Taking your mind off it all

When croquet kills
To The Times
Further to your letters on croquet, I have been researching deaths of soldiers whose number was not on the bullet throughout 1914-18, but who died in bizarre or unfortunate circumstances after their Great War service. I discovered one Anglo-French officer who survived the horrors of Verdun only to be killed by his wife lifting a mallet with too much vigour during a peaceful postwar game, accidentally breaking his skull. At least, that’s what she told the magistrate.
Dr Bruce Cherry, Wooburn Green, Buckinghamshire

I think Epicurus would approve of this person and his letter. He has found a pastime which blots out current news entirely and is clearly absorbing. Now back to the inter-personal skills of polar bears on Baffin Island………

American inequality – this house may not stand for long

The widening of the racial wealth divide has coincided with the extreme concentration of U.S. wealth. The wealthiest 0.1 percent of households have grown richer while millions of families face poverty and deep-seated economic insecurity.

The median American family saw their wealth drop 3 percent between 1983 and 2016, while the richest 0.1 percent have seen their wealth jump 133 percent. During this same period, the annual increase for White median family wealth was about $1,000. Latino median family wealth went up by $66 annually and Black median family wealth dropped $83 annually. Meanwhile, the average household in the top 1 percent saw their wealth jump by half a million dollars annually.

The richest dynastic families in the United States have seen their wealth expand at a dizzying pace. The three wealthiest families — the Waltons, the Kochs, and the Mars — have seen their wealth increase nearly 6,000 percent since 1983. The Forbes 400 richest Americans own more wealth than all Black households plus a quarter of Latino households.

Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, owns $160 billion in total wealth. That is 44 million times more wealth than the median Black family and 24 million times more wealth than the median Latino family. (Inequality.org, January 2028)

History tells us that when you have persistently huge gaps in wealth and manifest unfairness the result is revolution, not necessarily violent, but an upheaval nonetheless. Russia only a hundred years ago is an example, France at the end of the 18th Century another. Look around the world at present at regimes where small, corrupt and self-perpetuating elites are stashing away looted wealth and the local politics is toxic. (Latin America, most of Africa, South East Asia (Malaysia is an example), and Syria in particular, where the corrupt regime has been saved for geo-political reasons by Russia). We haven‘t reached that point in America yet, but the groundwork has been laid by short-sighted people out for a quick buck.

Tax the rich!

You can tax the wealthiest more without ruining the economy. This assessment comes from the
International Monetary Fund and shatters the neoliberal shibboleth that increasing taxes on the top 1% would hurt growth. The IMF’s experts found that between 1985 and 1995, redistribution through the tax system offset 60% of the increase in inequality caused by market forces. But this broke down between 1995 and 2010 as inequality soared.

In Britain the findings will increase pressure on Theresa May ahead of next month’s budget, as the chancellor, Philip Hammond, proposes the usual tax cuts to higher earners and raises the top tax threshold (The Guardian, October 12,2017)

In America Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) has propoosed raising the highest tax rate to 70 percent on incomes of $10 million or more. A majority of registered voters, 59 percent, supports the idea. Women support the idea by a 62-38 percent margin. A majority of men back it as well, 55 percent to 45 percent. The proposal is popular in all regions of the country with a majority of Southerners backing it by a 57 to 43 percent margin. Rural voters back it 56 percent to 44 percent. Increasing the highest tax bracket to 70 percent garners a surprising amount of support among Republican voters. In the Hill-HarrisX poll, 45 percent of GOP voters say they favor it while 55 percent are opposed to it. Independent voters backed the tax idea by a 60 to 40 percent margin, while Democrats favored it, 71 percent to 29 percent. Meanwhile, Republicans are responding to these encoraging results by misrepresenting the proposal, implying that the congresswoman wants to tax all income of the richest Americans at 70 percent. A normal day’s work!

During the 1950s and 60s, the wealthiest Americans were taxed at a rate in excess of 90 percent, and growth was uninterrupted. As for supporters of Epicurus, i suggest that they would not hesitate to level the playing field and reduce the outsized influence of the super-rich, whose control over lawmakers is obscene.

Practical Epicureanism: What you can do to combat global warming

The following is excerpted from the December 8-14, 2018 edition of the New Scientist, written by Graham Lawton, staff feature writer:

Keeping global warming below 1.5°C will require behavioural changes – but that doesn’t mean you have to don a hair shirt. The cumulative effect of small, low-effort actions can be great, and the more each of us contributes, the less impossible it will be to meet the target. Here’s a selection of the most doable and effective interventions, as selected by scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Veg out
Switching to a plant-based diet can reduce the carbon footprint of your food by more than 90 per cent. If nothing else, avoid beef: its carbon footprint is three times that of pork and six times that of chicken. The second-worst offenders are tropical fruits imported by air, and cheese. It is estimated that a shift to a plant-based diet across the globe would cut carbon emissions by up to 70 per cent.

Drive off
Car journeys, especially short ones in cities, account for a disproportionate share of emissions. That doesn’t mean you have to stop driving entirely: a 2017 study in the Netherlands found that members of a car-sharing scheme drove 15 to 20 per cent fewer kilometres than before they joined, and so emitted between 13 and 18 per cent less CO2.

Leg power can replace many car journeys, too. In London in 2009, for example, journeys to places within walking distance (defined to be up to 2 kilometres) accounted for 11 per cent of the distance travelled in cars, while trips within cycling distance (up to 8 kilometres) accounted for 55 per cent.

Be warned, though: all of the small gains achieved by not driving can be wiped out by taking a single holiday flight. A return economy flight from London to Majorca in Spain – about 2 hours’ flying time – emits the equivalent of 490 kilograms of CO2, about the same as you would save in a year by going vegetarian or driving 2500 kilometres less.

Run a tight ship
According to a US study from 2009, just choosing an energy-efficient model when it comes to replacing a home appliance could reduce your carbon emissions by 1.9 per cent on average. Other simple changes such as lowering the temperature of your hot water and washing machine, using a lower-flow showerhead, not leaving appliances on standby and drying washing on an outdoor line rather than with a tumble dryer can cut a further 2.2 per cent – not huge, but everything counts.

Smart thermostats would make a bigger contribution. A modelling study in Germany in 2017 found that these can reduce a household’s emissions by up to 26 per cent, with a bonus reduction in energy bills.

And if you are rattling round a big house, consider downsizing. A smaller home can cut your emissions by 27 per cent, according to a UK study in 2016.

Be a desk warrior
Offices are a major source of unnecessary emissions. So turn off lights when everyone has left for the day, switch off your workstation when you go home and don’t leave phone chargers plugged in when they aren’t in use. A UK study from 2017 found that these simple actions can cut office emissions by up to 28 per cent.

Even better, don’t go into the office if you can get away with it. A US review from 2012 found that homeworkers travel up to 77 per cent fewer kilometres in a vehicle by avoiding a commute.

Brexit: my most instant, heartfelt posting ever

Britain on Tuesday: May lost by over 400 votes! The rolling, roiling disaster gets worse by the day.

Lack of forethought, bullying, and downright ignorance rule the day! Epicurus would advise me to calm down, to be philosophical, to assume all will eventually settle down and rationality will be restored. It is possible that he could be correct, but I am also a patriot. I am writing this within minutes of the disastrous “No” vote that throws a crazy Brexit situation into even worse turmoil, uncertainty, and paralysis, led by people who want to finally unwind all the laws and rules that protect the old and the poor, their healthcare, their State pensions, their rights and protections. They want a winner-takes-all country dominated by the super-rich and by foreign money launderers – the “let-em-starve” mob.

I am a dual American and British citizen. I feel I am losing the country of my birth and the country of my adoption simultaneously. One could joke and call it careless. Like a refugee fleeing Middle Eastern man-made disasters I worry desperately about both of my countries, but particularly about the British futures of my five grandchildren who, whatever happens, will be growing up in a deeply divided country whose economic future is extremely questionable, to say the least. They are, in part, victims of the referendum, part financed by Vladimir Putin, and eagerly supported by dim-witted people who naively believed all the lies of the right wing Press.

Britain on Wednesday: Less emotionally, this is an extract from an article by the excellent writer, Anne Applebaum, in the Washington Post today:

“….Brexit has been a catastrophic failure. This messy, unpopular deal, the most unpopular policy that anyone can remember, was produced by a political class that turned out to be ignorant – about Europe, Europeans, trade arrangements, institutions – and arrogant, disdaining knowledge and expertise. It was the work of leaders who favored identity politics over economics, who preferred an undefined notion of “sovereignty” to the real institutions that gave Britain influence and power, and who believed in fantasies and scorned realities.”

“Time that could have been spent on other things – on debating defence, or poverty, or clean beaches – has been wasted on a policy that won’t make Britain happier, wealthier or stronger. Instead, this long debate has produced confusion and gridlock.”

Mobile phones

The average Briton checks a mobile phone every 12 minutes and is online for 24 hours a week, according to Ofcom. A fifth of British adults feels stressed if they cannot access the internet, while only 12% of adults never use it. A quarter of adults spend more than 40 hours a week on the internet – a move driven by the uptake of smartphones, which many people are checking frequently from when they wake up in the morning until the moment they fall asleep at night. Time spent making phone calls from mobiles has fallen as people use messaging services instead. (The Guardian. 4 Aug 2018)

At the gym where I go the young people seem to spend almost as much time on their phones as they do exercising. Health first, politics second. You can’t do anything about
politics, but you can inflence your health.

How the Democrats are becoming more like Trump

In America nowadays, we hear a lot about partisan polarisation. Republicans and Democrats couldn’t be more different, it is argued, with the former moving to the right, the latter to the left. This is certainly borne out on Twitter, where Trump’s dominance is matched only by self-described ‘socialist’ congresswoman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. However, in three crucial aspects, the Democrats are actually becoming more like Trump:

  1. An embrace of a realist, non-interventionist foreign policy. Between the Second World War and the election of Obama in 2008, there was a broad bipartisan consensus regarding America’s relationship with the world. The United States had a moral responsibility to be a superpower, intervening abroad to uphold democracy and maintain world peace. During the Cold War, the country saw itself as the protector of the free world against Communism. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, America would use its status as the world’s only superpower for humanitarian purposes. But with Obama elected in no small part due to his scepticism of the Iraq War, America began to retreat from the world. The desire to uphold liberal values internationally had come at the expense of the country’s security and economic health. Realist international relations theory rose to prominence, advocating a security policy based on interests and power politics, not values. Trump may be openly isolationist in a way Obama wasn’t, but both men have contributed to this long-term trend. This is why Democrats’ critique of Trump’s Syria policy seems so hollow; no one believes the Democrats have the political will to invade Syria and defeat Assad.
  2. A scepticism of free trade. A significant part of Trump’s appeal in the Rust Belt was his criticisms of NAFTA and American trade policy more generally. Trump argued free trade deals allow companies to ship American jobs overseas, then import their goods back to the country at a very low cost. Free trade benefits the Democrat-voting coastal cities, by lowering the cost of imported goods. But it comes at the expense of good manufacturing jobs in the American heartland, as well as a healthy trade balance. Democrats are confused as to how to respond to Trump’s trade policy, partly because they need the white non-college educated voters who instinctively approve of protectionism. Centrist Democrats are quick to defend NAFTA and the TPP, arguing raising the cost of living for consumers isn’t progressive. Progressives have taken a different stance, framing free trade deals as part of a war on Middle America by greedy, unaccountable corporations. With the progressive wing of the Democrats ascendant, the party’s descent into protectionism looks set to continue.
  3. A wholesale embrace of populism. Despite being a billionaire New Yorker, Trump contrasts himself with the elites. He attacks the media, judges, the intelligence agencies and the universities for all being a part of the ‘Deep State’- a conspiratorial notion of a liberal establishment trying to thwart the will of the people. Hypocritical as it may be in most cases, the appropriation of populist rhetoric is necessary in an age of disillusionment and dissatisfaction. Trump is to a large extent, simply a product of his time. The Democrats are also increasingly populist, railing against the elites just like Trump. But Democrats define the establishment differently. While Trump defines the establishment exclusively by their liberal values, Democrats define the establishment by their economic interests. The wealthy few may have benefited from the free-market policies enacted by Washington since the 1980s, but ordinary Americans have suffered. Democrats have gone from critiquing exploitative business practices to condemning business itself, particularly big business, as being inherently exploitative. Democrats also have a values dimension to their populism: they are enraged by an establishment based on ‘privilege’, where some people have treated far better than others based on uncontrollable characteristics- race, gender, sexuality etc.

None of this is to deny the polarised nature of American politics. In most respects, the country’s two parties are more different than ever. But it is important to note the underlying trends that have affected both parties. Both Democrats and Republicans will be profoundly reformed by realism, protectionism and populism for the foreseeable future.

Artificial intelligence – in the right hands?

The Guardian Weekly of 4 January 2019 carried an article by Vivienne Ming about Artificial Intelligence. In theory, she says, poverty, mental health, climate change, inequality – almost everything – could be addressed by AI. The problem, she says, is not the concept of AI, but the people behind it. She points out that AI is being developed by young men (mostly) “who have never solved a problem in their lives. They have never done anything from scratch to make someone’s life better”. And here we are trusting to these youngsters (some of whom are technically brilliant, but possibly on the autistic spectrum, (although she doesn’t mention this, nor do I have any data to prove it) to usher us into the Age of Artificial Intelligence.

Take the issue of gender bias. Some techies seem to think that they can throw an algorithm at a subject like this and it will come up with an answer. But if the people who constitute a company don’t know how to avoid bias in real life, AI will not solve the problem. If you throw a neural network at a pile of data, it will find patterns that predicts a person’s grades, job prospects, or the odds that they will re-offend. But human beings are infinitely complicated. What we desperately need is deeper understand about life – the real causes of good grades, re-offending, or why a person seems to have good job prospects.

The answer is to recruit advisors who are old, experienced and who have a measure of wisdom. It’s the old story – if you feed in trash out will come – trash.

Men and friendship

Many men rely on their womenfolk to make and retain friends for them.  How many women do you know who complain that they have to make all the social arrangements?  In the event that they are divorced or separated for whatever reason, men can be lonely indeed.   

When I was young I yearned to have a girlfriend. Almost anyone who was lively and fun would have been a thrill. Instead I struggled, and watched the cool guys who didn’t appear to care less, the men with the straggly beards and the unkempt hair, the guys who never turned up on time, getting all the girls.

And then one day someone said to me, You try too hard. And maybe you’re trying with the wrong people, too. I thought about this, and adopted a more casual, take-it-or-leave it attitude. I abandoned the obvious targets (blondes, mostly) and concentrated getting to know fun people who had similar interests to mine, who had a sense of humor and occasionally even laughed at my stories. Suddenly, I had more people complaining about my jokes, but willing to date me (as long as I shut up occasionally).

My advice: Relax. Step back. At least pretend not to care. Give people space; if you don’t, they will retreat as you advance. And what can be most difficult for many people – lighten up and don’t be intense (I have no reason to think you are, but just in case the cap fits).

Freedom of the Press?

78 journalists were killed in 2017 while doing their jobs. Data from the Committee to Protect Journalists shows that 2018 is likely to be no better – the number of journalists murdered as opposed to killed in war, on dangerous assignments or other incidents is on the rise.

Jamal Khashoggi, killed by Saudi security forces in Istanbul in October, has been one of 31 journalists murdered in 2018. In the previous year 326 journalists were imprisoned for their work by increasingly authoritarian regimes. More than half of those behind bars were held in Turkey, China, and Egypt, often on charges of opposing the state.

Countries like Russia and China have never had democracy or a free Press, and will probably. never have it. There is irony in the fact that, if you spend any time in, say, Egypt you will find plenty of people who are vocal about the “horrors” of British rule (its long gone – and maybe they are right), and yet they seem to put up with a vicious military dictatorship that suppresses free speech. Maybe they would argue that it’s “their” own vicious military dictatorship and they are entitled to it. Turkey was only a democracy for a handful of years. Even Sultans, who brooked no opposition, were better than the power-crazy Erdogan.

We are going through a period that parallels the history of the 1920s and 1930s. Life in both the US and the UK is going to get worse before it gets better. But sometime we will emerge from it. Let us hope that out of it comes a vibrant and free Press – we need it – but one would be stupid to accept bets. People seem to like “strong” men, even if they are uncontrollable, cruel, self-involved, paranoid, and adore the selfish rich. We should be publicising lists of the lazy people who can’t bother to vote when they have the opportunity, and then spend their lives complaining. Voting guarantees nothing, I suppose, but at least it is a declaration of individual liberty, even if it is ignored. Meanwhile, those who do vote need reliable information from a dedicated Press.

If you don‘t like it don’t buy it

A woman struggles to park a car. A man seems unable to change a nappy. Adverts portraying the sexes in a stereotyped way can be very irritating, says Tom Welsh. But it’s one thing to think they’re crass and outdated, quite another to prohibit them. Yet that’s what the UK’s advertising watchdog plans to do. Last week, it declared a ban on any ads containing “gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence”.

Come again? The watchdog’s role is to stop advertisers wilfully misleading the public or broadcasting inappropriate content to children, not to “act like philosopher-kings, determining what is good or bad for adults”. Yet that’s what the regulators are increasingly doing. They recently banned a Costa Coffee ad for urging people to eat its bacon rolls for breakfast in place of avocados, and thus encouraged “poor nutritional habits”. Spare us this assault on free speech. Consumers already have perfectly good recourse for sanctioning advertisers who cause “widespread offence”: they can shun their products. (Tom Welsh, The Daily Telegraph 21/12/18).

I rather agree with the writer. Let the consumer decide. The way to deal with gender steriotyping is to laugh at it and refuse to buy the product. Banning it plays into the hands of the right-wing libertarians and big government haters. One of my objections to so many TV ads is that they totally lack creativity. British ads on TV used to be the best in the world, funny and memorable. Now they have become just like American TV ads, crass, simplistic and preachy, oh, and politically correct – there is no harm in depicting a white, elderly couple, or a black elderly couple. But nearly always mixed race? Treat us like grown-ups!

Homelessness in Britain

At least 320,000 people are homeless in Britain, according to research by the housing charity “Shelter”. This amounts to a year-on-year increase of 13,000, a 4% rise, despite government pledges to tackle the crisis. The estimate suggests that nationally one in 200 people are homeless. Shelter says its figures, which include rough sleepers and people in temporary accommodation, are likely to be an underestimate of the problem because they do not capture people who experience “hidden” homelessness, such as the sofa-surfers, and others living insecurely in sheds or cars, for example.

In London, 170,000 people – equivalent to one in 52 – have no home. Westminster had the most rough sleepers, 217, followed by Camden, with 127. In Kensington and Chelsea, the UK’s richest borough, there were over 5,000 homeless people – equivalent to one in every 29 residents. The figures indicate how homelessness and housing insecurity is spreading beyond its traditional heartland of London into the wider south-east and Midlands, and the impact of high rents and welfare cuts ripples outwards.

Polly Neate, Shelter’s chief executive, said: “Due to the perfect storm of spiralling rents, welfare cuts and a total lack of social housing, record numbers of people are sleeping out on the streets or stuck in the cramped confines of a hostel room. We desperately need action now to change tomorrow for the hundreds of thousands whose lives will be blighted by homelessness this winter.”

Melanie Onn, the shadow housing minister, said: “It is appalling that enough people to fill a city the size of Newcastle (should be) without a home. This is the outcome of eight years of austerity that even the United Nations say was designed to hurt the poor. ().

My comment: Walk down a Central London street and you hear fewer and fewer English voices. Many are welcome visitors, but there is a huge number of rich foreigners laundering money and immigrants seeking work. They occupy property and have inflated buying and rental prices beyond the reach of British citizens, forcing Londoners to move away from the capital. This has caused more house price inflation all over the country. It reminds me of the period after the Second World War with mass homelessness caused by bombing, but at least that did not just discriminate against the poor. Brexit, however, could cause a major exit of hot money, dubious property owners and East European migrants, and bring the house price rise to a grinding halt. Current prices are quite ridiculous. (Of course a mass exit would be damaging for quite other reasons).

Federal Drug Administration

The other evening at a dinner party I sat next to a charming and enthusiastic employee of the FDA. She waxed lyrical about its dedication, expertise and good management.

A few days later, on January 6th there appeared a scathing article about the FDA. It did not criticize the drug authorization program, but it did point out the apparent carelessness with which the FDA treats medical devices – implants, artificial hips, surgical mesh etc. Some 32 million Americans walk around with medical devices in their bodies, some of them very hard to get out if they go wrong. Just one device, a neck implant, is associated with 1.7 million injuries and more than 80,000 deaths – and the public know nothing about it. The FDA insist that high risk devices undergo “stringent“ testing. In fact, only 5% of implantable cardiac devices, for instance, are thoroughly tested and subjected to clinical trials.

The reason given for the laisser faire attitude is that when the FDA was given the job of overseeing medical devices in 1976 they accepted the existing products on the market as being established and safe. In other words they grandfathered them. So now the makers tell the FDA that some new product is old, really, but improved with minor tweaks. In the jargon of the trade it has “substantial equivalence”. This is enough to get it waved through the system, o.k for some products, but not so much for high risk items. The second loophole is called the “supplement pathway”, and applies to new models of high risk devices, such as artificial hips. Either way, potentially lethal devices are in daily use, and the FDA blithely continues its existing policies.

One of the problems is that, like the Agriculture and Aviation departments, the FDA regards the device manufacturers (corporations) as “customers”, not the users (patients). 35% of its regulation cost is paid for by the very companies who make the devices. Since the companies are customers the FDA acts accordingly, hurrying approvals and behaving like any commercial supplier. Moreover, for years the people running the FDA have been recruited from the device manufacturers, or lobbyists for device manufactures.

It is clear that the FDA should be fully publicly funded (only) and be made to rigorously check every medical device, making its findings public. Secondly, the head of the FDA should be a career civil servant, and should not be recruited from the trade. The same thing should be done with the FAA, whose preoccupation is with the success and welfare of the airlines – (and to hell with the passengers), and the Department of Agriculture, whose concern is with the food producers, not the consumers. How all this went wrong in the first place I don’t know, but the politicised situation lends itself to charges of corruption. Faith in transparent institutions, government or otherwise, is an Epicurean principle and is the bedrock of democracy (if we had it!).

The trickle-down con job

The recent huge corporate tax cut was supposed to encourage companies to invest and to hire more workers. Investments made by Standard & Poor’s 500 largest companies has been $475 billion in the first three quarters of the year,19% up. R & D has risen by 34% during the same period.

But the above figures disguise a more objectionable trend: stock buybacks, which increase the value of the shares for the benefit of company executives. Buybacks have totaled $579 billion in the first three quarters of 2018. Instead of raising wages or avoiding layoffs. At the same time dividend payments are running at record levels. Meanwhile capital expenditure by companies remains largely on a trend similar to that before the tax cuts.

Meanwhile, average earnings of private sector workers are up 2.8% in 2018.

In other words, trickle-down, as usual, isn’t trickling down. It never did, but it has been used for decades as a means of making the rich (donors) richer and conning the public, some of whom, in Democrat-leaning areas, are ending up paying more, not less tax. On the other hand one has to acknowledge that the money that returns to investors is usually re-invested in companies that need the investment, and this is a plus for the economy. Overall, however, the majority of buybacks add little to national wealth.

Why Britain voted Leave: Brexit explained to non-Brits

My non-British friends often ask me why Britain voted to leave the European Union. Some are Europeans themselves, the vast majority of whom feel sad and bewildered by Britain’s departure. Others are American or Asian, who don’t know much about the EU beyond its primary function as a facilitator of trade, and so would like a proper explanation of Brexit. So here are what I believe to be the most significant causes of the vote to leave. I make no secret of my views- my friends know I’m a passionate pro-European- but I’ll try to be impartial for the purposes of this article:

  1. Britain’s long-term Euroscepticism. Britain wasn’t one of the founding members of the European Coal and Steel Community, as the organisation was then known. The country later joined the European Economic Community, but only after what appeared to be a severe economic malaise. The UK’s relationship with Europe has always been transactional; its benefits outweigh the costs.  Most of the Continent has a historical emotional attachment to European integration as the answer to the extreme nationalism that caused both world wars, imperialism and Depression-era protectionism. Britain had the benefit of the English Channel, protected by the world’s best navy. The lesson it learnt from WW2 was one of British superiority and fighting spirit, not the benefits of international co-operation. The lack of ideological zeal for the EU in Britain, even during the Blair years, cannot be understated.
  2. The effectiveness of the Leave campaign. When the referendum campaign was first announced, most people believed Remain would win by a comfortable margin. It had the support of most of the established political parties, businesses, academics, economists and the trade unions. It also had the lion’s share of celebrity endorsements, particularly those from the creative arts. Leave had the support of a minority of Conservative MPs, a minor party called the UK Independence Party, a few right-wing think tanks and some newspapers. But Leave had some key advantages. It ran a media-savvy campaign, with eye-catching slogans, targeted social media adverts and slick marketing. It had some eloquent and charismatic figures, most notably Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. More importantly, the Leave campaign used the discontent felt by many Britons to its advantage. It promised change, and characterised Remain as a tired establishment uninterested in the lives of ordinary people. This populist narrative turned Remain’s endorsement-heavy campaign from being an asset to a liability.
  3. The nature of Britain’s economic recovery. Pre-Brexit Britain was often trumpeted as an economic success story. Unlike much of Europe, the country had got its deficit under control. Unemployment was comparatively low, and inflation well below the developed world average. The post-2010 austerity measures and reduction of the public sector workforce didn’t cause a recession or increase unemployment, as the private sector grew to compensate. However, beneath the headline figures was an economy severely underperforming. Wage stagnation was the worst in the developed world except for Greece. Austerity had starved public services of funds, particularly in local government, the legal system and welfare. The country was also experiencing increasing spatial inequality, as London and the university towns boomed while post-industrial towns and coastal communities suffered. Economic discontent wasn’t the most important cause of the vote to Leave. But given the narrowness of the result, it could’ve made the difference between staying in and leaving.
  4. The failures of the EU. One of the most potent arguments in favour of Leave was that the EU had failed to provide the kind of political stability and economic prosperity it promised. The EU seemed paralysed when faced with the migration crisis, the Eurozone sovereign debt crisis or the crisis in Ukraine. To many, the EU was both too powerful and not powerful enough: sufficiently consequential to be a supranational imposition on nation-state sovereignty, while too weak to respond to challenges decisively and sufficiently. Eurosceptics successfully argued that freed from the EU’s lethargic and irresponsive structure, the UK could make a success of going alone.
  5. An excessively negative Remain campaign. To the unending frustration of Remain campaigners, Vote Leave labelled any warnings against leaving the EU as ‘Project Fear.’ This obviously isn’t a proper argument. But it contains an element of truth- the Remain campaign was too negative. It focused too much on the drawbacks of Brexit, when the precise consequences of leaving were impossible to quantify. Rather Remain should’ve emphasised the achievements of the EU: why it was founded in the first place and how Britain should use its place in the EU to build a better future. The most obvious example of this was Remain’s failure to defend Freedom of Movement. In an age of disillusionment, negative campaigning doesn’t work when people feel they have nothing to lose.
  6. A broader dissatisfaction with globalisation. Brexit didn’t happen in isolation- it has to be seen as part of a trend sweeping the rest of the world. Globalisation is increasingly divisive. For its proponents, it has increased prosperity, facilitated democracy and enhanced human freedom. But its critics cite the increasing income inequality between the global elites and the rest of the world. They regard the supranational institutions that oversee globalisation, including the EU, as out of touch, undemocratic and uncaring. Authoritarian opponents of globalisation resent the socially liberal culture and increasing migration that seems to accompany it. Free trade, the cornerstone of globalisation, has displaced jobs and caused whole industries to go into terminal decline. Britain, like most countries, has managed globalisation poorly. The consequence here was leaving the EU.
  7. Divisions within the Conservative Party. Ever since the Thatcher years, the European question has proved to be the Conservative Party’s Achilles’ Heel. Conservative Eurosceptics were first empowered by Thatcher’s Bruges speech, which generally supported the EU but explicitly opposed what she saw as the group’s socialist and federalist tendencies. A small number of Conservative MPs then rebelled against Prime Minister Major and voted against the Maastricht Treaty. Ongoing Conservative infighting over Europe was one of the reasons why David Cameron called the referendum. The Conservative Party then declared itself neutral during the campaign, so as not to upset its Eurosceptic faction. The party’s base is now overwhelmingly anti-EU. Any aspiring future Conservative leader will have to be Eurosceptic, something which makes rejoining the EU quite unlikely.

Marriage, ancient and modern

Care of the Husband’s Person

On 8 April 2010 the London Review of Books reviewed a 14th Century Parisian book of household management called The Good Wife’s Guide: A Medieval Household Book. This is a compendium of medieval lore which aimed to instruct young wives how to be good, efficient, and obedient. The following is an excerpt from a section entitled Care of the Husband’s Person:

Therefore love your husband’s person carefully. I entreat you to see that he has clean linen, for that is your domain, while the concerns and troubles of men are those outside affairs that they must handle, amidst coming and going, running here and there, in rain, wind, snow and hail, sometimes drenched, sometimes dry, now sweating, now shivering, ill-fed, ill-lodged, ill-shod and poorly rested. Yet nothing represents a hardship for him, because the thought of his wife’s good care for him on his return comforts him immensely. The ease, joys and pleasures he knows she will provide for him herself, or have done for him in his presence, cheer him: removing his shoes in front of a good fire, washing his feet, offering clean shoes, and socks, serving plenteous food and drink …. she puts him to sleep in white sheets and his nightcap, covered with good furs, and satisfies him with other joys and amusements, intimacies, loves and secrets about which I remain silent.

With the above in mind let us now fast forward seven hundred years to my updated version, noting the changed roles of husband and wife. This is how the above might be written in 2019:

Care of the Wife’s Person

Therefore love your wife’s person carefully. I entreat you, before you sit down to watch sport on television all day with a can of beer in hand, to see that she has clean underclothes, for the washing machine is your domain, as is the washing up and the making of the bed in the morning. The concerns and troubles of women are those outside affairs that they must handle, amidst taking the children to school, getting the car serviced, running here and there in rain, wind, snow and hail, sometimes drenched, sometimes dry, now sweating, now shivering, dealing with the bank, the mortgage and an unsympathetic boss, buying new shoes for the children and taking them to football practice, violin lessons and ballet; getting her facial, haircut and manicure and answering all the emails during her half hour lunch break. Despite eating on the run, arranging all the social commitments and the visits of plumbers and electricians, nothing represents a hardship for her, because the thought of her husband’s good care for her on her return home comforts her immensely. The ease, joys and pleasures she knows he will provide for her cheer her: removing her shoes in front of a good fire, washing her feet, offering clean shoes, and socks, cooking plenteous food and pouring copious drink …. he puts her to sleep in white sheets, and, after he brings her a nice hot drink of cocoa and she has taken her anti-depressants, he tries to satisfies her with other joys and amusements, intimacies, loves and secrets, before she falls asleep exhausted. As to his feelings about this I remain silent.

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The Good Wife’s Guide: A Medieval Household Book is translated by Gina Greco and Christine Rose and published by Cornell, £16.95, March 2009, ISBN 978-0-8014-7474-3.

Big retail. No.2

The other day I commented on scanners in shops, the fact that they almost encourage shop-lifting, and the cavalier attitude of companies to “wastage” (or non-payment for goods by customers). Why do retailers shrug their shoulders?

1.  The purchase of scanners shows up on the balance sheet as depreciation, and the government has decreed that it can be written off against tax under the heading “Accelerated Depreciation”. Thus, a hunk of tax can be saved almost immediately.  

2.  Stores can reduce their overhead by eliminating counter staff, keeping just one person to supervise, say, six scanning machines.

3.  Since many American companies are now virtual monopolies (thank you, Congress!) there is no problem – if deemed necessary just raise prices to make up for “waste of inventory.”

The scam that has re-written the rules on depreciation is a subsidy to capital investment, encouraging firms to substitute capital for labour. It helps large companies pay no U.S tax at all, thus worsening the fiscal situation. Verizon (telephone and internet) has benefitting from millions of dollars of subsidies (why, please?) and is reported to have had a negative 3% tax liability for the last three years. Almost free of tax, why bother about customers walking out without paying for their soda pop?

Epicurus would have commented that corporations and super-rich individuals should not benefit from discriminatory tax benefits, set up by politicians to encourage “political support”. If an individual or a corporation is not paying at least a net 10%(?) of all profits and income in tax, they should be audited by the IRS. We the taxpayers put up with far too much pampering of big business and big earners.

Big retail

I am in the local CVS, one of the many near-monopolies, retailing everything from pharmaceuticals to fizzy drink. I have bought some milk, and scan the carton, cost $2.67. A total of $38.97 shows up on the screen. While accustomed to price gouging this is, nevertheless, mildly surprising. I find one of the few, increasingly elusive, staff.  

“Look what your machine is trying to charge me for a pitiful little carton of milk!”

Says she, looking not in the least surprised, “This is happening all the time.”

“It looks as if somebody scanned their items, didn’t like the look of the price, and walked out with the items without paying.”

“You’re right, Sir. As I say it’s happening all the time.”

“You mean several times a day?”

“Oh, yes, We can’t keep an eye on everyone.”

Should we be dismayed by the unethical and dishonest people who walk out without paying?  Yes. Should we sympathize with the company? No! They account for theft in their pricing. To put it another way, the honest guys are subsidising the dishonest ones. Big companies are not particularly bothered by theft, or “wastage” as it is called. Epicurus would advocate for more humans behind check-out counters, and retirement for price scanners. It wouldn’t stop mistakes and inaccurate payments, but it would provide more employment at least.

The curse of American monopolies

Three quarters of all US industries became more concentrated between 1997 and 2012. Ten pharmaceutical companies control the production and sales of the world’s medicine. Three chemical companies control the supply of seeds and pesticides. One corporation controls nearly all the non-craft beer for sale on the planet. Industrial concentration has now reached the highest level in a century. Large companies restrict (or discourage) private initiative, restrict competition and innovation – and on top of all that they are inefficient, cumbersome and frustrating to deal with. My personal bete noir is Verizon (phone and internet), was originally part of the massive monopoly Ma Bell. This was broken up only to be resurrected in the form of a duopoly with AT&T.

After the Second World War a vibrant anti-monopoly policy was regarded as essential for a thriving democracy, This policy ruled until the early 1980s, when right wing economists and politicians, led by Robert Bork and the Chicago school of economics, managed to persuade the Republican party that monopoly power was not only legal but a positive good, and that capitalism self-regulates. According to the new Bork paradigm “the opportunity to charge monopoly prices…induces risk taking that produces innovation and economic growth”. In fact monopolies block competition, erect barriers to entry and dampen economic growth. But put loyal Fepublican voters at the top of monopoly companies and you have a steady and reliable source of election funding, and an army of sympathetic and well-funded lobbyists, aside from anything else.

In the best interests of the nation? The policy of true patriots? Decide for yourself.

Brief update on British university grade inflation

An official British report has found that grades at more than 80% of universities have inflated beyond a level attributable to rising standards. Last year, 18% of students who got CCD or below at A level graduated with a first; 50% of students at Surrey University got a first; at Bristol, UCL and Durham, 2:2 and third-class degrees were given to fewer than 10% of students.