一天一篇经济学人 2020-11-23 09:13



1. The Economist | The art of losing



American politics

The art of losing

Accepting a disappointing election result is a vital part of a healthy democracy

Almost two weeks after the votes that made him a one-term president were counted, Donald Trump is still claiming that he won. In reality there is no room for doubt. Joe Biden beat him by almost 6m votes, amassing 306 electoral-college votes to Mr Trump’s 232. Yet reality is a stranger to Mr Trump, who was crying fraud before the first vote had been cast. He has since fired an official who contradicted his view that the election was stolen and encouraged his supporters to protest against the result.

Most Republican leaders go along with the president. They include his attorney-general, Bill Barr, who told prosecutors to investigate “substantial allegations” of election fraud; Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, who has championed the president’s right to go to court; and Lindsey Graham, one of Mr Trump’s staunchest Senate defenders, who Georgia’s secretary of state says pressed him to exclude legitimate ballots.

As so often in the Trump presidency, it is hard to know how seriously to take all this. No coup is under way in America. Mr Trump does indeed have the right to mount legal challenges. The counting and certifying of election results has withstood pressure from above. Most of the Trump campaign’s lawsuits have already been dropped or tossed out by the courts. Mr Barr’s prosecutors explained that they could find no evidence of the kind of systematic fraud that the president insists took place. Despite violent threats, Georgia’s secretary of state refused to buckle (see United States section).

Whatever he says or does, Mr Trump will be out on January 20th and Mr Biden will be inaugurated. Might ignoring him thus be the best strategy? Some wonder if it might be best to let the courts explain to forlorn Trump voters that their man lost.

Yet Republican conduct is expedience dressed up as principle. Lawmakers are cowed by the threat that Mr Trump might back a primary challenge against anyone he judges disloyal. They think they need Mr Trump’s support to win two run-off races in early January in which control of the Senate is at stake. Worse, their indulgence of Mr Trump imposes a cost on America. The effect of Republican leaders agreeing that perhaps Mr Trump really did win damages America’s ability to govern itself.

All Americans should wish the incoming administration to be competent. By delaying the transition, which in America’s spoils system entails the appointment of 4,000 new officials—all of whom must receive clearances before getting to grips with their new posts—Mr Trump is making that harder. When George W. Bush handed over to Barack Obama, they held a joint session of cabinet where outgoing officials sat with their replacements and ran through a series of hypothetical crises. The Biden officials will come into office with several existing crises to handle, including the logistics of a vaccination programme for covid-19 in which lives are at stake.

The president and his apologists are doing harm in another way, too. Voters have elected a divided government in Washington, with Democrats controlling the House and the presidency and Republicans favourites to keep the Senate. This requires both parties to work together, finding common interests where they can. If most Trump voters, encouraged by the likes of Mr McConnell, have come to believe that Mr Biden’s win is illegitimate, why should they want their representatives to work with him?

America has had bitter elections before, yet the electoral system has almost always generated loser’s consent. In 2000 a minority of Gore supporters (36%) thought the result was illegitimate; in 2016, 23% of Clinton voters thought so. In 2020, 88% of Trump voters currently think the result was illegitimate. It is up to their elected officials to explain why it was not. This requires more than waiting for the courts, local election officials—or anyone else—to speak up. Failure to do so does not just make America harder to govern. It betrays a contempt for the spirit of democracy and thus a lack of patriotism.


2. The Economist | Beastly earnings




Beastly earnings

The pandemic is producing clear winners and losers among America’s retailers

How have America’s retailers coped with covid-19? “We’re still learning,” declared John Furner, who runs Walmart’s vast American operations, on November 17th, as the supermarket giant reported third-quarter results. He is being too modest. Walmart, as well as a handful of other big firms such as Target, its smaller rival, and Home Depot, a diy Goliath benefiting from housebound home-improvers staring at dingy walls and outdated kitchens, are thriving.

Paul Lejuez of Citigroup, a bank, described the three months to October as “another stellar quarter” for Walmart. Total global revenues increased by 5.2%, year on year, to $135bn. If anything, international sales, which grew by just 1.3%, dragged down strong performance in America, which accounts for the bulk of revenues; Walmart has said it will sell most of its flagging Japanese supermarkets. By contrast, domestic comparable-store sales, a standard industry metric, rose by 6.4%. Home Depot’s quarterly revenues shot up by 23% compared with a year ago, to $33.5bn, keeping up the previous quarter’s pace. Target’s operating profit nearly doubled to $1.9bn.

Shining retail stars mask darkness elsewhere in the industry. American shoppers rebounded faster than elsewhere in the rich world (see chart). But retail sales grew by just 0.3% last month, compared with the one before, the slowest in half a year. They softened in most of the 13 categories tracked. As investors swooned over Walmart and Home Depot, Kohl’s, a middling retail chain, reported falling revenues. “The distinction between the haves and the have-nots has gotten even sharper,” says Simeon Gutman of Morgan Stanley, an investment bank.

Mr Gutman points to the successful firms’ superior management of diverse, global supply chains. This allows shoppers to satisfy most of their retail needs in one store—particularly important in a pandemic, when people are keen to limit their outings. Walmart’s customers make fewer trips to the store but spend more whenever they do, he notes.

The star retailers’ biggest edge, though, comes from e-commerce. Walmart in particular upped its e-game just in time to benefit from a pandemic surge in online shopping. A survey of American shoppers by McKinsey, a consultancy, found that kerbside pick-up has nearly doubled from pre-covid levels, and in-store “click and collect” sales have shot up by nearly 50% from last year. Walmart’s digital sales leapt by nearly 80% in the latest quarter, year on year, to $10bn. That is still less than 8% of revenues—but more than in the whole of 2016, according to Morgan Stanley. The fast-approaching holiday shopping season is likely to bring even more online sales than usual, says Mr Gutman.

By doubling down on digital, Walmart is taking on Amazon’s e-emporium. The tech giant is not taking this lying down. On November 17th it launched its long-awaited digital pharmacy. This threatens not just chemists such as Walgreens and cvs but also Walmart, which sells prescription drugs in over 4,000 of its big-box stores. When it comes to e-commerce, Mr Furner’s humility is fully justified. 


3. The Economist | Roll up, roll up and write down


Finance and economics

Sovereign debt

Roll up, roll up and write down

How can governments recover faster from insolvency?

“The procedures for resolving an international debt crisis”, wrote Alexis Rieffel, a former American Treasury official, in 1985, “resemble a three-ring circus”. In the first ring, the bankrupt country negotiates with the imf, which must decide how much the country can repay and what belt-tightening it must endure. In the second ring, the country asks for leniency from other governments to whom it owes money. And in the third, it seeks a “comparable” deal from private lenders.

The circus sometimes, however, struggles to hold it all together. After Argentina defaulted in May, for example, the imf failed to play its customary role in the first ring. It could not provide new supervision and finance, because the country was still reeling from the failure of its previous imfbail-out. The second ring has also suffered from some absent performers. In the past decade China has become a far bigger lender to poor countries than other governments combined (see chart 1). But it is not a member of the Paris Club, which has tended to oversee debt renegotiations between countries and their official creditors. As for the third ring, when the Latin American debt crisis struck in the early 1980s, it took commercial lenders (and their governments) almost seven years to find a lasting solution. The juggling went on and on.

Many fear another series of defaults is looming. Government revenues and export receipts have plunged in many poor countries (though efforts by America’s Federal Reserve to calm financial panic have lowered their cost of borrowing). On November 13th Zambia became the sixth country this year to default on its bonds. Eight spend over 30% of their fiscal revenues on interest payments, reckons Fitch, a rating agency, more than in the early 2000s when Bono and other debt-relief campaigners were at their clamorous best. Fitch gives 38 sovereigns a rating of b+ or worse, where b denotes a “material” risk of default (see chart 2). According to its projections, governments with a junk rating—bb+ or worse—may soon outnumber those classed as investment-grade.

Will the circus handle any new crisis better than it did in the 1980s? In some ways its task is even harder now. Poor countries owe a wider variety of liabilities to a broader range of creditors. For many emerging economies, bonds have eclipsed bank loans. And loans themselves are far from uniform. Some are secured against state assets, such as a stake in a public enterprise, or oil revenues; the creditor might prefer to seize the collateral rather than write off the debt. Others are syndicated, or parcelled out among many banks, which means that no single creditor can forgive the loan at its own discretion.

This gnarly mix of instruments is matched by an equally tangled bunch of creditors: public, private and everything in between. In April, for example, the g20 group of big economies called on member governments to provide a repayment holiday on loans to the world’s poorest countries. China was unhappy that private creditors did not share in the effort. Others complained that China Development Bank, which is owned and directed by the state but not synonymous with China’s government, did not take part.

There has, however, also been progress. On November 21st-22nd, g20 leaders will sign off on a “common framework” for renegotiating debts with the world’s poorest countries. The framework, in effect, extends the principles of the Paris Club to those g20members who are not already in it, widening the second ring of the circus. It applies only to countries with unsustainable debts, and any borrower that receives relief from the g20 must seek a similar deal from other creditors. Because all lenders must do their bit, little hangs on whether they are classified as official or private. That is perhaps why the framework has met little opposition from China.

There has been progress in contracts as well as clubs. After Argentina defaulted in 2001, it offered to exchange its unpayable bonds for new securities with easier terms. Some bondholders rejected the deal, seeking full payment in New York’s courts instead. That made life harder for both Argentina and its other creditors. Since 2003, most bonds issued under New York law have contained “collective-action clauses”, which compel all bondholders to go along with any deal accepted by the majority. Such clauses helped Ecuador resolve its default this year with “hardly any real grumbling”, notes Clay Lowery of the Institute of International Finance, a bankers’ association. They also helped Argentina reach a deal with its main bondholders in August (albeit with “a fair amount of grumbling”).

A review of the “architecture” for resolving sovereign debt, published by the imf in September, pondered other contractual innovations that might ease future restructurings. Lenders might insist on wider use of “negative-pledge clauses” that prevent a borrower pawning vital assets as collateral to other creditors. Syndicated loans might add “yank the bank” provisions that allow a lender to be kicked out of the syndicate if it blocks a deal. The fund is also paying renewed attention to “contingent” debt instruments that are more sensitive to the ups and downs that befall poor countries. Barbados, for example, has issued bonds that repay less in the event of an earthquake or tropical cyclone.

One idea, proposed by Ben Heller and Pijus Virketis of hbk Capital Management, an investment fund, is “bendy bonds”. In most cases, these would behave like ordinary bonds. But in a crisis the issuer could extend the maturity and defer interest for a couple of years in return for paying additional interest at the end of the bond’s life. The issuer could benefit from the kind of payment holiday envisaged in the g20’s April initiative without any help from the great powers. As the long history of debt restructurings attests, “fixed” income liabilities are often anything but. Solemn commitments to pay in full and on time cannot always be kept. Lenders and borrowers alike might therefore welcome instruments that specify up front when and how fixed income will become more flexible. 


4. 1843 magazine | https://www.economist.com/1843/2020/11/11/never-ending-story-why-do-todays-tv-shows-go-on-and-on


Never-ending story: why do today’s TV shows go on and on?

Brevity is blessed, even in a pandemic

In one of his odes the Roman poet Horace declared that “the short span of life forbids us from undertaking long hopes.” Unfortunately, people don’t read the classics much these days. And though the span of life is a little longer for most of us now than it was in Roman times, the entertainment industry seems determined to stuff our additional life years with long films, interminable Netflix series and endless podcasts.

We often talk about being time poor, but that’s because contemporary artists devour so much of it. Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” was three-and-a-half hours long. “Game of Thrones” stretched to 60 episodes – and four of the final six lasted more than 75 minutes each. Netflix recently celebrated the wonders of Marvel’s superheroes in a succession of 13-episode series.

The bright side of supersizing is the chance for full immersion. Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” is a compelling novel, as well as a great one, because it takes time to tell a story on a vast canvas. Why shouldn’t today’s TV and film directors do the same? “The Wire” and “The Sopranos” are compulsive viewing precisely because their creators have time to explore characters and their worlds in depth. “Game of Thrones” was sensational at creating an alternate universe populated by a mesmerising cast.

The promise of losing yourself in another existence is particularly attractive during a pandemic. Netflix and Amazon Prime – and yes, even the BBC and HBO – provide us with all sorts of wonderful benefits during lockdown. This digital world offers a substitute to the social life of pubs, restaurants and cafés; a respite from the pressure of tele-commuting (rather than gabbing on Zoom you can simply lie back and watch the flickering figures); and an introduction to a realm where the threat of covid-19 is absent, or at least pales into insignificance compared with the threat of being roasted by a dragon or murdered by the Mafia.


These assets are all the more important as the nights draw in and temperatures fall. Yet the more I’ve stared at the TV screen during these covid-tinged months, the more frustrated I’ve become: rather than immersion I’ve been meandering; instead of entertainment I’ve been given self-indulgence. Even the most talented auteurs have taken to banging on too long.

Did Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” really need two parts or “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” that extra hour? “Game of Thrones” stumbled as it hit the last series and struggled to fill the expanding time. “Breaking Bad”, one of the great shows of recent years, threw away an entire episode fixating on the buzzing of a fly.

When it comes to more run-of-the-mill talents, the fashion for supersizing is not so much an encumbrance as a disaster. Directors have taken to filling the available time with the equivalent of hot air – plots that wander, minor characters who pop up for no reason, filler walks by the sea or conversations about the meaning of life. “The Americans”, a series about Russian spies in America who pass themselves off as regular citizens, seems to drag on for longer than the cold war itself. A whole episode is taken up with one character, Oleg, ambling around an oh-so-big American supermarket.

The fashion for space-filling is driven by the collusion of technology and artistic ego. In the old world TV programmes had to be divided into neat slices to be sandwiched between adverts: half an hour for comedies and an hour for dramas or documentaries. Powerful studio heads and TV bosses forced writers to master the art of efficient storytelling – in order to keep the audience watching (they needed to get them from one lot of bill-paying ads to the next). In the new world artists are unshackled from such constraints. Digital space is seemingly limitless, and the various competing “platforms” are desperate for content.

Opportunism has also played a role. In a world in which eyeballs are currency, studio heads can’t bear to sacrifice them once they’ve been captured. So even successful series chug along long after they’ve run out of creative steam. “Narcos” was gripping at first, but as the episodes rolled the editing became sloppier and the story line repetitive. I suspect that the already fading “Crown” – season four is due to hit screens on November 15th – will overdo the wedding pageantry with interminable preparations and lingering shots of Diana’s gown.

It’s time for change. Some of the most successful shows of recent years have also been the most disciplined: “Little Fires Everywhere” managed to combine the pace of the old dispensation with the expansiveness of the new, and ran for only eight episodes. “Unorthodox” was shockingly short (and brilliant), with four parts.

Today’s equivalent of studio heads are beginning to realise that people are tired of having their time taken for granted: Netflix has even introduced a feature that allows you to play its stuff at double speed. Reed Hastings, Netflix’s boss, once described old-fashioned television as “managed dissatisfaction”, because you had to wait a week for the next episode. He and his ilk are in danger of replacing managed dissatisfaction with “unmanaged dissatisfaction”. There’s just one thing standing in their way: we may all die of boredom first, still trying to make it to the end of a new thousand-part series.•


ADRIAN WOOLDRIDGE is The Economist’s political editor and Bagehot columnist


5. The Economist | Words against noise


Obituary: Jonathan Sacks

Jonathan Sacks

Words against noise

Rabbi Lord Sacks, chief rabbi, broadcaster and moral philosopher, died on November 7th, aged 72

Every morning he could, Jonathan Sacks pulled on his tracksuit and went out jogging. He was not called the “rapid rabbi” for nothing. Jogging, as his desk-sign reminded him, led to positive thinking. And, thanks to his noise-cancelling earphones, it brought him peace. He heard nothing as he ran but Schubert, Beethoven, or whoever it might be. Those same earphones—one of the best purchases he had ever made—also enabled him when he meditated to hear the music of creation, the quiet voice of wisdom within it, and his response, from his spontaneous waking “Modeh Ani”, “I give thanks”, onwards.

Otherwise, the noise was hard to lose. Every year the voices became more strident and extreme. Consumerism cried “I want! I want!” Individualism cried “Me! Me! My choices, my feelings!” until even the iPhone and iPad he used all the time vexed him with their “I, I, I”. Society had become a cacophony of competing claims. The world gave every sign of falling apart. Even religion, his business, could be a megaphone of hate. He never felt that more strongly than when he stood in January 2002 at Ground Zero in Manhattan, with the ground still smoking round him.

His answer, as the leader of the Orthodox Jews of Britain and also as a moral philosopher, was to raise his own voice. Over his term of office, from 1991 to 2013, he became famous both outside Judaism and outside Britain for his speeches, his lectures (including stints at New York University and Yeshiva University), his three dozen books and his three-minute sermons on bbc Radio 4’s early-morning “Thought for the Day”. A rabbi was, after all, a teacher. He was a clear, kind one, still with a touch of East End about him—his father had sold shmatters, clothes, in Petticoat Lane, and when he was made a peer in 2009 he took the title “Baron Aldgate”. But he was also firm, even stern. He wanted to leave his mostly secular listeners in no doubt that things were good or evil, true or false, absolutely, and that moral relativism was the scourge of the age.

Judaism, as he pointed out, often provided antidotes to the chaos. The Torah, God’s will revealed in words, was an algorithm that gave discipline to life. Keeping Shabbat was an ideal way to achieve work-life balance. The festivals and High Holy Days reminded Jews of their shared traditions and history: the “we”, not the “I”. Above all, out of the suffering endured by Jews for centuries, Judaism had distilled hope. Every crisis gave birth to opportunity. The world could be changed not by force, but by ideas.

Unhappily, though, much of the raucousness that dogged him came from Jews themselves. Though non-Jews saw him as the spokesman for all the Jews of Britain, officially he was the leader of only an Orthodox minority, the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth. A much larger number, Reform and Liberal and ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, were outside his purview, but still looked to him. Pleasing everyone was impossible. His intellectual instincts, honed at Church of England schools and Cambridge rather than religious shuls, were on the liberal side, and in that spirit he made services more lively and revised the daily prayer book, translating the Hebrew from scratch. But in practice it was the Haredi he found himself placating most: avoiding gay groups, doing little to advance the role of women, and—his most regrettable mistake—refusing to attend the funeral of a much-loved Reform rabbi, Hugo Gryn, and calling him a destroyer of the faith. “A great chief rabbi—to the Gentiles,” a fair number said, noting his easier mixing with prime ministers and royals. The Haredi, not won over, called him “Boychik”, wet behind the ears.

Perhaps he was. He never set out to be a rabbi; the impulse had grown very slowly, from that first sense of the mystery of God, when he was two or three, in the sadness of the music at his grandfather’s tiny synagogue in Finchley. He did not even feel especially Jewish until, at Cambridge, the Six-Day War of 1967 suddenly fuelled a lifelong attachment to Israel. He spent the next summer criss-crossing America on a Greyhound bus to look for rabbis, and Menachem Mendel Schneerson in Brooklyn, then the Lubavitcher rebbe, was the first to suggest he might be one himself and train others. Still he wavered, wondering about accountancy. In the end, in the mid-1970s, it was a voice in his head that made him say—as Abraham, ordered to sacrifice his son Isaac, had said three times to God—“Hineni”, “Here I am.”

The task of uniting his co-religionists paled, of course, beside the collapse of society, but this too he had to address. Every man and woman had a duty to care for others, and thus to recreate the bonds that held society together. “I” had to give way to “we”. Out of great crises—climate change, coronavirus—that chance might come. Ideally religion could drive this change, with the world’s faiths uniting, as they had done, imams and gurus, priests and rabbis, at Ground Zero that day. But his argument in “The Dignity of Difference” that all the major religions were equally valid ways to truth had caused even more trouble with the Haredi. Instead, in his last book, he called for a shared morality: agreed norms of behaviour, mutual trust, altruism, and a sense of “all-of-us-together”. The liberty craved by “me” could be sustained only by “us”.

It was a very long shot, but he was not a pessimist. Part of his job was to cheer people up, and he liked to wear a yellow tie, like sunshine, for his public lectures. If he felt depressed, music soon lifted him out of it. So, too, did his studies. If he was stranded on a desert island, he told a bbc interviewer, he hoped it could be with all 20 volumes of the Talmud and plenty of pencils, in order to write commentaries in the margins. Meanwhile, thinking and writing in his garden study in Golders Green, with or without his invaluable earphones, he could escape the shouting world a little.

On a visit he made once to Auschwitz, as he wept and asked, like so many others, where God had been in the Holocaust, he seemed to hear an answer: “I was in the words.” The words were “You shall not murder.” If human beings refused to listen to God, even He was helpless. But if much of the noise that humans made could be cancelled out, they might more often hear what He was saying.






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