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The tasks facing the new Saudi crown prince

Originally published at economist.com on Thursday, 22 June 2017, 1:43:35 pm UTC

WHEN King Salman acceded to the Saudi throne in 2015, it was plain that his son, Muhammad, wielded the real power. He may formally have been second in the line of succession, but Muhammad bin Salman (known as MBS) ran most of the things that mattered: the plan to transform the Saudi state and wean the economy away from oil; the war in Yemen and the wider contest against Shia Iran; and much else besides. When he gave his first on-the-record interview, to The Economist in January 2016, MBS spoke about Saudi Arabia in the first person—talking of “my borders”.

On the face of it, the elevation of MBS to crown prince, replacing his older cousin, Muhammad bin Nayef, means only that his job title has caught up with reality (see article). Yet it rewrites the kingdom’s strange rules of succession. Whereas...


Rushing health-care would be reckless and undemocratic

Originally published at economist.com on Thursday, 22 June 2017, 1:43:35 pm UTC

MITCH McCONNELL, the leader of the Republican majority in the Senate, once complained that President Barack Obama’s health-care bill was thrown together in a back room and then dropped on the Senate floor “with a stopwatch running”. Now he has made the tactic his own. Mr McConnell hopes to call a vote on a health-care bill that will have barely left the printer’s. A week before a vote that could remake a sixth of the economy, even many Republican senators claim not to know what the bill contains.

Why the hush, hurry and hypocrisy? Mr McConnell wants to minimise the opportunity for critics to campaign against his proposals. When the House of Representatives considered its bill this year, the schedule was unusually tight. But there was still enough time for angry protests to spook some Republican congressmen. The bill was delayed. Eventually it passed after a minor amendment made a small concession to its critics. Republican senators, eager to move on to tax reform, do not want more delays...


The aftershocks and the future of austerity

Originally published at economist.com on Thursday, 22 June 2017, 1:43:35 pm UTC

IT FEELS as if Britain has been visited by a battalion of sorrows. Deadly attacks by, and this week against, Muslims have shattered the belief that the security services can shield Britain from the terrorism afflicting the continent. A minority government has taken office under a prime minister who has no authority, ushering in chronic instability. And, as if to symbolise it all, an inferno at the Grenfell Tower in London’s richest borough claimed at least 79 lives of its poorest residents. Britons are searching for a moral that measures up to the catastrophe.

Many possible morals have been overblown, sometimes to the point of exploitation. Capitalism has not failed. Britain’s tall buildings should not, as some say, be branded unfit for human habitation—but be made safer instead (see article). The fire at Grenfell...


What to do when Viktor Orban erodes democracy

Originally published at economist.com on Thursday, 22 June 2017, 1:43:35 pm UTC

IN 1989, during the dying days of the Soviet Union, a long-haired 26-year-old dissident called Viktor Orban addressed a crowd in Budapest’s Heroes’ Square. The charismatic young liberal told the Russians to withdraw from Hungary. He rejected “the dictatorship of a single party”. He called for free elections.

How things change. Today Mr Orban, Hungary’s prime minister, is one of Vladimir Putin’s closest friends in Europe. His country is increasingly dominated by one party, his own. Elections may be free, but they are not fair. Mr Orban has rewritten the constitution, dismantled checks and balances (“a US invention” unsuited to Europe, he says), muzzled the press and empowered oligarchs. Refugees, who supposedly threaten Hungary’s Christian identity, are beaten by police and mauled by police dogs. Debates over values, Mr Orban thinks, “unnecessarily generate social problems”. He wants to fashion an “illiberal state” modelled on China, Russia and Turkey.

Mr Orban has...


South Korea like you’ve never seen it

Originally published at economist.com on Thursday, 22 June 2017, 1:43:25 pm UTC

Familiar Things. By Hwang Sok-yong. Translated by Sora Kim-Russell. Scribe; 216 pages; £12.99. 

The Impossible Fairy Tale. By Han Yujoo. Translated by Janet Hong. Graywolf Press; 225 pages; $16. Tilted Axis; £8.99. 

IN THE mega-cities of Asia and Africa, from Cairo to Manila, urban sprawl throws up trash mountains where enterprising slum-dwellers gather a bare living collecting recyclable junk. Seoul, South Korea’s spruce high-rise capital, no longer looks like such a place. However, Hwang Sok-yong has to travel back just one generation, to the time of Super Mario console games and early Star Wars films, to tell a story about the garbage-pickers of the so-called Flower Island. In his novel “Familiar Things”, on a squalid landfill site outside Seoul amid “towering mounds” of waste, 6,000 people sift and sell the rubbish ferried from the booming city in convoys of...


The rise of performance art

Originally published at economist.com on Thursday, 22 June 2017, 1:43:25 pm UTC

Have you heard about the latest thing?

IN THE medieval town hall of the small Westphalian city of Münster, Alexandra Pirici, a young Romanian artist, prepares to tell a story. Word has gone out that she has something special to say; people have been queuing for hours to get in. As things get under way, her six performers give short occasional statements: how long since the shooting of a man crossing the Berlin Wall, how far to the edge of our galaxy. The actors use their bodies to create shapes reminiscent of collapsing monuments, commemorative sculptures and famous posters, moving among the rooms of the Rathaus, singing all the while. The audience is mesmerised. This is a piece of performance art at Skulptur Projekte Münster (SPM), a festival that takes place once a decade, designed to present cutting-edge contemporary sculpture, though this is not sculpture in the conventional sense. The artist describes the performers as “human search engines”.

This...


Chatty women and strong, silent men

Originally published at economist.com on Thursday, 22 June 2017, 1:43:25 pm UTC

UBER was having a bad week: accusations of sexism in the ride-hailing company had turned it from a Silicon Valley “unicorn” into something more of an ogre. Matters were not helped by a board meeting to discuss the mess. Arianna Huffington, a director, cited research showing that the likelihood of a board bringing on a woman is higher if it already has at least one female member. David Bonderman, her colleague, quipped that this would just mean more talking. He later apologised and quit.

Some might quietly grumble that, rude or not, Mr Bonderman had a point. It is widely thought in the West that women talk more than men. One popular-science book called “The Female Brain” said they use three times as many words per day as men. Maybe that is why senators kept interrupting Kamala Harris, a Californian senator, during her questioning of Jeff Sessions, America’s attorney-general, at a hearing on June 13th. Or why Jim Holt, hosting a panel on cosmology at a science festival in New York,...


Toscanini’s pursuit of perfection

Originally published at economist.com on Thursday, 22 June 2017, 1:43:25 pm UTC

Toscanini. By Harvey Sachs. W.W. Norton; 944 pages; $39.95. To be published in Britain in July; £29.99. 

ASK music-lovers to name a conductor, and among the greats they are likely to mention Arturo Toscanini. The Italian, who died in 1957, is perhaps best known for leading the NBC Symphony Orchestra from the 1930s, which had a large following in America. Yet Toscanini was an elite musician as well as a popular one. And he worked with the world’s most prestigious orchestras, as the principal conductor of La Scala in Milan and as a conductor at the Bayreuth Festival in Germany. Harvey Sachs has written the definitive biography of this great, and colourful, character. 

Mr Sachs has already published a biography of Toscanini, in 1978. Yet this is not merely a new edition of an old book. Mr Sachs has drawn on a batch of Toscanini’s letters unearthed in the 1990s, as well as the archives of many of the...


A grim diagnosis for Western politics

Originally published at economist.com on Thursday, 22 June 2017, 1:43:25 pm UTC

The Retreat of Western Liberalism. By Edward Luce.Grove Atlantic; 234 pages; $24. Little Brown; £16.99. 

FEW doubt that something big happened in Western politics during the past 12 months but nobody is sure what. Turmoil in Washington and London contrasts with centrist stability in Paris and Berlin. Edward Luce, a commentator for the Financial Times in Washington, is well placed to observe the shifts and shocks. “The Retreat of Western Liberalism” offers a brisk, timely survey.

“Fusion”, the longest of just four chapters, describes the successes of economic globalisation, but also the costs borne by the less well-off in rich countries, notably Britain, America and France. Next, “Reaction” attributes the recent “degeneration” of Western politics to slowing economic growth and to the rich taking an undue share of what little growth there is.

“Fallout” moves to geopolitics and the...


Chatty women and strong, silent men

Originally published at economist.com on Thursday, 22 June 2017, 1:43:25 pm UTC

UBER was having a bad week: accusations of sexism in the ride-hailing company had turned it from a Silicon Valley “unicorn” into something more of an ogre. Matters were not helped by a board meeting to discuss the mess. Arianna Huffington, a director, cited research showing that the likelihood of a board bringing on a woman is higher if it already has at least one female member. David Bonderman, her colleague, quipped that this would just mean more talking. He later apologised and quit.

Some might quietly grumble that, rude or not, Mr Bonderman had a point. It is widely thought in the West that women talk more than men. One popular-science book called “The Female Brain” said they use three times as many words per day as men. Maybe that is why senators kept interrupting Kamala Harris, a Californian senator, during her questioning of Jeff Sessions, America’s attorney-general, at a hearing on June 13th. Or why Jim Holt, hosting a panel on cosmology at a science festival in New York,...