America’s Treasury is earning billions from Donald Trump’s trade war

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ON NOVEMBER 29th President Donald Trump boasted on Twitter: “Billions of Dollars are pouring into the coffers of the U.S.A. because of the Tariffs being charged to China. If companies don’t want to pay Tariffs, build in the U.S.A. Otherwise, lets just make our Country richer than ever before!”

Given Mr Trump’s penchant for falsehoods, sceptics could be forgiven for dismissing the president’s claim. In this case, however, his assertion does contain an element of truth. As of October 16th, Mr Trump’s tariffs on solar panels, washing machines, steel and aluminium from around the world, as well as a far wider range of goods from China, have generated direct government revenues of about $7.1bn, according to America’s Customs and Border Protection agency. In November alone, the Treasury department collected $7bn in total customs duties, more than twice the amount that was collected in the same month in 2017 (see chart).

Where economists would contradict Mr Trump is over his claim that his tariffs are “being charged to China”. In fact, the costs of these tariffs are borne largely by American firms and consumers. Importers that cannot rejig supply chains, or negotiate lower prices from suppliers, must absorb the costs of tariffs or pass them on to consumers in the form of higher prices. This is why more than 800 firms have filed for exemptions from the duties, and why companies like Caterpillar and Whirlpool have warned investors about hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of tariff-related costs. Retaliatory tariffs from China have also taken a toll. The United States government has promised American farmers a $12bn bailout to compensate them for the economic damage caused by foreign tariffs on soyabeans and pork. That figure far exceeds the tariff revenue that has flowed into Treasury’s coffers so far.

Such costs are likely to grow. On January 1st American tariffs on $200bn worth of Chinese imports are set to rise from 10% to 25%. When asked on November 26th whether a deal could be struck to avoid the new round of levies, Mr Trump told the Wall Street Journal it was “highly unlikely”.

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The many talents of Pieter Bruegel the Elder

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THE MUSIC is playing and the ale flowing freely as guests throng into a barn. Two cooks bring soup to a dining table crowded with men, women, dogs and children. It is a wedding, but the bride’s calm expression gives little away. It is hard to discern the bridegroom.

“Peasant Wedding” (1567) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder is a milestone in Western art, for it is the first everyday scene depicted in monumental form. As the stuff of Christmas cards and jigsaws, it is among the world’s best-known paintings, much like his “Hunters in the Snow” (1565). These works, and his Wimmelbilder—“busy pictures” such as “Children’s Games” (1560, pictured below), which shows more than 200 little figures at play—earned him the nickname “Peasant Bruegel”. That is only part of the picture, as a magnificent new exhibition of around half Bruegel’s extant works at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, commemorating the 450th anniversary of his death, reveals.

Bruegel was the most important Flemish painter of the 16th century. He was a key player in the northern Renaissance, where the art was quirkier and more secular but no less pathbreaking than in the better-known south. The exhibition cleverly connects Bruegel with his southern counterparts by highlighting the influence of Venetian painters such as Titian. Followers at first, artists in the Low Countries re-embraced classical ideas but kept them on a human scale.  

The first paintings in the show are from his “Seasons” cycle in 1565. These works are based on medieval depictions of peasants going about their daily tasks, but Bruegel focused on landscape to great effect. The frozen mountains and glowering skies of “The Gloomy Day” convey the miseries of a still-lingering winter; off in the distance, a boat sinks in rough seas. In contrast, the serene, apple-green valley of “The Haymaking” conjures the productive pleasures of early summer. Elsewhere, as his figures thread their way along winding mountain paths or across open spaces, Bruegel uses the landscape to play with perspective. Human beings are often dwarfed by nature. The protagonist of a painting’s title—most notably “Christ Carrying the Cross” (1564)—will frequently be hard to spot. Bruegel’s triumph was to present a wealth of detail in a dramatic, coherent whole. 

A dark thread runs through Bruegel’s work, and the politics of the time must go some way to explaining it. Flanders was under Habsburg rule throughout the artist’s lifetime, with power passing to the Spanish branch of the dynasty in 1556 and the Duke of Alba (the “Iron Duke”) initiating a reign of terror in 1567. Whether he was referring to these events in the “The Massacre of the Innocents” is a matter of debate among scholars, partly because the work is undated. The version on show in Vienna is a copy, one that bears witness to the fact the Bruegel had graphically depicted soldiers killing children. The artwork as it exists today has no such brutal details since Rudolf II, the Holy Roman Emperor who owned it, ordered that they be painted over.

Dark, but in a different way, are Bruegel’s monster-filled, nightmarish scenes, where he builds on the hallucinatory work of Hieronymus Bosch. In the engraving “Big Fish Eat Little Fish” (1557), a man takes a huge knife to the belly of a fish. Out tumble many small fish, which in turn have even smaller ones in their mouths. It is a grim illustration of how society’s “small fry” will always be chewed up by the rich and powerful.

In a league of its own, however, is “The Triumph of Death” (after 1562, pictured top). Here a terrified crowd flees a flaming “hell wagon”—a feature of Flemish festive processions—only to find themselves in a death trap. Time runs out for a king on an hourglass; a woman is trampled by a horse pulling a skull-filled cart. Bruegel holds the viewer spellbound before an apocalyptic panorama in which an army of skeletons makes sure no one escapes. As the exhibition puts it: “No solace, no redemption, no sign of God.” Art does not come much bleaker than this.

If the earthy, wry “Peasant Bruegel” is well known, the impressive show in Vienna reveals an artist pushing the bounds of storytelling in landscape painting. Though few facts about him are known, you sense in Bruegel’s art a deeply humanist response to his troubled times. His work was much, much more than a Christmas-card vision of jolly peasant life.  

“Pieter Bruegel: Once in a Lifetime” is on display at Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna until January 13th 

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Why the global suicide rate is falling

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STORIES ABOUT suicide that appear in the news tend to focus on celebrities who have taken their own lives and on clusters of deaths among students. They miss the bigger picture: that, at a global level, suicide has declined by 29% since 2000. Among most Western countries, rates have been falling for decades. In Britain, for instance, the rate peaked in 1934, during the Depression. But elsewhere, the decline has happened more recently. China’s rate started to come down in the 1990s; in Russia, Japan, South Korea and India rates have all fallen significantly in the past decade. Western Europe’s rate is still declining slowly. America is the big exception: its rate has risen by 18% this century. Twenty years ago, America’s rate was half China’s. Now it is twice China’s. But the net gain is still huge. The drop in the global rate has saved 2.8m lives since 2000. Three times as many as have been killed in battle in that period. 

There is no one reason for the global decline, but it is particularly notable among three sets of people. One is young women in China and India. In most of the world, older people kill themselves more often than the young, and men more often than women. But in China and India, young women have been unusually prone to suicide. That is decreasingly the case. The rate among young Chinese women has dropped by 90% since the mid-1990s. Another group is middle-aged men in Russia. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, rates of alcoholism and suicide rocketed among them. Both have now receded. A third category is old people all around the world. The suicide rate among the elderly remains, on average, higher than that among the rest of the population, but it has also fallen faster than among other groups since 2000.

Social change is partly responsible for the falling numbers. Asian women have more freedom and opportunity than before, and thanks to urbanisation fewer have access to the highly toxic pesticides that were once the group’s favoured means of suicide. Social stability has returned to Russia and unemployment is down. Among the old, poverty has declined at a global level faster than among younger people. Social change may also be partly responsible for the rise in America: suicide has risen most among middle-aged, white, poorly educated rural people—the victims of the “deaths of despair” identified by Anne Case and Sir Angus Deaton, Princeton University economists. 

Policy also plays a role. When Mikhail Gorbachev introduced restrictions on alcohol in the Soviet Union in 1985, consumption and suicide both plunged; something similar has happened since Vladimir Putin introduced new rules in 2005. Restricting access to easy means to kill oneself can make a big difference because suicide is a surprisingly impulsive act. Of 515 people who survived the leap from San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge between 1937 and 1971, 94% were still alive in 1978—which suggests that a suicide postponed is likely to be a suicide prevented. The banning of toxic pesticides has had a clear impact on rates in countries such as South Korea and Sri Lanka. Selling paracetamol and aspirin in only very small quantities has also been shown to reduce rates. Investing in health services—particularly palliative care, which helps make life tolerable for the sick—can make a difference. And if America restricted gun ownership, rates would almost certainly crash. America’s rate is twice Britain’s (which has tight gun controls), half America’s suicides are by firearm, and the difference in rates between states, which range from 26 per 100,000 each year in Montana to five in Washington, DC, is largely explained by variations in levels of gun ownership.

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A storm brews over the formation of a new church in Ukraine

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PATRIARCH BARTHOLOMEW I (pictured), the “first among equals” in the stormy world of Orthodox Christianity, seemed like a model of composure as he prepared this week for what promises to be one of the most turbulent months in the recent history of the eastern church.

During a three-day meeting in Istanbul of the bishops under Bartholomew’s immediate sway, it was confirmed that a “unification council” will be convened in Ukraine in December in order to establish a new Ukrainian Orthodox church that will duly receive a formal grant of independence from the Patriarch. This will further enrage the ecclesiastical and worldly authorities in Moscow who insist that a church subject to the Moscow Patriarchate is the only legitimate Orthodox body in Ukraine. There is clearly some concern in Moscow that some clergy now under Muscovite  authority may peel off and join the new Ukrainian body. But it remains very unclear who will lead the new Ukrainian church and what its exact status will be.     

The drama is unfolding against a background of looming crisis in the earthly relations between Moscow and Kiev, after Russian forces seized three Ukrainian boats between the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea; Ukraine, in a move that will have consequences for church affairs, has just banned Russian men from entering the country except in exceptional humanitarian circumstances.   

Addressing visitors to his Istanbul headquarters last night, Patriarch Bartholomew said:   

We believe we are doing the correct thing. It is a right of the Ukrainian Orthodox to have their own autocephalous, independent church—just as all the peoples of the Balkans, starting with Greece, acquired their own churches…we knew that our fraternal church in Russia would be upset, but we could not act any different.”  

The Patriarchate of Moscow, which is the largest of the 14 churches that make up world Orthodoxy, on October 15th severed communion with the Patriarchate of Constantinople headed by Bartholomew I and told its faithful not to participate in communion or other sacramental rites in churches under Bartholomew’s authority. Any Russian believer who ignored this order would have to confess this transgression and seek forgiveness, the Muscovite decree proclaimed. 

The standoff between Constantinople, which commands the prestige of antiquity and historical continuity, and the worldly heft of Moscow has forced the other Orthodox churches to take sides. Many of the Slavic Orthodox, including the Poles and Serbs, have leaned towards Moscow’s view that Constantinople cannot act unilaterally over Ukraine. However, Patriarch Bartholomew received a warm welcome from the Orthodox hierarchy in Romania, an overwhelmingly Orthodox country, when he went there on November 24th to inaugurate a new cathedral. 

One of the most nuanced responses has come from the 89-year-old leader of the Orthodox church in Albania, Archbishop Anastasios, who is an internationally respected scholar of comparative religion. On the one hand, he said, the latest developments confirmed his fears that granting ecclesiastical independence to Ukraine might be “a march in a minefield”, but on the other, he felt that the Patriarchate of Moscow was at fault in using the Eucharist, Christianity’s holiest rite, as an instrument of power.  

In a letter to Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, Archbishop Anastasios declared: 

It is unthinkable that the Divine Eucharist, the mystery par excellence of the infinite love and the utter humiliation of Christ, could be used as a weapon against another Church. Is it possible that the decision and order of the hierarchy of the Church of Russia may cancel the energy of the Holy Spirit in the holy Orthodox churches that operate under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate [of Constantinople]? 

In other words, down with the weaponisation of the chalice. Things have moved on since 1208 when a medieval pope punished England’s King John by declaring most of the church sacraments in his land invalid.

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After 12 draws, Magnus Carlsen is once again the chess world champion

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RARELY HAS a tournament involved so little winning. The World Chess Championship of 2018, held in London at The College in Holborn over nearly three weeks from November 9th-28th, began with a series of 12 games played under classical time controls, the traditional slow pace of play. The reigning champion and top-ranked player in the world, 27-year-old Magnus Carlsen of Norway, failed to win a single one of his contests against the challenger, 26-year-old American Fabiano Caruana. Fortunately for the Norwegian, Mr Caruana never reached a checkmate or extracted a resignation either. Each of the dozen classical games ended in a draw, sending the match to a series of faster-paced tiebreakers, starting with a series of up to four “rapid” games, in which players are allotted less than one-quarter the thinking time of the classical format. Mr Carlsen, the stronger competitor in speedier formats, won the first three rapid games to clinch the tiebreaker and retain his title.

To the casual observer, three weeks of drawn games may sound excruciatingly boring. (In the first game alone, the two men played 115 moves over seven hours before reaching an impasse.) But like a football World Cup full of impregnable defences, or a baseball World Series studded with scoreless pitching duels, the chess title match featured two equally matched grandmasters competing at an extremely high level. A game of chess opens in a state of equilibrium, and if the optimal move is made with each play, a draw is all but assured. For a player to win a game, he must capitalise on his opponent’s blunders. Neither man played perfectly—a supercomputer identified a guaranteed, though extremely opaque, path to victory for Mr Caruana in the sixth game, and Mr Carlsen held a sizeable advantage in the final classical game before surprisingly offering a draw—but mistakes were rare.

Indeed, the frequency of draws is a strong indicator of the overall level of play. Among beginners, roughly one in five games end deadlocked. At the elite, grandmaster level, more than half of contests are drawn, a figure that has remained steady for decades. The governing body of chess, FIDE, uses an algorithm called Elo to evaluate players, boosting a competitor’s rating after victories and dropping it after losses, with the magnitude determined by the opponent’s own rating. Among the highest-rated players—those above 2,700 on the Elo scale, a category that currently counts around 50 members—63% of classical games end in draws. Mr Carlsen and Mr Caruana entered their championship match atop the ranking table, with ratings a hair’s breadth apart at 2,835 and 2,832, respectively, and had drawn 18 of their 33 career games against each other.

Mr Carlsen has drawn games at an even greater clip when playing on the sport’s biggest stage. This year’s World Chess Championship was the Norwegian’s fourth, after he claimed the title from Viswanathan Anand in 2013, successfully defended it against the same opponent in 2014, and withstood Sergey Karjakin in 2016. Of the 35 games in the three previous championships (the match was decided after 11 games in 2014), 26 ended in draws, a rate of 74%. Not only are the competitors in these matches among the very best in the world, they also spend months preparing to parry the preferred tactics of a single foe.

Computer chess engines play a significant role in that preparation, and they help explain the increasingly precise play of the world’s best. In 1997, a machine defeated the top-ranked human player for the first time, when IBM’s Deep Blue overtook Garry Kasparov. In the intervening two decades, engines have gotten smarter and processing speeds have increased exponentially. When Deep Blue made its breakthrough, it edged out a player rated by Elo in the 2,800s. Today, Stockfish, the highest-rated engine, is rated above 3,450, more than 600 points above Mr Carlsen, a gap that implies the machine would defeat the human nearly every time. (Google’s AlphaZero engine isn’t rated, but it is far stronger. In December 2017, it demolished Stockfish in a 100-game match, winning 28, drawing 72, and losing none.) While grandmasters cannot use the engines during play, they use computers to evaluate openings and develop strategies tailored to specific opponents.

The result is human chess that increasingly resembles computer chess. has developed a metric, Computer Aggregated Precision Score (CAPS), which compares a player’s moves to those of a top engine. Mr Carlsen scores higher than any other champion; his moves parallel those of the engine’s more than 85% of the time, and his overall choices are better than 98% as effective as those of the computer. At this year’s championship, Mr Caruana was nearly as good. A smaller-scale approach to measuring the level of precision relies on the concept of centipawn loss, the difference between a player’s move and an engine’s optimal alternative. (One centipawn is one-hundredth of a pawn, a unit that represents the effects of strong or weak positions on the board.) In the 2018 championship, as well as the drawn games in Mr Carlsen’s three previous title matches, the average centipawn loss was less than 10, a mark that had been achieved only a handful of times in over a century of chess championships. By the same metric of centipawn loss, the gap between the competitors’ performances was the smallest ever in a title match.

But even if an increased draw rate represents a positive step for the quality of play, it doesn’t present the sport at its most gripping at the one time that the world is watching. The tiebreaker, which took place in a single day, made for much more engaging viewing: three speedy games, one after another, and no draws. The faster time controls of rapid chess prevent grandmasters from carefully choosing every move, and the limitations drove Mr Caruana into mistakes that he had avoided in the previous 12 games. Among rapid games between players with ratings of 2700 or higher, only 47% of meetings result in draws. In the even quicker “blitz” format, which was slated to be the second tiebreaker had the competitors drawn even after four rapid games, the draw rate is lower still, at 34% of elite-level games.

Still, the World Chess Championship determines the classical chess title, and it may be a bit unfair to deny the American the honour due to his lapses in a different format. But a decision had to be made somehow, and the suggestions of purists that the match be extended to 16, 18, or more games seem impractical. At the level of Mr Carlsen and Mr Caruana, a draw is the most likely outcome in any single contest, and both deserve ample credit for playing well enough to prevent the other from breaking through. Such acknowledgements are surely little consolation for the American. But as the early favourite to challenge the Norwegian once again in 2020, Mr Caruana now has another 15 head-to-head games’ worth of information to take with him into his preparation to unseat the champion next time.

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A very short history of sexuality

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All You Need to Know: Sexuality. By Charlie McCann. Connell Publishing; 121 pages; $14.99 and £9.99

SOME ASPECTS of the natural world, such as the speed of light, do not change, while others, such as our bodies, are in flux. Still others remain constant but are perceived in ways that keep changing. Sex falls into this last category: the mechanics of reproduction have not evolved over time, but views about what it means are always shifting. You need only to cross borders or jump a few decades to see that the simple pleasures of one society are often the high crimes of another.

The unceasing conflicts over sex may well arise from the sexual urge itself, which Plato said works with the “most raging frenzy” and “utmost violence”. Plato saw the sex drive as a mad subconscious effort to reunify humanity’s fractured soul, while for St Augustine, the genitals’ persistent demands were God’s retribution for the sins of Adam and Eve. Of late, unsettled views on sex are entwined with questions of power—both political and corporeal—and violence. “To tell what is wrong with rape,” wrote Catherine Mackinnon, an American law professor, “explain what is right about sex.”

Judging by recent headlines—#MeToo, pussy grabbing, rape on campuses, at work and by the clergy—it seems Ms MacKinnon’s dour perspective has resonated. Sex is contentious because it burns at the flashpoint between power, identity and existence. It has always been that way and the subject is never exhausted. At last count, there were more than 6,000 books about sex published in 2018 alone. Add to that the mind-numbing volume of porn careening through the internet and it is evident that the appetite for all things sexual is unquenchable. Through it all, sex is supposed to be fun and, hopefully, loving, but confusion often clouds the pleasure.

Enter Charlie McCann, the author of the latest book in Quarto’s “All You Need to Know” series of thin volumes on big subjects. In just 121 pages, Ms McCann cavorts through more than two millennia of fluid exchanges using humour, deft selection of fascinating anecdotes and an admirable resistance to polemics to accomplish what most of her predecessors have failed to do: provide a guide through “the ever-shifting constellation of meanings orbiting around sex in the West”.

Ms McCann, deputy digital editor at 1843, is at her best when she focuses on the status of women and homosexuals. We learn that women in ancient Greece, thought to be sexually unquenchable, were sequestered at home both before and during marriage, lest their appetites generate illegitimate offspring and cast doubt on the dominance of their male protectors. Yet while sex was defined by male dominance, female pleasure couldn’t be entirely ignored. Prevailing medical doctrine instructed that conception was impossible without mutual climax, so men needed to pay at least minimal attention to their partners’ needs. At the same time, sex between men was a neutral affair, so long as men played the active, penetrative role. Passive homosexuals, like prostitutes and slaves, were beneath contempt.

“Sexuality” follows these sad threads through the following centuries, when Christianity demonised all non-reproductive sex under the protean capital crime of sodomy, and women were alternatively viewed as either insatiable temptresses or meek creatures “not very much troubled by sexual feelings of any kind”. At the same time, until the late 20th century men were permitted to rape their wives at will.

The book walks shakier ground when it leaves the dusky climes of antiquity and medieval Europe and moves into the current era. It hits many of the high points, including the medicalisation of sexual desire, the development and legalisation of reliable contraception and the movement of pornography from bottom drawers into the mainstream—all factors contributing to female and gay liberation and the sexual revolution. However, the book all but ignores the backlashes to these developments, leaving the erroneous impression that the liberation of sex from outside restraint is all but complete.

Equally disappointing is the missed opportunity of lending historical perspective to today’s controversies. The fears expressed by many conservatives about sexual permissiveness are not mere reactions to the sight of smutty magazines at newsstands: they are also based on longstanding biblical teaching that transgressive sex is not only a wrong itself, but a trigger for divine retribution against all. By the same measure, the recent push to equate all prostitution with sex slavery, and to suppress pornography as a form of rape, reflects a unique coalition between evangelicals and certain feminists outraged at the repercussions of the sexual revolution. The book might have spent a few pages unlocking these subjects, as well as the race and class issues that are almost always laced through sexual politics.

But, for all its misses, “Sexuality” is a welcome, entertaining and very smart romp through a complex subject. Sex is always on our minds; this book helps us know what we are thinking.


*Our policy is to identify the reviewer of any book by or about someone closely connected with The Economist. Eric Berkowitz is a writer and human-rights lawyer and the author of “Sex and Punishment: Four Thousand Years of Judging Desire” and “The Boundaries of Desire: A Century of Bad Laws, Good Sex, and Changing Identities”

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Britain’s government of national unity

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IN 1931 THE beleaguered prime minister of a minority British government faced a divided cabinet. The agreed template for British policy seemed to be causing economic damage, yet the prime minister saw no alternative but to carry on, and duly formed a government of national unity with the opposition.

There are spooky parallels with the current crisis. The then-PM was Ramsay MacDonald, the first Labour leader of Britain. He was attempting to defend the value of the pound, which had been tied to gold since Winston Churchill, as chancellor of the exchequer, restored the link in 1925. But the Bank of England and other experts insisted on public spending cuts, including to unemployment benefits, to restore investor confidence. Almost half MacDonald’s cabinet disagreed, so he took a handful of Labour MPs and led a coalition, backed largely by the Conservatives, which won a crushing majority in the general election.

This time around, Theresa May is the prime minister and she faces almost certain defeat in Parliament on December 11th in a vote on the European Union withdrawal deal that she negotiated. There has been some muttering that she might get the deal through with Labour backing, or even that a government of national unity could be formed to avoid a catastrophic “no deal” scenario. But the 1931 example is not encouraging. MacDonald and his colleagues were denounced as traitors to the Labour movement and the same fate could befall any Labour MPs who choose to back Mrs May.

Remainers might take hope from the fact that the 1931 government went off the gold standard almost immediately, finding that the economic costs were too great. Could a coalition government drop Brexit on the same grounds? Only with the backing of a massive Commons majority in a new election. And that seems a remote possibility, given that the British public are divided almost 50-50 on the issue.

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