Saturday, the 14th of November

Talking Points

Favourable weather saw a spike in refugee ships leaving Libya. PHOTO: Sergi Camara / AP
  1. Thousands crossed the Mediterranean this week – 110 didn't make it
  2. Russia brokered peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan
  3. Decades of the Vatican's complicity were revealed in a sex abuse report
  4. A deeply political war crimes tribunal dragged in Kosovo's Thaci
  5. Hong Kong's entire pro-democracy opposition party resigned
  6. Chronic instability saw off yet another Peruvian president
  7. The EU lined up billions in tariffs against the US over Boeing
  8. The world's largest private coal producer lurched towards bankruptcy
  9. The war of the consoles reignited between Microsoft and Sony
  10. 15 Asian nations closed in on the world's largest free-trade deal

Deep Dive

Tired of winning. PHOTO: Brendan Smialowski / AFP

How do you judge a democracy? One of the most important tests, surely, would have to be whether the will of its people can be enacted by peacefully removing the incumbent office-bearer. How, then, would you judge the US democracy? Joe Biden has won the US election. But the incumbent doesn’t look like he’s going anywhere soon.

A transition to greatness?

As the tallies trickled in, Biden's lead went from being notable to inarguable. He finished more than 5m ahead in the popular vote, and notched a thumping electoral college victory with 306 votes to Trump’s 232. And yet, the mechanism of continuity post the election, the transition process, has yet to begin. The Trump-appointed chief of the General Services Administration, the body charged with facilitating the transition, has not acknowledged the result. He has demurred pending the outcome of legal challenges in swing states. Consequently, Biden is being denied access to the bureaucracies he'll soon need to fill, to intelligence briefings, and to the $10m in cash he is allotted to get the ball rolling on the transition. This delay is all the more worrisome given the out-of-control pandemic engulfing America. And that's to say nothing of the millions of employees and trillions of dollars of the US government that Biden will soon have stewardship of.

Trump's claims of widespread voter fraud and manipulation have been roundly rejected by state and federal electoral officials. There was no fraud. But that's not the only contention being made. In Pennsylvania, a state which handed Biden the election, GOP lawyers have also challenged the validity of late-arriving postal votes, right up to the Supreme Court. The justices split 4-4 on the question a fortnight ago. But not even Amy Coney Barrett's recent appointment will do the trick for Trump – Biden's Pennsylvania margin is greater than the total number of late-arriving ballots. Poor odds have done little to deter GOP lawyers from launching hundreds of lawsuits, county-by-county, to disenfranchise votes. The lower courts in Philadelphia have heard challenges to void thousands of mail ballots for the most minor of spelling errors .

Meanwhile, America's national Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters with a smile that he expected, "a smooth transition to a second Trump administration". If it was a joke, few were laughing. Some White House figures have thrown names about for key cabinet roles in this imagined administration. The prospect of competing administrations in Washington will bring a smile to the lips of anyone who recalls America's recent attempt to inflate Juan Gaidó as the president of Venezuela.

The president, whose unscheduled post-election golfing weekend seemed to suggest a certain comprehension of the situation, has buttoned up. Bar the predictable spray of tweets, Trump has only appeared in public once, to mark Veterans Day at Arlington Cemetery, and chose not to make any comments then. He seems happy to keep the media guessing; more than a few commentators have twigged onto the fact that he's been utilising this agonisingly transparent strategy since 2016. Some rather exercised columnists have intoned darkly about a coup, which would be an interesting writ of poetic justice, but is hardly likely. So what is Trump playing at?

Should I stay or should I go?

The first possible explanation is that Trump, much like the rest of us, is bound by certain innate personal truths. In Trump's case, the truth is that he is temperamentally unsuited to the trappings and decorum of high office. And he has always been so. So why would anyone expect him to behave differently now, at the nadir of his public life? To wit, in a fit of pique, Trump has fired the majority of the civilian leadership at the Pentagon and replaced them with loyalists. It appears he may even force a withdrawal from Afghanistan out of spite! So it is plausible that Trump is simply having a huge sulk.

Another explanation is that he is being taken for a ride by the Republican party. While much has been made of the GOP becoming the party of Trump (the Grandiloquent Old Party, perhaps), there is a rock solid core of lawmakers who wielded extraordinary control over the presumably untameable president. It may well be that Trump is being encouraged to pursue his course of inaction so as to influence the turnout and results of the two Georgian senate runoffs on January 5th. A victory in one is all the GOP requires to hold a majority in the Senate and deny Biden his policy agenda. Keeping the base active and vibrant in Georgia is a prerequisite for doing so.

Third, there is the possibility that Trump is genuinely holding out in the hope of retaining the White House. It's not just political operatives trying to squeeze every last mile out of the current administration; the president is also surrounded by a dangerous array of yes-men (and women). The states will announce their official tallies in a few weeks, and that will be the moment of truth. Even Georgia, which is recounting every ballot by hand, must have a final answer on November 20. Trump could try to spoil the recounts just long enough to push past those legislated cut-off dates à la Bush in 2000. But he'd need to make the trick work across half a dozen states, not just a few counties.

The electoral college meets on December 14 to anoint Joe Biden, but US federal law allows the states to appoint their own electors in the event that the electorate "fails to make a choice" (due to delayed recounts, for example). Once again, this would explain the current state of play. But, as we've mentioned in previous weeks, the discipline and cohesion required to pull off a coup like this seem well beyond the abilities of the current administration. We're just not sure Trump knows that.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The president is a media creature – long before The Apprentice he was crafting his avatar with the help of gossip columnists and tabloid reporters. He took the axiom that 'sex sells' and made it his own with an infamous NY Post front page in 1990. So, regardless of what happens between now and January 20th, it seems inevitable that we'll continue to see Trump under stage lighting. Add to this the fact that Trump is also a renowned grudge-holder. And so it is no surprise that he is making noises about founding his own digital news platform to compete with Fox News, the outlet that has now spurned him. He deserves to return to the industry that made him, because that industry deserves him.


Worldlywise

We have a new frontrunner candidate. PHOTO: AFP

Vaccine ahoy

Who had Pfizer and BioNTech on their coronavirus bingo card? This week the pair released the astounding preliminary results of their mRNA vaccine: 90% effectiveness in preventing infection! This smashes the middle range expectations (mid 60s) out of the park. The formula holds that Pfizer – with its $208b market capitalisation – is introduced first as the senior partner, but it's the small German biotechnology company BioNTech that's done most of the work. Founded by husband and wife Şahin and Özlem Türeci in 2008, BioNTech develops immunotherapy cancer treatments with mRNA (messenger ribonucleic acid). Their most promising project to date has been BNT162b2, an intramuscular vaccine constructed from a modified protein spike from Covid-19 to provoke an antibody response.

It has certainly stolen the thunder from other leading candidates, including Sputnik V, which Russia huffily announced is 92% effective .

These are admittedly only early results from a test group of 94 Covid-19 patients. They have not been peer-reviewed – nor has the vaccine made it through larger clinical trials. But Şahin Türeci is confidant , "If the question is whether we can stop this pandemic with this vaccine, then my answer is: yes, because I believe that even protection only from symptomatic infections will have a dramatic effect." All ecstatic news, sure, but before you rush outside and start breathing heavily on one another, please pay attention to the due date. Given the major difficulties around producing, storing, and transporting such a delicate vaccine, the rollout is not expected in full until early-mid 2021 in most parts of the world. Too late for a few millions Danish mink at least.

A fine addition to balance out a week in which the world passed 50m confirmed cases.

Not a joke. PHOTO: Lilium handout

The start is nigh

Futurists are the tea leaf readers and bird entrail augurs of our age; they should be treated with scepticism. Unfortunately, the media oft takes its cue from these impressively vague Linkedin seers. But let's look instead at some people and organisations that are actually propelling our species into the future. And flying cars seem a pretty good place to start.

German company Lillium has laid out its plans for America's first 'vertiport' in Orlando, Florida. With a terminal, hangars, and taxiway, this miniature airport will be the entry and egress for vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) flying taxis . While Lillium expects to be ferrying wealthy Floridians high above gridlocked freeways by 2025, a Slovakian company has revealed that its AirCar concept has passed flight tests. This ludicrous looking vehicle (Thunderbirds meets Get Smart) is a road car that, with the push of a button, can sprout wings and other useful aerodynamic accoutrement in just three minutes. And these flights of fancy aren't just limited to the Europeans – Hyundai too is so confident in the direction of the market that it is planning a full range of flying cars for release in 2028!

Also in the news this week - the future of food. We aren't yet close to the food replicators from Star Trek, but we do appear to be on the brink of a revolution in consumption. Farming presently accounts for just shy of a third of global carbon emissions, and a substantial majority of this can be traced back to livestock. Which is one reason why we welcome McDonalds in its rollout of the McPlant range . The second-largest fast-food corporation's introduction of plant-based burgers is both a sign of how strong the vegetarian market has become and a repudiation of those who've resisted it. And while we're loathe to equate consumer choices with moral ones, there is nothing wrong with a burger that won't kill the planet. If that's not futuristic, nothing is.


The Best of Times

Just don't touch them. PHOTO: Thomas Mukoya / Reuters

Life isn't a highway

This week Kenya opted to reroute a Chinese-funded highway instead of relocating a century old fig tree . A presidential decree not only secured the tree’s conservation, but also adopted it as a ‘beacon of cultural and ecological heritage’. Plans for the tree’s relocation were hit with backlash from environmental activists, and from the Kikuyu people — for whom the tree is sacred. We hope to see the tree for many more years to come .

Babies come from storks, storks come from love

An army of 400 women is fighting to save the once-treasured greater adjutant stork from going extinct. India’s urbanisation has destroyed their habitat, forcing them to move to human-populated areas. As a result, only 800-1200 storks remain, and they are now considered vermin. But that’s where the ‘Hargila Army’ comes in: its campaign to change public perception has meant that not a single hargila nesting tree has been cut down since 2010, and populations can begin to recover .


The Worst of Times

Amhara militias off to the front. PHOTO: Reuters

Crisis upon crisis in Ethiopia

Conflict in the Ethiopian region of Tigray is exacerbating humanitarian crises and creating new ones. Fighting began last week after retaliation was ordered for an alleged military base attack by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. Daily airstrikes have killed 550 people, and forced at least 11,000 to evacuate to nearby Sudan. To make matters worse, transport limitations in and out the region mean that the 600,000 reliant on food aid before the conflict can no longer receive it .

Australia's alleged war crimes

Australia’s special forces are facing accusations of war crimes from their deployment in Afghanistan. 55 sets of allegations have been made, including against Australia’s most-decorated living soldier. While the report has yet to be redacted, the allegations include the killing of unarmed men and children, as well as shooting restrained prisoners. A special prosecutor has been appointed to hold military personnel accountable, but it has yet to happen .


Weekend Reading

The image

Another botched restoration attempt – this time in Palencia, Spain. These are happening at such a frequency that one might argue they represent the beginning of a new artistic period. Photograph supplied by The Guardian.

The quote

" We shouldn't keep using things that aren't necessary. But on the other hand, an object of value will survive no matter what . "

– An artisan hanko maker knows that the stamp is on the wall for Japan's cultured, but antiquated method of identification . Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has vowed to stamp out the practice.

The numbers

$3,400,000,000

- The money that the United Nations requires to prevent a devastating famine in Yemen. They've received less than half this amount, including a grand total of zero from the United Arab Emirates, a country that has played no minor role in immiserating Yemen. Now that the rolling circus of the US elections is (nearly) over, let's get back to paying attention to people who truly need it .

160km/h

- The speed that Virgin Hyperloop sent two of its employees whizzing down a 500m tube in the desert. It's been hyped as a breakthrough moment for technology even though it will take years, if not decades, to be fully realised. Meanwhile, Japan's vaunted Shinkansen high-speed trains have been in service since 1964. Today these wonders of mass-transit travel at 320km/h.

The headline

"Deutsche Bank: Workers Should Pay 5% 'Privilege' Tax To Work From Home After Covid" Forbes . Counterpoint: Deutsche Bank should pay an extra 5% tax for the privilege of being able to operate despite its long history of corporate misconduct.

The special mention

The three men who tried to cook chicken in boiling geothermal geysers in Yellowstone National Park. Credit where credit's due.

A few choice long-reads

  • $2b goes missing. Then, the only person who can explain it goes missing. Bloomberg Businessweek investigates...
  • Crisis. Opportunity. A new world awaits president-elect Joe Biden – one that only he has the key to. The Economist on the years to come.
  • One of the darkest chapters of post-War history is the years of bloodshed in Indonesia. New Naratif puts a human face on the conflict that killed one million.

Tom Wharton

@trwinwriting