Sunday 16 August, 2020

Quote of the Day

““Most people would sooner die than think; in fact, they do so.”

  • Bertrand Russell

This was the quote that came to mind when I realised that Trump was going ahead with his Tulsa rally.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Glenn Gould plays Mozart’s Rondo Alla Turca (4 minutes).


Working from home: a dream now turning into a nightmare?

This morning’s Observer column:

Remember when it was so exciting to be able to WFH – work from home? When your boss, instead of being grumpy and taking a grudging “well-if-you-must” attitude was suddenly insisting that you had to work remotely? And how refreshing that seemed at the beginning? No more dispiriting 90-minute commutes, for example. Suddenly, extra hours were added to your day. A better work-life balance beckoned, because we had developed a technological infrastructure that had made distance irrelevant. What was not to like?

Of course there were glitches. Childcare, for example, became a nightmare when schools and nurseries closed. Not everyone had good, reliable broadband. And it turned out that not every household had multiple laptops either. Likewise, many people lived in small apartments where the choice of workspace boiled down to either the kitchen table or the cubbyhole that masqueraded as a spare bedroom. And there were still large numbers of “critical” workers whose work couldn’t be done from home. But still, wasn’t it wonderful that so many of us could?

Well, that was then and this is now…

Read on.

Reagan and the withering of the American state

Perceptive essay in Noema Magazine:

The great historical irony of America is that, for all its valiant efforts as a global power fighting off external threats from fascism to Soviet communism, its ultimate demise will likely be the result of its own internal doings — or undoings.

The paradox is that the politics of former President Ronald Reagan, who is credited with winning the seminal ideological battle of the 20th century, the Cold War, is also the politics that undermined America’s future. The inability to come to grips with the COVID-19 pandemic can be traced directly to his notion in the 1980s that “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.”

Reagan saw it as his mission to undo the ambitions of the welfare state, such as it was, that came into existence through the New Deal as a response to the Great Depression, and the Great Society, that sought to cushion the security of the elderly and mend the racial injustice decried by the civil rights movement. His mantra celebrated the cult of the entrepreneur who could create wealth freely without the burdens of society weighing on his or her profit margins, while demoting the importance of education to upward mobility and dissing the role of taxation and regulation as critical pillars for maintaining the operating capacity of a complex modern society. Public administration was demeaned as nothing more than meddlesome bureaucrats clogging up free enterprise with cumbersome paperwork.

That sums it up nicely. Trump has done his best to finish the job. If he wins in November, he will have time to tidy up the loose ends of this destructive project.

(btw Michael Lewis’s fine book, The Fifth Risk: Undoing Democracy provides a sobering progress report on Trump’s efforts to continue Reagan’s project.)

Johnson’s ‘mandate’

I was just about to use this front page of the FT of December 14/15 2019 for wrapping garbage and realised that that would be a really appropriate use for it.

“Stonking”, I gather (having checked some dictionaries), means “of exceptional size or quality”, and is believed to derive from the verb “stonk”, which means “to bombard (soldiers, buildings, etc) with artillery”. In that sense Johnson has used his mandate to bombard the hapless British public with florid BS.

It turned out also that the electorate had given him a mandate to screw up the country’s response to Covid.

Peter Geoghegan’s Democracy for Sale

My Observer review is in today’s paper. This is how it concludes…

Remainers will probably read Geoghegan’s account of this manoeuvring by Brexiters as further evidence that the Brexit vote was invalid. This seems to me implausible or at any rate undecidable. Geoghegan agrees. “Pro-Leave campaigns broke the law,” he writes, “but we cannot say with any certainty that the result would have been different if they had not. Instead, the referendum and its aftermath have revealed something far more fundamental and systemic. Namely, a broken political system that is ripe for exploitation again. And again. And again.”

And therein lies the significance of this remarkable book. The integrity and trustworthiness of elections is a fundamental requirement for a functioning democracy. The combination of unaccountable, unreported dark money and its use to create targeted (and contradictory) political messages for individuals and groups means that we have no way of knowing how free and fair our elections have become. Many of the abuses exposed by Geoghegan and other researchers are fixable with new laws and better-resourced regulators. The existential threat to liberal democracy comes from the fact that those who have successfully exploited some inadequacies of the current regulatory system – who include Boris Johnson and his current wingman, Cummings – have absolutely no incentive to fix the system from which they have benefited. And they won’t. Which could be how our particular version of democracy ends.

Summer books #5

Goliath: the 100-year War between Monopoly Power and Democracy by Matt Stoller, Simon and Schuster, 2019.

One of the things I found puzzling when I started to think about the societal menace of tech platforms was how apparently relaxed so many people, especially in the US, felt about the new generation of corporate giants that were acquiring monopoly power. This led to a deep dive into the history of antitrust and the pivotal influence of Robert Bork’s 1978 book, The Antitrust Paradox which essentially argued that so long as there was no evidence of consumer harm (e.g. by price gouging) then the size and reach or a corporation should not be a matter for concern. Since some of the tech giants I was interested in offer ‘free’ services, this view (which became very influential in US legal circles) gave outfits like Google, Facebook et al a mostly free pass from legislative scrutiny. Which baffled me: corporate power is unaccountable power, something that no democracy should be able to accept. While I was stuck in those weeds, I longed for a synoptic history of the monopoly problem — so you can imagine how pleased I was when Matt Stoller’s book arrived. It does what it says on the tin. And Stoller shares my combative mindset about these matters.

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