- 39 Chinese nationals were found dead in a smuggler's truck in Essex
- Boris Johnson faced an uphill battle to get an election before Christmas
- Google claimed the mantle of 'quantum supremacy', IBM disagreed
- A newer, better gene-editing technique was discovered
- Justin Trudeau narrowly won a second term in office
- Benny Gantz was given an opportunity to form government in Israel
- SoftBank rescued WeWork; Adam Neumann leaves with nearly $1b
- Japan battened down the hatches ahead of more damaging storms
- The Islamic State added TikTok to its youth radicalisation strategy
- Egypt revealed its biggest-ever haul of preserved coffin artefacts
Last week we explored the very real risks posed by a cooling global economy and a looming tower of corporate debt. This week we leave the hallowed halls of the International Monetary Fund to step into the troubled streets of Chile and Lebanon.
Action and reaction in Chile
The American economist and Nobel laureate Milton Friedman would speak often about one of his favourite subjects: the 'miracle of Chile'. He told a tale about how economics had unshackled the Chilean people from authoritarianism, and everyone had made a few bucks along the way. And so, even as Augusto Pinochet's soldiers were throwing priests and trade unionists out of helicopters, a group of Chilean economists was studying at the feet of Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago. These economists then returned to Santiago and guided Chile's military junta on a path of economic liberalisation and privatisation, ostensibly (at least in the eyes of Friedman) emancipating their people through the power of neoliberal economics.
But events this week showed that maybe Chile's economic 'miracle' was really more of a mirage. Over the past week 20,000 soldiers and police have been deployed to Santiago to quell unrest in which 18 people have already died . Hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets, and now martial law has been declared for the first time (excluding natural disasters) since the days of Pinochet's regime. And all of this was precipitated by the price of a train ticket. The protests bloomed just over a week ago, after the government of Sebastián Piñera hiked the price of train tickets by 30 pesos . The initial public reaction consisted merely of youths hurdling turnstiles at Santiago train stations. But a heavy-handed police response then became a vector for larger and larger demonstrations.
That 30 peso increase might not sound like much to you – after all it's less than 5 US cents – but it is a heavy burden for Chile's working class, many of whom spend considerable portions of their pay-checks on commuter fares. It turns out that the 'miracle of Chile' was a miracle only for those who benefited from the sale of all of Chile's public assets (it is the only country in the world where water is privatised). The economic drive hollowed out its middle-class and working-class to such an extent that spending just a few extra pesos on train tickets can destabilise a family's budget. The people are on the streets, and Piñera has been forced to make deep concessions to appease them. Now the government must address stagnant wages, nonexistent public utilities and widespread inequality.
The true colours of Lebanon
The Lebanese economy is in the toilet. It has sky-rocketing unemployment, entrenched inequality, and the third highest debt-to-GDP ratio in the world . The government has few options – there is a $10b stimulus package from international donors on the horizon, but that money is predicated on further cost-cutting (read: service-cutting). This is an unattractive option for the government and so it has found some novel ways to raise revenue. The national budget from earlier in the year was heavy on new taxes and cost-cutting. And now the government has also outlined a tax on WhatsApp voice calls .
The response has been swift and decisive: tens of thousands, and then hundreds of thousands, of Lebanese have poured out onto the streets to register their anger. They're blockading the streets, and quite clearly aren't going away anytime soon. The tax on WhatsApp calls may have gotten the ball rolling, but it's rolling directly towards the nexus of Lebanon's political elite and its banks. As one young protester said, "the economic reform starts from the [bank] accounts of our politicians ." Lebanese banks hoover up the government's public debt, and in return are beneficiaries of a lower tax rate than everyday businesses.
What may be most extraordinary about these protests is how good natured they've been to date. There have been a few occasional clashes at roadblocks, but no signs of contagious violence. Enormous crowds have channelled a deep sense of disenfranchisement and done so while having, literally, a party. Martyrs' Square in the capital has appeared a 50/50 mix of demonstration and techno rave. Passengers are singing protest songs the moment their planes land at Beirut's international airport. So pervasive are the economic pressures that for the first time in a long time, the mass movement has not broken along sectarian lines . As in Chile, the government has been forced to shelve its onerous tax plan, but one senses that the horse has already bolted.
The situation in northern Syria remains fluid. It took Donald Trump a matter of days to flatly contradict his order for a full withdrawal of American forces. Some described this as forgetfulness, but we'd argue that he's just highly suggestible. Regardless, it's looking like the American garrison near the hotspot of Deir ez-Zor will actually be reinforced with tanks (something that will require a significant amount of resources for resupply). The prize being guarded? None other than the huge Conoco gas plant. But for all the attention on Trump's 'evolving' foreign policy, the real star of the show is Vladimir Putin.
On Tuesday the Russian president played host to Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan at his summer retreat in Sochi . There the two men shook on a deal that will further entrench the new regional order. The Russian client of Damascus has now spread its military across most of the country (the ceasefire in the north coincided with renewed hostilities in Idlib ). Similarly, the Kurds will be expelled from the border zone to Turkey's delight . A slightly more successful venture than Trump's rambling letter to Erdogan, which the Turkish leader is said to have balled up and thrown straight in the bin. Russia is now the most important external power-broker in the Middle East and is also slowly finding its foothold in Africa. The ideological battle of the Cold War may be over but the Kremlin is keen on rekindling some old relationships on that continent (mainly through selling an eye-watering amount of arms and munitions).
Loose lips sink ships
Some hearings on Capitol Hill are pure theatrics: crusading interrogators, prideful captive subjects, courtroom suspense. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's appearance before the House Financial Services Committee on Wednesday had all of the above. Theatrical, yes, but it certainly wasn't without substance. The powerful committee he reluctantly appeared before is investigating the controversial Libra cryptocurrency project . If his answers were intended to allay Congress, and by extension some very sceptical regulators, he plainly failed. Democratic congresswomen Maxine Waters and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez asked questions about the Cambridge Analytica scandal that Zuckerberg simply could not, or would not, answer. The plan to disrupt the future of banking may be hobbled by political disruptions of yesteryear.
Incredibly, this wasn't the most damaging performance of the week. A day earlier Bill Taylor, America's ambassador to Ukraine, gave weight and authority to the impeachment proceedings against Donald J. Trump. Taylor gave frank and extensive testimony on the fact that, yes, Trump had demanded quid pro quo from Kiev. It takes a lot to sit before lawmakers and tell them that your boss broke the law. It was scheduled as a closed session but Taylor had barely stood up to leave the room before his answers were leaked. The president fired a salvo of recriminatory tweets that insulted many but did not land on their target. We may yet see articles of impeachment before the year is out.
The Best of Times
'Afghan Hero Girl'
Please read this warming tale .
The answer is under your feet
If you didn't read this during the week, here's your chance for redemption. This piece argues that we can arrest the momentum of global heating (at least for a decade or so) by launching a concerted global effort to regenerate depleted soil. Our extractive farming processes have stripped much of the world's soil of crucial nutrients, and a study has identified 2 billion hectares of land that can be rescued. It will only cost $300b. That may sound like a lot, but it's what the world spends on arms every two months. Healthy earth (and the vegetation it feeds) will lock in surprising amounts of carbon: all we need to do is care for it.
The Worst of Times
The disappearing villages of Odisha
When we describe the slow-burning catastrophe of climate change, our focus is often on vulnerable metropolises (see: Miami). We are drawn to the cinematic scale of these disasters, but they don't leave us with an accurate picture of our response to rising seas. Instead, look to the Bay of Bengal , which is slowly gnawing away at the villages on the Indian coastline. Sea erosion claims more homes every year. With no money for sea-walls, there is only one option: a slow and disorganised retreat from the waves.
How to report cyber bullying
China is going hammer and tongs against Taiwan with a massive internet disinformation campaign in the lead up to crucial elections in the island nation. It appears that Greater China will be won with non-stop pestering or not at all.
Quote of the week
"Eddie and I both know it's all fair in love and war, and there's nothing better in a time of war than to throw a wee distraction out. You guys can't resist, best clickbait in the world."
– All Blacks coach Steve Hansen breaks the fourth wall with gathered journalists ahead of a tantalising semi-final against England.
Headline of the week
Five hitmen jailed after each hired the other to carry out murder that was never committed.
– The Independent makes a very strong showing for headline of the century.
You've gotta spend money to make money, apparently. Our special mention goes to this businessman who paid nearly $1m for a parking space in Hong Kong. One day we'll look back on the desire to privately own cars and the land on which they are parked as antiquated and inefficient.
Some choice long-reads