Is the internet destroying society?

I have to confess, I’m a big fan of technology. I own a MacBook Air, an iPad, a smartphone, a digital camera, a speaker system and much else besides. Every time Google or Apple announce the release of a new product, I’m always amongst the first to hear.

But recently, I’ve come to the conclusion that technology is playing a crucial role in the destruction of social institutions. In the UK, so much of our public life is under threat from technology. Pubs and bars are closing down fast as people prefer to socialise online and drink at home. Curry houses are closing down as people order takeaways online. The traditional retail sector is under considerable pressure as people increasingly shop online. Independent book retailers cannot compete with the likes of Amazon. None of this is unique to Britain; witness the decline of the once-mighty American shopping mall.

Of course, the internet alone isn’t to blame for the decline of these institutions. Our tax system favours online businesses. Young people nowadays aren’t as outgoing as previous generations were. Licensing laws often presume guilt on bars and clubs which attract a supposedly disreputable crowd. Globalisation was always going to expose traditional enterprises to new forms of competition. There are also industry-specific problems, such as pubs faced with the threat of cheap supermarket alcohol.

The point is, it simply isn’t good enough to write off the decline of social institutions as ‘changing habits.’ There are fewer and fewer decent places in which to socialise in the real world. In the UK, the only places which are doing well are those that either cater to the very rich or the very poor; high-end restaurants and gastropubs are thriving alongside fried chicken shops and cheap takeaways. Some young people may be content to watch Netflix instead of go to the cinema, or stream music instead of go to a live music venue, but I’m not. The internet is wonderfully convenient, but it doesn’t replace the joys of engaging in sociable activities with others in person. The decline of such places does not bode well for those of us who want our social institutions to thrive alongside the widespread use of technology. Epicurus would have been appalled at how alienating and atomised modern life has become. The solution surely rests in our society rediscovering the simple love of spending a bit of time and money with friends away from home.

Extreme economic concentration creates the conditions ripe for dictatorship.

In fascist regimes the leader seeks alliances with giant corporations, as long as they obey him, and in return they avoid democratic accountability and can continue growing. Maybe you can guess where I might be going with this?

In the last few years the US has virtually ignored the anti-trust laws that helped the country avoid a concentration of economic power. This is not just a Trump phenomenon – it was occurring under Obama, who seemed oblivious to it (or frightened of standing up to it?). I remember being introduced to a neighbour who was a senior staff member of the Justice Department (responsible for mergers and acquisitions). I told him I thought the number of giant mergers of big companies was crazy, damaging and undemocratic. I said I hoped he was busy doing something about it. The withering look he gave me told me everything I needed to know. (Sigh! From my worms-eye view I try to take advantage of opportunities, rare though they are).

We now have monopolies and oligopolies in finance, media, the airlines (Oh, dear!), telecoms, chemicals, hospitals and pharmaceuticals, and, as a result, Government has already, to a degree, lost influence over economic policy. The titans have created stagnant wages, pay little tax, give mind-blowingly dreadful service and lousy value for money. All over the world people feel frustrated and helpless, and not just in the US (Orban in Hungary, Bolsonoro in Brazil, even arguably Brexit, are symptoms of the same problem)

Apparently the US Anti-Merger Act of 1950 is still on the books and hasn’t been repealed. It is ignored by the judges and lawyers. Congress is a pushover, dependent on election money from – guess who?, overwhelmed with lobbyists from the giant companies, blind to the dangers of unaccountable private power.

This is a situation where more people should turn to Epicureanism – how can we have peace of mind and a pleasant life when our democratic rights are stolen from us and when gormless officials, lawyers and congressmen cave with every giant merger?
(Inspired by an article in the New York Times by Ti Wu, author of “The Curse of Bigness: anti-trust in the new Gilded Age”.

A quote that resonates

“Il vecchio mondo sta morendo. Quello nuovo tarda a comparire. E in questo chiaroscuro nascono i mostri.“  Antonio Gramsci

“The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born; now is the time of monsters.”

(Thanks to Dan Dolan, a reader of this blog, for this apposite quotation)

Upheaval seems to be the order of the day all over the world. We have seen this before, and the results were horrendous. But we will get through it, and the perpetrators will eventually exit right. Meanwhile, modern followers of Epicurus have to keep the faith and carry the torch as examples to the young: think for yourself, be calm, thoughtful, polite, generous and caring, while rejecting the coarseness and vulgarity that has exploded around us.

A brief rundown on Epicureanism for those new to it

Epicureanism is a system of philosophy based on the teachings of Epicurus, founded around 307 B.C. It teaches that the greatest good is to seek modest pleasures in order to attain a state of tranquillity, freedom from fear (“ataraxia”) and absence from bodily pain (“aponia”). This combination of states is held to constitute happiness in its highest form. Some people consider Epicureanism to be a form of hedonism, but differs in its conception of happiness as the absence of pain, and in its advocacy of a simple life, and its desire to get along amicably with everyone and have many good friends.

Epicurus directed that this state of tranquillity could be obtained through knowledge of the workings of the world and the limiting of desires. Thus, pleasure was to be obtained by knowledge, friendship and living a virtuous and temperate life. He lauded the enjoyment of “simple pleasures”, by which he meant abstaining from bodily desires, such as sex and appetites, verging on Asceticism. He counselled that “a cheerful poverty is an honourable state”.

He argued for moderation in all things, so that when eating, for example, one should not eat too richly, for it could lead to indigestion or the grim realization that one could not afford such delicacies in the future. Likewise, sex could lead to increased lust and dissatisfaction with the sexual partner, and Epicurus himself remained celibate. Even learning, culture and civilization were discouraged, as they could result in disturbing one’s peace of mind, except insofar as knowledge could help rid oneself of religious fears and superstitions, such as the fear of the gods and of death.

Generally speaking, Epicureans shunned politics as having no part in the quest for ataraxia and aponia, and likewise a potential source of unsatisfiable desires and frustration, which was to be avoided.

Like Democritus and Leucippus before him, Epicurus was an atomist, believing that all matter, souls and gods are all comprised of atoms, and even thoughts are merely atoms swerving randomly.

Epicurus was one of the first to develop a notion of justice as a kind of social contract, an agreement “neither to harm nor be harmed”. He argued that laws and punishments in society are important so that individuals can be free to pursue happiness, and a just law is one that contributes to promoting human happiness. In some respects, this was an early contribution to the much later development of Liberalism and of Utilitarianism.

A subsidised CEO takes aim at an impertinent media

Those reporters have such nerve! Last month, a BBC reporter in London asked Jeff Fairburn, the CEO of Britain’s largest homebuilder and the nation’s highest-paid corporate chief exec, about the $98-million “performance” bonus the 52-year-old had pocketed earlier this year. A peeved Fairburn called the reporter’s question “really unfortunate” and abruptly walked out of the TV interview.

Last week, the UK homebuilder Persimmon abruptly fired Fairburn, citing the public outrage over his windfall. Among the reasons for that outrage: the tax pounds that ordinary Brits contributed towards Fairburn’s record bonus. Persimmon’s share price — and the size of Fairburn’s bonus — only started soaring after the government put in place a “help-to-buy” subsidy for homebuyers. About half the homes Persimmon sells take advantage of this subsidy. Lawmakers intended the subsidy, says Labour MP Rachel Reeves, to aid homeowners, “not reward executives with multi-million-pound payouts.”

Entitlement, entitlement. These pampered, greedy CEOs cannot understand why taxpayers shouldn’t subsidise their exclusive lifestyles. After all they have worked for it, haven’t they? Actually, for what it’s worth, my personal experience of dealing with CEOs (I worked for the Confederation of British Industry at one point, and had to attend numerous meetings with the bosses of the largest British companies of the time). I concluded that they were company politicians first and smart businessmen second. The bigger the company the more they were politicos, even presentable actors. Disillusioning. I have remained hostile to these huge incomes ever since.

Trump’s sanctions on Iran pose a threat he never thought of

Sanctions are used by the US to punish rivals and discourage challenges to American power. The US has imposed (by executive order only) sanctions on a record 944 individuals and entities in the last year. This year it could reach 1000. Such carrots as aid, investment or diplomacy are not even discussed. Sanctions are widely regarded in other countries as assaults on sovereignty and as American coercion and bullying, and because the US dollar dominates international finance the US, with the cooperation of its European allies, has been able to wield the weapon of sanctions effectively. (Actually, the word effectively is misleading – historically, sanctions often backfire.)

Following Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear deal, European diplomats are now apparently completing work on a payment system that Iran can use, that will allow the Iranians and others to bypass America and its sanctions. Among the participants are China, Russia and India. If it can be successfully set up it could make countries like Iran politically independent and reduce the ability of the US to fight terrorism.

More worrying still would be a decline in the value of the dollar as the main currency of reference and trade. I well remember the time when the British pound was top dog. When it lost that status Britain lost mightily by no longer profiting from seigneurage, or the ability to create value simply by printing currency. That a single person, deeply ignorant as he is and unwilling to listen to any experienced advice, can be allowed to put the dollar at risk just shows how debased the system has become, threatening the very security and wellbeing of the country. Those who support Trump seem to be happy with swagger but know nothing about finance.

By the way, Iran is an example of how some Americans have a desperate desire for bogeymen. It was the Americans and the British who originally put the Shah in power by force. All these years later we are still scrapping with Iran, withdrawing from the only agreement we have had that might have improved relations. Isn’t it time to do a deal that would at last put history behind us? (the Epicurean way) Of course any deal needs two participants, but isn’t reconciliation what diplomacy is about? Or are four syllable words tough to understand?

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………!)