Friday 25 November 2016

Welcome to a world built on lies

You probably still remember what was written on the side of the pro-Leave campaign bus: 'We send the EU £350 million a week. Let's fund our NHS instead.'

And perhaps you saw Thursday's headlines, after the Office for Budget Responsibility published its forecasts to accompany the chancellor of the exchequer’s autumn statement: 'Revealed: the £59 billion cost of Brexit decision.'

Yes, I know the OBR's forecasts are not engraved on tablets of stone ('a high degree of uncertainty' is the favoured official formula). They are, however, an informed best guess from people who are paid to crunch the numbers as dispassionately as they can. So if you turn to page 249 of their Economic and Fiscal Outlook report and take a look at Table B.1, you will see a line entitled 'Changes related to the referendum result and exiting the EU'. The numbers are stark: over the next five years, government borrowing is likely to be £58.7 billion higher than if the referendum vote had gone the other way.

Why? Because there will be fewer migrants paying fewer taxes; because productivity growth will be lower due to investor uncertainty; and because of higher inflation due to more expensive imports after the 15% fall in the value of the pound against the dollar since the referendum.

Do I need to spell it out? If the OBR is right, the country will have to borrow £250 million a week more over the coming five years, not be £350 million a week better off, as the pro-Brexit campaigners claimed. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, lower wage growth and higher inflation mean that the squeeze on pay that started with the financial crash of 2008 is likely to be the longest for at least 70 years.

Higher borrowing means higher interest payments, which means less cash available to pay for the prime minister's beloved infrastructure projects, new affordable housing -- and, oh yes, the NHS. As Martin Wolf wrote in the Financial Times: 'Nothing can disguise the reality that Brexit is likely to make a UK economy already blighted by low and stagnant productivity still weaker ... The UK is likely to be poorer than it would have been if it had not made the decision to exit the EU.'

Project Fear? No. Much more likely to be Project Truth.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the pond, President-elect Donald Trump has been doing some mega-schmoozing at the New York Times. Remember those chants at his pre-election rallies when supporters yelled their hatred for Hillary Clinton: 'Lock her up'?

No, no, of course Mr Trump doesn't want to lock her up. What was it he had said in the TV debate when Mrs Clinton suggested it was just as well that someone with his temperament was not in charge of the law? Ah yes, it was one of those great Trump snarls: 'Because you'd be in jail.'

This week, though, it was all sweetness and light. 'I don’t want to hurt the Clintons, I really don’t. She went through a lot and suffered greatly in many different ways ... It’s not something that I feel very strongly about.' So that's all right, then.

Remember how he was going to authorise the waterboarding (ie torture) of terrorism suspects? Well, apparently, the man he may be about to name as his defence secretary, General James Mattiss, doesn't agree that it's such a great idea. 'He said: "I’ve never found it to be useful. Give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers, and I’ll do better.”  I was very impressed by that answer.' Not that Mr Trump has changed his mind, you understand, but it has at least made him think.

Just like the pro-Brexit campaigners, Mr Trump promised whatever he thought voters wanted to hear. The simpler the message, the better. Who cared whether it was true or not? When the Wall Street Journal asked him if he thought he might have taken his campaign rhetoric too far, his reply spoke volumes. 'No. I won.'

So politicians tell lies in order to win votes. Who knew? But in the age of social media, when more people read fake news stories -- stories that have been deliberately invented in order to mislead people -- than real stories, the lies have more power than ever before. Sure, they may well reflect real fears and real anger, but they are still lies.

The response, I think, has to be to answer anger with anger. What happened in the UK in June, and what happened in the US this month, was not right -- massive, disruptive political change was ushered in on the back of wholesale lies and distortion. As Jonathan Freedland wrote in The Guardian, the problem for the progressive Left is that 'too often, we play nice, sticking to the Queensberry rules – while the right takes the gloves off.'

That's why I prefer the response of the New York Times columnist Charles Blow, who was not among the select group chosen to sit down with the president-elect on Tuesday. 'The very idea of sitting across the table from a demagogue who preyed on racial, ethnic and religious hostilities and treating him with decorum and social grace fills me with disgust, to the point of overflowing.'

And he had this message for Mr Trump: 'You are a fraud and a charlatan. Yes, you will be president, but you will not get any breaks just because one branch of your forked tongue is silver. I am not easily duped by dopes. I have not only an ethical and professional duty to call out how obscene your very existence is at the top of American government; I have a moral obligation to do so.'

Good stuff.

And by the way, if you're interested in what I was doing in Nigeria a couple of weeks ago, you can read the report that I wrote for The Observer by clicking here. It might help to put some of our own problems into perspective.

Friday 18 November 2016

Caution: dangerous world ahead

There is no point trying to deny it any longer: the election of Donald Trump has made the world a much more dangerous place.

Suppose you are a national leader with ambitions that run counter to the interests of the US or of the Western powers more generally. With the EU in disarray, and a buffoon in the White House, what better opportunity will you have to put your plans into action?

That’s why I strongly suspect that in Moscow, Ankara, Beijing and Pyongyang, the orders have been given: ‘Let’s move now. We may never get a better chance.’

What scares me most about Trump is not only that he is a deeply unpleasant man with deeply unpleasant views but also that he is grotesquely, frighteningly incompetent and woefully unprepared for the task ahead. His reputation as a successful businessman is as phony as everything else about him, and he is a man who has no experience whatsoever of politics even at the very lowest level, who apparently had no idea of what was involved in putting together a new White House team.

More than a week after his election, no one from his team had been in touch with either the State Department or the Pentagon, and when the Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe became the first foreign leader to meet him since the election, none of the Japanese leader’s aides could find anyone on the Trump team to brief them ahead of the meeting. (After they met, Mr Abe called the president-elect a man in whom he has ‘great confidence’, which suggests both his well-honed diplomatic skills and his love for whistling in the dark.)

Trump is the man – and this is the team (his daughter and son-in-law were both with him when he met Mr Abe) – who will now have to deal with some of the most skilful and experienced political operators on the planet: put Trump up against Putin, Erdo─čan, or Xi Jinping and I’m pretty sure that we won’t have to wait long to see who gets the better of whom.

No one knows what he thinks, if only because he contradicts himself with every breath that he takes. Take his stance on nuclear proliferation, for example, an issue of huge importance to Japan. Last March, the NewYork Times quoted him as saying that he would be ‘open to allowing Japan and South Korea to build their own nuclear arsenals.’ Now, using Twitter, which seems to be his favourite medium of communication, he denies ever having said it. ‘How dishonest are [the NY Times]. I never said this!’

Another example: on the day before the election, he tweeted that the electoral college, that anachronistic institution which awarded him the presidency even though he won a million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton, was ‘a disaster for democracy’. Last Tuesday, again on Twitter, he wrote: ‘The electoral college is actually genius.’

A third example: a briefing document drawn up by officials in the Israeli foreign ministry and leaked to Ha’aretz commented laconically: ‘The diplomatic process between Israel and the Palestinians will not be a top priority for the Trump administration … Trump’s declarations do not necessarily point to a coherent policy on this issue.’

Trump’s supporters say that we commentators have failed to appreciate that what he said during the election campaign should never have been taken literally. He is, after all, a showman, a man who has likened putting together his administration to picking finalists on his TV show. That’s another reason that he is so dangerous: quite apart from his terrifying character flaws, he can never be believed. ‘Don’t take him literally’ is another way of saying ‘Don’t believe a word he says.’

For NATO, the Trump presidency could become a crisis of existential proportions. If (big if) he means anything of what he has said about the alliance, he doesn’t really see the point of it. Why should the US come to the defence of allies who have not ‘paid their way’? For President Putin, a man with a clear ambition to expand Moscow’s influence across its borders, there could be no brighter green light. As for non-NATO US allies like Japan and South Korea, nervously eyeing China’s regional ambitions, no wonder Mr Abe was so keen to get a foot in the door.

(I hope, by the way, that someone has reminded Trump that the only occasion when NATO allies have taken joint military action in defence of a fellow-member was after the 9/11 attacks against the US – several NATO countries contributed troops to the invasion of Afghanistan that followed those attacks, and something like 1,500 non-US troops lost their lives.)

Trump has also said (but who knows whether he meant it?) that he wants to renegotiate the Iran nuclear programme deal, and tear up the Paris agreement on climate change. He has no time for the multi-lateral trade agreements on which global trade patterns have depended for the past several decades, and he thinks President Putin has the right ideas in Syria. As Philip Stephens puts it in the Financial Times this morning: ‘The president-elect has promised to dissolve the transatlantic security relationship, strike a dirty deal with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and derail the global trading system.’

But who can tell? Perhaps it was all just bluster and he was making it up as he went along. Perhaps he doesn’t even remember what he said. In a world of rising tensions and deepening suspicions, whether in the Middle East or east Asia, that kind of uncertainty is deeply troubling.

It is hard to avoid the suspicion that Donald Trump never really expected to end up where he is. So far, he has shown little sign of having given the mundane nitty-gritty of the presidency much serious thought. Apparently, when he finally got round to chatting to Theresa May on the phone the other day, he told her that if she happened to be in the US any time soon, she should definitely get in touch. He clearly neither knows nor cares how such matters are usually handled. On its own, it doesn’t much matter, but as an example of his ignorance and lack of preparedness, it matters a great deal.

For the next four years, the world will scarcely dare to breathe as we learn to live with a dangerous and unpredictable president in the White House. His fellow Republicans – indeed, all members of the US Congress, of both parties – bear a huge responsibility, for they, together with the justices of the Supreme Court (until the new president has been able to recast the court to his own advantage) are the only ones who can limit the havoc he wreaks across the globe. Somewhere, someone, I hope, is already starting to work out how they might be able to impeach him before the end of his term. If it were up to me, I would focus on his family and his businesses, whose interlocking interests may well lead him straight towards impeachment territory.

An accidental president is bad enough. An accidental, ignorant, narcissistic president with an alarming propensity to let loose on Twitter late at night is frankly terrifying. But thanks to Mr Trump, and to Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker, I have at least learned a new word this week: kakistocracy. It means ‘government by the least qualified or most unprincipled citizens.’

Trust the ancient Greeks to have a word for it …

Postscript: please don’t bother to respond to this by telling me that I’m just a bad loser and that the American people have spoken. As of Thursday morning, Trump had won 61.5 million votes and Clinton had won 62.8 million. He has no popular mandate and must never be allowed to pretend otherwise.

Thursday 10 November 2016

'A sickening event in the history of the US’

Perhaps Donald Trump isn’t quite as popular with US voters as his victory might suggest. He won fewer votes than Hillary Clinton (blame the bizarre mechanism of the electoral college for the fact that he still won); he won fewer votes than the losing Republican party candidate in 2012, Mitt Romney, and he won far fewer votes than Barack Obama did four years ago.

As for the electoral college, who was it who complained on the eve of the election that it was ‘a disaster for democracy’? Yup – Donald J Trump. I wonder how he feels about it now.

Thought number 2: This was not a victory born out of the anger of white working class voters. It was among the country’s huge white middle class that he won his biggest margins, and white women voted for him in unexpectedly large numbers. If Mr Trump is a bigoted misogynist, which his comments and behaviour certainly suggest, then it seems that many women are prepared to forgive him his apparent boorishness.

Thought number 3: For journalists, commentators and pundits, Trump’s victory (I refuse to call it a triumph) was, in the words of the Washington Post’s media commentator Margaret Sullivan, ‘an epic fail’. She quoted the billionaire entrepreneur Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal: ‘The media is always taking Trump literally. It never takes him seriously, but it always takes him literally.’

Voters, on the other hand, did the opposite – they took him seriously without believing every word he said. Build a wall along the border with Mexico, and get the Mexicans to pay for it? We’ll see. (And by the way, there’s already a wall or fence along about a third of the border.) Lock up Hillary Clinton? Hmm. Deport 11 million undocumented immigrants? I wonder …

Thought number 4: Notwithstanding all the above, I agree with David Remnick, editor of the The New Yorker: ‘The election of Donald Trump to the Presidency is nothing less than a tragedy for the American republic, a tragedy for the Constitution, and a triumph for the forces, at home and abroad, of nativism, authoritarianism, misogyny, and racism. Trump’s shocking victory, his ascension to the Presidency, is a sickening event in the history of the United States and liberal democracy ... It is impossible to react to this moment with anything less than revulsion and profound anxiety.’

And if you think this is an over-reaction, let me share with you a comment from a friend who lives in North Carolina: ‘My daughter came home from school yesterday upset because she had seen two kids crying in her class. They were apparently scared of being deported by Trump (the latter were her exact words). She also had a discussion with a friend on the bus home, and her friend told her that being gay was now going to be banned. They are 12 years old! This is having a real effect on kids - just the fact that I have to lie to my child and tell her that everyone will be safe is an abnormality after an election. It turned my stomach.’

What most worries my American friends is the long-term effect that a Trump presidency and a Republican-controlled Congress will have on the make-up and the future decisions of the US Supreme Court. You can kiss goodbye to any hopes of a change to the gun laws, and even abortion rights, as enshrined in the historic Roe v Wade judgment of 1973, could come under threat.

For those of us who don’t live in the US, the major worries are Trump’s views about NATO (the Baltic states will now be especially uneasy), and his threats to tear up most of the US’s foreign trade agreements. He seems to think he can reverse the process of globalisation single-handed; I suspect he’s wrong but he could do immense damage to the global economy while he tries.

And the lessons to be learnt? That the profound social and economic changes of the past 50 years have left millions of people feeling frightened and ignored. That the word ‘change’ is the most powerful word in the political lexicon – even if it might be a change for the worse, for many voters, it’s still worth the risk.

And that the liberal era with which my generation came of age – championing feminism, multi-culturalism, gay rights and internationalism – may be drawing to a close.

Authoritarians of the world – Trump, Putin, Farage, Xi Jinping, Erdogan – unite; you have nothing to lose but a decent, tolerant world in which parents don’t have to lie to their children about feeling safe.