Thoughts on a double vodka

my last Trade Tripper BusinessWorld column for 2013:

Before anything else, to borrow a line from Jim Carrey: a Christ-y, Christ-y Merry Christmas to all! Of course, Christmas was three days ago but you know what they say, every day should be Christmas Day. On the other hand, 2013 has four days left to go and whatever you may say of it, the year that soon will be was, was never boring.

Many will be greeting the New Year with champagne, which in this country means any wine that has a gas problem. But that’s fine with me, as long as one doesn’t get too haughty with it. I’ll probably greet 2014 with a Gibson in my hand, which is actually just a martini with a little onion in it (and perhaps ice). Which reminds me of my favorite martini quote: one is all right, two are too much, and three are not enough.

Pope Francis was chosen by Time as its Man of the Year. Which doesn’t mean anything really. After all, today’s Time Magazine isn’t exactly The Economist. And one suspects that Pope Francis was chosen because of his alleged "progressive" views. Just ask the New York Times. Which is completely the opposite of reality. If anything, the selection of Pope Francis serves as vindication of Pope Benedict XVI. What with Catholic doctrine on contraception, abortion, same-sex marriage, divorce, and euthanasia already ably defended by PBXVI, what is left for Pope Francis to do is to build on the strong foundations his predecessor left him.

One of my favorite pieces of dialogue is from the "Great Game" episode of Sherlock:

Sherlock: "Just tell me what happened from the beginning."
Barry: "We’ve been to a bar, a nice place, and I was chattin’ with one of the waitresses and Karen weren’t happy with that, so we got back to the hotel and ended up having a bit of a ding dong, didn’t we? She was gettin’ at me, saying I weren’t a real man--"
Sherlock: "Wasn’t."
Barry: "What?"
Sherlock: "It’s not weren’t, it’s wasn’t."
Barry: "Oh..."
Sherlock: "Go on."
Barry: "Well, then I don’t know how it happened but suddenly there’s a knife in my hands. And you know, my old man was a butcher so I know how to handle knives. He learned us how to cut up a piece--"
Sherlock: "Taught."
Barry: "What?"
Sherlock: "Taught you how to cut up a piece."
Barry: "Yeah, well, then I done it."
Sherlock: "Did it."
Barry: "I stabbed her over and over and over and I looked at her and she weren’t-- ... wasn’t movin’ no more. Any more."
Barry: "Hey, you gotta help me, Mr. Holmes! Everyone says you’re the best. Without you... I’ll get hung for this."
Sherlock: "No, no, Mr. Bewick, not at all. Hanged, yes."

Sherlock should be the grammar police on Facebook. That people air their numbingly inane dramas on social media is their right. But that they mangle the English language while doing so violates the human rights of those with a brain.

Speaking of Facebook, one of the funniest memes I saw had this quote: "Why name hurricane fag names like Sandy? Name that shit Hurricane Death Megatron 300 and I guarantee niggas be evacuating like they need to." The guy who wrote this (a black gentleman named Kendrick Lamar) has a point. Seriously. If instead of saying "storm surge," calling it by a non-technical name like (as a friend of mine suggested): "lalamunin kayo ng p*%#^ dagat!" (you will be swallowed up by the son-of-a-bitch sea) could have saved some lives.

Remember Tacloban? The need for recovery, the fact that the people there still need support, and with reports that relief goods being diverted somewhere else, all this took the backseat as people in Manila are bizarrely obsessing over bashing the Binays. I can understand that some people may not like them politically. But some of the hatred is unjustifiable. As far as I know, the Binay family never collaborated with foreign invaders or betrayed the Katipunan, looked down on non-mestizos; they continue to keep Philippine passports, speak fluent Filipino, and keep whatever wealth they have in the country. Frankly, for a Filipino to hurl insults based on skin color, of not being a coño, or being a nouveau riche, against another Filipino is despicable.

2013 is a good year for TV. Breaking Bad ended its run. So did Strike Back. New or relatively new shows hit their stride: Banshee, Dracula, Bates Motel. There are new great talk shows as well and most of them are on Fox. I realized that a lot of people hate Fox News but never actually watched a show. So I recommend The Five (seen currently at 5 p.m. on local cable) and Red Eye (unfortunately in the Philippines available only on the Internet). After all the smugness one gets watching CNN, smart common sense will be a welcome change indeed.

That’s it. Made my word quota for the week. Happy New Year all!


A very significant announcement

my Trade Tripper column in the recent weekend issue of BusinessWorld:

The morning air blazed insistently and the sun seemed to have come out earlier than usual. The young girl stretched her arms and let out a slight yawn. She could hear her mother in the kitchen, her father packing his satchel to go to the temple. Mary sat on the edge of the bed, gathering her thoughts, letting the sleep get out of her head.

Anna, Mary’s mother, pokes her head into the bedroom. "Get up Mary. What’s wrong with you?" Mary lets out an impish grin and lies back again in bed. "Awww... I want to sleep more," she teases. Anna grabs Mary’s arms and playfully pulls her. "No, get up," she says, "I have to go to the market. I want you to fill the vats with water before I get back." Mary follows her mother out of the room. A slice of bread was on the table and she washes her face with water. "Mary, stop splashing water all over the place!" her mother yells. "You clean that up, get more water from the well, and don’t forget to feed the chickens!" Anna continues, stepping out of the house, her words almost muffled by the shawl she wrapped around her. "Buy me figs, Mama!" Mary called out. "Yes," was Anna’s weary reply. Joachim, Mary’s father, rushes out of his study. He kisses Mary on the forehead, gives her a hug, and runs after Anna so they could walk together.

Alone, Mary shuffles around the quiet stone house, munching on her bread, and played a little with her doll by annoying the family cat with it. The cat runs away. Mary shrugs. Just over a year ago her life was vastly different. She worked in the temple and her daily routine alternated between service to the temple elders and study. But there was also lots of playtime with girls her age. It was a good life and Mary had no complaints. She even got to see her father at work every day. And since Nazareth was near the trade routes, there was always interesting news from Egyptian and Mesopotamian travellers who dropped by the temple.

Then she turned 12 years old. "Look here, my favorite daughter," her father teasingly said, as she happened to be Joachim and Anna’s only child, "we’ll have to marry you off." Several suitors immediately turned up. But it was the quiet Joseph, who dealt with good humor a pesky dove who insisted on sitting on Joachim’s head that sealed the deal. Joseph, however, had to go away on business for a year. In the meantime, Mary waited at her parents’ house.

Water and chicken chores done, she decided to cool off a little bit in her bedroom. It was while she was reminiscing over her favorite cousin Elizabeth, elderly but always ready with the jokes and now amazingly pregnant, that it happened.

There was a flash of white light and then there he suddenly was. He looked young, thought Mary of the strange visitor. It took her a while before she decided it was a boy she was talking to, well he seemed like a boy -- very fine features and his hair a bouncy blond. He tightly held a little trumpet. Even so, Mary had to admit feeling a little bit scared of this somewhat adorable, albeit odd, intruder. It was when he spoke, however, that utter shock hit her: Mary, you are to conceive by the Holy Spirit, give birth to the son of God, you shall call him Jesus.

It took a while and a fair bit of frantic cajoling by the youngster, but Mary eventually settled down. She began to think: is this kid for real? He seemed quite detailed, even giving me the baby’s name. But if I get pregnant as he described it my parents would be dishonored. Joseph too and he’d leave me. Who’d take care of me? I’d be disgraced, an outcast; assuming I don’t get stoned to death. And yet ...

Gabriel was, of course, loath to admit it but it was the most nerve-wracking assignment he ever had. And he was used to big jobs: engineering John the Baptist’s birth, supervising the seraphims and cherubims, and he even has the task of declaring the start of the apocalypse. But this, this waiting for the decision of a girl just approaching her teens, was different.

He would later say to Michael and Raphael, "my heart stopped when she was about to open her mouth." They laughed at this but they all knew that the whole of creation also held its breath. And that’s why they couldn’t help but be in awe of God’s cool steady nerves. Put simply, He made the monumentally staggering bet of putting the fate of everything He created upon a single answer of this simple unassuming girl.

Then it came: "I am the Lord’s servant. Be it done." 

(With thanks to various sources for details, particularly to St. Luke and the Blessed Catherine of Emmerich. Originally published BusinessWorld, December 2011)


Packaging Bali

is my Trade Tripper column in this weekend issue of BusinessWorld:

International trade does sometimes come up with surprises. Although the quality of the surprise is another matter. In any event, the 9th Ministerial Conference in Bali, Indonesia of the World Trade Organization (WTO) did try monumentally hard to live up to its hype. Say what you will, those engaged in international trade do have a flair for the dramatic.

With the shadow of past collapses looming, particularly the ghost of Cancun, negotiators agreed at the last minute (is there any other way?) to the "Bali Package." It essentially consists of 10 past agreements made at separate previous Ministerial Conferences and covers the areas of food security, trade facilitation, cotton, and preferential treatment for poorer countries.

The Package also contains provisions on the lowering of tariffs and agricultural subsidies, the inclusion of which nearly derailed the proceedings. In the end, India decided to go along but not after securing certain exemptions for its own agricultural subsidies.

Trade ministers certainly tried to put on optimistic faces regarding Bali’s conclusion. Our own Trade Secretary Greg Domingo, in an interview with local media, said that "overall, the Philippines will benefit from the Bali package. Under the agriculture agreement, developing countries like the Philippines will be able to maintain and expand its public stockholding for food security free from WTO dispute."

But, really, the significance of the Bali Package could only be considered suspect when you have commentators wryly concluding it was "better than nothing." DW’s Rolf Wenkel certainly thinks so, albeit with certain qualifications: "Many observers might see the compromise with India as a bad deal. But on the other hand the compromise is what made the Bali agreement possible and this will bring plenty of advantages in many other fields -- not just for a small number of countries like in regional agreements but for 159 countries around the globe. And that’s not just better than nothing but a historic success in the fight against protectionism."

On the other hand, Bloomberg reportage on the deal makes it appear as merely something to "buy time": "‘A successful Bali buys the WTO time to prove that multilateral trade talks can be productive on a regular basis and in a timely manner,’ said Terence Stewart, a trade lawyer based in Washington, in an e-mail yesterday. ‘The risk is that members will not address the underlying issues that have crippled the organization’s ability to respond to the changing business environment.’"

In short, the Bali Package doesn’t end anything, doesn’t conclude anything, but merely, in keeping with the "bicycle theory" of international trade, keeps the negotiations moving along in the hope something turns up in the future.

But even within that context, the significance of Bali is still dubious. Reuters had occasion to get the comment of Simon Evenett, professor of international trade at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland, and his assessment was that "beyond papering over a serious dispute on food security, precious little was progress was made at Bali. Dealing with the fracas on food security sucked the oxygen out of the rest of the talks."

Two considerations also need to be made regarding the Bali Package. The first has to do with the fact that the same needs to be approved by each individual WTO member governments before it becomes effective. In that regard, that India has an upcoming general election next year and with US President Barack Obama still without Trade Promotion Authority (and with an upcoming mid-term Congressional elections coming in 2014 that the Republicans are poised to gain advantages in) may even lead to possible delays in any eventual actual application of the Bali Package.

The other is the effect that the Bali Package has on the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (and vice-versa). The TPP is an expanded version of the 2005 Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement and currently includes as parties or potential parties Australia, Brunei, Chile, Canada, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States, and Vietnam. Japan and China are also considering or being considered for TPP membership.

Australia’s Trade Minister Andrew Robb, although lauding the Bali Package as making it easier for trade in goods due to the trade facilitation provisions of the agreement, nevertheless was quoted by the Financial Review as saying that the WTO deal will "not influence" ongoing negotiations for the TPP.

And there lies whatever significance Bali may have. Because, as the Wall Street Journal pointed out, immediately "after reaching a deal in Bali, several trade officials traveled to Singapore to work on a regional trade pact involving 12 Pacific Rim countries, known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership."

The best way to ensure "developmental" success for developing countries is through multilateralism. But, as your Trade Tripper presciently wrote last week, if the developed countries won’t "practice what they preach, then just expect Bali to be declared a ‘success’ simply because of small agreements like trade facilitation," to the detriment of poorer countries like the Philippines.


WTO to Bali high (or low)

is my Trade Tripper column in this weekend issue of BusinessWorld:

The big news of this week should be the developments and conclusion of the 9th Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization at Bali, Indonesia. This article was written just before the ministerial’s start. Quite likely, readers by now will have known its outcome, with the difference being the recovery of the WTO or a decade’s more continuation of its moribund state.

The stakes, of course, are well defined. While the name "Doha" is interestingly no longer mentioned as much, it must be remembered that the reason why Bali is important is precisely because of Doha. And Doha was called the "Developmental Round" for a reason. And one of the best things about Doha (if one would prefer to see the bright side of things) is that it revealed a fundamental flaw of the multilateral trade system that needs to be corrected.

Because what Doha illuminated is the fact that the developed countries precisely are against the Doha Round’s "developmental" aspect. One commentator speaking under anonymity, as reported in Reuters, said it most directly: "A development agenda should never have been introduced into the WTO in 2001. The WTO is about mercantilist interest, and there is no space for philanthropy."

Doha’s unintended importance therefore is its publicly revealing developed country calculations: launch a round with some nice motherhood statements, let the developing countries flounder in their under-resourced and unorganized way through the talks, conclude like Uruguay, and developed rich countries are happy again. Unfortunately, the developing countries were apparently not given copies of the script. Learning from the Uruguay Round and gaining further experiences from Cancun and Hong Kong, poorer countries learned to stand their ground and maintained focus.

Hence, the present tact of the developed countries to break up developing country positions instead through regional or bilateral trade agreements. And here the US has been particularly more successful than the EU in this regard.

Which makes the US’ (or, more specifically, the Obama administration’s) lack of leadership throughout the Doha Round truly unfortunate. As put vividly by Columbia University’s Jagdish Bhagwati (writing for Handelsblatt): "the US killed Doha. Or at least put into Intensive Care ... it was killed by President Obama who had ironically been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize by Norway in the expectation that he would promote multilateralism and turn his back on US unilateralism!" Unfortunately, "the US, not content with killing Doha, is even promoting the regional PTA called the Trans-Pacific Partnership, compounding its folly twice over."

Thus the utter irony with which the US is now scaremongering the developing countries into getting in line with the "Bali Package". US Trade Representative Michael Froman, speaking at the WTO Public Forum 2013, bringing out again Doha’s "development goals", declares that the "loss of the WTO as a negotiating forum of course, would have the greatest impact on the smallest countries and the poorest economies. Big countries will always have options. Fair or unfair, that’s a reality. We all want the WTO to be a vibrant negotiating forum -- but small countries and poor countries would feel the loss the most."

Interestingly, Mr. Froman professes the importance of the WTO but lectures developing countries that "no one should blame the proliferation of bilateral and plurilateral trade negotiations for the state of the WTO today. Bilateral and plurilateral negotiations in or out of the WTO are not the context of our negotiating failure here -- if anything, they are a consequence instead. The main attraction of plurilateral agreements, for many, is that they offer a way forward. Like-minded countries -- the coalition of the working -- can come together to open markets, set high standards and introduce new disciplines for global trade."

This therefore explains the vigor with which the US pursues the TPP and TTIP deals, both -- incidentally -- excluding the Philippines.

But what’s disconcerting is why even the WTO would place upon developing countries like the Philippines the matter of Bali’s (and thus Doha’s) success. WTO Spokesman Keith Rockwell, noting the Philippines’ numerous free trade agreements, declared that "it would benefit the Philippines more if it actively pursues multilateral trading at the WTO considering its top three trading partners are huge players in the WTO, namely the US, Japan and China." This forgets, of course, that the Philippines is part of APEC, JPEPA and ASEAN-China.

Anyway, bottomline, if the developed countries don’t learn to practice what they preach, then just expect Bali to be declared a "success" simply because of small agreements like trade facilitation or customs procedures. Which, it must be remembered, is incredibly ironic as trade facilitation is one of the four "Singapore Issues" that tanked the Cancun Ministerial. Also, how a multilateral trade facilitation agreement will substantially benefit the Philippines is a puzzle, aside from it serving as an added international obligation.

In fine, there’s the likely probability that the WTO remains sidelined. And with that, the interests of developing countries.


Of selfies and dumbing down

is my Trade Tripper column in this weekend issue of BusinessWorld:

Came across this thoughtful article on what may be the most popular activity today: selfies. But, like all things, it does come with a price. As Olympia Nelson wrote ("Dark undercurrents of teenage girls’ selfies," Sydney Morning Herald, 11 July 2013): "If social media only caused narcissism, it wouldn’t be the worst thing. Instagram and Facebook are social networks that not only breed narcissistic tendencies but transform relations into a sexual rat race."

It’s the unoriginality, the lack of any creativity, the impulse to conform (sexually, politically, or whatever) that makes even this simple act of self-indulgence go from bad to worse: "Everyone likes receiving compliments and it makes us feel awesome that our own appearance can provide us with an ego boost. But what kind of photos produce an epidemic of ‘likes?’ Nothing with too much creativity but hip, titty and kiss. It’s the true scourge of the selfie."

In the end, one can’t help but agree with Nelson’s insight of the selfy being "a neurotic impulse, not a happy one." And, we have to note, this narcissism has nothing to do with gender: guys are as apt to engage in this narcissistic, self-indulgent sort of behavior as girls.

This reminds me of three Trade Tripper articles I wrote, noting down the seeming self-obsession of people nowadays. Somehow, it’s convincing me I may be prescient. Or something like it.

The first was written in 2010, "Everybody’s a Rockstar:" "Everybody’s a rockstar nowadays. People that normally would have no claim to fame (or notoriety) would find their faces (and complete range of poses) on the Internet. Being ill informed, unread, or without any semblance of writing skills? Doesn’t stop them from airing their views extensively on Facebook."

The resulting danger of a culture encouraging (even rewarding) intellectually lazy people is something related to what James Surowiecki wrote about. Interestingly (and ironically), the author of The Wisdom of Crowds, actually discards the idea of an infallible crowd and instead bolsters an idea we all already know: a deliberate and studied decision by an informed people will always be better than one made out of the emotional unthinking actions of the many. Our history is replete with the latter. The tragedy in such situations of "irrational" crowds is that any good, studied, and learned thinking by individuals become lost, discarded, or -- worse -- attacked. In this regard, Andrew Keen’s The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture would be good to read.

Which leads to the second article -- "The Anti-Intellectual State:" "But indeed, the reason for this anti-intellectual bias lies with our ‘intellectuals’ themselves. I mean: "do we even have real intellectuals?" After all, "Intellectuals are there to encourage the greater populace to think critically and objectively, to think calmly and methodically, to discuss politely, to like thinking (and learning), and to think for a purpose. Not paralyze people into inaction or scream loads of esoteric data in order to shut them up. In the end, our people have no respect for intellectuals (as well as politicians) because those who pretend to being it are merely into one huge ego trip and treat being an intellectual as a performance for people’s entertainment. They serve no purpose other than as a diversion during coffee breaks or cocktails. Intellectuals should exhort people to unify their actions with their thoughts, demand responsibility and accountability, all rooted in realistic and doable considerations. Above all, intellectuals should practice what they preach. Otherwise, they’re just encouraging the country to be basket cases like them."

The third article I referred to was written just a few months ago, "Me, Myself, and I:" "While indeed the democratization of information, the full utilization of the wisdom of crowds, and the greater participation of the public in the marketplace of ideas is ostensibly beneficial, not so if it leads people to sloppiness in thought.

Writer and Cambridge lecturer (never mind Oxford) Edward de Bono certainly thinks so. In an interview with news.com.au, he said: ‘There is danger on the internet and social media... that you do not have to think to be very dangerous. Social media causes laziness, that we feel will get more information and do not need to have his own ideas. We got the idea from someone else, we do not need to look at the data, we only see what others have to say.’"

In the end, we (specially the parents) either face up to this problem now. Or pay for it later. Of course, it’s easy to dismiss such concerns as being the product of an overly dogmatic mind. But ask yourself this question: would you really think that a child reared on the uncritiqued, unjudged, the "everybody is ok because you feel good" mentality can stand up to the rigors of the real world? I’m sure the parents of our neighboring Asian countries already know the answer to that.