At the end of each year, the Global Counsel team has a tradition of sharing among ourselves a selection of our favourite articles (or podcasts) from the past year. Last year, we decided to risk sharing the tradition. The response was positive enough to encourage us to do so again.
From the agonies of being Polish to the rise of the Silicon Valley salaryman via the Hippocratic Bot, below is a selection of the commentary and analysis that caught the eye of the GC team in 2018. Some of this informs our day jobs, but most of it can also be filed against the interesting times we live in. We hope you enjoy it. And do feel free to send us your own suggestions.
Merry Christmas from the entire GC Team.
The rhetoric of trolls
Stop talking about the ‘developing’ world
The Attenborough effect
Reinterpreting the Grenfell Tower disaster
Improving health in an unequal world
The spooks of tomorrow
To be Polish is a kind of agony
Pax Sinica: what’s fuelling the rise of China
Time to overhaul competition policy?
An arctic Ozymandias
Uncovering the truth of Colombia’s darkest day
Bitcoin, energy and the great crypto crash
Slating Bill Clinton
The rise of the Valley salaryman?
Myth-busting the UK housing crisis
Twitter and the Hippocratic bot
Tinker, Doctor, Colonel, ex-Spy
Why China is likely to win the AI battle
Time to break the taboo on industrial policy?
Benjamin Wegg-Prosser - Managing Director
"The use of digital platforms to drive populism has been a common feature of our politics since the global financial crisis; ranging from robust dialogue to revolting abuse. Mainstream politicians struggle to understand, quite reasonably, how they have become the focal point of such anger, often from anonymised political opponents. Given the recent success of the political margins in Italy, there is no better place to understand how to combat this overly-aggressive use of language than turning to Elisabetta Matelli, the professor of Classical Rhetoric at the Catholic University in Milan. In a Q&A with Vice, originally published in Italian, she explains how we should understand the evolution of aggressive online debate and has suggestions on how best to counter it. Anyone struggling to respond to the attacks of Donald Trump supporters, some of Jeremy Corbyn’s allies or Matteo Salvini’s activists will enjoy learning from the professor’s insights."
Stephen Adams - Senior Director
"2018 marked the year when the number of GC babies topped 25 for the first time. With three under six to my name, I’ve started to think a lot about children, play, independence and development, and I liked this piece by Greg Lukianoff linking changing modes of play for kids since the 1990s with the contemporary politics of free speech. Lukianoff has been a campaigner against university speech codes in the US for many years. Since 2015 he has worked with the psychologist and political scientist Jonathan Haidt on a series of projects designed to tackle the drift to identity politics and illiberal approaches to speech and expression in US universities – including the brilliant heterodox academy initiative. My kids are a way off needing its rankings just yet, but there is plenty to consider in here about what, and how, they learn on the way there."
Alessandra Baldacchino - Research Associate
"The late statistician and co-founder of the Swedish branch of Doctors Without Borders, Hans Rosling, was resistant to ‘outdated’ labels. Above all, he dismissed a ‘developing’ world label that puts China and the Democratic Republic of Congo in the same bracket as too broad to be valuable. Worse still, it is hard to notice progress if you embrace such a binary world view – dividing the world into rich and poor countries. The result is public audiences all over the world that consistently overestimate global poverty (the majority of the world live in middle income countries), underestimate life expectancy (the global average is 72) and the number of children vaccinated (80%) and generally think the world is quantitatively worse than the data indicates. In his book Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World—and Why Things Are Better Than You Think, Rosling offers a new framework for how to think about the world and describes many reasons why our innate human instincts keep us from seeing the world factfully."
Elizabeth Beall - Practice Lead, Sustainability
"2018 has represented a sea change in action against plastic litter. While there are many contributing factors, BBC nature documentary Blue Planet and the voice of David Attenborough are often credited for the transformational change that has occurred. There are many now that wonder if the same could be achieved with climate change or other persistently difficult issues. Richard Powers’ novel The Overstory attempts to do just that on the topic of deforestation, exploring the idea that the best arguments in the world won’t change people’s minds, the only thing that will do is a good story. This New Scientist review explores why the novel has been more successful than other explorations of humanity’s relationship with nature focused on collapse or apocalypse and provokes thinking about what insights Powers might have for spurring environmental action."
Mollie Brennan – Research Associate
"Andrew O’Hagan’s investigation into the Grenfell Tower disaster – a fire in a block of flats that claimed the lives of 72 people in June 2017 - and its political aftermath is not a light read. In fact, many people have really, really disliked it. For one thing, this controversial retelling places the blame on the fire service whilst exonerating Chelsea and Kensington Council who took most of the blame in the immediate fallout. And the iconoclasm continues as O’Hagan snubs both UK grime hero Stormzy and Channel 4 news anchor Jon Snow for politicising the event. Whilst his argument and style are not without their pitfalls it is a fascinating read made even more interesting by the controversy that surrounds the piece itself."
Read The Tower
Giulia Corsi – Senior Associate
"Michael Marmot's book, The Health Gap, analyses the vast health inequalities that exist within and between countries across the globe. By drawing on examples from different parts of the world, he rejects the idea that healthcare and well-being fall solely in the remit of our health policies and health systems. Rather, he explores the underlying causes of ill health which are explicitly linked to social and economic deprivation, arguing that to tackle inequalities in health requires action across all the social determinants of health. By engaging with social inequalities and the conditions in which people are born, grow and live he provides a comprehensive understanding of what people, governments and policy can do better in order to diminish that gap."
Read The Health Gap
Niall Cronin - Research Associate
"British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) chief Alex Younger doesn’t really do public speaking, in fact this is only the second speech of his four-year tenure. Naturally, he takes the opportunity to highlight the service’s secret successes in thwarting plots and goes to some length explaining its work against threats faced by the UK - from Russia with a military-grade chemical weapon, if you will. Younger’s speech at the University of St Andrews seeks to attract a more diverse range of people to join SIS, notwithstanding that his alma mater is not exactly a mélange of social and cultural backgrounds. Alongside, he highlights the importance of international partners in security, even in the midst of Brexit. But what stands out is Younger’s reminder that even the shadowy world of spies is no exception to the need for constant adaptation and innovation in a world of increasing technological change and international complexity."
Matthew Duhan - Practice Lead, Energy
"As Britain plays out an increasingly fraught psychodrama over its relationship with Europe, the Guardian’s man in Warsaw, Christian Davies, profiles an eastern counterpoint in his piece on the centenary of Polish independence. Assessing a political landscape that has been reshaped by the Law and Justice government, he highlights how Europe – and Poland’s place in it – has become a mirror in which to reflect competing conceptions of the nation’s future, based on competing interpretations of its past. In sometimes lyrical prose, Davies references exploration of his own Polish identity (he is born to a Polish mother) even as the country is roiled by a similar exercise being carried out on a national scale. With political insurgents across Europe building projects around reconstituted versions of their respective national myths, this piece is a reminder that in the fight for Europe’s future, it is increasingly critical to understand its past."
Or for a deeper dive into the political context read this piece from 2016
Thomas Gratowski – Practice Lead, Global Macro
"Since Trump’s election, US-China relations and trade have dominated the headlines. But this article argues that these accounts are ignoring how much geopolitical shifts are being driven by energy. While the shale boom has allowed the US to become more independent and more introspective, China’s need for massive energy imports are forcing it to engage internationally. So much conventional energy geopolitics; but there is a modern twist. As the US withdraws from the Paris Agreement and cuts funding for research in renewable energy, Beijing is pursuing ambitious renewable energy projects that ensure its leadership in these future technologies, while enticing countries along the new Silk Road with its know-how in renewables, and its ambition to integrate their electricity grids under its leadership. The author concludes that Europe should not follow the US approach of ignoring these developments. The challenge is to formulate its own response to Chinese energy ambitions."
Read Pax Sinica
Gregor Irwin – Chief Economist
"This is not the lightest Christmas read, but it is probably the best introduction to what is arguably the most pressing policy issue of today and one that may have far-reaching implications for competition policy and the structure of markets. Written by two Obama-era senior White House advisers, they pore over the (mostly US) data and conclude there is a strong case that falling competition is to blame for the productivity slowdown and higher inequality. What should be done? It depends. Less competition could be efficient, if big tech really has to be big to reap scale economies. Or has competition policy fundamentally failed to keep up with damaging changes in market structure? Furman and Orszag’s analysis is not the last word, particularly in Europe, where this is contested. But with Furman appointed earlier this year to advise the UK government on competition in the digital economy, this policy debate has now crossed the Atlantic. How it is resolved will be one of the most important economic stories of the coming period."
Tom King - Adviser
"Robinson Meyer describes how the collapse of Ancient Rome is charted in Greenland’s ice sheet. Two millennia after Julius Caesar’s blood-curdling assassination, the lead pollution created by Rome’s coin-minting industry was spotted in the ice – literally frozen in place. The ice core shows the Roman economy’s fluctuations. As the Second Punic War wore on, pollution fell, only to rise again as Carthaginian mines were brought back online by invading Roman soldiers. Meanwhile, the 200-year ‘Pax Romana’, a prosperous and peaceful period, caused the highest lead emissions in western Europe until the Industrial Revolution nearly 1,800 years later. The article brings a fresh perspective to history’s sweep – encompassing economics, foreign policy, technology and more. As we watch bitcoin miners consuming as much energy as small countries, or a continental peace project threatening to unravel, ground-breaking science helps us reflect on past lessons as we contemplate our future."
Ana Martínez - Research Associate
"Over 30 years ago, on November 6th 1985, guerrillas took control of Colombia’s Palace of Justice. The siege lasted 28 hours and ended with 100 people killed and a dozen missing. For decades, it left Colombians with more questions than answers about what really happened, including the army’s actions before, during and after the siege. Radio Ambulante follows the story of two families trying to uncover the truth; one looking for their lost loved one, another who believes there is more to the official story. This incredible story takes you on a journey where following your instincts is crucial and those who seem to help might actually be covering something up."
Desné Masie - Senior Associate
"If you believe leading bitcoin troll Nouriel Roubini’s Twitter feed, you might think that bitcoin is “The Mother of All Toxic Pollutions & Environmental Disasters” and, ergo, EVIL. But crypto asset manager CoinShares begs to differ. Their research calculates that Bitcoin mining uses 77.6% cheap, stranded-renewable energy, predominantly hydro (tweet that, Roubini!). But, with bitcoin having lost over 80% of its 2017 price high in the great crypto crash, I feel like I am writing about dotcom stocks in December 2000. So, does the CoinShares paper still matter? I believe it does, because crypto-assets, though volatile, are likely to continue in some form. As crypto asset managers, CoinShares have a clear vested interest, leading one to query whether they tortured the data to make it confess. We shall have to wait and see, but for cryptocurrencies to go mainstream, they will require regulators’ and institutional investors’ support. Myth-busting research like this might make that happen."
Read the CoinShares white paper on Bitcoin’s energy consumption.
Matilda Milne - Marketing Associate
"The masterful Slow Burn podcast by Slate tells the story of seminal periods in recent US political history; this year’s season two focused on the impeachment of Bill Clinton. Told by those that lived through it, and narrated by the dulcet tones of Leon Neyfakh, Slate has produced a podcast that casts new light on events, exploring strange subplots and forgotten characters, whilst presenting the story in a way that makes sense to those who don’t remember it from first time around. Highly topical, episode six in particular revisits ideas of consent in a relationship with a huge imbalance of power, and makes you think about what this means in a post-#MeToo world. Not just for politics nerds and feminists, it is a wonderful retrospective of events that influence popular culture and modern politics to this day."
Listen to Slow Burn season 2
Andrea Ninomiya - Senior Associate
"The story of Silicon Valley starts with young engineers in the late 1950s who deserted their boss to build some of the world’s first semiconductors. This ‘proto-start-up’ spawned a culture in which workers frequently quit to establish or join competitors. Fast forward to today, where critics argue that the Valley hasn’t produced a revolutionary product in years, and new companies like WhatsApp and Instagram are acquired by tech giants, the increasingly distant ancestors of disrupters past. In this article, Charles Duhigg attributes the innovation slowdown to tech firms’ efforts to retain workers, and embrace of the traditional ‘salaryman’ corporate model. As early as 2005, Apple and Google agreed not to recruit from each other’s firms and a 2016 law made it easier to prevent job-hopping. This piece suggests the sector is now paying the price and discusses issues of intellectual property and innovation through the story of Anthony Levandowski, who left Google for Uber."
Joe Palombo - Practice Lead, Investor Services
"Darwin and Mendel did well given the scientific tools of their day. However, advances in DNA sequencing are proving that evolution through genetic heredity may not be the full story. Upwards of eight percent of the human genome may have been transferred horizontally across species through viral infection. Starting in those bacchanalian, free-loving days before cell membranes became fashionable, David Quammen and NPR’s Radiolab team walk us through a fascinating evolutionary history that will make you think twice about the risks posed by antibiotic-resistant bacteria and the possibilities new gene-editing technologies like CRISPR (or Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats to those in the know) may offer. Buyer beware - once you listen, you won’t be able to blame your parents for all of your bad habits!"
Listen to Infective Heredity
Leo Ringer – Head of UK
"Theresa May’s “personal mission” to solve the British housing crisis has been somewhat derailed this year by other issues (ahem). Fortunately, economist Ian Mulheirn has not been so distracted. In his blog of April 19th, he showed that building more homes will do almost nothing to tackle the problem of persistently high UK house prices. This myth buster par excellence deconstructs an assumption that has gone unchallenged for several decades and which has sat at the heart of the housing policy of successive governments – and consequently driven billions of pounds of funding. In flanking pieces Mulheirn digs back into the forgotten economics of house price growth and suggests we look closer at the cost of borrowing and the financial system as the real drivers of that growth. It is rare to see such a short piece imply such a big policy change on such an important issue, and it is a reminder of how diverting Brexit has become that this did not receive more attention."
Tom Smith – Practice Lead, Health
"Twitter threads are increasingly able to communicate complex, evidence-based argument and it was very apt that quasi-anonymous NHS consultant Dr Murphy laid out his critique of the use of AI in health services here. Pulling in supporting evidence from a wide range of sources and media, he keeps things compelling in a thread that contrasts the commercial culture of some in the tech sector and the more cautious approach of regulators and clinicians in healthcare. Unaddressed, this could lead to missed expectations on all sides and poor patient outcomes; the implication is that both tech firms and the health service will need to adapt in the future. More broadly, Murphy demonstrates how the claims of corporates and regulators can be scrutinised by civil society. Health-tech company Babylon may have built a firm relationship with the UK’s political establishment, but is yet to convince experts, who are increasingly taking their concerns online."
Read Dr Murphy's Twitter thread
Alexander Smotrov – Practice Lead, Russia, CIS & CEE
"The 'Skripal case' has sent political shockwaves far beyond the British city of Salisbury where Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with Novichok nerve agent in March this year. The Salisbury city cathedral spires quickly became infamous in Russia, due to the clumsy attempts of two Russians, exposed by the UK government for their alleged role in the poisoning, to claim in a TV interview that they were merely looking for the tourist landmarks. Numerous memes and jokes tinged with black humour even saw “spires” named word of the year in Russia. Here, in a truly fascinating forensic investigation which combines Cold War-style spy sagas with 21st century technology and social media, journalists’ teams at The Bellingcat and The Insider Russian exposed the real identities of the two Russians and who their backers could be…"
Ying Staton – Head of Asia
"2018 saw the release of Kai Fu Lee’s AI Super-powers: China, Silicon Valley, and the new world order. As a renowned computer scientist, venture capitalist and former senior executive at Apple, Microsoft and Google, Lee has had a front-row seat to the development of AI over the past 20 years, and sees the story as a Manichean battle between the US and China to control the shape of the future. He is most interested on how AI is transforming economies, particularly in China – which is in Lee’s words “the Saudi Arabia of data”, creating robot newsreaders and a lending app that can accurately assess your creditworthiness based in part on the level of battery on your phone. And for those thinking about their future, he has insights on which jobs will be made redundant by AI (in brief: any process-focused role) and which ones will become more valuable (those with a human facet: psychiatry, the social aspect of medical care, creative roles, management)."
Tom White - Head of Europe
"Ignore the class-war title: Ascherson’s essay compares two assessments of Britain’s post-1950 ‘decline’ and made me reflect on my least fashionable job in government - being responsible for European industrial policy in the mid-2000s. This consisted of trying to harness ministers’ butterfly-like enthusiasm for technology, while battling Treasury fears of market distortion. Minor policy interventions were met with suspicion normally reserved for French grands projets; and even the term ‘industrial policy’ was taboo. I was also reminded of my envy when preparing joint positions in Brussels with German counterparts, whose matter-of-fact sense of responsibility for a manufacturing ecosystem contrasted with the UK’s tactical focus, driven by companies in crisis or photo opportunities. Attitudes changed after the 2008 crisis, and manufacturing supply chains have been a key feature of the Brexit debate. But with industry facing an uncertain future, these anecdotes from Triumph Motorbikes and ICI are worth re-examining."
The views expressed in this note can be attributed to the named author(s) only.