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8.21.2010

The Great Recession will turn into the Great Depression II unless...

Great Depression: man dressed in worn coat lyi...Image via Wikipedia



Yes, it's sure to turn into the Great Depression II unless our governments STOP trying to reduce budget deficits and turn instead to what should be their top priority: job creation. Balanced budgets have become a political mantra, and the unemployed be damned!

And yet, as I blogged last week, the bottomline problem in this crisis is the LACK of jobs, especially among the young.

How could our political class get it so wrong? It's hard to understand. Yet one thing should be obvious: with the retreat of government as an economic agent in an economy that is still weak, economic indicators have but one way to go: DOWN. And that includes the revenue governments get from taxes. Which means that overtime budget deficits will grow larger rather than smaller. Politicians will have obtained exactly the reverse of what they had hoped for from their hallowed austerity measures. If you have any doubts, take a trip to Greece or Ireland.


Paul Krugman has recently published (see link below) a wonderful piece, entitled "Appeasing the Bond Gods: What will it take to break the hold of this cruel cult on the minds of the political elite?" Indeed, what will it take to make Cameron and Osborne see the light? There's no denying that the UK welfare state needed a lot of fat-trimming - but the diet shouldn't be so strong that it leads to waste and death. There's a need to realize that the State has a role to play in the economy, particularly when jobs have to be created.The animal spirits of entrepreneurs cannot and will not come to the rescue when they don't see any market wherever they look. So the State must step in.

A fiscal stimulus package? The last one didn't work too well in the States, probably because it was applied in a half-hearted manner. Too little and too late. But it seems to have worked wonders in China where the package was huge. Now the Chinese have even had to put on the brakes because of a looming real estate bubble and financial hubris. There's no doubt such packages, if applied in the right dosage, do work. But I would argue that what is needed is a more pointed type of policy, one that is clearly aimed at job CREATION.

We all know that unemployment has been with us for a much longer time than this crisis. It was there before and it is making this crisis worse. So unemployment is the one thing that must be tackled. And it's not just cyclical (and therefore amenable to classic monetary and fiscal policies) but also structural. That means more innovative policies are required - things like programmes to encourage investments in inventions, innovations and new areas like clean energy and more.

The "more" here is the key.

For example - and this is very encouraging - the US is investing heavily to find more efficient ways to fuel automobiles, as was recently reported by Matthew L.Wald in the New York Times. It has set up a new Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy or ARPA-E meant to finance high-risk, high reward projects in the United States with a budget of US$400 million for two years.

Fine and good but compare that to the billions China plans to invest on electric and hybrid vehicles (as reported by David Barboza). It seems (according to official sources) that China could invest as much as...US$ 15 billion! Extravagent. That's more that thirty times the US Government is envisaging. As I've said before, China is really another planet. With that kind of money, the Chinese government is announcing that over the next three years it will have some 500,000 new energy vehicles reaching the market every year and they would soon account for 5 percent of all passenger sales (already totalling some 17 million vehicles). A small percentage perhaps, but larger than what is expected anywhere else on this planet...

The American private sector has taken note: for example, a Chinese company called BYD, in which Warren E. Buffett, the American billionaire and founder of Berskshire Hathaway has an interest, is into the development of battery-powered vehicles.

Great! So why isn't the American private sector pairing with its own government to invest in innovation? Why hasn't Warren E. Buffet an interest in ARPA-E?

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8.16.2010

Unemployment, a Hydra that keeps growing

Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother," a...Image via Wikipedia

Unemployment is the one feature that distinguishes the current crisis from past ones. It just won't go away.Why?

A hard question to answer. It's been haunting economists since the Great Depression - the last time unemployment would NOT go away. To cure unemployment, Keynes came up with a solution that was deceptively simple: replace the shortfall in private investment with government spending. Pump money in through paying out salaries even for useless activities like digging holes. That will strengthen consumption and jump-start the economy. Industries will be encouraged to expand employment as they see a renewed demand for their products.

That was back in the 1930s. And we all know how it played out in the end. President Roosevelt didn't dare keep up with the Keynesian recipe because of the political upcry over the ballooning deficits. So, in 1937 he went back to old-fashioned deficit cutting and budget balancing. With the result that the economy immediately dipped back into a Depression mode, and it took World War II expenditures to come out of it.

Now it looks like we're doing the same. The political class in Europe and America, supported by old-fashioned central bankers like Trichet, the head of the European Central Bank, is meddling with austerity programmes and cut-backs, just like in 1937. Moreover, the growth engine that's kept us afloat in the last few months - demand from emerging countries, especially India and China - is showing signs of slowing down. And that's scary: it means the Great Recession could turn into another Great Depression.

We've had World War II, are we going to get Great Depression II?

According to Bob Herbert in his recent and very interesting article (see New York Times August 9,2010), if you add to the official statistics the number of people who have stopped looking for a job but say they want to work and those working part time, "you end up with nearly 30 million Americans who cannot find the work they want and desperately need."

If you think 30 million is a staggering number, you haven't heard the half of it. From the UN, a new report on youth unemployment - always a sticky issue - has just come out (the ILO report on Global Employment Trends for Youth 2010) and it points to a 2 percent increase since 2007, to a level of 81 million people. Actually, the figures are put together in a rather unconvincing way and unemployment is likely to be much, much higher. The ILO includes in their analysis only those between the age of 15 and 24 and that doesn't make much sense. In developing countries, the young go to work much younger (at best after finishing elementary school when they're 11 or 12) and in developed countries, the young often stay home much longer, attending the university rather than working.


Historically, unemployment among the young has always been the worst: they're the first laid off and the last hired back. And in any case, even when there's no crisis, they have a hard time finding a job. Why? Many reasons are adduced:  vested interests as trade unions defend their members from young job-seekers; advances in technology that displace labour; mismatch between training/education and job availability. The last is probably the most serious. It stems partly from the conviction that a university education automatically leads to employment - a conviction prevalent in the lower and middle classes. Let's not forget that every blue-collar worker's dream is to see his children wear white collars. And since universities are enterprises like any other business, they respond by producing as many graduates as they can, regardless of whether there are any jobs out there.

The disconnect between education and the labour market is total. Governments have tried to remedy with fiscal stimulus of all kinds from tax holidays to business incentives and have set up training programmes to recycle the old and prepare the young for specific jobs.All to no avail, or at least with only moderate, temporary results.

The unemployment hydra always grows back other limbs. It's like running on a treadmill, with the mill being pushed along by demographic growth. To keep employment even, in the US alone, some 200,000 jobs have to be created every month. From that standpoint, "Old Europe" with its diminishing birth rate (except for France) has it easier. But it is harder from another point of view:  European labour markets tend to be rigid and inflexible(except for Germany that has made it easier to hire and fire).

And keep the young out.

Actually, there are many problems adversely affecting the labour market. Keynes was the first to come up with a serious "disconnect" in his savings-investment function: the self-fulfilling effect of negative expectations. Businessmen who feel glum and don't see a growing demand  for their products, will stop investing. Consumers who wish to save because they're afraid of bad times, will stop consuming. More recently, economists have pointed to lack of information and uncertainty.No doubt these are all very serious problems that at one time or another prevent the market from clearing.

But to find a solution, we need to understand exactly what causes unemployment and why it persists through economic cycles.  We all know since ECO 101 that an economy's savings go into investment and that leads to employment. Investment is however dependent on expected returns - which can turn to the better when there's a wave of innovations, like the dot.com boom in the late 1990s. Actually, innovations are the key, or to use Schumpeter's famous term: creative destruction : jobs in old industries are destroyed, new jobs are created in the technologically advanced.  The trouble is that the  numbers created don't necessarily match the lost ones (that's what's meant by the term "structural unemployment"). Old industries die before the new ones are born or come out of diapers. And it takes time and effort (more training) to move from the old to the new. But it can be done.

Another source of job creation is trade. That's what Germany's 2.2 percent growth in the last quarter is all about: the Germans have been bragging about their "model", but there's nothing new or special about it. They've just been selling cars (and other luxury, niche items) to the Chinese and other developing countries. And, incidentally, unemployment in Germany is still at excessive levels in all other areas of the economy not tied to exports.  Developing countries are juicy markets - as long as they keep growing, which means selling their wares and services to developed countries. But we all know how people in the West feel about outsourcing to India and being flooded with cheap Chinese goods...So you kill trade and cut off your own nose.

But are innovations and trade the ultimate solutions? I'd love to believe that but unfortunately, even at the best of times and at the height of economic booms, we still have unemployment, especially among the young. So there has to be another explanation for persisting unemployment.  And I'd like to submit an unlikely candidate: income inequality. Don't scream! I know it's not politically correct to talk about it. Those who do are immediately tagged as throwback communists (btw, I'm not! I lived in Russia in the 1950s and 1970s and I got to know the system very well and I thoroughly dislike it).  Still, one has to recognize that  Soviet-style communism is probably the only type of government that has managed to neatly do away with the problem of unemployment: it simply decreed that unemployment couldn't exist. Every soviet citizen was ensured a paying job, whether he/she produced anything or not...and productivity be damned!

That is obviously not a solution.

Stay with the idea of income inequality for a minute. Imagine it keeps growing, and you don't need to imagine it because we know that in the real world it does. There are over 10 million millionaires around the world and their number is still rising, as does the amount of wealth they command, and all this in spite of the current Great Recession. So how are the ultra rich going to spend their money? Even the most outrageous, lavish lifestyle won't make much of a dent in their income, percentagewise. There's a limit to how many luxury yachts and conspicuous castles you can enjoy. The ultra rich obviously place their savings in banks and hedge funds. This is where the well-known hubris in financial markets comes in. New instruments were invented to attract "investors". We've seen with what results since December 2007. Wall Street has been turned into a gambling casino, quite literally, and it means that money was kept churning inside rather than allowed to go outside, into productive investments on Main Street. In a way savings have been sterilized, or, if you prefer a less extreme view, the flux into productive investment has been slowed down. Causing unemployment.

Does this mean we should tax the ultra rich? I don't think so. In any case, it's politically unfeasible, they'd always run to another country that would offer them a tax refuge.What it does mean however is that we should regulate Wall Street in such a way that it is encouraged to develop instruments tied to innovations. Venture capitalists are too few and far between. They should receive strong incentives and tax breaks, particularly for innovations that demonstrably work. And tied to support training for the jobs created by the said innovations. And also, why not while we're at it, support international trade?

In short, everything should be done to move money out of Wall Street into constructive ventures on Main Steet.

Do you agree?



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8.08.2010

Whatever Happened in Haiti?

The Haitian National Palace (Presidential Pala...
Image via Wikipedia


Have you been wondering what's been happening in Haiti since the earthquake? I certainly have. It seems like a century has passed, yet it was only some six months ago, on 12 January 2010. Recently the press has been mum on the subject and focusses on the latest,  the floods in Pakistan - serious stuff, with 4 million displaced and 1500 killed - and the fires in Russia...

Well, almost mum except for an excellent comment in the International Herald Tribune (August 6) made by Joel Brinkley, a journalism professor at Stanford University with a long experience as foreign correspondent for the New York Times. The title is arresting: "Don't let Haitians help themselves" ! He argues rather convincingly that the Haitian authorities are hopeless and that nothing will ever be done if one waits for them to take things in hand. Not to mention endemic corruption. So he calls for donors to forge ahead without waiting for President Préval to make decisions. Otherwise nothing will change and Haiti will never be lifted out of poverty. Probably good advice considering that Mr. Préval's major concern seems to be to clear the presidential palace from the sea of ragged tents that surround it.

There is little doubt the problems were all there before the earthquake hit.  Haiti has been the basket case of America since its independence from the French in 1804. And the US occupation from 1919 to 1934 has solved none of the problems and never installed the basis for a democracy.  It's hard to bring help to a country that is suffering from everything in the book.  A continuously weak and corrupt government, often degenerating in dictatorship, like the Duvaliers', with Papa Doc and Baby Doc and their bands of Tonton Macoutes who terrorized the population. Extreme poverty with over seventy percent of the people surviving on less than US$ 2 a day. And land erosion, deforestation, pollution, poor health, lack of education and jobs,overcrowded and ill-serviced towns, buildings collapsing with the slightest tremor.Cité Soleil, with some 400,000 people squatting in it, is one of the largest and most dangerous slums in the Western hemisphere. Haiti has suffered more from HIV/AIDS than any other island in the Caribbean, with 6 percent of the population affected in 2001and had just managed to bring that down to 2 percent when the earthquake hit. Bad luck!

Haiti has been hit by bad luck continuously over the last 200 years. If it's not an earthquake, it's a hurricane. There's always something going wrong every year, the last major emergency (caused by hurricanes) dates back to 2008.

But there's a silver lining to every black cloud. In Haiti's case, it is the huge diaspora, proportionately one of the largest in the world. Some 9.7 million live - eke a living - on the island and another 3 million have fled abroad and send annual remittances that come close to 20% of GDP, a hefty sum. Without the Haitians living in the United States and elsewhere, the plight of the poor Haitians would be much, much worse.

The January earthquake was no picnic. Just a reminder of the stark numbers: 200,000 dead, 300,000 wounded and one million displaced. Since then, we've been treated, at least in the first three months, to the gratifying spectacle of the international community generously mobilizing all the help it could muster. Within days, the 20,000 troops dispatched by President Obama had restored operations at Port-au-Prince Airport , allowing in 150 flights daily, a key measure considering that the main port in Port-au-Prince had collapsed. There was just a small hitch when a cargo filled with medical supplies from Médecins Sans Frontières was turned back and had to land next door in Santo Domingo. But that was quickly righted, some say thanks to a Twitter avalanche of protest messages, and the US Air Force let the plane land an hour or two later. The explanation given was that security rather than aid was the priority, which I suppose is to be expected from the military.

In short, the aid channels were opened and functioned. More or less. One Red Cross official noted that the volume of goods imported was so large that "they cannot be used for months; meanwhile critical goods have no space to be imported". Celebrities vied with each other to get in and bring help that was or was not wanted - we all heard of the problems scientologists ran into when John Travolta led a mission in February.

So now, six months later, can we tell what really happened in Haiti? Have the flows of aid done any good? It's still too early to say , but an interesting report has just come out from ALNAP, an organization bringing together the best evaluation specialists from major aid organizations, such as the British DFID, Irish Aid, the Netherlands etc. as well as United Nations Agencies involved in emergency aid (the World Food Programme, UNICEF, FAO, UNHCR etc) and the International Red Cross. ALNAP stands for Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action. You get the idea, these are serious people. The report is not a final evaluation, it's too soon for that. It's daintily labeled "a context analysis". What they've done is try to figure out what are the constraints to delivering aid and what data is important to keep track of in order to produce a definitive study on the results of aid. On the way, they've picked out some interesting tidbits of info that give some idea of where Haiti might be going.

To synthesize. First the good things. There was a generous rush to cancel Haiti's debt among the G-7 countries (Canada, US, UK, France, Italy, Germany, Japan), the Inter-American Development Bank and Venezuela. And the response to financial appeals has been unprecedented, generally reported to have reached US$ 10 billion, a huge sum for Haiti.

Yes and no. Not that simple. It's true that the first call for funds was enormously successful. The original "flash appeal" of US$ 575 million within 3 days of the earthquake was entirely funded within a month.  Private donations have been remarkable, especially American charities that by March 16 had raised US$ 1 billion, with reportedly half of American households having donated something. On 31 March, at the International Donor Conference in New York, a total of US$ 9.9 billion was pledged in support of the Haitian Government's Action Plan for National Recovery, and following the conference, a multi-donor trust fund was established, co-chaired by Bill Clinton (as UN Special Envoy to Haiti) and the Haitian Prime Minister and administered by the World Bank.

But - there's always a but - much of the funds are simply PLEDGES, and they may never materialize. Just to give you an idea of what it means. So far, according to the OCHA Financial Tracking Service, as of June 20, a total of US$ 1.4 billion had been received by aid organizations, another 1.8 billion was in process and 1.2 billion pledged. That 1.2 billion might never turn up. Why? All that's needed is for another emergency to hit somewhere else and political attention on Haiti will evaporate like morning mist...

Now, how about the actual aid, how efficiently was it delivered? Mmmm, probably par for the course. The United Nations relied on its so-called "cluster" approach to ensure coordination between the various agencies and partner NGOs. This was the second time the cluster approach was used in Haiti, with specific domains of intervention entrusted to the most appropriate technical agency designated as "leader". For example, the logistics cluster is led by the World Food Programme, Agriculture by FAO and so on.

Did the cluster approach work? More or less. There was, according to the ALNAP report, a tendency to have lots and lots of coordination meetings - fine and good if everyone can come but apparently the smaller NGOs don't have the staff or logistics to attend and therefore find themselves excluded. This means coordination is confined to the UN system of technical agencies and the larger NGOs such as CARE and OXFAM. And, still according to ALNAP, not all clusters were able to respond at the same level of efficiency. Some were found to "lack capacity" to assess needs and develop coherent response strategies. Coordination was further impeded by "flag-raising among humanitarian organizations and donors wanting to highlight their individual contributions" (p.21). That, of course, is a classic scourge in the humanitarian aid community. For NGOs it's a matter of survival: they always raise a flag to keep donations coming in.

However, the most serious shortcoming in the cluster approach is the lack of accountability. Sure, a cluster "leader" is appointed - that's a nice title - but no mechanism has been set up to enable said leader to ensure his/her decisions are actually implemented. In the end, there's no one in charge and responsible for what's done in the field...and everyone works according to their own ideas, independently from each other. The only good thing is that, thanks to the cluster, each one is more aware than before of what the others are doing. Coordination meetings are actually no more than information meetings. 

Information and communication seem to have been a big success in the Haitian response. A new communication cluster was set up, termed "One Response" and for the first time every available Internet function was used: Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Skype, i.e. used to inform and to raise funds. However, the good old-fashioned radio still covered half the communication needs and there were difficulties raised in connection with language: too much in English and French, not enough in Creole.

All this doesn't tell us whether anything useful was achieved on the ground. It is clear that the response was immensely successful in preventing the spread of major diseases, like cholera and diarrhea. But what about economic recovery and return to normalcy? Immediate major issues are managing debris, clearing canals and settlements. Some strategies seem to be particularly effective, for example the cash-for-work initiatives launched by UNDP, the Haitian Ministry for Water and Sanitation and a couple of muncipalities (Jacmel and Leogane). They have succeded in putting thousands of Haitians to work to clear the debris and, as noted by ALNAP, injected "much needed cash in the economy" (p.32). Also claims of violence and looting in the aftermath of the earthquake seem to have been exaggerated in the media, and the national police quickly reported back to work, benefitting from UN support. However, all is not well and concerns about child protection and trafficking are now emerging: more than 100,000 children are recorded "without protection" according to UNICEF.

Does the future look glum? It rather does. The response effort has been constrained by the lack of coordination and communication with the local authorities. Haiti is a notorious "failed state", and has always been. Consequently, there is a tendency among humanitarian agents to replace government authorities rather than try to rebuild and restore the government's authority - replacing local authorities is always what one does in so-called "complex emergencies" when a disaster has swept away the affected country's government. It is completely justified when it means saving human lives. Here, in Haiti, that first stage is over. So there ought to be a real concern for strengthening Haiti's system of government, and nudge it away from corruption and banditry into something more democratically responsible. To install a real democracy can't be done overnight, but helping to choose an effective Haitian political leader might be possible.

But I don't get the impression that anyone is worried about that or ready to do something constructive...Politics in Haiti? They stink...

And as long as they do, Haiti will never climb out of the hole it has fallen in. You do realize what I'm saying, don't you?  I'm not suggesting that we should introduce democratic reforms in Haiti - that would be ingenuous. Democracy the way we understand it doesn't work in that kind of country. What's needed is what the 18th century French called a "despote éclairé" - a strongman with enlightened ideas, someone able to change over the country and modernize it. Just like Kemal Atatürk did for Turkey.

What Haiti needs is its own Ataturk!


Here is the link to the report I mentioned:
ALNAP, Haiti Earthquake Response, July 2010
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8.01.2010

Tricks in Cooking - for a superb Melanzane alla Parmigiana

I've said it before and I'll say it again: I'm convinced that cooking METHODS are far more important than actual recipes if you want to be known among your friends as a "good cook". And unfortunately, most cookbooks don't give you the tricks of the trade. No, that's not quite right: some cookbooks do, but they rarely tell you everything. There are cooking secrets so well kept that they never, ever surface anywhere!

That's the case with melanzane alla parmigiana, a cheese and eggplant dish that is a classic of Italian cuisine. In most restaurants, it's a disaster. Lukewarm, oily, swimming in old tomato sauce with gooey cheese that gets stuck in your teeth. Actually the cheese - usually slices of mozarella - tastes of nothing at all. And that yellow and black stuff in the middle, that feels like a greasy sponge, is (presumably) eggplant. Poor eggplant...

Once, a long time ago, in a small trattoria in the countryside near Naples, I had a superb melanzane alla parmigiana. Nothing was oily or tasteless about it, the eggplant had an amazingly light texture, almost like a soufflé, the cheese was flavourful, the tomato fresh. It was made in heaven!

It took me all of twenty years to figure out how that was done. I've asked Italian friends, I've tried every possible variant. And I kept running into the same problems: too much oil was absorbed by the eggplant when I fried it, too much water oozed out of the mozzarella while it cooked in the oven, the tomato sauce was either flat-tasting or overwhelming. I tried grilling the eggplant instead of frying it, on the theory that it wouldn't - by definition - absorb any oil and that it would be good for you. A light diet and all that. Well, let me tell you, using grilled eggplant slices is a sorry substitute. The slices go dry on you as they grill away,and there's not a chance you'll ever get that fluffy wonder that makes all the difference.

So here is how to do it and get super results (in my humble opinion):

Ingredients for 4 persons:

One very large eggplant or 2 medium
A cupful of tomatoes very red and ripe
150 g mozzarella cheese
150 g grated parmigiano cheese or more - to taste
basil leaves
salt and pepper as needed

Olive oil to fry the eggplants - enough for deep-frying, exactly as for French fries


Method

Turn the oven high - on 6 or whatever heat you use to roast a chicken.

Get your ingredients ready:
1. To prepare the eggplant: peal away most of the skin leaving only a few strips then cut it in thick slices and lay on a reclining dish; sprinkle with salt and let it ooze out for about 30 minutes (this serves to get rid of the bitter taste some eggplants may have);

2. To prepare the tomatoes: the tastiest are the cherry tomatoes which you can cut up in very small pieces (at least 4 pieces out of each cherry tomato); alternatively, drop very red, ripened tomatoes in boiling water for one minute, pull out once the skin has broken, cool under cold water and peel them, breaking them up in pieces; in both cases, set the tomatoes aside in a bowl with salt, pepper and basil leaves to flavour them;

3.To prepare the mozzarella cheese, slice it and squeeze it to get most of the water out; don't worry if it breaks up, it doesn't matter; set it to drip dry in a colander;

4. Now for the most difficult part of the recipe. Heat olive oil in a big pot; make sure there's enough oil to cover the eggplant slices abundantly. I always use olive oil for frying, it's better for your health, it doesn't burn so easily and you can use it again at least once (if you haven't allowed it to burn!), AND it leaves a nice taste in your mouth - indispensable for Italian food.
Dry the eggplant with a paper towel and quickly roll the slices in flour: the flouring will create a thin protective crust once the eggplant hits the boiling oil and thus prevent it from absorbing too much oil (if you ever try to fry eggplant without flouring first, you'll see what happens, they become soggy with oil). So, once the oil is really hot (but not smoking!), shake off any extra flour and drop the eggplant slices one by one. Now you have to stay over your boiling oil with a spatula or some such to turn the slices and make sure they cook evenly to a golden colour; lift them out to dry on a paper towel.

5. Last step in the recipe but the most important one: putting it all together in a pyrex dish to go in the oven. This is where it is easy to make mistakes: it has to be done in a certain way and that's what makes the difference. Let me be very clear:
a. Start with a layer of eggplant slices and set some tomatoes around them, making sure you're lifting the tomatoes out of the juice they've spewed out, and if needed, squeezing them as dry as you can (you don't want extra liquid here!).
b. Over the slices sprinkle generously grated parmigiano cheese - because, remember, it's in the name: even though you have mozzarella in the recipe, it's the parmigiano that does it!
c. Then slices (or pieces) of mozzarella equally wrung out dry and make sure to top them with parmigiano cheese; add pepper to taste (no salt is needed because the parmigiano is salty);
d. Start again with a, b, c - you  need at least two layers like this and better still if you can make three. Top it off with the remaining tomatoes and basil leaves. If they fall on the side, it doesn't matter.

Put 20 minutes in the oven (middle rack), until the cheese is soft and the parmigiano on top has turned slightly golden. Wait for it to cool down before serving. It tastes better when it's not too hot.

Do let me know how it worked for you!
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