The Supreme Court … thoroughly politicised

The US Supreme Court, with the addition of two hard-right justices appointed by Trump, has now become so politicised that one could argue that a Republican Senate is almost unnecessary. The Court has five of the most conservative justices there have been for a hundred years. Although John Roberts tries to temper the extreme views of people like Brett Kavanaugh the fact is that we can now “look forward” to dire changes to laws on abortion, affirmative action, voting rights for minorities, workers’ rights, and such gun safety laws as there are. Then there are likely to be decisions in favour of religious groups which would allow them to opt out of civil rights and other duties of a normal citizen.

Whatever else Trump has done to dismantle the effectivenes and image of the US overseas, at home he has potentially cemented a right-wing judicial coup. And this is without the scores of judicial nominations which were held up by Republicans under Obama until there was a Republican President. These now threaten to make the country suspiciously like Hungary or Turkey, where dissidents and minorities increasingly are deprived of their rights. We no longer have politicians willing to compromise; on the contrary, they are mainly “yes-men”.

The above sounds alarmist and distopian, and I sincerely hope I am wrong. But where are the old-style good guys with integrity and honour? If you can name any, please comment below.
(Oh, and while you are about it, explain why the GOP, formerly the party of honour, patriotism and fervent support for the Constitution and democracy, became the lapdogs of the rich and purveyors of bigotry and xenophobia. This is an issue now being discussed by right-wing writers like Max Boot, Charles Sykes, Rick Wilson and Jeff Flake in books being published in a steady stream, omitting, of course, any discussion of their own responsibilty).

Why is this connected to Epicureanism? Because you cannot have a pleasant, enjoyable life under the rule of law if you know that the rulers care only for rich donors and are prepared to dismantle a “country-for-all” in favour of an oligarchy where the ordinary, struggling citizen is promised the Earth, but gets zilch, nada or nothing, in that order. And the worst of all disgraces is the packing of the Courts of Law with nobodies who, one fears, will do what they are told.

Time to rein in corporate power!

One of the few areas of agreement in Washington’s “bitterly divided politics” is “the need to tackle the omnipotence of the Faangs (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google). Donald Trump may be a Twitter addict, but he has been “sharply critical” of the power of big tech. The Democrats taking control of the House of Representatives and its powerful committees are also “committed” to taking them on. No one is expecting the sort of “full-throated antitrust pursuit” that had the White House taking on the monopoly of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil more than a century ago, but public opinion is turning against Big Tech. San Francisco voted recently voted to adopt “Proposition C”: an extra tax on its biggest businesses that will raise funds to combat homelessness. A good thing too!

Nonetheless, the power of big companies to push governments around seems unchanged at the moment, and is demonstrated by the way in which Amazon set about choosing locations for its new HQ. As well as demanding good roads, public transport and educated locals (all paid for by taxpayers), the company stated that “incentives” from state and local governments would be “significant factors in the decision-making process”. We can see much the same thing in Britain, where the chemicals giant Ineos (which is run by the UK’s richest man, Jim Ratcliffe, and made some $2bn in profit last year) appears to have persuaded local authorities in the Tees Valley, one of the poorest areas in England, “to build a factory for him”. Leaving the EU will probably make Britain “more vulnerable” to such “corporate blackmail” as it tries to retain and attract jobs. It may well make short-term sense for companies to treat people’s jobs as “bargaining chips”, but if it ends up eroding support for capitalism and globalisation, “it will come back to bite them in the end”. (The Week, 17 November 2018)

Actually, what we do need is precisely the sort of “full-throated antitrust pursuit that had the White House taking on the monopoly of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil more than a century ago.” These arrogant people, especially the tech companies, have coarsened discourse, encouraged crude, vulgar bullies, racists and political extremists, weakened the traditional Press and caused huge social changes, in my opinion none of them good. The bosses never meant, I’m sure, to undermine society, even elections, but, having done so much damage they are now prevaricating and avoiding doing their duty to society. They need to be brought up with a jolt, and the weak-kneed, mamby-pamby Congress must stop paying obeisance to them and treat them like any other public service (especially regarding tax). Otherwise the public will turn against modern, disagreeable, divisive capitalism altogether.

Alleluia!

Happiness

The Greek word that usually gets translated as “happiness” is eudaimonia, and like most translations from ancient languages, this can be misleading. The main trouble is that happiness (especially in modern America) is often conceived of as a subjective state of mind, as when one says one is happy when one is enjoying a cool beer on a hot day, or is out “having fun” with one’s friends.

For Aristotle, however, happiness is was final end or goal that encompassed the totality of one’s life. It is not something that can be gained or lost in a few hours, like pleasurable sensations. It is more like the ultimate value of your life as lived up to this moment, measuring how well you have lived up to your full potential as a human being. For this reason, one cannot really make any pronouncements about whether one has lived a happy life until it is over, just as we would not say of a football game that it was a “great game” at halftime. For the same reason we cannot say that children are happy, any more than we can say that an acorn is a tree, for the potential for a flourishing human life has not yet been realized. As Aristotle says, “for as it is not one swallow or one fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy.” (Nicomachean Ethics, 1098a18)

Pursuing this idea, let us imagine postponing any conclusions about our happiness until the end of life (or near to it anyway – one would have to be sentient). Then can I propose some searching questions? Ask yourself, for instance:

– Have I lived a full life, using all the abilities and talents given me to good effect?
– Have I lived an honest life, privately and in my job?
– Have I treated other people with consideration and kindness?
– Have I been generous in spirit and in giving?
– Have I done enough to help the sick, the poor and those not blessed as I have been?
– Has there been enough beauty and tranquility in my life?
– Have I given love and support to those closest to me?
– Have I come to terms with any regrets I have?

It is a rare human being who can honestly claim a perfect, happy life, but a quiet conscience gives a clue.

Brains and bias

Female students do better at school and are more likely to go to university than their male peers, but a gender bias study has found they are seen as less capable of “brainy” tasks. In one experiment by US researchers, women were about as likely as men to be referred for a job requiring “consistent effort”, but less likely than men if intelligence was specified. In another, children tended to pick male teammates for games that they were told needed someone very clever. Athene Donald, a physics professor from Cambridge University, said the findings should be “a wake-up call to our society to change our thinking and how we pass on these biases in our daily lives to the next generation”. The findings were written up in American Psychologist.

The idea that women are less capable of “brainy” tasks than men is baloney, and always has been. Until fairly recently a good education was offered to boys because “girls get married and have children; they don’t need extra schooling or higher education”. (I quote my father, a dear man, but with an infuriatingly atavistic attitude on this subject). Epicureanism teaches that gender doesn’t matter; are all born with a huge variety of talents and mental abilities, regardless of gender; the problem is to bring those talents out and nurture them (education!).

In my old university college (a men-only institution when I was there), 60% of the students are now women, all addressing “brainy” tasks equally with their male colleagues. We should sincerely celebrate this fact of human nature and use the talents of women for the benefit of humanity – and abandon old-fashioned prejudices still lingering among those who should know better. (How much does the prejudice owe to the competition from women for jobs and preferment, and resulting resentment? Who knows? No one is going to admit it).

Giving the elderly a raw deal

It’s a major issue that every rich country has to deal with today: how to care for the swelling number of old people. And in Britain we’re dealing with it badly. Local councils have been squeezed of funding; residential homes are being sold to property developers; home services are closing. Allied Healthcare, one of the largest home-care providers, is in danger of going bust. And in hospitals, around one in ten beds are occupied by an elderly person who’s medically fit to leave, but has nowhere else to go. They do things a lot better in two of the most rapidly ageing nations. In 1995, Germany introduced a long-term care insurance system: workers and employers each pay half of the compulsory levy; the retired pay all of it. Japan did the same in 2000, when it introduced a tax that everyone over 40 has to pay. Each system has flaws of course, but what both ensure is security – a centrally funded system that doles out funds to be delivered locally. In those two countries, no one “is living with the crippling uncertainty or the sense of unfairness that haunts us here”. (Camilla Cavendish, Financial Times)

Much is made in the media of the resentment among some young Brits about the difficulty they have buying homes and the insecurity of the jobs available. I entirely sympathise, and feel angry about what is happening to them. But when they criticise the elderly who do not have houses they own and have only Social Security to live on then they are not being fair. Not everyone, when younger, had a fancy income from a City bank or owned a house free of a mortgage. On the contrary, such people are/were a minority. Tens of thousands live on a meagre pension, have no family to care for them, and have to live in for-profit homes where the care is lousy, the food is worse, and the inmates sit watching TV all day in a dreary dayroom. I had an elderly, distant cousin who had been disabled from youth. She depended on the local Council for preparing her daily food and for her personal care. Her death at home was in a way fortuitous because the Council, starved of money by government, was apparently about to cut her benefits while pretending to offer her “choice” (what choice had an old lady who was incapable of helping herself?). But increasing impoverishment of the elderly has been Conservative government policy for years. People were better off with fish, olives and bright sunlight in Greece in the time of Epicurus.

The three choices facing Brexit Britain

Regular readers of Epicurus Today will have noticed an increasingly frequent number of posts on Brexit. This is because we have reached a crucial point in the negotiations, whereby the terms of our departure have been agreed, and just need ratification from the British parliament.

The problem facing Britain’s lawmakers is that the country is incredibly fragmented and polarised in its attitudes towards Brexit. Some, including Robert and myself, strongly believe in staying in the EU, despite 52% of our fellow Britons having voted to leave it. Amongst Leavers, some wish to retain a relatively close relationship with the EU, akin to Norway or Switzerland, while others would prefer to be treated like a non-European country with only a simple trade deal with the EU, like Canada or Japan.

The point is, regardless of what you ideally believe Britain’s relationship with the EU ought to be, there are now only three options. Accept May’s deal, which diverges from the EU to a greater extent than Norway or Switzerland, but encompasses customs and regulatory agreements that go beyond a normal third country. Reject May’s deal, and leave with no deal at all, with perhaps only a few informal agreements to keep planes flying and food coming in. Or stay in the EU. There simply isn’t enough time to renegotiate with Brussels, regardless of who controls the government. And even if there was, the European Commission has explicitly refused to renegotiate, on the understandable basis that May’s agreement took over a year and a half to agree upon- reopening contentious policy areas would prove too costly and create too much uncertainty.

May’s deal has attracted immense criticism from both Leavers and Remainers, and it is very unlikely the deal will pass Parliament. For Remainers, the deal damages the economy by leaving the Single Market, which would create new barriers to capital and conducting business across Europe. They also hate the end to the free movement of people, which will exacerbate Britain’s acute skills shortages in industries like construction and healthcare, and deprive British people of the automatic right to live and work in Europe. Most Eurosceptics have an equal animosity towards the deal. It requires Britain to abide by EU-equivalent fiscal and regulatory policies, preventing a dramatic economic liberalisation some Conservative Brexiteers believe is necessary to thrive outside the EU. It keeps Britain subject to European Court of Justice rulings. And most significantly, if a means of averting a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland haven’t been agreed upon, a backstop is triggered, which would result in Northern Ireland being in a separate customs territory from the rest of the UK. Not only would such a backstop be economically damaging, it would undermine Britain’s status as a true union of nations.

Having said all that, May’s deal has a few benefits. Unlike a Norway or Canada-style deal, it ensures no hard border in Ireland. It provides a degree of certainty to businesses, particularly exporters, which is why the CBI supports the deal. It also achieves many of the objectives set out by Leave campaigners in 2016. It ends annual payments to the EU, even though the economic damage from Brexit and the cost of replicating EU regulatory bodies will massively outweigh the UK’s net contribution. It ends free movement, which I personally support but was a crucial cause of the Leave vote. It also leaves the EU’s common agriculture and fisheries policies, which are widely blamed for the decline of the rural economy.

But unfortunately for Theresa May, most people oppose her deal. Unfortunately for May’s Eurosceptic critics, most people also oppose leaving without a deal. As for Remainers, some polls show a majority in favour of staying in the EU. But support of Brexit has remained surprisingly persistent given how badly the negotiations have gone. The fundamental causes of Brexit- opposition to free movement, the belief the EU is an encroachment on national sovereignty, a feeling ordinary people aren’t listened to- haven’t gone away. The main problem facing Britain is that no single solution commands anything approaching a convincing majority of the public.

So what’s the solution? The first step is to oust Theresa May as Prime Minister and vote against her deal. The second step ought to be to put the three choices facing Britain to a referendum. Given the gridlock in parliament and the increasingly visible divisions in the country, as clearly seen by the thousands of left-wing and far-right protestors clashing in London last weekend, a referendum on the terms of Brexit is the only way to resolve this impasse. The referendum isn’t a perfect idea. It won’t resolve Britain’s divisions, which are with us for the foreseeable future. Regardless of the outcome of the referendum, a significant proportion of people will be bitterly disappointed. I’m not advocating a new referendum because its a good idea, I’m advocating it because its the only way to move forward in a legitimate and orderly fashion. Forcing through May’s deal, using the prospect of crashing out as a threat, would be undemocratic and morally suspect. Leaving without a deal, without having consulted the people, would be equally heinous, because Leave voters were promised a Canada-style trade deal at the very least. And unilaterally deciding not to leave the EU would be a violation of the 2016 referendum, and would result in civil disorder and a collapse of trust in democracy. Rather, Britain needs a new referendum. I’ll be campaigning for one with as much vigour and urgency as I can muster.

 

One small point of light

Yesterday, the pound slumped below $1.26 to the lowest level since April 2017 after the prime minister said she cancelled the vote on her Brexit plan rather than see it rejected by a “significant margin”. Sterling was worth $1.2563 and €1.1062 late on Monday, and at time of writing its fortunes are little changed.

Nothing to do with Epicurus, but everything to do with the international view of Brexit and its effect on the UK. Not just shooting yourself in the foot – using a machine gun. Good for exports, though.

Why is big business silent over Brexit?

Entrepreneurs and small firms on both sides of the argument have spoken out freely about Brexit. So too have bosses of foreign-owned companies. But the “Trappist silence” maintained by many of the UK’s largest firms “has become deafening” – even though surveys suggest the majority of corporate bosses would prefer to stay in the EU and support a second referendum. One can understand their reasons for keeping quiet; they’re afraid of alienating politicians, their own people and their customers. No business leader wants to be accused of being “an enemy of the people” or of “improperly interfering in the democratic process”. And they don’t want to be labelled “defeatist” either.

Even so, directors are “required by law to disclose to stakeholders issues that affect investment, viability and jobs – and there are few bigger potential issues than Brexit”. It’s hard to see any of the generals of British business breaking their silence for a while yet. “But if Brexit goes ahead and does, indeed, prove a disaster”, they will have to explain to shareholders “why on earth they said nothing when they had the chance”. (Patrick Hosking, The Times, carried in The Week 17 Nov 2018).

Business silence is not the only silence. Britain badly needs a rapid realignment of politics, and quickly. On one side we have dangerous plotters, who lied to the people at the time of the referendum, are alleged to have taken Russian money for their misguided campaign, and who want to dismantle the welfare state. On the other hand we have a Labour party led by a Brexiteer stuck in the thought processes of the 1950s, and equally unsuitable as national leader.

Where are the Liberal Democrats and moderate Conservatives and Labour politicians? Why are they not forming a Patriotic Front to drop Brexit altogether and focus on the legitimate concerns of those outside the South East of England who feel ignored and powerless. This realignment might be disagreeable to some and might turn out to be temporary, but the future of the country is at stake, and much within the purview of all who espouse the teachings of Epicurus and who want peace of mind and a pleasant, un-fraught life, without turmoil and deprivation.

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.