Know-towing to China, contd.

It goes on and on. For example, this report from the NYT:

SAN FRANCISCO — Apple removed an app late Wednesday that enabled protesters in Hong Kong to track the police, a day after facing intense criticism from Chinese state media for it, plunging the technology giant deeper into the complicated politics of a country that is fundamental to its business.

Apple said it was withdrawing the app, called HKmap.live, from its App Store just days after approving it because authorities in Hong Kong said protesters were using it to attack the police in the semiautonomous city.

A day earlier, People’s Daily, the flagship newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, published an editorial that accused Apple of aiding “rioters” in Hong Kong. “Letting poisonous software have its way is a betrayal of the Chinese people’s feelings,” said the article, which was written under a pseudonym that translates into “Calming the Waves.”

In a statement on Wednesday, Apple said, “The app displays police locations and we have verified with the Hong Kong Cybersecurity and Technology Crime Bureau that the app has been used to target and ambush police, threaten public safety, and criminals have used it to victimize residents in areas where they know there is no law enforcement. This app violates our guidelines and local laws.”

And then this (about Apple again) from The Verge:

News organization Quartz tells The Verge that Apple has removed its mobile app from the Chinese version of its App Store after complaints from the Chinese government. According to Quartz, this is due to the publication’s ongoing coverage of the Hong Kong protests, and the company says its entire website has also been blocked from being accessed in mainland China.

The publication says it received a notice from Apple that the app “includes content that is illegal in China.”

In a statement, Quartz CEO Zach Seward, who assumed the role of chief executive just two days ago, tells The Verge that “We abhor this kind of government censorship of the internet, and have great coverage of how to get around such bans around the world.” The statement points to the publications’ coverage of VPNs, which can be used to bypass restrictions on accessing certain parts of the internet from mainland China. Quartz also links out to its coverage of the Hong Kong protests.

Apple capitulating to the Chinese government is nothing new. The company’s deep business interests in China, which include a majority of its consumer electronics supply chain, mean that in almost all cases, it abides by the country’s censorship policies and its sensitive reactions to any and all criticism of the Chinese government.

What’s so interesting about recent developments is that the magical thinking that most Western companies (and most governments, come to that) have indulged in about China has been exposed as fatuous wishful thinking. As de Gaulle famously observed decades ago, “Great nations do not have friends, only interests.” China is flexing its muscles.

Why impeaching Trump might be a really bad idea.

From Axios

If Trump survives politically and is re-elected to serve another four years, Congress likely would have nowhere left to go in the event of another scandal, legal and political experts say — not because the House couldn’t impeach him again, but because it might be politically impossible.

So Democrats know they probably only get one shot at using impeachment to remove him from office.

Never before have we had a president who might be in a position to be re-elected after impeachment. Andrew Johnson wasn’t nominated for another term, Bill Clinton was already in his second term, and Richard Nixon resigned in his second term in the face of certain impeachment.

Yep. The Democrats need to think several moves ahead.

Kow-towing to China

From CNBC

China flexed its economic might against the U.S. National Basketball Association (NBA) on Tuesday by suspending broadcast arrangements after the Houston Rockets general manager tweeted support for anti-government protests in Hong Kong.

Beijing’s power over international companies was also highlighted back in August when Cathay Pacific CEO Rupert Hogg stepped down after one of the airline’s pilots was found to have taken part in the protests.

With this latest swipe back at corporate business, China has underlined how sensitive it is to criticism and reinforced the strict rules it wants to be followed by overseas firms wanting to earn money in the country.

Charles Arthur’s comment on this is spot on:

“So who loses out, exactly? This is shaping up to be a defining cultural clash of the next decade. If China has the money to buy everything, and if it is the largest market for lots of western things, do companies which aren’t headquartered in China have to obey its rules? Why? Do you get a sort of cultural race to the bottom of obsequiousness (apologies for the image) because you can have more money?”

And this is just about companies that want to get into the Chinese market. Just wait until a country that has cut itself off from the EU tries to get a trade deal with the PRC. Imagine the pressure the UK government will put on newspapers (and even bloggers) to censor anything that might upset Xi Jinping & Co. It’ll make the row about chlorinated chickens look like a vicarage tea party.

Footnote In case you’re wondering, kow-tow is derived from a Chinese word which means “the act of deep respect shown by prostration, that is, kneeling and bowing so low as to have one’s head touching the ground”. A servile cringe, in other words.

How to destroy the government

From Fintan O’Toole’s perceptive review of Michael Lewis’s book The Fifth Risk: Undoing Democracy:

In October 1987 Ronald Reagan sprayed his folksy charm over an old antigovernment joke: “You know, it’s said that the ten most frightening words in the English language are: ‘Hello, I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’” Reagan was speaking to small-business owners likely to be receptive to the idea that even the most well-intentioned government agencies do nothing but get in the way. There was always an element of hypocrisy in this—Republican politicians have gone on deploying the power of federal patronage, and their supporters have never been allergic to taxpayer dollars. Republican presidents thus continued, even as they starved some parts of the federal government, to have an interest in actually running it.

The joke, though, was always likely to become a serious proposition sooner or later. If you keep saying that government is not the solution but the problem, that “Washington” as a generic term for all the institutions that manage the public realm is just a swamp to be drained, you will end up wanting to destroy it. And if this is what you want to do, then the aspects of Trump that seem most like political weaknesses—his ignorance and his incompetence—are not weaknesses at all. They are powerful weapons of administrative destruction. The best way to undermine government is to make it as stupid and as inept as your rhetoric has always claimed it to be.

In that respect at least, Trump is sure doing his best.

On this day in 2016

From Dave Winer:

This is the graph we were looking at on this day in 2016. It says that HRC had a 75% chance of winning. The black line at the right is Election Day. Most people didn’t understand enough about probability to understand what that meant, so presumably weren’t motivated to vote. This is a lesson you don’t hear reported on much in the press. The election wasn’t decided by anti-abortion gun-rights advocates. It was decided by the people who didn’t vote. # 1

Fear, precariousness and Home Sweet Home

Much of what’s happening at the moment can be explained by fear — as Martha Nussbaum’s new book, The Monarch of Fear argues. Precariousness is a feature, not a bug, of neoliberal capitalism. It’s an economic system that generates and fosters anxiety and insecurity. It makes those who suffer from it — now a significant proportion of most Western democracies — angry and afraid. Things that they once were able to take for granted — relatively stable employment, an affordable place to live, pensions, to name just three — no longer apply or are under threat. But those desirable things are still available to lots of other people — ‘elites’. So it’s no wonder that those who feel socially excluded long for that less-insecure past — and that they are angry about what’s happened to them. (That doesn’t mean that that fondly-imagined past was actually as good as it appears in hindsight: the past is always a different country.) They feel perplexed, powerless and (to coin a phrase) “left behind”. All of which makes some of them susceptible to political leaders who claim to be (and perhaps in some cases are) on their side in the skewed, unfair world in which they now find themselves.

A remarkable photo exhibition at the Arles photography festival (Les Recontres de la Photographie) this summer made me think about this a lot. Entitled ‘Home Sweet Home 1970-2018: The British Home – a Political History’, it was curated by Isabelle Bonnet and brought together the attempts of thirty photographers to capture the intimacy and everyday life of Britain from the 1970s to the present day. It used people’s views about, and attachment to, their houses/homes as a lens to study the way Britain has changed in that period. The catalogue has been published in a handsome volume.

Home Sweet Home was an extraordinarily revealing and thought-provoking exhibition, not least because we were seeing it with the shadow of Brexit hanging over us. Contemplating the ways in which Britons arrange and decorate their living spaces first triggered the thought that there’s no accounting for taste. Kitsch, for example, was much in evidence. But then ‘kitsch’ is really just an elitist sneer. The expensive crap-couture flaunted in the Financial Times’s weekend glossy How to Spend It supplement is just kitsch with a fancy price-tag that’s made in Paris or London rather than a Chinese factory. And it’s just as hideous.

But once one got past the reflexive sneer, what was endearing about the exhibition’s images of modest homes and gardens decorated in ways that their occupants valued was the sense they conveyed of people who seemed secure. And of course at the time they were photographed they probably were indeed secure. For many of those modest homes were what used to be called “council houses” and would now be classed as ‘social housing’. They were provided by the local municipality and leased to tenants at an affordable rent. And those tenants had security, so they felt safe in their homes, and that gave them the confidence to decorate them as they wished. In addition, many of those houses came with gardens, and tenants planted and gardened them as they wished — cultivating small lawns, flower-beds, greenhouses, creating small patios and in the process making gardening into the most popular pastime in British society.

For many working-class Britons who had lived through the Second World War, these council houses provided the first opportunity such people had of having a home that they could call their own. They didn’t own them, mind, because buying a house would have been way beyond their financial means. But they had security of tenure. My late wife came from a working-class family in the Potteries. After her parents married they first lived with my mother-in-law’s parents in a small Victorian terrace house and put their names down on a list in the hope of getting a council house. In 1954 their number came up and they moved into a new house on the outskirts of Stoke on Trent. My wife was born shortly after they had put up the curtains, and her parents lived in that house for the rest of their lives.

Wandering into one room of the exhibition in Arles brought with it the shock of recognition. It was as if I’d walked into their living room. The same kind of carpet; the same kind of wallpaper; the same kind of electric fire; the same knicknacks on the ‘mantlepiece’; the same framed sentimental prints on the wall; the same kind of settee. And then I remembered how contented they were in that environment they had shaped for themselves.

In the Britain of the 1960s and 1970s millions of people lived like that, in council estates up and down the land. And then in 1979 all that began to change. A Tory government, led by Margaret Thatcher, came to power, determined to implement significant elements of a neoliberal economic policy — extensive privatisation of public-sector industries, legal restraints aimed at curbing trade-union power, deregulation of the financial services industry. And one of the first pieces of legislation the government passed was the Housing Act of 1980 which obliged local authorities to sell rented properties to tenants at a subsidised price. The ostensible intention behind the Act was that it would foster the growth of a property-owning democracy in sector of society which had never hitherto owned any property. The political inspiration was that it might persuade council tenants who had hitherto voted Labour to switch to voting Conservative once they owned their own homes.

The policy was massively popular. In 1979 around 55 per cent of properties were inhabited by owner-occupiers in 1979: by 2003, this figure was 70 per cent. In 1982, Right to Buy sales hit an all-time peak of over 240,000, and in 1984 the available discounts were increased. In 1985, Labour abandoned its opposition to the policy. 1989 saw sales exceed 200,000 for the second time. Overall, between 1979 and 1995, 2.1 million properties were transferred from the public sector under Right to Buy. And while this was going on, central government pressure on local authorities

The long-term impacts of the Right to Buy legislation were profound. It played an important role in exacerbating the housing crisis that has characterised many parts of the UK in recent decades. The policy dramatically diminished the stock of affordable housing, making it harder for many to get on to the housing ladder. In 2000-2001, for example, 53,000 homes were transferred under Right to Buy, but only 18,000 new affordable homes were built. At the same time, the slack was taken up by a massive increase in the woefully under-regulated private rental industry, leading to the current situation in which many people are spending over 30-40% of their incomes on renting cramped accommodation from poorly-regulated private landlords.

The Arles exhibition tracks this massive social and economic transformation through an examination of what ‘home’ has been like for those living in the UK. The period it covers — from 1970 to 2018 — coincides neatly with the arc of the neoliberal economic policies that have created the sense of precariousness that now undermines social cohesion in many democracies and has fuelled the rise of populist revolts. After 90 minutes, we walked blinking into the Arles sunlight, wondering what the future holds, and celebrating the power of photography to make one see things in different lights.

Twitter’s indulging of Trump

If you or I tweeted the kind of stuff that Donald Trump does, our accounts would be suspended and we’d most likely be banned for life from the platform. But it seems that Twitter doesn’t dare expel the president. Kara Swisher has a sensible view of this:

It so happens that in recent weeks, including at a fancy-pants Washington dinner party this past weekend, I have been testing my companions with a hypothetical scenario. My premise has been to ask what Twitter management should do if Mr. Trump loses the 2020 election and tweets inaccurately the next day that there had been widespread fraud and, moreover, that people should rise up in armed insurrection to keep him in office.

Most people I have posed this question to have had the same response: Throw Mr. Trump off Twitter for inciting violence. A few have said he should be only temporarily suspended to quell any unrest. Very few said he should be allowed to continue to use the service without repercussions if he was no longer the president. One high-level government official asked me what I would do. My answer: I would never have let it get this bad to begin with.

Now my hypothetical game has come much closer to reality. In using a quote to hide behind what he was actually trying to say, Mr. Trump was testing the system, using a tactic that is enormously dangerous.

She’s right. The interesting thing is that fanatical Brexiteers are beginning to use the same tactic in the UK — suggesting that if they are denied their dream, then the country will be drowned in gore. But at the moment, they use MPs and tabloid newspapers rather than Twitter to make the threat.

Boris Johnson, hedge-funds, conspiracy theories and Brexit

Last Saturday the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, claimed that Boris Johnson was pursuing the interests of financial backers who are set to gain from a no-deal Brexit. Hammond said he was only repeating a comment made by Rachel Johnson, the Prime Minister’s sister. Since some of Johnson’s financial backers run hedge-funds, this sounded like a good conspiracy theory. Indeed Robert Harris, the best-selling thriller writer, tweeted that the claim that Johnson wanted a hard Brexit so that his backers in the City wouldn’t lose billions alleged “corruption on a scale I wouldn’t dare put in fiction”.

Frances Coppola, writing for Forbes, isn’t impressed by this particular conspiracy theory. “To be sure”, she writes,

some hedge fund managers make no secret of their desire for no-deal Brexit. Crispin Odey, for example, not only backed Johnson for Prime Minister but – according to a recent Channel 4 documentary – also advised him to suspend (“prorogue”) Parliament to force through no-deal Brexit. Johnson’s attempt to follow Odey’s advice ended ignominiously when the U.K.’s highest court ruled it unlawful.

Coppola’s point seems to be that most of the journalists covering this particular story doen’t seem to know much about how hedge-funds work. It is possible to profit from no-deal Brexit even if you don’t support it. “Shorting the pound”, she writes, “would be a no-brainer for anyone in the hedge fund fraternity, however pristine their Remain credentials.”

The conspiracy theory suggests that as October 31 approaches with no sign of a deal, hedge-funds might short the pound whether or not they backed Johnson’s campaign.

But that’s not what is being alleged by those who claim that speculators are placing billions of pounds of bets on no-deal Brexit. No, the focus is on equities. According to The Sunday Times, hedge funds like Odey are shorting British companies in expectation of a stock market crash if the U.K. leaves the EU without a deal. Allegedly, Odey has placed £300m ($370m) of bets against a variety of U.K. companies.

Investigating the list of his 14 currently active shorts, Coppola thinks that they are standard hedge-fund operations — betting against companies that are in trouble for reasons that have little or nothing to do with Brexit. “In short”, she concludes,

In short, despite his vocal support for no-deal Brexit, I don’t see any evidence that Odey’s funds are shorting U.K. companies in anticipation of no-deal Brexit. If I were to criticize Odey for anything, it would be for high fees and an uninspiring performance.

Nice piece of debunking. And of good journalism. And I wouldn’t put it past Robert to use the plot in one of his next books!

Dining with Stalin

One of the glories of the blogosphere is its infinite variety. The economist Branko Milanovic has a fascinating post on his blog after he discovered an obscure book (probably based on an academic dissertation) in a secondhand bookstore in St Petersburg. The book is a detailed (400-page) account of 47 banquets that Stalin hosted between 1935 and 1949. The banquets, hosted in various reception rooms of the Kremlin, included between 500 and 2000 people and were, Milanovic writes,

sumptuous affairs, especially if contrasted with generalized penury of meat, fresh fruit and vegetables that often was the case in Moscow and even more so in the provinces. All produce and drinks however were Soviet-made. Compared to their equivalents organized by Hitler and his lieutenants and studied by Fabrice d’Almeda in The High Society in the Third Reich, Soviet banquets were more monotonous, less extravagant, and more modest. They were also more business-like in not (generally) including family members.

There were two groups of diners. The first (obviously) were members of the Politburo and top government officials. The guests were various groups of people. Many of the banquets were done after the May 1 or the Day of the October Revolution (November 7) military parades and thus included mostly the Army and the Navy. One especially favoured group, apparently, were Air Force pilots.

These provided some comic interludes. For example:

There were several special banquets for the pilots that in the 1930s achieved some notable successes for the Soviet aerospace, including flying to the North Pole, saving sailors stuck in the icy northern desert, and flying long-range non-stop flights to North America. These banquets seemed to put Stalin in an exceptionally good mood because he treated pilots with special consideration, allowing them liberties that very few were granted, including having his toast twice interrupted by the same pilot, at two different banquets. At times, there were unusual scenes that in a more bourgeois Western settings would have been unimaginable—as when Stalin invited the pilots to the leadership table and then began to hug and kiss each of them, which in turn led the entire Politburo to do likewise. With a dozen of pilots and more than a dozen of members of the leadership that implied perhaps as many as 150 or even 200 hugs and kisses. An almost California-like therapy of free hugs.

For those at the top table, however, things were anything but comical:

Even if the core was stable (Stalin, Molotov, Kaganovich, Kalinin, Voroshilov, and to some extent Mikoyan, Andreev and Zhdanov) included also the people who were, at various times, later purged and executed. For example (p. 158), “From June 1937 to April 1938, almost to his arrest, Kosior sat five times at that [leadership] table….In August 1938 Kosior’s wife was shot. And then he was arrested himself. He was taken to the higher level of punishment [probably torture]”. Overall, out of 21 people (excluding Stalin) who sat at the leadership table in 1937 and 1938, eight were shot and two killed themselves (p. 162). Thus almost half of the convives to that supreme table were killed by the main host. Not a usual occurrence.

Simultaneously creepy and fascinating.

The twin architects of political destruction

The Economist has a very perceptive piece comparing Seamus Milne, Jeremy Corbyn’s extreme-left consigliere, and Dominic Cummings, who apparently provides analogous services to Boris Johnson. It starts by noting that the two have quite a lot in common.

Both have spent their lives hanging around the fringes of power preparing for this moment—Mr Milne as a long-time journalist with the Guardian (and, long ago, for a short time with The Economist) and Mr Cummings as a Conservative special adviser and leader of the Vote Leave campaign. And they are both revolutionaries who despise the British establishment and believe that the country needs to be turned upside down.

On the other hand, they come from very different backgrounds. Milne is a child of the Establishment: his father was Director-General of the BBC and he went to a fancy public school and then to Balliol College, Oxford. (The Economist piece fails to mention that one of the reasons for Milne’s life-long hatred of the Establishment might be the way his father was brutally sacked by agents of Margaret Thatcher when she was Prime Minister.) Cummings comes from a more humble background, but was upwardly mobile — marrying the only daughter of a Knight who owns a castle in Northumberland.

The Economist’s view that Cummings is much more of an original thinker than Mr Milne is, I think accurate. Like me, the writer of the piece has been reading Cummings’s blog. He has, as the Economist notes,

constructed his own idiosyncratic philosophy, whereas Mr Milne serves up neo-Marxist pap. A reading of Mr Cummings’ lengthy blog-posts reveals a restless mind grappling with a whirlwind of change. One moment he is meditating on whether artificial intelligence will produce a high-tech millennium. The next he is praising Singapore’s education system. The next he is spinning out ideas about a British space programme.

In my Observer piece about Cummings, I mused about the prospect of his technocratic zeal coming into collision with the immovable force of democratic politics:

The other thing one notices about Cummings is that he’s the purest of technocrats. He admires people who relish big challenges, to which they bring formidable analytical talents, mathematical insight, engineering nous and project management skills. For him, the Manhattan Project, creating the internet and the Apollo programme are inspirational examples of how smart determination delivers world-changing results.

The only problem with this – which Cummings appears not to notice – is that these technocratic dreams were realised entirely outside the realm of democratic politics. The lazy, venal, ignorant, self-aggrandising, compromising politicos whom he despises are nowhere to be seen. And the colossal resources needed to realise those dreams came from the bottomless well of wartime or cold war military funding. Chancellors’ autumn statements are nowhere to be seen.

This is why technocrats often suffer from “dictator envy”: it’s so much easier to get things done if politics doesn’t get in the way. So if Cummings is really the guy on whom Boris Johnson is pinning his hopes for a rebooted Britain, then another collision with reality awaits both of them. For the rest of us, the only consolation is that the dust of exploded dreams sometimes makes a fine sunset.

As his unlawful prerogative of Parliament suggests, Johnson has acquired a spot of dictator-envy from his consigliere.