Officials in Massachusetts have usefully brought the campaign against fossil fuels to the fore in a way that may show where popular opinion really stands. This Wall Street Journal story details efforts by progressive towns near Boston to prohibit new construction from offering natural-gas hookups. The problem is that many homeowners want gas heating and, in line with restaurants, prefer gas for cooking. New restrictions would mandate all-electric power, presumably out of a belief that it will come from “alternative” sources. Remember the Gold Medallion homes that electric utilities tried to push half a century ago, when nuclear power was going to be too cheap to meter? Things didn’t work out well, on the supply or demand ends. Gas is so much preferred for many uses that, as recently as two years ago, New York officials were pounding National Grid over delays in new hookups (and separately hitting Con Edison for similar issues in Westchester County). So which is it? Gas for the people, or no gas for the planet? The Bay State may provide a new clue.
You can’t be rational and with any sense of a future and drive or ride in a vehicle without buckling up. Unless maybe you’re drunk or stoned and driving anyway (ugh!) or have false confidence in the airbags. That said, the renewed effort to police seat-belt use in a couple of Northeast states, as reported here in the Wall Street Journal, seems misplaced. For one thing, belt skipping is the kind of infraction, like a broken taillight, that triggers a cop stop usually being made out of other suspicions. And we know, after the hurtful events of recent years, how that can go. But more pertinent yet is the fact that state troopers and other road police cannot contain reckless driving that endangers others, not just the careless. This menace, in the form of outrageous speeding, illegal lane changes, tailgating and un-mufflered noise, grew decidedly worse during the pandemic and is surely responsible for many of those increased traffic deaths. If law enforcement is so rarely on the spot for these crimes, how will an added duty to check more closely for belt use be of help?
This brief from newgeography.com recapitulates the latest data on the world’s megacities and leaves you staggered over how some of them function. Consider two of the top four in population: the metros of Jakarta, Indonesia, and Manila, in the Philippines. Any visitor to either place quickly senses their chaotic rush (amid motor-traffic stalls) and can only imagine the challenges for residents in obtaining public services. Yet somehow the inhabitants endure and even sometimes prosper. Covid-19 has added to their burden, with both Jakarta and Manila now facing a resurgence of the virus and lockdown orders. That will add economic stress, but if the downward bend in world population growth extends to these parts of Asia, they might especially look forward to taking a breath.
No one wants to see an Instagram influencer fall off a building or cliff while posing for photos, as they occasionally do, but figuratively their disappearance would sometimes seem a blessing. Their role in the modern consumer economy, however, is undeniable. So great is their sway over legions of social-media followers that according to this trade newsletter from the Insider publishing group, they should take in $3.7 billion from U.S. marketers in 2021, growing by one-third in a year. This doesn’t include all the swag sent to them by hopeful brands, or the trips provided to them to picturesque locales. With worldwide video snippets part of the mix (TikTok is now a household name even among those old enough to sign a contract), these walking-talking-singing billboards are serious performers. Grudging respect is due those who created their fame by ingenuity and effort, although existing celebrity has certainly boosted others into these rich ranks. In introducing this item to its daily newsletter audience, though, the Niemen Foundation for Journalism sure knew how to hurt an old editor: Total American newspaper advertising revenue is dropping at such a pace that the influencers’ take is likely to pass that mark within a year or two.
This Bloomberg op-ed from the Council on Foreign Relations’ specialist on Latin America points out what may be a surprising advantage for that part of the “developing” world as global pressures mount for alt-energy sources: It has them. But just as there is international political pressure to skirt fossil fuels, she notes that there are domestic political barriers to conversion in key Latin countries. Another limiting factor is worth mentioning, too: Although Brazil is blessed with great hydropower resources, the country’s record on dam development–full of human calamities–is hardly one to win the hearts and minds of sustainable energy enthusiasts. Similar slips are likely to be found elsewhere in the Amazon. Nonetheless, good-news stories on Latin America are unusual enough that this is worth a ponder.
Practitioners of “natural” health notions who resist genetic science are ridiculed by the smart set when it comes to life-saving vaccines but still have a hold over much of the educated public on matters of diet and supplement products. Despite an ever-increasing need to maintain and enrich the nutrition that a stressed planet can produce, “non-GMO” (genetically modified organisms) remains a watchword for many if not most food shoppers. The cover story in this week’s New York Times Magazine challenges this orthodoxy, in a balanced account that notes the commercial science’s crucial missteps but shows how powerfully even small-lab pioneers today could overcome deficiencies in what we (and especially the world’s poor) eat. In the process, we’d even get food that tastes better. But as long as the marketing mindset is trapped in an organic or unaltered box, these innovations aren’t likely to be good business propositions. Congrats to the Times for publishing this and having now to fend off the multitude of quasi-scientific trolls who will barrage the editors with protests.
It seemed like a natural liberalization of world capital flows when Chinese mainland stocks finally were included in emerging market indexes (and therefore ETFs and funds) beginning in 2018. After all, mainstream Western investors had been largely missing out on the planet’s great growth story. But as the latest twist at week’s end in the crackdown by China’s Communist Party on sectors of its “new economy” made clear, this opened equities door has been a mixed blessing. This Wall Street Journal articles notes the country’s rulers have gone after the tutoring sector, built around intense parental interest in schooling credentials for their young. Stocks crashed, even more than did those of fintech businesses that earlier ran afoul of official edicts. (In many cases, these stocks are listed in U.S. markets as ADRs, so they would have been accessible to American brokerage accounts prior to 2018’s changes–the difference is that now all of China’s listed companies are part of millions of passive portfolios.) So far, the broader Chinese stock market has held up–it’s about where it was at the start of 2021, and where it was four years ago (China Shanghai Composite Stock Market Index | 1990-2021 Data | 2022-2023 Forecast (tradingeconomics.com). But who knows what coming next, particularly with the chill in U.S.-China relations adding to the uncertainty? Your emerging market (or Asian growth fund) bet has a big new element of political risk.
Unilever, going back at least as far as former CEO Paul Polman’s reign, has tried so hard to be a model company in most media eyes. Polman made the Dutch consumer-goods conglomerate a favorite of the ESG sustainability/stakeholder crowd with at least a rhetorical bent against narrow shareholder value. (See: Paul Polman: Embedding ESG in Business is the Right Thing to Do | Nomura (nomuraconnects.com) But even those shareholders liked the returns from buying edgy brands like Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. Now, however, the persistent leftward bent at B&J, by refusing to sell in the Occupied Territories of the Middle East, has triggered costly opposition in the state of Israel and its global support base. Meantime, Unilever, by trying to couch the B&J policy in less offensive terms, has triggered its own adjunct anti-imperialists. Here, a Financial Times columnist weighs the balancing act. Will the progressive profits of the parent company begin to melt?
For those who remember California politics of the 1990s, the story of Gov. Pete Wilson, Proposition 187 and the issue of illegal immigration was a central, long-running feature. Wilson got re-elected in 1994 off his pointed opposition to state taxpayers being put on the hook for public services to these illicit arrivals—the initiative was written to stop that. It passed overwhelmingly but was thrown out by the courts. Wilson—and his state GOP—were tarred ever since with the “racist anti-Latino” brush. One of their most persistent press critics has been Gustavo Arellano, himself the son of undocumented parents. As Wilson has faded into the background at nearly age 88, even as the border remains a hot issue, Arellano has advanced to a platform at the Los Angeles Times. After what he says were months of pursuit, the journalist secured an hour-long interview with Wilson about those times, and it’s worth a (free) listen at the Times site today. (My own angle: I was a Los Angeles-based pundit unfriendly to Wilson for other aspects of his reign in Sacramento, and I still recognize his controvertibility, but I came to admire his gumption. It’s still on display in this dialogue.)
This New York Times columnist winces at what’s happening in his native South Africa and ascribes much of the collapse of order there to the Covid pandemic still hanging over it. He cites a few other countries that are going through related spams—Cuba, Haiti, Lebanon, Colombia and Brazil. (The last two, particularly giant Brazil, are troubled but probably in a different category of crisis.) I’d add others to the list—Burma, Syria and ever-surreal North Korea, to be sure. Afghanistan now is on the edge, Sri Lanka has fallen back into dynastic despotism, Nepal is desperate, and in Latin America as well, Argentina and Peru are tottering. Across this wider spectrum, Covid is less of a common trigger–malaria remains a more fearsome affliction–but the underlying conditions that columnist Manjoo acknowledges are present nonetheless. States can fail, like bankruptcies occur—slowly over time, then all at once. The “recovery” year of 2021 may have further surprises for us.