Educational divide

All the signs suggest that leaving the EU will cause economic hurt, yet voting intentions over Brexit remain unaltered. Why?

The answer lies in a novel written 60 years ago by a Labour Party grandee. In “The Rise of the Meritocracy”, Michael Young envisioned a dystopian future polarised between a class of winners (exam-passers) and a class of losers (exam-flunkers): his great insight was that, in modern society, it is your relationship “to the machinery of educational selection” (from the 11-plus on) and not to the means of production, that determines your life chances and your sense of self-worth. So it is in today’s Britain: public schools have become exam factories, the top 10% of households own 44% of the wealth, and the “smug” cosmopolitan exam-passers act as if they are morally and intellectually superior to the exam-flunkers.

Brexit expressed this culture war: 75% of those with no educational qualifications voted for it; 70% of graduates voted Remain. So why would Leavers admit they’re wrong? Having been told their vote reflected their low intel-ligence, they’ll be damned if they’ll give their opponents “yet another reason to feel smug”. (Bagehot, The Economist. 17 Feb 2018)

The Rhyme: a short poem

Poets now despise the rhyme,
Or that’s the affectation.
But nonsense is as nonsense does
And what is worse
Than bad blank verse?
Gibberish strung a word a line,
Conforming to the fashion?
The wish being father to the thought,
It’s promptly
Found
To
Be
Profound.

Rhymes outdated? That’s just rot!
Some can rhyme, and some can not.

It’s content, not the form, that counts,
And mastery of meaning.
A certain discipline of mind
Is requisite when using rhyme.
So don’t reject the tools at hand,
Misused as they may be.
The means can justify the end.
My point is penned.
Enough!
The End!

From “The Rueful Hippopotamus” by Robert Hanrott, published by ByD Press and a available from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.de

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Rueful-Hippopotamus-Other-Light-Verse/dp/0972103511/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1534841919&sr=8-1&keywords=the+rueful+hippopotamus

Children returning home? Bad news for parents!

A quarter of young British adults now live with their parents, more than at any time since records began in 1966.

According to a new study by the London School of Economics, adult children who return to the family home after a period away – often at university – cause a significant decline in their parents’ well-being. While the study acknowledged that these “boomerang” children can be a source of emotional and practical support for parents, it found that the quality of life of the parents studied fell by an average of 0.8 points on the researchers’ scale when their kids moved back in – an effect similar to developing an age-related disability.

It’s natural that people have mixed feelings about boomerang children, but it’s not just about parents wanting a spare bedroom again, or more time for new pastimes. Putting up a grown child also “feels at some deep level like a failure for all concerned”, even if the reasons for it – mainly insecure employment and the cost of housing – are beyond their control. Meanwhile, the children may feel they have worked hard through school and university only to find themselves back where they started. The sense of injustice among the young is powerful, and that’s not a healthy situation. (adapted from an article in The Week and The Times, March 2018)

We bring them up to make friends, to be independent, to stand on their own feet, to have the confidence to apply for, get and successfully keep a job. We hope we have instilled into them a sense of honesty and integrity, a sense of humour, a caring attitude towards the more vulnerable in society, social ease, and enough mathematics to manage their own financial affairs. We have applied some of the principles of Epicurus, although mostly we are unaware of the fact. We have really tried. And we have failed.

There is something desperately wrong with this scenario, this system. Maybe socialism, the nanny State, doesn’t work and can’t be afforded, but nor can this. We can no longer afford the grave gap between rich and poor, the stagnant wages, the lack of housing, the gig economy, the insecurity and the activities of a now-corrupt capitalism that buys politicians. We may not personally see it collapse, but collapse it will, because it is not acting for the greater good, but for a tiny minority. Collapse is what happens to deeply unfair cultures. Read your history.

The sorry state of British education, part 1, GCSEs

The first in a three-part series on the sorry state of British education. Hope you enjoy these multi-part blogs. 

I started secondary school in 2008. Then, British secondary education was in a terrible mess; the Labour Education Secretary Ed Balls was presiding over a period of serious grade inflation. GCSEs, the qualification achieved by British 16-year olds, were getting easier, and the number of As and A*s being attained was increasing.

To rectify this, Balls’ successor, the Conservative Michael Gove revamped the GCSE curriculum. The subject matter would become more difficult. There would be a greater emphasis on ‘British values’, to make a more cohesive society and combat against extremism. And instead of students being graded A*-U, they would be graded 1-9, with 9 being the highest grade. The theory was that in the event of grade inflation, the exam boards could add numbers above 9 so the most capable students would be distinguished.

But in many respects, these reforms have backfired. It’s true that grade inflation has largely ceased.  But the curriculum is in many aspects too difficult. Schools are reporting increasing levels of anxiety and other mental health issues. The increasing reliance on exams over coursework doesn’t prepare students for the real world. The notion of British values is subjective and difficult to teach: are things like freedom of speech really British values or just universal liberal values? More importantly, Gove wanted to toughen the GCSE to allow state schools to compete against the more rigorous private schools. But the opposite has happened. Private schools, which use the world-recognised iGCSE, will have a higher proportion of their students get the top grade than state schools. This amounts to a major advantage for privately-educated students when applying to university. State school children will be taking harder exams than their fee-paying counterparts, in exchange for getting worse grades and consequently poorer prospects in higher education.

The lesson from all of this is that successive governments, both Labour and Conservative, have failed to reform the GCSE. The curriculum changes too quickly, leaving teachers to struggle with each period of reform. The league tables are meaningless since private schools now refuse to participate in them. Comprehensive education was meant to be egalitarian. Yet we now face a system where the wealthiest parents buy houses in the best catchment areas, thus securing the best places in the state school system. And for those who can afford it (or are lucky enough to win scholarships), private education is as much of an advantage as it has ever been.

The obvious solution to all this is for all schools to adopt the iGCSE. It’s an internationally-recognised, demanding but fair qualification. Since both private and state schools would use it, league tables would regain their relevance. It would be difficult at first for state schools to adjust, but it would be worth it in the long term. Most importantly, it would prevent the constant meddling by education secretaries, since the iGCSE curriculum is run by the University of Cambridge. It would be a fair outcome for all students. If only the government had the humility to admit it.

Next Monday, the sorry state of A-levels, which you can now read here. 

Genuine complaints received by from customers by Thomas Cook Vacations

1. “On my holiday to Goa in India, I was disgusted to find that almost every restaurant served curry. I don’t like spicy food.”
2. “They should not allow topless sunbathing on the beach. It was very distracting for my husband who just wanted to relax.”
3. “We went on holiday to Spain and had a problem with the taxi drivers as they were all Spanish.”
4. “We booked an excursion to a water park but no-one told us we had to bring our own swimsuits and towels. We assumed it would be included in the price.”
5. “The beach was too sandy. We had to clean everything when we returned to our room.”
6. “We found the sand was not like the sand in the brochure. Your brochure shows the sand as white but it was more yellow.”
7. “It’s lazy of the local shopkeepers to siesta in the afternoons. I often needed to buy things during ‘siesta’ time — this should be banned.”
8. “No-one told us there would be fish in the water. The children were scared.”
9. “Although the brochure said that there was a fully equipped kitchen, there was no egg-slicer in the drawers.”
10. “I think it should be explained in the brochure that the local convenience store does not sell proper biscuits like custard creams or ginger nuts.”
11. “The roads were uneven and bumpy, so we could not read the local guide book during the bus ride to the resort. Because of this, we were unaware of many things that would have made our holiday more fun.”
12. “It took us nine hours to fly home from Jamaica to England. It took the Americans only three hours to get home. This seems unfair.”
13. “I compared the size of our one-bedroom suite to our friends three-bedroom suite and ours was significantly smaller.”
14. “The brochure stated: ‘No hairdressers at the resort.’ We’re trainee hairdressers and we think they knew and made us wait longer for service.”
15. “When we were in Spain, there were too many Spanish people there. The receptionist spoke Spanish, the food was Spanish. No one told us that there would be so many foreigners.”
16. “We had to line up outside to catch the boat and there was no air-conditioning.”
17. “It is your duty as a tour operator to advise us of noisy or unruly guests before we travel.”
18. “I was bitten by a mosquito. The brochure did not mention mosquitoes.”
19. “My fiancée and I requested twin-beds when we booked, but instead we were placed in a room with a king bed. We now hold you all responsible and want to be re-reimbursed for the fact that I became pregnant. This would not have happened if you had put us in the room that we booked.”

These quotations rxplain a lot. Too much for one posting.

The difference between being educated and being cultured.

“Culture is only really culture when it has diffused itself through every root and fibre of our endurance of life. Then it can become wisdom, a wisdom that can accept defeat, and turn defeat into victory. It can render us independent of our weakness, of our surroundings and of our age, a fortress for the self within the self, and a universal thing, breaking down of barriers of race, of class, of nation”. (John Cowper Powys (1872-1863), British novelist, philosopher, literary critic, educator and poet).

Powys thought that this kind of culture should permeate the soul, otherwise what passes for culture is a falsehood devoid of humanity. Just being intellectual or an aesthete is not enough, for culture without human goodness is “weird and even terrifying”. Culture reminded him of horticulture: the problem is how to graft the subtle and the exquisite upon the deep and vital. “Only by this grafting can the sap of the natural give life and strength to the unusual, and the roots of the rugged sweeten the distinguished and rare”.

The grafting is the true task of philosophy: to add to a person’s cleverness and erudition an inner identity that can withstand the jungles of brutality, greed, stupidity, self-interest and self-regard. The innermost self, the fortress, should be a source of real feelings and sensations of kindness, true thoughtfulness for others and concern for the welfare of the community.

Tom Wolfe said, “The more culture a man has the more austerely – though naturally with many ironic reserves – does he abide by his own taste“. In other words he is an authentic person who lives his philosophy of life. He is not an intellectual or a snob – he treats every man and woman with politeness and respect. He smiles a lot, he knows how to conduct a conversation, can give and take, and can diffuse a tense atmosphere with humour (something rare, a sense of humour!) He can cope with opposing “truths”, comment without anger or snide remarks, listen and charm. It comes easily because he has internalised it as part of his daily life. To philosophise is not to read philosophy; it is to feel philosophy.

On this blog we encourage readers to learn about Epicureanism – not so different from organised religion, but without the supernatural, the dogma, the preachers and the sects.
Let it’s principles be your “fortress”.

Bereft of effective leadership!

“I am opposed to the UK government’s key policy (Brexit), but then so, until recently, was she (Theresa May). There’s a job that doesn’t need doing and, increasingly, it feels like she is just the person not to do it.” (David Mitchell, Guardian Weekly, April 13)

Meanwhile, a friend pointed out that the ineffectiveness of the Labour opposition is rational, if hardly patriotic or responsible. Who in their right mind would want to take on the Brexit negotiations? The last thing the opposition wants is a General Election that they could possibly win. Would you welcome this poisoned chalice, especially since many Labour voters are reportedly changing their mind and are now Remainers?

The other side of the coin is this: What are national politicians for unless they aim to help run the country as pragmatic leaders? Looking back years to dreams of pure Socialism, unsullied by reality, is doing favours to no one. There is currently no Her Majesty’s Opposition”. Epicurus advised against going into politics, and you can understand why. But he never said there should be no effective government!

Immigration again: victims of domestic and gang violence

In recent months, there has been a surge in the number of immigrants trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. Immigrant rights advocates say that is because they’re fleeing extreme violence in their home countries — violence that shows no signs of abating.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has broad powers over the nation’s immigration courts, has now imposed new limits on who can get asylum in the United States. “Asylum was never meant to alleviate all problems — even all serious problems — that people face every day all over the world,” he is reported as saying. In his decision, Sessions argues the asylum system is intended to protect not victims of violent crime but people fleeing from persecution, like religious minorities or political dissidents. Immigrant rights advocates, on the other hand, fear the lives of asylum-seekers will be in danger when they are returned to their countries of origin.

Sessions and other immigration hard-liners say that it has become too easy to claim asylum in the United States — and that migrants know this and game the system. Immigrant advocates, however, say Sessions is taking away an essential lifeline for victims of domestic abuse and gang violence and turning his back on an American legacy of protecting the most vulnerable, particularly those women who are persecuted by their husbands and ignored by their own governments. (edited version of an article by Joel Rose, NPR News, June 11 2018).

It is legitimate to try to winnow out the cheaters and gangsters. Having said that, the US would almost grind to a halt (only a slight exaggeration) if there were no immigrants willing to serve tables, pick fruit, tidy gardens, clear gutters and paint houses. Why? Because white Americans are not prepared to take those poor-paying jobs, and the white birthrate doesn’t in any case provide a big enough workforce to meet demand. I agree that bringing over grandparents and extended family members is (arguably) a stretch.

It is instructive to note that the Greeks in the days of Epicurus had slaves to do the work similar to that of modern immigrants. But these slaves could look forward to eventual freedom. This wasn’t the slavery of the ante-bellum South. Epicurus himself is noted for treating them with human kindness and respect, welcoming them as equals into his garden.

In short, we need immigrants; let them be.

Are you being a “fascist” if you want to curb immigration?

“Here’s some advice to my fellow liberals: If you want to defend liberal democracy in this age of “noisy populist movements”, stop condemning people who disagree with you about immigration. In both America and Europe, liberal commentators tend to treat every call for immigration curbs as a xenophobic assault on democracy.

“Yet the conflation of liberal values with an enthusiastically pro-immigration stance “mistakes a policy preference for a first principle”. Wide-open borders are not a prerequisite of a democratic society in the way that, say, a free press or judicial independence are. “Populist” proposals to restrict immigration here and in Europe are “actually quite popular”.

“Many on the Left not only refuse to acknowledge this, but behave as if the very concept of borders is immoral. Activists “egg on” so-called sanctuary cities to defy federal immigration laws, and call for policies that would “eliminate any meaningful distinctions between citizens and non-citizens”. As long as liberals refuse to make any concessions on immigration, and portray “every move to strengthen borders or discourage further migratory waves” as one more step in the march to fascism, “the only people who benefit will be fascists”. (James Kirchick, New York Post, March 24 2018)

What should be the attitude of Epicureans to migration? I reach for one of the obvious principles: moderation. Given a wide enough door you get a large influx, including grannies, aunts and uncles, who may need financial and housing support. The new immigrants keep their own language and culture en masse, making integration difficult. We are all tribal to some extent, and it is natural and human for the indigenous folk to resent the change in their culture and way of life, not to mention the diversion of resources (especially housing). It is not “fascist”.

My personal attitude is that we should accept refugees from violence and war, but for, say , five years or until the conflict ends. These people should be helped, but then return to rebuild their countries. Then, we should welcome those with badly needed education and skills (since we are not good, on either side of the Atlantic, at producing them ourselves). But illegal immigration is illegal immigration, and I think it is reasonable to ask illegals to wait in line and enter through the official system, making their case as they go.

I am a legal immigrant to the United States and I went through (the long, clumsy, bureaucratic) system with increasing dismay, but stuck at it and eventually became a dual citizen. What I did others can do. Moderation.

Helping the less well-off

What can be done to stem the populist anger felt by people who feel adrift in the modern economy? Across the world politicians have been seizing on the same remedy: raise the minimum wage. Businesses and economists have long claimed this would cost jobs: yet that’s not what happened when Germany introduced a minimum wage of €8.50 in 2015, to help those who’d “slipped through the cracks of its otherwise strong economy”. A new study by the EU agency Eurofound has shown that wage inequality in Germany fell in 2015 by more than in any other EU country, as did wage disparities between rich and poor regions, yet with no damage to job prospects.

So now Germany is set to raise the minimum by a further 4%. It has been a similar story here in Britain: a higher minimum wage introduced in 2016 has led to a 10% increase for those on the lowest wage rung: yet employment rates are at record highs. But it’s no panacea, and not just because raising the minimum beyond a certain level can backfire. The enduring problem is that even if better paid, most of those on the bottom rung never climb up to the next. Until we solve that one, people at the bottom will continue to feel adrift and angry.
(Sarah O’Connor, Financial Times)

The fact is that those on a minimum wage spend all they get and save little or nothing. This translates into higher sales for basic goods everywhere and a stronger economy. Germany seems to be a good example. The corollary is that if you have a huge giveaway to the rich most of the proceeds are either saved or spent on luxuries. If you want to prime an economy you should boost the income of the poorest people and watch as it is all spent immediately on necessities. I am no economist, but this is common sense. Not, however, to politicians dependent on election funds from the rich.

One of the most noticeable things on both sides of the Atlantic is that, as retail businesses disappear at the hands of online commerce, the empty spaces left on the high street or shopping mall are often taken by small fast food businesses or cheap restaurants. This is because they are relatively cheap to set up, require small-ish capital outlays and it is easy to find workers. But their owners can be the most resistant to paying higher minimum wages. We who shop online are making uncomfortable beds for ourselves.

Why Jeremy Corbyn should resign.

Last week I posted about why the centre-left is in decline. Today, I wanted to talk about a party that has bucked the trend. Since Jeremy Corbyn succeeded Ed Miliband as the British Labour Party leader following its defeat in the 2015 general election, he has done what hardly anyone thought possible- substantially increase the proportion of people voting for a centre-left party. Contrary to expectations, the 2017 general election went surprisingly well for Labour, who received 40% of the vote. Not only that, Labour went from having just over 100 000 members when Corbyn took over to having 550 000 today. Corbyn survived a leadership contest against the hapless Owen Smith, and now has unchallenged authority within the party. And while much of that success was undoubtedly due to an ineffective and lacklustre Conservative campaign, Corbyn nevertheless deserves credit for bringing his partly within touching distance of power.

I’ve spoken before about the British Left’s anti-Semitism problem, before it became the salient issue it is now. I stand my ground in my analysis: that Corbyn has isn’t anti-Semitic himself, but far too tolerant of those who are, partly because some anti-Semites are fellow Palestinian nationalists. But Corbyn’s recent handling of the scandal, including his refusal to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism, is shameful. He ought to resign before Labour wrongly gets a reputation as a racist party, not helped of course by a largely hostile press.

However, Corbyn’s approach to the anti-Semitism row isn’t the only reason why he should resign. The Conservative minority government is one of the weakest in living memory. On every major issue, it is bitterly divided. Brexit- the biggest event Britain has experienced since WW2- is being negotiated by the most incompetent and foolish people imaginable. Post-recession wage stagnation is the worst of any developed country expect Greece. London and its hinterlands are facing a severe housing crisis, which has reduced disposable incomes, home ownership rates and increased homelessness. Child poverty has increased as a result of changes to the welfare system and is forecast to increase further. Britain is in a dire state, as the currency markets have made that clear by the Pound’s continued decline.

But the Corbyn-led Labour Party has failed to capitalise on any of this. It hasn’t produced a coherent alternative to the government’s Brexit plans, preferring to criticise the Conservatives opportunistically and inconsistently. It has no post-Brexit vision. Its members are pro-EU and favour a second referendum, yet the leadership lacks the courage and the conviction to argue for one. It talks a good talk on welfare, yet in practice, they propose to keep the vast majority of the welfare cuts in place. Labour has some popular policies, like railways re-nationalisation. But without the willingness to pull those policies together in a compelling, workable alternative plan, as well as the political nous to address scandals, they mean little.

Corbyn should resign because Britain desperately needs a strong opposition and comprehensive alternative to this shambolic Tory government. Corbyn became Labour leader because he was seen as different. In recent months he has failed to distinguish himself- on Brexit, austerity, and an overall commitment to a liberal society. He should be replaced by someone who can properly articulate a social democratic future. My personal preference would be the MP for Tottenham, David Lammy. On scandals faced by the Conservatives, such as the Grenfell Tower blaze or the deportation of British citizens who came to Britain in the 50s, he has held them to account with more eloquence and passion than anyone else. He shares Corbyn’s belief in the necessity of state infrastructure investments and well-funded social insurance programmes. But he lacks the current leader’s Euroscepticism, which has alienated Labour’s youthful base and made an honest, consistent Brexit policy impossible. More importantly, he isn’t associated with the sins of the old Left: the unconditional support for Palestinian nationalists, Irish nationalists, Iran, and South American autocrats like Chavez and Castro. No one can charge Lammy with wanting to take Britain back to the 1970s. But even if it isn’t Lammy, Labour needs to change. Complacency in the aftermath of the 2017 surprise could be the party’s undoing. It needs to be credible at all times. And under Corbyn, that simply won’t happen.

 

Come back melody!

Yesterday my wife and I went to the Proms at the Albert Hall in London to see a concert performsnce of “West Side Story”. I have seen it three times now and have come to s conclusion: West Side Story is arguably the finest musical work of sheer genius of the 20th Century. Including everything aside from pop music. It encompasses a string of besutiful, moving melodies, sophisticated dissonances, complex Latin rhythms, end even tritones in the melody. And it has a story that parallels that of Romeo and Juliet, with brilliant lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. I had tears in my eyes almost throughout.

Leonard Bernstein was indeed a genius. It made me realise that modern serious music hit the railway buffers somwewhere near the beginning of the 20th Century, and is still languishing there, by and large. It is bare, sparse, repetitive, unimaginative and unemotional, having abandoned melody as old hat (I have a reputation for wild generalisation!) It has been musicals, of which West Side Story, Guys and Dolls and South Pacific are among the most enjoyable, that have seized the public’s imagination and made deep impressions. Music should go to the heart, the emotions, sparking the imagination and leaving you moved and your mind dancing.

Unfortunately, the geniuses left the field, and the musical genre has degenerated. However,I am told that “classical” music composers are gently moving back to melodies, some of which can be hummed. We need music that takes your mind up and away from the tawdry news and culture, the third rate canned music, and modern self-absorbtion, not to mention the ubiquitous cellphone!

China’s economic problem

There is a fact that few non-economists understand or pay attention to. China has a huge problem attracting foreign investment. US investment in China since 1990 has only been about $250 billion dollars. This is because few people trust the Chinese not to steal secrets, profits or both – their legal protections in China are few, and a virtual semi-totalitarian economy, rife with corruption, is not attractive to foreign investors. About 69% of “foreign investment“ into China is actually from Hong Kong and is thought to be laundered money or recycled domestic Chinese money. Further development is being financed out of savings instead of inward investment, which is what typically happens in a developing economy. (The British invested hugely and consistently in the United States during the 19th Century).

Meanwhile, instead of investing more in their own economy, the Chinese are making huge investments in Africa and other countries, with currently low monetary return. It is also investing in US Treasury bonds on which it gets only a 3% return. Overall its other overseas investments yield 22% compared with 33% earned by American multinationals overseas. In fact, Chinese investment overseas yields lower returns than it would were it invested in Chinese industry, and a lot of the outflow of funds is used for property boltholes in places like Vancouver and educating the wealthy Chinese young in foreign countries.

This overseas investment by the Chinese is financed by their huge trade surplus, exporting ever more and buying less food and other imports than one would expect. In short, China has a generally lower standard of living than it should have. It is not the economic powerhouse we typically imagine it is.

I am flagging this up because of the perceived threat of totalitarian China to our way of life and thus to our collective peace of mind.

Snowflake students

“Snowflake” students have become the target of a new conservative crusade. This narrative can now be found in news stories, political speeches and op-ed columns in Britain on a daily basis: that young people simply gang up to howl down views they don’t like, rather than engage in debate.

Rightwingers claim it is a form of censorship, and that the young need to get better at “hearing what you don’t want to hear”. In a decade of economic stagnation, it is a convenient put-down to use against a generation faced with low pay, high house prices and deterioriating mental health, and a system regulated in such a way as to “maximise the security of asset holders, while impoverishing the future of everyone under 40”. (William Davies in The Guardian).

My early years were spent in the middle of a war. A doodlebug hit the house next to us and we were homeless. I wasn’t aware of it but the future must have looked grim. In fact, most people my age have since experienced peace and a steady improvement of life in general. Leaving university, one worried, not about whether one would get a job, but which job. There was a huge housing shortage, but the government was doing something about it. Yes, the treatment of unfamilar West Indian migrants, brought over to boost manpower, was a disgrace, but in general there was political and social consensus, andfew very rich people (most people were poor).

But out of it all we got the National Health Service, among other things. In those days it was unthinkable to shout down speakers in debate (I took part in many). Underlying it all was a sense that both political parties generally had the welfare of the whole country at heart, snd that capitalism was operating for the community (generalisations! Forgive me!). I think the behaviour of some rude, closed-minded young people arises out of one emotion – fear. I don’t blame them in some ways, but it is immature nonetheless to shout down and ban those you disagree with – it will inevitably come back to bite you. Argue! Use your brains!

Ephemera

Colombia has been struggling with a particularly large and unlikely interloper: the hippopotamus. The African animals are multiplying in the area around Doradal, in the northwest of the country.

It’s all the fault of the cocaine trafficker Pablo Escobar. During his heyday as leader of the Medellín Cartel, he imported four hippos for his personal zoo on his palatial estate. When law enforcement officials killed the narco-terrorist in 1993, they seized the property, along with its exotic menagerie, but the hippos escaped and, with no natural predators in the region, have since prospered. There are now thought to be at least 50 of them in the area. In 2013, officials finally decided to do something about it, and provided funds to the environmental management body to sterilise or relocate the beasts. But that’s proving a challenge. “We do not have a manual to handle them,” complains one of those tasked with the job, pointing out the logistical difficulties of getting to grips with alien animals in the wild that can weigh up to three tonnes and reach speeds of up to 18mph. Twenty-five years after his death, Escobar is still causing Colombia problems. (Sally Palamina, El País, Madrid)

Why is this a matter for Epicurus.Today? Well, the general environment is terribly serious, for good reason. We all need a bit of light relief, but in reality there is little to laugh about, so people don’t. I was mentally noting that comedy writing has abruptly stopped. Not that wild hippos wandering around Colombia is particularly funny, but it will have to do.

I was drawn to Ms. Palamino’s article because I specialise in greeting cards featuring hippos, and recently wrote a book of light verse called “The Rueful Hippopotamus”, available on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk, and selling best in Germany, where they still laugh I am thus being thoroughly American in taking every possible opportunity for brazen self-promotion, and showing praiseworthy integration. If this is all nonsense, forgive me – the daily news is driving me bonkers.

Most Math teaching is functionally useless

What’s the point of learning maths? For some it reveals the beauty of underlying patterns in the world. But for most of us the point of maths is to help deal with real-life problems – something maths teaching today signally fails to do. You bone up on trigonometry yet seldom encounter it again once you’ve left school. You can get a top grade and still end up financially illiterate. Indeed, it turns out that almost half of UK working-age adults have the numeracy skills of a primary school child. A teacher is meant to prepare young people to be responsible citizens, but if they don’t learn the basics of compound interest, how can they make informed decisions about, say, renting or buying a flat?

That’s why Bobby Seagull, writing in the Financial Times, advocates ridding ourselves of the “If Alice has three times as many sweets as Billy…” variety of sums and start asking pupils to compare the merits of bank accounts mortgages etc. Only then will they be able to acquire the “survival skills” needed for adult life. (edited version of an article by Bobby Seagull, Financial Times).

I would add: mental arithmetic. One should be able to do simple adding, subtracting and multiplication in your head. You are being charged 8 pounds for 13 gizmos. Mentally check that the supplier is charging you correctly. Right answer 104. Of course, you can use a calculator or a cellphone, but doing it in your head, and quickly, even approximately, saves time and is an essential skill, an aid to peace of mind.

What went wrong for the Left?

All across the developed world, mainstream centre-left parties are in decline. In France, the Netherlands and Greece, they have ceased to be even remotely relevant. In countries like Ireland and Italy, they have been replaced by left-wing populist movements- Sinn Fein and M5S respectively. In France and to a lesser extent Spain, they have been replaced by centrist, pro-EU parties. Even in the best-cases, such as Portugal and Sweden, the centre-left governs in fractious coalitions with more left-wing parties. There are several reasons for this, which I will explain. But apart from in countries like the US and the UK, where the voting system and political culture only allows for two viable national parties, I think the fate of the international centre-left is all but sealed.

To a very large extent, the decline of the left is result of the declining economic performance of the developed world. After WW2, most developed countries adopted the mixed economy, where private enterprise was permitted but highly regulated and the government controlled large swathes of the economy to achieve strategic aims and provide a comprehensive social insurance system. Although there have been some market-orientated reforms to the mixed economy in recent years, the overall structure of the economy has stayed the same. The problem is that in the 21st century, and particularly since the 2008 crash, the mixed economy has failed to provide for the needs of the masses. Wage growth is virtually stagnant, inequality is generally increasing, and the national welfare systems seem powerless to protect the working class against the might of international capital and the forces of globalised free trade. The traditional welfare state can no longer offer people the social security it once could, particularly as an ageing population is making welfare increasingly expensive and unsustainable.

The social democratic parties of Europe have traditionally relied on the support of the working class. But over time, the relative size of the working class has shrunk, and a vast proportion of people now consider themselves middle class. This has been caused by a decline in traditional manufacturing and agricultural jobs, and an increase in professional jobs that require a degree. These well-heeled professionals don’t feel the allegiance to the centre-left their working class parents would have done. Alongside the decline of the working class numerically has been the decline of working class culture. Trade unions, working man’s clubs and small-town pubs and community centres have all diminished. As a result, the centre-left no longer has a visceral appeal to the working class, who increasingly identify with either the soft patriotism of the centre-right, or the overt nationalism of the far-right.

Mostly importantly, there is a three-way division of those who used to support the quintessential centre-left policy programme. First are those who believe the current manifestation of the social market economy is insufficient to protect the working class against the global wealthy elite. Therefore, far more radical and overtly leftist measures are necessary. Amongst these modern socialists include Britain’s Jeremy Corbyn, France’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and Greece’s Alexis Tsipras. Their supporters are diverse: they include young people who feel pessimistic and economically insecure, working class people who feel the brunt of automation and casual labour, and a disproportionate number of ethnic minorities, especially Muslims.

The second group are those who still believe in centre-left economics, but are much more passionate in their belief in internationalism, and in particular, the European Union. They strongly reject any notion of embracing nationalism and isolationism to win back disaffected working class former centre-left voters, preferring to focus on winning young professionals and middle-aged moderates. These people include Britain’s Liberal Democrats, Spain’s Citizens, and Macron in France. They are the most passionately pro-immigration of the three groups, yet they aren’t as popular with ethnic minorities as the leftist radicals; they have a reputation for being almost entirely white and middle class.

The third and perhaps the most interesting group are those who agree with the principles of the mixed economy, but vehemently reject the internationalism and free-trade ideas the centre-left has adopted more recently. They now vote for parties like Poland’s Law and Justice, Hungary’s Fidesz, or France’s Front National, who combine social democratic ideas like child tax credits and generous pensions with a nationalist approach to migration, law and order, and the EU. They tend to be working class, but are older and more nostalgic for a time when their status in society was greater and countries could act more independently.

My point is that the decline of the developed world’s economic performance, the decline of the working class, and the increasing divisions in what should be the centre-left’s natural supporters, mean that centre-left parties are increasingly outdated, and there is virtually nothing that can be done to reverse that trend. The only way our nations can thrive in a post-social democratic era is if our political systems allow for these new divisions to be represented fairly and proportionately. Trying to shut people down, or to downplay the salience of the centre-left’s fracturing, will only lead to disaster.

Britain saves the EU from falling apart!

It may sound crazy, but “Brexit has saved the EU”. Think about it. After the 2016 referendum, many sensible people thought Britain’s departure would spark a “stampede” out of the bloc. Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders schemed to duplicate the result in France and the Netherlands. Donald Trump’s promises of a “glorious” UK-US trade deal convinced many Europeans that the grass might really be greener. Yet now it has become dispiritingly clear that “Brexit will be a failure”. Both sides are largely agreed that whatever path we take – soft Brexit, no-deal Brexit or no Brexit – will lead to national “humiliation” and make Britons’ lives worse. Across the Channel this has not gone unnoticed. Support for the EU around the continent is at its highest since 1983, and talk of the bloc falling apart has all but vanished. Even the populists have been “quietly dropping” the promise of an EU exit from their manifestos. Indeed, the chaos of Brexit has probably helped stem the populist tide by highlighting the fact that the thing populists do best is sloganeering”. Whatever you feel about the EU, the Brits have shown that you can’t leave it. (Simon Kuper, Financial Times)

The EU was always going to make it difficult to leave. Of course. So why did the Brexiters fail to study the problem in depth and do their homework? Maybe because their emotions trumped everything. As far as I know nobody worked out the technicalities. Thus they are left with masses of egg on their faces: “Oh, we didn’t think of that! We didn’t think of unharvested farm produce, the Irish border, Gibraltar, long lines of trucks waiting all day in Calais, the effect on the pound sterling, the lack of interest overseas in special trade deals with the UK, flight of the banks”….One could go on, but I won’t. Brexit is a betrayal of the country by lazy-minded, incompetent politicians far too close to Putin and Russia for comfort. Yes, they will shift the blame (they are experts at that) but it is they who are solely responsible for the upcoming disaster.

Thought for the day

Unnatural vigilance is really required of the citizen because of the horrible rapidity with which human institutions grow old.”. (G.K. Chesterton, quoted in The Sunday Times)

Was he thinking of the Constitution, liberal democracy, the rule of law, international treaties and cooperation, universities as promoters of critical thinking (not just job training), and financial services as servants, not masters, of the people? If so, he was prescient.

Why fraudulent news travels fastest

False news travels much faster online than the truth because of our craving for novelty. In the largest-ever study of how news spreads on social media, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology analysed 126,000 stories on Twitter from between 2006 and 2017. They found that false stories were 70% more likely to be retweeted than those that were true. True stories took six-times longer, on average, to reach an audience of 1,500 people.

One surprise was that automated robots – or bots – played no part in this discrepancy. “False news spreads more than the truth because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it,” said the authors of the study, published in the journal Science. They concluded that the high visibility of false stories is not necessarily the result of malign intent: fake news is popular simply because people find it more surprising, intriguing or reassuring than the truth. “False news is novel, and people are more likely to share novel information,” said co-author Professor Sinan Aral. (The Week. 24 March 2018)

Aside from a small number of people paid by the oil companies to counter the facts, the scientific community wholeheartedly agree that the muck poured into the air over nearly 300 years since the start of the industrial revolution accounts for the rapidly warming world environment. This is arguably the greatest single threat to mankind and its future on the planet, and it will affect every living soul. And yet there is a substantial body of non-scientists who not only don’t believe in the cause of man- made climate change but are actually wrecking efforts to counter it. It must be reassuring to hear politicians and special interests on social media claim the change is natural because then you don’t have to actually do anything, in particular spend money. It is convenient to deny the facts, even if, in doing so, you’ll be wrecking the future of your children and grandchildren.

I write from Southern England, which has had the hottest summer I can ever remember, and no rain to mention. You have to live in la-la land to believe this is a normal weather fluctuation, but, of course, it is convenient to do so. Selfishness rules.

Argue with them, don’t just write them off as ignorant

Letter to The Guardian

The flaw in the argument for denying far-right propagandists a platform is the failure to address how else the mass of us who oppose the unacceptable views can turn voters away from supporting them if we do not engage with their facile and untenable arguments.

The strategy of ignoring them or excoriating them has led to the present dangerous situation. They must be taken on in debate at every opportunity. If those who believe in liberal values are not able to expose the dangerous consequences of the hatemongers’ arguments, then they ought not to be in politics.

The best current example is France. For more than 30 years, the mainstream parties tried to deal with the odious National Front by ignoring or attacking it. Over that whole period its vote steadily increased. But when its leader, Marine Le Pen, was taken on by Emmanuel Macron in televised presidential election debates, she visibly crumpled. It is no accident that today the National Front is in disarray, with a much-criticised change of name and a reduced status in the polls. The lesson should be urgently learnt.
Michael Meadowcroft, Leeds, 31/3/2018

Epicurus reportedly spent hours in his garden in discussion and debate about life. No doubt some visitors strongly disagreed with his views, but he heard them out and, presumably politely, and set out his own beliefs in a measured manner. As is true today, there was plenty to debate, but he listened and was respectful. This we deduce from extant accounts.

We, likewise, should listen and understand contrary viewpoints, acknowledging their validity where appropriate. To be threatened in coarse and vulgar language is scary, and I deeply sympathise with politicians whose lives and families have been threatened by bullies. But it is better to try to calm these people down by asking them questions and trying to discover at least one mutually agreed point, if only to get them to talk, not rant. On a blog like this it is easy to ban coarse people whose English is inadequate. It happens infrequently, but I do try to engage with them quietly. Banning is a last resort.

A country being picked apart

Epicureans are not encouraged to involve themselves, or to comment on politics. Quite right. But there has to be a limit if you see your country, not to mention your planet, picked apart and lied to. How can we have peace of mind seeing Russian agents actively subverting the country in full sight and the rulers of the country (millionaire political donors) doing nothing about it?

When I first traveled in America in the 60’s politics were dirty, as they are everywhere, but both parties wanted the best for America, debate was polite and compromises were struck. Few used foul language or ascribed unpatriotic motives to others, or spread clearly false news. One couple I encountered hitchiking believed the United Nations was an agent of the devil who had sent white-painted tanks which were, at that very moment, advancing through Pennsylvania and occupying it, proving that wingnut mews is not a modern invention. The crazies are always with us, usually in tiny numbers. Things have changed.

The pattern is obvious to anyone who can read. Trump says something patently untrue and corrects himself the next day. Fox News only reports on the comments on the first pronouncement but says nothing about the correction. This happens every day and has been scrupulously documented. This is euphemistically called “governance”. The result is that, according to a CNN poll, 67% of all Americans doubt there was Russian subversion of the general election and thinks that Trump did a fine job cloistered alone with Putin without so much as a secretary to record the conversation. What has happened to integrity and love of country when this has become the norm, fiercely defended by the political party once the staunchest defender of the American way of life? How can we stand by and see the country picked apart by Putin with the help of nearly half the US population?

This is the Epicurean dilemma. Personally, I think it is irresponsible to ignore it and hope it goes away, but I realise I am opening myself to justifiable criticism. But then this is not about me – it is about truth and integrity.

The reactionary ayatollahs should be ashamed of themselves

Liberals in Iran have recently been outraged by the arrest of a teenage gymnast who posted videos of herself dancing in her bedroom. Maedeh Hojabri, who has tens of thousands of social media followers, was seen crying on state TV last week during what some suspected was a forced confession: under Iran’s sharia law, it is illegal for women to dance in public or to go out without a headscarf. Since then, Iranian women have been protesting by using the hashtag #DancingIsNotACrime and posting videos of themselves dancing. (The Week, 13 July 2018)

I am posting this to illustrate the depravity and stupidity of organised religion at its worst. This ban on dancing is a manifestation of an age-old male domination and bullying that may have been near universal in the 7th Century but has no place in the 21st. Dancing is an act of joy; the rules of the right wing ayatollahs and their thought police are instruments of oppression of a youngish population wanting to be modern and free.

The Americans and the British brought the ayatollahs to power years ago by force, installing Pahlevi and his corrupt gang against the wishes of an unwilling nation, seizing its oil. By now we should have been wise and man enough to have made amends, to have a rapprochement with Iran. So many years of aggravation indicate a moribund and incompetent foreign policy, mainly driven by prejudice and fear.

I don’t support Trump’s threats and bullying or his scrapping of the Iranian international nuclear deal. Rather, it’s a case of “a pox on both your houses”.

Truly sick

Grizzly bears today occupy only about three percent of their historic range in the lower 48 states. Yet last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took the Greater Yellowstone grizzly off the Endangered Species list, relinquishing management to the states of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, which border Yellowstone National Park. The result? The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission announced that it will allow trophy hunting of grizzlies for the first time in 40 years, starting September 1.

Would someone explain to me why it is “fun” to kill bears? – large targets, slow moving, even the most incompetent shot could kill a grizzly. They only threaten humans if they feel threatened themselves. I have (brief) experience to fall back on in this regard.

This is yet another grovel towards the heartless, immoral, wealthy idiots who pour cash into election campaigns. We should be protecting wildlife, not shooting it for “fun” and mounting heads on plaques in the living room of vulgar, multi-million dollar mansions. Of course, Epicurus couldn’t, wouldn’t shoot any animal for the hell of it, but then I am sure he wouldn’t have wanted to.

Epicureanism simply put

Epicureanism was never meant to be a dry academic philosophy. In fact, it is best kept away from academia, where, as usual with philosophy, long words render it dull, if not incomprehensible. Rather, it is a vital way of living which seeks to free men and women from a life of unhappiness, fear and anxiety. It is a missionary philosophy for the practical-minded with common sense. Let others complicate it if they wish, but I prefer it simple.

The following eight counsels are a basic guide to Epicurean living.
1) Don’t fear God.
2) Don’t worry about death.
3) Don’t fear pain.
4) Live simply.
5) Pursue pleasure wisely.
6) Make friends and be a good friend.
7) Be honest in your business and private life.
8) Avoid fame and political ambition.

I would add:

– Think of others;
– Be polite and considerate to everyone, regardless of race, age, class or gender;
– Try to see the other point of view;
– Meet others half way, if possible.
– Take the smooth and pleasant road, as free from stress and conflict as possible.
– Aim to be moderate in all things.
– Try to laugh and make others laugh. We don’t do it enough
– But don’t be put upon!

Trump’s economic delusions: Why the current boom won’t last

A few days ago, Trump gave a press conference regarding the state of America’s economy. He announced that American GDP had expanded by an annualised rate of 4.1%. This, along with a range of figures including a low unemployment rate and decent wage growth, seemed impressive. Trump predictably credited the economic buoyancy to his policies like environmental deregulation and tax cuts. Democrats, equally predictably, retorted that Trump was benefiting from Obama’s sound management. The fundamentals have changed little since Trump took office.

The reality is that the current boom won’t last. Partly because such high growth will incline the Fed to raise interest rates, putting a dampener on growth. Quantitive easing and federal bond-buying will be phased out. The global economy is slowing, which will affect the US sooner or later, even if its performance is high by developed world standards.

More importantly, Trump’s policies won’t do anything to boost growth in the long term, and in some cases will reduce it. For manufacturers, the effects of Trump’s tariffs and a potential trade war with China could more than offset any gains made by corporate tax reductions. Even for the rest of the economy, the tax cuts were a one-time affair. We are experiencing a bounce in growth as a result of them, but it will die down soon. On the other hand, the deficit-increasing nature of the tax cuts will harm America’s long term prospects, as debt interest payments increase and the markets lose their confidence. Running a high deficit during a boom will lessen the country’s ability to stimulate the economy when the next crisis hits. Additionally, America already has amongst the lowest tax burden of any developed country, even lower than Switzerland as a proportion of GDP. So its unlikely the tax cuts will significantly increase America’s competitiveness, particularly if infrastructure projects are cut to prevent the deficit from spiralling out of control.

Perhaps what’s most important is the impact of the Trump economy on the ordinary person. If you’re a company with a lot of offshore money, the tax cuts have been pretty good. But there’s very little evidence to suggest that this has resulted in higher wages for most Americans. Instead, income inequality, which is already the highest of any major developed country, is projected to increase further as a result of Trump’s reforms. While Wall Street celebrates the current boom, most people’s lives simply carry on as normal. And while I don’t believe the success of big business and finance is inherently bad, it isn’t a good barometer for how the country as a whole is doing. Conservatives love to talk of the importance of social cohesion, and rightfully so. Yet as far as their economic policies are concerned, they will create an America less cohesive than at any point since the Gilded Age. Just remember that the next time you hear of how well Trump’s America is doing.

Air pollution is a killer. Tax the polluters.

A recent opinion poll suggests that 70 per cent of people in the UK are worried about air pollution and half want the state to do more. The British government does nothing.

The main problem are highly polluting diesel vehicles. Air pollution will gradually fall as the oldest, most polluting vehicles are replaced. Yet the courts have ruled that the government must act now, regardless of cost. Air pollution campaigners say ministers have instead taken the cynical decision that it is cheaper to continue breaking the law.

There is no doubt that air pollution is bad for us. The damage can start before a child is born, restricting growth and brain development in the uterus, with lifelong effects. Children exposed to high levels of air pollution have lower lung function and have far more respiratory infections.

In adults, the result is more likely to be cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes or obesity. A US study that followed half a million people for 15 years found that those exposed to greater amounts of air pollution were more likely to die early, although it is difficult to establish what role air pollution plays in individual cases.

I long ago gave up my British driving lucence. The traffic is so dense and the driving so bad that if we can’t reach our destination by public transport we don’t go at all. But that doesn’t bear upon pollution except in so far as there are just too many vehicles on the road, pouring forth huge volumes of particulates.

Even if you don’t drive you can get seriouly ill living on a busy street or daily walking along it. Electric cars are a help (although the electricity still has to be generated), and a higher gas tax is badly needed, especially in America. The government debt is humungous, so why not at last tax people more for polluting and thus lower the debt a bit. Call it a pollution tax. This is suggested tongue in cheek. It’s the political version of suicide. People prefer to die, one assumes, than pay more tax.

A former spy-chief says social media emboldens the far Right.

I am reproducing a book review by Stephen Collins in this month’s edition of Prospect Magazine, because it needs to be emphasised and tepeated. The book is called “Principled Spying” by David Omand, a former head of GCHQ. (Georgetown University Press):

“Twitter and Facebook have a darker side. I have seen them encourage the growth of radical voices, most worryingly on the far right, where alt-right and other extremist tendencies have in recent years gained ground. These forces are becoming so powerful that they now threaten the foundations of western democracy.

“The internet’s pioneers thought the online world would lead to a mass engagement with global challenges such as conflict, the environment and poverty. But social media use is creating a contrary trend that taps into the deep roots of our tribal instincts. The likeminded gather together. And when this happens, misfortunes tend to be blamed on the “other.” The result is an increasing fragmentation of politics into “us versus them” group.
Anonymity lends the online world an especially nasty flavour. It encourages a vulgarity and crudeness that would not be tolerated face to face. A sense of online disinhibition feeds attacks on those who espouse contrary views and the effect can be powerful.

Access to diverse opinions are an essential part of how voters make up their minds. Increasingly, however, the design of social media encourages users to spend more time in a bubble of advertising and political messaging. When social media spreads information that’s intentionally misleading or false, it undermines the choices that underpin any open society. In the long-run, that flight from rationality in political debate further weakens confidence in public bodies, expertise and leadership which makes us ever-more vulnerable to manipulation.

“These are the characteristics that have left us vulnerable to demagogues and extremists and which bring us to the most worrying point of all: social media enhances the subversive agendas of states like Russia. It is striking that the tactics used to interfere in the US election aimed to polarise US politics, already a feature of the Trump campaign. Russian attempts to interfere in the French election were intended to promote Marine Le Pen’s chances, in the hope that her hard-right agenda – especially on immigration – would destabilise politics in France.

“Different kinds of extremism can feed off one another online. Violent IS propaganda has stoked its counterpart on the extreme right. The interaction of the two has further polarised opinion over immigration, housing and jobs, and put sections of the community at each other’s throats.

For liberal democracies to survive and thrive in the digital age, we have to understand the vulnerability of the modern political process to covert manipulation of public opinion. It can come from without or within the nation. If we fail to see it, we risk becoming agents of our own destruction.”

In a conversation about the state of the world my nearly-17 year old grandson said,”Don’t worry, everything will be alright”. I still don’t know how to process that hope-filled remark, and of course did not argue the point and come across as an old Jonah. But for his sake and for the sake of hopeful young people everywhere, I pray he turns out to be correct.
Free speech and democracy, however imperfect, won through by the skin of their teeth. They are not givens.

Brexit and British agriculture (a bit long but a window into the Brexit muddle)

The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy provides a total of £3bn per year – more than half of all farm income – which on average supplies 50-80% of a British farmer’s income. The EU also protects its farmers with tariffs on agricultural imports from outside the bloc of 12.2%, rising to as much as 51% on lamb and 74% on milk. Were Britain’s food market opened up to cheap imports from, say,the US, many farmers would struggle to survive.

British agriculture employs 466,000, only 1.5% of the UK workforce, but provides 61% of Britain’s food. It also supplies Britain’s food and drink industry, the UK’s largest manufacturing sector, employing more than three million people. Furthermore, 70% of Britain’s land is farmed; farmers are the main stewards of the beautiful countryside.

The EU is the largest export market for British farming: it receives more than 60% of agri-food exports – and 90% of British beef exports. EU countries are also the source of 70% of the UK’s food imports. If Britain and the EU were to fail to conclude a free-trade deal, and British farmers were suddenly faced with high tariffs for their products, it would have a devastating effect. A free-trade deal, with zero tariffs on agricultural goods, may be agreed. However, if Britain leaves EU customs union, new inspections are likely to be introduced, which would pose a lot of difficulties for perishable products.

At the moment Common Agricultural Policy subsidies are calculated partly on hectares farmed, and partly tied to environmental improvements. But the system is controversial since the largest payments are paid out to the biggest landowners, including the Queen and large agri-businesses. The system also drives up the price of land, making it hard for new farmers to enter the market and encouraging farmers to farm every acre they possibly can.

So although the total level of subsidy is guaranteed until 2022, after Brexit in 2019 the largest single payments will be capped, and subsidies will be used instead to “incentivise methods of farming that create new habitats for wildlife, increase biodiversity, reduce flood risk, better mitigate climate change and improve air quality by reducing agricultural emissions”. Public money will be paid to upland sheep farmers for “protecting drystone walls and other iconic aspects of our heritage”, and used to improve public access to farmland.

This sounds very environmental, but farmers are panicking, desperate for subsidies to remain in place. Profit margins in farming are thin: one report last year suggested that 90% of farms would be bankrupted if single farm payments were removed. The government is accused of muddled thinking: it wants to turn Britain into a paradise for wildlife and improve productivity in British farming; and nonetheless wants to use new world trade deals to get lower food prices for consumers, while simultaneously maintaining Britain’s high food and animal welfare standards. How can this be done without decimating the industry?

Meanwhile, an estimated 80,000 seasonal workers are needed every year to pick Britain’s fruit, vegetable and flower crops; 75% of these workers come from Romania and Bulgaria, the rest from other eastern EU nations. Every Christmas season the poultry industry needs 13,000 workers to process turkeys and 58% of these are foreign. Of the vets in Britain’s abattoirs, 85% are EU nationals. In total, about one in ten agricultural workers are foreign migrants.

The Tory government is in its usual muddle (what’s new? Ed).In principle it recognises the need for a new seasonal agricultural workers scheme, similar to the one that existed before mass EU migration began. But if it agreed this it would go against the wishes of Brexit voters who want to rid the country of pesky foreigners. Meanwhile, farmers, have to plan ahead and fulfil contracts with their suppliers. By 2017, the number of seasonal workers had already dropped heavily – EU migrants were discouraged by the Brexit vote and the fall of sterling against the euro. As a result, large amounts of fruit and vegetables rotted in the fields and orchards. (An ediited version of an article in The Week, 17 March 2018)

This illustrates the pathetic inability of the Brexit blowhards to think through what they were pushing through. Nobody bothered to get into the weeds and work out answers to the swirl of problems Brexit would bring. “Stupid” and “irresponsible”? To be sure. But it illustrates what can happen when prejudice and emotion guides affairs of State. It isn’t even true that the EU is the origin of all the much-criticised regulations; many are home- grown interpretations of overall EU policy, arranged by British bureaucrats. Pluck out the mote in your own eye before setting about the motes of others!

Why is the above on Epicurus.Today? Because Brexit offends the Epicurean principles of peace of mind and moderation, not to mention equality and fairness to the greatest number. It is unwise to jump into the unknown without a parachute.