Donald the Trojan

 

Donald_Trump_MiddlefingerON one level, Michael Wolff’s controversial new book about Donald Trump and his inner circle simply confirms what many of us already knew or suspected: That Trump himself is a horrifying caricature of an actual human being, surrounded by an enabling coterie of incompetent sleazebags motivated solely by personal greed, a twisted circus troupe that, in defiance of all reason or logic, now leads one of the world’s superpowers.

On another level, however, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House describes something much worse: Donald Trump is apparently a Trojan, an impostor file carrying malicious code to infect parts of the program that runs the complex computer simulation we perceive as our Universe and reality.

An assertion like that is enough to cause so much eye-rolling I can actually hear it from here, so let’s go through this step by step, starting with the possibly alarming idea that we live in the Matrix.

Imaginary World

The theory that the Universe as we know it is actually an enormous simulation is not all that new; the concept has floated around in one form or another since the 1930s, and is intricately connected to quantum mechanics.

Our best understanding of the Universe — reality, in other words — at the quantum level, the smallest building blocks of everything we can perceive, is that it is a biocentric, model-based reality. For any practical purpose, it doesn’t exist until we observe it; until then, it is just a stew of quantum probabilities. American physicist John Archibald Wheeler described reality as “participatory,” and experiments with his ideas have tended to support his notion that “everything is information.” This gives rise to the idea that, if we have not created the Universe on our own, we may simply be living in someone else’s simulation of it.

While it is not the only possible explanation of our Universe, the simulation-as-reality theory is compelling enough that it’s perhaps the best explanation we have. After all, we have already simulated the Universe ourselves — albeit on a subatomic scale — and the theory neatly answers the thorny mystery of the genesis of the quantum stew that our observations make real. Plus there is there is the startling discovery in recent years of a specific type of computer code buried in the complex mathematical operations of string theory, which describes the fundamental makeup and interactions of the Universe at its smallest possible scale.

Too Dumb for Democracy

The simulation-as-reality does not preclude the existence of what we think of as “free will”; after all, even in computer programs we develop at our comparatively miniscule scale, algorithms that give parts of programs (such as non-controlled characters in a video game) a certain measure of autonomy are commonplace. Thus we are able to develop certain routines and behaviors on our own, sometimes to our own detriment; we are, apparently, encoded with the capacity to conceptualize things that are beyond our intellectual capacity to effectively operationalize.

A perfect example of that peculiarity in our design is the concept of democracy. In order for democracy to work effectively, we should hypothetically choose the most competent candidate for an elected office. In practice, however, we almost never do.

There are a couple of well-known reasons for this. First is the so-called Dunning-Kruger effect (named for its discoverers from Cornell University), which manifests itself as self-delusion about our own intellectual capacity. Since we are inherently incapable of accurately assessing our own competence, we are unable to accurately assess the competence of others. We tend to overestimate our own intelligence, which prevents us from recognizing our lack of competence in assessing others (such as political candidates), thus we tend to overrated them as well. We rely on what we understand in doing so, which means that we often rely on cues such as displayed confidence — which is, apparently, inversely proportional to intelligence — in order to make judgments.

Second, democracy on a large scale provides no incentive at the individual level to acquire political knowledge, because the individual benefit is quite small. Georgetown University professor Jason Brennan describes how democracy works with this analogy:

How all of us vote, collectively, matters a great deal. But how any one of us votes does not. Imagine a college professor told her class of 210 million students, “Three months from now, we’ll have a final exam. You won’t get your own personal grade. Instead, I’ll average all of your grades together, and everyone will receive the same grade.” No one would bother to study, and the average grade would be an F.

As a result, voters can indulge shallow, irrational, and even destructive beliefs in supporting a candidate, because there are no discernible direct consequences; Brennan likens this expressiveness to supporting one’s favorite sports team. Not only are the odds that a particular individual vote is the one to decide an election incredibly small, identifying the voter is essentially impossible.

In the context of computer programs, these characteristics of democracy represent a serious security risk, because it is very easy to manipulate them to produce negative outcomes, and very difficult if not impossible to make them produce more than average or perhaps just slightly better than average results.

Human Malware

The nature of our reality and our adherence to a political system that we are not actually equipped to handle provide an explanation for why Trump, who Wolff at one point in his book describes as the “rent-in-the-fabric-of-time president-elect,” a man so diametrically opposite everything that a President of the United States — or for that matter, a normally civilized human being — ought to be, was suddenly vaulted into the highest office in the land.

Whether by design or coincidence, he was perfectly suited to exploit the flaws in the American character and its electoral system. To a certain segment of the American population (opinion polls and the results of the November 2016 election suggest it’s about a third), Trump was the equivalent of an email promising the recipient that everything that makes him uneasy — soft borders, free trade, feminism, government regulation, being required to give a damn about the environment, science in general, churches that don’t include Jay-sus, dope suckers, homos, niggers, spics, Chinamen, and especially them goddamn ragheads — could be made to go away if he just opens the attachment.

Trump himself is not actually the problem; he made it clear with his own behavior that he is too stupid to do anything but make a mess of anything he touches, a conclusion Wolff’s book simply confirms. It is the dangerous collection of actors attached to him who are now pillaging the country who are doing the real harm.

We now know what happened; what is still a mystery is why, and who’s responsible. The simplest explanation is that Trump may be a function of reality itself; the program of the Universe, or at least that part that pertains to post-modern American society, may have enough bugs in it that it created its own human malware. Or he might be the astonishing creation of something above our ken, what to us would appear to be a malevolent deity: A supercosmic hacker, so to speak. Or he may be a creation of boredom and a mean streak, a deviant player in a cosmic-scale Sims game.

Whatever his genesis, what happens next is unknown, but probably not good; compromised computer programs can’t fix themselves, at least as far as we know.

Advertisements

The Economist gets it wrong: This is not the dawn of a new Progressive Era

Not happening.

IN an optimistic editorial just before the year ended, editor-in-chief Zanny Minton Beddoes of The Economist predicted three great changes beginning in 2018 would shift the balance of power from markets back to governments, leading to — hopefully — a new Progressive Era akin to the one that marked the beginning of the 20th century. 

Unfortunately, heaping bad historical comparisons onto a shallow dish of liberal wishful thinking and misread economic indicators does not a convincing argument make. 2018 may indeed be the start of a new era, but it is very likely to be anything but progressive. 

The case Beddoes makes is that despite the modest results in 2017 of 2016’s “shock” populist political victories — she singles out the post-Brexit vote gains of Britain’s Labour Party, Emmanuel Macron’s victory in France (he was actually elected in 2015, and took office in 2016), and Donald Trump as the most salient examples — populism will continue to surge in 2018 and beyond, leading to a tipping of the balance of power from markets back to the state. The implication is that the new era will mark a renaissance of social democracy, akin to the Progressive Era that marked the beginning of the 20th century, a period with which the present day has what Beddoes feels are eerie similarities. 

Signs indicating populism will continue to gain strength include the rise of “insurgent parties” in Germany, the Czech Republic, and Austria; the possibility that Italy’s Five Star Movement “might” gain a parliamentary majority in elections this year; and a bit farther from the liberal white European center of Beddoes’ universe, the surge in popularity (thanks to Trump’s anti-Mexican rhetoric) of career political outsider Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico. 

History’s rhyme

The decades straddling the turn of the 20th century saw a number of remarkable technological advances that reshaped the world economy; Beddoes mentions electricity and the railroad, but she might well have included communications (the telegraph first, and then radio) and the development of air transport. The modern corollaries, according to her, are artificial intelligence and the so-called Internet of Things. The scale of wealth creation and income inequality is approximately similar now as it was then. And the “anger of those left behind” is being directed now, as then, at both the elites and immigrants. 

The present environment, which Beddoes points out is also marked by the strongest economic growth in a decade, record highs for markets, and “unusually low” measures of financial risk, has created three forces that will shape the new age beginning in 2018. The first is the “techlash”:

Across the rich world, politicians will turn on the technology giants—Facebook, Google and Amazon in particular—saddling them with fines, regulation and a tougher interpretation of competition rules. It will be the 21st-century equivalent of the antitrust era, with the tech giants vilified as malevolent quasi-monopolists whose behavior is weakening democracy, suppressing competition and destroying jobs. There will even be talk of breaking them up.

Ms. Beddoes also places high hopes on the abilities of France’s Macron:

The second force of change will be Mr. Macron, who, notwithstanding his incrementalist start, will emerge as a modern-day equivalent of Teddy Roosevelt, the American president most associated with the Progressive Era. There are strong similarities between the two men: both wrap a reform agenda in the rhetoric of national renewal and greatness. Like Roosevelt, Mr. Macron is pushing a new kind of social contract, one that boosts competition and entrepreneurship while protecting workers who lose out.

Finally, fear of the rapid ascendancy of China, which Beddoes asserts has a historical parallel in the impact of Germany’s rise on European policy in the pre-World War I era, will influence geopolitics in ours:

From Australia to Europe, rules on foreign investment will be tightened, with the goal of deterring Chinese takeovers. Mr. Macron will become a cheerleader for investment regimes that protect European interests. America will impose tariffs on Chinese steel and will levy sanctions for intellectual-property theft. The norms of the World Trade Organization will be weakened. Protectionism in pursuit of restraining China will be condoned.

Where all this will lead is uncertain, Beddoes concludes, although she is not shy about which of the two possible outcomes she sees is her preference. The balance of power will either tilt toward the state in the form of “a more regulated, defensive, and protectionist kind of capitalism,” or 

But with luck, the new balance will be marked by a broader embrace of competition as the best way to counter the power of entrenched elites, and involve an imaginative rethinking of the state’s role in protecting the individual. That would make it a progressive era to be proud of.

A view not of this world

If there is a reliable prediction about 2018 and beyond that can be made, it is that a world that resembles something very different than either of Beddoes’ glib models is a virtual certainty, since the world as it is now is a hell of a lot more complicated than it apparently looks from inside The Economist’s newsroom. 

The first flaw in Beddoes’ thesis is her gross misreading of the state of the world economy, in that she makes the assumption that it is actually healthy, and will continue on its current trajectory for the foreseeable future. That is unlikely to be the case for very long; the good times might last until the latter part of this year, but will certainly not continue beyond that, as this enlightening and alarming article by David Stockman explains. Overvalued equities, particularly in tech stocks, overvalued real estate, massive debt bubbles, and the continuing insanity of cryptocurrency are all going to find themselves in free fall as liquidity vanishes, and recovering from it will be an insurmountable challenge, at least for longer than anyone’s comfort can endure, for either markets or governments. 

The second flaw in the argument is that the real technological drivers of the global socioeconomic shift are left out. Indeed, AI and IoT are remarkable and are having an impact, but their influence pales in comparison to that of social media and the increasing democratization of commerce. On the positive side, the unprecedented connectivity of people and the almost limitless opportunities for economic participation it provides — without ignoring, of course, that there are still masses of those who are yet disconnected — has weakened the power of the global industrial complex over the individual. 

On the other hand, it has deeply fractured human society; organizing any sort of majority of views has become virtually impossible, because instead of creating a world community, it has empowered everyone to be their own community. Human nature and our sense of self-preservation being what it is, the coming economic crisis is likely to aggravate our differences. The most likely response of governments under pressure will not be a “techlash,” it will be a “peoplelash” — something we may be seeing the first signs of in moves like the rollback of net neutrality in the US, and South Korea’s increasing crackdown on the cryptocurrency craze. 

Third, while Macron might yet be a surprising reformer, there is actually nothing about him to suggest he is anything but a business-friendly centrist. A former investment banker and Minister of Finance, among the moves he has made in his career have been to oppose (unsuccessfully) a tax increase on high-income earners and (successfully) a measure that would have regulated the salaries of CEOs. Leading a deeply-divided France in an EU that is increasingly in disarray, his “incrementalist” approach is probably as good as it gets; historically, progressive reformers (like T. Roosevelt, to whom Beddoes fangirlishly compares him) have always found much more success in front-loading their initiatives rather than backing into them. If Macron hasn’t started by now, it is not likely he ever will. 

Finally, the comparison of China now to Germany at the beginning of last century is completely specious, because there is no precedent for modern China. For one thing, Bismarck’s Germany never had the soft power China has now, nor did it pose the same economic challenge to powers like Great Britain and France. The geopolitical circumstances of last century were much simpler, because individual economies were not so intricately linked as they are now; the Western world simply cannot afford to push China too far without risking their own well-being. In the coming economic crisis, provided China can hold its own economy together, it stands to dominate a new iteration of globalization — one that most definitely will not be characterized by the sort of nanny-state supported individual freedom that The Economist judges to be the proper aspiration of the world.

Asia’s Tinderbox 

davao-mall-fire-dec-23-2017-01-830210514.jpg
Photo released to the media by Presidential Assistant Christopher Go

IT is one of the more discouraging parts of the routine here in the Philippines that the country cannot get through its most important holiday (Christmas actually begins around the first of September here) without suffering from one or more horrific tragedies. If it’s not a natural disaster such as one of the country’s frequent destructive tropical storms, it’s a massive fire with casualties numbered in the dozens.

On Friday, the NCCC Mall in Davao City went up in flames shortly before 10 am, when it would have opened to the public. The fire began on the third level of the four-story mall, in an area where furniture, dry goods, and housewares – in other words, mainly cheap flammable crap imported either from China or from the sketchy beehive of manufacturers of cheap flammable crap around Metro Manila – and spread rapidly, trapping and ultimately killing 37 people, all of them workers at a call center located on the mall’s fourth floor.

The tragedy momentarily attracted media coverage here because Davao is the personal fiefdom of President Rodrigo Duterte, who was mayor of Mindanao’s largest city for 27 years, and installed his daughter and son as mayor and vice-mayor, respectively, upon his election to the presidency. The most important part of the story of the mall fire, apparently, was the fact that Duterte broke into tears upon meeting the families of the missing people and informing them that there was no chance anyone who didn’t make it out of the building could have survived.

But to be fair to Duterte on a personal level, disasters do seem to bring out his human side; unlike his elitist and misanthropic predecessor, he is neither ungenerous nor self-conscious with his sympathies for the victims of tragedies. But the other facts of the case – the destruction of the city’s second-largest business establishment, a fire that should not have happened and certainly should not have been as bad as it was, and the extremely problematic fact that the business that suffered the worst loss was an American-owned BPO office – are not quite so appealing as media fodder, and the story had dropped off the local news radar by midday Sunday.

That is, unfortunately, probably not surprising for a country where major industrial fires happen a couple of times a year, and where a neighborhood of squatter shanties goes up in flames almost every day. That Filipinos are so inured to disasters like this is the result of an almost willful disregard for standards when it comes to buildings and matters of occupational health and safety, despite the existence of enough regulations to fill a book big enough to stun an ox. As a former mayor and now as president, Duterte, whatever grace he has in commiserating with his people, deserves some of the blame for that dangerous attitude.

Swamp of corruption

Fire safety standards are nominally managed by the Bureau of Fire Protection, a national-level agency, but one that in practice devolves a lot of authority on local departments organized at the level of cities or municipalities. Among business owners in the Philippines, the BFP is considered one of the most notoriously corrupt agencies anyone has the misfortune to have to deal with. Although there are maybe local exceptions, it is considered standard practice that to obtain the necessary BFP permit, one will be obliged to purchase sprinkler systems or fire extinguishers from BFP personnel or their designated suppliers. But on the other hand, for the cost-conscious businessman, that is often the limit of BFP’s interest in conducting inspections and actually ascertaining if an establishment is up to code or not. Even the equipment purchased under compulsion may not be adequate or appropriate; as long as one is willing to pay the ticket, he gets the permit.

And since fire inspection clearances are connected to other construction permits, which fall completely under the purview of the local government, the BFP racket requires the cooperation – connivance would be a better word – of the mayor’s office, which can be assumed to be compensated for its indulgence.

As long as nothing blows up, everything’s fine. And if it does go up in flames, the business will invariably be found liable – although in actual fact, accurately in most cases, since the corruption encourages this sort of behavior – for having made alterations or engaged in unsafe activities contrary to the building permits. Fines will be levied, compensation will be paid to the victims’ families, and the relevant officials will huff and puff about yanking the afflicted firm’s business license (noise that always seems to stop if it’s muffled by enough cash). But after a relatively short time, everyone will quietly get back to business as usual.

Any protest that Duterte was somehow above all this as mayor is rather starkly refuted by the four stories of smoldering wreckage now gracing one of the main thoroughfares of his hometown. The swamp of dangerous corruption is part of the cultural ecosystem, much bigger than even his outsized personality and reputation can contend with. And the fact that Davao, though not an unsuccessful place by any means, is otherwise not usually the first place on most foreign investors’ lists of potential landing places suggests that it doesn’t impress as one that is fundamentally different from the rest of the Philippines.

Risky business

The biggest victim of the mall fire was Research Now SSI, a market research firm with headquarters in Texas and Connecticut. The company is the product of a merger completed only this past October; the Davao office was originally an SSI location, and employed a total of about 500 people.

The explosive growth of both the BPO and shopping mall sectors in the Philippines has led to a productive sort of symbiosis. BPO firms are of course drawn to the country because of the favorable environment: A population of youthful workers, most of whom are aware that English is a language; government investment agencies eager to dole out incentives to locators; and labor laws that, once a business is established, largely let the firm’s own conscience dictate matters such as compensation and working conditions. Malls offer good locations and facilities, and allow firms to set up relatively quickly. Mall owners, faced with intense competition, are only too happy to have large cuts of leasable space, particularly if it’s space that’s less than ideal for retail, soaked up by long-term BPO tenants, who bring with them large numbers of small-cap but reliable customers in the form of staff.

The fire in Davao, especially because it was as deadly as it was, will almost certainly put this happily budding relationship between malls and BPOs in jeopardy. Even if there was nothing but a tragic accident involved in the Davao fire – which seems likely to be the case, as the fire is a serious setback to NCCC’s plans, announced last month, to undergo a major renovation – the corrupted nature of the permit processes means that any certification of a prospective location’s safety ought to be considered unreliable.

One could hope that potentially driving away BPO business might encourage the government to take proactive steps to enforce a culture of safety, because nothing else has so far. Derailing a long-running gravy train for apparatchiks and local potentates, however, is risky business even for someone of Durterte’s advertised caliber; after all, he is a hereditary product of the same culture. Safer, most likely to simply handle this tragedy as such tragedies usually are handled: Make some angry noises, hand out a few fines, and let the naturally short Filipino attention span move on to something else. If that bothers you, just make sure you know how to get to an exit any time you go somewhere.

PH Employment Picture Remains Dim Under Duterte Administration 

annoying.gifTHE Philippines’ official unemployment statistics were released earlier today, and showed that in spite of near-7% GDP growth, sovereign credit ratings upgrades, and being showered daily by uncritical adulation by all and sundry, President Rodrigo “сука блять” Duterte and his economic team continue to utterly blow it when it comes to cultivating job creation.

The October Labor Force Survey (LFS) pegged unemployment at 5%, an improvement over July’s 5.6% but an increase from the 4.7% jobless rate in October 2016.

While 1.4 million more people were employed in October than in July, there were about 136,000 fewer workers than a year earlier, despite the size of the labor force being virtually unchanged. The working-age population (15-64 years old) meanwhile grew from 68.743 million in October 2016 to 70.401 million.

The October LFS is the fourth and last for 2017. Across all four LFS during the year, every significant employment indicator was lower than the previous year: The labor force participation rate (LFPR, the percentage of the working-age population working or seeking work) averaged 2.2% lower; the size of the labor force shrank by an average of 413,000; and an average of 485,000 fewer people were employed throughout the year.

Since taking office at the end of June 2016, Duterte has seen improvement in only one of the six LFS conducted during his term so far, in October last year, when the country made a net gain of about 280,000 jobs from the previous survey in July 2016.

2018 is going to make 2017 seem like a good year

Send the damn meteor already.

FOR many people, 2017 will be remembered as an extraordinarily bad year, and it will be a tremendous disappointment to wake up on New Year’s Day 2018 and realize that no, it wasn’t a bad dream: An openly racist, misogynist, pathological liar is still the president of the United States, terrorists are still running amok in every corner of the globe, the world economy is still based on IOUs and imaginary fairy tokens, and basic facts are still being scorned in favor of willfully ignorant opinion.

By the time 2018 is over, however, we may all very likely be looking back on the year of Trump, Bitcoin, fake news, self-identifying as a gender/ethnic group/inanimate object of one’s choice, and discussing whether or not the Earth is flat like it’s even a debatable topic with a certain nostalgia. As the old saying goes, it’s always darkest just before it goes completely black. With that in mind, here are some predictions for a year we’re going to regret we had to live through, if the human species even survives it:

1. The Bitcoin Implosion

When Bitcoin first appeared, it was a novel concept, if a bit rough in that first-draft sort of way most eventually world-changing ideas seem to be when they are introduced. The distributed ledger technology – the blockchain – could have countless applications (and despite what Bitcoin zealots will tell you, it absolutely can exist without the imaginary fairy tokens), and even the idea of decentralized, digital currency had some appeal. All that went out the window in 2017, however, when Bitcoin turned into the world’s biggest Ponzi scheme. For no apparent reason – certainly not because it’s any good as a currency – it has become a hugely overvalued, sentiment-driven, speculative commodity, one that is not the diffused, crowdsourced store of wealth everyone hoped it would be, but controlled by a relatively small group of major investors and “mining” consortiums able to afford the enormous equipment and energy costs to operate the blockchain network.

That the bubble will burst sooner or later is a foregone conclusion, even among Bitcoin disciples; the most telling sign of that is the shift in tone in recent weeks of discussion in the mainstream and social media (remember, this is an asset whose value is driven by sentiment). Up until a few weeks ago, criticism of Bitcoin could elicit counterarguments with some basis in economics; granted, the arguments weren’t very good, because the idea, at least as long as its proponents were still trying to describe Bitcoin as a form of currency, has a few fundamental flaws. Now, however, all pretense of seriousness has been discarded; the only argument for “investing” in Bitcoin is its insane rise in value – a modern version of “X number of people can’t be wrong.” Since the Bitcoin market is sentiment-driven and purely speculative, its collapse is inevitable: At some point, investors will sense that it is no longer a worthwhile gamble to buy at a high price in the hope of selling at a higher price, and the rush for the exits will begin. What the trigger will be is anyone’s guess, but there will be a trigger; most likely it will come in the form of one or more big holders of Bitcoin dumping their stakes when the price passes a nice round-number threshold, $25,000, $50,000, maybe $100,000 if the insanity lasts that long.

As big as the Bitcoin market is, that catastrophic collapse would not have very serious implications if it was just confined to the strange world of cryptocurrency, but now, thanks to the world having more money than sense at this point, there is a real danger of contagion from Bitcoin’s demise having a serious impact on the real economy. Within the last two weeks, trade in Bitcoin futures and ETFs has been introduced, which puts the imaginary fairy tokens into real markets where people invest in real things, and are not going to be able to if a large part of their capital burns up in the Bitcoin conflagration. Perhaps even more alarming is the amount of venture capital that has been created through ICOs, which owe their existence to the success of Bitcoin. Once Bitcoin goes down, all those alt-coins that have value only because Bitcoin happens to be currently credible also vanish, which will de-fund a large number of startups, primarily tech firms. Thus we can look forward to witnessing both a market crash and the second coming of the dot-com bubble all at once. Good times!

When this will all happen is impossible to tell; it will be sudden when it does. The sooner the better, however, because the longer the Bitcoin bubble keeps inflating, the worse the damage will be.

2. Tesla Goes Bankrupt

Elon Musk is a visionary, multi-talented man, and something of a darling of the New Age. Unfortunately, one talent he seems to lack is the ability to run a business, as this well-researched and painstakingly detailed article published last month explains. About two months before that article came out, I did my own research into Tesla’s state in connection with my real job, and while I approached the assessment from the automotive industry perspective I’m familiar with as opposed to the market investor view of the author of the Seeking Alpha analysis, the conclusions were virtually identical, because numbers don’t lie: Not only is Tesla not working as a going concern, there is no possible way it could work without being radically restructured. The company won’t make it past midyear without that process starting in a painful way.

When it happens, it will pose a dilemma for the US government. Although Tesla is not a major part of the auto industry, it anchors a complex web of technology businesses that will feel the shock; it is an ecosystem that the US quite appropriately wants to see developed, which is why Tesla has been the beneficiary of a great deal of direct and indirect support. Given that it has a sound, or at least potentially sound, underlying product, Tesla probably could pare down its distracting, unprofitable sidelines, tighten up its management, pull its reach back to match its grasp in terms of production targets, and come out of the process a reasonably healthy company. But Tesla will hit the skids at just about the same time Bitcoin is imploding – in fact, the latter event may even trigger Tesla’s collapse, although that is not at all the source of the company’s problems – and that is going to make things very interesting indeed.

3. Terror with a capital T

The chances that those of us who have never been personally impacted in any way by Islamist terrorism will be sometime in the coming year just grew alarmingly, thanks to the completely unnecessary, stubborn, ill-conceived, and intentionally antagonistic decision of the bloated orange freak currently occupying the White House to unilaterally declare the contested city of Jerusalem the capital of Israel. Up to that point, we could legitimately look at terrorism practiced by the likes of ISIS, al-Quaeda, Boko Haram, the Abu Sayyaf, LET, al-Shabaab – geez, there’s a lot of these fuckers, aren’t there? – as being a bastardization of proper Islam (although that might be somewhat debatable), but Trump’s call, which as far as anyone knows, absolutely no one asked him to make, just gave the entire Muslim world, the just and unjust alike, a unifying cause.

I realized just how much about two days after Trump’s decision was announced, when I listened to the noontime sermon at the local mosque (it’s a hundred yards or so from my house, and evidently has a good sound system), angrily denouncing Trump and Israel, and exhorting the congregation to protest the decision. This is a small, unimportant provincial town north of Manila, with a small, peacefully innocuous Muslim population; Jerusalem has no more practical importance to these people than Mars does. And yet Donald Trump has managed to piss them off. I would be surprised if anyone of my fervent neighbors would actually go beyond expressing their anger in harsh words, but if they are any indication of how deeply the offense has penetrated the Muslim world, there are undoubtedly thousands – tens or hundreds of thousands, more likely – who will not feel so constrained.

4. The US midterm elections will be a disappointment

On Tuesday, a little-known Democrat named Doug Jones narrowly defeated his Republican rival Judge Roy Moore in a special election to fill one of the state of Alabama’s Senate seats, left vacant by the promotion of former Sen. Jeff Sessions to US Attorney General. The win was immediately hailed as a blow to Trump and the Republican party, who had campaigned heavily for Moore in spite of his notoriety as a pedophile, his public exclamations that the US was better off when slavery was still a thing, that homosexuality should be treated as a criminal offense, and that all the amendments to the Constitution after the 10 that make up the Bill of Rights ought to be dropped, and despite his general demeanor as a complete piece of shit and total embarrassment to the human race.

The outcome of the election, which Moore has refused to concede and says he intends to challenge, narrows the Republicans’ majority in the US Senate to 51-49, and is being viewed as a preview of even bigger losses for the GOP in November’s midterm elections.

Except it probably isn’t. Roy Moore’s defeat, presuming he and his Republican backers don’t contrive a way to reverse it, is probably a blessing in disguise for the Trump regime. Although he is a comically grotesque, horrible, evil little man who should not even be allowed to walk around in public let alone run for the US Senate, Moore lost by less than 20,000 votes, out of about 1.3 million. Granted, that might not have happened anywhere else but in Alabama – never the brightest bulb in the American chandelier, this is the state that gave us George Wallace, after all – but it nevertheless hardly amounts to a stinging rebuke of the reign of the Pussy Grabber. On the contrary, it plays right into the hands of an administration that has been surprisingly adept at deflecting trouble.

Roy Moore’s questionable use of his penis threw Trump’s own manifold acts of sexual aggression into the spotlight, but that now goes away with Moore’s loss. Having already probably fatally derailed the special prosecutor’s investigation into his Russian connections by politicizing it in the most ludicrous way possible, inexplicably discredited most unfavorable press by shrugging it off as “fake news,” and generally gotten away with daily behavior so offensive it would get a normal person beaten to death by an angry mob, Trump has just been handed the golden prize of a political martyr in Roy Moore with whom to whip up his still evidently sizable power base. Just a few more votes, just a little bit more campaign money, and poor ol’ Judge Moore wouldn’t have been beaten by the scheming liberal elite and the biased, fake-news media, by God. You’d better believe the Trump machine will milk that for all it’s worth going into November.

And it will work, too, because by that time, the terrorist threat (that Trump provoked) will be nipping at every American’s heels; people everywhere tend to rally ‘round the flag at times like that, and conveniently forget whose fault it is they have to in the first place. By that time, the Bitcoin-inspired economic crisis ought to be at full steam as well; the message that “greedy Wall Street speculators” are ruining things for ordinary hard-working Americans has always worked no matter who’s tried it, and of course, the irony that it is usually members of that very avaricious caste shucking that particular line of jive never fails to escape the masses.

The Republicans might lose a few seats, but not enough to really matter, and certainly not enough to put Donny Trump’s crazy train off the tracks. Because Americans are, when it comes right down to it, the biggest collection of spoiled cretins in the world – a big dumb country with a lot of guns and serious self-esteem issues, who are going to wreck the entire planet with their deep stupidity.

Send the damn meteor already.

“Denguegate” Scandal: Legislators’ grandstanding may be responsible for an epidemic

black deathOVER the past few days we have been subjected to a crescendo, led by Senator Dick Gordon at his umbrage-filled best, of self-righteous hysterics over the Department of Health’s aborted dengue vaccination program, following an announcement by drug maker Sanofi Pasteur on November 29 that the Dengvaxia vaccine could cause “more cases of severe disease” under certain circumstances.

Let’s clarify a couple of points: First, there is genuine cause for alarm, because those certain circumstances potentially apply to tens or even hundreds of thousands of Filipino children. Second, the chief architect of the greed-driven bumblefuckery that has led to this mess is former president BS Aquino III, as becomes clear when one reviews the timeline of this whole sorry saga.

Be that as it may, Gordon, along with some of his fellow legislators in the House of Representatives, had the opportunity to stop this potential public health crisis before it even started, and completely dropped the ball. If the country’s worst fears are realized and the next couple of years see an epidemic of severe and/or fatal dengue infections, he and the then-leaders of the House committees on Health and Public Accountability ought to make sure there are enough seats in the dock for themselves, alongside Bobo the Simpleminded and those of his minions who had a hand in all this.

Rush job

On December 1, 2015, BS Aquino III had a meeting described as a “courtesy call” with officials of pharmaceutical giant Sanofi Pasteur in Paris. At that point, Sanofi was just over a week away from securing Mexican approval for commercial distribution of its new Dengvaxia vaccine; the Philippines would not be the first country in the world to roll out the miracle drug, but it could be the first in Asia, and one imagines that the publicity-hungry N/A was not really a tough sell for the company.

It took exactly three weeks for the Philippine Food & Drug Administration to approve Dengvaxia (on December 22), and on January 5, 2016 – the two announcements literally book-ended the holiday break – then-DOH Secretary Jannette Garin announced the government’s astonishingly ambitious vaccination program. At a cost of P3.5 billion for the vaccine, which Garin vaguely said at the time was being funded by revenues from the sin tax, the DOH would inoculate 1,077,623 9-year-old public school students in the NCR, Calabarzon, and Central Luzon; the Dengvaxia treatment would require three doses given at two-month intervals.

Take a moment to let this sink in: In 35 days, a period which included the Christmas holiday, the government went from zero to rolling out a massive public health program, one that would affect more than a million kids, take more than a year to complete, and require more than 3.2 million doses of a new vaccine that was still in late-stage trials, using a vaguely-sourced budget that was equal to nearly half the DOH’s full-year budget for vaccines and other medicines, and would be launched just about six weeks before the national election.

And no one questioned this.

No one would until late March, when it was reported that four people who were part of a clinical trial died after being given the vaccine, which had arrived in the Philippines on February 11. On March 28, Garin dismissed the connection between the deaths and the vaccine – and to be fair, what information could be obtained about the cases suggested she was right – and said that Dengvaxia had the backing of the World Health Organization (WHO). That was slightly misleading, because at that point the WHO had not yet issued a formal approval (that would be released on April 18), although it had made several statements endorsing both the Dengvaxia vaccine and the DOH’s program. Without any significant opposition being raised to it, the program got underway in earnest on April 4.

Early warnings

Those deaths were part of a number of worrisome problems that seemed to be connected to the Dengvaxia vaccine, if only coincidentally; in similar pre-deployment tests in Mexico and other countries, complications had also arisen.

It is important not to blow things out of proportion, however; then, as now, the problems that were being seen were not problems with the vaccine itself, but conditions that could cause complications. This is actually not unusual for a vaccine, which is by nature a bit tricky; that is why testing ordinarily takes a long time unless the vaccine is being deployed in response to a crisis, which was how the DOH and Sanofi were characterizing the situation in this country.

On the part of the DOH, the cynical view would be that the program was being hastened as a political campaign stunt in support of the rapidly-declining administration candidates; the view that gives the DOH the benefit of the doubt might simply dismiss it as exuberance at finally getting to implement its long-desired program, borne out of genuine concern about the persistent high incidence of dengue infection in the Philippines. The truth is that it was probably a bit of both. In any case, the clear evidence that it was indeed haste was the supplemental budget; whatever the DOH was planning for an anti-dengue vaccination program, they weren’t planning it for 2016 before N/A had that apparently fateful meeting with Sanofi in December 2015.

On Sanofi’s part, however, there was a clear business motive. Vaccines are losers for pharmaceutical companies; expensive to produce, difficult to market, and subject to small profit margins. The faster Sanofi could get Dengvaxia sold and establish market leadership with it, the better off the company would be; others were already working on their own dengue vaccines, so if Sanofi encountered any obstacles, it could see a considerable investment go up in smoke.

Barely a week into the DOH vaccination campaign, there was another disturbing report: An 11-year-old boy who had received the vaccine on March 31 as part of a test group had died. Again, the DOH dismissed the connection with the vaccine, but in a way that should have instantly – but didn’t – caused alarm about how the DOH was screening vaccine recipients; the child had a congenital heart defect, it was reported, and probably shouldn’t have been inoculated.

And still no serious questions were raised. Almost on cue, the WHO issued its formal approval a week later, on April 18: Dengvaxia was recommended for populations with a dengue infection incidence of at least 50%, should be administered on the three-dose, six-month schedule, and should not be given to children under nine years.

New leadership, same old stumble and heave

With the country swept up in election frenzy, the vaccination issue faded from the public ken until July 18, when Aquino holdover and new DOH Secretary Paulyn Ubial issued an order “deferring” the program, citing the questions about the vaccine’s safety and efficacy that were being raised. Ubial’s later actions, however, would lend weight to the quietly-circulating tsismis that the “deferral” was not so much motivated by clinical concern as it was by Ubial’s desire to take the piss out of Garin, with whom she had feuded. The concerns were still very much alive, though; on July 28, the WHO issued a formal position paper on Dengvaxia that was even more carefully-worded than its April endorsement, stressing it should only be used in areas where there was a severe dengue problem, and that careful screening and monitoring of recipients should be carried out.

Under Ubial the DOH had prioritized its own vetting of the vaccine it now had a warehouse full of and was still administering to students who had already been given their first or second doses. A review by a panel of experts was inconclusive; Dengvaxia seemed to have some serious side effects for a small number of patients, and these questions were yet to be resolved by clinical study, but otherwise seemed to be largely effective. The review did not, however, reach an unequivocal conclusion one way or another; although it is somewhat speculative, it seems as though the fact that the vaccination program was essentially in caretaker mode at that point was taken as a sign that the DOH would hold off on restarting it at full scale until more clinical trials were completed.

Despite the unanswered questions, Ubial reversed her earlier decision on September 28, issuing an exemption for Dengvaxia and allowing the vaccination program to proceed. And finally, 21 months after the scheme was first hatched, questions about it were raised at an official level. On October 5, the chair of the House committee on Health, Quezon City 4th district Rep. Angelina Tan, filed a resolution calling for an inquiry; this emerged after the DOH announced plans to expand the vaccination program to the Visayas in a hearing on the 2017 budget. On October 17, Nueva Ecija 1st district Rep. Estrellita Suansing also filed a motion calling for hearings.

The matter was not pursued with anything resembling a sense of urgency, however; it would be more than a month before the Health committee would convene for its hearings (November 21), and then immediately postpone them when they realized they had neglected to include former DOH chief Janette Garin on the list of “resource persons.” In the meantime, responding to the controversy that was beginning to cause a minor media stir, the Philippine Foundation for Vaccination issued a statement supporting the DOH program and calling for its expansion.

More blown chances

On December 6, the Health committee hearings resumed, while across town, Senator Gordon was lording over his own “blue-ribbon” panel on the matter, primarily focusing on the question of how the DOH managed to get its hands on P3.5 billion that wasn’t in its budget for 2016. Over in the House, the committee heard from Dr. Anthony Leachon, an independent director at PhilHealth and a member of DOH’s panel of experts, who said that the panel had actually recommended the deferral issued in July by DOH head Ubial, after two people reportedly died after being given the vaccine in another trial group.

Despite Leachon’s revelations, and despite Gordon’s catching DOH officials with no legitimate explanation for how they developed or funded a huge, rapidly implemented, election year public health drive, neither hearing accomplished anything except to generate a bit of news copy for a day or so, and the issue was quickly forgotten for the time being.

In another development that must have put Sanofi executives on edge, Japan-based pharmaceutical company Takeda announced just after Christmas that it had made significant progress on its own dengue vaccine, and was in the process of developing a clinical trial program. The Philippines, where Takeda has a sizable presence, would be one of the countries where the trial would be conducted, the company said.

Meanwhile, the lame efforts of the Legislature to appear relevant and involved continued, with the House committees on Health and Public Accountability forming a joint panel to continue the inquiry into the vaccination controversy. A hearing was held on February 21, 2017 – the program now progressing according to the whims of the DOH for more than a year – where former DOH secretary Garin was quizzed about the program’s out-of-spec budget; but again, the hearing produced no actual result. Nor would anything emerge from the joint panel’s next hearing, which was not held until late July.

In the intervening five months, the DOH seemed to be making a concerted effort to give everyone the impression that they were quickly losing control of their own program. On May 5, the department announced that the vaccination program would be halted after those children who had already started the inoculation process were given their third injections. On June 9, however, the DOH said that it would extend the vaccination program to Cebu. The dubious reason for the sudden change in plans was that barely half of the schoolchildren targeted in the original program had received the vaccine, leaving a considerable surplus inventory that needed to be used before it expired.

And that was basically the end of the Dengvaxia controversy until last week. Although there was some low-volume skepticism being raised by some, and Sanofi and Watsons Pharmacy were hit by the FAA for improperly advertising Dengvaxia in October – for which each had to pay a fine in the breathtaking amount of P5,000 – there was no real outcry raised, and certainly not any definitive action taken, until the crisis exploded with Sanofi’s warning on November 29.

How big a problem this might become is anyone’s guess; although the DOH finally halted the program last Friday – two years to the day after BS Aquino’s fateful meeting in Paris – the damage, as the horde of new critics have been hysterically highlighting for the past few days, may have already been done to more than 700,000 Filipino kids. Although the risk is real, again it must be stressed that it is important not to blow it out of proportion. What the Sanofi advisory says exactly is, “For those not previously infected by dengue virus, however, the analysis found that in the longer term, more cases of severe disease could occur following vaccination upon a subsequent dengue infection.”

What that means, exactly, is that if your child has not ever had dengue fever, has had the Dengvaxia injections, and at some point is infected with dengue, he might become severely ill. That’s not exactly a death sentence, and if anything, should be taken as motivation to make a bigger priority of dengue prevention efforts.

But it’s bad enough, as warnings go; certainly bad enough from the pharmaceutical company’s perspective that commercial distribution should be stopped until more testing is done, and from a parent’s point of view, bad enough to conclude that there is no way in hell my kids are getting those shots.

And it didn’t have to reach this point. Any of those so-called leaders expressing outrage about the whole thing now could have, at any point after the FDA’s unprecedented quick and highly questionable approval of Dengvaxia on December 22, 2015, which is when the drug first appeared on the public radar, put a stop to it; if not for the questions about the drug’s safety, which were public knowledge as early as April of last year, then for the blatant misdirection of public resources for obvious political purposes by the former administration even before then.

But they didn’t; instead, they resorted to their standard “let’s make it look like we’re actually working” trope, a few rounds of the historically utterly useless grandstanding called “hearings in aid of legislation,” called it a day, and infuriatingly are being praised for making a fuss now, long after whatever harm may come from their inaction is already done.

National Dedma 

Reuters report raises uncomfortable questions (again) about Durterte’s drug war, but still fails to make an impression on the public, and most likely never will. 

THE people at Reuters by now must be completely exasperated. More than a year of effort that has produced a series of well-constructed and compelling reports detailing the seemingly wanton brutality of President Rodrigo Durterte’s “war on drugs” has elicited, at best, complete indifference among the Philippine public, and in not a few instances, accusations that the news agency is pursuing an agenda to destabilize a popular administration. If history, human nature, and the everyday realities of a world in which drugs are a fact of life are any sort of reliable guides, Reuters’ otherwise commendable work will almost certainly continue to be an exercise in futility.

In the latest installment of its series of reports, Reuters on Monday revealed CCTV footage from a midday drug raid in a Tondo neighborhood on October 11, which ended with three suspects shot dead by police. The official explanation from the police was predictable: The suspects opened fire on officers during a “buy-bust” operation, and were struck when the officers returned fire; in spite of the usual diligent effort by the officers on the scene to rush the wounded perpetrators to the hospital, they were declared dead on arrival. 

Reuters did not explain why its November 27 report was not published sooner, but in hindsight it probably should have, because the delay gave PNP chief Ronald Dela Rosa an excuse to deflect the salient point of the article – that the police account of the incident was obviously utter bullshit – and complain that its publication was simply “timed to make the PNP look bad.” President Durterte, who had taken the responsibility for leading the anti-drug campaign away from the PNP and given it to the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency after criticism in the wake of the apparent police execution of a 17-year-old – the bureaucratic transfer coincidentally happened the day after the October 11 raid in Tondo – has said that he will put the PNP back in charge, but has yet to make the order. Presumably, the publication of a clearly damning report showing that the PNP remains as uncontrollable as ever would cause him to think twice about doing so. 

Culture Clash

Or perhaps not, as public reaction one way or another to the report has been virtually nonexistent. Part of that might be due to the manner in which the story was instantly trivialized by the Philippine Daily Inquirer, who ran it as the paper’s banner story on Wednesday. Not only did using a two day old wire story as a banner have media professionals and what little critically-thinking audience the Inquirer has left shaking their heads in astonishment, the paper’s carefully cultivated reputation as a media instrument of the reviled Liberal Party shades even their most innocuous news stories as propaganda; fairly or not, it has reached a point where the quickest way to ensure an important story is dismissed is to make sure that the country’s largest newspaper puts it on the front page. 

A more substantial reason is that Reuters’ approach to the broader story of the “drug war” and the reaction, or lack thereof, to it by the Filipino public are illustrative of two completely different and utterly incompatible ethics. Although there is very little to find fault with in Reuters’ exercise of journalism in its long investigation of the drug war, some shallow-minded critics have accused the global news agency of having “an agenda” in producing negative stories. The irony in that is that those critics are right, albeit for a reason they are likely unaware of, and almost certainly incapable of understanding. 

While the country is occasionally globally newsworthy, it is not now and probably never will be enough of a priority for Reuters to put its reputation on the line – a reputation that predates the Philippines’ independent existence by close to half a century, incidentally – to try to manipulate local politics. These are people who are accustomed to looking at much wider horizons than that. Nevertheless, the truism that objectivity in journalism is a clumsy myth applies as much to the professionals at Reuters as it does any Manila-based hack. Reuters does have a bias that drives a clear agenda, but it is one that is more pure (which is not to say it is correct or incorrect, but simply intellectually unsullied by the messy nature of reality) than it appears to most, and particularly dissenters of the DDS ilk who are inseparable from their own biases. 

A philosophical consequence of looking at the world from a very broad perspective is the adoption of a deontological ethic; the patterns of life on this planet, if observed on a large scale and over a long period of time, reveal that there are at least a few moral rights and wrongs. The world is a big place, and Reuters has been around since 1851; a lot of water has gone under the bridge in that time, so to speak, and as an organization Reuters has watched enough of it pass to internalize certain sensibilities, whether the people in the organization consciously realize it or not. Large numbers of people dying at the hands of others, in a manner organized to some degree by the state, and apparently because of who they are, is prima facie wrong – it offends one of those sensibilities, and impels Reuters to approach the story from that perspective. Conscious professionalism stops them short of going beyond the deontological compulsion to report, “this is happening,” and conclude, “there is, as far as we have been able to determine, no sound reason why it should be happening in the manner it is.” 

Of course, those who are offended by Reuters’ apparent questioning of the righteousness of Durterte’s war on drugs invariably point out that the reporters are not reporting the “other” side of the story: The crime, the violence, the corruption that the pervasiveness of drugs has wrought, the tragic, and just as morally wrong, cases in which some innocent is robbed/assaulted/raped/murdered by the “drug-crazed” criminal who is allowed to run amok because of a broken system infested with corrupt cops and politicians. Those sorry circumstances are also legitimately morally wrong; implicitly or explicitly, the human toll of the drug war is justified, and justified in its means, because of the necessity to at least try to right that wrong. 

Reuters could certainly investigate that story – it is not unreasonable to assume that its collective experience has imparted the sensibility that the existence of a violent drug culture is as morally wrong as the systematic, state-sanctioned extermination of people for legal cause but without due process – and perhaps it should. But if it did so and remained faithful to both the deontological and journalistic ethics that are the bases of its credibility, it could never conclude that the facts of that story justify the facts of the other. 

Again, it comes down to a matter of scale of perspective. Reuters has the benefit of a view that takes in a century and a half of the entire world, more than enough input to learn that, in the long run, the human quirk of self-destructiveness and the economy of intoxicating substances it has created can be controlled to a tolerable level at best but not eliminated; that in the long run, the only guaranteed result of violence is violence; and that in the long run, societies prosper when order and regularity, in whatever form it takes, prevails. The average Filipino, on the other hand, whose perspective is understandably narrower in terms of both time and space, knows that his well-being and comfort would be more secure if the pestilential presence of unproductive drunks, drug users, petty criminals, and other threatening riff-raff infesting his and every other neighborhood in the country no matter how many laws exist were removed now

His perspective is as correct in its own context as is Reuters’, which is why the readers and the reporters will remain eternally perplexed as to why the other just doesn’t “get it”: In one world the ends justify the means; in the other, the means reap the ends they logically deserve. Neither is more right nor wrong than the other, and in the vast vacuum that lies between them, nothing can change. Under those circumstances, pretending nothing is wrong with things as they are literally becomes the best option, and the realization that it is for so many people in so many other places, too, is not much of a consolation.