Sunday, 31 December 2017

The year of Trump has laid bare the US constitution’s serious flaws

There’s a million things to love about Hamilton, the musical that has opened in London to reviews as glowing as those that greeted its debut on Broadway. The lyrics are so ingenious, so intricate and dexterous, that the show’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, has a claim to be among the most exciting writers, in any medium, in the world today. Rarely have I seen an audience delight in the tricks and rhyming pyrotechnics of language the way I saw a preview audience react to Hamilton a fortnight ago.
As I say, there are countless other pleasures. The staging is inventive, the melodies memorable and, by having black and minority ethnic actors play Alexander Hamilton and his fellow founding fathers, the musical instantly offers a powerful new take on America’s tragic, enduring flaw: race. But it was the idealism of the show – which venerates Hamilton and George Washington and unabashedly romanticises the revolution that birthed the United States of America – that struck a particular chord for me.
In 2018, it will be 20 years since I published a book called Bring Home the Revolution. Begun when I was still in my 20s, it too was an essay in idealism, arguing that the American uprising of 1776 and the constitution that followed in 1787 were a rebellion against a system of government under which we Britons still laboured two centuries later – albeit with an overmighty, overcentralised government in place of the bewigged King George.
The American revolution, I argued, was our inheritance, a part of our patrimony mislaid across the Atlantic. From a written constitution to a system of radically devolved power to the replacement of monarchy with an elected head of state, it was time for us to bring home the revolution that we had made in America.
With impeccable timing, my hymn of praise for the US constitution appeared a matter of months before what looked a lot like a US constitutional crisis, with the impeachment of Bill Clinton over perjury charges arising from his denials of a relationship with a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. “So you want us to live the American dream?” one interviewer asked. “All a bit of nightmare now, isn’t it?”

That, or something like it, has happened at intervals ever since. If it wasn’t a hideous, only-in-America mass shooting, it would be an election in which a man with fewer votes defeated an infinitely more qualified opponent who had won more.
Usually, I have managed to deflect these challenges, arguing that my book was a homage to a founding ideal, not to the necessarily flawed reality. But it’s time for me to admit my doubts about its core idea – its admiration for the US constitution and system of government. For this first year of the Donald Trump presidency has exposed two flaws in the model that I cannot brush aside so easily.
The first is that Trump has vividly demonstrated that much of what keeps a democracy intact is not enshrined in the written letter of a constitution, but resides instead in customs and conventions – norms – that are essential to civic wellbeing. Trump trampled all over those as a candidate – refusing to disclose his tax returns, for example – and has trampled over even more as president.
Convention dictated that he had to divest himself of private business concerns on taking office, to prevent a conflict of interest – but in the absence of a law explicitly forcing him to do so, he did no such thing. The same goes for appointing unqualified relatives to senior jobs, sacking the director of the FBI with no legitimate cause, or endorsing an accused child molester for the US Senate. No law told him he couldn’t, so he did.
I once thought the US constitution – a document crafted with almost mathematical precision, constructing a near-perfect equilibrium of checks and balances – offered protection against such perils. And there’s no denying that that text, as interpreted by the courts, has indeed acted as a partial roadblock in Trump’s path, delaying and diluting his Muslim-focused “travel ban”, for example.
But this year of Trump has also shown the extent to which the US has an unwritten constitution that – just like ours – relies on the self-restraint of the key political players, a self-restraint usually insisted upon by a free press. Yet when confronted with a leader unbound by any sense of shame – and shamelessness might just be Trump’s defining quality – America is left unexpectedly vulnerable.
Of course, there is a remedy, and its name is impeachment. Scholars are clear that Trump has already provided sufficient legal grounds for such a move – the case against him is far more compelling than the one against Bill Clinton. But impeachment proceedings are triggered by the House of Representatives, followed by a trial in the Senate, and nothing will happen so long as Republicans control both houses of Congress.
In 2017 we saw with new clarity that the strength of the US constitution depends entirely on the willingness of those charged with enforcing it to do their duty. And today’s Republicans refuse to fulfil that obligation. They, like Trump, are without shame. This was a fatal oversight by Hamilton, James Madison and their fellow framers of the constitution. They did not reckon on a partisanship so intense it would blind elected representatives to the national interest – so that they would, repeatedly, put party ahead of country. The founders did not conceive of a force like today’s Republican party, willing to indulge a president nakedly hostile to ideals Americans once held sacred.
Florida’s disenfranchised: voices of the 1.7 million not allowed to vote

My 1998 self asks me whether, say, the Westminster parliament would really be so different if confronted by a Trump-like would-be autocrat. Would individual MPs suppress their own revulsion and back him, fearing deselection by party activists if they did not – much as congressional Republicans won’t move against Trump lest they face the wrath of his base? It’s conceivable. And yet a parliamentary vote of no confidence is a lower hurdle than impeachment. Put simply, it would be easier to get rid of a British Trump.

And these weaknesses in the US model have prompted me to see others. The second amendment does not compel Americans to allow an unrestricted flow of guns into the hands of the violent and dangerous, but the fact that the argument hinges on interpretations of a text written more than two centuries ago is itself a problem. It means America, in the words of that great revolutionary Thomas Paine, is too often “like dead and living bodies chained together”, today’s generation shackled to the words of their ancestors.
And yet, despite everything, I still see so much to admire in the founding achievement of America. The society remains innovative, restless and creative: it’s still capable of producing a work of genius like Hamilton. But its next act of renewal might be to update or amend the text that gave it birth, to declare that no human invention, no matter how great, can remain stuck. Were he around, I suspect that “bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman” would agree.

Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian correspondent

Saturday, 30 December 2017

'Who are they saying we should cut from?': critics round on Eric Abetz over welfare

Extract from The Guardian

The Liberal senator has been criticised by Labor and the Greens for demonising welfare recipients

Senator Eric Abetz
Eric Abetz has been criticised for calling for further cuts to welfare spending based on spurious comparisons of the distribution of tax dollars. Photograph: Mike Bowers for the Guardian

Calls for spending cuts by the Liberal senator Eric Abetz based on spurious comparisons of the distribution of tax dollars have been criticised as demonising welfare recipients.
Treasury figures, published in response to a question on notice from Abetz, showed of the $11,427 in tax paid by the “average” earner, $4,326, or $83 a week, was spent on social security, while $474, or $9 a week, was spent servicing national debt.
Abetz seized on those figures, first published by the West Australian, to call for spending cuts.
But the Greens family and community services spokeswoman, Rachel Siewert, said the comparison was false. “We have developed a social safety net that ensures that everyone in our community has the basic necessities,” she said.
“The aged pension has not gone up recently [in real terms]. Neither has the disability support pension. So people who advocate cuts to income support – who are they saying we should cut from? Who should we not support?”
Aged care makes up the biggest portion of Australia’s welfare spend, with the average taxpayer, judged to be earning about $58,000 by Treasury for the figures it provided, contributing $1,822 ($35 a week) for pensions and associated support.
That same average earner would contribute, on average, only $326 ($6 a week) for someone receiving unemployment benefits.
Labor’s social services spokeswoman, Jenny Macklin, said the demonisation of welfare recipients had to stop. “The latest OECD report shows that Australia has one of the most sustainable pension systems in the world,” she said.
“The rate of Newstart has been widely criticised as inadequate by many groups including the Business Council of Australia, which makes the point that its low level is actually a barrier to effective job searches and employment.
“These payments provide a vital safety net to people unable to work, and play an important role in alleviating poverty. Australia has one of the most well-targeted social security systems in the world.”
The average Australian worker spends $1,022, or about $20 a week, on defence, while just $106 a year from their tax is used on immigration. 

Trump's call for some 'good old global warming' ridiculed by climate experts

  • US president again conflates weather with climate to mock climate change
  • Experts call comments ‘scientifically ridiculous and demonstrably false’
Climate scientists have long warned against using individual weather events to assess global warming Photograph: Xinhua / Barcroft Images

Donald Trump once dismissed it as a “hoax” created by the Chinese to destroy American jobs, but on a freezing Thursday night in the eastern US the president found himself pining for some of that “good old global warming”.
On holiday in Florida on Thursday, Trump wondered if global warming might not be such a problem after all.
As severe cold and record amounts of snow swept across the US east coast, Trump wrote on Twitter that his people “could use a little bit of that good old Global Warming that our Country, but not other countries, was going to pay TRILLIONS OF DOLLARS to protect against”.
“Bundle up!” he added.
The president was reheating two favourite tropes: the conflation of weather with climate to pour scepticism on global warming, and the supposed cost to the American taxpayer of the Paris climate accord, from which he has confirmed the US will withdraw.
Climate scientists, however, have long warned against using individual weather events to ponder the existence or otherwise of global warming. Weather, they point out, refers to atmospheric conditions during a short period; climate relates to longer-term weather patterns.
On Friday, Anthony Leiserowitz, director of Yale University’s project on climate change communication, said Trump’s tweet was “scientifically ridiculous and demonstrably false”.
“There is a fundamental difference in scale between what weather is and what climate is,” he said. “What’s going on in one small corner of the world at a given moment does not reflect what’s going on with the planet.”
The extreme cold snap in the eastern US is a rare example of a place experiencing below-average winter temperatures, he said, a point that was neatly illustrated by a map tweeted out by the Weather Channel on Friday.

1) There is a difference between and .
2) Short-term snaps will continue to occur in a warming climate.
3) 2017 will likely be a top three warmest year on record for the globe.
(Graphic: Univ. of Maine - Climate Change Institute) 

Elsewhere, Matthew England, a climate scientist from the University of New South Wales, called Trump’s comment “an ignorant misconception of the way the earth’s climate works”.
“Nobody ever said winter would go away under global warming, but winter has become much milder and the record cold days are being far outnumbered by record warm days and heat extremes,” he said. “Climate change is not overturned by a few unusually cold days in the US.”
David Karoly, a climate scientist from the University of Melbourne, put it even more bluntly: “It’s winter in the US. Cold temperatures are common in winter.”
Climate modelling showed cold snaps like the one in the US were actually becoming less common as a result of global warming, Karoly said, adding that rapid attribution analysis means scientists are now able to look more closely at “classes of events”.
That type of modelling for the north-east of the US, he said, showed that although there was a great deal of year-to-year variability, the average coldest temperature in December in the region has increased in the past 50 years.
In any case, the US is already getting that “good old global warming”. 2017 is set to be the third-warmest on record, prompting among other things a climate-fuelled hurricane season in the country’s south.
Experts also know climate change is linked to a dangerous pattern of major weather events. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the US is on track to match or exceed the previous record year for extreme weather and climate events costing more than $1bn, including wildfires, hurricanes and flooding.
There had been 15 such events by the end of September, compared with 15 for the whole of 2016 and 16 in the record year of 2011.
Adam Smith, a climatologist at NOAA, said: “Climate change is playing a role, amplifying the frequency and intensity of some types of extreme weather that lead to billion-dollar disasters.”
With Hurricane Harvey devastating Texas and extraordinary wildfires in California, Smith said 2017 was expected to “shatter” the record for the US’s costliest year in terms of weather events. That was 2005, with losses of $215bn from disasters including Hurricane Katrina.
Trump’s tweet also revisited his claim that the Paris climate accord would have cost the US “trillions” of dollars. At a rally in Pennsylvania in April to mark his 100th day in office, Trump said “full compliance with the agreement could ultimately shrink America’s GDP by $2.5tn over a 10-year period”.
The politically non-aligned website asked the White House for a source for that remark, and was pointed to a 2016 study by the conservative Heritage Foundation which found the Paris agreement “will result in over $2.5tn in lost GDP by 2035”.
While that is an 18-year period, not 10, found the accuracy of Heritage’s statements depended on which numbers were used. The Heritage study used a carbon tax rate of $36, increasing 3% each year from 2015 to 2035. Other analyses have found the US would have needed only a carbon tax of $21.22 starting in 2017 to meet its Paris target by 2025.
Leiserowitz, meanwhile, criticised the president’s use of social media. “It’s meant to be red meat for his base,” he said. “They’re the ones most likely to be dismissive of climate change and the most likely to vote in the 2018 Republican primaries – so it’s a warning shot for the GOP members in Congress.”
The global warming tweet, he said, was another attempt by Trump to distract from special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.
He added that the idea a cold snap disproves global warming is a “zombie argument”, because though “it’s killed over and over by the science” it “keeps coming back for more brains”.

Trump’s tweet was “troll-like”, the scientist said, showing the president “delighting in sparking outrage among [his] opponents”.

Friday, 29 December 2017

Renewables generated triple the power of coal in 2017, UK figures show

As the worst-polluting coal plants near the end of their life, the focus must turn to tackling gas dependency, says analysis firm

A rainbow appears behind wind turbines
Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

British wind farms generated more electricity than coal plants on more than 75% of days this year, an analysis of energy figures has shown.
Solar also outperformed coal more than half the time, the data provided by website MyGridGB revealed.
Overall, renewables provided more power than coal plants on 315 days in 2017, figures up to 12 December showed. Wind beat coal on 263 days, and solar outperformed the fossil fuel on 180 days.
Between April and August inclusive, coal generation exceeded solar on only 10 days.
In total, renewables generated more than three times the amount of electricity as coal over the year to 12 December.
The figures – provided by BM Reports and Sheffield University – reflect a year in which a number of green records have been set for the power sector, including the first full day without any coal power in the system, record solar generation and tumbling prices for new offshore wind farms.
The government has committed to phasing out coal power that does not have technology to capture and permanently store its carbon emissions by 2025, as part of efforts to meet targets on greenhouse gases.
The focus now turns to gas, with daily output from wind outstripping gas on only two days of the year, and renewables overall – including wind, solar, biomass and hydropower – beating the fossil fuel on just 23 days.

Dr Andrew Crossland from MyGridGB and the Durham Energy Institute said: “The government has focused on reducing coal use which now supplies less than 7% of our electricity. However, if we continue to use gas at the rate that we do, then Britain will miss carbon targets and be dangerously exposed to supply and price risks in the international gas markets.
“Clearly, refreshed government support for low-carbon alternatives is now needed to avoid price and supply shocks for our heat and electricity supplies.”
Emma Pinchbeck, executive director at industry body RenewableUK, said the decision to phase out coal was being made possible by a homegrown renewables industry “coming into its own”.
She added: “We want to see more boldness from the Conservative government. In 2018, the government should move to allow onshore wind, now the cheapest form of power for consumers, to be developed in parts of the UK where it is wanted, and agree an ambitious sector deal with the offshore wind industry.

“The new year could be the first in a golden age for UK renewables.”

From 'angry summer' to 'weird winter': 2017 was riddled with extreme weather

Australia is the land of droughts and floods, but they are becoming more frequent and forceful. The window of opportunity to act on climate change is closing

A kangaroo jumps in a drought-affected paddock near Cunnamulla in outback Australia
‘This summer, we are again bracing for “above normal” fire season in New South Wales, with the fire danger period commencing earlier than usual.’ Photograph: David Gray/Reuters

The fingerprints of climate change can be traced across 2017, with extreme weather events witnessed around the world; from supercharged storms, hurricanes, floods and heatwaves through to bushfires. 2017 has seen it all.
As the year draws to a close, it remains on track to become the third hottest year on record and the hottest in a non-El Niño year. Despite the United States and Europe continuing their decade-long decline in greenhouse gas pollution, Australia has been missing in action. Australia’s pollution has been rising year on year since March 2015. This pollution is contributing to driving worsening extreme weather here and around the world.
2017 kicked off with yet another “angry summer” across Australia, characterised by intense heatwaves, hot days and bushfires in central and eastern Australia, while heavy rainfall and flooding hit the west of the nation. In just 90 days, more than 205 records were broken around the country. Temperatures soared beyond 40C during Sydney’s hottest January on record, with news outlets labelling the event as “the summer of sweat”. The extreme summer heat in New South Wales was at least 50 times more likely to occur due to climate change.
Australia is the land of droughts and flooding rains, but the extreme weather events we are now seeing are becoming more frequent and more forceful. The “angry summer” was just one example of this trend.
Australia’s pollution levels rose again throughout March as scientists confirmed the second mass coral bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef in two years. . Weeks later, category-four Tropical Cyclone Debbie struck Queensland and northern NSW, sparking the evacuation of thousands as powerful storms brought heavy rainfall and mass flooding. At least five Australians died. The damage bill of the event reached about $2bn.
Fast-forward to June and Australia entered its warmest winter on record, resulting in more than 260 heat and low rainfall records being broken throughout the season. The University of Melbourne’s Andrew King then confirmed the event was made 60 times more likely owing to climate change.
By September, the US and the Caribbean were lashed by not one but three major hurricanes – Irma, Harvey and Maria – fuelled by exceptionally warm seas. Maria set the record for the most intense Atlantic hurricane to make landfall, obliterating Puerto Rico. Officials still don’t know what the official death toll is. Harvey dropped 1.5 metres of rain on some Texas cities, smashing previous records, displacing thousands of people and causing billions of dollars in damage.
This summer we are again bracing for “above normal” fire season in NSW, with the fire danger period commencing earlier than usual. As a result, the hot and dry conditions of a “weird winter” have led to a worrying outlook for the bushfire season across much of south-east Australia. Each year our fire services are preparing for more frequent and more dangerous bushfires.
The window of opportunity for Australia to act on climate change is rapidly closing. 2017 has been a year riddled with extreme weather events, worsened by climate change. The lion’s share of Australia’s climate pollution comes from energy production from the burning of coal, oil and gas. For decades it has been clear that a transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy is critical to protecting Australia from worsening extreme weather. What has changed in the last few years is that it is increasingly clear that new renewable energy is cheaper than new fossil fuels, and renewables with storage, like batteries, can power the nation 24/7.
During the last 12 months the energy debate has dominated the front pages; however, we still lack a national approach to energy that can effectively tackle pollution and take advantage of the dramatic reduction in the costs of renewable energy. What we know about the government’s latest energy proposal is that it will strangle renewable energy at exactly the time it needs to grow. Thankfully, state,territory and local governments, along with households and businesses, have been leading the way. More than 1.7 million Australians now have solar on their roof, while state governments have introduced targets in increase the supply of renewable energy.
As 2017 draws to a close the government is finalising its climate change strategy. Failing to tackle climate change is an active decision to accept worsening extreme weather events and the severe damage they will cause to communities and our way of life.

Amanda McKenzie is the CEO of the Climate Council

Siri's creator says virtual assistants will know you intimately. But can we trust them?

The man who co-created Apple's virtual assistant Siri found the 2013 science fiction film Her a challenge.
Given it stars an artificial intelligence named Samantha, it is a little like going to the office.
Adam Cheyer, who has worked on digital assistants for almost 25 years, could not turn off what he calls his "engineering mind".
He deconstructed the technical process behind each word Samantha said until the moment the film's hero Theodore goes to bed and she asks: "Can I watch you sleep?"
"There's no informational content that can be derived from observing a prone human," Mr Cheyer laughs.
Mr Cheyer may not be able to engineer emotional love into virtual assistants (yet), but he has played a vital role in bringing the chatty technology to our smartphones.
Shortly after his team offered an early version of Siri on the App Store in 2010, Steve Jobs called, and the product launched on the iPhone in 2011.

Mr Cheyer no longer works for Apple, instead working on his own artificial intelligence company Viv Labs, which was bought by Samsung last year.
These days, a new industry of home assistants is popularising the conversational interface. They play music on command, read the news and deliver weather reports.
Almost half of US adults use voice assistants to interact with their personal devices, but Mr Cheyer doesn't think the technology is quite ready for primetime.

The rise of voice

When he first built a version of Siri, Mr Cheyer had never seen a web browser. Even today, the virtual assistants on the market are far from the vision of usefulness he formed in the early 1990s.
They still perform only a narrow set of functions: send texts, check stocks, call your mum.
"People use, in small ways, voice assistants and other assistants every day ... but they're still not very important," Mr Cheyer says.
He wants the virtual assistant to become your primary means of interacting with computers and information — an "ubiquitous interface" — the same way you might use a smartphone or web browser today.
To get there, Mr Cheyer believes the assistant needs to become untethered from a single brand or device.
"Today an assistant is a feature that sells devices," he says. "The only phone you can get Siri on is an Apple phone. The same with Google."
Instead, he wants you to interact with just one assistant throughout your day, whether in the car, at work or watching TV.
He also wants the virtual assistant to be personalised.
"Today, Siri, Cortana and the others are exactly the same assistant for every user," he explains.
"I want an assistant that can do the things I want it to do ... my hobbies, the brands I care about, the services I access. My assistant should know about that."

Can you trust the disembodied voice?

Unlike using online search the old-fashioned way — with your typing fingers — voice interaction feels far more intimate.
This is intentional: the informal tone and cheery personality nudges you towards an emotional attachment.
When creating Siri, Mr Cheyer and his team knew it had to be somehow embodied.
They answered questions like: is Siri a man or a woman or neither? Is it human or a machine or neither? Is it an employee of Apple or a fanboy of Apple or neither?
But if something speaks, it must also listen.
Our phones are always near us and our home assistants sit there, squat on our kitchen bench, eternally listening for the word that will wake them up: "OK Google" or "Alexa".
This has already raised privacy concerns. The American Civil Liberties Union, for one, has weighed in:
In Mr Cheyer's view, assistants are built on the same technology as the internet, smartphone and apps. You must decide what of yourself you're willing to share.
"It's going to be based on trust, even more than the web," he says.

Is voice just another way to serve ads?

This trust relationship also makes monetising the virtual assistant difficult.
If you share your most sensitive queries and plans with this voice, it would be jarring to hear it suggest you try a food home delivery service you have no use for.
Notifications and interjections from talking devices could steal even more of our attention.
Mr Cheyer says developers must act delicately because of this dynamic, although he does think there will be a way to serve sponsored results.
But what if one of the big voice assistant brands breaks this trust covenant, either by serving intrusive ads or worse?
In an age when information warfare is served on your Facebook newsfeed, this doesn't feel unlikely.
"If one violated this trust in some way, does that bring down the whole industry? Perhaps," he ruminates.
Of course, being the so-called father of Siri means Mr Cheyer is bullish on the future of voice.
His home is filled with voice assistants, but will one become the emotional crutch that Samantha was for Theodore?
Mr Cheyer thinks not.

Monday, 25 December 2017

Bit by bit, Trump is taking apart the New Deal’s glorious legacy

With huge tax cuts projected to create a $1.5tn deficit, cuts to social security and Medicare will surely follow

News breaks of the Wall Street stock market crash in 1929, which prompted the New Deal
News breaks of the Wall Street stock market crash in 1929, which prompted the New Deal. Photograph: New York Daily News Archive/NY Daily News via Getty Images

Since January, there have been frightening signs that America is becoming an oligarchy overseen by a dictator. From the first, Donald Trump has followed an authoritarian playbook, beginning with his rejection of objective reality. Forced early on to defend the assertion that the crowd at Trump’s inauguration was the biggest ever witnessed, presidential spokesperson Kellyanne Conway explained that the administration used “alternative facts”. Since then, the president has repeatedly attacked fact-based media as “fake news”. Indeed, with his insistence on an alternative reality, Trump sometimes seems like an elderly Fox News-addled neighbour suddenly given power to make his bizarrely warped view of America real.
But now, it feels all too real, with Trump delivering on the economic core of his vision. He has slashed regulations that protect workers, walked away from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, attacked the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) and gutted the government. Finally, in a dramatic “win” for his administration, the Republicans last week passed a major tax overhaul that slashes taxes primarily for the wealthy and is projected to create an almost $1.5tn dollar deficit. Republicans have already said that the only way to address that shortfall will be with cuts to Medicare and social security.
Since Democratic president Franklin Delano Roosevelt established the New Deal in the 1930s, radical conservatives have railed against the idea that the government should intervene in the economy. The New Deal responded to the Great Crash and the ensuing Depression by regulating business, providing a basic social safety net and promoting infrastructure in order to maintain a level playing field for all Americans. Opponents countered this principle by arguing that the government must not hem in America’s business leaders. In their view, government regulations and laws to benefit poorer members of society crippled leaders’ ability to prosper and, since their prosperity drove the economy by trickling down to everyone else, such laws destroyed progress.
But the New Deal was wildly popular, so conservatives sold their reactionary economic vision by enlisting white racism. As the federal government promoted civil rights, they warned that an active government redistributed the wealth of hard-working, white taxpayers to African Americans, a “special interest” that wanted better treatment than everyone else. In contrast, conservatives offered the image of the American cowboy individualist.
Ronald Reagan, with his derision of the welfare queen and his mantra that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem”, rode that racist anti-government cowboy image into the White House. Trump is this conservative macho individualist exaggerated to caricature. He brags about how he knows better than anyone how to run a successful business, how to fight Isis, how to find “the best people” for office.
While Reagan hinted at the discrimination inherent in the conservative worldview, Trump revels in it. But Trump delivered not just on the racism and sexism of the individualist vision, but also on its economics. In short, Republicans under Trump have finally destroyed the New Deal, turning the government over to a small cadre of wealthy businessmen, unhampered, to run the country as they see fit. When Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore put on his cowboy hat and rode his horse to the polls in Alabama in December, he was deliberately embodying Republican individualist principles.

Trump and Putin at the G-20 summit in Hamburg in July
‘A disturing affinity for Russian oligarchs’: Trump and Putin at the G-20 summit in Hamburg in July. Photograph: Evan Vucci/AP
And therein lies the rub. Moore lost the election. As Republicans under Trump have converted the nation into an oligarchy of rich individualists, Trump’s extreme macho individualism has bred a backlash.
Since 1980, Republican shredding of the social safety net has disproportionately hit women, particularly women of colour. At the same time, the Republican vision defined women primarily as wives and mothers and suggested that since men took care of their dependants, any woman protesting against her deteriorating conditions was demanding special legislation. The election of a man who used his privilege not to protect women but to assault them gave women a clear way to rally against Republican individualism.
In October, the New York Times’s exposé of film mogul Harvey Weinstein, who controlled women’s access to work by demanding sexual favours, lit the #MeToo movement. One powerful man after another fell before what is not simply a pushback against sexual assault, but is a rejection of the worldview that privileged dominant men.
Nowhere has the rejection of that vision been clearer than in the victory of Democrat Doug Jones over Roy Moore. Voters chose Jones, the federal prosecutor who brought to justice two Ku Klux Klan members responsible for the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four African American girls, over Moore, an alleged sexual predator.

In 2017, Trump brought to life the alternative reality portrayed on Fox News, the individualist vision designed to destroy the New Deal. Now that it is exposed to reality, Americans reject it. Trump’s approval rating is at 35%, a historical low.
Nonetheless, it is not clear that democracy will prevail. Trump admires not America’s democratic allies but autocrats: Turkey’s President Erdoğan, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. He has shown astonishing disregard for the law, flouting nepotism and emoluments rules and treating regular government procedures, including the authority of Congress, with disdain.
He has tried to undermine the FBI and American intelligence agencies, shows a disturbing affinity for Putin and Russian oligarchs, and has tried to undermine the authority of special counsel, Robert Mueller, charged with examining the role of Russia in the 2016 election. Acting again from the autocrat’s playbook, he has repeatedly attacked the press and has packed the courts: appointing the supreme court justice Republicans denied to President Barack Obama and 12 circuit judges, more in a year than any other president in history.
And Trump has followers who appear to be willing to rally around him, no matter what he does, even, perhaps, to dismiss as “fake news” any evidence of collusion with Russia that Mueller produces or, maybe, as the president suggested, to let him “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody”. If Republican leaders are willing to enable Trump’s autocratic enthusiasms in return for oligarchy, American democracy will die.
In the 1850s, when a small group of rich slaveholders took the government away from the majority and tried to create an oligarchy, Abraham Lincoln implored Americans to work to guarantee “that government of the people by the people for the people, shall not perish from the earth”.
Words for Americans to think about in the year 2018.

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Northern Territory government condemned over mine's huge toxic dump

Environmental groups ask whether government can ever adequately regulate the Macarthur River Mine, after reactive waste rock was dumped in wrong place

McArthur River mine in Northern Territory dumped waste in the wrong place, where it began emitting sulphur dioxide.
McArthur River mine in Northern Territory dumped waste in the wrong place, where it began emitting sulphur dioxide. Photograph: Helen Davidson for the Guardian

The Northern Territory government’s claim that no report exists from an investigation into an accidental dumping of toxic mining waste demonstrates a lack of transparency and an inability to regulate a mine which has had repeated problems, environmental groups have said.
On Thursday Guardian Australia revealed the Glencore-owned McArthur River mine near Borroloola, about 700km south-east of Darwin, had accidentally dumped thousands of tonnes of reactive waste rock in the wrong place, where it combusted and began emitting sulphur dioxide.
On the same day, the independent monitor found waste rock continued to be a problem at the mine site and McArthur River Mining’s nearly $500m bond covered only a fraction of its predicted rehabilitation period.
In 2016 the NT Department of Primary Industry and Resources contracted an independent investigator to look into the incident but the department says the investigator’s only finding was delivered verbally.
The head of the department, Armando Padovan, said the investigation concluded the dumping – which amounted to about 14,000 tonnes – was “in accordance with the operator’s mine management plan,” and that no final report was produced.
The claims were made during a series of contradictory interviews and statements by department executives.
Gavin Mudd, a senior lecturer in environmental engineering at RMIT and chairman of the Mineral Policy Institute, said the incident raised questions about whether the government could ever regulate the mine – and especially its eventual rehabilitation – to the standard the community reasonably expected.
“The saga shows the lack of rigorous regulation, assessment and enforcement which has dogged the MRM site for decades – a situation the department are commendably working to toughen, but the scale of environmental risks are getting exponentially bigger year by year,” Mudd said.
“It is a legitimate question to ask whether this growing risk is really worth the effort.”
Shar Molloy, director of the Environment Centre NT said the fact no final report was produced demonstrated a lack of transparency by government about the controversial mine, which is seeking approval to expand its operations.
“How can the Borroloola community and the NT public trust the government and trust these departments to be able to monitor and hold these companies accountable?” she said. “This is not at all within the values of transparency and openness and trust.”
The chief executive of the Environmental Defenders Office NSW, David Morris, also a former principal legal officer for the NT branch, said it was another example of failure by the NT government and McArthur River Mining.“Failure of the mine to actually responsibly operate that mine site and failure of the government to appropriately and adequately manage the site as the regulator,” Morris said. “The fact his investigation has not been put in writing and made public further erodes public confidence in the process.”
He said the dumping incident showed the “inability of [McArthur River Mining] to manage its waste rock. The further question then is how any responsible government could contemplate the approval of an expansion which would see the need for additional waste rock to be managed,” he said.
Glencore, which owns McArthur River Mining, declined to answer detailed questions prior to the story’s publication.
On Thursday a spokesman told the ABC: “MRM cooperated fully with the department throughout the investigation process and measures are in place to ensure this is not repeated.”
Padovan told media in Darwin on Thursday the department was happy with the way MRM acted after the accidental dumping.
“We looked into the matter when we became aware of it, and we worked with McArthur River Mining to identify what led to that waste rock being dropped ... We then worked with the miner to work out how to remediate what had happened,” he said.
Padovan said he did not think the investigation’s findings showed the mine management plan was substandard.
He said there was no evidence of any damage to the water system, and that the main impact was the release of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere.
Padovan said he did not know how long the sulphur dioxide was being emitted from the southern pile before it was stopped,adding that the risk of it happening again was “greatly reduced”.
He said the department regularly inspected the mine site.
Earlier on Thursday the independent monitor of MRM released its annual report, and among its findings was that the department had some failings in following up and monitoring any issues or breaches detected during its inspections.
“The independent monitor commended the department for continuing regular site inspections and developing comprehensive site inspection reports, however there were also areas where it noted the department could make improvements in regulatory practice, particularly in relation to tracking issues observed during site visits,” Padovan said in response to the report.
“We are committed to continuous improvement in our regulatory role and accept all recommendations made in the report.”
The independent monitor’s report also highlights that toxic waste – particularly reactive waste rock – remained a problem at the mine site and long term containment was a key concern.
It said the security bond of $476,094,542 was inadequate, and only covered the next 25 years rather than the several hundred the operator predicts will be required to rehabilitate the site if it is allowed to expand its operations.