Notes On The News
By Gwydion M Williams
The private motor-car is much the biggest threat to life and limb for any ordinary person. If you are not a brawler, not a crook and not involved in risky business like law enforcement or property protection, then your peril from violent crime is rather small. Or is small if you take ‘violent crime’ to mean what it mostly means, and do not include the public peril caused by speeding or drunken motorists.
Just now the Tories are outraged by speed cameras, which actually catch people of their sort. They have come out with a set of Pro-Death policies for the benefit of dangerous motorists. The law is bent as far as possible to help the well-off and middle-aged get away with dangerous and criminal activity. People who cause death in pub-brawls with similar violent characters go to prison for a good many years, but motorists who kill peaceful and ordinary citizens get a few months or just a small fine.
Thankfully, the Pro-Death lobby are losing out, with speed cameras now due to be placed where the police feel the need, without the requirement for a run of accidents first. New Labour listen to the police too much, but on this issue it helps them make the right choice. The police share a lot of the values with the Pro-Death lobby. But they are also the people who get called to car accidents, who get stuck with the job of informing the bereaved and cleaning up after the wounded and the dead.
Road safety will also be helped by more expensive oil. At the time of writing, it has shot up to $46, still far too low, but the days of $100 may soon be here.
The real price is the replacement cost, the sum that it will cost to run the world when the cheap oil runs out. The world actually has plenty of expensive oil, including vast reserves of oil-bearing sands in Canada that are sitting waiting till the price is high enough to make them economic. Many other possible energy sources, wind and wave power, at present made marginal by cheap oil. Realistically price oil need not hurt—apart from fools who drive big cars. Especially fools in the USA, where petrol carries very little tax and consumers would be hit at once.
Realistic prices for oil and other energy will not really harm the global economy, which has gigantic reserves. What will be hit and might perish is the whole pro-oil private-motoring pro-death movement. Especially in the USA, where there is very little fuel duty and higher prices will hit the consumer at once.
Meantime Michael Howard is busy doing for conservatism what Oedipus did for blind dates. If it didn’t work when he in Thatcher’s government, let’s do it again.
“The European Union will refuse to recognise China as a market economy, after an in-depth inquiry by Brussels found the Chinese economy suffering from too much state interference, weak rule of law and poor corporate governance.” (Financial Times, June 27 2004.)
The Chinese economy ‘suffers’ from the world’s highest sustained growth. It was in fact doing quite well under Mao, growing as fast as Germany or France in their ‘economic miracle’ years and growing much faster than Britain or the USA. The acceleration under Deng was helped by the rest of the world opening up to the new China, allowing in technology and capital and being a cooperative consumer market for China’s cheap-and-cheerful industrial goods.
Deng Xiaoping was a serious opponent of some of Mao’s policies, in a way Khrushchev never was against Stalin. But when it came to the crunch, as with the Tiananmen crisis, he insisted that he was basically a Maoist, even if he disagreed with particular policies. People do keep reminding us about the famine of 1959, as if there were never famines under the previous pro-Western regime, and without mention of a number of bad famines in the same era in democratic India. But under Mao, the average annual death-rate fell from 20 million to 10 million per year, along with a vast increase in quality of life. If this were a straight-line drop over a 25-year period, that would mean a net saving of some 125 million lives saved, and would justify Mao’s view and Deng’s view that Mao’s policies basically worked.
Russia’s ‘de-Stalinisation’ was self-mutilation, and ultimately fatal to a system that Stalin had built, even though Lenin laid the foundations. Khrushchev destroyed the Soviet Union’s belief in its own virtue. He also damaged the economy with a strange belief in the virtue of Market Forces, a belief that later swept right across the political spectrum and became the fashionable wisdom. Of course Khrushchev’s vision was a bizarre one, with the Party staying in control and just gingering up the economy with ‘internal markets’. Still, the Thatcher-Reagan reforms have not in fact improved the overall growth-rates in Britain or America. They look good, only because France and Germany and Japan lost the formula for ‘economic miracles’. The current ‘economic miracle’ is in China, and it has much more in common with the interventionism of Germany and Japan than with the abstract market forces of Britain and America.
China under Deng allowed individual enterprise, but never thought it should be asocial. They have not so far accepted the idea of ‘rights of money’, allowing market forces to do as they please. And Europe is currently telling them off about this lack of faith:
“The 15-page interim assessment by the European Commission says that the EU “is committed to granting MES to China”, but finds that Beijing has so far only fulfilled one of the five criteria set by Brussels…
“The verdict is much tougher on the four key hurdles: the degree of government influence on the economy, for example through tax discrimination; the existence and implementation of transparent and non-discriminatory company law that ensures adequate corporate governance; the existence and implementation of a coherent, effective and transparent set of laws to ensure property rights and the operation of a bankruptcy regime; and the existence of a genuine financial sector which operates independently from the state.
“The report notes that many private companies cannot compete on a level-playing field.” (Ibid.)
In the language of economics, a level playing field is anything that suits the economist’s favourite people, even if it might seem to slope drastically in the eyes of outsiders. The ‘level playing field’ established from the 1980s onwards have produced a veritable economic miracle for the top 10%, especially the top 1%. Their incomes have increased massively, but only at the expense of the rest of the society. Middle-income Britons have done OK, but middle-income Americans have made no gains at all since the 1980s, with the rich monopolising the extra wealth.
Back in the 1980s, we heard a lot about ‘trickle-down’. More money for the rich would improve the whole economy, making the poor better off. New Right economists talked about ‘trickle-down’ in their normal self-confident manner, up until the time that it was shown beyond doubt that it was not happening, that the very reverse of ‘trickle-down’ was happening.
Except in China. In China, there may have been authentic ‘trickle-down’. A careful study might well show that middle-income and poor groups have done better than they would have done if Mao’s policies had been continued. Or possibly not; I don’t know enough to be sure. What I do see is that Western commentators are not keen to look closely at the matter. Instead they use the gap in Chinese incomes as a justification for the ‘economic liberalism’ that has always made such gaps very much worse than they were.
The drive for success has taken all of the pleasure out of top-level sport. We were told in a recent television program that the main characters in the film Chariots Of Fire, winners in the 1924 Olympics, would not even make the current qualifying standard with the times they ran. And it was also true that sport in those days showed a class bias, excluding anyone who had made money from any sports professionalism, even if they wanted to compete in athletic events just for the glory of it.
The old system was imperfect, but was replaced by something worse. Sponsorship and the chance to eventually turn professional and earn millions make the whole thing overstressed, unhappy and dishonest. Advertising gets aspiring sports people hooked on risky drugs, and keeps the general public staying at home to watch, eating unhealthy food and being depressed at the impossible gap between them and these superhumans.
Other systems were possible, and still are possible. You could have said that anyone who could reach Olympic standard in any sport would get paid for life, at the average income of their nation. And with no material rewards beyond that, with a flat ban on advertising and paid appearances. Love of glory would have kept the competition keen, and drugs might not have been wholly excluded. But it would be a much healthier environment, with more of the
Of course you’d be bound to get the classic ‘Tory Leveller’ objection, why should people who reach a certain standard get an income, while others who were just a little worse get nothing? You could handle this by giving definite but lesser rewards to those who score less. But any real system must be imperfect, and the ‘Tory Levellers’ are people who object irrationally to the slightest possible unfairness apart from all of the unfairnesses they flourish within. The grossest unfairness, inherited wealth, is defended. So is the next bad case, people getting a gigantic reward for manipulations that do no one else any good, may do them much harm. And so is the third unfair case, people getting a much higher reward for being just slightly better or maybe luckier. But only the type of unfairnesses that flourish among their friends are allowable. For anything else—anything they figure would subtract from their incomes–a type of supernatural equality is required.
I used to enjoy watching Olympic sport. But increasingly, I feel I am just watching a spectacle of misery and unhealthy obsessions.
“Movie star Will Smith says Hollywood is not prejudiced against black actors, just against unsuccessful actors. Smith – in the UK to promote Bad Boys II – said the more black actors were box office hits the more opportunities they would get.” (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/film/3156010.stm)
Will Smith did a great job as the detective in I, Robot, which I’d rate the best of this year’s films in the category of special-effect epics. But Hollywood still caters to racists; it has just updated the norms. It is only in the last few years that you get a black man as the leading actor. The recent flop by Catwoman suggests it is still not possible for a black woman, at least not in epics or adventure tales.
There is also a segment of the audience that would object to anything overtly sexual between a black man and a white woman. This did mean that Dr Susan Calvin (played by Bridget Moynahan) was left almost as Asimov conceived her. (He actually made her a rather plain lady who failed to attract any male interest.) But in how many Hollywood movies is there nothing overtly sexual between the leading lady and the leading man? Generally those where the leading man is black. Also Close Encounters, when he is married and has a family. Also A Few Good Men, where I think you’re supposed to take it that the young lawyer is gay. Another Hollywood rule is that the leading man may not be shown as gay or bisexual, at least not in blockbusters. A Beautiful Mind cut out Nash’s bisexuality and his arrest after a homosexual encounter, as well as giving him patriotic-paranoiac fantasies very different from what he actually believed in his madness. This passed without much complaint, and it was a good film, There were complaints about how Achilles was portrayed in Troy, although Homer never definitely says he was bisexual, while the film doesn’t definitely rule this out.
Note also that white man and black woman has long ceased to be any sort of taboo. There are blacks who get offended, seeing it as their most successful people abandoning their roots. But the bulk of the audience is white, and white man with black woman was always part of real racist culture.
The film itself includes some sly poking of fun at existing racism. The robot-makers are mostly white, maybe exclusively white, I wasn’t checking at the time. The police and the public are mixed, and most of the foreground characters are black. The older robots are just metallic, but the new models have very white faces and nice middle-class accents. The robot ‘Sonny’ even has striking blue eyes, and the animation is given a distinctive character by a white actor. The hostility of some reviewers is hard to understand unless they are upset by this overturning of racial hierarchies.
Market forces mean that Hollywood is tail-ending the changing racial attitudes. When you spend tens of millions on a blockbuster, it is safer and more profitable not to lose any chunk of your possible audience. And US racism is very far from dead.
There is not the least need to have people in space during the 21st century. In the more distant future, humans may settle on other planets. But our own planet has huge regions that are almost empty, with economic pressures pulling more and more people into places that are already crowded. Just within Britain, parts of Wales and Scotland have less people than they had in the 19th century, which is also true of the whole of Ireland. Huge areas throughout the globe would be vastly easier to settle than any alien environment.
Serious space exploration has been done by robotic probes—even the repairs to the Hubble Space Telescope are now going to be done that way. There would be an excellent case for simply dropping human space-flight as a serious matter, and letting it continue just as tourism. Bush’s shake-up at NASA may be working covertly for such an end, the right moves for the wrong reasons.
The first 40-odd years of human spaceflight have not seen the same sort of advance that happened in the first 40 years of aircraft. But aircraft could take people to places they were already visiting, and do it much faster. In space, it is much cheaper and safer to send a robot. Also aircraft rapidly got much safer and better, while existing space flight depends heavily on chemical rockets, which can’t vary very much.
The possible winding-down of the human space program is being covered up by an insistence that private enterprise can do it better. Actually they can’t. The competitors for the ‘X-Prize’ are a long way short of what the Soviet Union was doing back in 1961. A letter-writer in the 3rd July issue of New Scientist pointed out that winning the X-prize was equivalent to climbing a wall 80 kilometres high. Which sounds impressive, until you learn than low-Earth orbit is equivalent to climbing more than 3000 kilometres high. Or to look at it in terms of speed, “SpaceShipOne’s maximum speed was Mach 3, in contrast to the Mach 22 needed to reach orbit… SpaceShipOne’s low speed means re-entry does not require a special heat shield, this would be essential when returning from orbit.” (New Scientist, 26th June 2004.)
Which doesn’t make it easy. Commercial jets go to 12 kilometres, more than 7 miles. SpaceShipOne went to 100 kilometres, the edge of space, and is still risky, as was shown by the recent explosion of the unmanned rocket of a rival space-tourism venture. Despite which, trips are being advertised at $98,000, with a promise this will fall to $20,000 or less within a few years. People already pay that sort of money for exotic trips to places like Antarctica.
“During Saddam’s regime it was better, I feel. At least we knew he was a dictator. Now are ruled by a government which ignores us,” said Sabah Jassem, in an article posted at http://iraqwar.mirror-world.ru/tiki-index.php.
A government which ignores its own people is exactly what the USA was after. A government that ignores the needs of everyone except a tiny rich Overclass, mostly Anglo in culture and predominantly WASP in ethnic origin. Saddam believed in Iraq. The current ‘government’ believes in obedience to the USA. And its locally raised troops ought to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize; they believe in drawing their pay but not killing or dying for a worthless cause. They lack enthusiasm for a global world hierarchy that holds down Arabs and treats them as just a nuisance needed to legitimise the West’s consumption of oil.
Not, indeed, that the cause is really racial, although the US Republicans rely heavily on white-racist votes. Last month, a US pilot in Afghanistan who had killed four Canadians in a ‘friendly fire’ incident was fined and was not even chucked out of the air force. $1,418 per Canadian. Will that be the going US rate for white foreigners from now on?
At the time of writing (Saturday 14th August), Sadr’s people are still in possession of the battlefield. On Wednesday, Sadr and his men were due to be destroyed the next day. The next day, it was the next day. Today there is a truce, with an ill-armed militia holding off the world’s only superpower. The USA does OK in conventional warfare; what they are not good at is person-to-person fighting, where technology counts for much less. Something similar was discovered by Napoleon in Spain—though he left a lot of the fighting to Poles who had unwisely joined him as Poland’s liberator. The power of irregular warfare gets constantly forgotten, with the USA somehow not recalling why they could get nowhere in Vietnam. Not understanding why they are getting nowhere in Iraq.
The US has to tread carefully around the Mosque of Ali, where non-Muslim troops would cause outrage. One problem is finding Muslim troops who would die for the US cause, which their current crop of US-trained forces don’t seem ready to do. In Vietnam, the USA had allies who would fight. They may have fought badly, they may have fought each other in vicious civil wars, but at least they saw a common cause with the USA. In Iraq , the Kurds will fight, but only for Kurdistan. The vast bulk of the pro-US Arabs will do anything for the USA, except risk their own lives. I’ve no idea if they could bring in Kurds to do the mosque-storming, or how inflammatory this would be—most Kurds are Sunni Muslims, and while all Muslims revere Ali, the shrine is basically Shia.
It may well be that the Kurds would not let themselves be used against Sadr’s forces. Kurds just don’t fit the categorises of modern politics, and could not fit without losing what they’d see as essential Kurdishness. It is very hard to form a functional nation-state from mountain peoples who seem very similar from an outside view. Only the Swiss actually managed it, and only by keeping most of their mediaeval state structures.
It is also true as I write that the Sadr forces are far from confined to the Mosque of Ali. They still control other portions of the city of Najaf, and on Friday’s Channel 4 News we saw them let in a TV crew without any apparent trouble from the US. Another Fallujah in the making, with the USA doing enough to make themselves hated but too little to make themselves feared?
Even if they do take Najaf, the movement carries on. On Friday 13th, we also saw them force some unidentified gunmen to release a British journalist whom had been seized in Basra. Which itself is a sign on the times: British forces had achieved a kind of peace, but the USA’s policies are making it unworkable. The mother of a Scottish soldier killed in Iraq has urged Tony Blair to order the withdrawal of British troops, probably reflecting much wider British-military discontent. Going in to get rid of Saddam was a cause that could appeal to people. Staying there to try to remould the Iraqis to some damn-fool US vision of docility is a very different matter.
Presidential-candidate Kerry joined the navy, which meant that he was just as safe from combat as Bush Junior was in the National Guard. He could also be confident that he’d only be fighting enemy war machines, if he fought at all. So far, wholly consistent with his anti-war stance.
But then, mysteriously, he volunteers to get involved in the fighting in Vietnam. If he’s thinking of a political future, he might now have decided that missing combat altogether is not such a good idea. And it wasn’t just any old combat he joined, either:
“As part of the US Navy’s slice of the action… [they] devised “Operation Sea Lords”, in which the Swift boats would patrol the canals and secondary streams of the Mekong Delta, with particular emphasis on the areas near the Cambodian border. The basic plan, explicitly acknowledged by many Swift boat veterans, was to terrorize the peasants into turning against the National Liberation Front, aka Viet Cong. The entire area, except for certain designated “friendly villages”, was a free fire zone, meaning the Americans could shoot at will and count anyone they killed as VC.” (http://www.counterpunch.org/cockburn07292004.html.)
The article regards Kerry’s units as a bunch of ‘death squads’, killing without regard for normal combat rules. It also suggests that Kerry got a lot of medals very quickly, some for actions that were actually rash and incompetent. My own thought is that the anti-Vietnam movement was riddled with people sent by the various spook agencies; could he have been another? Is there maybe nothing authentic about the man?
He also shows signs of having George Bush’s way with words. Recently he said: “My goal, my diplomacy, my statesmanship is to get our troops reduced in number,” Which could also be said to be the policy of Sadr, al-Qaeda etc.
Basically, he’s not fit to be elected. At least Bush could withdraw from his own mess, having no re-election to worry about, and no ambitious vice-President.
“New N. Korean missiles said to threaten U.S. North Korea is deploying new land- and sea-based ballistic missiles that can carry nuclear warheads and may have sufficient range to hit the United States, according to the authoritative Jane’s Defense Weekly.” (Mark Trevelyan, Reuters, 03.08.2004
I’d say it was a very sensible precaution, a way to be safe against all those mad bombers in Washington. And with the USA stuck in Iraq, now is the time. I have no idea what Iran are doing, but they’d be wise to go as fast as they can for nuclear weapons.
Saddam never had much of an army, nor much technology. Nor even much of an intent: Iraq did very little in the various anti-Israeli wars. North Korea has a lot of sophisticated technology and an army that fought on equal terms against the USA in the Korean War. Bush has got stuck in the wrong war, against a foe who didn’t even want to be a foe and was never a serious threat.
Meantime Florida, run by Bush’s brother Jeb, is being battered by a pair of hurricanes. Maybe someone up there does not like them.