Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Between Past and Future

“Those who think the past predicts the future are condemned to pick the wrong stocks.”
Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams
If I were clairvoyant, I probably would not have arranged to be passing—within a day and a half of the Brussels terrorist attacks—through airports in two European capitals and traveling on a capital city’s underground metro system.

Belgian embassy in Berlin
The Belgian embassy in Berlin on Friday

But that is how it worked out. The trip was booked and paid for, and there was no rational reason to cancel. Besides, I could reassure myself with Jeffrey Goldberg’s piece in The Atlantic on President Obama’s approach to foreign policy. “Obama frequently reminds his staff,” wrote Goldberg, “that terrorism takes far fewer lives in America than handguns, car accidents, and falls in bathtubs do.”

And of course the president is absolutely correct. Moreover, this kind of statistical comparison shows that he is taking the kind of analytical approach that people like me appreciate and which many people, even if they do not happen to be very analytical, find very intelligent-sounding. My family and I went to Berlin the very day after the Brussels outrage because we knew it was safer than staying at home and having a bath—even though the president was actually talking about the terrorism threat within the United States.

So why does the president keep getting so much criticism for not seeming to take the terror threat seriously enough? Because people are understandably unnerved. Sometimes people need to hear some reassurance that those in charge have a clue about what is scaring them—rather than reading remarks that sound like criticism of their intelligence. And we know that President Obama understands this. How do we know? Because when a young male African-American is tragically and unjustly shot by a police officer, we never read that he has told someone that a young male African-American is 40 times less likely to be killed by a police officer than by a fellow young male African-American. He knows that such a statistic, regardless of how true, is irrelevant to a community that feels under threat. Unfortunately, he does not seem to have a similar empathy when it comes to those who have serious worries about the terrorist threat.

There is another problem with the president’s statistical approach to the risk of terrorism. Quoting historical odds supposes that terrorist acts occur with some constancy over time. The various radical islamist movements are, in their own minds, conducting a war, and wars have phases and they accelerate over time. The historical rate of terrorist attacks is no more a predictor of the rate of future attacks than is the historical rate of change in the price of your favorite company’s stock an indication of how it will perform in the future. People know this intuitively, and as a result their internal emotional analysis of the threat may well be more realistic than the president’s apparent assumption that past performance is somehow a guarantee of future results.

In the grand historical scheme of things, a visit to Berlin certainly helps put things in some sort of perspective. The city’s wonderful museums do a great job of refreshing the memory about Germany’s long history of expanding and shrinking empire, its fall into darkness eight decades ago and its four decades as a nation divided between Western liberalism and Soviet communism. It reminds us that balances of power and even national borders can suddenly and violently shift, that sometimes we do not really perceive a looming threat until it is too late and that sometimes the threat arises within our own midst.

I expect to have more reflections on Berlin—this being my first visit not only to that great city but to Germany—as well as the centenary of Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rising, which is yet another reminder of how drastically things can change in a relatively short space of time.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

The F Word

“Love him or hate him, no one has been able to figure out Donald Trump.”
—Journalist and author Ronald Kessler
I have been noticing a lot of dark musings from multiple sources about Donald Trump’s extraordinary presidential campaign. The whole thing seems to be reminding a lot of people of the 1930s.

The comparison is not completely without merit. Since the big financial crisis of 2007-2008, the developed world’s economies have been persistently uneasy. There is a sense that economic progress has stalled. While this is by no means as extreme as the Great Depression of the 1930s, there seems to be similar loss of confidence in various nations’ political institutions. In Europe many people worry that the waves of people fleeing from Syria and other Middle East and African countries will overwhelm western Europe. Other people worry that it will be European governments’ botched response to the crisis that will do in the European Union. Meanwhile in the United States, the normal pattern of politics seems to have warped completely. The usual political pundits all seem to be less than useless at giving us any idea about what to expect or even about what much of the country is really thinking.

There is one interesting strain of commentary that spans the entire political spectrum. In outlets as diverse as The Huffington Post, Newsweek and The Wall Street Journal, you can read opinion-makers hinting or even suggesting outright that Donald Trump’s candidacy is akin to the rise of fascism in the 1930s. I wish they wouldn’t do that—because it puts me in the uncomfortable position of having to sort-of defend him.

The evidence for the Trump/fascist thing mainly comes down to perceptions of nationalism in his campaign slogan (“Make America Great Again!”) and racism in his utterances about the character of illegal Mexican immigrants and his call for a temporary ban on visas for Muslims.

I suppose we should not be surprised that commentators would make accusations or implications about Trump being a fascist. The word fascist has been bandied about in American political discourse for some time now, and the name Hitler has been applied in the heat of argument by less-than-stable minds in the direction of both George W. Bush and President Obama. It is probably safe to say that the term fascist has by now lost any real meaning beyond the vague idea of someone really, really bad.

It is worth noting that real fascists (back when the word meant something) like Mussolini and Hitler got their starts in their respective countries’ socialist movements and then broke with their fellow socialists to put a greater emphasis on national (rather than international) destiny—becoming virulently anti-communist in the process. What those two leaders had in common was an extremely engaged political activism from an early age and a vocal longtime devotion to a particular ideology. Among the reasons we may have for fearing Donald Trump, the idea that he might have an actual ideology does not seem to be among them. Ideologically, the man is all over the place.

When we think of 1930s fascists we might also think of Spain’s Francisco Franco. He differs from Mussolini and Hitler in that he was a career military man who was installed as leader in a coup. That coup, by the way, would have happened whether Franco had participated or not.

So why do fascists come to power? It usually seems to happen in reaction to two things—a serious political vaccuum and increasing pressure from the political left. A lot of Italians and Germans tolerated fascists because they were seen as being able to deal with increasingly active communists. The irony is that with both communism and fascism you get more government control over every aspect of citizens’ lives. What both those ideologies abhor is liberal (in the classic sense) democracy in which the government’s role is limited and personal liberty is emphasized.

So is Trump another Mussolini in the making? Frankly, it is hard to see him militarizing the country and imposing an ideology in the manner of Il Duce. But what about all those outrageous things he says about Mexicans and Muslims? Dilbert cartoonist and blogger Scott Adams, who seems to have a much better handle on Trump than anyone else out there at the moment, may have the right take. Trump is the ultimate negotiator and dealmaker. As such, according to Adams, his outrageous comments should not be seen as hard and fast statements of committed belief but as his opening position in a negotiation. That is borne out by the fact that Trump regularly contradicts himself or modifies his positions as time goes on.

The main reason to fear Trump, as far as I can see anyway, is that there is little basis—given his constantly shifting positions and rhetoric—for knowing what he would actually do as president. If you don’t like uncertainty, it seems to me that Trump should be your worst nightmare. Furthermore, his track record in business does nothing to suggest that he would tackle what is the biggest longterm threat to the country—the ballooning growth in the national debt (distinct from the annual deficits, which President Obama always prefers to talk about) which threatens at some point to wreck the economy.

As it happens, those are also the reasons to fear anyone else who, at this point, has a credible shot at winning the presidency.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Left Hanging

“Making peace, I have found, is much harder than making war.”
--Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams, in a 1994 television interview in New York
I want to clean up a couple of things from my last post, the one about the Irish election.

In talking about how complicated the voting system is in Ireland, I suggested that the slow roll-out of the election results “seems pretty quaint when compared to the breathless reporting on exit polls at the exact moment that polling closes, as happens in the States.” That could mislead readers into thinking that there are no exit polls in Ireland or that there is no breathless reporting on them. In fact, there were two major exit polls, conducted by state broadcaster RTÉ and by The Irish Times newspaper, and there was much breathless reporting on them. The difference with an American election is that, in the U.S., TV networks will actually forecast winners based on exit polls and candidates will declare victory or concede defeat based on them—well before any actual results are certified. In Ireland, by contrast, the exit polls merely serve as fodder for endless speculation by pundits.

This is because the results of Irish exit polls only give you the most general of ideas of what the next government will look like—especially when the electorate is as divided as it is this year. The voting system here is very complicated, and watching it unfold has for me the same sensation as watching a Gaelic football match. I can kind of follow what’s going on, but if you ask me any really specific questions about the rules, I will probably just mutter something incoherent.

Ireland uses the single transferable vote system, which is also used in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Iceland, Malta, India, Pakistan, Australia, New Zealand, Cambridge (Massachusetts) and Minneapolis (Minnesota). The main benefit to this system, as far as I can see, is that it avoids runoff elections. Voters select a candidate for their first preference but can also give a second preference to another candidate as well as a third and fourth—up to as many candidates are on the ballot. A quota or threshold is established dividing the number of votes cast by the number of parliamentary seats to fill in the constituency plus one and then adding one to that number. (Got all that?) When the votes are counted, candidates meeting the quota are elected. If all seats are not filled, surplus votes for the winner(s) are redistributed according to voters’ second preferences.

In cases where no one meets the quota after a count, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and his or her votes are redistributed. In effect, when you vote in Ireland, you are simultaneously voting in a first round and in all possible runoffs—all in one go. It’s actually a fairly ingenious way of doing things in a system where there are lots of candidates running for multiple seats. What it means in practice is that there are many (sometimes very many) rounds of counting and re-counting ballots which, in Ireland, is all done by hand. A few years back the government paid a whole bunch of money for machines that would tally ballots, but that sad cautionary tale is better left for another time.

The election was held last Friday, and counting did not even begin until the next day. Some seats were filled fairly quickly. Others took days. The final seat was filled yesterday (Thursday) in the constituency that comprises the counties of Longford and Westmeath. The main government party, Fine Gael, dropped from 66 seats to 50. More devastatingly, its coalition partner, the Labour Party, dropped from 33 to 7. The main opposition party, Fianna Fáil increased from 21 to 44, and the Sinn Féin party went from 14 to 23. The bottom line is that, while Fine Gael is still the largest party in Dáil Éireann (the parliament), it is well short of a governing majority—even if combined with any potential natural coalition partners. This is what is known as a hung parliament—using the idea of hung in a very different context than the Republican debate in the U.S. last night.

One possible way forward is for Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil to form a minority government, but that would require tacit support from enough other parties and/or independent deputies to govern. That’s a recipe for instability and early new elections. Some have suggested that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil form a grand coalition. After all, say those some, they are both basically the same party and are only separate parties because their antecedents were on opposite sides of the Irish civil war. The downside to this solution—apart from the psychological barriers—is that it would leave IRA-affiliated Sinn Féin as the leader of the opposition and thereby the de facto shadow government.

You know how Americans are always complaining that Congress never gets anything done because of divided government? Well, this is what divided government looks like in a parliamentary system.

So what actually brought down the Fine Gael-Labour coalition? Mostly it was appearing out of touch about how much of the country never felt the recovery from the financial crisis, as exemplified by Fine Gael’s choice of campaign slogan: “Let’s Keep the Recovery Going.” If one straw broke the camel’s back, it seems to have been the institution of charging people for the water they use. That may seem odd to people in other countries where you would never expect to get water piped into your home without paying for it, but in rain-soaked Ireland where many people, until recently, got it for free, it really grated and spurred quite a few street protests—ginned up by Sinn Féin and other parties of the left. It’s looking like the water charges may now be scrapped—even though they are actually a requirement imposed by the European Union—leaving boycotters who never paid them feeling smug and citizens who did pay them feeling like chumps.

There is one other thing I wanted to clean up from that last post. I led it off with a quote by Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams saying, “Our responsibility as we are about to celebrate the centenary of 1916 is to finish the work of the men and women of 1916 and of 1981.” The 1916 reference is pretty clear. That was the year of the Easter Rising against British rule, about to have its centenary commemoration, and the year of the proclamation of the Irish republic. But why did he mention 1981? That was the year that ten IRA and INLA prisoners in Northern Ireland died in a hunger strike as a protest against not being granted prisoner-of-war status.

The war they were fighting—and the work Adams says he wants to finish—was the violent overthrow of what the republicans saw as illegitimate governments in the North and South of Ireland. One wonders just how will he approach that work if, as a result of the recent election, he is elevated to Taoiseach-in-waiting.