Tuesday 24 July 2018

A Note on the Fires in Athens

Embed from Getty Images

Yesterday, on Monday, 23 July, two major fires broke out in or near the Attica region. The first was at Kineta, near Megara. This fire broke out in a forested area along the national road.

The second fire or fires broke out along the shoreline to the north east of the capital, in the area between Rafina and Mati. This is a heavily-forested urban area, where houses, apartments and hotels are located between the shoreline and national road, and above the national road on the foothills of Mount Penteli.

A few items of interest:

a.     High winds and dry weather: The winds yesterday were exceptionally strong, with wind gusts of up to 85 km/hour reported. These were seen first hand even in the centre of Athens. These are absolutely fatal conditions for a fire.

b.     In the Rafina / Mati area, winds change direction rapidly due to a number of geomorphological, marine and climactic factors.

c.     While I do not know the Kineta area, I am very familiar with the entire stretch between Rafina and Schinias. This area is characterized by very narrow streets and is totally covered with pine trees. There are also a number of steep valleys or gulleys that often block road access and are conduits for flames.

Photos taken in the aftermath of the fires show burnt cars blocking roads. We can assume that as people fled, traffic barriers and heavy smoke would have impeded their flight. As the wind changed, the fire would have moved more rapidly than a running person, leaping from pine tree to pine tree. The trees would have ignited immediately, together with the entire ground which is usually covered with pine needles and other dessicated plants and shrubs.

According to Kathimerini and Skai News, one group of 26 people were fleeing towards the sea when they were stopped by flames approximately 30 meters from the waves. I can only imagine the terror induced by the heat, the high smoke and the panic. All 26 died.

During the fire, and in the aftermath, two theories broke out:

a.     The first was that this was an act of arson by propery developers, who want to burn the land in order to build on it. I can’t see this happening in Rafina – Mati. This area is within an urban area, so the practice of burning and then squatting would not normally be a motivating factor. I presume that enough of the land plots are registered in the national cadaster. I can also attest that every serious buyer today looks very carefully at whether a land plot falls in the forest area or not, and makes their decisions accordingly. Finally, I remind everyone that Greece remains in a deep economic depression despite recent headline macro numbers, and I find it improbable that new building is taking place given the vast number of unsold properties on the market.  

b.     The second was that this was an act of arson by a specific foreign country which wanted revenge over a recent diplomatic incident. I give very little credence to this scenario.

I do not know if arson or politics were involved. But I do know that every year, fires are started everywhere in Greece by drivers throwing lit cigarette butts out their car window. I have witnessed this happening, and I have also witnessed the aftermath.

I have also heard many voices blaming the state, and its lack of preparedness. Normally, I am one of the harshest critics, as this blog attests. However, I can also state that this terrain is simply very difficult, if not impossible, to protect against fire. Both streets and lots are literally covered with pine trees. The lots and streets are small, and narrow, so it is very easy for fire to leap from tree to tree, which it does with alarming speed.

Together with the high smoke, the wind speed and the wind direction change, I am not sure any fire brigade could have coped with this event. And unless residents were prepared to cut down pine trees (which are cherished for their shade), I don’t see how effective fire breaks could have been prepared, absent razing built up areas to create 30- or 50-meter wide fire breaks.

While we could take further measures to mitigate the risks of fires of this kind, we should be under no illusions as to the social cost and cohesion needed to do so. Even Japan, which has invested hundreds of billions in disaster preparedness, has not been able to perfectly plan for every disaster. And Greece is far from being Japan in terms of social and government planning. 

There is aerial footage of the burnt areas here:

The death toll currently ranks at above 50, while many media are claiming above 60. It is a human tragedy which is incomprehensible in our current times. It is a tragedy which sadly occurs every summer, though not in these numbers. The last time the toll was so high was in 2007.

I would like to respectfully suggest that we resist the natural impulse to rage at unknown figures, or the state, or engage in conspiracy theories until further information comes to light.

In the meantime, the Hellenic Red Cross is collecting donations for the survivors. I hope you will join me in making a donation to them.

© Philip Ammerman, 2018

Saturday 11 February 2017

Unelecting Trump, or the Dark Course of American Democracy

Sometime in late October, I mentioned in a conversation on Facebook that one main concern I had about Donald Trump is that it would be impossible to unelect him. His authoritarian tendencies, which have also been exhibited by the Republican Party in the past 16 years, mean that the rules would be changed to such an extent as to return either the same candidate or his surrogate to power for a long time to come.

How would this be possible? Anyone controlling the Presidency, the Congress and soon the Supreme Court has extraordinary power to influence elections, even though voting is a state responsibility.

Here is a simple catalogue of the alarming trends that are occurring:

1. Voter Suppression

Voter suppression is a strategy to influence the outcome of an election by discouraging or preventing people from voting. (Wikipedia)

Voter suppression has been actively used in key battleground states like Florida (famously in the 1999/2000 vote recount) and Ohio. A complete list of voter suppression techniques seen in the United States can be found on Wikipedia.

The Center for American Progress has a detailed list of actual cases of what it claims are voter suppression in a well-documented article here. Together with the fact that over 6 million convicted felons cannot vote, it is clear that a significant number of the American people are systematically being deprived of their right to vote.

Donald Trump has repeatedly cast doubt on the electoral result, stating that he won by “millions of votes”, and suggesting that voter fraud is the reason he lost the popular vote despite all evidence to the contrary (to date). Given this approach, it is easy to understand how a Trump Administration will choose to ignore further activities in voter suppression in key states.

2. Gerrymandering

Gerrymandering is the process by which a state sets its voting district boundaries in order to achieve a disproportionate political result for certain groups. Several states in the US have extremely complex voting districts which have been defined as a result of partisan gerrymandering.

For more information on this, please see:

Partisan gerrymandering is illegal according to both the US Constitution and subsequent US law. As Wikipedia notes:

Various constitutional and statutory provisions may compel a court to strike down a gerrymandered redistricting plan. At the federal level, the Supreme Court has held that if a jurisdiction’s redistricting plan violates the Equal Protection Clause or Voting Rights Act of 1965, a federal court must order the jurisdiction to propose a new redistricting plan that remedies the gerrymandering. If the jurisdiction fails to propose a new redistricting plan, or its proposed redistricting plan continues to violate the law, then the court itself must draw a redistricting plan that cures the violation and use its equitable powers to impose the plan on the jurisdiction

How would a Trump Administration enhance gerrymandering? Three ways:

a.    By packing the Supreme Court
b.    By weakening the Voting Rights Act of 1965, for instance by creating for intrusive needs for voter registration and reducing the franchise
c.     By refusing to actively enforce these acts through the Attorney General’s office.

Jeff Sessions, who was recently confirmed as Attorney General, has already been rejected by a Senate confirmation panel in 1986 due to allegations of voter intimidation of blacks in Alabama. Mr. Session was, at that time, being nominated as a federal judge.

It is sadly notable that conduct that condemned Mr. Sessions in 1986, during Ronald Reagan’s second term, is considered acceptable in the Senate during Donald Trump’s first term.

3. Fake News / Terrorism

Donald Trump has, both during his campaign but also as President, repeatedly trumpeted fake news, and has conflated or wrongly attributed incidents of terrorism.

The list of fake news is now too long to catalogue, but several parties have made valiant attempts. Here are some:

Why does this matter? Donald Trump has now normalised the fact that he spreads fake news. Prior to his inauguration, this was considered acceptable by the people who voted for him. He is now President of the United States, and it is clear that fake news is not going to go away anytime soon.

How will fake news affect future elections?

a.    It will be spread not only by the usual ecosystem of political surrogates and trollers, but increasingly by elected officials. This is already occurring.

b.    The virulence of attacks on people for refusing to believe in fake news is now at an all-time high. Note the language of Donald Trump’s recent twitter attacks on John McCain over the Yemen raid.

c.     It will increasingly conflate anti-terrorism with patriotism and with supporting Republic candidates. This is an old script, first pioneered by George W. Bush after the 9/11 attacks, and repeatedly enhanced since by the Republican party.

4. The Family Business

Donald Trump’s conflicts of interest are increasingly well-documented. He remains involved in the Donald Trump Organisation, and has assigned management of this to his two sons.

The Trump organisation has hundreds of business relationships with both foreign countries and with key lenders such as Deutsche Bank, that the US government is currently involved with in regulation.

His daughter Ivanka, who has her own business interests, remains an advisor, as does his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. The Trump organisation has announced plans to expand nationally.

Trump’s past record of work in dealing with complex property development codes and requirements in New York, as well as his record of strategic bankruptcies and non-payment of suppliers indicate that he knows how to use the public sector.

USA Today has counted 4,095 lawsuits against Donald Trump over the past 30 years. How will a US District or Federal Court rule in a case where the ultimate defendant is a sitting President?

It is apparent that the incentives for using the Presidency to expand the personal wealth of Donald Trump and his family members are fully aligned.

5. The 1930s Playbook

Nearly every aspect of Trump’s business policy as expressed today could have been taken from a 1930’s authoritarian playbook:
  • Condemn US companies for “moving jobs abroad”
  • Condemn free trade, when recognising that more American jobs will be lost by pulling out of key trade agreements such as NAFTA, particularly in key US sectors such as automotive assembly and agricultural exports
  • Threaten successful foreign exporters, such as BMW, with a 35% tariff, while refusing to recognise that Germany can retaliate with the same tariff
  • Ignore the tremendous inequality in the US tax system and household earnings by promising yet more tax cuts for the very wealthy
  • Appoint ideological members of Cabinet who are intent on sabotaging and destroying the very entities they have been appointed to lead
  • Condemn the press for “fake news” and “fake polls”
  • Condemn specific companies for failing to carry Ivanka Trump’s clothing line
  • Create an unspecified foreign enemy (all refugees, all Muslims, all Chinese, all Mexicans) and promise a grateful and impoverished nation protection and strength.

The list is long, and will no doubt continue to grow in the next few years.

6. Draining the Swamp and Lobbying

The United States government is the largest financial organisation in the world. It is also the world’s largest single debtor (at the Federal level) and the largest absolute debtor when combining the Federal Government, 50 State governments, municipalities, the Federal Reserve, and organisations such as Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac.

The incentives of doing business with the US Government, as well as seeking regulatory abatement from it, are simply too high to counteract. Donald Trump is a billionaire who is appointing a Cabinet of billionaires. Does anyone really believe that the business interests that gain so much from the government will suddenly change their course?

If anything, they will be emboldened. This pattern has been repeated throughout history.


The question is really why this is being done. The Republicans control all three branches of government: Executive, Legislative, Judicial (at least embodied in the Supreme Court). This sets the stage for a period of time in which they will be able to implement their policy agenda, subject to the limit where internal Republican conflicts interfere with the process.

Given where things stand now, I increasingly believe that protecting and extending political power is as important as policy making for this Party. We see this in the patterns of gerrymandering and voter suppression in Republican-controlled states.

We see no hope of a rational policy debate or voting system in the United States, and we see growing corporate interests and other special interests influencing policy and voting results.

We see that these interests flourish regardless of the political party in power.

As a result, I am increasingly pessimistic as to whether the United States can ever unelect Donald Trump, or someone like him.

As I have written in another post, the United States resembles to me the Roman Republic in its final days. We have just elected our man on a horse. Such men never go quietly.

© Philip Ammerman, 2017

Thursday 9 February 2017

The Irrelevance of Resistance in the Senate Confirmation Hearings

I find the Senate confirmation hearings for Donald Trump’s cabinet interesting but a mainly a distraction. Far too many friends and colleagues are investing themselves in blocking this nominee or that. They are free to do so, of course, but it is something of a fool’s errand.

Donald Trump has won the election, and the Republican party controls:
  • The Presidency
  • The Senate (52 seats)
  • The House (241 seats)

This means that no matter what, if the Republican Party maintains voter discipline, it passes its candidates by simple majority vote.

This should hardly be controversial. The American voters have spoken, according to the rules of the Electoral College and voting tradition. There is a new government in Washington. This government has every right to form a cabinet and begin the process of governing.

In a parliamentary system, this corresponds to a vote of confidence upon announcing a cabinet. It happens all the time.

The Senate confirmation hearings are useful in reviewing personal priorities or opinions or past history, but that is all these can achieve. Yes, the current crop of nominated secretaries may be controversial or repugnant to some. But they have every political right to take office. That’s the result of an election, given the duopoly in the US political system.

A Parliamentary system with more than 2 parties might bring about a more serious confirmation process, but even this is uncertain given the elected representatives we see in many countries.

Anyone expending their time and energy on trying to block Betsy Devos or Jeff Sessions should understand this. A party elected by majority has a mandate to govern, with the candidates it selects. 

If these candidates happen to be dangerous ideologues not fit to manage a corner store … well … that’s the reflection of the Electoral College’s will. When you examine campaign finance and voting records: is Congress any different?

If people are really that angry, it may be far better for them to invest time and energy in something tangible, like organising for the 2018 mid-term elections. The confirmation hearings are a theatrical diversion that offer nothing more than reinforcement bias. 

(c) Philip Ammerman, 2017 

Friday 20 January 2017

Inauguration Day

I see a constant stream of frustration, disgust and anger on Facebook and many other channels tonight as President Donald J. Trump takes office. Certainly, there is much to be disgusted about.

Let’s look beyond the anger. The question is, as individuals, what can any one individual do in the face of a system such as the one we find ourselves in?

Politics is disparate, and something of an equilibrium. Donald Trump and the Republicans control Congress for the next 2 years. If you are angry, mobilise now and win a Democratic majority in Congress in 2018.

The next elections are on Tuesday, November 6th, 2018. All 435 seats in the House of Representatives are included, as are 33 of the 100 seats in the Senate.

If you are angry at Trump and his election, then one creative and positive outlet you have is to organize now for November 2018.

But while you are doing this, it’s important to reflect on a couple of things.

First of all, don’t define yourself solely by what you are against. Define yourself as well by what you are for. You will find that this is more difficult, particularly when you ask others to stand for the same things, and vote together.

So compromise is essential in politics.

Second of all, reflect that many of the voters who voted for Trump have a serious reason for doing so (and I’m not referring to the lobbyists or billionaires seeking tax breaks or public contracts). I’m referring to the middle class and the blue collar families, who have really been left behind.

Ironically, Hillary Clinton’s policies would have been much more beneficial for most in this group. Trump won because his supporters believed he would do a better job (and he won the Electoral College math).

Whatever the case, the United States faces drastic problems in terms of debt, falling tax revenue, loss of economic competitiveness, monopoly situations in many sectors (including start-ups), an abysmal national healthcare policy, an unbalanced military policy, and many other problems.

These are not going to be easy problems to solve. At least not sustainably, or rationally.

So your first job is probably to try to understand what the current situation is, what the root causes are, and what the possible solutions are.

These solutions are going to cost money. Unless you are prepared to pay for them (or force others to pay for them), they will be difficult to solve.

Finally, if I can share one point from my personal experience: Back in 1999/2000, I was equally horrified by the Florida vote recount and George W. Bush’s election.

Much of what I feared from that time materialized. Most of this was due to an incredible ignorance among the governing class, as well as the mendacity of those who support and enable it.

In 2017, this is now infinitely worse. It is institutionalized.

My advice is: make sure you are taking care of yourself. We are now in a very “risk-on” world. You simply can’t take anything for granted. Do whatever is possible to survive and evolve, especially financially. Protect your assets. Improve your employability. Make sure you are as flexible, nimble and agile.

The issues we are seeing now are only leading indicators of a far more serious and deleterious situation, and one that is practically impossible to reverse.

So, get ready.