Saturday, the 4th of September

Talking Points

Sloane Stephens salutes after defeating Coco Gauff at Flushing Meadows. PHOTO: Jon Minchillo / AP
  1. The US Open delivered stars, shock exits, and extended toilet breaks
  2. Cristiano Ronaldo broke the international goal scoring record
  3. The world checked Mu variant B.1.621 off its Covid-19 bingo sheet
  4. 70% of EU citizens are reported to have been double vaccinated
  5. Poland declared a state of emergency along its Belarus border
  6. Beijing limited underage gaming time to just three hours per week
  7. South Korea ruled against Google and Apple's app store terms
  8. Facebook will "de-emphasise" political posts in its news feed
  9. The long-delayed fraud trial of Elizabeth Holmes began
  10. A sweetheart deal shielded America's Sackler family from lawsuits

Dive deeper

Texan women march for bodily autonomy. PHOTO: Jay Janner / AP

Last week, an abortion in Texas was an improbable procedure. Years of cost-cutting and dogged pressure from religious conservatives had shuttered most clinics in the state. This week, it's become functionally impossible.

Texas Heartbeat Act

In May, Republican Governor Greg Abbott signed the Texas Heartbeat Act into law. This week, after sustaining wide-ranging legal challenges, the law took effect. Abortions are now prohibited once foetal "cardiac activity" is detected - usually around the six-week mark. This makes 85% of abortions functionally illegal in Texas. And as most people know, a great many women are not even aware of their pregnancy by that point. Furthermore, the law offers no exemptions for cases involving rape or incest. And Republican statehouses in at least half a dozen states are now eyeing-off their own heartbeat bills. So it's no hyperbole to say that this is the most significant challenge to women's rights in America, in a generation.

It's worth quoting John Seago , a director of Texas Right to Life, about why the 'heartbeat bill' was chosen, instead of an outright ban. "You have to think about the compelling state interest. How can we articulate that as the state of Texas? The heartbeat is a morally significant biological moment where we can detect whether someone is alive or not. If you see someone [passed out] on the side of your jogging trail, you go and check for the signs of life – a heartbeat. That was very appealing to a lot of pro-life Texans. That was appealing to a lot of elected officials."

This mix of vaguely medical terminology with an empathetic appeal to our limbic system is a potent rhetorical strategy. It has the effect of sounding logical and feeling right, even though the comparison itself is neither of those things. For starters, if you tried to check the pulse of an embryo at 6 weeks you would put your finger straight through it. At this early stage of a pregnancy, still weeks away from even being classified as a foetus, the embryo is a mere 5mm long. It's considerably smaller than your fingernail. Moreover, it has in fact no discernible heartbeat – indeed the most prominent feature of the recently fertilised egg is its tail – and the only activity is a weak electric flickering. So it's quite the leap to describe that as a heartbeat. Which is also why the Texas law found it necessary to expand the definition of a heartbeat - to include "cardiac activity".

Courting danger

Another extraordinary facet of the heartbeat bill is how it will be policed. In the past, some District Attorneys and judges have shown a willingness to - within their remit - resist anti-abortion laws cooked up in the statehouse. To get around the prospect of piecemeal enforcement, individual Texans can now sue any clinic or healthcare professional "aiding and abetting" an abortion. And they will receive $10,000 if the suit is successful. The law effectively deputises Texans to go after abortion clinics and it rewards them for their zealotry. For women, especially those who are trapped in abusive or coercive relationships, this additional loss of control and independence is a grievous blow. It is a deeply cynical piece of legislation and one that offers few easy targets for federal circuit judges to unwind.

What will alarm Americans outside the state, particularly those who believe in bodily autonomy for women, because the conservative majority Supreme Court rolled over like a cat in the sun this week. On Wednesday night, the highest court in America declined to block enforcement of the law in a 5-4 ruling . The majority opinion was unsigned, and just one paragraph long – a legal cudgel, not an exposition of jurisprudence. Chief Justice John Roberts and the three nominally liberal judges on the bench expressed their concern (Sotomayor called it "stunning"). The reality is that the decades-long push among Republicans to gain ascendancy over the Supreme Court is beginning to bear fruit for Christian fundamentalists. Conservatives have the numbers on the bench, and the will to fashion a new future for America.

Meanwhile, data from every jurisdiction that has banned abortions in the modern era tells us that criminalisation does nothing to stop them. They will just take place in other states, in clinics brave enough to admit Texan women, or in unsafe and possibly dangerous circumstances. For all the comments otherwise, Texas is not different, or special, in what it is doing. It is just another state that is freighting risk from embryo to mother , and forcing a medical procedure underground.


An Ida-lashed Pointe-Aux-Chenes, Louisiana. PHOTO: Mark Felix / AFP

Hurricane season

Hurricane Ida, one of the most powerful storms in American history, has left a trail of damage the length of the eastern seaboard. Late in the week, the storm system stalled over New York City, dumping 18cm of rain in a day. At time of writing, 41 were confirmed dead – many drowned in basement apartments.

Earlier, the Gulf Coast had borne the brunt of Ida's fury as it made landfall. Tremendous winds of up to 230km/h knocked over power lines, leaving more than one million homes and businesses without power. New Orleans had the dubious pleasure of commemorating the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina as it was hounded once more, this time by the Category 4 Ida! Residents there are sweltering in the summer heat without air conditioning, and power likely won’t be back for weeks. Those who evacuated are being told not to return .

A salient question: what role did climate change play? There are a few factors that we know increase the severity of hurricanes. Chief among them are warmer oceans, and more moist atmospheres . These changes lead to higher amounts of rainfall, stronger winds, and slower storms – which worsens flooding . The zone where hurricanes can form is expanding, meaning hurricanes can make landfall at higher latitudes. “It’s very likely that human-caused climate change contributed to that anomalously warm ocean,” said James P. Kossin , a scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “Climate change is making it more likely for hurricanes to behave in certain ways.”

As climate change exacerbates hurricanes like Ida, states and cities will need to focus on mitigation strategies . Above-ground power lines, for one, must become a thing of the past. The rest of the country would do well to follow Florida’s lead. The state launched a program last year to bury transmission lines so that they can’t be damaged by storms. Flood protection systems will also need to be capable of handling weather events of massive scale. The Feds spent $14.5bn upgrading New Orleans’ defences after Katrina swept away the flood barriers. This time, the improved levees and floodgates held up. But not everyone was so lucky. A separate levee project was not finished in time to protect residents in the New Orleans suburb of LaPlace, many of whom had to be rescued from Hurricane Ida’s floodwaters.

But as one LaPlace resident pointed out, levees are a band-aid solution. “I’m glad they’re building us a levee, but I worry about what happens to the next group further to the west," said Marcie Jacob Hebert. "The water has got to go somewhere. We can’t just keep funnelling it from person to person, place to place.”

The teetering tower: Evergrande Centre in Wan Chai, Hong Kong. PHOTO: AFP

Cracks in the foundation

A Chinese developer risks defaulting. This is the sort of business story that one can easily scroll past, without fully appreciating the human impact. But consider that for a vast number of Chinese households, most of their wealth is tied up in property. Now, you can imagine the panic felt by millions when China's biggest developer, the Evergrande Group, conceded that it might default on $US300bn in liabilities . If that's still too abstract, try this: Wesley Zhang paid Evergrande USD$140,000 to build his parents an apartment. Four years after he paid his deposit, the apartment remains unfinished. Now it may never finish. And he mightn't get his money back.

To date, Evergrande's high wire act of balancing debt with growth has worked – but a fall now will have to be cushioned by homeowners and foreign investors. The company’s chairman, Xu Jiayin , is a former steel factory technician. His is a rags-to-riches story typical of China’s rise over the past three decades. He founded Evergrande in 1996 just as China was moving hundreds of millions of workers from the countryside to the city. Evergrande built homes for these workers, making Xu one of the world’s wealthiest property developers in the process. Financial success begat strong political connections . The imprimatur of those connections dazzled lenders and investors. Evergrande ballooned, pouring money into agricultural ventures, electric vehicles, even a soccer club. Now it faces ruin.

Xu’s political connections aside, this teetering developer poses a conundrum for Xi Jinping’s government. Beijing has for some years pursued a policy of private-sector debt-reduction. The wild excesses of China's corporates was tolerated when times were fat. But with the bankruptcy of the sprawling (bloated, really) HNA Group, and last week's bailout of embattled state bank Huarong , corporate profligacy is in Beijing's crosshairs. A concurrent tightening of the leash, witnessed in sectors from tutoring to gaming, has spooked foreign investors and wiped $1 trillion from China’s stock market. Evergrande’s bond price has tumbled and shares in its EV subsidiary lost a quarter of their value last week.

As dire as the debt-burden of nearly a third of a trillion dollars is, the mid-term for Evergrande looks even darker. The wave of economic growth that carried Xu Jiayin to billionaire status has slowed. Despite lifting the one-child policy, China’s birth rate is much lower than official figures suggest. Xu Jianyin may bank on Beijing’s fear of a housing crash this time, but the cracks are only widening.

The best of times

Affordability is crucial in Bangladesh. PHOTO: AFP

Love in a time without cholera

This week Bangladeshi scientist Firdausi Qadri won Asia’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize for her efforts in developing an affordable cholera vaccine. Qadri led the first trial of an oral cholera vaccine in an area where the disease is constantly spreading in 2015. The trial found that the treatment can cut case numbers by 37%, and costs just $3.70 for two doses. Since 2017, Qadri has directed efforts to administer those vaccines to more than a million people across Bangladesh, including in the country's Rohingya refugee camps.

Electric heel

Ever wonder if you could generate electricity just by cutting a rug? Now researchers have developed technology to do exactly that. They use two pieces of wood to sandwich electrodes, creating what’s known as a nanogenerator . To allow the wood to conduct electricity, one panel is coated with a common silicon while the other is embedded with nanocrystals. Once that’s done, a piece of this high-tech flooring smaller than an A4 piece of paper can power a small LED lamp. Get dancing.

The worst of times

Borneo jungle stripped bare for palm oil groves. PHOTO: Bay Ismoyo / AFP

Puncturing the world's lungs

Almost a third of the world’s trees are at risk of extinction, a study revealed this week. Published by Botanic Gardens International Conservation, the study is the first major assessment of the state of the world’s trees. The number of threatened trees is more than twice that of at-risk mammals, reptiles, and birds combined. Land clearance for farming and climate change were, unsurprisingly, cited as the main factors for the decline.

Eutrophy in Mar Menor

Over the past fortnight, some 15 tons of dead fish and algae have washed up on the shore of Spain’s Mar Menor lagoon. The tragedy is caused by the region’s pollution of the water with nitrates , resulting in the marine inhabitants being deprived of oxygen. The damage of the pollution was recently exacerbated by the country’s heatwave which saw temperatures rise above 40°C. This is the second time that such a tragedy has occurred: two years ago around three tons of fish were pulled from the water.

Weekend Reading

The image

Gauguin's Tahitiens, an unfinished oil and charcoal work from the post-Impressionist master, has been unmasked as a £15m fake. A spokesperson from the Tate, which has the unwanted distinction of owning the piece, said that the gallery will keep "an open mind" about it. Not sure how that will help but good luck! Photograph supplied by the the Tate. Editor's Note: This story brings to mind a question we've posed in the past. If you pay to view an exhibit, and it subsequently turns out to be a fake, are you entitled to a refund?

The quote

"Job well done."

Major General Chris Donahue of the 82nd Airborne Division was the last US soldier to leave Afghan soil. We'll leave it to posterity to judge the accuracy of his final comment.

The numbers

1 in 4 executives

- Bloomberg found that one quarter of polled executives have fired an underling for Zoom-based gaffes. Arriving to calls late, divulging confident information, and not muting oneself have all been touted as reasons for swinging the axe.

216 missing bodies

- Florida's soaring coronavirus case numbers and hospitalisations have, miraculously, not resulted in significant new deaths. Or, that's what Florida;s health department would have us believe, having changed the way in which they tabulate the death toll. Under the old model Florida would have reported 262 deaths per day to the CDC last week, but instead only tallied 46 . That's not exactly a rounding error.

The headline

"UK's Federal Trade Commission investigates why McDonald's McFlurry machines are always broken" The Independent .

The special mention

A wonderful new entry in the category of 'world-wide work whoopsies'. In August, a worker at a factory that produces electrical wiring harnesses contracted Covid-19, necessitating the site's closure. That single infection blew up the supply chain of the world's largest car manufacturer – as it happens these wiring assemblages are of critical importance to Toyota. The Japanese automaker, a pioneer of the "just-in-time" manufacturing that dispensed with inventories in favour of deliveries as-needed, has learned a sharp lesson about the cost of efficiency: output has been slashed by 40% this month!

A few choice long-reads

  • It's frankly absurd that you can buy a smartphone and not retain the right to repair it when it breaks. The Financial Times with a piece we can all get behind.
  • The Economist waves the standard for Western liberalism. The enemy this time? The authoritarian left.
  • Just read this pitch-perfect headline from Businessweek: The Guy Wants to Build a Utopian Megalopolis.

Tom Wharton @trwinwriting