Published on: 10th Feb, 2019
This week’s reads focus on Trump, why women win in the long run, Bridgewater’s Self-Obsession and the environment.
1. Long read: The Disturbing, Surprisingly Complex Relationship Between White Identity Politics and Racism
Author: Isaac Chotiner
Source: New Yorker (https://www.newyorker.com/news/the-new-yorker-interview/the-disturbing-surprisingly-complex-relationship-between-white-identity-politics-and-racism)
In an interesting new book called “White Identity Politics”, American political scientist Ashley Jardina of Duke University looks at the increasing relevance of white identity in American politics. What she finds is interesting and potentially has relevance for Indian politics if you replace “white” with “caste Hindus”.
“Drawing on data from American National Election Studies surveys and her own research, Jardina finds that about thirty to forty per cent of white Americans say that white identity is important to them, and she adds an interesting twist—that this group only partly overlaps with the group of white Americans who hold racist views. According to Jardina’s analysis, about thirty-eight per cent of white people who highly value their white identity are at or below the mean level of racial resentment, while forty-four per cent of white people who say their racial identity is less important are at or above that level.”
Basically, a lot of Americans who don’t necessarily think of themselves as white are racist. In the Indian context we see this effect play out in daily life – a lot of people who are not necessarily devout Hindus have strong anti-Islamic feelings.
Jardina highlights that Trump’s cleverness lies in understanding this and constantly playing up issues which pander to the inner racist in white Americans. Take for example, the whole furore around the wall that he wants to build on the Mexican border. There is a reason Trump has doubled down on this issue. Jardina says:
“I mean, we see this now with his strong stance on the border wall. Immigration is a particularly important topic to white identifiers, and Trump has continued to make that a central issue to the national political agenda, even in the face of the fact that we don’t have a border crisis. Since Trump took office, immigration levels have decreased in the United States.”
In India we can see how the RSS and the BJP is consistently able to keep issues around religious identity (triple talaq, Ram mandir, Citizenship Act, cows, Islamic sounding names of streets or stations) in the public eye. Why does this help? Because as Jardina points out whites don’t necessarily need to dislike African-Americans or Latinos for Trump to get their vote. All he has to do is give whites an image of America – white, strong, Anglo-Saxon, etc – which they can feel good about and which they identify with Trump.
“For people high on white identity, opposition to immigration doesn’t necessarily come as a result of disliking Latinos. It is rootbed in something different, which is that they think immigration is threatening American culture, but a particular flavor of American culture, one which is defined by Anglo-Saxon Protestant heritage, which is very much defined by whiteness. Somebody might just be opposed to immigration because they dislike Latinos. But there’s a different component to this that’s going on in the minds of a lot of white people. It’s not, “I dislike Latino people.” It’s, “I don’t like the idea that the country that I envision, the country that I grew up in, the place that is defined by this Anglo-Saxon culture, is somehow threatened by this new group. I don’t like the idea that we’re talking about Spanish being a prevalent language rather than English.” It’s about the erosion of the ability to define mainstream America as white.”
In their ability to transcend the old fashioned economic issues of jobs and growth, a new generation of politicians are showing the world that elections are won by appealing to our inner fears and fantasies rather than to our wallets.
2. Long read: Why women win in the long run
Author: Simon Usborne
Source: Financial Times (https://www.ft.com/content/0ead55ca-1d85-11e9-a46f-08f9738d6b2b)
This remarkable FT article takes us into the world ultra-long distance running where the results show that women don’t just beat men, they leave the men dozens of miles behind. Why exactly this is happening has become the subject of research by scientists. Scientists at the University of British Columbia in Canada have found that men tire more quickly than women. Other scientists have found that men’s calves and thighs get fatigued more quickly than that of women. Long distance running experts say that preparation also plays a role – women seem to prepare more meticulously for races than men. Whatever the underlying drivers are, our preconceptions of which gender is stronger is taking a knock and with it the notion of what it really means to be strong.
“Men will always, on average, have bigger hearts and a greater capacity to get oxygen to their muscles, which are also leaner. These advantages don’t go away at longer distances, but they do get clouded by many other factors, making the science tricky even where it happens. “If you want to predict who will win a 5km race, you can take them into the lab and get a good sense,” says Alex Hutchinson, author of Outside Magazine’s Sweat Science blog, and the book Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance. “But if you want to know who’s going to win a 200-mile race, lab tests will tell you way less.”
More efficient storage of glycogen, a vital fuel, may slightly favour women. A lower centre of gravity may help them cover challenging terrain. Several more studies have looked at muscle fatigue. Guillaume Millet, a former endurance runner and professor at the Université Jean Monnet in France, studied male and female participants before and after the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, a major ultra-marathon in the Alps. He found that the men’s calves and thighs got more fatigued than the women’s. “It suggests females are more fatigue-resistant,” Millet says. “But another potential explanation is that women have a more protective base — they decide not to damage themselves as much.”
Enter: psychology, which takes in attitude, ego and personality, and perhaps counts for as much if not more than legs and lungs in extreme races. Millet says no scientist entertains cod theories about childbirth and the evolutionary advantage that it supposedly awards women who encounter pain. (“My daughter was born backwards but I don’t think that one experience trains you for other unpleasant experiences,” Paris says.) But some suggest an instinct for preservation — and organisation — may provide an edge.”
3. Long read: The Trump era could last 30 years
Author: Gideon Rachman
Source: FT (https://on.ft.com/2GrxUun)
Gideon Rachman raises the question whether Britain’s vote for Brexit and America’s election of Donald Trump are a temporary aberration or a beginning of a new era. Gideon divides the post-war era into two periods each of which lasted roughly around 30 years– 1) from 1945-75, which was identified with a period of strong economic growth across the west, alongside the construction of welfare states and Keynesian demand-management and 2) from 1979 with the election win of Margaret Thatcher in Britain, followed by Ronald Reagan in the US in 1980 and lasted till 2008. Both the eras witnessed strong growth and spread of ideologies to different parts of the world. Gideon says that Trump ideology is spreading across the globe with people/political parties condemning “globalism”, accusing the media of spreading fake news, mocking the “politically correct”, and scorning international organisations that attempt to deal with problems such as climate change or the resettlement of refugees. However, Gideon rightfully points to a fact that populist movement will not survive decades just on electoral success but needs to show tangible results like improved living standards visible across the west during 1945-75 and renewed economic growth and victory in the cold war during 1979-2008 era.
“How long is this going to last? Ever since the twin political upheavals of 2016 — Britain’s vote for Brexit and America’s election of Donald Trump — analysts have argued about whether this a temporary aberration, or the beginning of a new era.
It is still early days. But it already seems likely that future historians will look upon the events of 2016 as marking the beginning of a new cycle in international history. The bad news for anguished liberals is that these cycles can last quite a long time — 30 years seems to be about average. In the years since “Brexit-and-Trump”, a global populist movement has gathered momentum. The fact that Mr Trump is despised by much of the western establishment and media can obscure this point. But the US president has many admirers, some of them running governments around the world.
Jair Bolsonaro, the new president of Brazil, Latin America’s largest country, is an avowed Trump fan. In the Middle East, the Saudi and Israeli governments much prefer Mr Trump to Barack Obama, his predecessor. His fan club also extends into Europe. The governments of Poland and Hungary are closer ideologically to the Trump White House than to the European Commission in Brussels. Matteo Salvini, the deputy prime minister of Italy (and the country’s most powerful man), also sees Mr Trump as a role model.
The horror show of Brexit means that there are few other European populist parties currently campaigning to leave the EU. But the anti-establishment impulse that gave rise to the Brexit vote is still gathering strength in Europe. It has found expression in diverse forms, from the gilets jaunes movement in France to the rise of the Alternative for Germany party, which is now the official opposition in the German parliament.
Past precedent suggests that if a “populist era” takes hold, it might last as long as three decades. All efforts at historical periodisation are slightly artificial. But it is possible to identify two distinct eras in postwar western politics, both of which lasted roughly 30 years. The period from 1945-1975, known as les trente glorieuses in France, was identified with a period of strong economic growth across the west, alongside the construction of welfare states and Keynesian demand-management — all played out against the international backdrop of the cold war. By the mid-1970s, this model had run into trouble in the Anglo-American world, with Britain suffering from “stagflation” and President Jimmy Carter diagnosing a national “malaise” in the US. A new era (often termed “neoliberal” by its critics) began in 1979 with the election of Margaret Thatcher in Britain, followed by Ronald Reagan in the US in 1980.
In retrospect, this was also part of a global shift. In 1978, Deng Xiaoping came to power in China and initiated a policy of market-based “reform and opening-up”. The communist bloc in Europe also began to crack with the formation of the Solidarity trade union in Poland in September 1980. The foundations of a globalised capitalist economy were emerging. This “neoliberal era” also lasted roughly 30 years until it was discredited by the global financial crisis of 2008. As with the end of the trente glorieuses, it took a few years of uncertainty before a new ideological movement emerged. But that happened in 2016, with Mr Trump’s election and Brexit.
But why should cycles in modern history last for roughly 30 years? One possible explanation is that the successful ideologies and the political movements they spawn go through a cycle of emulation followed by overshoot. If new movements or politicians develop an aura of success, they find imitators around the world. That sense of ideological momentum then creates a demand for the original ideas behind the movement to be pushed further and faster. And that leads to the over-reach phase of the cycle. An example of ideological over-reach is the way in which the Reaganite demand for lower taxes and less red tape eventually led to the excessive deregulation of finance, culminating in the financial crisis. The fact that populist and nationalist parties around the world are already taking their cue from Mr Trump suggests that the cycle of emulation is already well under way. It is now standard practice for politicians, such as Viktor Orban in Hungary, as well as Messrs Salvini and Bolsonaro, to imitate the Trump playbook — condemning “globalism”, accusing the media of spreading fake news, mocking the “politically correct”, and scorning international organisations that attempt to deal with problems such as climate change or the resettlement of refugees.
The rapid spread of this new political style could be just the beginning of a new era that lasts decades. But there is one major qualification to this idea, that distressed liberals should hang on to. If the period of emulation and intensification is to last, the populist movement needs more than electoral success. It also needs to point to results in the real world. The trente glorieuses were deemed glorious because living standards were visibly rising across the west. In the same way, the Reagan-Thatcher era was solidified by renewed economic growth and victory in the cold war.
By contrast, Brexit is in deep trouble and the Trump administration is floundering. Unless populists can deliver tangible results, their new era could yet die in its infancy.”
4. Short read: Bridgewater’s Self-Obsession Actually … Works?
Author: Matt Levine
Source: Bloomberg (https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2019-02-01/bridgewater-associates-proves-self-obsession-actually-works)
Eileen Murray, the co-chief executive officer of Bridgewater Associates, spoke at a hedge fund conference this week, and reiterated that what makes Bridgewater so successful is:
“Bridgewater Associates has been so successful, year after year, Murray said, because of its unique and intense culture.
Bridgewater’s ethos of “radical transparency” involves videotaping or tape-recording every conversation for review later, constant evaluations of peers across what elsewhere would be called a hierarchy in its “dot system” which aggregates into “baseball cards,” portraits of each employee which indicate that person’s strengths or weaknesses. That makes it hard to fly below the radar with mediocre performance and low accountability. And, given the volume of dots, the odds that your portrait is accurate are pretty high, Murray said.
“It’s kind of a family atmosphere,” she said. “I don’t know about you, but for me, my family tells me things I don’t want to hear. But they do it out of a sense of love and kindness…Some people think [the culture] sounds harsh and stressful. I think it’s very kind.”
The author of this article is however sceptical that this sort of self-obsession is actually useful. His scepticism is however laced with grudging admiration that maybe this degree of self-obsession is what the rest of us need if we want to be as successful as Bridgewater:
“Clearly some hedge-fund-like outputs are being produced, somehow, by someone. But from the outside, from what you read in the press and hear from its public statements, Bridgewater’s radical transparency seems to be a perfectly closed system, always and only about itself, never about investing.
Don’t get me wrong: That’s really cool! I mean it would be a lot less cool if they didn’t make any money, but they do, and the fact that they seem to make a lot of money mostly by sitting around and gossiping about each other is weirdly inspiring. It is an odd financial form of the paradox of hedonism, or rather an inversion of it: You might naively think something like “if we get together a team of smart people who all have a single-minded focus on making good investment decisions, then the interpersonal dynamics and managerial techniques will take care of themselves.” Many hedge funds — and tech startups for that matter — more or less consciously take exactly that approach, with mixed results. But in fact, at Bridgewater, it is precisely the opposite: If you get together a team of smart people who are willing to spend 100 percent of their time doing weird interpersonal exercises and subjecting themselves to managerial experiments, somehow they will make good investment decisions as a byproduct.
5. Short read: How a Naga tribe is challenging cliched notions of advancement, backwardness
Author: Vrinda Shukla
Source: The Indian Express (https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/nagaland-tribes-oh-so-backward-5567302/)
Vrinda Shukla in her beautiful and eye-opening article questions the definition of backwardness. Vrinda shares her experience of visiting one of the remotest parts of India – ‘Mon’, a picturesque district of Nagaland, running along the Myanmar border and considered to be one of the most backward districts in the country. Residents of Mon celebrated “Lao-Ong Mo”, a post-harvest festival of the Konyaks, in the most eco-friendly way possible with not a speck of plastic being used and Vrinda wonders whether it is Mon which is a backward place or the big global cities which generates tons of plastic wastes each second.
“One of the grandest annual celebrations in Mon is the “Lao-Ong Mo”, a post-harvest festival of the Konyaks. I too was invited to express gratitude to the divine spirits for the bountiful harvest by way of praying, singing, dancing and feasting. It was a spectacular affair, attended, inter alia, by a posse of political leaders, senior government officials, heads of village councils and local unions. The feast was a gastronomical delight — tables groaning under the weight of an endless array of dishes, prepared from the freshly harvested produce. But more than the colourful cuisine, it was the unique dining experience that struck a real chord. As I walked into the dining hall, a bearer, decked in her traditional finery, handed me a beautifully woven bamboo food tray. The tray was shaped quite like a North Indian thaal/thaali, sturdy yet light to hold. It was lined with fresh green leaves. After I had finished eating, another equally charming bearer swiftly cleared away my tray. I followed my gentle helper, out of curiosity, to the room meant for disposal. I saw her upturn the tray into a large waste bin, also made of bamboo. The leaves had been lined on the trays with such skill that they fell into the bin as a neat little packet with all the waste food secured inside, without any of it soiling the tray, and without the cleaner having to touch any leftovers. The trays were being collected for sunning and reuse.
As per the Konyak tradition, an anti-oxidant rich black tea, called “phika” is served after food. I was again thrilled to find my steaming phika cha poured into a disposable glass, carved out of bamboo stem. Such a seamlessly biodegradable pattern of food consumption was a first-of-its-kind experience. I was also one of the luckier guests, who received a gift hamper of local produce. Recently harvested millets, spices and vegetables were meticulously packed in firm packets made of palm leaf, and all the packets were tucked inside a beautiful sturdy bamboo basket. Not a speck of plastic was used in the otherwise usual guzzlers — feasting and packaging.
Generally, public events of such scale, both in India and abroad, would generate an abominable quantity of non-biodegradable waste. Material prosperity, associated with high-end retail and luxurious lifestyles, but built on toxic and unsustainable consumption patterns, may not quite be a sign of advancement. For instance, Starbucks’ reported consumption of plastic, of which the straws alone annually contribute 2,000 tonnes of plastic to the world’s oceans, is exacerbating global menaces like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and threatening the marine ecosystem.
At the end of the festival, I scanned the vast ground and the massive dining hall and found not a trace of refuse. I stood there for a while, immensely satisfied to have had my stereotypes about “backwardness” take a beating, yet again. It was a powerful reminder that true advancement must encompass the good sense to clean up after ourselves and the thoughtfulness to adopt consumption patterns generating as little waste as possible.”
6. Short read: Ikea furniture does not need to fall apart
Author: John Gapper
Source: FT (https://on.ft.com/2DkU1zx)
In his succinct article, John discusses the adverse impact that consumption led growth has put on the environment and how recycling can reduce the burden on the environment.
“Each person in the world draws about 10 tonnes of raw materials from metals to biomass annually into the economy to support consumption and production, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which advocates a circular economy. Much of it will end up as waste, given how hard it is to reuse — only 14 per cent of plastic packaging is taken for recycling, and far less actually recycled.”
John further shares Ikeas plan of not only recycling more of its furniture but also leasing them out. He discusses the benefits of circular economy (recycling/reusing/leasing) and how photocopier and automobile companies have successfully used renting/leasing model over the years.
“The most circular thing about Ikea, the Swedish furniture retailer, has traditionally been the path that it makes customers follow through its superstores to find the goods they have driven there to buy. As they wander along its displays, Ikea wants them to spot other decorations and take them home too. The “circular economy” now means something else: the reuse and repurposing of products in different ways. Ikea disclosed this week that it not only wants to recycle more furniture, but plans a trial in Switzerland this year to lease desks, chairs and perhaps kitchens. Instead of acquiring furniture cheaply and later throwing it away, customers might lease it for a while and then upgrade, with the old pieces being refurbished for other users.”
Companies can start with packaging, too much of which is made from complex plastics that ends up in landfill or the world’s oceans. Reusing a tiny sachet with a pullback plastic lid is very tricky, and recycling in general is more expensive following China’s crackdown on imports of waste last year. More containers should be refillable, like the glass bottles brought to my door by our milkman, and SodaStream’s carbon dioxide gas canisters for bubbly water. Packaged goods groups including Nestlé and Procter & Gamble plan to experiment this year in London, Paris and the US with refillable brand packaging through a start-up called Loop.
Packaging is only one of the excesses in the way that products are marketed and consumed. Not only are things bought and disposed of rapidly, but many are used sparingly while their owners have them — in Europe, the average car is parked 92 per cent of the time and 31 per cent of food is wasted, McKinsey estimates.
Consumers can learn a lesson from the way companies often lease equipment and goods, paying by usage rather than for objects themselves. That applies to photocopiers made by Kyocera and Xerox, while the flooring company Desso leases office carpets — cleaning as well as fitting.
More things could be rented by individuals, as technology has encouraged. The internet makes it easier to share occupancy of cars and apartments through Uber and Airbnb, and people subscribe to music and other digital services rather than buying discs. People lease cars for three or four years and there is no reason why more durable goods, including furniture, cannot be rented. Not only does it limit waste but it gives companies an incentive to make things sturdily — better materials would require fewer repairs.
The circular economy has pitfalls, notably the so-called rebound effect: the easier it is to use products, the more intensively this will happen. That is not a problem for furniture, but sharing cars can exacerbate congestion and pollution rather than curbing it. But the reuse and refurbishment of goods has enormous benefits compared with things being sold once, used for a time and then dumped. At best, recycling involves breaking things into raw materials and, in effect, discarding all the investment and labour that went into their making and marketing.
If Ikea aspires to become circular, there is no reason why others should not follow. It will be difficult to reform the consumption habits of the past few decades but all of us — consumers and companies — can try.”
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