David Cameron Has Got Religion

The British prime minister’s new public enthusiasm for Christianity is expedient, but also sincere. “Downing Street can have an evangelising effect on its residents. When James Callaghan became chancellor in 1964 he was a lapsed Baptist, but started to pray again when the horrors of his job became clear. Tony Blair’s faith hardened in office to the extent that he set up his Faith Foundation upon leaving it” (1,300 words)

Google, Master Of Washington Influence

Google used to disdain Washington lobbyists. Nine years ago it opened a one-man office. Now it is one of the biggest lobbyists in corporate America, with 100 lobbyists and a Capitol Hill office the size of the White House. Its main aims are to preserve its legal rights to collect data, and to fend off anti-trust actions, which means building friendships with Republicans as much as Democrats (Metered paywall) (3,170 words)

Parliament And Defence Policy

Short, sharp essay about civilian control of the military in Britain. Soldiers don’t like to be second-guessed by politicians. Politicians never criticise the military when operations are under way. But after horribly misconceived interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, something is broken in the way that defence policy is set. Parliament needs to be more critical, more analytical, less prone to side with the Generals (930 words)

Orwell Would Loathe This Left

Britain’s Labour Party used to believe in real socialism. After the collapse of communism this posture became untenable; a new ideology was needed. Tony Blair championed more power and choice for consumers. Gordon Brown wanted to improve the central provision of public goods. The current opposition seems to favour devolution of power to local councils. But all this is experimentation, not conviction (Hard) (1,100 words)

Why Hasn’t Democracy Saved Us From Inequality?

Good question, provoked by a reading of Thomas Picketty. If more equality of wealth reinforces democracy, why doesn’t democracy arrange itself to produce more equality? Four possible answers: The rich can buy the policies they want even in a democracy; we don’t understand how inequality is generated; we believe that inequality is vital to growth; we care more about fairness in taxation than about equality of wealth (1,160 words)

The Colour Of His Presidency Pick of the day

Barack Obama’s presidency has put race explicitly at the centre of American politics. “Race, always the deepest and most volatile fault line in American history, has now become the primal grievance in our politics, the source of a narrative of persecution each side uses to make sense of the world”. Conservatives have always been good at understanding this. Liberals have been taken largely by surprise (8,490 words)

India: We Are Connected

Snapshot of India’s voters as general election begins. Population — 1.2bn. Electorate — 815m, of which 40% under 35. Two national parties: secular left-leaning Congress, Hindu-dominated right-leaning BJP. Congress ought to have Muslim vote by default; but its policies geared to mitigating rural poverty don’t motivate Muslim voters. BJP promises of faster economic growth have Hindu voters “fired up”(Metered) (2,780 words)

America’s Democracy Is Fit For The 1%

Inequality is undermining American democracy. Billionaires have too much political power. “Both US parties are up for rent”. If the Supreme Court strikes down campaign-finance limits next week, the rich will be more powerful still. “America was forged in opposition to the aristocratic corruption of Europe. Today, inherited wealth is more entrenched in the US than it is in almost every corner of the old world” (Metered) (930 words)

Dick Cheney: He Remade Our World Pick of the day

He was “the most powerful vice-president in American history”. His “singular genius” was to take “an oddly archaic constitutional office” and to energise it “by force of will, quiet audacity, and a peculiar institutional brilliance”. Much of this gripping piece turns on a conflict between the White House and the Justice Department over NSA surveillance programmes, later to be the stuff of Edward Snowden’s revelations (4,250 words)

Sinkhole Of Bureaucracy Pick of the day

Meticulous, surreal, spectacular examination of government dysfunction. Six hundred US civil servants labour underground in a disused Pennsylvania mine doing 21st century work by 19th century methods. They process retirement papers for other civil servants, surrounded by 28,000 filing cabinets. Two attempts to computerise have failed; a third is under way. Each retirement takes three months to process by hand (3,100 words)

The Unwisdom Of Crowds

People-powered revolutions are overrated. Protesting crowds provide good newspaper copy and great photographs. But they may not represent the majority, and they are the antithesis of the highly structured institutions — courts, legal systems, bills of rights — which functioning democracy demands. The crowd may have its moment, but the key to building durable democracy is long negotiation, as in Chile and Poland (1,570 words)

Human Nature Versus Libertarian Ideals

Hobbes saw mankind as everywhere competitive and violent. That now seems overly pessimistic: We have the ability “to cooperate to a greater degree than if we were solely acting out of individual self-interest”. But we fall short of “universal brotherhood”. Our trust is limited to those with whom we feel kinship. We need enemies, as “part of the motivational structure” for our tribe or clan (1,530 words)

Replace Obamacare

Doing healthcare differently: “Suppose we offer every adult an annual tax credit worth $2,500. People would get this subsidy so long as they obtained credible private health insurance, no matter where they obtained it. We could allow everyone, regardless of income, to enroll in Medicaid, and at the same time allow everyone on Medicaid to leave the program, claim the tax credit, and buy private insurance” (3,190 words)

The Domestic Basis Of American Power Pick of the day

Domestic political constraints impose a “discount rate” on the transformation of national resources into effective policy. China has a low discount rate: The political system is highly efficient. The EU has a high discount rate: it lacks a crunchy decision-making structure and an effective executive power. America is in between: “The economy is relatively strong, but the political system has been subject to considerable decay” (2,220 words)

Strategy: A History

Review of Lawrence Freedman’s magnum opus, which “embraces almost every sphere of strategic activity known to man, or indeed to beast” — starting with chimpanzees. Strategy is “defined here as the art of creating power”. It is “best understood modestly, as moving to the ‘next stage’. The next stage may not necessarily be better, but it will be an improvement on what could have been achieved with a lesser strategy or no strategy at all” (1,450 words)

How To Save America

Brilliant. To save itself, America should take the US Army as its model. The army is a “socialist paradise” with life-long learning, socialised healthcare, subsidised childcare, early pensions. Army culture is pro-science and anti-racist. Soldiers understand “the horrors and limits of war”, and so are typically less belligerent than civilians. And hardly anyone is allowed to carry a gun on a military base (870 words)

Slovakia: Life After Velvet Divorce

The “quiet success” of Slovakia, which broke away from the Czech Republic in 1993, offers an encouraging model for Scottish independence. Most Slovaks opposed independence at the time; now they embrace it. “The Czechs always used to complain that they were paying for us, and we used to complain that they were bossing us around. Not any more. Now we trust each other more. We get on better than ever.” (1,850 words)

Russia And Ukraine: A Clash Of Brothers

Countries with “shared identities” but radically different political institutions are prone to conflict, because “elites in repressive regimes are threatened by a culturally-similar country where citizens are becoming empowered”. A more democratic Ukraine “may serve as an example to Russian citizens of how similar people can be alternatively governed. As history shows, a dictator with an army does not wait for this to happen” (630 words)

The Misplaced Question Of Obama’s Toughness

It makes little sense to denounce Putin’s belligerence, while also pining for a more Putin-like figure in the White House. We don’t want a wrestling match. “The challenge Obama faces in the Ukraine is centrally diplomatic — it is a problem of organizing a coalition, and picking the right allies within the Ukraine, the right economic and symbolic measures against Putin, the careful shaping of moral and political rhetoric” (1,130 words)

Marijuana: It’s All In The Implementation

Marijuana legalization seems to be “on track toward decisive and irrevocable public acceptance”. Like gay marriage, you might think: “Both have crossed the magic 50 percent line defining majority support”. But what if the better analogy is with Obamacare? Not so good. “Marijuana legalization, unlike gay marriage but very much like Obamacare, requires the government to execute a complicated new program well” (1,620 words)

What’s Gone Wrong With Democracy

Democracies are richer, more peaceful, less corrupt. But “faith in democracy flares up in moments of triumph, such as the overthrow of unpopular regimes in Cairo or Kiev, only to sputter out once again. Outside the West, democracy often advances only to collapse”. Even within the West, democracies falter. Progress has stalled. Why? Two main reasons: The financial crisis of 2007-08, and the rise of China (6,100 words)

Markov Models Of Social Change

How to make decisions in a complex world. You can listen only to the advice that you want to hear. Or you can try to balance conflicting advice and information, and then construct scenarios of where different decisions may lead. Here’s a relatively simple template for doing the latter. True, it gets a bit more complicated towards the end when the algebra kicks in, but there’s plenty of useful pointers before then (2,290 words)

Q & A With Michael Ignatieff

Excellent interview in which Ignatieff talks about “the romance of politics”, the realities of power, the place of intellectuals, Iraq, Obama, and the lessons learned from his own brief political career. “A lot of the demands are about keeping some core non-tradeable inner self that doesn’t get sold in the process of pursuing power. That turns out to be really difficult, you just get really bent out of shape” (1,600 words)

Put God In Charge Of Jerusalem

Israel and the Palestinians will never agree to cede or divide sovereignty over Jerusalem. But that alone need not block a peace deal. Both can agree that God is ultimately in charge; so formalise that arrangement. “Agree to leave the question of national sovereignty over Jerusalem permanently in abeyance, and instead acknowledge the sovereignty of God. The Zero Option, in other words; or, if you prefer, the God Option” (1,450 words)

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