Turkey regresses

For many years Turks were very pro-Western. Indeed, they considered themselves part of the West. But, maybe, partly because the EU members baulked at Turkish EU membership and the cultural upheaval it might cause, Turkey is undergoing its own cultural upheaval, where the authorities are insisting on ethnic, religious and historical distinctness from the West. Secularism fades as the number of religious schools rises. Evolution is disappearing from the curriculum, and the objective in schools is to raise “a pious generation”. The Turkey of Kemal Ataturk is disappearing, and the country is sliding back into xenophobia and chauvinism. Rapprochement with a newly resurgent Russia is threatening NATO.

An historian once postulated that religions have surges and fall-backs. Islam surged under the Prophet, of course, fell back during the later middle ages, had a surge (into Western Europe/ Vienna) in the 17th Century, fell back under Western colonialism, and has been surging back with a vengeance recently, maybe under the threat of technologies it cannot combat. For whatever reason, the fact is that, hidden from our sight there are tens of thousands of Turks who passionately support and defend pluralistic democracy. There is a dicotomy in Turkey between the modern West of the country and the mass of Anatolia, which never really accepted the changes Kemal Ataturk made. Two countries, really.

I remember a conversation with a young Turkish businessman on a plane trip. He told me that he and his friends bought into Western ways in toto. His English was perfect and he loved visiting London. But, he said, travel a hundred miles east of Istanbul and it is like time travel back into the 13th Century.

What are we doing to support these educated, Westernised Turks (who haven’t been bullied or arrested)? Trump will do nothing – he is frightened of moslems; terrorists, don’t you know.
We should offer them a safe home in the West – they would be an economic asset.

Are American men in crisis?

According to some commentators, American men are in crisis. For Democrats declining workforce participation rates, rising suicide rates and increasing drug use are symptomatic of an economy that is too weak and rigid to offer men the opportunity they need to thrive. Republicans prefer to focus on social causes of men’s woes: the rise of feminism, the decline of the man as the chief breadwinner, the decline of marriage and family responsibility, and a culture that increasingly insists masculinity is ‘toxic.’

It’s certainly the case that the ever-radical nature of modern-day feminism can make the notion of men as victims taboo. Too often it is assumed that because women have faced gender discrimination on a scale and intensity that men haven’t, men cannot face particular challenges of their own. America ought to be mature enough to recognise that both men and women face different hardships. Starting arguments on which is the more oppressed sex isn’t helpful when trying to make good policy.

It’s also the case that many American men feel purposeless and lost in the modern world. With the decline of traditional manufacturing and resource extraction jobs, men often find it hard to navigate the new economy. Being unable to provide for their families can rob a man of his pride. American men are more likely to commit suicide, more likely to be involved in a crime, more likely to take drugs or abuse alcohol, and are certainly far more likely to be addicted to porn. The 2016 presidential election had an unusually large gender gap, and for good reason. Trump spoke to the men who feel uneasy with the direction America is headed. Conversely, Hilary Clinton was the archetype of the sort of woman who loves modern America: wealthy, college educated, socially liberal, feminist, at ease with America’s ethnic transformation.

Having said that, the conservatives who seek to blame feminism and/or liberalism as the primary causes of men’s plight are deeply mistaken. Empowering women does not come at the expense of men. Female labour force participation rates have risen considerably over the past fifty years, yet men’s wages continue to increase unabated. American feminism, at least outside the most radical college campuses, does not view masculinity as evil, so long as it does not come at the expense of women’s freedom.

Rather, men are suffering from a lack of personal responsibility. Increasingly, they blame women for unsuccessful marriages or failed relationships, instead of self-reflecting at their own faults. They turn to substance abuse and junk food, instead of taking responsibility for their own health. And rather than re-educating themselves to adapt to the modern economy, they drop out of school or college, and then blame politicians for changes to the economy beyond anyone’s control. Due to the increasing importance of knowledge-based services, and the increasing number of highly educated, career-orientated women, men can no longer simply be mediocre at school, and then expect the jobs and the women to come to them. It takes time, effort and forward planning to be successful. And partly thanks to the #metoo movement, old-school chivalry is making a comeback.

I understand that some social and economic changes America has experienced haven’t been to men’s benefit. But the men’s rights movements, and other right-wing phenomena that make men out to be hapless victims of middle-class feminism, are completely deluded. American men ought to take responsibility, work hard, be courteous and respectful, and seize the opportunities the modern world affords. And with a bit of determination, they can build careers, relationships and families to be proud of.

Over-diagnosis in medicine

Sometimes it can be better to do nothing.

Some in the American medical profession are concerned about the dangers of overzealous medicine. There has been a trend towards detecting health problems too early, convincing healthy people they are sick, and treating them too aggressively.

The latest research, published in December in the Journal of the American Medical Association, is a pointer. It found that in US hospital regions with high rates of CT scans – which are typically ordered to check the lungs and abdomen – many more kidneys are removed. Doctors can see the kidneys too, and often stumble on innocuous cancers that are never going to bother the patient. 1 in 50 of those who undergo the surgery die within a month.

With biomedical companies designing ever more tests, such as breath-tests for cancer, the problem is only going to worsen. A person who presents with, say hoarseness of voice, gets a CT scan that finds a minor tumor somewhere else in the body, which might merit close watching over a period, but is promptly removed in unrelated surgery.

Cancers can grow quickly and some slowly; some even vanish on their own. There are the cancers, which have already spread before tests notice them, and cancers that can be treated before they spread if caught early – and cancers that never spread at all. A new test (liquid biopsy) will tell you that you have cancer, somewhere, but can’t tell you where. This then poses question, ”How many fruitless tests will you have to go through to find the growth that may never do you any harm?”

Take breast cancer: some doctors think mammograms are over-used. Screening in the US has found many non-progressing breast cancers, but has helped very little in catching fast-progressing cancers early on. Among 1000 women who are screened every year for a decade from the age of 50, roughly one will avoid death through breast cancer, more than 500 will have at least one false alarm and 10 will be treated needlessly. Meanwhile, women are naturally anxious as they wait for a biopsy and about the risk of undergoing chemotherapy for a cancer that is basically benign. (Based on an article by Wendy Glauser, New Scientist)

There is a temptation to blame the medical profession alone for over-diagnosis. After all, they have, in America (in contrast to Europe), a heavy financial incentive to treat as much as possible. But the truth is more complicated. Many (not all!) patients, too, want to treat every condition they are subject to. A huge part of Medicare expenditure is given over to treating a small number of rich, old people to keep them alive, come what may. It must be hard to say “no”. Do people want doctors to deal just with pressing, acute problems, or use the modern power of medical technology to search diligently for something, anything, wrong? I fear – the latter. And up go the premiums!

Epicureanism and how to treat others

A propos my comments on Judge Kavanagh and how a gentleman could have replied to the sexual allegations, I fear drop-dead insensitivity seems to have spread from small, powerful groups of badly brought-up human beings to other parts of the population.

Yesterday, I received a phone call asking me to spend 15 minutes on a hospital survey. I have just undergone a major piece of surgery, am continuously exhausted, still in pain, rely on my wife for mostly everything, and have had less than 12 hours sleep in the past week. Would I take a survey on the hospital experience?

NO!

Now had the survey-taker started off, “I gather you have had a major operation at X Hospital. I’m so sorry. I hope the operation has been a success, you were well treated and are starting to feel a bit better. I wonder if you are up to helping us with a survey that might make the hospital experience better for everyone? If not, I understand”. Had the woman started off in this vein I would have cooperated. But I told her, ”This is not your personal fault, but it is too early, I have no perspective on the experience, am not in good shape, and I consider the timing premature, if not insensitive. No, thank you.”

What has this to do with Epicureanisnm? EMPATHY! plus sensitivity and an understanding of how to handle people tactfully, not bludgeon them and get their backs up. This no longer seems to be understood in some quarters, which is why we have to fight back against the people who are 110% invested in themselves alone, and their objectives, and have little time for working out how real human beings feel and how to win them over.

“Taking back control” in Britain

The endless battles over Brexit mean that few politicians are “seriously engaged” in thinking about “how the world might look after our departure”. It’s time they started. “Simmering resentment with the power of Whitehall” could well ensure that it becomes the next target of “a growing urge to take back control”. In terms of taxes, the UK is by far the most centralised country in the Western world: only about 5% of tax revenues are raised locally, compared with nearly three times that amount in France, and a near 50-50 split in Canada and the US between federal and municipal taxes. Campaigners want change, arguing that “true local power requires the devolution of tax and spending to go hand in hand”, and that local government should also be handed “substantial regulatory control”. At present, local discretion over policies, from land planning to public health, is minimal, “and the ability to liberalise, rather than tighten, rules is almost non-existent”. No wonder we are seeing a “popular rebellion against opaque and concentrated political power”: we need “a new constitutional deal within the United Kingdom”. (Mark Littlewood, The Times, August 2018)

Amen to that! The rot started with Thatcher, who objected to a local democracy that diluted her power. Since her time things have become steadily worse, until it is barely worthwhile standing for local councils because they have no influence. The power has passed to the rich and the corporations, and to a giddying succession of incompetent Whitehall ministers.

It is.time for the people to seize back control. Unfortunately, assuming that Brexit goes through (this week’s Salzburg EU meeting suggests the real threat of “no deal”, mainly over the status of Northern Ireland), it is more likely that an extremist right-wing Tory cabal will attempt to seize power and centralise even further. The British people expressed dissatisfaction with the status quo in the Brexit referendum. Unfortunately they were voting on the wrong issue with the wrong government in charge. The problem isn’t Brussels; it is London.

Ave Epicurus ( a short run-down on Epicureanism)

Dear Editor:

Brian Dougall’s article ‘Epicureanism: The Hobo Test’ in Issue 98 is more a caricature than accurately characterizing Epicurus and his philosophy. Dougall concludes that anyone trying to live a pain-free, pleasurable existence would end up a hobo, the implication being such an ambition is not realistic or even possible in today’s world.

However, Epicurus was really the self-help guru for the ancient world. Through his philosophy he tried to help relieve peoples’ anxieties about pain, death, and religion. Like many of his philosophical contemporaries, he sought what was called ataraxia: a state of ease, peace, and tranquility. He thought that by ridding ourselves of pain we naturally bring on a state of pleasure. He was no wild-eyed hedonist, though, and thought that friendship was the greatest pleasure. Despite what the term ‘epicurean’ has come to mean today, fancy food and wild sex were not on his menu. He thought that simple pleasures were best, and the easiest to obtain. He wrote that morality was mostly dependent on time, place, and circumstance, and that it was largely an agreement among people in society not to harm each other. But pleasure was basically good and what characterized having a pleasant life. Moreover, he believed that atoms were the basis of the material world, but that personal freedom was a possibility insofar as we could understand our nature and be in accord with it.

Epicurus was one of the most popular philosophers of the classical world, perhaps the most popular philosopher for both Greeks and Romans. Many of his works were discovered in the ruins of the library of the Roman city of Herculaneum, which was destroyed, along with Pompei, by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. The Romans enjoyed their pleasures, and greatly esteemed the Greek philosopher who told them it was perfectly alright to do so.
(by Allan Saltzman, Hamden, Connecticut, published in Philosophy Now magazine 2018)

Judge Kavanagh

Any decent gentleman who is not guilty, faced with an allegation that, as a teenager, he treated a young girl in a way that came close to rape, would respond as follows:

“I have read your account of the incident that you endured as a teenager, and I am terribly sorry that you had to go through such a harrowing and scary experience. It sounds dreadful. When we are young we do stupid things, but your treatment was callous and totally unacceptable at any age. But it wasn’t me and forcing myself on a woman is not who I am. Suffice it to say, I have no recollection whatsoever of any such party or any such incident, and can only extend my sympathy to you.”

Instead, Judge Kavanagh responded to the charges with a brutal denial that illustrates his total lack of empathy and his exclusive preoccupation with himself and his career. In showing this absence of empathy he will be forever looked upon as an overgrown frat boy and a bully, and someone who has no business judging anyone else at any level of jurisprudence.

The scandal in the Catholic church goes from bad to overwhelming

In an interview published on Wednesday evening by Religion Digital, the religious portal of the Spanish-language news site Periodista Digital, Cardinal Maradiaga once again strongly criticized Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò for having gone public about McCarrick’s sexual predations and the protection the Cardinal received from the highest spheres in the Vatican, especially since Pope Francis was elected to the See of Peter and trusted the American prelate (that is McCarrick) to help him choose new cardinals for the Church in the USA.

Asked to comment about Viganò’s call on the Pope to resign, Maradiaga answered: “It does not seem correct to me to transform something that is of the private order into bombshell headlines exploding all over the world and whose shrapnel is hurting the faith of many. I think this case of an administrative nature should have been made public in accordance with more serene and objective criteria, not with the negative charge of deeply bitter expressions”.

Coming from Maradiaga, the head of the “C9” Council of Cardinals commissioned to help reform the Church and also a close friend of Francis, as Religion Digital takes care to underscore, it is a statement in which every word counts. If homosexual activity on the part of a top member of the Church’s hierarchy such as McCarrick is a purely private matter that only needs to be managed at the administrative level, than it surely cannot be as bad as traditional believers are making out.

Misconduct of a private order – note that Maradiaga does not use the word “sin,” nor does he speak of priests’ grave obligation to live chastely as celibates – is something that should be taken care of outside the public eye, with at best confession and absolution and perhaps a private reprimand. Troubling the public order is what happens when crimes and lesser offences break criminal law as such. Only then do public authorities and representatives of the judiciary intervene to have the offender punished in the name of the public good.

“The logic is quite clear: sexual abuse on minors, or at least adolescents who, because of their age, are not capable of agreeing to consensual relations is one thing, but having sexual relationships of whatever nature with adults is another, private matter. It is wrong, no doubt, but should not be made a fuss of and belongs to the internal forum. Where there is no penal crime, why should the Church see a transgression with dire consequences for its own Body?”

Maradiaga’s minimizing of sexual misconduct, and of the perverting of seminarians and priests by a predator who is in a position of authority over them, is another sign that homosexual acts between consenting adults are in some circles no longer being regarded as a great evil that sullies the Church but as, at most, unfortunate falls comparable to other ordinary and widespread sins – disorders that a bit of paperwork will set right. It is another way of demanding silence.” (excerpted from Lifesite News)

I think the words reported by this very senior (liberal?) Cardinal are truly shocking and lacking any empathy or sensitivity to the youngsters subjected to unwanted sexual interference. Talk about digging for your own obsolescence! And yesterday a new abuse scandal erupted in the Netherlands!

Should Epicureans have children?

Awhile ago, I wrote piece on how Epicureans should raise children. Robert has made his own contributions on the subject, which can be read here. Today, I thought I would address something altogether more fundamental: whether Epicureans should be having children at all.

From what I can gather from my research, Epicurus disapproved of marriage and therefore having children, apart from in exceptional circumstances for certain people. Marriage and having children were said to cause unnecessary pain and anxiety, though there was no blanket prohibition. But since Epicurus’ views on the matter are vague, somewhat utilitarian (like much of Epicurean ethics) and not well-known, I think it’s fair to reassess the moral worth of having children in the modern age.

The first thing to mention is that no one has a duty to have children, contrary to what many religious teachers claim. Anyone who tries to shame those who don’t or can’t have children, as Andrea Leadsom did to Theresa May during the 2016 Conservative leadership contest, is guilty of a terrible prejudice. There is nothing wrong with sex without the intention to procreate. People who don’t have children should not be treated any differently by the taxman, the welfare state or wider society.

Secondly, parents have a responsibility to give their children a decent upbringing. In the developed world, this means spending sufficient time educating them (schools do not teach everything), giving them a balanced and interesting diet, enriching their cultural faculties (appreciation for music, drama etc), and being reasonably generous towards them. If you are too poor or busy to give your children a proper life, it is irresponsible to have children anyway, on the basis that it’s your right to and that the state should pick up the tab. The right-wing British press is full of stories of people having children to claim welfare. And while many of these stories are sensationalised, they do contain an element of truth.

The environmental impact of a rising population is impossible to ignore. Climate change isn’t the result of overpopulation per se, but it doesn’t help when per capita consumption and carbon emissions are so high. For this reason, I would advise against having high numbers of children, even if you can afford it. Although we’re making progress in ecological policies like recycling and renewable energy, the rate of progress cannot yet offset the consequences of a rapidly rising and increasingly healthy population.

However, there are a few arguments in favour of having children. Of course, raising children is stressful. But it can also bring immense joy and happiness. Children can be good company during your working years, and can look after you in old age. On balance, Epicurus’ hedonism could easily justify having children, particularly if their absence if causing you pain and loneliness.

Children can also improve one’s morality and human qualities. Raising them teaches kindness, generosity, humility, selflessness, patience, etc. In a world filled with an inordinate amount of violence and suffering, children teach us the value of innocence, and that often ignorance is bliss. We should always aim for our children to be better people than ourselves.

Finally, I hope the secular liberals who read Epicurus Today have a decent number of children. Worldwide, the religious conservatives are outbreeding the socially liberal and the non-religious. So despite high numbers of people raised in religious families de-converting, particularly in the West, the world as a whole is getting more religious. As a secular liberal myself, I find this trend very worrying. In Israel, higher birthrates amongst ultra-Orthodox Jews is pushing the country to the right and making peace less likely. I would very much like that trend to be reversed.

Overall, I don’t think that having children is inherently un-Epicurean. If done well, having a small number of children can be a wonderful thing. I would only advise that like all good utilitarians, you consider the consequences for yourself, your country and the planet before you become a parent.

A calamity in the making, part 2

Hyman Minski, an economist, created the “financial instability hypothesis”. Financial systems – and the free market economies that rest on them – are by nature unstable, tending towards what he called “Ponzi finance”.

In good times companies take on too much debt, and that gets them into trouble when profits fall. They then sell assets to pay the interest on debt, causing asset prices to fall, triggering more forced sales. This ends in market panic.

Today, corporate credit is at an all-time high, and the stock market is booming. It’s true that some safeguards put it place after 2008 made the banks safer, but Trump has walked back many of the consumer protections, and anti-trust has faded away. Since 2008 the basic philosophy behind the financial system hasn’t changed: greed is good and the driver of wealth, companies are there solely to benefit shareholders, executives can plunder the profits, workers are expendable, taxes are there to be avoided at all costs, and to hell with contributing to society. Meanwhile the financial sector wags the dog and is no longer a simple service industry but a monolith, killing regulation and installing industry officials in top regulatory positions. In short, the system that brought us 2008 hasn’t changed, or not changed enough to prevent recurrent crashes. Epicurus would be appalled.

Prepare for the next crash. It is coming soon, spurred on by sub- prime car loans and by the free market fundamentalists who have the ear of the President. (Inspired by and partly reproduced from, a wonderful and recommended article by Steven Pearlstein in the Washington Post, September 9, 2018)

What has this to do with Epicureanism? Think peace of mind, happiness, opportunity, and stable, cooperating and reasonably equal societies.

Correction

Dubitator, a blog reader, has politely drawn my attention to an error in my posting on September 13th about the Emperor Aurelius. He is right. Aurelius was a famous Stoic, not an Epicurean. (One maybe shouldn’t resume posting so quickly after a hospital operation!) In any case the words of Aurelius are wise, regardless of labels. Thank you, Dubitator!

Non- Disparagement Agreements

Some of the people who appear on American TV, or who are quoted in articles about President Trump, have signed non-disclosure agreements that oblige signers not to disparage Trump personally, or members of his family. Some versions provide for financial penalties, others are comprehensive in terms of Trump’s political, social and financial affairs. So the question is: when these people appear on TV are they being honest, or are they lauding Trump because they cannot legally do otherwise?

In the interests of transparency shouldn’t all media organisations now preface every broadcast by a Trump operative by stating that they have signed an NDA, where appropriate? Then the reader or the audience would be better informed as to where the interviewee is coming from. (Fear being one emotion).

We have no idea how many people there are who have signed these NDAs, (although the anonymous critic in the New York Times may have signed one, which explains his anonymity). NDAs have been described as “common” and “very normal” for this administration.

The NDA chills free speech and in all probability contravenes the First Amendment. It is what you expect in a tin-pot dictatorship. A robust, self-confident man with nothing much to hide wouldn’t feel the need for it. Is the President’s amour propre so fragile that he cannot bear criticism of the mildest kind? What precisely is he concealing, and how much of it should be public knowledge? (Information obtained from article by Paul Farhi, Washington Post, 12 September 2018)

Lying

“Injustice is a kind of blasphemy. Nature designed rational beings for each other’s sake: to help, not harm, one another, as they deserve. To lie is to blaspheme, too. Because “nature” means the nature of what is. And that which is and that which is the case are closely linked, so that nature is synonymous with truth – the source of all true things.

“To lie deliberately is to blaspheme – the liar commits deceit, and thus injustice. And likewise to lie without realizing it, because the involuntary liar disrupts the harmony of nature. Nature gave him the means to distinguish between the true and false, and he neglected them and now can’t tell the difference”.

(9.1) “The Decent Life” (9.1) from the philosopher Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, the Epicurean Roman Emperor

What Britain’s pro-Europeans are getting wrong

Brexit seems to be going from bad to worse. The governing Conservative Party can’t agree on a plan for leaving the European Union- the Prime Minister Theresa May’s proposed plan is opposed by a significant chunk of Conservative MPs and the vast majority of Conservative members. Negotiations have been slow and fraught, with each side accusing the other of intransigence and wishful thinking. Businesses, particularly banks and manufacturers such as Airbus and Jaguar Land Rover, are beginning to panic at the prospect of leaving. The public are increasingly pessimistic about Brexit, yet so far show little sign of getting behind the pro-European cause. Given how badly Brexit is going, Britain’s pro-EU movement ought to be asking itself why this is.

There are several reasons for the persistence of support for Brexit. The first is the lack of enthusiasm for the European Union as an institution, however unpopular its critics may also be. The EU is seen as a vast, nightmarishly complex bureaucracy, which exists only to serve global elites and not the common man. It is perceived as undemocratic, out of touch and irrelevant to everyday life. Unlike in most of continental Europe, the EU is not seen as a builder of peace after WW2. Unlike in the Eastern states, it is not seen as a facilitator of democracy. Nor are the economic benefits of the EU as widely acknowledged- many Britons would rather have control over our regulations than be part of a single regulatory regime, however convenient it may be for trade.

The second reason is that the structural cause of Brexit- a low-wage, low-skilled economy which has endured lethargic growth outside the South East and the university cities- has not been addressed. Most of Britain feels left behind by globalisation, deprived of investment and attention from central government, and not cared about. Remainers, a group too ideologically diverse to have a coherent economic policy programme, cannot resolve the discontent that led to Brexit.

A significant component of British Euroscepticism is opposition to the EU’s free movement of labour. Were Britain to remain in the EU, or even simply in the Single Market, unregulated European migration would continue. Remainers have failed to make the case for free movement, instead arguing in vain the benefits of EU membership are worth enduring immigration to maintain. This is a terrible mistake: free movement is one of the best things about the EU. It makes us all freer and more prosperous. British people can live and worth wherever they want in the EU, so long as they don’t claim welfare. Equally, EU migrants use fewer public services than Brits, and thus are a net economic benefit.

The fourth and presently most important cause of the pro-Europeans’ unpopularity, is that Brexit is seen as a democratic choice that must be respected, however undesirable it may be. Unlike nearly any other policy, Brexit was endorsed via a high-turnout referendum. Thus, it can’t be reversed by a change of government or a shift in the public mood. Most British people believe the government has a duty to leave the EU- not doing so would be violating the people’s wishes. The notion of a second referendum on the terms of the government’s deal is gaining currency, yet lacks the overwhelming levels of support it would need for Parliament to vote for it.

My overall point is that for all of the mentioned reasons, Britain is a fundamentally Eurosceptic country for the time being. It is futile for the country’s pro-Europeans to pretend otherwise. Those who would rather Brexit had never happened, which includes myself, should play the long game. Begin by making the positive case for the EU, without endorsing any specific course of action which isn’t presently realistic. Then if Brexit goes as badly as its opponents say it will, the public mood will have genuinely changed and a chance to re-join will be possible. But simply waiving EU flags at the Proms and decrying the opportunistic demagoguery of the Brexiteers won’t be effective. It took a long time for Eurosceptics to persuade Britain to leave the EU. It will take at least awhile to persuade them to come back.

The benefits of gentle police work

Inequality, poverty, corruption – Nicaragua has many of the characteristic problems that afflict Central American nations. Yet there is one way in which it stands out from its neighbours: its relative lack of violence. Its homicide rate, according to the latest regional report from InSight Crime, is a mere seven per 100,000. This compares with 12.1 per 100,000 in the much richer Costa Rica, 42.8 per 100,000 in Honduras and a “staggering” 60 per 100,000 in El Salvador.

Why this disparity? In large part it’s a legacy of Nicaragua’s 1970s Sandinista revolution against the US-backed General Somoza dictatorship, and the nation’s subsequent rejection of all things American. Whereas its neighbours, under US pressure, implemented very heavy-handed policing methods in the early 1990s (former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani secured lucrative consultancy contracts), Nicaragua pursued community-based policing, with officers working closely with NGOs to prevent crime. The model was in keeping with the ideals of the revolution, which championed social programmes and progressive ideas such as gender equality. It’s this approach that has enabled Nicaragua to defy “the near-universal correlation between poverty, inequality and violence”. (Roberto Lovato, The Nation, New York, 17 Feb 2018).

Contrast the above with the trigger-happy behaviour of many American policemen, frightened to death, poorly trained, and many of them none too keen on teenage blacks. Republicans always reach for over-reach when contemplating crime. Huge numbers are arrested on specious grounds for “loitering” or holding something in their hands. Huge numbers are incarcerated, ensuring that previously harmless young people become hardened criminals. This is not the way to battle crime and not the way to to get the help and cooperation of local communities. What it does do is get votes from fearful Republican voters, whose fearfulness. is stoked up, often with bogus crime figures. With the posxible exception of Chicago, crime is gradually going down, believe it or not. No thanks to the hordes of John Waynes in policemen’s costumes.

The biggest threat to democracy that no one is talking about

That threat is a constitutional convention called by the states. The last time such a thing happened was in 1787. So messy was that affair that it hasn’t been carried out since. But a renewed effort is underway.

Conservatives are pushing for an Article V convention to add a balanced-budget amendment and other ideas, to the Constitution. All they need is the approval of 34 state legislatures (no governor’s signature needed) to compel Congress to call such a gathering. Right now, 28 states have passed resolutions calling for an Article V convention. That number would be 32 had not pro- democracy groups not gotten Delaware, Maryland, New Mexico and Nevada to rescind their resolutions. Still, once the 34-state hurdle is cleared, despite pledges of a discrete, narrow focus, no one knows what could happen.

Once a convention were convened, it could take up any topic it wanted to. There is nothing in Article V of the Constitution, no jurisprudence or anything in statute that says the convention needs to be limited. So they could take up anything they want. There are no rules for such conventions nor does the Constitution discuss constitutionzl conventions, their membership, funding, etc

Groups pushing these conventions are seeking to undo woman’s right to choose and marriage equality. They want to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency, roll back the power of the Federal government, abolishing things most peoplw take fof granted, and overturning the idea of the the established role of the modern, enlightened government.

ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, kicked the process off by advocating a balanced-budget amendment a few years ago, along with Mark Meckler, president of Convention of States Action, whose handbook specifically says, “We want to call a convention for the purpose of limiting the power and jurisdiction of the federal government,”reversing 115 years of progressivism?

We are talking about reining in corporations with antitrust measures. We’re talking about the women’s suffrage movements d the right to abortion. We’re talking about consumer protections. We’re talking about Brown v. Board of Education. We are talking about education, environmental rights, civil rights, voting rights, social security, Medicare, unemployment benefit – all of those kinds of things.”. (Adapted from a podcast by Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehart Cape Up, September 4 at 6:01 AM)

This is precisely the Agenda of the the right-wingers in the British Tory Party. They want to consolidate the rule of the rich (the “deserving”) and, privatize the National Health Service, extend the retirement age, the reduce money spent on education and help for the poor and working class (the “undeserving”. Dpicurus, who was a kind, ari g and cari g and inc.sive man, would have. been surprised at the extensive activities of Wester governments, but I be.ieve he wluld have suppotdd them

Weirder and weirder

Students in the US who have a type of brain parasite carried by cats are more likely to be majoring in business studies. The pets are hosts for the protozoan parasite Toxoplasma gondii. It can infect people through contact with cat faeces, poorly cooked meat from infected livestock, or contaminated water, and A many as one-third of the world’s population may have it.The parasite doesn’t usually make us feel sick, but it forms cysts in the brain where it can remain for the rest of a person’s life. Some studies have linked infection with slower reaction times, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, suicidal behaviour and explosive anger.

Now an analysis of almost 1300 US students has found that those who had been exposed to the parasite were 1.7 times more likely to be majoring in business. In particular, they were more likely to be focusing on management and entrepreneurship than other business-related areas. The study also found that professionals attending business events were almost twice as likely to have started their own business if they were T. gondii positive, and that countries with a higher prevalence of the infection show more entrepreneurial activity.

The team behind the study say their results suggests that the parasite may be involved in reducing a person’s fear of failure and high-risk, high-reward ventures. Rodents infected with T.gondii are known to become less fearful of encountering cats (Proceedings of the Royal Society B, doi.org/csh7) published in New Scientist, Aug 2018

If this article did not have the imprimature of the Royal Society I would be tempted to think it was a practical joke. Nowhere is getting rich, control over others, or greed (and a hos t of other motivations) mentioned or discussed.

Brief thoughts on the upcoming Swedish election

Sweden is viewed very favourably in Britain. It’s seen as tolerant, liberal and friendly country, committed to modernity yet proud of its traditions. Sweden seems to get the balance right between supporting free markets and free trade on the one hand, and having a compassionate approach to the poor and refugees on the other.

Yet for those following the Swedish election, due to take place on the 9 September, it is increasingly clear the Swedish utopia popular in the British imagination bears little resemblance to reality. Crime, particularly violent crime, has increased notably. The economy, while not stagnant, isn’t roaring ahead either. While the number of refugees and asylum seekers entering Sweden has fallen since the height of 2015, the effect of integrating more newcomers per capita than any other European nation remains an immense challenge. The unemployment and poverty rates amongst migrants are considerably higher than for native Swedes- the disparity between foreigners and the general population is far greater in Sweden than in the US or the UK. The impact of high migration has increased the prominence of the right-wing Sweden Democrats, although the most recent opinion polls suggest they won’t be as successful as it was once feared.

To make matters worse, the country is divided as to what the future of Sweden’s famously generous welfare state should be. The incumbent government, a coalition of the Social Democrats and the Greens, believes maintaining high welfare spending is the key to ensuring the working class receive a fair share of the benefits of globalisation. Without welfare, Sweden could experience the sort of populist uprisings that have affected  more free-market countries like the UK, the US or even New Zealand. They argue a key cause of popular dissatisfaction is the increasing gap between rich and poor, and the continued prosperity of the finance sector, even when decisions made by reckless bankers caused the financial crisis.

I’m very sceptical of those arguments, which is why if I were Swedish, I would vote for the centre-right Moderate Party. Sweden is more economically equal than almost any other country on earth. It has a relatively small financial sector compared with EU competitors like the UK or Ireland. It also has one of the world’s most generous welfare states, including a vast array of universal benefits for families, students and pensioners. So insufficient state spending cannot explain the popularity of the Sweden Democrats, nor can it address issues like a lack of economic growth, dissatisfaction with migration, or Euroscepticism.

Sweden needs to ensure its existing public provisions, such as the police or the pension system, have the trust of the Swedish people, before embarking on any more expensive long-term commitments. The country must demonstrate an ability to enforce the law, and not shy away from convicting migrant criminals for fear of political correctness. While Sweden should be proud of a culture that treats refugees kindly, it cannot be the world’s safe haven. This means pushing for EU-wide policies to distribute refugees equitably, rather than allowing excessive migration into Sweden under the pretence of upholding liberalism. Equally, the Swedes’ willingness to pay high taxes must not be mistaken for enthusiasm for a redistributive EU; a Moderate-led government should stand against proposed increases to international wealth transfers.

None of this is to argue the past four years of Social Democratic rule have been a disaster. The Nordic combination of flexible labour markets with generous social insurance schemes was maintained to the country’s benefit. Taking in too many refugees may have been a mistake. But taking in too few, as Britain has done, shows a basic lack of humanity. Sweden’s environmental record is stellar, as is its progress on gender equality and gay rights. The country’s childcare policies, while expensive, are the envy of the world.

However, Sweden needs a change of course. The Social Democrats have been committed to liberal ideals, but have drifted too far into left-wing utopianism and wishful thinking. A Moderate-led government would maintain a belief in the essential principles of the Swedish welfare system, while reforming it and other public institutions to restore the public’s trust. It would work within the EU, but be more aggressive in advancing Sweden’s interests in the European sphere. And by joining NATO and increasing defence spending, it would show leadership on the world stage against an increasingly isolationist America which cannot be relied upon to defend Sweden, and an increasingly aggressive Russia. Sweden has been a beacon to the rest of the world in good governance and intelligent policymaking. With a new government, it can be so again.

A nation based on fear cannot be “great”.

It has not been a good year for gun makers. Remington filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy after its sales fell 27.5% in the first nine months of Donald Trump’s presidency. (Its officials had expected a 2016 Hillary Clinton victory and a burst of gun purchases). Sales have been ragged across the industry. Gun company stocks have slipped, profits have fallen, price wars are breaking out, and corporate debt is on the rise. January 2018 was the worst January for gun purchases since 2012. (A mere 2,030,530(!)firearm background checks were logged that month, down by 500,000 from the same month in 2016). It was the “Trump slump” in action.

“Fear-based” gun buying is no longer buoying the industry. After each shooting atrocity there have been spikes in gun sales. But after last October’s Las Vegas slaughter in which 58 died and hundreds were wounded, they sank by 13% compared to October 2016. Recent atrocities, such as at Parkland school, Florida, haven’t helped sales.

Fear and and guns. Gun sales have been driven by white men who are “anxious about their ability to protect their families, insecure about their place in the job market, and beset by racial fears”. A gun feels to them like “a force for order in a chaotic world,” though such owners are significantly more likely to use a gun in their home to kill or wound themselves or a family member than a burglar, intruder, or anyone else. They are also more likely than non-gun-owners to take an active part in politics. (heavily edited version of an article in Tom Dispatch 4/15/2018)

America is filled with guns that have the power to rend flesh in ways that fit war, not the home. Fear is the driver. To be “great” requires a nation that is confident, secure, well- informed and reasonably united. The United States has had its century as a Great lPower, and has wasted its resources on the military and endless wars, instead of education and socisl cohesion. There are parallels with ancient Greece and Rome. Epicurus would recognise it – the decline of social cohesion and democracy and futile, destructive war that partly drove his desire for moderation.

The sorry state of British education, part 3, universities

The conclusion of a three-part series on British education. You can read the first part on GCSEs here, and the second part on A-levels here.

British universities are amongst the best in the world, beaten only by the United States, a country with five times the population. They attract high numbers of students from virtually every country. Even with America, the British system compares favourably. Fees are much lower- for UK and EU students they are capped at £9250 ($11905) per year, and for non-EU students they are around £18000 ($23169) per year. Most undergraduate courses only last for three years, lowering costs further. The relatively small size of British universities mean that students enjoy regular contact hours with a lecturer or tutor they know personally. And the recent surge of investment means things like sports facilities and on-campus shopping no longer compare as unfavourably to their American counterparts as they once did.

However, British universities are currently the subject of severe criticism, from students, staff and wider society. To an outsider, this may seem odd. The recent surge in student numbers and investment surely points to a successful model. International student numbers haven’t dipped by anywhere near the amount it was predicted following the UK’s decision to leave the European Union. Record numbers of working class students are attending, despite recent increases in fees.

But it is this financialisation of higher education- seeing it as a business rather than an aspect of public provision- that is at the root of student discontent. The government recently lifted the cap on student numbers, allowing universities to admit as many people as they wanted, provided the students could afford the fees. This had the effect of universities aggressively expanding to fit as many students as possible. The result was increasing overcrowding of campus facilities, a shortage of accommodation and therefore higher rents, a decline in academic standards as students with lower grades were admitted in higher numbers, overwhelmed staff, and a general feeling that students were being treated simply as customers, rather than valued members of the academic community. To make matters worse, senior university figures have awarded themselves six-figure salaries, when the value of a higher education is increasingly questioned.

The financialisation of higher education has not just affected universities, it has had an impact on the wider economy. Since more people are getting degrees, each degree is worth less. Employers are raising their requirements. It is no longer good enough simply to have a degree. In many cases, only students from the elite universities will be considered. In some cases, you can only be an employee if you have a very high degree classification. Students are paying more in fees and accumulating more debt, only to face a more competitive graduate job market.

For the Left, the answer to all this is a government takeover of higher education. Fees should be abolished, reducing the amount of debt students have to go into. The cap on student numbers should be reintroduced, to prioritise the quality over the quantity of the student intake. Universities should be subject to regular audits, and penalised if they are found to be wasting money. For most students, this is a very appealing policy programme. It’s no surprise that in last year’s general election, Labour won the overwhelming majority of the student vote, despite the Labour leader Corbyn’s radicalism and past Euroscepticism. Labour also find favour with a significant proportion of university staff, who are seeing their pensions reduced and are often underpaid.

But the Left needs to be honest in its higher education proposals. Maintaining the current level of higher education participation, while abolishing fees and increasing staff salaries and pensions would be immensely expensive. In most countries with free or heavily subsidised higher education such as Germany, the proportion of people attending university is much lower. Taxes would have to rise. And since Labour has ruled out higher taxes on 95% of the population, the consequence would be a clobbering of business owners and investors, at a time when Britain desperately needs the confidence of both.

Britain needs to accept some of the Left’s critiques of the higher education system, while maintaining the parts that work well. The financialisation of universities post-2010 has been a disaster. The government needs to properly regulate and oversee universities, to prevent waste and unsustainable expansion, and to maintain standards. More money ought to be given to low-income students who struggle to fund their education- the now-scrapped Education Maintenance Allowance should be restored. Pay ratios should be introduced to ensure the vice-chancellors do not earn excessive salaries relative to the cleaners and junior academics.

Having said that, the country cannot afford to provide a free education to everyone that wants one. Students from middle to high income families should pay at least as much as they currently do. To pay for assistance to lower income students, overall student numbers should fall. The cap on student numbers should be reintroduced, and the cap on fees should be extended to non-EU students to prevent them from being used as a cash cow. The overall aim should be a sustainable, properly regulated system which a decent proportion of the population can enjoy, regardless of circumstances.

Thought for the day

A year after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, the official death toll has been raised to 2,975 people – compared with the previous official figure of 64.

The Adminstration, meanwhile, has done little or nothing to help Puerto Ricans. If the hurricane had occurred in Kansas, also full of American citizens, and not in a Latino island, would the reaction have been different? Just wondering.

Our ( British) ancesters were all probably dark brown

The first modern Britons probably had blue eyes, dark hair and dark brown skin, according to a new DNA analysis of the oldest complete skeleton ever found in the UK. Cheddar Man, dug up in Somerset in 1903, lived some 10,000 years ago, not long after settlers began crossing over from Europe at the end of the last ice age. Britons of white ancestry are descended from this population.

The discovery, based on analysis (by the Natural History Museum and University College London) of DNA extracted from Cheddar Man’s skull, underlines the fact that lighter skin tones are a relatively recent phenomenon in Europe. They may have become predominant only as recently as 6,000 years ago. With the advent of farming, people may have started to eat more cereal and eat less oily fish, leading to vitamin D deficiencies. At that point, those with fairer skin, which absorbs more vitamin D from sunlight, may have gained a genetic advantage. (The Week 17 Feb 2018)

Message to immigrant haters and racists generally: if you can wait about 6000 years all the dark skinned immigrants you now want to send home will have become white. All will be well. In terms of the age of the planet this is just a twinkling of an eye. Just be patient.

(Makes it all seem rather silly, doesn’t it?).

Edgy Shakespeare

“Shakespeare strikes fear into the hearts of many theatregoers because no one wants to leave one of his plays feeling stupid. And yet, so often, that point is not grasped by those who make theatre: they want to be seen as edgy and creative, and so play around with the plays until they resemble a disastrous mud pie-and-glitter experiment. This enrages me.

Shakespeare wrote mainly for us, the audience. Surely he provides enough intrigue without adding drag queens, cannabis farms, black plastic sheeting, grunge clothing, bungee-jumping stunts – not to mention endless dancing to hip-hop, grime, garage, trance, whatever-is-hip-now.”. (Ann Treneman in The Times)

I do so agree! But Ms. Treneman missed out one pet peeve of mine: muttering on stage. I used to do a lot of amateur acting. One venue was the Wimbledon Theatre in London, a massive barn of a place. Our fearsome director told us, “The audience has paid good money to see you and deserves to hear you clearly, every word you say or sing”. We would have to project and articulate every syllable until she could hear clearly at the very back of the gods that seemed a hundred yards away. Good training.

Nowadays actors mumble. Half their words are indistinct, especially on television. It’s as if they are in some live 19th Century impressionistic painting – you get the general idea – and the rest is up to your imagination. I hope this inexcusable fashion (for that is what it is) will pass, because Shakespearian audiences deserve to hear every word that is spoken or sung.. And this applies to workaday crime and other shows. Articulation, please! What do they teach you in acting school?

Letter to the Washington Post, 30 August 2018

The answer for me to E. J. Dionne’s rhetorical question about why people stay Catholic is simple: I attend Mass to deepen my relationship with the Lord. It matters not who wears the miter and carries the crosier. I don’t care if my priest is gay. The hierarchy and politics of the church offends me so I ignore them.

I am a Catholic in daily conversation with God in prayer and am strenthened by the Eucharist. No one can take that from me, and I’ll never give it up”. (Brian M. Mulholland, Washington).

What immediately came to mind reading this was a parallel attitude now rampant in a section of society. It goes something like this:

The answer for me to why people stay Republican is simple: I love money and the Party can be relied upon to put more of it in my pocket. It matters not who is in the White House, whether he is a crude, serial philanderer, liar, unethical businessman, childish or incompetent. Yes, the hierarchy, the politics, divisiveness and craven behavior of the present Republican party offends me so I ignore them.

I am a Republican in daily conversation with the God of Higher Income and am strenthened by the recent bonanza given me by Congress. No one can take that from me, and I’ll never give the Party up”.

Top to bottom reform needed

A highly placed Vatican source claims that Cardinal Gerhard Müller, together with three experienced CDF priests, was dismissed by Pope Francis because they all had tried to follow loyally the Church’s standing rules concerning abusive clergymen. In one specific case, Müller opposed the Pope’s re-instatement of Don Mauro Inzoli, an unmistakably cruel abuser of many boys; but the Pope would not listen. In another case, the Pope decided not to give a Vatican apartment to one of Müller’s own secretaries, but to the now-infamous Monsignor Luigi Capozzi, in spite of the fact that someone had warned the Pope about Capozzi’s grave problems. The Vatican source also said that it was known to several people in the Vatican that some restrictions were put on Cardinal McCarrick by Pope Benedict XVI, and he thereby confirms Viganò’s own claim that Francis knew about Carrick.

A well-informed Vatican source, asked about Pope Francis and McCarrick’s habitual abuse, answered: “Cardinal Müller [as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF)] had always …followed up on these abuse cases, and that is why he was dismissed, just as his three good collaborators [the three CDF priests] were also dismissed.”

The source explained that Cardinal Müller, as the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, had always been loyally following the Church’s laws with regard to abuse cases, for the handling of which the CDF is responsible. According to the source, Müller also “resisted” Pope Francis in 2014 when he wanted to re-instate the serial molester of boys, the Italian priest Don Inzoli, allowing him to perform some functions of the priesthood. “The Pope decided differently,” the source continued. That is to say, Pope Francis did not follow Cardinal Müller’s advice.(Edited, LifeSiteNews item,August 29, 2018)

How can anyone have respect for an institution like the Catholic Church as it is currently constituted. How do we know that all this horrendous abuse hasn’t been going on since the Middle Ages? How many scores of people have been harmed over the years? Why does the church seem to attract predators? The celibacy rule must be part of the problem. In my opinion it is outdated and contrary to human nature.

The early christians were responsible for misrepresenting and unfairly ridiculing Epicurus and his rational teachings, so much so that Epicureanism became equated with gluttony, greed and hedonism. These charges were unfounded then, and now. It’s the pot calling the kettle black. The current charges against the Catholic Church are well founded, and the hierarchy attempts to cover it all up. Hopefully, the financial cost of all this will lead to reform.

Modern winemaking

Until the mid-20th century, most vineyards were small and worked mainly by hand. After the Second World War, as French vineyards modernised and the industry grew into a global economic behemoth. To them, what seems like a story of technical and economic triumph is really the tragic tale of how wine lost its way. Before the War, France had just 35,000 tractors; in the next two decades, it would acquire more than a million, as well as US-made pesticides and fertilisers. At the same time, oenologists determined that wine should cease being a matter of chance, but should be based on science.

Vineyards are now soaked with pesticide and fertiliser to protect the grapes, which are a notoriously fragile crop. In 2000, vineyards used 3% of all agricultural land, but 20% of the total pesticides. In 2013, a study found traces of pesticides in 90% of wines in French supermarkets.

What happens once the grapes have been harvested is, to natural wine enthusiasts, scarcely less horrifying. The modern winemaker has access to a vast armamentarium of interventions, from supercharged lab-grown yeast to anti-microbials, antioxidants, acidity regulators and filtering gelatins, all the way up to industrial machines. Wine is passed through electrical fields to prevent calcium and potassium crystals from forming, injected with gases to aerate or protect it, or split into its constituent liquids by reverse osmosis and reconstituted with a more pleasing alcohol to juice ratio.

Natural winemakers believe that none of this is necessary. The basics of winemaking are, in fact, almost stupefyingly simple: all it involves is crushing together some ripe grapes. When the yeasts that live on the skin of the grape come into contact with the sweet juice inside, they begin gorging themselves on the sugars, releasing bubbles of carbon dioxide into the air and secreting alcohol into the mixture. This continues either until there is no more sugar, or the yeasts make the surrounding environment so alcoholic that even they cannot live in it. At this point, you have wine.

Making natural wine means going without the methods that have given modern winemakers so much control over their product. It also means jettisoning the expectations of mainstream wine culture, which dictates that wine from a certain place should always taste a certain way. (A part of an article in The Guardian, reproduced in The Week, 7 July 2018)

What has this to do with Epicureanism? I choose it, among a host of other dismal issues, because it illustrates a lack of moderation – the conversion of a simple procedure into a massive, modern, chemical-contaminated production dependent on science and fancy machinery. Pesticides in 90% of wines in French supermarkets? What is natural anymore?

The sorry state of British education, part 2, A-levels

The second in a three-part series on the sorry state of British education. You can read the first part on GCSEs here.

A-levels are the exams British students take at 18 years old to assess whether they can go to university, and how prestigious a university they can go to. They are also important when applying for jobs; an A-level in Maths for instance, can give you access to jobs in the technological and finance sectors that would otherwise be very difficult to enter.

Traditionally, A-levels were highly regarded internationally. They were said to be the same standard as a degree in America. But it’s clear that the system has some underlying weaknesses.

The first is the narrowness of the A-level curriculum. Most students will only complete three full A-levels; a small proportion of highly able students will complete four. This means that British students lack the breadth of knowledge that could make them more internationally competitive. Most students in other developed countries, particularly those who take the International Baccalaureate, leave school with a far more varied range of skills. They will have studied Maths, at least one science and a foreign language until 18. The vast majority of British students will not leave school with those abilities, and so are at a disadvantage when applying to university or for jobs which involve working abroad and require a wide set of skills.

The second problem is the excessive emphasis British society places on A-levels, and academic education generally. Despite a slight decline, they are still a tough qualification, one which many people aren’t naturally suited to. Yet the more vocational alternatives to A-levels are seriously underfunded, and lack the recognition by employers and social respectability that they ought to have. As a consequence of this system, Britain has some of the most able university students in the developed world, and a disproportionate number of the world’s leading universities. But it faces a severe shortage in technical skills, something which will get worse if migration falls after Brexit. There is also an increasing political and economic gap between those who have A-levels and those who don’t.

The third problem is that despite being a respectable qualification, A-levels are insufficient when applying to the more lucrative jobs. Because so many people now go to university, many employers will insist their prospective employees have degrees. But this reduces the value of the A-level as an achievement in and of itself. Instead, it has been reduced to a signalling device for universities. My grandmother left school at 18 with A-levels, and went on to work for the Daily Telegraph. Such an opportunity would be virtually unthinkable today, unless my grandmother had gone on to university. If they don’t go to university, A-level graduates tend to have to do an apprenticeship or some form of further training to make a success of their careers. This is an utter waste of taxpayer’s money, one which only punishes the working class who are disproportionately unlikely to have a degree. Instead, fewer people should go to university, giving more opportunities to those who could only afford to be educated by the state.

Overall, A-levels are still a decent qualification- one which anyone should be proud to have done well in. But the government needs to realise they’re increasingly anachronistic in a globalised world where university education is becoming the norm. Instead, more funding should be allocated to alternatives to A-levels, and to students who never intend on going to university. But those who would genuinely benefit from university should do the International Baccalaureate or the Cambridge Pre-U: both of which are more rigorous and enjoy a better international reputation than A-levels. Private schools are already making the switch, it’s time state schools followed.

 

Epicureanism and death

At the beginning of his autobiography “Speak, Memory”, Vladimir Nabokov writes:

“The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness ……Nature expects a full-grown man to accept the two black voids, fore and aft, as stolidly as he accepts the extraordinary visions in between.”

This is a crucial point of Epicureanism: to accept the two black voids fore and aft as a natural and inevitable part of life.

So you strut and fret your way upon the stage and then are heard no more. It is therefore valid to ask yourself, “Have I led a happy and productive life? For the brief time during which I will be remembered, will it be with affection, with respect for achievement, or simply for being a kind, decent person, thoughtful of others, dismayed at poverty and injustice, generous and kind, and with a sense of humour?

If none of the above, think hard about your life, because it is a waste if you depart an unfeeling nonentity. For depart you surely will, and the shock of death is more acceptable if you feel you have lived decently and well.

A maximum wage?

Could capping top incomes tackle our rising inequality more effectively than conventional approaches to narrowing ghe vast economic divide? The Program on Inequality at the Institute for Policy Studies hss published “The Case for A Maximum Wage”, by Sam Pizzigati, an IPS associate fellow and the co-editor of Inequality.org. 

 Pizzigati docusses how egalitarians worldwide are demonstrating that a “maximum wage” could be both economically viable and politically practical. One major American city is already socking a higher tax rate on companies with wide divides between worker and executive pay. Activists in other jurisdictions are working to deny inequality-generating enterprises government contracts and subsidies.
 
Governments could go further still and start using their tax systems to enforce fair income ratios between rich and poor across the board. The ultimate goal ought to be a world without the super-rich.

Moderate Epicureans would probably support a maximum wage. Every unequal society in history has either descended into violence or otherwise collapsed, so there is an historical backing for quickly doing something about excessive income and wealth. Why does the owner of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, need $143.1 billion? How can he possibly spend even $1 billion of it? How can he justify the low wages and poor working conditions in his company? Yes, I have done my little bit to put him where he is – customers love the sevice – but the key is “moderation” – he has none.

The problem comes with implementation. Studies have shown how insecure rich people actually are. Few believe they have enough money and want even more. They are willing to spend some of it to protect their store of wealth, and this means lobbying and the suborning of ambitious people who are prepared to curry favour in return for hard cash. It’s why American democracy is descending into farce. The people involved are focussed on themselves, not the nation. Almost the last political patriot standing, John McCain, has just, sadly, died; the future of the Supreme Court as a fair arbiter of law and the Constitution is uncertain, to say the least. The chances of a maximum salary are slim indeed, but future generations will see the rich-poor divide as part of the death knell of a rather good political system.