Ukraine: Both Empires Will Lose

Vladimir Putin does not want to invade or annex eastern Ukraine, though events may yet push him in that direction. Crimea was different: Putin always considered it part of Russia, carelessly lost. What Putin does want is for Ukraine’s “Russophile southeast” to “create a new political balance” within the country, sufficient to ensure close economic relations with Russia and a neutral relationship with Nato (Metered) (670 words)

Review: Capital In The Twenty-First Century

Thomas Piketty’s “extraordinarily important” book incorporates “four remarkable achievements”: Vast historical scope; innovative empirical research; simple explanatory models; bold policy recommendations. Piketty shows that inequality of wealth is rising spectacularly; he does not explain why this matters. The answer is political, rather than economic: people in liberal societies should be equal as citizens (1,211 words)

Gold: In Search Of A New Standard

The world benchmark gold price is set each weekday by five London banks who juggle the price until they balance buy and sell orders on their books. Or, to put it another way, the market is fixed by “five competitors exchanging information on prices while also doing proprietary trading”. It’s been a good enough method for almost 100 years. But after other price-fixing scandals, there is pressure for change (Metered) (2,294 words)

The Moment For Greece To Default

The Greek economy is far from recovering, or rebounding; it has collapsed. Half the population lives on pensions; youth unemployment is over 60%; 90% of households have tax debts they cannot pay; the debt-to-GDP ratio will hit 177% this year. In the short-run the country is solvent because no debt is falling due. But in the long-run it is doomed — unless it can restructure. So now would be a good time to default (Metered) (900 words)

How Nigeria Rewrote Its Growth Story

Nigeria has almost doubled its reported GDP, overtaking South Africa as Africa’s largest economy. How so? Nigeria moved the base date for its GDP calculation from 1990 to 2010. The old calculation ignored the arrival of new products and services, including big industries such as films and telecoms, that were not included in the 1990 database. They are captured in the new calculation (Metered) (740 words)

Britain On The Low Road To Break-Up

Support for Scottish independence is rising ahead of September’s referendum. Britain is “sleepwalking towards a break-up of the union”. Alex Salmond’s Scottish Nationalists have have pitched their populist appeal well, and won the trust of voters. They may still lag in the polls, but they are catching up, and the momentum is with them. History may remember David Cameron as the last prime minister of Great Britain (Metered) (1,100 words)

Longevity Is Here To Stay

Seventy is the new fifty. Average life expectancy at birth in industrialised countries has risen to 80, a gain of more than 10 years since 1960. Old people want to work, and date, and keep fit. Work becomes less about making money, and more about staving off isolation, preserving a sense of personal worth. The tendency to have children later in life, fertility permitting, may be seen as a rational adjustment (Metered) (775 words)

Scots Can Be Sterling Squatters

An independent Scotland will not need England’s permission to go on using Sterling if it chooses to do so. Scottish banks can continue printing Scottish pound notes backed by English pounds. Private contracts can be made in any currency. The Bank of England would no longer be lender of last resort; but 82% of the Scottish banking system is foreign-owned, so let the banks look after themselves (Metered) (820 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)

Review: Revolutionary Ideas

New study by Jonathan Israel, Princeton history professor, portrays the French Revolution as primarily a “revolution in ideas” rather than a “class conflict”. The modern secular political order which inspired France took shape in the 17C Dutch Republic and was elaborated by Benedict Spinoza, who gave “philosophically defensible form” to ideas of “self-government and freedom of expression”, with Nature in the role of God (1,020 words)

Lunch With Prince Turki al-Faisal

Conversation with Saudi Arabia’s former intelligence chief, ex-ambassador to UK and US, youngest son of King Faisal. His take on spying prowess: “In terms of raw data the Americans have it over everybody … The British have the most expert human capabilities on specific subjects … In terms of operational capability the Israelis are the most professional, although they’ve committed lots of mistakes” (2,370 words)

There Is No Such Thing As The Banking Profession

To “change the culture of a bank” for the better is a difficult if not impossible task, because the staff of a big modern bank consists of tribes of specialists with widely diverging skills, values, habits and incentives. “There is no single set of employees unified by a professional culture and a willingness to pull together”. The classic banker, “an experienced, judicious loan expert”, is “a mythical figure” (Metered paywall) (1,000 words)

What Sets Humanity Apart

Are human beings irreducibly different from other living things? Henry Gee thinks not: “There is nothing special about being human, any more than there is anything special about being a guinea pig or a geranium”, he writes in his “persuasive” book The Accidental Species. Other thinkers disagree, but with diminishing confidence. “We are not the only species with, for example, language – we just have more of it” (1,900 words)

Bitcoin: More Than A Currency

Bitcoin “fixes a fundamental gap in the internet”. It promises the “quick and cheap exchange – and transfer of ownership – not only of currencies but also of other assets, goods and services”. To focus on the volatile Bitcoin exchange-rate misses the point. Bitcoin “is like the data packets that carry information on the internet. They are valued because of what they allow, not for their inherent qualities” (Metered paywall) (963 words)

The African Century

Notes from a lecture by Hans Rosling, expert on demographics and public health. Global population will peak around 2100 at 11bn, with 4bn in Africa — four times the current level — and 5bn in Asia. World’s main maritime thoroughfare will be the Indian Ocean. “If you are looking far enough ahead, you should be buying prime beach property on the east coast of Africa. Prof Rosling suggests Somalia” (469 words)

Breakfast With The FT: Nicholas Penny

Interesting and intelligent conversation with the director of London’s National Gallery, “the leading art historian of his generation”. Topics include scholarship, contemporary art, blockbuster exhibitions. “If you said to someone 20 years ago that you were going to the National Gallery this weekend, they would have assumed you meant you were going to see the permanent collection. Today, it will elicit the question: What’s on?” (2,435 words)

Lunch With Ha-Joon Chang

Korean-born Cambridge economist argues that mainstream economics is narrowly focused on market orthodoxy and mathematical modelling, cut off from the real world. “The economics profession is like the Catholic clergy. In the old days, they refused to translate the Bible, so unless you knew Latin you couldn’t read it. Today, unless you are good at maths and statistics, you cannot penetrate the economic literature” (Metered paywall) (2,480 words)

King Of The Lock-Up Garage

Action-packed interview with Rodger Dudding, Britain’s biggest private owner of lock-up garages. “His company regularly discovers drug factories on his properties, and sometimes murder victims. The quiet seclusion of lock-ups also makes them a location for suicides. One lesson he learnt early on was never to open a car door with a body inside. On the single occasion when he did, the swollen body exploded” (Metered paywall) (1,400 words)

Lunch With Ronnie O’Sullivan

Conversation with “the Mozart of snooker”, in the words of Keith Richard. Runner, alcoholic, insomniac, depressive. “O’Sullivan’s background was well-off but unorthodox. His parents ran sex shops in Soho. He remembers hearing the thud of envelopes filled with money as they fell through the letterbox. In 1992, the year he turned pro, his father was jailed for murder following a fight in a nightclub” (Metered paywall) (2,570 words)

The Misery Of A Ryan Air Flight

World’s most in-your-face airline wants to improve customer service. But isn’t the rudeness part of the charm? “Everyone has a story. My own favourites involve stand-offs at departure desks between sweating travellers and surly flight attendants as customers try to cram their beloved possessions into the narrow cages used by Ryanair to decide whether a piece of luggage is too big to be carried into the cabin” (Metered paywall) (1,060 words)

Obituary: Hiroshi Yamauchi, President Of Nintendo

He took over the family toy company at 22, and transformed it into a gaming giant. But not without some mis-steps. “The expansion went badly at first. His initial investments were haphazard and mostly ended in failure – there was instant-cook rice, a taxi service, and pay-by-the-hour ‘love hotels’. But he found his touch when he steered Nintendo back to the leisure business” (Metered paywall) (940 words)

How Long Can The Communist Party Survive In China?

No definitive answer here, but a a lot of interesting comment from Chinese and Western scholars about inequality and middle-class expectations. According to a professor at the Communist Party’s own Central School: “We just had a seminar with a big group of very influential party members and they were asking us how long we think the party will be in charge and what we have planned for when it collapses” (Metered paywall) (3,900 words)

Eat, Drink, Man, Woman, Meatballs

How Ikea charms customers in China. “The world’s largest furniture retailer invites consumers to nap on its beds and snack on its dinnerware; it lets pensioners hold matchmaking sessions over free coffee in its canteens, and provides day care for the grandchild. The only displays not meant to be interactive, apparently, are the loos: they are closed off with Plexiglas lids that helpfully point out the location of proper toilets” (Metered paywall) (785 words)

Lunch With The FT: Emile Simpson

Interview with the 30-year-old ex-Gurkha acclaimed as the new Clausewitz when his book on military strategy, War From The Ground Up, appeared in April. Clausewitz saw war as an interstate activity that was polarised, decisive, and finite. Simpson saw after three tours with the British army in Afghanistan that modern warfare need be none of those things. Armies compete not so much for territories as for “strategic audiences” (2,350 words)

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