The fire this time

Police violence, race and protest in America

Will protesters in American cities bring progress, or set back the cause they champion?

ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND Americans are dead from a virus. A feat of space flight demonstrates American ingenuity. In cities across the country, protests sparked by racial injustice are showing an ugly side of America to the world.

In November voters must choose between a Republican running on a law-and-order platform, and an uninspiring vice-president running for the Democrats. The year is 1968. It is also 2020.

In 1968 the virus was flu and the space mission Apollo 7. But the injustice had the same corrosive effect. As James Baldwin wrote in the early 1960s, racism “compromises, where it does not corrupt, all the American efforts to build a better world—here, there or anywhere.”

Today more than 350 cities nationwide erupted after George Floyd, an unarmed African-American man, was killed by a white police officer. For nearly nine agonising minutes, deaf to Mr Floyd’s pleas and the growing alarm of the crowd, the officer choked the life out of him.

No wonder the spark ignited a bundle of kindling lying nearby.

The fire this time is burning for the same reasons it has so often in the past: that many African-Americans still live in places with the worst schools, the worst health care and the worst jobs; that the rules apply differently to black people; the fact, rammed home by covid-19, that whenever America suffers misfortune, black America suffers most; a sense that the police are there to keep a lid on a city’s poor, even as they protect wealthy suburbs.

And, yes, the sheer intoxication that comes from belonging to a crowd that has suddenly found its voice, and which demands to be heard.

The cycle of injustice, protest, riot and conservative reaction has come round many times since 1968. So many, that it would be easy to conclude that police violence and racial inequality in America are just too hard a problem to fix. Yet such pessimism is unwarranted. It is also counter-productive.

Activists sometimes charge that the entire criminal-justice system is racist. Police unions protect their members, including the rotten ones. In recent days a police car has rammed protesters and officers have assaulted people on the street. But the system is made up of thousands of jurisdictions and police departments. They are not all the same.

For every Minneapolis, where some thuggish officers went on “warrior” courses and saw themselves as an occupying force, there is a Camden, New Jersey. Camden’s police force was so broken that in 2013 it was disbanded and the city started afresh. Its police chief was this week able to march with peaceful protesters through their city.

Policing America is hard because America is more violent than any other rich country and its citizens more heavily armed. About 50 police officers are murdered while doing their job each year. But the sustained falls in crime over the past three decades have made room for less warlike law enforcement—by training officers to defuse confrontation, not seek it, and by making them accountable whenever they use force. Many police departments, including Camden, have already taken this chance to turn themselves round.

Others have not, partly because the federal government under President Donald Trump has eased the pressure for change. But the police and prosecutors are under local democratic control. They can be made to embrace reform if enough people vote for it.

Pessimism is self-defeating, too. It is a short step from thinking that America’s original racial sin is so deep that it cannot be overcome, to thinking that smashing and burning things is justified, because it is the only way to get attention. Yet if today’s protests slide into persistent rioting, as in 1968 after Martin Luther King’s assassination, the harm they cause could be felt most keenly in African-American districts.

Those people who can leave will. The left-behind will be worse off, as home values plunge and jobs and shops disappear. The police may withdraw, leading to an increase in crime, which in turn may eventually bring more violent policing. The scars will be visible for decades.

Across the country, black leaders, who have seen this happen before, are telling protesters not to undermine their cause. “A protest has purpose,” said Atlanta’s mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, condemning the vandalism in her city. In recent days protesters have heeded that and have been trying to restrain those who just want to start a fire—some of them white troublemakers.

Black leaders also understand how riots can wreck a political cause. When neighbourhoods are ablaze, the rest of the country focuses on putting out the fires. Harm to police officers in riots may cause voters to forget where their sympathies lay when it all began. When rioting takes hold, those who support the protests may find that their demands for change are drowned out by the clamour for order to be re-established.

In a presidential election, fear often beats idealism. Mr Trump seems to want this to be the choice in November. He has encouraged his supporters to clash with protesters outside the White House and been looking to deploy active troops alongside the national guard so as to “dominate” what his people call the battlespace (see article). Law and order helped Richard Nixon beat Hubert Humphrey in 1968. It could work again.

Yet fear betrays Mr Floyd’s memory. The more America is united, the better it can strive to ensure that all its citizens are able to live by its founding ideals. Unity will not come from Mr Trump, who has spent four years trying to divide the country. Instead, the leaders of protest movements, along with America’s mayors and police chiefs, must inspire it themselves.

If the protests are overwhelmingly non-violent, they also carry a promise. Not that the protesters will get everything they want, nor that the injustices holding back African-Americans can all be put right at once, but that tomorrow can be better than today.

By the end of the decade in which Baldwin wrote of the need to heal America, the country had set about dismantling the legal edifice of racial segregation. It was also in the grip of a reaction from those who thought civil rights had gone too far. America is like that. Progress tussles with its opposite. But Americans have been tugging away at racism for half a century.

This week, when the cruel death of a black man drew protesters of all races onto America’s streets, it was not just a sign of how much work lies ahead, but also that progress is possible.

The EU rises to meet the Covid-19 crisis

A radical plan from Germany and France transforms Europe’s possibilities

Martin Wolf

Merkel Hamilton
© James Ferguson

The EU was born out of catastrophe and has advanced through crisis. Today, it confronts threats on many fronts. If it fails to rise to these challenges, it might even shatter.

Fortunately, Angela Merkel understands this. The German chancellor remains the trusted leader of the indispensable European country.

By agreeing a radical new financial plan with French President Emmanuel Macron, she has transformed the EU’s possibilities.

It is another “whatever it takes” moment, this time from Europe’s leading politicians, confirming that Germany and France will only let the EU fail if their electorates discard their elites, as the Americans and British have done.

But history has marked the peoples of these two countries too deeply for them to risk similarly infantile politics.

Remember the EU’s history.

The Coal and Steel Community and Economic Community were created in reaction to the second world war. The single market was a response to the economic malaise of the 1970s.

The currency union was agreed in 1991 in reaction to German unification. The creation of the European Stability Mechanism and the transformation of the European Central Bank into a modern central bank were results of the eurozone financial crisis.

Now comes the economic disaster of Covid-19, with unprecedentedly rapid declines in output expected this year and an uncertain recovery ahead. Yet far more than this is threatening the EU.

A nationalist US has turned against the very idea of EU integration. The UK has danced off into the mid-Atlantic. China and Russia have embarked on a “divide and rule” policy.

Perhaps most important, the mishandled eurozone financial crisis divided member states and turned Italy, above all, towards Euroscepticism. One poll indicates that in an “Italexit” referendum, 42 per cent of Italians would now vote to leave.

Covid-19 has hit EU members unequally, in terms of deaths and predicted economic effects.

The consensus of forecasts is that Italy’s gross domestic product will shrink 11 per cent, against 7 per cent in Germany, this year. It is likely to be still worse. The ECB is prepared to act, to keep spreads on government debt manageable.

But, with an astounding act of secession from the EU’s legal order, the German constitutional court has undermined the ECB’s credibility.

Chart showing how trust in the EU fell in many European countries following the global financial crisis and eurozone sovereign debt crisis but has been followed by a modest recovery

It is only against this dangerous background that one can understand the proposal by the German and French leaders for a new €500bn fund and a subsequent increase to €750bn by the European Commission, in what it calls “Next Generation EU”.

As a response to the immediate crisis, this may not be decisive. But, in terms of the longer-term future of the EU, it is symbolically and practically transformative, if not the widely discussed “Hamilton moment”.

These two leaders plan to do whatever it takes to preserve the EU; it should, once again, be enough.

Chart showing how Italians favouring a departure from the EU are now at roughly the same level as those preferring to remain. Just two year ago, there were siginificantly more in favour of remain

The EU is political will made institutional flesh. In 2012, I responded to widespread scepticism in US financial circles over the survival of the eurozone by noting that Alexis de Tocqueville, writing in the 1830s, doubted whether the US could survive secession by states.

But the North turned out to have the needed will and might.

Similarly, there is a tendency for outsiders to underestimate what the EU means to core members. This agreement is a reminder.

In the immediate future, the response to the economic crisis will mostly come from national fiscal policies, albeit backed by the ECB. But the latter, too, has to be buoyed up by the Franco-German proposal, which has now ended up in the commission’s new plan.

The “frugal four” (the Netherlands, Austria, Denmark and Sweden) will try to stop this. One can expect them to fail.

Chart showing that Italians have more trust in their own government institutions during the Covid-19 crisis than the EU

The commission’s new fund consists of €440bn in grants (a crucial element), €60bn in guarantees and €250bn in loans. Two-thirds of the grants are to be channelled via a “Recovery and Resilience Facility”.

Funds would be raised in capital markets between 2021 and 2024, to be disbursed over several years. To put the €750bn in context, it is close to 1.5 per cent of EU GDP over three years.

Bar chart of Latest consensus forecasts for GDP growth in 2020 (%) showing All economies are hit, but some are hit worse than others

As Anatole Kaletsky of Gavekal has argued, the Franco-German proposal is far more significant than such relatively modest numbers suggest. It includes two innovations: the ability of the commission to borrow on its account and so create a new class of EU bonds; and the fact that the borrowing is to be financed by new European-wide taxes on carbon emissions or financial and digital transactions.

The leverage on the tax revenue allowed by the ability to borrow could be huge. If, for example, the EU would float an irredeemable bond at 1 per cent (a conservative assumption), it could borrow €100bn, forever, on €1bn of annual revenue. That is a very big deal.

Line chart of Eurozone GDP-weighted 10-year sovereign bond yield  (%) showing The journey to ultra-low bond yields

Yet it is not strictly-speaking a “Hamilton” moment, by which is meant the way Alexander Hamilton, first treasury secretary of the US, used the powers of the federal government to transfer the debts the states had incurred in the war of independence on to the federal balance sheet.

In the EU’s case, this is not a plan to assume debt. Also, crucially, the EU does not have a federal political process. Budgetary decisions have to be taken by unanimity. Nevertheless, it is a big step forward symbolically, in that it demonstrates solidarity, and practically, in that it creates a new financial instrument to be funded by EU taxes.

Chart of 10 year bond yields for Italy, Spain, France and Germany showing how they diverge from the eurozone GDP-weighted average yield. Since the global financial crisis,  Italy and Spain's yields have been much above average, France and Germany's below

Whatever it may not be, this is a Merkel moment. Once again, this ever-cautious politician has made a decisive move.

The EU is embattled from without and within. Will this proposal be enough to resist these pressures? I hope so.

The European idea was a response to destructive nationalism. It has to survive.

From Riots to Reform in America

Mass protests and rioting following the killing of yet another African-American by a white police officer have compounded multiplying crises in the United States. Between the COVID-19 pandemic, a looming economic depression, and persistent racism, the American social contract has never been in more need of reform.

Jorge G. Castañeda

castaneda72_Mark MakelaGetty Images_usgeorgefloydprotestracism

MEXICO CITY – The wave of anger and indignation sweeping the United States in response to George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis policeman exposes the myriad contradictions of American society.

With a presidential election less than six months away, the US is gripped by despair and violent polarization. Yet if one looks through the triple crisis of COVID-19, economic depression, and mass protests and rioting, one can glimpse enormous potential opportunities.

As I show in my new book, America Through Foreign Eyes, since the US ceased to be a middle-class society, starting in the early 1980s, it has been incapable of thriving. Without a full-fledged welfare state, it has consistently failed to adapt to a fundamental shift in its founding paradigm.

Its Athenian-inspired political system was built for a society that treated everyone within the circle of enfranchisement as roughly equal, while excluding many others whom it deemed “less equal” (to borrow from George Orwell’s biting description of Bolshevism). The out-groups included women, Native Americans, African-Americans, Hispanics, Asian Americans, and many others.

As a result of these founding conditions, the US political system has long proved ill-equipped to retool its safety net, let alone its broader social contract. To take the most recent example, consider then-President Barack Obama’s attempts to fix the US’ deeply flawed and dysfunctional health-care system. Though the Affordable Care Act was signed into law in 2010, it contained many loopholes and half-measures, and has since been systematically undermined by Donald Trump’s administration.

Race is a central flashpoint in America’s political evolution. Racial disparities have always underscored why the social contract needs to be expanded to beyond the fully employed white males of yesteryear. But the persistence of these disparities indicates that there are immense hurdles standing in the way of change.

Trump’s cynical effort to stoke racial resentment in response to the current protests is emblematic of the deeper problem. But so, too, was the Democratic Party’s primary, which quickly winnowed out all candidates of color.

Race is a key factor not just in demands for reparations for slavery, but also in debates about universal health insurance and childcare, tuition-free public higher education, the minimum wage, immigration, gun control, and Electoral College reform. All of these issues touch on the fundamental question at the heart of America’s political identity: Can the country’s original sin (slavery, followed by Jim Crow) be expiated without a proper welfare state?

The outpouring of frustration and anger following Floyd’s death has once again brought these questions into sharper focus. Over the past year, polls have consistently shown that Americans support proposals to expand the safety net, tighten gun control, and provide tuition-free college.

The public also increasingly accepts the idea that African-Americans continue to bear the costs of systemic racism, from red-lining of neighborhoods and workplace discrimination to mass incarceration and abuse at the hands of police. The current explosion of rage will solidify these shifts in sentiment, whatever the electoral consequences.

The same is true of the COVID-19 pandemic and the broader economic collapse. The racial and socioeconomic disparities revealed by both crises have led political leaders, experts, and commentators from left to moderate right to agree that America’s safety net is in tatters.

From insufficient testing and inadequate supplies of personal protective equipment to the disproportionately higher mortality rate among African-Americans, the pandemic has laid bare the weaknesses of the US health-care system.

And at the same time, the economic debacle has highlighted the shortcomings of US unemployment insurance and other social programs, as well as a lack of coordination between federal, state, and local governments. Just as the pandemic has demonstrated the efficiency of the German, Scandinavian, and even French safety nets, it has exposed the gaping holes in the US system.

Owing to the triple crisis posed by the pandemic, depression, and civil unrest, there is a growing awareness among Democrats that beating Trump in November will not be enough.

The focus groups that Joe Biden, the party’s presumptive nominee, has set up, and his campaign’s ongoing discussions with potential running mates, all point to a realization that the crisis is even deeper than originally anticipated, and will require radical change.

Biden may not be the ideal candidate to mobilize and excite young black and Hispanic voters, but he is certainly capable of leading the kind of coalition needed to defeat Trump and launch a New Deal-like overhaul of US social, economic, and political structures. Americans may not want “socialism,” but they will no longer be content with a “return to normalcy” (Biden’s primary-season slogan, which he will now have to discard).

Winston Churchill’s aphorism about not letting a good crisis go to waste is relevant once again.

With the COVID-19 death toll above 100,000, 40 million unemployed, and another black man killed by a white cop, America’s crises are multiplying.

For now, the country is beset not just by protests and rioting over police abuses, but also by a resurgent white-supremacist “alt-right.”

The underlying crises will come to a head politically on Election Day. Not since 1932 has America been more in need of radical change and sound leadership than it is today.

Jorge G. Castañeda, a former foreign minister of Mexico, is a professor at New York University and author of the forthcoming America Through Foreign Eyes.

The Beginning of the Cyclic Shift

Friedman’s Thoughts In and Around Geopolitics

By: George Friedman

A number of people have asked me if the events this week are what I was predicting in my book,

“The Storm Before the Calm.” They asked because they thought my predictions were arriving too early. This is very much the kind of thing I was expecting and about the time I was expecting it to start.

But we are not even close to the end. I wrote that this will be a decade of social, economic and international instability. Not all crises will be this intense. Many, particularly the economic crises, will be less intense but will last longer.

To get a sense of where we stand, think of the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 1968, Martin Luther King was murdered and riots broke out across the country, with the police and National Guard using force to control the rioters.

In summer 1968, at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, thousands of anti-war protesters showed up against the Democratic Party, which they saw as the party of imperialist wars and domestic oppression.

Richard Nixon was elected that year, and in 1971, facing what was really minor inflation compared to what came later, he imposed wage and price controls, and impulsively went off the gold standard. He later resigned to avoid being impeached.

There was then a period of relative peace under Gerald Ford, who took over from Nixon in 1974. During this time, there was also a massive economic crisis, with high inflation, soaring interest rates and unemployment nearing 10 percent. This was driven by the Arab oil embargo, triggered by a war with Israel, which left Americans standing in long lines only to find the gas stations out of gasoline.

Jimmy Carter was elected president and tried to take the country back to the model that Franklin Roosevelt created. It failed, and he delivered a famous speech about the country’s malaise. Then the Iranian revolution and kidnapping of diplomats came, ending in a disastrous hostage rescue attempt. The Roosevelt era was exhausted. Ronald Reagan was elected and created a radically new structure that led to a cycle of prosperity.

And now the Reagan cycle is coming to an end. And just as the Roosevelt cycle culminated in a bit more than a decade of dysfunction and even despair, so too we are now entering that phase.

The coronavirus sort of signaled that, although it had nothing to do with the failing system. But this week’s events, which resemble similar events since the 1960s, are a more systemic announcement of the beginning of the transition.

Just as the last decade of the Roosevelt cycle had near its beginning a racial event, the end of the Reagan cycle is being signaled by the death of George Floyd, with consequences similar to those after Martin Luther King was killed. There is an intimate relationship between race and the American economy that goes back to the founding. As I said in my book, the original American sin was not slavery. (Americans were not unique in holding slaves.)

Rather it was a betrayal of its own principles where Jefferson had written, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

The South was a plantation society dependent on cheap labor. It needed slaves to function. It also needed power against a growing North that had slaves but was not dependent on them, and had a nascent abolitionist movement.

The South rejected the idea of freeing the slaves. But it demanded that the slaves be counted in the census, so that the South’s representation in Congress would be as large as possible.

The North objected, and there could be no republic without a compromise. The compromise was that slaves counted as three-fifths of a person.

The founders believed deeply in the equality of men. But they could not form a republic if blacks were seen as equal. So in the act of designating them three-fifths of a person, they symbolically declared them less than human. In this way, they preserved the principle of universal equality but did so by designating a class of humans as subhuman.

The Hayes era grew out of the Civil War, which was about the status of blacks. The Roosevelt era was forged out of an alliance of Southern segregationists and Northern blacks. One of the central features of the era that spanned from Roosevelt to Carter was the civil rights movement and the attack on segregation. The Reagan era struggled with the issue as well, with heated debates over affirmative action and other measures.

The issue of race has torn the country apart many times, and many explanations can be offered as to why. It’s a personal issue for all of us. I went to a predominantly black high school. It was a frightening experience.

High school boys emerge as men through testing themselves physically. In the suburbs, football was the key.

Jackson High had no football team. The tests were found in fighting and violence, and I was forced to face black teenagers who were bigger and tougher than me.

I learned to fear them. They were doing nothing but what was normal for 16-year-olds, but they posed what seemed at that time an existential challenge to me.

It took years for me to move beyond my high school experience and to realize the kids I went to school with were just kids like any others. They saw in me the perpetual sin that was perpetrated against them. Did I ever learn to lose the fear?

I think so, yet does anyone really lose the fears that dominated him when he was young? Each day is combat for boys, and that combat shapes them. That is my story. Each one of us experiences the tension of race and each emerges from it differently.

Whenever a cycle fails, and things that were certain suddenly become mysteries, one of the first things that emerges is the deeply rooted tension between black and white. It is a tension that is always there. The history is long and deep and filled with fear.

When things become uncertain the thing that suddenly shows itself is the fear between the races, and the attempt on all sides to use that fear to their advantage. It is as if the Israelites were freed, but continued to live in Egypt.

I felt myself at war with blacks and losing. A teenage boy can’t imagine the degree to which blacks felt they were losing, and the truth is that, for the most part, they were losing. They knew that, and the fights we had were built with that knowledge.

When they see one of their own slowly strangled to death, they feel rage but also, as I know in retrospect, helplessness and despair. This is the original sin of our republic, and none of us know how to solve it, least of all the enlightened whites who side with them.

African Americans know that there was no more enlightened white man than Thomas Jefferson, and by all accounts the love of his life and the mother of six of his children was a black woman, Sally Hemings. He freed her and their children in his will. But he did not free his other slaves.

The problem is that we are not monsters, white or black. We are humans and we are filled with fear, hope and a breathtaking inability to understand the complex realities that come from being human. And we love to feel superior to those who are different and those who disagree with us.

So to the question of whether I expected this, the answer is yes, and much of what I say here is scattered throughout my book. But this is not the end. Race is always there, and frequently the breakout of race-related protests and violence is just the beginning of things. But it is never the end of things because the original sin haunts us, and goodwill and wishes are just words.

So, we begin the crisis of the 2020s, the decade of transformation, as we began other transformations, with the matter of race.