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Clarence Thomas, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, right, administers the judicial oath to Amy Coney Barrett, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, left, with husband Jesse Barrett, second left, and U.S. President Donald Trump during a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Monday, Oct. 26, 2020. The Senate voted 52-48 Monday to confirm Barrett to the Supreme Court, giving the court a 6-3 conservative majority that could determine the future of the Affordable Care Act and abortion rights. Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Sensemaker, 27 October 2020

Sensemaker, 27 October 2020

Clarence Thomas, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, right, administers the judicial oath to Amy Coney Barrett, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, left, with husband Jesse Barrett, second left, and U.S. President Donald Trump during a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Monday, Oct. 26, 2020. The Senate voted 52-48 Monday to confirm Barrett to the Supreme Court, giving the court a 6-3 conservative majority that could determine the future of the Affordable Care Act and abortion rights. Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Early voting in the US surpassed the total for 2016, with 62 million votes cast and a week still to go.
  • Russia reported a one-day record of 320 Covid deaths, and an official total of 26,589 that could be less than half the real figure.
  • A campaign to boycott French goods over President Macron’s defence of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad gained momentum with a mass protest in Bangladesh.

Trump’s big win. The US Supreme Court now has a clearly conservative majority: Amy Coney Barrett has been confirmed after a vote in the Senate that fell (almost) entirely down party lines. The big lesson is that the Republicans have scored a major victory by refusing to play by the rules, securing a 6-3 majority. They declined to allow a vote for a Democratic nominee in 2016, claiming that you should not appoint to the court in the last year of a president’s term. Before, of course, ditching that “rule” when the shoe was on the other foot this year.

The sole Republican to vote against the nomination was Susan Collins of Maine, who is facing a tough fight to hold onto her seat. (Collins has been a particular target of the Lincoln Project, a sort-of Former Republicans For Decency campaign. They have been attacking her as a patsy.)

Justice Coney Barrett was sworn in at a weird night-time event where, obviously, no-one wore masks – not even the 72 year-old justice who administered the event, Clarence Thomas. Justice Coney Barrett herself seemed to try to distance herself from Donald Trump, using the word “independence” a lot. But her swearing-in was a campaign event alongside a president who says he wanted her there in case the results of the election are contested.

This all hurts the legitimacy of the court: now that the old rules are gone, its composition is fair game. Democrats are discussing expanding the court’s membership: Joe Biden has said he will set up a bipartisan commission to look at ways to overhaul its structure. This could be a very fraught and painful process, and one that might dominate a lot of bandwidth for the next few years.

Today in the app… Read Matthew Bishop on the fight for the future of the Republican party in part 2 of our file on Trump and power. Sign up for our lunchtime open news meeting today, when we’ll talk free school meals and Covid antibodies with Matt d’Ancona. Tomorrow evening’s ThinkIn is on climate change and the Middle East, with Dan Rabinowitz and Tim Kruger. Join us then too.

Please share this Sensemaker with your friends and colleagues.


Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Corona cracks
UK society is not coping well with the crisis: old cracks are widening. Dame Doreen Lawrence has chaired a review which found that racial inequality is the root of the racial disparity in Covid deaths in Britain. It found that people from ethnic minorities were over-represented in public-facing industries where they cannot work from home, and were more likely to live in overcrowded housing. Meanwhile the Guardian reports that with safeguarding decisions by courts happening via videolink, almost half of parents and relatives involved in family court hearings during the crisis said they did not understand well what was happening, according to one study – and often these decisions involve family separations. All that, and the government is struggling to explain why it won’t give assistance to families whose children are eligible for free school lunches in term-time, during the Christmas holiday.


New things technology, science, engineering

Giant ant
One of Jack Ma’s companies, Ant Group, is set to be the biggest ever flotation, raising $34 billion (£26 billion) from investors. This would make it a larger float than the Saudi Aramco IPO last year – and would imply that the company is worth a quarter of a trillion dollars. Ant Group (the company once known as Alipay) is a payments company, administering purchases. The company is one-third owned by Alibaba, the e-commerce conglomerate that Ma stepped back from last year. The flotation will happen in Shanghai and Hong Kong (and is expected to raise more money than the float of Alibaba in 2014). As we move ever more online, payment systems are big business. (Incidentally, we’re holding a ThinkIn on Jack Ma next month. You can book your place here.)


Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

The moon is wet
There is water on the moon! And not just near the poles! A human base may be more feasible than we think if we can actually extract water on the surface of our satellite. This is, of course, a big thing. But I am also intrigued by the technology by which it was found: American and German astronomers observed light with wavelengths that showed, unambiguously, there was water. And the data was gathered by the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (Sofia), a modified Boeing 747 carrying a 2.7-metre reflecting telescope. This is as mad as it sounds: a jumbo jet with a massive door in the side which they poke a telescope out of.


The 100-year life health, education, living, public policy

Antibodies
There has been a lot of nervousness about a new finding from the UK’s REACT coronavirus study. The big headline is that the number of people with antibodies against the virus is falling. Wendy Barclay, a professor leading the study, said: “On the balance of evidence, I would say it would look as if immunity declines away at the same rate as antibodies decline away, and that this is an indication of waning immunity.” This is hard information to parse: we will need to watch out for reinfections – which still seem extremely rare. And it still means we need a vaccine, which might confer a greater degree of immunity than a lot of people have got from encountering the pathogen in the wild.


Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

The state of the race
The state of race continues much as before – albeit with one thing that makes me raise my eyebrows. I’ve tended to lean on FiveThirtyEight’s model of the likely outcomes – they have Biden at 87 per cent likely to win. Andrew Gelman, a really interesting statistician who contributed to the Economist forecast, has had a go at picking through some of its outputs – and there is a curious effect which implies that the model has a hard-to-justify set of assumptions in the code. In short: it assumes that if there is a polling error or big late swing in Washington, there will probably be a corresponding error/swing in Missouri, but in the other direction. What does all this mean? One of the other Economist number-crunchers says (in a paid newsletter) that it has “added a lot of artificial uncertainty to [FiveThirtyEight’s] model”. Their model, by contrast, has Biden with a 95 per cent chance of victory. This is the argument: is Biden a heavy favourite or just a favourite?

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Chris Cook
@xtophercook