Pablo Picasso Femme au Béret et à la Robe Quadrillée (Marie-Thérèse Walter) 1937
“The era of the US making decisions for the rest of the world is over”. That’s what Russia and China think, too.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has said the world would “not accept” US unilateralism just hours after Washington laid out a series of tough demands to be included in a potential new nuclear treaty with Iran. In remarks carried by Iran’s ILNA news agency on Monday, Rouhani said the era of the United States making decisions for the rest of the world was “over”. “Countries are independent … We will continue our path with the support of our nation,” Rouhani said. “Who are you to decide for Iran and the world?”
[..] In announcing the new US strategy towards Iran, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday warned that Washington “will apply unprecedented financial pressure on the Iranian regime” unless it complied with a list of 12 conditions, which must be met before any new deal can be reached. The demands include giving the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) a full account of the country’s former nuclear military programme, withdrawing its forces from Syria and ending what Pompeo described as Iran’s “threatening behaviour” towards its neighbours.
Also responding to Pompeo, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif accused the US of a “regression to old habits”, saying Washington’s diplomatic efforts were a “sham”. “It repeats the same wrong choices and will thus reap the same ill rewards. Iran, meanwhile, is working with partners for post-US JCPOA solutions,” Zarif said in a tweet on Monday.
Regime change always leads to chaos.
The 8 May US Presidential declaration (on exiting JCPOA) requires of us fundamentally to revise our understanding of Trumpism. At the outset to his term of office, Trumpism was widely understood to be based on three key pillars: That the costs incurred by the US in upholding the full panoply of Empire (i.e. policing the American, rules-based, global order) were just too onerous and unfair (especially in the provision of the defence umbrella) – and that others must be coerced into sharing its cost. Secondly, that American jobs had been, as it were, stolen from America, and would have to be recovered through forced changes to the terms of trade. And thirdly, that these changes would be effected, through applying the tactics of the Art of the Deal.
That seemed, at least, to be clear, (if not necessarily a wholly feasible blueprint). But mostly we thought that the Art of the Deal was about threatening, blustering, and hiking leverage on ‘whatever the counterparty’ – raising tensions to explosive levels – before, at the very eleventh hour, at the very climax of crisis, offering ‘the deal’. And that was the point (then): Yes, Trump would toss verbal grenades intended to upend conventional expectations, take actions to force an issue – but the objective (as generally understood), was to get a deal: One that would tilt towards America’s mercantile and political interests, but a deal, nonetheless.
Maybe we misread Trump’s build-up of America’s already super-sized military. It seemed that it was about potential leverage: something to be offered (in terms of an umbrella to compliant states), or withdrawn from those who would not put their hand in their pocket deeply enough. But everything changed with Trump’s 8 May statement. It was not just an American ‘exit’ that was mooted, it was full court financial war that was declared against Iran (with ‘terms of surrender’ couched in terms of regime change, and total submission to the US). But this is no longer about how to reach a ‘fairer’, better deal for the US; how to make it more money. Rather the financial system was to be leveraged to destroy another state’s currency and economy. The US military are being super-sized further, to be used: to be able to rain down ‘fire and fury’ on non-compliant states.
Sweden is no longer an independent country.
Sweden will send out instructions to its citizens next week on how to cope with an outbreak of war, as the country faces an assertive Russia across the Baltic Sea. The 20-page pamphlet titled “If Crisis or War Comes” gives advice on getting clean water, spotting propaganda and finding a bomb shelter, in the first public awareness campaign of its kind since the days of the Cold War. It also tells Swedes they have a duty to act if their country is threatened. “If Sweden is attacked by another country, we will never give up,” the booklet says. “All information to the effect that resistance is to cease is false.” The leaflet’s publisher, the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency, did not spell out where an attack might come from.
“Even if Sweden is safer than most countries, threats do exist,” agency head Dan Eliasson told journalists. But Sweden and other countries in the region have been on high alert since Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in March, 2014. They have also accused Russia of repeated violations of their airspace – assertions that Moscow has either dismissed or not responded to. The Kremlin has in the past insisted that it does not interfere in the domestic affairs of other countries and has accused Western powers of stoking “Russophobia”. Stockholm has repeatedly cited Russian aggression as the reason for a series of security measures including the reintroduction of conscription this year and the stationing of troops on the Baltic island of Gotland.
The Swedish government decided to start increasing military spending from 2016, reversing years of declines. The booklet on its way to Sweden’s 4.8 million households warns that supplies of food, medicine and gasoline could run short during a crisis. It also lists oat milk, tins of Bolognese sauce and salmon balls as examples of food that people should store in case of an emergency along with tortillas and sardines. The publication describes what an air raid warning sounds like in the first such publication handed out since 1961. Sweden has not been at war with anyone for more than 200 years, not since its war with Norway in 1814. It was officially neutral during World War Two.
The foreign ministers (FMs) of the Baltic states have wound up their May 16-18 visit to Washington. They asked National Security Adviser John Bolton to reinforce the NATO battalions that have been deployed to their countries with air and naval units. They also want their air-defense capability enhanced. Lithuanian FM Linas Linkevicius emphasized that it’s not just the numbers that are important, but also training exercises, visits, the distribution of equipment, and the establishment of new military facilities. [..] NATO is ratcheting up tensions by holding an increasing number of large-scale exercises right on Russia’s borders. This greatly elevates the risk of inadvertent escalation. For instance, three major exercises are scheduled to be held in the Baltic region this summer.
On June 3-15, the Saber Strike exercise organized by the US Army Europe will encompass the three Baltic states and Poland, involving over 18,000 troops from 19 countries. About 3,000 American soldiers and over 1,500 combat vehicles will travel from Germany to Latvia and Lithuania. Public roads will be used to move heavy equipment. On June 12-13, the soldiers of the US 2nd Cavalry Regiment will construct a bridge in order to cross the Neman River in Lithuania (in the Kaunas district). Their main mission is to ensure that the forces are ready to rapidly advance, not to merely defend their positions. Eight thousand American airborne troops will land in Latvia during the Swift Response exercise, in order to train alongside Lithuanian and Polish troops.
Namejs 2018 will be held from August 20 to September 2 and will involve over 9,200 Latvian forces, including the military, police, border guards, volunteer reservists, and other state institutions. They will be joined by 650 troops from the US, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, and the Czech Republic. All these large-scale intensive training activities will take place in the background of the planning for Trident Juncture 2018, the largest NATO exercise involving about 40,000 troops, 70 ships, and about 130 aircraft from over 30 nations, which will be deployed to central and northern Norway in October for the live portion of the event. A command post phase will be conducted in Italy. Norway does not have a shoreline in the Baltic Sea but it is a member of the Council of the Baltic Sea States.
“..while the policy platform doesn’t explicitly state an intention to leave the euro, the new government plan, if instituted as is, makes that the inevitable end-game…”
It may be time to move on from rising Treasury yields and trade wars. An Italian-led euro crisis is on the verge of becoming the dominant theme for markets. It turns out that the euro break-up trade isn’t dead — it’s just been hibernating and is likely to return with a vengeance in the months ahead if the populists get their way. Their proposed economic policies make no attempt at debt sustainability. Italy already has the largest absolute debt pile in the EU and the second-largest, after Greece, as a percentage of GDP, at 132%. The coalition’s plan sends the signal that it has no intention of ever paying back its debt. Things could spiral quickly because its fiscal promises will send BTP yields much higher, adding to refinancing costs and making the budgetary situation worse.
That creates a dilemma for the EU. Either fund Italy’s largesse at the expense of every other member country, or kick Italy out of the euro. The first option isn’t sustainable. This isn’t a relatively containable problem like Greece. Italy’s economy is almost ten times the size of Greece’s and the third-largest in the euro zone. The PIIGS — Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain — were only ever a problem as a group because of concerns that the contagion would infect Italy. And this isn’t just a sovereign debt problem. Italy’s banks have by far the most non-performing loans in the euro zone, more than a quarter of the total. A section of the plan makes it harder for banks to repossess collateral, further deteriorating the value of those loans.
So while the policy platform doesn’t explicitly state an intention to leave the euro, the new government plan, if instituted as is, makes that the inevitable end-game. Fortunately, the Italian constitution forbids an excessive budget deficit, so may act as a limiting force. However, the concern is whether they can circumvent those restrictions by selecting favorable economic projections. The proposal already seems to be stealthily planning for euro departure with a plan to issue short-term debt contracts to pay back arrears. As my colleague Ferdinando Giugliano suggested on Friday, that’s the first step toward a parallel currency. So Italy’s prospective rulers seem to be fully aware of the end-game and are already planning for it. Investors will soon need to catch up.
“..debt could equal GDP within a decade..”
The fiscal outlook for the United States “is not good,” according to Goldman Sachs, and could pose a threat to the country’s economic security during the next recession. According to forecasts from the bank’s chief economist, the federal deficit will increase from $825 billion (or 4.1% of GDP) to $1.25 trillion (5.5% of GDP) by 2021. And by 2028, the bank expects the number to balloon to $2.05 trillion (7% of GDP). “An expanding deficit and debt level is likely to put upward pressure on interest rates, expanding the deficit further,” Jan Hatzius — Goldman’s chief economist — wrote Sunday. “While we do not believe that the U.S. faces a risk to its ability to borrow or repay, the rising debt level could nevertheless have three consequences long before debt sustainability becomes a major obstacle.”
Legislators passed a package of corporate and individual tax cuts in December, a two-year budget deal in February and a massive spending bill in March that boosted government expenditures on both domestic and military programs. In light of the big spending and easier tax burden, the Congressional Budget Office – Capitol Hill’s nonpartisan financial scorekeeper – in April projected that debt could equal GDP within a decade if Congress extends the tax cuts, a level not seen since World War II. Economic growth should jump above 3% in 2018 thanks to the stimuli, the CBO said, but the acceleration will likely prove brief, and debt held by the public will soar to $28.7 trillion by the end of fiscal 2028.
That could create a precarious situation for Congress if the economy faces an economic downturn in the near term, Hatzius wrote, hampering legislators’ ability provide additional fiscal stimulus. “Lawmakers might hesitate to approve fiscal stimulus in the next downturn in light of the already substantial budget deficit,” the economist said. “While we would expect some additional loosening of fiscal policy during the next downturn, there is a good chance in our view that it would be less aggressive than it was in the last few recessions.”
“Is the Federal Reserve playing politics?”
Do you feel as if you’re drowning in debt? It’s worse than you think. The U.S. government reached a new milestone when our country’s debt topped $21 trillion for the first time. The national debt grows by an average of $17,000 every second – more than some people earn in an entire year. That’s only an average, and During the past eight months, the national debt grew by $52,000 per second. And the trend toward bigger and higher spending is only getting worse. The ratio of national debt to GDP is at 105%, larger than the economy as a whole. In 1981, the national debt comprised a mere 31% of GDP. We are not moving in the right direction. The Treasury Department has plans to borrow $1 trillion this year, an 84% jump from last year.
When individuals borrow, they can use the money wisely to increase their wealth. That’s what happens when people make good investments. What does the government do with all this money? While some of it may be put to good use, the National Science Foundation’s spending $856,000 on having mountain lions run on treadmills can’t be termed prudent spending. Nor can the $2 billion spent on former President Obama’s healthcare website. In 2017, Brooklyn, NY spent $2 million on a 400 square feet restroom in a public park. Flushing money down the toilet?
Why is the government raising interest rates at a time consumer prices and wages are rising only marginally? During Obama’s administration, prices rose 14.6%, and the Federal Reserve kept interest rates low. Inflation is up by a mere 2.2% since Trump took office, and interests rates keep rising. Is the Federal Reserve playing politics? While the rate of inflation was somewhat higher during the Obama years, the Federal Reserve didn’t get aggressive in handling the problem until Trump came to office. If it’s politics, what game is being played?
“Americans owe more than 26% of their annual income to this debt.”
Americans are in a borrowing mood, and their total tab for consumer debt could reach a record $4 trillion by the end of 2018. That’s according to LendingTree, a loan comparison website, which analyzed data from the Federal Reserve on nonmortgage debts including credit cards, and auto, personal and student loans. Americans owe more than 26% of their annual income to this debt. That’s up from 22% in 2010. It’s also higher than debt levels during the mid-2000s when credit availability soared.
Debts on auto loans and credit cards are climbing by more than 7% annually, while housing debt is rising at a little more than 2%. Consumer credit has been rising by 5% to 6% for about two years. LendingTree projects total consumer debt will top $4 trillion by the end of 2018.
That kind of growth is not surprising, according to LendingTree chief economist Tendayi Kapfidze, and is in keeping with the growth of consumer debt that has been happening since 2012. At these levels, consumers are spending about 10% of their income paying these debts each month, Kapfidze said. From 2000 to 2008, that averaged about 12% to 13%, he said. Still, credit card delinquency rates, which are at 2.4%, are low.
We’ve seen this movie before.
One of the most pervasive myths about the United States is that the federal government has never defaulted on its debts. Every time the debt ceiling is debated in Congress, politicians and journalists dust off a common trope: the US doesn’t stiff its creditors. There’s just one problem: it’s not true. There was a time, decades ago, when the US behaved more like a “banana republic” than an advanced economy, restructuring debts unilaterally and retroactively. And, while few people remember this critical period in economic history, it holds valuable lessons for leaders today.
In April 1933, in an effort to help the US escape the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt announced plans to take the US off the gold standard and devalue the dollar. But this would not be as easy as FDR calculated. Most debt contracts at the time included a “gold clause,” which stated that the debtor must pay in “gold coin” or “gold equivalent.” These clauses were introduced during the Civil War as a way to protect investors against a possible inflationary surge. For FDR, however, the gold clause was an obstacle to devaluation. If the currency were devalued without addressing the contractual issue, the dollar value of debts would automatically increase to offset the weaker exchange rate, resulting in massive bankruptcies and huge increases in public debt.
To solve this problem, Congress passed a joint resolution on June 5, 1933, annulling all gold clauses in past and future contracts. The door was opened for devaluation – and for a political fight. Republicans were dismayed that the country’s reputation was being put at risk, while the Roosevelt administration argued that the resolution didn’t amount to “a repudiation of contracts.” On January 30, 1934, the dollar was officially devalued. The price of gold went from $20.67 an ounce – a price in effect since 1834 – to $35 an ounce. Not surprisingly, those holding securities protected by the gold clause claimed that the abrogation was unconstitutional. Lawsuits were filed, and four of them eventually reached the Supreme Court; in January 1935, justices heard two cases that referred to private debts, and two concerning government obligations.
The underlying question in each case was essentially the same: did Congress have the authority to alter contracts retroactively? On February 18, 1935, the Supreme Court announced its decisions. In each case, justices ruled 5-4 in favor of the government – and against investors seeking compensation. According to the majority opinion, the Roosevelt administration could invoke “necessity” as a justification for annulling contracts if it would help free the economy from the Great Depression.
“..a bewildering clown culture wrapped in a Potemkin economy..”
Is it possible that we Americans only pretend not to notice the conditions that produce an epidemic of school shootings, or is the public just too dumbed-down to connect the dots? Look at the schools themselves. We called them “facilities” because they hardly qualify as buildings: sprawling, one-story, tilt-up, flat-roofed boxes isolated among the parking lagoons out on the six-lane highway strip, disconnected from anything civic, isolated archipelagoes where inchoate teenage emotion festers and rules while the few adults on the scene are regarded as impotent clowns representing a bewildering clown culture wrapped in a Potemkin economy that has nothing to offer young people except a lifetime of debt and “bullshit jobs” — to borrow a phrase from David Graeber.
The world of teens has been exquisitely engineered to steal every opportunity for colonizing the chemical reward centers of their brains to provoke endorphin hits, especially the cell-phone realm of social media, which is almost entirely about status competition, much of which revolves around the wild hormonal promptings of teen sexual development — at the same time they are bombarded with commercial messages designed to prey on their fantasies, longings, and perceived inadequacies. All of this produces immersive and incessant melodrama along with untold grievance, envy, frustration, confusion, and rage. And, of course, where the cell-phone universe leaves off, the world of video games begins, so that boys (especially) get to act-out in “play” the extermination of their competitors and foes.
The planet is dying.
Humankind is revealed as simultaneously insignificant and utterly dominant in the grand scheme of life on Earth by a groundbreaking new assessment of all life on the planet. The world’s 7.6 billion people represent just 0.01% of all living things, according to the study. Yet since the dawn of civilisation, humanity has caused the loss of 83% of all wild mammals and half of plants, while livestock kept by humans abounds. The new work is the first comprehensive estimate of the weight of every class of living creature and overturns some long-held assumptions. Bacteria are indeed a major life form – 13% of everything – but plants overshadow everything, representing 82% of all living matter. All other creatures, from insects to fungi, to fish and animals, make up just 5% of the world’s biomass.
Another surprise is that the teeming life revealed in the oceans by the recent BBC television series Blue Planet II turns out to represent just 1% of all biomass. The vast majority of life is land-based and a large chunk – an eighth – is bacteria buried deep below the surface. “I was shocked to find there wasn’t already a comprehensive, holistic estimate of all the different components of biomass,” said Prof Ron Milo, at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, who led the work, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “I would hope this gives people a perspective on the very dominant role that humanity now plays on Earth,” he said, adding that he now chooses to eat less meat due to the huge environmental impact of livestock.
[..] The transformation of the planet by human activity has led scientists to the brink of declaring a new geological era – the Anthropocene. One suggested marker for this change are the bones of the domestic chicken, now ubiquitous across the globe. The new work reveals that farmed poultry today makes up 70% of all birds on the planet, with just 30% being wild. The picture is even more stark for mammals – 60% of all mammals on Earth are livestock, mostly cattle and pigs, 36% are human and just 4% are wild animals.