Newsnotes 2014 05

Notes On The News

by Gwydion M Williams

Big People Pay Small Taxes

Rising Inequality

Piketty’s Heretical Capitalism

Misrepresenting Representative Democracy.

By Jingo, We Won’t Die for Ukrainian Fascists

Secession [And International Law]

The World Wide Web as a Power Vacuum

Snippets

 

Big People Pay Small Taxes

1960s radicalism created many of the personal freedoms that later generations take for granted, apparently believing that these things would have been conceded without a fight. But 1960s radicals was also mindlessly anti-state, thinking ‘the less government, the better’. They were scornful of the struggles of their own parents, who had fought much harder than any 1960s radical to created the welfare and full employment that was then taken for granted

1960s radicals wanted some sort of mix of socialism and anarchism, along with ‘green’ policies and respect for other cultures, values which are now mainstream when once they were fringe. But on economic management, they had no clear idea and allowed a big recovery of power by the rich. They justify wanton attacks on the successful Mixed-Economy system of the 1940s to 1970s by saying their own system has never been tried. Which reminds me of the old joke about a man who’s asked if he can play the violin and answers ‘I don’t know, I’ve never tried’.

In fact it has been tried. Small self-regulating systems have repeatedly withered in the face of modern commerce, whenever the state was ready to step aside and see what developes. 1960s radicals played a large role in the computer revolution: there’s a book called Hackers[A] that describes how the original hobbyist and open-source enthusiasts got going. And how they got ousted by commercial interests, or else turned into regular business people. That’s where Apple and Microsoft came from, along with others who soon perished because of bad luck or a failure to properly adjust to modern business practice.

Things might have been different had 1960s radicals said ‘the Mixed-Economy system is a vast improvement on anything that has existed before, so let’s improve it further’. Instead they stuck to the notion of ‘the less government, the better’. This laid them way open to the New Right , with dodges like tax evasion seen as almost normal and smart.

One interesting new case has just come up:

“Mr Ecclestone, the chief executive of Formula 1, is currently on trial in Germany facing corruption charges. It is alleged he was behind a £26m bribe paid to a bank official.

“Prosecutors allege the bribe was paid to ensure that Mr Ecclestone retained control of the sport.

“Ecclestone admits paying former banker, Gerhard Gribkowsky, but says he was effectively the victim of blackmail as he was worried the banker would tell the tax authorities he had set up an offshore family trust.”[B]

The significance of this trust is as follows:

“Panorama’s investigation goes back to 1995 when Mr Ecclestone secured ownership of the lucrative TV rights of Formula 1.

“Shortly afterwards he moved this prize asset offshore, giving the rights to his then wife, Slavica.

“She transferred them to a family trust in Liechtenstein, before selling them for a huge profit, free of UK tax.

“It may be the biggest individual tax dodge in British history, and is legally watertight provided Mr Ecclestone did not set up, or control, the trust.

“If he had done, Mr Ecclestone has admitted, he could have faced a tax bill of more than $2bn – or £1.2bn.”[C]

He could have afforded to pay, having several billions to his name. But he’s got away with it, with the tax authorities taking a soft line, as they almost always do when faced with obvious cheating by the rich.

The tax laws could be changed to include a little common sense – that a business should be taxed where it actually operates, with tax split between several different tax regimes if that is where it operates. The pretence of operating in some low-tax area should be treated with the derision it deserves. But that would go against the notion of ‘the less government, the better’, which has become part of the intellectual climate.

Long past time to point out that this has not worked.

 

Rising Inequality

Another produce of 1960s radicalism was loss of confidence in Trade Unions as agents of sensible reforms. Militants used them for a lot of rather pointless militancy, while sneering at the prospect of Workers Control. They thought that workers could be tricked into revolution when they didn’t feel at all revolutionary. This caused a reversal of a lot of the gains that had been made since the 1940s. The incomes of the rich shot up, especially in the USA:

“Until the 1980s, corporate CEOs were paid, on average, 30 times what their typical worker was paid. Since then, CEO pay has skyrocketed to 280 times the pay of a typical worker; in big companies, to 354 times.

“Meanwhile, over the same thirty-year time span the median American worker has seen no pay increase at all, adjusted for inflation. Even though the pay of male workers continues to outpace that of females, the typical male worker between the ages of 25 and 44 peaked in 1973 and has been dropping ever since. Since 2000, wages of the median male worker across all age brackets has dropped 10 percent, after inflation”[D]

Even the original balance was unfair. A modern Chief Executive Officer would certainly have earned their post, but could anyone seriously believe that they were thirty times as hard-working or skilled than the average employee?

It is even less plausible that CEOs have got at least nine times better than their 1980s counterparts, which is what their current pay would suggest. Conventional economics is based on a dogmatic belief that if they get it in a “free” economy, they must have earned it. But this does not match what we see in the real world.

If you think about it in terms of power, it is another matter. Once the New Right had convinced large numbers of workers that they were ‘single-combat heroes’ who did not need trade unions or other forms of collective security, the balance tipped enormously. The bosses of big companies operating globally were always in a much stronger position than their workforce and could close down entire industries where the trade unions were too strong. The only control was what shareholders thought the top bosses were worth – and the people in charge of managing the bulk of the shares were very much the same type of people as those top bosses. The same individual might play both roles for different companies.

Despite the loss of working-class strength, workers still seem to believe they are ‘single-combat heroes’, or ought to be. This applies in particular to what used to be called “white-collar” jobs. People doing them seldom wear white collars nowadays, often not even suits. But they have been fooled into identifying with the people above them rather than people like themselves. Their aspiration is to be ‘single-combat heroes’ outside of any collective identity, part of the message they’ve inherited from 1960s radicals. Popular culture has become dominated by superheroes winning while detached from society and with superior powers.

Another approach is cynicism. Life isn’t fair and you can’t expect it to be. To which I reply, it should be made fairer and can be made fairer. That life is much fairer than it was at the start of the 20th century, when there were huge advantages in being white, male and rich, but also oppressive conventions that hemmed in even this privileged minority.

Some of the economic fairness has been lost since the 1980s, when people were persuaded that the highly successful tax-and-spend policies pursued since the 1940s were somehow unfair. But the unfair advantages from being white and/or male continue to erode, mostly due to state enforcement of anti-discrimination rules.

The hippy idea that everything would work out fine if the state stopped trying to regulate things has been tested and mostly found not to work. It needed state action to break racial and sexual inequality, which still have some strength despite being driven underground.

 

Piketty’s Heretical Capitalism

Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-first Century has some good points, but is another example of the pervasive influence of the decay-products of 1960s radicalism, in particular the idea that government is bad and can’t do much. I’m planning a detailed analysis of the book for the next issue: for now note that he is no socialists and largely tries to explain rising inequality on technical grounds rather than political. And ignores the large and persistent state role in the economy by balancing government assets against government debts, showing that the two very nearly balance out.

If large parts of economic activity pass through the hands of the state, then it is a minor detail that debts and assets balance. The state is still the dominant element, as it has been since the 1930s or 1940s, depending on which state you are talking about. The New Right ‘revolution’ was supposed to fix this and has not. The state now subcontracts the provision of services to private corporations, which are supposed to be more efficient but mostly are not.

The USA spends an amazing 17.6% of its gross national product on various sorts of health-care, mostly private and profit-based.[E] Most developed European countries spend 9 to 12%, while delivering better overall care. In the USA, unlike Europe, people may not get health treatment or operations they need if they can’t pay. There is also a suspicion that in US medicine, people who can pay get treatments that they might have been better off without.

Money is a way for people to interact without having any fixed or significant social relationship. It took time to invade areas where there was some sort of fixed or significant social relationship, and the process remains incomplete. But social restraints on money have been viewed as sinful since the 1980s, and that’s done the damage.

And who has it allowed to rise? George Soros is one of the most famous. Having managed to get out of Hungary after World War Two, he was a very average student at the LSE, and then a failed salesman selling knickknacks to tobacconists. Managing to get a job at a London merchant bank, he once again failed to make the grade and they were glad to let him go. Then in New York he suddenly found his niche, finding differences in pricing that could yield an enormous profit if treated as a subject for speculative trading.[F] Yet he still managed to very nearly get wiped out on one speculative venture that went badly wrong.[G]

Success in modern business is a mix of talent and luck. Sir James Goldsmith, as famous as Soros a few years back, was technically bankrupt at one point in his career and survived only thanks to a totally unexpected strike by French bank staff that gave him time to get back into balance. A lot of the other self-made millionaires have had similar incidents during their rise. Had they failed at any point, no one would have suspected that this was potentially a very famous and admired person.

To make an analogy, imagine that people were given the chance to play six rounds of Russian Roulette, with a one-in-six chance of death each time. Those still alive at the end are then given a huge fortune. Each time, the chance of survival is 5 in 6, so about one third would be alive at the end of the day, and undoubtedly convinced that they were somehow special.[H] Yet this is exactly what blind chance would predict.

The successful speculators may be mostly the lucky survivors who took too many risks but got away with it. But this has proved a very negative model for the economy as a whole. Overall growth rates have not improved since the 1970s in the USA and Britain, and have markedly declined in Japan and Continental Europe. But the distribution of rewards has got very much worse.

Technological progress has always made life better for a rich minority. How far this extends to the rest is much more moot, and it can often be negative. The Roman Empire destroyed the lives of free farmers and other small producers and made them worse off, reduced either to slaves or an urban mob.

The Industrial Revolution in Britain did initially bring very little benefit to the poor majority, and arguably a deterioration. This changed only in the last third of the 19th century. It continued through the 20th century, except that the once-privileged working class in the USA has seen little real improvement since the 1980s. (Since they were dumb enough to vote for Ronald Reagan and go on voting for his heirs.)

No one talked about the ‘Miracle of the Mixed Economy’ back in the 1970s, when everything was up for grabs. There was a confrontation between dogmatic capitalism and dogmatic anti-capitalism, with anti-capitalism losing badly. A lot of the trouble was the size and militancy of Trotskyism: a kind of Sargasso Sea of politics, were stuff goes in and nothing except rot results.

 

Misrepresenting Representative Democracy

Parliaments were invented to balance power between traditional rulers and a rich elite. In their original design, they were never intended to give power to the whole population, or even to all white males. That particular ideal was first realised on a stable basis in the USA in the 1830s, and led on fairly directly to the Civil War they fought in the 1860s. Meantime the British Empire only very gradually democratised for its white males, and later for white women also.[I] White males were not a majority of the voters in the British Isles until the 1880s, and only when it had been shown that they would mostly vote for rival factions of the elite. Votes for all adult males in Britain and Ireland came only in 1918, with women included if they were over 30.

The USA democratised for white males quite early, with women getting the vote in 1920 but a lot of black voters excluded by trickery or intimidation until the 1960s. It also never achieved real ‘people power’ even for white males, despite the people being theoretically able to achieve this from the 1830s. Small independent property was all along the choice of the majority, the actual way of life in the 19th century. But the majority of the people never managed in practice to control those they elected.

Knowing the history of the thing, I was not at all surprised that someone’s research revealed that in the USA nowadays, the views of the people are seldom implemented while the views of the rich elite tend to be decisive:

“The US is dominated by a rich and powerful elite.

“So concludes a recent study by Princeton University Prof Martin Gilens and Northwestern University Prof Benjamin I Page.

“This is not news, you say.

“Perhaps, but the two professors have conducted exhaustive research to try to present data-driven support for this conclusion. Here’s how they explain it:

“‘Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organised groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.’

“In English: the wealthy few move policy, while the average American has little power.

“The two professors came to this conclusion after reviewing answers to 1,779 survey questions asked between 1981 and 2002 on public policy issues. They broke the responses down by income level, and then determined how often certain income levels and organised interest groups saw their policy preferences enacted.

“‘A proposed policy change with low support among economically elite Americans (one-out-of-five in favour) is adopted only about 18% of the time,’ they write, ‘while a proposed change with high support (four-out-of-five in favour) is adopted about 45% of the time.’

“On the other hand:

“‘When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organised interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the US political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favour policy change, they generally do not get it.’

“They conclude:

“Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association and a widespread (if still contested) franchise. But we believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organisations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.’

“Eric Zuess, writing in Counterpunch, isn’t surprised by the survey’s results.

“‘American democracy is a sham, no matter how much it’s pumped by the oligarchs who run the country (and who control the nation’s ‘news’ media),’ he writes. ‘The US, in other words, is basically similar to Russia or most other dubious ‘electoral’ ‘democratic’ countries. We weren’t formerly, but we clearly are now.'”[J]

I’d disagree with the claim that it was ever otherwise. If the majority of the US population got looked after between the 1940s and 1970s, this was not because they were in control. Merely that the elite was scared of possible discontent, of global Communism and of a revival of fascism. When the rich elite decided that these fears were outdated, they started making more demands. And got them answered by a political system they had always been in charge of.

The machinery of Representative Democracy mostly fails to deliver the bulk of what the voting majority want. You get some stuff, and it is always worth voting, but don’t expect too much.

Sometimes Representative Democracy delivers something that’s the very reverse of what people thought they were voting for. Hardly anyone would intentionally vote for a party that would bring about a Civil War, but lots of voters have in practice done this. The first such case was in the USA: the new Republican Party in the 1860 Presidential Election certainly didn’t have as its slogan “Elect Abe Lincoln for a four-year civil war, the complete abolition of slavery and official equality for negroes”. Most Northern states had laws preventing non-whites for voting, and only a minority of Northerners felt strongly about slavery. Yet this unwanted outcome was just what they got, thanks in part to foolishness by the South. And when the various Southern states voted for secession, this was mostly done by delegates who had said they were against it when being chosen. A direct vote would probably have preserved the Union and kept alive slavery for much longer.

The USA was just the first of many. The Spanish Civil War grew directly out of electoral polarisation. Likewise the secession of the former East Pakistan as Bangladesh, and the polarisation between Tamils and Sinhalese in Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon.

In Ukraine, the first few elections after independence were fairly normal, with rival parties fairly evenly split between the regions.[K] It was the 2004 election and the Orange Revolution that polarised politics and has caused East Ukraine to think seriously about separation.

 

By Jingo, We Won’t Die for Ukrainian Fascists

Despite all of the fuss the British elite have been making, there is a marked lack of enthusiasm in Britain for any more war. The grand efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan are generally seen as failures. And no one is prepared to suffer significantly for West Ukraine.

A lot of it is selfishness, the shallow and greedy individualism that the New Right promoted, presumably expecting something else to result. The British media have largely managed to cover up the key shift that happened between 21st and 22nd February, when an attempt at compromise was rejected and West Ukrainian parties sized power and claimed the right to vote out the elected President, contrary to the Ukrainian constitution.

Kiev is dominated by a mob that mixes pro-Western elements with two varieties of fascist. They have shared ground in desiring a “Pure Ukraine”, with the entire population cured of seeing anything positive in Russian culture or the Soviet legacy. They do this with the support of at most 60% of the population and perhaps much less. It is notable that they are relying on an intimidated parliament and choose not to wait for new elections.

The pro-Western element of the “Pure Ukraine” side are the same people who came to power in the 2005 Orange Revolution, and made a complete mess of everything. This is what led to the re-election of the people who thought it best to work with both the West and Russia. But then the European Union offered a very bad deal for further integration. Armenia had similar negotiations, but chose Russia over the European Union back in September 2013.[L] (Armenia also seized Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic-Armenian region within Azerbaijan, back in 1994, and no one does anything about it.) Ukraine under President Yanukovych made further efforts to get a deal with the European Union after Armenia dropped out, but in the end he rejected it, which is when the protests started. Protests by basically the same people who failed before, but now joined by a strong fascist element.

Svoboda began in 1994 as the Social-National Party of Ukraine. Their rise was slow, from less than 50,000 in 1994 to nearly 180,000 in 2007. They then took off, getting more than two million votes in 2012, 10% of the electorate. Highly concentrated, of course, getting a third or more in three regions in the far west.[M] And more than 17% in Kiev itself, which is why they’ve been such a major force in the protests.

Note also that the politicians of Western Ukraine don’t have the same aversion to fascism that exists in most of Europe. As I detailed in the last Newsnotes, the Ukrainian fascist Stepan Bandera was hailed as a ‘Hero of Ukraine’ by Viktor Yushchenko, the President who came to power with the 2004 Orange Revolution. The loose connections between the Iraqi Baaths and European fascism were used as a pretext for invasion, but it seems that a different Eternal Truth applies in Ukraine.

The West Ukrainian sympathy for fascism is also rather foolish. Lenin and his heirs wanted Ukraine incorporate in their system. Hitler wanted a Ukraine without Ukrainians, according to Mein Kampf, and there is nothing to indicate he ever changed his mind on this. Yet Stepan Bandera helped Nazi Germany both at the start and at the end of the war, with a middle period in which his followers were an independent underground army after the Germans arrested him and suppressed his proclamation of an independent Ukraine.

Currently the Kiev regime wants to keep Ukraine as the Soviet Union defined it, but with East Ukraine subordinated to an extreme version of West Ukrainian values. This was always bound to lead to Civil War. Even if turns out to be true that Russian Special Forces were the initial spark, the basic divergence of opinion already existed.

 

Secession [And International Law]

In an ideal world, any national group would have the right to separation, provided it could win a majority in some definite and coherent territory. And provided it gave secure rights to anyone who would be left a minority in this new arrangement.

This is not the world we actually inhabit. The UN speaks of “Self-Determination”, but also upholds “Territorial Integrity”. Most of the time, the world’s sovereign governments decide that “Territorial Integrity” trumps “Self-Determination”.

Supposing this were reversed? There are lots of territories that might want to take advantage, and numerous smaller territories within them that might want to go their own way.

“The list of would-be seceders around the world is staggering. In Spain, the Basques and Catalans have long wanted to break away, but there also active nationalist movements in most of the other regions. In Belgium, the Flemish and Walloon halves of the country exist in a state of mutual loathing. Carinthia wants to break away from Austria; Brittany from France; Bavaria from Germany; Moravia from the Czech Republic; Frisia from the Netherlands, and on and on. And that’s just Europe. Imagine how many secessionist movements there are in Africa (six in Ethiopia alone), Asia (a dozen in Burma) and the Americas. The US doesn’t just have secessionists at federal level; in quite a few of the states, there are counties that want to break away.”[N]

This exaggerates slightly – often there are large separatist movements but a majority would vote for continued union. But there are also many more cases than those mentioned above. Tibet gets a lot of publicity, but there are dozens of regions of India that might want to go their own way, most notably the Indian-governed part of Kashmir.

Actual politics has been wildly inconsistent, and no one has clean hands. The USA supported Panama’s secession from Columbia in 1903. In Former Yugoslavia, Slovenia and Croatia and the rest had a theoretical right to secede under the Yugoslav constitution, while there was no reliable protection for majority-Serb areas outside the official definition of Serbia. Naturally this led to ethnic warfare, with the worst of it happening in the extreme mix of Bosnia. It might have been avoided if the process had been done by stages, maybe by first admitting Yugoslavia to the European Union and then dismantling it step by step. But the mess that the West helped create was at least consistent with “Territorial Integrity” trumping “Self-Determination”.

Kosovo was different, it was a region within Serbia with no constitutional right to secede. The West found pretexts to allow it to do so, and also rather irrationally upheld its “Territorial Integrity”, with majority-Serb areas in the north forced to join the secession along with ethnic Albanians who hated them.

Putin noted this breach of principle when justifying the incorporation of Crimea. And the possibility of more secessions in East Ukraine.

The USA has continuously cheated, and keeps on being surprised that the cheats are treated as cheats that anyone can do. US politicians expect rules to be respected by others even when freely broken by themselves. It is the sign of a ruling stratum in decline.

My view is that the best hope for peace globally would have been to uphold and make official the current semi-official rule that that “Territorial Integrity” trumps “Self-Determination”. But when the actual “Territorial Integrity” has broken down and the resultant violence has probably played itself out, the new status quo might as well be respected. I’d not support any Serb attempt to re-conquer Kosovo, or even the majority-Serb portions that abstract justice would have given them. I’d not see any merit in trying to force Crimea back into Ukraine, where in fact it does not belong.

It is also unreasonable for the Kiev Regime to cite “territorial integrity” while refusing to integrate the bulk of the population East Ukraine. The dominant West Ukrainian attitude seems to be that Russian-speakers should not be there and that the entire Soviet heritage should be repudiated. Why should East Ukraine accept that?

 

The World Wide Web as a Power Vacuum

“The inventor of the world wide web has marked the 25th anniversary of his creation by calling for a ‘Magna Carta’ bill of rights to protect its users.

“Sir Tim Berners-Lee told BBC Breakfast the issue could be compared to the importance of human rights.

“He has been an outspoken critic of government surveillance following a series of leaks from ex-US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden.

“Sir Tim called on people to take action and protest against surveillance.”[O]

Existing laws should protect people from having their privacy violated without reasonable suspicion of serious crime, with the definition of ‘reasonable suspicion’ being left to a judge unconnected with the people making the investigation. Browsing the contents of someone else’s computer via the internet is as much an intrusion as picking their locks and searching their house. It has to be done, otherwise you’d get a proliferation of criminal or extremist organisations that would be a much bigger threat to personal freedom than the state could ever be. But it should not be done lightly.

Beyond this, what would such a charter say? The original Magna Carta gave extra privileges to a minority, the “free men” at a time when a majority of men were serfs and women had few rights even if they were upper class. It was imposed by barons with swords against King John. And didn’t achieve much: counted for little until lawyers began citing it centuries later. A much better way of making royal power limited and also effective within those limits was found during the reign of John’s son Henry 3rd with the establishment (with much difficulty) of Parliament. Which might be an idea worth copying.

A functional Web Parliament would need to have representatives from each sovereign state, chosen however that state pleased. And also have representatives from major internet corporations, who thereby become part of a suitable ‘group-think’. I’m sure web users would prefer something else, but an assembly that fails to represent the actual balance of power will achieve nothing. (China has had various parliaments from 1912 down to the present day, and none of them counted for anything or were respected by the general population.) If you start from a bad balance of power, it can be ratcheted to something better, as happened with the English Parliament.

Libertarians and anarchists tend to denounce ‘group-think’: it is part of their own group-think, which they don’t realise they have. It is normal for people to fail to recognise their own group-think, just as most people don’t consider that they themselves talk with an accent. ‘I am normal, you are conformist, they have group-think’. But realistically, a functional Web Parliament would have to evolve a shared identity, just as all functional parliaments have done throughout history.

The alternative libertarian or anarchist view has been popular from the 1960s. In some ways it has been liberating, but it has also damaged the social structures that used to keep inequality within tolerable limits. And the web as it has actually developed has laid people wide open to commercial pressures. Forced most of them to get their web services from some big corporation.

The popular anarchic outlook sees a power-vacuum as ideal, and then gets very surprised when this vacuum gets filled by something they did not expect and do not approve of.

The growth of the Internet and World Wide Web has been the biggest case to date of creating a system with an intended power-vacuum, where it seemed that anyone could do anything and also post and communicate for free. But this was always an illusion, it was only ever as free as ICANN would allow. And ICANN in turn is only as independent as the US government wishes it to be. And the actual outcome is that the vacuum has been filled with gigantic corporations, each with a near-monopoly of its own function. They grew from small beginning, but soon merged with the existing business class even when they didn’t come from it (as Bill Gates did).

With the current confrontation, Russia is seriously considering getting control of the portion of the internet used by Russians.[P] The current situation is in fact bizarre: it’s as if all the ‘snail mail’ in Russia were sent to a gigantic network of sorting offices in the USA, which then decided where to send it, sending most of it back to its intended destinations in Russia. And could snoop on it while they handled it, obviously.

The suggested alternative is that messages from Russia stay in Russia unless destined for someone outside of Russia. (Note also, this applies to the UK and most other countries, but China has taken control and shown that it isn’t so hard.)

 

Snippets

It seems likely now that we will never learn the truth about the lost Malaysia Airlines plane that’s believed sunk somewhere in the southern Indian Ocean. Several apparent signals were heard, but they have not been heard recently, probably because the battery failed.

Having no more ‘human interest’ stories to fondle, the media have lost interest. But the whole tragedy need not have been a mystery had some simple and relatively cheap reforms been made the last time an aircraft went missing. It might even have prevented it: one theory is that the chief pilot chose to commit suicide but also wanted to avoid having it known. Alternatively, if the pilot was innocent, proper data would have avoided a suspicion of mass murder that is now likely to cling to him indefinitely.

The magazine New Scientist proposed some simple and cheap reforms, including underwater locators that “ping” for much longer.[Q] But once again, this simple measure is being ignored. The same old foolishness of being very reluctant to impose any regulations that business don’t want.

***

“The US created a text-message social network designed to foment unrest in Cuba, according to an investigation by the Associated Press news agency.

“ZunZuneo, dubbed a ‘Cuban Twitter’, had 40,000 subscribers at its height in a country with limited web access.

“The project reportedly lasted from 2009-12 when the grant money ran out.

“The US is said to have concealed its links to the network through a series of shell companies and by funnelling messages through other countries…

“Executives set up firms in Spain and the Cayman Islands to pay the company’s bills and routed the text messages away from US servers.

“A website and bogus web advertisements were created to give the impression of a real firm, the Associated Press reports.”[R]

***

“Last October, Hassan al-Shimari, Iraq’s minister of justice, quietly submitted a draft law to the Council of Ministers for review. If implemented, the Jaafari Personal Status Law (so named because it is based on the Jaafari school of Shia jurisprudence) will fulfil a longtime goal of the country’s conservative Shia leaders: to exert religious control over critical family matters such as marriage, divorce, custody, and inheritance for the country’s Shia — some 60–65 percent of the population…

“Iraq’s existing personal status law dates to 1959. It includes several progressive provisions loosely based on various schools of Islamic law. It sets the marriage age at 18 for both boys and girls; prohibits arbitrary divorce; significantly restricts polygamy (including by requiring a judge’s permission and proof that the husband can treat both wives equally); and guarantees equal inheritance for men and women. Together, these provisions marked a considerable legl step forward for Iraqi women who went on to make notable educational, economic, and political strides under the secular Baathists. Religious leaders, however, resented the code from the outset because it forced religious conformity. Shia leaders, in particular, viewed it as yet another example of Sunni oppression.”[S]

There is of course nothing inherently liberal about Sunni: Saudi Arabia is dominated by the Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam. And the 1959 law is older than the Baath, who seized power in briefly in 1963 and returned to power in 1968, lasting till the West overthrew them. But they were committed to women’s rights.

The original reform were due to Arab progressives led by Abd al-Karim Qasim, in an alliance that originally included Baathist and Communists. Qasim was executed in 1963 as part of a Baathist coup that was widely believed to have had British and US support. Baath were useful against Communists, but when the Cold War ended, they were one of several Cold War allies the USA then ratted on. But the US have failed to remake Iraq in their own image, or remake it at all. The society is hopelessly split between Religious Shia, Sunni and Kurd.

***

“South Sudan” was never a real entity. Just the part of Sudan that rebelled against the dominant Arab identity. But since it was mostly Christian, it got some sympathy from the USA, especially among Afro-Americans. Sudan was bullied into letting it go.

Once on their own, the various peoples found themselves rivals for power, wealth and cultural identity. South Sudan is now falling apart in a brutal conflict.[T]

***

It looks like Syria will hang on as the last real survival of Arab Secularism.   A report in the right-wing but realistic Daily Telegraph was definite on the matter:

“I would judge not just that support for the regime is holding up, but that President Assad could very well win a popular election, even if carried out on a free and fair basis. Such elections are in fact due: the president must hold a poll before July 17 if he is not to exceed his constitutional term of office. An announcement is expected soon.

“Discussing this vote, I found – to my surprise – that even people outside the governing Ba’ath party, including some of Assad’s political opponents, said they would support him.”[U]

Mostly because the actual fighting has become dominated by hard-line Islamists. A result that should have been foreseen, but was not.

[This was written before the sudden rise of the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant”, which occurred in June 2014.]

 

References

[A] Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, by Steven Levy. The 25th Anniversary Edition is available as a relatively cheap paperback.

[B] [http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-27144637]

[C] Ibid.

[D] [http://www.alternet.org/economy/robert-reich-how-fix-sky-high-ceo-pay-companies-pay-workers-serfs]

[E] [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_total_health_expenditure_(PPP)_per_capita]

[F] Soros: The Life and Times of a Messianic Billionaire, by Michael T. Kaufman. Vintage Books 2002. pages 76-80

[G] Ibid, page 100.

[H] This is based on each player having a five-sixth chance of surviving each round. And equivalent to each player rolling six dice in a single throw, with one of the dice-faces meaning a death-sentence. Some players would get two or more death-sentences, while other would get none.

[I] In the British Isles, there was never any racial test for voting. But there were also very few non-whites before the 1950s, and even fewer who would have qualified as voters. In those parts of the British Empire where it mattered, racial criteria were always used.

[J] [[http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs-echochambers-27074746]

[K] I detailed this in the last Newsnotes

[L] [[http://www.europeanvoice.com/article/2013/september/armenia-chooses-russia-over-eu/78090.aspx]]

[M] [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Svoboda-2012.png]

[N] [http://www.theguardian.com/politics/shortcuts/2014/mar/24/will-orkney-shetland-join-micronationalists-independence-vote]

[O] [http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-26540635]

[P] [[http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/apr/24/vladimir-putin-web-breakup-internet-cia]]

[Q] [http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn25317-five-ways-to-make-sure-we-never-lose-a-plane-again.html#.UzgMbilOWO0]

[R] [http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-26872866]

[S] [http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/141065/isobel-coleman/status-anxiety]

[T] [http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-26798721]

[U] [http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/10770311/Syria-As-the-bombs-fall-the-people-of-Damascus-rally-round-Bashar-al-Assad.html]

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