Doing something practical about inequality

Let us have a discussion about what is “political”!

Below is a short piece about inequality in the United States, and how the Oregon government is going to tax companies with “extreme CEO-worker pay gaps”. To the furious CEOs and committed libertarian capitalists I’m sure this is purely (party) political, to be overturned at the earliest opportunity. Other people believe that extreme inequality is disastrously bad for the country and is not likely to end up happily. History tells us that societies that are not cohesive and are regarded as unfair break apart and violence eventually ensues. To me this is a social problem and system break-down that heralds political turmoil, is very much in the purview of Epicurean commentators. Aside from it being immoderate, social upheaval is bad for pleasure and peace of mind. If you disagree please explain.

“A year ago the Portland, Oregon local government voted to slap a surtax on corporations that pay their chief executive officers more than 100 times what they pay their typical workers. This is the first tax penalty on corporations with extreme CEO-worker pay gaps in America, and may not be the last.
“Much like the Fight for $15, this bold reform could well spread like wildfire. Indeed, we may look back at the Oregon vote as the dawn of a new “pay ratio politics.” The key driver of the Portland tax: city council member Steve Novick, who has pressed on doggedly to win passage of this landmark reform.
“The Portland surtax will rely on new federal pay ratio data. Thanks to a Securities and Exchange Commission regulation announced last year, publicly held corporations will this year have to start calculating the ratio between their CEO and median worker pay. The first of these ratios will go public about now.
“These federally mandated pay ratio disclosures will make it easy for states and cities to adopt Portland-style surtaxes — if they have the political will to do so. In Portland, local officials had that will, and their deliberations showed just how broad the potential political support may be for leveraging the public purse against corporate pay practices that increase inequality.
For Novick, the tax is all about sparking a national movement against inequality. “CEO pay is not just an eye-catching example of, but a major cause of, extreme economic inequality,” he notes. “Extreme economic inequality is — next to global warming — the biggest problem we have in our state”. (

Rage on social media

There’s no such thing as any season of goodwill when it comes to political debate on social media. It’s all about fury and outrage. Even when tweets are funny, you can taste the “anger inside the sugar coating of smug satire”. Rage is contagious – it spreads like an infection across online forums, which have a vested interest in stoking it. It’s part of what has been dubbed the “outrage economy”. Shrill, divisive opinions attract eyeballs and yield a “double payoff” for publishers and platforms, as posts are then shared by people who both agree and violently disagree with them. Sharers come to enjoy, even grow addicted to, this easy way of displaying righteous indignation. And “so the cycle of provocation continues”, as people yield to the temptation to correct perceived wrongness with “a caustic retort” online and one side’s scratch becomes “the other side’s itch”. Any sense of empathy or curiosity is lost in the “riotous rhetoric of online dispute”. We can’t do without our devices, but now and then we desperately need to log off for a few days to regain a sense of perspective.(Rafael Behr, The Guardian)

Moderation is what partly distinguishes Epicureanism from other philosophies. Yes, for good reasons this blog has liberal, un-didactic views – we should be finding ways to get on with one another, not using derogatory or foul language against those who disagree with us.  One can have passionately held views, but listen and understand the views of others, even if they have echoes of the days of Mussolini or Hitler.  Quietly asssembling your rational reasons for disagreeing is the trick, and asking (with a smile detectable in your words) “have you ever considered this from another point of view?”. Of course, dealing with mentally sick or deranged people is an altogether more tricky matter. Epicurus would advise us, in the cause of calm, to ignore them and refuse to engage.

Child rearing

Experts in child-rearing believe we have a lot of it wrong these days. They think parents are too invested in their children’s minute to minute happiness. They are too protective, too eager for their children to be proved academically outstanding, too reluctant to accept the kids are not all going to excel equally, indeed, far too hands-on. The experts have the following historical and psychlogical points of view:

1. A strong emotional and physical attachment to at least one primary caregiver (parent, aunt, adopter and so on) is said these days to be crucial.  But for most of history, and across all cultures to varying extents, the emphasis has been for the mother not to get too emotionally invested in a newborn or young infant who might die or sap her energy and health, and consequently the well-being of the family or community.  No apparent damage seems to have been done to children, as far as we know.

2. Co-sleeping, on-demand feeding and constant parent-child play – now associated with “attachment parenting” should serve both parties or be abandoned.

3.  Too much is made of the uniqueness of every child, alongside an “everyone’s-a-winner” mentality. Obsessed with children’s happiness, US parents, “tolerate mediocre academic performance and rail against teachers who expose our children’s failings”. Treating children with kid gloves for fear of harming their self-esteem is doing them no favours.

4.  Learning through observation, play and autonomy are critical.  Children are more resilient and inquisitive than we think.

5.  There is too much emphasis on shielding children from harm, thereby undermining their natural inclination to learn adult survival skills, social and practical.

6.  Benign neglect in parenting can be positive. “Go ahead; try it. They’ll thank you later on”.

7.  Collaborative projects and play are key to creativity. Formal classroom work is less important. Children need balance between freedom and structure to optimise their creativity.  There is a programming language called Scratch, which is supposed to be good, also Minecraft – let the kiddies loose!

“It is time to unwrap the seedlings from the cotton wool in which we have enwrapped children, plant them in rich soil and make sure they don’t grow up into another generation of overprotected kids”.

It would be interesting to know what Epicurus would have thought of the efforts to overturn the generally adopted modern methods of child-rearing. I strongly suspect he would have concurred. Something radical has to be done about the unhappiness of children today. Not all of it can be put down to Facebook et al.

Book information:

“Raising Children: Surprising insights from other cultures”, by David Lancy,Published by: Cambridge University Press
“Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivating creativity through projects, passion, peers, and play” by Mitchel Resnick, Published by: MIT Press
(Based on an a review of the above books by Shaoni Bhattacharya, New Scientist)

The latest UK privatisation rip-off and disaster

Questions are swirling about the British government’s apparently lax oversight of its major outsourcing contractor Carillion before it collapsed last week, leaving thousands of British private-sector workers unpaid. Up to 30,000 small firms are thought to be owed money by the sprawling company. It has emerged that in the three months leading up to its liquidation Carillion was not overseen by a crown representative, which usually happens when a government supplier has financial difficulties. The Cabinet Office minister, David Lidington, has told parliament the government will continue to pay those among Carillion’s 19,500 UK staff working in public-sector jobs, such as NHS cleaners and school catering, but thousands more in the private sector face being cut loose. Jeremy Corbyn says Carillion’s collapse proves it is “time to put an end to the rip-off privatisation policies that have done serious damage to our public services and fleeced the public of billions of pounds”. Vince Cable, the Lib Dem leader, said: “The government has mismanaged contracts so that fat cat bosses are able to get away with millions, hedge funds are able to make millions, while their jobs are at risk.” (The Guardian, Jan 16, 2018)

The National Audit Office has looked at 700 existing public-private projects and concluded that there was little evidence that any of them have delivered any financial benefits. They are generally 40% more costly than if they had continued in government management. There are currently 716 operational private finance deals with a capital value of 60 billion pounds. Annual charges for these deals amounted to 10.3bn pounds in 2016-17,and even if no new ones are entered into the existing ones are due to continue until the 2040s, costing nearly 200 billion pounds.

Privatisation is gospel to “conservative” politicians, whose conservation seems to be restricted to conserving pally relationships with Big Money and (are we allowed to guess?) reaping just rewards for their pains? Privatisation is window-dressing at best; at worst it is jobs for the boys, well paid ones, too. The British taxpayer has been ripped off for too long.

How Britain should treat Trump.

Donald Trump is by far the most unpopular US president amongst British people in living memory, and that’s a huge low considering how unfavourable George Bush was with Brits. Admittedly, part of that is post-colonial snobbery; Trump epitomises an American brashness and distinct lack of intelligence and sophistication, serving a British narrative of cultural superiority. But it’s also because of Trump’s policies. The wall, the attempted Muslim travel ban, his support for torture, and the pretence of being one of the people while passing enormous tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans- are all met with strong disapproval. Britain is hardly alone in disliking Trump, though perhaps the British have been more vocal in our criticism than people elsewhere.

Despite an anti-Trump consensus in Britain, the country is divided as to how to treat him. For the left, we should distance ourselves from him as possible. Trump should not be given a state visit, nor should Britain sing his praises in exchange for the possibility of a trade deal. The left regards Trump as too toxic and prejudice to work with. It’s also worth noting that due to his historic unpopularity, Trump will probably be gone by 2021 if not sooner if he is impeached. So the economic consequences of not working with him are minimal. It is more important to build good relationships with Democrats, who will soon retake the US Federal Government. The Democrats will not work as well with people who they believe strongly supported Trump.

Much of the right disagrees. In occasional instances, such as Nigel Farage, the right likes Trump. What is more common is the belief that the structural forces that made Trump president also benefit the right in Britain- concerns about immigration, opposition to social liberalism, scepticism of globalisation, the desire for a business-friendly politics. The demographics of Trump support and Conservative support in 2017 are roughly the same: older, rural, white voters without university degrees. Therefore Britain should work closely with Trump for our benefit, even if we may disagree with some of Trump’s more erratic outbursts. Vocal Brexiteer and Tory backbencher Jacob Rees-Mogg recently met with Steve Bannon for precisely this reason. The right favours significant divergence from the EU’s economic orbit. To compensate for the losses this would create, they regard it as essential Britain signs a free trade deal with America, and quickly, even if it means dealing with Trump and downgrading Britain’s regulatory standards and welfare state in the process.

To a limited extent, the right has a point. There has been a far greater public outcry over the possibility of a Trump state visit than there ever was over dictators visiting Britain. The UK frequently plays host to leaders of authoritarian regimes such as China, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Kenya. Working with people we don’t like is often necessary, such as working with Stalin to defeat Hitler. Britain should have a cordial relationship with the US, not seeking to antagonise Trump or comment on America’s domestic affairs unless it has a direct impact on its own wellbeing. I’m not opposed to a state visit for Trump; we may not like him, but he is still President of the US, a crucial ally and trade partner.

Where I strongly disagree with the right is that I don’t believe Trump is a reliable ally, so we can’t depend on him. Cutting ties with the EU for the possibility of a trade deal with the US is an exercise in futility. Partly because Trump is an instinctive protectionist, as clearly seen in the Department of Commerce’s 300% tariff on Bombardier aeroplane imports from Northern Ireland. Trump sees the world as a zero-sum game, where a good deal for other countries must come at America’s expense and vice versa. He believes the increasing amount of trade China and Mexico are doing is to America’s detriment. A US-UK trade deal, even one negotiated with a Democrat, would almost certainly be impossible to pass the British Parliament. There would be concerns about British agriculture being unable to compete with cheap US imports, the opening of the NHS to American procurement companies, and a general fear of being dominated by American multinational corporations. It’s also worth noting that Britain’s current trading relationship with the EU is far more sophisticated and comprehensive than anything possible with a conventional free trade agreement.

Britain should treat Trump like it treats everyone else. It should show Trump the respect that his office is due. But Britain must never sacrifice its standards or values to curry favour with an unstable, unpredictable, and increasingly disliked man.


How to solve the loneliness crisis

We’ve long been concerned with the loneliness crisis here on the Epicurus Blog. Loneliness is becoming more of a problem, and not just amongst the elderly. Despite the rise of social media (or perhaps because of it), we have fewer friends, and we aren’t as close to them. Ties between neighbours aren’t as strong as they once were. We often live far from our hometowns and families, to go to university or get a better paid job. Traditional social institutions like churches, trade unions, working men’s clubs and political parties have declined. This has resulted in a whole host of problems, such as drug abuse, alcoholism, increased rates of depression and other mental illnesses, and in extreme cases, suicide. More information can be found here:

However, it would be a mistake to view increasing rates of loneliness as an inevitable part of the modern world. I think there are many things that can be done to reduce it, without sacrificing economic growth or the freedom to migrate. It is not globalisation or capitalism per se that is causing loneliness, but the way our society has handled it.

Firstly, we need a rethink of what retirement should look like. Many people retire, only to find that they lose contact with their friends from work, and no longer have a strong social group. Instead of insisting people retire suddenly at a given age, why not make it more common to work part time or flexible hours during your late fifties and early sixties. That way, instead of being pushed into a sudden change of lifestyle, people would have the chance to build social ties outside of work while continuing their friendships with colleagues. Retirees should also aim to live as close to their families as possible, so they can help their children and see their grandchildren. There should be more voluntary activities and societies for retirees.

A significant contributor to loneliness, at least in the USA and the UK, is excessively long working hours. No employment contract should mandate working more than 40 hours a week, nor should it ever be compulsory to work Sundays, with the exception of the armed forces and emergency services. This wouldn’t have the impact on economic growth that may be assumed; Germany’s economy is very productive, and they work the fewest hours in Europe. This should be accompanied by a culture change towards a continental European-style aversion to shopping on Sundays. It may be a bit inconvenient, but we would all be better off. Spending time with friends and family is more important than the right to shop whenever you want.

There also need to be more activities for young people. Traditional centres of entertainment like nightclubs, pubs and live music venues have declined, sometimes precipitously, to the detriment of our economy and social fabric. The government should do more to promote the nighttime economy, by reducing business rates and taxes on alcohol bought at establishments- offset by higher taxes on supermarket alcohol. Restrictive licensing laws should be relaxed.  There also need to be more activities for young people who don’t like alcohol or sport. Universities fill this gap quite well with societies, but those who don’t go to university are often left in a social and cultural vacuum.  Making transport affordable for young people is also crucial in an era where we live increasingly further apart.

It’s worth noting how common loneliness is amongst young families. It’s very common for people to have children, only to find that their children take up so much of their time, their friendships suffer considerably. This may be one of the hardest instances of loneliness to solve, since children have to be looked after, and childcare is very expensive. Virtually all social groups for people with young children are geared exclusively towards women. So its going to be very difficult to improve social ties between young families as long as men are expected to be the breadwinners, while women do the bulk of raising children. I’m all in favour of a Nordic-style system of ultra-flexible maternity and paternity leave. But ultimately, our culture has to change, something which isn’t likely as long as our aversion to stay at home dads remains.

In this post, I’ve tried to be optimistic in my conception of a society that isn’t as atomised and individualistic as our own. And while I certainly believe we can do far more to address loneliness, the long term trends are only getting worse. Amongst ambitious young people at the top universities, there is a prioritisation of career success and being culturally globalised above maintaining good contact with existing friends. As a young man in Britain, I’ve lost a lot of friends due to people moving away and wanting a radically different life. For young people who don’t go to university, there is a lack of investment (both public and private) in activities for them. Getting a job and a relationship is seen as more important than making friends. An increasing awareness of mental health issues is encouraging. But British and American culture is incredibly materialistic and society incredibly divided. I believe the loneliness crisis is going to get a lot more severe.


This is how it’s done! True political spin!

Judy Wallman Trump, a professional genealogy researcher in southern California, was doing some personal work on her own family tree. She discovered that President Donald Trump’s great, great uncle, Remus Trump, was hanged for horse stealing and train robbery in Montana in 1889. Both Judy and President Trump share this common ancestor.

The only known photograph of Remus shows him standing on the gallows in Montana territory. On the back of the picture Judy obtained during her research is this inscription: “Remus Trump, horse thief, sent to Montana Territorial Prison 1885, escaped 1887, robbed the Montana Flyer six times. Caught by Pinkerton detectives, convicted and hanged in 1889.”

So Judy recently e-mailed the President for information about their great, great uncle, Remus.

Believe it or not, President Trump’s staff sent back the following biographical sketch for her genealogy research:

“Remus Trump was a famous cowboy in the Montana Territory. His business empire grew to include acquisition of valuable equestrian assets and intimate dealings with the Montana railroad. Beginning in 1883, he devoted several years of his life to government service, finally taking leave to resume his dealings with the railroad. In 1887, he was a key player in a vital investigation run by the renowned Pinkerton Detective Agency. In 1889, Remus passed away during an important civic function held in his honor when the platform upon which he was standing collapsed.”

What can one possibly add?

Free movement within the EU may not survive.

The free movement of people is the EU’s “most incendiary issue”.   This “sacred principle” to which the Brussels ideologues remain devoted isn’t just a sticking point in Brexit negotiations, it’s a source of tension across the Union: currently, France violates its spirit by patrolling the Italian border to stop migrants slipping through. More than that, it’s played a key role in creating Europe’s mass migration problem. Movement of people from poor, chaotic countries to rich, stable ones has long been a fact of life – what’s new is “the miraculous invitation offered by a borderless Europe”. It sends a message to the world: “set foot on any Greek island, or on the southernmost rocky prominence of Italy”, and you can “make your way unhindered to the flourishing nations of Western Europe”. Underpinning it is a basic refusal to accept that member states have different needs: northern ones benefit from an influx of cheap labour, but many of the migrants are trapped in Italy, which has 40% youth unemployment. To save the EU, free movement will have to be restricted. The only question is how organised or chaotic that process is going to be.  (Janet Daley,The Sunday Telegraph).

Of course, the above is written by a journalist on a reliably right- wing  paper with a bias towards Brexit.   Nice remarks about the EU are not plentiful in the Telegraph.  However,  this is a very fraught subject.  What  she writes is valid, especially for stressed countries like Greece and Turkey, which have taken the brunt of migration from Syria.  But if Northern countries want cheap labour so badly, why are migrants trapped in Italy?  The reason is political, not economic – the resentment caused in Germany, Sweden etc by too many migrants applesring too quickly.

Could the EU survive without freedom of movement?  Why can’t you have a free trade area or a customs union and still restrict movement of labour?  The answer is that you could, but free movement of services, goods, capital and labour are sacrosanct in Brussels, which wants a level playing field in standards , work rules etc, but also yearns for political union from the Atlantic to the borders of Russia.   This sounds like an empire in all but name, and many people object to losing their national identity. Some sort of compromise probably needs to be negotiated if the EU isn’t going to succumb to right- wing political parties fed up with freedom of movement.


The cry of the super-rich

 I Did it All Myself                     

 I did it all myself.

For sure, I did it all myself.

I never used networks or old college friends

On whom the success of so many depends.

I went out to work at the age of eighteen

Thin as a rake, but determined and lean,

And I laid rows of bricks and mixed tons of cement,

Made ten bucks a day for my food and my rent.

Twelve hours with no break did I labor on site,

And I did my book-learning by candle at night.

Then one day the boss man said, “Hey, come here, kid,

I’ve been watching you, boy, and I like what you did.

You’ve got brains, you work hard, but your problem is knowledge.”

So I chucked it and went to community college.

I learned my house building from sewer to gable,

And earned extra money by waiting on table.


Then I built up a  company, just as I’d planned,

Scouring the country, developing land.

I have been real successful, the business has grown,

And I’ve ten million bucks that I’ve made on my own.

I’d have made twice as much and could maybe relax

If it wasn’t for government, liberals and tax,

The planners, the lawyers, the dumb regulations,

Activist judges, red-tape strangulations;

The NIMBYS who get up a great caterwaul

When you build on a green field a new shopping mall.

It’s always the do-gooding, meddling few

Who complain at the loss of some trees or a view.


No, all the restrictions should now be relaxed

And government prohibitions be axed.

We don’t need these laws, they all need up-ending,

And let’s call a halt to all government spending.

Send bureaucrats off up to Mars in a rocket,

But stop pilfering profit from my hard-earned pocket.

Sack all pen-pushers, ignore stupid rules

Made for the work-shy and drawn up by fools.

The need for it’s gone, it is all over-blown.

After all, what I’ve done, I have done on my own.

………..Truth replies

Are you telling me your parents had nothing to do

With the bundle of talents and hang-ups that’s you?

Where is the mention of school on your part,

That taught you the culture and gave you a start?

You must owe a debt to some of your teachers,

Those lousily paid and unrecognized creatures.

Who established the college you studied at later?

It wasn’t the wages you earned as a waiter.

Who paid for the roads that we all take for granted?

Our whole infrastructure was not simply planted,

But grew from decades of investment, and sacks

Of public subventions you now spurn as “tax”.

What is the value you put upon peace,

Containment of crime and the role of police?


Who bought your houses, your suburban sprawls,

Your gas stations, offices, car parks and malls?

Why, government workers, contractors and such

And similar folk whom you now hate so much.

The fortune Five Hundred fattens and waxes

On recycled money from Federal taxes;

Directly or not, here’s a thought to astound:

You probably shared in this merry-go-round!

Who laid the ground rules that draw to this nation

Immigrants swelling a huge population,

All needing housing?  These guys you can thank

For increasing your profits and cash in your bank.

Have you had no advantage from new medication?

Half the research is paid from taxation.

Have you had no advantage from rules about drugs,

Or water we drink, free of threatening bugs?

I bet were you sick I would hear through your sobs

“Wish they’d get a grip and start doing their jobs.”

Scrap Social Security?  Wow, you are plucky,

But perhaps, just like you, everyone will get lucky,

The market might rise and its rise might not vary,

Believe that? Believe in the good Christmas Fairy!


Thank God for the people who faithfully strive

To frame equal rules which have let business thrive,

Where corruption is modest, the playing field fair

And the whole business culture’s not governed by fear.

You’d have a real reason to grumble and moan

If you had to do business in Sierra Leone.


No, none of us prosper alone, I would say.

A little humility goes a long way.

Robert Hanrott,       January 2006

The dynamics of American decline

“In the decade before Donald Trump entered the Oval Office, there were already signs of a long-term trajectory of decline, even if the key figures in a Washington shrouded in imperial hubris preferred to ignore that reality. Not only has the new president’s maladroit diplomacy accelerated this trend, but it has illuminated it in striking way.

“Over the past half-century, the American share of the global economy has, for instance, fallen from 40% in 1960 to 22% in 2014 to just 15% in 2017 (as measured by the realistic index of purchasing power parity). Many experts now agree that China will surpass the U.S., in absolute terms, as the world’s number one economy within a decade.

“As its global economic dominance fades, its clandestine instruments of power have been visibly weakening as well. The NSA’s worldwide surveillance of a remarkable array of foreign leaders, as well as millions of the inhabitants of their countries, was once a relatively cost-effective instrument for the exercise of global power. Now, thanks in part to Edward Snowden’s revelations about the agency’s snooping and the anger of targeted allies, the political costs have risen sharply. Similarly, during the Cold War, the CIA manipulated dozens of major elections worldwide. Now, the situation has been reversed with Russia using its sophisticated cyberwarfare capabilities to interfere in the 2016 American presidential campaign — a clear sign of Washington’s waning global power.

“Most striking of all, Washington now faces the first sustained challenge to its geopolitical position in Eurasia. By opting to begin constructing a “new silk road,” a trillion-dollar infrastructure of railroads and oil pipelines across that vast continent, and preparing to build naval bases in the Arabian and South China seas, Beijing is mounting a sustained campaign to undercut Washington’s long dominance over Eurasia”. (excerpt from The World according to Trump, Or How to Build a Wall and Lose an Empire”. By Alfred W. McCoy

My comment:  It doesn’t nearly end there. The educational system is all awry.  The costs have sky-rocketed as universities have invested huge sums in …sports facilities and expensive sports staffing, and then put lousily-paid adjunct professors in front of paying students. The level of general knowledge is getting worse (history? dismal; you can’t run an empire if you know no history).  The medical system (I sound like a record) is only o.k if you are rich;  in fact life generally is great – as long as you are rich.  You now have a President who wants to halt immigration and build a useless wall if he can, without asking who is to do the painting and plumbing. The constant flashes of racism and shootings of black men by white police hide the fact that too many are indifferent to foreigners and have been taught to fear them, especially moslems.   The hi-tech industries of California seem to be staffed by Indians, as far as I can see.  Americans don’t have the skills? Visit MIT, as my wife and I did a while ago,  and you imagine you are in Hong Kong or Peking  (they have to have an off-campus establishment for secret work, where presumably the  Chinese are absent).

Even though as a teenager I and my school friends all knew the days of the British Empire were ending, the interesting thing debated in the Debate Society was what would come after the end of it.  But meanwhile the media was running daily, copious pieces about the Commonwealth and remaining dependencies.  People were engaged and interested.  The UK was an outward looking country.  Huge numbers of men and women had lived and served overseas  (my sister in India, myself in Cyprus, for instance).  Compare that with the United States, where the people with foreign experience are the military and a handful of foreign service officers and adventurous students.   What goes on in, say the Middle East remains of little interest to most people, except in the Washington bubble.   This is not healthy.

Lowering expectations?

To The Guardian

Fifty years ago, only the top 2%* of the population went to university, and about 10% of them got firsts, so that’s 0.2% of the population.  Now, 30% go to university , and 25% of them get firsts, making 7.5% of the population. The universities say there is no grade inflation, so we must be more than 30 times cleverer! Impressive or what?   ( letter from Rob Symonds, Birmingham)
This is what happens when you make the customers (the students) pay for their studies, whether in ready cash or with the aid of a loan.  In my old college they have  abolished Fourth class honours degrees altogether and now give a paltry number of Thirds. The great majority get Seconds, (which used to be an achievement), divided into 2.1’s and 2,2’s.
 In the old days most people got thirds and fourths, a signal to employers that girls and booze had been the priorities, not hard studying.  At least the employers knew the score and maybe enjoyed the good-timers who joined their companies.  Now a prospective employer has a hard time judging what a 1st Class Honours degree really means.  It used to signal “seriously bright”.
This is all a matter of perception.  What a university considers improved success  to other people is a lowering of standards and pandering to the crowd, the customer, whatever.  The amusing aspect of this is that in the college in question the majority of students are (yes!) women, and they would probably have thrived under the old system being, as we all now know, brighter and more grown-up than the men (ahem!) If you are going to admit so many clever women why change the system?  Personally, I believe in high expectations, even if I personally fail to meet them.
(* Actually 4%, but who’s counting?)

The two Irans

About a month ago, thousands of ordinary Iranians took to the street, protesting against the Rouhani presidency and its failures. Rouhani promised a wealthier country as a result of the nuclear deal. But for many Iranians, these supposed benefits have yet to materialise. Unemployment is high, with many students graduating from university only to find there are no jobs for them, only debt. Inflation also remains stubbornly high, despite the lifting of sanctions. In response to the protests, the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, has blamed Israel and the United States for stirring up trouble, refusing to take responsibility. President Rouhani has defended the right to protest, but encourages people to keep faith with the government and the detente with the West.

Iran has a long and proud history of dissent. After all, it was protests and strikes that led to the establishment of the Islamic Republic, so any government crackdown reeks of hypocrisy. In recent years, protests have been concentrated in the major cities and universities, with liberal reformists protesting against government corruption and election-rigging, most notably after Ahmadinejad won the presidency in 2009. But what makes these protests is how widespread they are, both geographically and demographically. One of the largest protests took place in Mashhad, a socially conservative, working class city. They have more in common with the Arab Spring than with reformist protests insofar as they seem to be motivated more by economic deprivation than opposition to authoritarianism.

The protests perfectly illustrate the two Irans. The first is the one most talked about by Trump and the neoconservatives: Iran as an Islamic theocracy, hell-bent on the destruction of Israel, the acquisition of nuclear weapons and domination over the Middle East. A country with no freedom, and thus a perfect illustration of the evils of Islamism and its radical leftist ideological origins. The neoconservative critique of Iran is limited by American support for Saudi Arabia, which is even more authoritarian and corrupt than Iran. Rather, Iran is condemned because it is a geopolitical adversary and a threat to US-Saudi hegemony. It’s worth noting that most people affected by Trump’s travel ban are Iranian.

But just because the neoconservatives are wrong, doesn’t make the Iranian government right. Too much power is concentrated in the hands of the Supreme Leader. The Revolutionary Guard acts as a state within a state, controlling vast assets and commanding considerable political influence. The President, while benefiting from a popular mandate, is increasingly unable to reform against the wishes of a conservative establishment. Following the Iran-Iraq war, Iran has undergone a peculiar brand of neoliberal economic reforms, whereby tariffs and subsidies are cut, and state-owned assets are privatised. The effects of this are mixed: industry is more efficient and long-term GDP growth trends are good, but living conditions have worsened, wage increases have been eroded by inflation, and the privatisations smack of cronyism.

The other Iran is the one less talked about by Western media outlets. This is the Iran of relatively secular, reform-minded or apolitical people who simply want a better life for themselves. They do not share the regime’s obsession with opposing America and Saudi Arabia, preferring closer ties with the West. They want less money spent abroad and more invested at home. For these people, freedom and prosperity are more important than dogmatic adherence to Khomeini’s teachings or Islamist orthodoxy. This is the Iran than elected Rouhani, that wants change, albeit within the confines of Iran’s constitution.  The bellicose rhetoric coming from Iranian politicians is not a reflection of what most people believe, hence the protests. The lesson of Iran’s protests is that moderates in both Iran and the West must fight to strengthen ties between the two, and oppose the extreme conservatives who wish a Huntingdon-style clash of civilisations to occur. The values of the West and Iran may be distinct, but they are not irreconcilable.

Why Republicans and Democrats need to compromise on immigration.

It’s official. Yet again, the US federal government has shut down, since the bill needed to fund the government has failed to clear the 60 votes required to overcome the filibuster in the Senate. It feels like we’ve been here before, with Republicans and Democrats blaming each other for the shutdown, both sides accusing the other of being extremists, and the American political system looking as dysfunctional as ever. What makes this shutdown different is the policy area that caused it- immigration. Democrats don’t want a wall and want full amnesty for the DREAMERs- those brought to the US illegally by their parents, who are eligible for protection under a programme started by Obama.

The Republican argument is this: the people voted for Trump, largely because of his views on immigration, so he has a personal mandate to enact his proposals. The DREAMER programme represents executive overreach and undermined the rule of law. Democrats have consistently failed to support border enforcement, instead proposing amnesties while saying nothing about the need to deter future illegal immigrants. If Democrats want an amnesty of any sort, they should do so through the conventional legislative process, instead of obstructing the basic functions of government.

The Democrats retort that the Republicans have failed to compromise on immigration, having said that they would do so. The final bill contained funding for the wall, but nothing to safeguard the DREAMERs. More significantly, abolishing the DREAMER programme, or even using it as leverage, is a cruel policy that will hurt children brought to the US as a result of their parents’ decisions. Most of the children will face a very tough life if they are deported, even if they are technically illegal.

In my view, it’s obvious both sides need to compromise. While the wall isn’t good value for money, there is a strong appetite for strong border enforcement- the wall shows the government is serious about securing the border.  The Democrats also need to abandon their view that the federal government shouldn’t enforce immigration laws by default, and only deport those who have committed a crime. The vast majority of illegal immigrants should fear deportation. But I don’t believe it’s realistic or humane to try to deport all illegal immigrants. Those who have lived in the US for longer than 15 years, have strong links in the community, or are vulnerable  if they are deported (children, the elderly, the disabled), should not be a priority for federal immigration enforcement. So I don’t think it’s fair to use the DREAMERs as leverage, even if their status will ultimately be protected in exchange for funding for the wall. This reminds me of the Conservative Party’s attempt to use the status of EU citizens in the UK in the Brexit negotiations: totally futile and quite cruel.

Overall the shutdown is yet another example of how broken the American party political system is. The political culture at present rewards ideological purity and not some much-needed pragmatism. Each party is afraid of their base not turning out because a deal with the other side is regarded as toxic. It’s this kind of entrenched tribalism that makes politics so unappetising.

The evolution of trust – will we regret it?

 Human interactions are built on trust. We trust others to hand over the goods when we pay them. We trust banks with our money and doctors with our lives. We trust governments to run our countries and newspapers to tell us how they are doing it. The more trust in a society, the better it fares; without it society would collapse.
In the old days people trusted their kings and nobles and went into battle for them.  With the industrial revolution and the rise of international trade , we were dealing long-distance with international trade, so people started to trust intermediaries like insurers, bank managers  and lawyers. Reputation was vital.  Marketing teams created brands that  anthropomorphise faceless corporations. In the last century we have trusted democratically elected representatives and a free press that prided itself on accurate reporting.
But public trust in our institutions has plummeted in the past decade. Nearly half of people in the US mistrust lawmakers according to a recent  poll. In the UK, fewer than 1 in 4 people trust the press.  The internet has fundamentally changed who we trust and why. Technology now allows us to make informed (?) decisions and vet individuals. Millions of people learned to their dismay about banking and company scandals, exorbitant salaries and political corruption.  Leaks quickly become common knowledge.
Now opinion is no longer shaped only by journalists, experts or state authorities. With constant access to a deluge of information, rather than putting our trust in the institutions we’re now trusting our peers instead of the institutions. People are questioning  the entire system.
And yet, companies which rely on people placing their faith in strangers are thriving. The trick seems to be forging links directly between individuals, while appearing to cut out the institutions.
When many of these companies started out, they could still rely partly on existing social connections. You might stay at an Airbnb based on a personal recommendation, for example. But as they expanded, it became more and more crucial to encourage trust between users.
What the internet offers instead is information. Companies like CouchSurfing, Airbnb and Task Rabbit  – which put you in contact with strangers, do so in a way that encourages you to invite strangers into your home.  Profiles, pictures, personal details and online ratings allow us to make informed decisions. We pick hotels on the basis is a string of comments on websites by total strangers.   Actually, by and large, it works, but for how long?   (part-based on an article by Douglas Heaven, New Scientist, 28 Oct 2017)

A message from Rev. Dr. Jack Sara, Palestinian pastor and evangelical Christian

(This message was sent to my sister in England.  She and her family met the writer during a visit to Israel)

“Christians in the middle east are both worried and upset by the American declaration that Jerusalem should be the capital of Israel. They are particularly concerned about the uncritical support given by American Evangelical Christians to Trump. These Evangelicals are despised here. They assume that all Christians believe as they do. Their unequivocal support of Israel has blinded their eyes to the injustices that occur here. They believe that Trump’s support of Israel is a fulfilment of prophecy even if it leads to world war. They justify it by distorting scripture. ( Sara then discusses end time prophesy which, they believe, predicts the coming of Christ to Israel in the “last days”).

We Palestinian Christians are treated as guilty by association and are stigmatised as Zionists by our fellow Christians. This brings Christians into disrepute because Trump’s policy dismisses the right of people for self-determination at the expense of justice and stability in this region.

Leaders should make every effort to be true and impartial mediators. Evangelical Christians of the USA continue to show partiality in defence of their particular theology. They are ignoring the plight of Palestinian Christians and don’t want to listen to our advice,which is born of reality on the ground. Our opinions are dismissed as politically motivated. Instead of engaging in reconciliation,the American Evangelical christians are indirectly inciting violence through their statements. They infer that all the news about how we are being treated is just propaganda.  Evangelicals talk about “ good news”, but  there is no “ good news” for the Palestinians, ( by “good news” evangelicals are talking about the Gospel).

My  comment

Would someone please educate me?  Where in the Bible does it exhort followers of Jesus to behave as American evangelicals behave, morally and politically?  I understand their attitudes are tribal – we all are to some extent, and I understand that evangelicals elsewhere are very different, but these Americans not only torment Palestinian Arabs but support practically everything the boy President of the USA does and says, however gross, racist, divisive and bullying.  How does one square this with Christianity? I am truly perplexed.

What a weird language we have

The bandage was wound around the wound.
2)   The farm was used to produce produce.
3)   The dump was so full that it had to refuse more refuse.
4)   We must polish the Polish furniture..
5)   He could lead if he would get the lead out.
6).  The soldier decided to desert his dessert in the desert.

7).   Since there is no time like the present, he thought it was time to present the present.
8).  A bass was painted on the head of the bass drum.
9)   When shot at, the dove dove into the bushes.
10) I did not object to the object.

11)  The insurance was invalid for the invalid.
12)  There was a row among the oarsmen about how to row.
13)  They were too close to the door to close it.
14)  The buck does funny things when the does are present.
15)  A seamstress and a sewer fell down into a sewer line.
16)  To help with planting, the farmer taught his sow to sow.
17)  The wind was too strong to wind the sail.
18)  Upon seeing the tear in the painting I shed a tear.
19)  I had to subject the subject to a series of tests.
20)  How can I intimate this to my most intimate friend?
21)  One goose, 2 geese. So one moose, 2 meese?
22). One index, 2 indices
23). You can make amends but not a single amend
24)  People recite at a play and play at a recital
25)  Ship by truck and send cargo by ship?
26) Noses run, feet smell
27). Slim chance and a fat chance – more or less the same thing
28) A wise man and a wise guy are opposites
29). Your house can burn up as it burns down
30)  You fill in a form by filling it out



Statistics for the day

International confidence in US leadership has slumped since Donald Trump moved into the White House, with America now less trusted than China in the global approval ratings. A Gallup poll of opinion in 134 countries showed a record collapse in approval for US leadership, falling from 48% under Obama to 30% after a year of Trump. It is the lowest figure recorded since Gallup began the poll series a decade ago and follows Trump’s “America first” foreign policy which has prioritised American interests ahead of international cohesion. Germany is now seen as a global leader by more people (41%), with China in second place on 31%.  (quoted by The Guardian, January 18th, 2018).

I am surprised that Trump’s figures are not lower.  What aspects of Trump’s policies and behaviour do the 30% find positive?  Certainly, Trump is busy making the US a second class power, notwithstanding the obscene amount of money spent on the rather ineffectual military.

Fighting back against data harvesting (No. 2)

Privacy and security? All is not lost. The techies are working on it. Read on…………

We need to combine the control and personal autonomy of the early web with the ease and usefulness of the one we have today. A project called Solid, led by none other than Tim Berners-Lee himself, seeks to separate our data from the apps and servers that process it. With Solid, you get to decide where your data lives – on your phone, a server at work, or with a cloud provider, as it probably does now. You have ownership of your most important bits of data. If you quit Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn at the moment all your connections and contacts are lost. With Solid, you carry this information away with you and apply it elsewhere if you wish.

Another company tackling this same problem is MaidSafe, which relies on encryption and the blockchain – the distributed ledger technology that underpins bitcoin – to divorce data from servers. Where Solid would operate as a virtual layer on top of the existing structure of the internet, MaidSafe’s network does away with servers completely. Instead, it asks everyone who joins to contribute a little computing power and storage. To join, you simply download their software, and it is this, rather than central operators like Facebook, that encrypts your data and keeps track of it. With no servers, there are no targets for attackers. No system today provides physical security for your private data.

How do you log in to a website if there’s no server at the other end to deal with the request? The answer in this case is to log into the network itself – which consists of whatever computers happen to be online at the time. For contributing to the running of this serverless internet, users earn a bitcoin-like cryptocurrency called Safecoin. This can be exchanged for services on the network or converted to other currencies. MaidSafe’s fledgling community has already developed a handful of apps, including a blogging platform, a file-sharing application and a basic social network. Email and video conferencing are in the works. Meanwhile, there are a number of other ideas out there, including charging the major companies a small fee whenever they use your data for resale. (An edited version of an article by Hal Hodson, New Scientist).

There is something totally unethical and unacceptable about these big companies taking what you do, who you know, where you have been and what you have bought and selling it without your knowledge. Wresting even a small part of that income from the Facebooks of the world seems unlikely at the moment. But common sense tells me it cannot stand indefinately.

Fighting back against data harvesting, No.1

Data harvesting: the problem

The original World Wide Web, invented by Tim Berners-Lee at the particle physics centre CERN near Geneva in 1999, was a “decentralised” affair. There were no central servers; websites ran on individual machines in universities, offices and bedrooms. Hosting a site just meant plugging a computer into your internet connection and having it serve up the HTML code to anyone visiting. No one company ruled the roost, but getting involved was too difficult for most people.

Despite its seemingly infinite nature, the web is now largely centred on just a handful of companies. Instead of a proliferation of independently run sites, the web is dominated by global firms with whom we have made a Faustian pact. In exchange for convenience, we let companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon – and, more recently, start-ups like Uber and Airbnb – conduct their business by siphoning up and profiting from information that is used to target advertising and sell stuff back to us.  The data also forms the building blocks for a new generation of artificial intelligence that will determine the future of the web.  We,  the ones producing this valuable data, have lost control of it, and need to get it back and break the monopolies of the server farms and the people who own them, and get back to the way the web was always intended,

Objections?  Firstly, we don’t really know what information is being collected and used without permission. It is easy to spy on people if you know how to do it, and our work is easily hacked by thieves. And yet we have no choice but use the internet and the uncertainty makes many people nervous.

Secondly, the small number of companies are making huge fortunes out of our information, and we are paid not a penny for it  (now even the car manufacturers are doing the same thing). The data is collected not just on computers and i-pads but on smart devices in our homes – and cars!  Artificial intelligences being created by internet companies will make us ever more dependent on their services. Coupled with this is the rise of decision-making software, which firms are increasingly using to help make calls about loans, job applications and health insurance based on your data. In effect our personal data is being used to train artificial intelligence operated machines how to manipulate us.  (A heavily edited version of an article by Hal Hodson, New Scientist)

Tomorrow: about the people who are trying to fight back against mass  data collection and its mis-use.

The moral cowardice of moderate conservatism in Britain.

Historically speaking, but especially since when George Bush Jr became president in 2000, British conservatives have regarded themselves as more reasonable than their American cousins. Unlike the Republicans, British conservatives have no desire to allow mass gun ownership. They firmly believe in universal healthcare, even if they want the private sector to play a role in delivering it. For the most part, they accept the science of climate change, even if some are sceptical of government initiatives in the name of environmentalism. The British conservative movement is also much less religious, and so social conservatism is less pronounced, and a belief in creationism is held only by a very small minority.

When Donald Trump announced his candidacy for president in 2015, the contrast between British and American conservatives could not have been greater. Trump epitomised the popular stereotype of American conservatives amongst British people: brash, rude, arrogant, totally self-confident, crudely xenophobic. Conversely, Britain was led by a Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron- an Old Etonian with impeccable manners and charm, even if he was never wildly popular. Cameron was a moderating force within the Conservative Party, whereas Trump indulged all of the Republicans’ worst instincts.

But since Brexit, and particularly since Trump’s inauguration, I would argue that British conservatives aren’t necessarily more reasonable than their American counterparts. The obvious example is that many British conservatives have defended Trump. UKIP, a nationalist party that played a crucial role in winning the EU referendum for Leave, overtly supported him. Some conservatives have made needlessly ambiguous signals as to how they feel about Trump. Many argue that Trump is good for Brexit Britain, since he is more likely to give the UK a trade deal than Hillary Clinton. But Theresa May and the Conservative Party’s sucking up to Trump has backfired. Trump is extremely unlikely to sign a free trade deal with the UK. When the Democrats return to power, they will prioritise a trade deal with an anti-Trump EU, which is a much larger market than the somewhat pro-Trump UK. Not only was trying to establish a close relationship immoral, it was also counterproductive.

British conservatives have also abandoned moderation in regards to Brexit. Most of the parliamentary Conservative Party supported Remain. When Leave won, they rightly said they would respect the result. But since then, they have embarked on a strategy of ruin. They triggered Article 50 in the belief that a process clearly designed to favour the EU could yield a good outcome for the UK. Article 50 was triggered prematurely- the process should not have started until the government was united and clear as to what precise sort of Brexit it wanted. Theresa May has ruled out staying in the Single Market and Customs Union, believing that a deal negotiated in a short period of time will be better for the country than an off the shelf agreement akin to Norway’s. This is foolishness of the highest order; ruling out staying in the Single Market and Customs Union means having to accept whatever the EU offers the UK, since leaving without a deal at all is just about the worst possible outcome.

Post-Brexit Britain has experienced a notable rise in extremely conservative viewpoints being made, even if all conservatives don’t necessarily share them. The right wing press has embarked on a Breitbart-style ideological crusade, branding anyone not committed to their views as ‘mutineers’, ‘traitors,’ ‘saboteurs,’ or ‘enemies of the people.’ British conservatives, to an even greater extent than American conservatives, are utterly convinced by the benefits of a dramatic reduction in legal immigration. The Prime Minister even wants to limit the number of foreign students, despite them contribution vast sums of money to the higher education sector and the wider economy, while claiming no benefits at all. Britain has taken in relatively few refugees, and the right wants the country to take in even fewer.

However, the most radical change in British conservatism has been its economic stance. Under David Cameron, the Conservative Party was committed to a European social democracy, albeit a slimmed down one for the sake of deficit reduction. But now, the idea that we should abandon social democracy altogether post-Brexit has entered the mainstream. Those on the Tory Right talk of a ‘Singapore on Thames’- a low tax, low regulation, tariff-free nirvana. But this would be an unmitigated disaster. For a start, unilaterally abolishing tariffs would decimate British agriculture, unable to compete with cheap imports from heavily subsidised large scale farms in American and Asia. It would eliminate the country’s leverage in negotiating free trade deals for the benefit of Britain’s exporters. A considerable reduction in taxes would also be a catastrophe. The deficit, already higher due to the costs of Brexit, would increase even further. Britain’s taxes are already relatively low by developed world standards, so there wouldn’t be much of an increase in foreign investment. Moreover, the accompanying spending cuts would also have an impact, from a worse education system to a lack of much-needed infrastructure spending. Finally, Britain cannot deregulate its way to growth. International corporations follow EU rules because the EU is such a large market; Britain does not have the clout to become a rule maker in world industry and trade.

Now I’m not saying that all British conservatives are closet Trumpists who support a hard Brexit, massively reduced immigration and neoliberalism on steroids. My point is that those once-fringe ideas are now accepted as perfectly normal, and are barely challenged by Britain’s moderate conservatives. Like the Republicans, the Conservatives are putting party unity above the country’s interests. They are going ahead with a poorly thought out Brexit strategy, and won’t challenge the Tory Right, because to do otherwise would throw the party into civil war. There are some notable exceptions, such as Anna Soubry, Kenneth Clarke, Nicky Morgan and Dominic Grieve. But for the most part, moderate conservatives have given up fighting. They may live to regret their silence, as a party dominated by the Tory Right is one more likely to lose to Labour.

For more information, I would read this excellent column:

The moral cowardice of moderate conservatism in America.

Part 1 of a series on the failures of the world’s moderate conservatives. I’ll be covering Britain tomorrow, so look out for that.

It’s a massive understatement to say we aren’t big fans of Donald Trump here on the Epicurus Blog. Everything from his bigotry, to his vulgarity, his dishonesty, as well as what little he has of a coherent ideology- all of it is utterly repulsive. Yet it would be a grave mistake to assume that Trump is an anomaly: that the Trump phenomenon has no structural causes, and therefore all problems associated with him will be gone.

To a small extent, the Trump presidency was made possible by the failures of Democrats. Hillary Clinton was an unusually weak and unpopular nominee; centrist Democrats, who are normally quite astute, ought to have known better. Since Trump entered the Republican primary, Democrats largely refused to take him seriously. And so rather than addressing ordinary Americans’ concerns with globalisation, the rise of China, deindustrialisation and immigration, Democrats chose the easy route- brand Trump a bigot, and hope he will then go away. Clinton’s faux pas on many Trump supporters being “deplorables” added to the popular perception of her as an arrogant elitist. In a nation deeply discontented with the status quo, Democrats ought to have channeled Obama’s zeal for comprehensive reforms, engaging with the issues that mattered to Trump voters. It’s no surprise that districts that went from voting for Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016 were considerably poorer than the national average.

But the bulk of the blame for the Trump presidency lies not with the Democrats, but with the Republicans and the wider conservative movement. Part of this is a failed anti-Trump strategy. Non-Trump Republicans should have united behind a candidate. Instead, their support splintered amongst several candidates, on the assumption that the Trump candidacy was a silly PR stunt that would soon disintegrate before the primaries. Like the Democrats, the Republicans failed to engage with the policy areas Trump was talking about. The non-Trump Republican strategy on policy was to spew out the same old Reaganite neoliberal truisms like ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’, hoping that endless repetition of Republican orthodoxies would see off Trump’s appeal.

Singing the praises of economic liberalism and constitutionally limited government was always going to be far less appealing than Trump’s promises. Mostly because of the ideological disconnect between the Republican elite and Republican voters. The former adhere to a very consistent form of conservatism, influenced by Barry Goldwater, William Buckley, and of course, Ronald Reagan. On economic issues, they are staunch free marketeers. On foreign policy, they are neoconservative interventionists. None of these positions are actually held by the Republican base, hence their willingness to support Trump. Most Republicans are far more protectionist and isolationist than the Republican establishment would have you believe. So the reason for Trump’s popularity amongst the conservative grassroots was non-Trump Republicans failed to make the case for their own ideas, which were never popular to begin with.

Having revealed the Republican Party’s internal contradictions, Trump has irrevocably transformed the party. Regardless of Trump’s future electoral success, his successor is likely to hold roughly the same beliefs, just without Trump’s rough edges. The Republican establishment knows this, so they have co-operated with Trump for their own gain. On the one hand, they have failed to provide any serious opposition to any of Trump’s policies, and they have consistently played down Trump’s scandals in an extremely partisan and hypocritical fashion. But on the other hand, they are trying to appeal to swing voters by portraying themselves as ‘moderate.’ The truth is that moderate conservatism has become an oxymoron. There is nothing moderate about using an extreme President for personal gain, or on behalf of wealthy donors. This is cowardice, pure and simple. Non-Trump Republicans know Trump’s beliefs are irreconcilable with their own. But they also know they need the votes of avid Trump fans, refusing to publicly admit that Reaganite conservatism now has far less appeal than Trump’s nationalism. Don’t feel sorry for the so-called ‘moderate’ Republicans. They have brought this mess upon themselves, and by tying themselves so closely to Trump, they will be punished in future elections as the Trump presidency degenerates.

Killer air pollution

“Air pollution is the single largest environmental health risk in Europe,” says the European Environment Agency (EEA), which estimated the toll in a report.  By far the biggest killer was PM2.5 pollution: tiny particles measuring 2.5 micrometres across or less. These caused 428,000 early deaths across the 41 European countries tracked in 2014.

The main source, releasing 57 per cent of these emissions in 2015, was domestic wood burning.  Nitrogen dioxide, mostly from vehicle exhausts, cut short an estimated 78,000 lives across those countries. Ground-level ozone was the other major killer, taking 14,400 lives prematurely.  Heart disease and stroke are the most common reasons for premature death attributable to air pollution, and are responsible for 80 per cent of cases, according to the EEA.  Air pollution also worsens respiratory diseases and cancer, and has non-lethal impacts on diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, pregnancy and brain development in children.

The main hotspots for PM2.5 pollution were Poland and northern Italy, where dozens of cities broke the European Union’s annual mean limit of 25 micrograms of particles per cubic metre of air. “Poland and the Po valley have very bad pollution, but the worst offender was Crakow in Poland. In all, 7 to 8 per cent of Europe’s urban population were exposed to PM2.5 levels above the EU limit. But under the World Health Organization’s stricter limit of 10 micrograms per cubic metre, this rose to 82 to 85 per cent.

Emissions are, nonetheless, slowly falling.  This could be sped up by limiting vehicle numbers, burning cleaner fuels and boosting pedestrianisation. The expansion of cyclimg would also help. (New Scientist)

During the very recent very cold spell there was little wind to disperse the vehicle and other fumes.  You couldn’t avoid the polluted air in Washington DC.  Poor town planning has meant that, especially during rush hour, vehicles inch forward in long traffic jams to get in and out of the city.  Add to that, you can’t help noticing the minority of people who sit alone for ages in their parked cars , running their engines to keep warm, absorbed with texting or searching the internet.  Thanks folks!  Needless to say, they are never residents.  It got me wondering why I was a committed city dweller.

Thought for the day

To The Guardian

Fifty years ago, only the top 2% of the population went to university, and about 10% of them got Firsts, so that’s 0.2% of the population. Now, 30% go to university and 25% of them get Firsts, making 7.5% of the population. The universities say there is no grade inflation, so we must be more than 30 times cleverer! Impressive or what?
Rob Symonds, Birmingham

Just in case you think Americans are alone in massacring the language!

British churches are quite famous for their parish bulletins.  The following sentences have actually appeared in  bulletins or have been announced at church services.  Mistakes inadvertent, we are led to believe!

The Fasting & Prayer Conference includes meals.

Scouts are saving aluminum cans, bottles and other items to be recycled. Proceeds will be used to cripple children.

The sermon this morning: ‘Jesus Walks on the Water.’ The sermon tonight:’ Searching for Jesus.’

Ladies, don’t forget the rummage sale. It’s a chance to get rid of those things not worth keeping around the house. Bring your husbands.

Don’t let worry kill you off – let the Church help.

Miss Charlene Mason sang ‘I will not pass this way again,’ giving obvious pleasure to the congregation.

For those of you who have children and don’t know it, we have a nursery downstairs.

Next Thursday there will be try-outs for the choir. They need all the help they can get.

Irving Benson and Jessie Carter were married on October 24 in the church. So ends a friendship that began in their school days.

A bean supper will be held on Tuesday evening in the church hall. Music will follow.

At the evening service tonight, the sermon topic will be ‘What Is Hell?’ Come early and listen to our choir practice.

Eight new choir robes are currently needed due to the addition of several new members and to the deterioration of some older ones.

Please place your donation in the envelope along with the deceased person you want remembered..

The church will host an evening of fine dining, super entertainment and gracious hostility.

Pot-luck supper Sunday at 5:00 PM – prayer and medication to follow.

The ladies of the Church have cast off clothing of every kind. They may be seen in the basement on Friday afternoon.

This evening at 7 PM there will be a hymn singing in the park across from the Church. Bring a blanket and come prepared to sin.

The pastor would appreciate it if the ladies of the Congregation would lend him their electric girdles for the pancake breakfast next Sunday.

Low Self Esteem Support Group will meet Thursday at 7 PM . Please use the back door.

The eighth-graders will be presenting Shakespeare’s Hamlet in the Church basement Friday at 7 PM .. The congregation is invited to attend this tragedy.

Weight Watchers will meet at 7 PM at the First Presbyterian Church. Please use large double door at the side entrance.

The Anatomy of a British CEO

55% of FTSE 100 chiefs have a background in finance or accounting. 15% come from marketing; 14% technology. The best industries for working through the ranks are retail and hospitality, where around 21% of bosses started out in lowly roles.

The majority of CEOs have at least one university degree; more than a quarter have an MBA or PhD. The number of Oxbridge graduates has fallen from 21% in 2012 to 18%.

Age and sex
The average age is 55. The oldest FTSE 100 CEO today is 71; the youngest is 40. Just six out of 100 of Britain’s top bosses are women.

Promoting from within is out of style: some 70% of CEOs moved to their role from another organisation. Once at the top, “make yourself comfortable” – the average tenure is five years and three months.

More than 20 nationalities are represented, but 60% of bosses are British.
(Stats by recruiter Robert Half , written up by Emma Haslett in City AM.)

What concerns me about this profile, aside from the very small numbers of women, are the number of accountants and financiers who run big companies. I have nothing against accountants. They are without exception personable, clever, amusing people with good mathematics, one hopes. What is there to dislike about them? Some of my best friends are, or were, accountants until they took up cooking or flower arranging.

The problem comes if they have no expertise or experience (or particular interest in) customers or sales, because the natural tendency in times of company stress is to look at the figures and trim. Instead, what is needed are clever ideas to boost sales and profits, charismatic leadership, bucking the trend, getting the sales force re-motivated. There are too many bureaucratised, systematised, boring to work for, and out of touch with the market corporations. And the accountant bosses have been to business schools which are hopeless on sales and not too bright, I discovered, on man management. But he with the key to the safe and the balance sheet will have his way.

Unwanted children

Posted by rhanrott on 10 January 2018,

The following is an email sent me years ago from Australia when this blog was first launched. It is very touching:


I am writing today because I was an unwanted child. I am now 55 years old and my mum just passed away a week or so ago. Because my mum became pregnant with me in the 1950s she was shamed into marrying my dad and from there had a further 5 births (with two prior births to a first husband after the 2 world war ss well), and one abortion paid for by the doctor. Until my mum’s death she was haunted by the fact that she was shamed into marrying my dad. He is a loving man and was very good to mum in later life, but for many years (while the couple had children) my dad was both a drinker and a gambler. Until my mums death she was never able to overcome the grief and hurt of those early years (she called the 1950s and the 1960s and possibly much of the 1970s the black years).

I say, thank heavens, women can access abortion, so that they are not forced into having unwanted children. Even though our family managed to overcome much of the hurt and trauma that accompanies these events, my mum was never able to fully forgive my dad (who she blamed) and to an extent me. I believe I have resolved many of the issues but am still carrying scars that I hope will heal in time. It is still not possible for many women (from that generation) to leave their husbands for emotional, financial and health reasons. I think mum believed that in time the scars would heal for her and that she would learn to love my dad but this just didn’t happen and as she grew older she resented him more. Only in the last week or so before she died did the couple share sweet words and exchange their love. I think my dad may have felt so guilty – we human are so complicated.
thanking you and best,


I find it morally repugnant to bring into this world children who are unwanted and unloved. If the principal objectives of Epicureanism are happiness and contentment, then it follows that children should be conceived, born and reared in warmth, love and friendship. Force majeure employed by religious groups claiming to know the mind of God, seek to force women to forego family planning and bear children, often conceived in violence or indifference. This is wicked and inhuman and is the cause of lifelong misery and unhappiness for many millions and untold social problems, mostly among the poor and socially deprived.

Filed under Religion, The way we live now | 0 Comments

Ominous noises. Brexit again.

“Just left Frankfurt. Great meetings, great weather, really enjoyed it. Good, because I’ll be spending a lot more time there. #Brexit.” Thus tweeted Lloyd Blankfein, Chief Executive of Goldman Sachs, on 19th October. It was the first time a major American financial services firm had signalled a shift of its European operations away from London in this way: not as a decision conditional on future developments, but as an established fact of business life. It was the first, but presumably not the last.

It is too late to hope that the City of London, by many measures the world’s leading financial centre and an economic engine for both the UK and Europe, could emerge unscathed from Brexit. The City, which generates tens of billions of pounds each year in tax revenues, will suffer relative both to its competitors and to how it would have performed without Brexit and probably in absolute terms as well. Harm is now unavoidable. The UK is suffering from heightened risk and the vagaries of its politics since the Brexit vote, including the unexpected outcome of this year’s election, have reinforced that perception. There is no status quo scenario: even if the UK was somehow to remain in the European Union after all, that would be disruptive too. (Prospect Magazine, November 2017).

I suppose one way of looking at it is that the British financial sector has grown just too important to the economy and to government revenue,  sucking up bright young people, making London outrageously expensive to live in, and periodically causing economic meltdowns.  Problem is, what bright, new, modern industry can possibly  take the place of the City?   Can’t think of one?  Nor can I.


The top 1% of Medicare patients account for 20% of the total cost of Medicare. The top 5% account for 50% . This is the greatest threat to the US government finances, scarcely discussed, after the profligate funding of futile foreign wars. And now the huge Baby Boomer population is starting to have a threatening effect on the cost of Medicare, potentially blowing the budget, just as Republicans are planning to reduce taxes! Words fail me.

The high costs, to be fair, are caused by a moving population of people with serious conditions, who cost a lot for a few months,  then revert to “normal”, that is, if they don’t die in hospital. But there are some patients with chronic conditions of multiple co-occurring conditions who are treated for months. The doctors dare not end the treatment for fear of legal challenges, and relatives won’t let the sick person go. The taxpayer is stuck with the bill.

It will come as no surprise to learn that the very people who advocate spending less on the poor through Medicaid, are the biggest consumers of publically funded Medicare, ready to call a lawyer at a moment’s notice, and eager to fund research into ever longer lives for themselves – as long as they don’t have to pay for it out of their own pockets.

Surprisingly, under Republican rule, seniors will have to pay a larger share in 2018 for Medicare the richer they are (as defined by their 2016 Federal tax returns). Higher premiums will be paid for both Medicare Part B and Part D for individuals with modified adjusted gross income which exceeds $85,000.00, and married couples with joint incomes above $170,000.00. (I have tried to understand the Medicare website setting out the new arrangements, but it is written by an illiterate and, to me, it is incomprehensible. I will not try to list the new rules because you won’t probably understand them either).

The point is that there is a segment of the (well-off) population for whom no amount of public money is enough to keep them alive. Rationing is anathema for them, but reducing even basic healtthcare for the poor is apparently fine by them. It is one thing to help someone recover from acute injury, but long-term cognitive impairment should be a matter for intelligent discussion between doctors and family – keeping alheimers patients alive at all costs is cruel to everyone ( I have personal experience). End-of-life is end- of-life. If relatives want to extend it, they should make a major contribution towards the cost, not expect the taxpayer to pay out with no end in sight.

And yet…and yet…. Americans are under the illusion that American medical care is the best in the world, even though US life expectancy is lower than most other OECD countries.

The dangers of joining a political party

Here on the Epicurus Blog, we deviate from Epicurean orthodoxy insofar as we see an interest in politics as not necessarily inadvisable. Provided you don’t become consumed by politics, to the detriment of your social life and cultured activities, politics can be an innocent interest- a bit like physics. Epicurus saw politics as a source of grief and despair, which is true. But it can also be a lot of fun, in moderation, of course.

However, new research from Queen Mary, University of London, shows that the Epicurean aversion to political participation may have more merit than we’ve previously assumed. The report is a polls of members of Britain’s major political parties. (You can read it here,-Britain’s-Party-Members.pdf.) The results show that the party members are totally unrepresentative of the wider public. They are older, whiter, more middle or upper class, and more male. They are far more likely to have degrees. More importantly, they identify themselves are being more ideologically extreme than both the party leadership and the general public. In terms of policies, party members overwhelmingly take one position on almost every issue, so there isn’t much room for dissent if you take a minority view.

All of this matters because the demographics and politics of British political party members are totally un-Epicurean. The Garden was meant to host people from all different backgrounds. It was a place of mild discussion, where people could disagree amicably, unlike political parties where diverging views (particularly on Brexit) are seen as treacherous and intolerable. Epicureans like diversity, or at least the liberal values that make it possible. Britain’s political parties couldn’t be a greater contrast to this ideal.

The other noteworthy finding of party members is how different Conservative members are to everyone else. Conservatives overwhelmingly support leaving the Single Market and Customs Union (so no hope of a future pro-EU Conservative leader), cutting government spending, and a much tougher stance on law and order. By slimmer margins they support the death penalty and are sceptical of the cultural benefits of immigration. The other parties are all very consistently and overwhelmingly left wing- even the Liberal Democrats, who often misleadingly describe themselves as ‘centrist.’

Overall, if you hold very consistently left wing or right wing views, and are willing to lead a less happy life for the sake of promoting your views, then join a political party. But for those of us who hold far more ambiguous, and at times inconsistent views, we’re far better off keeping a good distance from anything resembling party membership. Life is too short and precious to waste it campaigning with totally like-minded and out of touch people.

Why Liberal Zionism is now an oxymoron: Confessions of a former Liberal Zionist

I used to consider myself a staunch Zionist. I thought the creation of Israel was a necessary good. Necessary, because the Holocaust demonstrated that anti-Semitism was entrenched part of the world, even in an advanced industrialised country with a strong liberal tradition like Germany. And good, because Israel has become an immensely successful country, with a flourishing economy, strong tech sector, religious tolerance, liberal democracy, and even great food. Against the odds, Israel has overcome overwhelming opposition to its existence from throughout the region. It has won almost every war it has fought. Now, it is more secure than ever. Netanyahu says Israel is here to stay. And no one doubts him.

In recent years, Israeli politics has taken a rightward turn, and understandably so. Peace talks have stalled, with most Israelis blaming a hopelessly corrupt and intransigent Palestinian leadership. Hamas is the undisputed leadership in the Gaza strip, and will remain so for the foreseeable future despite the ruinous effects of Israel and Egypt’s blockade. Hezbollah remains a permanent feature of the Lebanese political and military landscape. Despite Rouhani’s attempts at rapprochement, Iran is as belligerent as ever; Khamenei and the Guardian Council remain utterly hostile to Israel, and will increase in wealth and influence due to the West’s lifting of sanctions and unfreezing of assets. Geopolitically, the only good news is the demise of ISIS. This has benefited the centre-right Likud, as well as smaller rightwing parties; the religious ones have also benefited from the relative increase in the ultra-Orthodox population.

So I accept why Israelis feel the way they do. While I’ve long been critical of aspects of Israeli policy, I thought Israel had the moral high ground due to the wider security situation in the Middle East. But now, I don’t think it’s possible to say either side has the moral high ground, assuming morality can be a consideration in complex geopolitical conflicts (a discussion for another time). The Israeli government no longer shows any signs of a commitment to a two state solution. Lately, it has not declared where it wants the borders to be. West Bank settlements continue to expand, to change the ‘facts on the ground.’ While there occasionally are instances of Palestinian terrorism, and more frequently, violent unrest, that doesn’t justify the bizarre and cruel policy of house demolition, nor the lack of serious commitment to improving the West Bank’s infrastructure and economy. Rather than deliver the urgent reforms needed, the Israeli government’s strategy is to manage the status quo as successfully as possible, knowing the international community will grow weary of pushing for change. This has been immensely effective. Israel has better relations with the Arab world than ever. The economy is growing fast, even if there remain problems with an undereducated ultra-Orthodox population. Even many Palestinians are applying for Israeli citizenship, knowing that Palestinian statehood is unlikely to materialise.

But while Netanyahu may be incredibly successful, partly because of an inept and divided opposition, that doesn’t make him right. He is fundamentally a very authoritarian character, relentlessly funding Israel’s domination over what should be future Palestinian territory. He has cracked down on refugees from East Africa, refusing to acknowledge that they come from regions torn apart by war, famine and drought. For political gain, he has fostered an ethnic, exclusionary conception of Jewish nationhood, alienating non-Jewish Israelis. He is also in coalition government with far-right parties that explicitly oppose Palestinian statehood and advocate annexation of West Bank Area C.

Now none of this excuses the Palestinians’ faults. The Palestinian leadership routinely endorses violence and indoctrinates children to believe vitriolic anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic propaganda. Like the Israeli government, they have refused to define precisely the territory they want for a Palestinian state. And their proposals for East Jerusalem are unrealistic. Because it contains some of the holiest sides in Judaism, it will have to be internationally administered territory, not the exclusive preserve of Palestine. My overall point is that given Israel’s military, economic and geopolitical success, the Palestinians’ faults no longer excuses Israel’s.

Who have the moral high ground doesn’t determine likely future outcomes. In the future, the Israeli polity will be ever more conservative, caused by the occasional outburst of Palestinian terror and the failures of the peace process. Gaza will remain desperately poor as long as Hamas remain in charge. And no agreement will be made on the West Bank; the settlements’ rapid growth and surprisingly low Palestinian birth rate will continue to complicate matters. A usual Epicurean call for moderation is my conclusion, though it seems utterly futile in regards to this issue.

Trump supporters and authoritarianism

“Political pollsters have missed this key component of Trump’s support because they simply don’t include questions about authoritarianism in their polls. In addition to the typical battery of demographic, horse race, thermometer-scale and policy questions, my poll asked a set of four simple survey questions that political scientists have employed since 1992 to measure inclination toward authoritarianism. These questions pertain to child-rearing: whether it is more important for the voter to have a child who is :

1. respectful or independent;

2. obedient or self-reliant;

3. well-behaved or considerate; and

4. well-mannered or curious.

Respondents who pick the first option in each of these questions are strongly authoritarian.

Based on these questions, Trump was the only candidate—Republican or Democrat—whose support among authoritarians was statistically significant.” (Mathew Macwilliams, Politico)

Read more:

The crippling cost of zero interest rates

They used to say there are but three ways to ruin the class of petit-bourgeois savers who form the backbone of all successful democracies: a banking collapse (as in the 1929 crash); hyperinflation (as in banana republics); or straightforward state expropriation (as in oppressive taxation). Now we’ve invented a fourth. The introduction of zero to negative interest rates is “destroying” the economics of wealth creation. It has nullified the magic of compound interest, thus making it impossible for a generation of savers to amass a decent amount of money for their retirement. A decade ago, you had to put aside £761,000 to enjoy a £35,000 annuity in retirement. Today you’d need to save £1.4m. That’s not all. Low interest rates have created “a massive black hole” at the heart of company pension schemes; so rather than spend on factories and machines, businesses are having to plug the gap. And since banks can’t profit from super-low interest rates, the supply of loans also starts to dry up. In their obsession to push down the cost of borrowing, Government and central banks have forgotten that “free credit comes at a crippling, hidden cost”. (Allister Heath, The Daily Telegraph, UK).

There is also another phenomenon. You can put money into any number of financial funds, but the return is risible. This is a disaster for the elderly, many of whom have to scrape through on Social Security (thank heaven for it, but it’s rather hard to live on it and actually do anything). This means that the elderly cannot spend. (By the way, all this escapes the attention of people who complain about how pampered elderly people are). I you do have funds invested you tend to ignore them, because it costs more than it’s worth to move them. There is no incentive to even bother. At the moment the stock market is doing well, but for how long? Many fear (or expect?) another disaster, this time caused by car financing or some other financial services idiocy from banks whose greed blinds them to history. What is going up now could disappear next week.   I remember when interest rates were 18% at one point.  That was a disaster, but almost- zero interest rates are as bad in different ways. Cue for mention of Epicurean moderation.

Be wary of online reviewers

One of the aggravations of modern life, is the way we’re always being asked to review things online. You need only take delivery of a small parcel to get a text asking you to rate your “service experience”. So it was a delight to read last week how a young journalist, Oobah Butler, had exposed the “chicanery of online reviewing”. He first claimed he’d set up an “appointment-only” restaurant – actually his London garden shed – aided by photos of its mood-inspired “food” (shaving foam and bleach tablets), and posted breathless reviews of it on TripAdvisor. Eager customers clamoured to book a table, but he ignored their calls, and in no time the website had classed The Shed as London’s top restaurant… even though it didn’t exist. Butler’s prank, and his admission that he used to earn a living writing fake reviews for TripAdvisor, is a timely reminder not to put your faith in the “wisdom of crowds” – too many of us have learnt to game the system. No, place your trust in experts and friends: they’re “our only protection against fake reviews in an ocean of fake news”. (Janice Turner, The Times)

There is not a lot of point in reading online reviews by customers. You don’t know if they are genuine, and what is one person’s luxury hotel bedroom, for instance, with a stunning views,  is another person’s cramped and dreary hole in the wall with uncomfortable beds. In any case I am simply ignoring review requests unless I have had particularly good service, and we want to reward it.  These surveys are management cop-outs that focus on service individuals ( you can seldom talk to an actual manager, hiding away behind his office door), not the overall management and offerings of the company.

Epicurus: the simplest philosopher to understand

Epicurus proposed that we typically make three mistakes when thinking about happiness.

1. People fret if they don’t have a romantic relationship

Then, as now, people were obsessed with love. But Epicurus thought that happiness and love (let alone marriage) seldom go together. There is too much jealousy, misunderstanding and bitterness. Sex is always complicated and rarely in harmony with affection. It would be best, Epicurus concluded, to be careful about relationships. By contrast, he noted how rewarding most friendships are: here we are polite, we look for agreement, we don’t scold or berate and we aren’t possessive. But the problem is we don’t see our friends enough. Work and family take precedence. We can’t find the time. They live too far away.

My comment: if you are lucky your spouse is your best friend.  Happiness and love go together.  On the other hand, Epicurus is right about a significant number of relationships. Proportion of unhappy marriages: unknown.

2. We think we need lots of money

Then, as now, people were obsessed woth their careers, motivated by a desire for money and applause. But Epicurus emphasised the difficulties of employment: the jealousy, the backbiting and frustrated ambitions. What makes work really satisfying, Epicurus believed, is either working alone or in very small groups and when it feels meaningful, when we sense that we’re helping others in some way or making things that improve the world. It isn’t really cash or prestige we want, it’s a sense of fulfilment through our labour.

My comment:  agreed 100%

3. We put too much faith in luxury

We dream of luxury, a beautiful home and  trips to idyllic locations.   Epicurus disagreed with the fantasy of luxury and thought that what we really need  is calm. Yet calm won’t possibly arise simply through changing the view or owning a delightful building. Calm is an internal quality that comes when we sift through our worries and correctly understand them. We therefore need ample time to read, to reflect,  and most of all, to benefit from the regular support of a good listener, a sympathetic, kind, clever person.

My comment :  Ah! calm!  yes, please! As for the regular support of a good listener, a sympathetic, kind, clever person – one’s spouse?

With his analysis of happiness in hand, Epicurus made three important innovations:

– Firstly, he decided that he would live together with friends.  He bought a modestly priced plot of land outside Athens and built a place where he and his friends could live side by side on a permanent basis. Everyone had their rooms, and there were common areas downstairs and in the grounds. That way, the residents would always be surrounded by people who shared their outlooks, were entertaining and kind. Children were looked after in rota. Everyone ate together. It was the world’s first proper commune.

– Secondly, everyone in the commune stopped working for other people. They accepted cuts in their income in return for being able to focus on fulfilling work. Some of Epicurus’s friends devoted themselves to farming, others to cooking, a few to making furniture and art. They had far less money, but ample intrinsic satisfaction.

– And thirdly, Epicurus and his friends devoted themselves to finding calm through rational analysis and insight. They spent periods of every day reflecting on their anxieties, improving their understanding of their psyches and mastering the great questions of philosophy.

Epicurus’s experiment in living caught on. Epicurean communities opened up all around the Mediterranean and drew in thousands of followers. The centres thrived for generations – until they were brutally suppressed by the early Christians in the 5th century. But even then, their essence survived when many of them were turned into monasteries.

Epicurus remains an good guide to life in advanced consumer capitalist societies where advertising cleverly muddles  people up about what they think they need to be happy: romantic love, professional status and luxury.

Epicurus invites us to change our understanding of ourselves and to alter society accordingly. We mustn’t exhaust ourselves and the planet in a race for things that wouldn’t possibly satisfy us even if we got them. We need a return to philosophy and a lot more seriousness about the business of being happy.

My comment: I fully support the ideal Epicurus proposes,  but he ignores one important point: some people tend towards extroversion – for them the commune is ideal.  For those who are introverted, the communal live would be unattractive.  But there is no dogma in Epicureanism as there is in most religions.  One can adapt the thoughts of Epicurus to one’s own character and preferences.


Ministers including Boris Johnson and Michael Gove are reported to be plotting to scrap the EU working time directive.  This is a crucial piece of EU law that protects working people – and which working people were promised would still apply after Brexit.  If Johnson and Gove succeed, 7 million workers could lose their guaranteed legal right to paid holidays. That includes nearly 5 million women and many workers on part-time and zero-hours contracts.

Stripped of the laws that restrain them, bad bosses could force their staff to work excessive hours, far above the current limit of 48 hours a week. Lunch and rest breaks would be under threat too, as would health and safety protections for night workers.  Workers in sectors like health and transport are more likely to make dangerous mistakes if they’re overworked and exhausted.

Since these rules were introduced, in 1998, they have transformed working life – and family life too. Everyone deserves the guarantee of time off to rest, relax and spend with family and friends.
And it’s not just about the working time directive. If Johnson, Gove and their allies win on this, they’ll surely be emboldened to come after other hard-won rights. Those secured by the EU include parental leave, time off for family emergencies, equal pay for women and equal rights for part-time, fixed-term and agency workers. (Based upon an article by Frances O’Grady,general secretary of the TUC, in The Guardian)

During the referendum campaign, Vote Leave promised Britain’s workers that their rights from the EU would be safe after Brexit.  But in reality you can now see the outline, the drift of extreme right- wing Conservative thinking.  The idea is to make Britain attractive to the most rapacious and conscience-less companies in the world, people who view ex-EU Britain as ripe for exploitation and the worker expendable.

Those of us who support and honour Epicurus believe in looking after employees, in paying them a decent, living wage, and in  getting better productivity by offering decent holidays, sick pay and time off for emergencies.  It seems common sense to us, but not to the Mr. Gradgrinds of the world.  The Brexiteers  promised a better standard of living but, sotto voce, what they  meant was a  better life for themselves and their rich friends.  If the right-wing Tories have their way, Britain will regain the Victorian sweatshops made famous by Charles Dickens, and we will be back where we started.

More on the military

Fewer than 1 percent of the population currently serve in uniform, and 7 percent are military veterans. The number of Gold Star families — the term for those who lost a family member to combat — is about 7,000 from Iraq and Afghanistan. Among  military families, veterans and scholars there is a basic premise — that civil society and military circles are culturally, socially and geographically separate This represents a form of isolation with real consequences for the country.

There is a prevalent attitude in some military and veteran circles — a feeling of pride for taking on a tough job in some of the most dangerous places on Earth, coupled with a simmering resentment that civilians are oblivious to their mission.  White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly suggested that discourse about those killed in action can only reasonably occur in the walled-off segments of society where losses on the battlefield are most directly and painfully felt, a dreadful comment. Geography heightens the separation. Military families and veterans tend to come from the South and Midwest, and recruitment often draws on those who already have military ties, making service in uniform a family business of sorts.

If military people  feel that America is disengaged from the never- ending wars, the problem is not going to be fixed if only people personally involved have the right to ask questions. We should value military service, but still critique  missions and the way they are conducted. We are paying the servicemen, after all.  On the other hand , as  one commentator remarked: “Military courage is something society needs to have and we should value it.  But we also need a civic body that makes this a country worth fighting for”.   Quite!  At the same time the public is tuned out because it is never consulted about new military commitments, or their outcomes.  Why, for instance, are U.S. forces in Niger?  We can sort-of guess, but nothing is explained.  There has to be more dialogue.  Personally, I think we need more military personnel back in their barracks, re-training.  And we need to retire swathes of senior officers and give opportunities to young officers with new ideas.


My predictions for 2018

I think it’s fair to say that I have a terrible record at predicting political events. In 2016, I predicted that Clinton would win the US election and that Britain would vote to stay in the EU. Then in 2017, I thought the EU would weaken because of a lethargic economy and divisions on how to deal with Brexit; in fact, the EU’s economy is growing much faster than expected and the bloc is united on Brexit. I thought the Conservative would win a landslide majority in Britain- they failed to win a majority at all. But with my abysmal record in mind, I thought I would make some predictions for 2018.

  1. Trump will survive any attempt to be impeached, but his popularity ratings will continue to dip. Despite having obviously colluded with Russia to win the 2016 election, Trump is unlikely to be impeached, regardless of whatever Robert Mueller finds out. Sadly, most Republicans will put party before country. Having said that, more scandals will emerge. Some people close to Trump may be accused of sexual harassment. I certainly believe a scandal related to Trump’s refusal to divest himself of his property and investments to prevent a conflict of interest will become headlines.
  2. Healthcare reform will pass, but it won’t be the full Obamacare repeal Republicans have been promising since the Affordable Care Act was passed. On the one hand, Republicans are desperate to repeal Obamacare- failure to do so will look incredibly embarrassing given how vehemently they have opposed it.  They will use the Budget Reconciliation process to avoid a Senate filibuster. On the other hand, deep cuts to Medicaid and a big spike in the number of people uninsured would cause too much damage in the 2018 midterms. So although the ACA as a whole will be repealed, key provisions of it will be kept in any Republican healthcare reform law. In the long term, the trend towards government-run healthcare remains on track. As soon as the Democrats win elections, a push towards single-payer will be a top priority.
  3. The Democrats will make gains in the 2018 midterms, but they will be largely inconsequential. In 2018, most of the politically controversial aspects of the Republicans’ agenda will be rushed through Congress before the end of the year, to take advantage of Republican majorities in both the House and the Senate. In 2019, regardless of the outcome of the midterms, Democrats will not be able to repeal or alter any major aspects of legislation. Trump will still control the executive, so most foreign policy decisions and the nature of immigration enforcement will remain unchanged. The best the Democrats can hope for until 2020 is to block more minor Republican bills.
  4. Putin will win the Russian presidential election, but the result will be hotly contested. Expect mass protests in the streets of Russia’s major cities, lots of arrests and a few coincidental deaths. Putin will continue to enjoy relatively high approval ratings. But without involvement in major conflicts abroad, expect discontent to grow regarding the Kremlin’s domestic policies. The Russian economy will continue to suffer from high inflation and low oil prices.
  5. Britain will become even more divided regarding Brexit. It will become apparent that Brexit means having to stick by the EU’s regulatory regime to avoid a hard border with Northern Ireland. The combination of low wage growth and high inflation will consolidate majority public opinion against a hard Brexit, but key aspects of society- the elderly, most Conservatives, working class post-industrial towns- will support it. Most people will continue to support Brexit on the basis of respecting the referendum result, but the number of people who support overturning Brexit or a second referendum will grow. Brexit’s opponents will point to opinion polls showing a majority of people believing that in retrospect, leaving the EU was the wrong decision. Expect anti-Brexit protests to increase in size, filled with young people worried about their life chances in post-Brexit Britain.
  6. The Conservative Party will become too divided to function properly, particularly by the latter end of the year. But an early election won’t be held, because no one wants it. Consequently, Theresa May will hang on to being Prime Minister, however weak her position may seem. The Conservative Party’s divisions means it is unable to unite behind a successor, and they won’t want a contest as this crucial stage of the Brexit negotiations.
  7. Germany’s political troubles will continue. Either another ‘Grand Coalition’ will be formed, or there will be another election. Regardless, Germany, and Angela Merkel, will have lost much of their authority on the European stage. Without a strong Germany or Britain, expect France to provide leadership. Emmanuel Macron’s approval ratings will rise, driven by an improving economy, the success of his labour market reforms, and the new-found prominence France will enjoy in foreign affairs. This will be good for European unity; not only is Macron a committed pro-European, but his pragmatic centrism is closer to European public opinion than the ideologically austerity of Merkel. A French-led EU will push ahead will creating a single digital market in Europe, fostering closer co-operation on defence and security policy, and negotiating free trade deals with non-EU countries. By contrast, Britain will look less relevant than ever.
  8. The World Cup will be held in Russia. There will be some controversy, particularly the record Russia’s football fans have of being racist against black footballers. Many gay football fans won’t attend for fear of their safety. Germany to win, I think, though my footballing predictions are even worse than my political ones.

The Epicurean solutions to climate change

Climate change is without doubt the biggest threat facing the world. Although it doesn’t mean the end of civilisation just yet, the adverse effects of climate change are getting progressively worse. Extreme weather is becoming more frequent. Crop yields in many parts of the developing world are becoming more common. Drought has become a routine way of life for many. In the developed world, such problems can seem distant and non-urgent. But climate change has already affect life in the rich world, from the drought in California, to the refugee crisis being exacerbated by poor crop yields in Syria Having said that, one of the cruellest ironies of climate change is that it affects the developing world more, despite per capita CO2 emissions being worse in the developed world.

The question then becomes what to do about it. Now to an extent, technology can be of great assistance. The cost of renewable energy has come down considerably in recent years. Wind and solar power are far more efficient than they used to be. But it’s not good enough simply to let the ‘free market’ solve climate change, as some American conservatives propose. Addressing the problem requires swift and decisive government action, because the companies aren’t inclined to solve the problem if it hurts their profits. This shouldn’t involve punishing companies with unnecessarily high taxes, but tax codes and regulatory regimes need to be fundamentally altered with climate change in mind. Here are a few of my proposals, some of which are already in the process of being implemented:

A high carbon tax, offset by lowering other consumption taxes. If carbon is taxed at a high rate, it will become far more profitable for energy companies to switch to renewables quicker. It has the benefit of incentivising renewable energy without the cost of a government takeover of the energy industry. Companies would be free to decide which renewable are the most efficient. The tax would have to be high enough to force substantial change. Having said that, other consumption taxes would have to be lowered to prevent a spike in inflation. A carbon tax would also have the benefit of discouraging car use, reducing congestion and paying for much-needed road maintenance.

A carbon trading system, where each company is given a limit on the amount of carbon they can emit. They can then buy and sell their limits with other companies. The European Union is in the process of implementing this. But the problem is that the carbon allowances were too high, so it didn’t make much difference. Instead, carbon limits should be much lower, and companies should have to pay more to increase their carbon allowance.

A moratorium on airport expansion. Businesses and frequent flyers wouldn’t like this. But the fact is that aeroplanes are enormous polluters. And in the age of the internet, flying has become less necessary than ever before. Flying also causes considerable noise and light pollution. It’s time people simply learnt to fly less.

Heavy subsidies for electric cars, financed by higher gasoline taxes. This is already happening in Norway, where electric cars are extremely common. Not only does this help reduce climate change, it also reduces premature deaths caused by air pollution. There is currently a transition to electric cars. But it is happening too slowly. Making electric cars more affordable, combined with more congestion charges for gasoline cars in our major cities, will make a considerable difference.

Encourage people to have fewer children. Now I’m a bit torn on this one, because I realise a lower birth rate can damage an economy because the working age population have to pay higher taxes to subsidise the elderly. But at the end of the day, climate change is more important than economic growth. All of these measures will be near-useless if the world population continues to expand at the current unsustainable rate. Aside from greater access to contraception and family planning, perhaps being childless should be incentivised using the tax system.

The good news about climate change is that the solutions are more affordable than ever before. The cost of renewable energy has come down, and people increasingly realise the urgency of the problem. Although Trump’s intransigence on this issue is infuriating, many American mayors and governors are choosing to ignore him. Trump won’t be around forever- his approval ratings are in decline and his supporters are disproportionately old. I’m certain there will once again be a global consensus on climate soon. I just hope that by then, it won’t be too late.


Without realising, we can tell who is likely to become a leader, automatically giving them more of our attention. When a group of people who don’t know each other meet for the first time, leaders naturally emerge, signaling charismatic behaviour and a variety of vocal cues.

A group from Vrije University in Amsterdam have studied whether such signals triggered more automatic changes in who we pay attention to. They filmed meetings held by teams who had never met before over a period of seven weeks. At the end of this time, independent mentors rated each team member on whether they had emerged as a leader or follower. The researchers then edited the videos into 42 soundless clips, and showed them to 18 new people.

As the volunteers watched the videos, the researchers measured where they were looking, and for how long. They found that the volunteers looked more often, and for longer, at people who went on to become leaders within the group. The basic idea was that from an evolutionary perspective it might have been very helpful to recognise quickly who you should follow.

To find out how the leaders were able to trigger changes in others’ attention, the team analysed how the people behaved. They found that emerging leaders used active gestures more often when others were speaking, such as constantly moving their bodies, and large hand movements, and were “present” with their whole bodies and expressions throughout. Their negative facial expressions, such as yawning or staring blankly, were less frequent, although both followers and leaders smiled equally frequently. The unpublished data suggests that talking a lot helps to signal leadership, but what a person says becomes more important over time. Vocal pitch can also signal if someone intends to dominate or submit to another person. (The Leadership Quarterly,

Initially talking a lot and being present in the discussion is important, but as the discussion develops it’s more about what you say than how much you chatter on. “Being a solution-orientated person who doesn’t focus on problems is what seems to pick you out as a leader.”
The team’s results also suggest that women face additional obstacles in becoming leaders. In situations where women went on to emerge as leaders, people spent slightly less time looking at them than they did at men who went on to become leaders in other scenarios. The researchers assumed (correctly?) that there is a preference for male emergent leaders and this could explain why more men end up in leadership roles. (Helen Thomson. New Scientist 9Sept 2017).

My take: this seems to suggest that people will follow those who talk a lot, maybe quite charmingly, sound very positive, but actually say very little of substance, just look good. We have all encountered these people, who like the sound of their own voices, avoid difficult (negative) problems and monopolise the conversation. Missing is any attempt to include the quiet and shy in the discussion (What do you think?) or encouragement (Good idea!). If the researchers are right and have been reported correctly, no wonder we get some superficial people in positions of power. In America, to be a CEO you need to be male, tall, fairly slim, remember people’s names, play golf, dominate meetings without committing yourself to action, and, most importantly, be very handsome. I met people like that at General Motors years ago. The huge company was badly managed and nearly went bankrupt in 2008. Followers of Epicurus listen rather than talk and wave their hands (I’m joking)

Is the US military as good as it claims to be?

In June, an American Green Beret was reportedly strangled to death in Mali by U.S. Navy SEALs, allegedly in connection with a shadowy money-skimming scheme. (The military is currently investigating.) In July, The Intercept, the London-based research firm Forensic Architecture, and Amnesty International. revealed that a drone base used by U.S. forces in Cameroon was also a site for illegal imprisonment, brutal torture,and even killings on the part of local forces. (The military is investigating.) In August, according to a blockbuster investigation by the Daily Beast, U.S. Special Operations forces took part in a massacre in which 10 Somali civilians were killed. (The military is investigating.) In October, four Special Operations soldiers were killed in murky circumstances during an ambush by militants in Niger. (The military is investigating.)

This spate of questionable, or even criminal, activity involving U.S. forces in Africa should come as little surprise. Over the last decade and a half, operations on that continent have exploded. A cast of thousands is now carrying out about 10 separate missions per day, ranging from training to combat operations, which are up 1,900% since last year alone. U.S. commandos sent to that continent have jumped from 1% of special ops forces deployed overseas in 2006 to nearly 17% today, the highest total outside the Middle East. There have also been numerous indications of U.S. forces behaving badly from one side of the continent to the other, a sign of lousy morale. Few in the mainstream media or among those tasked with oversight of such operations have, however, taken any significant notice of this. (Nick Turse. TomDispatch) 12/17/1917.

Endless drone warfare, over- geared, and getting out of hand

America’s robotic killers, the drones that long ago were grimly named Predators (retired this year) and their more advanced cousins, the Reapers (as in Grim…), who have taken a once-illegal American activity, political assassination, and made it the well-respected law of the land and increasingly of huge swaths of the globe.

In these years of predation, the president — any president — has become an assassin-in-chief. George W. Bush began the process with 50 drone strikes in the Greater Middle East during his years in office. Barack Obama multiplied those numbers tenfold. He even had his own White House “kill list” and “terror Tuesday” meetings to decide just who should be on it. Donald Trump has simply given the U.S. military and the CIA license to send those drones wherever they please. Such drone strikes are now commonplace from Yemen (almost a strike a day in the months after Trump entered the Oval Office) to Afghanistan (where the CIA has, for the first time, been given license to strike at will), Pakistan (where such strikes have recently intensified) to Somalia (23 of them in 2017), Iraq to… Niger (where U.S. surveillance drones are now being weaponized). In the process, across the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa, the U.S. has taken out not just terror suspects but civilians in significant numbers, including children and American citizens (two of whom were children). The drones, which terrorize the populations under them, have proven to be ferocious assassins, capable of crossing borders without a blink and without respect for national sovereignty, not to speak of remarkable recruitment tools for terror groups.

And keep in mind that these never-ending drone killings are just one small part of America’s wars of the last 16 years that have driven funding for the national security state to new heights and turned Washington into a permanent war capital. (An excerpt from TomDispatch, 10. December 2017)

Commenting on the above Andrew Bacevich, author of America’s War for the Greater Middle East, wonders when this country will truly notice America’s Predators abroad the way, in recent weeks, we’ve finally noticed them at home!

I believe Epicurus would be appalled at what is going on. Drone attacks do not discriminate. Women, children, the old, the infirm who can’t be seen from up there in the sky, all assassinated in the blink of an eye. At least with a sword and shield you can clearly see who you are fighting. Of course, you can argue that drones are no more a menace than a V2 rocket in 1945 or, indeed, a medieval siege engine lobbing rocks over town walls. The difference lies in the unexpectedness and ferocity of the modern weapons. The V2s were spotted on radar; women and children now have no warning whatsoever. I happen to think that peaceful drones, not only military ones, are going to emerge as menaces as they multiply, fall out of the air, hit buildings, crash planes – whatever. We use the technology because we have the technology, but mankind is notoriously unreliable when it comes to wisdom and judgment.

We need something calming, reflective.

The Sea is Calm – a poem

The soft, pink clouds hang over the distant horizon.
The glazed water gently rolls towards the beach.
A breeze-less, tranquil, tropical morning.
A man in a punt moves over the unruffled surface.
You can see that he has used a punt before
By the way he raises the long, wooden pole
And drops it noiselessly into the water, close to the craft.
His companion looks away towards the open sea.
Maybe it’s the coastal freighter that has caught her eye,
Moving hull-down in the far distance.
Maybe she is dreaming of a long, slow voyage
To hot, humid and exotic ports in other seas,
Just puttering from place to place, no rush, no reason;
Just the dream of an idle moment.

White ibis peck for muluscs in the fine, white sand.
A brown pelikan dives, bill-first, into the still water,
Submerging momentarily as it snaps up prey.
Spilling water from its throat-pouch, it swallows the catch
And takes off again, leaving the sea as if nothing had happened.
It is tranquil here, that is, until the speedboats appear.
Robert Hanrott.

Christmas presents

There’s nothing they need, nothing they don’t own already, nothing they even want. So you buy them a solar-powered waving queen; a belly button brush; a silver-plated ice cream tub holder; a “hilarious” inflatable zimmer frame; a confection of plastic and electronics called Terry the Swearing Turtle; or – and somehow I find this significant – a Scratch Off World wall map. They seem amusing on the first day of Christmas, daft on the second, embarrassing on the third. By the twelfth they’re in landfill. For thirty seconds of dubious entertainment, or a hedonic stimulus that lasts no longer than a nicotine hit, we commission the use of materials whose impacts will affect future generations.

Apparently, of the materials flowing through the consumer economy, only 1% remain in use six months after sale. Even the goods we might have expected to hold onto are soon condemned to destruction through either planned obsolescence (breaking quickly) or perceived obsolesence (becoming unfashionable).

The fatuity of the products is matched by the profundity of the impacts. Rare materials, complex electronics, the energy needed for manufacture and transport are extracted and refined and combined into compounds of utter pointlessness. When you take account of the fossil fuels whose use we commission in other countries, manufacturing and consumption are responsible for more than half of our carbon dioxide production. We are looting the planet to make solar-powered bath thermometers and desktop crazy golfers.

People in eastern Congo are massacred to facilitate :: ::: :: : :: : : : : : :: : :: ::: : : smart phone upgrades of ever diminishing marginal utility. Forests are felled to make “personalised heart-shaped wooden cheese board sets”. Rivers are poisoned to manufacture talking fish. This is pathological consumption: a world-consuming epidemic of collective madness, rendered so normal by advertising and the media that we scarcely notice what has happened to us.

This boom has not happened by accident. Our lives have been corralled and shaped in order to encourage it. World trade rules force countries to participate in the festival of ornaments. Governments cut taxes, deregulate business, manipulate interest rates to stimulate spending. But seldom do the engineers of these policies stop and ask “spending on what?”. When every conceivable want and need has been met (among those who have disposable money), growth depends on selling the utterly useless. The solemnity of the state, its might and majesty, are harnessed to the task of delivering Terry the Swearing Turtle to our doors. Grown men and women devote their lives to manufacturing and marketing this rubbish, and dissing the idea of living without it.

The growth of inequality that has accompanied the consumer boom ensures that the rising economic tide no longer lifts all boats. In the US in 2010 a remarkable 93% of the growth in incomes accrued to the top 1% of the population(7). The old excuse, that we must trash the planet to help the poor, simply does not wash. For a few decades of extra enrichment for those who already possess more money than they know how to spend, the prospects of everyone else who will live on this earth.

So effectively have governments, the media and advertisers associated consumption with prosperity and happiness that to say these things is to expose yourself to opprobrium and ridicule. Serious people now decry the idea of consuming less, and to associate it, somehow, with authoritarianism. When the world goes mad, those who resist are denounced as lunatics. (George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 11th December 2012. Edited for length)

No comment needed from me. Monbiot is a great journalist!

Making fun of British scientific studies

Apparently, British scientists are the butt of constant jokes in Russia. Can you work out which of these are Russian headlines about real studies, and which are jokes?

1. British scientists have established the height of Cinderella’s heels.

2. British scientists have found that women more often reach orgasm if they have sex in their socks.

3. British scientists have invented a teacup for left-handed people.

4. British scientists have found that ostriches become sexually active in the presence of humans.

5. British scientists have discovered that primates can find the connection between a cassette tape and a pencil more quickly than people born after 1995.

(The real studies are 1, 2 and 4). These are some of the research made fun of in Russia:

– Richard Stephens of Keele University, who showed that swearing can help reduce pain.
– Olli Loukola, Queen Mary University of London, who has taught bumblebees how to play football.

In the past year, Russian news outlets have reported that

– “British scientists have found that fish have personalities”
– “British scientists have discovered the best time to make love”.
– “British scientists have calculated the IQ of cats”.
– “British scientists have proven that birthdays are good for you: people who have the most live the longest”.
– “British scientists have invented a way to walk through walls. They called it a door”.
(New Scientist, Christmas issue)

The problem is it’s all rather true. Some researchers waste their time on the silliest things. But then the British do do things with tongue in cheek. It’s called a sense of humour, Ivan.

Have a happy ChristmasJ,

How to have an Epicurean Christmas

Since it’s Christmas Eve, I thought I would share some tips on how to have the best Christmas possible. For me, Christmas is a lovely time, and always has been. But I realise many people are looking to tomorrow with trepidation. The problem with Christmas, at least in the Western world, is that too much stress accompanies the holiday. Whether you are celebrating Christmas for religious reasons, or simply because it’s our culture, everyone ought to be able to relax. Here’s my advice on how to:

  1. Don’t spend too much money. If you believe Christmas is about having the most lavish lunch, or buying family the most luxurious presents, then you are doing the occasion wrong. Rather, spend no more than what you feel comfortable spending. If certain family members have unreasonable exceptions as to what Christmas ought to consist of, better to let them down than give in to peer pressure. I personally believe excessive lighting around the house, decorations covering all the furniture and a massive Christmas tree are vulgar and in bad taste.
  2. Avoid family arguments, even if it means ‘losing.’ Better to accept someone else’s point and enjoy the rest of the day than get caught up in a dispute or debate. You may have an uncle who supports Trump, or even a friend who is pro-Putin (as I do), but you must simply let them make their point and move on. Getting into a heated argument only ruins the festive and joyful nature of the holiday.
  3. Follow Epicurus’ advice and avoid politics altogether. This is kind of related to number 2, but I find it is better to avoid politics entirely, even if you think everyone agrees on a particular subject. There are far more cheery subjects to talk about. Particularly in Britain, there is too much politics nowadays. We all deserve a break, even if it is only for once a year.
  4. Definitely avoid excessive drinking. There’s nothing wrong with a glass of wine at lunch, or a bit of brandy on the pudding. But Christmas is not the time to get drunk. So much can go wrong. You may accidentally say or do something embarrassing in front of the whole family. Worse, drunk people are more confrontational and even aggressive. You’ll want to keep a cool head for the whole day, especially if there’s someone you know will get on your nerves.
  5. Don’t spend all day in front of the TV. Some families do, and it ruins the social nature of the occasion. Instead, I believe it’s best to avoid electronic devices altogether, even electronic presents- you’ll have plenty of time to use them on Boxing Day. Rather, board games, Pictionary, Charades, card games and other amusements are equally fun, and far more interesting. Games where you get to know your family better are the best ones.
  6. Invite as many people as you can comfortably host. Christmas is one of these occasions where the more really is the merrier. Having more people makes for a livelier and more special day. If the day feels like just another regular meal with the immediate family, then you won’t have as much fun.
  7. Save the presents until well after Christmas lunch. This is a family tradition of ours. Opening the presents with everyone else is a great moment. It gives you a chance to say thank you properly to those that bought you your presents. It’s also something to look forward to, and it keeps you occupied for much of the day. Opening the presents early in the morning means you miss a euphoric moment when everybody is happy because they’ve got something new.
  8. Never compare the current Christmas with Christmasses in the past, or Christmasses at other people’s houses. Only reflect on how the day is going once Christmas is over. This helps avoid any feelings of disappointment or inadequacy.
  9. Not strictly related to Christmas, but don’t go shopping on Boxing Day. You may have vouchers you desperately want to spend or a horrifically ugly jumper that needs returning. But so does everyone else. You’re far better off avoiding the mayhem and shopping when the crowds have gone. If you’re anything like me, you won’t enjoy shopping even at the best of times. You may as well make the experience as painless as possible.
  10. Don’t eat too much. You may enjoy the deliciousness of the food at the moment. But your stomach won’t forgive you. You’ll feel more tired more quickly. And it’ll make that New Year’s Resolution of trying to lose weight that much harder.

I wish all our readers a very Merry Christmas! If you’d like me to do more advice guides, or simply more non-political posts, please say. Equally, if you think all my advice is nonsense and a waste of a post, I’ll stick to politics from now on.

Bribery and corruption

Earlier this year both houses of Congress voted to nix a bi-partisan law that would have forced US oil, gas and mining companies to disclose annually, and project by project, royalty, licensing and backhanders to foreign governments. As you can imagine the American Petroleum Institute labelled this more big government interference that puts US companies at a competitive disadvantage. Trump naturally agreed. He and his friends are fiercely hostile to any moves to prevent corruption.

Actually corruption is bad for business, which thrives when there is a level playing field. Corruption is believed to equate to 5% of global GNP every year – about $2.6 trillion (yes, you read it correctly!), and raises the cost of doing business by 10% per annum. Bribes are useless – they build no roads, schools or hospitals. What they do do in developing countries is represent 3.7 times the value of global official development funds such are disbursed by the World Bank, AID etc.

The EU has insisted on companies declaring their backhanders, and about 120 companies have complied, revealing $150 billion worth of “off balance sheet ” payments. Now that the Great Oligarchy has abandoned transparency and decency these companies will clearly be allowed to revert to their previous behaviour.

Note: twice in my life as a businessman I was asked point-blank to bribe a customer in return for a large contract. In both cases I flatly refused. I mention this because it is not just the huge international corporations that are playing this game; it is rife throughout industry, down to quite small companies. The playing field IS NOT LEVEL!

It is small comfort that everyone is doing it and, indeed, you cannot build a big corporation anywhere in the world without graft and corruption. The whole American political systen is based upon favours in return for campaign cash, which I consider corruption. Oil, gas, major construction and many other industries thrive on it, a sad fact of life. Speaking personally, even before I bacame involved in Epicureanism I had decided that I felt more comfortable running a business ethically, and leaving the pushy, greedy types to get on with it. One has to live with one’s conscience.

Unwinding gerrymandering

The method of fairly fairly splitting a cake between two people is tried, tested and mathematically proven: one person cuts the cake and the other chooses which slice they get. To get the biggest piece of cake possible, the cutter must split it fairly resulting in no hard feelings between the two eaters.

In US politics, however, cutting states into electoral districts doesn’t have a similarly fair method. The political party in charge often decides where the electoral lines are drawn and does so in such a way as to gain an advantage. This is gerrymandering.

A team at Carnegie Mellon University, Pennsylvania have devised a way to extend the cake cutting technique to redrawing electoral districts to make the system fairer. It allows both parties to act in their own self-interest, butstill results in an outcome that is mathematically fair. It works as follows:

One political party draws an electoral map that divides the state into the agreed number of districts. The second party then chooses one district to freeze so that no more changes can be made to it by either side. It then redraws the rest of the map. Once the new map is complete, the first political party freezes one of the new districts, and redraws the rest of the map again. This continues until every district in the state is frozen. In Pennsylvania, for example, this would require 17 cycles as there are 18 districts.

One would have to account for the Voting Rights Act, which protects voting rights for racial minorities. The authors suggest that this could be checked after the process is finished, in the same way that new districts are checked now. (an edited version of an article by Ariel Procaccia, Wesley Pegden and Dingli Yu, of Carnegie Mellon University, Pennsylvania,, and Timothy Revell of the Mew Scientist)

Am I being too cynical if I say that many modern politicians are not interested in fairness. They are interested in power, and staying in power. Go back fifty years and this proposal might have interested the political parties, who, at the time, genuinely sort-of believed in democracy. Pity the Supreme Court won’t take up the idea, but of course it was the Supreme Court that brought us Citizens United and put up the country for sale, so forget that. And in any case constituency boundaries are State concerns, not Federal. Looks like we are snookered. Now the Republicans and Democrats can barely agree on the date, never mind fair elections. Bye bye democracy. You were good for us while you lasted.

Privatisation in healthcare is un-Epicurean

“Earlier this year, the Justice Department filed a lawsuit, based on evidence from a whistleblower, against United Health Group, the largest provider of subsidised private medical insurance for the elderly, accusing it of overcharging the government by more than $1 billion, claiming patients were sicker than they actually were.

“The FBI estimates that fraud, both private and public, accounts for up to 10 per cent of total US healthcare expenditure, or about $350 billion, of the annual $3.54 trillion that Americans spend on healthcare. The scale of medical fraud in the UK is still small by comparison, but some of the companies that have paid huge fraud fines in the US – including UnitedHealth, McKesson, Celgene and the Hospital Corporation of America – are becoming increasingly involved in British NHS privatisation schemes, in accordance with the government’s wishes.

“In Britain the Health and Social Care Act, passed in 2012, was intended to increase privatisation, outsourcing, inter-regional competition and ‘marketisation’ in an already strained system. There is little sign that it is improving services or reducing costs, but private firms see profits to be made.” (Dave Lindorf, London Review of Books, Nov. 2017).

Improve services and reduce costs? It won’t. Never does. The bosses capture the savings
for themselves and,to a lesser extent, the shareholders.

In the United States the medical system is a dog’s dinner (which unfairly casts aspersions on dogs and dinners). Tens of thousands of people will shortly have no medical cover (who cares? – the election donors are happy). The whole system is a bureaucratic nightmare, designed to make profit first and heal the sick second – and few (except Bernie and his supporters) have caught on. The worst are the profiteering drug companies who are actively fuelling the opioid death crisis, while bribing Congressmen to turn a blind eye. Trump has appointed the CEO of one of Eli Lilly, one of the biggest pharmaceutical companies, to oversee Health & Human Services, a case of the fox guarding the chicken run.

I know I discuss healthcare frequently, but it is with good reason. The American system is over-commercialized, caters to special interests, is extraordinarily expensive and results in a shameful level of national life expectancy. And the advocates of the present system are proud of that?

Offensive language on the web

Reddit supports longer and more complex discussions than Facebook or Twitter, and, unlike Facebook, it does not require you to disclose your identity.

Researchers analysed 3.5 billion comments on Reddit from 25.3 million people between 2007 and 2017. They sorted the comments into two groups: one non-political, the other comprised of things posted to politics subreddits. Noting the frequency of offensive words and phrases gave a measure of how civil the discussions were.

The non-political comments were fairly civil. The political comments were not. People were 35 per cent more likely on average to use offensive language in political than nonpolitical discussions. Political discourse was more offensive between May 2016 and May 2017 than in any other 12-month period in Reddit’s history.

To analyse the complexity of the comments, the researchers found that discourse in political groups had dropped on average from seventh-grade (age 12) to first-grade (age 6) levels since 2007 (

What accounts for the changes? The researchers identified a large influx of new users to Reddit’s political groups, which may have lowered the average level of linguistic complexity. Also, there were many users who had previously been active only in extremist groups, who now posted regularly in mainstream groups. Such users can take control of the tone or direction of conversations. Another growing group of Reddit users is likely to be bots, who post automatically.

Isn’t it time to give up the idea of freedom of speech if what that phrase has encouraged is vile, sexist, racist and abusive language?p Al these things should be banned, excised from the websites where they occur. It is a simple matter to ban the ignorant and the puerile – they reduce us to the status of animals, which is very unfair on animals.