Paranoia reigns! Spying on buses

Since 2012 the conversations of people travelling on buses in Maryland have been recorded.

It’s one thing to have active video recording, which can help identify the drunk and the trouble- makers. But to record passenger ‘s conversations! This is really going too far. What this mass surveillance hopes to achieve is puzzling. Maryland has visited this issue four times, and the objection to stopping the recordings (not one person has proved to be undermining the Constitution or to be in league with ISIS) is that to change the cameras so that the the driver activates the recordings when he thinks an incident is developing would incur too great an expense. (Ovetta Wiggins, Washington Post)

George Orwell really got his forecast right didn’t he? Everywhere we look we see intrusion into privacy and encroachment on civil liberties. Serious bombers and planners of massacres don’t generally plan their attacks on local buses stopping and starting in rural Maryland.

The dirty trade in firearms

A  RAND Corporation report reveals an alarming pattern: gun salesmen based in the US  now ship worldwide, with Europe the biggest source of profit. Lax gun laws in the US are undermining stricter rules elsewhere. Over half of the weapons for sale are from the US, with the revenue from Europe five times higher than from domestic sales, through the dark web.

Although sales account for less than an estimated 1 per cent of items sold on the dark web – transactions go far beyond simply putting a gun in the mail. The information and technology available to potential lone-wolf attackers on the dark web range from manuals on how to create explosives to detailed instructions on how to disassemble and ship a gun to various overseas destinations,

The dark web is a subset of the internet that requires specific software to access so that users can remain anonymous. Registration and access are straightforward. Not all items for sale there are illegal, but the promise of anonymity makes it easier to subvert the law. This anonymity makes buying or selling items risky: the person at the other end of the deal could be a scammer or the police. But previously, to purchase an illegal firearm,  you had to contact a gang involved an arms trafficking gang and convince them  that you weren’t with the police. This was tricky; they might scam you.

To help build trust between buyers and sellers, dark web marketplaces allow them to review transactions the way they would on eBay or Amazon. Many dark marketplaces even offer payment protection.  Vendors on the dark web have also honed their delivery tactics. They may often disassemble weapons into many parts that are sent in different packages. Some parts are embedded in less conspicuous items like old stereos or printers.  (Timothy Revell. New Scientist 29 July 2017)

What are we doing tolerating this stuff?  Why  was the dark web ever allowed in the first place? The 2nd Amendment, allegedly allowing arms to be be bought and used for “self-defence” (hah!) in the US is being traduced by unscrupulous gun makers and dealers who are potentially (and probably actually) exporting terror and death overseas via the internet, alongside advice on bomb-making and other  terrorist techniques. Why would anyone want to buy American guns unless they were al Queda or ISIS supporters, assassins or ruthless gangsters?   This whole thing is a form of pornography, only pornography generally doesn’t usually kill people.  No pussy-footing or discussion!  This is not a matter for Epicurean reasonableness.   Close it down!

How the Republicans should respond to Trump

The second of my two-part series on how enlightened citizens should respond to the farce that is the Trump administration. You can read the first part on the Democrats here, Also, next Monday the Modern Philosophy series is returning, so look out for that! 

Being an anti-Trump Republican is a lonely job. The President enjoys an 80% approval rating amongst Republican voters. In a era of hyper-partisanship, many people believe that because Democrats hate Trump so much, he must be doing something right. The potential collusion with Russia and other scandals are fabrications or exaggerations by the media, purported in order to undermine him. Similarly, the only reason why he hasn’t achieved more is because of Democrat opposition, treachery within the Republican ranks, and the corrupt nature of ‘the swamp’ (a nickname for the Washington establishment.) This means that any Republican who openly opposes Trump will come under fire from their core supporters, especially if they live in a state or district where Trump has a net positive approval rating.

So I have a lot of respect for Republican politicians and outspoken conservative commentators who critique Trump and the general direction of the conservative movement. No one has done a better job of doing this than Senator Jeff Flake. He recently published a book, Conscience of a Conservative (just like Goldwater), in which he not only rejects Trump, but also the nationalism, populism and disregard for traditional conservatism that led to Trump winning the nomination. I completely agree that in America, just as in every country, there is a need for a healthy debate between respected individuals who are thoughtful and principled. Whatever your feelings are regarding the Republican Party, it is just as necessary to the wellbeing and functioning of American democracy as the Democrats. So of course Flake is right that the GOP should ditch its cult of personality fixation with Trump in favour of universally applicable conservative principles.

However, Flake presents too simplistic a picture. He seems to imply that before Trump came along, conservatives were largely intelligent and moral. Then Trump ruined the movement, so by getting rid of him we can return to an idealised state of affairs prior to 2016. The reality is more complex. It’s certainly true that conservatism has degraded since Trump sought the Republican nomination. But it was hardly perfect before then. While Flake acknowledges the failures of specific Republicans like Newt Gingrich or Mitch McConnell for being excessively partisan, he doesn’t account for the Republican establishment’s toleration and utilisation of illiberal nationalism for electoral gain. Conspiracy theories like Obama not being an American, evolution being a product of militant atheism to destroy Christianity, or climate change denial, were routinely accepted ideas amongst the conservative base even before Trump came along. Given how sceptical of climate change Mitt Romney was, was it really surprising that Trump’s assertion that climate change was invented by the Chinese to make American manufacturing non-competitive, proved popular? Nor is conservative demagoguery the exclusive preserve of Trump- the Economist points ought that Republicans have long made vitriolic and implicitly racist remarks against ‘welfare queens’ to promote fiscal conservatism amongst the working class.

Given the long-term degradation of conservatism, I am far less hopeful for the future than Flake. The senator only criticises Trump and other Republican elites. But the real blame lies with ordinary Republican voters. They chose Trump above a plethora of real conservatives like Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio. They then voted for him in the general election, instead of choosing a genuinely conservative third party candidate. Republican elites didn’t invent conspiracy theories or bigotry; those things already existed amongst the electorate, and were simply politicised to the Republicans’ advantage. Since Trump’s inauguration, it has become obvious that the man is unfit for office. The various scandals shows he has clearly acted improperly, if not illegally. He gets into needless fights far too easily. He is short-tempered and easily goaded. He doesn’t have a consistent and coherent vision for the American economy, nor for America’s place in the world. He has appalling approval ratings, not only in America but worldwide. Yet it is Republican voters who choose to stick by him. If Trump’s popularity amongst Republicans dropped from 80% to say 40% or less, he would be finished.

The fact is, the vast majority of Republicans do not care about the sort of principles Flake believes in. They don’t know anything about Edmund Burke, Adam Smith or Thomas Paine. Most of them haven’t read anything by Milton Friedman or F.A Hayek. Abstract principles like constitutionally limited government, free markets and individual liberty mean little to them. Instead, what concerns them is not the size of government, but who it works for. That’s why they are perfectly happy with Trump’s protectionist economics or statements he’s made in the past about protecting Social Security and Medicare. Government can be as big as it likes, as long as it works for ‘ordinary Americans,’ as opposed to immigrants, foreigners, and liberals who live in big cities. What drives Trump voters is identity politics, not ideology.

The reason why Trump was surprisingly successful was that he understood this, the traditional Republican elites didn’t. Republicans in Washington have long been out of touch with their base on a whole host of issues, because they wrongly believed the base shared their conception of and dedication to conservatism. Now that their folly has been exposed, they dare not criticise the base for fear of losing office. So instead, they collude with Trump in order to achieve their long-term objectives like tax cuts and healthcare deregulation, while pretending to be on the side of working class Trump supporters. This strategy may work for the next few years. They already have another conservative Supreme Court justice and the repeal of various Obama-era regulations. They may get tax cuts and healthcare deregulation yet. But come the forthcoming elections, they will not be able to distance themselves from an increasingly unpopular president. Their moral cowardice will be their downfall. The best thing that can happen to American conservatism is the collapse and total defeat of the Republican Party, which will hopefully be reformed into a party backed by intelligent and authentically conservative voters, as opposed to the pretence of conservatism and nationalistic dog-whistling that characterises today’s GOP.

Best of the Week #11 The potential pitfalls of a US-UK trade deal

Apologies for posting this late, I had to reinstall Mac OS onto my laptop because it wasn’t working. 

Awhile ago, Donald Trump tweeted his enthusiasm for a US-UK trade deal. Inevitably, Brexiteers were ecstatic. Here was irrefutable proof the UK wouldn’t suffer any loss of trade after Brexit. Trade with the US and other countries would replace any losses from leaving the EU. But as usual, the reality is more complex. Partly because the EU and the 45 agreements the EU has with 75 countries around the world account for 60% of our exports, which doesn’t include the abolition of non-tariff barriers that comes with the Single Market. Partly because Trump has made numerous protectionist statements in the past, so the idea that he can be a genuine free trader when it comes to the UK is nonsense. But also because the benefits of a potential US-UK trade deal are mixed at best.

This week’s article comes from George Monbiot in the Guardian Monbiot’s argument is that trade deals are not principally about reducing or eliminating tariffs anymore, because WTO rules already disincentivize them. Instead, trade deals are about the harmonisation of standards, which ought to increase prosperity by encouraging trade and promoting competition. This has very few drawbacks to groups of countries with already-similar standards, like the EU member states or Australia and New Zealand. But to countries with different standards, the policy areas covered by a trade deal become more contentious.

So in the instance of the US and the UK, you have two disparities. The first is in economic clout. The US is the world’s largest economy (excluding the EU), that conducts only a small proportion of its trade with the UK. On the other hand, the UK is a relatively small economy that conducts a much larger proportion with the US than vice versa. Moreover, because the UK has chosen to leave the EU with uncertain consequences, it has far more to lose from a deal not coming to fruition. The second disparity is in standards- the UK currently has the EU’s high standards, whereas America’s standards are much lower. In a negotiation where the US has the upper hand, it is very unlikely that the US will change its standards in order to reap a very small reward. It is far more likely that the UK will dramatically lower its standards, due to a Conservative government comfortable with American standards and sheer desperation.

For Monbiot, the infamous example of chlorinated chickens are but one instance of the UK lowering its standards to the detriment of the country’s wellbeing, even if the deal is good for headline economic growth figures. More severe consequences include the degradation of environmental regulations, the opening up of currently nationalised services to American corporations, a slimmed-down welfare state, weaker health and safety standards, and the rights of employees to holidays and sick pay. The point is that it may not be worth sacrificing our EU-level standards for a trade deal with the US, especially as such a deal probably won’t offset the losses of leaving the EU. Monbiot was a voracious critic of the proposed TTIP agreement between the EU and the US. But in my view, TTIP had the potential to be beneficial because the EU and the US were negotiating as equals. No such parity exists if the UK negotiates alone.

Overall I’m more enthusiastic about free trade generally than Monbiot, provided it is accompanied by high standards on the environment and workers’ rights. The prosperity of much of the EU and the prolonged economic growth of countries crippled by the legacy of Communism proves that economic freedom and quality of life need not be antithetical. I certainly don’t believe there is anything to be gained from intentionally reducing an economy’s openness, as Trump has frequently suggested.

However, on this specific issue, Monbiot has my support. Trump has long expressed a zero-sum view of the world, where any gains made by countries like China or Mexico must have come at the expense of the US. He espouses a mercantilist perspective that emphasises trade balances and not being ‘screwed’ by other countries. So when negotiating with the UK, he is likely to try to enrich the US at the UK’s expense. Industries currently owned by UK companies or the British government will be opened up to American corporate takeovers. Our agriculture industry will have to accept lower US standards and/or significantly less revenue due to American competition. It may be that Britain would have to lower the generosity of agriculture subsidies without America lowering theirs. We would probably lose the right to prevent American energy companies from fracking in Britain. Far from ‘taking back control’, we would be handing it over to corporate America. In any case, I don’t believe a UK-US free trade deal would offset the losses of leaving the EU, especially if TTIP goes ahead. The best case scenario is that economic growth would be the same as it would have done had we remained in the EU, but our standards would be lower. None of this is to say that American corporations are necessarily bad, but that we should be regulating them on our own terms, not theirs.

The price of privatising airports in the UK

If you are flying off on holiday the airport is now, in all probability, the worst part of the experience (except the flight!).  Profit is the motivation of the airport management, rather than security. Misery is the result.

1. More than half UK international airports lack free drinking water. Water fountains have been removed, forcing travellers to buy expensive bottled water instead. As people have wised up to the rules and brought empty plastic bottles through security, the airports started to remove or hide their water fountains.  Where water fountains still exist the water barely dribbles out, raising the suspicion that the water pressure has been set deliberately low.

2. So- called  ‘Dutyree’ is a rip- off

A survey this week of retailers in Heathrow by price comparison site PriceSpy found that a Samsung S7 phone in the Samsung store was £559; on Amazon it was £452. A Fitbit selling for £134.99 at Dixons, was £128 in Debenhams. A £319 Sony Camera at its Heathrow shop was £309 at Argos. This should come as no surprise, given the extraordinary rents retailers must pay to be in the airports.

3. The insanely bad currency rates

One airport, Cardiff, is offering just 88 cents for every $1 of a holidaymaker’s cash. Given that the market rate is around €1.11 to £1, it means the exchange bureau is pocketing around a 20% profit. Even the big names, such as Moneycorp and Travelex, will take a 10-12% cut.

4. The VAT trick
When you are forced to show your boarding pass at the till – with the implication that it is a legal requirement – the truth is that it is merely so that the shop can pocket the VAT on purchases made by customers flying to non-EU destinations. Boots and WH Smith now promise to hand the VAT back on purchases over £5-£6, but other retailers carry on regardless.

5. Charging for wifi
Manchester airport actually crows about the fact that it has extended its free wifi from 30 minutes to one hour, before then stinging you for £5 an hour. In Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Dublin, Frankfurt, Istanbul, Munich, Paris, Rome (the list goes on and on), airports give free unlimited access. Not in Britain.

6. Inadequate seating
It is evidently a far more profitable use of the precious floor space for a maze of over-priced shops than giving passengers sufficient seating.

7. The drop-off/pick-up charge
At one airport a brief pause while picking someone up costs £3 for 10 minutes, then £1 a minute thereafter.  All this for foreign owned companies operating airports.  Nothing is now owned by the British taxpayer.  (adapted from an article in The Guardian, 5 August 2017 by Patrick Collinson).

Why do we have to endure all this?  Because the government, which used to run it all, decided to privatise it.  Who benefits?  Well, it is not the travelling citizen.  Could it be associated with any possible corrupt goings-on in the murky world of political funding, or simply neoliberalism run riot?  Is there another government in another country quite so ideological and quite so stupid?  Epicurus, who advocated moderation, would have concluded that we have gone crazy.


When will we stop kow-towing to the abominable Saudi regime?

Kosovo has become a hotbed of Islamist extremism.  The tiny Balkan country, whose population is largely comprised of Muslim ethnic Albanians, is studded with mosques that preach the Salafist strain of militant Islam, shared by al-Qa’eda and Isis. Hundreds of Kosovars have gone to Syria and Iraq to join extremist groups. Yet Kosovars also admire the US. There’s a statue of Bill Clinton in the capital, Priština, a mark of gratitude for the 1999 Nato bombing campaign that drove Serbian forces out of Kosovo, and resulted in it gaining independence from Serb-dominated Yugoslavia, of which it was formerly a province.

So why are so many Kosovars being radicalised? The short answer is Saudi Arabia: it has poured money into Kosovo, spreading its radical version of Islam by building schools and mosques and importing Salafist clerics. In a few short years, previously secular Kosovo “was transformed into a Salafist stronghold in Europe”. Muslims in Kosovo had been barely observant for centuries, and “their ignorance about Islam made them more vulnerable to indoctrination”. Now the imam in Priština’s largest mosque is facing prosecution for promoting jihad. Many have already done so. “The threat they pose extends beyond Kosovo’s borders.” (Krsto Lazarevic, Die Welt, Berlin)

I mostly comment on American. and British affairs, but I have an interest in Kosovo, having spent time there in 1965.  At that time it was like stepping back 500 years. The wagons had solid wooden wheels and the houses had straw roofs, upon which storks nested. The inhabitants, were helpful, open and friendly, if dreadfully poor, and only the presence of mosques betrayed the fact that they were nominally moslem.  Now the Wahabis have apparently subverted them.

Saudis are a menace. We bow before them because of their oil, but my personal experience of Saudi Arabia, as a result of visiting on business (oh, dear!)  is of a prevailing arrogance and spoiled ignorance.  No, we are limited in what we can do about the Saudis while oil  remains king. But all decent people should get on board with climate change and return the Saudis to tents and camel trains.


Poverty and old age

The New York Times of February 24th carried an article about behavioural economics. The article states that since defined- benefit pensions disappeared in the private sector, only 40% of American families in the bottom half of the income distribution have any form of retirement savings plan. Even among those who do have a plan, their total savings are, on average, $40,000. They don’t save because they have no money to save. Of all the advanced economies, the US had the worst poverty rate and the worst infant mortality, obesity and diabetes rates. The death rate from drug overdoses among young white adults is as high as the death rate used to be of AIDS at its peak. Government savings schemes haven’t worked, nor has making saving simpler.  (Based on a New York Times article)

Epicurus might well judge this situation, in an otherwise rich country, to be a disgrace. There are those who say the government’s role is to reduce dependence on public support, and that the poor should “get on their bikes”, find a proper job , and support their families. The fact is that under current conditions, with wages falling or stagnant,  any incentive to save for old age is overwhelmed by the need for food on the table this week. What is needed is a living wage that gives poor people the opportunity to make choices. One of those choices would be to save for retirement. This is absolutely not the message that resonates with corporations, their political hangers- on, or the heartless religious Right.

How can anyone justify this or think it acceptable?   Historically,  one could, not unreasonably, forecast an eventual uprising and violence, given desperation and the obscene number of guns owned by the public.  The reader will probably think this to be alarmist, but the French and Russian revolutions came as a surprise to the super-rich in both countries, spurred by such desperation and a non-responsive elite.   In America? Well, I believe in moderation, and hope Congress, before they vote their backers even more riches, stops and ponders history.  A dystopian point of view, I know, and I apologise, but historians are there partly to point out parallels.  This cannot – will not – go on indefinitely.

Walt Whitman on the Democratic Party

Nowadays it is the Democrats who are (ahem!) the high- minded crowd, compared with their competition, the Republicans. Times change. This is Whitman ‘s take on the Democratic Party Convention in the US in the 1850s:

“The members who composed it were, seven-eights of them, the meanest kind of bawling and blowing office-holders, office- seekers, pimps, malignants, conspirators, murderers, fancy- men, custom house clerks, contractors, kept-editors, spaniels well-trained to carry and fetch, jobbers, infidels, terrorist, mail-riflers, slave-catchers, duellists, carriers of secret weapons, deaf men, pimpled men, scarr’d inside with vile disease, gaudy outside with gold chains made from people’s money and harlots’ money twisted together; crawling, serpentine men, the lousy combings and born freedom-sellers of the earth. And whence came they? From back yards and bar-rooms; from out of the customs-houses, marshals’ offices, post offices and gambling hells; from the President’s house, the jail, the station-house; from un-named by-places, where devilish disunion was hatch’d at midnight.

“Such, I say, formed…the entire personnel, the atmosphere, nutriment and chyle of our municipal, State, and national politics – substantially. permeating, handling, deciding and wielding everything – legislation, nominations, elections, “public sentiment” etc, while the great mass of the people, farmers, mechanics and traders, were helpless in their gripe”.

Like Epicurus, Whitman seemed to have a thing about politicians.  We no longer have writers who have the command of English that enables them to  pour out such vivid vitriol onto paper. However, were he alive today Whitman might have admitted that Democrats had become a much more respectable lot, if somewhat devoid of effective ideas to regain power, and would turn his attention, shall we say, elsewhere.  American political life has not changed that much.  Lack of lnowledge seems to be power.