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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THE DARK SECRET OF TRUMP’S FIGHTING INSTINCT REVEALED

Impakter magazine has just published a fascinating piece from my dear Canadian friend and sociologist Hannah Fischer Lauder. And I wanted to share it with you, I think it’s a must read and a real eye-opener on what kind of man Trump really is. Scary. 


Here is the beginning of the article:

THE HIDDEN ROOTS OF TRUMP’S FIGHTING INSTINCT

The bizarre video Trump attached to yet another “modern presidential” tweet showing him wrestling with CNN has a lot more behind it than the press has yet uncovered.

The outrage about it being un-presidential, while understandable, ignores something far more fundamental and revealing: this video is just the tip of the iceberg. It is not simply a video of a single event that happened in 2007, it is part of a series of events that Trump was involved in. He’s been interested in wrestling since the 1980s when his Trump Plaza casino held to Wrestlemania events back to back.

With this video, what we see emerging is a whole side of Trump that few people outside the world of Wrestlemania and World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) knew about.  It speaks to his experience as a WWE supporter for over three decades – but not only that, there’s more to it as I will explain below, and that is what made him the man he is today. In fact, Trump is a long-time friend of the billionaire WWE founders, Vince and Lisa McMahons, who have lavishly supported his campaign, and he has rewarded them by appointing Lisa McMahon, who is already a member of Congress, as head of the Federal Small Business Administration.

This much of the story has come out in a small part of the press, for example, in Metro.co.UK but it hasn’t yet been dissected by the mainstream media, or what conservatives now call “the establishment media”, a term meant to highlight a supposed partiality to “elite” viewpoint and positions.

In particular, the more worrying part of Trump’s past has yet to come to light, though it is known.

To read the rest on Impakter, click here. Let me know how you like it!

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A New Class is Born

Here’s my latest article on Impakter. A must read for anyone concerned with what is happening to the middle class in America! It’s changing, and changing fast and in unexpected ways…

Book Review: The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class by Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, published by Princeton University Press (May 2017)

Have you ever wondered why in an America replete with 13,000 Starbucks stores, small bars serving totally unknown, unbranded coffees can survive, and even thrive though the coffee they sell may be more expensive?

These are “single origin specialty coffees”, like the ones served by the Intelligentsia coffee company that practices “direct trade”, working with farmers in Guatemala and elsewhere, removing the middleman:

IN THE PHOTO: DIRECT TRADE PRACTICE, LOCAL FARMERS BECOME PARTNERS. SOURCE: INTELLIGENTSIA COFFEE.COM

As explained on their website, the company adheres to sustainable farming and environmental practices and, at the same time, is committed to “paying above FairTrade prices for truly outstanding coffee”. The point is “responsible stewardship of the land and a sustainable business model” for the farmers whom they view as “partners”.

Also, to deliver quality coffee, special rapid roasting machines are used, including some of the last highly prized Gothot Ideal machines that date back to the 1940s and 1950s – they were produced by a German manufacturing firm founded in 1880.

Intelligentsia started off with a coffee shop in Chicago in 1995, and now they are present in four more cities, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Atlanta. (In the photo: Logan Square Coffee Bar, in Chicago, one of Intelligentsia’s locations. Source: IntelligentsiaCoffee.com)

It is one of the many fascinating cases reported in Elizabeth Currid-Halkett’s latest book, The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class. Do read it this summer, it will change forever the way you view the American middle class. And it will give you a glimpse of what is ahead.

This is not the work of a neophyte. She is a Columbia University graduate and currently a professor at the University of Southern California (USC) where she holds the James Irvine Chair in Urban and Regional Planning and is professor of public policy at the Price School. Most recently she has contributed to a paper co-curated by USC and the World Economic Forum (WEF) on consumption patterns of the rising global middle class – more on this later.

The Sum of Small Things is her third major book after a couple of well-received works focused on art, high fashion and celebrities, and it is remarkable on two scores: the importance of the theme addressed – the rise of a new elite class in America – and the ground-breaking methodology used. The academic community was quick to take note, notably Tyler Cowen, author of The Complacent Class and Richard A. Easterlin, of Easterlin paradox fame (the idea that there is a disconnect between economic growth and happiness).

This is a book that manages to pull together a huge amount of data, for the first time mining American consumption data (the Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Expenditure Survey) that is usually ignored by researchers because of its complexity. The book draws conclusions that are both insightful and yet highly readable. The trick was to separate the “boring stuff” – all those statistical analyses that occupy a huge part of the book – from the chapters presenting the findings. Those chapters are given pride of place upfront; they are written in elegant English and filled with interesting anecdotes and observations that enliven the discourse and brings it home.

Many people will recognize themselves in this portrait of a new elite in America, that the author has aptly named “the aspirational class”.

In fact, among Amazon customers reviewing this book, several have said exactly that. One reader who defined herself as a “doctor and Mom” noted with surprise: “Our obsession with what our kids eat, their education and music lessons and the breastfeeding felt like a complete insight into my life! I live in Manhattan and we are dealing with the same issues and pressures as the moms in California.” Another wryly remarked, “As a reluctant member of the very class the author describes, I’ve been conscious of the quirky spending characteristics of my hipster cohort in all the places where I’ve lived as an adult (Brooklyn, Washington DC, and LA naturally) but never had an organizing theory for what I was witnessing. The author articulates these principles beautifully, and backs them up with interesting data. Despite its scientific rigor, this is a quick, fun and accessible read.”

It is indeed fun and accessible, which, considering the hefty subject matter, is a feat in itself. The last time a similar effort was made to analyze a rising new class in America was over hundred years ago: It was a stiff treatise written in wooden English yet it was replete with arresting descriptions of the habits of the new rich. And that is what salvaged it from oblivion. Today, it is best remembered for coining a couple of unforgettable terms, “conspicuous leisure” and “conspicuous consumption”.

I am speaking of course of the Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), the magnum opus of social critic and economist Thorstein Veblen. His book defined the Gilded Age, and gave a theoretical framework to those lampooning the “robber barons”.

 IN THE PHOTO: “THE BOSSES OF THE SENATE”, 1889 LITHOGRAPH FIRST PUBLISHED IN PUCK. CARTOONIST JOSEPH KEPPLER DEPICTS THEM AS GIANT MONEYBAGS REPRESENTING THE NATION’S FINANCIAL TRUSTS AND MONOPOLIES, THE COPPER TRUST, STANDARD OIL ETC. SOURCE WIKIMEDIA

Likewise, Currid-Halkett’s book aims to define our age, as the title of the first chapter suggests: “The Twenty-first Century ‘Leisure’ Class”. She uses Veblen’s concepts as her starting point and makes some illuminating comments, for example, pointing out that with industrialization and mass production, conspicuous consumption “goes mainstream” and became a defining feature of the middle class in its heyday, in the 1950s and 1960s.


To find out more, read the rest on Impakter, click here.

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The Real Impact of US Withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord

I am happy to reblog this Editorial Board piece of Impakter Magazine, I wholly subscribe to what is said here and it really needs to be said.

THE REAL IMPACT OF US WITHDRAWAL FROM THE PARIS CLIMATE ACCORD

by MICHELE BONANNO on June 10, 2017

IMPAKTER EDITORIAL BOARD

 

President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement is likely to have two major consequences. The first is environmental, the other political.

Starting with environmental impact. It will be bad for the planet, but it will be bad primarily for the United States.

Above all, it means that the Federal Government will play no supporting role in the move to a non-fossil fueled economy, in total contrast to what governments of all other countries plan to do and are already doing. This leaves the United States at a clear disadvantage in the concert of nations. And it is already happening, to see this go no further than India, the world’s third largest polluter after China and the US: Prime Minister Modi has made abandoning coal-fueled electricity an official policy. India is embracing green energy because it is both cheaper and cleaner.

Can the American private sector fill in the void left by the Federal Government? Probably. The momentum is there, California is committed to a carbon-neutral future and California is a big player among American States with its 80 million people. Moreover, many States are following its example.

Equally important: Hundreds of American corporations have pledged to reduce their carbon footprint and have done so most recently in an open letter on the Wall Street Journal. Perhaps not all signatories are serious about fighting global warming, some have been caught funding anti-climate lobbies. But eventually their “green washing” is likely to turn into the real thing, as consumers and public opinion hold them to their pledge.

Yet, because the American economy will be lacking any Federal stimulus as environmental protection policies are eliminated, it is likely that job creation will be slowed down in what are today the more technologically advanced sectors of the economy. The new green energy sector won’t get the subsidies and tax breaks it needs in contrast to what will happen in other countries. Meanwhile, deregulation of American fossil-fuel industries that already enjoy tax breaks and subsidies will sustain their expansion.

This brings up an issue that has not been sufficiently raised in the media: The public health cost of an expansion in fossil-fueled industries, a cost that President Trump has not factored in. He has talked in terms of defending American jobs in the fossil fuel sector, he has never mentioned the loss of American lives and productivity, as people get sick.

A surge in coal production and fracking will clearly threaten the quality of water and air, this is not a matter for conjecture. The data is in, we can calculate the impact of diseases related to air and water pollution, and tally up the early deaths and cost to the Gross National Product in terms of increased cost care and work hours lost, and worse, the number of deaths. The numbers are staggering. For example, a recent scientific report on air pollution caused by energy production in the U.S. over a decade (2002-2011) concluded that, while there was an improvement as fossil fuel-industries were cut back, the damage still amounted to at least $131 billion in the year 2011 alone, thus confirming the success of more stringent emissions regulations on the energy sector while also pointing out the need to continue cracking down. A need that went unheeded by the Trump Administration.

To read the rest on Impakter, click here.

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The Soft Power of American Philanthropy

Impakter magazine just published another one of my articles and I’m happy to share it with you – it’s a book review, great read, highly recommended! Here’s the start of my review:

THE REAL ROLE OF THE NEW MEGA-DONORS: SHAPING THE SOCIAL AGENDA

BOOK REVIEW: THE GIVERS BY DAVID CALLAHAN, PUBLISHED BY KNOPF (APRIL 2017) 352 PAGES

Is philanthropy good or bad for society?

With the global explosion of philanthropy, the new forms of giving and volunteering, and the rise of social entrepreneurship and impact investing, the issue is more pressing than ever. Nowadays, the soft power of mega-donors has grown so much that in many areas it has displaced governments – even very large ones like the Federal government.

Philanthropists address critical social problems, they move in where public funds have failed (or are weak). Ultimately, they set the social agenda, not only in the United States but around the world.

Yet, unlike democratic governments and politicians that must face voters, mega-donors are accountable to no one. Their own private views, beliefs and ideologies end up shaping society. They decide what diseases to battle, what kind of schools are needed, what social policies to promote, what research and what artistic trends should be supported.

Is this a fair system in a democracy where all citizens should have a say?

That question is increasingly asked, including in David Callahan’s latest book I am reviewing here. Yet this is not the first time philanthropy arouses suspicion in America. When Rockefeller launched his foundation a hundred years ago, many politicians doubted his good will. As it turned out, the Rockefeller Foundation had a profound impact on the human condition when breakthroughs in the agricultural research programs it had financed in Mexico and India, initiated respectively in 1941 and 1956, laid the foundation for the “green revolution”, so-called because it changed food production for the better, particularly in Asia, helping to solve the recurrent horror of devastating famines.

IN THE PHOTO: FARMER STANDING IN HIS CORN FIELD IN ANDHRA PRADESH, INDIA IN 1957 AFTER SCIENTISTS SUCCESSFULLY DEVELOPED HYBRID GRAINS THAT COULD RESIST DISEASE AND INSECTS. PHOTO CREDIT: THE ROCKEFELLER FOUNDATION

Nevertheless, in spite of the successes, countless books and articles continue raising questions, particularly over the past ten years, starting with Philanthrocapitalism: How the Rich Can Save the World, the work of the Economist’s Matthew Bishop and Michael Green. Published in 2008, based on interviews with mega-donors like Bill Gates, it was perhaps the first modern compilation of what philanthropists living today are really up to. Another milestone was reached last year with Philanthropy in Democratic Societies, edited by Stanford political scientist Rob Reich who sees charitable foundations as an “institutional oddity” in a democracy and is concerned that foundations, in spite of their usefulness in supporting innovation – what Warren Buffett famously termed “society’s risk capital” –  may be the “voice of plutocracy”.

Among the notable essays in that book, a theory of “disruptive philanthropy” developed by Aaron Horvath and Walter W. Powell, two Stanford sociologists, stood out. Based on the observation that philanthropy often competes with government instead of collaborating with it, it raises deep ethical questions. As Horvath and Powell explained to The Atlantic: “Disruptive philanthropy seeks to shape civic values in the image of funders’ interests and, in lieu of soliciting public input, seeks to influence or change public opinion and demand.”

A classic (and controversial) example that often comes up in this connection is charter schools promoted, inter alia, by the Broad and Gates Foundations. Not everyone agrees that they are an improvement over the existing public education system.

David Callahan’s new book The Givers – Wealth, Power and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age is the latest arrival on the scene and adds to the debate – philanthropy vs. democracy – carrying it forward with considerable new and updated material. Callahan has done his research for years, he has met many people in the industry, he has uncovered hard-to-find facts about the “opaque” world of philanthropy and the website he has been running, Inside Philanthropy, has been a major source of information ever since it was launched in 2014.

With all this data in hand, Callahan takes us for a roller-coaster ride through the current philanthropy landscape, showing us how living mega-donors wield more power than ever before. And, he warns us, their influence is likely to grow unimpeded as a result of growing income inequality, a trend first magisterially documented by Thomas Piketty in his now famous Capital in the 21st Century.

In short, and to use Callahan’s words, “in many ways, today’s new philanthropy is exciting and inspiring. In other ways, it’s scary and feels profoundly undemocratic.”

WHY TODAY’S NEW PHILANTHROPY IS EXCITING

The book starts off by bringing home two stunning truths about our time that, Callahan argues, amount to a paradigm shift:

The rest on Impakter, click here.

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