Illegal plunder : moving towards a police State

America’s civil asset forfeiture laws, another product of law enforcement’s failed war on drugs, were originally designed to deprive suspected drug dealers of the spoils of their illicit trade — houses, cars, boats.  The law now regularly deprives people unconnected to the war on drugs of their property without due process of law and in violation of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. Not surprisingly, corruption follows.

Federal and state police can keep property seized or sell it and retain a portion of the revenue generated. Some of this, in turn, can be repurposed and distributed as bonuses in police and other law enforcement departments. The only way the dispossessed stand a chance of getting such “forfeited” property back is if they are willing to take on the authorities in a process where the deck is stacked against them.  In such cases, for instance, property owners have no right to an attorney to defend themselves,  which means that they must either find additional cash for a lawyer or contest the seizure themselves in court. “It is an upside-down world where,” says the libertarian Institute for Justice, “the government holds all the cards and has the financial incentive to play them to the hilt.” (Note from editor: this is typical right-wing anti-government rhetoric. It isn’t the ” government” pocketing the cash, but rogue policemen!)

Civil asset forfeiture has mutated into what’s now called “for-profit policing” in which police departments and state and federal law enforcement agencies indiscriminately seize the property of citizens who aren’t drug kingpins. Sometimes, for instance, distinctly ordinary citizens suspected of driving drunk or soliciting prostitutes get their cars confiscated. Sometimes they simply get cash taken from them on suspicion of low-level drug dealing.

All this is justified by telling the public that the police are giving the proceeds of sales to schools , old people’s homes and charities.  Unfortunately, the police are in general reluctant to specify what they have given and to whom. Militarised, and with a laager mentality, they are unaccountable in most jurisdictions and have become so reliant on civil asset forfeiture to pad their budgets and acquire “little goodies” that reforming, much less repealing, such laws  is a tough sell.

The previous posting (by Owen Bell) has a comment by me about the deep divisions among American citizens. This, above, simply outlines one of the problems – police unaccountability and the quiet support of it by most Republican politicians, who dominate most State legislatures –  another brickfalling out of the wall.

Epicurus and the Alt-Right

This post marks the return of my  Modern Philosophy series, in which I talk about the most prominent ideas facing the modern world from an Epicurean perspective. After this post, I have at least three more Modern Philosophies to cover, which I’ll be writing on weekly instead of fortnightly, so look out for that! 

After World War 2, it was assumed that far right ideology and its racist underpinnings had lost all credibility. The Holocaust had exposed the horrific consequences of such thinking. The philosophical roots of Nazism- anti-Semitism, social Darwinism and extreme nationalism- had all lost any merit in the eyes of the world. While authoritarian regimes continued to exist, such as Francoist Spain, they became increasingly isolated. The world became divided between the liberal capitalist West and the Communist countries. Following the fall of the Berlin wall, the latter too had lost respectability, leading to the liberal international order we see today.

However, there is a radical movement in the United States that regrets the dominance of liberal internationalism worldwide. Like Plato, they believe democracy is inherently flawed because it leads to mob rule. In Platonic terms, they want government by autocratic philosopher-kings. They draw inspiration from the writings of Nietzsche in their rejection of our society’s norms of morality and their embrace of post-modernism. For the most part, they reject Christian teachings of altruism and the believe in the equality of all men before God. But they defend Christianity insofar as they see it as a key component of Western civilisation, which they contrast with the inferior cultures of the non-Western world, particularly the Islamic world. They also reject Jewish culture for being non-Western. In terms of policy, they want the creation of an ethno-state, with an almost exclusively non-Hispanic white population. This movement has come to be known as the Alt-Right- a loose coalition of Trump supporters, internet trolls, neo-Confederates, neo-Nazis and KKK members. As ideologically diverse as they may seem, they are all united in their rejection of mainstream conservatism for capitulating to the notion of America as a diverse and pluralistic nation.

A week ago in Charlottesville, Virginia, Alt-Right protestors gathered to demonstrate against the removal of statutes of generals who had fought for the Confederacy. In theory, this should have been uncontroversial. A plurality of Americans support keeping Confederate-era statues as part of remembering the past. But the Alt-Right used the occasion not only to demonstrate the removal of their statues, but to publicise themselves and their radical beliefs.  Confederate flags, swastikas and KKK-style white hoods were on full display. Phrases like ‘Jews will not replace us’ and ‘white lives matter’ were chanted. The protest soon became violent due to clashes with counter-demonstrators. A car drove into the counter-demonstrators, killing one person and injuring at least 19 others. At first, Trump’s response was equivocal, condemning violence on both sides, but he later condemned the far-right extremists explicitly. Nevertheless, his response was praised by the Alt Right, including outspoken Klansman David Duke.

It goes without saying that the Alt-Right’s values are totally incompatible with Epicurean notions of equality and justice. But it would be a grave mistake to condemn the Alt-Right as if it exists in isolation. The truth is that although ultimate responsibility for the Alt-Right’s existence lies with its members, mainstream America has made choices that have contributed to the rise of right wing extremism in what is meant to be a post-fascist world order.

Republicans have been far too tolerant of right wing extremism, even if they aren’t extremists themselves. Conspiracy theories like Obama not being American have been allowed to fester. Anti immigration rhetoric hasn’t been rebuked sharply enough in conservative circles.  Too many conservatives believe that ethnic minorities are responsible for their own problems. They don’t accept there are actions the government and society can take to improve things for them. It’s this kind of neglect, along with the underlying belief that racism isn’t much of a problem anymore, that has contributed to the rise of the Alt-Right. Many conservatives believe that white people are just as discriminated against as blacks. The route from white victimhood to overt racism is a short one.

Democrats are nowhere near as much to blame for the Alt-Right as Republicans, but they aren’t guiltless either. By creating a culture of political correctness, and by not making the case for liberal values properly, the Left has created a demand for a reactionary anti-liberalism. If you create a taboo, some people will inevitably want to break it. At some universities, discussing any potential drawback of immigration and/or multiculturalism is viewed as racist. Social conservatives, feeling alienated from mainstream society, may become radicalised online. As a society we should debate matters more openly, instead of shutting people down all the time.

The socialist belief in the Alt-Right as a byproduct of capitalism’s failings is a very shaky one in my view. Members of the Alt-Right are no more likely to be poor than anyone else; in fact because they are white, they are more likely to be rich. They are no more likely to be unemployed or face any other hardships. The Alt-Right are not the result of capitalism or neoliberalism. Rather, their appeals primarily comes from a disillusionment with the broadly liberal consensus that has dominated politics across the developed world since World War 2. Having said that, it’s vital that we do not compromise on our values in order to appease the Alt-Right, in the hope that by becoming slightly less liberal, they will go away. If we give them an inch, they will take a foot. The Alt-Right will only be defeated by making the strongest possible case for a free society. We have to defend our record, not run away from it.

To end on a positive note, the Alt-Right may be frightening, but they only command the support of a tiny minority of Americans. Casual prejudice is all too common in the world, America included. But very few Americans want an ethno-state, believe that whites ought to have de jure superiority over non-whites, or view Nazism with anything other than total disgust. Thankfully, anti-Semitism is increasingly rare.  Just like with Islamic terrorists, the Alt-Right will only win if we lose our nerve. Epicurus may have advised not participating in politics, but a defence of basic human rights is needed now more than ever.

How big international companies escape public scrutiny

Accenture Consulting is an example of how big companies are shedding national identities and becoming unaccountable. Originally, Anderson Consulting, Acenture is now domiciled in Ireland (low tax), and has a series of loosely connected regional hubs, such as Prague and Dubai that also have low tax rates. To avoid residency problems for its 373,000 employees operating in 200 cities and 55 countries, it ensures that no one spends too much time at their project sites. Accenture is organised to be effectively stateless. It is paid to improve company efficiency (or tell feckless management what they dare not decide on its own), but could ‘t care less about communities and ordinary people.

ExxonMobil, Unilever, BlackRock, HSBC, DHL, Visa, all choose locations for personnel, factories, executive suites, or bank accounts based on where regulations are friendly, resources abundant, and connectivity seamless. Big corporations often have legal domicile in one country, corporate management in another, financial assets in a third, and administrative staff spread over several more. Large American firms — GE, IBM, Microsoft, to name a few — are  collectively holding trillions of dollars tax-free offshore in companies incorporated in Switzerland, Luxembourg, the Cayman Islands.

Corporations are likely to overtake states in terms of clout, complete with their “stateless income”. Already, the cash that Apple has on hand exceeds the GDPs of two-thirds of the world’s countries. The 10 biggest banks still control almost 50 percent of assets under management worldwide. Meanwhile, the EU is pushing for a common tax-base policy among member states to prevent corporations from taking advantage of preferential rates. In which case firms would just look beyond the continent for metanational opportunities. Indeed, since social communities increasingly exist online, businesses and their operations might move entirely into the cloud and make nations effectively irrelevant. Already, the idea of taxing a multi-national corporation based on its headquarters’ location is painfully antiquated.

The world’s 25 biggest companies by sales

Walmart 486 bn (2015)
Exxon Mobil 269 bn
Shell 265 bn
Apple 234 bn
Glencore 221 bn (2014)
Samsung 163 bn (2015)
Amazon 107 bn
Microsoft 94 bn
Nestle 93 bn (2014)
Alphabet 75 bn (2015)
Uber 62 bn
Huawei Tech 60 bn
Vodaphone 60 bn
Anheuser- Busch 47 bn (2014)
Maersk 40 bn (2015)
Goldman Sachs 34 bn
Halliburton 33 bn (2014)
Accenture 31 bn (2015)
McDonalds 25 bn
Emirates Airlines 24 bn
Facebook 18 bn
Alibaba 12 bn
Blackrock 11 bn (2014)
McKinsey 8 bn
Twitter 2 bn (2015)


Best of the Week #12 Emmanuel Macron in perspective

Before the most recent French elections, I recommended that French people vote for Emmanuel Macron in what was my first ever post for this blog Having won the election by a greater than expected margin, I thought I would examine how his presidency has gone so far. I should start by saying that I do not regret endorsing him. Governing France, a divided country with a cynical and hypercritical electorate, is a thankless task. I view Macron’s recent declining approval ratings as inevitable, because any attempt at meaningful reform is bound to be opposed by someone.

This week’s article comes from Nabila Ramdani in the Independent. She argues that Macron is fulfilling the promises he made during his campaign. For instance, he is pushing ahead with reforms to the labour market despite opposition from unions, and the increasingly likely prospect of mass strikes in September. This is because France’s unemployment rate remain stubbornly high, caused partly by strict regulations that keep people in their jobs, which makes employers less inclined to take on new staff. Macron wants to adopt the Nordic ‘flexicurity’ model, where employers have freedom to hire and fire who they want, but reasonable unemployment benefits prevent the temporarily jobless from falling into poverty. However, the French left view Macron’s reforms as free market fundamentalism; for the left, job security is a privilege that cannot be compensated for by the welfare state.

The French right is also becoming dissatisfied with Macron. He wants to cut France’s military budget, which as a proportion of GDP is amongst the highest in Europe. The fact is, spending on conventional weapons and vehicles does very little to keep a country secure in the modern age. For far less money, investment could be made in cybersecurity and intelligence, which would do far more to prevent terrorism. But many conservatives regard having  a sizeable armed force as both a strategic advantage and a part of the country’s greatness as a key player in world affairs. The military aside, Macron is too pro-European for some conservatives. Unlike liberal politicians in Britain, Macron makes the positive emotional case for the EU, rather than simply talking about the adverse consequences of European disintegration. During a time of poor economic growth across Europe, making such a case is commendable. It’s important the nations of Europe don’t retreat into the parochial nationalism of the past. And despite Europe’s economy not doing especially well at the moment, EU disintegration would only make the continent even poorer than it already is. If companies who want to do business across the EU have to comply with 27 different regulatory codes instead of just 1, they will face a crippling amount of bureaucracy.

Overall Macron’s presidency has been far from perfect. Like Ramdani, I really didn’t appreciate his comments about Africa having civilisational problems, even though he’s right about some African countries’ high birth rates holding them back. Sometimes he comes across a bit too showy, and could take himself more seriously. I’m very Northern European- I like my politicians boring. Although I approve of Macron standing up to Putin and proposing a diplomatic solution in Syria, I wish he were more critical of Trump. His most controversial comments have been regarding the Euro: he wants a Eurozone budget. It’s understandable that he wants to help poorer Eurozone countries like Spain and Greece, while maintaining the benefits of currency union. But Germany and other rich Eurozone countries would lose out from such a proposal, so it’s hard to see it coming to fruition.

But overall, like Ramdani, I think he’s done a pretty decent job considering the circumstances. So far, he’s successfully struck a balance between support for the free market while protecting social insurance. He’s stood up for gay people, refugees and asylum seekers- even promising to ease immigration restrictions for American scientists who feel disillusioned with Trump. On the world stage, he’s far more respectable than Sarkozy, and certainly more charismatic than Hollande. He isn’t belligerent, rash or petty. He is far better than any of his rivals would have been. I would recommend that whatever personal reservations they have about him, the French should give him the benefit of the doubt until the end of his term. If by then he has been an absolute failure and there is an obvious replacement candidate, then he should go. But given the generally sleazy and corrupt nature of French politics, it’s hard to see that happening. Macron has been both a safe pair of hands and a committed reformer. We can only hope he continues to be.

Are cellphones damaging our collective posture?

The next time you reach for your phone, remember that it induces slouching, and slouching changes your mood, your memory and even your behaviour.

The average head weighs about 10 to 12 pounds. When we bend our necks forward 60 degrees, as we do to use our cellphones, the effective stress on our neck increases to 60 pounds — the weight of about five gallons of paint. What appears to be happening is that young people are developing postures similar to little old ladies with osteoporosis –  all bent over.

Studies have shown that depressed patients were more likely to stand with their necks bent forward, shoulders collapsed and arms drawn in toward the body.  Further research suggest that posture doesn’t just reflect our emotional states; it can also cause them. Compared with upright sitters, slouchers reported significantly lower self-esteem and mood, and much greater fear.

Slouching can also affect our memory and our productivity.  In  a 2009 study of Japanese schoolchildren, those who were trained to sit with upright posture were more productive than their classmates in writing assignments.  Some people think that the slouchy, collapsed position we take when using our phones actually makes us less assertive, and that there appears to be a linear relationship between the size of your i- phone, i- pad, laptop or desktop, and the extent to which it affects you: the smaller the device, the more you must contract your body to use it, and the more shrunken and inward your posture, the more submissive you are likely to become.

.Here are some tips to counter the problem: Keep your head up and shoulders back when looking at your phone, even if that means holding it at eye level. You can also try stretching and massaging the two muscle groups that are involved in hunching – those between the shoulder blades and the ones along the sides of the neck. This helps reduce scarring and restores elasticity.   (based on a review of a book by Amy Cuddy is a professor at Harvard Business School, “Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges.”)

My wife and I were dining in a restaurant recently.  Next to us was a table with six young Arab women.  Every single one of them had her head down looking at a cellphone during the whole meal.  They hardly spoke a word to one another, just what I took to be the odd comment on what was on their screens.  I don’t have a cellphone myself and have nothing against them – except if they monopolise her time and damage her health.


The price of religion?

The spectre of civil war is looming over India.  Over recent months there has been a “steady stream of lynchings” of Muslims by Hindu nationalists. These attacks are not just individual tragedies; they’re an assault on the whole notion of India as a democratic nation where people of all faiths and ethnicities mix in harmony. The Hindu chauvinists, who are stirring up resentment against Muslims and calling for them to migrate to Pakistan, should bear in mind the cautionary example of Sri Lanka. The Tamils are a small minority there, making up about the same proportion of the population as Muslims do in India. Their persecution at the hands of chauvinist Sinhalese politicians led to a civil war that drained the country of economic energy for decades. Fighting the politics that spawns lynch mobs is “a battle for India’s soul, for its gathering coherence as a national ideal for an interdependent, multicultural world, and for India’s future prosperity”.  (T.K. Arun,  The Economic Times, Mumbai)

India is becoming an international power to be reckoned with.  It manages to offer a good technical education to those with a digital bent, and its engineering graduates are in demand everywhere. The country has huge potential, but it seems there are everywhere in the world disgruntled, hate-filled people who display for all to see the ugly side of humanity (a good example is the support offered by right-wing ” christians” and Trump supporters to the violent  alt-right and neo-nazi thugs in the Charlottesville horror). All too often tribal/religious groups are a violent, backward-looking crowd, led by preachers or gurus who usually live very comforably (thank-you) on the donations of their flocks.

I’m sure there are decent, educated hindus who deplore the attacks upon moslems, and it isn’t clear whether, if one magically eliminated religion from every corner of the planet, things would change that much.  There is simply a very nasty minority of Hindus, just as there are intolerant “christians” in the West.  Hatred is not confined to any single country.  It makes the gentle thoughtfulness and consideration associated with Epicureanism  a stark contrast and all the more important.

Good news: slowly we are seeing the end of smoking

Smoking is rapidly dying out in the UK and US among young people – the first generation to come of age surrounded by laws that discourage smoking. Figures from the UK Office for National Statistics reveal that the proportion of smokers in the country fell to 15.5 per cent in 2016, down from about half in 2010. Although 19.3 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds smoke, the percentage has  declined by 6.5 percent.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the number of smokers aged between about 12 and 18 dropped to 3.9 million in 2016, down from 4.7 million in 2015. These figures include cigarettes and e-cigarettes, both of which have seen large declines in use.

However, the situation in developing countries has not been so positive. Back  in 2012 a study based on the Global Adult Tobacco  Survey showed that nearly half of men in 14 developing countries were tobacco users and that women were starting to smoke at younger ages. Overall, researchers predicted. at that point that  smoking would cause one billion deaths in the 21st century.

The good news is that quit rates have been  higher in countries with programs in place for discouraging tobacco use and helping with quitting.  Uruguay is interesting because of its stringent anti-tobacco policies, including mandated graphic labels on cigarette packaging, sales tax increases, bans on tobacco advertising and on indoor smoking in public places. Tobacco use in Uruguay has decreased by 25 percent over three years.

Among other promising data, 70 percent of Uruguay’s smokers expressed regret for every having taken up smoking, and in the five-year period covered by the survey, over two-thirds of smokers at least attempted to quit. Positive health changes are already being seen, and may in part be attributed to these policies. The ITC found a 22 percent reduction in the rate of hospital admissions for heart attacks and a 90 percent decrease in air contamination in enclosed public spaces in the year after they were enacted.

Hopefully, by picking off one developing country after another we can stop smoking, based on the interpretation of trade agreements.  Only recently Philip Morris sued the Australian government, which demanded plain white wrappers and the words Smoking Kills on them.  Philip Morris tried to get this overturned before a tribunal, a favourite trick.  But the new regulation was surprisingly upheld.   The Australian used a clause in their 1993 Hong Kong bilateral trade deal and the court ruled that it did not have jurisdiction to hear the case.  The days of smoking might be numbered.