The Economist

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  • Children are victims in the latest identity-driven culture war

    THE first question asked of any new parent is: “Boy or girl?” Across the developed world, the answer matters far less than it used to. Both girls and boys are less constrained by their sex than ever before. Women can not only vote and own property, but stand for election and run companies. Men can care for children—and for their appearance. Both sexes are free to love, and in many countries marry, whomever they wish.

    But for some, even today’s capacious gender roles do not fit. The number of transgender adults—those who do not identify with the sex on their birth certificates—seems to be rising (see article). More are changing their names, clothing and pronouns, taking cross-sex hormones and seeking gender-reassignment surgery. Their rights and status have become the casus belli for the latest culture war.

    The fiercest fire is left-on-left. Some...

  • Local-government finances in China are a dangerous mess

    AS CHINESE officials admit, one of the biggest threats to the country’s financial stability is a reckless build-up of local-government debt. What they are less keen to admit is that local governments’ thuggish behaviour, such as grabbing land to sell to developers, and failing to provide the services expected of them, has become a cause of unrest.

    One reason local governments in China are dysfunctional is the way their finances work (see article). They have very limited tax-raising powers of...

  • The system for allocating airport slots is broken

    YOU may think that an airline’s most valuable asset is its planes. But with Monarch, Britain’s fifth-biggest carrier, which went bust in October, creditors were keenest to claim slices of airspace at particular times of day. Monarch’s landing and take-off slots at British airports are a big enough prize to have caused a court battle. That is a sign of how much the system for allocating them harms competition and consumers.

    Slots have been sought-after since the 1960s, when airports began to fill up. In response IATA, an airline-industry body, developed a set of guidelines which state that an airline can keep a slot from the previous year if it has been used at least 80% of the time. Those that are not are put into a pool and reallocated; half are supposed to go to new entrants. Over 190 congested airports—103 of them in Europe—follow rules that IATA describes as “fair, neutral and transparent” (see...

  • What they don’t tell you about climate change

    TWO years ago the world pledged to keep global warming “well below” 2°C hotter than pre-industrial times. Climate scientists and campaigners purred. Politicians patted themselves on the back. Despite the Paris agreement’s ambiguities and some setbacks, including President Donald Trump’s decision to yank America out of the deal, the air of self-congratulation was still on show among those who gathered in Bonn this month for a follow-up summit.

    Yet the most damaging thing about America’s renewed spasm of climate-change rejection may not be the effect on its own emissions, which could turn out to be negligible. It is the cover America has given other countries to avoid acknowledging the problems of the agreement America is abandoning.

    The Paris agreement assumes, in effect, that the world will find ways to suck CO2 out of the air. That is because, in any realistic scenario, emissions cannot be cut fast enough to keep the total stock of greenhouse gases...

  • The army sidelines Robert Mugabe, Africa’s great dictator

    CALIGULA wanted to make his horse consul. Robert Mugabe wanted his wife, Grace, to take over from him as president of Zimbabwe. The comparison is a bit unfair. Caligula’s horse did not go on lavish shopping trips while Romans starved; nor was it accused of assaulting anyone with an electric cable in a hotel room. Grace Mugabe’s only qualification for high office was her marriage to Mr Mugabe, a man 41 years her senior with whom she began an affair while his first wife was dying. Her ambitions were thwarted this week when the army seized power, insisting that this was not a coup while making it perfectly clear that it was (see article).

    Thus, sordidly, ends the era of one of Africa’s great dictators. Mr Mugabe has misruled Zimbabwe for 37 years. As The Economist went to press, he was in detention...

  • The meaning in the madness of initial coin offerings

    MARKETS and manias go together. The latest frenzy is for all things crypto. The price of the best-known digital currency, bitcoin, has risen by nearly 700% this year and is now about $7,500; one enterprising firm recently quadrupled its share price simply by adding the word “blockchain” to its name.

    But nowhere do alarm bells ring more loudly than in the realm of “initial coin offerings” (ICOs), a form of crowdfunding in which firms issue digital “coins” or “tokens” in return for a payment (typically in ether, another crypto-currency). ICOs have raked in more than $3.2bn this year, rivalling the money flowing to internet startups from early-stage venture capital. Although most of these tokens are supposed to be used in exchange for the companies’ products, as in a corporate loyalty scheme in the offline world, investors scent something different: the chance to be in at the birth of another bitcoin.

    It is tempting to dismiss ICOs as nothing but a fraud’s charter. They are...

  • How to make the Republican tax plan work

    THE last time Republicans controlled both the White House and Congress, under President George W. Bush, they passed a package of temporary tax cuts. This time they are displaying more ambition. The tax bill unveiled in the House of Representatives on November 2nd can properly be called a reform. It would slash deductions that distort the economy: for debt and mortgage interest, state taxes and manufacturers. The savings would go towards reducing most marginal tax rates.

    The principle of scrapping deductions in order to lower rates is exactly the right one. But the House bill is flawed. Despite leaving the top rate of personal income tax unchanged,...

  • The world should push the crown prince to reform Saudi Arabia, not wreck it

    IN A kingdom where change comes only slowly, if at all, the drama of recent days in Saudi Arabia is astounding. Scores of princes, ministers and officials have been arrested or sacked, mostly accused of corruption. Many of those arrested are being held in the splendour of the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh. About $800bn-worth of assets may have been frozen. At the same time a missile fired from Yemen was intercepted near Riyadh, prompting Saudi Arabia to accuse Iran of an “act of war”.

    Upheaval at home and threats of war abroad make a worrying mix in a country that has, hitherto, held firm amid the violent breakdown of the Middle East. The world can ill afford instability in the biggest oil exporter, the largest Arab economy and the home of Islam’s two holiest sites.

    At the centre of the whirlwind stands the impetuous crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman, son of the aged King Salman. The prince has staged a palace coup—or perhaps a counter-coup against opponents seeking to...

  • Plea bargains save time and money but are too easily abused

    THE elements that make up a criminal-justice system are familiar from a thousand courtroom dramas. Detectives interview witnesses and examine crime scenes. Forensic scientists coax secrets from bloodstains and cigarette ash. Judges and juries weigh the facts and pronounce on guilt and innocence.

    But in many countries, behind this system lies a quicker, rougher one. It is plea-bargaining, in which prosecutors press lesser charges or ask for a lighter sentence in return for a defendant pleading guilty or incriminating others. Long crucial to the operation of American justice, this shadow system is now going global (see article). One study of 90 countries found that just 19 permitted plea bargains in 1990. Now 66 do. In many countries, including England and Australia, pleas now account for a majority of guilty verdicts. In American...

  • America’s global influence has dwindled under Donald Trump

    A YEAR ago this week Donald Trump was elected president. Many people predicted that American foreign policy would take a disastrous turn. Mr Trump had suggested that he would scrap trade deals, ditch allies, put a figurative bomb under the rules-based global order and drop literal ones willy-nilly. NATO was “obsolete”, he said; NAFTA was “the worst trade deal maybe ever”; and America was far too nice to foreigners. “In the old days when you won a war, you won a war. You kept the country,” he opined, adding later that he would “bomb the shit out of” Islamic State (IS) and “take the oil”.

    So far, Mr Trump’s foreign policy has been less awful than he promised. Granted, he has pulled America out of the Paris accord, making it harder to curb climate change, and abandoned the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a big trade deal. However, he has not retreated pell-mell into isolationism. He has not quit NATO; indeed, some of America’s eastern European allies prefer his tough-talk to the cool...

  • Time for Mariano Rajoy to think about a new deal for Catalonia

    A SECESSIONIST leader flies into exile, seeking protection after being threatened with a 30-year prison sentence for sedition and rebellion. In the capital the government takes emergency powers, suspending a regional parliament after it illegally declares independence, assuming direct control of its police and civil service. Pinch yourself. This is not some poor, decrepit country but, incredibly, a modern western European democracy—Spain.

    Nobody emerges well from the sorry tale of arrogance, inflexibility and even violence in Catalonia (see article). Although the immediate crisis seems, thankfully, to be over, the impact of the October madness will be felt for years to come. Nearly 2,000 businesses have moved their headquarters out of Barcelona and other Catalan cities. For many people, Spanish politics has become harsher and more...

  • Should regulators block CVS from buying Aetna?

    AMERICA has a competition problem. Market concentration has risen in more than three-quarters of industries since the late 1990s. Concentration has led to higher profits and higher returns for shareholders at the expense of consumers. Antitrust authorities have become more supine: between 1970 and 1999, regulators brought an average of 16 cases a year in order to prevent big firms from becoming even bigger; between 2000 and 2014, that number fell below three.

    Health care is one of the industries that has been marked by bouts of consolidation. The annual number of hospital mergers in America doubled between 2005 and 2015; the national market share of...

  • India’s prime minister focuses too much on appearances

    THE change in mood is remarkable. Earlier this year Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, had an air of invincibility. His government, although more than halfway into its five-year term, seemed more popular than ever. In March his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won the most lopsided electoral victory since the 1970s in the country’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh. In July he launched a reform that had eluded his predecessors for decades: a national goods-and-services tax (GST). Later that month he persuaded an ally of the main opposition party, Congress, to defect to the BJP’s camp, securing control of yet another state government.

    Until recently another landslide at the next national election in 2019 seemed inevitable. The BJP is still likely to win, but Mr Modi is losing his sheen—and for that, he has only himself to blame (see...

  • Why you should remember Mueller’s job description

    ACCORDING to NATO’s handbook, the preferred tactics in Russian information warfare can be summarised as “dismiss, distort, distract, dismay”. That is a fair description of the response in America when Robert Mueller, the special counsel, unsealed charges against Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, and two others. The president’s most enthusiastic supporters denounced Mr Mueller, saying he should be fired or, failing that, redirected to investigate Hillary Clinton instead. Meanwhile, some of the president’s opponents took Mr Mueller’s move as the prelude to impeachment. Both views are wrong and unhelpful.

    To think clearly about what Mr Mueller is up to, it helps to recall the terms of his appointment. The special counsel has been told by the Justice Department to investigate links or co-ordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with Mr Trump’s presidential campaign, and any other matters that arise directly from that endeavour. Unlike the...

  • Do social media threaten democracy?

    IN 1962 a British political scientist, Bernard Crick, published “In Defence of Politics”. He argued that the art of political horse-trading, far from being shabby, lets people of different beliefs live together in a peaceful, thriving society. In a liberal democracy, nobody gets exactly what he wants, but everyone broadly has the freedom to lead the life he chooses. However, without decent information, civility and conciliation, societies resolve their differences by resorting to coercion.

    How Crick would have been dismayed by the falsehood and partisanship on display in this week’s Senate committee hearings in Washington. Not long ago social media held out the promise of a more enlightened politics, as accurate information and effortless communication helped good people drive out corruption, bigotry and lies. Yet Facebook acknowledged that before and after last year’s American election, between January 2015 and August this year, 146m users may have seen Russian misinformation on...

  • The Bank of England should wait before raising rates

    THESE are extraordinary times for the Bank of England. Never before in the Old Lady’s 323-year history has monetary policy been so loose for so long. During the financial crisis in 2008-09 Britain’s base rate of interest was cut to 0.5%. After the Brexit referendum of 2016 the bank cut by a further 0.25 percentage points, in anticipation of the slowdown that most economists believed was to follow. The bank has bought more than £400bn ($525bn) of government bonds under its programme of quantitative easing. At various points in recent years members of the bank’s monetary-policy committee (MPC) have hinted that rate rises were on the cards. But never have they followed through.

    Until now. Inflation recently hit 3%, above the bank’s 2% target. In the third quarter of 2017 GDP grew by 0.4%. That suggests to some that the bank’s post-referendum cut was unnecessary. So on November 2nd, a majority of the MPC’s nine members are expected to vote to reverse it. A rise to 0.5% would mark the...

  • Time for Japan’s prime minister to change the constitution

    RARELY has such an unpopular leader won a free and fair election so lopsidedly. Only about one-third of Japanese people approve of Shinzo Abe, their prime minister; a whopping 51% disapprove. Yet on October 22nd his Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner kept its two-thirds majority in the lower house (see article). Mr Abe’s decision to call a snap election, unlike that of Theresa May, his British counterpart, paid off handsomely.

    One reason is that the opposition imploded. A much-hyped new force, the Party of Hope, led by Tokyo’s charismatic governor, botched its campaign and ended up with barely enough seats to fill a ramen restaurant. A left-wing splinter group, the Constitutional Democratic Party, emerged as the main opposition force with only 55 out of 465 seats. Mr Abe is lucky in his choice of...

  • A bad election is worse than a delayed one

    DEMOCRATS across Africa cheered on September 1st when Kenya’s Supreme Court annulled the presidential election that had taken place a few weeks earlier. The court held that the electoral commission had botched the count and that the poll should be held again. No rigging had been proved after the incumbent, Uhuru Kenyatta, won by a handy margin over the main opposition leader, Raila Odinga. But the court argued rightly that elections are not just about numbers. “You only get points for the answers if you show your working,” said Philomena Mwilu, the deputy chief justice. It was a landmark in a region where judges are often cowed.

    Rather than using the judgment to strengthen democracy in a country that descended into ethnic bloodshed after a disputed election in 2007, the government and electoral commission pressed ahead with a vote due on October 26th (after we went to press) that will be even less credible than that of August 8th. The main opposition leader has withdrawn, the...

  • The age of Amazon and Alibaba is just beginning

    SHOPPERS will spend record sums online in the next few weeks—in China for Singles Day on November 11th, in America on Black Friday and around the world in the run-up to Christmas. E-commerce has been growing by 20% a year for a decade, shaking up industries from logistics to consumer goods. Nowhere does debate rage more fiercely about what this means than in America, where thousands of stores have shut this year and where retailing accounts for one in nine jobs.

    Astonishingly, online shopping has only just got started. Last year it amounted to a mere 8.5% of the world’s retail spending. In America the share was about 10%. Its effects on business and society will be huge. Not just because retailing is a big employer that touches many industries, but also because its two greatest exponents, Jack Ma and Jeff Bezos, the founders of Alibaba and Amazon, have used it to amass a new sort of conglomerate (see our...

  • A tsar is born

    SEVENTEEN years after Vladimir Putin first became president, his grip on Russia is stronger than ever. The West, which still sees Russia in post-Soviet terms, sometimes ranks him as his country’s most powerful leader since Stalin. Russians are increasingly looking to an earlier period of history. Both liberal reformers and conservative traditionalists in Moscow are talking about Mr Putin as a 21st-century tsar.

    Mr Putin has earned that title by lifting his country out of what many Russians see as the chaos in the 1990s and by making it count again in the world. Yet as the centenary of the October revolution draws near, the uncomfortable thought has surfaced that Mr Putin shares the tsars’ weaknesses, too.

    Although Mr Putin worries about the “colour” revolutions that swept through the former Soviet Union, the greater threat is not of a mass uprising, still less of a Bolshevik revival. It is that, from spring 2018 when Mr Putin starts what is constitutionally his last...


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