Saturday, the 22nd of February

Talking Points

Manchester City ran rings around West Ham. UEFA won't be so easy. PHOTO: The Independent
  1. A titanic battle pitted Manchester City against UEFA
  2. Race-hate shootings left nine dead in Hanau, Germany
  3. International banking giant HSBC cut 35,000 jobs
  4. The Boy Scouts of America collapsed under child abuse cases
  5. Turkey's Gezi Park activists were acquitted; only to be re-arrested
  6. Violence worsened in Cameroon's anglophone region
  7. Islamist gunmen killed 24 at a church in Burkina Faso
  8. Ashraf Ghani (just) won a second term in Afghanistan
  9. A celebrity death in Britain sharpened criticism of tabloids
  10. Roger Stone was handed a reduced sentence of 40 months

Deep Dive

Bloomebrg rises, and falters. PHOTO: Rolling Stone

One question rises above all others in America today. Can anyone beat Donald Trump? The question running a close second to that is, can Michael Bloomberg billionaire media mogul, former Republican and controversial mayor of New York – earn the Democratic nomination?

Let a hundred flowers bloom

Being the mayor of New York is unlike being the mayor of any other city. The NY mayor is in charge of America's largest city; the centre-point of a world-enveloping cultural and financial power. But even so, despite the responsibility and acclaim that such a role demands, it is curious that no mayor of New York has ever gone on to become president. Michael Bloomberg intends to change that. If he does, it won't be the first time he's made history; Bloomberg overcame the two-term limit placed on New York mayors (by running twice as a Republican and once as an independent). But whether he can prevail in this new endeavour is still unclear.

Bloomberg's campaign is unorthodox on many levels. We'll deal with the style first before we get to the substance. He entered the race more than fashionably late, a mere 10 weeks ago , having declined to partake in all of the first four state races (Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina). Now, his self-funded campaign (drawing on Bloomberg's considerable net worth of $64 billion) is pouring an almost-bottomless media budget into the 15 states that are voting on the 3rd of March, Super Tuesday. Such insouciance with the broader electorate would be unthinkable for any other candidate because they simply wouldn't be able to afford the early losses. But with Bloomberg's prodigious balance sheet to call on, the candidate believes he can blast to smithereens any early advantages held by his rivals.

The second unorthodoxy in this campaign is the way it has been stage-managed. No doubt, Bloomberg's ideal campaign would be one that is entirely mediated. It is an emerging (and disturbing) trend following Boris Johnson's success in the UK, to avoid public appearances in all but the most favourable of circumstances. As it happens, face-to-face debates are still (at least for now) an indispensable part of the Democratic nomination process. And j udging by Bloomberg's debut on the debate stage, one gets the feeling that his absence from the early states may have been less a tactical chess-move and more an act of self-preservation. Before a crowd in Nevada, Bloomberg was hounded by his opponents . Elizabeth Warren, whose campaign has faltered in recent weeks, gave the "arrogant billionaire" special attention, drawing attention to the multiple historical sexual harassment allegations that trail him. Bernie Sanders told him point-blank that he hadn't earned his billions. And Joe Biden took him to task for the unmistakably racialised stop-and-frisk policy of New York's police department under his tenure.

It was a walloping.

But can you buy the presidency?

And now for the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question: how much does the White House cost? The best estimates (we'll know for sure when the Federal Election Commission releases its latest campaign finance figures) contend that Bloomberg has spent $400 million in just over three months of campaigning. $400 million. The word unprecedented, while accurate, barely describes the situation.

The obvious question sparked by this figure is what Bloomberg is spending this money on. It's not all going on ads. Through a network of super PACs, Bloomberg has funnelled cash to numerous state and federal representatives, city mayors and community leaders. California's Harley Rouda, New Jersey's Mikie Sherrill, and Georgia's Lucy McBath all received multi-million dollar donations from Bloomberg, and subsequently endorsed him.

In 2016, some quarters averred that Donald Trump was buying himself the presidency. If he did (and it's arguable whether his own money was the decisive factor) then he got it for a dime. Trump spent a mere $66 million of his own money on the path to victory; and he got at least $12 million of that back by paying his own companies. But Trump was a reality TV star, and an ill-reputed real-estate developer. Michael Bloomberg, on the other hand, controls a vast financial news and media empire and is the 8th richest person on earth. So what should concern us isn't just the sum of money Bloomberg is currently spending, but also the lessons for those who aspire to compete in 2024, and 2028. Zuckerberg 2028, anyone?

Bloomberg's three terms as mayor of America's first city were memorably captured in LCD Soundsystem's paean to New York, "your mild billionaire mayor's now convinced he's a king". We'll know by the end of Super Tuesday whether his aptitude matches his ambition.


Green dreams. PHOTO: AP

How do you spend $10 billion?

If you want to put Bloomerg's $400 million in perspective: Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has pledged $10 billion of his personal wealth to fight climate change. His vehicle will be the Bezos Earth Fund; its' recipients a mixture of scientists, charities and climate activists. We await details of criteria, and priorities, of those who'll use the cash. This is not an example of charity for the sake of the tax-breaks: he'll be legally-bound to tip in $500 million per annum to avoid penalties.

From one angle, that's quite a lot of money (it far surpasses the beneficence of the current leading climate-spender, the Hewlett Foundation ). From another vantage point, it's a bearable cost (Bezos recently spent $165 million on a house in California). Criticism comes with the turf of being the richest human, though most examples of it has fallen short of the mark. Those that were merited drew attention to Amazon's nation-sized carbon footprint and tie-ups with fossil-fuel extractors.

But putting that to one side, a headline-grabbing investment is undeniably good if only because it will shame others into similar action. And that couldn't come soon enough. Just this week we've discovered that the mass melting of Antarctic ice is irreversible. We can't dodge this one, because the other major climate story for the week was that the human share of methane emissions is 25-40% higher than previously though.

A fork in the road. PHOTO: AFP

Extrajudicial extradition

2010 was an extraordinary year for the Wikileaks, and for the world. In the space of a few short months a rogue internet outfit with journalistic principles (if not standards) published the Iraq and Afghanistan War logs. The Collateral Murder video surfaced, as did thousands upon thousands of classified diplomatic cables. In 2010, the world learned how the sausages are made. Since then Julian Assange has been a marked man. No doubt he infracted upon American laws – the arguments for his clemency have been made foremost in moral language. Every day since 2010 – in hiding, in the refuge of the Ecuadorian embassy, in the infamous Belmash prison – he's been trying to avoid American custody. Those efforts have reached a critical juncture. Next week he faces the opening skirmish of his extradition trial , and we'll have a good understanding of whether he'll end up facing trial (and undoubtedly a conviction) for nearly 20 espionage-related crimes Stateside.

There were two fascinating quirks of history in the lead-up to the hearing. First, the enthusiasm that the average Briton feels for its extradition treaty with the United States has fallen precipitously. The intricacies of a subject usually left to politicians have been splashed across the tabloids since an American, Anne Sacoolas, ran down and killed a 19-year-old cyclist named Harry Dunn in Northamptonshire last year. Sacoolas hightailed it back to America because, as it turns out, she's a CIA spook. And no, her government isn't planning on sending her back to face the trial, thank you very much. The other is equally galling: a court heard that President Trump offered to pardon Assange if he testified that Russia had nothing to do with the 2016 Democratic party hack!

The Best of Times

A delicate restoration. PHOTO: Cesare Abbate

The House of Lovers

One of Pompeii's best-preserved homes is set to reopen four decades after it was damaged during an earthquake. The fine frescoes and tile-work of this domus were painstakingly refurbished thanks to significant funds from the European Union. Once again history buffs will be able to pass through the entrance with its Latin inscription, "Lovers like bees pass a sweet life like honey. I wish it were so."

It's your take-away coffee or the bees

As it happens, Brussels isn't content to preserve the past, and in fact would like to preserve the present and future. An ambitious proposal before the EU will halve all waste in the bloc by 2030; starting with recyclable textiles, batteries and packaging. If we don't manifest plans like this, future generations visiting the House of Lovers will have to consult their tour-guides as to what bees were.

The Worst of Times

This is not what we meant by cruise control. PHOTO: AP

Shuffling deckchairs on the Diamond Princess

After a fortnight of quarantine aboard the Diamond Princess , passengers found to be free of the coronavirus COVID-19 began disembarking on Thursday. Their feet had barely left the gangplank before the recriminations began: one passenger termed the quarantine effort as "an utter joke". Ignored safety procedures amongst cruise staff are highly regrettable; indeed hundreds more began infected during the quarantine period (with two recorded fatalities). On the other hand, the density of the captive population and the disease's half-life on surfaces didn't exactly make for an easy job.

Wishful counting

China's "passed-the-worst-of-it" narrative is already showing results. A steep drop in newly reported cases in Hubei is a cause for great celebration. Or it would be, had it not been for some creative changes to the way that the local government classifies and reports the coronavirus toll. Beijing's diktats rarely leave much room to argue, though we weren't entirely convinced that the coronavirus is fluent in Mandarin.

Weekend Reading

Quote of the week

"We're hiring data scientists, project managers, policy experts, assorted weirdos..."

– So reads the now-infamous blog post by Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson's Chief Special Adviser. One of the assorted weirdos that got a job was Andrew Sabisky , who described himself as a "superforecaster". This is obviously rubbish because he failed to forecast what would happen when his feeble and retrograde views on eugenics came to light. He has, thankfully, packed up his callipers and been shown the front door.

Headline of the week

''Canada is fake." The Outline .

Special mention

Vale, Larry Tesler. Vale, Larry Tesler. Vale, Larry Tesler .

Some choice long-reads

Tom Wharton