Bernard Levin: On Quoting Shakespeare:

The following is not about modern life or politics, or even Epicureanism. But read it and you will wonder at the genius of Shakespeare all over again:

“If you cannot understand my argument, and declare “It’s Greek to me”, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you claim to be more sinned against than sinning, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you recall your salad days, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you act more in sorrow than in anger; if your wish is farther to the thought; if your lost property has vanished into thin air, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you have ever refused to budge an inch or suffered from green-eyed jealousy, if you have played fast and loose, if you have been tongue-tied, a tower of strength, hoodwinked or in a pickle, if you have knitted your brows, made a virtue of necessity, insisted on fair play, slept not one wink, stood on ceremony, danced attendance (on your lord and master), laughed yourself into stitches, had short shrift, cold comfort or too much of a good thing, if you have seen better days or lived in a fool’s paradise – why, be that as it may, the more fool you, for it is a foregone conclusion that you are (as good luck would have it) quoting Shakespeare;

“If you think it is early days and clear out bag and baggage, if you think it is high time and that that is the long and short of it, if you believe that the game is up and that truth will out, even if it involves your own flesh and blood, if you lie low till the crack of doom because you suspect foul play, if you have your teeth set on edge (at one fell swoop) without rhyme or reason, then – to give the devil his due – if the truth were known (for surely you have a tongue in your head) you are quoting Shakespeare; even if you bid me good riddance and send me packing, if you wish I was dead as a door-nail, if you think I am an eyesore, a laughing stock, the devil incarnate, a stony-hearted villain, bloody-minded or a blinking idiot, then – by Jove! O Lord! Tut tut! For goodness’ sake! What the dickens! But give me no buts! – it is all one to me, for you are quoting Shakespeare”.

Death by medical error

The statistics on deaths caused by medical error in the United States are very troublesome:

Heart disease: 614,348
Cancer: 591,699
Medical error: 251,454
Respiratory disease: 147,101
Accidents: 136,053
Strokes: 133,103
Alzheimers: 93,541
Flu/pneumonia: 55,227
Kidney disease: 48,146
Suicide: 42,773
(Figures from John Hopkins University, National Center for Health Statistics amd BMJ, published in the Washington Post).

A quarter of a million (!) people went into hospital expecting first class treatment, and were killed accidentally by medical error. The figure speaks for itself. Of course, there are always going to be mistakes – to make mistakes is human. But the doctors are paid handsomely for their services, more handsomely than in any other advanced country. Surgeons and specialists can typically end up millionaires. In return the American health system does a poor job. Life expectancy is below most other advanced countries, and here we are, having to pay, say $56,000 for a knee joint replacement and quite possibly coming out in a wooden box.

What the answer is I don’t know, but I do think the culture of money and enrichment has a role in encouraging doctors – and hospitals – to rush procedures and push through more and more people, for the hospital if not for themselves. I can attest that it is quite usual to insist on CT scans and MRIs that help pay for the gear but are arguably unnecessary (nothing to do with deaths, but indicative of an attitude).

I have asked my wife to absolutely keep me out of hospitals, on the grounds that, even if they don’t kill you you get an infection. My trust level is low. I exclude the stellar job done by the doctor who gave me a new hip. This is the problem – there are really wonderful doctors among the careless. Sweeping statements are easy to make until you remember the good guys. But a quarter of a million accidental deaths…. Unacceptable.

Countering radicalization

From Liz Berry, Lydbrook, Gloucestershire, UK

Peter Byrne points out that no classic intervention strategy to combat radicalisation seems to work and that the UK parliament’s human rights committee reported that the nation’s Prevent strategy may actually make matters worse. Suggested countermeasures were to encourage community engagement; to break down stereotypes, rehumanising collaborators; and encouraging empathy and compassion through brain training. Those most susceptible to the propaganda were identified as being uncertain about their lives, or having psychiatric problems.

Then I read Graham Lawton’s interview with Robin Carhart-Harris. Carhart-Harris reports that subjects on psilocybin experience profound feelings of connectedness to others. Even a single dose can make the subject more politically liberal and more connected to other people.

Is it worth a try? (New Scientist, 16 Sept 2017)

I am in favour of extensive trials of psilocybin. I would start with the right wing of the British Conservative Party, the leading Brexiteers and advocates of neo-liberal government policies. I would then move across the Atlantic and try the drug on members of the Tea Party, workers in the White House and top government panjamdrums who are undoing all those humane policies in health, the environment and so on. At which point so many angry sociopaths would be taking the drug that it would have run out. But, on the other hand, the planet might possibly have been saved. Worth a try? You bet!

The future of China

N.B this isn’t a subject I know a huge amount about. But since I was recommended to write about it awhile ago, I’m going to give it my best shot. Also bear in mind that this is very much from a Western perspective. 

The rise of China is a very contentious subject in the West, particularly in the United States; Americans largely see China as a threat to their world power status. On the one hand, Chinese manufacturing has raised our standard of living considerably, by allowing us to buy their cheap products instead of our own expensive ones. The growth of Chinese consumer demand is a much-needed market for our own manufacturing sector. Chinese tourists have been a boon to our cities and historical sites. Chinese foreign students have lavished our universities with cash, subsidising costs for domestic students and providing investment for new research.

However, Chinese success has to an extent, come at the expense of the developed world. Partly through direct intellectual property theft; the most notorious example being the stealing of Japanese high speed rail technology. China has disregarded WTO rules on issues like steel dumping. Their manufacturing costs have been lowered by paying their workers poverty wages and disregarding environmental standards. On the whole, Chinese prosperity has been enabled by prioritising economic growth over individual wellbeing. Working hours are long, health and safety is scant, and workplace deaths are all too common.

Anti-Chinese sentiment contributed to the success of Donald Trump, who has promised to enact tariffs on Chinese made products. So far, he has yet to keep his word, mostly because his advisors have warned of the damage a trade war would do to the US economy. Trump’s anti-Chinese rhetoric was at times xenophobic, with no appreciation for the nuances of the debate, like the legitimate desire of the Chinese to prosper in the global economy. He critique of Chinese protectionism was obviously hypocritical. And his overall view of the world order as a zero-sum game, with Chinese (or Mexican) growth necessitating American decline, is an inaccurate view of a world where generally speaking, living standards have gone up for everyone.

The consensus amongst economists is that China’s rapid economic expansion will come to an end, sooner or later. The debate is how that will happen. There are two views: the hard-landing view, where China experiences a sudden crash, causing a global recession, and the soft-landing view, where GDP growth gradually slows as the population ages, welfare costs rise, and a renaissance in American manufacturing brings some jobs back to the US. My personal view is that the soft landing scenario is more likely. If there is a sudden crash, it could threaten the power of the Chinese Communist Party, so they won’t allow it to happen. The Communist Party is determined not to go the way of the Soviet Communists, where economic malaise and a lack of dedication to socialist ideals brought the regime down.

Given that Chinese growth will inevitably slow, there’s no need for a Trump-style adversarial relationship with the country. We should lower tariffs on Chinese goods, on the condition that they lower tariffs on ours. As the Chinese economy becomes more dependent on consumer demand, we should use this to get the Communist Party to open up the country further, which I believe will be beneficial for both us and them.  But if we appear hostile to China, the Communist Party will insulate the country, a move which we will ultimately pay for.

The left wing objection to China is the country’s woeful record on human rights, mostly notably the occupation of Tibet. Lesser known abuses include their criminal justice system with its frequent executions, as well as its persecution of other ethnic minorities, especially Muslims living in the west of the country. China’s Christians are hardly in a good position; the recent rapid expansion of Christianity has rattled the Communist Party, which officially adheres to a doctrine of state atheism. All of this is true, but it doesn’t warrant any acts of anti-Chinese hostility or protectionism. If we didn’t trade with any countries with poor human rights records, we couldn’t buy any oil from the Middle East or gas from Russia. The reality is we must buy from those we don’t necessarily approve of. Retaliation against the Chinese would only be viable if the country actively threatened us militarily. But that probably won’t happen, so relations with China ought to remain cordial for now.


The majority doesn’t rule on guns

The US is now a non-majoritarian democracy, that is, it vastly over-represents rural areas and small states, leaving city dwellers with limited influence over issues such as gun control. Large majorities want universal background checks, a ban on assault-style weapons and measures to prevent the mentally-ill and those on no-fly lists from buying guns. Ponder these points:

– In 1960 63% of Americans lived in metro areas; by 2010 84% did. It has been calculated that by 2040 70% of Americans will live in only 15 states, and be represented by only 30 of the 100 senators. And you call this a democracy? (please stop calling it that!)

– Add to this disturbing statistic the gerrymandering, which gave Republicans 16 seats they wouldn’t have won in the last election had gerrymandering not been rife.

– The voter-suppression efforts (rules about what documents you need to vote etc) and the disenfranchisement of former felons have skew election results, particularly in the South.

– and the above doesn’t even begin to take into account the anti-democratic waves of big money that buy Representatives and Senators. You thus have a system that is totally broken, in which one party pants like a load of puppies in appreciation of the super-rich, and ignores everyone else, unless they are fundamentalist christians. Russian interference in elections is just a blip on the screen, just another set of disagreeable and divisive voices among the home-grown variety.

The system is illegitimate, but where are the patriots with the integrity to reform it?
(statistics from an article in Washington Post by E.J.Dionne, Norman J. Ornstein and Thomas E Mann, October 4th 2017)

America’s disappearing weaponry

America’s enemies in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere have regularly been able to arm themselves with a remarkable range of U.S. weaponry. During the fighting around the city of Tal Afar, the Iraqi military recovered a U.S.-produced FGM-148 Javelin anti-tank missile and launcher from an Islamic State weapons cache. That’s a weapon capable of taking out an M1 Abrams tank. And this is hardly the first time U.S. anti-tank missiles meant either for the Iraqi military or Syrian rebels backed by the CIA have turned up in the hands of ISIS militants. In 2015, that group released photos of its fighters using U.S.-made BGM-71 TOW anti-tank missiles.

When the American-trained, funded, and armed Iraqi army collapsed in the summer of 2014 in the face of relatively small numbers of ISIS fighters, that group took vast stores of U.S. weaponry and vehicles that they’ve used ever since. But that was hardly the end of it. The U.S. soon began retraining and rearming its Iraqi allies to the tune of $1.6 billion for “tens of thousands of assault rifles, hundreds of armored vehicles, hundreds of mortar rounds, nearly 200 sniper rifles, and other gear,” much of which, a government audit found, the Pentagon simply lost track of. The weaponry, you might say, went missing in action. In 2007 the Government Accountability Office found that “the United States could not account for nearly 30% of the weapons it had distributed in Iraq since 2004 — about 200,000 guns.”
Similar stories could be told about Afghanistan. In short, the Pentagon has been arming itself, its allies, and its enemies.  (Tomgram 12 Sept 2017)

It is quite extraordinary how the majority of Americans are in awe of the military. It’s harmless, and courteous, thanking ex-servicemen for their service (they must get heartily sick of this, and wish the thanks were reflected in their medical care). What is incomprehensible is the lock the military-industrial complex has on every Administration, Congress, State government and nearly all Republican voters. America used to stand for liberty, freedom, the rule of law and reasonably good governance. Now it stands for never-ending warfare that fuels the most important institution in the country – the military. And this military not only cannot win a war, but accidentally loses loads of its weapons, backing the wrong horse on most occasions. And nothing is done about infrastructure, lousy education and many other pressing problems because far too much money is gobbled up by a military machine too big to be managed. The Roman Empire fell under the weight of a military fighting endless wars, while the lifestyle of the average Roman citizen gradually declined.
We have seen this movie before, several times in history. We are watching the end of Ameriican hegemony, and no one seems to do anything about it, maybe cannot.

Oh, no! Not again!

Over the last 9 years 971,000 Americans have been killed or wounded by gunfire.

Well, never mind. For a minute or two the members of Congress will be remembering the 59 slaughtered people in Las Vegas in their “thoughts and prayers”, won’t they – before bowing in gratitude to the NRA for further election funds.

“Thoughts and prayers”? Hypocritical balderdash! The National Rifle Association and the Federal and State legislators who resist, nay, encourage, the purchase of lethal firearms with ever more killing power – all of them are complicit in this shameful and seemingly endless slaughter, and should be kept in a safe place, away from gunfire (maybe in the private jails they have designed for poor and coloured people who smoke pot and listen to loud, un-listenable-to music?), until only shotguns for hunting are allowed to be sold, ammunition sales are severely curtailed, and police safety inspections in homes are compulsory.

And to think that the U.S House of Representative was about to vote on a bill allowing free use of silencers on guns, so that innocent people could be shot as silently as the so-called “prayers” being uttered by the politicians. That has had to be postponed until the liberal noise and fuss has died down. Tut, tut!

P.S: So many people don’t “do” irony. To make it clear in non-ironic terms: the Republican legislators supporting the legalisation of ever more destructive assault rifles should be jailed until they develop the backbone to stand up to the National Rifle Association, or National Mayhem Association as it is known in Epicurean circles. The present situation is immoderate, cruel and immoral.

Heaping work on customers

The “self-service revolution” has been wonderful for companies. What better way to strip out costs than to replace supermarket cashiers with machines, or make passengers print out their boarding passes before setting out? In a new book, Shadow Work, Craig Lambert presents a “dystopian vision”. He argues that “the reason why so many people feel overworked these days is that they are constantly being asked to do ‘unseen’ jobs”, by everyone from Amazon to the taxman. The cumulative effect is to feel like “a slave to the machine”. Perhaps Lambert is too gloomy: many of these developments have in fact been driven by customer preference. But there is now a clear and worrying divide between “cattle class” and “business class” offerings: the service industries have eliminated “the personal touch” from their mass-market products, while “no amount of fawning is too much” for well-heeled customers. And if they abandon trying to differentiate themselves with good service, the effect is “to train customers to shop on price”, making them vulnerable to attack from discounters. Just ask Britain’s mainstream supermarkets. (Schumpeter, The Economist)

We encountered very charming man who, a year ago, had sold his technology company and was looking around for new opportunities. He absolutely agreed that the idea of customer service is dying or dead. One can never get past the young woman on the phone. She either can’t or won’t put you through to her supervisor, and often doesn’t know who he (or she)is. The management treat customers like herds of cattle, ignoring complaints and suggestions, offering limited training to the front line staff, and contenting themselves with sending out gormless opinion polls (we care!). And by the way, most of the websites one visits do not need elaborate “accounts” and log-ins, which are marketing ploys and have nothing to do with security.

Yesterday I was sent an opinion poll email, asking me how well the company concerned did in arranging an annual service visit to maintain our central heating boiler. Actual amount of time taken to choose date and time: one minute 23 seconds. Time it would take have taken to fill in the poll? About five minutes. Ridiculous!* Time for a revolt by the customer!

* I ignored it, of course, in the name of peace of mind.

Idleness and the baby boomers

Epidemiologist Loretta DiPietro of the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University has worked on health for baby boomers and older people.  You would think it was obvious and that the middle-aged would be aware of it by now, but DiPietro says that being immobile for hours each day does more than raise the risk of a host of diseases. She has good evidence that, as the years wear on, it actually reduces the ability of older people to get around on foot at all.

In a study of sitting and walking ability that surveyed people ages 50 to 71 across 8 to 10 years, those who tended to sit the most and move the least had more than three times the risk of difficulty walking by the end of the study, when compared to their more active counterparts. Some ended up unable to walk at all. (The study appeared in the Journals of Gerontology: Medical Sciences).

Prolonged sitting and TV watching were particularly harmful, DiPietro found, especially when combined with low levels of total physical activity. Young bodies may rebound from prolonged sitting with an hour at the gym, she says. But that seems less true in late middle age.  “Sitting and watching TV for long periods, especially in the evening,” she says, “has got to be one of the most dangerous things that older people can do.” And the period studied — the mid-1990s to 2005, or so — was before the advent of online streaming of shows. The problem today is probably even worse now that it is possible to watch several hours without moving.”

“We now use the Internet to go shopping, order groceries, send messages, and even gossip,” DiPietro says. “We used to walk down the hall and gossip; now we send it via email or text.”
.Those who watched five or more hours of TV per day had a 65 percent greater risk of reporting a mobility disability at the study’s end, compared with those who watched less than two hours per day. DiPietro says this association was independent of their level of total physical activity and other factors known to affect the ability to easily move around.

She offers an antidote: Get up at least every 30 minutes when staring at a screen. At least stand up, march in place, jump around, kick legs — do anything to move about for at least one to two minutes.”. The result of that would be “phenomenal,” to mobility, she says, and be at least a start toward heart health, too.

Dr. Andrew Freeman, who directs cardiovascular prevention and wellness at National Jewish Health in Denver, and represents the American College of Cardiology, says people should do even more higher intensity exercise regularly — at least to the point of being “breathless.”. Exercise, he says, is nature’s best medicine. (a precised version of a piece on NPR, reduced in length for easier consumption. Original Copyright 2017 NPR.)

My wife and I go to the gym three times a week. I normally use the treadmill to walk about 3 miles each time, and I do a number of exercises as well. I say this (hopefully) not to sound holier than the next person, but because there are usually pitifully few people my age
ever in that ,gym. Youngsters, yes, but oldies very few. They say the wheels start coming off when you reach 80. I’m surprised they don’t come off earlier.

Epicurus and Political Moderation

We’re a big fan of moderation here on the Epicurus Blog. In fact, it’s one of our core values, as you can see on the banner above. Epicurus stressed that avoiding excess was a key aspect of achieving happiness, and we wholeheartedly agree. Thus, we reject rigid dogmas and are generally utilitarian in our ethics and morality.

However, the benefits of political moderation aren’t as straightforward. Political moderates emphasise caution, pragmatism and compromise. They are by definition averse to radical change. In a liberal democracy that treats its citizens well, this is generally a good thing. The present day United States is a textbook example of the damaging nature of political polarisation, where neither side is willing to make the necessary compromises in order to enact desperately needed reforms. Rather, the consensual model of decision-making found in most EU countries- where policy is borne out of compromise and coalition-building, not adversarial bickering and demonisation of the opposition- is vastly preferable.

But in countries that aren’t liberal democracies; where human rights are being violated, where a small group of elites squanders the country’s wealth, where corruption is rampant, and where businesses are overburdened; moderation is actually immoral. To watch injustices being carried out, and to respond by demanding compromise, is to betray those who are suffering. We can all compromise on what the tax rate should be, or how much should be spent on education, but not when people’s basic human needs and dignity are being denied.

As I mentioned in my post yesterday, I believe that the Conservative Party in the UK, as well as a large (and increasing) portion of the Labour Party are insufficiently moderate. The former has become totally committed to leaving the European Single Market, regardless of the consequences for business or people’s freedom. The prospect of rapidly falling migration or a weakened Pound does not faze them, in fact they welcome it. They have thrown their brand of caution and stable leadership to the wind, instead promising a utopia of free trade deals and vastly increased exports. Their unrelenting Euroscepticism is totally at odds with the analysis of the Bank of England, the Treasury, every major university and economics think-tank, as well as all of our allies around the world.

The ignorant radicalism of the Conservative Party’s approach to Brexit has contributed to the popularity of Labour’s own new-found radicalism. If the fall in the Pound is to be welcomed after Brexit, then why not after a Labour victory? The same could be said for any fall in the value of stocks or property. Conservatives can no longer argue against reckless gambles since they are taking one themselves. Moreover, Brexit was largely Britain’s older generation embracing radical change. In response, Britain’s young people have embraced radical change in the form of Corbynism- which may be Eurosceptic in ideology, but does not spew out nationalistic tropes like calling the EU an ’empire’, telling it to ‘go whistle’ over our unpaid liabilities, or criticising EU migrants. Unlike much of the Eurosceptic right, Corbyn does not advocate an adversarial relationship with the EU, but one borne out of mutual respect.

So if the Conservatives and Labour (as I explained in yesterday’s post) are insufficiently moderate, then why not support the Liberal Democrats. For the benefit of non-British readers, the Liberal Democrats are a bit like the US Democrats, minus the more progressive people like Elizabeth Warren or Dennis Kucinich. They are socially liberal, pro EU and pro immigration, and are the party most strongly in favour of reforming Britain’s anachronistic constitution. But on economic issues, they aren’t as left wing as Labour. They have never identified as a socialist party, and refrain from engaging in class warfare rhetoric to appeal to their middle class base.

I have a number of problems with the Liberal Democrats. In the 2017 election, a large part of why I didn’t vote for them was their then-leader Tim Farron. An evangelical Christian, Farron holds moderately socially conservative views on a number of issues, but does not wish for those views to be enacted into law. But when asked about those views, Farron repeatedly dodged the question, before eventually lying about his beliefs so as to avoid being mistaken for a political conservative. Following the election (and his party’s underwhelming performance), Farron resigned, claiming he couldn’t in good conscience continue to be the leader of the Liberal Democrats and be a Christian. My problem with Farron was not his Christianity nor his personal views, my problem was that he lied about them. It also seemed a bit inappropriate for an Evangelical to be leader of a socially liberal party; Evangelicals are much more socially conservative than mainline Protestants, who could be Liberal Democrat leaders without any problems arising.

Farron’s successor, Vince Cable, is in a different class. An experienced spokesman, he is highly intelligent and articulate, and thus attracts the media coverage his party so badly needs. My problem with Cable’s Liberal Democrats is some of their policies. On housing, they often block much-needed development at the local level, even if they sing the praises of house building nationally. The obvious example is Oxford West, where the local Liberal MP claims the city’s housing shortage can be addressed by building in the neighbouring town of Bicester. This is total tripe- there is plenty of land available to be built in Oxford, the problem is the green belt which prevents such development from happening. Considering that Oxford’s house prices are the highest in the country relative to local wages, opposition to house-building is totally unforgivable.

On Brexit, the party supports a referendum on the final deal, with the option of staying in the EU should the public find the deal unsatisfactory. This has the obvious appeal to Remainers of keeping the possibility of staying in the EU open. But this referendum would suffer from all of the problems of the first one. A complex issue would be presented as a binary choice, obscuring the nuances of policy. Lies and out of context information could be spread easily by either side. The sovereignty of Parliament would be violated and its expertise rendered inconsequential. And most importantly, there wouldn’t be any accountability. A lot of campaigners could promise all sorts of things, knowing they wouldn’t be held to account for having not fulfilled their pledges. Overall a second referendum is bad policy. We could legitimately stay in the EU, but only if Parliament votes to cancel the Article 50 process following a dramatic change in public opinion as shown by multiple opinion polls. Otherwise, we are going to leave, and the Liberal Democrats will probably just have to accept that.

As the closest thing Britain has to a moderate party, the Liberal Democrats aren’t a terrible bunch. We certainly need an explicitly centrist movement, to tame the extremes of left and right. But too often, they fall into the trap they criticise others for- promising the undeliverable. House prices cannot be lowered without significant development. A second referendum will not necessarily grant the wishes of beleaguered Remainers. And on the economy, Cable promises a Swedish style social democracy, but like Labour, does not propose the tax increases necessary to pay for it. Being moderate is about being honest and realistic. It is a virtue all of Britain’s parties have yet to learn.