At the end of each year, the Global Counsel team has a tradition of sharing among ourselves a selection of our favourite articles (or podcasts) from the past year for Christmas reading. Two years ago, we decided to risk sharing the tradition. The response was positive enough to encourage us to do so again.
From the invention of air conditioning to the politics of Dolly Parton's Jolene, below is a selection of the commentary and analysis that caught the eye of the GC team in 2019. Some of this informs our day jobs, but most of it can also be filed against the interesting times we live in. We hope you enjoy it. And do feel free to send us your own suggestions.
Happy Holidays from all at Global Counsel.
Elizabeth Beall – Practice Lead, Climate & Sustainability
Political origin stories
Jill Lepore from Harvard writes widely about American politics and history – she has just written a major new single volume history of America. In this piece from the early phases of the 2019 primary process in the US, she reflects on the art (if that is the word for it) of the candidate memoir in US politics. She explores how the political memoir has evolved over time from the earliest days of US politics and the role that it plays in current campaigns. She concludes that like gods and superheroes, American political candidates require origin stories and this is the function of the candidate memoir. Inevitably she leaves us asking what it would be like if we picked presidential candidates on the quality of their political memoirs – and why a bad memoir should come as a warning. Be aware: this article contains links to much more reading.
Read Confessions of a presidential candidate
Adam Terry – Practice Lead, Financial Services
A particularly conservative democracy
Anybody who has been paying attention will not have missed the fact that it has been a tumultuous few years for British democracy. In this New Statesman piece, British historian Robert Saunders gives an excellent rundown of the (remarkably brief) history of democracy and its particularly conservative flavour in the UK. He praises parliamentary democracy at its best: enabling a conversation among “a glorious cacophony of voices and interests”, and institutionalising dissent so that those who were defeated in the last round can play a part in the next. He also compellingly argues that in trying to bolt on direct democracy – both in the form of a referendum whose result has taken on the sanctity of holy scripture and leadership elections which mean a politician can lead a party without commanding the confidence of their own MPs – we have put the UK’s unwritten constitution under immense strain. Thankfully, as well as telling us what’s gone wrong, Saunders offers some thoughts on how we can, in the words of 1830s Whig constitutionalist Thomas Macaulay, “reform, that you may preserve”.
Read The rise and fall of British democracy
Isabelle Trick – Senior Associate
Island in the stream
I like Jolene, which is one of those rare songs that can start playing in your head simply because you have read its name. But I wouldn’t describe myself as a big Dolly Parton fan. So why did I find myself completely engrossed in Dolly Parton’s America? Because this insightful, smart and moving podcast is much more than an in-depth profile of Dolly’s life and music. It contemplates why, in today’s polarised US, Dolly’s appeal stretches not only across the political divide but brings together one of the most diverse fan bases of any major artist. To uncover what so many see in her, the podcast addresses complex topics such as suicide, life in rural America, poverty, feminism and immigration with both compassion and a critical journalistic eye. What emerges is an intriguing deep dive into Dolly’s influence on pop culture, society and, fascinatingly, a portrait of the US in 2019.
Listen to Dolly Parton’s America
Andrea Ninomiya – Senior Associate, Climate and Sustainability
The silent killer on the tube
This eye-opening investigation by the FT into air pollution on the London Underground revealed that the air people breathe on ‘the Tube’ can be up to 18 times worse than on our exhaust fume-filled streets. Pollution levels are indeed as much as ten times higher than guidelines set by the World Health Organisation. The pollution comes from dust settling in the tunnels, from hair and debris from passengers, as well as iron particles that rise from the rails due to friction from wheels when the trains brake. The measures to tackle this pollution are almost startlingly basic - hundreds of cleaners quietly scrub the underground tunnels in the dead of the night between 1am-5am, armed with face masks and brushes. More than 6.4 tonnes of hair, skin and fluff were removed from the Bakerloo line a few years ago. By some estimates, almost 10000 Londoners die prematurely every year from air pollution. It makes you think differently about the Tube.
Read London Underground: the dirtiest place in the city
Gregor Irwin – Director
The end of Europe’s security illusion
The biggest challenges facing Europe are not the internal challenges of reforming the euro zone or Brexit, but the external challenges of responding to Chinese and American competition and a geopolitical environment which has turned hostile. This analysis by Sciences Po professor, Zaki Laïdi, traces Europe’s struggle to project power to its very construction, which was deliberately built against the idea of power politics. He explains not only why things must change, but how they are changing, with French and German policy shifting towards a more political view of Europe. He sees signs of a more assertive strategy in Europe’s decision to stick with the Iran nuclear deal, in European scrutiny of foreign investment, and Europe’s refusal to yield to US calls to cease links with Huawei. In many ways, these examples serve also to illustrate the limits of cooperation in an EU which is held back by the essential fact that it is not a state. Brexit underlines that, although it should not be assumed that the UK will be less aligned with EU partners in future. Perhaps Laïdi’s most important observation is also one of the simplest, that European illusions about its security have now ended. That’s why the next decade could turn out to be a more important test of the EU’s ability to reform than the last one. Anyone interested in understanding that challenge will find this article is a great place to start.
Read Can Europe Learn to Play Power Politics?
Alex Dawson – Practice Lead, UK Politics & Policy
The Anthropocene and the Grand Scheme of Things
This long-form riff on Ozymandias has stuck in my head since its publication in August. With the debate on climate change becoming a more important feature of our politics, Peter Brannen’s piece on the “arrogance of the Anthropocene” focuses on the foolish damage we are doing to our planet by reflecting on human history’s insignificance in the grand scheme of things. It serves as a reminder that nothing lasts forever - something that should focus the minds of all those in public life who think revolutions can be permanent. It reminds me of another Shelley-quoting pessimist: W.B. Yeats, whose famous work, The Second Coming, celebrated its centenary this year. Yeats argued then – as many do now – that “the centre cannot hold” in times of strain. Certainly, it feels like “the centre” as it has been understood in recent decades is being redefined.
Read The Anthropocene Is a Joke
Brigitta Kinadi – Senior Associate
2019 confirmed the suspicion of many Indonesian progressives and liberals that all may not be well with the Jokowi project. Many have suspected throughout President Jokowi’s first term that he is not the reformist leader he claims to be. His choice of a controversial Islamist cleric as his vice-presidential running mate in the April elections was characterised by many of his supporters as a necessary move to court the increasingly important Muslim vote. However, his more recent decisions to weaken the country’s anti-corruption agency and his appointment of Prabowo as defence minister are unavoidably worrying signs. One consequence of this has been a large upsurge in political activism among the young, with mass student protests opposing these changes in September. Those with longer memories will remember that students were the main driver of political change which brought down the Suharto regime in 1998. This is Richard Javad Heydarian’s take on the man he calls ‘Indonesia’s Duterte’.
Read A revolution betrayed: The tragedy of Indonesia's Jokowi
Belma Ambrose – Director
A Chinese star falls to earth
This is the story of what happened when Fan Bingbing, one of the world’s biggest movie stars, went missing for four months in 2018 after being busted by the Chinese government for tax fraud. She has since re-emerged, having agreed to pay more than $100m in penalties and back taxes, and to apologise, profusely to the Chinese government and Chinese people for her mistakes. The article offers an in-depth look into what happened, where she went when she disappeared and how the entire domestic film industry was affected. Bingbing’s experience is an interesting case study of the Chinese celebrity ecosystem, and how the Chinese government used her case to signal to the rest of the industry that years of widespread tax dodging were coming to an end - all the while working on its next phase of regulating the movie industry, which involves even tighter creative controls over its content.
Read “The Big Error Was That She Was Caught”: The Untold Story Behind the Mysterious Disappearance of Fan Bingbing, the World’s Biggest Movie Star
Thomas Gratowski – Practice Lead, Global Macro
The coming Arab Spring 2.0
Maha Yahya explains in her article in Foreign Affairs why the region today is ripe for another wave of revolutions. In fact, we might have already witnessed its beginning: protests from Algeria to Iraq have swept leaders out of power this year. Widespread dissatisfaction among the young generation is the consequence of a decades-long socioeconomic stagnation in the region. While power and profits have usually been captured by a small, well connected elite, the rising number of young people living in poverty or working in precarious, informal jobs provides a growing pool of people who are no longer deterred by the often repressive and violent means employed by authoritarian rulers and their security forces. With governments no longer able to buy off their citizens, the political status quo appears increasingly unsustainable.
Read The Middle East’s Lost Decades
Andrew Yeo – Senior Associate
The long view of Chinese statecraft
The grimmer analyses of current US-Chinese tensions will sometimes imply that the current deterioration of relations is part of a wider structural shift in global power that can only end in war, or at best a tense standoff on the Cold War model. A corollary to this is that as the two powers prepare for a confrontation, everyone else faces an invidious choice about taking sides. I liked this attempt by Singapore’s former Minister for Foreign Affairs, George Yeo, to suggest that this is not the case. Yeo provides a broad sweep of Chinese history and concludes that China is ultimately a civilisation too old to nurse missionary or imperial ambitions. He also argues that talk of recourse to military options ignores fundamental tenets of Chinese statecraft. More interestingly, he considers these dynamics from the perspective of regional countries affected by China’s Belt and Road Initiative – where he sees more scope for defining their interests and autonomy to manoeuvre than others.
Read Panel I: Singapore and the world
Joe Palombo – Practice Lead, Global Investor Services
The end of tax and spend?
As Democratic candidates vie for airtime in a crowded primary field, policy proposals continue to get bigger and bolder: from the Green New Deal to universal free university, extended childcare benefits to Medicare for all. So, should a Democrat actually have the opportunity to launch some of these programmes as America’s next president, how does he or she pay for it all? Fiscal responsibility and financing new social programmes have long been in tension for the Dems. Bold proposals require increasing taxes on middle-class Americans, which in turn erode voter support. But perhaps there’s a way Dems can have their cake and eat it too. Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) – previously considered heterodox economics of the liberal left – is gaining mainstream support among the US political class. As Vox’s Dylan Matthews explains in this easy to read primer, MMT may be just the ticket Dems need to think and spend big.
Read Modern Monetary Theory, explained
Tom King – Practice Lead, Political Due Diligence
A lot of cold air
This episode of Roman Mar’s design-focused podcast tells the story of the invention of air conditioning. From there, it spirals into an exploration of the impact of that innovation on all sorts of things: from cinemas, to the homes and offices we live and work in, to a rather more speculative hypothesis about the rise of new electoral coalitions as American voters found it easier to move in large numbers to states like Florida. Its final section offers some examples of human ingenuity to unpick some of the more undesirable effects – such as offices where the ambient temperature pleases no one – and reintroduce traditional architectural features, such as Indian stepwells, to reduce the catastrophic impact of aircon on the environment, both natural and built.
Listen to Thermal Delight
Rishi Patel – Senior Associate
The Talking Politics podcast produced by David Runciman and Helen Thompson at Cambridge University is almost always good value. In this episode, the Nobel-prize winning economist Esther Duflo gave an inspiring take on the ways in which the economics profession can reassert its role in helping to tackle big policy question in immigration, trade and inequality. Duflo argued that economists and policymakers often fail because their models fail to acknowledge the ways in which human beings are inherently “sticky” - we are tied to places and people and are rarely driven purely by financial incentives. She argues that “place-based” rather than “people-based” policymaking is more effective. The possibility of a serious approach to economic thought that can respond to the growing role of identity and resistance to globalisation in our politics struck me as interesting and important.
Listen to Talking Politics
Benjamin Wegg Prosser – Managing Director
Taking the high road
The Conservative party’s resounding victory in the British general election this month has seemingly set a clear course on the outcome of the Brexit referendum of 2016. However, it has re-opened the door to the issue of Scottish independence which was meant to be settled with a referendum in 2014. The issue of Scottish independence was raised, somewhat to my surprise, more than any other on my travels last week in Asia. John Lloyd is the kind of journalist that they don’t really make any more - part polemicist and part reporter. He covered the collapse of the USSR as an FT correspondent, he campaigned for higher media standards as a columnist and he has now written a book on the likelihood, or not, of Scottish independence (he is himself Scottish). This article for Chatham House has been written by him to coincide with a new book he has published to make the case for the union. In this piece he explains why the journey to secession is not as simple as the Scottish National Party would have you believe.
Read Will the Scots take the lone road?
Alessandra Baldacchino – Associate
Are emotions machine-readable?
Artificial emotional intelligence – the use of artificial intelligence (AI) techniques to sense human emotional life – is still under-represented in wider debates around the impact of AI. Poppy Crum is Chief Scientist at Dolby Laboratories and a professor at Stanford University. In this episode of the Sleepwalkers podcast, she talks about how she is using AI to capture emotional signals, with thermal sensors to track blood flow, cameras to track micro expressions and monitors which record the level of CO2 in the breath. She makes the point that we are on the cusp of two dramatic changes: the power of machine learning to find patterns and make predictions; and the miniaturisation and affordability of cameras and sensors. This means that there is an increasing number of ways by which machines are able to read us. Personally, I find this deeply troubling: not just because of the possible impinging on people’s privacy, but the risk that such approaches will still miss huge amounts of nuance about cultural differences and subjective nature of emotions. And that will matter if they are making important judgements and decisions about us.
Listen to Poker Face
Kirstie Hepburn – Practice Lead, Programming
Sport of Kings, Queen of Crypto
It’s rare that my leisure and work reading intersect quite as spectacularly as this expose from the Racing Post. High-profile racing syndicate, Phoenix Thoroughbreds and its founder, the Bahraini Amer Abdulaziz Salman, had enjoyed a meteoric rise in the high stakes world of racehorse ownership. Founded just two years ago, and with a seemingly bottomless purse, the syndicate had already won Grade 1 races in the US and Australia as well as at Royal Ascot. But during a New York court case in 2019, Salman was named as a key figure in a money-laundering operation. The claim came from Konstantin Ignatov, co-founder of fake cryptocurrency OneCoin ... and thus links the story with The Missing Cryptoqueen, the BBC podcast about Konstantin’s sister Dr Ruja Ignatova that was a GC obsession this year.
Read The Racing Post
Listen to The Missing Cryptoqueen
Denzil Davidson – Practice Lead, Financial Services & EU Institutions
A warning from Northern Ireland
Some mock and some celebrate Britain’s “Island Story”. But of course the United Kingdom’s story is one of islands. Looking from Dover to Calais, Brexit can seem clear cut, but that is not possible in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland has layered and conflicting identities. Peace has been bought with constructive ambiguity, letting people in the same territory live out their identities as British or Irish as they choose. The binary choice of Brexit disrupts that settlement. Tom McTague, a journalist who engages seriously and sympathetically with both of Northern Ireland’s divided community’s traditions, explored in this piece the sense of loss and betrayal among Unionists. The new withdrawal agreement, if it goes through, will permanently divide them from Britain. They don’t yet know what to do with their anger, but this instability in the part of the UK furthest from the continent means that a clean break between the UK and the EU after Brexit is a fantasy, for either side.
Read Northern Ireland Offers a Warning That Few Are Hearing
Frederick Michell – Associate
Poetry on politics
‘Have you Heard George’s Podcast’ is a political manifesto from inner-London. Spoken mostly in rhyme by George the Poet, the podcast charts George’s hopes and fears for the inner-city youth he lives among. Each podcast varies in topic, from analysing the impact of the Conservative government’s prison rehabilitation policy to the corrosive social effects of the catastrophic Grenfell tower block fire in 2018. The podcast’s best moments come when George highlights the personal and immediate impact of public policy. If secondary school class sizes increase by 5%, how does that impact a child’s prospects, particularly if they’re from an ethnic minority? Can someone from a deprived area really trust their MP to represent their interests? George doesn’t always answer these questions, but he makes you think.
Listen to ‘Have you Heard George’s Podcast’
Jens Presthus – Senior Associate
Your money or your port
2019 brought plenty more loud worrying about the Chinese debt trap – the possibility that China’s external lending to weaker sovereigns is designed to lure them into defaults that transfer strategic assets to Chinese control. Any evidence of this actually happening has yet to materialise and this study by US-based independent research firm Rhodium Group has tried to address this. By going through 40 cases of external debt renegotiation between 2007 and 2019, it shows that the now infamous seizure of Hambantota port in Sri Lanka is the only confirmed case. The interesting point in the research is that while debt renegotiations are fairly common, asset seizures are rare - suggesting there may be some exaggeration of Chinese leverage in debt negotiations. Perhaps more importantly, the study casts doubt on the idea of a deliberate strategy of debt entrapment.
Read New Data on the “Debt Trap” Question
Tom Smith – Practice Lead, Public Services
The world of bits and the world of atoms
This interview from the Hoover Institution pits former Reagan and Bush Snr. Speechwriter, Peter Robinson, against entrepreneur and (among many other things) PayPal co-founder, Peter Theil. Thiel argues that there are three models of governance available in the future; the two dystopian models of the Chinese surveillance state and Islamic authoritarianism, or hyper-environmentalism. The challenge for political systems in the west is how to find a model that embraces the latter in order to avoid the former. This interview is a précis of the Stanford course Thiel taught in 2018/19 and reprises some deeply philosophical themes covered in his 2004 essay, The Straussian Moment. It traverses a wide intellectual terrain, covering politics, economics, anthropology, sociology and taking in diverse influences from Pope Benedict XVI to Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss. Ultimately, Thiel is a thinker who considers the longue durée, bringing the study of previous shocks to the global system to bear on questions as profound as China’s interaction with the West, the development of AI and to the future of human nature itself.
Watch Peter Thiel on “The Straussian Moment”
Giulia Corsi – Senior Associate
The whale and the wolf
Billion Dollar Whale is the story of how Jho Low, an enterprising and charismatic businessman from Malaysia, was accused of stealing hundreds of millions from a Malaysian quasi-sovereign wealth fund (1MDB), almost certainly with the connivance of prime minister Najib Razak. Wright and Hope trace the money down a trail of super yachts, parties, high end real estate and – among many, many other things - movie production. Indeed, the most interesting part of the story is the line that ties corruption in Malaysia with movie-making half a world away in Hollywood. Once you see how the whale of Kuala Lumpur is linked to the Wolf of Wall Street, you will never think of global corruption in the same way again. The book is great, and this podcast gives a taste.
Listen to Billion Dollar Whale: Bradley Hope on 1MDB
Alexander Smotrov – Practice Lead, Russia, CEE & Eurasia
The curse of the must-see
In 2019, I chose to go on holiday to Albania and the Faroe Islands, driven not only by a spirit of exploration, but also by a strong animosity towards tourist ‘hotspots’. I am clearly not alone: a fact that was reflected in an insightful, albeit slightly bitter piece by Stephen Bleach. It is a wry look at the problem of over-tourism and its effects on many of the world’s most important sites and the communities around them. He moves from the unbalanced economy of Venice and pressures on housing market in Berlin to the growing market power of Chinese travellers. Travel is an industry which makes up more than 10% of the world’s GDP. There are over 1.4 bn overseas trips annually and this inevitably leads to a degraded and frustrating experience both for the visitors and the visited. The piece, incidentally, was a runner-up in the “Travel and tourism story of the year” category of the Foreign Press Association media awards in London in November 2019.
Read How overtourism is ruining the world’s most popular holiday destinations
Stephen Adams – Senior Director
Why clams are happy, but politicians are not
The Australian writer, critic and broadcaster Clive James died this year and the BBC did a service by republishing a series of Point of View podcasts he wrote and presented between 2008 and 2010. They are eclectic, thoughtful and funny and range across a huge range of themes in culture, life and politics. All delivered in James’ irreverent, cranky and usually self-deprecating antipodean tone. His autodidacticism went up some noses, but I find it an intimidating inspiration. Refreshingly for a social critic he generally refused to take himself, and his complex personality, too seriously. I struggle to pick a favourite of this lot, but this one ends with a speculation of what Carla Bruni might have said to the Duke of Edinburgh via the question of mobile phone use on trains and the discipline of crisis management at airports. And this one starts with an observation about clams and happiness in life and then spirals off from there. It also happens to be a helpful summation of why politicians do what they do, even though it doesn’t make them happy. Of course, the pieces have inevitably been collected in book form. But they really do have to be listened to. RIP Clive.
Listen to Terminal Terminal and Clams are Happy
Read A Point of View
Leanne Gaffney-Berkeley – Associate
Brexit as heroic defeat
I am (at least) half Irish, and I have found Fintan O’Toole’s commentary on Brexit interesting and provocative. In his book Heroic Failure, O’Toole suggests Brexit is driven by the long English tradition of clinging romantically to heroic defeat – the last stand, the doomed expedition, the suicidal cavalry charge. O’Toole makes a strong case that Brexit represents the latest example of this national desire for gallant disaster. The referendum was held without properly considering the impact of leaving the EU, and despite negative forecasts from experts of a no-deal, Article 50 was promptly triggered without a credible plan, followed by public exhortations of getting Brexit done “do or die”. Whether you agree with him or not, O’Toole provides an interesting outsider’s take on the national traits that have shaped Brexit to this point and will surely shape it under the new UK government. O’Toole talks about the book here.
Read Fintan O’Toole: ‘Brexit is full of hysterical self-pity
Alessandro Gangarossa – Associate
A Netflix model for philanthropy?
It wouldn’t be Christmas without good deeds. But catastrophic events in 2019 showed us once again that we often struggle to find an effective and efficient way to do them. In this article, Davide Banis explores the limitations of disaster relief donations both for philanthropists and recipient organisations. By applying the economic law of diminishing returns to the cases of Notre Dame de Paris’s fire and cyclone Idai in Mozambique, he shows how inefficient philanthropy can be. While arguing for a switch from emotional to rational philanthropy is no doubt sensible, the reality is that empathy will remain one of the main drivers of it. Instead of expecting a change of the human nature, Banis suggests that organisations should adopt and emphasise subscription-based donation options. When disasters occur, the emotional reaction they trigger should be channelled into longer-term giving rather than one-off donations: a sort of Netflix model for philanthropy.
Read Notre-Dame De Paris, Cyclone Idai, And A Netflix Model For Philanthropy
Marijana Milic – Senior Associate
Down the narrow corridor
Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson made a name for themselves with How Nations Fail and they returned in 2019 with the Narrow Corridor. Their books are interesting above all for the ways they seek out linkages between economic development, political institutions and cultural choices. The Narrow Corridor argues that there is a permanent struggle for liberty between the state and society which in certain lucky contexts can produce the narrow window of liberal-democratic freedom. Acemoglu aims to show just how unique and precious prosperous, stable, well governed, law abiding, democratic and free societies are. The book is great, but Martin Wolf’s summary for the Financial Times provides a taste.
Read The Narrow Corridor — the fine line between despotism and anarchy
Mollie Brennan – Senior Associate
2019 has seen wildfires grow in intensity and spread to new corners of the world - from Brazil to Yorkshire and Siberia. Jon Mooallem’s long read reconstructs last year’s fires in northern California, with a focus on the experiences of those caught in the blaze. From the first sparks through to the lingering smoke, the narrative provides a vivid and terrifying insight into the burning town of Paradise. He discusses the prevalence of wildfires throughout the region’s history and explores the ways in which climate change is making them much more dangerous.
Read ‘We Have Fire Everywhere’
Ana Martínez – Senior Associate
Inside the head of Hong Kong protesters
Since June, Hongkongers have taken to the streets to show their opposition to an extradition bill that would allow criminal suspects to be sent to mainland China in certain circumstances. This podcast by this American Life takes listeners to the heart of the demonstrations by following and interviewing protesters. Hongkongers’ testimonies shed a lot of light into the motivations of protesters. Surprisingly, it is not always a question of beating China. It also looks at the meticulous thought that goes into preparing to attend a demonstration. Journalists ask thought-provoking questions about what Hong Kong will look like in 2047 - once the region’s special status expires - and how residents will adapt to their new lives.
Listen to Umbrellas Up