March, 2020:

• Something I’ve been wondering, once leaders of the western democracies see how easy it is to rule by fiat, for example summarily ordering their publics off the streets, how willing will they be to return to the status quo ante? Anne Applebaum writes about it way better than I can. James Holmes has a theory

“that demographic stress makes a society more like itself. In other words, it reinforces the society’s basic character. When trouble strikes, the society’s members reach for familiar ways of thinking, feeling, and acting. They respond in ways tested in, and seemingly verified by, past experience. Stress drives discourses about diplomacy and strategy toward extreme versions of these familiar ways, and action follows that trend.”

If he’s right, the next couple of years will speak volumes about European and North American leadership.

• From the apocalypse department come knock on effects from the locust infestation in East Africa. From the Johns Hopkins Covid-19 newsletter from 23 March, 2020:

In addition to the growing COVID-19 pandemic, several countries in East Africa are battling the worst locust infestation in 70 years. Ideal breeding conditions in countries like Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia could enable locust populations to swell by a factor of 400, which could devastate crops across the region. The agricultural industry in East Africa accounts for approximately one-third of the gross domestic product and nearly two-thirds of jobs. The economic impact of the locust swarms has been compounded as restrictions are implemented by countries trying to contain COVID-19. Additionally, reduced trade demand from China could further compound economic losses, and it may be even more difficult for affected countries to identify supplemental trade partners as more national-level restrictions are implemented by countries around the world.

• In Virus Diary II I wrote about the coming challenges for Russia. Robert Kaplan thinks so too:

“The coronavirus will have geopolitical second- and third-order effects in countries such as Iran, Iraq, Russia, Nigeria and Venezuela, whose social peace relies on oil and gas, the prices of which have sharply declined, partially due to the coronavirus.”

• In the interest of equal time, at 3 Quarks Daily my sort-of e-colleague Anitra Pavlico writes in Globalization’s Exaggerated Demise that

“It does defy belief to imagine that many countries will take on the burden of renationalizing industry or, as (Zachary) Karabell puts it, “make trillions of dollars of global investment worthless.”

Fair point.

• An essay by Justin E. H. Smith in The Point titled It’s All Just Beginning makes the argument, if not the prediction, that the virus should bring the time of “wanton delectation” to an end:

“The pangolin cult of the Congolese Lele people, as described by the great social anthropologist Mary Douglas, both celebrates and fears the taxonomic peculiarities of this animal, which has scales, but gives live birth, and, like human beings, births only one offspring at a time. Do they kill it and eat it? Yes, they kill it and eat it, but they know that in so doing they are knocking the cosmos out of joint, and the only way to bring it back into joint is through a fair amount of ritual catharsis. Walter Burkert points out that in ancient Greece there was no meat sold in the public market that was not ritually sacrificed: a recognition that to spill an animal’s blood is a violent and transgressive thing, and even if we must do it, we must not allow it to become profane, banal, unexceptional. Such a view lives on vestigially in the halal and kosher rules of slaughter of familiar Abrahamic faiths, but for the most part the metaphysics of meat, like the metaphysics of viruses, remains the same as it was in 1918 and indeed for some centuries before: exotic or domestic, endangered or commonplace, an animal’s meat is ours to be eaten, for we are the lords of this planet. I am not saying the current pandemic is retribution for our sin, but I will say that the Lele understood something about the pangolin that we have not, and that we are paying dearly for now: that it cannot be lightly killed for no better reason than our own delectation. That era—the era of wanton delectation—is over now, I hope, for those who had been taken in by the reckless culinary adventurism of an Anthony Bourdain as much as for the customers of the wet-markets of Wuhan.”

Here are the firstsecond and third Virus Diary installments.

Take care. Wash your hands.

Virus Diary III

As long as we’re shut in with time on our hands, here is another installment of a sort of rolling diary to consider consequences of the virus. It’s true that with a virus that spreads exponentially, each day’s events seem like a week’s worth. Things we speculated a week ago now look naïve. Still.

Today is the first day of Monday, 23 March, 2020:

• Everything about the novel coronavirus is novel. Branko Milanovic points out that here we have a problem of both supply and demand. Expanding on a thought in Virus Diary II, he injects time as a variable. “If national governments can control or overcome the current crisis within the next six months or a year, the world would likely return to the path of globalization….” But if not, not.

“The longer the crisis lasts, and the longer obstacles to the free flow of people, goods, and capital are in place, the more that state of affairs will come to seem normal. Special interests will form to sustain it….”

• If nature is exacting revenge for human-induced climate change, as some suggest, it’s doing it in an odd way, chasing people away from public transportation.

• Still, the virus by all rights ought to boost trust in experts, a reasonable and modest enough idea that UK politician Michael Gove, our American president and a cadre of Republicans have methodically batted at for years. Benefit: Climate Change.

• Christine Wilkie writes that “the ‘us vs. them’ approach to Washington and the federal government, on which the president has built his political brand” in fact, his entire public persona is gone. Entirely undermined.

I think if we’re all in this together, down the road a few beneficial changes will be hard to deny, like the prohibition of tax buy backs. Our pro-business president supports the idea, and I’m guessing even the most pro-business congresspeople can be shamed into it. More medium-term goal: worker representation in the boardroom. Over the horizon: replacing some of the more craven aspects of healthcare for profit with real, straight-up needs-based care.

• For now an us vs. them frontier sentiment bubbles to the top. In Scotland, the SNP’s Westminster leader, Ian Blackford MP warns people off heading to Scotland to self-isolate:

“I urge everyone to do the right thing; follow the government advice and please do not travel here. If these warnings are not heeded and people need to be stopped from travelling, then I am afraid that is what will have to happen. Those in camper vans please go home!”

• We’re all Social Democrats now. For the moment. Today,

“France’s relatively generous welfare state and the state’s broad authority to enact pressure on employers appear far more like advantages than deficiencies — as signs of modernity, not outdatedness.”

Meanwhile,

“’For the first time in our history, the government is going to step in and pay people’s wages,’” the British chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak,

said last week.

• When the world emerges from the rubble, two books for guidance: 1946, The Making of the Modern World by Victor Sebestyen and Year Zero by Ian Buruma.

• One more thing: everybody’s hair is going to get a lot longer. And there will be more beards.

Please share your thoughts, and take care.

 

Here are the first and second Virus Diary installments.

Virus Diary II

As long as we’re shut in with time on our hands, let’s have a go at a sort of rolling diary to consider consequences of the virus. Here’s hoping most of the crazier predictions out there will look alarmist in retrospect. We’ll see what holds up over time.

Today is the first day of spring, 19 March, 2020:

• At this point, I’d say all bets are off on whether the U.S. election happens as scheduled. Whether or not it would be legal won’t stop speculation.

• It’s crazy the IOC hasn’t yet cancelled the Olympics. That shouldn’t be far away.

Shorter, stronger supply chains on the other side of this? This looks like a safe bet.

• Walking in the park today, everybody giving everybody else ample personal space, it was clear it will take considerable time to unlearn social distancing. Does the virus hasten the Shut-In Economy?

• The ruble is the third-worst performing currency among emerging markets this month, losing about 10% against the dollar. The Brent oil price fell below $26 per barrel for the first time since 2003. Rumblings about Putin’s survival. At the very least Russia and Saudi Arabia picked the exactly wrong time for an oil price war.

• Radical decoupling of the U.S. and Chinese economies? Andrew Michta recommends it, piquantly:

“We must acknowledge our own complicity in what is now unfolding. The belief that globalization, through the radical centralization of market networks, was the unavoidable path forward has been exposed as a grave, near-delusional miscalculation. The offshoring by corporations of supply chains to China has not only eviscerated communities that were previously reliant on manufacturing jobs, but has also brought with it an unprecedented level of vulnerability and fragility to our economies. The populist revolts that have wracked Western democracies for the past several years are in part rooted in the pain that these dislocations have caused.”

• No prediction here, but a big break with the past. Judah Grunstein writes:

“for the first time in memory when it comes to a global crisis, the U.S. will not be coming to the rescue. From the beginning of the outbreak, Washington has been several steps behind state and local governments across the U.S. that usually depend on the federal government for guidance and leadership in crisis response efforts. And it has made no effort at all to coordinate responses among national governments around the world, which have grown accustomed to the most powerful and capable country on earth leading the way in times like these.”

It’s what Ian Bremmer calls the unwinding of the American order.

Please share your thoughts.

(Here is Virus Diary I, from two days ago.)