UnHerd is a place to look at the world without the headlines getting in the way. But we don’t claim to be the only such vantage point. Beyond the froth of the 24 hour news cycle – and the 24 second social media cycle – you can find a wealth of writing that doesn’t follow the herd. The aim of my daily UnPacked column is to feature, and comment on, the best of what’s out there.
Over the next week, I’ll be counting down the top 50 UnPacked highlights from 2018 – the facts, figures, ideas and events that may not have made the headlines, but which provide a more reliable insight into the forces shaping the future.
Today, numbers 10 to 1:
China’s chip addiction
UnPacked features a lot of stories about China – and especially its game-changing use of technology. But for all the ways in which the Chinese as moving faster into the future than we are, there are some big gaps in the country’s technological prowess.
One of the biggest is the subject of an Adam Minter piece for Bloomberg:
“Although China long ago mastered the art of making products with semiconductors produced elsewhere (the iPhone is the most famous example), it wants to move beyond being a mere assembler…
“…China is currently the world’s biggest chip market, but it manufactures only 16 percent of the semiconductors it uses domestically.”
China’s influence over the global economy and geopolitics can only grow in the decades ahead, but its vulnerabilities – technological, social, environmental and demographic – are as significant as its strengths.
China: the hype vs the reality
The Centrist Paradox
Is political polarisation a threat to democracy? Are the ‘wings’ – Left and Right – drifting towards authoritarian extremism?
That’s the standard account of what ails the body politic, but in a fascinating piece for the New York Times, David Adler presents evidence to show that the most disillusioned voters are those in the centre of the political spectrum:
“I examined the data from the most recent World Values Survey (2010 to 2014) and European Values Survey (2008), two of the most comprehensive studies of public opinion carried out in over 100 countries…
“Respondents who put themselves at the center of the political spectrum are the least supportive of democracy, according to several survey measures…”
This is so counter-intuitive that Adler calls it the Centrist Paradox. Who, then are these ‘centrists’? Are they latte-sipping liberals aghast at the rise of populism or are they working class populists who’ve become disillusioned with the parties of the mainstream Left and Right?
It could, of course, be both – meaning that the centre is also incoherent.
Are centrists a threat to democracy?
The gaping hole in the party system
Here’s another possible explanation for the Centrist Paradox: there’s a large group of voters who are unrepresented by the conventional party system. Traditionally, there are progressive parties that lean to the Left on economic and social issues and conservative parties that lean to the Right. You can also find liberal parties that lean Left on social issues and Right on economics.
But what about voters who do the opposite – leaning Left on economics and Right on social (and, especially, cultural) issues? A fascinating report by Lee Drutman for the Voter Study Group, suggests that there are a lot of these ‘Left conservatives’ – indeed they heavily outnumber the economic and social liberals who have such an outsize influence on politics.
This gaping hole has allowed populists of Left, Right and centre to disrupt the party system, but without offering a coherent policy platform.
The idea that liberals aren't represented by the party system is the opposite of the truth
The deflationary Death Star versus healthcare
In a piece for the Atlantic, Derek Thompson refers to Amazon as a “deflationary Death Star” – a brilliant description of the company’s effect on any market it enters into.
If there’s one market whose prices definitely need deflating, it’s the ruinously expensive US healthcare industry. Therefore, the fact that Amazon is teaming up with JPMorgan Chase and Berkshire Hathaway to sort it out may prove the most important business news of the year:
“The surprising trio of the nation’s largest online retailer, largest bank by assets, and most famous investor (Warren Buffett, the chief executive of Berkshire) riding to the rescue of the beleaguered health system already rocked insurance stocks and thrilled health-care experts who have long dreamed of a technological solution to ‘bend the curve’ of inexorably rising medical costs.”
The immediate interest of the three companies is obvious – reducing the cost of providing healthcare benefits to their combined workforce. But if they succeed in developing a new and much cheaper healthcare model, I doubt they’ll keep it in-house.
Is Amazon's attempt to disrupt the healthcare industry heroic or villainous?
The opioid epidemics
America’s greatest public health crisis is the opioid epidemic – and according to Margot Sanger-Katz in the New York Times, the latest figures show it getting worse:
“Drug overdoses killed about 72,000 Americans last year, a record number that reflects a rise of around 10 percent, according to new preliminary estimates from the Centers for Disease Control. The death toll is higher than the peak yearly death totals from H.I.V., car crashes or gun deaths.”
In the Atlantic, Ashley Fetters brings us news of another American epidemic:
“…reported cases of three sexually transmitted diseases in the United States had reached an all-time high in 2017. Rates of gonorrhea rose by 67 percent, syphilis by 76 percent, and chlamydia by 21 percent, to a total of almost 2.3 million cases nationwide… the fourth year in a row that STDs increased steeply in the U.S.”
Inevitably, the “rise in high-risk sexual behaviors [is] associated with opioid use and addiction”.
Suicide is also on the rise again in America, and that too can be linked, in part, to opioids.
How sex and drugs took their toll on 21st-century America
The polygenic revolution
A strong contender for book of the year is Blueprint: How DNA makes us who we are – by the geneticist Robert Plomin. It guides us through the accumulating evidence that genes have a major influence on behavioural traits, not just physical ones.
Quoted by Andrew Anthony in the Guardian, Plomin is at pains to point out that the genetic influence on how we turn out is polygenic – i.e. hundreds, even thousands, of genes can be involved in influencing a single trait. We don’t understand exactly how these complex interactions work, but we can measure the correlations between the presence of particular genes and the expression of particular traits. On this basis, polygenic testing could be used to make predictions about behavioural outcomes.
Whether this tool is used to tailor support to individuals or to discriminate against them will be down to society, not science.
Letting the gene genie out of the bottle
Amazon is best known as an online retailer. But in 2018 it opened a new store in Seattle called Amazon Go. In a fascinating piece for Stratechery, Ben Thompson tells us about it:
“The trick is that you don’t pay, at least in person: a collection of cameras and sensors pair your selection to your Amazon account — registered at the door via smartphone app — which rather redefines the concept of ‘grab-and-go’.”
Think of all the different systems that have to be coordinated to make it all work. But then that, in a nutshell, is Amazon’s grand strategy – expanding in all directions, not just to achieve unbeatable economies of scale, but also to create a unified retail ecosystem in which it controls and seamlessly integrates all the interfaces between each bit of the overall operation. No other retail or logistics company will be in a better position to fully automate just about everything it does.
This year, there’s been a lot of debate over how Amazon treats its workers. In ten or twenty years time we could be asking ‘what workers?’
What does the 'charging elephant' - also known as Amazon - want? Only everything (and beware of getting in its way)
Yes we’re richer, but where did all the wildlife go?
The counterpoint to the crisis of capitalism in the West is the massive fall in global poverty. And, as well as the world getting richer, we also see long-term trends on literacy, violence, longevity and access to sanitation all moving in the right direction.
Yet the good news is no excuse for ignoring the trends heading in the wrong direction. In the Guardian, Damian Carrington writes about an especially dramatic and disturbing example:
“The Living Planet Index, produced for WWF by the Zoological Society of London, uses data on 16,704 populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians, representing more than 4,000 species, to track the decline of wildlife. Between 1970 and 2014, the latest data available, populations fell by an average of 60%. Four years ago, the decline was 52%.”
At what point do we call a halt?
One dead animal is an online sensation, a million is a statistic
Americans against hate speech… and political correctness
In a must-read piece for the Atlantic, Yascha Mounk highlights the key findings:
“Among the general population, a full 80 percent believe that ‘political correctness is a problem in our country.’ Even young people are uncomfortable with it, including 74 percent ages 24 to 29, and 79 percent under age 24…”
These majorities were pretty consistent across ethnic groups too.
Meanwhile 82% of Americans “believe that hate speech is also a problem.”
It’s great that’s there such an overwhelming constituency for common-sense and against bigotry. If only there was a politician ready and able to represent it.
What the Right gets wrong when the Left goes nuts
Social Credit System
I’m afraid I’ll have to conclude on a dystopian note; but there’s no other way of seeing China’s Social Credit System. This is the government plan to quantify and gamify the ‘good behaviour’ of every Chinese citizen in the form of a single score – a bit like a financial credit rating or points on a driving license, but applied across a whole range of different activities.
In a report for ScienceAlert, Peter Dockrill says that citizens will get a higher score for acts “like paying bills on time, engaging in charity, and… recycling” and a lower score for “[being] late with payments… jaywalking or smoking in non-smoking areas.”
The rewards of a high score will likely include “better credit facilities, cheaper public transport, and even shorter wait times for hospital services”. Low scorers will be second class citizens, restricted in movement and opportunity.
Quite clearly intended as an instrument of social control, the regime is making no attempt to hide that fact:
“According to China’s Communist Party, the system will ‘allow the trustworthy to roam freely under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step’.”
Pilot programmes are already in place with the system due to go national in 2020.
How long, I wonder, before we get something like it too?
The dark side of China's Social Credit System