The plight of the dispossessed Palestinians

Yesterday was the 70th anniversary of the Nakba, when three quarters of a million Palestinians were forced to leave their homes. Some 100,000 Palestinians fled to Lebanon and, with their descendants, have been prevented ever since from returning. The residents of the camps are condemned to poverty, marginalisation and ill-health. This community has also endured the horrors of the Lebanese Civil War, including massacres and further displacement, disappearances, hunger and so much more besides.

The Palestinians of Lebanon are of course just one segment of the Palestinian refugee diaspora. There are now 5 million Palestinian refugees registered with UNRWA, in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. They all continue to suffer the hardships and lack of dignity associated with being refugees.

With the death toll in Gaza rising to sixty yesterday, with the totally unnecessary slaughter met with indifference by self-described “Christians” and fellow Moslems, at least this follower of Epicurus and his friends, unable to be of practical help except to send money, know the history of the Nakba and acknowledge and mourn the losses suffered 70 years ago and every day since. The crass election-driven policy of the American government has only worsened a terrible problem, blamed exclusively, of course, on Hamas and the Palestinians.

I have seen a Palestinian refugee camp. A glimpse was enough. It was a shock. The place was a total dump. Nobody should be condemned to live like it. To discuss the Israeli-Palestinian issue and do it justice would take too long, except to say that those who have turned their backs on these poor people should be deeply ashamed. The Palestinian leaders are not faultless, but their people do not deserve to be virtually imprisoned and killed when they protest. No human beings deserve it….further words fail me. (Inspired by comments made by Aimee Shalan, Chief Executive of Medical Aid to Palestinians)

A moment for a happy thought

In the US, it emerged that a billionaire philanthropist had made good on his promise to give away almost his entire fortune. Charles F. Feeney, 86, made his final grant – $7m to Cornell University – at the end of 2016, bringing his lifetime donations to $8bn, and leaving him with $2m. His largesse (kept secret for years) has benefited everything from AIDS charities in Africa to hospitals in Vietnam.

How the Trump presidency has improved American politics.

It’s fair to say I think the Trump presidency has been an unmitigated disaster.  His casual bigotry, dishonesty and regressive economic policies are terrible for America, and have made the world a less stable and safe place. The most recent example of Trump’s destructiveness is his withdrawal from the Iran deal, which will only hasten Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon, and makes war with Israel more likely.

But every cloud has a silver lining, and Trump is no exception. Trump’s success has forced anti-Trump Republicans and Democrats to rethink their policies and electoral appeal. The fact that a man so obviously unqualified and unfit to be president has one office should give everyone pause for thought. Here are a few lessons from the Trump era I think Republicans and Democrats could learn from.

Republicans:

  • Prejudice is still a real and present problem in America, particularly on the Right. Before Trump, many conservatives would downplay the extent to which racism, sexism and xenophobia were prevalent, often dismissing people who say they had been discriminated against. But since Trump- a man so frank in his prejudices- won the Republican primary and then the presidency, Republicans have been forced to take the problem of prejudice more seriously. On National Review, the most prominent anti-Trump conservative publication, there have been several articles rethinking conservative support for police stop and search policies, taking seriously the prospect of discrimination against young black men. During the Republican primary, Trump’s sexist attacks on Carly Fiorina made Republicans more concerned about misogyny. A post- Trump Republican Party will have to show it is on the side of equality if it wants to win convincing majorities in the future.
  • Banging on about the free market doesn’t win you votes. Most people believe in capitalism. What they don’t want is an unadulterated, unregulated free market, where poverty is high and public services poor. This includes the Republican base, who value programmes like Social Security, Medicare and government infrastructure investment. Trump didn’t stick to free market orthodoxy, instead promising to protect entitlements. Now Trump’s plans are unrealistic and will increase the deficit. But Republicans should learn that a more pragmatic approach to the economy, while maintaining the more popular aspects of fiscal conservatism like tax simplification, will be more resonant.
  • Banging on about God doesn’t win you votes. There’s nothing wrong with sharing your faith, or admitting it constitutes an important part of your decision-making. But America is an increasingly irreligious country, even amongst Republicans. While candidates like Cruz and Carson talked about God, Trump didn’t, and no one cared. The most religious candidates, Huckabee and Santorum, were also the most unpopular. Trying to be overtly religious is likely to be a turn-off for most people, particularly the wider electorate who are less Christian than Republican primary voters.
  • Neoconservatism is unpopular and unworkable. There’s no doubt Trump’s opposition to the Iraq War contributed to his success. Americans are sick and tired of wars which have no lasting benefit to the countries they are supposed to help- they certainly have no benefit to America. While it would be a mistake to embrace doctrinaire pacifism, a post-Trump foreign policy should be realist in nature, putting American interests first while maintaining non-military involvement in the wider world. It would also help the Republican goal of balancing the budget if the military was slimmed down.

Democrats:

  • Illegal immigration is a serious problem that must be addressed. Under pressure from pro-amnesty advocates, Clinton ended up advocating an end to all deportations unless the illegal immigrants in question has committed a crime. But a de-facto legalisation of 11 million people is a profound violation of the rule of law, American sovereignty, and a major contravention to public opinion. Democrats should ensure they see the distinction between legal and illegal immigration. And while the former should be encouraged, the latter should certainly not be.
  • Personal morality matters. During the Clinton years, Democrats were keen to ignore the Monica Lewinsky affair. But with Trump’s affair with Stormy Daniels, Democrats are far more interested. The fact is, Democrat or Republican, how a president conducts their personal life matters because it shows whether they are a trustworthy and moral person. Democrats shouldn’t reflexively dismiss interest in personal scandals as puritanism in the future.
  • A detailed trade policy is important. Democrats are in a mess on trade. While Clinton defended the free trade record of her husband, Sanders mirrored Trump in his critique of ‘neoliberal’ free trade deals- they lead to lower wages, jobs going overseas and deindustrialisation. The Democrats’ divisions on trade allowed Trump to win in places like Ohio and Michigan, where scepticism of free trade is high. To win back the Rust Belt, Democrats need a united and detailed trade policy. They should either embrace a full-throttled defence of America’s trade agreements, hoping to change opinion. Or they should explain how they are going to renegotiate America’s trade agreements in the national interest, as Trump did. Obfuscation is not an option.
  • Demographics are not destiny. Clinton bet on America’s increasing numbers of graduates and ethnic minorities to deliver a win on the same scale as Obama. This was a mistake. Yes, America’s demographics are changing, and some (but not all) of those changes benefits Democrats. But while working class voters living outside the major cities are still an important part of any successful electoral coalition, and shouldn’t be ignored.
  • Political correctness is unappealing. Clinton ran the most politically correct campaign in living memory, paying lip service to every minority imaginable, without a transformative policy programme or unifying vision. Talking in meaningless platitudes about people fulfilling their potential won’t win votes. Instead, a future Democrat candidate should talk straight and fire the spin doctors. Americans like honesty and plain English. Trump seemed like he told it as it is, which is why he won.

The US lobbying bonanza

The successful Republican drive to overhaul the tax code in 2017, resulted in a bonanza of business for Washington’s law and lobby firms. Bolstered by GOP control of Washington, lobbyists saw their business explode grow last year. The prospect of tax legislation and regulatory reform was the big reason why.

The 20 largest lobbying firms took in a total of $368 million in lobbying revenue last year, a 15 percent increase over 2016, according to “The Hill”. Akin Gump, which has about 200 lobbying clients, remained the top-earning K Street firm in 2017, taking in almost $39 million for its advocacy work. The revenue of law and lobbying firm Hogan Lovells jumped 45 percent in the last three months of 2017 compared with osame period the year before. Hogan Lovells took in $11.44 million for its lobbying work last year, working for clients such as Nissan, Xcel Energy and TPG Capital, a giant private equity firm. Ernst & Young, who specializes in tax issues brought in almost $4.5 million in the three-month period, while the revenue of the exclusively Republican BGR Group rose 53% the last three months of 2017.

An analysis from Public Citizen, a government watchdog group, showed that more than half of all the registered lobbyists in Washington worked on tax reform, which equates to upwards of 6,000 people pounding the marble on Capitol Hill, catering to clients trying to capitalize on the sweeping regulatory reforms (or, rather, abolitions) and tax give-aways that will surely bust the federal budget.

When those outside Washington refer to the “swamp” many refer to this disagreeable business of lobbying. There is nothing wrong with lobbying by citizens – I have done it (once in the US and once in the UK) myself; it is part and parcel of democracy. But the huge value of the bucks at stake and the obscene level of remuneration of a handful of connected lawyers and hangers-on has enhanced, not democracy but oligarchy, shoveling money into the pockets of special interests and the already-rich, undermining democracy, and bringing it into disrepute. The average voter gives up, concluding the the system is rigged. Well, it is!

No apologies for this political post. This is exzctly why Epicurus despised the hypocrisy of politicians and their financial enablers. (Statistics from The Hill)

The cry of the self- made man: I did it all myself (a poem)

“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.”
…………………………….

From “The Rueful Hippopotamus”, by Robert Hanrott,
Published by ByD Press, available on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk

Opioid antidotes and the huge profits they generate

In 2016, 36 states joined a lawsuit against Reckitt Benckiser Group that alleged that the company had profited from the opioid crisis and siphoned money from Medicaid. The drug company allegedly worked to preserve its monopolistic hold on profits drawn from its control of addiction treatment drug Suboxone.

The 2016 lawsuit in Philadelphia has received little news coverage since its announcement. Reckitt is accused of spinning the court case out and has banked $5.8 billion in revenue from Suboxone just while the trial has been pending. It’s another example of a corporation tying up legal proceedings as it continues to profit off alleged bad practices. (From Tarbell, who investigate the activities of profiteering Big Pharma companies).

If you follow the money you discover why it is so difficult to police American pharmaceutical companies, and why the rational and common sense idea of allowing Medicare and Medicaid to negotiate prices, as is done centrally in other advanced countries, will never happen because Big Pharma fund the politicians. A huge, corrupt system which acts against the interests of the poor and sick. Meanwhile, we have a government trying to ensure that poor people have zero healthcare. No wonder Epicurus despise politics and politicians!

Further education again: the decline of the liberal arts

The proportion of university undergraduates studying the liberal arts in the US has fallen by almost 50% since 1970. Business studies is the favourite; up and coming are statistics and data science.

The justification for studying the liberal arts – set out several times on this blog over the years – is that they teach people to problem solve, to communicate effectively, and to think for themselves.  The liberal arts should also prepare people for the increasing possibility that their chosen profession eventually disappears altogether. These reasons fall upon deaf ears, despite the fact that out of the 10 million jobs created in the United States since 2012, only 6% were in areas related to software, and information technology, and most were non-technical. What those in the liberal arts are well set up for are fast-growing areas like project management, market research, fundraising, and jobs where you have to think on your feet, work with ambiguity, write and speak well, and, most importantly, relate to and manage other people.

In my opinion, Business Studies as a first degree is a total waste of time, unless you are very lucky and are taught by someone who has had extensive business experience, has a sense of humour (the theory is boring), and who really understands and is good at people management (rare birds). If this latter is happily the case, then I’m surprised he or she isn’t “doing” rather than “teaching” the subject.