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 V

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. Here are some observations. Please add your thoughts.

Today is Sunday, 29 March, 2020:

• Feudalism redux. Literally: Carnegie Moscow Center reports that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has

“tasked each of the oligarchs with overseeing a specific region where they have assets: Rinat Akhmetov will be responsible for the Donbas and western Ukraine, Kolomoisky for Zaporizhia, Victor Pinchuk for Dnipropetrovsk, and so on.”

Joel Kotkin weighs the prospects of neo-feudalism in The Coming Age of Dispersion at Quilette.

• Digital Congress. Not a prediction, just part of a lengthening wish list. As Ethan Zuckerman writes,

“this is a great time for congresspeople to return to their districts and start the process of virtual legislating—permanently. Not only is this move medically necessary at the moment, but it has ancillary benefits. Lawmakers will be closer to the voters they represent and more likely to be sensitive to local perspectives and issues. A virtual Congress is harder to lobby, as the endless parties and receptions that lobbyists throw in Washington will be harder to replicate across the whole nation. Party conformity also might loosen with representatives remembering local loyalties over party ties.”

• In Virus Diary II I suggested

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

To expand a bit, the idea I was after was redundancy. We don’t need tariffs and trade barriers for spiteful reasons of base nationalism, but in case other countries place restrictions on supply chains, restrict exports, shut down ports and such, as we are seeing today.

•••••

And a local note:

Fannin County, Georgia is around 100 miles north of Atlanta in the southern Appalachian mountains. My wife and I own property in adjoining Union County. Indeed, our last redoubt would be a cabin there, and to reach it we’d want (but not have) to drive through Fannin County.

Whether or not officials in Fannin County can prohibit people from using their own properties, it looks like they’re game to try. It’s medieval, pulling up the drawbridge, the stuff of a dozen apocalypse tales. And not surprising.

Seems to me it represents a fundamental fracture in the US’s secular worship of property and wealth. Attempting to deny the right to use someone’s property is kind of shocking in a US context, possibly appropriate, but as I say, not surprising. What is surprising is how quickly the thin veneer of civilization begins to come off.

What do you think?

Here are the firstsecondthird and fourth Virus Diary installments.

Take care and 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.)

Quotes: Consequences

“Conservatives have spent years trying to cut funds for basic science and research, lamenting government seed money for nearly every budding technology and then hoping for the best. In the weeks ahead, it’s not some fiery, anti-Washington populist with an XM radio gig who is going to save folks’ lives; it is more likely to be someone who has been studying this stuff for decades, almost certainly at some point with federal help or outright patronage.”

Stuart Stevens in The Washington Post

A Remarkable Message from the President

Here is a retweet by the president of a remarkable post by Assistant to the President and Director of Social Media Dan Scavino. The very stable genius must have missed history class that day they talked about Nero.

But here’s some good news: turns out he’s a natural on the whole Coronavirus thing: “Every one of these doctors said, ‘How do you know so much about this?’ Maybe I have a natural ability,” the president explained.

The New Hampshire Primary

CS&W is mostly about international travel, celebrating different cultures, wonder at the world, and just getting out there to see what happens. But please indulge me.

These are my favorite few weeks every four years, the part of the American presidential political horse race that starts in Iowa and extends until the political parties have settled on their respective candidates. And I have a few comments.

The Biden Campaign in Action

When Joe Biden exits the 2020 race, I expect he takes with him a distinctly twentieth century campaign style. Ten days ago in Iowa the Biden campaign rallied in the Hiatt Middle School. Precinct captains, younger voters and the demographically photogenic sat behind the candidate equipped with IOWA FOR BIDEN and IFFA Firefighters for Biden placards. The rest of us stood in front of a riser.

The candidate entered stage right. But only after extended remarks from his sister Valerie Biden Owens, Harold Schaitberger, the President of the International Association of Firefighters, Cedric Richmond, Louisiana Congressman and campaign co-chairman, Iowa Congresswomen Cynthia Axne and Abby Finkenauer, the former governor, Agriculture Secretary and Iowa political icon Tom Vilsack and his politically potent wife Christie, and then Biden’s wife Jill. Interspersed were short videos on screens hung on opposite walls at eye level, and thus unviewable to anyone in the SRO crowd not standing nearest them.

Once the candidate took the stage his first eight minutes comprised thanking still other politicians, including former Senators Dodd, Kerry and Kerrey who were traveling with him. The former VP was heckled twice, the first time for accepting oil money, and I couldn’t hear the point of the second heckler. Eventually Joe Biden got round to his message, which, abridged, was: Trump, egregious. Obama and me, Obama and me, Obama and me. And I won’t let Trump continue to happen to my country.

In contrast the Yang campaign filled a Marriott ballroom. Preliminary music and flag-waving. At the appointed hour a single warm-up speaker shared three or four minutes of remarks, the candidate promptly followed, strode across the stage and did his well-rehearsed twenty, twenty-five minute rap, an inspirational thing, got on, got off, music swelled, event done.

Across town a Buttigieg rally exhibited the same production values at Lincoln High School. His well-rehearsed amen corner, already in place before the crowd was led in, stood and swayed and chanted and cheered. A brief set-up, then the candidate was there, more substantive and less inspirational than Yang (in their respective styles), fishing a mildly gimmicky handful of questions from a bowl. And then he was gone.

The 2020 attention span appreciates the approach of Yang and Buttigieg.

I feel desperately sorry for a good and decent Joe Biden whose initial candidacy, for the 1988 nomination, I expected to support until it was cut short by that darned plagarism thing.

The New Hampshire primary was last night. Correctly anticipating disaster, Biden fled to Columbia, South Carolina earlier in the day, from which he attempted to diminish his fifth-place finish. Following his wife, who often introduces him, he introduced himself as “Joe Biden’s husband” and pledged himself as the savior of minorities, or maybe even not a white male himself. “Our votes count, too,” he declared, identifying himself with minorities.

He went on about “all these candidates who have beaten incumbents, like Bill Clinton, Barack Obama….” Joe Biden was Barack Obama’s running mate. Barack Obama defeated John McCain in 1988. John McCain was not an incumbent.

All this was predictable and it was widely predicted.

On the strength of his name and his career, Biden teased his entrance to the race long past the other candidates before finally committing to the race less than ten months ago. I wish he hadn’t. Lots of moderates in the Democratic Party wish he hadn’t. He and his family surely must wish he hadn’t, too.

Early lessons after Iowa and New Hampshire:

• Small states, where retail politics works, are important and help to set expectations for the later paid-media-driven larger states.

• Joe Biden floated atop slow-to-move national polls for far too long, while the dynamics of important early state polls shifted radically. Early state outcomes radically change national momentum. Memo for next time: Discount national polls. Pay attention to early states.

• Pete Buttigieg is sharp, mostly hits all the right notes, and will remain sharp even at age 42, four years from now.

• Amy Klobuchar extends the Happy Warrior legacy of Minnesota politics. She’s demonstratively uplifting. After her better than expected performance in New Hampshire she desperately needs a thorough polishing by state-of-the-art political operatives, and in a hurry.