Weekend Reading – May 6, 2018

1. An early (2:30PM!) Lunch with the FT in Madrid with Pervuian novelist and international treasure Mario Vargas Llosa. The reporting and Vargas Llosa have an interesting conversation on the monumental shift in Latin American politics that has taken place over Vargas’ lifetime: military dictatorships and socialism have (mostly) given way to democracies throughout the region.

After briefly addressing the small-handed elephant in the room (“so Third World-esque”), Vargas Llosa does a quick survey on the current state of South American politics: Brazil, Argentina, Peru, Colombia, and the tragic state of Venezuela.

The conversation touches on the upcoming Mexican elections, which I think are a greatly underreported story and the cause for looming conflict between the pigheaded US President and their third largest trading partner. The upcoming choice between the nationalist, “Mexico first” Andrés Manuel López Obrador and the hegemonic, long-ruling PRI, is certain to result in public rows as each candidate seeks to position Mexico as a strong, independent country.

2. The Paris Bureau Chief at the FT does a survey of the first year of Macron’s Presidency: characterized by a wave of business- and globalization-friendly legislation, as well as a centralized power structure that gives Macron and his immediate deputies massive purview over the French State.

Despite Macron’s roots within the administration of former President Francois Hollande, it is interesting how much Macron has intentionally sought to distance himself from traditional French governance in the creation of the En Marche political party, his Presidential campaign, and his first year in power.

Per Laurent Bigorgne, of Paris-based think-tank Institut Montaigne and a fundemantal part of the founding of En Marche: “Macron’s election is like Hiroshima year zero. A nuclear bomb has fallen on French politics and we’re still standing in the rubble.”

That “rubble” includes a lack of a formal En Marche political organization and a coherent ideology behind “Macron-ism,” two concerns that could prove difficult for Macron’s political future. But for now, Macron increasingly seems to be a signal of a growing bipolar leadership in Europe, and a face of globalism in the face of anti-immigration, nationalist rhetoric in the region and throughout the world.

3. In the age of Netflix and Amazon, British broadcaster Jeremy Paxman takes a look at the current state of the BBC, which he points out has been maligned for much of its history.

Despite a perpetual and comedic state of organizational bloat, the BBC’s fixed license fee (+free for those above 75-years-old) prevents it from securing sports rights and investing in mega-epics like its digital counterparts, and results in it often losing its rights internationally to the likes of Netflix and Amazon.

However, the BBC continues to be a fantastically successful organization in cultural importance and commercial success. Paxon’s critques seem to be overly simplistic and near-universal for all streaming platforms: a) make content that people want to watch, and b) why can’t I find what I want to watch, when I want to watch it?

4. In the New Yorker, I read three complementary pieces contending with the modern realities of combating terrorism and protecting our national security:

First, the New Yorker’s profile of former National Security H.R. McMaster reads as a useful companion piece to the NYTimes magazine’s earlier profile of Secretary of Defense Mattis (with interesting insights on their internecine conflicts) on how individuals with a military background see their participation in the Trump Presidency as one of “duty” to their country. The article is juicy and full of continued insights on the Trump administration’s disfunction, but where I think it is especially interesting is where it reflects the disconnect between McMaster’s academic studies on the failures of the US Presidency in managing the Vietnam War and his participation and governance of our current global war on terror.

Second, its profile of former clandestine CIA officer and Savannah police officer Patrick Skinner is an interesting look of someone who came away from his experience combating Islamic terrorism disillusioned and with a conviction to try and conduct the same type of “hearts-and-minds” war-waging that the US has committed itself to around the world to his hometown community of Savannah. The article is a sympathetic look at a single man fighting a losing battle — the continued militarization of police forces, the ongoing race-based conflict between local communities and their police, and the mental health epidemic that rages across the country.

Third, an interesting discussion on the legal gray area of striking back against malicious hackers seeking to steal intellectual property and personal information, or sabotage computer networks. The article surveys companies, cyberterrorism specialists, and legislators on the war being raged online, and the lack of adequate responses that exist for national or extranational attacks.

The NYTimes magazine covered a related case, the so-called “Billion-Dollar Bank Job,” that discussed an attempted $951m heist by to-date unknown hackers (suspected to be connected to North Korea), brazenly done by hacking the Bangladeshi Central Bank and using the seemingly safe SWIFT international transfer infrastructure. The article discusses the ‘vulnerabilities’ of the millions/billions of dollars held in Central Banks across the developing (and developed) world, and further cements the importance of building the types of ammunition and reciprocal methods outlined in the New Yorker piece.

5. CityLab shared an excellent analysis on the effects of gentrification in Philadelphia, and the impact of two complementary pieces of legislation by Mayor Michael Nutter to ensure that vulnerable homeowners are not adversely impacted and exploited.

The first, called the Actual Value Initiative (AVI), sought to better align property taxes with their property values, a much-needed boost to revenue in a tax-starved city in need of revenue (though not without waste and corruption). The second, called the Longtime Owner Occupants Program (LOOP), is focused on tax abatement for individuals below a certain income threshold who have lived in their homes for 10 years or more, and experienced at significant increase in their assessed home values. It decreased delinquency rates for homeowners who ended up claiming it in gentrifying neighborhoods.

The article was a heartening look at the sometimes-successful impact of studied, well-implemented legislation on increasing equality, and another example of the successful tenure of Michael Nutter (reflection: the less you hear about a mayor / governor in local papers, the more successful their tenure likely is.)

6. I was incredibly amused by the NYTimes’ coverage of Bob Dylan’s recent foray into the premium spirits universe with his “Heaven’s Door” whiskey.

The initial coverage recounts the unintentionally hilarious interactions between Dylan and his liquor-industry partners on the flavor profile of his whiskey (Dylan: “It should feel like being in a wood structure”), as well as Dylan’s ongoing efforts to resist categorization and spurn those who attempt to understand his varied and seemingly-inexplicable commercial ventures.

The follow-up story was a review of the Heaven’s Door whiskey itself by a whiskey reviewer, which reads like any generic whiskey or wine review – which is, I suppose, an implicit endorsement.

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