A creeping coup

Banned!  –  The New York Times, The Hill, Politico, BuzzFeed, the Daily Mail, BBC, the Los Angeles Times and the New York Daily News were among the other news organizations banned from WhiteHouse briefings yesterday.

It is the task of the media to report honestly and impart to the public, as thoroughly as possible, the intentions and policies of any government, regardless of party.  The first thing an authoritarian ruler  does is the clamp down on the Press, bring it to heel and halt criticism, deserved or not.

Now Trump is “inviting” to the White House the news media that he wants to talk to and is excluding from White House briefings those he doesn’t like, who have hurt his tender feelings and which, he claims, are “dishonestly misrepresenting” the government’s policies and actions.  Favourites are being picked and those others are being accused of  making up stories and sources to discredit Trump. The President says they should clearly state the names of the source of all information. But sometimes the media have to use anonymous sources, if those sources are frightened of being identified.  It prefers not to use these sources because it’s vital to know that the person talking is knowledgable and can speak with authority.

A democracy thrives on information and an educated and informed public.  If you discredit those whose job is to report news and you daily call them dishonest, then everyone starts wondering whether to read a newspaper or watch a TV programme at all.  In the end  you get a crowd of rubber stamps, people who are tuned out, cynical and inert, good material for a population simply resigned to dictatorship, which, some think, is the final objective of Bannon.  Epicurus would advise us to ignore all politicians, but that is absolutely not possible in this case.  We have to ptotect our freedoms – they have been hard won.

Undermining higher education – a seriously stupid move, No. 2 of 3 posts

In America educational institutions have struggled with low graduation rates and the fact that graduates have failed to pay off their loans after earning degrees with “little value in the job market”.   Obama tried to strengthen consumer protections for those at for-profit colleges,  introduced a system called Scorecard that was designed to help students and parents make better  decisions about where to go to college, and allowed students to make fraud claims (viz. Trump University) if the tuition was useless.  In this case the government would help discharge the loans.  Colleges keep raising their fees, expecting the Federal government to underwrite them with federal aid. Obama resisted this.  All this annoyed the for-profit colleges.

Trump has now appointed Jerry Falwell, head of Liberty University to deregulate the educational business  and to loosen the rules for accreditation.  This is a potential disaster for education and for the students, and their parents, who commit themselves to ever more expensive education, in the expectation of getting top jobs..

Accreditors are supposed to maintain high quality in colleges, but they are paid by the educational institutions and therefore their efforts can be suspect.  It is difficult for parents and potential students to know ahead of time what they will be getting.  What so many do get is high grades but little extra knowledge, no extra critical thinking and poor teaching, and they don’t of course, know what they don’t know.  If regulations are eased or abolished there will be no way of being sure that any except the best known institutions are any good and not just money-making businesses, a type of college Jerry Falwell is well familiar with.  Apparently, only 38% of Liberty borrowers manage to pay as little as $1 on their student debt three years after leaving, and 41% of them earn less than $25,000 6 years after leaving.

The higher education industry is heading for a bust if Falwell is allowed to do what Trump wants.  No one will want to attend.  What’s the point?  Just keeping the lads and lasses off the streets?





How we do a disservice to education, number 1 of 3 posts

From Merrill Lynch’s “Investment Doctor”, under the heading ” the 11 worst degrees if you want a job in today’s job market”:

Surveys of hiring managers have found that having no degree may be better than getting a liberal arts degree. One survey question asked hiring managers what degrees they preferred, and just 1.6 percent said liberal arts. A whopping 64 percent, on the other hand, said they’d hire someone with no college degree. The problem? It’s not specialized enough to prepare you for a specific career. That’s why most liberal arts majors end up working in an entirely different field, such as real estate, business, finance, or sales. While it might make you a more well-rounded person, it probably won’t help you get a decent job.”

Makes you despair, doesn’t it?  One shouldn’t shoot the messenger; whoever wrote this was reporting a total misunderstanding of the point of education.

Or have they misunderstood it?  Undoubtedly, the idea that college/university is a training ground for the benefit of particular types of  profession and business has been fostered by business itself.  An education should teach you to think for yourself, look at things broadly and comprehensively, be able to problem-solve, and to understand human motivations.   Could it be that executives don’t want smart arts graduates who can think for themselves and have the impertinence to second- guess the boss.  Maybe they want, say, accountants who can keep the books quietly and obediently from day one.  Of course, they may not even be aware that this is their motivation.  Cocky youngsters can be a pain.

There is another aspect of this – resentment.  When I was looking for a younger person to potentially succeed me as managing director, I recruited a very intelligent and personable female graduate with a good (arts) degree from Edinburgh University.  This went down like a lead balloon with the employees. To start with, she was female, and they were not comforatable about the idea of a female telling them what to do.  Secondly, she did what I wanted her to do –  question what we were doing and why. Some of her ideas probably did arise out of ignorance of the market, and these were short-term learning problems.  But the staff simply made it impossible for her to operate, in a collective passive-aggressive refusal to cooperate.  I supported her, but in the end I had to give in – she left the company, a rather humiliating failure on my part.  But in a society that is still class-conscious and resentful of privilege I guess I mis- judged the willingness of the employees to accept intelligence and creativity of ideas as one way of keeping them in their jobs.   I don’t know whether this would happen in the US, but given the resentment of “us against them” at the moment, it wouldn’t surprise me.  Emotion and fear of the different can colour everything.

Does traffic exhaust cause dementia ?

People who live near busy roads are more likely to develop dementia, new research has found. For the cohort study, scientists in Canada examined health data on some 6.6 million adults in Ontario over 12 years, and, by looking at their postcodes, divided them into groups according to how far they lived from “a major thoroughfare with medium to large traffic capacity”. Once they had adjusted the figures for various factors, including preexisting illnesses, and whether the subjects lived in urban or rural areas, they found those whose homes were within 50 metres of a busy road were 7% more likely to be diagnosed with dementia than those who lived at least 300 metres away. Traffic pollution contains a number of damaging toxins, including nitrogen oxide. However, the study has proved no causative link and has clear limitations: for instance, it was based on where people lived at a point in time before the study began; we know nothing about  the subsequent exposure to pollution.  (The Week Jan 13, 2017).

Thus the case against Big Oil grows and grows.  We will always need oil, but hopefully not in the huge quantities we are recklessly taking from the planet. The demand for oil has provoked so many wars, coups and invasions it would take a book to enumerate them all.  Worst of all is the affect of burning tons of oil every day upon the environment, a fact agreed upon by all except those with financial interest in the status quo.  These people have now come to power in the US, but they will pass, be rightly swept away like those who were so certain that the Earth was the centre of the universe all those years ago.  Hopefully, this will happen before Miami and other low- lying cities, disappear under the sea. Meanwhile, we are told that the toxins in the burnt oil may be causing dementia among those constantly by traffic fumes.   Common sense tells us this could be quite true, but don’t jump to conclusions, blah, blah.   Come on, get real!

Epicurus and the pleasant life

From the Vatican documents on Epicureanism

VS. 5. It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and honorably and justly, and it is impossible to live wisely and honorably and justly without living pleasantly. Whenever any one of these is lacking, when, for instance, the man is not able to live wisely, though he lives honorably and justly, it is impossible for him to live a pleasant life.


The plight of British civility.

In the American imagination, Britain is an old-fashioned country, where the rules of chivalry, courtesy, civility and general politeness are rigorously enforced. The myth of a kind Britain is sometimes believed by the British, who contrast our manners with the boisterous, rude and unnecessarily outspoken personalities of our American cousins. This is certainly the myth Britain’s cultural elite would have you believe, as they export period dramas of a wealthy elite adhering to Victorian values.

However, both the humble Americans and snobby Brits are wrong: Britain, like America, is a mean country. And nowhere is this clearer than in the realm of British politics. If public discussions were ever polite and measured, they certainly aren’t now. This is because of two waves of political correctness.

The first wave took place during the Blair years. Now Blair came to power because people were sick of the Conservatives, who were not only ridden by scandal, but held some highly anachronistic attitudes regarding the EU, devolution, sexuality and constitutional reform. For many, Blair was a breath of fresh air, bringing in a new age of liberalism. But there was a darker side to New Labour. In popular culture and polite society, questioning the liberalism of the age became taboo. You couldn’t question the merits of devolving so much power to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. You couldn’t question the historically high levels of immigration, nor the extension of the EU into Eastern Europe that had contributed to it. Those who pined for tradition and a return to the old way of things were sidelined. Working class communities were told they were being listened to, even as many were left behind, however unintentionally.

The second wave of political correctness was essentially an overreaction to the first wave. After the 2015 election, the advent of majority Conservative government gave the hard-right a new voice, unshackled by the limits of coalition. Emboldened by the referendum on EU membership to be held the following year, the hard-right contextualised the EU as part of the broader malaise that was social liberalism. They used the political correctness of the Blair years to demonstrate that the British people were being oppressed by a metropolitan elite, intolerant of the working class and their natural patriotism. They appropriated the language of class warfare, promising to fight for the poor against the indulgence and complacency of a privileged few. At the same time, they lied about sharing the same economic interests as their constituents, espousing a populist agenda of an increasingly generous NHS and welfare state, despite having voted consistently to diminish both.

But it was not until after the referendum won, that the mantra of the Eurosceptic Right became political correctness. Overnight, the likes of Iain Duncan Smith and Nigel Farage became the new establishment. The relatively liberal PM, David Cameron resigned, to be replaced by the opportunistic Theresa May, who promised to deliver the ‘hard’ Brexit demanded by the hard-right. All of a sudden, right wing populism became the ‘will of the people’, with opponents of Brexit or even a ‘soft’ Brexit, branded ‘traitors’, ‘enemies of the people,’ or part of the metropolitan elite. Prominent members of the Leave campaign, which was deceitfully ambiguous about what sort of Brexit it wanted,  now demanded withdrawal from all aspects of European policy. Emboldened by the apparent continuity of British economic performance from prior the referendum, Brexiters became overconfident, accusing their opponents of being scared. ‘You’re afraid of losing’, they insisted, believing that Brexit will be a  near-certain success disregarding the overwhelming evidence and opinion of economists to the contrary.

Now, the atmosphere is toxic. The tabloid press spew out an uncompromising dichotomy: either support the hardest Brexit possible, or have your patriotism and basic decency brought into question. When not engaged in fascistic gloating, Leave leaders hurl vitriol and abuse at anyone who espouses an alternative point of view. Arwa Mahdawi quite right labels this phenomenon ‘populist correctness’, where supporters of liberalism are deemed the establishment.  (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/feb/19/populist-correctness-new-pc-culture-trump-america-brexit-britain) However, the political establishment is whoever holds power. During the New Labour period, and perhaps even during the Coalition, the establishment was liberal. But now, that establishment is gone. Instead, we have a conservative-nationalist establishment, backed up by a powerful press. They are resolutely committed to exit from the Single Market and Customs Union, preferring to trade on WTO terms until new agreements can be sought.

For the overwhelming majority of economists, such a strategy is economic ruin. So the hard-right has a plan: turn Britain into a tax haven, which is what they’ve always wanted to do anyway. Allow the oligarchs and despots of the world to park their ill-gotten gains in the UK. Never mind the decimation of public services and infrastructure as a result of falling revenues. Never mind the fact that 70% of British GDP is services, which will suffer immeasurably from leaving the Single Market, and won’t be compensated for by trade deals because they typically don’t include services. And never mind the fact that this wasn’t what the people in Leave-voting working class strongholds such as Stoke or Sunderland voted for. This is the end product of the new political correctness. And  accompanying the resulting collapse of economic equity and social solidarity, will be the decline of any sort of public civility. The myth of small-c conservative Britain will be definitively exposed. Even the Americans will see it.

Next week, civility in the American polity.

A world of ever-increasing complexity

There was an article in The Guardian Weekly  in early January pointing out that our lives are more scrambled and complicated than they have ever been.  The writer, John Harris, called modernity “a mess: multiple user accounts, endless password filling in, smartphone contracts, computer and internet problems that so few of us really understand” and the “generalised insanity of consumerism”.  Our lives are lived in ever-increasing speed and complexity, and all it offers longterm are diminishing returns. And what for?  Epicurus would deem us all crazy.

One of the diminishing returns is peace of mind, or Epicurean ataraxia.  I was  reminded of John Harris’s article owing to a just-completed and particularly fraught period inducting a new computer, a new modem, a new range extender and downloading a massive piece of software (7 tries).  Various helpful people from India kept me on the phone for what seemed like several days. While wrestling with the downloads there was a sudden drop in  internet strength to 1.3 Mbps and increase of the ping rate to 1046 when it ought to be under 100.  Result: the downloads failed after all-night sessions. It might sound as if I know what I’m talking about, but actually I haven’t a clue.  All I know is that a computer controls the internet speed of millions who deal with Verizon, and if it encounters a problem it automatically reduces the internet speed to that of a sleepy snail.  Problem: it omits to tell the customer it is slowing his computer to a crawl.  We are no longer in control.

Initially, complicated systems  deliver big economic benefits.  But in due course the average man in the street ends up frustrated and angry because his time and his pitifully short life is being eaten up by useless complications, and he starts to think the whole thing is unrewarding and ridiculous (any takers?). He feels he has no influence or control over his life.  Some people think that the collapse of the Roman, Mayans,  Minoan, Hittite, and the Chinese Zhou dynasty all succumbed, in part, to the fact that ever-increasing burdens were not matched by material rewards, leading to revolts and breakaways.

One cannot blame complexity for everything going on today, but I can attest to the fact, as an elderly gent, that I cannot keep up and that I get frustrated and anxious about what is supposed to be “progress”, couched in incomprehensible technical language devised to exclude most of us, so-called educated or not.  Ataraxia seems to be ever more elusive as we toil for our hi-tech masters who think it all should come naturally, without the need for instructions in plain English.







Snouts in the trough: how Congress makes fools of us all

Warren Buffet, in a recent interview with CNBC, offers one of the best quotes about the debt ceiling:  “I could end the deficit in five minutes.  “You just pass a law that says that anytime there is a deficit of more than 3% of GDP, all sitting members of Congress are ineligible for re-election”.  He quotes the emoluments of Congressmen as follows:
Salary of retired US Presidents .. . . . .. . . . . .. . $180,000 FOR LIFE
Salary of House/Senate members .. . . . .. . . .   $174,000 FOR LIFE This is stupid
Salary of Speaker of the House .. . . . .. . . . .      $223,500 FOR LIFE This is really stupid
Salary of Majority/Minority Leaders . . .. . . . . $193,400 FOR LIFE Ditto last line
Average Salary of a teacher . . .. . . . .. . . . . .. ..  $40,065
Average Salary of a deployed Soldier . . .. . . ..  $38,000
In addition he has suggested the following legislation.  he calls it The Congressional Reform Act of 2017
1. No Tenure/ No Pension.  A Congressman/woman collects a salary while in office and receives no pay when they’re out of office.
2. Congress (past, present, & future) participates in Social Security. All funds in the Congressional retirement fund move to the Social Security system immediately. All future funds flow into the Social Security system, and Congress participates with the American people. It may not be used for any other purpose.
3. Congress can purchase their own retirement plan, just as all Americans do.
4. Congress will no longer vote themselves a pay raise. Congressional pay will rise by the lower of CPI or 3%.
5. Congress loses its current health care system and members participate in the same health care system as the American people.
6. Congress must equally abide by all laws they impose on the American people.
7. All contracts with past and present Congressmen/women are void effective 12/1/16. The American people did not make this contract with Congressmen/women.    Congress made all these contracts for themselves. Serving in Congress is an honor, not a career. The Founding Fathers envisioned citizen legislators, so ours should serve their term(s), then go home and go back to work.  If each person contacts a minimum of twenty people, then it will only take three days for most people (in the U.S.) to receive the message. Don’t you think it’s time?
I think we can all agree with this!  Epicurus would be delighted with it, but might well express some scepticism aboyut it bearing fruit.