Concentration camps for prostitutes

One dark chapter in the American story gets left out of the history books: the American Plan, which detained tens, and possibly hundreds of thousands of women from the 1910s through the 1950s.

Under the plan, conceived during World War I to protect soldiers from “promiscuous” women and the diseases they possibly carried, women were surveilled, picked off the street, detained without due process, imprisoned sometimes for years, and forcefully injected with toxic mercury treatments for sexually transmitted infections they were merely suspected of having. The American Plan laid the groundwork — and sometimes, the actual foundations — for some women’s prisons and arguably led to the mass incarcerations of today. Progressive luminaries like Eleanor Roosevelt and Margaret Sanger endorsed the plan, as did Earl Warren, forcing its victims, disproportionately women of color, to fight back on their own.

From the incarceration of citizens of Japanese ancestry to the detention of prostitutes, not to mention the treatment of black people, one has to wonder what the Supreme Court of the United States has been thinking in its role as “defender of the Constitution” and of civil rights. It has made some honourable decisions, but the gross misreading of the Constitution in the matter of gun ownwership, and the crass idea that “corporations are people” and can freely use shareholder funds to subvert democracy, suggests that, while legal training in the US might be good, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the Justices collectively use their intelligence, common sense, moderation or simple human kindness to good effect.

I fear that, for all the blah about liberty we cannot rely on a Trump Supreme Court to protect us against the drift toward authoritarianism, even less now that Trump has nominated to the Court a hard Right Constitutional literalist who was alledgedly willingly implicated in the un-American Bush torture policy. Epicurus deplored militarism, bullying and loss of individual freedom in his day. We should oppose it now. The United States is lurching in the same direction as, say Poland. Getting it back looks more difficult every day. Too many citizens simply don’t care. Tell me I am being too gloomy!

Obesity linked to 12 cancers

Obesity plays a role in as many as 12 types of cancer, according to a major analysis of the causes of the disease. The report by the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) found that while smoking remains the biggest cause of cancer, it may soon be overtaken by obesity in many countries. In an earlier version of the report, released a decade ago, the WCRF identified seven cancers linked to obesity. Now, it says, the evidence points to 12: liver, ovaries, prostate (advanced), stomach, mouth and throat, bowel, breast (post-menopause), gall bladder, kidney, oesophagus, pancreas and womb. The report says that up to four in ten cancer cases are preventable, and urges non-smokers to adopt a ten-point health plan, which includes cutting down on bacon and processed meats, being physically active and reducing alcohol intake.

One point of view is that, if someone becomes “over-heavy” it is their choice, their (shorter) life, and that it mostly affects poorer people with fewer options. The problem with this viewpoint is that, whether you pay taxes in Britain to support the health service, or you pay healthcare insurance in America, the effect is the same – treating the voluntarily obese puts the cost of health up for everyone, along with their taxes in the UK. And that doesn’t include the cost of bigger ambulances and gear for handling huge bodies. I have grave misgivings about endlessly subsidizing the self-indulgent who don’t or won’t look after themselves or exert a modicum of self-discipline. A daily walk, at the very least, is free. Vegetables won’t kill you. Go on, make an effort!

Thought for the day

In the 2015-2016 election cycle, the fossil fuel industry in America received over $20 billion in federal subsidies. These subsidies are not only encouraging economic behavior that is decimating our environment but they are putting the welfare of a dying industry above the future of life as we know it.

Were Londoners right to protest Trump?

On Thursday, 12th July 2018, I took the train from my small hometown into London. I was only planning a nice paddle boat ride in a lake in Regent’s Park, to celebrate graduating from university. Instead, I was greeted with huge crowds, who had gathered to see Trump’s helicopter land in the park. Many of these people were simply reporters. But many more were protestors. They held signs like, “Children need cuddles, not cages,” or “Refugees Welcome, Trump go home.”

It’s no secret that the overwhelming majority of Brits disapprove of Trump. Whether you poll Leavers or Remainers, Labour-voters or Conservatives, Trump-hatred in Britain is more widespread than in even the most liberal of US states. Part of this is due to the unpopularity of Trump’s policies, such as the Muslim travel ban, the Mexico wall, or the Jerusalem embassy move. But I suspect what the British disapprove most of Trump is his character: his dishonesty, vanity and narcissism. Trump’s unsavoury personality is largely why his visit drew more ire than say, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, despite the former being the leader of a democracy, and the latter being an absolute monarch. Pro-Trump Britons are keen to point this out, viewing the protests as nothing more than liberal hypocrisy. They also view aversion to Trump as a manifestation of British snobbery against Trump’s cruder, more down to earth style.

However, Trump’s British defenders miss the point of the protests. They weren’t simply to protest Trump- realistically, the protests couldn’t change Trump’s mind on issues such as climate change or the Iran Deal. What they were about was protesting the British government’s treatment of Trump. And on that, the protestors were absolutely right. The British government is coddling Trump in the hope of a post-Brexit UK-US trade deal. But such efforts will be in vain for several reasons. We won’t be able to start negotiating trade deals independently of the EU until the end of the transition period. Until then, we will remain a de facto member of the EU Customs Union, where EU-negotiated free trade deals and the EU’s common external tariff will continue to apply. By the end of the transition period, Trump will be up for re-election. If he loses, the Democrats have said a trade deal with the EU will be prioritised before a deal with the UK. And even in the unlikely event Trump wins re-election, his protectionist instincts, sheer incompetence and unpredictability, and the UK’s commitment to maintaining EU standards in the Chequers agreement will prevent such a deal from being made. Long story short, a UK-US trade deal is a pipe dream.

More importantly, the prospect of such a trade deal isn’t worth appeasing Trump. As the protestors rightly noted, Trump behaves immorally routinely. He trusts the word of the Russian President above the advice of his own intelligence agencies, choosing to even give away Israeli intelligence to the Russian foreign minister and Russian Ambassador. He lavishes praise on brutal autocrats while sidelining America’s democratic friends in Canada, the EU and NATO. He needlessly separates migrant children from their parents. He treats women, minorities, and anyone who refuses to view him completely uncritically with the utmost disdain. Even if a trade deal with the US was possible, it wouldn’t be right to pursue it with Trump as president.

The backlash to the protests in London from parts of the British Right reveal a staggering hypocrisy. In general, the Right speaks of the need to preserve freedom of speech, and against the dangers of political correctness and over-sensitivity, and perhaps with some justification. Yet simply a few people protesting isn’t acceptable. If you disagree with the protests, or feel they are inappropriate, that’s fine- they probably won’t make much difference anyway. But the sheer outrage against the anti-Trump demonstrations shows how thin-skinned much of the Right is nowadays.

The overall point is that the British government needs to be told it is mistaken in its approach to Trump. That doesn’t mean everything all anti-Trump protestors believe is right. I certainly disagree with the more radical anti-Trumpers who were calling for an abolition of all profits, borders and armed forces. But in times like these, middle class liberals like myself should find common cause with the socialist left in protesting the Trump presidency, and post-Brexit Britain’s over-dependence on it. If subservience to Trump is what British sovereignty looks like, we can only hope the EU welcomes us back with open arms.

Good news

Ten years ago, Richard Thaler, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, and law professor Cass Sunstein, published a book that suggested a brilliant idea: by exploiting simple quirks of human nature – our susceptibility to peer pressure; our tendency to put off coming to a decision – you can nudge people into making the right choices. Indeed by doing so, as governments around the world have found, you can make huge savings at little cost.

In Britain, the Behavioural Insights Team (or “Nudge Unit”), set up by David Cameron, has had some remarkable successes. Reminder letters telling people that most of their neighbours have already paid their taxes (an appeal to herd instinct) have boosted tax receipts. Sending encouraging text messages to pupils resitting their GCSE exam has boosted exam pass rates. Text reminders sent to jobseekers, and signed off with the words “Good luck!”, have resulted in far fewer people skipping job interviews. (Mary Ann Sieghart, The Sunday Times)

We don’t hear a lot about behavioral economics, but this is a good example of it. David Cameron did do one good thing during his premiership!

Longevity? No thank you!

The oldest recorded person, Frenchwoman Jeanne Calment, died in 1997 aged 122 years and 5 months. Since then no one has equalled or surpassed her. (Yet. Some very rich people are working on it for some reason)

A study conducted by Tom Kirkwood at Newcastle University’s Institute for Ageing in the UK, published in Science and based on demographic records from Italy, shows that the inexorable rise in death rate with age appears to reach a plateau around 105 and remain level thereafter. There is a debate about the existence of such “mortality plateaus”, but ageing looks overwhelmingly likely to be driven by the build-up of damage in cells and organs, which is, one presumes, fairly relentless.

However, everything we are learning about the biology of ageing makes it implausible that the body has some inbuilt program that acts specifically to bring life to a close at a set age, so if we can find better ways to combat the build-up of damage and enhance our potential for survival, then there is every reason to expect Calment’s record to be overtaken.(Edited version of an article in New Scientist, July 7,2018)

This assumes that everyone wants to live to over 105, or even 100! Imagine, you have lost all your friends, you are dependent on nurses and doctors to keep you going, your memory is not what it used to be, your teeth, hair and eyesight probably gone! In other words the quality of life is pretty awful. No, no, no – bump me off long before then. There are too many people in the world in any case. Don’t burden the young more than they are burdened already. No to ever longer lives!

Late to rise, early to die

Night owls tend to die slightly earlier than early risers – possibly because they’re so often forced to defy their body clocks. Researchers from Britain and America tracked about 430,000 people who were asked whether they preferred mornings or evenings. Over a six-and-a-half-year period, those who said they were “definite” evening types were 10% more likely to die than those who described themselves as “definite” morning people. Night owls were also more prone to depression, diabetes, neurological disorders and other health problems.

The researchers attribute the difference to society being organised around schedules that suit early risers. Forced to get up, say, in time for work at 9am, night owls become sleep-deprived, which has a knock-on effect on their health. A partial solution may be for night owls to take low doses of the sleep-regulating hormone melatonin – but not without first consulting their GPs. (reported in The Week)

As someone who has had a lifetime of insomnia (on some occasions failing to go to sleep for four nights in succession) I find it strange that in general lack of sleep is not taken seriously, doctors included. My own answer is very regular and strenuous exercise, in my case in the gym. It involves walking at 4.4 mph for 2.5 miles every time, plus other strength exercises. This doesn’t necessarily help sleep itself but it sets mind and body buzzing and gets you through the day satisfactorily, if sometimes grumpily. My other observation is that all remedies, including pharmaceuticals, wear off and you have to alternate with other methods. But this is boring for good sleepers. I promise not to mention it again on this blog.

Ireland is joining the modern era

Ireland is to hold a referendum on a clause in its 1937 constitution that implies that a woman’s place is in the home – and not in the labour market. Article 41.2 says that “by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved”, and adds that mothers should “not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home”. The government has now passed a motion proposing the “outdated” clause be removed; some politicians, however, have argued that it should instead be made gender neutral, in order to give full-time carers of both sexes constitutional protection. This referendum, and another on abolishing the law against blasphemy, will be held this autumn, on the same day as Ireland’s presidential election.
(Reported in The Week, 13 July 2018).

Taken along with the vote on the recent Irish vote on abortion (and assuming this new referendum will bring the country into line with modern practice), this is potentially good news at a moment when all we get is bad news about most things in sight. Epicureanism stands for equality of men and women.

There is a point of view that says that children do best when they can come home after school to a parent, not an empty house. The other side of the argument is that women should be able to choose: work outside the home or not. This should be a personal right and should not be dictated by men, the Catholic church or the Constitution.

Indecent wealth, indecent poverty

80% of private wealth in the United States is inherited. The richest 1% now own 41.8% of the wealth, while the poorest 90% hold only 22.8%. When you look at the differences between white and black citizens the gap is stark. For every dollar owned by a white family, a black family of colour earns less than a dime. The median wealth of white households in 2013 was $141,900, while black families had just $11,000 median wealth, Latinos $13,700. The average wealth figures by race would be even more skewed if the vast wealth of the richest minority were included.

Along with busting the budget, Trump and the Republicans in Congress have recently made the situation even worse, while assuredly being able to raise even more election money.

Historically, societies with such extremes of wealth and poverty have not survived. As examples look at France and Russia before their revolutions, Egypt, China and the Maya. One might add others, including ancient Rome. The difference is that the American rich have bought Congress, have persuaded the poor whites that their interests are identical to theirs, and that sensible things like a single-payer health service are “communist” plots. They have also sold the fairy tale that they too could be super-rich with luck (very possible years ago but the odds against it are now humungous). Moreover, the rich have cleverly persuaded the poorly educated that the liberals want to take their guns away. The ubiquitous nature of guns stacks the odds heavily in favour of the status quo, and against any form of serious reform.

Yes, in terms of naked self-interest and consuming greed, the American (Republican) super-rich have done a stunningly good job for themselves. Epicurus would be shocked: his mantra was moderation. He might well ask “What on earth do you need all that money for?”