The most potent symbol to date of Pope Francis’ five-month papacy is an empty chair. The chair — a large white throne — was to seat His Holiness in the Vatican this past Saturday. The pope was scheduled to hear a performance of Beethoven’s ninth symphony, a long-planned event. But minutes before the performance Archbishop Rino Fisichella told the audience that “the Holy Father cannot be present because of an urgent piece of work which cannot be postponed.”
Big data? No. Vast data, enormous data, unimaginably colossal data ties our world together. Some have said it also ties us down, since departments like the National Security Agency are combing through a part of our huge reservoir for intelligence on foreigners who might threaten the U.S. Yet this behavior is now the status quo, one that will not go away, nor diminish. It’s a doleful one if you deem it an open invitation to 1984-style tyranny, or an exhilarating one if you see a world of ever-expanding knowledge and opportunity.
The End of History and the Last Man is 21 years old this year. The book of that name, by Francis Fukuyama, has, in the view of many, matured badly. Published in 1992, it was much lauded for its view that, with the collapse of communism in the Soviet bloc, liberal democracy and free markets were the only long-term politics and economics for the globe.
The rich are always with us, and we’ll have more of them soon. A report last week from Boston Consulting Group shows that the global millionaire population is some 13.8 million. That is twice the size of Switzerland, which is, incidentally, where many of them have parked much of their wealth. More will accrue, and more individuals will pass the million-dollar mark. Global private wealth will, says Boston Consulting, grow by almost 5 percent per year over the next five years, reaching $171.2 trillion.
For the giants of Silicon Valley, the fall from freedom’s children to social pariah has been something of a Shakespearean reversal of fortunes. Google, Apple and Facebook might be Lear, Othello and Macbeth in the suddenness and completeness of their fall from a grace that was bequeathed to them by the generations that found their technologies liberating, empowering and even beautiful.
The pace of European disintegration continues to quicken. Recession deepens in the 17-member euro zone; it is now the longest downturn since the currency was launched in 2000. In Italy, a new left-right government, launched on an anti-austerity program, finds the neighborhood more austere than it had hoped. In France, Maurice Levy, boss of the advertising giant Publicis, did a survey showing that northern Europeans – Poles, Germans, Brits – were moderately optimistic while southerners – Spaniards, Italians, Greeks and the French – were deeply pessimistic. France dipped into recession earlier this month, for the third time in four years. The union is pulling apart.
A new era has arrived in immigration. Many countries – the United States, the UK, France, Germany, the Netherlands – have for decades taken in poor immigrants with the express intention that they would do work that native citizens had become reluctant to do. The labor was either too hard, too cheap or too dangerous for the locals.
Russia is now in a hard, even dangerous, place. A series of shocks are coming, and it is not well placed to weather them. It has, to be sure, little debt: Vladimir Putin’s administration is proud that the state has borrowed little and has built up a multibillion-ruble national reserve fund. Yet even that is ending, and the basics of the economy are weak. The former Marxists among Russia’s ruling class will know that the economic base determines the political and social superstructure. It is not looking good for them.
Let’s begin with two glimpses of the workings of the Italian state.
First, it was announced last week that passengers would be required to mount a bus only at the door in the front, and pay the driver on entry. The present system, in which tickets are bought in cafes and other shops and stamped at machines on the bus after entry from any one of several doors, has resulted in such widespread evasion that it’s calculated that only a minority of riders buy tickets on publicly owned buses. In Naples, three out of 10 play by the rules. The wonder is that three bother to pay.