Cocaine: The Hidden Cost

My latest article, just published on Impakter:

A TRAIL OF BLOOD (PART ONE)

This is the first of a two-part article investigating cocaine. Part One surveys the cost in human terms, focusing on Colombia, the world’s top coca producer, while Part Two investigates the environmental destruction caused by cocaine.

On August 10, President Trump told reporters he was getting ready to “declare the opioid epidemic a national emergency”, in response to a chilling report from the White House commission on the opioid crisis, that said “142 Americans die every day from a drug overdose”, a death toll “equal to September 11th every three weeks”. Trump promised “a lot” would be done to stop drug flows into the US and ensuring young people never use drugs but he didn’t mention access to treatment. And it is not clear exactly how he would proceed, particularly now that natural disasters wrought by hurricanes Harvey and Irma demand attention.

So far, Congress has done little except pass the 21st Century Cures Act that was signed into law by President Obama in 2016. It added US$ 1 billion over two years for drug treatment and disbursement has just started.  Yet Trump talks up the role of the border wall and law enforcement while his proposed budget and congressional efforts to take down Obamacare are going in the wrong direction, preventing access to insurance to pay for treatment.

At state level, the move away from a criminal justice fix to the drug problem has been patchy at best. One reporter from Vox found that at least fifteen states followed Kentucky’s example of tightening penalties for low-level drug offenders, increasing mass incarceration rather than offering treatment.

Yet treatment is key.

The rest of the world, if not the US, has moved on past the obvious failure of the “War on Drugs” to focus on non-military, non-police, non-legal measures as possible solutions. That’s where improved access to treatment comes in. It is part of the UN Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goal 3, specifically target 3.5 which reads: “Strengthen the prevention and treatment of substance abuse, including narcotic drug abuse and harmful use of alcohol .”

Unfortunately, even within the United Nations, the political discourse is largely focused on other issues, like eradicating poverty as evidenced by the latest “outcome report” of the high-level “political forum” (10-19 July 2017), a ministerial meeting that reviews progress on the SDGs every year. Only one sentence addressed the drug problem: “We reiterate the need to strengthen the prevention and treatment of substance abuse.” Surely stronger statements are required, more needs to be done.

Yet the US-waged “War on Drugs”, started some 60 years ago, and costing an estimated US$ one trillion should have taught us a lesson. It began when President Lyndon Johnson first proposed a toughening of penalties for drug trafficking in 1968; it ballooned with President Nixon in 1971, coming to Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. Whatever improvement America was able to achieve at home, it quickly vanished: Since 2009 there are more deaths from drug poisoning every year in the US than from firearms, motor vehicle crashes, suicide and murders, said a recent US DEA report.

Meanwhile, in the Andean countries, the war left a devastating legacy, clearly traceable to US aerial fumigation programs to stop coca cultivation and anti-narcotics policing that quickly spiraled into full-scale civil war, particularly ferocious in Colombia, pitting Marxist-inspired guerillas against the central government. The war in Colombia lasted until 2016 when the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARCs) agreed to a peace deal with the government, but not before there were some 200,000 dead and five million people forced out of their home.

The lesson from History is clear:  fighting drug trafficking through military or police means solves nothing.

The US is the World’s Largest Cocaine User

The latest report (March 2017) from the Office of National Drug Control Policy on global cocaine trafficking confirms that the US is the largest cocaine user, consuming one third of world production.

Cocaine is known as a “rich man’s drug”, though one form, “crack cocaine” (smoked, not snorted) being much cheaper, is widely used in inner cities and by black communities, ensuring that the drug is prevalent in all social strata.

Cocaine is the second most popular illegal recreational drug in both Europe and the United States behind marijuana. More people use cocaine than heroin, and the number of cocaine users keeps rising (26 percent more in 2015 compared to the previous year, according to the U.S. National Survey on Drug Use and Health).

The street value of cocaine gives an idea of its importance as a recreational drug.  One calculation, often cited, is based on a model developed in 2005 by the UN drug agency (UNODC) which estimated that the US cocaine market exceeds some US$70 billion in street value per year. This is likely to be a conservative estimate but still true today considering that cocaine prices have been (slightly) dropping over the past decade.

US$70 billion spent on cocaine is a lot, as much as Americans spend on playing the lottery, more than on books, video games, movies and sporting events combined (2015 data) – none of which have the devastating impact on health that cocaine has, particularly from chronic use.

PHOTO CREDIT: HÄGGSTRÖM, MIKAEL (2014). “MEDICAL GALLERY OF MIKAEL HÄGGSTRÖM 2014“. WIKIJOURNAL OF MEDICINE 

Coca Production on the Increase

Increased drug supplies mean more deaths: cocaine-related deaths in the United States have increased by about 60 percent since 2010, according to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

What makes the situation increasingly dangerous, is that production of cocaine in Colombia is higher than ever: according to the UN, it reached 866 metric tons in 2016, a 34 percent increase over 2015 when the war was still on-going. And that’s 200 million tons more than the average annual production of cocaine a decade ago (it stood around 650 million tons).

But some believe the UN data is too conservative.

Read the rest on Impakter, click here

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The American Dream is Dead, Long Live the American Dream!

My latest article on Impakter that I wanted to share with you:

THE AMERICAN DREAM IS DEAD, LONG LIVE THE AMERICAN DREAM!

BOOK REVIEWS: REQUIEM FOR THE AMERICAN DREAM: THE 10 PRINCIPLES OF CONCENTRATION OF WEALTH AND POWERBY NOAM CHOMSKY, PUBLISHED BY SEVEN STORIES PRESS (MARCH 2017); THE VANISHING MIDDLE CLASS: PREJUDICE AND POWER IN A DUAL ECONOMY BY PETER TEMIN, PUBLISHED BY MIT PRESS (MARCH 2017)

In a raft of bestselling books this year, our thinking elite has announced the demise of the middle class and the “American Dream”. At the heart of that “dream” is the idea that every generation, through hard work, would come out better off than the previous one. Of course, the 2008 Great Recession put a serious dent in the notion and Occupy Wall Street in 2011 pointed the finger at income inequality (it’s the One Percent!). In 2014, French economist Thomas Piketty’s magnum opus, Capital in the 21st Century, provided definitive scientific confirmation to every man’s perception that middle class income had been stagnant for decades, that the ultrarich was getting richer at the expense of everyone else.

Two important books from MIT luminaries addressing this issue came out in the same month (March 2017): Noam Chomsky’s Requiem for the American Dream and Peter Temin’s The Vanishing Middle Class. They both caused waves, loudly proclaiming that the American Dream is dead.

But can we really declare the American Dream dead? Both authors make suggestions though perhaps neither offer definitive solutions. That might require something more than a new set of policies and some people are beginning to talk about it. Recently New York Times journalist David Brooks suggested in an Op-Ed that “Trump is not just a parenthesis.” He is “the farcical culmination of a lot of dying old orders — demographic, political, even moral — and what comes after will be a reaction against rather than a continuing from.”

A lot of “dying orders” and one of them is the American Dream. It is essentially what kept the lights on in the “city on the hill”, the beacon that famously attracted the tired, poor and huddled masses to America – to paraphrase the American poet Emma Lazarus.

REQUIEM FOR THE AMERICAN DREAM

At the outset, it is striking how different Noam Chomsky’s Requiem is from all the other books he has written. It is far more accessible than the academic fare he has accustomed us to. Chomsky has taught at MIT for fifty years and he is one of America’s foremost thinkers, the most famous voice of dissent on the left. He is also an innovative linguist, credited with revolutionizing the field and as a political philosopher, the author of several seminal books, notably 9/11: Was There an Alternative?   considered the most influential post 9/11 book both at home and abroad.

The reason for Requiem’s greater accessibility probably derives from the fact that it is, bottom line, a movie tie-in. Based on the documentary of the same name released in April 2015, it encapsulates and builds on the main ideas presented in the film.

To read the rest, including about Peter Temin’s book and a possible solution suggested by Courtney E.Martin in a famous TED talk, click here 

Enjoy! These books are seriously good summer reading…

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The Collapse of Democracy in Poland: Another Exit from the EU?

My latest article on Impakter magazine:
Democracy in Poland is under threat ever since the conservative Law and Justice party (PiS) came to power in 2015. If it collapses, it could lead to another Brexit episode with Poland forced out of the EU. Or choosing to leave.   

The villain in the story? For many, it is Jaroslav Kasczynski, the strongman who leads the party. He is a strange man who (so far) has refused to enter the government, he is a simple Member of Parliament yet he effectively pulls the reins. The current President of Poland, Andrzej Duda, is said to be in his pocket, and the Prime Minister too.  And a key player in taking over the judicial system, Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro is at his beck and call.

Who exactly is Jaroslav Kasczynski?


Born in 1949, unmarried and a Warsaw resident, he is a lawyer and the co-founder in 2001 of PiS, along with his identical twin brother, Lech, also a lawyer.  The PiS came first to power from 2005 to 2007 and it distinguished itself with fighting the remnants of Communism in the country and with having tense relations with Russia and Germany: In short, a clear nationalist agenda was already emerging.

Jaroslav’s brother was Mayor of Warsaw from 2002 to 2005 and then President of Poland until his death in 2010. Jaroslav, as the sole survivor of the so-called “terrible twins” that ruled Poland tried to succeed his brother as President but lost out to the incumbent.

Lech’s death in a plane crash in Smolensk, Russia, left Jaroslav convinced it was murder. A believer in conspiracy theories, he blames the Civic Platform leaders who governed after his brother’s death, in particular Donald Tusk, then Prime Minister, today President of the European Council. Others he has taken aim at are Tusk’s chief of staff at the time, Tomasz Arabski and the former foreign minister, Radosław Sikorski.

So, people say, that is why he is attacking the judiciary. But that’s too simple a theory.

The PiS Grab for Power

It is a fact that the PiS is trying to take over control of the judiciary and in its first year in power it had packed the Constitutional Court, politicized the appointment of prosecutors and abolished court consent for state access to private internet accounts – a direct threat to people’s privacy.

But it didn’t stop with the judicial system. It worked on another front too.

To read the rest, click here.

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The People vs. the Elite? Democracy is the Loser

Yet another one of my articles just published on Impakter. Here’s the opening: 

BOOK REVIEW: THE RETREAT OF WESTERN LIBERALISM BY EDWARD LUCE, PUBLISHED BY LITTLE BROWN (JUNE 2017)

In his latest book, The Retreat of Western Liberalism, Edward Luce argues that with the rise of populism, Western liberalism is facing its gravest crisis since World War II. And without a deliberate effort on the part of the governing “elite”, it may be impossible to save it.

An Oxford-trained journalist and currently the Financial Times columnist in Washington and author of several bestselling books, Luce has made a solid reputation for successfully predicting the future, anticipating in his 2012 bestseller, the rise of middle class resentment and fight over immigration that led to Brexit and Trump’s victory.

In this book, with his deep knowledge of History and keen observing eye, he zeroes in what is ailing our society: At the heart of the crisis, the people pitted against the elite. That part of the middle class left behind by globalization – now fast becoming a large, vociferous mass of angry people –  rising against the experts. As he put it:

“Here then is the crux of the West’s crisis: our societies are split between the will of the people and the rule of the experts – the tyranny of the majority versus the club of self-serving insiders; Britain versus Brussels; West Virginia versus Washington. It follows that the election of Trump, and Britain’s exit from Europe, is a reassertion of the popular will.” (p. 120)

The Enemy is Within

“This time,” writes Luce, “we have conjured up the enemy from within. At home and abroad, America’s best liberal traditions are under assault from its own president. We have put arsonists in charge of the fire brigade.”

As we all know, that was just the beginning in the US and UK. Abroad, populism has already made giant steps, starting in Russia where despite the hopes raised by the fall of the Wall of Berlin, democracy was still-born and Putin gained absolute power, increasingly unopposed.

Luce reminds us that liberal, democratic forms of government are recent, they arose some two hundred years ago, and they are notoriously fragile. There are numerous historical precedents for setbacks and relapses into autocracy. Two dozen democracies have failed since 2000 and we now find such “illiberal democracies” everywhere, in Orban’s Hungary, Erdogan’s Turkey, and Duterte’s Philippines.

This growing tension between the people and the experts could end up killing Western liberalism (and democracy) or at least, as the title of Luce’s book implies, cause a serious “retreat”:

“Europe and America’s populist right wants to turn the clock back to the days when men were men and the West ruled. It is prepared to sacrifice the gains of globalization – and risk conflict with China – to protect jobs that have already vanished.” (p. 67)

Conflict with China? That possibility is explored in Chapter 3 aptly titled “Fallout”. Populist trends all point in that direction – “fear is the currency of autocrats” as Luce says.  Add irascible, narcissistic Trump to the mix, and what you get is (inter alia) war with China.

Luce estimates it could very well happen in 2020 and he makes the case that the man who is likely to stop this conflict is… Putin.

Really, Putin-the-peace-maker? It sounds over-the-top and crazy but, alas, probably it is not.

IN THE PHOTO: PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN OF RUSSIA. PHOTO CREDIT: CNN

To drive the point home, Luce draws a striking parallel between the world today and the world in 1914, noting that the “decades preceding the First World War marked a peak of globalization that the world economy only regained in the 1990s”.

To read the rest on Impakter, click here.

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DUTERTE’S WAR ON ISIS

My latest article on Impakter.com about strongman Duterte and what is really going on in the Philippines – his fight against drugs is probably less important than his confrontation with ISIS in Marawi City:

The Battle for Marawi

The battle for Marawi began on 23 May when Islamic terrorists torched Dansalan College, a protestant school known in the region for its religious tolerance, and abducted a Catholic priest and thirteen churchgoers. They killed nine Christians at a checkpoint and set fire to the cathedral and the bishop’s residence. Soon an elementary school and the city jail were burning and IS-style black flags were flown on buildings. Government troops immediately put the town under siege.

The news shocked the Philippines: Marawi is the most important Muslim town in Mindanao island, 1400 km (870 miles) south of the capital Manila. Located in Lanao del Sur province, it is on the north coast of Lake Lanao, the largest lake in Mindanao (130 square miles).

Improbably, the terrorists, said to number 500, managed to entrench themselves in the town which has 200,000 residents. Armed to the teeth, flush with foreign fighters from near-by Malaysia and Indonesia, but also from Arab countries, they put up a strong guerilla-style fight and have killed over 100 soldiers. Some say that 800 civilians or more lost their lives, others that only 45 civilians died. Nobody knows exactly how many terrorists died – but by July 22, some 420 terrorists were reported killed.

Predictably, people fled their homes.

According to press reports, notably Vice that made some striking on-the-ground videos (12 July), more than 400,000 were displaced. Most found shelter with relatives in nearby towns and villages, but over 18,000 were still reportedly stuck in 78 overcrowded “evacuation centers” around Marawi.

More recently (16 July), André Vitchek, an investigative journalist and filmmaker, one of the first people able to get inside Marawi since the fighting started, provided a radically different picture. He discovered that only some 200,000 people had escaped the area – and not 400,000 as reported in the press, though, he acknowledges, it may have peaked at 300,000 at some point. I find Vitchek’s finding highly credible and I will go a step further: since Marawi is a town of 200,000, it could hardly have seen more than 200,000 flee. Even that number implies that every single town resident fled – which is highly unlikely and, in any case, goes counter to other reports that at least 2,000 people remained.

The geography of the town explains this. The Agus river with three bridges divides Marawi, with government troops on one side, and rebel snipers on the other, camped on ruined buildings, jumping from one to the next and shooting at everything that moves. Very few people managed to escape and run across the bridges to the other side. With the conflict entering its seventh week, the army is warning that the death toll will rise.

And it’s not over yet. The conflict is winding down as I write (update on July 23), but the government has yet to clear some 500 buildings occupied by the rebels and some 70 terrorists are reportedly still fighting back. According to Vitchek, the fighting is currently circumscribed to a one square kilometer area and the bombing, far from “indiscriminate” as alleged in the press, is limited and very precise, to avoid civilian casualties.

That the battle for Marawi should be time-consuming is no surprise. Like all guerilla warfare, this is a hard fight to win for regular troops, not trained to pursue fast-moving, unpredictable snipers.

What Really Happened in Marawi

A version closer to the truth is that the battle of Marawi is really part of a much longer war that began late last year when President Duterte launched a military offensive in the Southern Philippines against Moro militant groups, targeting in particular the Abu Sayyaf group.

The appearance of Abu Sayyaf militants on the scene is a game changer:  The Abu Sayyaf group, originally funded by al-Qaeda in the 1990s, is now part of ISIS’ global footprint. The group is led by Isnilon Hapilon, a.k.a. Abu Abdullah the Filipino, a dangerous man on the FBI-most wanted terrorist list, with a $5 million bounty on his head. He was indicted in absentia in the United States for the 2000 Palma kidnapping of 17 Filipinos and three Americans that led to the beheading of one of the Americans. A year ago, the Long War Journal, in a blog post (dated 12 June 2016) reported that Hapilon had been appointed “emir of all Islamic State forces in the Philippines”, grimly noting that this now “means that a formal leadership structure for the Islamic State is in place, exemplifying its expansion in the country.”

The government learned Hapilon was in Marawi, leading a militant group financed by the Maute brothers, the scions of a wealthy local family – the father is an engineer, the mother a real estate mogul and said to be the family’s financial wizard and also a strict Islamist.

So what really happened in Marawi is this:

To read the rest on Impakter, click here. I updated the article today (23 July), with all the latest news. 

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How to Revive the American Dream: The Reeves Solution

My latest article on Impakter, here is the beginning:

HOW TO REVIVE THE AMERICAN DREAM: A CLASS DISPUTE

Book ReviewThe Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do about It by Richard V. Reeves published by Brookings Institution Press, June 2017

Take the top 20 percent of the American population and remove from it the One Percent, the ultra-rich. What do you get? A new class, roughly the “top” of the middle class, that is changing the way America consumes, thinks, and votes.

That, in a nutshell, is the argument made by several highly respected social scientists, starting with Tyler Cowen, who was the first out with his book, The Complacent Class in February 2017. Unsurprisingly, it was an instant bestseller, he is a respected economist with a popular blog. Next out in May was Elizabeth Currid-Halkett’s excellent, Veblen-inspired The Sum of Small things (reviewed on Impakter), followed in June by two more notable books, Richard Reeves’ Dream Hoarders  and Edward Luce’s The Retreat of Western Liberalism – though the latter has a broader scope, analyzing not just the upper middle class, but the whole system.

When it comes to describing this new class, details are different in each book, but what is remarkable is that all four authors are of one voice to condemn this new class.

For Edward Luce, an Oxford-educated journalist, this new class is “tone deaf” to the demands of the rest of the middle class, particularly the “white trash” left behind by globalization.  For Tyler Cowen, it is “complacent” and static, ensconced in self-contentment, unaware of a coming revolution. For Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, it is “pernicious” in wanting (and achieving) self-perpetuation. Richard Reeves agrees with her and views it as incredibly self-centered, “leaving everyone else in the dust”.

I’d like to spend some time here reviewing Reeves’ book because it is the most propositional of the lot, suggesting how, with some simple political measures, the “American Dream”, now badly damaged, could be restored and made to work for the whole of society.

American Dream PHOTO CREDIT: FLICKR – ADRIAN

The Social Impact of Income Inequality

The centerpiece of Reeves’ argument is this:

“Postsecondary education in particular has become an “inequality machine.” As more ordinary people have earned college degrees, upper middle-class families have simply upped the ante. Postgraduate qualifications are now the key to maintaining upper middle-class status. The upper middle class gains most of its status not by exploiting others but by exploiting its own skills.”

He sees this process as resulting in class stratification. The danger is that it “may blunt market dynamism by reducing the upward flow of talent and leaving human capital underutilized among the less fortunate.”

To read the rest, click here. I hope you enjoy the review, let me know how you like it, this is a book I highly recommend, well written, highly readable and with an important message!

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G20: American Isolationism is Back

My latest article on Impakter, all about the G20 – I do  believe it marks a turning point for American world leadership. Here is the beginning (and Trump does look grumpy!):

The G20 meeting that just finished in Hamburg on 8 July confirmed the United States’ embrace of isolationism. Presided over by Angela Merkel, Germany’s Chancellor, Trump de facto stole the show. Both she and Emmanuel Macron, the new President of France, tried very hard to woo Trump back in the concert of nations. Macron even held a last-minute meeting with UK’s Theresa May and Australia’s Malcolm Turnbull on the climate change issue to try and change Trump’s mind.

To no avail.

THE US IS ALONE ON CLIMATE

The final communiqué is clear, the G20 is split.

Nineteen countries declare the Paris Climate Accord as “irreversible”, one does not, the United States. The country that was once the world’s leader – ever since World War II – emphatically goes its own way, with a whole paragraph in the G20 Declaration dedicated to that fateful choice:

“We take note of the decision of the United States of America to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. The United States of America announced it will immediately cease the implementation of its current nationally-determined contribution and affirms its strong commitment to an approach that lowers emissions while supporting economic growth and improving energy security needs. The United States of America states it will endeavor to work closely with other countries to help them access and use fossil fuels more cleanly and efficiently and help deploy renewable and other clean energy sources, given the importance of energy access and security in their nationally determined contributions.”

This is a historic break. The US is parting company with the whole of the international community that counts. The G20 meeting brings together the most important world leaders and international organizations, from the UN to the World Bank and the IMF, once a year, ever since the 2008 financial meltdown (before then, it was a meeting of financial ministers and central bank governors).

This formulation in the final communiqué, “we take note of the decision of the United States” is suavely diplomatic and non-judgmental.  And in allowing the US to state its position, that it would “work closely with other countries to help access and use fossil fuels more cleanly and efficiently”, there is an implicit recognition by the G20 that there is such a thing as using fossil fuels “more cleanly and efficiently”.  This amounts to a recognition not only of where the US stands, but it acknowledges a policy point dear to Trump.

Environmental activists predictably are up in arms, it marks a clear retreat from the fight against climate change. Macron indicated he wouldn’t give up, he’d continue to press Trump on climate and planned a follow-up meeting in Paris in December to sustain the Paris Climate Accord momentum. The G20 did however do something positive: It reiterate its financial support to countries that needed help in the transition to clean energy:

To read the rest on Impakter, click here. Do let me know what you think!

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