Still life with lockdown accessories
The report into Russian meddling in UK democratic processes
The House of Commons Intelligence and Security Committee on Tuesday released its long-awaited report into Russian meddling in the U.K. democratic process.
A Financial Times Editorial commented…
The starkest accusation was that the government simply did not know whether Britain’s democratic processes had been compromised because — as one committee member put it — “they did not want to know”.
The report’s conclusions, says Politico,
are damning for the British government and there are elements that remain unknown because numerous parts are redacted. It was completed more than a year ago but its release was delayed after Downing Street refused to publish it before the December election then took months setting up the committee again after Boris Johnson won his 80-seat majority.
Politico’s four big takeaways from the report are…
1 The UK was slow to wake up to Russian threat
The crucial thrust of the report is that ministers and the U.K. intelligence agencies left Britain at risk of Russian meddling in the 2016 EU referendum.
But the committee stopped short of concluding that the referendum result was influenced by Russian actors, noting that such a verdict would be impossible to prove. Labour MP and ISC committee member Kevan Jones said the committee saw no evidence of Russian meddling because “nobody in government asked.”
2 Intelligence agencies are too complex
One issue the committee identified was the complicated network of intelligence agencies and who oversees them in government, meaning no single person or office took responsibility for democratic meddling.
3 Russian influence in politics ‘cannot be untangled’
The report notes that links between the Russian elite and the U.K allow access to business and politics that can be used for influence. “To a certain extent, this cannot be untangled and the priority now must be to mitigate the risk and ensure that, where hostile activity is uncovered, the tools exist to tackle it at source,” it added.
“Several members of the Russian elite who are closely linked to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin are identified as being involved with charitable and/or political organizations in the U.K., having donated to political parties, with a public profile which positions them to assist Russian influence operations.”
The report also lashed out at successive governments for allowing the U.K to become an attractive destination for Russian investment. “Russian influence in the U.K. is the new normal,” the committee said in a statement. “Successive governments have welcomed the oligarchs and their money with open arms, providing them with a means of recycling illicit finance through the London ‘laundromat,’ and connections at the highest levels with access to U.K. companies and political figures.”
It added, “This has led to a growth industry of ‘enablers’ including lawyers, accountants, and estate agents who are — wittingly or unwittingly — de facto agents of the Russian state.” The MPs refused to answer questions about whether Alex Salmond, the former Scottish first minister who had a show on Russia Today, was one of those enablers.
4 Relations between the ISC and the government are still not good
The press conference highlighted the frayed relations between the committee and the government. Downing Street refused to publish the report before the 2019 general election, and Johnson took months to reform the committee following his win, meaning it was unable to reveal the document until this week.
No. 10 also sought to meddle in the process for electing the chair. It tried to ensure former Cabinet minister Chris Grayling would get the top post, but he was defeated in an ambush by his fellow Conservative Julian Lewis, who was subsequently stripped of the whip.
This report, and the successful efforts of the Johnson administration to postpone and postpone its publication, confirms the slow-motion implosion of democracy in Britain. Just as in the US, foreign powers — both state and private billionaires — have found ways of undermining and influencing elections and avoiding antiquated electoral laws; and domestic political parties (mainly the Republicans in the US and the Tories in the UK — both of which which stood to gain from this manipulation — have no incentive to do anything about it.
In his terrific book, How Democracy Ends, David Runciman makes the point that most people who worry about the future of liberal democracy make the mistake of looking to the past (e.g. to Weimar Germany) for clues as to where we are headed. But democracies never fail backwards: they fail forwards in ways so novel that they are not initially detected. That’s what’s now happening in the ‘Anglosphere.’ And I fear the rot is now unstoppable, because nobody in the political mainstream has incentives to stop it.
What the CARES Act tells us about low pay in the US
From “US Unemployment Insurance Replacement Rates During the Pandemic” by Peter Ganong, Pascal Noel and Joseph S. Vavra. BFI Working Paper, May 14, 2020
As designed, we find that the ratio of mean benefits to mean earnings in the data under CARES is roughly 100%. However, this masks substantial heterogeneity. We find that 68% of unemployed workers who are eligible for UI will receive benefits which exceed lost earnings. The median replacement rate is 134%, and one out of five eligible unemployed workers will receive benefits at least twice as large as their lost earnings. Thus, the CARES Act actually provides income expansion rather than replacement for most unemployed workers. We also show that there is sizable variation in the effects of the CARES Act across occupations and across states, with important distributional consequences. For example, the median retail worker who is laid-off can collect 142% of their prior wage in UI, while grocery workers are not receiving any automatic pay increases. Janitors working at businesses that remain open do not necessarily receive any hazard pay, while unemployed janitors who worked at businesses that shut down can collect 158% of their prior wage.
These conclusions arise because the CARES Act sends a fixed $600 payment to unemployed workers who have very different prior earnings: $600 is a larger percentage of prior earnings for low than for high earners. Since the $600 UI payment was targeted to generate 100% earnings replacement based on mean earnings, this $600 payment tends to imply greater than 100% earnings replacement for those with less than mean earnings. Furthermore, these high replacement rates for below-mean workers are amplified by the fact that the distribution of earnings is skewed: median prior earnings are below mean prior earnings. This means that the typical unemployed worker has below-mean prior earnings and thus above-mean replacement rates. This implies that most workers have replacement rates above 100%.
Translation (by Sarah O’Connor in the FT): “Roughly two-thirds of Americans who became unemployed in the pandemic are receiving more in benefits than they were paid in their jobs, according to economists at the University of Chicago. For one in five, their income has doubled. The poverty rate actually seems to have fallen since the crisis hit.”
The US is spiralling into madness
One of the podcasts I try to find time for is the New York Times ‘The Daily’ which sometimes seems to fulfil the promise of podcasting to be ‘the second draft of history’. The other day there was an episode on ‘The Vaccine Trust Problem’ which was absolutely riveting, and which caused me to rethink some of my preconceptions about the vaccine question.
Basically, I had been thinking (and writing) about what I regard as the most alarming scenario of all: that we would eventually get an effective vaccine for Covid-19 but that it would make little difference because of the mobilisation of social media by conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers. It would, I wrote, be “like the anti-MMR campaign, but on steroids”.
‘The Daily’ podcast edition startled me because it suggested that my belief that the main sources of vaccine scepticism and anti-vaccine campaigning were conspiracy-theorists and political malcontents was wrong. It turns out that vaccine scepticism is much more wideapread in the US, and not just confined to Trump supporters. Many people who abhor Trump and would like to see him gone are sceptical because they feel that anything that is rushed through on his watch is not to be trusted.
At the moment, opinion polls are suggesting that 50% of Americans, from all walks of life and political opinions, are sceptical about a vaccine. So while billions are being poured into developing one, the rapid timetable and Trump’s cheerleading are creating a whole new group of vaccine-hesitant patients.
This was the general message of a NYT report last Saturday.
The fastidious process to develop a safe, effective vaccine typically takes a decade; some have taken far longer. But the administration of Mr. Trump, himself once an outspoken vaccine skeptic, has been saying recently that a coronavirus vaccine could be ready this fall. While it has removed certain conventional barriers, such as funding, many experts still believe that the proposed timeline could be unduly optimistic.
But whenever a coronavirus vaccine is approved, the assumption has been that initial demand would far outstrip supply. The need to establish a bedrock of confidence in it has largely gone overlooked and unaddressed.
Earlier this month, a nationwide task force of 23 epidemiologists and vaccine behavior specialists released a detailed report — which itself got little attention — saying that such work was urgent. Operation Warp Speed, the $10 billion public-private partnership that is driving much of the vaccine research, they wrote, “rests upon the compelling yet unfounded presupposition that ‘if we build it, they will come.’”
My hunch is that this could indeed by the case in the US. Somehow I can’t see it panning out like that in Europe. But who knows? These are strange times.
Another aspect of this…
It also turns out that skepticism about coronavirus statistics is highly correlated with media consumption habits, according to a recent Avios-Ipsos opinion poll. 62% of Fox News watchers said the statistics of Covid deaths and infections are overblown, while only 7% of CNN and MSNBC watchers thought so.
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