Quick Take: Executive orders, stimulus & US-China

Ian Bremmer's QuickTake:

It's Monday, coronavirus still going on. Plenty to talk about.

I mean, I guess the biggest news in the United States is the fact that we still don't have any stimulus going forward. I mean, now, keep in mind, this is on the back of an exceptionally strong initial US economic response, over 10% of GDP, ensuring relief for small businesses, for big corporations, and most importantly, for everyday American citizens, many of whom, large double digit numbers, lost their jobs, a lot of whom lost them permanently but didn't have to worry, at least in the near term, because they were getting cash from the government. Is that going to continue?


Well, the Democrats and Republicans didn't get it done, at least not yet. And so, we have President Trump with four executive orders. Now, that's something that will probably push back on any eviction notices, it allows a delay in the payment of payroll taxes, and most importantly, it provides ongoing unemployment support, $300 instead of $600 for people, and another $100 that hopefully comes from states, though states under massive stress right now and need aid themselves, probably not going to happen. So, let's say its half the unemployment support they were getting. That means they're under a lot more stress. But, you know, also these executive orders and President Trump knows this, questionable legality, will be challenged in some courts, though the Democrats don't want to be seen as blowing up a lifeline to American citizens slash voters in the run up to the election, but everyone knows this is nowhere close to enough for all of these people that are very seriously suffering, will face evictions, will not have jobs, aren't going to have the ability to take care of themselves and their kids. And many of their schools are also not going to be restarting up in just a few weeks' time.

So, all of that implies to me that we are going to get a deal. Is it going to be three plus trillion dollars that the Democrats have been arguing for? No. And the reason, by the way, why this hasn't come together to begin with is because the Democrats, who are pretty well aligned, more so than the Republicans are right now on relief and stimulus, understand that the Republicans are highly incented to accept money, even if it's increasing the deficit when the economy is still in freefall, and elections are coming up in less than three months, all make sense, except that meant the Democrats were going to play hardball and demand everything they wanted, compromise much less with what the Republicans were talking about. And keep in mind that not all the Republicans in the Senate are actually up for reelection in November, it's only a third of the Senate that comes up every two years. So, that, the polarization, the hatred for Trump, the dysfunctionality, you name it, has meant that so far, no deal. And that probably means that when the deal comes, it will be less efficient, less effective, and smaller than it otherwise would have been.

So, the one part of the US coronavirus response that has been strongest, the economic piece, and has been bipartisan, I mean, Pelosi and Mnuchin were working quite well together in the initial weeks and months of the pandemic to ensure that the American government was getting cash to everyone that needed it, even if it was overkill in some cases and inefficient in others. Still, it meant that people felt whole. That's not where we are over the next few months. And the economic squeeze is going to be a lot worse. The good news is that at least that's happening when coronavirus is starting to get managed a little bit better. That is better treatment. That is more awareness on the part of local governments, as well as the people themselves about mask wearing, about social distancing, about what is and isn't safe to actually do. That education does matter no matter how political the virus treatment is being right now in an election period. And the fact that vaccines continue to move forward. You might have seen Bill Gates over the weekend saying that by the end of 2021, he thinks the coronavirus in the wealthy world will be largely managed. I don't know if I'm quite that optimistic because I think the politics will interfere with it, but still, we clearly have passed a tipping point because we're learning so much more. The scientists, the governments, the people. And all of that does really matter. The danger the coronavirus is putting in place for the average citizen around the world is less today than it was six months ago, and that is the ingenuity of humanity playing out.

The other thing I would mention is that the US-China relationship is bad, bad, bad, and it's getting worse. The funny thing is, you know, I've been talking to a lot of Chinese over the last couple of days and their focus has been overwhelmingly Taiwan because this is the highest level visit by a cabinet secretary of Health and Human Services, Azar, that the US has had to Taiwan since 1979. And because Taiwan is an issue of sovereignty, it's a red line, it's critical national security for China, they think that the United States is suddenly prioritized changing Taiwan policy when, of course, the United States, it's not even in the top five of issues between the Americans and Chinese. That would be technology, Huawei, TikTok, Hong Kong, you know, the trade deal, coronavirus, the Uighurs. I mean, Taiwan isn't even close, but they're very deeply worried about that.

I mean, the good news is that I don't actually see President Trump trying to provoke the Chinese any further on Taiwan. That's why you sent Azar as opposed to Pompeo to give a big speech, who's been leading the China policy on the more hawkish side, or even more problematically, say, Vice President Pence or Secretary of Defense Esper. They didn't do that. And that's not just because they're saving further escalation before November, it's also because there are people in the Trump administration that understand that if you really rattle them on Taiwan, you could end up with military confrontation on your hands. You don't actually want that. But on every other front, US-China relations are getting a lot worse. You're seeing expanded sanctions on Chinese officials, including the Hong Kong chief executive around the implementation of the national security law in Hong Kong. You have by far the most important sanctions taken against the Chinese so far, with the Xinjiang Construction and Production Company, it's the most important economic entity in Xinjiang, which is, of course, where the Uighurs are based and where all that repression systematically has occurred on the hands of the Chinese government. That's a very big sanction from the US. And you have coming down the banning of TikTok and WeChat, which would force the Chinese to spin those off to American companies in the next 45 days.

Big issue, Nancy Pelosi over the weekend saying that she's even tougher on China than Donald Trump. In an election period where everyone is saying we're beating on the Chinese and where the Chinese are also escalating vis-a-vis the US and internationally, let's keep in mind the Hong Kong national security law wasn't the American idea and just today, Jimmy Lai, major media mogul in Hong Kong, arrested along with many of his colleagues and lots of material taken out of his offices. Big escalation coming from the Chinese on Hong Kong, not making it any easier in this relationship.

So, that's what we're looking at right now. The geopolitics continuing to become a lot more problematic in the backdrop of this pandemic crisis.

Demography is destiny. That ominous-sounding pronouncement, credited to French philosopher Auguste Comte, is today taken to mean that a nation's fate depends on the youthfulness of its population. For a poor country to become rich, it needs lots of young people ready to work, to support those too old or too young to work, and to pay taxes. This is called the "demographic dividend."

That's an important part of China's success story. Over the past 40 years, more than one billion people have emerged from poverty in China. Waves of young people surged from the countryside into cities to work in factories. The state invested in education, and wages helped young workers, and then their children, go to school. The state also began a drive to develop the technologies of the future, by any means necessary. In China, once dirt-poor, hundreds of millions have created a middle class.

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To address this inequity some stakeholders are pushing hard for waivers to intellectual-property (IP) rights through World Trade Organization trade rules so that manufacturers in poorer countries can make their own vaccines locally. India and South Africa have been leading the charge, which would essentially mean that deep-pocketed pharma companies like New York-based Pfizer, for instance, would have to hand over the keys to the kingdom, allowing local companies in New Delhi and Johannesberg to make generic versions of their vaccines.

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What are the Russians up to against Ukraine?

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Which is to say: there's potentially a Sol Lewitt's-worth of red lines to ponder now.

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