Archive for March, 2019

Brexit, Populism and Politics

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Two and a half years ago the British voted to leave the European Union.   Populist parties came to power in Greece and Italy, and people feared (or in some cases hoped) that Brexit was the start of the breakup of the EU.   Others noted that populist movements were bringing back European nationalism, which could point to a return to the politics of old, when European countries went to war, and economic cooperation was limited due to fear of dependency.

Fast forward to March 2019.   In Greece the Syriza party remains in power, even as its leader Tsipas, elected as a leftist Euroskeptic, has embraced neo-liberal reforms.  In Italy the power of the Five Star Movement and the Lega Nord meant a right wing populist government that was seen as anti-EU and very suspicious of German influence.   Now Prime Minister Guiseppe Conte is embracing reforms promoted by the EU, and the parties have distanced themselves from their pre-election rhetoric.

One reason for this decline in populist fervor could be the British tragedy unfolding in the United Kingdom.    I mean tragedy in a theatrical sense – the British political system seems tied up in knots as they can’t figure out how to do Brexit – and they still not even sure they’ll do it.

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A market of 500 million people with 19 states sharing the same currency has made the EU far more resilient than Euroskeptics expected.

This week Theresa May put a deal her government made with the EU to a vote.   It was a good deal, probably the best that May could have hoped for.  It would limit the disruption of the departure by phasing it in, and reaching agreements to keep economic links in place.   It was clear that a complete break would mean a flight of capital from the UK, a loss of jobs, higher costs, and maybe even short term shortages.

Her deal failed dramatically in a January vote, and failed by a smaller, but still significant margin on March 12th.   Today – March 13th – the House of Commons voted to not accept a “no-deal Brexit.”   But even that was controversial.  Prime Minister May opposed an amendment to her bill which took out language saying that without the EU agreeing to an extension of negotiations, a no deal Brexit is the default.   She ordered her party to oppose the amendment, but to her chagrin it passed anyway.   On Thursday the parliament will vote to ask the EU for an extension.

Now, without a deal or an extension, Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty legally mandates a hard Brexit – the UK out with no deal.   But MPs (members of parliament) claim that March 13’s amendment legally obligates the government not to accept a no-deal Brexit.   That seems to be an obligation that by definition the government can’t guarantee.

So they want Brexit.  They want a deal.  But they are rejecting the only deal the EU is likely to offer.  The major reason is Ireland.  The Irish strongly oppose a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.  One reason the “troubles” of northern Ireland have died down is that the EU has made it somewhat irrelevant that the North remains in the UK.   One can trade across the border and travel between the two without having to go through customs.   The Irish will not support any deal that changes this situation, so the agreement had a “backstop” – a provision that the border will remain open.   That is the part of the deal that many Brexitiers oppose – they fear that keeps the UK in a defacto customs union.

There seems to be no compromise solution to this situation, even though the EU made it clear that they don’t consider the backstop permanent.

So what now?   Many argue that the only way out of this mess is a new referendum, and perhaps new parliamentary elections.  No Prime Minister has suffered the kind of loses that Theresa May has and remained in office.    She’s still there because most people realize this is not her fault – David Cameron left her with an almost impossible situation, and a very slim parliamentary majority.   Brexit is an issue that divides the Tories and has no clear or easy answer.

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If this poll is accurate, it may be that the UK is on an inevitable course to a second Brexit referendum.

A new referendum could be to either accept the deal, or back out of Brexit.   That would incense true Brexitiers because it would take a hard Brexit off the table.  Perhaps they could revisit the original referendum, with the knowledge of what kind of deal is likely.  But if Brexit again wins by a narrow margin, what would change?

May has rejected a new referendum, saying that it would diminish faith in British democracy.  You can’t “keep voting until you get it right.”  Yet critics say the 2016 vote was flawed – people didn’t understand the stakes, and the emotion of the Syrian refugee crisis, which was at its peak, lead to a nationalist backlash as many thought being in the EU would force them to take more refugees.   Now after two years, the British voters could be asked “is this what you really want?”

It’s clear that the woes in Great Britain have taken the steam out of Euroskepticism and populism across the continent, but the reasons they arose still exist.

Both populism and the woes of Brexit underscore a political reality that Guiseppe Conte of Italy describes as such: “the ideological schemes of the 20th Century are no longer adequate to represent the current political system.”  The EU is correctly criticized for being too centralized and bureaucratic – that’s as much a cause of the populist backlash as nationalism.

Perhaps Brexit is a necessary moment to dramatize that the European Union, and perhaps all of us need to rethink our political values.  The era of independent sovereign states has given way to globalization and interdependence.  The process started after WWII, but has intensified with the technological and information revolutions of the past three decades.  The world has outgrown the political structures, values and norms of old, but we don’t have anything else to grab on to.  Out of this mess a new thinking has to emerge, one that recognizes that the information revolution empowers individuals and localities, meaning that centralization can exist alongside localization in a manner that seems contrary to the “one or the other” choice we usually face.

In that, perhaps we should thank the British for going through a very difficult situation in a way that dramatizes the dilemmas we all face.  And if any state can pull through this effectively, it’s the United Kingdom.

 

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No to Impeachment

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The Democrats are riding a wave of good political fortune.   In 2018 they regained control of the House and avoided devastating loses in the Senate that once seemed likely.   They are the opposition party to the only President NEVER to have positive approval ratings, and who remains unpopular despite the fact the economy isn’t doing bad and the US isn’t involved in divisive wars or crises.   All the signs point to the Democrats winning big in 2020 for the Presidency, House and Senate.

So why on earth would they want to mess that up by impeaching President Trump, a move likely to cause a backlash and, unless new incendiary evidence emerges, would not remove Trump from office.   The GOP controlled Senate is almost certain not to find the President guilty, and would use the trial to attack Democrats.   Simply, impeachment creates so much uncertainty that the clear and present advantages the Democrats now hold could be lost.   Impeachment would increase the slim chance of President Trump being re-elected.

Donald Trump, in my opinion, is unfit to be President, lacking both the character and intelligence to handle the job.   He is, indeed, dangerous, bringing unprecedented levels of dishonesty and incompetence to the White House.   It would benefit the country greatly to have him out of office.   That logic is what leads supporters of impeachment to push hard for it: we need to rise up and reject a dangerous, incompetent, perhaps mentally disturbed President.

But politics is the art of the possible.   Being right doesn’t mean one will be successful.   Impeachment is not the removal of the President from office.   It is more like an indictment, a claim that there is enough evidence to put the President on trial for high crimes and misdemeanors (which Congress can define however it sees fit).  If impeached, the President goes on trial in the Senate, which can either convict him with a 2/3 vote (67 Senators) or acquit him with anything less than 2/3 voting to convict.

When President Clinton was in the midst of the Lewinsky scandal, his approval ratings dipped below 45%.   Sensing blood, the anti-Clinton GOP went into overdrive, impeaching the President and sending him to trial in the Senate.  There he was easily acquitted, with five Republicans joining the Democrats to vote “not guilty.”  When all was said and done, Clinton benefited from a wave of sympathy as the Republicans went too far – he left office with a 60% approval rating, about the same as Ronald Reagan had at the end of his tenure.

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Kenneth Starr (right) led the effort to build a case against President Clinton after the House impeached him. That effort turned out to benefit the President, much to the chagrin of the GOP.

I do not expect Trump would reap that much benefit, but moderate Republicans currently willing to reject Trump’s re-election bid could be pushed back into the pro-Trump camp by the emotion and accusations an impeachment battle would cause.  Independents might decide the Democrats are reckless and too ideologically driven.  If the election is at all close, the dynamics of an impeachment fight could well make Trump’s re-election if not likely, at least more probable.

Right now the Democrats have the moral high ground.  They can investigate.  They can call witnesses like Michael Cohen whose testimony embarrasses the President and paints a picture of a corrupt, incompetent narcissist.  Over the next two years they may get the President’s income tax records released, and make sure that Trump’s approval ratings stay low.

Moreover, they control the purse strings.   As the bizarre effort to claim a “national emergency” to bypass Congress shows, the President can’t do anything significant without support from the House.  They can completely halt his agenda and stymie his efforts.   Yeah, the Republicans hold the Senate and the President still has enormous clout in terms of government regulations, judicial appointments, and other executive actions.  But forcing President Trump to use those powers has benefits for the Democrats – they can use his actions to fund raise, inspire their base, and accuse Trump of defying democracy.

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WIth a savvy, skilled Speaker of the House like Nancy Pelosi, the Democrats are poised to keep pressure on the President, weakening him going into the 2020 fight.

So the choice now is this:  a) stay the course, continue investigations and efforts to undermine the President’s authority, but don’t impeach.   This makes it likely that in less than two years President Trump will be out of office; or b) go full throttle on impeachment and hope that undermines the President more and makes his re-election even less likely.   That path risks creating the opposite result, perhaps keeping Trump in office until 2024.

To me the answer is clear – Democrats should pursue the goal of defeating President Trump in 2020.    If I thought impeachment would bring about his removal of office or weaken his chances of re-election, I’d support it.  I think by many measures he has proven himself unfit for the office.   But again, politics is the art of the possible, and at this point impeachment followed by removal from office does not seem at all likely, and the effort could backfire.

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The Next “Dark Ages”?

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When Constantine became sole ruler of the Roman Empire in 306, it appeared that Rome had weathered the storm of corruption and collapse that had dominated until the reforms of Diocletian (who ruled from 284-305).  The Empire had reorganized, and Constantine began to build a city in the East which would later govern the eastern Roman Empire (usually called the Byzantine Empire) until 1453.   Constantine granted religious tolerance to all with the Edict of Milan in 313, and Theodosius I would make Christianity the state religion of Rome in 380.

The Roman Empire had been a success, spreading prosperity and peace – so called “Pax Romana” – from Britain to northern Africa, from Spain to Turkey.  Yet in the 400s the western Empire slowly disintegrated.   Barbarians (a term meaning simply ‘foreigners’) were given land within the Empire and charged with protecting Rome; in the end they formed their own Kingdoms as the power of  the western Empire evaporated.   To don the cloak of legitimacy they embraced the Latin Language and the Christian church.  Later they would spread Christianity to Germanic tribes not part of the Empire.  By the time of the Emperor Justinian (ruled in the East from 527 to 565), the West was essentially lost.   His effort to recapture the Italian peninsula created massive destruction, and the glory of the Roman world faded.

We all know what came next – the so called dark ages.   Politics became local, learning subsided, the kingdoms that adopted Latin soon were speaking very bad Latin as their linguistic practices atrophied (we call that bad Latin ‘French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese’).   The Church had central authority but lacked the ability to project power; secular rulers had inconsistent efficacy, as the roads, buildings and grandeur of the old Empire fell into disrepair.

The “dark ages” weren’t truly dark; there was a lot of politics, intellectual activity, and cultural development.  But there was also a sense that a great civilization had ceased to exist, and life had become more difficult and poor.   The great cultural accomplishments of the Greek and Roman world were all but forgotten.  Today, when one takes into account global warming, poisons in our food and air, and the fact that our global society is held together by virtual connections that would be thrown into chaos with a loss of power and cheap transportation, people have been predicting a similar decline for decades.   Are they right?

First, it’s possible.  If you stood in Rome as late as the fourth Century you would not think all could collapse – even though the collapse, which was more a slow transition, was already happening.  Our planet of over 7 billion relies on a network of food, transportation, and communication that could be threatened by global warming or other disasters, natural and human made.   Nuclear war is most obvious potential culprit, but global depression, energy crises and political unrest could go along with climate change to destroy the nexus of goods and services we rely upon.

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The idea we can belch filth and poison into our atmosphere and oceans without major consequences is delusional, and an area where new thinking needs to take hold.

However, unlike Rome, we are a  society of rapidly evolving technology.  The Romans never really did expand their technology.  They were superb builders, but once they lost their military edge, they simply could not maintain the system.   Our technological progress creates possibilities for solutions that are unique to the modern era.  Collapse is not inevitable.

Moreover, the knowledge of science and the ability to communicate via basic radio waves means that we are unlikely to have to rely on passing minstrels for news updates, and probably won’t put our loyalty into a religious institution that rejects progress, claiming that attainment in this world keeps us from doing what we need to to assure an afterlife in paradise.

The most likely outcome, even if the doom and gloomers are right, is a world more fragmented and less prosperous – with many regions of famine and disease – but yet one that will find a new equilibrium and avoid the kind of decay and collapse the western Roman Empire endured.   How bad it becomes depends on the choices made in the coming decades; my generation messed things up, today’s youth will determine how bad it becomes, or if they can turn things around.

The dangers: CO2 production, factory farms that are unsustainable, reliance on inefficient foods like beef and chicken, reliance on fossil fuels, spiraling debt (both public and private), and a belief that things will simply take care of themselves.   History suggests that if you ignore warning signs, you pay a heavy price.

The solution is still unclear.  Foremost it will involve new thinking about political organization (the sovereign state as we know it may be obsolete) and economics.  Environmentalism is not “concern for the earth,” but a self-interested effort to make sure our planet can still sustain us.  The earth will be fine, it’s our place on it that is in question.   I’m convinced we are entering a period of dramatic transition as old practices and beliefs become unsustainable and counterproductive.  While we need new actions, we also need a new way of thinking.

 

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Is 2019 the Twins Year?

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Eddie Rosario, Byron Buxton and Max Kepler could be one of baseball’s premier outfields.

In 2017 the Twins made the playoffs as a wild card team.  Full of young talent, they looked ready to break out in 2018, led by the bats of Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton.  Instead, they floundered.   2017’s AL Manager of the year Paul Molitor “resigned” (read: was fired, but allowed to stay in the organization) , shocking many as the Twins young front office dynamic duo of Derek Falvey and Thad Levine look to make their mark on the team.    They inherited Molitor, he was never “their manager.”

To be sure, I was mad when I heard Molitor was let go.   He is from the Twin Cities, he had a stellar career and seemed to be doing a good job – most of the 2018 woes were not of his making.   But Falvey and Levine may have done the right thing in bringing in Rocco Baldelli.   The inability of Sano and Buxton to play to their potential – the team was counting on them – was a major flaw.   They believe that Molitor was not the right man to bring out the talent of young players.  Baldelli, only 37, has already made a difference, visiting Buxton down in Georgia and connecting with the team.

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Home town hero Joe Mauer – a league MVP and winner of three batting titles – was the face of the Twins for over a decade. Hobbled by numerous concussions, he retired last year.

The last few years the Twins marquee players were Brian Dozier at second base, who had 42 homeruns in 2016, and super star Joe Mauer.   Last year Dozier was traded, and Mauer, who never regained top form after suffering multiple concussions and moving from Catcher to First Base, retired.   It isn’t a stretch to say that the Twins are starting a new era in 2019.

What must happen for the Twins to win?

  1.  Sano and Buxton have to break out.   Sano was a phenom hitting homeruns at a torrid clip in 2017, only to find himself striking out consistently and even sent down to the minors at one point in 2018.   Pitchers learned his weakness (breaking balls down and away), and he put on weight.   Now he’s trimmed down and says he’s focused on making sure he doesn’t repeat the mistakes of 2018.   Byron Buxton was injured and hit poorly while up.  Yet in September 2017 he had ten homeruns, and in 2017 he won the platinum glove for his unbelievable speed and fielding in Center Field.  The fielding is there (and his speed is perhaps the fastest in the league).  He has the talent to hit.  If Buxton and Sano do what they should do, the Twins will be in the hunt.
  2. First base.  With Mauer gone, first base will go from a position yielding a high on base percentage and little power to one where power will be highlighted.  The Twins picked up C.J. Cron who had 30 homeruns last year, but Tyler Austin, acquired from the Yankees in the Lance Lynn deal, hit 17 in almost no time.  He may be the real deal.   If the Twins get power at first, that will be huge.
  3. Nelson Cruz and Jonathan Schoop.  The two most important free agent signings could be Cruz and Schoop.  Cruz is a consistent 35 homerun a year veteran who is said to be excellent in helping young players find themselves.  If he can help with Buxton and Sano, he’ll provide value.   He’s certain to be a power DH.   Schoop hit 30 homeruns two years ago at second base, but his output last year for the Orioles and Brewers was disappointing.   If he regains his stroke, well, this team may relying on the long ball from many positions!
  4. Rosario and Kepler.   On any other team these would be the stand out young players.  Rosario flirted with .300 most of last year, has good power, and finally is showing some discipline at the plate.   He has a powerful arm and baserunners try to challenge it at their peril.  Max Kepler has good power – 26 homers last year and don’t be surprised if he hits over 30 this year – and the Twins think his batting average can climb.  He and Rosario are lefties, providing a balanced lineup.
  5. THE PITCHERS!   Pitching wins titles, and all this offensive promise could go for naught if the Twins don’t improve their pitching.   The outlook is good.  Jose Berrios, the lefty who will start opening day, made his first all star game last year and showed signs of brilliance.  He seemed to tire at the end of the season, but the Twins believe he’s the real thing – his curve ball is the best of any Twins pitcher since Blyleven.   Kyle Gibson finally showed last year why the Twins have been so patient with him – he has great stuff, he finally is learning how to use it.   The Twins lack a closer, though I think Trevor May is the most likely to fulfill that role.  Last year he had a very bad habit of walking the first batter he faced, not something you want from your bullpen.  But he has the stuff that you want a closer to have.  Without going through the rest of the staff (including some interesting free agent pick ups), the Twins have reason for optimism – but, of course, we’ll have to see how they perform.  They have a lot of young arms, but this is the one area where I’m a bit nervous.  Again, pitching is the key to winning – good starters, good set up men, and a closer.  The Twins have more question marks than answers at this point.  Will Free Agent Martin Perez regain form?   Who will join Gibons, Odorizzi, and Berrios in the starting rotation?   Will the “young arms” perform as hoped?

I’m convinced that the team has the nucleus to assure it will be playing meaningful games deep into September.  If the pitchers are as good as expected, they may be playing extremely meaningful games deep into October.

Now, however, the most important thing is to hope that between now and when the Indians come to Target Field later this month the snow melts and we can have March baseball.

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