Friday 6 November, 2020

Quote of the Day

“How is it possible to feel too old to learn TikTok dances but too young to be this out of touch?”

  • Hip couple in a New Yorker cartoon.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Don McClean | Starry, Starry Night | Live

Link

His tribute to Vincent Van Gogh.


America’s Next Authoritarian Will Be Much More Competent

Sobering and insightful essay by Zeynep Tufecki, who is one of the sharpest minds writing about our current catastrophes.

TL;DR summary: Trump was ineffective and easily beaten. A future strongman won’t be.

Trump is just one more example of the many populists on the right who have risen to power around the world: Narendra Modi in India, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Vladimir Putin in Russia, Jarosław Kaczyński in Poland, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, my home country. These people win elections but subvert democratic norms: by criminalizing dissent, suppressing or demonizing the media, harassing the opposition, and deploying extra-legal mechanisms whenever possible (Putin’s opponents have a penchant for meeting tragic accidents). Orbán proudly uses the phrase illiberal democracy to describe the populism practiced by these men; Trump has many similarities to them, both rhetorically and policy-wise.

But there’s one key difference between Trump and everyone else on that list. The others are all talented politicians who win elections again and again.

In contrast, Trump is a reality-TV star who stumbled his way into an ongoing realignment in American politics, aided by a series of events peculiar to 2016 that were fortunate for him: The Democrats chose a polarizing nominee who didn’t have the requisite political touch that can come from surviving tough elections; social media was, by that point, deeply entrenched in the country’s politics, but its corrosive effects were largely unchecked; multiple players—such as then–FBI Director James Comey—took consequential actions fueled by their misplaced confidence in Hillary Clinton’s win; and Trump’s rivals in the Republican primaries underestimated him. He drew a royal flush.

But ‘Trumpism’ is now a powerful force in American democracy — a contemporary kind of Peronism. And soon or later a really astute demagogue in the Orban/Erdogan league will spot its potential.

Interesting also to see the signs that the Republicans are done with Trump. When Fox called Arizona for Biden and Trump phoned Rupert Murdoch to demand a retraction, Murdoch curtly refused. For him and Mitch McConnell and the others Trump has been a useful idiot. He delivered what they wanted — tax cuts, umpteen Conservative senior judges and a stacked Supreme Court. So he’s now surplus to requirements — and becoming a real embarrassment, even to them. So he’s toast. He just doesn’t know it yet.


Lockdown sceptics vs zero-Covid: who’s got it right?

Tim Harford has a really good post on his blog, bringing his customary tone of good sense and rationality to a debate that has become vicious (especially in the Tory party):

Some lockdown sceptics have advanced a variety of dishonest or deluded views over the course of the pandemic. Months ago, one correspondent wrote to assure me that the infection fatality rate was just one in 2,000. This implies 33,500 deaths if the whole UK population was infected. We have suffered 67,500 excess deaths; am I to conclude that we have all had the virus twice? Then, in what now looks like a line from a Shakespearean tragedy, there is Donald Trump’s early declaration: “One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.”

But there is an honest argument against lockdowns — namely that while the disease is dangerous, the lockdown cure is worse. The virus has the power to kill many more people than died in the first wave. Yet in England and Wales, the vast majority of those who have died were 65 or over, with two-thirds of them aged 75 or over. The honest lockdown sceptic asks, is it wise or fair to impose radical limits on the freedom of all with no apparent end in sight? Thousands of lives are being saved — but millions of young people are seeing their prospects sacrificed. Is their sacrifice worthwhile?

The zero-Covid position reaches the opposite conclusion from the same starting point: since there will be no end to the suffering as long as the virus is circulating, the answer is to eliminate the virus in the UK and Ireland. We are island nations, like New Zealand. If community transmission can be stopped, then border controls — plus contact tracing for the occasional outbreak — can keep the virus out.

The most prominent British advocates of the zero-Covid approach are the scientists calling themselves “Independent Sage”. In July, they explained that the first step would be to apply lockdowns until we reached “control”, defined as one new case per million people per day. Thereafter, a contact- tracing system, plus support for people in isolation, would eliminate the virus on these shores.

Both sides of this debate hold out tempting rewards if only we are willing to suffer now. But both are mistaken. Zero-Covid looks prohibitively costly for European countries. A relentless lockdown would be needed even to reach the “control” step, with no guarantee against backsliding.

And his conclusion. There’s no magic bullet, just hard slog and competence, bot alien concepts to the Johnson administration.

Germany has learnt to live with the virus as a constant yet contained threat. The secret is no secret: lockdown suppressed the virus enough to allow contact tracing, mask-wearing and general vigilance to take over. In July, at a time when the British were still emerging from their homes, blinking in the sunlight, I visited Bavaria. Masks and sanitisers were everywhere, but it was thriving.

The UK had the same opportunity but we are squandering it. Our contact-tracing system was slow to grind into action, our testing capacity was overwhelmed by the predictable surge in demand as schools reopened and, most recently, a technical error led to many thousands of positive test results not entering the contact tracing system promptly.

Forget the clash of grand ideas, of Sweden versus New Zealand. Just stop bungling the basics. It is not much of a slogan. But it might just be a solution.

Great post.


How introducing friction into a communications system improves things

The holy grail of geeks is to make things “frictionless” — to do away with all the cumbersome blockages and delays of analog life. And, to a great extent, they have achieved their goal — to make everything just a click away — in the process achieving what the economist Ronald Coase envisaged in his great 1937 article, “The Nature of the Firm”. In that, he explained why it is that people choose to form partnerships, companies and other business entities rather than trading bilaterally through contracts on a market. (It was all about whether the ‘transaction costs’ of contracting out were higher than the costs of doing it inside the organisation: that’s why the great US automobile firms wound up running rubber plantations in tropical countries.) One of the most important affordances of the Internet was that it often dramatically reduced transaction costs, and therefore changed the shape of corporations.

As the so-called “marketplace of ideas” was inexorably sucked into social media, the same affordance was deployed. The transaction cost of having to copy and paste a piece of information before passing it on to someone else was retuced to zero with a simple ‘Like’, ‘Share’ or re-tweet button. Which meant that ideas, lies, information (and disinformation) started to circulate with the speed of light. When feedback loops operate at that speed, any control engineer can tell you what happens to systems whose behaviour is determined by that feedback.

All of which is by way of background to an interesting piece by Kevin Roose in today’s New York Times. The TL;DR summary is “On Election Day, Facebook and Twitter Did Better by Making Their Products Worse”. What happened is that the social media platforms effectively introduced some friction into the feedback loops.

For months, nearly every step these companies have taken to safeguard the election has involved slowing down, shutting off or otherwise hampering core parts of their products — in effect, defending democracy by making their apps worse.

They added friction to processes, like political ad-buying, that had previously been smooth and seamless. They brought in human experts to root out extremist groups and manually intervened to slow the spread of sketchy stories. They overrode their own algorithms to insert information from trusted experts into users’ feeds. And as results came in, they relied on the calls made by news organizations like The Associated Press, rather than trusting that their systems would naturally bring the truth to the surface. ImageAn alert on the Facebook newsfeed notifying users that votes are still being counted. An alert on the Facebook newsfeed notifying users that votes are still being counted.

Nowhere was this shift more apparent than at Facebook, which for years envisioned itself as a kind of post-human communication platform. Mark Zuckerberg, the company’s chief executive, often spoke about his philosophy of “frictionless” design — making things as easy as possible for users. Other executives I talked to seemed to believe that ultimately, Facebook would become a kind of self-policing machine, with artificial intelligence doing most of the dirty work and humans intervening as little as possible.

But in the lead-up to the 2020 election, Facebook went in the opposite direction. It put in place a new, cumbersome approval process for political advertisers, and blocked new political ads in the period after Election Day. It throttled false claims, and put in place a “virality circuit-breaker” to give fact-checkers time to evaluate suspicious stories. And it temporarily shut off its recommendation algorithm for certain types of private groups, to lessen the possibility of violent unrest. (On Thursday, The New York Times reported that the company was taking other temporary measures to tamp down election-related misinformation, including adding more friction to the process of sharing posts.)

I don’t like the “marketplace of ideas” metaphor but it does provide a way of thinking about how a market operates. We saw what happened when stock markets were effectively automated — when trading is mostly done by machines. And then we saw how that led to the epidemic of so-called High Speed Trading described by Michael Lewis in his book, Flash Boys — and the instabilities that introduced into what was once a marketplace for investors valuing companies on the basis of long-term prospects as well as short-term gains. Similarly, our marketplace of ideas has become a space also distorted by high-speed ‘trading’ in every kind of information, good, bad and indifferent. So we shouldn’t be surprised at where we’ve got to. Going frictionless is great — until it isn’t.


Other, possibly interesting, links

  • FDR’s 1994 State of the Union address. This is what politicians used to be like. Link
  • Bentley will ditch internal combustion engines by 2030. Don’t all rush to buy a collector’s item. Link.

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Thursday 5 November, 2020

Quote of the Day

“Really I suppose what I hate myself most on is showing other people where to dig, not having time to do intensive and exclusive digging myself. I am a dowser and not a navvy.”

  • Queenie Leavis

A bit like a blogger, really.


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

I struggled with this today, given the thoughts below.

What I kept thinking of was the famous reply that Ben Franklin gave to the woman who accosted him as he emerged from the final day of deliberation of 1787 with the question,”Well Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?”

Franklin answered, “A republic… if you can keep it.”

In the end, I came up with this:

Joan Baez singing The Battle Hymn of the Republic in 1963.

Link


The sobering truth

From this morning’s Washington Post

The inescapable reality of the election results is that Trumpism remains a powerful current in American politics. It’s akin to political tendencies in other parts of the world where strongmen have co-opted democracies. The president’s brand of demagogic nationalism, his ceaseless campaigning through every year of his term and his unrepentant embrace of divisive messaging and tactics have clearly mobilized tremendous support.

“Trump over-performed in myriad polling measures. There would be no landslides, only squeakers and clenched jaws — and, possibly, court fights,” wrote my colleague Monica Hesse. “Win or lose, Trumpism will not have been swept into the dustbin of history; it will remain all over the furniture. It’s part of the furniture.”

Indeed, it may wholly define right-wing politics in the United States for years to come. “Trumpism might be becoming America’s version of Peronism,” tweeted Dan Slater, director at the Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies at the University of Michigan, referring to Argentina’s own legacy of populist nationalism. “Highly mobilizing, highly polarizing, not always in power, but never going away.”

And this from Janan Ganesh of the Financial Times

Naturally, a Biden win, even a slight one, is a better outcome for liberalism than Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016. But the absence of a landslide and a strongly Democratic Senate will sting. Four years ago, the party could cite excuses and circumstances: an unpopular candidate, an opponent with no political history to attack.

This time, they have no such solace. Democrats nominated a seasoned and unobjectionable moderate. They ran on the fundamentals of public health and prosperity. They amassed a Fort Knox of campaign money. They had the encouraging precedent of the 2018 midterm elections. Above all, they had Mr Trump’s ethical and administrative record to go after. All the raw materials were there for a crushing victory that would double as a purgative moment for the republic: a clean-up of sorts.

Yes, a Californian running mate was never ideal — the election hinges on the Midwest and the south-east — but there was no clear alternative to Kamala Harris. As for his avoidance of mass political rallies, Mr Biden could hardly run as a slayer of the coronavirus pandemic while holding them.

At this point in the search for unforced errors, the trail runs cold. Liberals are left to accept a deeper fact about the US. Far more than when the phrase started doing the rounds a generation ago, this is a 50-50 nation, or thereabouts.

And so the question is: how did that come to pass? That’s a long story, and some of it is peculiarly American (particularly the racism that runs through that society like the message in a stick of Blackpool rock). But not all of it; there’s an element of it also that other Western democracies share, namely that this pathological polarisation has been a long time building — by my reckoning since the collapse of the post-war Keynesian order from 1971 onwards, and the subsequent ideological infection of ruling elites in most democracies by neoliberalism. We are now reaping the whirlwind of what we sowed in those decades.

And Trumpism isn’t going away. It’s the new Peronism. Time to brush up on Argentinian history.


Other, possibly interesting, links

  • How Stanford voted. Interesting (and, to me, surprising). Very few Republicans there, it seems. Link
  • First words spoken or sent on various communication systems. Link
  • So who emptied that Bitcoin wallet of nearly a billion dollars? Now we know — or at any rate Uncle Sam does: the hacker who did it (“Individual X”, if you please) panicked after being threatened by the original owner of the wallet (now behind bars) and handed the loot over to the Department of Justice. Link.

This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe if your decide that your inbox is full enough already!


Wednesday 4 November, 2020

Hitler learns he can’t stop the votes being counted.

Link


Quote of the Day

“Credulity is the man’s weakness, but the child’s strength.”

  • Charles Lamb

Musical alternative to the radio news of the day

Bob Dylan – Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right

Link

The nicest version of one of my favourite songs. With that lovely clawhammer pick.


The most eloquent comment on the election

From Dave Pell, in his wonderful daily newsletter:

About last night… After what felt like a few hundred hours of watching election results trickle in, I assumed the fetal position on my couch and moan-cried for about thirty minutes. It was a combination of things. Part of it was personal: I just spend so much time thinking, writing, tweeting, and distracting myself with this all-encompassing political story that I may have been momentarily overwhelmed. Maybe I was just considering how much dough I spent on various races around the country (I don’t want to overstate how invested I am in this election, but I think ActBlue just repossessed my car). The bigger part was less personal: Trump has been basically the same guy since he’s been president, and knowing this, tens of millions of Americans still voted for him. On some level, we are broken. I get the national divide and I frankly agree with many of the complaints coming from rural America. I understand some of the anger, but I’ve never understood expressing that anger through Trump. And watching him go full authoritarian as the votes were still being counted made me especially sad for my parents who had to watch the rise of a strongman during the buildup to WWII in Poland and Germany when they were kids, and who now have to watch half of America embrace a guy who deploys the same political tactics. But then I stopped crying. Partly because no one owns this lib! Partly because I realized that among the challenges my parents have faced, nothing about this election ranks in the top thousand. And partly because, regardless of the premature self-coronation of the mad king, in America, no election is over until every last Retweet is counted. And while there are very fine people on both sides, I have a feeling Biden’s side is going to have enough electoral votes to win. But it’s gonna be damn close. If my math is right, Biden got more votes than any candidate in history and Trump got more votes than he did in 2016. Stress and confusion in 2020. Who saw that coming? And one can safely assume, there’s much more to come between now and the end of this election season. (One irony of presidential elections is that each one takes four years off my life.)

That resonates with me, and I’m sure with may other people. It’s the size of Trump’s vote, after four years of his criminality, that’s the most depressing part of it all.


Long read of the day

Code, on wheels. Software will play a central role in the automobiles of the future by Frederic Filloux.

Or, why Teslas are interesting. Link

(Possibly only of interest to geeks and retired petrolheads.)


The Problem Isn’t That the Polls Were Wrong. It’s That They Were Useless.

Ban election forecasts, or at least ignore them.

Joshua Keating writing in Slate:

If Biden ultimately wins, pollsters and the data journalists who rely on them will claim some vindication. To be fair, FiveThirtyEight’s final projections gave Biden less than a 1-in-3 chance of a landslide. The popular vote projections are likely to be pretty accurate. Yet, frustratingly, pollsters can also marshal a defense of their methods if Trump manages a surprise win. After the polling misfires of 2016, Silver and other data journalists went to great lengths to remind readers that no matter how promising the polls looked, a Trump victory could not be ruled out. “A 10 percent chance of winning is not a zero percent chance. In fact, that is roughly the same odds that it’s raining in downtown Los Angeles. And it does rain there,” noted FiveThirtyEight’s final projection.

It’s not all that comforting to Democrats today to know that 9 out of 10 times this election happens in the greater multiverse, Biden will win it. As former FiveThirtyEight writer Mona Chalabi put it, assuming the voice of FiveThirtyEight’s much-derided Fivey Fox mascot, “No matter what happens, I will find a way to say ‘I told you so! That’s how probabilities work!’ ”

It’s not that we should stop trusting polls entirely. They are a flawed but vital tool for campaigns to know where to devote resources, and for campaign journalists to use in reporting. But an entire industry of pundits and soothsayers have turned polling analysis into something more like a religion while proclaiming it a science. Meanwhile, it is increasingly unclear why these projections are useful at all.


Other, possibly interesting, links

  • How the F@!# Did This Giant Whale Tail Save a Derailed Train?. A rail investigator explains how the Dutch train was saved by a sculpture. Is it any wonder I love Popular Mechanics? Link.
  • Someone Just Emptied Out a Bitcoin Wallet With $964,000,000 In It. It’s not yet clear if a hacker made off with a gigantic payday, or if the wallet’s long-dormant owner just came out of retirement. Link.

This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe if your decide that your inbox is full enough already!


Sunday 1 November, 2020

This week’s Economist cover (with my annotation). Neat graphic.


Quote of the Day

Once, censorship worked by blocking crucial pieces of information. In this era of information overload, censorship works by drowning us in too much undifferentiated information, crippling our ability to focus. These dumps, combined with the news media’s obsession with campaign trivia and gossip, have resulted in whistle-drowning, rather than whistle-blowing: In a sea of so many whistles blowing so loud, we cannot hear a single one.


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Liam O’Flynn (sadly RIP) with Arty McGlynn, Christy Moore and Rod McVey at The Point, Dublin in 1997

Link


Facebook has good reasons for blocking research into political ad targeting

This morning’s Observer column. Snippet:

The researchers had built a plug-in extension for the Google Chrome browser that, they explained, “copies the ads you see on Facebook, so anyone, on any part of the political spectrum, can see them in our public database. If you want, you can enter basic demographic information about yourself in the tool to help improve our understanding of why advertisers targeted you. However, we’ll never ask for information that could identify you. It doesn’t collect your personal information. We take your privacy very seriously.”

So what was the problem? Basically this: the extension has access to not simply public posts on Facebook but also to whatever content the user accessed while logged in. This would include their personal data, of course, but, as is likely in the case on many Facebook pages, also some data from the user’s friends.

Read on


Long read of the Day

Om Malik: Why Great Design is Timeless

Link

A lot of commentary has followed the launch of the iPhone 12, some of it praising Apple for going back to the old design and some complaining about Apple’s inability to do something different from a design perspective. Both sides miss the point: Enduring design doesn’t need constant reinterpretation. It needs tweaking, polishing, and subtle improvement. I think of the iPhone and its design language very similar to Porsche’s design language. Or, for that matter of a classic Leica camera…”.


A win for Joe Biden would only scratch the surface of America’s afflictions

Sobering piece by John Mulholland, the Guardian‘s US Editor.

If the president loses, there will be much talk of a new normality and the need for a democratic reset. Hopes will be voiced for a return to constitutional norms. There will be calls for a return of civility in public discourse and a healing of the partisan divide that scars America. All of that is as it should be. But it ought to come with a recognition that America was broken long before it elected Trump and his departure would be no guarantee that the country will be mended. Many of the systemic issues that afflict the US predate Trump.

His ugly and dysfunctional presidency has distracted from many of the fundamentals that have beset America for decades, even centuries. But they remain stubbornly in place. If he does lose, America will no longer have Trump to blame. Two two-term Democratic presidents over the past 30 years have not significantly affected the structural issues that corrode US democracy and society, and race is always at their heart. The past few months have drawn further attention to the systemic racism and brutality that characterise much policing. But racism in the States is not confined to the police. In fact, it is not confined at all.

When Barack Obama was elected in 2008, there was talk about a post-racial America. But in 2016, at the end of Obama’s eight-year term, the non-partisan thinktank the Pew Research Center estimated that the median wealth of white households in the US was $171,000 (£132,000). This was 10 times the median wealth of black households ($17,100). This was a larger gap than in 2007, the year before Obama was elected.

Trump can be blamed for exacerbating racial tensions and giving succour to white supremacists but the racial wealth gap runs deeper than his term of office. As the non-aligned Brookings Institution said this year: “Gaps in wealth between black and white households reveal the effects of accumulated inequality and discrimination, as well as differences in power and opportunity that can be traced back to this nation’s inception.”

There’s also the matter of what happened to Native Americans.

We’re all prisoners of our histories. Back to my General Theory of Incompetent Systems.


Keys to the White House…

… is the name of a forecasting system, developed by political scientist Allan Lichtman for predicting the winner of American presidential elections, based upon the theory of pragmatic voting. (America’s electorate, according to this theory, chooses a president, not according to events of the campaign, but according to how well the party in control of the White House has governed the country.) It’s claimed that the system has correctly forecast the winner of all eight presidential elections from 1984 to 2016, usually months or even years prior to Election Day.

At the moment it’s predicting a Biden victory of 52.2% over 47.8% in the popular vote and 336 to 202 in the Electoral College.


Other, possibly interesting, links

  •  25 Feel-Good Films You’ll Want to Watch Again—and Again. Might be useful for lockdown. Link
  •  Ireland Mourns for Missing Dolphin Fungie – The New York Times. Link Might seem daft, but accurate. Dingle is one of my favourite places in all the world, and this Dolphin was one of its many delights. I still remember the joy on my daughter’s face one day in 1995 when, aged 4, she was able to reach out of the boat and stroke his dorsal fin.
  • Taiwan marks 200 days without domestic Covid-19 infection. It can be done. You just need a government that knows what it’s doing. Link

This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe if your decide that your inbox is full enough already!


Monday 26 October, 2020

Surrealism

This is one of my favourite pictures. Absolutely no post-production artifice. This is exactly what I photographed early one morning on Nordeinde in The Hague.


Quote of the Day

“When I am playing with my cat, how do I know she is not playing with me?”

  • Montaigne

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Randy Newman – Stay Away: His Covid song

Link


Paul Day’s St Pancras ‘Meeting Place’ sculpture

My photograph yesterday captured only a fragment of what is by any standards an extraordinary work.

Euan Williamson has made a lovely video of the frieze which captures it in the round.

Link


What can we learn from cats?

Answer: Don’t live in an imagined future.

Lovely interview by Tim Adams in yesterday’s Observer. It was triggered by publication of Gray’s new book, Cats and the Meaning of Life, which I’ve just ordered on the strength of this conversation.

Long read of the day.


Trump’s army of angry white men

Charles Blow, writing in today’s New York Times:

The most optimistic among us see the Trump era as some sort of momentary insanity, half of the nation under the spell of a conjurer. They believe that the country can be reunited and this period forgotten.

I am not one of those people. I believe what political scientist Thomas Schaller told Bloomberg columnist Francis Wilkinson in 2018: “I think we’re at the beginning of a soft civil war.” If 2018 was the beginning of it, it is now well underway.

Trump is building an army of the aggrieved in plain sight.

It is an army with its own mercenaries, people Trump doesn’t have to personally direct, but ones he has absolutely refused to condemn.

Which is why his defeat in the election is likely to provoke serious disturbances in some places.


Girl in the mirror

Link

Some of these Lincoln Project ads are really powerful. Thanks to CD for pointing me at it.


Why is everyone building an electric pickup truck?

This is a follow-up the the link I posted the other day about the Hummer electric SUV. It seems that lots of auto manufacturers are launching SUV EVs. Why? I thought the whole thing about SUVs is that people bought them because they were bad for the environment? So here’s an explanation from Ars Technica

Here’s the problem: no one knows who that American electric pickup buyer is. “It’s not like people have been asking for this,” says Jessica Caldwell, the executive director of insights at Edmunds. “I don’t think people have been sitting around and thinking, ‘You now what I need? A pickup with an electric motor.’”

But…

The Hummer, which hasn’t been produced since 2010, has gained a cult status among a certain kind of driver. General Motors wants the car aficionados and gearheads to pay attention: convince them to go electric, and the whole world might follow. To wit, GM has stuffed plenty of nerdery into the electric pickup. It comes with a crab walk feature that lets the truck drive diagonally and in-vehicle graphics developed by video game maker Epic Games. The truck, the first to use GM’s new Ultium batteries, has a 350-mile range. It can do 0 to 60 in three seconds.


Economics for the people

A remarkable essay in. Aeon by Dirk Philipsen of Duke University.

A basic truth is once again trying to break through the agony of worldwide pandemic and the enduring inhumanity of racist oppression. Healthcare workers risking their lives for others, mutual aid networks empowering neighbourhoods, farmers delivering food to quarantined customers, mothers forming lines to protect youth from police violence: we’re in this life together. We – young and old, citizen and immigrant – do best when we collaborate. Indeed, our only way to survive is to have each other’s back while safeguarding the resilience and diversity of this planet we call home.

As an insight, it’s not new, or surprising. Anthropologists have long told us that, as a species neither particularly strong nor fast, humans survived because of our unique ability to create and cooperate. ‘All our thriving is mutual’ is how the Indigenous scholar Edgar Villanueva captured the age-old wisdom in his book Decolonizing Wealth (2018). What is new is the extent to which so many civic and corporate leaders – sometimes entire cultures – have lost sight of our most precious collective quality.

This loss is rooted, in large part, in the tragedy of the private – this notion that moved, in short order, from curious idea to ideology to global economic system. It claimed selfishness, greed and private property as the real seeds of progress. Indeed, the mistaken concept many readers have likely heard under the name ‘the tragedy of the commons’ has its origins in the sophomoric assumption that private interest is the naturally predominant guide for human action. The real tragedy, however, lies not in the commons, but in the private. It is the private that produces violence, destruction and exclusion. Standing on its head thousands of years of cultural wisdom, the idea of the private variously separates, exploits and exhausts those living under its cold operating logic.

Worth reading in full.


Other, perhaps interesting, links

  • The magic of the tilt-and-turn window. Made in Germany, naturally. Link

  • I’m a Principled Republican Senator and I’m Suddenly Troubled By the Current State of Politics. Link

  • Chile restores democratic rule: Neoliberal’s first gunshot has stopped echoing. Link


This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe if you decide that your inbox is full enough already!


Saturday 24 October, 2020

Waiting for… who?

Venice, 2017.


Quote of the Day

”Calamities are of two kinds. Misfortunes to ourselves and good fortune to others”

  • Ambrose Bierce

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

David Lindley & Ry Cooder – Old Coot From Tennessee

Link

Well, I did warn you about these two.


Fukuyama: Liberalism and its discontents

Long read of the day. From American Purpose.

Characteristically lucid and informative essay by Francis Fukuyama on the historical background to some of our current problems.

The “democracy” under attack today is a shorthand for liberal democracy, and what is really under greatest threat is the liberal component of this pair. The democracy part refers to the accountability of those who hold political power through mechanisms like free and fair multiparty elections under universal adult franchise. The liberal part, by contrast, refers primarily to a rule of law that constrains the power of government and requires that even the most powerful actors in the system operate under the same general rules as ordinary citizens. Liberal democracies, in other words, have a constitutional system of checks and balances that limits the power of elected leaders.

Democracy itself is being challenged by authoritarian states like Russia and China that manipulate or dispense with free and fair elections. But the more insidious threat arises from populists within existing liberal democracies who are using the legitimacy they gain through their electoral mandates to challenge or undermine liberal institutions…

He goes on to argue that the contemporary attack on liberalism goes much deeper than the ambitions of a handful of populist politicians, and that they would not be as successful as they have been were they not riding a wave of discontent with some of the underlying characteristics of liberal societies.

To understand this, he says, we need to look at the historical origins of liberalism, its evolution over the decades, and its limitations as a governing doctrine.

And therein lies a master-class… Worth reading all the way through.

I’ve always admired Fukuyama’s writing. I was a bit puzzled by his book on Identity which came out a couple of years ago. But in this essay he seems back on form.

(Another thing I like about him is that he’s a keen photographer!


When the Worst Man in the World Writes a Masterpiece

This is an enjoyable essay by Alvaro de Menard about an enduring puzzle: how did a vain, shallow, lecherous nobody called James Boswell come to write the greatest biography in the English language?

de Menard begins by painting a succinct pen-portrait of the biographer:

He was a perpetual drunk, a degenerate gambler, a sex addict, whoremonger, exhibitionist, and rapist. He gave his wife an STD he caught from a prostitute.

Selfish, servile and self-indulgent, lazy and lecherous, vain, proud, obsessed with his aristocratic status, yet with no sense of propriety whatsoever, he frequently fantasized about the feudal affection of serfs for their lords. He loved to watch executions and was a proud supporter of slavery.

Boswell combined his terrible behavior with a complete lack of shame, faithfully reporting every transgression, every moronic ejaculation, every faux pas. The first time he visited London he went to see a play and, as he happily tells us himself, he “entertained the audience prodigiously by imitating the lowing of a cow.”

By all accounts, including his own, he was an idiot. On a tour of Europe, his tutor said to him: “of young men who have studied I have never found one who had so few ideas as you.”

As a lawyer he was a perpetual failure, especially when he couldn’t get Johnson to write his arguments for him. As a politician he didn’t even get the chance to be a failure despite decades of trying.

His correspondence with Johnson mostly consists of Boswell whining pathetically and Johnson telling him to get his shit together.

He commissioned a portrait from his friend Joshua Reynolds and stiffed him on the payment. His descendants hid the portrait in the attic because they were ashamed of being related to him.

Having read the first volume of Boswell’s own diary, which covers his arrival in London and his first years in the capital, that seems plausible. And yet, such an undoubted creep produces this single great work.

de Menard quotes the opinions of Macaulay — who thought that the ‘Life’ succeeded because of Boswell’s vices (he never hears a confidence that he would not betray) — and Thomas Carlyle (who thought the biography the greatest work of the 18th century) en route to an interesting conclusion. “The story of Boswell,” he writes,

is basically the plot of Amadeus, with the role of Salieri being played by Macaulay, by Carlyle, by me, and—perhaps even by yourself, dear reader. The line between admiration, envy, and resentment is thin, and crossing it is easier when the subject is a scoundrel. But if Bozzy could set aside resentment for genuine reverence, perhaps there is hope for us all. And yet…it would be an error to see in Boswell the Platonic Form of Mankind.

Shaffer and Forman’s film portrays Mozart as vulgar, arrogant, a womanizer, bad with money—but, like Bozzy, still somehow quite likable. In one of the best scenes of the film, we see Mozart transform the screeches of his mother-in-law into the Queen of the Night Aria; thus Boswell transformed his embarrassments into literary gold. He may be vulgar, but his productions are not. He may be vulgar, but he is not ordinary.

Lovely stuff.


Other, possibly interesting, links

  • Obituary of publisher Tom Maschler “No stranger to self-doubt,” but a great publisher also. Maybe the two were connected. Link
  •  Facebook Seeks Shutdown of NYU Research Project Into Political Ad Targeting Apparently research into what they’re doing violates their terms and conditions. Link
  •  Why this presidential election is special — democracy is on the ballot — not just Trump and Biden – Vox Link
  • Mask-wearing and ‘freedom’ (contd.) Paul Krugman weighs in: “Liberty doesn’t mean freedom to infect other people.”

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Friday 23 October, 2020

Gone Fishin’

Cley beach, Norfolk, 2018.


Quote of the Day

”There are two things which I am confident I can do well: one is an introduction to literary work, stating what it is to contain, and how it should be executed in the most perfect manner; the other is a conclusion, shewing from various causes why the execution has not been equal to what the author promised to himself and to the public.”

  • Samuel Johnson, 1755.

Rings any bells with you? Does with me.


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Beethoven | Für Elise” | Lang Lang

Link

When I lived and worked in Holland in the late 1970s I often went to the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam on Sunday mornings where there would be a recital in the Spiegelzaal. You paid a small fee, got a coffee and found a place to sit. I think these treats were actually branded as Für Elise, but it’s so long ago that I can’t be sure. Still, this wonderful performance by Lang Lang brings it all back.


The false promise of herd immunity for COVID-19

Why proposals to largely let the virus run its course — embraced by Donald Trump’s administration and others — could bring “untold death and suffering”.

Useful briefing from Nature which explains the concept and the difficulty of estimating what percentage of a population have it.

It’s complicated, as you might expect. The bottom line, though, is that “never before have we reached herd immunity via natural infection with a novel virus, and SARS-CoV-2 is unfortunately no different.”

Vaccination is the only ethical path to herd immunity. Letting it rip is neither ethical nor likely to be effective.

We kind-of knew that, didn’t we? Except for Trump, of course, who called it “herd mentality”.


Writing to Simone

Terrific review essay by Vivian Gornick in the Boston Review on Simone de Beauvoir and the letters readers wrote to her. The book she’s writing about is Judith Coffin’s Sex, Love, and Letters: Writing Simone de Beauvoir — a work that came out of the author’s discovery of the enormous trove of letters to Beauvoir from her readers in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris.

It was not only, or even mainly, The Second Sex that bound readers to Beauvoir for decades. More than anything it was the memoirs, following one upon another, that accounted for the remarkable loyalty thousands of women, and some men too, showered upon the gradual unfolding of a life lived almost entirely in the public eye, at the same time that its inner existence was continually laid bare and minutely reported upon. Fearless was the word most commonly associated with these books as, in every one of them, Beauvoir, good Existentialist that she was, wrote with astonishing frankness about sex, politics, and relationships. She recorded in remarkable detail, and with remarkable authenticity, everything she had thought or felt at any given moment. Well, kind of. She recorded everything that she was not ashamed of. Years later, after she and Sartre were both dead, appalling behavior came to light that she had either omitted from the memoirs or put a positive spin on.

Sex, Love, and Letters is a richly researched study based on Judith Coffin’s encounter with a batch of these letters that a sympathetic curator put into her hands one day while she was working on The Second Sex in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris. As she writes in her introduction, “Nothing prepared me for the drama I found the first time I opened a folder of readers’ letters to Simone de Beauvoir. . . . What I found was an outpouring of projection, identification, expectation, disappointment, and passion.” Correspondents “asked for advice on marriage, love, and birth control; they confessed secrets and sent sections of their diaries for her to read. The letter writers’ tone was unexpected as well, alternately deferential and defiant, seductive, and wry.”

I know a bit about this because I was once married to a woman whose life was changed by reading the Second Sex and the successive volumes of Beauvoir’s remarkable autobiography. Carol (who died in 2008) was deeply influenced by these texts and for her (and to some extent for me) this amazing French intellectual became a kind of heroine — so much so that Carol later did a Masters thesis on the autobiography. I’m looking at it now as I write. She even wrote to Beauvoir asking for an interview — and went to Paris to see her in her apartment. So I guess her letters are also in the BN’s trove.

As Gornick implies, the passage of time, and posthumous revelations, has taken the shine off the image of Beauvoir and her accomplice in literary celebrity, Jean-Paul Sartre. Subsequent biographies have revealed that they both sometimes behaved abominably towards other people. I guess it leaves those of us who, as impressionable students, were dazzled by them, looking naive. So what? Everybody was young and foolish once. And whatever one thinks about its author with the 20/20 vision of hindsight, The Second Sex was a genuinely pathbreaking book.


There’s a word for why we wear masks, and Liberals should say it

Michael Tomasky has a fine OpEd piece in the New York Times about the way the word “freedom” has been hijacked by the alt-right and their accomplices in the Republican party.

Donald Trump is now back on the road, holding rallies in battleground states. These events, with people behind the president wearing masks but most others not, look awfully irresponsible to most of us — some polls show that as many as 92 percent of Americans typically wear masks when they go out.

Trumpworld sees these things differently. Mike Pence articulated the view in the vice-presidential debate. “We’re about freedom and respecting the freedom of the American people,” Mr. Pence said. The topic at hand was the Sept. 26 super-spreader event in the Rose Garden to introduce Amy Coney Barrett as the president’s nominee for the Supreme Court and how the administration can expect Americans to follow safety guidelines that it has often ignored.

Tomasky goes back to John Stuart Mill (whom many right-wingers apparently revere). In On Liberty he wrote that liberty (or freedom) means “doing as we like, subject to such consequences as may follow, without impediment from our fellow creatures, as long as what we do does not harm them even though they should think our conduct foolish, perverse or wrong.” This is a standard definition of freedom, more succinctly expressed in the adage: “Your freedom to do as you please with your fist ends where my jaw begins.”

Most of the nonsense about mask-wearing in the US is expressed in the language of “my freedom”. It’s ludicrously oxymoronic, though. I saw a fanatical anti-mask woman on TV recently saying “it’s my body and I’m not going to have anyone telling me what to wear on my face” while it was pretty clear that she doesn’t agree with pro-abortion campaigners who maintain “It’s my body and I’m going to decide what happens to it.” Par for the course: fanatics don’t do consistency.

“Freedom,” Tomasky observes,

emphatically does not include the freedom to get someone else sick. It does not include the freedom to refuse to wear a mask in the grocery store, sneeze on someone in the produce section and give him the virus. That’s not freedom for the person who is sneezed upon. For that person, the first person’s “freedom” means chains — potential illness and even perhaps a death sentence. No society can function on that definition of freedom. emphatically does not include the freedom to get someone else sick. It does not include the freedom to refuse to wear a mask in the grocery store, sneeze on someone in the produce section and give him the virus. That’s not freedom for the person who is sneezed upon. For that person, the first person’s “freedom” means chains — potential illness and even perhaps a death sentence. No society can function on that definition of freedom.

He’s right about how strange it is that “freedom” belongs almost wholly to the right. They talk about it incessantly and insist on a link between economic freedom and political freedom, positing that the latter is impossible without the former. (This is a legacy of Hayek and what Philip Mirowski calls the “Neoliberal Thought Collective”.) And yet, as Tomasky says,

the broad left in America has let all this go unchallenged for decades, to the point that today’s right wing can defend spreading disease, potentially killing other people, as freedom. It is madness.

It is.


Dutch Ethical Hacker Logs into Trump’s Twitter Account

From the Dutch newspaper, De Volkskrant.

Last week a Dutch security researcher succeeded in logging into the Twitter account of the American President Donald Trump. Trump, an active Twitterer with 87 million followers, had an extremely weak and easy to guess password and had according to the researcher, not applied two-step verification.

The researcher, Victor Gevers, had access to Trump’s personal messages, could post tweets in his name and change his profile. Gevers took screenshots when he had access to Trump’s account. These screenshots were shared with de Volkskrant by the monthly opinion magazine Vrij Nederland. Dutch security experts find Gevers’ claim credible.

The Dutchman alerted Trump and American government services to the security leak. After a few days, he was contacted by the American Secret Service in the Netherlands. This agency is also responsible for the security of the American President and took the report seriously, as evidenced by correspondence seen by de Volkskrant. Meanwhile Trump’s account has been made more secure.

So what was Trump’s password? Yes — you guessed it! — it was “maga2020!”


Other, perhaps interesting, links

  • Doomsday preppersLink
  • The new Hummer. Beyond parody, really but interesting technically. Link
  • The Criminal Case Against Donald Trump Is in the Works. Link. No wonder he doesn’t want to lose the Presidency.

Monday 19 October, 2020

The High Road to France

Once upon a time…


Quote of the Day

”The pendulum of the mind oscillates between sense and nonsense, not between right and wrong”.

  • Carl Justav Jung

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Joseph Haydn Piano Sonata nº 59 in E flat, Hob. XVI:49

Link


A more optimistic perspective?

While gloomily pondering the state of the world with a good friend (and reader of this blog) this morning, I was struck by the motto by which she is currently trying to live at the moment — Nietzsche’s dictum: Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the Will.

In that spirit, given that the previous two editions of this blog have been relatively pessimistic (theories of incompetent systems and all that), I thought of looking for alternative visions of the near future and came on some interesting stuff.

The first was an essay, ”Joe Biden Has Changed” by Franklin Foer in The Atlantic arguing that Joe is preparing for a transformative presidency.

Here’s how the essay begins…

If Joe Biden prevails, his basement will rest alongside William McKinley’s front porch in the annals. In his subterranean retreat, Biden not only sat still while his opponent spectacularly self-destructed, but also underwent a metamorphosis. He entered it a cautious pragmatist, yearning for a reversion to the time before Donald Trump; he left convinced of his chance to become a latter-day Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Over the spring and summer, Biden inverted the historic template of the Democratic nominee. According to time-honored political logic, a candidate poses as a bleeding heart in the primary, only to retrace his or her steps back to the center in the general. During his time in his basement, by contrast, Biden’s ambitions for the presidency began to acquire a grandiosity that his intramural battle with Bernie Sanders hardly anticipated.

Following two consecutive presidents who professed to disdain politics, Biden is a politician to the core—attuned to the limits of the possible, always finding his way to the epicenter of the zeitgeist. As he cocooned in Delaware, the pandemic, the ensuing economic fallout, and the protests against racial inequality reset the context for the next presidency. Biden grasped that.

Biden came to understand that the necessity of public investment presented a singular opportunity to transform American life. In August, he promised $2 trillion to combat climate change, to be spent, in part, on 1 million unionized jobs and 1.5 million affordable-housing units. This wasn’t a pure transposition of the Green New Deal, but it was spiritually aligned. As David Wallace-Wells has noted, Biden’s proposed spending is more than 20 times the size of Barack Obama’s expenditure on green energy. And having endured the primary derided as a collaborator of Strom Thurmond’s, he started describing systemic racism in far blunter language than any previous nominee, and elevating police reform to the center of his plans.

On paper, Biden has proposed the most progressive administration in American history. According to a Columbia University study, if the totality of the Biden agenda were implemented, it would lift 20 million Americans out of poverty.

One of the things that really irritates me at the moment is the way liberals who detest Trump as much as I do nevertheless cavil about Biden’s alleged deficiencies. He’s elderly, not very smart, loses the thread when speaking, etc., etc. To which the only sensible response, it seems to me, is that Biden has one overwhelming recommendation: He’s not Trump. He doesn’t have to be Einstein to qualify for a vote. He just has to be what he is, a relatively normal, fallible, decent human being.

But aside from that, the other reason for optimism is that this non-Einsteinian candidate for President seems to have a rather good team of advisers, not to mention a smart Vice Presidential running mate.

His most impressive adviser, it seems to me, is Jake Sullivan.

Jake Sullivan, a stalwart of Biden’s inner circle, exemplifies the shift. Everything in his résumé—his Rhodes Scholarship, his years as a Hillary Clinton aide-de-camp—suggests that he would advise his boss to govern in the technocratic mold of Barack Obama. But Sullivan has vocally championed the Democrat’s rediscovery of populist economics. In 2018, he wrote a long essay in the journal Democracy urging robust public investment and the waging of war on monopoly, a return to the spirit of liberalism that more or less preceded Bill Clinton’s arrival on the scene. “The bottom line is that Democrats should not blush too much, or pay too much heed, when political commentators arch their eyebrows about the party moving left. The center of gravity itself is moving, and this is a good thing.”

Much of Biden’s inner circle has adopted a variation on this attitude. One of his former chiefs of staff, Bruce Reed, a veteran of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, has become a tough critic of Big Tech; he helped write California’s new privacy regulations, curbing Silicon Valley’s power to surveil. Another of Biden’s counselors, Ron Klain, a contender for White House chief of staff, is a ubiquitous presence on Twitter, and has spent the past four years steeped in the resistance to the Trump presidency. Klain has also been a pugilistic critic of what the Republican Party has become.

I’ve just read Sullivan’s long essay in the journal Democracy. It’s good.

His basic message is that Reaganism and neoliberalism have had their day. It’s not the 1990s anymore. People want the government to help solve big problems. The disastrous legacy of neoliberal governance (perhaps aided by the pandemic) has — finally — moved the country’s political centre of gravity to the left.

“When political commentators aren’t talking about Donald Trump”, he writes,

they are often talking about how the Democratic Party has “moved to the left.” This is often phrased as a lament, the notion being that the party has been hijacked by its progressive wing. But what if that is missing the point? What if, when it comes to economic policy at least, it’s the country’s political center of gravity that is actually shifting? That is, what if not just one party, but the American electorate as a whole is moving to embrace a more energized form of government—one that tackles the excesses of the free market and takes on big, serious challenges through big, serious legislation instead of the more restrained measures to which we’ve grown accustomed? What would that mean for Democrats?

The essay first runs through two analogous ‘centre of gravity shifts’ in recent American history — first by FDR in the 1930s, and then by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.

This essay proceeds from the premise that we have reached another turning point. Just as the Great Depression discredited the ideas of the pre-New Deal conservatives who fought for total laissez-faire outcomes in both the political branches and the courts, so the Great Recession once again laid bare the failure of our government to protect its citizens from unchecked market excess. There has been a delayed reaction this time around, but people have begun to see more clearly not only the flaws of our public and private institutions that contributed to the financial crisis, but also the decades of rising inequality and income stagnation that came before—and the uneven recovery that followed. Our politics are in the process of adjusting to this new reality. The tide is running in the other direction, and, with history serving as our guide, it could easily be a decades-long tide.

It’s a long read, but worth it.


Other possibly interesting links


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Sunday 18 October, 2020

Keeping one’s hat on

Seen in a Provencal market a few summers ago.


Quote of the Day

”It’s a funny kind of month, October. For the really keen cricket fan, it’s when you realise that your wife left you in May.”

  • Dennis Norden

Golf widows, take heart: you are not alone.


Musical replacement for the morning’s radio news

Ry Cooder & David Lindley. New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival

Link

Whenever Cooder and Lindley get together, expect fireworks.


We need a new Walt Whitman to imagine a virtual public space

This morning’s Observer column:

Pariser’s new essay was prompted by reflecting on the Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn, where he lives, a 30-acre square of elms, winding paths, playgrounds and monuments. The park serves, he writes, “as an early morning romper room, midday meeting point, festival ground and farm stand. There are house music dance parties, soccer games during which you can hear cursing in at least five languages and, of course, the world famous Great Pumpkin Halloween Dog Costume contest.” Most importantly, though, it allows very different people to gather and coexist in the same space. “When it’s all working,” he says, “Fort Greene Park can feel like an ode to pluralistic democracy itself.”

The nicest thing about his essay is its historic sensibility. In 1846, Walt Whitman envisioned Fort Greene Park to serve that democratic purpose. New York City had no public parks at the time, only walled commercial pleasure gardens for the wealthy. Whitman, then editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, campaigned for a space that would accommodate everyone, especially the working-class immigrants crowded into shantytowns along nearby Myrtle Avenue. And he succeeded.

When the internet arrived, many of us thought it would provide a virtual space that would be like Whitman’s concept, except on a global scale… Read on


The United States: An “Oligarchy With Unlimited Political Bribery”

In an interview reported in Rolling Stone, Jimmy Carter, the 39th President, described the US now as “an oligarchy with unlimited political bribery” resulting in “nominations for president or to elect the president.”

It all goes back, he said to the 2010 judgment by the US Supreme Court in the Citizens United case to eliminate limits on campaign donations, a ruling that, in Carter’s view, “violates the essence of what made America a great country in its political system.”

He’s right. According to the (rather good) Wikipedia entry for the judgment,

The Court held that the free speech clause of the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting independent expenditures for political communications by corporations, including nonprofit corporations, labor unions, and other associations.

The case arose after Citizens United, a conservative non-profit organization, sought to air and advertise a film critical of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton shortly before the 2008 Democratic primary elections. This would have been a violation of the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, which prohibited any corporation or labor union from making an “electioneering communication” within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of an election, or making any expenditure advocating the election or defeat of a candidate at any time”.

The ruling effectively freed organisations like corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on electioneering communications and to directly campaign for the election or defeat of candidates. In practice it’s what enabled the flood of billions of dollars from right-wing billionaires into US politics. It effectively perverts the First Amendment to give the right of free speech to corporations. As one of the dissenting justices, John Paul Stevens, argued, the ruling represented “a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self government.”

Carter’s dramatic way of describing the result of that epochal decision highlights what I was trying to say yesterday about the significance of controlling the Supreme Court. The Republican party in the US is doomed in the long run by demographic trends. It’s tried to stem the tide and hold off the inevitable by massive local gerrymandering, voter suppression and other means, but in the long run the electoral game is up for them. Given the polarisation of the country, though, Congressional deadlock and inertia can be prolonged for a long time, which means that the importance of the Court in US governance will inevitably increase.

Mitch McConnell, the Majority Leader in the Senate, understands that very well — which is why he sanctimoniously refused Confirmation hearings for Obama’s candidate in 2016 because it was the final year of his term — and also why he is now racing to confirm Trump’s current nominee, thereby contradicting the ‘principled’ stand he took in 2016. McConnell is playing a long game. His intended outcome is that, even as the Republican party fades electorally, the US will continue for decades to be governed by conservative values — through the Supreme Court that he has fashioned with Trump’s assistance.

The relationship between Trump and McConnell been a symbiotic one all along; but in the end Trump needs McConnell more than the other way round. Once he gets Barrett in place, McConnell has no further need for Trump. He’s probably much more worried about losing control of the Senate, because if Biden wins but the Republicans keep the Senate, then it’ll be like Obama all over again: a president full of ideas, but little power to make anything happen.

On the other hand, if Biden wins and the Democrats do get control the Senate, then things could get interesting — even for ye olde Supreme Court.


Mark Elliot’s testimony to the House of Lords on the Internal Market Bill.

Mark Elliott is Professor of Public Law in Cambridge and a terrific blogger with over 30,000 readers. Recently, he gave evidence to the Constitution Committee, which has been holding hearings on the Johnson government’s manifesto for breaking international law. Here’s an extract from his evidence (with emphases in bold from me).

First, the Bill, if enacted in its current form, would supply Ministers with legal powers to make regulations in breach of the UK’s binding obligations under the EU Withdrawal Agreement and the associated Northern Ireland Protocol. Unlike some of the examples, put forward by Sir Stephen, of other pieces of domestic legislation that have been found to breach international law, the Internal Market Bill is drafted with the clear and specific intent of doing so. I argued that this amounts to a significant distinguishing feature of the Bill and that it correspondingly gives rise to particularly profound rule of law-based concerns. I also argued that the fact that UK legislation may occasionally be found to have breached international law is nothing to the point, given that past, and generally incidental or unintended, wrongdoing is no justification whatever for further such wrongdoing. The wrongheadedness of the contrary view becomes immediately apparent when we recall that the UK Government is frequently found, in judicial review proceedings, to have breached domestic law: the fact that such breaches occur does not, however, give the Government licence to commit further such breaches or justify treating such breaches with equanimity. By the same token, prior examples of UK legislation that may have breached international law does not provide any justification for the enactment of further such legislation that has the clear and specific purpose of facilitating such a breach.

Second, I argued that the Bill is incompatible with the rule of law because it appears to attempt to exclude judicial review of ministerial regulations made in breach of the EU Withdrawal Agreement and the Northern Ireland Protocol. The oversight of government action, including the making of secondary legislation, by independent courts is an axiomatic feature of the rue of law. It follows that precluding judicial review is incompatible with the rule of law and is thus an assault on basic constitutional principle…


Colliding epidemics’ fears spur campaign to ramp up flu vaccinations

From the Financial Times — probably behind a paywall, so this is the gist…

Efforts to increase influenza vaccination rates to prevent “colliding epidemics” are being hampered by a limited supply, as manufacturers struggle to meet demand.

Germany has ordered 26m flu vaccines ahead of the European winter, with health minister Jens Spahn saying the country had “never had so many”. The UK government said it aimed to vaccinate 30m people this year, more than double the 2019 figure.

However, manufacturers say they have been unable to meet the increased demand at such short notice. Seqirus, one of the top three flu jab producers globally, along with Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline, estimated that global production had only increased by 1-2 per cent.

“If we get an overlap of Sars-Cov-2 [the virus responsible for Covid-19] and influenza, that could be a disaster,” said Rebecca Jane Cox, professor of medical virology at University of Bergen. “The question will be how hard the northern hemisphere is going to be hit by the flu now.”


Other possibly interesting links…

  • Time to unscrew subscriptions — Doc Searls Weblog Doc is one of the Elder Statesmen of the Web and always good value. Oh — and if you follow the link, FUBAR means “Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition” — which is quite a good description of most online magazine subscription systems.

  • Computer game by Cambridge psychologists ‘pre-bunks’ COVID-19 conspiracies as part of the UK government’s fight against fake news — Link. Basically, it’s an attempt to cognitively inoculate kids against fake news.

  • The MySpace moral panic — First Monday. Peer-reviewed paper. Old story, but still interesting.


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Saturday 17 October, 2020

‘Development opportunity’

Well, if self-isolation’s your thing.


Quote of the Day

“If things were simple, word would have got around”

  • Jacques Derrida

Musical replacement for the morning’s radio news

Mozart – Lacrimosa

Link


What lies ahead

It’s such a strange time. Everywhere I look (at any rate, inside my particular filter bubble) I sense a growing conviction that Trump will lose the popular vote, perhaps by quite a margin), but might still win a majority in the Electoral College (as he did in 2016). I also pick up a growing foreboding that he and his allies will create chaos by contesting the result, drawing it out with malicious litigation and egging on the Second Amendment freaks with their capacity for intimidation and worse. It’ll be like Gore v. Bush in 2000, but this time with armed mobs in the streets. And if it goes like that, then — as in 2000 — the decision of who is President will come to the Supreme Court, which Trump has already packed with two conservative appointments and to which the Senate is primed to confirm a third conservative justice, Amy Barrett. So even if Trump loses convincingly on November 3, his most enduring legacy will be a Supreme Court with an unbreakable 6-3 majority which could last for decades (Barrett, for example, could serve for 40 more years.) Which is why her Confirmation hearings have such significance.

As it stands, Edward Luce writes in today’s FT Magazine,

“Barrett’s confirmation is likely to be hurried through the Senate the week before the election — a breathtaking move when liberals are already livid about the anti-democratic direction of America’s judiciary. The controversy could light the dust that ends in a full-blown crisis over America’s founding creed. “I think it’s hard to overstate how shocking this move is'” says Norman Ornstein, a leading scholar of US politics at the American Enterprise Institute. Barrett’s confirmation could escalate the already existing nuclear arms race between liberals and conservatives. It cannot end in a good place.”

Barrett is an “originalist” — someone who adheres to the belief “that the country’s limits are defined by the words of America’s founding fathers, or the intended meaning behind their words”. As Sarah Churchwell, the historian, observed on the Talking Politics podcast this week, the Constitution is to originalists as the Bible is to religious fundamentalists: every word of it is sacred.

The absurdity of this legal doctrine is as staggering as the way it is still worshipped by conservatives. In the first place, the Founders wouldn’t have entertained the notion that Amy Barrett (a mere female) could be a judge, let alone a candidate for the Supreme Court! Secondly, those same authors of the sacred text were not designing a democracy, but a republic, which is not necessarily the same thing at all. In fact they weren’t overly attached to the idea of democracy. They expressly denied citizenship to slaves, for example, defining a slave as three fifths of a human being — thereby granting the Southern states more congressional representation than warranted by the number of their white male citizens. Thirdly, the Electoral College was expressly designed to ensure that winning the majority vote would not guarantee that the presidency went to the winner. And the Senate gives two seats to every state, which means that thinly populated rural states have the same representation as populous ones like California. So the idea that a document written in the late 18th century when America had only four million people, most of whom were farmers, should be a guide to how to run a modern society is, well, preposterous.

For these and other reasons, I’m with another FT columnist, Henry Mance, who writes in his column today:

“I no longer see an American dream — I see a broken society. Indeed its so easy to see the US’s flaws from 2,000 miles away that I have a new respect for for foreign critiques of the UK. All countries have systemic problems. But the US is exceptional. It has a geographic and historic bounty that made other countries jealous. Now it has a political system that makes us terrified. You can’t have a two-party system if one side ceases to believe in democracy. You can’t make a constitution that relies on bipartisanship if one party refuses to participate. You can’t fix the socio-economic malaise until you fix the politics”.

He’s right. And it ain’t going to happen, unless Biden suddenly discovers how to be a radical.

But here’s a cheerier thought. Supposing Trump does win, but the Democrats win control of both the Senate and the House. Then they can impeach Trump at their leisure, making his second term the shortest on record. And pack the Supreme Court into the bargain.


How to amend Section 230

For readers who are not as interested as I am in finding ways of controlling the power of tech companies, Section 230 of the 1996 US Communications Decency Act (which is wrapped inside the sprawling Telecommunications Act) is the get-out-of-gaol-card that has enabled Internet platforms like Google, Facebook, Twitter and others to profit from viral untruths and other crap without having to take legal responsibility for it and the societal damage it wreaks. It says:

“No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

There were arguably good reasons for such protection in 1996 (because there was a prospect that liability for what people posted would mean that everything on your site would have to be vetted by lawyers before being published. If that had been the case, then the growth of the Web — and the networked public sphere — would have been much less dramatic).

But that was long before social media.

It remains the case, though, that S230 could be the “kill switch’ for social media if the liability shield were removed. And the US Congress could, if it were so minded, pull that switch. If it did, though, there would be harms as well as benefits: much of what is published on the Web is good and we would all be poorer if it were not available. So the question is: is there a way of modifying S.230 so that we keep most of the good things while reducing the bad?

Joe Moreno has an interesting suggestion on his blog:

Here’s my solution that doesn’t violate the First Amendment:

Section 230 should differentiate between platforms that amplify content (e.g. retweeting on Twitter, resharing on Facebook, etc) and platforms that don’t allow amplification (e.g. Instagram, WordPress, etc). If a platform allows amplification, regardless if it’s done through manual curation or via an automated algorithm, then it’s no longer a service provider but rather a publisher.

If this degree of editing and censorship sounds like an administrative burden then take a look at the lack of child porn found through search engines like Google, Bing, Yahoo, etc. There is none, but certainly not from a lack of trying. And while the CAN-SPAM Act doesn’t eliminate all spam, it does a great job (certainly much better than the wireless network providers when it comes to spoofing caller ID, etc).

Just as a news service doesn’t pass along fact as fiction without liability (libel) neither should social media. This clarification to Section 230 will cut into the profitability of social media companies, but they’ve reaped the benefits (and revenue) and now it’s time to take responsibility.

There might be something in that.


CORRECTION The link to the Lancet‘s series on syndemics in yesterday’s edition was incorrect. The correct link is: https://www.thelancet.com/series/syndemics

Apologies.


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