Tag Archives: Democracy

The Battle of Billionaires

By the end of last year, as is the custom when a decade ends, I started thinking about the future. Obsessively. Climate change, environmental degradation, the collapse of democracy –  if you project those facts into the future, you have to wonder: are we are living at the end of times? But there is an odd fact right under our nose, a small fact that sounds more like a piece of gossip than real news: The battle of billionaires.

Yet this is no fluffy gossip, it’s very real! We tend to discount the political role of billionaires. We shouldn’t. Consider that not all billionaires are bad news. Some fight for social justice and the preservation of the environment. A battle between the two kinds of billionaires is shaping up and could last well into the coming decade. I just wrote about this in an article for Impakter, here’s the opening:

The 2010s are coming to a close. Reviewing the decade, what can we say about the future? A tech person will look at technological progress (stunning). A sociologist will look at cultural diversity (explosive). My take (disclosure: I’m an economist) is that this decade, with growing income inequality, saw an unprecedented number of billionaires taking center stage. “Good” billionaires like Bill Gates concerned about climate change and equity, “bad” ones like Betty De Vos, defunding and dismantling America’s public education system.

This fact alone, the rise of the billionaires, will shape our future, for better (a peaceful, balanced world) or for worse (climate Armageddon).

Much depends on what kind of billionaire takes power. Some of them can be alarmingly aggressive, for example, Trump ordering the summary execution of  Iran’s General Qassem Suleimani killed last Friday at Baghdad airport via a drone strike. A strike that could escalate dangerously in the Middle East’s explosive environment.

Unsurprisingly, the 2020 campaign for the US presidency is seeing the rise of left-wing Democrat Bernie Sanders with declarations like this one (in Los Angeles on 21 December):

“Our campaign is not only about defeating Trump, our campaign is about a political revolution. It is about transforming this country, it is about creating a government and an economy that works for all people and not just the 1%.” 

I am highlighting this because it is a remarkable statement. It marks the distance we’ve covered in a single decade: This is the language of the Occupy Wall Street movement that opened the decade in 2011. And now the once derided concept of the 1% against the 99% has gone mainstream. So much so that it can buoy a candidate in his bid for the White House (Sanders, as I write, is just behind Biden and ahead of Warren).

You see rants in headlines, like this one from C-Net s Jackson Ryan:  “We see the effects of climate change and our leaders continue to ignore the science”. A rant coming not just from journalists but scientists too.

Now, in 2019, we can all agree that the “world is on fire” and that the 2010s have been a “lost decade”. Yet back in 2013, K.C. Green, a talented cartoonist could still joke about it in a stunning piece of black humor. This is the closing panel of his 6-panel piece (screenshot):

Read the rest on Impakter, click here.

Let me know what you think!

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Why Democracy Produces Incompetent Leaders – How to Fix It

My latest article on Impakter. I’m proposing a very easy-to-apply, simple fix that could save democracy. Interested? Here’s the opening:

Democracy doesn’t work. Plato thought it was a terrible system, a prelude to tyranny, giving power to selfish and dangerous demagogues. Watching what is happening these days in democracies around the world, it’s hard to disagree with Plato. Democracy appears to produce an abundance of incompetent and dishonest political leaders, who exploit people’s credulity and prejudices and thrive on emotion-driven discourse and fake news.

This Impakter essay looks at the problems and proposes an easy fix – if only we had the courage to implement it.

First, let’s quickly review what’s wrong with democracy.

Why People Have Lost Trust in Democratically-Elected Politicians: The Rise of Incompetent Political Leaders

Most people don’t trust democracy to deliver. According to 2019 Pew survey, trust in government is at a historical low: only 17% of Americans today say they can trust the government to do what is right “just about always” (3%) or “most of the time” (14%).

The situation in the rest of the world is not much better. A 27 countries Pew survey (April 2019) revealed that a majority (51%) are dissatisfied with the way democracy is working. Anti-establishment leaders, parties and movements have emerged on both the right and left of the political spectrum. And most people in developing countries find authoritarian figures more trustworthy than democratically-elected politicians. Hence the success of the “China model”.

Bottom line, elections don’t deliver the kind of political leaders people want.

After a honeymoon period between voters and their winning candidate, often as short as a month, he or she always disappoints. Why? Is it the fault of the voters, do they expect too much? Or don’t they understand what is going on – how complex the job of governing can be, how campaign promises can’t be kept?

It has been convincingly argued that, yes, it’s the voters’ fault. Dambisa Moyo, the well-known Zambian economist and author of Dead Aid (2009) in which she famously argued that foreign aid made Africa poorer, placed the blame squarely on voters:

 “Voters generally favor policies that enhance their own well-​being with little consideration for that of future generations or for long-​term outcomes. Politicians are rewarded for pandering to voters’ immediate demands and desires…”

This quote is out of an article she wrote for Foreign Policy when her new book came out in 2018, Edge of Chaos Why Democracy Is Failing to Deliver Economic Growth — and How to Fix It. The article sums up her book’s arguments. In a nutshell:

“Because democratic systems encourage such short-​termism, it will be difficult to solve many of the seemingly intractable structural problems slowing global growth without an overhaul of democracy.”

Let’s put aside for the moment the question whether our overall goal should be “global growth”: A good argument could be made that the unrestrained pursuit of continued economic growth in a world of finite resources (and where there is no Planet B) can only be achieved at the expense of the planet’s ecological balance.

Yes, climate change is real, have you heard? Ms. Moyo appears not to consider the possibility. But she does make some excellent points regarding “governance” – how we humans govern ourselves. And in particular, governance in a liberal democracy which is (still) considered, to use Churchill’s phrase, the least bad system. The actual quote is: “Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time…’ Obviously, democracy is always better than dictatorship.

So what are the obstacles to good governance?  Let’s list the obstacles Moyo has identified – plus a few of my own:

(1) Too many elections: She sees “the short electoral cycle embedded in many democratic systems” as a major problem…

Click here to read the rest. It’s (as always) on Impakter. Yes, I’m still Senior Editor there – I was there when it all began, back in 2014, as I’m sure some of you remember…

Happy Holidays to all, and let me know what you think!

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Dangerous Times for Democracy: Italy in the Eye of the Storm

Just published on Impakter the article of a friend of mine, currently visiting Italy. I think that what she says is important and I wanted to share it with you.

You’ll see that her reaction to the situation in Italy (and Europe) is very different from Thomas Friedman’s, the New York Times brilliant columnist who also happens to be visiting Italy these days. And from my standpoint – and I think it matters, after all, I live in Italy, I’ve been here over 40 years, I read the Italian papers every day, interacting with my Italian friends and overhearing people in the street and at the bar where I go for my daily espresso –  well, in the light of what I know of Italy, I honestly think my friend got it right and Friedman didn’t quite get it. Yes, his analysis is excellent, spot on, but his conclusion is a tad too negative…

Judge for yourself, here’s the beginning:

Writing from Italy, New York Times foreign affairs Op Ed columnist and Pulitzer winner Thomas L. Friedman claims in a new not-to-be-missed piece that he will “ruin your breakfast, lunch and dinner “ and he certainly does. He argues that if Putin, Trump and Bannon (presently roaming across Europe to raise trouble) succeed in breaking up our “community of democracies”, we are toast. There will be a power vacuum. Who will defend human rights and democracy? You certainly can’t count on China or Russia to save our Western values.

Italy seems to have inspired him, or perhaps helped clear his vision of what are the true challenges we are facing in Europe. And, as I too write from Italy, I can only agree with him. Up to a point. Let me clarify.

First, of all, he is right, it’s not only Brexit. Or the rise of populism. Or Putin’s interferences with elections in Europe. Or immigrant waves driven by “the environmental and political disorder from the south”, the war in Syria, the political mess in Libya, the poverty across Africa. Or the lack of cooperation within the European Union, with East European members (the Visegrad Group) most at fault, preventing any solution to the immigration problem. Or, because of Trump, an isolationist U.S.  It’s all of them, a perfect storm. And the eye of the storm is in Italy.

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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