Simon Kuper

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The narrative says the DNC robbed Bernie Sanders of the nomination, intervening on behalf of its favored candidate, Hillary Clinton, and that’s why the party dropped the election to the unthinkable Trump.

No email hacks were required to realize the Democrats favored Clinton, a Democrat, over Sanders, who conveniently switched to the party merely for the Presidential race. (He reverted back to Socialist as soon as the race was over.) But that’s not what cost the Vermont senator the nod.

He simply was too unknown at the outset of the campaign. By the time voters began to know who he was and what he stood for, Sanders did resoundingly well. It was just a bit too late, though, because the Democratic state contests, in contrast to many of the Republican ones, are proportional. There was just no making up the necessary ground once Sanders’ roll began.

The shocking rebound of Britain’s Labour Party this week has led Twitter queues to be filled with confident pronouncements that Sanders, the most-left of all the candidates, would have topped Trump. Maybe. Will he, a cranky man in cranky age, run for the office again in 2020 when he’ll be 79? He’s not saying and there’s really no way for any of us to say what will remain of the country at that point.

He certainly is right in stating that our politics have become contests of personality to such a degree that policy is clearly a secondary concern. Voting for the person you most want to have a beer with is a far less sane way to decide on a candidate than by looking soberly at where they stand on healthcare, education, etc.

From a new Simon Kuper profile of Sanders, whom he spoke to during the politician’s recent Dublin trek:

When I mention that many Europeans see Trump’s US as a rogue state, Sanders gets so excited that he spills his tea. Mopping distractedly, he cautions: “What I would say to our European friends is not to confuse Donald Trump with the people of the United States.” And here Sanders gets to the essence of his self-understanding: that he himself, far from being a radical leftist, speaks for the American silent majority. He believes his socialism is mainstream.

“Here’s what I think is going on. If you were to tell Americans that if you are 70 and the doctor diagnoses you with cancer, that there should not be a healthcare programme to protect you, 90 per cent of people say, ‘You’re out of your mind, you want to get rid of Medicare? What are you talking about? You want to get rid of federal aid to education? That’s nonsense.’ ” He thinks Republicans can win elections only through massive spending on campaigns that highlight personality rather than issues.

His own campaign was different: “We started off with no political organisation. None. I don’t believe I knew one person in the state of Iowa.” When I remark that the notion of a self-described socialist winning the White House initially seemed insane, he cuts me off: “It was not insane.”

Was there a moment when he thought he might actually win? “Well, you go and you speak to 25,000, 30,000 people and you think it’s real. One of the beautiful things is we would literally read in the newspapers about rallies and events and activities taking place in the state that we had zero to do with. I wish I could tell you it was a brilliant campaign organising all this. It wasn’t. It was a lot of spontaneous activities, which was, in retrospect, quite extraordinary. …

“Many Americans simply do not know that the social welfare system in America is so much weaker than in Europe. It has to do a lot with corporate media, has a lot to do with a two-party system which doesn’t really ask hard questions. Do you know how much it costs to go to university here, where we sit right now? It’s free. Do you think people in the US know that? People will be going, ‘Oh, Bernie, you’re radical.’ No. Much of what I propose is already in existence in many countries.”

So Europe helped shape his beliefs? “Yes. Europe and my belief that every person is entitled to basic human rights.”•

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Better governance was not the goal of the most recent American Presidential election.

Pundits on the Left (and many on the Right) have been excoriated as “out-of-touch” for not believing Trump could win the election, though the candidate himself was said to have thought he had little chance on Election Day. The two main reasons why so many high-information voters and members of the punditry felt he had little chance for victory: 1) Basically sane and decent people didn’t want to believe their fellow citizens would stoop to supporting a bigoted demagogue who was wholly unsuited for the position, and 2) Many traditionally astute observers judged the campaign based on who had better policies when anger was really all that counted this time. It was a populist revolt, which is always based more on emotion than rational thought.

Personally, I believed Clinton would win by five or six points nationally, taking the popular vote and electoral college, until James Comey insinuated himself, at which point it seemed it would be a dead heat. When the FBI concludes investigating Trump and his associates for possible treason, the department itself needs to be examined for its outrageous actions and how outsiders to the organization, like Rudy Giuliani, seemed to know ahead of time about its coming October surprise.

From Simon Kuper’s Financial Times piece on the perils of populism:

All populist movements now offer some version of “Lock her up!”. Pim Siegers, a village councillor for the far-left Dutch Socialist Party, told me that when he tried to convince people that the populist Geert Wilders wouldn’t solve their problems, they often replied: “We know. But ‘they’ — the elite — don’t like him.” Voting populist is often simply a way to punish elites. One campaign poster during last year’s Brexit referendum urged, beneath a picture of the grinning politicians David Cameron and George Osborne: “Wipe the smile off their faces. Vote Leave.” No matter that voting Leave might make you worse off; at least it would hurt the elite too. Similarly, many poor Americans wanted to abolish Obamacare chiefly to punish Barack Obama.

Liberals still often delude themselves that today’s political battle is about which side has better solutions. When Trump proposes killing off the National Endowment for the Arts, liberals counter that the NEA costs taxpayers a pittance (less, for instance, than Trump’s weekend trips to his Mar-a-Lago resort). But smart policymaking isn’t the point. Trashing the NEA punishes liberals.

Populist leaders act out revenge fantasies for people who feel slighted. Hence that quintessential populist persona (which Trump incarnates): the troll. Trump being Trump, he sometimes turns the dial up to 11 and goes from punishment to sadism, as in his odes to waterboarding.

The joy of punishment goes back to the Old Testament, but Randy Newman captured it beautifully in his 1988 satirical song “I Want You To Hurt Like I Do” (“One thing we all have in common/ And it’s something everyone can understand/ All over the world sing along… ”). Newman wrote the song as a counter to “We Are the World”, the liberal-solutions anthem. American conservatives understand the joy of punishment. •

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Came across a Vanity Fair article yesterday about Olivia de Havilland, who is still alive at 99 and living in Paris, where she’s resided for the past 61 years. Funny that, according to the piece, she grew disenchanted with Hollywood in particular and America in general in the 1950s because television’s emergence was making people stay home and ruining social life. The explosion of TV (and near-TV) content today and the many ways to watch it seems to me to have done even worse damage to NYC. People binge-watch programs here the same way as everywhere else and the landscape seems flatter. It’s like Disneyland for tourists, but many of the best characters stay inside their homes.

In a slightly related vein: While I was shocked to read that the Gone with the Wind actress is still alive, to become a centenarian if she makes it just another six weeks, Simon Kuper of the Financial Times writes that some researchers believe 105 is a conservative estimate for the average lifespan for those born in the West today. A lot can happen between now and then–pandemic, asteroid, climate disaster–but it’s worth considering, if conditions hold relatively steady, how life will change when ten decades becomes routine. Certainly career and education will be altered dramatically, even more so since technology is currently destabilizing both sectors.

Kuper’s opening:

baby born in the west today will more likely than not live to be 105, write Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott of London Business School in their crucial new book, The 100-Year Life. That may sound like science fiction. In fact, it’s only cautiously optimistic. It’s what will happen if life expectancy continues to rise by two to three years a decade, its rate of the past two centuries. Some scientific optimists project steeper rises to come.

If turning 100 becomes normal, then the authors predict “a fundamental redesign of life.” This book shows what that might look like.

We currently live what Gratton and Scott call “the three-stage life”: education, career, then retirement. That will change. The book calculates that if today’s children want to retire on liveable pensions, they will need to work until about age 80. That would be a return to the past: in 1880, nearly half of 80-year-old Americans did some kind of work.

But few people will be able to bear the exhaustion and tedium of a 55-year career in a single sector. Anyway, technological changes would make their education obsolete long before they reached 80. The new life-path will therefore have more than three stages. Many people today are already shuffling in that direction.•


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From Simon Kuper’s Financial Times piece about Dutch football, that brilliant orange, a brief history of how a coach and player drove the Netherlands to become an unlikely powerhouse:

“Dutch football wasn’t any good until 1965, when the semi-professional Amsterdam club Ajax hired a coach named Rinus Michels. Together with Ajax’s teenage prodigy Johan Cruijff, he cracked the secret of football. It’s no coincidence they did this in 1960s Amsterdam, a place where everything was being reinvented. Meanwhile a neighbourhood kid named Louis van Gaal (Holland’s coach today) watched their training sessions.

Football, Cruijff and Michels decided, was about the pass. Dribbles, warrior spirit, fitness and so on were mere details. A team has to pass fast, into space, with players constantly changing position, and everyone thinking like a playmaker. As Cruijff said, ‘Football is a game you play with your head.’

That means you need to talk about football, and sometimes quarrel about it. When Cruijff became a coach, he complained, “The moment you open your mouth to breathe, Dutch footballers say, ‘Yes but …’’ However, that was his own fault. He had turned Dutch football into a debating society. Holland’s great captain Ruud Gullit told me, ‘In a Dutch changing room, everyone thinks he knows best. In an Italian changing room, everybody probably also thinks he knows best, but nobody dares tell the manager.’ And in England, I asked? ‘In an English changing room, they just have a laugh.’

Because the Dutch think about football, they keep developing. They always used to want the ball. But here in Brazil they prefer the opposition to have it. Then, the second the Dutch win it, they break en masse. ‘Omschakeling’ – ‘changeover’ – they call it. ‘We’ve been playing reaction football all tournament,’ says Van Gaal.”

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From “What Does Soccer Mean Today,” Ryan O’Hanlon’s Pacific Standard interview with writer Simon Kuper, an exchange about the effect of globalization on the world’s game, which has made interest somewhat shallower but much wider:

Pacific Standard:

Some have said that this globalization has lessened the importance of the World Cup. Basically, anyone with an Internet connection can watch any game. And with club soccer, they’re watching better, more cohesive teams. Where do you see the World Cup fitting within all that?

Simon Kuper:

It’s still the most meaningful for players and for fans, so your career can be made in a minute. You score a brilliant goal or you score a terrible own goal at the World Cup, and that marks you for the rest of your life just because of the interest and the meaning that people attach to it is still much higher—even though all the things you say are true. What’s special about the World Cup—if you go back to before the World Cup in the U.S., very few Americans were interested, very few Chinese, Indians, Japanese, Indonesians, so really, the biggest countries in the world were excluded. And now each World Cup really is a World Cup, so in that sense it’s much more wider and deeper than it used to be. And I think that’s quite thrilling: The idea that when somebody plays, he’s watched by people literally all over the world. It’s the most uniting event in our planet’s history, given the increase in global communication. The World Cup in Brazil will be the biggest media event in history, judged by numbers of viewers and numbers of clicks, and there’s something majestic about that.”

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From a well-written Financial Times piece by Simon Kuper about the rise (perhaps) of the technocrat and the privatazing of progress, although I think there is a middle ground between the Pol Pot’s perverted utopianism and Bill Clinton’s tireless triangulation:

“Politicians now try to present themselves not as saviours but as managers: Romney, Mario Monti and even Hollande. That’s no wonder, as since 1945 the managerialism of Dwight Eisenhower or Bill Clinton has fared rather better than the utopianism of, say, Pol Pot. As George Orwell wrote in 1943: ‘Plans for human betterment do normally come unstuck, and the pessimist has many more opportunities of saying ‘I told you so’ than the optimist.’ In Ukraine last month, a liberal dissident mused to me about who might be the country’s ideal leader, everyone else having failed. He came up with Lee Kuan Yew or General Franco. Progress has vanished not just from politics but from public life generally: the British municipal libraries that once stood for progress are now being closed.

However, progress has merely gone private. The western middle-classes increasingly believe in progress in their own lives. They read self-help books, take cooking classes, go on diets, stop smoking, do ‘home improvement,’ and have invented a new mode of parenting, ‘concerted cultivation,’ which largely means the sort of nonstop education for your own children that those moustachioed socialists had envisioned for the workers.”


To the avid baseball fan, it would seem Billy Beane has ceased being an elite GM, the architect of Moneyball who could outsmart his peers, mostly because his interests are too broad. Among other things, he’s involved professionally with major-league soccer, computer software and finance. Beane’s restless mind stems in part from being a working-class kid who grudgingly passed on a Stanford scholarship he dearly wanted to accept in order to pocket a signing bonus from the Mets. Simon Kuper of the Financial Times was on hand recently when Beane caught up with author Michael Lewis, the two forever linked by baseball statistics, market inefficiencies and Brad Pitt. An excerpt:

“And so Moneyball became in large part the drama of Billy Beane: the autodidact who gave himself an education. When Beane was 18 years old, Stanford University had offered him a football and baseball scholarship. He and his parents – bright people without much money who had married young and joined the military middle class – were ecstatic. A good college was everything they wanted. But then the New York Mets offered Beane $125,000 to play baseball instead, and he felt he ought to do it. The movie shows the teenager, around the kitchen table with his parents in the simple family home, making the fateful decision. The filmmakers catch the scene well, but, as Beane says, ‘I’m not sure they could capture the complete horror.’

‘Listen,’ he adds, ‘I’m trying not to talk about myself here. I don’t look at life as a bunch of hindsight reviews of your decisions. But that’s exactly what I wanted to do, to attend Stanford University.’

Billy Beane was 18 when Stanford University offered him a football and baseball scholarship, but he went to play or the New York Mets instead

Beane’s life since – his compulsive reading, his discovery of the Moneyball system, his later discovery of soccer – is a long attempt to give himself the university education he never had. Just as Sergey Brin and Larry Page created Google partly because they went to Stanford, Beane created Moneyball partly because he didn’t.”

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