Let them eat debate

Somehow I don’t think this initiative by the French government will succeed in mollifying the angry wearers of high-visibility garments:

In 1789, Louis XVI summoned France’s aristocracy, clergy and citizens to discuss ways to plug the crown’s dismal finances and quell popular discontent over a sclerotic feudal society.

It marked the start of the French Revolution. Within months he was powerless and four years later beheaded by guillotine.

Two centuries on, President Emmanuel Macron, often criticized for a monarchical manner, is also calling a national debate to mollify “yellow vest” protesters whose nine week uprising has set Paris ablaze and shaken his administration.

He will launch the three-month “grand debat” initiative on Jan. 15. As during the rule of the ill-fated king, the French are already writing complaints in “grievance books” opened up by mayors of 5,000 communes.

The debate will focus on four themes — taxes, green energy, institutional reform and citizenship. Discussions will be held on the internet and in town halls.

There’s a catch, though, that seems to defeat the purpose:

But officials have already said changing the course of Macron’s reforms aimed at liberalizing the economy will be off limits.

“The debates are not an opportunity for people to offload all their frustrations, nor are we questioning what we’ve done in the past 18 months,” government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux told BFM TV. “We’re not replaying the election.”

Meanwhile, the protesters have come up with another disruptive tactic:

Members of the “yellow vests” protest movement have vandalised almost 60% of France’s entire speed camera network, the interior minister has said.

Christophe Castaner said the wilful damage was a threat to road safety and put lives in danger.

The protest movement began over fuel tax increases, and saw motorists block roads and motorway toll booths.

Some protesters feel speed cameras are solely a revenue-generating measure which takes money from the poor.

The right rises in Spain

Vox party leader Santiago Abascal

Vox party leader Santiago Abascal

A right-wing political party called Vox (no relation, presumably, to the progressive news website) wins office in Spain:

After many years in the shadows, the far-right has now arrived as a force in Spanish politics. Local elections in Andalusia on Sunday gave the fiercely nationalistic and socially conservative Vox party 12 of the provincial assembly’s 105 seats.

Why it matters: That makes Vox the first Spanish far-right party to win office since the country’s dictatorship ended in the 1970s. Vox wants to slash taxes, quash Catalan autonomy, criminalize illegal immigration, build a wall on the Moroccan border, restrict the religious activities of Muslims, and radically centralize political control in Spain. Ironically: the party also wants to eliminate precisely the assembly in which it just won seats. […]

Still, what has helped Vox most of all is the surging number of Middle Eastern and African migrants arriving on Spanish shores.

  • Overall, migrant arrivals in the EU have fallen dramatically since peaking in 2014-2015, but the numbers in Spain have risen more than 500% since then.

Andalusia “has become the main landing point for growing waves of immigrants sailing across the narrow Strait of Gibraltar from Africa.”

Paris

Man, these Paris protests are getting out of hand:

What’s that? Oh, sorry. Those are actually photos from 1968.

Mass socialist movements grew not only in the United States but also in most European countries. The most spectacular manifestation of this were the May 1968 protests in France, in which students linked up with wildcat strikes of up to ten million workers, and for a few days the movement seemed capable of overthrowing the government.

Got my dates mixed up there. Almost exactly 50 years later, Paris is again convulsed by riots:

‘Yellow Jacket’ protests in France leave gas stations running dry; Paris riots worst since 1968

Saturday’s unrest was the worst in central Paris since a student uprising five decades ago.

“Yellow Jacket” protesters blocking access to 11 fuel depots belonging to one of the world’s biggest oil companies have left gas stations running dry in France.

At least 75 of the company’s 2,200 gas stations were out of fuel, a spokesman for energy giant Total said Monday.

For more than two weeks, protesters angry over gas taxes and the high cost of living have been blocking roads across France, impeding access to fuel depots, shopping malls and some airports.

Riot police were overrun on Saturday as protesters brought chaos to Paris’ fanciest neighborhoods, torching dozens of cars, looting boutiques and smashing up luxury private homes and cafes in the worst disturbances the capital has seen since 1968.

More than 100 people were injured in the French capital and 412 arrested over the weekend.

The “Yellow Jacket” revolt erupted on Nov. 17 and poses a formidable challenge to President Emmanuel Macron as he tries to counter a plunge in popularity over his economic reforms, which are seen as favoring the wealthy.

What do the protesters want?

The movement began online as an impromptu rebellion against higher fuel prices but has morphed into a broader outpouring of anger over the squeeze that living costs are putting on middle-class household budgets.

Their core demand is a freeze on further planned tax increases on gas and diesel — the next is due in January — and measures to help bolster spending power.

A lot of the anger is focused on the technocratic, internationalist Macron, who is perceived as an elitist.

But many have also called for Macron to quit.

Public support for the “Yellow Jackets” remains high, with seven-in-10 people backing their protest, according to a Harris Interactive opinion poll conducted after Saturday’s unrest.

The revolt is an example of “open source warfare,” as John Robb puts it. There are no leaders, no barriers to participation, and everyone is united by a plausible common goal. The lack of leadership is a key advantage:

The French government has faced difficulties dealing with the protesters as the movement has no real leadership and has not aligned itself with any political organisation. […]

On Friday, the government tried – mostly in vain – to talk to representatives of the movement.

Eight were invited to meet Prime Minister Edouard Philippe but only two turned up, and one walked out after being told he could not invite TV cameras in to broadcast the encounter live to the nation.

Paris is so romantic this time of year…

Paris protest Burger King

Peaceful divorce

US partition red blue

Image by Dicken Schrader (Source)

It’s time to talk about peaceful national divorce. A clever article in New York Magazine maps out a scenario of political devolution in which the US is carved up, amicably, into multiple federations of states, leading to the effective breakup of the Union. You have to read all the way to the end to understand what author Sasha Issenberg is driving at, but suffice it to say that the law of unintended consequences has a field day.

What I find interesting is that the idea of devolving power to states and localities has supporters across the political spectrum:

Even if they don’t use the term, states’ rights has become a cause for those on the left hoping to do more than the federal government will. Both Jacobin and The Nation have praised what the latter calls “Progressive Federalism.” San Francisco city attorney Dennis Herrera has called it “the New New Federalism,” a callback to Ronald Reagan’s first-term promise to reduce Washington’s influence over local government. “All of us need to be reminded that the federal government did not create the states; the states created the federal government,” Reagan said in his 1981 inaugural address. At the time, Democrats interpreted New Federalism as high-minded cover for a strategy of dismantling New Deal and Great Society programs. Now they see it as their last best hope for a just society.

Calexit has been in the spotlight in recent years, and according to a Reuters survey cited in the article, nearly one-quarter of Americans support the idea of their respective states breaking away. Given the intensely polarized nature of today’s politics, I would not be surprised if that number grows, as more people decide that a mutually agreed breakup is preferable to staying in a toxic relationship.

Of course, dissolving the Union creates a dizzying array of problems. The most obvious of these is that the various pieces of the former USA might go to war with each other. The danger is also geopolitical. At the cost of over 600,000 lives, the Civil War ensured peace on the North American continent for over 150 years. From the 17th century to the early 19th century, the European powers had fought a series of wars on North American soil. A divided continent could once again become a playground for foreign powers, as the smaller and weaker states that replace the US fall under the influence of China, Russia and the EU.

The 100 million

Holodomor Ukrainians

Ukrainians fleeing starvation

For the second year running, the US remembers the victims of the most lethal ideology that has ever blighted the human race:

On the National Day for the Victims of Communism, we honor the memory of the more than 100 million people who have been killed and persecuted by communist totalitarian regimes. We also reaffirm our steadfast support for those who strive for peace, prosperity, and freedom around the world.

Since the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, we have witnessed the effects of the tyrannical communist ideology—anguish, repression, and death. Communism subordinates inherent human rights to the purported well-being of all, resulting in the extermination of religious freedom, private property, free speech, and, far too often, life. These horrors have included Ukrainians deliberately starved in the Holodomor, Russians purged in the Great Terror, Cambodians murdered in the killing fields, and Berliners shot as they tried to escape to freedom. The victims of these and many other atrocities bear silent testimony to the undeniable fact that communism, and the pursuit of it, will forever be destructive to the human spirit and to the prosperity of mankind.

Today, we remember all who have been denied the great blessings of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness under oppressive communist regimes. Together, we mourn the unbearable losses so many have endured under communism, and we renew our pledge to continue advancing the cause of freedom and opportunity for all.

Virginia also becomes the first US state to join in commemorating the National Day for the Victims of Communism, and the 18th state to recognize the Holodomor, in which an estimated 4 million Ukrainians were deliberately starved to death by Stalin, as a genocide.

The Berlin Wall came down 29 years ago, on November 9, 1989.

Bannon vs Frum debate on populism

Be it resolved: The future of Western politics is populist, not liberal.

Steve Bannon says yes, David Frum says no. Full debate here:

The moderator expands on the topic a bit: “Is the West living through a populist sea-change that will irrevocably transform our politics? And can these longstanding liberal values – liberal values of trade, society and politics – push back against this populist surge and reassert their primacy in the 21st century?”

It’s a spirited argument and worth watching in full. Bannon achieved a decisive victory in this one. Before the debate, only 28% of the audience agreed with the resolution, while 72% disagreed. After the debate, 57% agreed while 43% disagreed. [UPDATE: Munk Debates screwed this up. The actual, corrected post-debate figures are 28% pro vs 72% con. Thus, audience opinion was unchanged.]

The debate was held in Toronto. Twelve people were arrested in a protest outside the venue, during which one police officer was hit with a stick and another was punched in the face.

Bolsonaro

Right-wing populist nationalist Jair Bolsonaro, of the confusingly named Social Liberal Party, sweeps to victory as Brazil’s new president-elect, winning 56% of the votes in the runoff election against left-wing candidate Fernando Haddad. Brazil being the world’s fifth most-populous country (#2 in the Western Hemisphere), this is certainly a result worth noting.

Bolsonaro’s campaign slogan: “Brazil above everything, God above everyone.”

Andrew Fishman reports in The Intercept:

Bolsonaro, who has taken aim at the media throughout his campaign, chose to make his first statement after the election via Facebook Live, rather than a press conference. “We could not continue to flirt with socialism, communism, populism, and the extremism of the left,” he said. The broadcast was picked up by major TV networks, but repeatedly froze due to connection issues.

Brian Winter of Americas Quarterly provides a useful rundown of what, in his estimation, Bolsonaro’s victory means:

1. Bloodshed.

If there’s one thing Bolsonaro’s supporters and critics tend to agree on, it’s that upcoming months will bring an onslaught of death in Brazilian cities.

This is after all Bolsonaro’s number-one policy priority: relaxing laws and rules for security forces, allowing them to shoot first and ask questions later (to an even greater extent than today, considering police already kill 5,000 people per year). The goal is to intimidate or kill drug dealers, thieves and other criminals – and thus reverse the inexorable rise in crime since democracy returned to Brazil in 1985.

Bolsonaro sounds like a Brazilian Duterte. Of course, Brazil already has plenty of bloodshed, with “a homicide epidemic that killed a record 63,880 people in 2017,” as Winters notes.

2. Pro-business economic policy. […]

3. Near-total alignment with the Trump administration.

As stated above, the United States has become a kind of North Star for Bolsonaro and his acolytes – so much so that the candidate even saluted the American flag and chanted “USA! USA!” with the crowd at a campaign event in Miami last October.

This would have been career suicide for virtually any other Brazilian candidate over the past 30 years. But in today’s climate, supporting the U.S. has become a kind of code for rejection of the ideological left, which governed Brazil from 2003-16 and led the country into its current disaster. […]

This will play well with Bolsonaro’s base, and put Brazil more firmly in line with other South American governments. Argentina, Colombia, Chile and (arguably) Peru are also now run by center-right presidents who have aligned themselves with Trump, although with less enthusiasm than Bolsonaro likely will.

4. Erosion of democracy and its norms.

Here, again, there can be no mistake – Bolsonaro despises democracy, at least the version that has been practiced in Brazil over the past 30 years.

And the promised End of History, having failed to arrive everywhere from Cambodia to Spain, continues to recede into the misty distance…

Having said that:

It’s worth mentioning that he may not have to [ignore or trample democratic practices and norms to get his way]. The outcome of Sunday’s election means Bolsonaro will be dealing with a far more pliant Congress than previously expected, especially if he wins the runoff by a healthy margin and has a strong mandate. Much of the judiciary may also support him.

Here’s Reuters on Bolsonaro’s policy platform.

Bolsonaro Facebook

President-Elect Bolsonaro makes first public statement on Facebook Live

Internet voting is insane

I have a bad feeling about this:

West Virginia is about to take a leap of faith in voting technology — but it could put people’s ballots at risk.

Next month, it will become the first state to deploy a smartphone app in a general election, allowing hundreds of overseas residents and members of the military stationed abroad to cast their ballots remotely. And the app will rely on blockchain, the same buzzy technology that underpins bitcoin, in yet another Election Day first.

“Especially for people who are serving the country, I think we should find ways to make it easier for them to vote without compromising on the security,” said Nimit Sawhney, co-founder of Voatz, the company that created the app of the same name that West Virginia is using. “Right now, they send their ballots by email and fax, and — whatever you may think of our security — that’s totally not a secure way to send back a ballot.”

But cybersecurity and election integrity advocates say West Virginia is setting an example of all the things states shouldn’t do when it comes to securing their elections, an already fraught topic given fears that Russian operatives are trying again to tamper with U.S. democracy.

“This is a crazy time to be pulling a stunt like this. I don’t know what they’re thinking,” said David Jefferson, a computer scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories who is on the board of Verified Voting, an election security advocacy group. “All internet voting systems, including this one, have a host of cyber vulnerabilities which make it extremely dangerous.”

I demand paper ballots! What is so hard about this? A security expert weighs in:

This is crazy (and dangerous). West Virginia is allowing people to vote via a smart-phone app. Even crazier, the app uses blockchain — presumably because they have no idea what the security issues with voting actually are.

As for what those security issues are:

Today, we conduct our elections on computers. Our registration lists are in computer databases. We vote on computerized voting machines. And our tabulation and reporting is done on computers. We do this for a lot of good reasons, but a side effect is that elections now have all the insecurities inherent in computers. The only way to reliably protect elections from both malice and accident is to use something that is not hackable or unreliable at scale; the best way to do that is to back up as much of the system as possible with paper. […]

Last year, the Defcon hackers’ conference sponsored a Voting Village. Organizers collected 25 pieces of voting equipment, including voting machines and electronic poll books. By the end of the weekend, conference attendees had found ways to compromise every piece of test equipment: to load malicious software, compromise vote tallies and audit logs, or cause equipment to fail.

It’s important to understand that these were not well-funded nation-state attackers. These were not even academics who had been studying the problem for weeks. These were bored hackers, with no experience with voting machines, playing around between parties one weekend.