Momentum, schmoementum

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Nate Silver reminds us that we should ignore vague discussions of the ‘momentum’ behind Bernie Sanders’ campaign and focus on the numbers:

So Sanders is doomed? If he doesn’t beat these polls, then probably yes — Sanders is not going to win the Democratic nomination if he’s losing Ohio by 13 percentage points. And if Clinton has a really good night on Super Tuesday — by winning Massachusetts, for instance — that would take almost all the suspense out of the race….

 

His polling in the Super Tuesday states looks pretty bad, even after allowing for the fact that they aren’t a great set of states for him. Still, follow the numbers in these states and not the talk about who has “momentum.”

I’m trying hard to avoid my #election2016 posts sounding like a paean to fivethirtyeight.com but these guys really do know what they’re talking about.

Rolling Stone’s Political Reporting: Thompson to Taibbi

Hunter S. Thompson is my favourite political writer, and one of my favourite writers of all time. Although he is now best known for the drug-fuelled benders that inspired some of his work – as memorialised in the movie Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, itself based on his book of the same title – he has written more truth about American politics than anyone else I’ve read.

Hunter cut his teeth as a political correspondent at Rolling Stone magazine in the early 1970s, reaching his peak when he worked as an embedded reporter with George McGovern’s unlikelyrs622-rs progressive tilt for the Democratic nomination and the Presidency (McGovern ultimately got the nomination, but lost all but one state in the general against Nixon. I’ve got another post saved up for a comparison between McGovern and Sanders). Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 is Hunter’s book-length account of that campaign – and it’s spectacular.

Matt Taibbi is Rolling Stone’s new rising star, and it’s pretty clear he is going for Hunter’s mantle, if not explicitly, then at least through some strong allusions to his style. His piece on his time with the Republican primary roadshow in New Hampshire is worth reading in full. My favourite part:

Concord, New Hampshire, the Secretary of State’s office, morning of November 6th. I’m waiting to see Ohio Gov. John Kasich officially register as a candidate for the New Hampshire primary.

In another election, Kasich might be a serious contender, being as he is from Ohio, a former Lehman Brothers stooge and a haranguing bore with the face of a dogcatcher. He exactly fits the profile of what party insiders used to call an “exciting” candidate.

At the moment, though, he’s a grumpy sideshow to Trump and Carson whose main accomplishment is that he hogged the most time in the fourth debate (and also became the first non-Trump candidate to be booed). Kasich in person seems like a man ready to physically implode from bitterness at the thought that his carefully laid scheme for power might be undone by a flatulent novelty act like Trump.

Compare that to this, by Thompson himself:

Richard Nixon has never been one of my favourite people, anyway. For years I’ve regarded his very existence as a monument to all the rancid genes and broken chromosomes that corrupt the possibilities of the American Dream; he was a foul caricature of himself, a man with no soul, no inner convictions, with the integrity of a hyena and the style of a poison toad. The Nixon I remembered was absolutely humourless; I couldn’t imagine him laughing at anything except maybe a paraplegic who wanted to vote Democratic but couldn’t quite reach the lever on the voting machine.

Hunter wins it easily, but then again I doubt even Rolling Stone could publish something like this today and not get sued. Hell, they’d probably chicken out before even trying it on.

Still, it’s good to see them covering the race properly. I’m looking forward to what Taibbi can come up with as it gets more serious and more insane. Maybe he just needs to hit the narcotics a bit more to catch up with his predecessor and go from great to eye-peelingly fantastic.

RFK on progress

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‘The cruelties and obstacles of this swiftly changing planet will not yield to obsolete dogmas and outworn slogans. It cannot be moved by those who cling to a present which is already dying, who prefer the illusion of security to the excitement and danger which comes with even the most peaceful progress.’

Robert F. Kennedy

Day of Affirmation address at Cape Town University, Cape Town, South Africa (6 June 1966)

Behind the spin, Adani and coal are in trouble

My op-ed on the looming failure of Adani Australia’s huge Carmichael coal mine was published in New Matilda:

Image via Flickr: Max Phillips

Image via Flickr: Max Phillips

You have to hand it to Adani Australia chief executive Jeyakumar Janakaraj. Despite years-long delays on Adani’s Queensland Carmichael coal mine – a project mired in court challenges and no realistic prospect of obtaining the financing it needs to proceed – Mr Janakaraj retains a cheerful disposition. Last week he said Adani was “absolutely committed” to proceeding with the mine. The show of optimism is designed to obscure the fact that his company’s coal mine project looks increasingly likely to fail.

The Carmichael mine and associated coal port at Abbot Point have been the target of sustained opposition from a wide range of community organisations, both in Australia and overseas, because of the catastrophic impact they would have on the Great Barrier Reef. UNESCO has kept the Reef on its world heritage watch list due to the threat that projects like Adani’s pose to its health. In August 2015, a Federal Court challenge forced Environment Minister Greg Hunt to overturn the approval for the mine. Two more legal challenges against the Carmichael project remain, and the project is yet to obtain mining leases from the government. The project itself is effectively stalled, with the Adani contractors who were sent home in 2015 still not back on the job.

Yet even if all of these obstacles were removed, the mine’s financials simply don’t stack up. A viable enterprise when coal prices were at their $140 per tonne 2012 peak, Carmichael’s forecast operating expenses mean that it cannot turn a profit at the current price, which is hovering around $50. The environmental and economic arguments against the mine have led 14 global banks to rule out involvement in the project, leaving it with no banks willing to lend Adani the money its $16bn mega mine needs to proceed.

So when Indian market analysts Axis Capital reported that Adani had frozen investment in the project, with “further investments [in Carmichael]dependent on visibility of revival in global coal prices”, it should have come as little surprise.

As acknowledged by analysts, including Goldman Sachs and Citi, the market for thermal coal, used for electricity generation, is in structural decline and being displaced by cleaner, more cost-effective renewables like solar and wind, accelerated by the growing momentum for action on climate change after last year’s Paris climate agreement. Even Adani itself is moving into solar power, with 800MW of new solar plants in the pipeline for India, as well as this week’s announced plans to build a utility scale solar plant in Queensland.

The project still has its defenders, of course. Queensland MPs, like Adani spruiker George Christensen, insist that Carmichael remains viable. Queensland state Environment Minister Steven Miles recently gave the mine its environmental approval and the Palaszczuk government continues to express broad support for coal mining in Queensland. And, unsurprisingly, Adani insists the project is going ahead.

These manoeuvres are best understood as part of a face-saving exercise by the Queensland government and Adani for the moment when the project is declared dead and buried. Adani will blame the onerous regulations and delays supposedly placed on coal mine developments in Australia. It continues for now to push for the mine’s final outstanding approvals in the hope that it might be able to sell the rights to the project and at least salvage a small portion of the billions of dollars it has already wasted. Queensland Labor has and will claim that it has done all it can to assist Adani to get the mine up and running, thereby avoiding the charge of not supporting Queensland jobs. It will point to the poor economic fundamentals of the project as the culprit.

The spin can’t hide the fact that the decline of coal, exacerbated by a cooling Chinese economy and a broader global commodities slump, is already being felt in Australia. According to BIS Shrapnel, the Australian mining industry has laid off 40,000 workers since 2012/13, with 20,000 more forecast to go in the next year. With the world’s biggest economies, including the US and China, announcing moratoriums on coal mine approvals, this decline will only accelerate in the months and years to come. Predictably, the Queensland Resources Council has already called for more taxpayer subsidies for the mining industry. That’s on top of the $1.8bn in annual production subsidies already given to the coal mining industry, and the $5.5bn in direct subsidies or tax breaks given to fossil fuels.

This sorry state reveals the lack of political vision for the Australian economy beyond the waning era of fossil fuels. Instead of continuing to mouth support for coal mining, it is time our political leaders develop a serious plan for a fair transition for the hard-working Australians whose jobs are already being lost, and a coherent energy policy that sees Australia rapidly transition to renewable energy and take on the threat of climate change.

In parts of Australia, that future is already here. AGL recently completed its Broken Hill solar plant – the largest in the southern hemisphere – and Australia is a world leader in adoption of rooftop solar. It is indeed an exciting time to be Australian, as our PM has observed. That excitement will be sustained in the years to come not by clinging to obsolete 19th century technology, but by seizing a clean energy future.

Nate Silver is still election god

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Back in 2008, when I had a bit more time on my hands, I completely geeked out on the US presidential election. I followed the news obsessively, read election blogs and even played with an interactive electoral college map on a regular basis. At the time Nate Silver was relatively unknown, but became famous, along with his 538.com website, for using big data to more accurately predict the result than anyone else. In 2012 he picked the margin of Obama’s win almost exactly, as well as 50 of 50 states.

I’ve been surprised not to see his commentary more front and centre this year. Part of that might be that his methodology is now much more widespread, but Silver is also someone who didn’t really ‘play nice’ with the established media elite: after all, no-one likes to be shown up as not really knowing what they’re talking about by a nerd with a monster computer model.

All that aside, he’s still killing it over at  538 – check out his coverage of the race and especially this recent post on the role of super delegates if you want serious analysis without the gut-feeling, reading the tea leaves bullshit spouted by most of the pundits out there.

The Linguistic Rift in Ukraine

In a fascinating article at the Washington Post, Max Fisher explains how much of what is happening in Ukraine is about culture and language as much as politics. Two maps that illustrate the rift.

The electoral division of the country into pro- and anti-Yanukovich regions:

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And into predominantly Ukrainian-speaking and predominantly Russian-speaking ones:

ukraine-protests-map-by-language-k

In other words, in the European-facing half of Ukraine, the orange half, the protests are even more widespread and severe than you might have gathered from watching the media coverage. But it’s important to keep in mind that the other half of the country, the blue half, is much quieter.

 

You may be wondering, then, why there is such a consistent and deep divide between these two halves of Ukraine. Here’s the really crucial thing to understand about Ukraine: A whole lot of the country speaks Russian, rather than Ukrainian. This map shows the country’s linguistic divide, which you may notice lines up just about perfectly with its political divide.

 

…Heavily Russian-speaking regions can tend to be more sympathetic (or at least less hostile) to policies that bring their country closer to Russia, as Yanukovych has been doing. But the Ukrainian-speaking regions have historically sought a Ukrainian national identity that is less Russia-facing and more European. So this is about politics, yes, but it’s also about identity, about the question of what it means to be Ukrainian.

(H/T: Andrew Sullivan)

 

 

Australia Day Press Wrap Up

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Australia Day is a good opportunity to reflect on what Australia is, and where it is going. Here is what some major papers and thinkers/commentators had to say:

Australian of the Year, footballer Adam Goodes, an indigenous Andyamathanha man, does not see the day, which marks the arrival of English colonists in 1788 and their subsequent seizure of aboriginal land with the establishment of the colony of New South Wales, as predominantly one of national celebration:

because of the sadness and mourning and the sorrow of our people and a culture that unfortunately has been lost to me through generations…We are still here, we’ve got a lot to celebrate about being here and that we have one of the longest-serving cultures still alive and kicking.’

Tim Soutphommasane, in the Age, argues that pride and patriotism should be embraced, but tied to a notion of civic membership which eschews blind loyalty or chauvinism:

In the words of one patriot, ”My country, right or wrong: if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”

Wendy Harmer, in the Sydney Morning Herald, asked her casually racist butcher, grateful immigrant fruit shop owner, and star struck fridge repair man what they thought about the nation:

On Australia Day I’ll raise a toast to Spooks, Sue, Poe, Shamal and everyone who calls this place home or dreams of a better life here. And I’ll also think about all those who seek to exploit our differences and misunderstandings to divide us. Who can understand their motivations?

Mick Dodson writes that the date of Australia Day needs to be reconsidered, and indigenous Australians formally recognised in the constitution:

Australians would never declare that we should “just get over it” when it comes to the commemoration of the Anzacs. Why, then, should that demand be made of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians about the events of a century before that and all that followed? Both should be commemorated, each as surely as the other.

Noel Pearson also writes, in the Australian, about the need for recognition, but only if it is tied to a change in how Australia deals with  policy relating to indigenous affairs:

Without demonstrable traction on the practical agenda, the symbolic reform will face sceptical Australians, black and white. A narrative that explains the relationship between the symbolic and the practical will be needed.

The Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, yesterday publicly came out in favour of formally recognising indigenous Australians in the constitution.

And, bringing up the rear, Andrew Bolt, at the Herald Sun, is appalled at the choice of Adam Goodes as Australian of the Year, and has written a piece titled ‘Man Honoured After Yelling at 13-year-old Girl’, in which he supportively cites a reader who rails at the ‘racism industry’:

Only by reducing two individuals to racial caricatures – a repentant 13-year-old girl into a white racist and 34-year-old champion footballer into a black victim – could you see in that public shaming a “ magnificent demonstration of character and compassion” worthy of an Australian of the Year. (I do note, however, Goodes was honored for more than this incident alone.)

Reading over this list, it strikes me that only one of the people I have cited is a woman. I went back to several news and commentary sites to find more op-eds and columns written by women about Australia Day, but came up with nothing. I’d be very happy to amend the above if anyone can point me to something worth reading, but for now this post can perhaps serve as an overview of thinking about Australian identity as well as (unintentionally) highlighting the extent to which the Australian media view serious commentary about national affairs as the preserve of men.

Almost Everything in ‘Dr Strangelove’ was True

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Eric Schlosser previews his new book about nuclear weapons in the New Yorker. It turns out that Dr Strangelove was pretty much on the money:

A decade after the release of “Strangelove,” the Soviet Union began work on the Perimeter system—-a network of sensors and computers that could allow junior military officials to launch missiles without oversight from the Soviet leadership. Perhaps nobody at the Kremlin had seen the film. Completed in 1985, the system was known as the Dead Hand. Once it was activated, Perimeter would order the launch of long-range missiles at the United States if it detected nuclear detonations on Soviet soil and Soviet leaders couldn’t be reached. Like the Doomsday Machine in “Strangelove,” Perimeter was kept secret from the United States; its existence was not revealed until years after the Cold War ended.

If It Quacks Like a Duck: Golden Dawn Nazis Exposed

Golden Dawn pictures

The economic crisis in Greece has led to the rise of Golden Dawn, a far-right political movement, which says and does pretty much everything one would expect from that description.

Their earlier denials of being fascists or Nazi sympathisers were spectacularly blown apart by the revelation last week of thousands of pictures of members, some armed, giving the Nazi salute, and brandishing SS banners.

“What this confirms, without a shadow of doubt, is that Golden Dawn is not only a Nazi group but a criminal organisation that operated as a paramilitary structure,” said Dimitris Psarras, the country’s leading authority on the party.

“We are literally talking about thousands of pictures,” he told the Guardian. “And many are highly incriminating, portraying well known members receiving armed training in summer camps.”

The British National Party’s Nick Griffin has defended the group, who he called his ‘patriot comrades.’

The seriousness of this kind of thing should not be underestimated in a country with a history of dictatorship, and a continent where Nazism is a living memory for many.

They have also set up an Australian chapter, in Melbourne.

 

Click Bait Media: Australians Who Read our Work are Dumb

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Generalisations about whole nations are meaningless. People, let alone masses of population millions strong, are far more complicated than to be able to be summarised by a handful of perceived common attributes. Yet the genre of national character sketch persists and, in Australia, tends to be particularly cherished by progressive writers using it to argue that their compatriots are stupid, ill-informed racists, more interested in reality TV than politics.

This piece, by comedian and writer Corinne Grant, has been doing the rounds recently, cited approvingly as an accurate snapshot of Australia and Australians. In brief, Grant argues that we are more interested in celebrity gossip than serious politics. The repeated violation of Indonesian territorial waters by the Australian Navy in its attempts to turn back refugee boats is said to get less interest than Cameron Diaz’s views on Brazilian waxing. The conclusion:

The Murdoch media and politicians have told us ‘boat people’ are stealing from us and we’re stupid enough to fall for it. We genuinely believe that a few thousand people are responsible for traffic congestion and hospital queues instead of years and years of government inaction on public transport, roads and health. We accept that we’re ‘at war’ with asylum seekers without questioning the ludicrousness of the statement or the secrecy and abuse it’s used to justify. We hate to think but we love to hate.

Leaving aside the fact that Grant’s piece was published by a commentary website whose lead story today was titled ‘Oh, High Heels, Must We Break Up?’ (pic above), it seems perverse to diagnose the problem as low quality media and then conclude that its sufferers must themselves be stupid.

The uncomfortable reality for media commentators is that most people simply do not have the time to spend informing themselves from several media sources about contemporary politics. Getting up, taking your kids to school, working until 5 or 6 (often later), commuting home, sorting out dinner, and taking a few minutes to relax before heading to bed leaves very little time for the kind of balanced analysis Grant seems to assume is a prerequisite for not deserving to be the target of her opprobrium.

Australia has some of the least diverse media ownership in the world. Two newspaper owners (Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp; Fairfax) were responsible for 86% of newspaper circulation in the country in 2011. Online news and commentary have changed this picture somewhat, but it is still the case that legacy media determines the daily political narrative.

More media diversity is part of the solution, and it is great to see, most recently, the emergence of a new quality weekend broadsheet. But progressive thinkers have to try harder to communicate in ways that are not dripping with contempt for those whose opinions they hope to change, and not simply vacate the field, as Labor did, for example, on refugees in the wake of the 2001 Tampa affair, when it all gets too difficult.

Not giving in to the easy pleasure of proclaiming that everybody who disagrees with you ‘loves stayin’ dumb’ is a good place to start.

Francois ‘Niemandshand’ Hollande

Some comedy to start 2014: French President Francois Hollande failing at handshakes.

The bottom right is my favourite.

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Via Dutch paper Volkskrant. (H/T @ollybarratt)

 

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