My latest piece in Independent Australia

THE RISKS of nuclear war are greater than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Not only is Vladimir Putin threatening to use nuclear weapons to stave off defeat in Ukraine, but the North Korean Government has continued to develop and test both missiles and nuclear warheads.

U.S. President Joe Biden has responded to Putin’s threats with admirable calm so far, playing down the risk that Putin will use nuclear weapons and avoiding any threat of escalation.

Leaks from the U.S. Administration have indicated that the response to a tactical nuclear weapon would be massive but confined to conventional weapons.

Yet the official doctrine of the U.S. would call for the use of nuclear weapons in exactly the situation faced by Putin today: a conventional war going badly.
[click to continue…]

Crooked, but crooked upwards

by Paul Segal on October 21, 2022

Bad news surrounds us. Russia invading Ukraine. Fascism in Italy. Catastrophic floods in Pakistan. The criminalisation of abortion in parts of the USA. Melting glaciers. Bolsonaro (though hopefully not for much longer). Coming on the back of the worst pandemic in a century it’s hard to avoid the feeling that the world is entering a truly nasty period.

The science fiction writer Cixin Liu describes a civilisation on a planet orbiting two suns, trapped in what physicists call the three body problem – the chaotic, unpredictable motion traversed by three masses orbiting each other, radically different from the smooth path followed by a simple co-orbiting pair like the Earth and our sun. When the planet is relatively close to just one sun they enjoy a Stable Era – life evolves, civilization advances. But because of the three body problem, it is impossible to predict how long this will last before the onset of a Chaotic Era: the planet is either pulled close to both suns, burning all life to ashes, or drifts away from both suns, freezing all life in the cold of open space.

For Liu, these unpredictable catastrophes are a metaphor for China’s Cultural Revolution, as chaotic and unpredictable as it was destructive. Today many of us feel the Stable Era of the 1990s to 2008 – or perhaps even since the 1950s – is over, and we are about to be either fried in a nuclear conflict, or frozen as we can’t afford to pay sky-rocketing energy bills this winter.

At least, that’s how I and many of my friends and acquaintances feel. But if we’re honest, we’re hardly representative. Everyone is entitled to complain about their own burdens. Yet if we want to make a judgement about the state of the world – and people often do – then we need to take the time to look at some data. When we do that, our current downtick hardly makes a dent on the improvements in human well-being of the last half century. Child mortality, literacy, early deaths, it’s hard to find an indicator of global human well being that hasn’t improved in the last 10 years, and improved massively in the last 50.
[click to continue…]

Caring, growth and choice

by Chris Bertram on October 21, 2022

In any society, certain needs have to be catered for, either socially or privately. At a minumum, those unable to work, because they are too young, too old, or too sick have to be cared for. Of course, they can be cared for in ways that are better or worse for them, but caring there must be, and that is going to take someone’s time, labour, and money.

I’ve been thinking about these rather obvious facts over the past few days partly because a report came out showing how many people – mainly women – are being driven out of the the UK workforce by the need to care for relatives, given that the social care system is broken. At present, there are also a lot of people out of the UK labour market either because they can’t work due to COVID and its after-effects, or because the underfunded National Health Service has been shattered by the pandemic and they can’t get the treatment they need in a timely fashion for other health problems they have. If left languishing, the skills these people have will atrophy. Many of them will never work again.

At the same time, our soon-to-be-former Prime Minister has been pushing her “pro-growth” agenda, which largely consisted of tax cuts, and her now-former Home Secretary mocked the anti-growth coalition of “Guardian-reading, tofu-eating, wokerati”, of which I am proud to consider myself a member.

Their central assumption is that growth is best served by a low-tax economy and that public spending needs radical reduction, with the fat-cutting exercise of the last twelve years now to be extended to the bones. Well, I hope readers can see the problem. You don’t get growth by pursuing policies that effectively force people to give up productive work either through their own sickness, or in order to care for other people. If these needs are not met socially, they will be met privately, and, again, because it bears repeating, in ways that are disproportionately damaging to women.
[click to continue…]