Newsnotes 2011 02

Notes On The News

by Gwydion M Williams

Cash-Cuckoo Land [Banking Crisis]

Boomers and Coolhearts [Baby Boomers & the Next Generation]

One Pensioner, One Bullet?

Feed The Rich – the Multiplication of Millionaires

Who Rules The USA?

Twenty Years On [After the Soviet Collapse]

Life after the End of History [Fukuyama]

Government Of the People, For the People, By the People

Party Rule [China]

Europe Freezes, the World Warms

Vengeance in Egypt [Arab Spring]

A Zoo-full of Planets [Exoplanets]


Cash-Cuckoo Land [Banking Crisis]

After the crisis of 2008, people were saying that bankers would have to change. But in the West, bankers have carried on as before, playing games with trillions and collecting billions in bonus. Everyone else is having to cut back, to pay off the debts that were run up saving the banks from collapse.

Since the 1980s, Western governments have ignored the lessons of the Wall Street Crash and Great Depression. They came to believe in so-called ‘Rational Economics’. But such economics is not rational at all, it sees the world as a ‘Cash-Cuckoo Land’ in which wealth appears from nowhere thanks to unregulated trade.

‘Smart Money’ made big profits. But since most of the ‘Smart Money’ did nothing to increase the overall wealth, a huge mass of ‘Silly Money’ was required to balance it. A lot of it came from naive investors, people who risked and lost money they could not afford to lose.

After the crash, there were promises of ‘robust action’ over bank bonuses. So far it has been about as robust as Woody Allen. In Britain and Ireland, voters have been persuaded to blame the party in power at the time. In the USA, they have been persuaded to blame the party that was not in power at the time and strengthen the same people they threw out in 2008.

Bankers justify their bonuses by mentioning all of the hard work. The public would not be willing to listen to a complaint by burglars about the hard work they do and the risks they run. Likewise some drug-dealers must be very hard-working and it is certainly a high-stress lifestyle. But burglars and drug dealers do far less damage than the current crop of bankers.

The Tory government claim to be heartbroken that they cannot stop billions being paid to bankers and have to take it away from the poor and disabled. But modern Tories come from privileged circles, the people who have done well since the 1980s. They are not there to empower ordinary people. They prefer to empower what they’d class as ‘extraordinary people’, which mostly means wheeler-dealers and the existing elite.

To date, Labour have been a weak opposition, not clear about what they’d do different. It remains to be seen whether this will change after Alan Johnson’s sad departure and Ed Balls’ move to the spot that should always have been his.


Boomers and Coolhearts [Baby Boomers & the Next Generation]

From 1914 to 1939, Western civilisation seemed to be in terminal decline. George Orwell was just one of many who assumed they were living in the last days of anything decent. Others took a more positive view: they accepted that both Fascism and Leninism had had justified criticisms of the older liberal-capitalist order. They also concluded that a Mixed Economy could deliver the same benefits without the need for dictatorship, at least in countries with a long tradition of constitutional government.

The quarter-century of the Mixed Economy were brilliant for the West. The big winners were France, Italy, West Germany and Japan. But both Britain and the USA grew faster than they have since Thatcher and Reagan led the drive for a restoration of capitalist norms.

Thatcher and Reagan tapped into the fear of ‘corporatism’. Not, indeed, that they did anything about it. Vast impersonal corporations are much stronger now than they were in the 1980s. But the ‘Baby Boomers’ – the children born to adults who had had to delay family life because of World War Two – did have a broad dislike of social controls.

Boomers had set out to make the world better for everyone, not just for themselves. And I think we’ve been right on a lot more issues than we were wrong. Note also that it was mostly young white males trying to help women and blacks, if not entirely accepting them as equals.

Commentators who go on about the failure of 1960s radicals to match modern standards fail to ask themselves if those ‘ modern standards’ would ever have become the norm without the original imperfect protests. Presumably they think that such reforms dropped down from heaven: it is what they feel, and what could be more perfect and inevitable that?

The big shifts were on race and the rights of women. An assumption of racial hierarchies was mainstream in the 1950s and had been pushed to the right-wing fringes by the 1970s. The US armies that liberated Western Europe were racially segregated: the US contingent of the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War was the first army in which black US citizens might be in command of white US citizens, something that only happened decades later in the regular army. Female pilots had always been potentially equal, but only the Soviet Union actually let them fight in World War Two.

Away from the battlefield, the Soviet Union pioneered women’s rights in all sorts of sectors up to the 1960s, including sending the first women into space. But then everything seized up under Brezhnev, after Khrushchev had pointlessly antagonised large parts of the Communist movement and proved inept as a reformer. But even as the Soviet Union lost its progressive role, the West was moving forward again.

The best of the Boomer generation the attitude of moral seriousness. A lot of others compromised on the path to power. They were encouraged by the next wave of young people, whom one might call Coolhearts. Their attitude was mostly not to make the world better for everyone: much more ‘I will grab what I can for myself”. It was a return to the lower end of human nature.

Most of the Coolhearts generation did worse economically out of this lack of solidarity. The positive side of the Coolheart era was that people who believe in nothing will allow anything, so long as it does not inconvenience them. Important negative freedoms established. People cared less so you were much more free to do as you pleased, if you could pay for it.


One Pensioner, One Bullet?

As people live longer, the working-age population shrinks relative to the rest. And so what? If the same number of people can produce more wealth with less work, why should there be a problem?

The problem arises from thinking as a mass of competitive individuals rather than as a community. From a suspicion of the state and the acceptance of private wealth as ‘natural’. So the some of the working-age population are persuaded that their problems are due to the older generation somehow messing things up.

If wealth was still as equal as it was in the 1960s and 1970s, there would be no problem. We could all have a lot more leisure, which was a real expectation in the 1950s and 1960s.

The problem is not lack of wealth in the society. It is the fact that a lot of that wealth goes to a small upper stratum, whose demands are unlimited. Having mostly acquired this wealth rather than inherited it, they are much less likely to be satisfied or to be responsible. They are not a true ruling class, they are a mere Overclass, not in control but able to manipulate public greed.


Feed The Rich – the Multiplication of Millionaires

There are some 2,800,000 million dollar millionaires in the USA today, and more than 480,000 in the UK. There are some 10 million globally, including more than a thousand billionaires.

In both the USA and Britain, the richest 1% approximates to dollar millionaires. This is worth emphasising, since surveys reveal that about a quarter of US citizens believe that they are part of the richest 1%, and another quarter expect to get there. If the Actually-Rich work to protect their own interests, a huge chunk of the Working Mainstream think that their own interests are being served by free-wheeling capitalism.

Note also that there are complexities in defining who is a millionaire. The Economist sums it up neatly:

“Most people would describe a dollar millionaire as rich, yet many millionaires would disagree. They do not compare themselves with teachers or shop assistants but with the other parents at their children’s private schools. To count the number of rich people in the world, however, an arbitrary cut-off point is needed, and $1m is as good as any. Capgemini, a consultancy, defines anyone with investable assets of $1m or more (excluding their home) as a ‘high-net-worth individual’, consultant-speak for rich. By this conservative measure the planet has about 10m millionaires, according to Capgemini and Merrill Lynch, a bank.

“Credit Suisse, another bank, uses a less stringent (and more obvious) definition: a millionaire is anyone whose net assets exceed $1m. That includes everything: a home, an art collection, even the value of an as-yet-inaccessible pension scheme. The Credit Suisse ‘Global Wealth Report’ estimates that there were 24.2m such people in mid-2010, about 0.5% of the world’s adult population. By this measure, there are more millionaires than there are Australians. They control $69.2 trillion in assets, more than a third of the global total. Some 41% of them live in the United States, 10% in Japan and 3% in China.” [B]

Someone who counts as a millionaire if their house and pension funds are included is pretty rich by most standards, but outside the richest 1%. And within the Overclass, a small number of very rich individuals have the bulk of the power and influence:

“You do not have to be a genius to build a million-dollar business, but it helps if you are intelligent and extremely hard-working. In their book ‘The Millionaire Next Door’, Thomas Stanley and William Danko observed that a typical American millionaire is surprisingly ordinary. He has spent his life patiently saving and ploughing his money into a business he founded. He does not live in the fanciest part of town—why waste money that you can invest? And his tastes are so plain that you can barely tell him apart from his neighbours. He buys $40 shoes, and his car of choice is a Ford…

“The global wealth pyramid has a very wide base and a sharp point. The richest 1% of adults control 43% of the world’s assets; the wealthiest 10% have 83%. The bottom 50% have only 2%. This suggests a huge disparity of influence. The wealthiest tenth control the vast bulk of the world’s capital, giving them a lot of say in funding businesses, charities and politicians. The bottom 50% control hardly any capital at all.

“That said, this huge group includes people in quite different circumstances. Many young people in rich countries have no assets and a wallet full of maxed-out credit cards. Technically, their debts make them poorer than African peasants who have nothing. But they enjoy a much higher standard of living and far better prospects. In Denmark and Sweden a startling 30% of the population say their debts exceed their assets, but few go hungry. Many have simply taken out large student loans which an indulgent government allows them to repay very gradually.

“At the apex of the pyramid there are 81,000 people with assets of more than $50m. Of these, some 30,000 have more than $100m and 2,800 have more than $500m. Nestled into the sharp tip at the top, Credit Suisse reckons there are about 1,000 dollar billionaires.” [B]


Who Rules The USA?

The biggest winners in the West since the 1980s have been the richest 10%, and especially the richest 1%. You could see this as a mysterious conspiracy that has somehow subverted democracy:

“How has a tiny fraction of the population – which is diverse in many ways – arranged for their narrowest economic interests to dominate the economic interests of the vast majority? And, while they’re at it, endanger the economic well-being of our nation, and bring the financial system of the whole world to the brink of collapse.

“They have money.

“We have votes.

“Theoretically, that means we should have the government. Theoretically, government should be a countervailing force against the excesses of big money, take the long view for the good of the nation, and watch out for the majority. Let alone for the poor and downtrodden.

“What we actually have is one political party that is flat out the party of big money and another party that sells out to big money.” (How Can the Richest 1 Percent Be Winning This Brutal Class War Against 99% of Us? [C])

You could equally ask, why do vast numbers of ordinary people buy lottery tickets, enabling a very small number of individuals to become instant millionaires? Except it is bloody obvious for the lottery: each gambler hopes to be the next big winner, and maybe the pleasure they get from their false hopes makes up for the price of their tickets. It’s just the same in the wider economy, except that the relationships are more complex.

If the Actually-Rich work to protect their own interests, a huge chunk of the Working Mainstream think that their own interests are being served. Including the unlucky investors in Enron who believed that their savings had yielded them unearned millions. Or all of those – most of them already part of the Actually-Rich yet still greedy for more – who invested with Madoff. Most of those he ‘reluctantly’ allowed to invest with him must have supposed that his implausible returns were a cheat with themselves as beneficiaries. Instead they found themselves victims – but this has happened many times in history and I’d be very surprised if people like Madoff didn’t continue to flourish for as long as free-wheeling finance is tolerated.

One major problem in the USA is that socialist parties failed to grow. The Republicans were once progressive but then got taken over by business interests. The Democrats under Roosevelt carried through what were actually socialist measures, but never discarded old-fashioned liberal ideology, which was well past its sell-by date.

What’s worse is that almost all US citizens believe that their late-18th century constitution defined a near-perfect republic. They proudly quote Jefferson as saying:

“Yes, we did produce a near-perfect republic. But will they keep it? Or will they, in the enjoyment of plenty, lose the memory of freedom? Material abundance without character is the path of destruction.”

I’ve no idea if the Jefferson quote would look different in context: in modern politics it counts mostly as a quote that US citizens love to use. They overlook that this ‘ near-perfect republic’ was a republic where chattel slavery was expanding fast, where the original owners of the land were being robbed and often exterminated, where no women had the vote and where not all white males had the vote. And where local gentry like Jefferson were in charge until the second wave of democratisation under Andrew Jackson. Jackson’s Vice-President was John C. Calhoun, pioneer of the idea that negro slavery was an inherently good system that should never be abolished. This view led on to the bitter Civil War of the 1860s.


Twenty Years On [After the Soviet Collapse]

There’s an old joke about the one reliable method to go gambling in Las Vegas and return with a small fortune. You go there with a large fortune.

The West since 1991 has been like that. Gorbachev had inherited a superpower and left behind chaos. Yeltsin inherited this chaos and left behind an impoverished and humiliated Russia. Yeltsin handed over to Putin, as the West was flabbergasted that Russia no longer liked them and was happy with Putin’s new approach, which stopped the decline and treated the West as a rival. We now have some commentators whining about their bad fortune, but utterly failing to understand where they went wrong

“Aren’t the mistakes, missteps, and sheer missed opportunities of these 20 years inexcusable? And might not there be an explanation? In one of the last interviews he gave before his death, Judt said something that haunts me: ‘My generation has been catastrophic. I was born in 1948 so I’m more or less the same age as George W Bush, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Gerhard Schröder, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown – a pretty crappy generation, when you come to think of it. It’s a generation that grew up in the 1960s in western Europe or in America, in a world of no hard choices.’

“Well, his generation is mine, and ‘no hard choices’ is exactly right. We were incredibly lucky. We grew up in what the French call les trentes glorieuses, the astonishing three decades that followed 1945, with unimagined prosperity and an all-nourishing state that provided healthcare and education. To cap it all, and make us softer still, we enjoyed unprecedented personal freedoms.

“Then came that supposed complete victory for the west. But by then we had taken over, and what a horrible mess we’ve made. If there’s any hope at all, it must be that our crappy generation can slink away in shame, and let a younger generation see if they can manage things better. They could scarcely do worse.” [D]

Has the man forgotten about the 1980s? How Thatcher and Reagan bad-mouthed those ‘astonishing three decades’ and insisted that a return to classical capitalism was urgently necessary? In the West, quite a bit of damage has been done by such pig-headed politics, with the possibility now of the UK suffering a ‘double dip’ thanks to Tory obsessions with balancing the budget. Russia has now been lost to the West. China sticks to its own very successful Mixed Economy, and sees no need to listen to Western folly.


Life after the End of History [Fukuyama]

Having announced the ‘end of history’ in the early 1990s, Francis Fukuyama has now moved on. As Pompey the Great remarked to his elderly mentor Sulla, men worship the rising sun rather than the setting sun. Japan once seemed like the next superpower, but hung onto the ‘Honorary White’ status that it acquired in the early 20th century. Japan also yielded to US pressure to drop its own successful methods and adopt the USA’s foolishness, producing a crisis that has not yet been resolved..

China has so far avoided Japan’s errors, forming part of a block of rising powers – Brazil, the Republic of India and South Africa – as well as teaming up with damaged-but-powerful Russia. And Fukuyama is now praising them, at least conditionally:

“The first decade of the 21-century has seen a dramatic reversal of fortune in the relative prestige of different political and economic models. Ten years ago, on the eve of the puncturing of the dotcom bubble, the US held the high ground. Its democracy was widely emulated, if not always loved; its technology was sweeping the world; and lightly regulated ‘Anglo-Saxon’ capitalism was seen as the wave of the future. The US managed to fritter away that moral capital in remarkably short order: the Iraq war and the close association it created between military invasion and democracy promotion tarnished the latter, while the Wall Street financial crisis put paid to the idea that markets could be trusted to regulate themselves.

“China, by contrast, is on a roll. President Hu Jintao’s rare state visit to Washington this week comes at a time when many Chinese see their weathering of the financial crisis as a vindication of their own system, and the beginning of an era in which US-style liberal ideas will no longer be dominant. State-owned enterprises are back in vogue, and were the chosen mechanism through which Beijing administered its massive stimulus. The automatic admiration for all things American that many Chinese once felt has given way to a much more nuanced and critical view of US weaknesses – verging, for some, on contempt. It is thus not surprising that polls suggest far more Chinese think their country is going in the right direction than their American counterparts.

“But what is the Chinese model? Many observers casually put it in an ‘authoritarian capitalist’ box, along with Russia, Iran and Singapore. But China’s model is sui generis; its ­specific mode of governance is difficult to describe, much less emulate, which is why it is not up for export.

“The most important strength of the Chinese political system is its ability to make large, complex decisions quickly, and to make them relatively well, at least in economic policy. This is most evident in the area of infrastructure, where China has put into place airports, dams, high-speed rail, water and electricity systems to feed its growing industrial base. Contrast this with India, where every new investment is subject to blockage by trade unions, lobby groups, peasant associations and courts. India is a law-governed democracy, in which ordinary people can object to government plans; China’s rulers can move more than a million people out of the Three Gorges Dam flood plain with little recourse on their part.

“Nonetheless, the quality of Chinese government is higher than in Russia, Iran, or the other authoritarian regimes with which it is often lumped – precisely because Chinese rulers feel some degree of accountability towards their population. That accountability is not, of course, procedural; the authority of the Chinese Communist party is limited neither by a rule of law nor by democratic elections. But while its leaders limit public criticism, they do try to stay on top of popular discontents, and shift policy in response. They are most attentive to the urban middle class and powerful business interests that generate employment, but they respond to outrage over egregious cases of corruption or incompetence among lower-level party cadres too.

“Indeed, the Chinese government often overreacts to what it believes to be public opinion precisely because, as one diplomat resident in Beijing remarked, there are no institutionalised ways of gauging it, such as elections or free media. Instead of calibrating a sensible working relationship with Japan, for example, China escalated a conflict over the detention of a fishing boat captain last year – seemingly in anticipation of popular anti-Japanese sentiment.

“Americans have long hoped China might undergo a democratic transition as it got wealthier, and before it became powerful enough to become a strategic and political threat. This seems unlikely, however. The government knows how to cater to the interests of Chinese elites and the emerging middle classes, and builds on their fear of populism. This is why there is little support for genuine multi-party democracy. The elites worry about the example of democracy in Thailand – where the election of a populist premier led to violent conflict between his supporters and the establishment – as a warning of what could happen to them.

“Ironically for a country that still claims to be communist, China has grown far more unequal of late. Many peasants and workers share little in the country’s growth, while others are ruthlessly exploited. Corruption is pervasive, which exacerbates existing inequalities. At a local level there are countless instances in which government colludes with developers to take land away from hapless peasants. This has contributed to a pent-up anger that explodes in many thousands of acts of social protest, often violent, each year.

“The Communist party seems to think it can deal with the problem of inequality through improved responsiveness on the part of its own hierarchy to popular pressures. China’s great historical achievement during the past two millennia has been to create high-quality centralised government, which it does much better than most of its authoritarian peers. Today, it is shifting social spending to the neglected interior, to boost consumption and to stave off a social explosion. I doubt whether its approach will work: any top-down system of accountability faces unsolvable problems of monitoring and responding to what is happening on the ground. Effective accountability can only come about through a bottom-up process, or what we know as democracy. This is not, in my view, likely to emerge soon. However, down the road, in the face of a major economic downturn, or leaders who are less competent or more corrupt, the system’s fragile legitimacy could be openly challenged. Democracy’s strengths are often most evident in times of adversity.” [E]


Government Of the People, For the People, By the People

China currently meets the famous definition of democracy that Lincoln set out the Gettysburg Address. And China has also concluded that the modern version of Western-style democracy is bad news, and with good reason.

“The nearly two-month head-to-head contest for presidency between former Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo and former Prime Minister Alassane Outtara isn’t likely to come to an end soon.

“The subsequent bloody conflicts have severely endangered the country’s stability and people’s wellbeing…

“In 1990, under the influence and pressure of Western countries, Cote d’Ivoire imported Western-style democracy and held a multi-party presidential election.

“But the country since then has suffered political instability and occasional bloody conflicts.

“Two coups occurred in 1999 and 2002. The first ousted then President Henri Konan Bedie, while the second was foiled by President Gbagbo but plunged the country into a north-south civil war, which lasted until 2007.

“Over the past two decades, conflict has invariably followed a presidential election at the cost of human lives.

“Cote d’Ivoire was a reasonably developed economy in sub-Sahara Africa before 1990, but its economic growth has stagnated and people’s living conditions haven’t improved noticeably since.

“Similar problems plague many African countries. After the Cold War, the majority of African nations practised Western-style democracy, which is characterized by multi-party elections, but many countries have yet to taste the expected fruits.

“In the few years since the end of 2007, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Mauritania, Guinea and Madagascar have suffered coups or election-related violence. Tunisia is currently suffering from bloody conflict and chaos.

“Political stability, violent conflicts or insurgency also have taken place in many countries with Western-style democracy outside of Africa, such as Iraq in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan in central Asia, Thailand in Southeast Asia and Haiti in central America.

“There are several factors behind the phenomenon.

“First, there are no sound political mechanisms and widely accepted ‘game rules’ in presidential elections or political circles. It is routine, when election officials declare a winner, for other candidates to reject the result and call for protests, which trigger bloody conflicts.

“Second, leaders of some parties or cliques, who control the military, judicial departments and media, may rig elections, refuse to step down after apparent defeat in elections, or even launch coups to snatch power.

“Third, there are vehement ethnic, regional or religious contradictions between different groups. The contests between different parties in elections or political affairs may deteriorate into bloody conflicts of the groups that support their respective parties.” (Western-style democracy not cure-all medicine, [J])

So what’s the alternative? For now, the Communist Party remains firmly in control. It has done what no other ruling Communist Party managed: a peaceful hand-over of the top jobs without discrediting the old leadership. It seems set to repeat the process in 2012. And most Chinese seem entirely comfortable with the system as it is.

Harassment by the Western media is all done in the name of ‘Human Rights’. Hu Jintao seemed to have made concessions during his recent visit to the USA, but in face he did not, as at least one journalist noted:

“Chinese President Hu Jintao faced a rare public question on human rights at the press conference

“It was, unquestionably, the most important public moment of Hu Jintao’s visit to the US so far. The moment President Hu Jintao was put on the spot about China’s human rights record.

“His answer, when it finally came, was illuminating. But, I’d like to suggest, that some of the significance has been missed, some misread….

“China’s leader read from pre-prepared notes. It wasn’t the most confident or the most convincing display of statesmanship.

“But again there is something significant here that has perhaps been overlooked. The fact Hu Jintao had his answer already scripted is I think worth noting…

“So the answer was not strident or confrontational, but an attempt to sound unthreatening, a little humble even. It’s the attempt to strike a new tone that is important.

“But this wasn’t an ‘unprecedented admission’ as some have painted it. Here I think the significance of what President Hu said has been misread.

“On any occasion like this Chinese diplomats put a lot of store by the precise phrasing of public statements, so it’s worth looking at Mr Hu’s exact words.

“‘China is a developing country with a huge population, and also a developing country in a crucial stage of reform. In this context China still faces many challenges in economic and social development, and a lot still needs to be done in China in terms of human rights,’ was what the official translator said.

“The important thing here is the repeated stress on ‘development’. China’s leaders don’t see human rights the same way most in the West do. They define improving human rights as improving living standards, lifting people out of poverty.” [K]

China is in fact doing a good job in Africa as well as at home:

“Western countries have been offering the wrong thing. Providing food aid or money isn’t enough because food is more than calories, it is a way of life. What Africa needs is technical help, and that is coming mainly from Brazil, India and China. China now has agricultural experts in 35 African countries, Brazil has supplied knowledge from its own agricultural modernisation, and India is supplying technology to provide communications and land-based satellite information.” [N]

I’d have thought food was the most basic human right of all. The West tends to define ‘Human Rights’ mostly in terms of the rights of journalists, lawyers and pro-Western dissidents. If you read the original Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it goes much wider than that. [L] Article 5 – “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” – has been massively breached in the so-called ‘War Against Terrorism’. Article 22 specifies a “right to social security”. Article 23 specifies a “right to work”, something that the USA and Western Europe genuinely offered up to the 1980s and then dropped. Article 25 says:

“(1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

“(2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.” [L]

All of these were things the West could manage up until the 1980s. Since then, a much richer society has been persuaded that such rights are impossibly expensive. And there has been a bitter determination to impose the same sort of mess on the rest of the world.


Party Rule [China]

Identifying the current rule of the Chinese Communist Party with the former rule of the Confucian mandarins is a piece of fool’s wisdom that you hear from many ‘experts’ nowadays. China’s traditional government stopped at the level of the country: the central government appointed governors of provinces – most of them as big as European nations – and also appointed governors of cities and counties below them. But the traditional administrative machine stopped there, one official with a small staff per county or city.

When the traditional system collapsed in 1911, there was nothing to replace it except the modernised armies that the traditional government had formed in its last decades. These armies had little idea how to rule, and became warlords. Sun Yatsen and other reformers found themselves powerless – they had a nominal majority in a newly created parliament, but hardly anyone took that parliament seriously. A western account written in 1918 reveals why:

“The Parliament of China is … elected by means of a property and educational franchise which is estimated to give about four million voters (1 per cent of the population) although in practice relatively few vote.” [F]

Something closer to democracy emerged when Sun Yatsen remodelled the Kuomintang on Leninist line and brought in Chinese Communists to make it something like a mass movement. But Sun Yatsen died with his dreams incomplete. There was at first no clear successor, but Chiang Kai-shek controlled the army and led a right-wing take-over that refused to fight the imperial powers dominating China and instead massacred thousands of left-wing Chinese. He was aided by Shanghai’s Green Gang, drug-dealing gangsters who coexisted with British and French sovereignty over the core of Shanghai. The Kuomintang later flirted with fascism, but never became a mass party even to the degree which Italian and German fascism managed it. As left-wing journalist Agnes Smedley observed:

“Somewhere in the heaps of propaganda literature I had read that the Kuomintang had 39,000 members. I asked an official if this referred to the whole country or only Nanking. He looked uneasy and answered evasively. The fact was that the Kuomintang had only 39,000 members out of a population of 450,000,000 people, that it had become, in other words, a small closed corporation of government officials and their subordinates.” [H]

That would be 1 in 11,000, no way to run a modern society. And the Kuomintang was never serious about running a modern society, it just squatted on top of the chaos that had resulted from the 1911 Revolution. Later success in Taiwan was thanks to its control of an island that had been run by the Japanese from 1895 to 1945 and was part of the ruthless but efficient modernisation led by Japan.

Chinese communism was different. It gave ordinary Chinese the right to vote for the first time ever, electing leaders at a village level where everyone understood the issues. Higher-level coordination occurs through the Communist Party, which avoids destructive factionalism in what is quite a diverse society. It works and large numbers of people are involved in it:

“As a political machine alone, the Party is a phenomenon of awesome and unique dimensions. By mid-2009, its membership stood at 75 million, equal to about one in twelve adult Chinese.” [G]

The party’s function – still continuing – has been transmitting the useful aspects of Western knowledge down to a fairly basic level.


Europe Freezes, the World Warms

Climate sceptics need to be reminded that meteorologists do not cause the weather, they merely try to understand its complexities.

In Fred Hoyle’s SF novel The Black Cloud, one of the scientists says to the Prime Minister that all along the politicians had been hoping that events would be less serious than the scientific warnings. They had left out the possibility that they might be worse.

It is true that climate scientists haven’t done a good job handling global publicity. That’s not their area of expertise, and they lose out to ‘spin doctors’ who specialise in plausible half-truths. But that’s irrelevant to whether something major is actually happening with the weather, and it clearly now is.

“Is there any link between the terrible floods in Australia and Brazil? Yes – La Niña. Weather throughout the southern hemisphere is affected by the periodic oscillation between warming (El Niño) and cooling (La Niña) of surface waters in the central and eastern Pacific Ocean. The past few months have seen one of the most intense La Niña events on record. How does La Niña cause floods? The changing atmospheric circulation redistributes the rainfall. High pressure reduces the normally heavy precipitation over the tropical and subtropical Pacific. Instead of falling on the sea the rain lands on continental landmasses on the ocean margins.

“Although eastern Australia is particularly vulnerable, ‘La Niña tends to intensify all the monsoon systems in the southern hemisphere… Besides Brazil, there has also been serious flooding this month in the Philippines, Sri Lanka and South Africa. We have had a La Niña every few years since climate records began. Is this one unusual? It is the most intense La Niña at least since the 1973-74 event, which caused the last devastating Brisbane floods. Is climate change responsible? That is, of course, a controversial question. Some climatologists say the event falls within the expected range of natural variability.

“Others say that, while La Niña would have appeared anyway, global warming has exacerbated its impact. Evidence supporting that claim comes from the fact that the water temperatures off the north-east coast of Australia have never been higher since records began. Warmer seas mean more moisture evaporating into the atmosphere and therefore heavier rainfall. To what extent can we blame human activity for the death and destruction? Even if man-made climate change is not a factor, population density and shoddy building practices are – and not just in the shanty towns that are all too often hit by floods in the developing world.

“Once Queensland has begun to recover from the impact of its floods, there will be soul-searching over the way housing has been built on natural flood plains. Australia has been too preoccupied in recent years with drought, failing to recognise that flooding too has historically been a peril.

“Looking further ahead, if you trust the majority of climatologists who believe in man-made climate change, the only thing that can be predicted with reasonable confidence is that meteorological extremes will occur more frequently” [M]

In Britain, we had several years of very hot summers and mild winters, starting in the 1990s. Over the last three years we have had a shift, summers were still hotter than usual, but winters became cold again:

“2010 was the twelfth-coldest year in the 100-year series and the coldest since 1986. This resulted mainly from cold weather in January, February, late November and, especially, December – which was one of the coldest calendar months in the last 100 years. Only April and June saw any prolonged warm weather widely.” [P]

But that’s just Britain, just a bubble of cold in North-Western Europe:

“Global surface temperatures in 2010 tied 2005 as the warmest on record, according to an analysis released Jan. 12, 2011 by researchers at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) in New York….

“The next warmest years are 1998, 2002, 2003, 2006, 2007 and 2009, which are statistically tied for third warmest year. The GISS records begin in 1880…

“A chilly spell also struck this winter across northern Europe. The event may have been influenced by the decline of Arctic sea ice and could be linked to warming temperatures at more northern latitudes.

“Arctic sea ice acts like a blanket, insulating the atmosphere from the ocean’s heat. Take away that blanket, and the heat can escape into the atmosphere, increasing local surface temperatures. Regions in northeast Canada were more than 18 degrees warmer than normal in December.

“The loss of sea ice may also be driving Arctic air into the middle latitudes. Winter weather patterns are notoriously chaotic, and the GISS analysis finds seven of the last 10 European winters warmer than the average from 1951 to 1980. The unusual cold in the past two winters has caused scientists to begin to speculate about a potential connection to sea ice changes.” [Q]

“The year 2010 ranked as the warmest year on record, together with 2005 and 1998, according to the World Meteorological Organization. Data received by the WMO show no statistically significant difference between global temperatures in 2010, 2005 and 1998…

“2010 was an exceptionally warm year over much of Africa and southern and western Asia, and in Greenland and Arctic Canada, with many parts of these regions having their hottest years on record.

“Over land few parts of the world were significantly cooler than average in 2010, the most notable being parts of northern Europe and central and eastern Australia.

“December 2010 was exceptionally warm in eastern Canada and Greenland. It was abnormally cold through large parts of northern and western Europe, with monthly mean temperatures as much as 10°C below normal at some locations in Norway and Sweden. Many places in Scandinavia had their coldest December on record. December in Central England was the coldest since 1890. Heavy snowfalls severely disrupted transport in many parts of Europe. It was also colder than average in large parts of the Russian Federation and in the eastern United States, where snow also severely disrupted transport.”[R]

“The extreme warmth in Northeast Canada is undoubtedly related to the fact that Hudson Bay was practically ice free. In the past, including the GISS base period 1951-1980, Hudson Bay was largely ice-covered in November. The contrast of temperatures at coastal stations in years with and without sea ice cover on the neighboring water body is useful for illustrating the dramatic effect of sea ice on surface air temperature. Sea ice insulates the atmosphere from ocean water warmth, allowing surface air to achieve temperatures much lower than that of the ocean. It is for this reason that some of the largest positive temperature anomalies on the planet occur in the Arctic Ocean as sea ice area has decreased in recent years.

“The cold anomaly in Northern Europe in November has continued and strengthened in the first half of December. Combined with the unusual cold winter of 2009-2010 in Northern Hemisphere mid-latitudes, this regional cold spell has caused widespread commentary that global warming has ended. That is hardly the case. On the contrary, globally November 2010 is the warmest November in the GISS record.” [S]

[A mix of unusual cold and ususual heat had continued.  2014 was the warmest year on record in Britain.]


Vengeance in Egypt [Arab Spring]

Things are moving so fast in Egypt that whatever I write now (Thursday 3rd) could soon be out of date. But there is some underlying logic to events, so I will try.

I was ahead of the game on Friday 28th, when I circulated an e-mail suggesting that what was happening then resembled the early stages of the overthrow of the Shah in Iran, which was a mix of Islamists with Western-orientated liberals and leftists. I didn’t see the mainstream British media saying that until later, and it had been noticed by then the Iranians themselves were making such comparisons. [T]

The other thing I felt from early on was that the protestors were being foolish, demanding that Mubarak step down unilaterally, with no certainty as to what would come next. In Tunisia, a retreat turned rapidly into a rout, with no certainty where it would end. That lesson has surely been noted elsewhere. It must also have been remembered that the West ratted on Pinochet, who had served them well and stood down in Chile on the assumption that his dictatorship could not be treated as criminal once out of power, only to find that the West didn’t care and had no idea of why it might matter.

In Egypt, the position of the army is the key. The demonstrators gained power for as long as the army sounded neutral. But on Tuesday 1st February, Mubarak said he would be standing down in September. This seemed to satisfy the army, who then called for the demonstrators to go home. Since they could not fight the army, they would have been wise to have done just that, or at least offered terms for going. Instead they stuck to a demand that the army had rejected – that Mubarak step down unilaterally.

The rally and the subsequent street-fighting has been about that issue: should Mubarak be humiliated and his 30-year rule criminalised, with unpredictable results for all those who served the regime? It seems quite a lot of people thought this unreasonable. They wanted Egypt to move on but not to overturn what it has.

Since most of the secular protestors don’t actually want Egypt to change very much, why are they continuing the confrontation?

They should remember Iran, should be wary of the Muslim Brotherhood. I felt from early on that the Muslim Brotherhood were being smart in hanging back. The army would definitely crush an uprising that was dominated by them. But if secular protestors smash the secular state, or if the secular state smashes them, they are the coherent alternative. (The Arab left seems almost extinct, sadly.)

I am strongly reminded of Iraq. The West wanted someone much like Saddam, but also got obsessed with the notion of punishing Saddam. Britain’s Tony Blair went up a mountain and believed he had been deputised by God to cast down the wicked tyrant. Britain and the US went in and smote Iraq’s secular state with mighty blows, so that it fell into ruin and ‘had no seed’. Much to their surprise, this was replaced by chaos and a strong emergence of religious parties.

The complication in Iraq is that religious politics is split between Sunni and Shia, and further split by factions within each, Shia especially. In Egypt, Muslims are solidly Sunni. There is a surprisingly large Christian minority, 5% to 10%, but no Sunni rivals apart from the extremists who went off with al-Qaeda and are unlikely to be a factor. The Muslim Brotherhood would have no real competitors if politics became radicalised, or if civil war broke out.

At I write, the news is that opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei refuses to negotiate until Mubarak step down unilaterally. He’s called the street-fighting “a criminal act by a criminal regime” and seems to hope the army will back him. [U]. This is sheer lunacy, but maybe the man’s previous career hasn’t taught him real politics. Western advice has certainly not taught him real politics: the West is still dominated by the same fools who alienated Russia in the 1990s, and thereby convinced most Chinese that their government was correct to crack down on similar protests in 1989.

Mohamed ElBaradei might also have noticed that the heirs of the Chinese crackdown are doing nicely, while the Chinese dissidents have proved ineffective and have largely been dropped by the West. But I’d be astonished if he showed that much insight.

[The Muslim Brotherhood won the elections. Pro-Western elements found another excuse to protest, despite getting about 10% of the vote. The army then took over again.]


A Zoo-full of Planets [Exoplanets]

Meantime there is good news from Outer Space. The Kepler Space Telescope is a remarkable instrument that gazes steadily at one patch of sky. One four-hundredth of the sky, but within that area are 156,000 stars that can be usefully observed. Quite a lot of them must have planets: in a small number of cases those planets will pass between the star and the telescope, causing it to dim a little. Of course lots of things can dim stars, but the scientists look for a pattern of at least three regular dips in brightness. If the time between dip one and dip two is exactly the same as the time between dip two and dip three, a planet it is.

1235 planets it is, so we are now told. And for the first time, we have reliably detected planets no bigger than Earth, perhaps smaller than Earth. Sixty-eight Earth-sized planets, and also fifty-four planets in the ‘habitable zone’ where Earth-like life might be possible. Five planets are in both groups: they are Earth-sized and in the habitable zone and should prove remarkably interesting. Other planets in the habitable zone are much bigger, some big enough for us to hope for Earth-sized moons. [V]

It also seems that there is no such thing as a typical solar system. Scientists used to think that most solar systems would have big cold gas giants where we have Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, but then we found ‘hot Jupiters’, enormous planets very close to their star. People now think that planets move about a lot in early solar systems and that it was sheer luck that our solar system ended up the way it is. Or perhaps we’re the ‘ape house’ in the galactic zoo, a rare variety of solar system where everything is just right for complex life.

All sorts of other possibilities seem to exist, including the remarkable ‘Kepler-11’, with six large planets that are closer to their star than Venus is to the sun. It’s much the most compact solar system yet found, but probably more wonders will turn up soon.



[A] [[]

[B] []

[C] []

[D] []

[E] []

[F] Weale, Bertram Lenox Putnam. The Fight For The Republic in China, Hurst & Blackett 1918, footnote to Chapter III. The book is available at Project Guttenberg, []

[G] McGregor, Richard. The Party: The Secret World of China‘s Communist Rulers, Allen Lane 2010.

[H] Smedley, Agnes, Battle Hymn of China, Victor Gollancz 1944. Page 47. The book was published in 1943 and has been republished under the title Chinese Correspondent. It is out of print, unfortunately.

[J] []

[K] []

[L] []

[M] []

[N] Calestous Juma: Why I’m optimistic about Africa. From issue 2790 of New Scientist magazine, page 27.

[P] []

[Q] []

[R] []

[S] [ ]


[U] []

[V] []

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