Saturday, the 12th of June

Talking Points

A muted memorial on the June 3. PHOTO: Jerome Favre / EPA
  1. Famine in Ethiopia's Tigray region leaves 350,000 hungry
  2. Child labour rises markedly for the first time in two decades
  3. Fresh junta offensive in Kayah pushed Myanmar toward civil war
  4. Boris Johnson hailed a new era of UK leadership – cut £4b in aid
  5. Russia outlawed Alexei Navalny's opposition group
  6. The US and UK renewed their mutual defence pact vows
  7. Joseph Biden's bipartisan legislative agenda lost steam
  8. America's largest reservoir Lake Mead hit historic lows
  9. Keystone XL copped a fatal blow – pipeline project abandoned
  10. The world's richest man announced that he is going to space

Dive deeper

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. PHOTO: Henry Romero / Reuters

This week we're looking at a pair of fascinating elections in Central and South America which all too regularly get relegated to the tail-end of news bulletins. Let's pick up the trail in Mexico City, where the bloodiest election in recent history has produced conflicting results.

Transforming a victory into loss – or is it the opposite?

On Sunday, Mexicans voted in mid-term elections. Up for grabs were the entire 500-seat chamber of deputies, 15 state governorships, and countless lower offices. President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador's name did not appear on any ballot, but the election has been widely reported as a referendum on his first three years in office. Before we dive in we need to issue a note of caution. There is a dearth of high-quality English-language coverage on state and local Mexican politics. A byproduct of this is that the executive branch ends up soaking the lion's share of attention. From this standpoint, depending on which newspaper you pick up, the results were either a historic rebuke to an authoritarian president or a middling success that leaves his mandate of "transformation" intact . But as you read, please keep in mind that Sstate and local political life would have been significant factors in the election as well.

The landslide victory that delivered Lopez Obrador to office in 2018 gave him a super-majority in the lower house. This allowed him to pursue sweeping reforms that were the very definition of centre-left populism: universal healthcare, free internet, energy self-sufficiency, and an iron-fisted crackdown on corruption. But how has he fared since 2018? For the legions of Obradoristas , their president's personal rectitude and intolerance of presidential luxuries have been victory enough. But his critics point out the government's less-than-coherent response to the coronavirus pandemic. Officially, just shy of 230,000 Mexicans died of Covid-19 but experts believe the true figure to be 60% higher. Then there's the economy. Latin America's second largest economy (after Brazil) was already lagging before the pandemic struck, and it continues to crumble. Even Obrador's signature policy of "hugs not bullets" has failed to stem the torrent of drugs, and the bloodshed that accompanies it (the death toll is approaching 35,000 per annum). The election itself saw a significant uptick in violence .

So how did voters respond? A final tally is not expected until next week but Lopez Obrador's MORENA looks on track to win 260-295 seats in the lower house. His support has crested and is receding in the capital. It's also been noted that the president will experience more friction when pursuing constitutional reforms in the second half of his term. And yet, the nationalist who aligns himself with the great transformations of independence, Benito Juarez, and the 1910 revolution, doesn't need a super-majority. His bloc captured nearly twice as many votes as the opposition and is gaining significant ground in regional races. A record number of women have been elected, and at least 11 of the 15 gubernatorial races have also fallen to MORENA. Lopez Obrador beamed to reporters on election night, "You can tell imagine how I am, happy, happy, happy".

A nail-biter in Peru

Peru was long valorised as one of South America's most-successful countries. A vibrant democracy that enjoyed healthy economic growth between 2001-2016. The top-line figures belied a weakened social security net, increasing inequality, and a stark rural-metropolitan divide. The last five years have been typified by political paralysis, a failing economy, and a shockingly high toll during the coronavirus pandemic. Peru has suffered the world's worst outbreak in terms of deaths-per-capita. Pity those who stand for high office in Lima: the country has cycled through four presidents and eight finance ministers in the last three years. In one particularly risible example of dysfunction, Peruvians had three different presidents in a single week last year.

There is no consensus on how to lead the country out of this mire. Indeed, the options are polar opposites and equally as popular. One challenger is Keiko Fujimori, a right-wing populist and daughter of the beloved (and corrupt) former president Alberto Fujimori. And it seems Fujimori the younger has not broken the mould – she has served 16 months in pre-trial detention for allegedly taking bribes from Brazilian engineering giant Odebrecht. The enormous corruption scandal has toppled politicians in several South American countries and is referred to quite poetically as "a history of unbound graft". If Fujimori wins, her trial will not go ahead. Opposite her is the rural school teacher Pedro Castillo. As he reminds supporters at the start of nearly every speech, he is rson of illiterate peasants who later joined a union to serve Peru's forgotten rural poor . No prizes for guessing what his political philosophy aligns with! He has promised to focus on the plight of the millions of Peruvians plunged into poverty during the pandemic.

One of the most fascinating elections in South America has produced a fitting result: just 70,000 votes separate the candidates, with 99.8% of the tally complete. Castillo is currently ahead with his 50.18% share, Fujimori agonisingly close with 49.81%. The latter has decried some as-yet unknown fraud and has called for hundreds of thousands of ballots to be annulled. Given the 30 year jail term prosecutors are pursuing, her freedom depends on this. But with more votes to trickle in from the distant jungles that have so heavily favoured Castillo , it appears that the political novice will ascend in Lima.


Osaka leaves the ball in the media's court. PHOTO: Xinhua

Computer says no

This week the internet broke and it had nothing to do with Kim Kardashian and a daintily-balanced champagne glass. For nearly an hour on Tuesday, the world lost access to news websites like the New York Times and CNN; streaming sites Spotify, Twitch, Hulu, HBO Max, and Vimeo; Reddit, Gitbhub, Shopify, and even the Britain's Crestfallen visitors were met with the dreaded Error 503 . The system outages occurring in the wake of Colonial Pipeline and JBS suggested a brazen hacking operation. It was not so. The culprit was in fact the content delivery network service Fastly.

It is one of the few companies (along with Cloudflare and Akamai Solutions) that dominate the 'edge computing' industry. It counts the aforementioned websites among its many illustrious clients. What they do is right there in the name: speeding up the delivery of content from CNN's website to your screen by spreading server capacity out across the world to meet clients where they are. A German wanting to listen to Olivia Rodrigo on the Spotify website would face a 3 second load time if they were waiting on packets of information to arrive from the other side of the Atlantic. But copies of the site stored on Fastly servers in say Spain would halve that load time. This decentralised storage model grew out of necessity: our consumption is rising exponentially. And for all the magic-tricks of the consumer-facing internet – there is a logistical price to pay.

So how did Fastly, and all the mirrored versions of its clients websites, go down? Here is Fastly's head of engineering and infrastructure , "On May 12, we began a software deployment that introduced a bug that could be triggered by a specific customer configuration under specific circumstances. Early June 8, a customer pushed a valid configuration change that included the specific circumstances that triggered the bug, which caused 85% of our network to return errors". The issue is not that websites go down – any veteran system administrator knows this is inevitable – it's that despite the manifold websites out there to peruse, the vast majority rely on a handful of companies for their hosting and delivery technology. Outages can flow, cascade, and thunder.

Populist politics enter the establishment. PHOTO: Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

It's cheaper to pay interest than taxes

At last weekend's meeting of G7 finance chiefs, US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen received gladly-given support for a global minimum corporate tax rate of 15%. Consensus abroad adds urgency to the Biden administration's designs back at home. Tackling wealth inequality, once a fringe topic, is now a bonafide vote-winner. Biden has set out to repeal and replace some of the tax-cuts gifted in the dying days of the Trump presidency. Central to this proposal is a significant tax hike for America's upper crust that will help pay for massive infrastructure spending bills. This week the popular plan was strengthened in a most dramatic fashion.

Investigative journalists at the non-profit ProPublica were leaked a trove of confidential Internal Revenue Service tax documents that concern thousands of America's richest. The 25 wealthiest among them have been examined in a bombshell report that lays out in stark detail the extent of tax-minimisation used. It makes for fascinating reading. You know the names: Buffett, Icahn, Bloomberg, Musk, Zuckerberg. Between 2014 and 2018 most of these men paid an average true tax rate of 3.4%. This is not an exact science – lining up leaked tax data with estimates of wealth increases from Forbes. But it doesn't need to be: some details defy quibbles. Jeff Bezos, the richest person in modern history, has so successfully deflated his taxable income that he could claim and receive a $4,000 tax benefit for his children .

Strictly speaking this is all legal, which does not confer great esteem upon the authors of the US tax code. The system gives preferential treatment to forms of wealth that are beyond the reach of most Americans; investments in stocks, bonds, and real estate that, in theory, drive economic growth and innovation. But the theoretical underpinning – trickle-down economics – has been definitively discredited . The rising tide does not lift all boats. Some Democrats in the Senate have called for a minimum tax rate on wealth ; though building a mechanism for this would be a fraught task. What's most surprising is that even some fiscally conservative Republicans now concede that something needs to change .

The worst of times

The disappearing Uyghurs. PHOTO: AFP

China's no-child policy

For the first time ever, the impact of Beijing’s policies against Uyghur populations has been analysed in a peer-reviewed study. Conducted by German researcher Adrian Zenz, the report found that the Uyghur population in southern Xinjiang will decline by one-third by 2040 . That’s on top of the 48.7% drop in Xinjiang’s birth rate between 2017 and 2019. Zenz found a combination of internment camps, birth limits, and relocation being used to curb the population.

Benchmark indexes to slip below the waves

The emissions targets adopted by companies across the G7’s stock indices imply an average 3°C rise above pre-industrial temperatures . At that point, not only will the damage be irreversible, it will also make a large portion of the planet uninhabitable. Of the indices, Britain’s FTSE100 and Canada’s S&P/ Toronto Stock Exchange 60 are faring the worst: the goals of their listed companies aligned with a 3.1°C rise in temperatures. And that's when the analysis is based just on targets, not tangible commitments to act against climate change, which are even weaker.

The best of times

Finders keepers is for children. PHOTO: Getty

Benin bronzes

New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art will return two 16th century plaques and a 14th century brass cast to Nigeria. The items have been kept in either private collections or western museums since they were looted in 1897 . Their repatriation comes after a year of research and talks with Nigerian authorities about the artefacts’ origins. Once they reach Nigeria, they will be stored in a museum for West African Art in Benin City. Now, which one of our members in the United Kingdom has the email addresses of the directors of the British Museum?

Targeting Alzheimer's

In a first, the US Food and Drug Administration has approved a drug that targets the underlying causes of Alzheimer’s . All previous medicines for the disease have targeted the symptoms associated with the disease which affects 50m globally. But Aducanumab works by targeting the buildup of the beta-amyloid protein that is thought to cause Alzheimer’s. While one of two clinical trials showed inconsistent results, a fresh analysis of the data revealed the drug was indeed beneficial.

Weekend Reading

The image

The Dead Sea is dying. The water-level of this ultra-salty lake has dropped dramatically as water flow from the Jordan River dried up. Giant sinkholes have opened up as the newly-exposed salt-beds are permeated and washed away by rainfall. Photograph supplied by ABC.

The quote

"There must be mechanisms in the brain that are undiscovered and even unimagined that allow it to keep up. Scientists are meant to know what's going on, but in this particular case, we are deeply confused. We expect it to take many years to iron out."

Neuroscientist Carl Schoonover and his team at Colombia University have discovered that the brains of mice are far, far more elastic than previously thought. Another refreshing example of the paradox of knowledge: the more we know, the more we discover we don't know .

The numbers

419 parts per million

- Carbon dioxide in our atmosphere has hit a 4.5 million-year high !!!

24,000 years

- In a related note, the microscopic animal bdelloid rotifer has been reanimated after spending 24 millennia sleeping in the Siberian permafrost. We'll go out on a limb and say this isn't a positive development.

The headline

"Tragic but true: how podcasters replaced our real friends" The Guardian . Bulls-eye.

The special mention

This week's award may draw the hawk-like attention of inkl's special mention appellate committee – it is an unusual situation indeed for whales to win two of these prestigious prizes in a row. But, perhaps you will gather why: this grey whale from the western North Pacific was recorded off the coast of Namibia. At 27,000km (more than half the circumference of the planet) this is believed to be the longest migration of any marine vertebrate.

A few choice long-reads

  • Peru is swaying. The Economist ponders whether this is the beginning of a left-wing resurgence in South America.
  • A question for the ages (and right now): who gets to shape British history? Financial Times and the war on woke.

Tom Wharton @trwinwriting