More than $5tn has evaporated from global share prices since China’s market meltdown began. Everyone’s asking the same thing: “When will it bottom out?” But, as I watch the wild fluctuations in the markets, I can’t help wondering why the experts weren’t just a tiny-teeny bit more suspicious about the euphoric economic data that was previously coming out of China.
When I was in the country recently, the signs of Potemkin-like prosperity were everywhere. I was travelling with a film crew to shoot the four-part history series The Ascent of Woman for BBC2. Yes, I soon realised, Shanghai has dozens of swanky hotels and practically every shop that you’d find on the British high street, including Cath Kidston. Yet the sight of a Prada bag or two shouldn’t be overblown. Far more important in a modern economy is having indoor plumbing. I suppose there’s some remote cottage in Britain still being serviced by an outdoor privy.
But whole villages relying on communal latrines? In a word, no. China may be on course to become the world’s number one economic power, but what does that mean exactly if its citizens are still waiting for flush toilets?
Both political parties in America have their off-‐message, loony wings. For my taste, the Republican side has the edge for sheer offensiveness with its claims about “legitimate” rape, equating gay marriage with bestiality and so on. It’s what gives the Republican presidential primaries their destructive feel as the absolute no-‐hopers are allowed to smash the party’s centre ground with impunity.
Although they are still a year away, campaigning for the Republican primaries has begun in earnest and already we have the first winners and losers. The subject in the ring was the nationwide measles outbreak that started in California and has since spread to 13 other states.
Back in December the yet to be indentified “Patient Zero” went on an outing to Disneyland. Since then the measles virus has crossed the entire country, with more than 100 cases and counting.
On the face of it, measles is not a peculiarly Republican preoccupation. Nevertheless, both Chris Christie, the moderate governor of New Jersey, and Rand Paul, the maverick libertarian senator for Kentucky — two likely Republican contenders in 2016 — weighed in on the issue.
To the surprise of many Republicans — and the glee of the Democratic party — neither would endorse the establishment view that every child in America must be vaccinated.
In 1984 the French intellectual, Jean-François Revel, now deceased, published How Democracies Perish, in which he predicted: “Democracy may, after all, turn out to have been a historical accident, a brief parenthesis that is closing before
Less than a decade later, spurred by the fall of the Berlin Wall, he appeared to take the opposite view in Democracy Against Itself, claiming: “Democracy is not only conceivable, it is inevitable. It has been indispensable, but until now it was not inevitable.”
Not surprisingly, Revel, a staunch supporter of America’s battle against the Soviet Union, was ridiculed by critics for his inconsistency.
I didn’t give much thought to Revel after that; at least, not until this year when I began my trek across the world on behalf of the BBC. Then I couldn’t get him out of my mind. I began to see for myself what life is like when there is no such thing as a Bill of Rights, or separation between church and state, or between state and party.
The internet is not an act of God or an untameable force against which humanity has no control or defences. The individuals who run the world’s biggest tech companies are not more praiseworthy, capable or enlightened than the leaders of traditional businesses. They certainly don’t deserve the right or power to destroy the basic tenets of civilised society simply because there are profits to be made.
Yet we act as though this is the case. It is time for us to stop sleep-walking into a future created by a handful of monopolists and loophole-scroungers.
Earlier this year I wrote about the threat that Amazon’s near monopoly and monopsony of the book trade poses to the marketplace of ideas and, indeed, the bedrock of democracy.
Monopolistic power is a major aspect of the social battles raging between society and the tech giants, but it is not only the one. Parasitism — digital businesses that have found legal ways to bleed established sectors (news, music, film and retail) dry — is another. The two often go hand in hand as evinced by such companies as Google, Facebook and Spotify.
Their destructive force is subtle. Last week the century-old The New Republic (TNR), one of the most venerable opinion journals in America, collapsed under the resignation of about 50 of its staff and contributing editors. The walkout was so sudden that the December issue had to be cancelled. Whether there will still be a TNR worth saving in January is anybody’s guess.
During a 14-hour flight from China last week, I confess to having watched Emily Blunt and Tom Cruise’s sci-fi adventure flick Edge of Tomorrow. It was research, you understand. For those of us living through yet another mid-term election this week, the film’s tagline “Live. Die. Repeat” has particular meaning.
Cruise’s character is caught in an endless time-loop, as are American voters.
As soon as one two-year cycle is finished, the campaigning begins for the next. Between the four-year presidential terms, the six-year Senate terms, and the two-year terms in the House of Representatives, there is never a moment’s respite. Voters have had enough. Even though this year is theoretically full of drama and excitement — with the Republicans set to win back control of Congress — only two-thirds of registered voters say they are certain to go to the polls. That’s down from three-quarters in 2006.
Just like Ms Blunt, I want to hunt down the monster that’s forcing us to live every day as though it’s a general election. And when I do, I’m going to make it watch endless loops of every election ad since 1975. Then, I’ll order it to try driving through Manhattan when the president is in town for one of his frequent fundraisers (more than 400 nationally since 2009).
This year I have been away from home a great deal working on a documentary series that will complement my forthcoming book on the history of women. The experience has been an eye-opener in many ways.
The past month, for example, has been spent in countries that don’t entirely share the BBC’s position on the bribing of public officials, or the European Union’s love of health and safety, or America’s belief in equality for all. What I witnessed made me feel lucky to be living in New York.
The airport may be a sorry dump but the rest of the city still sizzles with energy and optimism. Yet for the first time I have arrived back with a sense of foreboding.
Contrary to popular belief, democracies are not more robust than their totalitarian counterparts. It is in fact relatively easy to subvert a democratic institution from the inside, rotting the core while leaving the facade intact. Turkey, for instance, that beacon of Middle Eastern democracy, has the highest number of detained journalists in the world.
In the 1976 film Network, a crazed news anchor becomes so disgusted with the venal idiocy of American television that he refuses to say his lines. During a meltdown on air he encourages audiences to follow his lead and shout: “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more.” Instead of laughing at him the nation grinds to a halt as millions of Americans join in, screaming their frustration from the rooftops.
Last week 65,000 Republican voters in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District offered their own version of “I’m as mad as hell”. Only instead of screaming in frustration they used the primary race to get rid of Eric Cantor, the Republican majority leader in the House of Representatives. Instead of being good little followers and ticking the Cantor box, they voted for an economics professor, David Brat.
As the US media gleefully reported: Brat won by a whopping 56%-44%, despite having no name recognition and minuscule financial support. His campaign raised just $122,793; Cantor’s election headquarters spent $168,637 on steak dinners alone.
Is America a nation of gullible nitwits? For the record, there is no country on earth that can cast the first stone. Still, judging by the blind faith in loopy science that has turned the gluten-free diet into a $23bn movement, it is a valid question.
Gluten is a “gluey” protein found in wheat, barley and rye. It makes cakes go fluffy and bread taste moist. Wheat was one of the first domesticated food crops and is a staple food around the world. Nevertheless, a third of Americans now avoid gluten in the belief that it causes a range of ills from diabetes, obesity, autism and Alzheimer’s to joint pain, flatulence and diarrhoea.
A minuscule market that once served the 1% of Americans who have coeliac disease (and must avoid gluten) now commands the top shelves in the food aisles. Of all the egregious examples of corporate welfare, our paying huge premiums to Kraft and Kellogg’s for non-existent health benefits must take the gluten-free biscuit.
One of the greatest monopolies in history was the medieval Catholic Church. Its religious and temporal power was absolute until confronted by an even more potent rival: the printed book. Today, print is once more at the centre of a cultural revolution. Only this time it is not the challenger to a global monopoly but its most successful weapon.
Amazon, founded and controlled by Jeff Bezos, used the humble book to leverage itself into becoming the world’s largest online retailer. It took 20 years for Amazon to emerge as a monopolistic power. Last week, by creating an effective blacklist of authors for use as a bargaining tool against Hachette Book Group, the company showed us how far it would go in its abuse of that power.
The public has only recently become aware of the long shadow war between Amazon and the publishing industry. In February Amazon began quietly “disappearing” certain authors in an attempt to force Hachette into giving larger discounts on its books.
What the public does not know is that the real fight is about kickbacks. How can Amazon make up for the fact that it sells almost all its books at a loss?