Year in Review: Before & After 2020

💩 Special edition: Four big themes from a year that was [see emoji].

Good morning and welcome to a special edition of International Intrigue.

When you think about it, dividing our lives cleanly into years is pretty silly. The driving forces of our world aren’t so easily carved up and held up to the light. That’s perhaps never truer than right now as the pandemic rages on across the globe, indifferent to our need for a holiday season reprieve from our collective anxiety.

There are the obvious things to say about 2020, the events, the time a chap full of Tsingtaos bit into a bat for a laugh (although that was actually 2019). And there are less obvious things, some of which we’ve tried to cover over the life of this newsletter.

So instead of rehashing those, we’re asking:

In 2025, what will we say about 2020?

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🌏 1. The year we reached high tide on globalisation

tl;dr: we’re pretty sure the world is heading into Cold War 2.0. There will be two models for government, economic growth, internet, finance, and ultimately, life. Perhaps all this was inevitable – historically speaking the post-Soviet period of globalism lasted a long time. Hopefully we’re wrong and the world can build a better global model in the years ahead.

It's only when the tide goes out that you learn who has been swimming naked - Warren Buffet

It didn’t start in 2020, but this year it became clear that the tide of globalisation was receding. As countries grappled with mounting domestic problems, many leaders rediscovered their penchant for appealing to nationalist emotions.

Similar handwringing occurred after the 2009 global financial crises. That’s because crises that occur precisely because of our globalised world (interconnected financial systems, supply chains, and people) will naturally raise questions about whether our world should be so global. And those questions benefit countries that seek to change the current world order.

2020 saw China, Russia, and others continue to stoke those anti-globalist forces. But it also saw anti-globalists within traditionally globalist countries work to promote national-first policies. Vaccine geopolitics, undermining elections, fake news, immigration bans, and more, all contributed to the sense we are moving back to a world dominated by the powerful and their allies.

You might sense that we are fundamentally globalists. But we’re not naïve (we hope?). Globalism has done an appalling job of distributing the benefits of a connected global system to the majority of those who live in it. Jobs have been off-shored, human rights abuses proliferate, and class systems remain entrenched.

Yet there is some hope. The international response to Covid-19 clearly demonstrated the benefits of working together. We’re optimistic about climate change action. While it doesn’t feel like it now, perhaps 2020 will be the year we went back to first principles and rebuilt a fairer global system for all.

Questions we’re asking:

😱 2. The year that classic liberals were dreading

tl;dr: the good ship liberalism took on a lot of water this year. Emergencies always require a temporary expanded role for governments, but history tells us that these expansions don’t recede quickly, if ever. Western democracies must now renegotiate the social contract between citizen and state to determine whether the classic liberal project will survive another century.

The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power, pure power - George Orwell

We just couldn’t bring ourselves to write ‘FREEDOM AND LIBERTY UNDER ATTACK’ with a straight face. But 2020 was a banner year for advocates of a bigger role for government in the lives of its citizens.

Since 9/11, our low tolerance for death and disease as unavoidable parts of life has seen us permit and even welcome a huge expansion of the role of the state to keep us safe. 2020 turbocharged that trend: almost overnight, governments worldwide expanded like a dry sponge tossed in a pool.

Don’t get us wrong - governments rightly have a role in responding to global security and health crises. Socialised risk is a marvellous human innovation. What happens afterwards is what matters because the newly empowered don’t enjoy giving up that power.

And we’re not just talking about those ☝ friendly chaps:

In fact, every continent has numerous examples of governments demanding and taking a more central role in the lives of its citizens. It’s no coincidence that China has spent the last few years actively promoting their alternative authoritarian model of governance.

In times of uncertainty, governance models that seek to preserve law, stability, safety and sovereignty will be at their most persuasive.

That’s true even in the US. On top of a raging pandemic, contentious election cycle, and widespread civil unrest, a different brand of illiberalism was on full display:

  • In August, Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican (traditionally the party of classic liberalism in the US), penned a New York Times editorial arguing (poorly) for a military intervention on the streets of a US city.

  • Then, more than 800 New York Times journalists and staff members protested, leading the editor who commissioned the article to resign. Apparently “All the News That's Fit to Printdoesn’t include informing citizens of the authoritarian views of a likely future presidential candidate.

We hope 2020 will be the catalyst for an overdue renegotiation of the role of the state in Western democracies. Do we want more powerful governments to protect us from all that would harm us, or do we renew our belief in the power of the individual? There is no right answer, but the least we can do is ask the question.

Questions we’re asking:

🍃 3. The year that climate change and economics aligned

tl;dr: rather than viewing addressing climate change and economic growth as Gryffindor vs Slytherin, businesses and governments are adding climate change risks in their long-term plans. The strong narrative around the opportunities of green products and policies is helping to spur global cooperation. 2021 will be an important year.

Real success can only come if there is a change in our societies and in our economics and in our politics - Sir David Attenborough

Aside from huge numbers of sourdoughs baked and TikToks attempted, 2020 was a record year for extreme weather:

These events are devastating for humanity and our planet. And they are also costly to economies. If unaddressed, climate change could cost businesses nearly US$1 trillion in the coming years. On top of climate disaster damage costs, the world could face capital market risks and disruptions to supply train, trade, and labour. 

But 2020 might be the year when the environment and economics finally align. Even before COVID lockdowns briefly cleared smoggy skies (a silver lining to the dumpster year), businesses had begun taking climate change risks more seriously. Movements such as “inclusive capitalism” pushed for businesses to consider ecology and human equality alongside shareholder perks (though it’s actually more profitable for CEOs to factor this into their long-term plans).

Many governments are building climate resiliency into their future. Among them is Biden’s Green New Deal, which wants to link climate change initiatives with job creation.

If businesses and governments collectively take climate change as seriously as this girl takes her ballroom dancing, then surely we’ll be on the right track.

Questions we’re asking:

💻 4. The year that changed how we work and learn, forever

tl;dr: technology almost completely overcame geography, enabling us to do nearly everything from anywhere. These advances might finally allow quality education and meaningful work to truly spread throughout the world. Less optimistically, 2020 also saw power and wealth aggregate to even fewer people, a trend that is unlikely to end well.

An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics - Plutarch

We’re not going to revisit the argument about remote work. We all love/hate zoom, and if you think you just hate/hate zoom, think about your lockdown life without it. But how will the remarkably fast transformation in how we work and learn affect our societies?

The way economies reorganised themselves this year hints at a fragmented future:

💣 The US: ‘creative destruction’ meant more resources shifted from unproductive industries to productive ones than arguably at any other time since World War II. But it wasn’t evenly distributed; without Apple, Microsoft, Alphabet, Amazon, and Facebook, the stock market would have be down.

🧊 The UK and Europe: the general approach was to ‘freeze in place’ and limit the economic damage of the pandemic. Workers were furloughed and businesses partly recompensed. While this may mean a quicker recovery, Europe perhaps missed a chance to address its deeper structural problems.

🔒 China: militant lockdowns followed by a return to normal-ish life. Economic numbers suggest a fast recovery is already underway, but there are signs of longer term concern.

🤒 The developing world: 2020 has and will continue to expand the gap between the rich and poor. The World Bank suggests it might have pushed 40-60 million more people into extreme poverty.

It wasn’t just working from home. Higher education moved almost totally online for the first time in most places. That might be a very good thing:

[being forced online] has the potential to break the wheel of the emerging caste system fuelled by higher ed. By leveraging technology, universities can unlock a massive increase in the ROI of public universities, which educate two-thirds of university students - Professor Scott Galloway, NYU Stern School of Business

After the great recession in 2009, a glut of companies including Shopify, Square, Instagram, WhatsApp, and others were born. They have all changed the way we live. This time we are seeing huge waves of investment in companies specifically focused on breaking down the tyranny of geography in work and education.

The upside? Remote working and learning could reinvigorate lower socio-economic regions. The real best and brightest, not just the geographically fortunate, might be able to access better education and compete for jobs. It’s easy to see the negatives of big tech, but you don’t have to squint too hard to see the green shoots of potential for the post 2020 world either.

Questions we’re asking:

➕ Extra Intrigue

A few other things happened this year:

  1. US election: The largest voter turnout in over a century and one of the most expensive💸

  2. Brexit: Talks between the EU and UK continue (even if their travels do not thanks to the British COVID strain) and will extend into the new year as fishing becomes a sticking point 🎣

  3. Oil prices: Oil prices went negative for the first time in history (meaning oil producers paid buyers for oil) as COVID lockdowns slashed demand for oil.

  4. Australia-China: Australia-China relations tumbled further this year, with Aussie wines the latest casualty. (Their loss in our view 🍷😋 )

😥 Obituaries

2020 has taken far too many people. We've selected four quotes from people you might not have heard of, but who each led remarkable lives in very different ways. There is no one way to change the world:

I think there should be more than one voice in a healthy society, and I don't approve of using public power for excessive interference.

Li Wenliang (33) - unfathomably brave Chinese doctor who warned the world about Covid-19 only to be of accused by police of making false statements that disturbed the public order.

Because the government is indifferent to the troubles of its citizens, we as a civil society need to take action.

Lina Ben Mhenni (36) - Tunisian blogger who documented the start of the Arab Spring in 2010.

[I] was never afraid except for one night when I was thrown in the torture centre of the Casino de la Corniche, in Algiers, where I thought guiltily of my 3 and 6 year old sons, waiting for me to be executed.

Gisele Halimi (93) - French lawyer, anti-colonialist, and feminist who was instrumental in decriminalising abortion in France.

I felt the positive images were only part of history, so I also photographed the negative scenes so that one day there would be a complete history.

Li Zhensheng (79) - Chinese photographer who captured the horrors of Mao Zedong's cultural revolution in the late 1960's.

Our favourite…

  1. Book
    John: The Psychology of Money by Morgan Hounsel
    Helen: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

  2. Album
    John: SAWAYAMA by Rina Sawayama
    Helen: Modern Anxiety by Josef Salvat (fitting for the year?)

  3. TV Show
    John: Yellowstone (sorry not sorry)
    Helen: Lovecraft Country

  4. Long read
    John: The Gervais Principle, Or The Office According to “The Office” by Venkat Rao
    Helen: The Party That Failed by Cai Xia

🎄Merry Christmas and/or Happy Holidays to you all!

We’d love to hear what you thought of this edition, so please do comment below, or tweet us @intintrigue.

We’ll be back with our ‘Predictions for 2021’ edition soon. Until then, we hope your last minute holiday preparations are less triggering than this:

PS: Throw us a Chrissy present by simply sharing our newsletter! So easy! 💋

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