Saturday, the 18th of January

Talking Points

Taal deposited ash for miles around. PHOTO: The Independent
  1. Taal volcano erupted once and isn't expected to stop there
  2. Vladimir Putin finally got the government he wanted
  3. And Northern Ireland finally got a government
  4. Tsai Ing-wen declared Taiwan 'already independent'
  5. At least 100 were killed in avalanches across Kashmir
  6. Iran bristled at European nuclear program warnings
  7. The deadly Wuhan coronavirus spread to Thailand, Japan
  8. The Dutch insisted that everyone forget Holland
  9. Lamine Diack's corruption trial was delayed until June
  10. Britain's twin dramas rolled on: Brexit and Megxit

Deep Dive

Let's shake on it. PHOTO: AFP

A deal's a deal

On Wednesday phase one of a “momentous” trade deal between the United States of America and China was signed in Washington. At a White House meeting President Donald Trump shook hands with Chinese Vice-Premier Liu He and brandished a co-signed agreement. Trump said, "today we are righting the wrongs of the past", but did not seem overly concerned with the finer details (for example: how and why the trade war began). At its core the deal is an assurance that China will, over the course of two years, increase its purchases of US products by $200b per annum. Economists argue that there’s little evidence to suggest Beijing can, let alone will, be able to shell out the difference. This is hardly the only concern.

Despite much celebration in the press over the immediate end to trade hostilities, this agreement is little more than a truce. Both Washington and Beijing understand peace to be a somewhat elusive quality, and have hedged their bets by leaving hundreds of billions of dollars worth of tariffs in place. This reciprocity of defensiveness might be a realist position, but it has a whiff of self-fulfilling prophecy about it. As always, we await to see the timeline and fine print of the armistice: phase two. And while those details are of academic interest to us, they are of professional interest to economists and stock marketeers, the latter of whom are hardly in a state of ecstasy . In fact, many traders have cautioned against unbridled optimism. Phase one is clearly no panacea. The Dow and Nasdaq may have hit record highs this week but correlation is not causation: it doesn’t seem like much short of a nuclear war would deter those markets at the moment.

If one thing is for certain, it’s that China’s trajectory is not taking it any further away from flash-points with American interests. Even the most comprehensive trade deal won’t alter this. China’s efforts to displace America’s stranglehold on technology are manifest. Just this week key European allies Britain and Germany have rebuffed Washington’s anti-Huawei doomsayers and weighed just how damaging a ban would be to their prized automotive industry respectively. The competition is just heating up in another arena: the supremacy of the greenback in international banking. This will be a problem for not just President Trump, but many of his successors.

Pax Americana

The only thing better than a deal is two deals. The very next morning Trump’s long-sought US-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) received the tick from a sizeable majority of the Senate. There was no meaningful opposition from either party: it passed 89-10. It ought to be noted that this kind of bipartisanship has not been seen on Capitol Hill for some years. The Democrats overcame initial opposition when new labour safeguards were added. As was the intention all along, the USMCA can best be described as NAFTA-with-Trumpian-characteristics.

Interestingly enough, this kind of bill would've been eviscerated by a Republican majority within recent memory. Less than a decade ago the Republican party was the natural home of free-market ideology in America. Regardless of your personal view on the merits of such a position, it was undeniably predictable: the fewer barriers to trade the better. Not so today. It’s not so much that the free-marketeers within the party have lost the argument to an upstart band of protectionists: it’s that the president simply doesn’t listen to people espousing traditional Republican trade priorities .


Let's swear on it. PHOTO: AP

Show time

In a parallel universe, the United States Senate passed the USCMA deal and moved on to some matter of arcane process or finicky legislative detail. In ours, the 100 senators who comprise America’s house of review instead opened the impeachment trial of Donald Trump, the third such event in US history. A hushed silence befell Capitol Hill. Supreme court chief justice John Roberts was sworn in to preside over the proceedings, as were the senators on whom America’s reputation rests. Solemn oaths were pledged by all, though this was the pageantry ahead of the joust.

The content begins in earnest on Tuesday, when the senators will be required to cast their votes on a number of procedural matters that will establish the scope of the trial. While sounding dry, such votes will be decisive: whether or not to subpoena documents or call witnesses are critical components to any judicial probe. Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell heavily implied that he would wield a simple majority to maintain control over the proceedings. The GOP master-strategist may simply will away the testimony of someone like Rudy Giuliani-associate Lev Parnas, who incriminated Trump in yet another Ukraine misadventure during a televised interview on Wednesday night. If you feel as though the inhibition of an impeachment trial by a partisan majority has raised thorny for about the separation of powers, you are not alone . The presence of John Roberts on the bench provides a fig leaf for proceedings which many – including those who will cast the deciding votes – believe to have already been decided in Trump’s favour. If this trial leaves no lasting impact upon America or it's 45th leader, at least we’ll have a truly memorable presidential tweet : ‘JUST GOT IMPEACHED FOR MAKING A PERFECT PHONE CALL.’

Save (both of) Our Souls. PHOTO: The Independent

Unenviable choices

After another week of perennial headline grabbers (Trump, Brexit, Syria) we thought some audience participation might be in order. In a particularly bizarre coincidence, two stories of survival-against-the-odds presented us with a perverse would-you-rather hypothetical. Now you get to ponder it too.

This week Tyson Steele was rescued after spending three weeks stranded in the snow in rural Alaska. His cabin had burnt down in December after embers from his fire landed on the roof, leaving Steele with just seconds to grab clothing, some cans of food and his rifle. He survived 23 days alone (tragically his pet dog Phil perished in the fire) in the depths of winter – in heavy snowfall – by building a snow fort and rationing his little food.

On the other hand, Australian man Milan Lemic was also found after three weeks lost in Queensland's crocodile-infested Daintree rainforest. Police and emergency services had searched for him since his bogged ute was discovered in late December. The running assumption was that he had been eaten by one of the areas crocodiles (this particular local species can grow up to five metres in length). He survived by foraging berries and other wild fruit.

The Best of Times

A secret copse in a distant valley. PHOTO: NPWS

Dinosaur trees

Amid the devastation of Australia’s unprecedented bushfire season, a story to be cling to. Deep in the Blue Mountains stands a small forest of Wollemi pine trees, a unique species that has been left to its own devices for an eternity. An eternity, in this case, is 200 million years . This prehistoric species was thought extinct for the longest time; even since its rediscovery in the 1990s the location has remained a carefully-guarded secret. The ancient grove was saved from the Gosper’s Mountain Fire by a dedicated team of conservationists and specialist firefighters. Amid the conflagration, significant resources were dedicated to protecting the ‘dinosaur trees’ from danger. Thanks to these efforts, a story that predates our earliest ancestors by 195 million years has not reached its final page.

There's still hope

It’s possible to put your phone down and read a book (after you’ve finished The Wrap, of course). Here’s how .

The Worst of Times

A ceaseless-fire. PHOTO: Omar Haj Kadour

Death from above

The Russian-Turkish ceasefire in Idlib has joined the long list of entirely meaningless Russian ceasefires in Syria. Just days ago the Russian air force dropped leaflets across the embattled province outlining humanitarian corridors for civilians. Today they’re dropping ordinance, as per usual, on war-weary civilians. 21 died when a market and industrial site in Idlib city were bombed. Once again hundreds of thousands of Syrians have taken to the roads in search of safety.

Teenage wasteland

Scientific confirmation of what we all intuited: the 2010s was the hottest decade since records began.

Weekend Reading

Quote of the week

"They have all got very distinct voices. Even without looking at them in the herd, I can tell which one is making a noise just based on her voice."

– Alexandra Green explains her novel research into just how adept our bovine friends are at discussing their emotions with one another . They change pitch depending on what they are feeling!

Headline of the week

''Bell-ringers and bishops bash Big Ben bong for Brexit" The Independent (Brexit has so thoroughly broken Britain that now their headline writers are trying to inflict the same damage on the rest of us).

Special mention

Space-going billionaire, Japanese twitter celebrity and presumable Ol’ Blue Eyes fan Yusaku Maezawa . He is soon to blast off on SpaceX’s maiden lunar tourism trip but is lacking a non-crew human to share it with, hence his new reality TV show to find a girlfriend that he will actually take to the moon's orbit. A tender process for a tender feeling (he's had 20,000 applicants so far).

Some choice long-reads

Tom Wharton