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David and Helen talk to Nobel Prize-winning economist (the youngest ever!) Esther Duflo about how to do economics better. From investing in left-behind places to helping people adapt to change, we discuss good and bad economic ideas about some of the biggest challenges we face, and how it all connects back to politics. Plus we talk about what some of the world's richest countries can learn from some of the poorest. Esther's new book, with Abhijit Bannerjee, is Good Economics for Hard Times Points: Why do economists believe “Invest in People not Places?” And why are they wrong? The idea is that it’s better to target interventions at individual people than places, in part because people will move.But research shows that people are remarkably sticky. They don’t really move.Even faced with really high costs, and the complete freedom to move to another place, people don’t. During the Greek financial crisis, very few people left.Mobility is easier at younger ages.Why do people stick?In the U.S., one of the biggest factors is real estate. Wages may be higher on the coast, but housing is much more expensive.People are not driven only, or even primarily by financial incentivesThe U.S. has not treated people who were left behind by manufacturing very well.There is an implosion of economic activity in one place because people don’t move.The class and place categories are marred. The people who can afford to live in the big cities tend to be relatively well off.This was at the root of the Yellow Vests movement in France. Although there is also a lot of poverty in big cities.Class is no longer defining political lines in the same way.How, as a society, can we prepare better for transitions? It starts at birth: an excellent preschool education, followed by an excellent primary and secondary school education, and finally equal access to University. When shocks happen, being willing to spend.Some people will never move and we should make their lives honorable where they are.Mentioned in this Episode:Esther’s book, Good Economics for Hard Times“The Gift of Moving” (more on the Iceland case)Further Learning:Esther and Abhijit Banerjee in The GuardianAnd on economic incentives in The New York TimesAnd as ever, recommended reading curated by our friends at the LRB can be found here:  See for privacy and opt-out information.
David and Helen talk to the philosopher Michael Sandel about the damage that the idea of rewarding people on merit has done to education, democracy and public life. Why is it wrong to try to match the best students to the best universities? What is credentialism and how has it warped the way work is rewarded? Whatever happened to the idea of the common good? Plus we discuss America's sense of itself as God's chosen nation in the age of Obama and Trump.Talking Points:Places like Stanford and Harvard have more than 40,000 applicants for 2,000 places. Most of these applicants are qualified.Michael thinks that universities should admit students based on a lottery.The meritocratic way of thinking about success and social recognition has produced and intensified an epidemic of credentialism.  Should elite universities function as arbiters of opportunity?Even going to university hasn’t delivered what people expected. How do we translate what we can see is socially and morally wrong about our society into a different way of economically living?For decades, we have been told that the solution to inequality is individual upward mobility through higher education.The ‘rhetoric of rising’ has run its course.How do we affirm and renew the dignity of work?What kind of jobs has the shift towards credentialism encouraged?There’s a concentration around law and finance, as well as public sector or public administration jobs.The financialism of the economy is an important part of this story.The divide between winners and losers has deepend.It’s not just inequality: the people on top believe that their success is their own doing.Michael thinks that the sense of elites looking down on the less credentialed has fueled the anger and resentment that authoritarian populists have exploited.Could automation displace credentialism?The money people make, or the recognition they receive, is not a measure of their contribution to the common good.It’s easy to outsource this kind of moral judgment to markets, but Michael thinks that’s a mistake.Can we reconfigure the economy to bring about a better alignment between the contributions people make and the rewards and recognition they receive?The pandemic has revealed the importance of jobs that are hugely undervalued, particularly forms of human care. There has been a structural, material transformation in Western economies since the 1980s that has gone hand and hand with the rise of credentialism and financialisation.Industrial manufacturing employment has gone overseas.We are nostalgic about an age that no longer exists, including the role of trade unions, which had power in part because they could disrupt the economy through strikes.What happened to the nation as a source of identity and belonging?The United States is a providential nation; the same forces of meritocracy can be at work at the national level.Is it possible to challenge the sense of providence in American democracy?Mentioned in this Episode:Michael Sandel, The Tyranny of MeritThomas Wolfe, You Can’t Go Home AgainFurther Learning:Michael in the Guardian: ‘The populist backlash has been a...  See for privacy and opt-out information.
A Sunday extra with the novelist Robert Harris to talk about the V2 campaign of terror against London during WWII and the parallels with today. Plus we discuss the big questions of counterfactual history - could Hitler really have won the war? - and we ask whether Boris Johnson is anything like his political heroes, Cicero and Churchill.  See for privacy and opt-out information.
David talks to the American historian Jill Lepore about the damage new technology can do to democracy, from the 1960s to the present. Who first tried to manipulate the minds of the electorate? Where did the money come from? What happened when the same technology was applied to fighting the Vietnam War? Plus we discuss US presidential elections from 1960 to 2020: do the machines really decide who is going to win, and if he does win this time, what might Joe Biden be able to do about it?Talking PointsThe Simulmatics Corporation was one of the first data analytics companies founded in 1959.They were collecting personal data, coming up with mathematical models for human behavior, making predictions, and selling that as a service.They got their big break in the 1960 election. Advertising was basically invented to defend corporations against muckraking journalists.It became something else as modern consumer society emerged.Eventually, some of the ad agencies began working for the Republican Party. The Republican Party is the party of big business, so it’s nor surprising that they’ve always had a leg up in political advertising.Was the Simulmatics Corporation for real?Their insights were not particularly startling.The Simulmatics Corporations were liberals who were trying to convince the Democratic Party to take a stronger position on civil rights by telling them that black voters could make a difference in the election.There’s something kind of creepy about the whole thing: a bunch of mid-century, white, liberal men building a machine to try to understand people of color and women.A tight election is good for huxters. There’s a huge, enabling industry of journalism to oversell this kind of technology.There’s a big gap between how we understand politics should work in the physical world and the mysteriousness and anarchy of the digital world.Democracies are bad at reforming themselves because the winners are not incentivized to do it. The monopoly today is the monopoly of the means of doing politics. The pandemic makes it worse. We are now more wedded to our devices and it is harder to conduct campaigns outside of them.Mentioned in this Episode:Jill Lepore, If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future Jill’s podcast, ‘The Last Archive: Who Killed Truth?’Sue Halpern on the Trump campaign’s mobile appFurther Learning: Jill in The New Yorker, ‘How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future’Our last episode with Jill on the American NationJia Tolentino for the BBC, ‘The Story of a Generation in Seven Scams’Evan Osnos’ profile of Mark Zuckerberg for The New YorkerSee for privacy and opt-out information.
This week we talk about the politics of incompetence: when does it matter and when can politicians get away with it. Have repeated u-turns during the pandemic damaged the government? Has Nicola Sturgeon had a better crisis than Boris Johnson or is it just competence theatre? Is the government's incompetence going to be enough to get Keir Starmer into Downing Street? With Helen Thompson, Chris Brooke and Chris Bickerton.Talking Points:Competence: does it matter? What kinds of incompetence are likely to do this government the most harm?There have been a lot of u-turns in the policy and rules around COVID.Are these u-turns or is the government improvising in an unprecedented situation?The u-turns that do the most harm are those that are seen as a breach of trust.The important context for u-turns in British politics is Margaret Thatcher’s 1980 speech to the Conservative Party Conference.Her predecessor, Ted Heath, did not stick to the manifesto line in government.She actually was making a u-turn in macroeconomic policy, but she had concluded that voters saw pragmatic chopping and changing as incompetence.The difficulty for Johnson is that there’s a general perception that the government isn’t entirely on top of things. The competence issue comes back to the surface.The internal market bill is being published and it will apparently renege on some aspects of the withdrawal act.Being perceived as seeing yourself above international law is a risk for any government.In the context of Brexit, this is the consequence of how boxed in the Johnson government was when it came into power.COVID has revealed big differences between Westminster and the devolved governments.Sturgeon in particular has pitched her government as more competent than the Johnson government.Critics of the SNP say that this is theatre. But the handling of the pandemic may well feed into the SNP’s pitch heading into what appears to be an increasingly imminent referendum, which they are increasingly confident of winning.But it’s not just the pandemic; it’s also the whole Brexit process.Can Starmer use competence as a lever? Can you win power through competence?The opposition is not in a great place to set the agenda. A number of very important decisions will be made in the next year or so that change the political situation.Don’t underestimate the power of the Conservatives to replace Johnson.Many of Johnson’s ministers are creatures of his politics.What’s interesting about Sunak is that he doesn’t quite fit that template.Mentioned in this Episode:Margaret Thatcher’s 1980 speech to the Conservative Party Conference (‘the lady’s not for turning’)Scottish support for independence rises in the pandemicWho is Boris Johnson?Further Learning: More on the Internal Market BillThe Guardian’s view on the Internal Market...  See for privacy and opt-out information.
David talks to economist and author Noreena Hertz about loneliness and its impact on all our lives. How does the experience of loneliness shape contemporary democracy? What kind of politics could make us feel more connected? Can technology bring us together or is it driving us further apart? Plus we discuss the consequences of the pandemic for the future of work and the possibility of building a better world.Loneliness has been rising among young people over recent years: 3 in 5 18-34 year olds feel lonely often or sometimes; nearly a half of 10-15 year olds.Lockdown has likely exacerbated these numbers.So much of the interaction between young people is online; parents can’t see the exclusion.Loneliness is political as well as personal, social as well as economic.Exclusion and marginalisation are also forms of loneliness.Can loneliness bridge generational divides?In the pandemic, we are all sharing a negative experience—will this produce solidarity or divisions? What solutions do politicians provide for solidarity?In recent times, the left hasn’t provided a strong alternative notion of solidarity.The diminishment of trade unions and workplace solidarity play a part here as well. What politician will speak for the lonely?Democracy produces certain kinds of visibility and excludes others. What would it look like to be more open to the lonely?There is a skillset associated with inclusive democracy that we are in danger of losing.There are inspiring examples of participatory democracy on the local level.In a lonely world, representative democracy filters out the lonely.If loneliness is the problem, and human beings are increasingly socially inept, the machines might step in.In Japan, robot-human interaction is widespread, especially among the elderly.What will increasingly intelligent robots do to our relationships with each other?Mentioned in this Episode:Noreena’s book, The Lonely Century: Coming Together in a World that's Pulling ApartNoreena on ‘Generation K’The Camden Citizens’ Assembly on the climate crisisFurther Learning:The New York Times on how to manage lonelinessSolitary citizens: the politics of lonelinessMore on robotic eldercare in JapanOur episode with Yuval HarariAnd as ever, recommended reading curated by our friends at the LRB can be found here:  See for privacy and opt-out information.
We revisit our interview with the economist Thomas Piketty recorded the week Emmanuel Macron won the French presidency and David and Helen ask what we have learned since. Where does Macron fit on the left/right political spectrum? What has his cult of personality done to French politics? And are we anywhere nearer knowing how to tackle the problem of inequality? The last in our series of updates from the Talking Politics archive.Show Notes:Why isn’t inequality having a more primary effect on our politics? Are ethnic and nationalist divisions trumping class divisions?Piketty’s research shows that nothing is pre-ordained, but it often takes a crisis to reorient politics.In the 20th century, war plays this role. If you take war out of it, what happens?Can democracies deal with inequality without a crisis? Is there a democratic path to redress inequality? Macron relatively quickly became a politician of the centre-right.This shouldn’t have been a surprise. What was harder to anticipate was the nature of the opposition, in particular, the Gilets Jaunes.Macron has become more preoccupied with the geopolitical than reforming the Eurozone.It’s easy to forget how contingent Macron’s rise was.Macron’s rise blew apart the French party system. The failings predated Macron, but he did inject something much more personalized into French politics.Macron created a movement that could win a majority in the French legislature. During lockdown, however, he lost his absolute majority in the lower house because various people on the left defected.The larger story about economic choices, especially macroeconomic choices, being taken out of the hands of democratic politics took a particular shape in France.Can we see Macron’s rise as an answer to France’s problems in the euro?Has COVID moved Europe any closer to answering questions about what engenders solidarity?Piketty has been an advocate of quite radical institutional reforms towards a more centralised European project.Clearly the crisis has changed notions about common European borrowing. If you have debt, what kind of political solidarity sustains that debt? For there to be meaningful solidarity where debt is concerned, you need to see meaningful taxes. So far, this has not happened.Nor has there been any institutional reform in the last few months. That part of the Piketty project seems as far off as ever.Mentioned in this Episode: Capital in the Twenty-First Century Last week’s episode with Lucia and HansFurther Learning: Piketty’s most recent book, Capital and IdeologyWill coronavirus lead to fairer societies? Thomas Piketty explores the prospect for The GuardianAn interview with Piketty in The Nation about the virus and his...  See for privacy and opt-out information.
This week we look at the big changes in European politics during the crisis and ask who has managed to turn it around. Is Italy now a model for crisis management? Has there been a reorientation in German politics under Merkel? Can the EU rescue fund really rescue the European project? Plus we discuss the long-term implications of big state politics for the future of Europe. With Helen Thompson, Lucia Rubinelli and Hans Kundnani.Talking Points:Over the summer, life—including political life—in Italy resumed some normalcy.There will be regional and local elections, as well as a constitutional referendum, at the end of September.The government now seems to be on firmer ground. This has to do with the recovery fund, and the fact that the two main parties in the coalition have decided to run together.The Five Star movement had previously said it would never run with another party. It is becoming a more establishment party.Salvini’s comeback has slowed down. Salvini has made several mistakes over COVID.The League runs the region that suffered the most during the COVID crisis. The president of that region, who is close to Salvini, is now embroiled in a corruption scandal that has to do with the process of buying PPE.Italy has stabilized the situation domestically by excluding those who are most radical about the euro and by getting ECB and wider EU external support for Italy’s debt.In Germany, there is a sense that Merkel has moved quite radically on debt mutualization in the Eurozone. But there’s some misunderstanding about what the recovery fund does: it doesn’t deal with the pre-2020 macro imbalances in the Eurozone. During the negotiations in March, Conte was hard on the EU. But once it was negotiated, the tone switched completely. The debate over the conditions of accepting money from the EU is almost completely focused on whether Italy should apply to the European Stability Mechanism. This doesn’t seem to translate to the recovery fund, which is surprising.Five Star can criticize Europe in one regard, while accepting everything else.But unhappiness with conditionality always reasserts itself in Italian politics because of Italy’s debt position and Eurozone fiscal rules.There is too much focus on Merkel. Merkel has embodied a broad consensus in German politics that has existed for the last 15 years. She tends to go with the flow of German public opinion.The shift in Germany that led to the recovery fund is an example of this: she shifted because she saw public opinion shifting.The big questions are: who will be Merkel’s successor? And who will be the junior partner in the coalition that successor leads?In both Italy and Germany, there appears to be a doubling down on grand coalition politics.In Italy’s case, this has involved co-opting a previous anti-establishment party. In fact, Five Star is now the senior partner.In Germany, it’s more about keeping out anti-establishment parties.There is a danger that the EU constrains countries from making the kind of shift toward state intervention that European governments currently want to make due to COVID.This could become a problem down the line.If EU countries were unanimous about this shift, you could imagine a remaking of the EU, but the old divides will almost certainly come back.Mentioned in this Episode: Our most recent episode with LuciaOur March...  See for privacy and opt-out information.
This week two conversations with the feminist theorist and writer Judith Butler: one recorded the week Trump won the presidency in 2016 and one recorded a few days ago, as his presidency (just maybe) approaches its end. We reflect on what has changed over the last four years, what has stayed the same, and whether our worst fears were realised. Plus Judith tells us what she sees when she sees Biden and what she hopes might come next. Two linked conversations about misogyny, racism, representation, empowerment, hope, rage, and the damage one man can do to democracy.Further Learning: Judith Butler: on COVID-19, the politics of non-violence, necropolitics, and social inequalityJudith Butler for the LRB on Trump’s death drive‘Judith Butler wants us to reshape our rage,’ from The New Yorker Judith on performativity and Black Lives MatterGender Trouble, Judith ButlerPrecarious Life, Judith ButlerThe Force of Nonviolence, Judith ButlerAnd as ever, recommended reading curated by our friends at the LRB can be found here:  See for privacy and opt-out information.
This week David and Helen talk with the historian David Kynaston about his diary of the 2016-17 season in football and in politics, when a lot happened both to the world and to his beloved Aldershot FC. It's a conversation about loyalty, identity and belonging, and about what sorts of change we can tolerate and what we can't. Plus Helen reflects on her life as a West Ham fan.Talking Points:For David Kynaston, football is about identity.We all have our personal myths.Continuity of space, even colours, is also important.Football in Britain has derived a lot of meaning from the relationship between club and place.The continuity between location and fan base broke at some point in the 1990s, maybe earlier. And then there are questions of ownership, management.For David Kynaston, football is rooted in place; politics is not.Small and medium sized towns feel ‘left behind’; these places have also been left behind in the football sense. But anger about the inequalities or the premier league doesn’t have a lot of political purchase. What is the relationship between the planning period of the 50s and 60s and Brexit voters?People who lived through that maybe had reasons to distrust people telling them what was best.There was also a coarsening of popular culture, led by Murdoch and the Sun.Mentioned in this Episode:David Kynaston’s new book, Shots in the DarkAnthony Powell, A Dance to the Music of TimeColin Shindler’s books on Manchester United and Manchester CityOur post-Trump episode David Goodhart on somewheres and anywheresLiverpool’s vote and Sun readershipThe Financial Times editorial on Trump and PortlandFurther Learning:Helen on West HamHelen on coronavirus and the Premier LeagueAnd as ever, recommended reading curated by our friends at the LRB can be found here:  See for privacy and opt-out information.
David and Helen talk with Diane Coyle about what the pandemic has revealed about the changing nature of work. Who is doing more of it? Who is still getting paid for it? Which jobs are not coming back? Plus we explore the impact of the digital revolution on how we get rewarded for what we do and we ask whether the big tech firms can continue to hoover up so many of the rewards. Is Jeff Bezos really worth it?Talking Points: Since the post-war era, unpaid work in the home doesn’t get measured in formal economic statistics.At the time, people argued it would be too hard to measure.When women went out to work in the paid workforce, the market started growing.The digital revolution brought a lot of things we paid for back into the home, for example, online banking.The pandemic has exacerbated existing social patterns and trends.Women are more likely to have been laid off and furloughed. The hardest hit sectors, such as hospitality and retail, employ more women. All working parents have been hit hard.In a self-inflicted recession, the service sector has been hit hardest (instead of manufacturing).Key workers are not our best paid workers. Those who can work from home are, broadly speaking, more well off.Official economic statistics are analytical and statistical constructs. If we ran surveys about what households are doing, we would have measures of these things. You can’t devise good policies about social care or pensions about understanding who is doing what. The statistics we have were created in relation to a particular mode of economic management: Keynesian demand management. We no longer think that’s a sufficient way of thinking about economic activity, or the more human issues around economic activity.   The financial market economy today bears little relationship to the real productive economy.This is essentially because central banks have (intentionally or not) propped up markets with asset purchases.We will see a continuation of the trend since 2008 of greater asset inequality.  What has the pandemic done to people’s economic psychology?Fear might make recovery harder. Certain sectors like hospitality and entertainment depend on people moving from one place to another and gathering in close proximity.People’s expectations from the government may also have changed. Information technologies have become part of our fundamental economic infrastructure and often these markets are dominated by only one corporation.After 2008, large companies like Amazon that weren’t making profit at the time still had access to huge amounts of cheap credit and could engage in share buybacks. The end of people’s ability to physically go shopping has been a huge boon to Amazon in particular. Online retail doesn’t suffer like the high street.Right now, Amazon is seen to be providing a vital service. Does this make it less likely that policymakers will take it on?  There may still be a shock coming, especially when the furlough scheme winds down.Is it too late to save the brick and mortar economy?If we are moving towards a more digital economy, we’ll have to rethink taxes too.Will the pandemic take us back to an earlier version of the digital economy? Will we go back to living further apart? There’s a limit to how much you can do online. The shift towards urban centers took off in the 90s, before the tech revolution. It’s probably more about the shift away from manufacturing towards service-sector economies.Mentioned in this Episode: See for privacy and opt-out information.
This week we go back to the first ever interview we recorded for Talking Politics, when David talked to Yuval Noah Harari in 2016 about his book Homo Deus. That conversation touched on many of the themes that we've kept coming back to in the four years since: the power of the big technology companies; the vulnerability of democracy; the deep uncertainty we all feel about the future. David reflects on what difference those four years have made to how we think about these questions now.Talking Points: In Homo Deus, Harari distinguishes between intelligence and consciousness.Intelligence is the ability to solve problems; consciousness is the ability to feel things.Humans use their feelings to solve problems; our intelligence is to a large extent emotional intelligence. But it doesn’t have to be like that.Computers have advanced in terms of intelligence but not consciousness.What is more important: consciousness or intelligence? This is becoming a practical, not theoretical question.Artificial intelligence could create a new class—the useless class.Institutions or mechanisms might become obsolete.In humanist politics, the feelings of individuals are the highest authority; could algorithms know your feelings better than you do?The idea of the individual is that you have an indivisible inner core and your task as an individual is to get away from outside forces and get in touch with your true, authentic self.According to Harari, this is 18th century mythology.Humans are dividuals: a collection of biochemical mechanisms. There is nothing beyond these mechanisms.In the 20th century, no one could understand these mechanisms. We haven’t abandoned humanism—the rhetoric is still there—but it is under pressure.In a long-tail world, everyone has a little bit—there’s lots of tailored, personal politics—but there’s also a huge concentration of power and wealth.Think of Google or Facebook: they are basically monopolies.Technology is not deterministic: it could still go in different ways.There is human pushback. Voters may be right in sensing that power is shifting, but are they right about where it is going? In the four years since this interview, machine intelligence hasn’t hugely advanced.Machines are more a part of our lives, but they aren’t necessarily smarter.Are we becoming less intelligent as we adapt to a world increasingly dominated by machines?Human agency is not just under threat from machines. It’s also under threat from corporate power. Amazon is much more powerful than it was four years ago. Mentioned in this Episode: Homo Deus‘Inside Out’David’s review of Homo DeusOur episode with Brett FrischmannDominic Cummings’s blogFurther Learning: The Talking Politics Guide to… FacebookOn...  See for privacy and opt-out information.
David talks to the writer Anne Applebaum about her highly personal new book, which charts the last twenty years of broken friendships and democratic failure. We start in Poland with the story of what happened to the high hopes for Polish democracy, including what we've learned from this week's presidential election. But we also take in Trump and Brexit, Hungary and Spain. What explains the prevalence ofconspiracy theories in contemporary politics? Why are so many conservatives drawn to the politics of despair? Is history really circular? And is democracy doomed?Talking Points:Yesterday, Poland’s incumbent president Andrzej Duda narrowly won re-election.Anne thinks that this shows divisive politics can succeed.A central issue was LGBT rights: Duda said that LGBT was an ideology worse than communism.The ruling party now has 3 more years to continue undermining the press and the judiciary and putting pressure on anyone the party sees as a threat.The new illiberal way of thinking is not a totalizing ideology.These are medium-sized lies, conspiracy theories.You can use conspiracy theories to undermine people’s trust in political institutions.Should we differentiate between conspiracy theories and opportunistic lying?When elections become about ‘who is really Polish,’ whoever wins gains a sense of legitimacy in excluding and discriminating against the ‘others.’Can these arguments stand when the results are this close?The Polish government has tools to harass its opponents. It’s a vengeful state.The opposition now will probably fragment—this is what happened in Hungary.How did Brexit bring together figures like Johnson, Scruton, and Cummings?Politicians, journalists, and propagandists can manipulate feelings of nostalgia into a political campaign and ride it into power.Did nostalgia have to be anti-European Union? In some ways, the EU is a bulwark against certain features of modernity.But to a certain breed of nostalgic British conservative, the EU would always be foreign. To them, the idea of negotiating, or co-deciding was fundamentally unacceptable.In places with a shorter modern democratic history like Greece and Spain, democracy has proved surprisingly robust. The degree to which these forces win or lose is dependent on the local context.History shows that democracies do fail; if you neglect rotting institutions they can bring you down.Both complacency and cynicism can threaten democracy.Mentioned in this Episode:Anne’s new book, Twilight of Democracy: The Failure of Politics and the Parting of FriendsAnne’s writing for The AtlanticWaPo’s Trump lie trackerFurther Learning: A review of Anne's book in The Guardian, ‘How my old friends paved the way for Trump and Brexit’More on Poland’s electionSee for privacy and opt-out information.
David talks with Helen to get her take on the history of ideas - both what's there and what's missing. Why start with Hobbes? What can we learn from the Federalist Papers? Where's Nietzsche? Plus we talk about whether understanding where political ideas come from isliberating or limiting and we ask how many of them were just rationalisations for power.Talking Points: Should we start the story of modern politics with Hobbes?Hobbes poses a stark question: what is the worst thing that can happen in politics? Civil war or tyranny?Is Hobbes’ answer utopian?What are the consequences of the breakdown of political authority—and how do they compare to the consequences of empowering the state to do terrible things? Who has the authority to decide is a fundamental question in politics.But there are lots of ways of thinking about politics that avoid this question.If you accept the notion that political authority is essential, what form should that authority take and how can it be made as bearable as possible for as many people as possible?Constant says that the worst thing that can happen isn’t civil war; it’s the tyranny of the state.To him, the French Revolution showed that when people who hold the coercive power of the state also hold certain beliefs, the damage can be much worse.Constant wants to say that the beliefs people have in the modern world are a constraint on political possibilities.What does the pluralism of beliefs mean for politics? Constant is also more direct about the importance of debt and money. From the French revolution onwards, nationalism became the dominant idea by which the authority of states was justified to those over whom it exercised power.Sieyès equated the state with its people.The idea of federalism as enshrined in the US constitution is also important: Hobbes did not think sovereignty could be divided.How do you reconcile constitutional ideals with the horrors they justified?Nietzsche forces a reckoning with the religion question.This blows up the distinction between pre-modern and modern.He presents a genealogy not just of morality, but civilization, ideas of justice, religion.For Nietzsche, Christianity is the manifestation of the will to power of the powerless.Nietzsche tells us how we became the way we are—it didn’t have to go that way.In exposing contingency, he forces us to engage with political questions we don’t really want to think about.What do ideas explain about human motivation in politics, and to what extent are they rationalizations of other motives?Helen thinks that the history of ideas can make political action seem too straightforward. How should we think about the relationship between ideas and material constraints (or opportunities)?Studying history more generally leads to at least some degree of cynicism about the relationship between ideas and power.Mentioned in this Episode: Talking Politics: the History of IdeasThe Federalist PapersThe Genealogy of MoralityOur episode on Weber’s ‘Politics as a Vocation’Further Learning: See for privacy and opt-out information.
David talks to the writer James Meek about what the Covid crisis has revealed about how we understand healthcare and how we think about the organisations tasked with delivering it. A conversation about hospitals and community care, about Trump's America and Johnson's Britain, and about WHO and NHS. James's writing on these themes is available on the LRB website Maxmen on Ebola, Covid and the WHO  See for privacy and opt-out information.
We have passed the deadline for any extension to the Brexit trade negotiations - now it's 31 December or bust. We catch up with three of our resident experts to explore what this means, what the chances are of getting a deal and where the sticking points might be. Plus we asses the impact of the Covid crisis on the fate of Brexit and its implications for what might happen later this year. With Anand Menon,Catherine Barnard and Helen Thompson.Talking Points: The formal legal position is that it’s not possible to seek an extension of the Brexit transition period.Perhaps the most likely thing is that—if there is a trade deal before the end of the year—it has a longer transition period built into the front of it.A second COVID spike in the autumn could make no deal more likely.Are there things in the law that politics can’t fix?The COVID crisis has made the gulf between the two sides over the issue of state aid bigger than it already was, which reduces the space for fudging. You also have to deal with the Northern Ireland protocol.The UK doesn’t have a constitutional regime that protects things like workers rights and environmental standards in the way that treaty law effectively does in the EU.It’s hard to imagine that any UK government would agree constitutional rules about these matters as part of a trade agreement with the EU or any individual state.At the heart of Brexit lies a claim to reassert the more traditional UK constitution against the constitutional constraints that EU membership generated.The Johnson government is not prepared to accept the EU’s argument about it’s economic sphere of influence.This is a question for the EU as much as it is for the UK.Both sides are starting from competing premises; would more time be enough to sort this out? This begs a larger question about the EU’s relationship to its immediate neighborhood.The German constitutional court decision was a blow to the ECB and ECJ.This gives the green light to those disaffected in Hungary and Poland.Do EU divisions make it more or less likely that they will fallout over Brexit? Macron’s position seems harder than it was towards the end of last year. There is no evidence he wants to move on the question of state aid.It seems unlikely that all 27 member states will have the same attitude towards a sovereign UK. That doesn’t necessarily mean that Britain can play them off each other.Couching the debate as deal vs. no deal instead of good deal vs. bad deal may give the Johnson government some wiggle room.Even if the UK winds up making significant concessions on trade, for example.Mentioned in this Episode: Talking with Adam Tooze about the German constitutional court rulingThe UK in a Changing EuropeThe Merkel interview from June Further Learning:George Peretz on the Northern Irish ProtocolMore on state aid as a stumbling blockWhat is the level playing field? See for privacy and opt-out information.
In this extra episode David talks to Thant Myint-U about the fraught recent history of Burma (Myanmar) and asks what it can teach us about twenty-first century politics. Why did the West have so many illusions about Aung San Suu Kyi? Can democracy really rescue the country? What model of development might work in the age of Covid and climate change? A wide-ranging conversation about the forces shaping our world.Thant's website:'s book:  See for privacy and opt-out information.
We talk with the writer and political commentator Fintan O'Toole about how British politics can and should deal with its imperial past in the age of Brexit. From battles over statues to fights over nationalism we explore whether history has become the new democratic divide. Why does Churchill loom so large over our politics? Can Labour reclaim the mantle of patriotism? Will the Union survive the history wars? Plus we ask whether there has been a generational shift in attitudes to race and identity. With Helen Thompson.Talking Points: Debates over statues and monuments are really more about the present than the past.They don’t necessarily lead you to a real engagement with either your history or your contemporary identity.Britain has a long history of questioning how the past is thought about in the public sphere. Is it possible to have a serious political argument about Churchill’s legacy anymore?In the age of Johnson, is everything a proxy? Churchill can’t be separated from the Second World War in British historical memory.The Churchill question goes deep into the Union question. If you take away the experience of the two world wars, it’s not clear what keeps the Union together.How do you articulate a sense of British patriotism when the state is in decline and the history it’s wrapped up in is often disgraceful? For example, you could celebrate Britain’s move to outlaw the slave trade—but almost every historian would point out that this is shot through with hypocrisy.There’s a profound problem around the history of Britishness. Over the last 10 years, two different consensuses have broken down, and these interact with each other quite lethally. First there’s consent to Britain’s membership in the EU; this broke down more in England and in Wales.Second is consent to the Anglo-Scottish union breaking down in Scotland.And the fact that the referendum produced a Leave vote meant that the Northern Ireland question came back into play.Nationalisms always want to purify themselves into victimhood.What this does is occlude the complexity of the history of the nation itself.Nationalism involves telling a story about the past that often, though not always, involves trying to break away from some larger political authority, often an empire.Part of the present moment’s attitude towards British history is not new: the sense that British history was delegitimated by Empire has been there before.Mentioned in this Episode: The FT reviews Andrew Adonis’ biography on Ernest BevinFurther Learning: Fintan’s book, Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of PainFintan on Boris JohnsonMore on ‘The Lost Cause’Fintan’s recent piece on Trump in the New York Review of BooksAnd as ever, recommended reading curated by our friends at the LRB can be found here:  See for privacy and opt-out information.
David and Helen talk with historian Sarah Churchwell about the origins, uses and abuses of the idea of American fascism. Where does American fascism come from? Does it follow a European model or is it something exceptional? What role do white supremacy and anti-Semitism play in its development? How close has it got to power? Plus we ask the big question for now: Does it make sense to call Trump a fascist?Talking Points: Trump’s decision to hold a rally in Tulsa on 19 June is an act of clear provocation to African Americans, especially at this moment. 19 June 1865 was the day the last slaves were emancipated, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation.The symbolic deferral, the fact that white people were actively denying black people full rights and citizenship, is what Juneteenth came to represent. Tulsa is where the worst race riot in American history occurred in 1921. The white population of Tulsa descended on a thriving black community.The Trump campaign was forced to move the rally a day. It will happen on 20 June.Is fascism the right word for what has happened—and is happening in America? The second Klan rose between 1915 and 1922.The commentariat at the time pointed to Mussolini and fascism to explain the Klan’s resurgence.Hitler looked at the US and took aspects, including the legal institutionalisation of white supremacy, especially in the South, as an inspiration. But there is something quite specific about European fascism in the 1920s that has to do with the fallout of the First World War.Fascism is ultra-nationalism. It has to be different in every country: it’s highly situational, highly historicized. It can be hard to pin down because each iteration takes its own form.Is it historically accurate to call the present moment fascist? Is it useful?Is calling Trump a fascist too comforting? Does it keep us from seeing the reasons why he won?Is it useful to think about American nativist, conspiratorial, racist, xenophobic, anti-semitic gorups as being recognizably fascist going back in time? Mentioned in this Episode: Sarah and TP American Histories on the 15th and the 19th amendmentRobert Paxton, The Anatomy of FascismPhilip Roth, The Plot Against AmericaSinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen HereJonathan Shanin on Tom Cotton’s op edFurther Learning: Sarah on TP: America First? Sarah on the dark history of America FirstSarah’s book, Behold AmericaSee for privacy and opt-out information.
We talk to Adom Getachew, Jasson Perez and Gary Gerstle about the politics of protest and the politics of policing in America. What does 'Defund the Police' mean in practice? Is the current crisis likely to empower or curtail the surveillance state? How are the current protests different from ones we've seen in the past? And where Minneapolis leads, will the world follow? Plus we talk about the implications of the protests for the November elections.Talking Points:The ‘defund the police’ movement has gained a lot of ground in the last few weeks.This movement wants to defund and disband the police and invest resources in things that get at the roots of harm and violence in communities. Minneapolis already had a successful campaign to divest. Local organizations knew how to relate to a spontaneous rebellion and use that energy to push the agenda. Other cities will have to figure out how to do this in their organizing communities. Alternatives to policing exist but they are chronically underfunded.We associate the last 30 years with state shrinkage, neoliberalism, and disinvestment from public goods, especially education, but there has been an ongoing increase in police spending.The pandemic—and a growing sense that we don’t have basic public necessities—has led people to question the normalcy of increasing police spending.Growing expenditure has not really helped the communities where violence persists. Police have failed on their own terms.Cities are also paying out a lot on police misconduct cases.There are two things going on: historically recognizable violence, but also the risk that this movement empowers the move toward technological forms of violence. Big data police tech presents itself as the solution to racist policing and police brutality.Demands to defund the police must be coupled with restrictions around private policing and surveillance. The American federal system is set up to stymie change, so moments like this are rare but important.It starts from the outside—from protests—and then the elite begin to rethink their role in the regime.Are there any useful historical analogies?Gary thinks the labour uprisings of the 1930s, which pressured FDR to make a leftward turn, more closely parallel what’s happening now than 1968. The scale and depth of this—and the level of public support—are unprecedented.The uprisings of 1968 generated a particular elite response. The movement for black lives is responding to the world that comes out of 1968 and the 50 year bipartisan consensus on policing that emerged from that moment.Trump is an incumbent and this happened on his watch. That’s different from the 1968/Nixon story.What will the Democrats do? And how far will they go to meet the demands?What is the vector through which protest politics gets channeled to become a mechanism for generating policy? In the absence of organized labour politics, there are no clear mediating institutions. The pandemic presents a risk: if there is another spike, Trump will blame protesters. Mentioned in this Episode:Eyes on the Prize (documentary)David’s LRB review of Rahm Emanuel’s book, The Nation CityThe Politics of...  See for privacy and opt-out information.
In an extra episode, we're back with last week's guest Jonathan Shainin, Head of Opinion at the Guardian, so he can talk us through the big blow-up at the NYT. What has it taught us about about the new battlegrounds in newspaper opinion? Where does power now lie in newspaper offices? And where does Jonathan draw the line between what can and can't be published? In our next episode, voices on the ground in the US.Further Reading:The Tom Cotton Op-Ed from the New York Times Goldberg in the NYT Cotton Op-Ed under review: creation of the NYT "op-ed" page, which was launched in 1970 history of the "objectivity norm" in American journalism  See for privacy and opt-out information.
David talks to comedian and host of the Political Party podcast Matt Forde about his lockdown experiences and about his life with the Labour party: before, during and after the Corbyn years. Plus we discuss the ways in which political allegiances are (and aren't) like supporting a football team.  See for privacy and opt-out information.
David and Helen talk with Jonathan Shainin, Head of Opinion at the Guardian newspaper, about the challenges of political journalism in a deeply polarised age. Is it possible to hold the line between news and comment? Are the arguments about Covid a rerun of Brexit? What can scientists and historians add to political analysis? Plus we discuss how American journalism has changed the way it talks about race and violence and what that means for the current moment.Talking Points: The heightened state of political opinion writing around Brexit seems to have dissipated.The opinion pages became a vehicle for a kind of tribal politics. There was a relentless urgency to it: was that illusory?Technology revealed the enormous appetite for news and commentary related to Brexit.People want updates and then they want trusted voices to add to the experience and understanding of events. Is there a distinction between emotional and analytical opinion pieces?Opinion pages will always reflect partisan opinions.To what extent is an opinion piece feeding into a libidinal appetite among readers? Is there a role in either the Guardian or the Telegraph for an opinion piece that would be comprehensible to the other side?One thing John set out to do is to reduce the frequency of opinion pieces.In the early days of the pandemic, a lot of the pieces were explanatory and written by experts. Can we separate scientific expertise from political judgment?Analytical pieces aim for a different kind of persuasion.Historians and political theorists can say: can we think about things in a different way? No form of journalism can be made bulletproof against weaponised forms of skepticism or cynicism.The classical model of how the facts, the news, and the demos interact is now outdated.A new model would have to capture the chaos and instability between these elements.Journalism feels more urgent, yet the urgency is accompanied by diminished authority.Has Trump revealed the limits of the analytical mode?What happens when there isn’t room for reasonable disagreement?Mentioned in this Episode:Ian Jack on the Scottish Independence Referendum David’s piece for The Guardian, It was all a dream’William Hanage for the Guardian on COVIDMelanie Philips in the Times on COVIDAlan Finlayson on why we should stop complaining about tribalismHelen’s piece on football for the New StatesmanDavid on climate denialismFurther Learning: David and...  See for privacy and opt-out information.
David and Helen talk to the historian Dan Snow about the parallels for the current crisis. Is it like past pandemics or is it more like a war? What has it exposed about the weak spots in our societies? And what have we learned about the role of political leadership? Plus we explore the value of Churchill comparisons on the 80th anniversary of his great WWII speeches and we dip our toes into the Cummings affair.Talking Points: Lockdown, quarantine, social distancing have been borrowed from the past.This is not as great a mortality or morbidity event as past pandemics, at least yet.But we are not as separate from past human experience as many people would like to believe.Perhaps the better comparisons are the forgotten ones: 1957 and 1968.The other main comparison is the Spanish flu, which was far more lethal.Politicians treated these past flus as background events. This crisis is all consuming.Most people in 1919 died at home. Health infrastructure changes the conversation.The politics of healthcare are central to this—especially because governments decided that protecting health systems would be the priority.This event has exacerbated existing faultlines, but also, things that we’ve assumed were facts of life have been completely halted.Can things go back to ‘normal’?There may be more homeworking, but will there be less air travel?Pandemics expose weak spots in societies. Western societies are old and increasingly unhealthy. This is a disease that targets the old and the unhealthy.Are future historians more likely to see this as an economic crisis than as a health crisis?We’ve been in monetary unknown territory since the early 1970s. When we look back at the economic narrative, we’re going to be looking at a much longer story about what happens when the world’s central banks allow polities to live with much more debt outside of wartime. Are we now health-fiscal states? The state, in Hobbesian terms, exists to keep people alive. In the modern world, that means both health and external security.We should expect the state to show itself for what it is in both war and health crises.The health side becomes more important in aging societies.Johnson is trapped between what the pandemic looks like it requires with regards to Cummings and his government’s ability to deal with Brexit.Johnson does not want to face the next phase of Brexit negotiations without Cummings.For Johnson to sacrifice Cummings now would be existential for his government; that’s why he doesn’t want to do it. Mentioned in this Episode:History HitTP with Richard Evans on choleraJohn Oxford on the Spanish Flu for BBCDemocracy for Realists by Christopher Achen and Larry BartelsOur most recent conversation with Adam ToozeFurther Learning: More on the 1957 and 1968 pandemicsSee for privacy and opt-out information.
David talks to the writer Annie Zaidi, winner of the Nine Dots Prize, about her remarkable memoir of life in India and the search for identity. It's s story of conflict, migration, belonging and the idea of home. We also discuss what home means for Indians now the country is under lockdown and Annie tells us how life is in Mumbai.*The sound is not great, we are sorry. It is nicer to listen through speakers than on headphones*Further Reading and listening:Annie Zaidi's book Dots Prize Zaidi speaks to Qudsiya Ahmad, Head of Academic Publishing at Cambridge University Press India article about the Indian migration caused by lock-down  See for privacy and opt-out information.
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Podcast Details

Created by
Barney Brown
Podcast Status
Feb 13th, 2015
Latest Episode
Sep 24th, 2020
Release Period
Avg. Episode Length
42 minutes

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