Why we stopped trusting elites

“At the heart of successful liberal democracies lies a remarkable collective leap of faith: that when public officials, reporters, experts and politicians share a piece of information, they are presumed to be doing so in an honest fashion,” writes William Davies, the sociologist and political economist. “To understand the crisis liberal democracy faces today – whether we identify this primarily in terms of populism or post-truth – it’s not enough to simply bemoan the rising cynicism of the public.

“The problem today is that, across a number of crucial areas of public life, the basic intuitions of populists have been repeatedly verified. One of the main contributors to this has been the spread of digital technology, creating vast data trails with the latent potential to contradict public statements, and even undermine entire public institutions. Whereas it is impossible to conclusively prove that a politician is morally innocent or that a news report is undistorted, it is far easier to demonstrate the opposite. Scandals, leaks, whistleblowing and revelations of fraud all serve to confirm our worst suspicions. While trust relies on a leap of faith, distrust is supported by ever-mounting piles of evidence. And in Britain, this pile has been expanding much faster than many of us have been prepared to admit.”. (BBC News, Nov 29, 2018).

We have become cynical. We ascribe bad motives to too many in public life and simply assume they have their hands in the till. This blog has done its (small) best to spread that idea, I afraid. And yet the constant drip-drip of reporting from a score of sources has, over the course of years, embedded the idea that the very rich and the big corporations get – or pay for – their way at the expense of the rest of us. Meanwhile, as the investigation being pursued by Muller daily suggests, the American Administration, for one. is full of people with conflicts of interest or are prepared (for enough money) to connive with the nation’s enemies. Where do these people come from? Who “educated” them, brought them up? What did they learn, apart from “winning” being the only thing that matters?

Democracy always was a fragile flower, but the knowledge that you have a say and that those in power are on your side is all part of the idea promoted by Epicurus – that life should be pleasant, full of friends and happiness, without the need to constantly fear death or the overturning of your life at the whim of a self-absorbed, malevolent autocrat or an uninformed, resentful crowd. Fragile maybe, but a wonderful thing, however dependent on mutual goodwill.

Above all government has to be for ALL the people, inclusive and without favour. Such government is fading throughout the world, and the rich and powerful (with notable exceptions) do not seem to care. Those who study history understand the perilous position we are in and the ease with which our system can be (is being) subverted. Unfortunately, studying history “doesn’t get you a job”. I am at a loss…………

Pubs lose their popularity

“The way the British used to meet, we all used to go into a pub randomly with friends, everybody would get way too drunk, and three years later you’d wake up one morning and realise you had a boyfriend,” says Emily Hill, writing about the life of a single woman. Alcohol is an antidote to the stiff upper lip – it starts to wobble, feelings start to come out and sexual frisson starts to happen … I say this all the time, but dating apps have done to love and romance what machines did to humanity in Terminator 2.”

“The endless stream of strangers being served straight to your phone means it has never been easier to have no-strings-attached sex, if that’s what you’re looking for, writes G2’s Elle Hunt. The real problem is finding connection – today, Hill says, people are less likely to spend their Fridays mingling with friends of friends at their local, fostering, in weekly increments, the kind of attraction that might only come with time and familiarity. So is the decline of the British boozer coupled to young people having less sex?” (BBC 28 Nov 2018)

Yes, it seems to have become too quick and clinical: a visit online, a photo, an assignation, a hook-up – and little real connection. Well, at least the population growth has stalled, and will stall further with our climate woes. Nonetheless, it’s a pity. To go to the pub, with its banter, chatter and frequent camaraderie, is fun. It’s good for the community and good for the introverts who, without it, might meet nobody.

But now the tax on beer has made drinking that beer expensive. You cannot (rightly) drink and drive, and fewer people are in the bar. The only good things happening in the pub business are the greatly improved food and the bigger range of local ales with imaginitive names. The pub habit is still strong in London, where establishments are packed; outside London the small, independent-of-brewery-ownership pubs are disappearing. Add to this the the closure of high street shops and stagnant incomes and you have a depressing situation in small towns and villages in Britain, the outward signs of the dissatisfaction with life that has created the dreadful mess called “Brexit”. Epicurus believed in a pleasant life – too many people have been robbed of that pleasure.

Local council ends the year discussing a hot issue

“The ANC (Area Neighborhood Committee) got to flex its muscles over sprouting ginkgo trees on the East Side, an issue that brought a lively reaction from the crowd. Commissioner Rick Murphy commented: “All politics are local but this one is hyper-local. ”The commissioners went on to approve a motion that the stinky, squishy, hazardous berry-dropping ginkgo trees on Olive Street could be removed and replaced by residents”. (Part report in the latest edition of The Georgetowner).

The heat of the planet is soaring, the world is being taken over by kleptocrats, scores of people are dying in wars all over the world, and swarms of migrants are on the move, escaping drug gangs and corrupt governments. And the local residents are going to be forcibly planted in spots on Olive Street formally occupied by ginkgo trees. Everything is the new normal.

The US is complicit in the deaths of these children

An estimated 85,000 children under the age of five have starved to death as a result of the conflict in Yemen, Save the Children has warned. The charity says the figure, based on UN data on acute malnutrition, is a conservative estimate. About 8.4 million people (a third of the population) are at risk of severe famine, largely because of Saudi blockades, a crisis that has been intensified by the recent fighting around the port of Hodeida. (The Week 27 Nov 2018)

American policy on Yemen seems to be based upon Trump’s love affair with the Saudis and his curious and outdated loathing of the Iranians. It is surely time, as the previous Administration recognised, to make up with Iran (or at least to do another careful deal with the ayatollahs). In any case, it’s a toss-up as to which regime is the more disagreeable, the Saudis or the Iranians, and we have absolutely no justification for assisting the immoral killing of 85,000 Yemeni children, the starvation and the destruction of Yemeni state. We are supplying ammunition and spare parts that make Saudi attacks viable, not a new event in history, but nonetheless morally unacceptable, made worse by being pointless. Once again, cynically, the US is dealing in death for a fast buck, not to mention supporting a murderer who assassinates journalists. Epicurus, who believed in a pleasant life and who advocated getting on with his fellow human beings, would be appalled, while unsurprised.

Justice favours the wealthy

Justice is blind? No, it favours the wealthy.

Left-wingers claim the elite always gets its way at the expense of ordinary citizens, says El Mundo. Last month, Spain’s supreme court outlawed an anachronistic tax – levied on homeowners who take out a mortgage – that has long been deeply unpopular. The tax, ruled the court, should be paid by the bank, not the customer; homeowners who’d paid the tax should be compensated. The Spanish public, which reviles the banks and blames them for the financial crisis, rejoiced at this sudden out-break of fairness.

But the banks, bracing themselves for an incalculable flood of lawsuits (the court had failed to specify how far back the retroactive ruling would apply) were aghast. So were Spain’s tax authorities, knowing that the struggle to get banks to pay would leave a hole in the public finances.

So the supreme court judges, taking fright, have now reversed their ruling. Bankers are off the hook, banking shares have recovered, a great deal of trouble has been averted. But at what cost? Many Spaniards are appalled at the craven way the court bowed to pressure from financiers and politicians. With this single act, the judiciary has trashed its reputation and joins the list of institutions the public holds in contempt. (El Mundo, Madrid Nov 2018).

I am posting this to point out that the US is not alone when it comes to favouring the big battalions over the man in the street. It is a worldwide problem. The rich and powerful get their way. Look at the case of Epstein, a multi-millionaire, who abused scores of under-age girls in America over decades and has avoided being convicted. A very different case in a different country, but the principle (if you can call it that) is exactly the same – if you have money you have influence, and there are officials, policemen, and judges who are only too happy to protect you, for a price, I’m sure.

Epicurus would have condemned this slide into paid injustice that is eating away at democracy and faith in what used to be a reasonably fair system. And we haven’t seen the effects of roaring climate disruption that is (yes, is!) going to roil the world in conflict. We should at least be facing this planetary threat with trust in our institutions, but maybe we are too ignorant, selfish and short-sighted to turn the clock back?

Huge health bills in America

Getting well in America can bankrupt you. A Texan man has a heart attack – and good medical insurance – and still finds himself on the hook for $109,000 in medical bills. Another man in Florida owed $3,400 for a CT scan, after his insurance company paid its part. And a woman who had surgery for back pain was billed more than $17,000(!) for a urine test that her insurance company refused to pay (outrageous).

A recent survey of American adults by the University of Chicago shows that this situation is actually the norm. 57 percent of those surveyed have been surprised by a medical bill they thought would be paid for by their insurance companies.

The survey shows that 53 percent of those surveyed were surprised by a bill for a physician’s service, and 51 percent got an unexpected bill for a laboratory test. Hospital and health care facility charges surprised 43 percent of respondents, and 35 percent reported getting unexpected bills. Most of these bills arrive with no explanation.

The survey shows that some of the unexpected bills arise because doctors or hospitals where patients are treated don’t participate in the patients’ insurance networks. Patients expect their insurance to cover more than it actually does. They blame the insurance companies but in fact doctors or hospitals may not have joined the insurance companies’ networks. Patients are unaware of this and it hugely increases costs.

An earlier survey conducted in 2015 by Consumers Union found about a third of people got an unexpected medical bill after their insurers paid less than expected. Which raises the question: what should a health service be for? To enrich a small number of medics and pharmaceutical CEOs, or to offer a healthy, happy life for ordinary people. (Edited part-version of a piece by NPR and Kaiser Health News).

If you have good health insurance in America you are very lucky. People criticise the British National Health, and it is true that you have wait for non-urgent attention, such as hip or knee operations, where the delay tends to force people (who can do so) to join a private health insurance scheme. But if you are seriously sick the NHS does a superb job, even in relatively remote country districts. All this despite the efforts of ideologues to shrink the service until the pips squeak. Why are they doing this? The answer is ideological – they want to hand over the NHS to the very American health organisations that are profiteering, as above, in America. The right-wing politicians pushing privatisation already have taxpayer-subsidised private arrangements, so they’re alright, which what matters (ahem!).

America’s empire of bases

“After the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union imploded, keen observers were surprised to discover that the whole global military structure that Washington had set up “America’s empire of bases” or a “globe-girdling Baseworld” – chugged right on. It didn’t matter that there was no real enemy left on Planet Earth. It was, indeed, an empire.

“And here’s the strange thing, though it goes remarkably unnoticed in our world: that vast global structure of military garrisons, unprecedented in history, ranging from some the size of American towns to small outposts, has remained in place to this very second. Though little attention has been paid in recent years — despite the fact that it couldn’t be a more prominent feature on this planet, geo-militarily speaking — there remain something like 800 American garrisons worldwide (not counting, of course, the more than 420 military bases located in the continental U.S., (Guam, and Puerto Rico).

“There’s never been anything quite like it, not for the Roman Empire, the British Empire, or the Soviet one either. And with our military now in the process of transforming the whole planet into an even more militarized place, those bases will be all the more relevant. The U.S. military is increasingly focused on future wars of every imaginable sort (right up to the sort that could leave this planet in shreds).” (Adapted from an article in Tom Dispatch, November 2018).

Empires expand until their borders are too long, the number of soldiers is insufficient to defend the territory, and the money runs out. The Roman Empire is a good example. The British empire is another: built up during a century of world peace, but too big and too expensive to defend. The United States is now over-extended and devotes an obscene amount of money on “defense” as the budget deficit balloons and the country becomes more in hock to China. There seem to be too many vested interests to do anything about it – trying to seriously cut the Pentagon budget would produce an uproar (bases were placed in every Congressional district to ensure full support for the Pentagon). The American Empire of bases is arguably unsustainable and hasn’t long to survive. When the inevitable happens picture to yourself the outrage from the military-industrial complex and its limitless hunger for yet more taxpayer dollars, all spent – for what exactly?

Are the Democrats the party of the rich? And does it matter?

At least as far as the House of Representatives was concerned, this year’s midterm elections were a success for the Democrats. They gained a decent majority, won 40 seats off the Republicans, and won the popular vote by roughly nine million people in what was the highest midterm turnout since 1914. While not a complete disaster for Trump, the results show a high degree of dissatisfaction with his presidency.

But dig deeper into the demographics driving the results, and its clear this wasn’t the populist anti-Trump resistance of the Democratic imagination. Rather, they confirmed the Democrats’ status as the party of the rich. Democrats now control all twenty of the most affluent congressional districts in the country- affluence here being defined as median household income. In districts in the highest income decile, Democrats won by an average of 65-34%; substantially higher than their 53-45 margin nationwide. Democrat districts are now 15% richer and 22% more productive than their Republican counterparts, and are responsible for 61% of all economic output.

Not only were Democratic voters and districts richer, Democrats also dominated in their fundraising efforts, continuing Hillary Clinton’s ability to out-fundraise Trump. They had the support of the tech companies, the sports industry, academia, a surprisingly high number of businesses and financial institutions, the trade unions and most media networks. Democrats have long warned of the pernicious influence of money in politics, but it seems as if money is working to their advantage. The party has achieved both an economic and a cultural hegemony, owed in no small part to their increasing popularity amongst college graduates.

There are two caveats to the Democrats’ status as the party of the rich. The first is that they are still the party of the most deprived. 69% of those in the poorest decile of congressional districts voted Democrat, and these included a disproportionate number of ethnic minorities, young people and immigrants. Secondly, Democrats’ policy preferences do not favour the rich as overtly as the Republicans’. A party that has just cut income taxes when they were already low by developed world standards, as well as slashed corporation taxes, can hardly claim to be a party for the working man.

Having said that, the Democrats’ increasingly elite nature will pose serious challenges for the party going forward. Representing the interests of both the upper class and the working poor is inherently contradictory, particularly for progressives and socialists who believe the interests of the two are intrinsically opposed. Even if economics isn’t a zero-sum game of class war, the upper class and the working class obviously have different priorities. Many Democrats want the party to embrace a more generous welfare state and single-payer healthcare, but will that be possible if they become too reliant on the votes of those naturally sceptical to economic populism? Taking the donations of the wealthy and progressive businesses may be good for get-out-the-vote drives, but it could look hypocritical when trying to critique money in politics generally.

Ultimately, the reason why both the wealthy and the working class vote Democrat is because both groups embrace social and cultural liberalism. For them, Trump’s emphasis on toughness, his crass nationalism, his prejudices and insularity, and his intolerance of dissent are an anathema. Add to that Trump’s trade war, which will hurt the businesses owned by the rich and increase the poor’s cost of living. More importantly, the trend for both the wealthy and the poor to vote for the Left is not a uniquely American phenomenon. The UK’s Labour Party represents wealthy constituencies like Hampstead and West Bristol, while also dominating in poor cities like Birmingham or Liverpool. In Spain, the hard-left Podemos party performs better in prosperous Catalonia than any other region. In Germany, most of the wealthy cities have socialist mayors.

So Democrats shouldn’t try to reverse what seems to be a structural change in the party’s support. There’s nothing inherently wrong with being more popular amongst the wealthy and well-educated. But the party will need to make a concerned effort to win back the votes of Middle America, instead of assuming voters believe they are the working man’s party, as they may have done in the past. Ad hominem attacks on the Republicans as the party of the rich will be as ineffective as ever. Equally poor would be to emulate Hillary Clinton’s decision to ignore white working class voters as a crucial voting bloc. Instead, Democrats should espouse a unifying, moderate message, focusing on the failures of Trump’s policies, his propensity towards corruption and his lack of temperament. Democrats may be the party of the rich, but they can also be for everyone else.

 

Cellphone addiction

I quote part of an article by Chris Tilbury in Prospect magazine (November 2018):

“How much is the smartphone truly useful or even enjoyable, and how much is it simply compulsion?
Expanding functionality, social media – and the linked fear of missing out – make these devices hard to put down. The average UK user is now eyeballing their palm for two and a half hours daily, up from 1 hour 13 minutes in 2014; 62% of Brits say they couldn’t live without their phone; half confess to needing it with them at all times. More than a third recognise a problem – feeling they use it too much. In the 16-24 age group 60% worry about using their devices too much. This falls to 24% for those 55 and over.56% of adults worry about the excessive use of the cellphone by their children.

Even Apple realises the dangers, and has introduced “Screen Time”, which allows users to track and cap their smart-phone use. The app, given the right instructions, simply stops operating if you exceed the time limit you have set.

My comment: I don’t have a cellphone, but do have an i-pad, which I use for this blog. This means I spend quite a time on it, but I argue that it is my “job” and that the screen time is justified. Smartphones are really useful and a wonderful source of instant information. But this is an opportunity to revert to Epicurus, who advocated moderation, whatever that means in terms of phones. I will be argumentative and say that cellphone use should be capped at 1 hour daily. Would that wok for you – honestly?

More on China

As we see the Chinese undermining democratic values, such as free speech, we also have to observe that the Chinese are busy, not only lobbying, but using constant propaganda, censorship in academia, spying on American institutions, and using the Chinese Students and Scholars Association to glean secrets and techniques which are useful to the Chinese economy and military. They are also attempting to influence think-tanks and have stolen technology using the “Thousand Talents “program, which involves recruiting over 300 experts and researchers and paying for secrets (why the 300 are not arrested baffles me).

Leading Americans who have, over the year, been strong advocates of engagement with China are now increasingly disillusioned now that China is assuming such a figure on the world stage. Xi Jinping has increased repression at home and is becoming increasingly assertive abroad. Now China has joined Russia as being America’s main strategic threat. Pence has called the Chinese approach a “whole of government” approach, which is more alarming than interfering in elections (something they might or might not be doing). Now maybe the Justice department will insist that these Chinese agents are registered with under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. The danger is that the US over-reacts and makes things even worse. As it is the emphasis of the Trump Administration has been the trade deficit and the current tariff/trade war, which could easily become a case of shooting yourself in both feet. But at least Administration is now awake to the threat.

Why do only white youngsters deserve mercy?

“In the US, juvenile drug offenders are routinely tried as adults,” says Eric Levitz. Thirteen-year-old murderers have been sentenced to life without parole; teenagers who text naked pictures of themselves are regularly arrested for child pornography. The American Right has worked hard to bring this situation about, and wants the law made still harsher.

Trump has previously supported the death penalty for teenagers. But since Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh was accused of sexual assault as a 17-year-old, “the Right’s thinking on juvenile justice appears to have radically changed”. Many of Kavanaugh’s defenders argue that even if the allegations are true, it would be unfair to hold alcohol-fuelled bad behaviour from his high-school days against him now.

So why does such leniency only apply to the white and privileged? African-American teens are often arrested and sent to prison for crimes far less serious than attempted rape. When Trayvon Martin, 17, was shot and killed by George Zimmerman in 2012, many conservatives blamed him for looking like a “thug”. In our society, it seems that “law and order” doesn’t apply to everyone equally. (Eric Levitz, New York magazine amd The Week 6 Oct 2018)

Fear of the “other” and the need of so many people to feel superior (“I may be poor but at least I’m not black”) are given as reasons for the stubborn failure to treat blacks as equals under the law. At least there are moves in Congress to reform sentencing and maybe to reduce the obscene number of people rotting in jail, many for trivial reasons.

Epicurus is supposed to have welcomed all comers to his Garden – women, slaves, foreigners, anyone committed to intelligent discussion and debate, all treated equally. He would be appalled that, after so many centuries prejudice, discrimination and racial violence continue as if we as human beings have learned nothing in the interim.

The Chinese – should we fear them?

A friend of mine confided that he feared the Chinese. Should he be regarded as bigoted?

I replied that I thought his fears were well justified. I referred to the history of the late 19th and early 20th Century history as a parallel.

After the death of Bismarck, who created modern Germany, the tinpot Kaiser went helterskelter into competition with Britain. He envied Britain her huge empire and massive naval fleet. Secrets were ruthlessly stolen, the Prussian military strengthened even further, and a naval building programme put into top gear. Not content with Schleswig Holstein, Alsace and Lorraine; he wanted dominance in Europe and an empire to rival that of Britain. We have just “celebrated” the end of the outcome of the Kaiser’s ambitions.

Now, fast forward, we have another megalomaniac, this time in China, set upon total control over his people and an effective empire in South East Asia, right through the old Stans of South Asia to the borders of Turkey, and down into Africa. He is arguably smarter than the Kaiser, and has modern electronics to help control the behaviour and loyalty of his huge population in minute detail, and, as we can see with the Uighers, uses it ruthlessly in the manner of Mao before him. The Chinese attitude is also informed by the way China was humiliated in the 19th Century. Revenge lurks in the shadows.

Now we are back again in the old atmosphere of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. We are carelessly playing baby politics, led by a man whose ignorance matches that of the old Kaiser, while the sinister Chinese expansion roars ahead at fearful speed. Indians should be particularly fearful, along with all South and South East Asia. I know a number of charming individual Chinese, but, in general, to fear the Chinese government and its intentions is quite as rational as it was for Brits to fear a rising Germany.

No, my friend is not bigoted, he is a realist, and way ahead of the poorly educated and informed people who think tariffs on Chinese goods are going to make China humbly kowtow to people they probably laugh at and despise.

Fitness and insomnia

Insomniacs have one less thing to worry about: harmful as their condition can be, it probably won’t shorten their lives, according to the latest research. A team at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, reviewed 17 previous studies involving 37 million people, and found that while sleeplessness may be associated with diabetes, depression and dementia, it doesn’t appear to affect mortality. Writing in Sleep Medicine Reviews, the researchers said their findings could even help relieve the condition – since many insomniacs say one of the things that keeps them awake is worrying that their sleeplessness is harming their health. However, they noted that the follow-up times of the studies that they reviewed were relatively short, and stressed that more research was needed to confirm their findings. (The Week. 24 Nov 2018)

I have suffered all my life with inherited insomnia, shared by my extended family. On occasion I can be sleepless for 4 or 5 nights in a row. But a shorter life is the least of my worries. My problems are mild confusion, anxiety, irritability and a distrust of one’s own judgment. As per the previous posting, exercise is the thing that really helps. Sitting around does not. Ataraxia for me is assisted by visits to the gym.

Fitness and longevity

Being inactive does more harm to your chances of living to a ripe old age than smoking, scientists have claimed. Researchers at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio looked at data on 122,007 patients who were given regular treadmill tests over 24 years from 1991.

Predictably, they found that being fit was associated with living longer. What shocked the team, however, was the size of the disparity between the outcomes for the inactive and the ultra-fit. The data revealed that those who performed worst in the fitness test – and who, by implication, did little or no exercise – were five times more likely to suffer a premature death than participants in the fittest bracket. The benefits of aerobic fitness were especially marked among the over-70s and those with hyper-tension. “Being unfit on a treadmill has a worse prognosis, as far as death is concerned, than being hypertensive, being diabetic or being a current smoker,” said Dr Wael Jaber, one of the researchers. “We’ve never seen something as pronounced as this. It should be treated almost as a disease that has a prescription, which is called exercise.” (The Week 24 Nov 2018)

My wife and I belong to a gym. Sometimes there are only a dozen people there, and they are typically young. Those of us of more mature years are few and quite far between. It puzzles me. You have limited time if you have a job, but for us retirees there isn‘t much of an excuse. One doesn’t even have to go to a formal gym – just walk in the open air, briskly and every day, if possible.

Could someone explain why they don’t look after themselves? Looking after yourself, and being active, is Epicurean, in my opinion.

A politician with principles

Mexico’s leftist president-elect has announced that he is looking for a buyer for the presidential plane – a Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner – that his predecessor acquired two years ago for £302m. “It’s not just an efficient, modern plane – it’s a comfy plane, with a bedroom, a restaurant, with lots of space,” said Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

The 65-year-old, who is due to be sworn in on 1 December, was elected by a landslide in July on a social justice platform. One of his campaign pledges was that he’d sell the plane and travel on commercial airlines. In September, he spent four hours waiting for a one-hour flight that had been delayed by weather. “I’m not going to change my mind because of this,” he said at the time. “I’d die of shame to use such a luxurious plane in a country with so much poverty.” (The Week. 17 Nov 2018)

I assume, like me, you must be exasperated with all the bad news – the self-adulation, the financial greed, the pandering to big companies….and so on. Nice to hear about a politician who (a) wants to save ordinary taxpayers money, (b) wants to fulfill a promise, and (c) is not personally on the make.

Macron and the dangers of liberal elitism

Every serious person knows that climate change is the greatest threat facing the world right now. Everyone also ought to know that air pollution is a big cause of premature death in our cities. Both climate change and pollution need to be addressed with bold policies if we are to have any hope of averting disaster.

So I welcomed French president Emmanuel Macron’s proposals to increase fuel taxes, particularly on diesel, which emits extremely harmful carbon monoxide. But to put it mildly, the people of France did not. Violent protests sprung up all over the country. While a hardcore minority of the protesters were far-right street thugs, most were middle-aged suburbanites voicing their opposition to a policy which will increase the cost of living.

In fairness, the protests were not just about fuel taxes. Macron’s popularity has been in long-term decline, and stands at just 27%. He is seen by most as out of touch, elitist and urban-centric- unconcerned with the plight of La France Périphérique: the French equivalent of flyover country in the US. France is already amongst the most highly-taxed countries on earth. The economic boom Macron promised in his presidential campaign has failed to materialise. More importantly, French people are cynical about politicians on all sides of the political spectrum; no one enjoys anything close to a positive approval rating.

The anti-Macron movement poses difficult questions for the progressive left, even outside France. Sometimes, doing the right thing isn’t always popular. Progressives claim to have majority support on most economic issues, such as raising the minimum wage or regulating large corporations. But this isn’t necessarily the case. Most people support the notion of higher taxes to achieve certain social goods, like reducing poverty or cutting air pollution, provided they believe they won’t be affected. As soon as they have to pay higher taxes, their views become more conservative, however noble the objective of the tax increase may be. A similar phenomenon can be found in California’s Orange County, which elected only Democrats to Congress for the first time ever, yet rejected measures to improve housing affordability because it might dent home values. It’s much easier to be charitable with other people’s money.

None of this is to suggest progressives should stop caring about climate change, air pollution, poverty or housing affordability as soon as some middle class voters raise objections. But it’s vital to be intelligent about progressive policy, so as not to hurt the middle class or appear elitist. For instance, Macron could’ve opted for a broader carbon tax instead of a narrow increase in fuel taxes. A carbon tax would be more progressive, because a larger proportion of it would be paid for by corporations and industrialists. It would have a broader base, so as not to hurt any one sector too hard. And it wouldn’t have as immediate an effect on the cost of living. Moreover, in France’s case, any increase in tax should be offset by a decrease in tax elsewhere, so as not to burden the people more.  Perhaps Macron should’ve used the higher revenues from fuel taxes to cut sales taxes, just as an example. The point is that in an era where the nationalist right will pounce on every opportunity to portray progressives as liberal elitists, ensuring the happiness of the common man must be as important as achieving progressive policy goals.

 

Another view on the issue of Brexit

So there is agreement on Brexit between the EU and the British government It all looks desperately important at the moment, but the details of the deal may not make all that much difference in the long run. It’s economics, not politics, that will ultimately define our relationship with Europe, and the big factors driving the economics are outside the control of negotiators.

For a start, Europe’s importance as a market is shrinking in relative terms as the global economy shifts towards China and India. In the early 2000s, Europe took some 55% of UK exports; today it takes about 44% – a figure likely to fall yet further. Globally, it is trade in services – Britain’s strong point – that is growing, relative to the trade in goods. Most crucial of all, the UK, like America, is ageing more slowly and has a higher fertility rate than most countries of Europe, so its economy is likely to grow more swiftly than theirs. Forecasts suggest we’ll overtake France in economic size by 2030. Demography will shape our destiny far more than Brexit will. (Hamish McRae, The Independent, reproduced in THE WEEK, 24 November 2018).

My oldest son is a banker. Yesterday he told me that his department would remain in London, but that a large, but so far unspecified, number of his colleagues would be moving to France, because the bank has a big presence in the EU and will not be allowed to continue certain activities without doing so physically within the EU. Hamish McRae is a distinguished journalist, but he doesn’t even mention the fact that service companies will be faced with the decision – would it not be advantageous to have a separate operation within the EU, regardless of EU law and regulation. I suspect that we can look forward to significant reduction in the number of service industry jobs in Britain, along with the economic and tax loss that implies. I hope McRea is, in general, correct, but the UK looks as if it is celebrating its “independence” by shooting itself accurately in both feet. Of course, it will be Teresa May, not the mindless clowns on the right wing of the Conservative Party who will be unfairly blamed. The latter should be voted out at the earliest opportunity, which might come soon.

The big decline in the birth rate

A study published in the Lancet shows that in half the countries of the world there has been a remarkable decline in the number of children women are having, which means that in over half the countries of the world, particularly in economically developed countries (Europe, the US, South Korea and Australia) there are insufficient children to maintain population size. In many societies there are more grandparents than grandchildren.

In 1950, women were having an average of 4.7 children in their lifetime. Last year the fertility rate had all but halved to 2.4 children per woman. There is a huge variation between nations: in Niger, the birth rate is 7.1, while in Cyprus women are having one child, on average. In the UK, the rate is 1.7, similar to most Western European countries.

As for China, since 1950, the Chinese population has increased from around half a billion inhabitants to 1.4 billion, and is also facing lower fertility rates (only 1.5 in 2017). It has recently moved away from its famous one child policy. For
every 100 Chinese girls born there were 117 boys which “implies substantial sex-selective abortion and even the possibility of female infanticide”. This means even more children need to be born to have a stable population.

Whenever a country’s average fertility rate drops below approximately 2.1 populations will eventually start to shrink. This does not mean the number of people living in these countries is falling, at least not yet, as the size of a population is a mix of the fertility rate, death rate and migration. Half the world’s nations are still producing enough children to grow, but as more countries advance economically, more will have lower fertility rates.

The fall in fertility rate is not down to sperm counts or any of the things that normally come to mind when thinking of fertility. Instead it is being put down to three key factors:

Fewer deaths in childhood, meaning women have fewer babies
Greater access to contraception
More women in education and work

The answer? Without migration, countries will face ageing and shrinking populations, which might not be so bad as long as society can adjust to it. For instance, the idea of retiring at 68, the current maximum in the UK, will be unsustainable and will have to change. Another possibility is encouraging women to have more children, although this has not been historically very successful (Italy, for instance). On the plus side a smaller population would benefit the environment.

(Based on a World Health Organisation report called “Global Burden of Diseases” that has been running since the 1990s)

A Poem : The Strangler Tree at The Moorings, Islamorada FL

Were you a harmless, nameless tree, just standing there,
Motionless and proud, your boughs spread wide,
The product of a hundred fruitful summers,
Surviving the convulsions of Caribbean hurricanes,
Cold fronts and brisk north winds,
You might neither notice nor much care about
The arrival, perching quietly, of yet another bird.
Thousands stop from year to year,
Resting on their pilgrimage
To Antigua or St. Kitts and back.
You welcome them.  They chatter. It passes time.
 
But be alert! One single bird could be your nemesis,
Sitting, resting, eating lunch – –
A juicy fig from some distantly related tree.
The bird pecks. It flies.  You give it no more thought.
But resting in a crevice between your trunk and bough
It might have left behind a single seed,
Worried fiercely from the dark, ripe fig,
Falling ignored and overlooked.
Beware! This solitary seed in good conditions sprouts
And little tendrils grow, vertical and true,
Descend beside your trunk and seek the soil below.
 
Well, no problem.  All are welcome here.
These are the tropics, just hang out, relaxed.
Trees have a long perspective and are cool.
This is not the first parasite you’ve met – –
Vegetable, animal, lichen, fungus.
All in all they bring some mutual benefits
In the relentless struggle for survival.
Lulled into a sense of false security,
You’re pre-occupied with problems common to your kin – –
Nutrients, moisture, humidity, all aspects of dendrology,
Not to mention the weather and condition of your bark.
You fail to see the lurking danger till it’s right upon you.
 
Suddenly you do become aware!
The roots of your tenant tree have dropped and rooted in the soil,
Thickened and become a tough and healthy wood,
Like pinions or cross-braces screwed into the earth.
Where the aerial roots cross, they fuse and merge,
Creating a hard, thick lattice of stout roots.
It cribs, confines you like a prison.
On windy days you barely move or sway.
You struggle like a ship against a hawser,
Trying to break the bonds that hold you from the sky.
Yes, this crafty Strangler Fig is now in competition
For the nutrients, light, and water you have taken for granted.
 
You panic, struggle, but to no effect.
You stand there, bound, a prisoner in chains,
Making small, if any gains.
Your visitor’s no vampire, sucking at your blood,
But battens on you, using up your vigor and your strength,
In fruitless struggle, using little effort of its own.
You cease protesting, give in, weaken, rot away.
Where once you stood, a proud and flourishing tree,
There is in time a poor and rotting hulk,
Gently decaying in the Florida half-light,
Attracting the attention of beetles, grubs and other mites,
The vultures and hyenas of the vegetable world.
 
In your place, your very own spot,
Now stands a sinister, shapeless mass of crisscross roots,
Huge and spreading, center-less, without a form,
Impenetrable, jungle-like and dense.
The irony is that this triumphant Strangler Fig,
By its very nature a thousand rather shallow roots,
Is itself vulnerable, in dire and imminent danger.
Whereas you, its host, withstood the weather for a century,
A serious hurricane might well uproot it, blow it down.
Its roots are insubstantial faced with wind and rain;
They loosen in the meager soil, become unstable and give way.
Thus all will be to no avail; the Strangler strangled where it lies,
Bloated and overgrown, a victim of its own success.
Would it had stayed modest, or remained that single seed,
Worried fiercely from a dark, ripe fig,
Falling ignored and overlooked, not so reckless and ambitious.
Too late! It cannot be revived or disentangled now.
Maybe there is some crude justice in the natural world.
 
Robert Hanrott                   
 
The Strangler Fig is also called the Banyan tree.  In India it is called the kalpavriksha, or the wish-fulfilling tree, representing eternal life, because of its host of ever-expanding branches.

India No.2: Vanishing children

Official figures from India’s Ministry of Women and Child Development (MWCD) show that more than 240,000 children were reported missing between 2012 and 2017. While some run away, the majority are taken by human traffickers,

Victims are either kidnapped or lured away from their parents with promises of jobs and education. These children are trafficked to Delhi and other metropolitan cities, where they are placed as domestic help or child labour, or even prostitution.

But it can still be hard to get these children back to their families even after they are rescued. Years may have passed since they were kidnapped, so they often don’t remember details that could help reunite them, such as their address. The sheer number of records also makes it near impossible to search the database manually. It is possible to search what is known as the TrackChild records using names, physical characteristics and the date when the children went missing. But the size of the database and the patchiness of the records make this a daunting task.

However, photos of missing children are held on the TrackChild database, and these photos are now being shared with the Delhi police, who procured commercial facial recognition software and are now creating a system that will allow officers to upload photos of rescued children to see if they have been reported as missing. Subject to feasibility the ministry will integrate facial recognition software directly into the TrackChild portal to allow records to be automatically matched. Trying to connect them using parameters like height or age takes a lot of time, but with facial recognition it’s instant. Over the course of four days, the software compared photos of around 65,000 missing children against roughly 40,000 living in care homes. It matched 2930, who hopefully will be returned to their parents.

That so many children go missing and that all this worthy effort has to go into finding them tells a story about Indian society. On the other hand, at least modern technology is being used by the (very smart) Indian techies to find the children. One up to modern technology.