Monthly Archives: October 2010

I am sitting on a bar stool. On the other side of a round metal table, the world’s second richest man is sipping a Diet Coke, eating french fries with his fingers and explaining the history of the polio vaccine. Bill Gates would still be the richest man in the world, if he didn’t keep giving his money away. Now, after donating $28bn to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – which funds health, development and educational causes – he is down to his last $54bn.

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As I boarded the 5.50pm train from Paddington to Oxford yesterday, I regretted my foolish agreement to speak at the Oxford Union that night. I was never a debater as a student. I had found the formality and self-importance of the Cambridge Union in the 1980s unattractive, and instead put my spare energies into student journalism. But now, at last, I was going to have to clamber into black tie – and go through the whole rigmarole of “points of information” and “Mr President, I beg to oppose the motion”.

I think I only agreed, months ago, because I was aware the debate was taking place just before my book is published (it’s out on Monday), and I was working on the “any publicity” principle. But now I found myself heading for Oxford – knackered, unprepared, not even sure which side of the motion I was speaking on, and with my head full of images of jeering hoorays in white tie. Read more

In this week’s podcast: Political change in Brazil and Argentina, the midterm elections in the United States and Europe’s negotiations over debt and deficit. Read more

As soon as the American mid-term elections are over on Tuesday, attention will switch to the prospects for the next presidential election in November, 2012.

I first floated the idea that Sarah Palin might win the next presidential election in February last year. A lot of people thought I was joking – but I really did think it was a serious possibility. Lately I’ve begun to think I was a bit hysterical because – for all the publicity she gets – Sarah Barracuda has poor approval ratings. Some polls suggest that these are as low as 22%. Read more

After last week’s visit to the Shanghai Expo, I have been exchanging notes with fellow visitors. This has yielded three further insights:

1. I had been struck by the number of people in wheelchairs on the Expo sight. It is widely suspected that this is because many pavilions allow disabled people – or the extremely elderly  – to jump the queues. Since the queues are so enormous, there is obviously a strong incentive to be old or in a wheelchair, or to be the able-bodied companion of one of the aforesaid categories. As a result you can not only rent wheelchairs outside the site of the Expo, you can even rent old people – who for a fee will allow themselves to be wheeled around. Read more

Anybody who talks regularly to Chinese officials will be familiar with the mantra that “China is a developing country”. But Shanghai, which I visited last week, mocks this modest description. With its eight-lane highways, its modern and efficient subway, its forest of neon-lit skyscrapers, giant new airport and chic hotels, China’s commercial capital is defiantly developed.

UK defence cuts, Middle East peace process and the Vatican bank’s frozen assets

In this week’s show, we hear from diplomatic editor James Blitz on the UK defence cuts, Tobias Buck in Jerusalem on the latest in the Middle East peace process, Christian Oliver on the currency wars and get the latest on the Vatican bank’s Italian court case from Guy Dinmore, hosted by David Blair.

They claim that by the time the Shanghai Expo closes, in about a week’s time, some 70m people will have visited since it opened at the beginning of May. I was a bit sceptical about that number. But having spent a few hours there, I can believe it. The queues of visitors from all over China are simply enormous. It usually takes around three or four hours to get into a popular pavilion, like the Italian or French ones.

The longest line, however, is for the Saudi pavilion. On an average day, it takes eight hours to get in. As an official visitor, I got to skip the queue and see what all the fuss was about. As one might expect, the Saudi pavilion is large and opulent. There is an impressive IMAX style film presentation about the country, projected onto vast walls, which you watch from a moving pavement. It was OK. I would definitely have queued twenty minutes to see it. Read more

America has its mid-term elections, France has its strikes and Britain has its austerity drive. But here in China (I’m in Shanghai), there is also very big political news. This week has seen the effective confirmation of the identity of China’s next president, when Hu Jintao steps down in 2012. It will be Xi Xinping – the senior Communist Party official who oversaw the Beijing Olympics. He has been tipped for the presidency for a couple of years. His appointment this week as vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission – the civilian overseer of the military – is seen here as effective confirmation that he will indeed be the next president. The next prime minister, taking over from Wen Jiabao, is assumed to be Li Keqiang – although he apparently has health problems. Read more

If there was an informal European Union championship for street protest then Greece and France would be the two most regular winners. Greek and French workers have traditionally staged strikes and demonstrations with a gusto and frequency that puts their European rivals in the shade.

The headlines in Britain tomorrow will probably be dominated by the announcement of the results of the Strategic Defence Review. I wish it deserved the title “strategic”. Actually, the cuts in defence spending that will be announced tomorrow were agreed in a great hurry – and driven above all by budgetary imperatives, rather than any coherent strategic vision. By bringing British defence spending down below 2% of GDP they risk doing lasting damage to the country’s remaining aspirations to the status of “major power”.

Personally, I wouldn’t mind if Britain decided drastically to reduce its global pretensions, if this was a conscious decision – made after mature reflection and debate about Britain’s place in the world. But this exercise is nothing of the kind. It’s been a complete mess – rushed and incoherent – but with lasting consequences for the country. Read more

English football fans and the British press are transfixed by the legal battle to sell Liverpool football club, against the wishes of its deeply-indebted Texan owners. Even the FT carries the story prominently on today’s homepage.

In recent years, there has been a vogue for foreign owners to come in and buy English football clubs – perhaps it looks like fun, and some of the teams are global brands. . But – in a trend that is oddly emblematic of the way things are going in the global economy – it is obviously much better to be bought by an oil-rich Gulfie or Russian, rather than an American. Basically, the former have more money. Read more

I think if you want to gauge the possibility of the US Congress eventually passing protectionist legislation aimed at China, it’s useful to follow “respectable” opinion: ie what leading economic commentators and journalists are saying. A few years ago, it would have been unthinkable for economists brought up in a liberal tradition to endorse the idea of tariffs on Chinese goods. But that’s changed.

Earlier this week, the FT published a letter from a reader who pronounced himself “shocked” that the FT’s Martin Wolf should “advocate measures against China that are tantamount to declaring a trade war.” I was also shocked – not, as in outraged, but simply surprised. To be clear, Martin is not (yet) advocating the kind of trade tariffs that Congress is thinking about. But he does not dismiss that possibility out of hand, and advocates other forms of heavy pressure, such as restricting Chinese access to US capital markets. Read more

The Tea Party movement that is stirring up US politics means different things to different people. The intended reference is to the Boston Tea Party, the anti-tax, anti-colonial rebellion that sparked off the American revolution.

This is getting to be quite a clear out at the White House. Rahm Emanuel, the chief of staff is going; so is Larry Summers, the chief economic adviser. And now today we get news that Jim Jones, the head of the National Security Council, is also being replaced. That means there will be new people in the three most important staff jobs in the White House. Part of the spin in all three cases is that they are knackered, after two intensive years in the White House. I wonder what that says about Obama himself, who presumably has also been working quite hard? Read more

I think the Nobel committee should be applauded for their courage in giving the peace prize to Liu Xiaobo, the imprisoned Chinese dissident. Last year’s award to Barack Obama was silly. This year, they have got it right.

It’s important that they stick up for human rights in China at this particular moment. There have been plenty of signs, over the last couple of years, that the West has become warier of antagonising China on human-rights issues. Notoriously, Hillary Clinton explicitly downplayed the importance of human-rights in the American dialogue with China, soon after becoming Secretary of State. This American concession was gratefully pocketed by the Chinese, who have reacted to Liu’s award with characteristic grace, by denouncing it as an “obscenity” Read more

In this week’s podcast: After the crisis, the war – currency wars, to be precise. What can regulators do to stop countries from using devaluations to boost their economic growth? We also have the latest on the plight of the Chilean miners – will they be freed soon?  Read more

I am in Seattle, where the city’s business aristocracy is divided over a referendum on whether to hit the rich with a local income tax. The division goes all the way to the top of Microsoft, where the chairman and founder Bill Gates is supporting plans for a local income tax on rich residents of Washington state, while the CEO – Gates’s old friend, Steve Ballmer – has contributed to the campaign to defeat the tax proposal: proposition 1098. Read more

I’ve heard of a witch-hunt, but this is ridiculous. Christine O’Donnell, the Republican candidate for the Senate in Delaware, has just produced a television ad, whose opening words are – “I am not a witch.” This is not an issue that most Senatorial candidates have to deal with, but Ms O’Donnell, a favourite of the Tea Party movement, has been dogged by ill-advised comments she has made on television over the years. In one chat show appearance, she claimed to have dabbled in witchcraft. This seems to have alarmed some voters, so Ms O’Donnell has decided to take the bull (or perhaps the devil) by the horn, and deal with the witch issue straight off. Read more

In recent months, senior western officials have become discernibly more relaxed about the Iranian nuclear programme. It is not that they suddenly welcome the prospect of an Iranian bomb. It is just that, as one official put it recently: “We’re having quite a lot of success, disrupting what they are doing.”