How China could dominate science

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A HUNDRED YEARS ago a wave of student protests broke over China’s great cities. Desperate to reverse a century of decline, the leaders of the May Fourth Movement wanted to jettison Confucianism and import the dynamism of the West. The creation of a modern China would come about, they argued, by recruiting “Mr Science” and “Mr Democracy”.

Today the country that the May Fourth students helped shape is more than ever consumed by the pursuit of national greatness. China’s landing of a spacecraft on the far side of the Moon on January 3rd, a first for any country, was a mark of its soaring ambition. But today’s leaders reject the idea that Mr Science belongs in the company of Mr Democracy. On the contrary, President Xi Jinping is counting on being able to harness leading-edge research even as the Communist Party tightens its stranglehold on politics. Amid the growing rivalry between China and America, many in the West fear that he will succeed.

There is no doubting Mr Xi’s determination. Modern science depends on money, institutions and oodles of brainpower. Partly because its government can marshal all three, China is hurtling up the rankings of scientific achievement, as our investigations show (see article). It has spent many billions of dollars on machines to detect dark matter and neutrinos, and on institutes galore that delve into everything from genomics and quantum communications to renewable energy and advanced materials. An analysis of 17.2m papers in 2013-18, by Nikkei, a Japanese publisher, and Elsevier, a scientific publisher, found that more came from China than from any other country in 23 of the 30 busiest fields, such as sodium-ion batteries and neuron-activation analysis. The quality of American research has remained higher, but China has been catching up, accounting for 11% of the most influential papers in 2014-16.

Such is the pressure on Chinese scientists to make breakthroughs that some put ends before means. Last year He Jiankui, an academic from Shenzhen, edited the genomes of embryos without proper regard for their post-partum welfare—or that of any children they might go on to have. Chinese artificial-intelligence (AI) researchers are thought to train their algorithms on data harvested from Chinese citizens with little oversight. In 2007 China tested a space-weapon on one of its weather satellites, littering orbits with lethal space debris. Intellectual-property theft is rampant.

The looming prospect of a dominant, rule-breaking, high-tech China alarms Western politicians, and not just because of the new weaponry it will develop. Authoritarian governments have a history of using science to oppress their own people. China already deploys AI techniques like facial recognition to monitor its population in real time. The outside world might find a China dabbling in genetic enhancement, autonomous AIs or

geoengineering extremely frightening.

These fears are justified. A scientific superpower wrapped up in a one-party dictatorship is indeed intimidating. But the effects of China’s growing scientific clout do not all point one way.

For a start, Chinese science is about much more than weapons and oppression. From better batteries and new treatments for disease to fundamental discoveries about, say, dark matter, the world has much to gain from China’s efforts.

Moreover, it is unclear whether Mr Xi is right. If Chinese research really is to lead the field, then science may end up changing China in ways he is not expecting.

Mr Xi talks of science and technology as a national project. However, in most scientific research, chauvinism is a handicap. Expertise, good ideas and creativity do not respect national frontiers. Research takes place in teams, which may involve dozens of scientists. Published papers get you only so far: conferences and face-to-face encounters are essential to grasp the subtleties of what everyone else is up to. There is competition, to be sure; military and commercial research must remain secret. But pure science thrives on collaboration and exchange.

This gives Chinese scientists an incentive to observe international rules—because that is what will win its researchers access to the best conferences, laboratories and journals, and because unethical science diminishes China’s soft power. Mr He’s gene-editing may well be remembered not just for his ethical breach, but also for the furious condemnation he received from his Chinese colleagues and the threat of punishment from the authorities. The satellite destruction in 2007 caused outrage in China. It has not been repeated.

The tantalising question is how this bears on Mr Democracy. Nothing says the best scientists have to believe in political freedom. And yet critical thinking, scepticism, empiricism and frequent contact with foreign colleagues threaten authoritarians, who survive by controlling what people say and think. Soviet Russia sought to resolve that contradiction by giving its scientists privileges, but isolating many of them in closed cities.

China will not be able to corral its rapidly growing scientific elite in that way. Although many researchers will be satisfied with just their academic freedom, only a small number need seek broader self-expression to cause problems for the Communist Party. Think of Andrei Sakharov, who developed the Russian hydrogen bomb, and later became a chief Soviet dissident; or Fang Lizhi, an astrophysicist who inspired the students leading the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. When the official version of reality was tired and stilted, both stood out as seekers of the truth. That gave them immense moral authority.

Some in the West may feel threatened by China’s advances in science, and therefore aim to keep its researchers at arm’s length. That would be wise for weapons science and commercial research, where elaborate mechanisms to preserve secrecy already exist and could be strengthened. But to extend an arm’s-length approach to ordinary research would be self-defeating. Collaboration is the best way of ensuring that Chinese science is responsible and transparent. It might even foster the next Fang.

Hard as it is to imagine, Mr Xi could end up facing a much tougher choice: to be content with lagging behind, or to give his scientists the freedom they need and risk the consequences. In that sense, he is running the biggest experiment of all.

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Before 1980 the federal government did not shut down

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PUBLIC-RELATIONS professionals know that the best time to release bad news is late on Friday afternoons. Hacks and their editors have one foot out of the door; nobody wants to put their weekend plans on hold to start a new story. America has recently discovered that a similar rule holds true for government shutdowns: if it happens just before Christmas, when federal workers are already on holiday and nobody is paying much attention to the news, then the waste and pain will not seep into the headlines for a couple of weeks.

Now that quiet period has passed. Rubbish is piling up in national parks; farmers cannot get their loans processed; food-stamp programmes are running out of funds; tax refunds may be delayed; and hundreds of thousands of federal workers remain either stuck at home or forced to work without pay. To reopen the government President Donald Trump demands $5.7bn for his border wall. Nancy Pelosi, who presides over the most polarised House of Representatives in recent memory, does not want to give it to him.

If this shutdown, the third in the past year, stretches into next week it will become the longest in American history. How did the world’s most powerful government become so dysfunctional? The roots of this shutdown lie in two places: an attorney-general’s memo written in 1980, and Mr Trump’s 2016 campaign.

Before 1980, federal agencies often operated during funding gaps (meaning before Congress had appropriated the required money). They tried to stay lean, to avoid going too far into the red, but reasoned that Congress did not intend to close them; it merely had not yet got around to formally providing their funding.

In 1980, however, Benjamin Civiletti, then the attorney-general, opined that the only way that agencies could avoid violating the Antideficiency Act—which forbids the government from spending money that has not been appropriated—is to cease operating until Congress funds them (the Act’s authority stems from a constitutional prohibition against the government spending public money unless the people, via their representatives, have authorised it to do so). The only exceptions concerned “the safety of human life or the protection of property”, which exempts active-duty military, who are still working and getting paid, and federal airport-security workers, who are working but not getting paid.

Mr Civiletti’s determination made funding gaps less frequent. They were no longer technical and ignorable glitches; they became, in effect, temporary closure orders, which made them costly and embarrassing. But it also turned government funding into a hostage-taking mechanism. In late 1995, the Republican-controlled House, led by Newt Gingrich, produced a spending bill with deep cuts to social-welfare programmes that were anathema to then-president Bill Clinton. Mr Clinton refused to sign it, and the government shut down—first for six days, and then for 21. The shutdown ended when Congress and the White House hammered out a budget deal with modest spending cuts and tax hikes. In effect, Republicans caved.

Although Mr Gingrich received most of the blame for the shutdown (and Mr Clinton was easily re-elected), it arguably pushed the president’s agenda rightward. Still, the opprobrium resulting from the government ceasing to function for nearly a month was sufficient for Mr Gingrich never to try it again.

Another generation of Republican insurgents tried in 2013, when they insisted, as a condition of passing a budget, that the Affordable Care Act, Barack Obama’s signature achievement, be delayed or defunded. That shutdown, which lasted 16 days, also ended with Republicans surrendering without getting what they demanded. But neither did they pay a political cost; the next year they took control of the Senate.

Like these two previous shutdowns, this one is Republican-led. Unlike the past two, however, it stems from the president trying to impose his will on Congress, rather than the inverse. Absent Mr Trump’s insistence on $5.7bn for his wall, a spending bill could easily pass both houses of Congress. “This is not a hard shutdown,” says Michael Steel, who was a spokesman for John Boehner, the House speaker during the 2013 shutdown. “Put any number of bipartisan senators in a room with a cocktail napkin and they could figure this out.”

Instead of senators huddled around a cocktail napkin, America was treated to Mr Trump and Democratic congressional leaders making their cases on prime-time TV. Mr Trump called the border “a pipeline for vast quantities of illegal drugs”, though most come through ports of entry and a wall would not stop them. The number of migrants apprehended at the border rose late last year, but from record lows. Overall numbers are far below where they were a decade ago. If there is a crisis, it is in America’s creepingly slow-moving asylum system. Yet that is a far less compelling argument than Mr Trump’s assertion that foreigners are sneaking across the border to behead American citizens, and that the only way to stop them is to build a big wall. Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader in the senate, reiterated his party’s offer: continue negotiating over border security and pass bills to reopen the other shuttered parts of the government.

Most Senate Republicans would happily accept this deal. Some who are up for re-election in two years, such as Cory Gardner of Colorado and Susan Collins of Maine, have begun pushing for a resolution without a wall. Even John Cornyn of Texas, the majority whip until recently, backed the sort of hybrid solution—physical barriers, along with technology, drones and more personnel—that Democrats could support. But far more Republican senators face re-election in solidly Republican states next year, and they fear a primary challenge from the right more than losing to a Democrat. Hence Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, vowed not to bring forward a bill that the president does not support, despite having called shutdowns “a failed policy” in 2014, when he also urged the then-Democratic Senate to set “national priorities [rather than] simply waiting on the White House to do it.”

For his part, Mr Trump feels he holds a winning hand. Immigration hawkishness helped propel him to victory in 2016 and remains crucial to satisfying his base. Though a recent Reuters poll showed that most Americans blame him for the shutdown (perhaps because he accepted blame in a televised interview), earlier polling data suggest that may fade by 2020. During the two previous extended shutdowns, approval ratings for the incumbent presidents both fell, but they rebounded relatively quickly. Yet that pattern may not hold if this shutdown lasts months.

Members of both parties fear that Mr Trump will reach not for Mr Schumer’s solution but a more drastic one: invoking emergency powers to circumvent Congress and build a wall using previously authorised military funds. That would set a precedent that terrifies conservative senators: what is to stop a future Democratic president from doing the same thing to deal with climate change or guns?

It would also precipitate a genuine constitutional crisis and a fierce court battle. Perversely, that could suit Mr Trump well. He may not get his wall, but he would get to keep fighting for it, and he would still have useful enemies—judges, Democrats—to blame for it having not been built yet.

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Mike Pompeo goes to Egypt

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TEN YEARS and four Egyptian regimes have passed since Barack Obama delivered his grandiose address to the Muslim world in Cairo. The former president never lived up to his lofty promises of promoting democracy and human rights, in part because the Arab Spring scrambled the staid politics of the Middle East and north Africa. His administration found itself in a reactive crouch, its policy riddled with contradictions. Though he praised Egyptians for overthrowing Hosni Mubarak, their authoritarian president, in 2011, Mr Obama tied himself in knots to avoid calling the military takeover in 2013 a coup. He helped Libyans topple their old dictator, Muammar Qaddafi, but didn’t forcefully intervene in Syria’s civil war, even after its president, Bashar al-Assad, crossed his “red line” by using chemical weapons.

There was no high-minded rhetoric on January 10th, when the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, made his own speech in Cairo. Instead he delivered a scathing broadside against the previous administration. In Mr Pompeo’s retelling a naive president scorned longtime allies, pursued detente with Iran and plunged the Arab world into chaos. “The results of these misjudgments have been dire,” he said.

President Donald Trump has certainly taken a different course. He withdrew from the nuclear deal with Iran that Mr Obama negotiated and reimposed sanctions on its ailing economy. On his first foreign trip, to Saudi Arabia, Mr Trump told a gathering of regional autocrats that he was “not here to lecture”. He has kept that promise. The kingdom largely escaped censure for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a critical journalist who was butchered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October. Mr Pompeo offered little criticism of his Egyptian hosts, who have locked up thousands of political prisoners, crushed NGOs and stifled speech.

Beyond his fondness for autocrats, however, Mr Trump’s policy in the region is a muddle, and his top diplomat offered little clarity. “We learned that when America retreats, chaos often follows,” Mr Pompeo said, on behalf of a president who announced last month (via tweet) that America was retreating from Syria. Allies were stunned by the decision, then confused by it. Meant to occur within 30 days, the pullout has now been delayed until spring—or perhaps later. John Bolton, the national security adviser, said on January 6th that America would stay until it was sure that its Kurdish allies were protected. That could be some time, since Turkey openly wishes to attack them.

Mr Pompeo said America would work to “expel every Iranian boot” from Syria, just days after his boss told the Iranians they were free to “do what they want” in Syria. For all his ire towards Iran’s clerical regime, Mr Trump also says he would be happy to negotiate with it. Some Arab countries are simply ignored. No one in the Trump administration dwells much on war-torn Libya or the troubled democratic transition in Tunisia. His much-hyped “deal of the century”, a peace plan for Israel and the Palestinians, may never see the light of day.

If Mr Trump has one consistent belief, it is that the countries of the Middle East and north Africa should do more to solve their own problems. He is happy to sell them weapons and ignore their human-rights abuses. He campaigned on getting America out of the region and wants to keep that promise. Aides and allies may hope to push him in a different direction. But in Mr Trump’s administration, as in the autocracies he praises, only one voice really counts.

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An attack on corruption sleuths in Guatemala is also aimed at judges

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In 2007 the International Commission Against Corruption and Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) became the first international anti-graft agency to exercise legal power inside a country. Over the next decade the UN-backed commission accomplished what Guatemala’s frail justice system alone could not. It broke up rackets between criminals and politicians. In 2015 its investigations prompted the resignation and jailing of the president, Otto Pérez Molina. That helped Jimmy Morales, a comedian who ran on an anti-corruption platform, win the next election. “We are a government fighting against corruption, and what better way to do that than with CICIG?” he mused shortly before he took office.

Mr Morales changed his tune in 2017 after CICIG uncovered evidence that he and his party, the National Convergence Front, had accepted more than $1m in illegal donations for his election campaign (he denies wrongdoing). CICIG also provided evidence that has led to the trial of Mr Morales’s son, José, and his brother, Samuel, on charges that they stole public money by filing fake invoices.

In August 2018 Mr Morales said he would not renew CICIG’s two-year mandate, which will expire in September this year. On January 5th he barred Yilen Osorio, a CICIG investigator with diplomatic immunity, from re-entering the country. He was detained for 36 hours at Guatemala’s main airport. On January 7th Mr Morales upped the ante, demanding that CICIG disband and giving its foreign workers 24 hours to leave.

Two days later the constitutional court blocked the order, saying Mr Morales does not have the power to withdraw from international treaties at such short notice. This sets up a confrontation between two branches of government that will shape politics at least through the presidential election scheduled for this June, in which Mr Morales is not permitted to run. In this fight he can count on support from congressmen, a tenth of whom have been investigated for criminal activities, and from the supreme court, the highest tribunal for non-constitutional matters.

Mr Morales may have more than one reason for wanting to get rid of CICIG. He will lose his immunity to prosecution after he steps down as president next January. He may feel safer if CICIG is not around to supply evidence. By shutting CICIG down now, he will also prevent it from scrutinising spending in the next election. And he might make it harder for the next president to bring CICIG back.

Some observers speculate that Mr Morales is targeting the constitutional court as much as he is CICIG. The court has repeatedly frustrated his attempts to thwart CICIG. Last year, it overturned an order barring the commission’s head, Iván Velásquez, from re-entering the country after a trip. The court angered business in September by suspending construction of the San Rafael silver mine in southern Guatemala until the mining company consults local indigenous groups. If he gets rid of CICIG and tames the constitutional court, Mr Morales will face few checks on his power.

The government is conducting a public-relations campaign against the court. On January 7th Sandra Jovel, the foreign minister, described its ruling in favour of Mr Osorio as “illegal”. On January 9th the supreme court, which has been deferential to the president, forwarded to congress a request to strip three constitutional-court judges of immunity to prosecution. Their justification is that last year the judges improperly interfered in foreign policy by vetoing Mr Morales’s attempt to expel the Swedish ambassador, who had lamented corruption in Guatemala. A prosecutor has drawn up the three judges, alleging that their decisions in favour of CICIG were illegal.

Congress will be able to strip the constitutional judges of their immunity as soon as next week. That will have little effect unless the the attorney-general, María Consuelo Porras, presses the charges that have been drawn up against them. She has given no indication yet that she plans to do that. The process would take months, says Fernando Carrera, a former foreign minister.

In the meantime, Mr Morales will treat the constitutional court’s decisions as illegitimate and may even disobey them. CICIG’s foreign workers have left the country. Its Guatemalan employees are lying low. The lawyer representing CICIG in the trial of the president’s son and brother did not show up to court on January 9th.

Guatemala’s constitutional crisis raises the stakes in the forthcoming election. Many of the president’s critics hope that Thelma Aldana, who as attorney-general from 2014 to 2018 co-operated closely with CICIG, will enter the race with a campaign based on supporting CICIG and the rule of law. Guatemalans are fed up with corruption. Some 70% express confidence in CICIG. “If I were a candidate I would want to be on the right side of that issue,” says Eric Olson of the Wilson Centre, a think-tank in Washington, DC.

Angry Guatemalans are already beginning to demonstrate on the streets in the commission’s defence. If these protests grow, worries Claudia Escobar, a former judge, Mr Morales will exploit the disorder to postpone the elections. That would be a serious blow to democracy.

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Congo declares Félix Tshisekedi president. Voters suspect a stitch-up

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“CONGO IS FREE at last,” wailed an old woman, tears streaming down her cheeks. “We have waited years for this moment!” Two young girls behind her gyrated their hips and sang, “Bye-oh Kabila,” again and again.

In the early hours of January 10th, days after the result was scheduled to be released, the Democratic Republic of Congo heard that it had a new president—Félix Tshisekedi, the son of a charismatic opposition leader who died two years ago. Moments after the news was announced, Mr Tshisekedi walked out of his office and prayed in front of a photograph of his father. His shrieking supporters jostled around him. He is popular in the capital, Kinshasa.

The declaration marks the end of the ruling party’s long stay in power and means that President Joseph Kabila and his preferred successor must admit defeat. Mr Kabila, who had refused to step down when his term expired in 2016, has ruled Congo badly for nearly 18 years. The vast country has never seen a transition of power via the ballot box. All its former leaders either fled or were killed. The fact that the election went ahead at all—and that an opposition candidate was declared the winner—is astonishing.

But many voters think they have been cheated nonetheless. Mr Tshisekedi was not the man tipped to win. A respected Catholic NGO that had deployed 40,000 observers to monitor the election on December 30th said on January 3rd that its tallies showed a clear winner. Although it did not publicly name him, it told Western diplomats that Martin Fayulu, a former oil executive, had won. He also came top, by a wide margin, in a pre-election opinion poll.

The electoral commission’s count was rather different. It said that Mr Tshisekedi had won with 7.05m votes. Mr Fayulu was behind him on 6.37m. The unpopular ruling-party candidate, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, received just 4.36m. “These results have nothing to do with the truth at the ballot box,” Mr Fayulu said in an interview with Radio France International. “It’s a real electoral coup, it’s incomprehensible.”

Critics say that Mr Kabila was desperate to keep Mr Fayulu away from the throne because he was backed by two of the president’s biggest adversaries (Moïse Katumbi, a businessman, and Jean-Pierre Bemba, a former warlord, who were both barred from standing). Mr Fayulu appeared to represent real change. He had campaigned on a promise to reduce corruption and enforce the rule of law—an obvious threat to those who have looted this giant, mineral-rich country for decades.

Mr Tshisekedi, by contrast, is thought less likely to shake things up, or to ask awkward questions about Mr Kabila’s business empire and the dazzling wealth of his cronies. “The Kabila camp was never afraid of Félix,” says Kris Berwouts, the author of “Congo’s violent peace”. “They consider him a weak personality.” Mr Tshisekedi, for his part, said, “I pay tribute to President Joseph Kabila and today we should no longer see him as an adversary, but rather, a partner in democratic change.”

The election result will surely be contested. France has queried it. However, the declaration of an opposition candidate as winner may give regional bodies such as the African Union enough of an excuse to call it free and fair. Congo badly needs a change. But this was not what most voters had in mind.

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Why Israel’s centrist parties will probably lose to Binyamin Netanyahu

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POLLS SUGGEST that a majority of Israeli voters do not want Binyamin Netanyahu, a prime minister bedevilled by allegations of corruption, to remain in office. Between them the country’s centrist parties are expected to win many more votes in elections on April 9th than Mr Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party. But victory for Likud remains the likeliest outcome. Why is that?

Israel’s electoral system of nationwide proportional representation, coupled with the fact that parties need just 3.25% of votes to enter parliament, has led to a proliferation of small parties in the Knesset, and all but ensures that no single party can ever create a government on its own. However, the leader of the largest party is generally regarded as the winner and has almost always formed a coalition. For nearly all of Israel’s history, the largest party has been either Labour or Likud. The duopoly was ended by the centrist Kadima party, which was formed by Ariel Sharon in 2005 and attracted politicians from both Labour and Likud. It swept into power the following year and led a ruling coalition until 2009, but was dissolved six years later, a victim of infighting and plummeting popularity. Labour has also lost much of its support and is now just one of a number of small parties fighting for the middle ground. Likud under Mr Netanyahu, on the other hand, revived its fortunes. 

In the election of 2015 three centrist parties got 35% of the vote between them; Likud, the single biggest party, got 23%. At least five centrist parties are planning to compete this year, and they could take advantage of voters’ disillusionment with Likud and its sister-parties—as well as the attractiveness of their own not overtly ideological platforms—to get over 40% of the vote. If they run together, offering one joint list of candidates, they could dwarf Likud and probably win the right to form a ruling coalition. (Right-wing and religious parties enjoy a small majority in the Knesset at present, but some of Mr Netanyahu’s partners could conceivably join a centrist coalition.) The problem for the centrists is leadership: they cannot find it. None of the leaders of the main centrist parties—Labour’s Avi Gabbay; Benny Gantz (pictured with Mr Netanyahu), a former general who has just formed a new party; and Yair Lapid, a talk-show host, who leads the populist Yesh Atid Party—see any of the others as meriting the premiership. At the same time, none believe in their own ability to beat Mr Netanyahu. They are more interested in creating independent fiefdoms, from which to launch their leadership bids after Mr Netanyahu’s departure from the political scene. 

That may not be too far away. Likud is likely to get a quarter of the seats in the next Knesset, which would give it a base on which to form another coalition. But the attorney-general is widely expected to charge Mr Netanyahu on counts of bribery, fraud and breach of trust relating to his dealings with businesspeople and media owners. Senior centrists, it would appear, prefer to wait for criminal indictments to unseat Mr Netanyahu, rather than take on the challenge themselves.

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A lost story by Sylvia Plath

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DURING HER lifetime, Sylvia Plath was defined by her relationships with others. She was a daughter, a wife, a mother. When she killed herself in her London flat in 1963, while her two young children slept in the next room, a local paper breathlessly described her as the 30-year-old American “wife of one of Britain’s best-known modern poets, Ted Hughes.” Her own accomplishments, which included a favourably received book of poems, “The Colossus”, went largely unmentioned.

But Plath had spent her final months scribbling away at the poems that would secure her legacy. Hughes by then had run off with another woman, leaving Plath to raise their children on her own. Her only time to work was before dawn, “that still, blue, almost eternal hour…before the baby’s cry, before the glassy music of the milkman, settling his bottles,” as she put it for a BBC programme that never aired. Jealous, angry, addicted to sleeping pills and dreaming of death, she poured herself into work that was vital, venomous, glorious and unapologetically female. (“Lady Lazarus”: “Out of the ash/ I rise with my red hair/ And I eat men like air.”) 

Hughes published these poems in 1965, and Plath soon entered the realm of myth. Critics compared her to Keats; feminists embraced her as a martyr (and pilloried Hughes as a reckless and even sadistic agent of the patriarchy). The rest of Plath’s published works—from her semi-autobiographical novel “The Bell Jar” to her countless letters to her mother—illustrate her struggle to lead what felt like a double life. Although she presented a relentlessly cheerful model of femininity on the outside, forever eager to please, she roiled poisonously within. With her suicide, she gave the lie to the idea that women could have it all.

Over 55 years after her death, Plath’s star power has hardly waned. Her wrestles with life and language continue to pinion new generations of readers. After all, women are still asking, with no less urgency, whether they can both change nappies and lead a life of the mind. Publishers have cashed in. On top of the countless biographies that aim to spin new stories about Plath’s short life, two backbreaking volumes of her collected letters have hit bookstores in the past two years. At an auction in London last year, fans spent remarkable sums buying up Plath’s belongings, from her mint-green Hermes 3000 typewriter (for £26,000; $46,071) to her old tartan skirt (£1,700). Many took pleasure in the fact that her lots well outsold those of Hughes.

Now Faber and Faber has published a slim volume dedicated to a previously unpublished story, “Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom”, which Plath wrote when she was a 20-year-old college student in 1952 (it will be published in America by Harper Collins). Frieda Hughes, Plath’s daughter and the executor of her estate, had not heard of the story before an academic rummaging through Plath’s archives brought it to her attention. Plath herself described it as a “vague symbolic tale” and submitted it to Mademoiselle magazine for publication, but it was rejected. As a stand-alone book, it is underwhelming. But as yet more evidence of Plath’s precocity, it is compelling. For those who approach all of her work with a kind of morbid curiosity, they will find plenty of portentous signs of Plath’s disgust with the artifice of life. Her grim fate inevitably freights all of her work with a sickening and slightly titillating sense of dread.

From the start, Plath manages to make this story feel creepy and strange. The drama begins on a train platform, where the parents of a young woman named Mary Ventura are politely but insistently pushing her to board. Mary’s mother chillingly croons that there is “absolutely nothing” for her to worry about. Meanwhile newsboys cry out alarming headlines in the background: “Extra…ten thousand people sentenced…ten thousand more people…”

Once Mary reluctantly reaches her seat, nudged along by her father (who “looked anonymous in his gray felt hat”), she notices some unnerving moments, such as a fight over a toy between two young boys that ends with blood. But soon enough Mary settles into her journey, which her parents told her to take until the end of the line. She is soothed by the company of a kindly older woman in a neighbouring seat, who seems to know everything about this mysterious train. When Mary confesses that she knows little about her destination, the older woman warns her that “there is no going back”. Outside the windows glides a landscape darkened by forest fires and then frozen over with ice. Businessmen lurch through the aisles and laugh with unmistakable cruelty. The train keeps hurtling into long black tunnels. As Mary’s panic mounts, she registers that her fellow passengers don’t seem to care where they are going. They don’t notice that they are trapped. Mary, on the other hand, eagerly plots her escape.

This is not a subtle story, but it is an interesting one. Is the train a metaphor for the inevitable and joyless conventions of a life lived according to the rules of the 1950s? Is the journey a meditation on the way mental illness can warp experiences in sinister and isolating ways? Is the wise older woman a character born of Plath’s desire for a strong female mentor? Plath is too clever to offer easy answers. Even so, these questions won’t riddle the mind for long. Instead, the reader is left with a story that feels like an awkwardly apt artefact from an author who was too horrified by her own journey to see it through. 

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John Bercow, speaker of the asylum

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IN BRITAIN THE line that divides ceremony and substance is seldom clear. Sometimes ceremonial figures have no real power. Sometimes they have lots of it. And sometimes they can shift quickly from the first column to the second.

The speaker of the House of Commons is a case in point. The British speaker is a very different figure from the one in the House of Representatives. Whereas the American speaker is the head of the majority party in Congress, the British speaker, an MP chosen by their peers, is supposed to be above politics. They sit on an elevated chair under an elaborate wooden canopy, with three clerks in front of them and a padded footstool, and devote much of their time to ceremony. Yet the speaker is far from being just a tourist attraction. Even in normal times they wield a great deal of subtle power. In abnormal times they can become the centre of a political storm, as happened this week.

John Bercow, who currently occupies the chair, provoked the fury of Brexiteers by accepting an amendment tabled by Dominic Grieve, a Tory backbencher, that demands that the government outline a Plan B within three days if, as expected, its Brexit plan is defeated on January 15th. Brexiteers argued that Mr Bercow erred by accepting a backbench amendment to a government business motion. They accused him of being a biased referee (who has been spotted with a “Bollocks to Brexit” sticker on his car—though he says it is his wife’s). They claimed that he is prejudiced against the Tories in general, and against this government in particular.

What are we to make of this storm? There is little doubt that Mr Bercow’s personal views are pro-Remain. He started life on the nationalist right of the Tory party. But he moved towards Labour, particularly after meeting his Labour-supporting wife, Sally. There is no doubt that he has feet of clay. He has been accused of bullying, and of presiding over a culture of it. Despite the claims he not only clung on to his job but also continued to sit on a committee that adjudicates over questions of behaviour in the Commons.

But there are also important things to be said in his favour. The biggest is that he has been a doughty champion of the rights of Parliament against the government. For 30 years the balance of power has shifted from the legislature to the executive. Mr Bercow has done everything he can to stand up for Parliament as an institution, as well as for small parties and individual MPs. It is easy to be annoyed by his style—he sometimes acts like a circus barker and uses unnecessarily rotund language (“chuntering from a sedentary position” is one of his favourites). But he has always been a champion of MPs having their say.

Second, he is no patsy. Mr Bercow pushed back against accusations of pro-Remain bias by pointing out that he has made time for MPs with all sorts of political positions. He was backed by Sir Christopher Chope, a maverick Tory, who noted that Mr Bercow once accepted an amendment that, by a circuitous route, prepared the way for the referendum in 2016. His greatest bias is not against Labour or the Conservatives but against party grandees. Before becoming speaker he infuriated David Cameron by ridiculing his Eton education and membership of the all-male White’s club. He has enjoyed holding Theresa May and her ministers accountable to the House. Mr Bercow’s enthusiasm for taking on the powers-that-be goes back to his childhood. As the undersized, Jewish son of a downwardly mobile small businessman turned taxi driver, he was picked on. But he took on the bullies in the playground and mocked them in class as they stumbled over their lessons.

This week’s row saw the powers-that-be getting their own back. Andrea Leadsom, the leader of the House, made a point of asking Mr Bercow to publish the advice from his clerk on whether to allow the Grieve amendment, given that Mr Bercow had made so much fuss about forcing the government to publish its advice on various Brexit matters. Many Conservatives also tried to get their revenge for Mr Bercow’s presumed willingness to betray his original party in order to get support from Labour.

The last point in Mr Bercow’s defence is that his job is an extraordinarily difficult one. Britain is seeing what happens when powerful emotions collide with a convoluted and ambiguous parliamentary tradition. The speaker is not simply in the business of reading a rulebook. He must make subtle choices between lots of different rulebooks that have been produced over the centuries. Mr Bercow repeatedly pointed out that, if his critics didn’t like the amendment he had chosen, they were free to vote against it—and must have taken some comfort from the fact that it eventually passed by 308 votes to 297.

No sign of order

It is likely that this procedural row will be the first of many. As British politics is consumed by chaos and acrimony, the speaker will have to make many more difficult decisions. In normal circumstances the speaker has to decide on the balance of power between the government and the Commons, and deal with four fairly cohesive parties. But all this is breaking down. The government is losing control of events. And the parties are beginning to fragment. On January 7th Remainers on both the Labour and the Conservative side marched through the lobby to vote against the government to try to stop it from taking Britain out of the EU without a deal. The speaker will have to make far more complicated and delicate decisions than he has ever made before.

This gives Mr Bercow great powers: to select this or that MP to speak, to choose this or that amendment, or even to cast a tie-breaking vote. But it also brings risks. If the speaker leans too far in one direction, he risks damaging not just himself but the House of Commons. The most powerful argument in favour of Brexit is that it was an attempt to bring back control to Parliament. It will be a disaster if, in the process of bringing back control, Brexit also does irreparable damage to that same institution.

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The fate of the dollar will shape financial markets in 2019

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OVER THE holidays those who like their Christmas films free of seasonal cheer may have fixed on “The Lion in Winter”, with Peter O’Toole as Henry II and Katharine Hepburn as Eleanor, his estranged wife. Henry decides that none of his sons by Eleanor is a suitable heir and condemns them to death. Locked in a cellar as his father approaches, Richard resolves not to cower. “As if the way one falls down mattered,” mocks one of his brothers. “When the fall is all that is,” replies Richard, “it matters”.

Back at work, investors might usefully apply this aphorism to the fate of the dollar. In a volatile period for financial markets, it rose by 7% against a broad basket of currencies in 2018 and by 4% against a narrower group of rich-country currencies (see chart). One of the more robust principles of foreign-exchange trading is that what goes up must eventually come down. The dollar is over-valued on benchmarks, such as The Economist’s Big Mac Index (see Graphic Detail). It is due a fall. When that is all that is left, the manner of its falling will matter a great deal.

The bear case for the dollar is based on an expectation that GDP growth in America will slow markedly. Last year, it was boosted by tax cuts. That stimulus will fade. Interest-rate increases by the Federal Reserve will bite harder. A lower oil price is a factor. It hurts investment in America’s shale regions, but is a boon for oil-importing countries in Asia and Europe. America’s stockmarket is relatively dear. Its tech darlings no longer seem invulnerable. In short, an exceptional period for America’s economy is coming to an end. The dollar ought to lose ground, too.

But not just yet. In November Mansoor Mohi-uddin of NatWest Markets set out three pre-conditions for a decisive turn in the dollar: a “pause” by the Fed, a deal to end America’s trade dispute with China and signs of a pickup in the euro-zone economy. The first is now less of a hurdle. The Fed’s boss, Jerome Powell, hinted on January 4th that it might postpone further interest-rate increases. Talks on trade with China have resumed. But the economic data from Europe remain weak. Interest rates in America may not rise much further, if at all, but they are nevertheless higher than in Japan or the euro zone. Owning the dollar is still rewarding.

How might that change? Broadly, there are two scenarios. In the first, trade-war clouds begin to disperse. Tax cuts and looser monetary policy in China start to stimulate private-sector spending. That stirs other Asian economies, which in turn bucks up activity in the euro zone, which relies heavily on emerging-market demand. Bond yields rise in the expectation that interest rates will go up in Europe. They fall in America, as traders start to price in rate cuts. The dollar drifts down against the euro. A softish Brexit boosts the pound. Capital is pushed into emerging markets, in search of better returns. Stockmarkets rally, especially outside America. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief. It feels like 2017 again.

In the second scenario, the gap between GDP growth in America and elsewhere also narrows. But in this case, it does so solely because of a slowdown in America, rather than better news elsewhere. The trade dispute escalates. The continued uncertainty means China’s tax cuts are saved, and not spent. Further weakness in China causes other emerging markets to falter. The soft spot in the euro-zone economy turns out to be not temporary, but a reflection of weak export demand. Risk assets sell off across the board. The dollar falls sharply against the yen and the Swiss franc, habitual boltholes for the panicky. The euro stays weak. A shortage of safe-harbour currencies leads to a rising price for gold.

How closely reality conforms to one or other of these scenarios depends a lot on what happens in China. A trade deal with America would boost emerging-market currencies against the dollar, as would an effective fiscal stimulus. The path the dollar takes against rich-country currencies depends on the slowdown in America, says Kit Juckes of Société Générale, a French bank. If it is sudden, the dollar falls against the yen. If it is gradual, it falls against the euro.

How the dollar falls will be shaped by events and in turn will shape them. Investors who are wary of selling out of risk assets are advised by strategists at J.P. Morgan to take out some insurance by buying the yen, Swiss franc and gold—the assets that are likely to go up should things get rough. If a fall is all that is left, it matters that you have something to cushion it.

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