Taxing meat?

In the past 50 years, per capita meat consumption across the world has nearly doubled, from 23kg a year to 43kg, while total consumption has risen fourfold. And although there are signs that some higher-income countries have reached “peak meat”, the UN has estimated that global consumption will rise a further 76% by around 2050, owing to growing demand from middle-income countries such as China. Livestock farming is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions; it leads to biodiversity loss, as wild land is cultivated to grow animal feed – which in turn puts a strain on water resources.

The fact is that there is a limited amount of grazing land, and the world is going to have a problem feeding a predicted 9 billion human beings with a diet as rich in meat as we currently enjoy. Meat production creates greenhouse gases, and its spread leads to deforestation, water shortages, and vast ocean desd zones from pollution. Moreover, meat is not even healthy, and livestock generate 14.5% of all manmade greenhouse gas emissions. In the West beef consumption needs to fall by 90% and be replaced by five times more beans and pulses. Is the answer to tax meat? We have been successful in stopping smoking, more or less.

One option is to tax fossil fuels in order to keep global temperature rises to under 2%, the thinking being that higher oil prices would be accompanied by higher prices for nitrogen fertilisers. Since this is not politically on the cards, scientists suggest differential taxes for different animals, the problem with this being that they don’t agree which species is the most harmful in terms of methane emissions, nitrogen and phosphate pollution, effects on biodiversity and carbon stored in the soil. One group recommends a 40% tax on beef and an 8.5% tax on chickens, whereas another group advocates a 40% tax on chickens and 28% on beef.

All sorts of issues make a flat tax on all meat simpler, and this could be done by imposing VAT (or sales tax)on all meat, with exemptions for small farms in order to encourage entrants into farming. (Guardian 28/4/17)

I must declare an interest: I am personally a virtual vegetarian, and haven’t eaten beef or pork for ages, just some chicken for the protein. I am in favour of a programme for building more fish farms and encouraging people to eat a Mediterranean-style diet, including fish. We cannot for much longer over-fish the seas, or overfill the fields with grazing cattle and pigs. Put sales taxes on beef, pork and mutton, and apply the proceeds to counter global warming.

George Orwell, where are you now?

A CNN reporter has been denied access to White House Press briefings on a trumped up charge of manhandling a White House staff member, shown on video. The video indicated absolutely no “inappropriate behaviour” – on the contrary, the inappropriate behahiour was on the part of the Assistant to Sarah Sanders, a shocking suppression of free speech and freedom of the Press. (But who cares (WE DO!)

“We stand by our decision to revoke this individual’s Press pass. We will not tolerate the inappropriate behavior clearly documented in this video.” Sarah Sanders, White House Press Secretary.

“And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed — if all records told the same tale — then the lie passed into history and became truth.” — George Orwell, 1984

“The Party told you to reject the evidence of your own eyes. It was their final, most essential command”. – George Orwell 1984

If you sincerely follow Epicurus then you will be deeply disturbed by the hard right’s cynical misrepresentations and straight lies

Let’s get back to teaching some practical skills!

75% of English and Welsh children aged 11-16 say it is important to go to university, down from 86% in 2013. The proportion who are “very likely to” actually go to university has fallen from 38% to 32%. (Ipsos Mori/The Guardian)

Why should anyone be surprised? University is too expensive, and whitecollar job prospects poor. On the other hand, there are too few colleges where people can learn real-world skills like carpentry, electrics, plumbing and bricklaying. Now, in their “infinite wisdom” the “people” (a bare majority) have voted both to discourage immigrants from coming to the UK and to endanger the economy, our houses will begin to fall apart, our computers pack up, our cars malfunction, our food will rot in the fields, and no one will know how to mend a fuse.

Meanwhile, the universities take huge fees from youngsters, who have to borrow the money to be (in some instances) indifferently taught. The winners are the university administrators, who are paying themselves Big Company salaries, while many teaching staff haven’t seen a raise for years (exactly the same in America!).

The loser in all this is the nation. Never mind, I hear the old guard say, we have used the money saved to buy a big, beautiful aircraft carrier (any aircraft on it yet?) and are paying a fortune for a Chinese nuclear power plant (instead of investing in clean energy). Surely, on top of the Brexit fiasco all this has to mark the death throes of a centralizing government that is simultaneously incompetent. Disraeli will be groaning in his grave!

Jordan Peterson and the rise of conservative pseudo-intellectualism

Jordan Peterson is a Canadian professor of psychology, who has recently become famous because of his critiques of political correctness, post-modernism and left-wing notions of cultural appropriation and gender theory. His rise to prominence has been sudden: he is now ubiquitous on television, newspapers and magazines. Peterson is particularly popular amongst educated young men, frustrated with the prevailing progressive culture in academia and respectable society more broadly.

But despite his academic credentials, Peterson’s ideas don’t stand up to scrutiny. He argues that men are victims of the feminisation of culture and public policy, when women are still more likely to be victims of gender-based discrimination. His climate change denial is repudiated by the overwhelming majority of scientists, and his obsession with ‘Cultural Marxism’ is both highly conspiratorial and borderline anti-Semitic. And while he views even mildly leftist views as a stepping stone to totalitarianism, he turns a blind eye to the far more blatant authoritarianism of the contemporary political right.

However, Peterson’s gravitas shouldn’t be viewed in isolation, but as part of a broader trend. It’s undeniable that most professors are on the liberal side of the political spectrum, even if they aren’t the raving Marxists in Peterson’s imagination. There is clearly an awful lot of dissatisfaction with what is often a narrow spectrum of views on college campuses, and demand for a greater degree of intellectual curiosity, where taboos are broken and a wider range of ideals explored. Conservative notions of hierarchy, order and discipline ought to be debated thoroughly, not dismissed as antiquated prejudices.

Peterson also inadvertently reveals the poverty of contemporary conservative thought. Rather than debating progressive ideas rationally and factually, today’s conservatives increasingly prefer to indulge in conspiracy theories, ad hominem attacks and playing the victim card. For instance, instead of simply explaining why social constructivism isn’t a good theory for understanding human institutions and behaviour, conservative pseudo-intellectuals attack constructivism’s proponents as evil post-modernists who lack morality and wish to bring down Western civilisation.

So while I agree with Peterson insofar as I think popular left-wing ideas ought to be scrutinised and debated freely, engaging in paranoia only emboldens Peterson’s critics. Conservative professors, however few there are, should be given more publicity. But only if their ideas are grounded in facts, and if they have a basic regard for the legitimacy of their opponents. If the likes of Jordan Peterson were to become the face of conservative academia, universities will become even more of a progressive echo chamber than they already are.

Eating out in America

You are deep in conversation with your companion (in this case my wife) in a restaurant. The occasion is intended to be romantic, and you really could do without intrusions. When suddenly, actually four times during the meal, you are interrupted in mid-sentence by the waitress: “Is everything o.k?; “Have you got everything you need?”; “Good, that sushi roll, isn’t it!”; “Would you like more saki?”

My father was a bon viveur, an excellent cook and a great supporter of good restaurants. I remember him saying, “In France the job of a waiter is a profession that requires training and discretion. The trick is to be seen, not heard. He or she is a facilitator in the background; the meal is not about him or her. You should be able to get through a meal and not be able to remember whether the waiter was male, female, black or white, French or Italian. The chef, if he ever appears, is a different matter.

My wife tells me that American waiters are specifically trained to interrupt, just as they are trained to whip away your finished plate, even if everyone else at the table is still eating. Both the interruptions and the whipping-away are regarded as unacceptable in Europe. I now quietly explain to waiters that my wife is a slow eater and hates being rushed and left isolated as plates vanish from around the table. (“Get that group out. The table is booked for a new group at 9pm”).

You are expected to add 15 to 20% to the bill for service. But what kind of service?

Don’t blame Brussels, blame Whitehall

“Take back control.” That was always the most potent of Brexit slogans. And the most deceitful. Disenchanted voters were never going to gain control of the rules of EU trade. The one sphere in which they could assert control is over the area where they live: local government. Local councils deliver a quarter of all public services. Yet they’ve almost no say over the priorities of delivery. Austerity policies imposed by the centre have stripped them of all discretionary spending – on day centres, libraries, parks, nurseries and road repairs – and councillors have been denied powers to raise extra revenue (sub-national government here controls only “1.6% of GDP, against 11% in Germany and 16% in Sweden”). No matter that the people running our town halls know their
patches better than Whitehall and are just as competent; it’s Whitehall that, in these years of austerity, has recruited 11,000 extra officials, and town halls that have had to sack thousands of their own. If we want to revive our democracy, it’s from London, not Brussels, that we need to take back control. (Simon Jenkins, The Guardian, re-printed in The Week 6 Oct 2018)

Brilliant! The current national government is proving to be utterly incompetent, and its relentless centralising (since the Thatcher regime) bad for the country, democracy and ordinary citizens. The resentment against London and the Establishment is going to be ome ferocious. But few are listening – yet. The backlash is on its way, and it will follow the bitter disillusionment of Brexit as night follows day.

Price- guaging Big Pharma

Pharma executives have grown so comfortable, and so certain that the Trump Administration will back whatever they do, that they are still pricing Americans out of the life-saving prescriptions they need, and then justifying it in the name of shareholders’ rights. Nirmal Mulye, the CEO of Nostrum Laboratories, was the latest to do so: Nostrum raised the price for a bottle of bladder infection antibiotics from $475 to $2,400 — quadruple its last price–in the name of free market competition. Mulye’s decision is a page out of the book of fallen pharma exec — and “most hated man in America” — Martin Shkreli.

How can pharma executives, and their lobbyists, live with themselves, gouging the public so shamelessly? Congress was pressured not to allow reasonably priced drugs to be sourced in more humane Canada – knowing that patients are either dying because they cannot afford the cost or are going without. You get the impression that, in return for election funds some Congressmen will agree to anything. We know who is responsible for that!

I used to work for a major international pharma company. Not all drug breakthroughs by any means are due to government or university research, but a large proportion of them are. And yet Big Pharma still justifies its pricing on “research costs”. Actually, much the cost to pharma companies comes in commercialisation. The ideas come from elsewhere, but we are paying a high price anyway. Long live the British National Health Service and the brother health services of Europe, Canada, Australia etc.

Some people have claimed that if public pressure grows the CEOs will feel the heat, maybe enough to walk back their outrageous price hikes. Don’t hold your breath!

Brexit update for those interested

With thanks to THE WEEK. (3 November 2018). which compiled this situation report. I have lightly edited it for length! (still too long, but it is mind-bendingly complicated)

Brexit has arguably been the most threatening issue that has faced Britain since the Civil War nearly 500 years ago, (or, some would say, the Norman Conquest) and has destroyed the ataraxia of many thousands. I am reproducing this situation report for those worried and confused:

There are four main models over which British politics is tearing itself apart. If a deal can be made, it will be some variant of any of the first three. If not, it’s no deal. The clock is ticking…

29 March 2019. That is the date on which the UK is set to leave the European Union. The assumption has been that by that date there would be a negotiated a withdrawal agreement with the UK. That would then need to be signed off by the European Parliament and a supermajority (72% of the 27 states) in the European Council (made up of the leaders of EU member states).

The rights of British and EU citizens after Brexit, the UK’s “divorce bill” from Brussels, were settled, and the issue of the Northern Ireland border was apparently smoothed over when Britain accepted a compromise – the so-called “backstop”. This March, the two sides also agreed a transition period, running from March 2019 until the end of 2020, during which Britain’s relationship with the EU would remain effectively unchanged.

But the Irish border remains the big, stubborn sticking point. The only deal anywhere near the table – the Chequers plan – is unpopular in Westminster and in Brussels. Every option, from staying in the EU to “no deal”, is still up for grabs. These are the options going forward:

Option 1 The Norway model

This is the option that preserves the closest possible trading relationship with the EU without being part of its political union. In 1994 it was agreed that Norway should remain a member of the newly created European Economic Area (EEA), and thereby of the EU’s single market, but not its customs union. It has left Norway free to decide its home affairs, farm and fisheries policies, and to negotiate trade deals with non-EU nations. Under this model, Britain would be able to sell most goods and services to EU states without paying import tariffs. But it would have to conform to EU regulations on goods and services, and to its four freedoms (on the movement of goods, services, capital and people).

The Norway option holds the least risk of economic upheaval, allowing for the same level of uninterrupted trade with the EU as today, including the services sector. But it would also mean the UK having to pay into the EU budget and accepting swathes of EU rules on which it had no say. Like Norway, the UK would have to accept EU migration; the EEA agreement does allow some latitude in this area, but the extent is contested. Besides, the Norway tag conceals two very different options. Barnier has expressed support for “Norway plus”, which means “being part of the single market plus a customs union”: that would ensure frictionless EU borders, but would stop the UK from trading freely with the rest of the world. Conversely, “Norway minus” – leaving the customs union – would mean trouble at the borders, particularly the Irish border.

Some Eurosceptics support this, arguing that at least it offers a plan for freeing the UK from the EU; it has also been mooted as a temporary solution while a trade deal is concluded. Whether Brussels or indeed the EEA would accept that is less clear.

Option 2 The Chequers plan

The Chequers plan means going one step further than the Norway model. It would end the free movement of EU citizens, and have Britain leave the EU customs union and the single market for services – but keep it in a single market for goods. That would entail accepting Brussels’ rules and standards for all goods and agricultural products. It would enable the UK to make its own trade deals with countries outside the EU, but to do so, a complicated new customs system would be required: UK customs would apply domestic tariffs for goods intended for the UK, but charge EU tariffs for goods passing through Britain to the EU.

This would allow for some degree of independence, while preserving frictionless trade – a major concern for British business, from retailers importing fresh food, to car manufacturers who rely on the timely delivery of parts using supply chains that stretch across Europe. But like “Norway”, it involves indefinitely accepting EU regulations – albeit only those covering goods – while having no say in Brussels. The EU, for its part, has flatly rejected the plan: to accept a single market membership for goods, but not services, capital or people, it says, would undermine the single market and encourage EU members to “cherry pick” rights and obligations; it is all or nothing. Barnier also thinks the customs bureaucracy involved would be “insane”. Nor is he convinced it can achieve one of its main objectives – obviating the need for a hard border in Ireland.

The CBI, the UK voice of business, says this option is workable, but to Brussels and the Eurosceptic wing of the Tory party, it is unacceptable. But if – a big if – Brussels were to agree to a version that didn’t involve too many further concessions, May might get it through Parliament with the backing of Labour rebels.

Option 3 Canada plus

This would be a free-trade agreement like Canada’s Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) with the EU. Nearly all goods could be imported tariff-free, and non-tariff barriers (regulatory checks, quota controls) would be kept to a minimum. It would also put an end to budget payments to the EU and free movement for EU citizens. The “plus” signals that the UK deal would go further than the agreement with Canada, though it’s unclear how far: it might involve making it easier for the UK to sell services to the EU and forging other joint arrangements – on security, for example.

To many Brexiteers it represents a clean break with Brussels. The European Court of Justice’s jurisdiction over British affairs would end; EU immigration would once again be a matter for Parliament. And we’d have complete freedom to trade freely with the world. But most economists think it would impose a heavy cost. There’d have to be new customs and “rules of origin” checks on goods moving over the borders: additional border formalities would create long queues and uncertainty in ports used for UK-EU trade, notably Dover. And it would make the need for some sort of controls at the Irish border almost inevitable. Besides, free-trade deals also take years to negotiate: Ceta took seven years, though presumably a UK deal would be easier, because British and EU regulations are currently identical.

This option could be viable and could get the support of Brexiteers, but it is subject to a satisfactory resolution on the Irish border. The CBI is dead against it: “It would introduce friction at borders, it would not solve the Irish border, it would damage the supply chains on which thousands and thousands of jobs depend.” And at the moment, there is nothing like a majority in support of it in the Commons.

Option 4 No deal

This would mean leaving the structures of the EU without any deal to replace them. In practice, the term covers quite a few different scenarios, all the way from utter chaos – with planes unable to fly between Britain and Europe, British meat prevented from entering Europe, medicine shortages and the Channel ports gridlocked – to a basic but more orderly contingency plan to move UK-EU trade to World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules. Either way, there’d be immediate and extensive border checks and heavy tariffs on some goods. For example, on WTO terms, cars and car parts would face 10% duties every time they cross the border. Agricultural tariffs would be significantly higher, up to some 35% for dairy products.

This would be a catastrophe for Britain and Europe, with disastrous effects on supply chains, trade and transport, and sending the UK into recession. The IMF says it would cost us about 4% of GDP in the long term. (I have heard figures of up to 8% from economist friends. Ed.) And Brexiteers fear that it could trigger a political crisis that would end with Britain staying in the EU. But looking on the bright side, the average WTO tariff for EU imports is in general not particularly high (2.6% for non-agricultural products) and, in the absence of a deal, Britain probably wouldn’t have to pay its EU divorce bill, which would give it £39bn to offset the negative economic effects.

Almost no one actively supports this, but extremists claim it’s preferable to agreeing punitive “Carthaginian terms” with the EU. They claim that the UK could unilaterally slash tariffs and taxes, and embark on a bright Singapore-type future. However, Toyota recently warned that if the firm’s sizeable investment in the UK is to continue, a no deal scenario must be avoided. Trade probably wouldn’t stop stop, but the outcome would likely be disastrous. (Stories circulate about banking staff slready being moved to Paris or Frankfurt. Ed.)

In case you didn’t know……

These are words used in modern human relationships:

Ghosting: Ending a relationship bloody-mindedly by refusing to communicate, relate or explain.

Flaming: An on-line argument using bogus, unfair, bullying and unfounded personal attacks.

Gaslighting: A form of persistent manipulation and brainwashing that causes the victim to doubt her or himself, and ultimately lose her or his own sense of perception, identity, and self-worth, and even sanity.

The behaviours described have been around for centuries in all probability, but only in modern times have been sufficiently common to be given names. Why is this? Partly. social media, where anonymity allows the angry bully to take down or persecute someone he wants to dump or bully or to relieve his intense feelings of inadequacy and anger. Ghosting and gaslighting are both cowardly behaviours that have been used for centuries by men or women who want to end relationships but are too ill-mannered and cruel to take time to explain. It’s just that all too many people are not disciplined in childhood to be thoughtful, considerate and polite. To deliberately hurt another’s feelings is a grievous sin and error.

Hence, this blog advocates Epicureanism, which stands for pleasure, which I interpret as being a pleasant life. The most pleasant life is one where, by offering kindness, thoughtfulness, generosity and politeness to everyone, no matter who, you reap it in turn from both friends, acquaintances and even total strangers. Social media and some of the rude, selfish, mindless, unkind and downright vulgar people who take part in it are the very antithesis of Epicureanism, a minority though they be.

Five thoughts on the midterm elections

  1. Neither Democrats nor Republicans should be satisfied with the results. The Republicans’ failure to keep control of the House despite a booming economy, low unemployment and the lack of an unpopular war doesn’t bode well for them if things get worse. Equally, the Democrats’ losses in the Senate expose the party’s weakness in rural and small-town America. Indiana and Missouri are fairly representative of the nation as a whole; Democrat incumbents losing their seats there is not a good sign. Democrats made the mistake of raising expectations, especially regarding Beto O’Rourke’s chances in Texas. Having failed to meet those expectations, the results look like a Democratic loss.
  2. Trump’s re-election prospects just got better. In terms of the Electoral College, Trump’s 2016 map still looks pretty intact. Republican victories for governorships in Ohio, Iowa and Florida show the president’s persistent popularity in key swing states. Of course there were some losses, but nothing beyond what you would expect against a normal incumbent. The so-called ‘Democratic wave’ failed to materialise, so the usual rule of incumbency advantage will still apply in 2020.
  3. In the post-Obama era, Democrats are finally taking state and local government seriously. Under Obama’s presidency, Democrats suffered huge losses at the state and local level. The number of governorships and state legislatures under Republican control rose to record levels. Democrats were so focused on the presidency, they forgot that political power in America is decentralised and dispersed, allowing Republicans to redraw congressional districts in their favour, repeal environmental protections and restrict abortions. Since the party no longer has a charismatic, unifying figure, they are reemphasising local government once again. A gain of seven governorships is something to be proud of.
  4. Urban-rural polarisation still hasn’t hit its peak. The House results show Democrats making most of their gains in urban and suburban seats. Rural areas stayed solidly Republican, increasing the division between city and country. This doesn’t bode well for Democrats, since the electoral college and Senate give rural voters a disproportionate degree of influence on election results.
  5. Expect the next two years to be even more unpleasant than the last two. Continued Republican control of the Senate means Trump is almost certainly safe from impeachment and can continue to make favourable judicial appointments. At the same time, Democratic control of the House will frustrate what remains of Trump’s legislative agenda. As a result, there will be yet more constant arguing, blaming the other side for everything and not taking responsibility. More importantly, these elections do nothing to resolve the Democrats’ divisions as to how to respond to Trump, nor do they provide a clear Democratic frontrunner for the 2020 presidential election. Neither the progressives nor the moderates in the Democratic Party have a convincing narrative to make from the results. Watching the Democrats squabble and provide feeble, incoherent opposition to Trump may be the most excruciating thing of all.

Triumph of the extroverts

(I am deliberately ignoring the American election and leaving it to my colleague, Owen, to write about it tomorrow, offering his take on it from Britain. Robert)

“Does anyone live a life of quiet despair these days? The question struck me with some force, one Sunday evening last summer, when I found myself on the Leatherhead bypass. These proud detached villas, still with their net curtains and tidy front gardens, were exactly the sort of houses where people sighed in Betjeman’s poems over missing the fun. Brief Encounter territory.

But our modern world is one of clamour and din. Everyone is busy shouting into their mobile phones, or chanting the name of Jeremy Corbyn, or sobbing on telly because their cake didn’t rise. Extroverts have taken over. Quiet despair has been all but forgotten, like headscarves or sardine-and-tomato paste.”(Cressida Connolly in The Oldie)

Ms. Connolly is joking, of course, a very English thing to do, and something disappearing in America, except for Saturday Night Live. Actually, despair is alive and well in America, and it concerns the vulgarity, coarseness and disagreeable-ness (is there such a word?) of modern life now the country is “Great” again. Actually, they would rather it wasn’t so “Great”. Rather, they wish it would stop multiple wars it isn’t winning, reduce the “defense” budget, tax the rich, introduce a rational health service, and do other nice, epicurean things for real, flesh and blood people.

But all that’s a bit threatening to conservatives, who are never happier than when they are learning that so-and-so earns fifty thousand times what they earn and pays ten per cent tax on it. John Betjeman should have written a poem about illogical and irrational thought, not extroversion.

Are you part of the 1%?

According to the 2018 Global Wealth Report from the Credit Suisse Research Institute, you need a net worth of US$871,320 to be in the top 1% in the world. Credit Suisse defines net worth, or “wealth,” as “the value of financial assets plus real assets (principally housing) owned by households, minus their debts.”

More than 19 million Americans are in the 1 percent worldwide, far more than from any other country. China is now in second place in the world wealth hierarchy, with 4.2 million citizens (scary, eh?)

The fact is that to be among the top 10 percent worldwide, you don’t even need six figures – a net worth of $93,170 will do it. And even if you have just $4,210 to your name, you’re still richer than half of the world’s residents.

These numbers reflect the extreme level of persistent wealth inequality. As Credit Suisse reports: “While the bottom half of adults collectively owns less than 1 percent of total wealth, the richest 10 percent of adults owns 85 percent of global wealth, and the top percentile alone accounts for 47 percent of all household wealth .

The good news is that share of financial assets among many of the richest people and richest countries peaked in 2015 and has been declining since then. The share of the top decile and the top 5 percent remains at the same level as in 2016, while the share of the top 1 percent has edged down a bit from 47.5 percent to 47.2 percent, according to our best estimate.

It’s too early to conclude that wealth inequality is on a downward trend, Credit Suisse reports, but “the prevailing evidence suggests wealth inequality may well have leveled out, albeit at a very high level”.

The ridiculous thing is that, if you had bought, say, an apartment in Central London for £300.000 in, say, 1990, all you had to do is to live in it till now and you would be part of the current worldwide 1%, without having to lift a finger (I realise you would have had to have taken out a huge mortgage, and just to have qualified and repaid one would have meant you were well off. But to those who have shall be given!)

Actually, an Epicurean wouldn’t care a toss whether he was part of the 1% anyway. Do you feel more happy, proud or secure to know you are a member? Doubt it.

“The end of the Trump era may be in sight”. (The New Yorker)

Cheer up, liberal America and all Epicureans, wherever you may be! It may feel like Trump will be around for ever, but the announcement by Nikki Haley that she is standing down as US representative at the UN is a clear sign that his days are indeed numbered. Haley is one of the most astute political operators on the scene today, and she wants to get out “while the getting is good”.

If the polls are correct, the Democrats will win control of the House of Representatives. This will enable them to block legislation and “torment the White House with subpoenas demanding the release of Trump’s financial records, including his tax returns”. Add the prospect of Robert Mueller filing his report on the Russian investigation, and signs that America’s booming economy may be on the turn, and the administration’s prospects do not look rosy. “Rather than languishing in depression, people opposed to Trump should follow Haley’s example and look forward. (John Cassidy, The New Yorker).

Personally, I am not counting any chickens. So many constituencies have been gerrymandered, so many shameless untruths have been told. so much power has been handed to rich elites, so much good for the common man undone (and half the common men actually applaud!), that nothing would surprise me. Take me back to ancient Greece! At least the water was pure and the air clean, and ordinary people (men, anyway) could meaningfully take a role in affairs of the polis and be listened to. There must have been corruption, but not on a modern scale.

Making advances

To The Times
In your report “Ex-director goes on sex offender register for making pass at friend”, you write that the judge told the defendant: “You do not make advances towards women who don’t want you to.” In other words, a woman must first indicate that an advance is welcome before a man can make one. But the act of indicating to a man that an advance is welcome is in itself an advance, and what if he finds it unwelcome?
Richard Hayes, Oxford
(The Week, April 20,2018)

What he should say to the (rare) lady making the advance is, “Thank you, I am flattered. I have to say you are very attractive and charming, but I am happily married, thank you.” Cue for a big, friendly smile.

As for the man making a pass at a woman: Epicurus, were he alive today, might well comment that all too many men fail to employ subtlety, humour, relaxedness, and charm. A perceptive, sensitive man should be able to assess the attitude of the lady, her behaviour, her demeanor. And behave accordingly. Just wading in without interpreting the body language, the look in the eyes, the smile, or lack of a smile is boorish. He deserves her opprobrium if he does so. A man should have learned the finer points of courting by the time he is an adult. (Yes, I know………!)

The slow death of public broadcasting

More than half the jobs in newspaper publishing disappeared between 2001 and 2016, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. It’s much the same story across the developed world, of course. Yet in other countries the loss of local print outlets has been partially mitigated by public broadcasting, which has helped fill the void of civic journalism left by the market.

“From Europe to Australia, the average country spent $86 per capita on public broadcasting in 2014.” America, by contrast, spent just $3. The Republicans have long taken a dim view of state funding of the media. “I like PBS. I love Big Bird,” presidential candidate Mitt Romney told an anchor of the public broadcaster PBS in a 2012 debate. “But I’m not going to keep on spending money on things that we have to borrow money from China to pay for.” This fits the Republican idea that there is no such thing as the “public good”. Everything should be private and have a price, and that way the richest get the loudest voices.

President Trump wants to eliminate the public broadcasting budget almost entirely. But there is one ray of hope in this bleak landscape. New Jersey’s legislature recently passed a bipartisan bill that will dedicate $5m to reviving and strengthening civic-minded local journalism throughout the state. It’s not much money, and so far no other states have followed New Jersey’s lead. But it’s something. (Michael J. Coren, Quartz. 22 Sept 2018)

Public BroadcSting Service) does a good job presenting the world news in a non- confrontational way, in contrast to, say, Fox News and CNN, which are partisan and only make token nods to inclusivity. The Democrats don’t have a monolithic set of policies and beliefs and have no broadcaster that represents the party view, except general opposition to the Republicans. Fox, however, seems to be the initiator and brains behind the Republican party – Trump spends many man-hours re-broadcasting their views, enhanced by exaggerations and plain misinformation. This is a crying shame. It’s legitimate to have local broadcast voices, working on behalf of both the moderate Left and Right, but Fox News is closer to propaganda and is neither moderate nor reliable. The First Amendment shouldn’t protect straight lies and misrepresentation that are devoutly believed by its ardent supporters. If you employ liars you get lies. Americans deserve better. Epicuruos disliked party politics for a good reason – it seems to bring out the worst in some human beings.

Dirty money in Britain

This month, Britain’s first unexplained wealth order (UWO) survived a challenge at the High Court. The suspect it targets – Zamira Hajiyeva – is the wife of an Azerbaijani banker whose annual salary is a mere £54,000, and who was jailed for defrauding a state-owned bank out of the equivalent of tens of millions of pounds. Mrs Hajiyeva owns a house in Knightsbridge worth £11.5m, a golf club in Ascot worth £10m and a Gulfstream jet; she also spent £16m at Harrods in the decade up to 2016. On one visit alone, she blew more than £150,000 on jewellery. Hajiyeva must now explain how she amassed her wealth.

Britain poses as a leader in the fight against illicit finance and corruption, but under the Government’s “golden visa” scheme, oligarchs and dubious foreign officials who shift large sums into the country are given “honoured status as inward investors”. About 3,000 super-rich individuals were welcomed on golden visas between 2008 and 2015, bringing in some £3bn in questionable cash, Hundreds of billions of pounds” in dirty money from kleptocrats and foreign criminals is laundered through British banks each year. Most cross-border corruption cases in recent years have had a connection to Britain or its exotic island dependencies.

If the Hajiyeva case is successful, her assets will be seized. The government also plans to launch a number of other investigations. However, this misses the point. The British “Always blame the EU” Government claims that that the EU has been preventing more vigorous policing. But Spain is trying 18 Russians for money laundering and France has just prosecuted an oligarch for crimes linked to tax evasion. The British may be pursuing an obscure banker from Azerbaijan, but the overriding concern remains to retain business ties with Moscow. Hence a key reform – to subject limited partnerships (the corporate form favoured by Russian crooks) to the money-laundering checks imposed on other private-sector companies – has been abandoned by the Government. The Kremlin’s “kleptocratic cash” is flooding in and ministers are pretending not to notice.

Buying elections, and all the rest

A small group of 11 hedge-fund billionaires, entrepreneurs, media bosses – and a casino mogul – have put $1 billion into PACs, or one fifth of the $4.5 billion collected for political purposes, since the Supreme Court ruled on the Citizens United case in 2010. Candidates and parties rely increasingly on these donors, who themselves are political players. The Adelsons, husband and wife, have given $287 million to conservative super-PACs, and were no doubt gratified that Trump realised for them their greatest wish – the move of the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Two donors, George Soros and Tom Steyer are positioning themselves for runs at the Presidency.

Technically speaking, super-paks are prohibited from coordinating with campaigns and party committees, but what they are increasingly doing is running advertising campaigns, conducting research, polling and encouraging voter turnout on behalf of favoured candidates, thus helping the latter hugely and allowing candidatesto concentrate on the message instead of the other aspects of campaigning. The excuse for this exercise in oligarchic power is that super-paks “help political donors exercise their right to free speech”.

Steven Law, president of the Senate Leadership Fund, which supports Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, is quoted as saying he “could not speculate on what motivates individual donors”.
Let me try, then. Quid pro quos can include:

– Buying support for a run for office, not necessarily for President. See Trump’s Cabinet!
– Special treatment, e.g contracts, from the US Government for their own businesses
– Tax breaks for the “deserving” rich.
– An open door to numerous Congressmen, who would be delighted to write something useful into law that will encourage continued giving.
– Hob-nobbing with the President and other movers and shakers.

One could go on…………….

Citizens United, which espoused the corrosive and corrupting idea that “money is speech”. was arguably the beginning of the downward path for American politics, opening the door to the creation of an oligarchy, a small group of super-rich who effectively run the country and get what they want, manipulating the effete and incompeteant Congressmen, whose only priority is keeping (their) jobs, their good incomes, fancy houses, excellent healthcare and great pensions. This dismal situation was brought on by ….the Supreme Court of the United States, now solidly and safely right-wing and a reliable ally of the oligarchy. Some think the Justices will hold the oligarchs accountable. I don’t.

One finds it hard to summon up Epicurean peace of mind as we see the hollowing out of democracy. Either the creators of the oligarchy don’t realise what damage they have wrought, or are too selfish and power-mad to care. But, short of unacceptable violence, what can be done to stop this small gang and its hangers-on from permanently running the country for their own enrichment?

An occasional poem

The Greek island of Kefalonia: We came, we saw, we sunbathed.

Odysseus, who came from Ithaca, sited next door,
Found Kefalonia rather a bore.
No dragons, no beasties, no Charybdis or Scyllas,
Just a load of young Brits drinking beer in their villas.
From the earliest moment when he was a boy
He wanted adventures, like leveling Troy.
But although of excitements he had quite a lot,
He seemed to ignore this particular spot.

The people are friendly, the climate sublime,
The countryside scented with sage and with thyme.
The olives are ancient, the beaches are sandy,
The food is so-so, but the markets are handy.
But except for Corelli and his mandolin,
There is little to stimulate adrenaline.
It’s an excellent place to just lie in the sun,
But nothing occurs there, when all’s said and done.

No, history’s passed by this particular isle – –
A backwater now, as it’s been for a while.
Top Romans arrived, found the island quite pleasant,
But generally gave it away as a present.
The Venetians came by and proved a mild menace,
But the wine wasn’t good, so they went back to Venice.
The odd conqueror conquered, but quickly departed;
The British came too, but were rather half-hearted.

No sign of a palace of mythical kings,
No civilizations or mystical springs.
No rivers to hell and no acropoli
To attract foreign visitors happening by.
The hire cars are hired, but most sit in the sun,
For where would they go if they went for a run
No wonder the Italians and British all choose
The beach and the poolside, banter and booze.
—— – – – – ———
Relevance to Epicureanism? Life is getting far too serious. We must make fun, especially of ourselves. In this case I am the advocate of “the poolside, banter and booze”.

Has the Republican Party gone crazy?

According to some political scientists, America has undergone what is known as asymmetric polarisation, which is when both of the two main political parties become more extreme, but one becomes far more extreme than the other. In America’s case, both the Republicans and the Democrats have abandoned the centre, but the Republicans are far further from the centre than the Democrats. This video from Vox explains the concept well.

Asymmetric polarisation has several components. The first and most obvious one is ideological: Republican values have moved much further to the right than Democrats’ values have to the left. Particularly since Trump came to prominence, Republicans espouse a philosophy that explicitly rejects the liberal international world order. Globalism, free trade and institutions like the UN are denounced for trying to undermine the American nation. This contrasts heavily with the prior bipartisan consensus in favour of American-led liberal institutions facilitating democracy and capitalism across the world. Republicans are increasingly sceptical of alliances with democratic countries like Canada or Germany, and place greater trust in autocratic regimes like Russia or the Gulf states. The Republican tilt towards authoritarian nationalism is one which has no equivalent on the Democratic ranks.

Republicans are also increasingly wary of the institutions that make America function. Everything from the universities, the intelligence agencies, the courts, and of course the Fake News Media, are seen as enemies of the popular will. Amongst the more intransigent Trump supporters include conspiratorial notions of a ‘Deep State’ which is trying to frustrate Trump at every opportunity. This goes beyond usual ideas of an establishment- it finds any restraint on Trump’s exercise of power as illegitimate. Again, there is no equivalent on the Democratic side.

Republicans have lost respect for the norms that need to be respected if the political process is to function smoothly. Under Mitch McConnell’s leadership as Senate Majority Leader, the filibuster has been used at a record rate. The refusal to even consider Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court, Merrick Garland, was a blatant abuse of the Senate’s power. Whether its the extreme gerrymandering of Congressional and state districts, the purging of voters from electoral roles, or shutting down the government over the funding of Obamacare, the Republican Party no longer plays by the rules. Instead, it openly plays dirty. Once again, no equivalent can be found with the Democrats.

Asymmetric polarisation has had severe consequences in public policy. When Republicans used to consider immigration reform, they now force migrant children from their parents. When they used to accept the science of climate change, they now believe it is a hoax. Republicans used to believe in government intervention in healthcare, as seen in Romneycare in Massachusetts, or Bush’s Medicare expansion. They would work with Democrats to achieve tax cuts, welfare reform or free trade agreements. Such bipartisanship is unimaginable today, except for perhaps a few Republican governors in the Democratic Northeast.

None of this is to say the Democrats are just as centrist as ever. On some social issues like gay marriage or drugs, the Democrats have moved considerably to the left, though that is partly due to a nationwide shift in attitudes.  The Democrats’ progressive wing has become more prominent, though it is yet to take over the party the way the Tea Party replaced the Republican establishment in 2010. Immigration is perhaps the issue where polarisation has been the most symmetrical. While Republicans have become more hostile to immigration, Democrats have become far more welcoming. Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders framed deportation as an unnecessary abuse of human rights, rather than a means to enforce democratically-agreed laws. More broadly, Democrats embrace multiculturalism at least as enthusiastically as Republicans reject it.

But the most potent argument in favour of the asymmetric polarisation thesis is one which contextualises the Republicans’ shift to the hard-right in the norms of the Western world. The Republican Party at present is no longer comparable to other centre-right parties in liberal democracies, such as Germany’s CDU, Spain’s Peoples’ Party or Ireland’s Fine Gael. Rather, it has more in common with explicitly illiberal populist parties like Poland’s Law and Justice party, Hungary’s Fidesz, or even France’s Front National. Unlike the former and like the latter, it rejects free trade, is sceptical of supranational institutions and liberal globalisation. Its electoral appeal rests on pandering to xenophobic and isolationist sentiment. It disregards the norms of democracy, denounces universities and the media for their pluralistic values, seeks to entrench an inherent advantage in the political process. Most significantly, it places the whim of a strongman above ideological coherence or even a broad set of ideals. The Republican Party has gone crazy. America’s media ought to ditch the pretence of both sides being equally at fault, and report the truth.

Quoting Lucretius

In the words of Lucretius:

…we are all born from the same celestial seed;
all of us have the same father,
from which the earth, the mother who feeds us,
receives clear drops of rain,
producing from them bright wheat
and lush trees,
and the human race,
and the species of beasts,
offering up the foods with which all bodies
are nourished,
to lead a sweet life
and generate offspring…

(de rerum natura, bk.II, lines 991- 97)

and he might have added (less poetically):

There is only one Earth
That nurtures us and is bountiful.
To foul the seas, pollute the air,
Then deny all responsibility;
To spread soullessness about,
To concrete the land for short-term gain,
To tolerate starvation amid plenty;
To allow the purchase of
The political process
To import the desperate only for cheap labour
To disrupt public lives for private gain –
All this is foolishness ………….
Or maybe mass suicide.
Rich sirs, we have your names;
They will be carved
On memorials for all to see
In the halls of infamy