Italy

Italy, a country that no one outside of Europe knows much about more than Pizza Pasta Fashion and Football, is in the news as the new Greece of Europe (not a good thing). The global markets have been jittery over the last few days as Italy wrestles with another political crisis. What is going on?

A few events together have caused a greater issue, these are:

  • Italy has an economy that is not going that well
  • There has been a huge influx of migrants from Africa / Middle East (Syria!)
  • Italy is part of the Euro, so are subject to European finance rules and laws
  • There is a lot of inequality in Italy (and a North / South – Haves / Have nots divide, not that dissimilar to the metro / rural divide in the US and the London / non London divide in the UK)
  • The electoral system is mightily confusing, borderline ridiculous and barely feasible

The recent elections led to two anti-immigrant parties (M5S and Lega Nord) getting the most seats in Parliament (not a convincing result). Once they agreed to form a coalition they agreed to nominate a Prime Minister and a cabinet of Ministers. What is interesting here is that the Prime Minister that is nominated or the cabinet ministers do not have to be elected officials – the parties can choose from literally anyone. In the US, the cabinet can be anyone, but at least you know who is choosing the cabinet (the President, whose election you voted on). In Italy you are voting for someone to then (often) make an agreement with someone else, and then choose everyone who rubs the government. It is odd. From this, the parties agreed to chose Giuseppe Conte, a professor from Florence University, who was controversial because no one knew about it, and when people researched his academic resume they found a lot of it to be false.

Weird, but at least they have a result, right? Well, adding to complexity, there is a President of Italy too, who holds executive power, although the position is mostly ceremonial (they sign the bills and do events, not that different to the Queen). The President is elected by the parliament to 7 year terms (that part is kind of political), but long term enough that they are hopefully not that political. Anyway, it was hard to convince the President that the nominated Prime Minister was ok, but he was eventually convinced. Then the parties nominated a cabinet of Ministers that the President was able to stomach.. apart from one – the Finance minister Paolo Savona, a 81 year old ‘Euro-skeptic’ who wants to pull Italy out of the Euro. Of course, we all know there is no better way to revitalize a country that to put in charge of it a whole bunch of old white guys. Unfortunately (but unsurprisingly) this appointment was deemed no good by the President who refused to swear the cabinet in, which triggered the latest so-called crisis. This will likely lead to some fresh elections that will lead to similarly opaque results as people continue to lose faith in the system. Lovely.

There are a couple of further things going on in the background here.

Italians and a lot of Europeans are not that stoked at the Euro currency. You may remember other Euro crisis’s, especially Greece, that have occurred recently. This is partly because when a Euro economy tanks, countries have no control over fiscal policy (interest rates and others stuff), but instead have to submit to the bigger countries of the Euro (Germany and France) who make financial demands that usually include cutting spending and making life pretty crap in exchange for selling them more debt. Invariably a bad economy is made worse and these conditions make it pretty easy for people to vote for stupid stuff, like anti immigrant parties with rubbish “flat tax” policies that favor the rich and who want to pull out of the Euro. This has happened before and will continue to happen. The only thing keeping the Euro together is goodwill and the hardest soft power over seen from Germany and co. And the memory of World War 2. These Austerity policies haven’t happened yet, but they are hanging over the top of the Italian elections because..

The head of the European Central Bank (ECB) at the moment is an Italian, Mario Draghi. He has been willing to sell debt to the Italian’s to keep their economy going in a way that would be unlikely if someone else was the head of the ECB. But his term will end at some point, and the money tap will likely be turned off, or at the very least it will be slowed, and additional conditions will be put on the money.

Now the broader questions about the Euro should be asked. It would be bad to pull out of it in the short term, but in the long term, it could be the best for everyone (economically at least) if the Euro dissolved. But there is a lot of instability at the moment, and having more instability seems like it would be bad. But one has to admit this is an open question.

So in summary, we have the head of the ECB, who is Italian, who is helping keep the Italian economy afloat – but his term is ending soon. We have a convoluted “democracy” which is leading to unclear election results. These results put together parties with relatively extreme agenda’s to come up with something coherent to be signed off by the President. The President is being loose in his desire for coherence, but he is drawing the line at “this will definitely be chaos”. What will happen next?

God only knows (at least the Pope lives in Rome).

Readings and other things

It’s been a while, but there has been plenty of content in the meantime, so here goes:

  1. A cracking breakdown of the trends of authenticity that include the hipster movement, and all the shit people hate on but secretly do themselves
  2. This bizarre story about the 76ers NBA team executive who seems to have created fake twitter accounts to big himself up and criticize players
  3. A great piece that delves further into the reasons for the state of the world, and how the top 9.9% of people (most of who don’t like Trump, Brexit or fascist ideas) are a part of the problem (including me)
  4. How dirty Russian money ends up in Britain
  5. Commencement speeches are neither here nor there, but Ira Glass from This American Life did a pretty good one
  6. A fun read on the sports apparel companies (Nike, Reebok etc) fight to sign LeBron James back when he was 18
  7. An unsurprising but still depressing story about how economic austerity is destroying a lot of people’s lives in Britain
  8. The Irish referendum and how it was done quite well, and how the winning side fought back against the Trump / Brexit type strategies
  9. An interesting angle on the similarities of the growth of Ethiopia in Africa to China’s recent growth by the relentless Tyler Cowen
  10. Addictive drugs continue to evolve ahead of the pace of the authorities highlighting that the War on Drugs will never be won with force
  11. A brief summary of the GDPR (Privacy) law that you have been getting a lot of emails about, and has just been mandated by the European Commission
  12. The relationship between populism (..fascism) and an aging population (hint: they are positively correlated)
  13. Another reminder of the day to day discrimination people face in the US (and everywhere)
  14. The psychology of Japanese train stations (another efficiency we don’t have here)
  15. Some background to the chaos of the Italian government from the always on point London Review of Books
  16. A new sports franchise that connects with the community in Atlanta, which is interesting because a lot of these franchises have completely bombed
  17. Why does no one ever leave Facebook, even their top top executives? (The meaning they find from pursuing the company’s supposed mission explains a lot of how they can’t see the problems they are causing)
  18. Unsurprisingly, Scandinavian countries are dealing with the advent of new technology better than the rest of us. Who knew higher taxes and better services were good?
  19. The traditional watch magazine Hodinkee talking to Jony Ive about the Apple watch (he is a famous Apple designer)
  20. A brief summary of the “incel” culture (involuntary celibacy – angry guys not getting sex). This stuff is important to be written about and to understand, but it’s still hard not to be depressed by the prevalence of this kind of stuff.
  21. Steve Jobs had a way of understanding the issues at his organizations that seems pretty useful (useful for managers who invariably don’t understand their organizations as it’s hard for employees to be open about their issues for a multitude of reasons)
  22. The semi famous Mr Money Mustache, a very smart man with money – and what he is teaching his son about money
  23. The dream (for some, and for most at least rhetorically) of a two state solution in Israel / Palestine is over
  24. Why are farmers committing suicide in Australia? No surprises that dodgy finance practices are in the vicinity of the issue

Weekly Readings and other things

It has been more that a week since I updated my weekly readings, so here goes

  1. A positive piece about what is happening in the US, with lessons and ideas for how to improve any community (hint: get involved)
  2. Kanye West made some headlines this week around US politics and his red hat, Sean Fennessey wrote a good piece discussing Kayne
  3. The weekly Ben Thompson piece, this one about the trade off between openness and privacy
  4. Surveillance capitalism is a term now
  5. I finally read the New Yorker piece about a young girl kept of life support for years after a post operation complexity
  6. A reporter re-visits their experience covering the the democratization of eastern Europe, and how their hope and naivety let to them reporting fake news
  7. The problems with the hugely unregulated Facebook in countries with less resources and similar types of actors willing to (and able to) exploit the algorithm
  8. The world of Liberty University, the huge christian university making lots of money in Virginia, US
  9. How Trump uses Christian TV to get his message across
  10. A great essay about the myth of past America
  11. The New York magazines series on founders and early pioneers of the internet apologising for what it has become
  12. The culture of the Philadelphia 76ers and how they cultivated it
  13. Palantir, the scary data analysis company used by many government agencies (in Australian too)
  14. A positive story about the growth of the NBA compared to the NFL (in a “conservative” publication)
  15. A story on people renting families in Japan
  16. Michelle Wolf at the White House correspondents dinner (who knew it happened?) – maybe laughter isn’t the best medicine.
  17. The US Gov is not pretending to care about Palestine anymore. Unsurprising but still depressing.

Recent readings and other things

Here is what I have been reading and doing this week:

  1. Trumps new economic adviser wrote about the state of the economy in 2007 (comical considering the GFC happened months later)
  2. Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammond and how far she can go in the NBA
  3. Journalism before fake news, when it was just America’s fake idealism
  4. A more realistic version of whats happening in the background at the New England Patriots
  5. A seemingly less hysterical version of what the Michael Cohen raids mean for DJT
  6. On that, I try to stay away from this stuff but I couldn’t help it – a summary of James Comey’s interview with ABC News – hard to believe some of the stuff covered
  7. Zach Lowe writes about his awards ballots in the NBA: Part 1 and Part 2
  8. A look at how season 2 of Atlanta is tracking and it’s narrative style
  9. Paul Ryan and conservatism
  10. Ross Douthat on abortion extremists as per Kevin Williamson’s short-lived tenure at the Atlantic’
  11. An oldie from Stratechery, but relevant in explaining how Zuckerberg seems so disconnected to reality
  12. Another episode of Exponent – Facebook fatigue. The last 30 mins really nails it in my view
  13. Why Facebook is not well placed to have good public relations
  14. Patagonia’s response to the disaster for the environment that is DJT

Happy Reading

Facebook goes to DC and Paul Ryan quits

I once had a dream about Paul Ryan. I landed in Wisconsin and we met for dinner at a diner. He was a nice guy with blue kind looking eyes. Then we argued for ages about cutting taxes for the rich and doing more to screw over poor people (he was in favor of both). I woke up feeling very depressed, far more than I should have been as an Australian with no stake in the game. He wasn’t even speaker by then, but the argument would prove to be a true representation of the type of rubbish he supported for his entire career. He announced his retirement from the House today to go spend time with his kids. His great achievements are seemingly being normalising the chaos of the Tea Party movement, supporting a racist that pissed on his party to get elected, helping that same racist by stalling the Mueller investigation, and getting big tax cuts through (adding trillions to debt). That he was once known for his supposed morals (lol) and his fiscal austerity (seriously) is obviously now lost.

He represented the normalisation of terrible ideas that should have been too extreme to get attention. He looked like a normal Republican and acted like one in public so fraudulently gave voters the comfort that he might legislate like one too (I guess his initials are PR). It is hard to know what is left of the normalised Republican movement (or worldwide, the normalised “conservative” movement). Who are the people in Congress that are centrist in any context? The end of Paul Ryan perhaps signals the end of that lie. But with only two parties, most people still vote with their party. The next Republican on the ticket in PR’s seat is an anti-semite who was kicked out of Breitbart. I guess we can no longer pretend we couldn’t see it coming. I used to think it was good if extreme people had a chance to get voted in, as we would prove their ideas would fail in the spotlight and they would never win. I am no longer so confident. Thanks to Paul for helping fascism to be normalised.

Facebook goes to DC

Meanwhile the other happenings of DC was the arrival of the cyborg and CEO of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg to get “interrogated” by Congress. This appears to be a largely symbolic event where he agrees to look intimidated in front of a lot of camera’s and allows members of Congress to pontificate and ask “hard” questions before he goes back to Silicon Valley and continues to do his thing. Facebook’s stock was up 4.5% on the performance, so any concept that it was troubling is probably a bit off. Nonetheless there were a few pieces written about it that nice covered the key takeaways of the day, particularly:

  1. Statechery with the best reality of the meaning of the performance by Zuckerberg
  2. New Yorker on the Dorm Room defence put up by Zuck
  3. NY Times on how we can protect ourselves against Facebook
  4. Bill Simmons Podcast on the topic (second half)

My thoughts are that nothing is going to happen quite yet, so we will be stuck with Facebook yielding a bunch of power over our data for a while. Obviously, the best way to get out of this is to stop using Facebook (and delete your data). Unfortunately Facebook also owns Instagram and WhatsApp, so best not to use those either. But as most of us are convenience driven and there is no alternative to Facebook for a lot of people in regards to keeping in touch with friends and family without having to actually speak to them, it’s likely people will keep using it (the convenience trap).

The long term view is starting to be less about whether Facebook will become regulated, but rather how Facebook will be regulated.  This seems mainly to be because Facebook has decided that the alternative to that is likely antitrust – which is breaking the company up because it is a monopoly. Zuck also begs for regulation because he wants the cash from the monopoly of Facebook but none of the responsibility in making meaningful decisions.

In this line, many even argue that regulation would help entrench their advantages so might be a positive for their business model. Needless to say, this is a complicated space, and the potential for ideologically driver 70 yr old white guys to come up with the right answer is pretty remote. Plus tech has so much money that regulation will likely be written by Facebook than imposed upon them. More likely a better answer comes in Europe where privacy is taken much more seriously.

A couple of other thoughts on the topic which I will expand on further at some point

  • Zuckerberg has too much power to be able to functionally run the company well (60% of voting rights – this is a monopoly with an authoritarian at it’s head). He is young and makes poor decisions over and over. This is guaranteed to get worse.
  • Along that line, “self regulation” (lol) of something with the potential to influence so many people is unlikely to improve anything (more likely for it to get worse in the near term)
  • Facebook has no idea what they are doing – they gave all their data away for free until recently, and continually earnestly deny their ability to influence in public, whilst directing a business model further towards convincing companies that advertising on Facebook can influence people. I actually can’t tell if they see the hypocritical nature of this or not. Silicon Valley drinks so much of it’s own kool-aid that they I think they believe both can be true. Troubling.
  • In 10 years (maybe less) we will look back and wonder how it was that we all gave so much information to a random company controlled by one person we don’t know at all for free.
  • So much for oversight, half of Congress just want’s some of Facebook’s money