Saving the planet is a software challenge too

It is ironic that Bill Gates, foremost among techno-optimists, bets that revolutionary new hardware can do the job

John Thornhill

   © Ingram Pinn/Financial Times

Ask a technologist to tackle a problem and their instinctive reaction is likely to be: there must be a technological fix for that. 

So it is with climate change, as technologists devise ever more inventive solutions to combat global warming.

We can sow clouds with fine particles to block out the sun and cool the planet. 

We can invest in experimental nuclear fusion that generates energy by pushing atoms together, rather than splitting them apart. 

We can genetically modify coral reefs to make them more adaptable to warming seas. Reinventing the future is so much more fun than succumbing to the stop-the-clock rhetoric of other parts of the environmental movement.

Bill Gates, the billionaire philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder, has emerged as the most eloquent champion of such techno-optimism. 

In his book, How To Avoid A Climate Disaster, he argues we must invent and deploy breakthrough technologies if we are to stop pumping 51bn tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere each year.

With the resources that come with a $137bn fortune, Gates has mobilised support for Breakthrough Energy, a coalition of private investment funds, philanthropic initiatives and advocacy groups, that is backing more than 40 companies working on such technologies. 

Some of these ventures may be crazy, Gates admits, but others may prove transformative.

It is admirable that Gates spends his money in this way, rather than splashing out on a yacht, football club or Caribbean island, as so many of his fellow billionaires are inclined to do. And who knows? 

With luck, one of the technological solutions backed by Breakthrough Energy might yet achieve spectacular results and help save the planet.

Yet my concern about this fixation with technology is that it might encourage inaction and distraction. 

If we believe that ingenious inventors are going to save us tomorrow, why bother agonising over contentious environmental accords today? If we think that nuclear fusion is just around the corner, why build wind farms?

The critics of techno-optimism argue that the challenge is not so much one of technology, but of policy. We need to change the features of the economic system, rather than fix its bugs.

Mark Jacobson, a climate change expert at Stanford University, has over the past 30 years developed computer models that show that existing wind, water and solar technologies could fully decarbonise the electricity supply if deployed at sufficient scale. 

That would take us a very long way to dealing with the environmental challenge.

Achieving that goal, according to Jacobson, involves a lot of unglamorous work, winning over hearts and minds, opposing vested energy interests and campaigning for politicians who support green policies. 

But this campaigning is paying off as several countries, and some US states, have signed up to renewable energy road maps.

To my mind, this environmental debate echoes a parallel discussion among computer scientists about how to tackle the theoretical risk of runaway artificial intelligence. 

The fear is that we may one day create an AI system that surpasses human intelligence across most domains and poses an existential threat to humanity. 

Stuart Russell, a computer science professor at the University of California, Berkeley, is one of the leading voices in the debate on how to control AI. Intriguingly, he suggests a kind of precursor to runaway AI already exists in the form of multinational corporations. 

We have “programmed” these companies to prioritise shareholder returns and ignore externalities, such as resource depletion or environmental pollution. 

“If you think of the fossil fuel industry as an AI system, we set it up with the objective of maximising profit, and it has won,” he told me. “It is a machine that has human components but functions as a machine. It has outwitted the rest of the human race.”

This industrial “machine” has done an extraordinary job of mobilising resources and reducing the cost of harmful fossil fuels. As Gates highlights in his book, the price of a gallon of oil is cheaper than a gallon of soda sold in Costco ($1 versus $2.85). 

For AI experts, the challenge is one of alignment. As Russell puts it, we have to build machines to ensure “their actions can be expected to achieve our objectives”. Just as we need to design AI systems to remain human-centric, so we must rewrite the software for how our market economy operates.

Encouragingly, this is happening, if in a somewhat messy way. Governments are reshaping market incentives by rewarding environmental “goods” (subsidising wind farms) and punishing “bads” (imposing carbon pricing). 

Even Wall Street is coming around to the mantra “green is good”. Powerful investors are intent on “reprogramming” our corporations with a new environmental function. 

To be fair to Gates, he accepts that we need both the supply and the demand sides of the equation to change for radical innovation to succeed. Policy change is essential even if technological breakthroughs remain indispensable. “Techno-fixes aren’t sufficient, but they are necessary,” he writes.

Yet it is ironic that such a famous technologist, synonymous with the productive capabilities of software, is now betting so heavily on hardware.

The transformer

Mexico’s president has yet to make people’s lives better

But he has grabbed a lot of power for himself

“We are living a stellar moment,” declared Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, this month, a little over two years after he took office. 

It is hard to find evidence of that. Even by the standards of a covid-ravaged world, the country is doing poorly. 

Mexico has the fourth-highest number of excess deaths as a share of population since the pandemic’s onset. Its economy was in recession before the pandemic arrived (see chart). 

The poverty rate probably rose more than in Latin America’s other big economies. 

Almost half of Mexico’s 126m people could not afford to eat properly at the end of 2020, according to official figures. 

Whereas murder rates have dropped sharply in some violent Latin American countries during the pandemic, in Mexico the decline has been tiny.

If the moment is not stellar, most ordinary Mexicans trust Mr López Obrador, often simply called AMLO, soon to make it so. 

According to a recent poll, his approval rating is 62%. 

Another survey found that nearly 40% of Mexicans plan to vote for his party, Morena, in legislative and regional elections due in June. 

The two most popular opposition parties have a quarter of that level of support each (and a third of voters are undecided). 

AMLO’s popularity is evident in places like Ecatepec, a municipality near Mexico City that is as poor, violent and covid-blighted as anywhere. 

Some neighbourhoods lack water; walls are plastered with posters for missing people and help applying for visas to the United States. 

“We have not yet seen results” from amlo, admits Efrain Salguero, a local driver. “I think we should give him more time.”

Mr Salguero is among the millions of Mexicans who still have high hopes for AMLO’s “fourth transformation”, which is to make the country work better by ending corruption and rampant crime and distributing gains from economic growth more fairly. 

He envisions it as the successor to the war of independence of 1810-21, the war for liberal reform of 1858-61 and the revolution of 1910-17. But in two years of transformation amlo has changed Mexico much less than did these momentous events, and mostly for the worse.

In practice, the fourth transformation seems to have three main elements: the undoing of recent reforms; new initiatives that fail to solve the problems they purport to; and concentration of power in the president’s hands.

Reforms enacted by amlo’s “neoliberal” predecessors, however sensible, were quick to go. Early in 2019 he scrapped an education reform introduced by Enrique Peña Nieto, his immediate predecessor, that linked teachers’ pay and promotions to the performance of their pupils. amlo abolished Prospera, a much lauded conditional cash-transfer programme for the poor. 

Handouts, for example to farmers, are now presented as presidential gifts.

AMLO tried to reverse the opening of energy markets, once dominated by state monopolies, to private and foreign enterprises. 

Mexico’s Congress is debating a bill under which electricity generated by state-owned cfe would get priority access to the grid, in preference to cheaper alternatives. 

This would not only raise prices for consumers but could breach the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement (usmca), North America’s free-trade pact. 

It would put at risk some 150 renewable-energy projects that are expected to bring more than $40bn-worth of investment, and make it impossible for Mexico to reach its commitments to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. 

AMLO cancelled the construction of a $13bn airport for Mexico City that was already half-built. These policies have undermined the confidence of investors.

If all this were a prelude to enacting bold ideas for improving Mexicans’ well-being, the cost might be tolerable. But AMLO’s solutions are bullets discharged from an antique gun that is badly aimed and packed with too little fiscal firepower. 

His dedication to fiscal discipline, laudable in a populist of the left, became counterproductive in the pandemic. 

In a bizarre role reversal, the IMF is urging Mexico to spend much more than the 0.7% of GDP it has done to fight the pandemic’s economic effects. 

Brazil, by contrast, has spent 8% of GDP, and Argentina 3.8%. AMLO resists because he fears that Mexico could become beholden to foreign creditors as it did during a financial crisis in 1982.

His tightfistedness, some economists fear, will lead to “scarring”—a permanent drop in output caused by a loss of jobs and businesses during the pandemic. 

Bound by fiscal constraints, the patron of the poor has done little to protect them. He has shuffled money around, slashing spending on the government apparatus and boosting it on pet social programmes. 

He has doubled old-age pensions and aims to pay 2.3m young adults to study or take up apprenticeships. Overall, though, social spending has risen little. Social programmes are being “done on the cheap”, says Javier Tello, a television commentator. 

A sharp rise in the minimum wage has helped some workers with formal jobs. Businesses pay for that.

Where AMLO has splashed out is on old-economy projects that will deliver little return. 

He has poured money into Pemex, the world’s most indebted oil company, and plans to spend $8bn to build the Dos Bocas refinery in his home state of Tabasco. 

Airlines think the mountainous terrain around the military airport that is to become the alternative civilian hub for Mexico City will restrict flights.

The fourth transformation has not lessened the greatest dangers to Mexicans’ safety, one new and one old. The government’s handling of the pandemic has been disastrous. 

Its miserly social spending has contributed to a widespread feeling that unsafe work is the only alternative to going hungry. AMLO has been spotted just once wearing a face mask (most Mexicans do wear one). 

Mexico tests few people for covid-19 by international standards. Hospitals are full and oxygen tanks are in short supply. 

Vaccination got off to a very slow start. People who hoped that AMLO would show a greater sense of urgency after he contracted covid-19 were disappointed. 

On February 8th he reappeared after a two-week convalescence. He caught the bug, he said, because like many Mexicans he cannot stop working.

The voters who gave AMLO his landslide election win in 2018 wanted, perhaps more than anything else, a big reduction in the country’s high number of murders. They are still waiting. 

AMLO proclaimed last year’s 0.4% dip a “significant success”, but it comes after a rise the year before. Murders of women, which led to mass protests last year, stayed at record levels in 2020.

AMLO rejected previous governments’ tactic of killing or capturing crime kingpins, because this led to a splintering of gangs and thus to more violence. But his signature policies for combating crime have not so far worked. 

His notion that reducing poverty will ultimately lower crime “might stop a three-year-old becoming El Chapo”, a notorious drug lord, says Mr Tello. “But it doesn’t have an answer for the current El Chapos.” 

Formerly suspicious of the armed forces, AMLO issued a decree giving them primary responsibility for fighting crime. A new 100,000-strong National Guard is composed mainly of soldiers rather than people trained in policing.

AMLO has fought the gentler crime of corruption by setting an example of probity and imposing stiffer penalties on bribe-taking bureaucrats. He has done less to strengthen institutions that will carry the battle forward. 

The national anti-corruption prosecutor is overwhelmed with cases. 

A proposal by anti-graft prosecutors for constitutional guarantees of their autonomy and a minimum budget “has not found traction with López Obrador’s congressional majority”, according to a recent report by wola, a think-tank in Washington. 

An autonomous government agency estimates that the number of acts of corruption rose by 19% between 2017 and 2019. The vast majority of government contracts are not open to tender.

Ordinary Mexicans have overlooked AMLO’s failures because he has a bond with them that most presidents lacked. “He is from the people, for the people and with the people,” says Daniel Sibaja, a Morena official in Ecatepec. 

His popularity flows from who he is rather than what he does. Power thus flows to him.

AMLO sets the national agenda in daily morning press conferences that can last three hours. He has cut the budgets and dismissed the bosses of autonomous institutions such as Coneval, which measures poverty. 

Last month he proposed to abolish several autonomous agencies, including the antitrust body and freedom-of-information institute. He rails against critical media and ratings agencies.

AMLO damages the social fabric by constantly “characterising the elite as wicked and the poor as saintly and victimised”, says Soledad Loaeza, a historian. 

The elite call him a Mexican version of Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s late socialist strongman. 

That is an exaggeration. But the mix of policy failure and power-grabbing is worrying. 

Next June’s congressional and regional elections may be Mexicans’ last chance to tame their rampant president. 

Will Inflation Make a Comeback?

Economic forecasting models have long been notoriously inaccurate in predicting inflation, and COVID-19 has further complicated the challenge. Those who heed current consensus forecasts of persistently low price growth could be in for a rude awakening.

Axel A. Weber

ZURICH – Current forecasts by many banks, central banks, and other institutions suggest that inflation will not be a problem in the foreseeable future. 

The International Monetary Fund, for example, expects global inflation to remain subdued until the end of its forecast horizon in 2025. But could those who heed these forecasts be in for a rude awakening?

Economic models have long been notoriously inaccurate in predicting inflation, and COVID-19 has further complicated the challenge. 

While economic forecasters calibrate their models using data from the last 50 years to explain and predict economic trends, today’s economic conditions have no precedent in that period. 

Today’s low inflation forecasts are thus no guarantee that inflation will actually remain low.

Even without additional inflationary pressure, reported inflation rates will rise significantly in the first five months of 2021. 

By May, UBS expects year-on-year inflation to rise above 3% in the United States and toward 2% in the eurozone, largely owing to the low base in the first half of 2020, when pandemic-related lockdowns began. 

The higher rate therefore does not point to rising inflationary pressure, though an increase above those levels would be a warning sign.

Many argue that the COVID-19 crisis is deflationary, because pandemic-mitigation measures have affected aggregate demand more adversely than aggregate supply. 

In the first months of the crisis, this was largely the case: in April 2020, for example, oil prices fell toward, or even below, zero.

But a detailed look at supply and demand reveals a more nuanced picture. In particular, the pandemic has shifted demand from services to goods, some of which have become more expensive, owing to production and transport bottlenecks.

In current consumer-price calculations, rising goods prices are partly offset by falling prices for services such as air travel. 

But in reality, pandemic-related restrictions mean that consumption of many services has fallen sharply; significantly fewer people are flying, for example. 

Many people’s actual consumption baskets have thus become more expensive than the basket statistical authorities use to calculate inflation. So, true inflation rates are currently often higher than the official figures, as reports have confirmed.

Once governments lift mobility restrictions, services inflation also may increase if reduced capacity – as a result of permanent closures of restaurants and hotels, for example, or airline layoffs – are insufficient to meet demand.

The unprecedented fiscal and monetary expansion in response to COVID-19 may pose an even greater inflation risk. 

According to UBS estimates, aggregate government deficits amounted to 11% of global GDP in 2020, more than three times the average of the previous ten years. Central banks’ balance sheets increased even more last year, by 13% of global GDP.

Government deficits in 2020 were thus indirectly financed by the issuance of new money. But this will work only if enough savers and investors are willing to hold money and government bonds at zero or negative interest rates. 

If doubts about the soundness of these investments were to prompt savers and investors to switch to other assets, affected countries’ currencies would weaken, leading to higher consumer prices.

Previous episodes of excessive government debt almost always ended with high inflation. Inflation caused by a loss of confidence can emerge quickly and in some cases at a time of underemployment, without a preceding wage-price spiral.

Although expansionary monetary policy after the 2008 global financial crisis did not lead to increasing inflation, this is no guarantee that price growth will remain low this time. 

After 2008, newly created liquidity flowed mainly into financial markets. But central banks’ current balance-sheet expansion is triggering large money flows into the real economy, through record fiscal deficits and rapid credit growth in many countries. 

Moreover, the monetary-policy response to the pandemic was much faster and more substantial than in the last crisis.

Demographic shifts, increasing protectionism, and the US Federal Reserve’s de facto increase last year of its 2% inflation target are among other factors that could lead to higher inflation in the longer term. 

Although these structural factors are unlikely to trigger a surge in price growth in the short term, they could still facilitate it.

A sharp rise in inflation could have devastating consequences. To contain it, central banks would have to raise interest rates, which would create financing problems for highly indebted governments, firms, and households. 

Historically, central banks have mostly been unable to resist government pressure for sustained budget financing. This has often resulted in very high rates of inflation, accompanied by large losses in the real value of most asset classes and political and social upheaval.

In recent months, commodity prices, international transport costs, stocks, and Bitcoin have all risen sharply, and the US dollar has depreciated significantly. These could be harbingers of rising consumer prices in the dollar area. 

With inflation rates highly correlated internationally, higher inflation in the dollar area would accelerate price growth worldwide.

Too many are underestimating the risk of a rise in inflation, and sanguine model-based forecasts do nothing to alleviate my fears. Monetary and fiscal policymakers, as well as savers and investors, should not allow themselves to be caught out. 

In 2014, former Fed Chair Alan Greenspan predicted that inflation would eventually have to rise, calling the Fed’s balance sheet “a pile of tinder.” The pandemic could well be the lightning strike that ignites it.

Axel A. Weber, a former president of the Deutsche Bundesbank and former member of the Governing Council of the European Central Bank, is Chairman of the Board of Directors of UBS Group AG.

A New Prime Minister in Rome

Can Mario Draghi Turn Italy Around?

Italy was facing a huge number of problems – and then was hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. As Mario Draghi takes over as prime minister, he has set himself the task of reversing his country's economic and political fortunes. Can he do it?

By Tim Bartz und Frank Hornig

Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi: "He is the best thing that can happen to us." Foto: RICCARDO ANTIMIANI/POOL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

His tenure hadn't even officially begun before he successfully performed a rather impressive political trick: Mario Draghi, the new prime minister of Italy, pacified Rome. 

Numerous politicians who had been firing off below-the-belt insults at each other just two weeks earlier were now sitting together in Draghi's national coalition – from the left-wing fringe to the right-wing Lega.

Suddenly, they were all trying to act as though Draghi had been their idea. He is one of us, the powers-that-be in Rome were saying. 

"We have been working on this solution for a year," said voices across the political spectrum. 

On Wednesday and Thursday, both chambers of parliament threw their support behind Draghi's government with large majorities. 

It is both an astounding and curious development, the mood swings disorienting for outsiders.

"For non-Italians, it must be difficult to understand how such a thing is possible: The same groups that were fighting with each other a week ago now agree on everything. Unbelievable!" says Stefano Zamagni. "It is evidence of the failure of the parties."

Zamagni is a professor of economics in Bologna and president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. In February 2020, just before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, he was also the first to come up with the idea of pulling Draghi out of retirement and making him an adviser to the Vatican. 

"We have known each other for 35 years, he's only four years younger than me," says Zamagni.

"Enough to Make Your Hands Shake"

He is certain that Draghi is the right man for the job, even if there is a mountain of work awaiting him. 

Indeed, it isn't an exaggeration to say that the country's future will be decided in the coming weeks. 

At the end of March, the ban on laying off employees, which has been in place for a year, will expire. 

Labor unions fear a "social bomb" if struggling companies across the country suddenly let their employees go. In addition, a binding plan must be developed by the end of April for how Rome intends to efficiently manage the European Union's corona recovery aid – a question that led to the demise of the previous government. 

And by summer, all Italians are to have received an invitation to be vaccinated, which will be an immense challenge for the country's overworked health care system.

"This challenge is enough to make your hands shake. I will head to mass at dawn and pray," says former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. "My friend Mario needs all the help he can get, also from heaven."

There are three deeper causes to explain the current political crisis. 

First, the country still hasn't overcome the two-pronged populist assault, with the Five Star Movement and the Lega holding a majority in parliament and both still loyal to their anti-system identities. 

Second, Italy has long been struggling with the EU and trying to find its role in the bloc. 

And third, the country has been suffering through a lasting period of stagnation and is searching for a new societal model.

The Italian Senate: A thankless task Foto: RICCARDO ANTIMIANI/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Perhaps that's why the excitement over the new prime minister is so widespread. 

Indeed, the job he is now taking on is so thankless that anybody willing to accept it is immediately seen as a hero.

And sure enough, Draghi is already being venerated as a kind of redeemer. 

The fact that this man has to work with normal politicians, wrote former Formula One manager Flavio Briatore on Instagram, is almost like "Michelangelo having to discuss his paintings with people who paint crosswalks on the street."

A solitary genius: It is an image that Draghi has been developing for quite some time. 

Indeed, the 73-year-old often led the coalition talks all by himself. 

And there have been no late-night press conferences of the kind his predecessor used to give. 

He also apparently has no use for Facebook likes.

"Suddenly, Everyone Is a Supporter of Europe"

When assembling his government, he used a guesthouse belonging to the Carabinieri to escape the spotlight. Not a word leaked to the outside. 

Even heads of parties received a curt response of "we'll see" when they proposed themselves or their deputies for a specific post. 

Once the negotiations were over, Draghi read out the names of his cabinet members from a piece of paper in front of the TV cameras. And the list didn't just come as a surprise to the viewing audience. 

One new minister learned of her appointment from the television news.

Mario Draghi – a former professor, an ex-financial official and the previous president of the European Central Bank – has slammed the brakes on an Italian political class that has become obsessed with selfies and Twitter. 

Italians had to wait a full two weeks before Draghi was finally ready to discuss his plans for the future in Italy's national parliament on Wednesday.

He now has one or a maximum of two years to reinvent Italy with a strong European identity, a stable party system and an economic miracle similar to the one that came after World War II. 

He is, one might think, destined for failure. Or is he?

"Suddenly, everyone is a supporter of Europe," says Emma Bonino. 

The 72-year-old is an icon of Italian politics: a former European commissioner and an ex-foreign minister, who has spent decades fighting on behalf of minorities, human rights and the EU. 

Ever since a bout with cancer, she has worn a headscarf that she ties around her head like a turban, a look that has become something of a trademark, and when she steps before the microphones, people tend to listen. 

After all, she embodies an image of Italy that has faded with the rise of populism.

Emma Bonino: "Suddenly, everyone is a supporter of Europe." Foto: imago stock / imago images/Pacific Press Agency

Her party More Europe, though, is small, with very few Italians these days sharing her love of the EU. 

In recent years, only 30 percent of the country has indicated support of Europe in surveys, but that number has been rising in recent months. 

Conversations with Bonino reveal a woman who sometimes finds her own country incomprehensible and cannot understand why Italy was apparently prepared to gamble away the historic aid being offered by the EU in response to the coronavirus pandemic. 

She has known Draghi for decades and wanted to see him installed as a non-party prime minister right after the outbreak of the pandemic. "He is the best thing that can happen to us."

In the Chigi Palace, the prime minister's official residence, plans are currently being developed that are designed to catapult Italy from the bottom tier of the EU back into the upper echelon. 

It would be an impressive feat if the country were able to jump from the back of the line to once again having a weighty role in Brussels.

Draghi wants to strengthen the EU, establish a fiscal union and to replace the EU principle of consensus in central political spheres with simple majority votes.

His program is difficult to swallow for many EU-critics in the Five Star Movement, and especially for Lega head Matteo Salvini, who was launching broadsides against the EU until recently, saying things like: "Europe is a cage in which they strangle you." 

Still, Emma Bonino believes that Draghi will be able to turn things around. "He has an iron fist in kid gloves."

Behind the Poker Face

It was almost exactly 30 years ago, on April 12, 1991, that Draghi took on a government position once before. 

He was appointed general director in the Finance Ministry at a moment that was similarly dramatic to the current one: The old party system was falling apart, the country was rocked by mafia killings and debt was exploding. 

The Italians got to know the economist, who had also worked for Goldman Sachs for a time, as a cool-headed crisis manager – first in the Finance Ministry, then as president of the Italian Central Bank and then as president of the European Central Bank (ECB).

"You never know what he is thinking behind his poker face," says one banker. 

Draghi is seen as someone who does what he can to protect his private sphere and avoids too much social interaction while on vacation, preferring instead to read books for hours at the poolside, as hotel managers have said in recent interviews.

Draghi's apparent lack of warmth is also a function of his biography, says Stefano Zamagni, his acquaintance from the Pontifical Academy. 

"He lost his parents as a 15-year-old, and as a student of a Jesuit school, he experienced a strict upbringing." Still, says Zamagni, the neo-liberal label that has been attached to him is not entirely accurate. "He is extremely Catholic. He is very socially minded."

Still, he remains something of a riddle to most Italians. He is a technocrat who lacks an overabundance of charisma. 

He prefers leaving the details to others. 

"When it came down to where the comma should go, he would leave," says one ECB insider who worked together with Draghi. 

He would largely determine monetary policy over the phone, a style for which he became famous: If he needed a majority in the ECB Governing Council, he would organize it by way of bilateral telephone calls over his three Blackberrys. 

In the Council itself, there was hardly a need for discussion, with the body simply approving what Draghi had arranged.

His watch is set five minutes fast, so he is never late. And even during hectic negotiations of the kind taking place in Rome at the moment, he always takes the time to reflect on strategic considerations. At the ECB, Draghi likewise established a reputation for being a "Big Picture Guy."

Enough for Draghi

Even his biggest coup – the "whatever it takes" pronouncement in summer 2012, which essentially saved the Eurozone from collapse – was engineered by Draghi on his own. 

Nobody in the Governing Council knew of his pending announcement that he would defend the euro with unlimited sovereign bond purchases, if necessary. 

Only the finance ministers of Germany and France were informed. 

That was enough for Draghi: He had hardly finished his statement before Berlin and Paris – conspicuously prompt – threw their support behind him. The panic on the markets quickly evaporated.

The fact that he has personal relationships with many of the decision makers in European capitals will now be of considerable help. At the recommendation of Chancellor Angela Merkel, he has also already met with Armin Laschet, the newly elected chair of Germany's Christian Democrats (CDU).

Still, his close ties to Berlin cannot hide the fact that his reputation in Germany has not always been the best. 

He was long seen as the Italian who threw around money with both hands. 

The criticism, which occasionally crossed the line into contempt, affected Draghi more than he was willing to admit. 

He is, after all, considered an admirer of German stability. He isn't used to a situation in which governments rarely change and policies are not abruptly reversed.

He was never shy about discussing his troubles with close advisers. 

He felt that Italy's qualities – the creativity of its people, its solid industrial foundation and companies known around the globe – were frequently overshadowed by the constant political chaos and the schism between the north and the south. 

The country, he felt, was not living up to its possibilities.

Lucrezia Reichlin is among Italy's best-known economists, and she worked at the ECB before transferring to the London School of Economics. She knows Draghi well, and she was even seen as a candidate to become his finance minister.

She is one of the few who is currently warning against overly elevated expectations. "It is highly likely that the government does not have a particularly extended time horizon," she says. 

"I don't think there is much space for implementing the fundamental reforms that have been under discussion for years. Italian politics are simply too fragmented."

Encouraging Approach

The list of problems is long. Growth and productivity are weak, sovereign debt is high and extensive bureaucracy combined with an extremely slow judiciary act as a brake on investment. 

It is more than a full docket for any new head of government.

Mario Draghi's advantage is that he bought himself time by suspending the laws of politics for the time being. 

He has filled important posts not with party functionaries, but with experts. 

Important ministries will be led by specialists who have been tasked with quickly implementing EU specifications. 

Environmental reform, digitalization, economy and finance, judiciary, infrastructure: The central portfolios are now occupied by a physicist, a former central bank head, a constitutional lawyer and a former head of Vodafone. 

Draghi himself has taken charge of relations with Brussels.

Party functionaries have had to make due with slightly less important posts, though here too Draghi has taken a slightly different approach: Not a single party head has been appointed to a cabinet-level post, which has robbed Salvini in particular of the stage he had been hoping for. 

And to guard against being outflanked, Draghi has required antagonistic functionaries to seek reconciliation.

Antonio Tajani finds it an encouraging approach. As deputy head of Forza Italia, he leads the day-to-day activities of his party and is Berlusconi's most important representative in Rome. "In World War II, Churchill invited the opposition into his cabinet," Tajani says. "The same thing is now necessary in Italy."

The corona crisis is forcing all parties to examine where they stand. From the Five Star Movement to the Lega, it was considered good form to criticize the EU while simultaneously seeking out closer ties with autocrats in Russia and China. 

Italy was the first country to open up the New Silk Road to Europe, says Tajani, who was president of the European Parliament until 2019 and who served for many years on the European Commission. 

"That wasn't good." Under Draghi, he says, European and trans-Atlantic relations are finally becoming a focus again.

No Alternative

"When the players from Juventus or Lazio Rom play for the national team, their club team is no longer important," Tajani says. 

That is how party politicians should also now be approaching things, he says. "And once the virus is defeated, we will again campaign against each other."

Can Draghi help Italy rediscover its commitment to the European idea? Will the Five Star Movement transform from a protest movement into a party that is open to compromise, as Germany's Green Party once did? 

Will Salvini's resentment-filled Lega find its way to becoming a conservative, pro-European party? 

Or will they all simply return to their own reflexes?

Draghi may not seem like a real Roman, says Stefano Zamagni, "more like a Westphalian or a Norwegian." 

You likely have to tickle his feet to make him laugh, he adds. But there is no alternative to him.

The years since 1994 are considered in Italy to be the Second Republic, an era which began with the collapse of the old Christian democracy and which was marked by Berlusconi initially and then by the Five Star Movement and right-wing populism.

This Second Republic, Zamagni says, is now at an end.

When Draghi one day steps down, Zamagni hopes, "we will return to being a real liberal democracy. Just as we know from the past."

Kazuo Ishiguro Sees What the Future Is Doing to Us

With his new novel, the Nobel Prize-winner reaffirms himself as our most profound observer of human fragility in the technological era.

By Giles Harvey

On a bright, cool Saturday in late October 1983, the growing prospect of thermonuclear war between the world’s two superpowers drew a quarter million people out into the streets of central London. 

Among them was a young writer named Kazuo Ishiguro, who’d recently published his first novel. Ishiguro’s mother had narrowly survived the atomic bombing of Nagasaki in 1945, so his presence at the march that day felt like a matter of personal duty. 

Along with a group of like-minded friends, he chanted slogans demanding that the West renounce its nuclear arsenal — the hope being that the East would quickly follow suit. 

As they made their way past Big Ben to Hyde Park, holding signs and waving banners, a current of euphoria spread among the crowd. Synchronized protests were taking place all across Europe, and for a brief moment it seemed possible to believe that they would actually make a difference. 

There was just one problem, as Ishiguro saw it: He worried that the whole thing might be a terrible mistake.

In theory, unilateral disarmament was a nice idea; in practice, it could backfire catastrophically. Perhaps the Kremlin would respond to a nuclear-free Europe in the way the demonstrators foresaw, but it wasn’t hard for Ishiguro to imagine a less harmonious outcome. 

Even as he recognized their good intentions, he feared the marchers were succumbing to the disorienting lure of mass emotion. 

His parents and grandparents had lived through the rise and fall of fascism, and he grew up listening to stories about the dangerous power of crowds. 

Britain in the 1980s was a far cry from Japan in the 1930s, and yet he recognized common denominators: tribalism, an impatience with nuance, the pressure placed on ordinary people to take political sides. 

Ishiguro, a mild, deliberative person, felt this pressure intensely. He didn’t want to wake up at the end of his life only to realize that he’d given himself to a misguided cause.

These anxieties found an outlet in the novel he was writing at the time, “An Artist of the Floating World.” Masuji Ono, the book’s narrator, is a man who waits too long to ask himself whether he might be backing a misguided cause. 

An aging painter in late-1940s Japan, Ono has been suffering from moral whiplash: His monumental artworks celebrating Japanese imperialism, at one time the source of honor and renown, have taken on a shameful meaning in the democratizing postwar era. 

Looking back over his life, he tries to come to terms with his decisions. Nietzsche once distilled the workings of psychological repression thus: “Memory says, ‘I did that.’ Pride replies, ‘I could not have done that.’ 

Eventually, memory yields.” 

In Ishiguro’s novel, the tug of war between pride and memory plays out behind a screen of glazed eloquence as Ono uncovers the things he has carefully hidden from himself.

At 66, Ishiguro is now approaching the age of the disgraced propagandist he imagined in his youth. 

To say that the life lived in error he once feared has not come to pass would be understating the matter — something Ishiguro, a virtuoso of restraint, has been doing for almost 40 years. 

In 2017, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature, the closest thing an author can get to outright existential validation. 

Announcing the award, the Swedish Academy described him as someone “who, in novels of great emotional force, has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.” 

Ono, in “An Artist,” or Stevens, the English butler who narrates “The Remains of the Day,” which was awarded the 1989 Booker Prize, are men who have ever but slenderly known themselves. 

Only late in life does Stevens recognize the mess he has made of things, freezing out the woman he loves and throwing away his best years — the period between the two world wars — in service to a Nazi-sympathizing master.

Ishiguro was laden with prizes long before the call from Stockholm came through, but acclaim has never stopped him from asking the questions that troubled him on the march in 1983: What if I’m wrong? 

What if I’m making a terrible mistake? 

On the evening of Dec. 7, 2017, he confessed to the audience who gathered to hear his Nobel lecture that he’d begun to wonder whether he’d built his house of fiction on sand. 

“I woke up recently to the realization I’d been living for some years in a bubble,” he said from behind the gilt-inlaid lectern. 

“I realized that my world — a civilized, stimulating place filled with ironic, liberal-minded people — was in fact much smaller than I’d ever imagined.” 

The raucous discontent that Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump were laying bare had forced him to acknowledge a disturbing reality. 

“The unstoppable advance of liberal-humanist values I’d taken for granted since childhood,” he said, “may have been an illusion.”

Ishiguro’s new book, “Klara and the Sun,” his first since the Nobel, picks up more or less where his acceptance speech left off. 

The novel is set in a near-future America, where the social divisions of the present have only widened and liberal-humanist values appear to be in terminal retreat. 

Appropriately enough, our window onto this world is not a human being but an animatronic robot powered by artificial intelligence. 

Its name is Klara — or should that be “her” name? 

On this choice of pronoun hinges the moral burden of Ishiguro’s tale. 

The book addresses itself to an urgent but neglected set of questions arising from a paradigm shift in human self-conception. 

If it one day becomes possible to replicate consciousness in a machine, will it still make sense to speak of an irreducible self, or will our ideas about our own exceptionalism go the way of the transistor radio?

Unlike his ill-at-ease narrators, Ishiguro is a droll, self-deprecating presence, secure in his gift and the uses he has put it to. “If it wasn’t for my screenplay, I think it would have been a pretty good film,” he told me recently. 

He was speaking of “The White Countess” (2005), an all-around flop on which he joined forces with James Ivory and Ismail Merchant. (The duo had better luck with “The Remains of the Day,” a nominee for Best Picture at the 1994 Academy Awards.) 

Perhaps modesty comes easier when everyone is telling you how remarkable you are — he seems to average around a prize a year — but there is something about Ishiguro, a sort of twinkling poise, that makes you feel that he would be the way he is in any simulation of his life. 

“He’s very at peace with himself,” Robert McCrum, a longtime friend and former editor, said. 

“There’s no darkness in him. Or if there is, I haven’t seen it.”

As a man is, so he writes, and Ishiguro’s sentences have nothing to prove. In the hands of some of his contemporaries — Martin Amis, say, or Salman Rushdie — the novel can sometimes feel like a vehicle for talent; high-burnish prose comes at the reader in a blaze of virtuosity, but the aesthetic whole isn’t always equal to the sum of its parts. 

Ishiguro, a practitioner of self-effacing craft, takes a contrary approach. At first glance, his books can appear ordinary. 

“It seems increasingly likely that I really will undertake the expedition that has been preoccupying my imagination now for some days” is the far from dazzling first sentence of “The Remains of the Day.” 

The real action happens between the lines, or behind them, as when Stevens justifies his taste for sentimental romance novels on the grounds that they provide “an extremely efficient way to maintain and develop one’s command of the English language.” 

That they might also provide a dose of wish-fulfillment to a disconsolate, middle-aged bachelor is something we are left to infer for ourselves. 

It is not for nothing that Ishiguro has named Charlotte Brontë as the novelist who has influenced him most. 

From “Jane Eyre,” he learned how to write first-person narrators who hide their feelings from themselves but are transparent to other people. 

Rereading the book a few years ago, he kept coming across episodes and thinking, Oh, my goodness, I just ripped that off!

Ishiguro’s latest novel continues this tradition of beneficent theft. Klara, an A.F., or Artificial Friend, is a sort of mechanical governess in search of a post. We first meet her (we’ll go with “her” for now) in a storefront window, where she is desperately hoping to catch the eye of a would-be owner. 

Meanwhile she has to content herself with the spectacle of street life, and one pleasure of the book’s opening section comes from watching Klara’s newly awakened synthetic consciousness expand in real time. 

First she gets to grips with things like physical space, color and light (A.F.’s run on solar power), but before long she is wrapping her head around more abstruse realities, like the rigid caste system that defines the society of which she is at once a product and a witness.

“It feels more fragile today than it ever has done in the time since I’ve been conscious,” Ishiguro said of liberal democracy. He was speaking to me over Zoom from his home in Golders Green in North London. 

From where I sat, in Los Angeles, liberal democracy didn’t look too sturdy either. It was mid-November, two weeks after the presidential election had finally been called for Joe Biden, but Donald Trump and his supporters continued to resist this reality.

In his late teens and early 20s, when he was trying to make it as a singer-songwriter, Ishiguro had shoulder-length hair and a bandit-style mustache and went around in torn jeans and colorful shirts. 

These days the facial hair and flowing locks are gone, and he dresses exclusively in black. (“He hates shopping, but he wants to look cool, so at one point he just bought a thousand black T-shirts,” his daughter, Naomi, told me.) 

He didn’t look uncool this evening, hunched in front of the monitor in his sable shirt and rimless glasses. To his right was a bookshelf lined with Penguin Classics, to his left (as he obligingly revealed when I asked him for a brief tour), a spare bed crowded with stuffed animals.

Ishiguro in Kent, England, in the summer of 1977. Before turning to writing, he hoped to become a singer-songwriter.Credit...From Kazuo Ishiguro

Ishiguro likes to compare his generation, born at the start of the postwar era, to Buster Keaton’s character in “Steamboat Bill Jr.,” who, in the famous scene, is standing in front of a house when its facade collapses on top of him. He’s saved by an open upstairs window, which falls clean over his oblivious figure. 

“We don’t realize what a narrow miss we had,” Ishiguro said in his measured, unemphatic voice. 

“If we’d been born just a little bit earlier we would have gone through the war, the Holocaust — all that savagery.” 

Instead they inherited a world of unparalleled material comfort and reached maturity at the zenith of the sexual revolution. 

“For my daughter’s generation, I don’t feel things are so secure,” he said. 

“In the West, since the end of the Cold War, we’ve allowed massive inequalities to develop, which are leading substantial numbers of people to think, Well, maybe this isn’t for us.”

Another facet of the story, as Ishiguro sees it, is the rise of ever more sophisticated technology. 

In “Klara,” the widespread adoption of artificial intelligence has created a permanently jobless class, which in turn has led to mass unrest and top-down repression. 

Most contemporary A.I. stories, even very good ones, like Alex Garland’s “Ex Machina” (2014) or Ian McEwan’s “Machines Like Me” (2019), play on the age-old fear that a slave class of robots will rise up and overthrow their human masters. 

Ishiguro’s vision is at once more pragmatic and more bleak. Klara and her kind don’t revolt; they simply allow governments and corporations to control people more efficiently.

On a philosophical plane, artificial intelligence is also putting pressure on traditional notions of human singularity. 

As one character in “Klara” phrases it, the idea that “there’s something unreachable inside each of us” that makes us who we are is an illusion: Human beings are simply the sum total of a series of biochemical processes. 

“One of the assumptions we have in liberal democracies is that human beings are intrinsically of value, that they have a value that is not conditional on what they can contribute to the larger society or to the economy or to some sort of common project,” Ishiguro said. 

“If it starts to look like we can be reduced to the point where we’re just a bunch of algorithms, I think that seriously erodes the idea that each person is unique and therefore worthy of respect and care regardless of what they can or can’t contribute to our joint enterprise.”

Of course, Ishiguro is a novelist, not a philosopher, and the power of his book derives from its ability to make palpable the human stakes of such abstract propositions. These stakes begin to emerge when Klara is picked out from among the other A.F.’s at the store by a young teenager named Josie, who is suffering from an obscure illness. 

At first, Josie’s family, rather like the reader, is unsure how to relate to Klara: She seems to them something in between an au pair and a household appliance. Ishiguro wrings plenty of pathos from these conflicting attitudes. 

One moment, much to Klara’s delight, Josie is confiding in her A.F. as though she were a sibling; the next, she’s brusquely ordering her to leave the room. For long stretches, Klara simply stands uncomplainingly in a corner, waiting until she can be of service.

Great stylists, like Amis, reinvigorate our perception of the physical world by defamiliarizing it, describing, for example, the steam that rises from the grates in New York City sidewalks as “meat-eating genies of subway breath.” Ishiguro does both less and more: Using fairly simple sentences, he defamiliarizes the human condition. Time and again in his work, what looks like the face of an alien creature contorted with pain turns out to be a mirror. 

“Never Let Me Go” (2005), which the critic James Wood has described as “one of the central novels of our age,” is narrated by a clone named Kathy H. As a young person, Kathy attended a prestigious English boarding school called Hailsham, where she and others like her were given a solid education in the liberal arts while also being gradually apprised of their true social role: to serve as organ donors for the noncloned population. 

This involuntary process begins shortly after graduation and ends only when the donors “complete” (i.e., die), which usually occurs sometime in their early 30s.

Kathy knows what’s coming, and yet she tells her story, and seems to accept her fate, without self-pity or alarm. 

There is almost a quality of stoic good humor to the way she describes it all, as though state-sanctioned organ theft were just another one of life’s minor irritations, like tax returns or parking tickets. 

“Why aren’t they screaming?” the reader wonders of these death-camp inmates. 

Their situation seems nightmarish, a sadistically abbreviated travesty of life — until we realize it differs from our own only in the particulars. Sooner or later we are all going to the inevitable.

As a narrator, Klara functions in much the same way. Josie’s growing emotional investment in her new A.F. mirrors that of the reader, and as the book wears on, the cleft between “it” and “she” begins to narrow. 

Whether it can, or ever should, be closed altogether is a question left provocatively open, and yet there is no mistaking the similarities between Klara’s experience — that of someone performing onerous affective labor in an ever more precarious job market — and our own. 

“You can get the reader with their defenses down,” Ishiguro said of his preference for seemingly outré narrators, “so that suddenly they realize this person they’ve been reading about isn’t so alien. I want them to realize: ‘This is us. This is me.’”

Like “Guernica” or “Chernobyl,” the word “Nagasaki” has come to stand less for the name of an actual place than a totemic feat of human destruction. For the young Ishiguro, however, it was simply his hometown. 

By the time he was born there, in 1954, the city had been largely rebuilt, and no one talked about the war. He spent his early years in a three-generation home with tatami mats and shoji paper doors, the kind of place the director Yasujiro Ozu was already using in his films to symbolize a disappearing way of life. 

There was no washing machine and no TV. To watch his favorite program, “The Lone Ranger,” Ishiguro had to go to his friend’s house next door.

Ishiguro’s father, Shizuo, was an oceanographer whose work on storm surges caught the interest of the British government. 

In 1960, he moved his young family to Guildford, a small market town an hour’s drive from London, to take up a short-term research job. Like Nagasaki, Guildford was a place of long-established custom. 

The narrow winding lanes were often clogged with cows; milk was still delivered by horse and cart. When the Ishiguros arrived, at Eastertime, they were struck by the gruesome images they kept seeing around town: a man nailed to a cross with blood spilling from his sides. 

Everyone there was white, and even continental Europeans were a rarity, and yet the new arrivals were warmly received. Ishiguro picked up the language quickly, and at school he learned to turn his foreignness to his advantage, putting it about, for instance, that he was an expert in judo. 

He also started going to church, where he became the head choir boy. His family believed it was important to respect local ways, however odd they might appear.

Ishiguro with his parents in England around 1963.Credit...From Kazuo Ishiguro

The move to England was only ever supposed to be temporary, and yet each year funding for Shizuo’s research would be extended and the return to Japan postponed. 

Growing up between two cultures, Ish, as everyone now called him, absorbed his immediate surroundings with an almost ethnographic detachment while simultaneously constructing a myth-laden image of the faraway homeland he left when he was 5. 

From his mother, Shizuko, a former schoolteacher, came haunting images of life during wartime: a man whose skin had been entirely burned off by the atomic blast being kept alive inside a tub of water; a cow’s head, the rest of its body nowhere in sight, glimpsed from the window of a passing train. 

The parcels of comics and books that arrived regularly from his grandparents painted a more appealing picture of the country. To be Japanese was for Ishiguro a private source of confidence, but the more firmly rooted in England he grew, the harder it got to imagine going back. 

It came as a relief, when, in the late 1960s, his parents decided to stay for good.

Unlike many future novelists, Ishiguro didn’t spend his teenage years inhaling the canon. He spent them listening to music and making music of his own. 

In 1968, he bought his first Bob Dylan album, “John Wesley Harding,” and worked backward from there. He and his friends would sit around for hours nodding along to Dylan’s obscure lyrics as though they understood every word. 

It was like a microcosm of adolescence, he told me, pretending to know while knowing nothing. Ishiguro wasn’t just bluffing, though. From Dylan, as well as Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell, he learned about the possibilities of the first-person: how a character could be summoned into being with just a few words.

Ishiguro’s daughter, Naomi, who is about to publish her first novel, “Common Ground,” told me that she doesn’t recognize her father in any of his characters. 

Then she corrected herself: Ono’s impish grandson in “An Artist of the Floating World,” whose obsession with “Popeye” and “The Lone Ranger” is an index of nascent American cultural hegemony, was probably a version of Ishiguro at the same age. 

Here the likenesses ceased, however. “Some people have their art blender turned down very low, so you can see where everything came from, and some people have it turned up very high, so you have no idea,” Naomi said, borrowing a concept from the singer-songwriter Amanda Palmer. 

Ishiguro’s art blender is turned up to 10. Like Colson Whitehead or Hilary Mantel, he has found it easier to be revealing about people who are dissimilar to himself.

It’s nonetheless tempting to draw a connection between Ishiguro’s piecemeal experience of immigration as a child and the outsider narrators he would later dream up. 

Stevens, in “The Remains of the Day,” is the consummate English butler, but as his new American boss points out, he has spent so long confined to stately houses that he has hardly had the chance to really see England. 

On the road trip he takes through the West Country at his employer’s suggestion, he is like a hapless foreign tourist, getting lost, running out of gas and poignantly failing to understand the natives. 

In fact, it’s not so much the English who baffle Stevens as human beings in general. 

Watching the sunset from a seaside pier at the end of the book, he observes with interest a group of people that has gathered nearby:

I naturally assumed at first that they were a group of friends out together for the evening. 

But as I listened to their exchanges, it became apparent they were strangers who had just happened upon one another here on this spot behind me. 

Evidently, they had all paused a moment for the lights coming on, and then proceeded to fall into conversation with one another. 

As I watch them now, they are laughing together merrily. It is curious how people can build such warmth among themselves so swiftly.

Like Klara gazing at the crowds from the storefront window, Stevens might be watching the Aurora Borealis, such is his amazement at the sight of this commonplace event.

Before studying English and philosophy at the University of Kent, Ishiguro hitchhiked around America and worked a series of jobs back home, including as a grouse beater for the Queen Mother at Balmoral Castle in Scotland. 

Starting a mile or so behind the trenches, or butts, where the Queen Mother and her guests sat waiting with their guns, the beaters would trudge through the moorland heather, driving the birds forward into shooting range. At the end of the season there was a drinks party for the beaters hosted by Her Majesty. 

Ishiguro was struck by her graciousness, especially the manner by which she let them know it was time to leave: Despite the late hour, she didn’t turn the lights on. “Oh, it’s getting very dark,” she murmured as the sun began to set, before inviting her guests to inspect a series of paintings, which just happened to line the corridor to the exit.

If the experience offered him a useful glimpse behind the scenes of a grand old country house, the job he took after graduating, at an organization in West London that helped homeless people find housing, taught him something about life at the other end of the social spectrum. 

While he was working there, he met Lorna MacDougall, a social worker from Glasgow whom he would later marry. MacDougall is Ishiguro’s first and most important reader, and her comments can be unsparing. 

After reading the first 80 pages of his previous novel, “The Buried Giant” (2015), a historical fantasy set in Dark Ages Britain, she told him that the ornate dialogue simply wasn’t working and that he needed to start again. Ishiguro did as she suggested.

He has always been receptive to feedback. In 1979, Ishiguro applied and was accepted to study creative writing at the University of East Anglia. One of his oldest friends, Jim Green, who was getting a master’s degree in literature, remembers Ishiguro’s response to the weekly reading for a seminar on the 19th-century novel. 

“What struck me was the way in which he would talk about Stendhal or Dickens or Eliot or Balzac as though they were fellow craftsmen,” Green said. “There was no hint of hubris or grandiosity, but he treated them like they were colleagues of his from the creative-writing course who were showing him their work. 

It was: ‘Ah, OK, that’s why that’s happened, this is how this is done. Hmm, not sure that bit works.’”

Ishiguro’s first novel, “A Pale View of Hills,” which he began at the University of East Anglia, is largely set in a Japan of the mind, an imaginary counterfeit of the place he left when he was 5 and had never yet returned to. 

Like almost everything he would go on to write, it is a monologue of anxious self-justification in which the speaker keeps claiming she feels no need to justify herself. 

Etsuko is a middle-aged Japanese woman living in England whose daughter has recently committed suicide. At the start, the reader is primed to expect some kind of reckoning over this tragedy; instead, Etsuko proceeds to talk about a woman she knew many years ago in Nagasaki and that woman’s obstreperous daughter. 

Only gradually do we come to suspect an act of narrative transference is taking place, that Etsuko, numbed by grief, is displacing her unmanageable feelings about her own daughter onto these figures from her past. 

It is the kind of novel that might have earned the label “experimental” were it not for the fact that the experiment is so clearly a success. 

The book was published to general acclaim in 1982 when Ishiguro was still only 27. 

The following spring, Granta magazine named him on its list of Best Young British Novelists, along with Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis and Ian McEwan. 

The recognition from Granta made him bold; he decided to quit his job and devote himself full time to literature.

Ishiguro receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature from King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden in Stockholm in December 2017.Credit...Jonas Ekstromer/TT News Agency, via Associated Press

Ishiguro is not the kind of writer who takes dictation from his characters. He has never been able to sit down at his desk and improvise, to launch into a novel from a standing start. He is a planner, patient and meticulous. 

Before he begins the writing proper, he will spend years in a sort of open-ended conversation with himself, jotting down ideas about tone, setting, point of view, motivation, the ins and outs of the world he is trying to build. 

“Kathy’s self-deception isn’t about what happened in the past (like Ono, Stevens, etc.), it’s about what’s going to happen,” he wrote in one of his notebooks for “Never Let Me Go” in early 2001, clarifying for himself the psychological profile of his narrator. 

“Is it better not to have them in a prisonlike environment?” he wondered of the clones a couple days later. “Should they live in a wider community? Is there some other way in which they’re contained, tagged and made to fulfill their duties? Maybe not: a prison they don’t realize is a prison is the best.”

Only once he has drawn up detailed blueprints for the entire novel does he set about the business of composing actual sentences and paragraphs. In this, too, he follows a set of carefully honed procedures. 

First, writing very quickly and without pausing to make revisions, he’ll draft a chapter in longhand. He then reads it through, dividing the text into numbered sections. On a new sheet of paper he now produces a sort of map of what he has just written, summarizing in short bullet points each of the numbered sections from the draft. 

The idea is to understand what the different sections are doing, how they relate to one another and whether they require adjustment or elaboration. Working from this sheet, he then produces a flow chart, which in turn serves as the basis for a second, more painstaking and deliberate draft. 

When this is finished to his satisfaction he finally types it up. Then he moves on to the next chapter and the process starts again.

By his own account, Ishiguro’s relationship to work is decidedly nonobsessive. Some writers do and think of little else; he can go for years at a time without writing anything, and it doesn’t gnaw away at him. 

“Klara and the Sun” is only his eighth novel. For comparison, the figures for his near-contemporaries on the Granta list, Rushdie, Amis and McEwan, are 12, 15 and 16. 

When he’s between projects, he’s content to pass the days lunching with friends or playing his guitar. (Since the mid-2000s he has been writing lyrics for the celebrated American jazz singer Stacey Kent.)

“You probably work harder at your job than I do,” Ishiguro said one evening in early December. He was sitting at a desk on the landing of his second home, a 17th-century limestone cottage in rural Gloucestershire, where he and MacDougall often spend weekends. 

During the pandemic, they had fallen into a postprandial routine. Sitting at the kitchen table, MacDougall would read aloud from an anthology of classic British crime stories, “Serpents in Eden,” while Ishiguro paced the dining area, as he put it, “like a caged cat.” 

“What distinguishes the detectives,” Ishiguro, who wore a black hoodie over a black T-shirt, said, “is that they have this weird, arcane knowledge of things like old English tapestries or Greek myths or something like that. And often that’s what allows them to crack the code.”

Speaking of his comparatively small output, Ishiguro said: “I don’t have any regrets about it. In some ways, I suppose, I’m just not that dedicated to my vocation. I expect it’s because writing wasn’t my first choice of profession. 

It’s almost something I fell back on because I couldn’t make it as a singer-songwriter. It’s not something I’ve wanted to do every minute of my life. It’s what I was permitted to do. So, you know, I do it when I really want to do it, but otherwise I don’t.”

When he does want to do it, he is capable of going flat out. He produced a first draft of “The Remains of the Day” in a four-week “crash,” during which he wrote from morning until night, stopping only for meals. 

The practice served him well at the time — he and MacDougall needed the money a new advance would bring — but Ishiguro’s crashing days are now firmly behind him. He has grown suspicious of the modern office and its imperative to be constantly on call. 

“The way our capitalist society is organized, it accommodates the workplace as a kind of alibi,” he said. 

“If you’re trying to avoid difficult areas in your emotional life, you can just say, ‘Sorry, I’ve got too much work on right now.’ We’re invited to disappear into our professional commitments.”

Ishiguro came of age as a writer in the early 1980s, when market fundamentalism was sweeping Britain and the West, a development that caught him entirely off guard. “I never wanted revolution,” he said of his younger self. 

“But I did believe we could progress towards a more socialist world, a more generous welfare state. I went a long way into my adult life believing that was the consensus. When I was 24 or 25, I realized that Britain had taken a very different turn with the coming of Margaret Thatcher.” 

Although his books never explicitly address Thatcher’s neoliberal project, they reflect its dismaying human consequences. For Ishiguro’s characters, not working is not an option, or even a proclivity. 

Stevens is so devoted to his duty as a butler that he leaves his father’s deathbed in order to go wait on the guests downstairs. Klara, a sort of Stevens 2.0, doesn’t need to sleep or eat and lacks even the semblance of a private life.

When Ishiguro told the audience at his Nobel lecture that he’d always taken the unstoppable advance of humanist values for granted, he may have been exercising a certain degree of modesty. 

In fact, the defects of our current liberal order, and the selective blindness of its beneficiaries, come under scrutiny in his work. In “Never Let Me Go,” the clones hold up a mirror to the reader (like them, we are all dead in the long run), but so, too, do the noncloned characters, the ordinary human beings who accept with equanimity the wholesale slaughter of their fabricated counterparts. 

How could this be? At one time, we learn, there was a public outcry after news of the appalling conditions in which clones were reared got out, but because no one was willing to return to a world without an endless supply of organs — a world where cancer and heart disease remained incurable — discussions of systemic change came to nothing. 

Instead Hailsham, the progressive boarding school, was founded, an incremental half measure that allowed people to ventilate their guilt without substantially changing the status quo. 

Clones would still be bred for death, but a few of them were now given the chance to read poetry and make art in a pleasant rural setting before the time came to go under the knife.

You don’t have to be a Marxist revolutionary to see the parallels between Ishiguro’s novel and our own socio-economic dispensation. 

Over the past year, an army of underpaid workers in retail, health care and other industries, many of them living paycheck to paycheck, have faced a daily choice between putting food on the table and exposing themselves to a deadly virus. 

In “Never Let Me Go,” the clones are euphemistically referred to as “donors,” a word that obscures, to clones and humans alike, the involuntary nature of their situation. 

In the United States, the terms “essential worker” and “frontline hero” perform a similar function. 

The nation’s billionaires, meanwhile, have collectively grown $1.1 trillion, or nearly 40 percent, richer than they were last March. 

Of course, the pandemic didn’t “reveal” the essential cruelty of the American system, as some have claimed: For anyone who chose to see it, the cruelty has been clear all along. 

Whether the high-visibility injustice of our current moment will be met with transformative change or the same old incremental half measures remains to be seen.

Perhaps the most chillingly resonant aspect of “Never Let Me Go” is the absence of solidarity among the clones. 

Despite the collective nature of their suffering, they can imagine only individual forms of resistance. They don’t strike, or revolt, or even try to run away. 

They simply pin their hopes on a rumor that “deferrals” may be granted to a select few, namely couples who can demonstrate that they are truly in love. 

In a powerful essay on the book, the American philosopher Nancy Fraser credits Ishiguro with exposing the “double-edged sword” of individualism. 

Educated in the liberal arts, the Hailsham clones have come to think of themselves as unique and irreplaceable beings, which Fraser calls “the mark of personhood and intrinsic value.” 

Outside Hailsham, they are valued only as a source of spare body parts, a reality their schooling leaves them ill prepared to manage. Fraser sees the same process at work in our own society. 

“It is as ‘individuals’ that we are exhorted to assume responsibility over our own lives, encouraged to fulfill our deepest longings by purchasing and owning commodities, and steered away from collective action toward ‘personal solutions’ — invited to seek deferrals for our own precious, irreplaceable selves.”

“If it starts to look like we can be reduced to the point where we’re just a bunch of algorithms, I think that seriously erodes the idea that each person is unique and therefore worthy of respect and care regardless of what they can or can’t contribute to our joint enterprise,” Ishiguro says.Credit...Jack Davison for The New York Times

“Klara and the Sun” isn’t Ishiguro’s finest novel (it has third-act problems, and Josie and her family are curiously underdrawn), but it provides a vision of where we are headed if we fail to move beyond this constraining view of freedom. 

What’s most unsettling about the future it imagines isn’t that machines like Klara are coming more and more to resemble human beings; it’s that human beings are coming more and more to resemble machines. 

As we slowly discover (and those wishing to avoid spoilers should now skip to the start of the next paragraph), the cause of Josie’s mysterious illness is a gene-editing surgery to enhance her intellectual faculties. 

The procedure carries high risks as well as potential high rewards — the main one being membership in a professional superelite. Those who forgo or simply can’t afford it are essentially consigning themselves to economic serfdom.

The plasticity of human beings has been of pressing concern to novelists for hundreds of years. 

Ishiguro told me that he has always envied 19th-century writers like Dostoyevsky who were working at a time when age-old religious beliefs were being called into question by the rise of evolutionary theory. 

In that moment, he said, it seemed only natural to ask what in recent times may have come to sound like portentous questions: Does the human soul exist? 

And if it doesn’t, how does that affect our understanding of what human life is for?

“I grew up in an era when you didn’t really ask questions like that,” Ishiguro said, “but it seems to me that these huge breakthroughs in science and technology are forcing us to go back to them and to ask, ‘What exactly is an individual?’”

It’s a question Ishiguro has been asking, in his own way, ever since he first began to write. 

To judge by the wretched and the meek who fill his books, it may seem as though he takes a dim view of humankind. 

“We’re modeled from trash,” Kathy’s friend Ruth says in “Never Let Me Go,” during an argument about “possibles,” the real people who may have served as models for the clones. 

“If you want to look for possibles, if you want to do it properly, then you look in the gutter. You look in the rubbish bins. 

Look down the toilet, that’s where you’ll find where we all came from.”

Certainly that is where most of Ishiguro’s beings, human and otherwise, end up, once society has taken from them all that it can use.

It is curious, then, that we should come away from his books not with a sense of the cheapness and futility of life but something like the opposite. 

In “Never Let Me Go,” Kathy works as a “carer,” someone who looks after fellow clones once they’ve begun to donate. 

Her patients include her old school friends Ruth and Tommy, who used to be a couple. Kathy and Tommy have been drawn to each other ever since they were children, but circumstances have always kept them apart. 

Now, late in the novel, they finally get together and are briefly happy. Believing themselves to be eligible for a deferral, they track down one of their old teachers to ask for one, only to be told deferrals are a myth. 

Soon Tommy dies and Kathy gets word that the time has come for her to start her own donations.

Though she cherishes her memories of her old friends, Kathy says she doesn’t dwell on them. “The only indulgent thing I did, just once, was a couple of weeks after I heard Tommy had completed, when I drove up to Norfolk,” a place the three of them once visited. 

On a quiet country road, she notices a barbed-wire fence and a group of trees at the edge of a field. 

They are filled with trash. “It was like the debris you get on a sea-shore: the wind must have carried some of it for miles and miles before finally coming up against these trees and these two lines of wire.” 

The sight recalls Ruth’s words from earlier in the book (“We’re modeled from trash”), but Kathy’s thoughts on what she sees, a muted elegy for the overlooked and discarded, provide a defiant counterpoint:

That was the only time, as I stood there, looking at that strange rubbish, feeling the wind coming across those empty fields, that I started to imagine just a little fantasy thing. ... I was thinking about the rubbish, the flapping plastic in the branches, the shore-line of odd stuff caught along the fencing, and I half-closed my eyes and imagined this was the spot where everything I’d ever lost since my childhood had washed up, and I was now standing here in front of it, and if I waited long enough, a tiny figure would appear on the horizon across the field, and gradually get larger until I’d see it was Tommy, and he’d wave, maybe even call.

“I feel it’s an optimistic vision of human nature,” Ishiguro said of “Never Let Me Go” during a recent episode of BBC Radio 4’s “Bookclub” program. 

Love and friendship may not survive death, but they grow stronger and deeper right up until the end. 

As he saw it, this tenderness, and not the exploitation that the clones endure, is the moral center of the novel.

What exactly is an individual? 

For one thing, we are all works in progress, apt to make mistakes both large and small. 

Technology holds out the promise of human perfectibility, but, as far as Ishiguro is concerned, it is a promise we must resist. 

Our mistakes are the portals of discovery.

Ishiguro has known nothing but success almost from the moment he began writing. 

The last time I spoke to him, in mid-January, I wondered out loud what the major disappointments of his extraordinary career might have been.

“They’re like parallel lives,” he said, distinguishing between his public self, who gives interviews and wins awards, and the private one, who spends day after day in his study, trying to will imaginary worlds into being. 

“Most of the time, after I finish a book, I’m left with the feeling that I didn’t quite get down what I wanted to. And possibly that’s what’s kept me going. I always feel an urgency to get back to my desk. Because I don’t ever feel I’ve written the thing I wanted to write.”

As we discussed the subject of artistic failure and frustration, his train of thought led him to an old memory. 

In the summer after they graduated from high school, he and a group of musician friends spent several weeks at a chalet near Loch Fyne, on the west coast of Scotland. 

They’d brought their instruments and a portable cassette player and would pass the days and nights recording songs. Ishiguro had long had an idea for an arrangement of a song he always loved, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” written by Jimmy Webb and made famous by Glen Campbell. 

“I really cajoled my friends and made a complete pain of myself, telling them to do this and do that,” he recalled. “One of us, not me, happened to be a superb guitar player, and one of us was a very gifted singer, and it all sort of just happened.” The song turned out almost exactly as he’d envisaged it.

“This thing that I had in my head, in the abstract, had come to life, and it was there,” he continued, narrowing his gaze and lowering his voice. “It was very, very close to the way I had always wanted it to be. 

I remember being on a kind of weird high.” Ishiguro laughed softly to himself, emerging from his memory of the long-ago summer. “I thought at that point these kinds of moments would come often, but looking back, I haven’t had that feeling again.”

Giles Harvey is a contributing writer for the magazine. His work has also appeared in The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books. Jack Davison is a British photographer known for his black-and-white portraiture. He last photographed the two remaining northern white rhinos in the world for the magazine.