All or nothing

by John Quiggin on August 11, 2022

I was going to do some more work on this post, but it’s being overtaken by events, so here it is

Among the many things to be depressed about at the moment, the impending end of US democracy is near the top of my list. The recent Republican primaries brought that one step closer. It’s now clear that unless they are stopped Republican officials in most states are ready to overturn any election result they do not like.

A necessary though not sufficient condition stop the Republicans is retaining Democratic control of the US Congress at the midterm elections in November with a margin sufficient to end a filibuster in the Senate, and pass voting rights legislation preventing state officials from overturning elections or returning bogus electors in a presidential election.

There are two broad strategies being urged on the Democrats. The first pushed by commentators including David Shor and Ruy Teixera is to win back the ‘white working class’, that is, white voters with low education, particularly in rural areas. Some but not all ‘white working class’ voters are wage workers with low income and wealth . However a large portion are relatively well off retirees. The central idea for Shor and Teixera is to soft pedal cultural issues and focus on promising economic benefits from moderately progressive, but not radical economic policies.

Whatever the merits of this approach in general, it’s a recipe for failure this time around. The incumbent party usually loses ground in midterm elections unless the economy is doing spectacularly well. That’s not the perception are the average voter, concerned more about inflation and shortages than about unemployment. A pitch to centrist voters might limit democratic losses but is highly unlikely to secure the victory that is needed.

The alternative is to make the election a referendum on the Republican Party, including Trump, the insurrection, the Supreme Court, and Christian nationalism. The starting results of the abortion referendum in Kansas suggest that if the election can be framed in these terms, the Democrats had a strong chance of winning and of forming a coalition that can win again in 2024. A big success would also split the Republicans, potentially emboldening business conservatives to break with the current Trumpist majority.

Mobilising single-issue pro-choice voters is part of the strategy. But, as far as possible, the aim should be to present the attack on abortion rights as part of a comprehensive package of opposition to freedom and democracy. One part of that is rejecting any suggestion of moving on beyond the insurrection. Trump and everyone involved should be prosecuted, making it impossible for the rightwing media to bury the issue as they have done. Christian nationalism should be used in the same way as the right used spurious ideas like ‘neo-Marxism’ and ‘critical race theory’ to attack liberals and centrist Dems alike.

I’ll be interested in thoughts on this, but not in any commentary to the effect that Democrats and Republicans are the same. Anyone who wants to express this view is welcome to take it here. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ernst_Thaelmann_Berlin.JPEG

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On mental fitness vs mental health

by Miriam Ronzoni on August 10, 2022

I really enjoyed John’s suggestion that the idea of mental health (=absence of mental illness) might not be as helpful as the idea of mental fitness (=something that requires sustained effort, and is hardly ever fully reached). I wonder, though, whether it might be a double edged sword.

The idea that attending to our mental well being is hard work is certainly something that deserves centre stage – both to get rid of the dangerous idea that it can be dealt with via a quick fix (be it a pill or a self-contained package of therapy sessions); and to acknowledge that, for those who struggle with it, it is something that requires ongoing and complicated labour. It most often involves false starts, dead ends, set backs, ups and and downs, and long phases where a lot of effort only produces incremental results.

On the other hand, though, the idea of mental well being as a state of fitness that requires sustained effort also suggests – much like the analogy with physical fitness which John himself makes – the idea of something which is in our hands if only we put in the work. In other words, it might put more emphasis on individual, atomised responsibility. Don’t be lazy: chuck the junk food; go for a run; do what you need to reach mental fitness.

This logic of individual blame and personal responsibility is the last thing that people who struggle with their mental well being need; yet, the idea of mental fitness rather than health is a powerful one. Is there a way of embracing it without sliding into this logic? Which kind of moves would that involve? What would we need to pay attention to? Interested in reading any thoughts on this.

 

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When we ask the question what we should do about climate change, the answer to that question depends a lot on who the “we” in that sentence is. There have been many answers to the questions what governments should do, or more in general “what should be done” without specifying who the agent of change is, as in, for example, the list of action points provided by Project Drawdown. We might have responsibilities related to climate change that we have specifically in our roles as elected politicians and office holders, as professionals, as entrepreneurs, as investors, and so forth.

But what can citizens, in their capacity of citizens rather than any professional role, do? What can human beings, simply by the fact that they are human beings and thus sharing this planet with other living creatures, do about climate change and ecological degradation?

When searching for an answer to that question, I’ve been wondering whether we could help ourselves by making a compact version of what our action plan to deal with climate change could be. Something that is easy to remember; something that is put in langauge that is not just for insiders or specialists; something that could contribute to a wide range of efforts to get things in motion; something that could serve as a structure, starting point or aide in conversations; and something that can help us very concretely in deciding where to start or what to do next.

Because no matter what the already inevitable consequences of climate change are (such as more frequent extreme weather events, droughts, floodings, wildfires etc.), we can always aim to limit the even more harmful consequences that will come with additional increases in greenhouse gas emissions. Similarly, we have to prepare for what will come (even under the best-case scenarios). And in unfolding those strategies, it would help to be united as people in our capacity as citizens and inhabitants of this world, and also to feel united and empowered.

Here’s my proposal for a citizens’ climate action plan in 10 bullet points (so easy to remember!). I will only say a few words about each of these bullet points, not aiming at being comprehensive. [click to continue…]

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Sunday photoblogging: Laugharne

by Chris Bertram on August 7, 2022

The town where Dylan Thomas lived and is buried (and where he possibly imagined as the setting for Under Milk Wood).

Laugharne: rain approaching

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The Upcoming Elections in Italy

by Miriam Ronzoni on August 4, 2022

Orbán: "Non mescoliamoci con altre razze". Così l'alleato di Salvini e Meloni evoca la Teoria della grande sostituzione - la Repubblica

DISCLAIMER: I am on holiday so will not be able to moderate comments assiduously. Apologies in advance for that.

On September 25th, Italians will vote at yet another snap election. This is the first ever Italian national election following a Summer electoral campaign – Italians are quite homogeneous and consistent in taking their holidays in August, a month over which politics usually retreats to the back stage. This Summer, instead, beach parties, open-air clubs and sagre (village fêtes, often taking place during the tourist season) will be the stage of campaigning and canvassing. [click to continue…]

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Mental health and mental fitness

by John Quiggin on August 2, 2022

Until now, I’ve always thought about mental health as the absence of mental illness, much as I have typically thought about the absence of physical illness. In both cases, health is the default state or unmarked category.

But as I have gone through the Covid pandemic, and become more pessimistic about the state of the world, I have reached the view that a better analogy is with physical fitness. That is, something that requires sustained effort to achieve and maintain, and is rarely fully achieved.

In particular while I have previously thought about depression as a mental illness, it’s difficult now to distinguish it from ordinary sadness. My congenital optimism now seems more like delusion. Maintaining mental balance is now hard work.

Not surprisingly, I’m not the first to come up with this idea. Searching for “mental fitness” produces lots of hits, mostly fairly recent. The majority are boosterish, introducing and promoting the idea, rather than acknowledging the difficulties associated with it. Nevertheless, I’m hoping to get some useful suggestions. I’d be interested in readers thoughts.

PS: illustrating one of the difficulties of maintaining physical fitness, I came off my bike the other day and broke my wrist. So I’m attempting to blog by dictation. It’s a challenging mental exercise

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Paying lipservice, ticking boxes, and doing what it takes

by Ingrid Robeyns on August 1, 2022

Over the last years, I’ve observed in a number of cases of policy making something that looked like “paying lipservice”, but upon closer analysis turns out to be something else. In order to effectively understand, evaluate and criticise the actions of those responsible for policies and leadership actions, it might be helpful to make a distinction between three modes in which policy-makers and leaders in groups might operate: paying lipservice, ticking boxes, and doing what it takes.

The policies/leadership actions I will describe could be in an organisation, in a local or national government, or any other instance in which someone is engaged in making decisions that affect a group. It might even be something that we can observe in some smaller or less formalised groups in which some people have authority/leadership responsibilities, such as parents in families.

How do “paying lipservice”, “ticking boxes”, and “doing what it takes” differ, and why could distinguishing between them matter? [click to continue…]

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Sunday photoblogging: morning shadows in Pézenas

by Chris Bertram on July 31, 2022

Pézenas

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Conferences, Covid, Climate

by John Quiggin on July 28, 2022

As borders reopen and Covid-related restrictions are relaxed, lots of academics are celebrating the return of in-person conferences. I’m not one of them. Although I miss a lot of aspects of conferences, I’ve tried to avoid indoor meetings since the pandemic began, and there’s no reason to change that yet. And with the climate disaster getting worse all the time, I want to minimise, or at least reduce, air travel.
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Sunday photoblogging: Bouzigues

by Chris Bertram on July 24, 2022

Bouzigues

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The Kosovo precedent

by John Quiggin on July 22, 2022

In the early days of the Ukraine invasion, one of the main lines pushed by Putin’s defenders was that the expansion of NATO posed a threat to Russia and that Ukraine was about to join. This didn’t stand up to even momentary scrutiny. The Baltic States had been members since 2004 without doing anything to threaten Russia.

And while Ukraine’s constitution included a goal of joining NATO, Zelenskiy was describing this as a ‘remote dream’ even before the invasion took place, and clearly indicated willingness to abandon the idea in return for peace.

But there is an important sense in which NATO shares responsibility for this disaster. The US intervention in Kosovo, including the bombing of Belgrade, was undertaken by NATO, to avoid the need to get the support of the UN Security Council, where Russia had a veto. This was a substantial breach of international law, followed by a much bigger breach in the invasion of Iraq.

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When I first found out that the UK Treasury proposes to issue Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs) as part of a general push to make Britain a world centre for crypto-currency, I assumed that this was a Boris Johnson stunt. The obvious model is El Salvador, where Johnson-style demagogue Nayib Bukele has made Bitcoin legal tender, with results ranging from disappointing to disastrous depending on who you read.

It turns out, however, that the source of the push is Rishi Sunak, until recently Chancellor of the Exchequer and now the favourite to become Prime Minister when Johnson leaves office. I don’t know anything about Sunak, but assumed on the basis of his job title that he would be a believer in “sound money”, hostile to, or at least sceptical of dodgy innovations like crypto.

I’m not fully on top of the issue yet, and would welcome clarifications from anyone better informed. It appears that Sunak is at least as confused as I am, and is pushing different, contradictory proposals.

The first to emerge, in 2021, was the idea of a central bank digital currency (CBDC). Such a development, would, in my view be kryptonite for crypto as it now exists, providing all the supposed benefits with none of the energy waste, scams and volatility we now observe. A CBDC would have radical implications which are still being discussed. In particularit, in effect, allow households and businesses to bank directly with the central bank, rather than holding digital deposits in existing banks. If successful enough, it could amount to nationalisation of the banking sector.

Unsurprisingly, banks and their advocates hate this idea. Here’s a critique from the Cato Institute, pointing to the likelihood that a CBDC would “give the central bank and the politicians that set its mandate the tools to much more easily manipulate economic activity.” https://www.cato.org/commentary/why-sunak-should-think-twice-about-central-bank-digital-currency pointing

It looks as if the predictable opposition of the UK financial sector has killed off the CBDC idea. Instead, Sunak has been pushing proposals to put the UK at the centre of the existing crypto market. Strikingly, it’s the dodgiest forms of crypto (NFTs and “stablecoins”), that are being pushed hardest.

As I’ve argued in the past, the fact that something as provably valueless as Bitcoin is now an accepted part of the financial system is evidence that any claims about the efficiency of financial markets are indefensible. The same can now be said about the idea that the UK Conservative party stands for sound economic management.

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Sunday photoblogging: Lac du Salagou

by Chris Bertram on July 17, 2022

Lac du Salagou

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What to do about climate change (1): Not too late

by Ingrid Robeyns on July 17, 2022

“The fact of the matter is: we are in the decade of decision. What we do in the Twenties will determine the fate of the Earth for centuries and millenia to come. And there’s a lot we can do – we can speed the transition away from fossil fuels, losen the death grip of the fossil fuel industry on our government and the world’s energy supplies, build the renewables, protect the soil and the forests, and support all the incredible movements that have already done so much so far, and have ambitions to do exactly what we need to do.” (Rebecca Solnit, Start Making Sense Clips, July 14th)

Yesterday, I discussed with some international colleagues chapter 4 of my book-in-progress on the problems with extreme wealth. That chapter looks at the links between wealth concentration and the ecological and environmental crisis, and ends up offering multiple ecological arguments for economic limitarianism. I open the chapter with a few pages that make it clear that climate change is not a future worry but that it has arrived, and that time is of the essence. Given that global emissions are not coming down yet and that the remaining carbon budget (to stay below 1,5 degrees or even 2 degrees) is very limited, we need to act fast and in a drastic manner. There is no time to go slow, and no time to merely fiddle in the margins.

It doesn’t make for joyful reading, yet most of what I describe that made my colleagues gloomy was merely factual. The facts simply show that matters are very bad and the situation urgent. But that is no reason to despair, since there are various feasible plans for curbing the emissions and speeding up the green transition, and various groups and movements that one can join in order to contribute. The main problems are political, and problems of power. Perhaps we should simply talk much more about what can be done, and what we can concretely do, rather than either deny that climate change is happening (thought that group seems to be shrinking), ignore that it is happening, or believe it is beyond our powers to do anything.

Two years ago I was invited to write a short piece for WWF’s Living Planet Report and argued precisely this – when it comes to the climate crisis, we need to see ourselves first of all as citizens and unite and act as such.

In that spirit, I was delighted to come across a new initiative from Rebecca Solnit and Thelma Young Lutunatabua, called Not Too Late. They want to encourage everyone to join the climate movement, to act as citizens to force politics to establish structural solutions, and to share stories about what climate movements are achieving. [click to continue…]

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Sunday photoblogging: Bristol underpass

by Chris Bertram on July 10, 2022

Underpass to Old Market

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