Saturday, the 25th of January

Talking Points

Representative Adam Schiff makes his case before the Senate. PHOTO: Dana Verkouteren / AP
  1. The impeachment trial of Donald Trump captivated Washington
  2. And 2016's other upset, Britain's Brexit bill, became law
  3. The UN ruled the deportation of climate refugees unlawful
  4. Myanmar instructed to protect its Rohingya citizens at The Hague
  5. Backers of Libya's warring factions agreed to arms embargo
  6. A cross-party cabinet was finally agreed upon in Lebanon
  7. Just as Norway's ruling coalition collapsed over ISIS repatriates
  8. The first Ukrainian victims of Iran's air disaster were delivered home
  9. Meng Wanzhou's politically-charged extradition case opened
  10. Roger Federer eyed off a new record: 100 Australian Open wins

Deep Dive

Huawei CEO Ren Zhengfei at Davos. PHOTO: AFP

This week a who's who of industry and government figures descended upon the Swiss resort town of Davos for the 50th World Economic Forum (WEF). They've spent the week pondering the theme 'Stakeholders for a Cohesive and Sustainable World'. Considering the size of the stakes that they collectively hold, we decided to check in on them.

Lofty plenary sessions

The average business titan or president can while away their time in any number of fascinating lectures and plenary sessions. AI in the health industry? Check. Sustainable fashion? Check. Cyber-crimes? Check. The Prince of Wales told the gathered bigwigs that a paradigm shift was needed in finance; the United Nations Secretary General described the threats facing our planet as the four horsemen of the apocalypse. The leaders of the world's largest going concerns expressed ongoing concerns at everything from the burgeoning tech cold war to Donald Trump's reelection chances .

There was even a hint of cloak-and-dagger at the summit: speculation has been rife since two Russian spies (posing as plumbers) were arrested in Davos late last year. And in the lead up to this summit Swiss authorities warned the Anglo-American financier Bill Browder of potential danger. The architects of that unspecified danger are presumably Russian, given that Browder is not held in particularly high regard within the walls of the Kremlin (he has been on an improbable and improbably successful quest to have international travel bans placed upon high-ranking Russian figures accused of human rights violations). And Venezuela's would-be leader Juan Guaidó was there, trying in vain to whip up support for his flickering revolution against Nicolás Maduro. Plenty to keep one occupied.

But the attendees are not attending Davos for the interesting tidbits of dinner table conversations. The main features of the summit are the attendees themselves . Where else can one quite literally rub shoulders with the chair of Deutsche Bank, the president of Azerbaijan's state oil company, the boss of Bayer's crop science division, and Bridgewater's world-famous founder? Davos is about the world's most powerful people meeting their peers and talking shop.

One trillion trees

This year the WEF pushed forward with the 1 Trillion Tree Initiative , which doesn't merit further explanation. No one would argue that this isn't a positive contribution (just receiving Donald Trump's signature on a green project is a coup for the organisers) but it could be perceived as window dressing. When you have C-suite or board members from BlackRock, Goldman Sachs, HSBC, BoA, Citi, Bridgewater Associates, Barclays, and JPMorgan Chase all in one place, you are looking at quite a hefty slice of the world's money. The kind of transformation that will help avoid 2°C warming requires a massive shift in how capital is deployed. Davos would be a good place to start that shift.

Which is exactly the message that Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg took to Davos (albeit with a significantly blunter and more meaningful construction). Returning to her common refrain "our house is on fire" she lambasted the gathered elite for making empty promises and failing to act meaningfully on climate change. Her speech received applause – they always do – but it's hard to escape the sensation that having a firebrand of her nature attend these events is there for theatre and some light catharsis for the attendees. Though there were a few that didn't applaud: following in the footsteps of so many other gauche middle-aged men before him, US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin could not restrain himself from arguing with a child .

A deficit in understanding

The communications firm Edelman conducts an annual survey on institutional trust that is released to coincide with the WEF. The 2020 report shows in no uncertain terms that trust in government, business, NGOs and media is subsiding. More than half of the 34,000 respondents reported that capitalism generally does more harm than good in the world. This finding led the authors of the study to describe a 'trust paradox' : people are losing faith in the economy even as it ostensibly moves from strength to strength. This is only paradoxical for those who understand economies in the abstract – as an artifice of stock indexes and publicly-listed companies.

For those who see the economy as the sum of economic relationships of the people living within it, there is no paradox. Oxfam's latest inequality report – also timed for release ahead of the WEF – revealed that inequality is not so much rising as it is soaring. It found that the world's 2,153 billionaires (the prime audience of Davos) held more wealth than 60% of the human race: 4.6 billion people. That inequality is rising in tandem with the performance of stock indices: distrust over such a state of affairs is not paradoxical – it's advisable (evidence: the chief of the International Monetary Fund ) .

Until the attendees of the WEF marry their rhetoric with their ability to enact change in the world, it will not shake off its image of a luxury junket for the private jet class.


The next SARS? PHOTO: Reuters

Couldn't've picked a worse time

At time of writing the coronavirus strain that emerged from Wuhan has killed 25 people from 800 confirmed cases in China. The only thing that can be said with certainty is that by the time you read this sentence those figures will have risen. At this early stage only antivirals and supplemental oxygen has shown promise in treating this SARS-like coronavirus. The World Health Organisation deferred its decision on announcing a global health emergency for now; cases have been limited to a handful of countries.

The scale of the problem is immense: 11 million people live in Wuhan and a further 58 million in the wider province of Hubei – population density like this does not lend itself to easy containment of infectious diseases. This has not stopped Beijing from locking down transport out of Wuhan, as well as neighbouring Huanggang. That's 20 million under quarantine. Such measures are unwieldy, expensive and – as nearly every major infectious outbreak has shown us in the last two decades – ineffective.

That it is occurring in the lead-up to the Lunar New Year provides a world-historic challenge for Chinese health officials. The travel period on either side of the New year, Chunyun, is accurately described as the biggest human migration on earth. Some three billion individual train, car and plane journeys will be undertaken as China's enormous population join their families. Beijing and several other cities have taken the measure of banning Lunar New Year events . It's believed that the coronavirus emerged late last year from a marketplace that illegally sold animals like snakes, wolves and koalas for meat.

Enter your details here. PHOTO: AFP

Closing the cookie jar

Once upon a time, one could reasonably expect to be overwhelmed with shotgun advertisements suggesting 'hot singles in your area' or various fraudulent get-rich-quick schemes. It's hard not to look at the absurdity and light-criminality of those banner ads with some nostalgia in the era of targeted advertising. Now we're just stalked from website to website by a pair of shoes that you showed a passing interest in weeks earlier. This intrusive and slightly creepy phenomenon is driven by third-party cookies.

As a quick aside, first-party cookies are the morsels of information that you entrust to a website you are visiting for optimised use (i.e. storing certain preferences, location, etc); third-party cookies are those same morsels that are scooped up by other websites, apps and programs. Over time third-party cookies accumulate and online advertisers can get a fairly good idea of who you are and what you do online. This is extremely valuable for helping vendors (that shoe company) suggest you products that you may have shown an interest in, and is quite annoying for most internet users.

Moving forward: Google wants to end third-party cookies . Following the lead of Apple – which excised said cookies from Safari in 2017 – the ubiquitous browser wants to address growing user concern about who is following them around the internet and collecting their data. This is great for people who don't like those shoes interrupting their online browsing. But it's even better for Google. The decision to cut out third-party cookies will hobble, if not destroy, competing ad-distribution networks . Luckily for vendors wanting to hawk their wares, they can turn to Google, which feeds a treasure trove of personal information collected about you from its apps and browser into an enormous ad-distribution network. Neat, isn't it?

In an entirely related story from the week, Google's parent company Alphabet joined Apple and Microsoft in the trillion dollar club .

The Best of Times

Uprooting invasive practices. PHOTO: ABC

Lost tribes, cocaine, and conservationists

This is a cracker .

There's still hope

For many people with autism, being thrust into new experiences can be a discombobulating and stressful experience. For those on the severe end of the spectrum (i.e: are non-verbal or cannot communicate) negotiating an unfamiliar environment may be entirely overwhelming. But in Britain, a specialist school is using VR headsets to simulate stressful real-world experiences – visiting shopping centres or mass-transit hubs – to help acclimatise their students with autism. At its best technology improves lives.

The Worst of Times

The silver-spoon in her mouth disappeared. PHOTO: AFP

Cashing out

This week Africa's richest woman was named and shamed by the reporters of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) of Panama and Paradise Papers' fame. Isabel dos Santos – the daughter of the man who ruled Angola for nearly four decades – used her position to extract hundreds of millions of dollars from state accounts. The 700,000 documents reviewed by the ICIJ show unscrupulous practices from the same group of professional services firms (PwC, Boston Consulting Group, McKinskey & Co.) whose acronyms often turn up in investigations like this.

Lives worth living

To sacrifice your life for your country is unremarkable; humans are territorial after all. To sacrifice your life for another country is something else. This week a trio of Californian firefighters perished when their water-bombing aircraft crashed while fighting massive conflagrations over the Australian east coast. That countries regularly lend firefighters to one another is a rare display of the international solidarity required to navigate our burning, sodden, sinking world.

Weekend Reading

Quote of the week

"There's nothing immutable about this. Every generation has to fight for it. We're fighting for it right now. There's no guarantee that this democracy that has served us so well will continue to prosper."

– Representative Adam Schiff delivers a rousing call to arms at the impeachment hearing (not pictured: that every vote has split 53-47 down party lines so far).

Headline of the week

''Australia wildfires: Mining firm BHP complains smoke is slowing down coal production" The Independent (not a joke).

Special mention

The one and only Terry Jones. Let this tie you over until you can get your hands on a copy of The Meaning Of Life .

Some choice long-reads

Tom Wharton