Author Archives: Tom Arms

Observations of an Expat: Trump vs Twitter

President Trump has a point when he attacks Twitter for flagging his posts. But it reeks of hypocrisy.

The social media platforms have to date enjoyed pretty much a license to print money existence with very little in the way of a corresponding social responsibility.

Under a 1996 American law website operators — unlike traditional publishers — cannot generally be held responsible for content by their users. They are effectively a digital wall upon which the public paste fly posts. The social media sites argue that they have no more control of those posts than does the owner of a brick wall.

Of …

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Observations of an expat: Sino-American Covid diplomacy

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It is difficult to tell who is winning the Sino-American Coronavirus diplomatic battle. Two weeks ago I would have put the US in the lead. They had successfully poured ice water on Chinese claims to have successfully suppressed the spread of the virus in China. It is now generally accepted that the Chinese statistics are extremely dubious.

This week the pendulum has swung the other way. The reason is the annual meeting of the World Health Assembly which – unsurprisingly – was dominated by the pandemic.

The pendulum received a gentle push from the European Union which successfully proposed a full and independent investigation into the causes, spread, handling and consequences of coronavirus as well as a report into how best to deal with a repeat crisis.

On the surface, this would appear to be a victory for the Trump Administration who have been loud on their accusations – despite all evidence to the contrary – that Covid-19 originated in a Wuhan virology lab from whence it reached the community by accident or intent. The Chinese have been even more outrageous with their leading conspiracy theory: America developed the virus and despatched US military personnel to Wuhan to spread a Covid-19 paste on hundreds of Chinese door knobs.

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Observations of an expat: While you are Covid distracted

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The world’s other problems have not disappeared while we struggle with coronavirus. Here is a sample. There are lots more.

Climate Change: The big item pre-pandemic and possibly bigger post-pandemic. Clear skies, uncongested roads, a drop in petrol prices, fresh air and birdsong are prompting a quality of life re-think. Many countries are planning increased facilities for cyclists and the French are considering banning domestic air flights. But can this environmental impetus survive the desperate need to return to work when the lockdown ends?

Locusts: Almost totally absent from the news headlines has been successive locust plagues in East Africa—the worst in 70 years.  This is a human and economic disaster for an estimated 300 million which will have a knock-on effect for many more.

Globalisation: The concept of an increasingly interconnected world was under attack before the pandemic by nationalist leaders fighting the exportation of jobs. Climate change and health fears and concern about national economic security have added a new level of opposition. Set against that is lower prices, and improved global stability that comes through economic interdependence.

Arms Control: The last remaining major Cold War Treaty—START or the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty—expires in February 2021. If it is to be renewed then talks need to be held now. There is little sign of that happening. The Russians want it renewed. Trump says no unless China is included and Beijing is showing a distinct lack of interest. Failure means a new arms race with a new generation of deadlier weapons.

Brexit: The EU wants to postpone the end of year deadline because of coronavirus. Boris says no. Talks are taking place virtually. The EU negotiator Michel Barnier says Brussels and London are miles part on a whole range of issues. We could be heading for a December no deal Brexit and WTO rules on top of a massive Covid-created contraction in the British economy.

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And now for something completely different…

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Every cloud has a silver lining. The coronavirus pandemic is no exception, and I don’t just mean a bump in profits for Amazon, Zoom and face mask manufacturers.

The health crisis has sparked a priority rethink. What is more important, seeing family and friends or the latest pair of Jimmy Choo shoes? Who is more important to society: bankers and lawyers or dustmen and nurses? Do lives come before the health of the economy or vice versa or are they inextricably tied? Do we prefer the roar and pollution from cars and planes or the sound of birdsong, the smell of clean air and a sustainable planet?

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Observations of an expat: Coronavirus exploitation

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A pandemic is a perfect excuse for politicians to exploit public fear for their own political advantage—and many of them are doing just that.

Let’s start with Trumpland where the administration’s mishandling of the pandemic means that the country is fast heading for a world-beating 100,000-plus deaths. Trump is using coronavirus to stoke the fires of Sinophobia. China has been the US administration’s chief bogey since 2016 when advisers such as Steve Bannon were warning that a Sino-American war was inevitable. The anti-Chinese stand is also proving popular with the voters in an election year with 70 percent of the electorate critical of China.

China’s President Xi Ji-ping is just as bad. Between Beijing and Washington an increasing number of outrageous conspiracy theories have been launched by both sides. The Chinese have also used the pandemic to boost military operations in the South China Sea and is selectively dispatching its medical equipment to countries where it thinks it can establish a stronger foothold. It has also used Covid-19 to crackdown on Hong Kong dissidents and is claiming in capitals around the world that its relatively successful handling of the pandemic demonstrates the superiority of the country’s political system. The latter claim is a leaky bucket as increasing doubt is poured on Beijing’s death statistics.

One of the most blatant pandemic power grabs is in Hungary. President Viktor Orban has managed to persuade his parliament that the danger of the pandemic means he should rule by decree for an unlimited period. As a result, the already sycophantic press has been further muzzled and public protests have been banned and in some cases criminalised.

In Turkey, President Erdogan, released thousands of prisoners from jail—except the political prisoners. He has also blocked fundraising efforts by opposition city councils in Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir.

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Observations of an expat: Where is Kim? 

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Where is Kim Jong-un? Is he alive? Is he dead? Has the obese 36-year-old with a weird haircut had a stroke or heart attack? Has the coronavirus pandemic forced him into a secret lockdown? Does he have coronavirus? Has he been the victim of a palace coup?

The questions are being asked because the North Korean leader failed to make an appearance on 13 April at one of the most important annual celebrations in the country’s political calendar – the birthday anniversary celebrations for his grandfather, Kim il-Sung.

All the above questions are important. But even more important is who is likely to succeed him and what would a post-Kim world look like?

The current front-runner to succeed as leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is “Dear Leader’s” little sister, 32-year-old Kim Yo-jong.  The main reason is that the running of the highly secretive and oppressive communist regime is a family affair and the little sister is Km Jong-un’s closest family. However, there are some issues with the sibling. First of all, Kim Yo-jong, is a woman in a highly patriarchal society.

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Observations of an expat: American guinea pigs

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Thank you America for volunteering your citizens as coronavirus guinea pigs. To be more specific, thank you President Trump and the governors of Florida, Texas, Tennessee, South Carolina, Minnesota, Vermont, Ohio, Idaho, North Dakota, Montana, New York, Connecticut and New Jersey.

They have decided that the first duty of government is the protection of the almighty dollar rather than the protection of human life. Dan Patrick, Lieutenant Governor of Texas, has gone further and proposed that elderly Americans should offer to die to protect the economy.

Because public health and safety is the responsibility of state governments, anti-lockdown measures vary from state to state. New York, New Jersey and Connecticut have been the hardest hit and are trying to ease back towards normality with a suck and see approach.

Georgia is more dramatic. The Governor still advocates social distancing but is reopening restaurants, hair salons, bowling alleys and — my personal favourite — cinemas. Just how hormonal teenagers will manage back row gropes while sitting six feet apart is a mystery waiting to be solved.

South Carolina is reopening its beaches and non-essential retail outlets and Tennessee’s Governor Bill Lee has more or less said to hell with it and opened everything.

Meanwhile the anti-lockdown protests continue, spurred on by commentators such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity dubbing coronavirus a “pandumbic.” The first and biggest demonstration was in Wisconsin. An estimated 2,500 people, many of them wielding guns and pro-Trump banners, gathered outside the governor’s mansion in Lansing. The Democratic Governor, Gretchen Whitmer, had angered them by imposing a strict state-wide lockdown.  On Thursday it was announced that seven of the demonstrators had been diagnosed with coronavirus.

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Observations of an expat: Someone talk to Trump

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Someone please explain to Donald Trump that we are in the middle of a global pandemic which requires global cooperation and coordination.  In fact, as of this writing approximately 2,100,000 people in 180 countries have come down with coronavirus. The light at the end of the tunnel which Trump talks about is most likely the oncoming train.

So far the the developed world has been hit hardest.. But Italy, Spain, France, Germany, the UK and America started off with a mere handful of cases of this highly contagious disease. And that is the position the developing world – especially Africa and large slices of the Middle East are in at the moment.

One big difference between the developed and developing world is medical infrastructure. Several developed world countries have crashed through the 10,000-plus death barrier and are still going. They all have advanced medical systems. Mali, has three respirators per million people. In the refugee camp at Idlib, water is rationed to two and a half litres per day per family, for washing, cooking and cleaning. The largely Western medical staff working with organisations such as the Red Cross and Medecins San Frontieres have returned to their home countries to deal with the crisis there. Some public health officials are predicting that if coronavirus takes hold in Africa as it has in Europe and America, 40 percent of the population (500 million people) could die.

Faced with an almost one in two chance of death, these people will redouble their efforts to flee the grim reaper by crossing the Mediterranean, Aegean and the Atlantic’ and they will more than likely bring with them a fresh round of Covid-19 cases and infections just as Europe and America are starting to recover from the first.

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Observations of expat: Chinese donations

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The Trump-supporting co-host of my weekly broadcast for American radio is livid. The Chinese, he said, are selling medical equipment to European countries that was donated to them back in January/February. “I won’t forgive them for this if I live another 70 years!” He exclaimed while banging his desk so hard that I feared he would punch a hole in the woodwork.

I was confused, as well as concerned about Lockwood Phillips’ furniture and blood pressure. I had read reports about China donating supplies to Italy, Spain and the Netherlands. Also that China’s medical manufacturing industry is now at full blast; 110 million facemasks daily. I have also heard that some merchants (Chinese and others) are guilty of price gouging and that a high proportion of the medical equipment coming out of China is defective. And finally, China’s Covid-19 statistics are proving to be extremely dicey and this is creating difficulties for the rest of the world. But I had not heard that the Chinese were cashing in on the charity of other countries.

Lockwood, despite his politics, is usually a very well-informed and reliable news source. So, after the broadcast I set out to learn more. It was an interest bit of detective work.

The main source of the story was the new American darling of conservative American websites—The Western Journal. Forget about Breitbart News. Their user figures are falling through the floor—down from 17.5 million unique monthly visitors to around the 4 million mark.  The Western Journal is clocking a staggering 40 million unique users a month.

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Observations of an expat: Liberty

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Retired UK Supreme Court Justice Lord Sumption recently told Radio Four’s World At One said that when people lose their freedom it is not because tyrants have taken it away. “It is usually because people willingly surrender their freedom in return for protection against some external threat.”

The eminent jurist was talking about measures in the UK to combat coronavirus which he described as a cure “worse than the disease.”

At the moment, I think he is wrong about Britain. But if he was talking about Hungary he would be spot-on. There the Fidesz-dominated parliament has responded to the pandemic by voting Prime Minister Viktor Orban the power to rule by decree for an indefinite period of time.

The right-wing populist Hungarian leader can now lock-up his media critics. He can continue to pack the courts with his cronies and block refugees from entering Hungary. He can close down universities that teach the liberal ideas he despises and dismiss from jobs anyone who makes disparaging comments about his rule. He can even suspend elections. Orban can, in effect, do whatever he wants. And because parliament has surrendered its scrutiny powers, he can do it for as long as he wants without fear of retribution.

Orban has gone on record as saying that his goal is to turn Hungary into an “illiberal state” along the same lines as Russia, China and Turkey. Now—thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic—he has the power to do it.

Hungary is also the leading light in the four-nation East European Visegrad Group of countries. Where he goes the others tend to follow. In fact, Slovakia, Poland and the Czech Republic have already said that they are thinking of passing similar decree-type legislation.

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Observations of an expat: The political vacuum

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The coronavirus pandemic is a global problem. It requires cooperation at the local, regional, national and international level. Political point scoring, unilateralism and nationalism have no place in defeating Covid-19. Pandemics are no respecters of bank balances, social position and especially not borders.

Unfortunately, the leaders of the Western democracies are failing to rise to the occasion, and the result could very likely be long term damage to our political system.

Ever since World War Two, the world has looked to the United States for leadership in times of crisis. Not this time. Nearly four years’ experience of Donald Trump’s isolationist unilateralism has taught us that he is congenitally incapable of forging the international consensus that is called for. Trump’s arsenal of political tactics is limited to attack, mockery and denigration. He has no strategy and the concepts of compromise and cooperation are totally absent at the personal, national and international level.

So far Trump has managed to damage the prospect of essential bipartisanship by referring to coronavirus as the Democrats’ “new hoax”. In any national crisis it is essential to have the media on board as the vital channel of communication. The president has denounced them as peddlers of fake news and “sensationalism.” European allies were estranged by Trump’s unilateral decision to close American borders to their citizens.

But perhaps worst of all, has been the president’s treatment of China. By repeatedly referring to Covid-19 as the “Chinese virus” he has alienated the one government whose experience of the pandemic could prove invaluable in stopping it.

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Observations of an Expat: Let’s go for a cruise

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It is time to think about a cruise. Or, how about a visit to a stately home or an empty school?

All of these are places where beds could be placed for the victims of Coronavirus. And places to put beds are the first things needed for the anticipated thousands, possibly tens of thousands, of patients with which the already overstretched NHS hospitals will be unable to cope.

There are other accommodation possibilities. Top of the list – private hospitals. They already have administrative and nursing staffs. Most of the doctors work in the public and private sector. There are 28 private hospitals in London alone. In the UK as a whole there are an estimated 30,000 private beds.

Schools are shutting and will remain shut until September. There are 32,770 schools in the UK. Empty classrooms, halls and corridors can be filled if necessary. Also available are leisure centres with their vast sports halls and universities. All of these will be empty and could be pressed into service and low-paid staff who would otherwise be at home worrying about how to find money for food and rent could be very usefully employed.

Stately homes are a traditional source of instant hospitals. There are 1,650 stately homes in the UK. Many of them saw hospital service during World War I and World War II. People will not be visiting these homes during the pandemic. They will be empty and waiting to contribute as they have in the past.

Back to the cruise ships. President Trump has  offered New York City a military hospital ship to help that city cope with the coronavirus crisis. There are an estimated 550,000 passenger berths on ships involved in the world cruising industry. These ships and their crews are now idling in ports. They and their crews can be pressed into service, not just in developed counties, but in developing countries practically devoid of proper medical facilities.

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Observations of an Expat: Viral Trump

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Up until the Second World War the United States was an isolationist country. It stayed out of the European-led  imperial carve-up to concentrate on developing its own contiguous empire. The country briefly emerged from its shell in World War, and then promptly pulled up the drawbridge, lowered the portcullis and retreated back into a continental shell protected by two ocean moats.

After World War Two, US involvement in world affairs was essential for holding off the Soviet Union and world stability. Then came Donald Trump. It was not clear at first whether the New York property mogul and his “America First” policy was an isolationist or unilateralist,  or a bit of both. Coronavirus has helped to answer the question.

But before that, it must be made clear that Donald Trump’s major concern is not America’s national interest or world stability. It is, quite simply, Donald Trump. At the moment that means winning a second White House tenancy agreement in November 2020.

That is why in the early days of coronavirus  he was keen to minimise the dangers. He had a “hunch” that it was going to be OK. People should continue going to work even if they had Covid-19 symptoms. Flu, said Trump, was more dangerous than Coronavirus. He claimed there were plenty of testing kits when his scientific experts said the opposite.

There was a purpose to these  irresponsibly dangerous and false statements:  to keep the stock market indices as high as possible.  Trump’s best chance of winning a second term is a continuation of the booming market that has marked his first three years.  Trump once famously said that if he shot someone on Fifth Avenue his supporters would still vote for him. Perhaps, but will they vote for Trump if their pensions are destroyed; meagre savings wiped out and jobs and homes lost?

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Observations of an expat: Maybe Minister

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The row between British Home Secretary Pritti Patel and her until recently Permanent  Under Secretary of State Sir Phillip Putnam is part of a disturbing trend which is undermining a 150-year-old tried, tested and globally-respected system.

Europe, America and most of the rest of the world endure political patronage in varying degrees. This was also the case in the UK before Gladstone took a leaf from the Chinese and Indian experience and introduced civil service exams in 1870. Patronage, corruption and political ties were swapped for a civil service based on merit. Bribery income was replaced with job security, above average salary, a gold-plated pension and the prospect of a lucrative private sector contract upon retirement.

In return the civil servants were expected to offer apolitical and impartial advice to their policy-making ministers. When the policy was decided, the civil servants implemented it.  Secretaries of state came and went. The civil servants stayed on to provide a historic knowledge, keep track of the buried bodies and point out the consequences and pitfalls of a minister’s preferred course of action.

The final ruling, however, rested with the minister. That is why when a mistake was made it was the politician who resigned.  The issue of resignations is one of the core causes for the unravelling of the relationship between civil servants and government. Ministers have, for the most part, stopped taking responsibility for their decisions. Politics has become a career choice. Elected officials have become increasingly focused on retaining their jobs, political infighting and climbing the greasy pole rather than public service.

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Viral conspiracy – Observations of an ex pat

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Every week I do a programme for American radio. It is an hour-long midweek discussion of world affairs. The other half of the discussion is dyed-in-the-wool Trump supporter Lockwood Phillips. I am the loony London liberal, and I am assured that a large number of radios are splattered with rotten tomatoes every time my dulcet tones waft over the air waves.

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Observations of an ex pat: Stuck in a car

I have just spent two days in a cramped Vauxhall Astra chauffering my brother, his wife, her sister and her brother-in-law. It was an interesting experience. They are from the Bible Belt states of North Carolina and Georgia respectively and dyed-in-the-wool Republican Trump supporters. They regard me as a beyond redemption loony liberal.

The first day they were recovering from jet lag and weren’t up to political battle. But as we drove out to Oxford on the second day swords were crossed. The group’s champion was brother-in-law, Paul, a Christian missionary with a political science degree. We disagreed, but the disagreements were illuminating.

As expected, the discussion focused on Trump. Here are a couple of highlights:

Trump and the rule of law – I maintained that Trump is riding roughshod over the American constitution and the rule of law as evidenced by his refusal to allow White House staff to testify in the Senate Impeachment trial.

Paul’s response – The Democrats in the House of Representatives had their chance to call staff. They could have gone through the courts and forced the White House to respect the subpoenas. They chose not to, so they have lost the right to complain

Myself – If they had pursued the issue through the courts it would have taken months, perhaps even years.

Paul – That is the way the legal system works. You can’t complain that Trump is riding roughshod over the law and then deny him access to due process.

Myself – Hmm…

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Comrade Dominic

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In the Soviet Union they had one in every ministry, factory, communal farm, university, school and military unit.

They were called commissars. Their job was to insure that workers stuck to the party line. They called it democratic centralism; a reversal of Western democracy.

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Observations of an Expat: Ireland

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Ireland, we were told by Boris Johnson and his coterie of Leave campaigners, was not a problem. It was a non-issue dreamt up by the Remainers as part of their fear campaign. The Good Friday Agreement, they said, was secure along with the future of the union.

Then Boris drew the EU-UK border down the middle of the Irish Sea and threw Northern Ireland’s Protestants to the nationalist wolves. It was not the first time that a British Prime Minister was prepared to sacrifice Ulster for the benefit of England. During World War II, Winston Churchill, offered unification in return for Irish entry into the war on the side of the Allies. Eammon de Valera refused because he thought Churchill would be unable to deliver on the pledge.

This week Sinn Fein – the political wing of the IRA – emerged as one of the victors in a three-way tie in the Irish general election. A unified island was not a major part of their campaign. In fact, it was conspicuous by the virtual silence on the subject. Instead the nationalists focused on a left-wing agenda of increased spending on public services and housing in contrast to the long-established 100-year duopoly of the centrist parties Fine Gael and Fianna Fail.

But make no mistake it. A united Ireland free of British control remains the heart and soul of Sinn Fein. It is the reason that it was formed back in 1905. And pre-World War I support for the nationalist cause in the southern two-thirds of the Ireland was the reason that Sir Edward Carson was able to mobilise 100,000-plus members of the Ulster Volunteer Force to threaten a civil war unless the six Protestant-dominated counties of the north remained part of the United Kingdom.

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The mandate of heaven and coronavirus

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At the risk of appearing crude, crass and unfeeling, this article is going to focus on the political and economic consequential dangers of the coronavirus. This should not be taken in any way as an attempt to belittle the deaths of 805 Chinese (as of the early hours of Sunday morning) or the grief that their friends and families are suffering. Every human life is precious. But as the death toll mounts and the quarantine is extending, the economy suffers and this suffering will result in political consequences.

In Hubei Province there are an estimated 50 million people in quarantine. That is 50 million people who are now not working. Neither are they in the shops, restaurants or cinemas spending money. The Chinese government have imposed severe travel restrictions throughout the country and restricted gatherings in public places in every major city.

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Observations of a ex pat: Goodbye democracy?

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It has become a political fact of life that democracy on both sides of the Atlantic is under severe threat.

The latest proof of this danger is the Senate acquittal of Donald Trump in a judicial exercise that makes Stalin’s Moscow show trials look like paragons of legal transparency and justice. The Conservative British government is going in the same direction, albeit by a different route.

The root of the problem is respect —or lack of respect— for the rule of law. For democracy to work it needs clear legal parameters and elected political leaders who accept that their responsibility is to represent their constituents within a legally binding constitutional framework.

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Observations of an ex pat: Blame Newt

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The blame for today’s polarised world is most often laid at the door of President Trump. He is credited with climbing to power on the back of colourfully-worded hate politics and of providing the inspiration for Boris Johnson, Dominic Cummins, Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Germany’s Alternative for Deutschland.

But who inspired Trump? The answer is the former Speaker of the US House of Representatives Newt Gingrich.

Gingrich was—still is—a staunchly conservative Republican from the deep south state of Georgia who entered the political arena in the 1970s when southern Democrats were shifting to the liberal left in a vain effort to retain power in the South in the aftermath of the civil rights campaign. Gingrich believed that the answer to the loss to the conservatives was to replace it with a radicalised and more conservative Republican Party.

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Observations of an ex pat: Who’s on trial?

It is not just Donald John Trump who is on trial in the US Senate. In the dock before the court of world opinion are 100 senators, the American justice system, the rule of law and democratic institutions in the United States and in every other country which follows its lead in promoting liberal democratic ideals.

Like it or not, America has been historically viewed as the world’s leading exponent of the interlocking values of democracy, judicial transparency and the rule of law. It likes to think of itself—as the Puritans and President Ronald Reagan said—as “the shining city upon the hill.” The light has been dimmed by the current administration, but it is still spluttering away. But if the Republican-controlled Senate block the calling of witnesses in the trial of President Trump it will be pouring a bucket of water over that light.

American law is based on English common law. And one of the basic tenets of English common law is that everyone – regardless of their position in society– is entitled to a free and fair trial. The obvious question is: How can you have a fair trial without witnesses? How can you determine a person’s innocence or guilt until all the evidence has been heard and the witnesses have been interrogated and cross-examined?

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Observations of an Expat – Capitalism—New Lease of Life?

The resounding defeat of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party has revived the cries for “Responsible Capitalism.”

Corbyn is a not so thinly-disguised old style socialist. He and his supporters believe that the only route to a fair society is through socialism based on public ownership. The problem is that historical experience says otherwise. There have been successful mixed economies, but every attempt at full-blown socialism has ended in political, economic and social disaster.

In every instance they have hit the brick wall of human nature and its hand maiden the survival instinct. Humans are greedy. That greed has dragged us out of damp caves into centrally-heated bungalows. Conversely, the same greed has ignited wars, destroyed the environment and created social inequalities.

The bastion of world capitalism—the United States—is a shining example of these inherent contradictions. Its national entrepreneurial success has created the wealthiest country in the world. But that wealth is not equitably shared. Two-thirds of America’s wealth is owned by five percent of the population. Forty percent of Americans earn less than $15 an hour; five percent earn the minimum wage or less and 28 million Americans do not have medical insurance.

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Observations of an Expat – New Year, Bad Start

2020 was never going to be a good year. A veritable armoury of Damocles swords hangs over us – Brexit, Ukraine, impeachment, tariffs, the cohesion of the Western Alliance, US presidential elections and, of course, that perennial headache, the Middle East.

Donald Trump’s killing of General Qassem Soleimani almost completely severed the threat suspending the Middle Eastern sword. Frantic efforts are being made to retreat from disaster. Hopefully they will be successful, but serious damage has already been done and governments around the world are reassessing their positions in light of the New Year developments.

At the heart of the issue is …

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Observations of an ex pat: That time of year

t’s that time of year again. No, I don’t mean the season of good will, holly, mistletoe, reindeer, white-bearded elves, and midnight mass. I mean the time to look back and forward at the world political scene. And there is so much to write and so little space.

Britain has just had its Christmas election. America has had its Christmas impeachment. Hong Kong is still in turmoil. Latin America is going through another of its political crises. The Chinese economy is shrinking. America’s Democratic Party cannot decide which way to go. Iran, Iraq and the Lebanon are rioting, so are the French. The Eurozone has had a terrible year. Putin is as belligerent as ever. Turkey is becoming more obstreperous and Israel can’t reach agreement on a coalition government.

Boris Johnson’s landslide victory has for the moment put paid to the Brexit debate. He claims that his historic 80-seat majority on the sound bite slogan “Get Brexit Done” is a massive mandate for leaving the EU. That is an over-simplified misrepresentation. Opinion polls report that the country continues to be split almost 50/50 between remain and leave. The election result was as much—it not more—of a reflection of distrust of an ideologically-driven Labour Party than it was a vote on Brexit.

So Brexit is likely to remain a big issue with the focus shifting to the prime minister’s renewed No Deal threat if free trade talks are not concluded by this time next year. They are other worrying messages coming out of 10 Downing Street: A review of the relationship between the government and the courts and the role of the media are two indications that Boris Johnson will use his enhanced power to stifle dissent and move Britain to a more presidential style of government.

Unfortunately, Boris won’t be facing much in the way of an official opposition. The Labour Party is set for a bitter civil war between the far-left ideologues of Momentum who blame Labour’s defeat on everyone but themselves, and the more pragmatic wing who want a return to the old New Labour. The current election rules as set down by the party constitution put the Corbynistas and Momentum in pole position. This means a longer and more vicious blood-letting than previous leadership battles and raises the spectre of a Labour split and an open goal for the conservative government.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Donald Trump has this week become the third president in American history to be impeached. Because voting in both houses of Congress has become totally partisan, it is highly unlikely that Trump will be found guilty by the Republican-controlled Senate. But has his 2020 re-election been hindered or helped by impeachment? That question cannot be accurately answered until all the evidence has been presented in the Senate trial. So far everything that the House of Representatives has heard is second or third hand. This is because the president has refused to allow any White House officials to testify. There will be a battle royal to force into the Senate witness box.

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Observations of an ex pat: Dealing with lies

All politicians lie. That is what we are told anyway. If they told the truth, it is argued,  they would never be elected.

The problem with that belief is that it undermines the very foundations of democracy. If you cannot believe your elected representatives than what is the point in elections? They become no more than expensive political theatre.

It certainly seems that the 21st century political arena is filled with more mendacity than previous years, and the instances of misinformation and disinformation appear to be multiplying. The question is: How to deal with the increasing number of lies before they damage our political institutions beyond repair.

Adam Price, leader of the Welsh Nationalist Party Plaid Cymru thinks he has the answer: Make intentional political lying a criminal offence. That is an interesting idea, but not the right answer.  Hit them where it really hurts–in their bank accounts– by extending the laws of libel to social media.

Winston Churchill is alleged to have said that “a lie travels halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” In today’s social media world of the internet, trolls, hacks, cyber attacks and 24/7 news, a lie can be orbiting the North Star before truth even thinks of climbing out from under the duvet.

The Internet is the greatest boon to freedom of speech since the Gutenberg press. Billions of people now have access to the greatest body of information at any time in history. But every action has a reaction and they are not always good. Even the inventor of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee has recognised that his digital offspring is a mixed blessing.

There has been talk of regulating social media. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has been hauled before parliamentary committees on both sides of the Atlantic and told that he has to find a way of preventing his cash cow digital platform from becoming a vehicle for fake news. He has been told that he should employ tens of thousands of editors to plough through every posting – which run to the 1.62 billion accesses daily–and remove anything that smacks of lies and hate speech. On Twitter there are 500 million daily tweets. Their impact is multiplied by retweets and republication on traditional mainstream media.

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Observations of an ex pat: Whither NATO?

“The most successful military alliance in history” is one description. Another is “brain dead.” And a third is “obsolete.”

The fact is that all the above descriptions of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation are correct in varying degrees along with “guarantor of peace in Europe” and the “military heart of the Western Alliance.”

It is also true to say that the alliance is in crisis. To paraphrase Dean Acheson’s description of post-imperial Britain, NATO won the Cold War and has yet to find a new role in the world.

If one starts from the assumption that NATO is a force for good than it is essential that the alliance re-discover its role in the world. To do that it needs to re-evaluate the circumstances and values that led to its formation 70 years ago; examine how the world has stayed the same; how it has changed; and then change and adapt.

In 1949, the world was only four years out of a world war. America had emerged enormously wealthy, militarily powerful and armed with the world’s first true weapon of mass destruction. Its ideological enemy the Soviet Union had absorbed Eastern Europe and seemed poised to send its steamroller army across the rest of the devastated continent. It was four months away from detonating its first atomic bomb. Britain—which had been charged with the responsibility of protecting post war Europe—was broke and broken, and appealed to America to fill the vacuum. China was soon to “fall” to Mao’s communists and slip behind a bamboo curtain for 30 years. Former enemies Germany and Japan were as distrusted as the Soviet Union. There were only 59 members of the United Nations as most of the future 193-strong membership was still colonies.

NATO had a clear purpose: To protect the democracies of Western Europe from Soviet aggression so that they could recover from a devastating world war; preserve the shared values of economic and political liberalism; protect traditional markets and prevent a third world war. Lord Ismay, NATO’s first Secretary General, declared that the purpose of the alliance was to “keep the Americans in, the Russians out and the Germans down.”

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Observations of an ex pat: The Laffer Curve

It is an economic model called the Laffer Curve and it reeks of common sense and good economic stewardship. It is also being studiously ignored by the Labour and Conservative parties in their headlong race to buy votes with expensive election promises.

The Laffer Curve is basically a bell-shaped curve which starts at zero on the left , rises to an optimum figure in the middle and then drops back down to zero on the far right. The zero on the left is the expected tax revenue that would be raised if the tax rate was zero, which is fairly self-explanatory—no taxes, no revenue.  Halfway up the left side of the curves means taxes are too low and revenue is insufficient.

The zero on the far-right may appear at first glance to be counter-intuitive.  The higher the price (taxes) the higher the revenue. But if we use the shop analogy the fallacy of that argument is exposed.  If a shop charges more money than the customer can afford than they just go elsewhere. In the case of taxes they vote with their feet and move to another country and refuse to invest in an economy which fails to give them a return with the result that the pool of money from which taxes are drawn shrinks.

The key is to find the happy median. This is the highest point on the Laffer Curve where the tax rate—like Goldilocks’s porridge—is neither too high nor too low but set just right so that it draws in the maximum tax revenues.

The Laffer Curve is named after American economist Arthur Laffer from the Chicago School of Economics. Professor Laffer did not invent the theory. But he did popularise it during the Ford, Reagan and Bush Senior Administrations. The theory actually has its antecedents in 14th century Tunisia; was popular in 19th century American economic planning and a cornerstone of the policies of US Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon during the Roaring Twenties.  Even John Maynard Keynes made some admiring references to it, but it was largely forgotten in the 30 years after World War II.

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged | 19 Comments

Observations of an ex pat: Egos

Say what you like about Tricky Dicky Nixon. And you can say a lot. He was an egotistical, toilet-mouthed politician who abused the office of the presidency for his own personal political gain. He was also one smart cookie when it came to foreign policy.

His major saving grace, however, was that when faced with the inevitability of defeat, he resigned. For most of his five and a half years in office Nixon acted as if his personal interest and the national interest were one in the same. But in the end, he came to realise that the US constitution, the …

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Observations of an ex pat: Losing face

t is meant to be a Chinese thing. Face is very important. A western synonym might be a combination of pride and credibility. At any rate, it is important that a person not be seen to lose face; that they are not made to look foolish or stupid.

In addition, the person who is right has to be careful not to look too superior. They are all too conscious of the Western proverb: “There but by the grace of God…”

The West, on the other hand is an “I told you so society”. It loves to rub the noses of its politicians in their mistakes and failed promises. It positively drools at the prospects of adopting an air of righteous superiority.

Asian politicians will often give their opponents a way out—an honourable exit. Their Western counterparts, will hound, pester and plague their rivals to the bitter end.  Their aim is to strengthen their position with an adversarial political system that allows nothing less than the total humiliation of their foe.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches. The retention of face is more of a long game. It recognises that today’s enemy could be tomorrow’s ally. Forcing a loss of face is more a winner takes us all scenario.

The prize in the West is higher. But so is the price paid the loser, which is why they fight so hard to win, and if they can’t win they fight hard not to lose. When caught in a lie—or a mistake– they double down, fabricate, invent,  cover-up, issue counter-accusations, rant, rave… almost anything and everything short of an admission of  error or wrongdoing.

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