Why Are Countries Separating?

In many of my futuristic novels, I have selected a form of government to be in the background. Thus I have had a theocracy, a dictatorship, essentially no government (for the initial settlement of Mars), anarchy, crumbling “democracy” (i.e. our representative republic), real democracy, and finally, something else that I shall call federalism. The concept behind federalism is that a number of countries willingly join a Federation, and on most issues they continue on as they have always done, but there was also an over-riding Council whose function is to set a limited number of rules, and act as referees to make sure the various politicians in the countries behave. Another function is to provide factual information, and prevent political movements from achieving goals by lying. (Hey, I thought about “fake news” before it was popular, but that of course is hardly true either. Telling lies to get votes was bread and butter for the politicians of the Res Publica, and many of the inscriptions on the walls of Karnak by Ramses II had little relation with the facts.) This Federation also has to deal with the futuristic problems that we can see now, such as energy availability, resource allocation, climate change, etc. Interestingly enough, at least for me, the problems upon which the novels depended invariably arose from a similar source: people gaming the system. That may merely reflect my lack of imagination, but I rather fancy that any system will work well if all the people try to make it work. Most Romans thought Augustus was a great leader, even though he was effectively a dictator and probably the greatest manipulator ever.

The plots of these novels focused on how people were trying to get around the various rules. If there were an underlying message here, it was that rules only really work when people can see the point in them. A classic example is road rules. I suspect most of us have, at some time broken the speed limits, and while I have no intention of being specific and attracting unnecessary tickets, I know I have. I actually try to obey parking limits, but some times, well, something happens and I can’t quite make it. However, wherever I am, there is a rule on which side of the road I should drive on, and I keep to that assiduously. There is no specific preference – some countries drive on the right and others drive on the left, but a country has to choose one and stick with it, otherwise there are messy collisions all over the place. Everybody sticks to that rule because they see the point. (Confession time – once I did not. I came over a rise in Czechoslovakia, it was pitch black, and there was a little fire to my left. Suddenly, I realized the problem – there was a tank with camouflage netting parked in the middle of the road. I evaded around the left, not the right, because being in a British car I could better see the space I could use on my right, and also because I was better trained in sliding on gravel, etc, at speed and getting back on the road from that side. Must have given the tankers a bit of a fright. They would see a car first coming straight at their tank at 100k, then it would evade towards them and start sliding sideways, sending up showers of gravel from the side of the road.)

However, the point is, in general people will happily accept such rules if they see a point to them. Which side of the road you should drive on has a very clear point. The speed limit, perhaps less so. We recognize that road construction usually requires speed limits but I know that in some hilly terrain, overtaking a truck would be more important than sticking to a number. The problem with such rules, though is the rule makers seem to get carried away and think there should be rules for everything.

Some may recognize this Federal system. I made it up in the 1980s, and I was inspired in part by the European Union. You may recall at that time there was talk of the currency being the ecu, or European Currency Unit. Accordingly, in my novels I invented the fecu, however I put in one rule that Europe ignored. (They should have consulted me!!) In the novels, the fecu is used for transactions between companies and major corporations, and has a fixed value, a sort of resource standard. However, salaries in different countries, and goods in different countries, are paid in dollars, drachmas, whatever, and the average citizen never sees a fecu. I think the euro is a weakness of the EU because I don’t think you can run a common currency when countries have different economic policies.

Another question is whether the UE, through Brussels, has too many rules. Some say yes, others say no, but in the various discussions on Brexit, there is a lot of talk about untangling the thousands of rules. If that is a problem, there are too many of them. Good rules have a wide acceptance, and they could stay.

Which naturally brings me to the French election. All the commentators I have read say the French were upset over EU rules, and wanted change. So, what do they do? They elect a plutocrat, a banker! Trust the French – reminds me of “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” (Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr) which translates out as “the more it changes, the more it is the same thing”. So, how do you get rid of the rule of plutocrats? The French elect one. The British go the indirect way and try the “go it alone” way. Neither will probably work, but in answer to the title question, I think it is because so many voters have given up on traditional representatives acting in the interests of the population at large they are prepared to try anything.

The Need for, and the Problems of, Recycling

The modern economies rely on the supply of raw materials, and of these, elements are the most critical because there are no alternatives to them. Businesses will collapse if certain elements became unavailable, and the British Geological Society puts out a “risk list” of elements that have a risk of supply disruption. The list is debatable, because it includes political risk, thus the most risky from their perspective are the rare earth elements, the problem here being that China is essentially the main producer and reserve holder. These elements’ risk factors also depend on their demand, thus if there is no known use for something, it has zero risk because even if there is none of it, who cares? However, the overall conclusion is, we could have a problem. As in many such issues, not everyone agrees. Staff at the University of Geneva have published a report arguing that there is no shortage, at least for the foreseeable future. They argue you can mine over three kilometers below the Earth’s surface, or in the oceans. Whether you want to do this, or can even find the deposits, is less clear.

There is no shortage of elements but the bulk of them are distributed in very low concentrations in rock, or seawater. It may surprise some to know that there is plenty of gold in seawater. The problem is, it is rather dilute, and of course there are massive amounts of other materials. Thus there is about eleven tonnes of gold in a trillion tonnes of seawater. Good luck trying to get it out. Same with the rare earth elements. They are not especially rare; however they are particularly rare in workable deposits. Part of the problem is their chemistry has a certain similarity to aluminium, and as a result, they tend to be spread out amongst feldsic/granitic material and as microscopic inclusions (mixed with a lot of other stuff) in basalt. Rather interestingly, there are massive deposits on the Moon, where, as the Moon cooled down, the various rocks crystallised into solids, and one of the last of the liquids to solidify was KREEP, a mix of potassium (K), rare earth elements, and phosphate (P). This also indicates the reason why we have ore deposits on Earth: geological processing. Taking gold as an example, it, and silica dissolve in supercritical water, and as the water comes to the surface and cools down, the gold and the silica come out of solution, which is why you find gold in quartz veins. There are, of course, a variety of geological routes to make ores, but geology is a slow process, so once we run out of easy to find deposits, we have a deep problem. And on a planet such as Mars, there has not been so much geological processing, and no plate tectonics.

One way out of this is recycling, if you can work out how to do it and make a dollar. One big user of rare elements is mobile phones. Thus the “swipe-screen” uses indium/tin oxide, the electronics use copper, silver and gold for carrying current, tantalum for microcapacitors, and neodymium in the magnets. These are the critical elements, and in general there are no substitutes for their specific uses. However, the total number of elements used can be up to sixty. The problem for recycling is first, to get hold of the old ones, as opposed to have them lying about or thrown in the trash, and then to separate out what you want. If you simply melt them, you get a horrible mix. The process could be simplified if the phones could be split into parts, thus only the screens contain indium, but how do you do that?

Early on in my scientific career, I was asked by a company to devise a means of recycling coloured plastics. I did this, a pilot plant was built, a few bugs were ironed out and we could recycle coloured polyethylene to get a very light beige product that could be made into new coloured products by the addition of pigments, and the casual user would not know the difference between that and new plastics for most uses. So this should have been a success? Well, no. There were two problems. This was during the oil crisis of the seventies, and what had happened was that there was an oversupply of new polyethylene in the world. Such surplus was dumped on the New Zealand market, where “it would not do any harm”. That dumping made the venture economically unsustainable. Some time later, the dumping stopped, but by this time the original company had lost interest. Also, the manufacturers introduced more cross-linking, and in a quick demonstration, the process did not work without altering the conditions beyond what had been assumed. There were ways around that, but the warning was clear: the manufacturers were not being friendly to recycling as they kept their information close to their chests. Such changes really hinder recycling. However, that was not the worst: new laminates started appearing, and these were a horror for recycling because the two or more different plastics put together as layers do not separate easily, and any product made from a resultant mix will be of very low quality.

So, we can either have a problem with elements, or we can recycle. Recyclers tend not to have the high technology of the multinational corporations, so my recommendation is, manufacturers should be made to design their goods in a way that aids recycling. For example, a laptop or a mobile phone has lithium ion batteries. It is also essentially impossible to get the battery out when it dies and leave the item in a workable condition. It might suit the manufacturer to force the consumer to buy another laptop as opposed to a new battery, but as the technology matures, is that good enough? Similarly, if the motherboards could be removed/replaced, that would aid recycling and also reduce demand for new gadgets. When I was young, people fixed things. I think it is time to return to those times, and also make objects as recyclable as possible. The problem then is, how do you manage that in a market where competition rules, and the consumer does not think about recycling when he or she buys a new product?

Trump on Taxation

President Trump has announced the intention to make sweeping tax reform, and a significant tax reduction for companies, at present reducing from 35% to 16%. His argument is that by doing this, he will encourage multinational companies to stop hoarding money in offshore tax shelters and bring it back to invest in the US. So what to make of this? The tax reform is an extremely good idea. The simpler and more transparent the tax law is, the less time everybody wastes on minimizing tax and the more they devote to actually earning money. Everybody accepts tax reduction is good for them, but the problem then is, does the government earn enough money to pay for what it wants done? That is a detail that has to be left because it depends on what is available to tax, and how much the government wants to spend.

Company tax is an odd animal because one argument is that you collect more or less the same tax irrespective of the rate. It goes like this. A company earns money, but those earnings are spent in four basic ways: investing in new plant; buying goods/services from other companies; paying staff; paying dividends. Looking at these in inverse order, money transferred to dividends becomes personal income, and that is taxed, so what we are avoiding is double tax. Many countries avoid such double taxation by giving company tax credits with the dividends, and while I am unaware of US tax policy on this, as a general rule as long as there is no double taxation, lowering the company tax rate has no adverse effect on dividends because those on the low tax rates in general cannot afford the stock. The important thing is that unlike people, companies do not spend on themselves, leaving aside “perks” such as company jets. My view is such “luxury expense” for senior staff should be taxed as a personal benefit to them.

Paying staff means the staff pay tax on their earnings. Now, if the staff are low paid, lowering company tax does reduce the tax collected, because most staff do not pay the 35% rate, although some may be on a higher rate. Similarly, buying goods and services from other companies simply transfers the taxable profits, although if the goods are imported, the profits go elsewhere. The question here is, then, will the US increase local production? The reason many multinationals manufacture offshore is that wages there are seriously lower, and they do not have to pay benefits and compliance is less strict. There is rationality in thinking that such goods manufactured offshore should be taxed as if the company met home compliance and had paid home benefits and wages because that levels the playing field from the “own country” point of view, but of course it hurts developing countries.

The virtuous part, according to Trump, is that by lowering company tax, multinationals will bring back more of the offshore funds accreted, and all companies will have more money to invest and create new jobs, or pay dividends. The next question is, is this valid reasoning? I am not so sure. The problem with investing to create new jobs is you have to have something to invest in. That is not so easy to find. There is no real evidence that company tax is inhibiting investment because there is no real evidence that, leaving aside small individual companies in trouble, there is a widespread shortage of money. What I see is more a general shortage of ideas. Thus we see the new product is another mobile phone that is only a little bit different from the last one. Ask yourself this: what would you really want that is not currently available if you had the money to buy it?

What that suggests is the economic slowdown is not caused by higher corporate tax, but more through inequality. Those with money already have most of what they want, and those without money cannot afford much of what is there. If we really want to promote growth, then I am afraid the poorer have to have more purchasing power, because they are the only ones at the moment who could power acceleration in sales. Of course the rich will keep on buying, but only at their current rate, and that will not power the growth President Trump wants. So my question is, will President Trump do anything to reduce inequality?

Is there a solution to the Palestinian question?

Back from a quiet time, and look at what happened? The first was that at the end of 2016, New Zealand co-sponsored a UN resolution “demanding” that Israel stop building settlements in the occupied territories of the West Bank. This generated a surprising amount of heat, if not much light. For those who have read my fiction, I have advocated logic as a way of analyzing problems, and it seems to me this question is suitable for such an approach, not that it is likely to succeed.

We start by acknowledging where we are. Israel is a Jewish state, and it occupies by military force the West Bank, which was largely populated by Palestinians, many of whom were forced out of the rest of Israel. The two sides have been very antagonistic towards each other, and the objective is to try to find a solution where both can live in peace. The question is, what are the conditions that might lead to that outcome? In my opinion, the options are:

  1. Move the Jews out of the area. However, the Jews have such an invested infrastructure this option is not a starter.
  2. Move the Palestinians somewhere else. The problem is, where? People say Jordan, but Jordan is already overrun by Syrian refugees, and in any case, why does someone else have to pay the price? While most of the Jews came recently, the Palestinians have been there for a very long time. Whoever advocates this solution can do their own bit, by accepting a Palestinian family, providing them a home and jobs, and a guaranteed income until they can fend for themselves. In short, put your money where your mouth is. I bet there will not be sufficient takers to make a difference.
  3. Incorporate the Palestinians into Israel, with full citizenship, and enough money to make a start to life. That is a non-starter because Israel is a Jewish state, and a Muslim majority would be non-acceptable.
  4. Have a two state solution.

In my opinion, only (4) has any hope, but here the problem is the West Bank is not exactly large, and it is covered with a pox of Israeli settlements. Some people say, they are only 3% of the area. Before addressing that, we must ask, are the settlements legal?

When the first settlements were being considered, the legal counsel to the Israeli Foreign Ministry was asked whether international law permitted civilian settlement in the occupied territories. The reply: that would contravene the explicit provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention. The settlements are illegal because international law forbids an occupying power from moving part of its population to occupied territory. The territory is under military occupation, and it is for that reason the Arabs who live there do not have to be integrated into Israel.

Here is the legal dilemma from the Israeli point of view. Granting citizenship to the Palestinians would mean either Israel ceased to be a proper representative republic, or it would cease to be a Jewish state. Not granting such citizenship meant they were under military occupation, and international law should apply.

In this context, it seems that everybody who keeps asserting Russia violates international law and should be punished are strangely quiet on Israel. Instead we have the rather bizarre situation where the people of the West Bank fall into two subsets: settlers enjoy the full rights of Israeli citizens, while the Palestinians are still under military occupation and have essentially no rights. The question then is, how long will this go on? Obviously, the hard right of Israeli politics seems to think, forever. Whatever else they have, compassion for the Palestinians is not one of them.

Returning to the 3% problem, the area of the settlements is not the issue. The settlements are all connected to Israel proper by roads controlled by Israel that slice up the West bank. The settlements all demand water, sewage, electricity, and other services. All of these services are controlled by Israel, and are unavailable to the Palestinians, and worse than that, Israel would not let the Palestinians cross their fixed infrastructure, because they would expect it to be damaged.

If there is to be a two-state solution, the Palestinians have to go some way. They have to accept the right of Israel to exist, not because it is right but because there is no alternative. Incidents such as the recent one where a Palestinian drove a truck through some Israeli soldiers have to stop. First it is not right to kill people, and particularly those who are not directly responsible for your problems, and second it is counterproductive, because it just firms up Israeli opinion about them. The Palestinians have been severely wronged, and everybody should acknowledge that, but the Palestinians cannot progress by living in a morass of moaning about wrongs. That does not mean that others should not do something to help, though. When the United Nations voted to form Israel, they gave away that which they did not own. In the Naqba, about 700,000 Palestinians were displaced, and their property taken over by Israel. Of course, following the UN resolution, the Israelis could say they had no choice. Maybe, but if that was what the UN wanted, they should have purchased the Palestinian properties and given them to the Israelis. The fact of the matter is that Israel was founded on promises (Lloyd George offered the concept to Jews to help raise money for the war effort, which probably did not help the attitude of a certain Austrian corporal.), terrorism (it is the one shining example that proves that sometimes terrorism does work) and military force. One of the great ironies is that the Jews sent to Palestine in the late 1930s from Germany, organized by a certain Reinhardt Heydrich, set about terrorist activities against the British during WW II, while Heydrich was busy organizing the mass murder of Jews in Europe. The fact that the Palestinians and other “Arab” countries tried military means to right the wrongs done to the Palestinians is also irrelevant, although through their lack of effectiveness it has obviously made the problem worse.

But the past is irrelevant. We are here. If we accept that the two-state solution is the only possibility for civilized peace, then both sides must make serious concessions, and more to the point, the rest of the world that voted to create this problem has to come to the party with serious investment to make Palestine at least a plausible state. If you vote to give away that which you do not own, then you should be prepared to pay for it, to give the Palestinians some hope. The alternative is that the Palestinians live in perpetual military occupation, with no rights, and subjugated by a military force that does not like them one bit.

The recent example of a soldier who saw a Palestinian lying on the ground, and because he believed that Palestinian had injured an Israeli, he shot him. The Palestinian was subjugated, and would have been taken away for trial, but this soldier simply executed him. If you see interviews of Israelis, a large number (including some right wing rabbis I saw interviewed) seem to think the soldier was right. Sorry, but that is not civilized, it is not legal, and it most certainly is not helpful.

So if neither side is interested in reaching a solution, how does this end? I confess I have no idea, except I cannot see it ending well

Where to now, economy?

While I write futuristic novels, none of them involve trying to predict the future; rather I use the future as an excuse to formulate a situation that has little merit other than to be the background to a story that is really looking at something else. However, like most people, I am curious about what could be coming. That includes wondering where the economy is going.

Some time ago I saw an interview with Mervyn King, an ex-Governor of the Bank of England. According to him, in a market economy banking crises are endemic because a market economy cannot provide all the required price and investment signals. This is effectively a statement that there is an inherent failure in the market economy, and it arises because nobody can predict the future, and there are the problems of positive feedback (where the effects of the problem make it worse) and hunting (where the correction dramatically overshoots and causes the opposite problem). Thus suppose commodity A suddenly has a shortage. Prices rise, the masses start acquiring A and the price rises further, but there is no fundamental reason for the rise. When reality strikes, prices drop, and keep dropping.

I recall in my youth the price of potatoes tanked, and farmers found themselves dumping them. My father immediately began renting land, and with a trailer, went around the potato dumps and picked up free seed. Next season, because everyone had got out of potatoes, and also partly because of adverse weather in places, prices leaped five times above average. At that point, my father made a lot of money, but immediately got out of potatoes, on the grounds that next year everyone would be back into them. Now, King’s point is, bankers lend to farmers, but they cannot know what next season’s prices will be, and hence cannot know whether the farmer will prosper or go bust. In New Zealand there are a number of dairy farmers who got into it with expensive farm conversions when prices were very high a couple of years ago. When the world became swimming in milk, the debts still had to be serviced.

The question then is, can anything be done about this? My guess is, so far there are no signs that anything better would work. A long time ago I was in the old USSR, a command economy, and basically it was not working at all well. Prices were stable, by command. I went into a restaurant and picked up a menu that was printed twenty years before and the prices held! The problem was, I also went into a major store to see an array of empty shelves. The prices might have been stable, but if the goods were not available, their price was irrelevant. In one of my trilogies, I proposed an economy that was stable, BUT there is no evidence it would actually work. The proposal was simply background to make the rest of the story easier to follow, and in any case, there were price rises due to resource shortages. However, there was no possibility of major recessions, or major booms. Perhaps I was dreaming?

Another one of King’s points was that while central banks avoided a catastrophe in 2007 – 2008, since then, the basic fundamentals have not been corrected. In particular, there is a serious disequilibrium between saving and debt, largely due to very low interest rates. The problem is, the longer this goes on, the harder it will be to return to some desirable “normal”.

King was also somewhat skeptical about the European Union, and noted that a single interest rate imposed on countries with varying rates of wage and cost inflation leads inexorably to divergence in competitiveness. Well, yes, it would. German banks would seem to have to take some major losses, but they seem reluctant to do so. (Note that Germany itself has defaulted on debt before.)

King’s way out is to boost productivity and growth, and he was enthusiastic about the TPP trade agreement. My guess is that Trump will kill that option.

The problem I see with that analysis is that King thinks society in the future will be more or less the same as now. I am less convinced. In many western countries, the biggest problem is that local manufacturing has been exported, and this has led to the hollowing out of middle classes. While the very top corporations are raking in huge profits (and paying increasingly less tax) the wage earners tend to find their wages actually reduced. Governments are compensating by increasing their borrowing, thus taking advantage of lower interest rates. The problem here is, with the exception of the US and others undertaking quantitative easing, while central banks might offer low interest rates, they do not lend because to do so without borrowing is simply to enlarge the money supply. The US has got away with quantitative easing largely because trillions of dollars have been secreted away in foreign banks as a consequence of tax avoidance. However, the debts remain.

For the general economies of countries like New Zealand, while the Reserve Bank recently lowered interest rates, the commercial banks actually slightly raised them. The reason: they need deposits, and as interest rates have dropped, people have gone searching for yield elsewhere. Here, a lot has gone into housing, largely because there is a shortage of houses, but this has not created a lot of new houses. Instead, as King would have noted, this must lead to a bubble happily fermenting, although because of the underlying shortage (which is politician induced) it may not burst. Here, politicians are the problem through sending perverse signals and regulations to the market. Money has also fled towards stocks, but again that tends to raise the price when more money goes there than into new ventures. Now, what happens if this bubble bursts? Governments are in so much debt they have little room to maneuver. By itself, politicians might consider that as merely unfortunate, but the problem then is the consequences, one of which I included in my novel ‘Bot War. I hope that consequence does not come to pass, but I am far from confident.

Governments want inflation

It is a bit like Alice in Wonderland: governments want some inflation; not too much but not too little. When there is inflation, debts shrink in real magnitude, and governments are notoriously deeply into debt. So, the more the better? Well, not quite. The classic example was Germany during the 1920s, where as soon as you got money, you spent it, or even better, converted it into something else that was not inflating. The German economy effectively collapsed, apart from isolated examples, such as the chemical industry. The reason they survived was because they exported much of their production to the US, and received their income in US dollars. They then paid their workers in something such as “aniline money”, which was convertible to US dollars, and their workers generally made purchases at company stores that sold in “aniline money”. So, in any economic problem, there are always some who survive, usually through being big enough.

There is the other side of the coin. While debtors see their debts inflate away, which in my opinion is essentially basic dishonesty, few want to lend, and if inflation gets high enough, nobody has anything liquid to lend. If you have money, it is converted into something else as quickly as possible. Workers don’t work very hard because the employer is not paying them. The instant they are paid, they are off to turn this paper into something else. So while governments want inflation to get their debts inflated away, and they will wave away the dishonesty aspect by arguing it is the people as a whole who benefit, they do not want it to be so big that people refuse to lend.

So why have inflation at all? One reason stated is that if there is next to zero inflation, the next downturn will lead to deflation, and during deflation people try not to spend, which exacerbates the problem. If people stop buying, there is no point in making the same amount of stuff. Companies either fire staff or go under, which leads to more unemployment and so many more people who cannot service their previous debt. This leads to a higher risk of bank failure. The risks of debt to equity ratios get worse, so more firms will go under, and that puts a lot more pressure on the banks. Another reason is that sustained low inflation means that there is little scope to cushion the next downturn, i.e. the banks have no tools left. As turnover drops, tax returns decrease in value but debt levels stay high, and accordingly the governments have less room to move. As you may notice in these situations, the whole reasoning for whatever is being decided is to make life easier for the banks, or for the government. The whole financial management system is designed to require the least effort from financial managers!

There is a problem here that can be left for a later post, but basically it lies in the possibility that the economies of the world are changing, the rules are changing, and we cannot use the past to predict what is likely to happen in the near future.

Which leaves the question, is zero inflation a disaster? In this context, after Isaac Newton left the British Mint, the value of the pound remained constant more or less until the first world war. During that time, Britain became an economic superpower. Since then, the value of the pound has tanked, and Britain is not. True, there is more involved in Britain’s decline, but the prolonged time during which there was effectively zero inflation did not do Britain any harm. (Note that some prices would, of course, rise. Property prices in certain parts of London rose because there was a shortage of land, but that does not count in the inflation concept.) Further, during that period there was significant investment that powered the Industrial Revolution. Of course it also contained horrible wealth inequality, but that was endemic, and was essentially a consequence of feudalism. There were also serious downturns, but there is no evidence whatsoever that that had anything to do with the value of money, and as yet I do not believe we have an answer to the question of economic cycles and their downturns. So my conclusion is, there is no reason whatsoever to argue that we need inflation, other than to make life for governments and bankers easier. That, in my view, is not an acceptable reason as it has little or no public value.

All of which leaves a problem for writers such as me who write futuristic novels. It seems to me that the world economic situation is changing, but it is far from clear what to? That it is changing is something I shall write about in a future post, but right now, if anyone has any comments along the “what to?” lines, I would love to hear them. In my ‘Bot War novel, the change is forced on the government because economic growth has become negative, and debt servicing takes up too much of the income. Accordingly, the government is forced to reduce current services, and this is not what is required when a crisis appears. But there have to be other possibilities. Your opinion?

Election hangover

Recently, I finished reading the last of “Dictator”, the third of Robert Harris’ trilogy nominally about the life of Marcus Tullius Cicero, but just as much about the collapse of the decaying Res Publica. The aim of Roman politicians was to gain power, or imperium. Few actually wanted to achieve anything, other than to put one over their “enemies” (any other Roman who was not helping them gain their power) or to gain the right to govern a province and get rich from the tithes they would impose. There were exceptions. Cato, and to a lesser extent, Cicero, wanted to maintain the “principles of the republic”, even if these were somewhat ill-defined and were bendable for convenience, while Gaius Julius Caesar genuinely wanted reforms, and was prepared to stamp down on the corrupt practices that he, too, had once engaged in.

In some ways, not a lot changes, although everything now is a lot milder. The vitriol slung between Trump and Clinton would be nothing for the times of the Res Publica. Trump said he would have Clinton investigated; Clodius was quite happy to organize a gang to beat a senator senseless. Even Pompey seemed to be almost afraid much of the time, but of course he obeyed the rules and disbanded his legions before returning to Rome. Caesar was not afraid, but then Caesar did not disband his legions, and he got assassinated.

I am always amused at the straw-clutching assertions made by the losing side. Thus we hear that Clinton won the popular vote. She did but that is irrelevant. About half the eligible population did not vote, and there are at least two possible reasons why not. One is, lack of interest. Another is that for many there is the feeling that if you are in a state that has no chance of changing, and you are in the minority, there is no chance your vote will matter, so why bother?.

Another thing that amuses me is the hand-wringing that went on after Trump won. Horrors! The sky was falling! If they were that concerned, why were they not out campaigning for Clinton? My personal view is that there were so many wild statements flung around during campaigning that we could conclude that such statements are necessary to win the election. If so, there could be a serious withdrawal from most of such statements by the winner.

So, is the sky falling? Is Trump going to be a total disaster, as some of the more noisy ones seem to assert? He won by making the most outrageous statements, but arguably that was what he had to do to win with the current voters. If that is true, then guess were the fault lies. But equally, if he is a man prepared to do whatever is required to achieve a goal, then he may very well retract from many of these positions when the goal is to be an effective president. I suppose we have to wait and see how much power Trump will actually have, but the American constitution is specifically designed to limit the power of any president. The president has to do deals with Congress, and even if Congress is majority Republican in both houses, during the election campaign it was clear that not all Republicans are going to back Trump no matter what. Further, Trump seems to be showing signs of dropping his most outrageous assertions.

I think it is far too early to guess what the Trump presidency will be like. My guess is the fight against global warming has not been done favours, although the US has signed the Paris agreement, and I doubt that will be revoked. Trump’s tax plan is similar to what Paul Ryan wants, so that may well get through. International trade may well suffer, and the US could hurt a country like New Zealand. However, whatever happens, the sky will not fall.

That raises the question, what would it take to bring America to its knees? Strictly speaking, it should be impossible, but there is one way: the bulk of the population cooperates in bringing it down. After all, that was why Rome fell. The average Roman decided that the Roman governance was worse than whatever the uncivilized masses could do, at least once the initial rape and pillage was over. So could anything like that happen now, in America? Of course not. However, if you want to have nightmares over something like that, on Dec 2 my ebook ‘Bot War is available, and if nothing else, it might show you how impossible it is. In this story, the general problem is not the terrorists and their robotic war machines, but rather the general population have no faith in their government. Is that lack of faith justified?