Rome Defaced and Degraded: New Mayor Overwhelmed by Problems

I am happy to share with you my latest article just published on Impakter. I spent a long time on this article, after all, it’s all about the city I live in and that I deeply love. It’s so sad to see the state it’s in today. I sincerely hope things will get better as people take things in their own hands…

Is this still Rome, the Eternal City? On a sunny day in mid-April, a rat bit little Marco, a three-year old child, in the leg, near the ankle. He was playing in the park of Villa Giordani, once a lovely place, with some remarkable ruins that were restored in the 1960s, thereby gaining the enviable status of “archeological park”. He was rushed to a public hospital, Umberto I, to be medicated.

IN THE PHOTO: VILLA GIORDANI, THE “MAUSOLEUM”, THE BEST PRESERVED MONUMENT IN THE PARK.  PHOTO CREDIT: ALESSANDRO ZANGRILLI 

What happened next was an angry letter of protest from the Minister of Health Beatrice Lorenzin to Virginia Raggi, Rome’s young new Mayor, an attractive 39-year old lawyer and member of the populist Five Star Movement – fast becoming the largest party in Italy, most recently blamed by the Italian health authorities for a surge in measles (it proposed an anti-vaccination law in 2015).

IN THE PHOTOS: (LEFT) MAYOR VIRGINIA RAGGI,  (RIGHT) MINISTER OF HEALTH BEATRICE LORENZIN PHOTO CREDIT: WIKIPEDIA AND BIOGRAFIE ONLINE

Ms. Lorenzin did not mince her words: “After only one year in government, we do not expect Mayor Raggi to have solved the chronic problems of the budget or traffic, but the city should be at least clean and the urban décor restored.” According to Ms. Lorenzin, “the health emergency that I warned about two years ago requires immediate action against rats, seagulls, the tiger mosquito, not to mention lice and cockroaches.” Quite a list. And Ms. Lorenzin to conclude mournfully: “Who knows what awaits us tomorrow, with the summer at the door.”

Ms. Raggi lost no time to go on television the next day, taking the opportunity to request “special funding” and announcing she had prepared an “Agenda for Rome” that she would “shortly submit” to the government.

Romans, as might be expected, immediately expressed skepticism, asking what she had done with the funding that she already had. A week later, on the 2770th birthday of Rome (April 21, that’s the day Romulus killed his brother Remus and founded the city), she made a speech, doubling down on the notion of an agenda, saying “We have to make a pact with all the citizens, the institutions, tourists, entrepreneurs and the national government. We have to write an Agenda for Rome together.”

What there is in this agenda, nobody knows. And who is writing it is a mystery. But she is good with words: “We are all fully aware of our History, the extraordinary artistic, natural and archaeological heritage that has made Italy’s capital a unique heritage of humanity. We must preserve what has been handed down to us and make it available to the world.”

Meanwhile, Rome’s problems that have been long brewing, some of them for decades, are all coming to a head. And this spring, the Italian mainstream media is full of horror stories. One blogger, listing everyday the photos and news of Rome’s newfound decadence called his blog Roma fa Schifo (Rome Sucks). At least one foreign journalist, Frank Bruni from the New York Times took note as he walked around Rome, appalled by the cigarette butts and the piles of garbage. He called it the “filthy metaphor of Rome“.

IN THE PHOTO: GARBAGE ON A ROMAN SIDEWALK PUBLISHED BY ROMA FA SCHIFO  (ROME SUCKS) BLOG, TAKING AIM AT THE FIVE STAR MOVEMENT’S LATEST “FAKE NEWS” THAT ROME DID NOT HAVE A GARBAGE DISPOSAL EMERGENCY. PHOTO CREDIT: ROMA FA SCHIFO 8 MAY 2017

A HORROR LIST OF ROME’S PROBLEMS:

Wild boars: At first, they went unnoticed, just four of them descending from the mountains two years ago. Now troops of wild boars are regularly spotted in city streets at the foot of Monte Mario, feeding on spilled garbage. The authorities are even considering sterilizing the boars after a motorcyclist met his death in a collision with the animals on the Via Cassia.

See the rest of a very long list on Impakter, click here

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Platform Capitalism: The New Economy of the Future?

My latest article, just published on Impakter Magazine:

BOOK REVIEW: PLATFORM CAPITALISM BY NICK SRNICEK, PUBLISHED BY POLITY (DECEMBER 2016) 120 PAGES

Platform Capitalism

Platform capitalism is the latest buzzword, replacing what used to be called “eco-systems”. It is also sometimes confused with the “gig economy” or the “sharing economy”, enthusiastically embraced by politicians as the answer to the Great Recession.

Uber, AirBnB, TaskRabbit and the like are viewed as saviors, providing jobs to those who wouldn’t have any or rounding off the pay of those who make too little. Their apps create a digital space where service providers and users meet; the needs of the latter are satisfied by the former while the app owners take a fair percentage off every transaction.

THE BLESSED AGE OF POST-CAPITALISM?

Technology enthusiasts see platform capitalism, created by the digital revolution, as a benign form of capitalism ushering in a new blessed age where people come into their own, workers find instant demand for their services and consumers get what they want at the tap of a button on their smartphone.

Before we go on, let’s get one piece of semantics out of the way: Platform capitalism should not be confused with the “sharing economy” (insofar as it exists at all). Platform capitalism has nothing to do with “sharing” in the sense of an exchange of goods or services at no cost to those engaged in the exchange. Platform capitalism is capitalism pure and simple: You pay for the goods and services you get, nothing is free – even if transaction costs tend to be lower online. Lower but still substantial: Uber, for example, creams off 25 percent of every taxi ride. The difference is that it’s not done through an exchange of cash in the real world, it is done digitally.

And, according to the proponents of platform capitalism, there is an added advantage: The middleman is cut out, costs to users are thus automatically reduced. This is the capitalism of the future, they enthuse. Thanks to the digital revolution, we are into the age of “post-capitalism”.

Not true, argue the critics: The basic exploitative nature of capitalism has not changed. Middlemen are replaced by new gatekeepers. “Many of the old middlemen and retailers disappear but only to be replaced by much more powerful gatekeepers,” complained one disgruntled German blogger.

Is platform capitalism heralding a bright new future or is it just the latest form of exploitative capitalism?

Read the rest on Impakter, click here.

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Filed under Book review, Digital Revolution, Economics, non-fiction, politics, Startups, Tech

American Leadership at Risk – How to Win it Back

Another one of my articles just published on Impakter magazine:

AMERICAN LEADERSHIP AT RISK – AND HOW TO WIN IT BACK

BOOK REVIEW “BUILDING THE NEW AMERICAN ECONOMY: SMART, FAIR, AND SUSTAINABLE” BY JEFFREY D. SACHS (AUTHOR), BERNIE SANDERS (FOREWORD) COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY PRESS, FEBRUARY 7, 2017

When Professor Sachs, one of the world’s most influential economists, wrote the book I’m reviewing here, we lived in a simpler, more innocent world, full of hope for a better future, particularly after the success of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, in large part a result of President Obama’s efforts.

America was firmly seated in the global leadership role it had occupied since World War II and as recently as last summer, it looked like nothing could upend it. The most recent “soft power” wins included the opening with Cuba and the deal with Iran to neuter its nuclear power – soft power wins that came on top of a long series of similar victories since 1945, starting with the generous Marshall Plan that resuscitated Europe from the ashes of war.

It may come as a surprise to many Americans, but it is this soft power, much more than its military power, that has ensured American leadership, turning it into a global moral compass, effectively the “land of dreams”.

Incidentally, the American military is well aware of this soft power, as evidenced in a recent letter signed by over 120 retired generals and admirals calling on Congress not to slash funds for diplomacy and foreign aid (as called for in Trump’s proposed budget), noting that “The State Department, USAID, Millennium Challenge Corporation, Peace Corps and other development agencies are critical to preventing conflict and reducing the need to put our men and women in uniform in harm’s way.”

Sachs’ book, Building the New American Economy: Smart, Fair, and Sustainable, was intended as a roadmap for America to continue to lead the world. He had worked on Bernie Sanders’ campaign in 2016 and clearly meant this book to guide a new Sanders administration – for Professor Sachs, as he insisted in a recent interview discussing his book, sees himself as a “progressive”. And barring Sanders, no doubt he expected to see Clinton in the White House.

But that was not to be. Some sixty million Americans, many without a college degree and who felt by-passed by “globalization” and betrayed by a “blinkered elite”, voted in a man that is likely to upend America’s global leadership by systematically cutting everything that sustained America’s soft power: foreign aid and diplomacy; the environment and clean energy; support to science, health and the arts;  immigrants and trade.

As soon as Trump signed his “Energy Independence” executive order on March 28 rolling back Obama’s Clean Energy Plan, China stepped forward, claiming the climate leadership role. And this came on top of the Davos meeting earlier this year, where, as Sachs put it, “Chinese President Xi Jinping offered a stirring defense of globalization and international responsibility.” Indeed, Chinese leadership is the biggest story that came out of Davos this year.

Is there anything that can be done to win back the moral high ground and global leadership for America? Professor Sachs’ book shows us how.

WHY WE SHOULD LISTEN TO PROFESSOR SACHS

Jeffrey D. Sachs, born in 1954 and raised in a suburb of Detroit, Michigan, is today Professor of Sustainable Development and Professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University as well as Director of Columbia’s Center for Sustainable Development and of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN). Sachs started early accumulating firsts. He was one of the youngest ever to achieve tenure at Harvard University, becoming a full professor of economics in 1983 when he was just 28.

Over the next two decades, he was one of the few economists willing to leave the safety of Academia’s white tower and step out in the real world, with the risk of getting burned.

IN THIS PHOTO: JEFFREY SACHS AT THE UN (2009) –  PHOTO CREDIT: JAVAMAN200

To read the rest, click here. This is a book I really enjoyed and it was also extremely interesting to dig into Professor Sachs’ life for this review. A highly recommended read

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THE RETURN OF AN OLD SCOURGE: STARVATION

Another one of my articles, just published on Impakter, here is the opening:

Famine was supposed to be a thing of the past. True, 75 million people had died from starvation in the 20th century, but we had learned from these tragedies, how to predict them and how to address them. The largest famines dated back two decades: in the Horn of Africa in 1984-85 and 1992, and in North Korea in the mid-1990s. There had been only one serious famine in the 21st century, and it had occurred in Somalia in 2011, killing 260,000 people.

Now, all of a sudden, the scourge of starvation is back. The news came out over a month ago: 20 million people facing starvation, including 1.4 million children at “imminent risk of death”. The United Nations famine alert concerned four disconnected countries, across Africa and the Arabian peninsula: Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia and Yemen.

IN THIS PHOTO: Photo was taken in Radfan village in Lahj city. It shows a young girl who is collecting water from a far distance due the water shortage in Yemen. PHOTO CREDIT:  UNICEF/UN018342/ASKOOL

THE FOUR-COUNTRY FAMINE: 20 MILLION PEOPLE AT RISK

The UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres did not mince his words at the press conference he held on 22 February in New York. This was a humanitarian crisis in-the-making, it was without precedent in scope and a total of $ 4.4   billion would be needed by the end of March to “avert a catastrophe” (see full transcript here). The Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien and several UN agencies heads (or their representatives) participated in that conference, including WFP (via video), UNDP, UNICEF and FAO (remarkably, not UNHCR).

Even though this was the largest alert in the 21st century and nobody had heard of anything like this for decades, the UN Secretary General’s appeal fell on deaf ears.

Was it a case of crying wolf too many times?

Read the rest on Impakter, click here.

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Unchain America

Here’s my latest book review, just published on Impakter. This book is brilliant, a must read!

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BOOK REVIEW: “CAPTURED: THE CORPORATE INFILTRATION OF AMERICAN DEMOCRACY” BY SHELDON WHITEHOUSE (AUTHOR) AND MELANIE WACHTELL STINNETT (CONTRIBUTOR) PUBLISHED 21 FEBRUARY 2017, NEW PRESS, 272 PAGES

Captured Sheldon Whitehouse

American democracy is in deep trouble, chained down by corporate power. This, in a nutshell, is the argument made by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse in his just published book, Captured: The Corporate Infiltration of American Democracy. He wrote the book, he says, in the hope of waking up his fellow American citizens to the risk they are running. To free themselves from the shackles of Big Business, they need to know exactly who they are fighting.

As I watched Trump give his “America First” inaugural speech, I knew something was deeply wrong with America. His speech signaled America’s abandonment of world leadership and rejection of globalization, a stunning paradigm shift. Since World War II, no American President had ever said anything like this. It chilled me and in fact, it sent a chill around the world among those who counted on America, particularly NATO countries, while it opened an unexpected door of opportunity for the competing powers of China and Russia. Would the 21st century belong to them? Suddenly, it looks like it.

How did we get here? This is the book that provides the key to understanding how we got there and why.

To read the rest, click here.

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TWO-SPEED EUROPE: WHY THIS IS THE LIKELY WAY FORWARD

Impakter Magazine has just published my latest article on Europe, here it is:
 
TWO-SPEED EUROPE: THE WAY FORWARD?
 

FROM THE “WHITE PAPER” ON THE FUTURE OF EUROPE TO THE EUROPEAN MINI-SUMMIT IN VERSAILLES

President Hollande did not mince his words. “Europe will explode,” he warned, if the idea of a two-speed Europe is not accepted.

He was referring to what is diplomatically called “multi-speed Europe” where core countries go forward with European integration in areas they agree on, leaving dissenters behind – not a particularly new idea, after all, that was how the Eurozone and the Schengen area (dispensing with border controls) were born in the 1990s.

There has been, over the years, considerable debate and pushback against the idea of a multi-speed Europe, seen as going counter to the “core values of the Union”. But, increasingly, it is viewed as the only realistic way to move forward, abandoning the unattainable ideal (for now) of a United States of Europe and moving instead to a practical “Europe à la carte”, where each EU member gets what he wants at his own pace.

What is different this time is Hollande’s insistence that core countries should not be prevented from moving forward by other EU members. He further elaborated this at the “mini-summit” he hosted in the lavish Versailles palace on March 6, with his three guests, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Prime Minister of Italy Paolo Gentiloni, and Prime Minister of Spain, Mariano Rajoy.

In the Photo: In the Main entrance to the Chateau de Versailles, Grille d’honneur – Photo Credit: Ronaldieya

While the immediate pretext for the Versailles mini-summit was to prepare the celebrations for the 60th anniversary of the Union to be held in Rome on March 25 with all 27 EU members (with the UK already excluded), there were two other things far more notable about this event:

  • the inclusion of two more countries, Italy and Spain, a suggestion that the famous German-French duo that has historically guided the EU was about to expand, and
  • the message that a “multi-speed” Europe had a backing of all four countries that together form the economic lead of the Union.

Expect this last fact to be reflected in the “Rome Declaration” to be adopted by the 27 EU leaders in Rome on 25 March.

So what did Hollande and his three guests say at the Versailles press conference?

Read the rest on Impakter, click here.

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Europe at the Crossroads

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Impakter has just published my latest essay: EUROPE AT THE CROSSROADS. I’ve worked hard to try and figure out where Europe is going, if anywhere… 

Here is the beginning:

 

WHAT IS WRONG WITH THE EUROPEAN UNION?

On 25 March 2017, we will know whether Europe – as a “project” for an increased “union” – plans to go forward, fade away or split up.

That is the date of the much-awaited European Summit to be held in Rome to celebrate (without UK Prime Minister May) the 60 years of the European Union. The celebration could turn into a funeral if the 27 heads of EU member nations cannot agree on a so-called “White Paper”, a.k.a. “the Rome Statement”, that they are meant to adopt as a common declaration on Europe’s future.

Alarm-Europe-Logo PHOTO CREDIT: MARCH FOR EUROPE

What does this White Paper say? If you google it, you won’t find it. At the time of writing, it’s still under wraps in Brussels. All we know for now is that there has been a preliminary “white paper” prepared by the Benelux countries, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, part of the original six founding member countries (the other three are France, Germany and Italy). And there was a recent declaration by German Chancellor Merkel at the EU Summit meeting held in Malta that drew attention and irked some EU members. “This would destroy Europe!” thundered the Pole with the nodding support of other Eastern Europeans.

What did Ms. Merkel say that was so provocative? She aired the possibility of a “multi-speed” Europe – the idea is simple enough: those EU members who want it should be allowed to go forward with integration, the others would be left to proceed slower, at their own pace.

IN THE PHOTO: ANGELA MERKEL PHOTO CREDIT: ELZA FIÙZA/AGÊNCIA BRASIL, CC BY 3.0 WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

This is not a particularly new idea, she had already aired it two years ago. And it is an idea dear to the Italians who have been pushing it for some time – most recently asking for a “Schengen union for security” to try and solve the problem of immigrants rushing across the Mediterranean. Leading Italian political scientists are also behind the “federal solution” for Europe –  notably Sergio Fabbrini, Director of the Luiss School of Government and author of multiple books on Europe who has also expounded it in the country’s leading financial paper, il Sole 24 Ore.

Annoyed by the brouhaha from Eastern European members, the French President Hollande who felt a reference to a “multi-speed Europe” should find its way in the March 25 White Paper, told reporters:

Europe isn’t a cash-box, not a self-service restaurant, a Europe where you come and take what you need, where you take your structural funds or get access to the internal market and then show no solidarity at all in return. Europe was built to be stronger together and it’s that rule, that principle, which should be driven home in March.

PHOTO (above): FRANÇOIS HOLLANDE PHOTO CREDIT: FLICKR/JEAN-MARC AYRAULTCC BY 2.0, WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

So we have two contrasting views of the European Project and, implicitly, a two-speed Europe: a “Europe à la carte”, that pleases Eastern Europeans and Scandinavians who only seek economic benefits and balk at political integration; and a “federal Europe”, more forward-looking and congenial to continental Europeans. Also, good news for federalists, the French-German alliance that had been driving Europe so far could turn into a foursome: France, Germany, Italy and Spain. They have already agreed to meet in Versailles on 6 March – holding a preparatory “mini-Summit” of their own; and thus immediately angering Poland that threatens to hold counter mini-summits with either the Visegrad group (Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia) or the Bucharest nine (Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Hungary).

Multi-speed Europe is already a reality…

Meanwhile, the Benelux countries in their “white paper”, while supporting the “Bratislava Declaration and its roadmap” as the way forward, talked about the “subsidiarity” and “proportionality” principles in the usual convoluted EU Treaty language that baffles most European citizens:

“The EU shall only act if and in so far as the objectives of the proposed action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the member states, either at central level or at regional and local level, but can rather, by reason of the scale or effects of the proposed action be achieved at Union level. The EU will only do what member states themselves are not able to deliver for their citizens.”

Note the phrase “by reason of the scale or effects of the proposed action”: this is meant to indicate the Union (because it is larger in scale) can do certain tasks better than a member country. The corollary: European integration cannot impinge upon what is best done at national level, that’s where “subsidiarity” stops.

So where does this leave the “European Project”? Do we go for more “union” or less? Is “more union” politically viable?

THE ROOTS OF EUROSKEPTICISM

The basic problem is rising “euroskepticism”, a new term coined to indicate that Europeans are distrustful of Brussels and European institutions that they see as “power-grabbing” and too distant from them.

Brexit was only the first alarm bell. We now speak of Frexit (for France), Nexit (for the Netherlands), Auxit (for Austria) etc. Trump’s constant denigration of the EU (calling it a “vehicle for Germany”) and his open support of Brexit and other EU-member exits, has further unsettled Europeans.

On 18 February, at the Munich Security Conference, US Vice President Pence sought to reassure Europeans that the US supports NATO and the Minsk II accord for Ukraine, indicating America would stand firmly behind Europe against Russia. Can Europeans trust Pence? A month into the Trump presidency, it is still unclear whether Trump is top dog and therefore his bark matters, or whether he is a tweeting Reality TV star and therefore his cabinet matters. On February 24,  in an interview with Reuters, Trump made a surprising u-turn, declaring himself  “totally in favor” of the EU…but for how long?

It is a fact however that Trump has become a populist icon, deeply resonating with the rising populist movements in Europe, all calling for an exit of the Euro and Europe – from Marine Le Pen in France to Geert Wilders in the Netherlands to Frauke Petry in Germany to Beppe Grillo in Italy. They all liken themselves to Trump.

IN THE PHOTO: BEPPE GRILLO AT THE RALLY OF THE FIVE STAR MOVEMENT IN PIAZZA DANTE IN TRENT, ITALY, FOR THE PARTY’S PRESENTATION OF ITS 2013 ELECTORAL SLATE PHOTO  CREDIT: NICCOLÒ CARANTI

Listen to Grillo, an ex-TV comedy star, now sixty-nine but with a continuing appeal on young Italians:

“I’m a comedian. You have to understand that my brain doesn’t work like a politician’s brain. I think about something, then the next day I say something else. It’s a very beautiful word, populism. I’m proud to be a populist.”

And about Europe, this is what he had to say:

“It is an enormous apparatus, with two parliaments, in Brussels and Strasbourg, to please the French. I am in favor of a different Europe, where each state can adopt its fiscal and monetary system. I want the Eurobond, a 20 percent devalued euro for southern European countries, protecting our products against those arriving from abroad, and a revision of the 3 percent deficit budgetary rule. I no longer feel the spirit of Europe.”

To read the rest, click here: http://impakter.com/europe-at-the-crossroads/

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