Talking Points

Purple is not good. PHOTO: NZH
  1. Australia broke two records for the hottest average temperatures - on consecutive days
  2. Britain’s parliament looked set to pass Johnson’s Brexit bill
  3. Boeing announced it would halt production of the troubled 737 MAX
  4. Pakistan’s ex-leader Pervez Musharraf was handed a death sentence
  5. Three are dead and 1,2000 arrested in India's citizenship bill protests
  6. Goldman Sachs faces a $2b fine over the 1MDB scandal
  7. A rare shooting left one dead at Russia’s security agency HQ in Moscow
  8. Two Chinese diplomats accused of spying were expelled from America
  9. The DNA of a Stone-Age girl was extracted from ancient chewing gum
  10. Facebook was found to (still) be mapping your location all the time

Deep Dive

Defiant as ever. PHOTO: Guardian

This week Donald J. Trump joined a club so exclusive that even he may not want to be a member. And, while America's airwaves and newspapers were consumed by the frenzied garble of impeachment, other news stories that are shaping the country's future continued to pass by unnoticed.

Outraged and empurpled, Donald J. Trump has become the third president in U.S. history to be impeached by its House of Representatives. He’ll now stand trial in the Senate to answer for his alleged crimes, though it is a foregone conclusion that he will be acquitted by the Senate's partisan Republican majority. Even so, the impeachment action must proceed for the sake of preserving the institutions on whose foundations the concept of America was built. And acquittal may be nigh-certain, but there is drama still to be played out. While exoneration by the Senate may boost Trump’s chances at the ballot box in 2020, Nancy Pelosi has signalled that she intends to drag out this humiliating chapter for as long as she can. Trump, who wants an immediate acquittal, will no doubt be infuriated.

As the vote to progress the impeachment passed the House, Trump was in the midst of a campaign rally in the aptly named town of Battle Creek, Michigan. He reacted to the impeachment news with a full-throated attack on his opponents everywhere. Even the sanctity of death failed to deter the president as he insinuated to a baying crowd that a recently deceased Michigan Democrat congressman was now in hell. Other highlights from the speech included an extended soliloquy on the inefficiency of modern plumbing and dishwashers. Trump was clearly agitated; and not even Mitch McConnell’s majority has been enough to reassure the president.

But despite the indignation of politicians, and the histrionic burbling of talk-show guests on both sides of America's political divide – Trump’s impeachment is a superficiality. Yes, the infrequent nature of presidential impeachments confers notability. But too much focus is taken up by both the man himself, and what he represents. This entire presidency has become a club that both Democrats and Republicans swing blindly at each other. And while overwrought commentators attribute the decline of American institutions to its 45th President, it's worth pointing out that said decline not only predates Trump, it will also outlast him.

Foreground and background

Here are two stories this week that merited far greater scrutiny than the three-ring circus they were overshadowed by. The first came from Georgia, where Republican Governor Brian Kemp’s administration received permission this week to purge 300,000 Georgians from the voter roll. Such moves disproportionately affect minorities in a state where 30% of the population is black. And this latest measure is hardly surprising: accusations of widespread voter-suppression have dogged Kemp since his 2018 victory. Expunging Democrat-leaning voters from the electoral roll creates an unvirtuous cycle; it solidifies the GOP’s hold on the state houses that in turn control the legislation of voter registration. This is nothing less than legalised selective disenfranchisement, and it should have no place in democracy's proudest experiment.

The second story this week was about the also-familiar fine art of US corporate tax avoidance. In 2018, a grand total of 91 companies in America's illustrious Fortune 500 list paid exactly zero federal income tax . A further 379 paid an effective corporate tax rate of 11%. Even after Trump’s generous reduction in that rate (from 35% to 21%), the tax burden apparently remains too heavy for America’s corporate titans to lift. It would be easy and gratifying, but ultimately misguided, to point the finger for this gross failure of governance at individual actors like Amazon, Chevron, Halliburton and IBM. The real blame lies with the government itself, for failing (and refusing) to remedy the situation. This unwillingness has now led to a dire situation: soaring government debt (one trillion and counting) even though the US stock market is stronger than ever. To put this as plainly as possible: Washington’s corporate tax takings have dropped by a third since 2017. A third.

Nothing will expedite the collapse of American institutions more effectively than the inability of the government to pay for itself. And in this critical drama Trump is but a bit-player.


Worldlywise

A bittersweet anniversary. PHOTO: Ebrahim Hamid / AFP

A year of freedom

Just one short year ago, the blood of young Sudanese demonstrators ran free in the streets of Khartoum. The government had tripled bread prices overnight and pushed an already-impoverished population down a radical path. Paramilitary heavies loyal to Omar al-Bashir had cleared protest camps with cudgel and rifle. It appeared then that the ageing strongman would face down the widespread people's movement - until he lost the support of the army. And then he was gone in days. On Thursday, Sudanese took to the streets again with little fear of violent crackdowns. In the year since the success of Sudan’s people’s movement, much has changed. Bashir has been convicted of corruption and sentenced to two years' imprisonment (though he’ll serve it in the aged care facility to which he is confined).

The transitional government, a coalition of civilians and Sudan’s military, has been the source of much frustration but is still holding. This week also marks 100 days since the unity cabinet was sworn in, and since then calls for action against Bashir-era officials has only grown. Sudan’s leaders face the unenviable task of providing enough justice to sate the people without stepping on the toes of the army (which remains the prime mover in the country). And while America has lifted some long-standing sanctions off Sudan, the economy remains in recession . A difficult set of challenges lies ahead, but they no longer seem insurmountable considering that just a year ago it was unthinkable that Omar al-Bashir would not rule Sudan for life.

No more secrets. PHOTO: AFP

Between heaven and hell

As you might assume from any place of spiritual power, the Vatican drapes its pronouncements in the kind of arcane language that instills a sense of mystery. A papal bull is not a mythical creature stalking the catacombs of St. Peter’s Basilica; it’s a letter from the boss. Nor is a pontifical secret some powerful incantation – it’s a confidentiality agreement . In layman's terms, it's a gag order imposed throughout the Vatican to prevent the disclosure of the city-state’s inner workings to the outside world. Unfortunately this device has been used repeatedly by paedophiles in the clergy, and by their allies, to quash credible allegations of abuse. Thankfully, no longer: this week Pope Francis broke with tradition and removed the defence of pontifical secret from any cases involving abuse. Any move to end this shameful secrecy is a good thing. Elsewhere in the eternal battle between higher powers and state authorities, the Mormon Church received some unwanted attention this week. It was revealed that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been stockpiling charitable donations. A church auxiliary called Ensign Peak Advisors is holding a stupendous $100 billion worth of donations and returns. Given that donations are intended for charitable works, the church's balance sheet may run afoul of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). The individual who blew the whistle on this treasure trove has asked for the IRS to strip the company of its tax-exempt status and recoup billions in taxes. If the second coming of Jesus Christ does eventuate, he may well have to expel more money changers from the temple.


The Best of Times

Comforting an orphaned rhinocerous. PHOTO: Ami Vitale / National Geographic

A sight for your eyes

Nine photographers select their most-inspiring works for the year – a project deserving of your time.

Too spicy? Too healthy...

A study has found a correlation between the regular consumption of chilli peppers and a reduced risk of early death . While the paper’s authors were reluctant to imply causation, we are not: stop ordering bland food.


The Worst of Times

These exceptional catfish are becoming harder to find. PHOTO: Zeb Hoga / EPA

When the river runs dry

The dam-building boom in south-east Asia can be best understood as the prioritisation of first order consequences over those of the second order. Booming populations tend to have voracious appetites for cheap electricity and Chinese-built hydro-electric projects provide just that. The downstream result, in both senses of the term, is the collapse of fish stocks in the Mekong. In Cambodia the great migratory catfish of yore are disappearing, hemmed in by great walls of concrete. As fish disappear from the Mekong basin, so too will the communities that have subsisted on them for countless generations.

Battery life

Congolese children are dying in mines to extract the cobalt that powers the lithium-ion battery in your phone. This week global tech companies were named in a lawsuit to raise awareness of these deaths. The great outflow of Africa’s riches to the West did not end with the collapse of colonial regimes - it continues to this day. .


Weekend Reading

Quote of the week

"First. Novel. Excellent. Unique. Promising. Remarkable."

These are all descriptors that male researchers magnanimously apply to their own papers at a rate that far exceeds that of women. In related news, it appears that gender workplace equality is a scant 257 years away . Apparently the key to promotion is self-promotion.

Headline of the week

''Can Italians be persuaded to speak sotto voce on the train?"

The Guardian (a pithier headline might've read: "Can Italians be persuaded?" ).

Special mention

We know you've been dying for an update on our favourite saga: the mystery of Gerald Cotten’s heist-or-accident. When the cryptocurrency exchange founder succumbed to Crohn’s disease, aged 30, he took the key to $180m with him. Only he had access to the digital skeleton key and the holdings of some 115,000 investors. That Cotten died in India – a country with rather elastic standards for official documentation – raised concerns of a faked death. And auditors reportedly uncovered some suspicious posthumous transactions and false accounts on the exchange. Now dogged investors want Cotten exhumed to see if he really did die. This is either a tale of breathtaking shortsightedness or a genuine whodunnit. Either option is fine with us.

Some choice long-reads

Tom Wharton

@trwinwriting