South Africa: Major Economy With A Major Crime Problem

CENTURION (PRETORIA), South Africa“Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika”, “God Bless Africa”. This is the beautiful beginning of South Africa’s National Anthem. Well, the country is in trouble and it really needs God’s blessings.

There is some good news. BusinessReport says that South Africa improved its competitiveness ranking. According to the World Economic Forum, it is now among the 50 most competitive countries in the world, (out of a total of 140 listed).

This is definitely good news. Much of it has to do with the spreading of ICT systems, financial markets improved efficiency, and an improved transportation infrastructure.

However, in some important categories relevant to competitiveness, (the average of all of them gives the final score), South Africa has a lot of work to do. On corruption, (too much) the country is 76, (out of 140); on government regulations (too many) the country is number 117. But by far the most worrisome score is on security (too little). South Africa ranks 102nd out of 140.

The truly frightening aspect of this bad security score is that violence in South Africa is getting worse, year after year. The newspaper The Star comments on recently released national violent crime statistics with the headline: “Gangster Paradise“, followed by chilling data: “Murder, up 10%, Robberies, up 11.4%, Residential Robberies, up 9.9%, Carjacking, up 13.4%.; Truck Hijacking, up 47%. Children aged between 10 and 17 responsible for 47 murders”.

In announcing these figures, the police authorities stress that these numbers are better than what they were 10 years ago. (Murders are up, but  –do not be fooled– we are winning the War on Crime).

Small consolation for those who see homicides and robberies trending up. A Justice Department official in fact commented that: “This number of deaths is what you would expect from a country at war”.

“Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika”. “God Bless Africa”.  




Anti-Immigrant Europe Needs Immigrants

WASHINGTON – I recently read a well crafted article about immigration in both Europe and the USA. It pointed out that, while there is real concern, (bordering on hysteria), about too many (unwanted) immigrants arriving, (Syrians in Europe, Central Americans in the US), the fact is that both Europe and the US actually need more immigrants.

Demographic crisis 

They need them because their populations are declining. And this has many negative consequences. In Europe there is a really bad combination of fewer and fewer births, while the people live a lot longer. In simple terms, this means that, because of the way most welfare programs are structured, over time fewer and fewer active adults will have to take care of (read: pay for) the needs of tens of millions of retirees who will live to be 80 or older. This is already unsustainable. Large deficits and growing national debts are the tangible effect of growing social costs, while the tax base that is supposed to finance them is shrinking.

Since cutting benefits to the retirees is politically impossible, all this means that, unless this negative fertility trend is reversed, the only help can come from promoting more immigration.

But public opinion in Europe and the US sees immigration as a problem, and not as a solution. So, are the Europeans and to a lesser extent the Americans blind? Do they fail to see that they need more immigrants?

What kind of immigrants? 

No, they are not blind. Indeed, they see very well. The fact is that while more immigration in principle seems a great solution to a very real demographic crisis, most of the immigrants that try to get to Europe and America are viewed as a problem rather than a solution.

I do not believe that the Europeans would dislike the Syrian refugees now arriving in droves, if most of them would come with good academic qualifications, managerial and language skills, and a natural proclivity to quickly start innovative businesses.

Poor people 

But these are not the immigrants getting to Italy, Hungary or Austria. Beyond the current Syrian wave, all these refugees, along with other economic immigrants, come from poor countries in Africa and the Middle East. On average, they have little or no education. Besides, they usually bring along with them habits and traditions that do not mix well with Western countries. And, finally, many of them are Muslims. And because of this they are looked at with some suspicion by mostly Christian societies.

US turning against immigrants

In the US the problem is less severe but not insignificant. Indeed, in this pre-election season, the instant popularity of anti-immigrant political candidates like Donald Trump proves that there is a sizable portion of America that would like to stop immigration altogether; and in fact would like to kick out millions who are here illegally.

The point is that many of the immigrants who get to Europe, and to a lesser extent America, are viewed by those societies as people who want to take advantage of the social services available in France, Germany or California, as opposed to having a desire to come to the West to work hard and integrate themselves into the main stream. In other words, the West is a place where you go “to get something”, as opposed to the place that allows the opportunity “to do something”.

Those who come are not assets 

Of course Italy and Germany will need immigrants. They really will. But, right now, the Italians look and they see hundreds of thousands of poor souls who arrive on overloaded vessels from Africa every year. These are not would-be entrepreneurs. These are people in real need. They need shelter, food, medical attention, later on education, jobs, (do keep in mind that Italy has a 12.4% unemployment rate), and more.

In other words, these people –be they genuine refugees or economic immigrants– cost money. Who knows, later on they may become productive workers and eventually even exemplary citizens. But the road from total poverty (and likely marginalization) to full integration, assuming it actually exists, is long and arduous.

Scared societies 

Right now, most Europeans and some Americans are really scared. They do not want in their midst needy people who will have a hard time blending in. In this respect, America does better than Europe. Along with poor people from Guatemala, we get highly educated Indians, Koreans, Chinese, and some Europeans. These immigrants come with advanced degrees and, in some instances, valuable business skills. They enrich the business and scientific community. They are assets.

Unfortunately, this is not the majority of new arrivals. Yes, immigration may be indeed the cure for the demographic crisis. But not all immigrants will do. And this is, and will continue to be, a problem.




Hillary Clinton Is Against The Keystone Pipeline

WASHINGTON – In case you were wondering, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the leading candidate for the Democratic Party nomination for President, just declared that she is opposed to the proposed Keystone pipeline that would transport approximately 800,000 barrels of Canadian heavy oil a day, from the Province of Alberta, (extracted from oil sands), all the way down to the Texas oil refineries.

Pipeline would be a “distraction” 

Clinton came out against the pipeline because it is a “distraction” –so she said– while we should all be focused on what really matters, that is reducing carbon use and emission in order to fight climate change.

Well, no surprise here. Ms. Clinton looks at the polls, and therefore she knows that the Democratic Party green activists who will vote in the primaries next year are for the most part strong global warming believers. For them any project that results in more oil being used in America is a sin. They will never vote for any candidate in favor of a new oil project. End of story.

Therefore, the smart thing to do is to go with the flow and declare that Keystone is not helpful. (I really do not understand what Clinton means when she says that she is against the pipeline because it would be a “distraction”. From an environmental stand point, is it going to be good, bad or neutral?)

What is the problem with Keystone? 

But what is so bad about this proposed pipeline that TransCanada would like to build? Nothing, really. The proposed project has been carefully reviewed, several times, over a period of many years. The very State Department that Clinton used to run during Obama’s first term declared that building this pipeline would not alter future emissions much. In other words, there would be no environmental damage caused by getting more Canadian oil into America.

The benefits 

And what would be the upside? Very simple. While we all know that America vastly increased its oil production, mostly thanks to shale oil extracted via fracking in North Dakota and elsewhere, the U.S. still imports millions of barrels of oil. Getting more oil from Canada means importing less from OPEC or other countries, while increasing our imports from a friendly neighbor that is also a major trading partner.

Energy security

From the stand point of “energy security” it makes perfect sense to get more oil, still the essential fuel, from a close by ally than getting it from producers in the Persian Gulf. All in all, for a major importing country like America it would be good to have more options when it comes to imports. And the Keystone pipeline, while not a permanent “solution”  to anything, would simply help America in its effort to reduce its dependence on distant suppliers.

Greens do not like it

But the “Environmental Church” does not like oil. And it dislikes Canada’s “heavy crude” even more because extracting it requires more energy, and burning it causes more emissions. Again, if you look at the net impact of 800,000 barrels a day of heavy Canadian crude on total U.S. emissions, you would see that it is almost zero. But this is irrelevant. This debate is not about rational arguments.

In the end, this is all about ideology. Ms. Clinton is a smart lady. Of course she knows all this: meaning that the Keystone pipeline is harmless. But the politically smart thing to do is to take a position in line with the “green” wing within her party. Once more, flawed ideas yield flawed policy positions.

America used to do better. I hope it will again. But not with this kind of “leadership”.




WSJ To Pope Francis: Our Prosperity Stems From Freedom

WASHINGTON –  Here is how The Wall Street Journal, the unofficial protector of American capitalism, greets Pope Francis on the eve of his visit to Washington, (The Politics of Pope Francis, September 22, 2015):

“Like many Argentines of the left, Pope Francis seems given to suspicion about American wealth. But liberty and not coercion is the source of our [American] strength and of the wealth that has lifted millions out of poverty.[…].The U.S has prospered by respecting property rights and relying on the voluntary decisions of individuals. The rule of law here means that unlike countries such as Argentina, an American can build a large, successful business even if no one in government likes him. And unlike in Argentina, capitalist success creates millions of jobs that allow men and women without political connections to support their families and live in dignity.”

Freedom includes economic freedom 

So, here is the thing. In America we have built a society whose corner stone is the constitutional protection of individual freedoms. Among these freedoms there is economic freedom. People are free to start a business.

As long as they play by the rules, respecting all the laws and the rights of others, all Americans are free to work and prosper. In so doing, they bring along many others employed by them. Wider prosperity means less poverty.

And it all starts with freedom. In Cuba, the first stop in Pope Francis’ trip, there is no freedom, including no real economic freedom, (despite minor reforms). And so, while the political elites are taken care of, the people suffer. They are poor in large part because they are not free.

God-given rights 

In America we created widespread prosperity as a result of the enterprise and hard work of free people, and not political favors and kickbacks. This is the good outcome of the exercise of “natural rights” that our Founding Fathers believed to be given to each human being by God.

Yes, in America we do believe that the Almighty blesses hard work and its fruits. And, yes, we also believe that the best tool to fight poverty is not redistribution policies or chastising the rich, but broad-based growth.




Greece: Anti-Austerity Tsipras Will Implement Austerity

WASHINGTON – The sovereign people of Greece, in their wisdom, just decided to give another chance to Alexis Tsipras and his Syriza-led government. And what is the political mandate?

New mandate for Syriza

Well, the new mandate is to implement the draconian austerity pact that Tsipras agreed to earlier on with Brussels. So, is Syriza now pro-austerity? Well, it did not use to be. In fact, it won an earlier election on a platform that strongly opposed most of the austerity measures agreed to by the previous New Democracy conservative government.

The story is complicated 

Now, let see if we can clarify all this. Tsipras won a previous national elections with a pledge to renegotiate the entire austerity/loans package with the EU/ECB/IMF. The negotiations were difficult, in fact messy. In the end, Tsipras fired his Finance Minister, (apparently to please Brussels). The EU finally came up with a “take it or leave it” package, which included lots of painful stuff (spending cuts, smaller pension, etc.). Tsipras did not like this at all. He ordered a referendum on the package, inviting Greek citizens to vote “No”. The vote was held. The “No” people won –by a huge margin.

And then, what? Well, then Tsipras, after a lot of noise, accepted, yes, accepted, another huge rescue package –with even more onerous conditions for Greece than the one he urged his countrymen to vote against in the referendum.

Confusion

(Are you with me, so far?)

And who will implement this package on the Greek side? Aware of major dissent within his own Syriza ranks, Tsipras dissolved parliament and ordered new elections.

And what did the Greeks do? Did they vote Tsipras out of office, as he is manifestly guilty of having turned sides on the critical austerity issue? Again, please remember that the Greeks had previously voted for him precisely because he was the leader of the most strident anti-austerity party. Later on, they followed his wishes and voted “No” on the referendum on the package that the evil EU wanted to impose on Greece.

Given all this, what did the Greeks do? They voted for Syriza, his party. And so Tsipras is again Prime Minister. Except that his program is now the opposite of the one that got him elected the first time.

Anti-austerity is now pro-austerity 

So, here we go. The anti-austerity party is now pro-austerity. The Greeks were vehemently opposed to more fiscal pain when it was administered by a center right government. But now that even more brutal measures have been agreed to by a leftist government, the whole thing all of a sudden becomes acceptable.

This is a farce

If you think that this looks like the plot of a Hollywood farce, you are right.

In fact, it is a farce.

The entire Greek leadership is a farce. The EU leadership that actually believes to have “solved” the never-ending Greek crisis is a farce. And the Greeks who brought this calamity upon themselves are both actors and spectators in the same farce.

Unserious country 

The only thing is that, in reality, while some aspects of this story are indeed comical, there will be real suffering in a hapless country run mostly by thieves, ideologues, and clueless amateurs.




In Mexico Large Gap Between Developed and Under Developed Regions

WASHINGTON – I recently wrote about the absurd news item regarding 2.3 million applicants for 368 entry level civil service jobs in Uttar Pradesh, a very populous and very poor Indian state.

Grotesque gap 

The grotesque gap between the number of low skills and low pay jobs and the avalanche of applications, many of them made by people with university degrees, is illustrative of enduring lack of opportunity and gigantic backwardness in a country often cited as an example of success in the struggle against under development.

Yes, India has many important companies, some of them quite competitive in the global market place, (Tata, Reliance, Wipro, and Infosys, among others). But the grim reality is that there are still hundreds of millions who struggle, trapped in perpetual poverty. And part of the reason lies in antiquated institutions and absurdly complicated bureaucratic rules and overlapping jurisdictions that suffocate business and prevent development.

What about Mexico? 

Well, what about Mexico, another promising middle-income developing country? If we use the same yardstick of number of applications per job opening, Mexico is doing a lot better, but not great.

The Economist reports, (Of cars and carts, September 19, 2015), that German automaker Audi is recruiting workers for a brand new plant that will be built in San Jose Chiapa, in the state of Puebla. So far, the company received about 100,000 applications for 3,800 jobs.

Obviously this shows that there are many more jobs seekers than available openings. Even though the gap is not as monstrous as in the Indian case, it is still way too large. Far too many Mexicans need decent jobs.

Not taking off 

But why is it so? Why is it that Mexico, notwithstanding its significant progress and the advantages created by free trade agreements with the United States (NAFTA) and many other countries, cannot “take off”, as a country?

There are many theories, but one seems to dominate. The main reason is that millions of Mexicans are still prisoners of an outmoded, traditional, and very conservative mind set. Small companies born in the informal sector do not want to graduate to the formal economy in which, along with tax obligations, they would also gain access to commercial credit and other tools that would favor expansion.

For ever informal, for ever small

They prefer to stay informal and small. And this means that they will never be part of the globalized economy. At best, they are and will continue to be small domestic players. As The Economist story reports, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that illustrates this mind set. For instance, the windfall of a successful business transaction usually is spent on a big fiesta, as opposed to having any plans for reinvesting profits in the purchase of new equipment and hiring more workers.

Two societies 

The picture that we get is of two very distinct societies. There are the “globalized” Mexicans who have a good education and are plugged into the international economy and trade. They do well. They are and stay up to date. They understand business strategies, along with the need to plan and invest in modernization.

And then, next to them but a universe apart, millions of others who are not connected to this world. These Mexicans do not know and do not understand modernity and its dynamics, in large part because they lack the education that would allow them to access it.

Hard work is not enough

And so here is the broader lesson to be drawn from this story about Mexico and its sharp contrasts. Economic success today is only in part the result of hard work. It is mostly about smart work. It is about having or not having a real understanding of where you and your enterprise are situated within a country now plugged into the global economy. It is about understanding technologies and markets, about optimizing the use of capital, and about choosing the most cost-effective tools.

And there is more. In order to thrive, you need to be situated within a modern eco-system. You need modern infrastructure, reliable logistics and –most important of all– rule of law.

Islands of modernity 

If the eco-system exists, but only in patches here and there like in Mexico, then you will have islands of impressive modernity surrounded by an ocean of backwardness.

100,000 applicants for 3,800 factory jobs in the state of Puebla is a symptom of this enduring gap.




Pope Francis And His Anti-Capitalist Message

WASHINGTON – Interestingly enough, Pope Francis is coming to America after visiting Cuba, (a true bastion of progress and human rights?). While here, we can expect that he will exhort American evil capitalists to finally see the light, recognize their unprincipled lives as sinful, and decide to give more, lots more, to the poor. Yes, the very poor they have been exploiting all along.

Poor, just like Saint Francis 

I understand that this is over simplification. But overall this is the message that this Pope has been delivering. He adopted the name of Saint Francesco (Francis) of Assisi (the Saint of the poor) as a reminder to the entire world that the Catholic Church, just like the original Francis, is about extreme frugality and service to the poor.

Saint Francis

Saint Francis of Assisi, (1181-1226), was born in Umbria (Central Italy) as Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone; but became known as “Francesco”, a nickname given to him by his family. He was the son of a wealthy merchant. But he gave up his comfortable life in his own personal pursuit of a Christian spiritual path.

Much later he created the monastic order of the Franciscan Friars. Francesco became known as “Il Poverello”, “The Little Poor Man”. This was not meant as an insult or mockery. Living just like the poor, and this included extreme frugality, was in fact a badge of honor. The Franciscan Friars living with almost nothing were seen as an example of truly good Christian conduct. This Order intended to bring the people back to the original Christian spiritual message.

The message was that this earthly life is mostly about preparing oneself to meet God in the true eternal life that will begin after death. From this perspective, caring for wealth and possessions is at best a distraction, at its worst, it is a sin.

Applicable model? 

Well, given all this, frankly it is quite difficult to transfer the example of the extraordinary life of Saint Francis (who lived almost a thousand years ago) and his many followers into modernity. The notion that you can apply the Franciscan example to our times, just as if we were living in the pre-industrial Middle Ages, is silly.

More broadly, the entire Catholic social and economic doctrine based on suspicion for the rich and a constant reminder to help the poor with donations is flawed, and outdated. Taken literally, it becomes an enemy of progress.

“Cattocomunismo”

Indeed, this anti-capitalist bias stems from silly ideas that during the 1970s in Italy, (home of the Catholic Church and of the largest Communist Party in the western world), were labelled “Cattocomunismo”. The term indicated that Catholics (“Catto”) and Communists (“Comunismo”), although this sounds most improbable, have one fundamental thing in common: a strong anti-capitalist prejudice.

The Communists, of course, believed that capitalism was just one (inferior) phase of a necessary historic evolution. They believed that it had to be replaced by socialism, a much better form of economic and social institutions.

The Catholics, deep down, always believed that capitalism is mostly about bad stuff: profits, greed and exploitation. For a good Catholic, all in all, those who make money are suspect. If they make lots of money, they are even more suspect. We learn from the Gospel that Christ loved the meek and the poor, not the rich.

Populist message 

And this leads us to Pope Francis and his clever populist message replete with exhortations to help the poor, while chastising those who are engrossed in money-making activities.

This may be a good political message for a Catholic Church caught in the downward spiral of its historic decline. But it is a horrible, in fact destructive, message for the world.

The fact is that where there is no capitalism, or where capitalism is not allowed to advance, usually there is massive poverty. 

Capitalism is not perfect 

Capitalism is by no means perfect. And yes, within capitalism we have plenty of examples of greed, speculation, manipulation, and fraudulent activities. But this is not about “capitalism” per se. This is about unethical people –plenty of them in many societies– who twisted the system to their advantage, usually in violation of existing laws.

Poverty is Holy 

But here is the real problem. According to the Church, poverty is sad but Holy. Capitalism, as a rule, is bad and devilish. The only way in which the rich can atone is by giving more, a lot more, to the poor.

That said, this approach postulates that the world can do perfectly OK without growth, or that sustained economic growth –the only proven way to lift people out of poverty– can be achieved without capitalism. It also assumes that it would be a good thing if poverty continued permanently. Otherwise, if the poor can get rich, how do you turn the poor into well off people without poisoning their souls with capitalistic greed?

The Medieval order 

The fact is that the world is better off with capitalism. Saint Francis lived and preached within a primitive and quite horrible Medieval society of rigid hierarchical stratification that he certainly never challenged. At the top there were kings, aristocrats and the Church leadership. Then there was a very small urban middle class of merchants, craftsmen and bankers. And at the bottom the multitude of eternally poor serfs, the semi-slaves who had the obligation to cultivate the land for the benefit of the nobles, the Church and the merchants. This ghastly social and economic order that condemned the poor, their children and the children of their children, to remain poor was presumed to be eternal, and in fact ordained by God.

Capitalism: personal and economic freedom, plus technology 

Capitalism disrupted all this. It was the child of revolutionary ideas. The first one was that human beings could and should be “free” and change their circumstances. The second was that new discoveries in science and technology had created new and more effective ways of doing things, from soil cultivation to the production of garments. The third was that it was perfectly alright for free people to engage in profit-making new activities.

What capitalism produced 

Well, fast forward to the Industrial Revolution and then to our times and we see the cumulative “ill effects” of capitalism. Indeed, this is what greed and exploitation produced. We have incredible rates of economic growth and enhanced productivity due to ever improving new technologies. And, last but not least, hundreds of millions were lifted out of poverty because of the opportunities created by the combination of personal liberty, science and new technologies. Add to this mix enhanced access to education; and –yes– the powerful incentive represented by the understanding that you can make an honest profit by engaging in honest money-making activities, to the best of your abilities.

This is capitalism. Altogether a good thing. With this, we do not condone people who break laws or otherwise engage in shady activities. But capitalism as such is good.

Bad ideas recycled to attract new followers 

“Cattocomunismo” and other assorted Catholic social doctrines are instead musty relics of a flawed past. It is this thinking, with its principled opposition to capitalism, (the only system that truly promotes progress), that (ironically) contributed to condemn millions of people to never-ending poverty.

I am sure that Pope Francis knows all this. But he is deliberately talking to the only constituency the Catholic Church now has: the poor in mostly poor countries. This message may resonate with them.

He knows perfectly well that the larger audiences in (once Catholic) developed countries stopped listening to this nonsense long ago. The empty churches prove this.




India: 2.3 Million Applicants For 368 Low Level Jobs

WASHINGTON – Narendra Modi, India’s Prime Minister since May 2014, has disappointed many supporters. While recent GDP growth numbers look good, (+7.5%), the average Indian is not doing so well.

Where are the deep reforms? 

Most critical of all, Modi so far failed to deliver on far-reaching reforms aimed at simplifying the business environment. Notwithstanding Modi’s efforts, India is still an almost impenetrable maze of federal and state laws, including a plethora of different tax regimes, too many required licenses, too many permits to operate businesses, and obscure regulations.

Hard to run a company there. And therefore it is also hard to attract the large number of foreign investors India openly says it wants and needs in order to add speed and quality to its uneven development. (No, contrary to popular belief, unfortunately most Indians do not hold a Ph.D in computer science. Only a tiny sliver of the Indian labor force is employed by Indian IT companies operating in Bangalore or Chennai. In fact, growth notwithstanding, millions of Indians have no jobs, while millions more work in menial low-pay occupations, because they have little or no education).

Millions seek government jobs 

Well, add to this not so inspiring picture another disappointing reality. With all the talk about “private sector-led growth” the sad truth that millions of unemployed or under employed Indians still crave public jobs, even menial ones, that pay extremely little. The BBC reports on a rather shocking example that illustrates this point.

BBC: 368 government jobs, 2.3 million applicants

“Authorities in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, say they have been overwhelmed after receiving 2.3 million applications for 368 low-level government jobs. Prerequisites for the posts include having primary school qualifications and being able to ride a bicycle. [emphasis added]

But, tens of thousands of graduates, post-graduates and others with doctorate degrees have also applied. An official said it will take four years to interview all the candidates.

“These candidates only have to be interviewed but my estimate is that the entire process will take at least four years to complete even if there are 10 boards interviewing 200 candidates a day, for 25 days a month,” senior official Prabhat Mittal told BBC Hindi’s Atul Chandra.

Those who have applied for the posts, advertised in August, include 255 PhD holders and 152,000 graduates. With the number of applicants, there are more than 6,250 candidates vying for each post. The successful candidates will receive a monthly salary of 16,000 rupees ($240; £156).

Unemployment is a huge challenge in Uttar Pradesh where tens of millions are out of work. The state, with a population of 215 million, is expected to have 13.2 million unemployed young people by 2017, according to one estimate.

Government recruitment drives have attracted massive responses in other parts of India, too. Earlier this year, several people were injured in a stampede when thousands turned up to join the Indian army in the southern city of Visakhapatnam.

In 2010, one man was killed and 11 others were injured in the crush when more than 10,000 candidates gathered to join the police in Mumbai.

And in 1999, the government in West Bengal state was deluged with responses when they advertised 281 jobs and received nearly one million applications.”

So, here are the truly “Incredible India” numbers, as reported by the BBC story:

2.3 million applications

368 clerical jobs – These are low-level, low skill, low pay positions, (functions include: ride a bicycle, serve tea)

Among the applicants:

  • 255 PhD holders
  • 152,000 graduates
  • It will take 4 years to interview all candidates [Estimate]



General Austin: “4 or 5” US-Trained Syrian Rebels Joined The Fight

WASHINGTON – We were told that the Obama administration, while not going overboard on this, was committed to degrading and ultimately destroying ISIL in Iraq and Syria. We were told that there was a serious effort to support the Syrian opposition that is trying to fight against both the Assad regime and ISIL in Syria. 

ISIL still in control 

Well, not so. We know that there are very few US bombing missions. We know that ISIL is still very much in control of the territories it seized first in Syria and then in Iraq.

But now we also know that the announced program to train up to 5,000 Syrian opposition fighters, at a cost of approximately $ 500 million, is not progressing as planned –and this is a really generous way of putting it. A more accurate way of evaluating the US effort would be “a pitiful joke”.

4 or 5 Syrian fighters 

And we heard the sad truth from a high US military authority: General Lloyd Austin, head of CENTCOM, the Central Command that covers the entire Middle East. General Austin is in charge of the entire US military effort against ISIL.

During a recent testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, General Austin, (not looking too happy), admitted that the effort to train the Syrian fighters is behind schedule.

Indeed, while the Pentagon planned to train about 5,000 rebels, about 100 to 120 are currently in training. (This is not even 3% of the announced goal). And how many trainees actually joined the fight? Well, about 4 or 5. Yes, this is not an error. It is indeed “4 or 5”, not 40 or 50. Not 400 or 500.

Ridicule

There may be a good explanation for this grotesque failure. I really hope there is one. Otherwise, I can only conclude that the Obama administration never wanted to engage in this Syria-Iraq- ISIL conflict. And may be for good reasons.

But then it would have been be better if it had said so, openly and publicly. To announce ambitious goals about training Syrian fighters and then fail to even initiate the effort invites ridicule.

 




In Italy High Unemployment Is Good News

WASHINGTON – If you really, really insist on finding the proverbial “silver lining” in rather depressing news, here is a headline for you. We find it in the Italian daily La Repubblica, as the title for a recent story about unemployment in Italy: “Work, confidence returns, inactive people numbers are down”.

Things looking better? 

Well, with such a promising headline you would expect to read that Italy has turned, or is turning, a corner. You would expect to read that hiring is more robust, and tragically high unemployment is finally going down.

No. Nothing of this sort. We read instead that “Within an increase in overall unemployment [12.4% in July 2015] Istat [National Statistics Institute] reads positive signals that indicate a recovery. What moves the scale are inactive workers (those who do not have a job and who are not seeking one). Their number is down by 1.1%, to under 14 million. The ranks of the discouraged are also down, (-114,000 in one year), especially in the South, among young people aged between 15 and 34. On the other hand there are more people who are inactive (+77,000) because they are pursuing some kind of education.”

Bad news is good news 

Got the picture? The number of the chronically unemployed is now just a bit under 14 million, because there has been a 1.1% decrease. This clearly means that things are looking really positive.

Well, it takes a really heroic level of optimism to say that “confidence is back” in a country with 12.4% unemployment, and 14 million of long term unemployed. (By the way, the unemployment rate is 44% for young people. It used to be 28% in 2011). Italy looks bad even compared to the still uninspiring unemployment rate within the rest of the Eurozone: 10.9%.

No sense of reality? 

So, why do main stream media like La Repubblica try to disguise an ongoing national tragedy into a “confidence returns” story?

Have they lost any connection with reality? Or, in truth, in this new world of drastically diminished expectations, a 1.1% decrease among the long term unemployed, within a context of massive unemployment, is in fact good news?

This story exemplifies “decline” 

This being the case, I would take this news story about unemployment as a clear example that describes what “decline” is:

You are in it, and you do not even know it.

You are so used to a “New Normal” of a worsening economy, and lower standards of living, that you forgot how things should be.

From this perspective of diminished expectations, a story that at the very best could be construed as a faint ray of hope is indeed good news.