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The Economist: The power of protest - No.24 - 13th Jun 20

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The Economist: The power of protest 


The power of protest and the legacy of George Floyd

George Floyd was not famous. He was killed not in the capital of the United States, but on a street corner in its 46th-largest city. Yet in death he has suddenly become the keystone of a movement that has seized all of America. Still more remarkably, he has inspired protests abroad, from Brazil to Indonesia, and France to Australia. His legacy is the rich promise of social reform. It is too precious to waste.


The focus is rightly on America (see article). The protests there, in big cities and tiny towns far from the coasts, may be the most widespread in the country’s long history of marching. After an outburst of rage following Mr Floyd’s death, the demonstrations have, as we hoped last week, been overwhelmingly peaceful. They have drawn in ordinary Americans of all races. That has confounded those who, like President Donald Trump, thought they could be exploited to forge an electoral strategy based on the threat of anarchy. What began as a protest against police violence against African-Americans has led to an examination of racism in all its forms.


How to handle racists’ statues

In 1895 the burghers of Bristol in south-west England, swept up by the Victorian fervour for celebrating city fathers, were casting about for a big historical cheese of their own. They settled on Edward Colston, a 17th-century merchant who had endowed charities that have lifted innumerable indigent Bristolians out of poverty and educated hordes of its young citizens over the centuries. But, by modern standards, they picked the wrong guy: Colston made his money largely through the Royal African Company, which shipped slaves from Africa to the West Indies. On June 7th protesters chucked his statue into the city’s harbour.


Statues become flashpoints at times of social change because they honour the values, and reflect the hierarchies, of the times in which they were erected. What some in one era celebrate, others then and later often reject—hence the battles over statues of Confederate heroes in the southern United States, many of which were put up long after the civil war to defend white supremacy. Yet statues also provide a record of a country’s past, and the desire to respect and understand that history of commemoration argues against dismantling them. It is these conflicting urges that make this area so tricky.


Most investors and some firms are upbeat about the world economy

According to the theory of cognitive dissonance it is stressful to dwell on contradictions. Pity, then, anyone trying to reconcile the miserable mood of many economic forecasters with booming stock markets and the increasingly bullish mood in many boardrooms. This week the oecd, a club of mostly rich countries, predicted “dire and long-lasting consequences” in the rich world from the recessions caused by the covid-19 pandemic. As it did so, the s&p 500 index of American shares was almost back to its level at the start of the year, when to most people “corona” still meant something to be drunk with a slice of lime. For a while the strength of America’s stock market, which recently enjoyed its biggest 50-day rally in history, looked like a global exception. But since the end of April European and Japanese markets have outperformed even a jubilant Wall Street.


To some this is a clear sign of spreading irrational exuberance. Shares, it is argued, have been pumped to unsustainable highs by monetary and fiscal stimulus, and, perhaps, by a wave of speculation by idle workers who have been punting on the stock market with their stimulus cheques (td Ameritrade, a retail broker, says trading activity is four times the level of a year ago). In fact, investors have not lost their minds. A stream of positive corporate and economic data provides some grounds for optimism. The trouble is that it would not take much bad news—whether about the withdrawal of stimulus or the pandemic—to throw the rally into reverse.


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