Talking Points

The Channel has never felt, or looked, as wide. PHOTO: Bloomberg
  1. Britain and the European Union prepare for a no-deal Brexit
  2. Ports in the UK have already sunk into chaos and gridlock
  3. The Feds and dozens of US states sue to break up Facebook
  4. Uber retreats from the self-driving and flying-car businesses
  5. Election over, the DOJ steps up its Hunter Biden probe
  6. The US Supreme Court weighs in on looted Nazi art
  7. YouTube radicalisation is in the spotlight after a Christchurch inquiry
  8. Adult entertainment giant Pornhub was exposed for child abuse
  9. New details emerged about the mysterious 'Havana syndrome'
  10. Hundreds were hospitalised with an unidentified illness in south India

Deep Dive

A Sikh warrior takes up (symbolic) arms against Modi. PHOTO: Danish Sidiqqui / Reuters

Where were you during the largest general strike in history? This isn’t a curve-ball: it was just two weeks ago. 250m people (according to trade union estimates) took part in a general strike in India on the 26th of November. Even adjusting for the rubbery figures of organisers, that's a gargantuan number.

(One quarter of) one billion people can’t be wrong

People have been sowing crops in north-west India for a little over 11,000 years. The earliest examples of organised planting predate the Neolithic agricultural revolution by a good millennia or so. The cultivation of crops has been the backbone of every economy since, from the Indus Valley civilisation to the Mughal empire. The annual deluge of the Indian monsoon creates perfect conditions for mass farming – but this reliance on the climate also cuts the other way. During British rule, the bounty of India’s soil was extracted and sold elsewhere for profit. Whenever the monsoons failed, as they did several times in the 18th and 19th centuries, tens of millions of Indians starved to death. This history, including the 1943 Bengal famine (which was caused not by drought but by Churchill's policy to deny urgent requests and continue to export grains from India to support its war effort), helped focus agricultural policy in the early years of an independent India on one goal: self-sustainability.

Today some 40% of India’s workforce derives its income from the land. These people work in small land-holdings, often around or below the poverty line, and they remain just as reliant on monsoons today as in days past. But what has changed is who they sell to, and the security with which they sell it. Most Indian farmers sell their produce in state-owned wholesale markets which are designed to ensure the farmers get paid a Minimum Support Price. This is state aid, and it ensures that tens of millions of Indians are paid a fair price for their work. Which is not to say that the system works well. It is dysfunctional to the point of inoperability in some states (where private buyers have moved in to fill the role the government once did), and the rural poverty rate remains stuck stubbornly at 25% – far higher than in the cities.

So the argument for changing it is strong. And back in 2017 the Centre signalled its intention to modernise what is undoubtedly an old and over-complicated system. But India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi is not known for half-measures. And as the plans have solidified into three pieces of legislation (known colloquially as the farm laws), the extent of his ambition has become apparent. The laws remove the ability for state-regulated markets to derive a fee from farmers, they allow for produce to be sold outside regulated markets (crucially, electronically), and they prevent state governments from placing a levy on produce sold outside the market system. The laws passed in September, and they effectively end the protection farmers had from powerful price-gouging buyers. India’s farmers believe they have been sold out to predatory private corporations, by a government they had voted for in droves.

Dilli Chalo!

The backlash against the farm laws was strongest in the north-western farming states of Haryana and Punjab. Powerful trade unions did battle with state governments and sent thousands of farmers into the streets to underscore their point. This proved a fruitless strategy, so in November they adopted a new one: Dilli Chalo! Let’s go to Delhi! But there is no point marching on the capital unless you know you’ve got the attention of the Centre, so on the 26th of that month they held a general strike.

The 24-hour strike was the work of 450 trade unions, backed by the flailing Indian National Congress opposition, a handful of Marxist parties, and the state governments of Kerala, Puducherry, Odisha, Assam, Telangana, Jharkhand, and Chhattisgarh. Trucks stopped. Banks closed. Workers walked out of mines and ports alike. Even if the boisterous figures of labour organisers are half wrong, there were still well over 100 million workers declaring solidarity with Indian farmers.

And then the farmers marched on Delhi . By the tens of thousands, they arrived on the 30th of November; by the 3rd of this month, the count was up into the hundreds of thousands. Desperate pleas by the government dissuaded the farmers from their initial plan of grid-locking the entire capital with their trucks and tractors. Instead, they have gathered in three enormous encampments on the outskirts of the city, waiting to be heard. They’ve come prepared with food stocks to last them at least half a year. Five rounds of talks with increasingly senior government officials have not budged them from their demands . Home Minister Amit Shah was the latest to be rebuffed, and indeed the demands are growing. This is no longer simply about farm-gate prices, but an entire underclass of rural Indians who have been left behind as their cities have grown into glistening, wealthy technology hubs.

Modi’s government signalled a willingness to weaken some amendments, but not (at least as yet) to retract the core components of the farm bills. So this week, Indians struck again. The numbers were paltry in comparison (just a lazy few million) but the intent was clear: they're not going anywhere .


Worldlywise

DoorDash launches itself into the stratosphere. PHOTO: AFP

Humble pie – can we get that delivered?

One of the most over-egged tropes in the world of startups is that of the 'origin story'. These are usually tales of adversity, inflated and spun up to create hype – call it official myth-making. Yes, a small minority of entrepreneurs probably do truly embody the stories told about them. But the cult of the founder is real. And most of the time these tales should come with warning labels: that they elide juicy details like familial stakes in emerald mines, or misappropriate anecdotes to build purposeful narratives. Once established, the tales are regularly leant upon, even though they bear little semblance to the truth. This week, the DoorDash IPO brought to light one such story. And it's a corker .

The story goes that DoorDash Founder Tony Xu's mother Julie immigrated to America and worked her way up from being a waitress to managing her own restaurant. This difficult and humble beginning in hospitality was apparently a formative experience for her son. It supposedly led him to create the food-delivery service DoorDash , with a handful of Stanford buddies. Today, the company's ubiquitous delivery drivers and riders ferry meals from restaurants all across the US to 18m customers, at the tap of a button. In return, DoorDash takes a slice (a huge meaty chunk, really) of the bill – often 24%, but sometimes as much as 30%. For many restaurants which already operate on razor-thin margins, the DoorDash levy is the difference between staying afloat, or not. DoorDash drivers too have revealed time and time again that they cannot earn a living wage with what they get paid. Now, with the pandemic decimating foot traffic, restaurants have had little choice in the matter. And DoorDash has benefitted handsomely.

This week DoorDash went public, raising over $3b in its initial public offering, and enjoyed a stunning 92% jump in share value. Its fully-diluted value is now north of $70b – more than Ford Motors or Kraft Heinz . Interestingly, Uber and Facebook are the only two companies to go public with higher valuations. And what seems to be a common thread across all three is that they can only prosper when those around them don't. The plight of drivers, riders, moderators, readers, and even publishers sits lightly in the balance when weighed against the profit potential of these businesses.

The DoorDash founders are also now billionaires - several times over. In a 2017 interview, Xu said, "as a kid, I wasn't good at many things, but I was pretty good with numbers. I always knew how the accounting worked for a restaurant. That taught me very early on that a restaurant's to-go business is more profitable than their in-store business."

It probably was. But it almost certainly won't be now, thanks to DoorDash. And so back to that origin story - it seems tragically ironic that if DoorDash had been around at the time, Xu's family might not have been able to make it in the hospitality trade.

Margaret Keenan gets her jab. PHOTO: AFP

V-Day in Britain

This week the first clinically tested and fully authorised Covid-19 vaccination in Britain was delivered, and for a brief moment the world forgot to wince at the thought of a needle entering a person's body. That person, Northern Irish nonagenarian Margaret Keenan , was entirely unfazed, "I say go for it... If I can do it, well, so can you". What happened to all that vocal criticism of Britain's ungainly rush to approve the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine? That was last week's news! It's all now been drowned out by the backslapping in London (and wherever Pfizer and BioNTech stockholders happened to be that day).

But still, grandstanding and health concerns aside, it's hard not to wish for the success of the program (and for the lessons of its logistical hiccups to be made public ). There are plenty of challenges to come (unavailability of freezer trucks, state-sponsored hackers , hospital staff shortages) but one that has already emerged can't be pinned on the supply chain. After Keenan, who goes next?

Several thousand people have received their first dose this week, but there is considerable confusion as to where people stand in the queue. The scientific advisory body tasked with this public health conundrum recommended that care home residents have first access. This is not surprising since at least 20,000 of them – a conservative estimate – have succumbed as Covid-19 has swept through their facilities. But care home residents and frontline workers alike have been leapfrogged, leading to questions about whose science the rollout is predicated on. Citing cold storage issues (which were instantly disputed) Johnson opted to keep the initial shots in hospitals.

This is not just a British problem. In Brazil pregnant women have been moved to the front of the line. In the United States, the CDC made the same recommendations as its British counterpart (with a second tranche going to essential workers, the elderly, and those with underlying health conditions next). Given that the US drug regulator approved Pfizer's vaccine during the week, and that the first doses will arrive by the end of the year, this decision will fall to the outgoing president. Who knows which groups Donald Trump will want to see vaccinated first. On a broader scale, the problem is even more acute. In rich countries the difference in when you get your vaccine might be a matter of weeks. But for low-income countries, a recent report held that 9 out of 10 nations won't receive their first doses until 2022. The head of Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention described it as a moral issue , and said the inequitable distribution of vaccines was "extremely terrible to see".

Unfortunately, if the developed world is good at anything it is averting its gaze from terrible sights in the developing world.


The Best of Times

Nowhere to grow but up. PHOTO: AFP

Greener pastures

A newly-opened vertical farm in Denmark provides the world with a blueprint for a greener way to grow greens. The farm recycles its own water, is carbon-neutral, and, given its location in Copenhagen, is extremely close to consumers. For every kilogram of produce, only one litre of water is used — which is 40 times less than the amount used in underground farms, and 250 times less than on fields. Its constant light also means produce can be harvested 15 times a year; 1000 tonnes are expected to be grown in 2021 .

Mini livers, but they're not for eating

Scientists have grown functioning liver organoids from stem cells using both computational analysis and genetic engineering. The process takes the guesswork out of organ growth: induced pluripotent stem cells are able to produce cells that build organs naturally, but they need the right amount of growth signals at the right time to do it. Hence, the computational analysis to find the right genes, and the genetic engineering to alter them. The result: a liver organoid developed in 15-17 days with the same functions as a human liver, only smaller.


The Worst of Times

The Paris Agreement is not enough. PHOTO: Associated Press

An empty podium

Of the states responsible for 90% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, none are doing enough to stop temperatures rising 2°C above pre-industrial levels. The figure comes from this year’s Climate Change Performance Index , which ranks 57 countries and the EU based on their environmental action. The top three places of the rank were left empty this year, as even those with better scores aren’t taking an adequate amount of action. And so, expect even more damage caused by climate change .

Tech for humanity (or crimes against it)

The Chinese government is using big data to target and arrest minorities, a leaked document obtained by the Human Rights Watch reveals. The list of 2,000 detainees exposes people being arrested for: travelling for Hajj, wearing a veil, speaking to a relative abroad, or even being born after the 1980s . Known as the Integrated Joint Operations Program, the system combs through a database of people’s personal data filled by automated online monitoring or entered by officials. The database includes information such as people’s physical characteristics, their contacts, and what software they use online .


Weekend Reading

The image

A Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) official retrieves a small component from the Hayabusa2 probe that landed in the Australian outback. It contains samples from an asteroid 300m kms away. Photograph supplied by The Independent.

The quote

"YouTube was, for him, a far more significant source of information and inspiration."

– The inquiry into the Christchurch shooter revealed his obsession with right-wing Facebook pages, white nationalist forums, but most worryingly, YouTube . All those jokes about YouTube algorithms turning your children into Nazis is no longer funny.

The numbers

1.1 teratonnes

- One paper has found that human-made materials now outweigh the living biomass of the planet. Minimalism is not going to cut it if we are serious about not turning the Earth into a carpark.

0.86m

- The amount that Mount Everest officially grew this week when China and Nepal finally agreed to a new standard for measuring the world's highest peak.

The headline

"One-day US deaths top 3,000, more than D-Day or 9/11" The Independent . Will December 9th make it into the mausoleum of national tragedies?

The special mention

Chuck Yeager , an American hero of the last century. Alternatively, some American heroes of the current century: these marauding New York rats .

A few choice long-reads

  • How do you and eight pals make $660m in just a few hours? Bloomberg Businessweek looks at the cowboys who lassoed the jump to negative oil.
  • You can't leave, but you can't stay. It's not just characters stuck in Franz Kafka novels who endure mind-bending bureaucratic tangles. Foreign Policy looks at the bizarre and lonely life of Sudanese refugees in Israel.
  • It's taken half a century for us to realise that maybe Milton Friedman was wrong about the corporation. Financial Times weighs in with a cracking column on what moral responsibility means.

Tom Wharton

@trwinwriting