From the monthly archives:

November 2020

The path to decarbonization

by John Q on November 30, 2020

Over the fold, another draft section of the climate chapter of Economic Consequences of the Pandemic. As always, comments, compliments and criticism appreciated

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Sunday photoblogging: Bristol magpies

by Chris Bertram on November 29, 2020

At Alderman Moore's allotments

Climate, health and the pandemic

by John Q on November 28, 2020

Another extract from the climate chapter of my book-in-progress, Economic Consequences of the Pandemic, over the fold

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UK hostile environment immigration policy condemned

by Chris Bertram on November 25, 2020

The UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission has just published a report into the Windrush scandal. The report shows that policy makers ignored warnings about the likely impacts of the “hostile environment” policy on groups such as the Windrush generation. As a result of the policy, many people who had difficulty in proving their right to reside in the UK, often because the Home Office imposed a ludicrous evidential burden on them, lost their jobs, their homes, were denied access to vital health care, were detained in prison-like immigration detention centres or were deported and excluded from a country they had lived in all their lives.

The report makes grim reading, but what emerges clearly from it is that ministers and their civil servants, seeking to display a “get tough” message on immigration, were not disposed to listen to the people telling them about how things would turn out. They were already set on the policy and were going to stick to it whatever. Critics were to be ignored and rebutted and the UK government were not interested in finding evidence that would get in the way. Legal duties to promote equality and non-discrimination were not seen as goals that ought to inform policy but, at best, as obstacles to circumvented.

After the Windrush scandal broke in 2018, thanks to the work of activists and journalists, including Amelia Gentleman who wrote an excellent book about this, the Home Office pledged to put things right. But the compensation scheme for victims that the Home Office was forced to put in place has paid out a pittance to a very few of the victims, and a senior civil servant has resigned suggesting that racism is an important part of the explanation. Almost weekly new absurdities come to light, such as the case of a man who the Home Office illegally excluded from the country who has now applied for British citizenship, which the Home Office is denying him on the basis that he spent too long out of the country.

The British press, with the exception of the Guardian, has given little prominence to this story. Another report from the EHCR into anti-semitism in the Labour Party was all over the front pages, but one into the impact of immigration policy on the lives of thousands of people is, well, not. Too late to affect this report but ominously for the future, the UK government has now appointed David Goodhart, a prominent advocate of the hostile environment (who now says he was always against “abuses”), as one of the commissioners for the EHRC. As US Republicans have learnt from the experience of the Supreme Court, the answer to the problem of referees giving decisions against you is to appoint new, more pliant, referees.

The case for alarmism

by John Q on November 24, 2020

Another (long) extract from the climate chapter of my book-in-progress Economic Consequences of the Pandemic is over the fold. Comments, compliments and criticism appreciated as ever.
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Covid and the climate emergency

by John Q on November 23, 2020

(Another extract from the climate chapter of my book-in-progress, Economic Consequences of the Pandemic)

The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated a variety of social and economic trends, some beneficial and some harmful, that were already underway before 2020.

An important example of a beneficial effect has been an acceleration of the decline of carbon-based fuels. Lockdowns early in the pandemic produced a substantial reduction in demand for both electricity and transport. As well as providing a brief glimpse of a world with greatly reduced atmospheric pollution, the lockdown accelerated shifts in the energy mix that were already underway.

Since solar PV and wind plants cost nothing to operate, the reduction in electricity demand fell most severely on carbon-based fuels, particularly coal. As a result, the combined contribution of PV, wind and hydroelectricity to US energy generation surpassed that of coal for the first time in 130 years.

Official projections from the EIA suggest that coal use will return to its gradually declining trend in the wake of the pandemic, exceeding renewables for some years to come. However, the pace at which coal plants are being closed or converted to run on gas has accelerated during pandemic. Meanwhile, despite weak demand, wind and PV plants are being installed at a record pace, partly because near-zero interest rates make capital investments cheaper.

The reduction in transport usage reduced demand for oil, at one point leading to a startling situation where the price of oil was negative, as unsold oil exceed the capacity for storage. Although the price has recovered somewhat, it seems unlikely that transport demand will return to its previous trend.

At the same time, there has been continued progress, both technological and political, in the electrification of transport. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently announced that the sale of petrol and diesel cars would be prohibited after 2030, an advance on previous commitments. The decline in long-term interest rates also enhances the economic position of electric vehicles, which have higher upfront costs and lower operating and maintenance costs than petrol and diesel vehicles.

Not all energy-related developments associated with Covid have been positive. The convenience and cheapness of online taxi platforms like Uber and Lyft has reduced use of public transport in many cities. The pandemic, with the need to avoid crowded spaces like buses and subway cars has exacerbated this trend. And, while the option of working remotely reduces the need for travel, it has encouraged a more dispersed workforce with less need to commute to the central city locations best served by public transport.

Sunday photoblogging: hello!

by Chris Bertram on November 22, 2020

Fox at Alderman Moore's allotments, Bristol BS3


by John Q on November 21, 2020

Many decades ago, I remember watching a British comedy sketch framed around a show called Controversy, the idea of which was that two experts with opposed views on some issue would slug it out for the entertainment of viewers. It turned out, however, that one of the experts had completely reversed himself and now agreed with the other. The host desperately tried to provoke some disagreement, with no success before giving up and saying “Well that’s it, for tonight’s Controversy“. At this point, each of the experts interjected that he had pronounced the word wrongly, each offering their own preferred stress pattern. (I found someone else who remembered it here, but also couldn’t recall the show).

I’m often surprised by which of my opinions on various issues turn out to be controversial or otherwise, and I thought I’d check a couple on Twitter, with some mildly interesting results

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Climate change after the pandemic

by John Q on November 21, 2020

Even as the future of US democracy remains in the balance, and as the pandemic still rages, I’m still working on my book The Economic Consequences of the Pandemic. At this stage, it’s hard to get a clear idea of how things will look when and if the pandemic is brought under control. One thing that is certain is that the problem of climate change/global heating will not have gone away. Over the fold, the intro for the chapter I’m writing on this topic. Comments, criticism and compliments all gratefully accepted.

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It’s time for the Green Human Development Index

by Ingrid Robeyns on November 16, 2020

The United Nations Development Program’s flagship index of wellbeing and social progress, the Human Development Index, no longer captures what humans need, and needs to be replaced by a Green Human Development Index. That’s what I’ll argue in this post.

First, some context for those who do not know the Human Development Index (HDI). The HDI is the main index of the annual Human Development Reports, which, since 1990, have been published by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). The reports analyse how countries are doing in terms of the wellbeing of their citizens, rather than the size of the economy. In 1990, the Pakistani economist Mahbub ul Haq had the visionary idea that in order to dethrone GDP per capita and economic growth as the yardstick for governmental policies, an alternative index was needed. He asked Amartya Sen to help him construct such an index. The rest is history. The HDI became a powerful alternative to GDP per capita. It consists of three dimensions and several indicators. The first dimension is human life itself, for which the indicators are child mortality and life expectancy. The second dimension is knowledge, captured by school enrollment rates and adult literacy rates. And the last dimension is the standard of living, for which the logarithmic function of GDP per capita is used.

It is easy to criticize the HDI for not capturing all dimensions of wellbeing, or for other shortcomings. For whatever those academic arguments are worth, there is no denying at how successful the HDI has been at accomplishing its two primary purposes: to dethrone GDP per capita and economic growth as the sole yardsticks for societal progress, and to stimulate policy makers to put human beings central in their institutional design and policy making. And by that yardstick, the HDI has been a great success. Each year, the release of the Human Development Reports captures the attention of media and policy makers worldwide. Many politicians and governments care about their ranking in comparison with other countries. And, most importantly, the political power of the HDI provides an incentive for countries to try to invest more in education and health, combatting child mortality and increasing life expectancy.

Yet, it is now time to abandon the HDI. Paradoxically, this is not despite, but because of its political success. The reason is that we have entered the Anthropocene – the geological epoch in which the human species is changing ecosystems and the geology of the Earth. The most well-known of those changes that humans have caused is climate change. And since these ecosystems and planetary boundaries in turn affect human flourishing, they must be central in any analyses of that human flourishing. [click to continue…]

Sunday photoblogging: chairs

by Chris Bertram on November 15, 2020


Why zero interest rates are here to stay

by John Q on November 14, 2020

That’s the self-explanatory title of my latest piece in The Conversation. It’s wonkish, but important. As I’ve explained here and here, an economy with zero real interest rates works very differently from the kind we are used to.

Worst Colleague Ever

by Corey Robin on November 13, 2020

In my New Yorker piece on Max Weber, which came out yesterday, I alluded to Weber’s many, often failed, forays into political life. Several folks on social media have expressed surprised about these expeditions. The facts of Weber’s political involvement don’t seem to fit with the aura of political detachment that surrounds his writing. Indeed, some of Weber’s writing can make him seem almost hermetically sealed off from the barest of political obligations, which is to communicate clearly.

But Weber was intensely involved in the political life of his day. In fact, I had an entire section of my piece devoted to these involvements, and was originally going to open the essay with that as a kind of set piece. For a variety of reasons, my editor and I decided to kill it.

But I thought I’d share it here.

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Max Weber, a scholar of hot temper and volcanic energy, longed to be a politician of cold focus and hard reason. Between the 1890s, when he launched his academic career, and his death from pneumonia in 1920, Weber made repeated incursions into the public sphere of Wilhelmine and Weimar Germany—to give advice, stand for office, form a party, negotiate a treaty, and write a constitution.

Most of these forays were failures. Officials didn’t listen; opportunities disappeared; proposals were rejected; amendments were ignored. Time and again, particularly after defeat, Weber would disavow any political ambition. But in the end, he couldn’t deny, as he confessed to a friend, that his “secret love” was for “the political.”

Why did Weber never manage the transition from pen to power? He was a riveting speaker, attracting legions of listeners from inside and outside the academy. He had good instincts and enviable judgment. His political antenna was so finely tuned, his map of the terrain so expertly drawn, he seemed to know, at every corner, which way to turn.

Despite a nervous breakdown in 1898, which drove him from the classroom for twenty years, and crippling bouts of depression that sent him to spas and sleeping pills, he rarely suffered from the thought that others might know better than he. “If one is lucky” in politics, he observed toward the end of his life, a “genius appears just once every few hundred years.” That left the door wide open for him.

Even in the delirium of his final days, Weber could be heard declaiming on behalf of the German people, jousting with their enemies in several of the many languages he knew. So appointed for politics did he seem that the philosopher Karl Jaspers, his close friend and most ardent fan, wondered whether Weber hadn’t “unconsciously” arranged his own derailment of destiny.

The truth is less exotic. Simply put, Weber was impossible to work with. His “intellectual superiority was a burden,” sighed his wife Marianne. His “ethical standards were inordinate.” Though offered as exoneration, as if Weber were too good for this world, the comment suggests how exasperating he could be. “The Germans,” Goethe said, “make everything difficult, both for themselves and for everyone else.” Weber made things very, very difficult.

Every move, every maneuver, had to be just so. After agreeing, during World War I, to speak publicly on behalf of a propaganda outfit for the war, Weber complained that he had been instructed not “to be too precise” in his formulations. “That is not my way.” What was his way? “Taking things to an extreme; I cannot do otherwise.”

For a man so clear-eyed about the larger questions of power, both its shifting balances and long-term tendencies, Weber could be myopically exacting about the minutia of a moment. “A politician must make compromises,” he announced after withdrawing from yet another party to which he had been briefly attached; “a scholar cannot justify this.” But that was just a fancy way of saying nobody did anything right—which in politics, as in families, may be the wrongest position of all.

Weber’s refusal of compromise put him into frequent, often needless, conflict with comrades and colleagues. “He bubbles over,” one scholar remarked, “but he bubbles over for too long; first he should bubble, then he should flow.” Weber never flowed. Even Marianne acknowledged that his “constant criticism of the political conduct of his own group was disquieting.”

Far from making him look principled, his intransigence made him seem unsteady, even explosive. Weber could blow up anything. Anticipating his arrival at what was slated to be a tense meeting of the faculty, a historian commented to the art historian sitting next to him, “The most excitable man in the world is about to storm in.” As it happens, Weber was the picture of calm at that meeting, delivering what the art historian would call a “Hellenic” performance.

But there’s a reason, beyond mental illness, that he was thought of as unstable and inconstant. A supernova of energy, Weber lacked the critical element that distinguishes the dilettante from the professional: staying power. Every burst of light left behind a black hole.

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If you missed the New Yorker piece, you can check it out here.

Max Weber, man of our time?

by Corey Robin on November 12, 2020

Max Weber died at the tail end of a pandemic, amid a growing street battle between the right and the left. What could he possibly have to say to us today?   I try to answer this, and some other questions, in my review this morning, in The New Yorker, of an excellent new translation, by Damion Searls, of Weber’s Vocation Lectures.

I have to confess, a little guiltily, that I get in a few shots against older leftists, of the ex-SDS type, who like to use (or misuse) Weber’s “ethics of responsibility” against the putative transgressions of younger leftists who are allegedly in thrall to an “ethics of conviction.” It’s one of those tropes in contemporary argument that I really don’t like.

Anyway, this piece took me a year and a half to write, and went through eleven drafts. I’ve never worked so much on a shorter piece of prose, I don’t think.

Many thanks to our Henry, who read an earlier draft, and to the awesome editors and fact checkers (who saved me from a critical error in translation) and production folks at The New Yorker. I also highly recommend the new book on Weber, Arendt, Habermas and more, by political theorist Steven Klein, which I discuss in the piece, and which informed my critique.

A taste:

Weber delivered the first of the two lectures, on the scholar’s work, on November 7, 1917, the day of the Bolshevik Revolution. One year later, a wave of revolution and counter-revolution swept across Germany. It didn’t break until after Weber delivered his second lecture, on the politician’s work, on January 28, 1919. Weber makes occasional, if oblique, reference to the swirl of events around him, but the dominant motif of both lectures is neither turbulence nor movement. It is stuckness. The particles of academic and political life have slowed to a halt; all that was air has become solid.
Weber’s complaints will sound familiar to contemporary readers. Budget-strapped universities pack as many students as possible into classes. Numbers are a “measure of success,” while quality, because it is “unquantifiable,” is ignored. Young scholars lead a “precarious quasi-proletarian existence,” with little prospect of a long-term career, and the rule of promotion is that “there are a lot of mediocrities in leading university positions.” Every aspiring academic must ask himself whether “he can bear to see mediocrity after mediocrity promoted ahead of him, year after year, without becoming embittered and broken inside.” The “animating principle” of the university is an “empty fiction.”
The state is equally ossified. …
When Weber constructed his theory, it was less a description than a prayer, a desperate bid to find friction in a world supposedly smoothed by structure. He was hardly the only social theorist to over-structure reality, to mistake the suspended animation of a moment for the immobilisme of an epoch. Tocqueville suffered from the same malady; Marcuse, Arendt, and Foucault shared some of its symptoms as well. But Weber needed the malady. The question is: Do we?

You can read the rest here.

Remembrance – Excerpt from The Law of Kindness

by Maria on November 11, 2020

I posted this a few days ago and took it down, but I’m giving it another go because it’s 11/11 and nonfiction doesn’t really get at my feelings about Remembrance and what it’s used for. Below is an excerpt from my novel in progress, The Law of Kindness.

It’s about an Irish woman who’s married a British army officer and can also write letters back through time to her younger selves. She’s probably a bit cattier than I am about the whole thing, and she’s writing this diary entry while ill and sometimes confused, but it gets at some of the complexity of feeling about Remembrance and its uses that people may feel when they have particular and very recent soldiers in mind who ‘shall not grow old’.

Wiltshire, November 2011

Robert’s back three weeks from Afghanistan and he can still hardly look at me. It’s all ‘babes’ and soft touches on the back of the hand, but will he look me in the eye or kiss me on the lips? He will not.

Christ, it’s all death around here all the time. Remembrance Sunday. I’d forgotten how brutal they are. Or is it like mercury. It builds up over time till you’re poisoned for life? We’d a nice few years of just hanging around, squashed into a pen within range of the Cenotaph and chatting to whoever was nearby, waiting for Robert to go past. When he’d find us afterwards, he’d be pink-cheeked with cold and glowing with this odd swirl of pride and the sweeter kinds of sorrow. He’d quickly squeeze the baby, give me one of those kisses that’s more like a question and peel off for an afternoon drinking with the boys. Back when we were in London, semi-detached from the army. And last year we were here, but pre- not post-tour, so I didn’t know any of this battalion’s injured or dead, and the bereaved parents only come for the first year or two, after. And with all my appointments and tests and all the rest of it, I barely paid attention, anyway.

But this one. Fuck me but it nearly did for us. Only a week after the post-tour medals parade. Whose idea was that? The wheelchair parade, more like. What a wretched, wretched tour. I’d kept up with the deaths, just a couple, thank God, but I’d no idea there’d been so many life-changing injuries. I don’t know why Robert barely mentioned them, or Angela. At least I had a chair and a blanket for the first parade, the medals one. Angela and me, sitting up like queens. And Camilla even came, so that made three. She sent her attendant off twice to refill my hot water bottle. God be with the days of having three nervous wees before meeting her and phoning Dad to tell him and tease his can’t-help-himself pride. Irish people and the royal family. Honest to God. Angela and me giggling as we go over the cleaning lady’s work in the CO’s downstairs loo, then seal it off three days before Camilla comes because royalty can’t possibly relieve themselves where we mortals have recently been. But she couldn’t do enough for the families during this tour and she was lovely to me at medals parade, commanding mugs of tea and asking was it the proper Irish one. Builder’s tea, she says, like it’s an ironic joke. I’d to tell her to stop being so nice or she’d make me cry.

And no one face-planted, no guardsman’s jaw. The usual only half-joking remarks there should be a wives’ medal. General on a mission to talk for five minutes to each of the injured. Two and a half hours. Six degrees Celsius. Children keening with boredom and cold, but the littlest ones in the warmth of the welfare at least, looked after by the 2 Fusiliers wives. Cake after, and fizz in the Mess, not that I could touch it. Robert wanted me to skip medals parade altogether. He was afraid I’d get pneumonia. Weird how ‘you’ll get pneumonia’ goes being a mad thing people say when it’s cold to something that could actually happen. ‘It’s an invitation, not a summons’. Sounds like something he read. But people will feel sorry for him in a not-good way if he doesn’t have a wife in a smart coat looking admiring then oblivious as the men mess up an overly complicated drill, never a strong point, forget about post-tour, a couple of stragglers losing the run of it, then a whole section gone the wrong way altogether, the RSM’s voice cracking into a strangled squeak as he sorts them out and us three queens in our big leather chairs brought out from the mess, trying to lighten the moment but not giggle too obviously. But I said that already. [click to continue…]