Newsnotes 2007 10

Notes On The News

By Gwydion M Williams

Myanmar: it’s not Burma

Smile – it’s the Internet Secret Police

Instant Ready-Mix Democracy

Democracy, but not as we knew it [Britain’s Past]

For the USA, the world is not enough

Twilight of the USA [Developing Financial Crisis]

Inheritance tax and frightened fools

China’s Shadow [Tibet and Trade]

Monies of the Apes [Chimps Show ‘Economic Rationality’]

[Flores Hobbits]

[Humans As Starch-Eaters]

 

Myanmar: it’s not Burma

Yangon is the largest city and former capital of Myanmar. In British colonial times they were known as Rangoon and Burma. Some people are very slow to change. British papers and also the Washington Post use the old familiar names. The on-line Asia Times takes a solidly Western line but uses the correct names, Yangon and Myanmar.

Myanmar is a mess, obviously. As in Iraq before the invasion, what we have now is assuredly a bad government. But like Iraq, could be replaced by something much worse, weakness and factionalism, the disintegration of the state. Congo / Zaire has not yet recovered from Western ‘help’.

It’s also not true that Britain left behind a good system which the ‘natives’ then messed up. In India, maybe, which they had ruled a lot longer – though I’d credit more to the Congress Party. Burma was an independent kingdom in the 19th century, but was grabbed by British India and partly incorporated. Then when India started asking for independence, Burma was cut loose again. Maybe the British didn’t like it: it is notable that in Orwell‘s Burmese Days, not one Burmese is a decent character, only an Indian doctor is at all likeable.

Burma, like Africa, was left a mess after a few decades of colonial rule. The traditional order had been undermined, but nothing stable had replaced it. Successes for modernising nations needs either a strong political party or a strong consensus. Japan, the Republic of India and Singapore all managed strong one-party rule without abolishing multi-party democracy. A nation seeking a new way of life needs local authoritarianism, radical or progressive-traditionalist, to actually get anything done.

The former colony of Burma was left much weaker than its Asian neighbours. It also suffered a staggering blow early on. Western reports usually leave out the assassination of the nation’s leader and a lot of his immediate followers back in 1947. This tragic loss of Aung San is widely blamed on the British Secret Service, maybe acting independently of the Labour government that had recently come to power.

Britain could have shrugged off the assassination of the Prime Minister and the entire cabinet at almost any time in its history: there are plenty more waiting to step up. But in a newly emerging state, the loss of key leaders can leave everyone disorientated. Not least the daughter of the assassinated leader, who is fronting for globalisation. That’s the power of Western culture, which can easily absorb an educated elite around the world.

If the USA in the 1990s had had a government that remembered Keynesianism as a success, they might have successfully imposed a US hegemony throughout the world. As it happens, thinking was dominated by a New Right that drew exactly the wrong lesson from post-1945. Keynesian tax-and-spend had worked and spread US culture to many places that had been resisting it. It involved subsidy and security while allowing private enterprise to flourish. Much the same mix that had made Fascism popular in the 1920s and 1930s – Winston Churchill was an admirer of Mussolini and objected to Hitler mostly because he saw Hitler as a German threat to British hegemony.

The New Right saw none of this, they concentrated on removing trade barriers, enforcing ‘intellectual property rights’ and punishing people whom they had worked with during the Cold War. (Ceausescu, Mobutu, Suharto – Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait because he knew that he too was on the list.)

The New Right system sucked billions out of the ex-Leninist economies, made them poorer and full of drugs and criminals. This lost them Russia, confirmed China in its anti-Western mood and also made other regimes less likely to compromise.

Myanmar had been a hold-out against “globalisation”, which was OK while there was a strong Burmese Communist Party. It became unacceptable in the 1990s, when the USA thought it owned the world.

The immediate trouble was caused by the government accepting some Western advice, having sensibly rejected it earlier on: “When havoc hit Thailand and Indonesia 10 years ago, precipitated by a series of bank crises and devaluations, the impact on Burma was relatively minor, thanks in part to the country’s closed economy. But globalisation has moved on and the isolation which the country’s military rulers chose can no longer protect them. The country has failed to grow fast enough to satisfy its people’s rising aspirations, while key imports such as energy have gone up dramatically in price.

“Burma depends heavily on imported diesel. The government tried to hold the line by subsidising the price for consumers but last month it cut the subsidies, forcing an immediate rise in bus and other transport fares. The price of the bottled gas which most households use for cooking also shot up.

“Although Burma is blocked under sanctions from getting loans from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, both bodies had recommended last year that the fuel subsidies should disappear. The government was running a huge budget deficit in trying to cover them. Then it printed money to overcome the deficit, thereby creating inflation of over 20% last year. This August it finally took the IMF medicine, inadvertently sparking the current crisis.”[A]

Why was the West so keen to see a government that had followed Western advice overthrow? Why support protesters making demands that the West felt should not be met? Simply because the West is after power, weak governments that can be pushed around.

Of course the Myanmar protestors chose to go to extremes. Rather than saying ‘let’s accept what’s been done and move on’, they tried to treat the government of the past four decades as a criminal conspiracy.

“At first the monks limited themselves to chanting prayers and discouraged the public from joining them. But on September 22nd a hitherto unknown group, the All Burma Monks’ Alliance, called on people to “struggle peacefully against the evil military dictatorship”. After this, large numbers of ordinary Burmese joined in, many linking hands along the route of the monks’ procession. The monks’ chants became overtly political, including the cry, “democracy, democracy”.”[B]

“A group called the Alliance of All Burmese Buddhist Monks emerged to co-ordinate the protests, and on 21 September they issued a statement describing the military government as ‘the enemy of the people’.

“The group pledged to continue their protests until they had ‘wiped the military dictatorship from the land of Burma’, and called on people across Burma to join them.” [C]

Criminalising a system that’s been in place for two generations is not a formula for peace. Since the monks offered nothing except chaos, it’s not surprising that the government remained determined. Not surprising they found people who would fight for it.

 

Smile – it’s the Internet Secret Police

Lots of Myanmar dissidents must have been listening to BBC broadcasts, where they would be told they were much better off than 1988, thanks to the ‘information revolution’. I felt at the time that this was nonsense and that vulnerable people were being given utterly foolish advice. And so it has turned out.

Any government that’s serious about it can close down the internet. It largely relies on physical links. If satellite links are used, they can be jammed. In fact cutting the links was done gradually, as if the government was not very much bothered.[D] The key move was going into the monasteries on the 27th September, arresting some monks and scaring the rest.

Maybe a decision was made to let the dissidents get the Western news, the fact that the protests had been crushed and nothing more was to be expected in the short term.

There is also the under-reported fact that ‘anonymous’ bloggers can be traced. A recent scandal over partisan postings to the Wikipedia revealed the interesting fact that contributors leave signals that can be traced to a particular building or office. With that much of a lead, you don’t need Sherlock Holmes to find the exact persons responsible. Little personal details are always there.

Unless they know a lot more about computers than I do, any ‘blogger’ will have left a fairly complete record of what they’ve been doing. On Microsoft Internet Explorer, click the ‘History’ icon and you find full details of the web-sites you’ve visited. That much you can get rid of using Tools > Internet Options. But Microsoft is a Big Business Corporation catering for the needs of other big corporations, the same details are undoubtedly held at some other level, available to the ‘system administrator’.

New technology has usually proved useful to governments. Using the widely-circulated pictures of the demonstrations, they can isolate a dissident’s photos and then post it on some loyalist websites where the person can be identified. We are now told that it happened in China after the crackdown in 1989. Now why did no one mention this till after a the current demonstrations had happened and had failed?

 

Instant Ready-Mix Democracy

A lot has been said about China supporting Myanmar and continuing to trade with it. Much less that the Republic of India also does business with them. Likewise Thailand and Singapore, and those countries also urge moderation and compromise, not a rush to elections. That’s the view of all of the countries that would suffer if Myanmar became a ‘failed state’. [E]

Demand for Western-style multi-party democracy are anyway inconsistent:

“In private, Indian officials reject criticism. ‘We’re not bothered about criticism of our relations with Myanmar, given the west’s record in supporting military governments in our neighbourhood,’ said one. ‘We’re not the only democracy that works with generals.’

“Brahma Chellaney, a security affairs expert, concurs: ‘The US is going along with the fraudulent elections in Pakistan while wanting India to do more on Burma. India applies the same principle to Burma as to Pakistan: while it would like democracy to flourish, it will not make it the central plank of its foreign policy in either country.'”[F]

Demand for Western-style multi-party democracy goes along with a demand that the former regime must be treated as criminal. As has happened in Middle Europe, but there at least there was some sort of state and modern government before Communist rule.

Successful transitions to democracy generally involve an agreement that the past is a closed book. Thus it was in Spain – there is argument about even about measures to declare the losers of the Civil War officially innocent. Thus it was in South Africa, where the USA still protects the interests of a white minority who were very much ‘their sort of people’. Thus it seemed to be in Chile, but this has now been abandoned. With Chavez and others flourishing as outright enemies of the US, moderate leftism in Chile is more acceptable. Tossing them a few old allies to keep them quiet is a small price to pay, or so they must be thinking.

Right-wing thugs take note – if you’re not Anglo or something close to it, expect the USA to rat on you, both Republican Rats and Democrat Rats.

 

Democracy, but not as we knew it [Britain’s Past]

Almost two hundred years passed between the 1688 stabilisation of British politics and the first election that could be called democratic. The 1884 reforms gave the vote to 60% of the adult males, and was the beginning of the end for British Liberalism. The 1885 election produced a hung parliament, with the Irish Nationalists holding the balance of power. The Liberals then split and a Tory / Liberal Unionist alliance won in 1886. This same alignment carried on till 1914, when Irish Home Rule threatened to bring about a civil war.

The Liberal Party was split in the election of 1918, the first that gave the vote to all adult males and to women over 30. By 1922 they had been overtaken by the Labour Party. Democracy and Liberalism were in practice enemies – which is not so surprising if you realise that the European Enlightenment was never meant to be democratic. Voltaire’s heroes were Enlightened Despots: most of the French aristocrats guillotined in the French Revolution would have been Voltairian in outlook.

People say ‘democracy’ when they mean ‘legalised forms of political aggression against the legitimate political authorities. It works OK when a single view is dominant. It is often an impossible burden on a weak system. When there is an ethnic or religious divide, political parties arise that specialise in tapping the resentments of one or other community.

In 18th century Britain, party politics was originally seen as an aberration. Only when they were found unavoidable were they redefined as normal.

The USA democratised 50 years before Britain, in the 1830s. This was followed by a Civil War in the 1860s, which does not stop US academics from declaring that democracies don’t go to war with each other.

It’s not surprising that the New Right cannot transmit Liberal Democracy to the rest of the world. They have a totally false idea of how it got established at home.

 

For the USA, the world is not enough

This happens to be literally true – to extend the US lifestyle to the rest of the world would need five times the resources the world actually possesses.[G] The UK is more modest but would still need two additional planets. China is still ‘in balance’, it would be possible for the entire world to live at the level China has now. But China has been going in the wrong direction, boosting automobiles and other forms of waste.

What does the US do? Mostly the wrong things. The US electorate doesn’t really want small government. It wants Big Government at Small Government prices. Farm subsidy, deposit guarantee, a world superpower role, Republicans want all these. They also like anti-government rhetoric, but in practice it means little.[H]

Britain has done no better: “The UK’s dependence on basic products such as food and energy is also soaring. Self-sufficiency for all food is now 27% lower than it was in 1990 and has dropped 7% since 2002. The ability to feed ourselves without depending on imports from overseas is at its lowest for half a century. Similarly, the UK is struggling to meet its own energy needs even though it is opting for lifestyles which require high levels of consumption. The UK lost self-sufficiency in energy production in 2004 and since then dependence has increased almost fourfold.”[J]

This would be a major problem even if it should turn out that global warming wasn’t happening after all. I have no doubt that it is happening: far too many abnormalities in weather patterns throughout the world. Al Gore got told off by a British judge for treating it as a solid fact that global warming caused Hurricane Katrina: I’d say it was a better-established case that most criminal convictions in English courts.

I was glad to see Gore and a UN panel get the Nobel Peace Prize: we will need to wait 50 years to see if his election-2000 rival George Bush got a nomination. With hindsight it was very fortunate that electoral oddities in Florida put Bush into power. Gore can seed the winds of wisdom. Bush and his party can reap the whirlwind!

 

Twilight of the USA [Developing Financial Crisis]

In last month’s news-notes, after the sudden falls in the stock market, I said:

“Rather than the sudden slumps of 1987 and 1997, the current crisis has been a series of falls and recoveries. Banks and governments keep pumping in money to stop a collapse.

“I read it as a series of bounces that will give a good excuses to buy at any given moment. Delaying tactics that will gives the ‘smart money’ time to get out, but this can only happen if enough ‘stupid money’ can be found to replace it.”

That’s still how I read it. The US finance system still has a lot of weaknesses. The stock market was dropping until it became clear that governments would pump in extra money whenever the market dropped a little. But how long can that last? Meantime the whole Western system is getting overshadowed by the growth of the economies of China and India, neither of them fans of the Western system.

Financial markets claimed to be making money out of nothing. But since the overall economies grew no better than in the Keynesian era, they must have been diverting into their own pockets some of the wealth that would have existed anyway.

Meantime Bush seems keen to keep the Iraq war ‘on hold’, maybe hoping the next administration gets the blame. Interestingly, the Democrat-controlled Congress is creating chaos by taking official notice of Turkey’s mass killings of Armenians, which was known about for decades but has previously been ignored.

 

Inheritance tax and frightened fools

An only child may inherit 300,000 from their parents and pay no tax at all on it. 300,000 is a lot more money than most people will ever have at any one time. Yet when the Tories said that tax on inheritance should be raised to a million, there was widespread agreements. So much that Labour felt forced to concede something – actually less than it seems

An only child inheriting 400,000 would pay 40% on the amount over 300,000, they would pay 40,000 or 10% of the total inheritance. That is called oppressive.

Under the revised system, the lucky heir of 400,000 pays nothing and this is called liberation. An even luckier person who inherited 1,100,000 million would still pay tax – but a lot less, because the threshold had been raised. They would have paid 320,000 but under the Tory scheme they pay just 40,000. That’s to say, the really rich get a lot more than the moderately rich.

All of this is unearned income. House prices are mostly depending on the wider society, the fate of the region and the economy as a whole. In the north of England, people found they had houses that were worth practically nothing, because it was an area of high unemployment. In a flourishing area, the price of your house rises without you doing anything.

Inheritance tax gets called ‘taxing the dead’. Actually dead people don’t pay tax, for the simple reason that dead people own nothing. Their heirs pay the tax, or rather the tax gets deducted before the heirs get any inheritance they may be due. This would include income tax and also special tax schemes on investments. All of that will still apply to everyone. The only ‘tax on the dead’ that anyone wants to get rid of is a tax that falls just on the richest 6%, the people who already have vastly more than most. Ordinary people would need to be stupid to see it as an issue.

Most of them are stupid. That’s the sad truth revealed by a recent study:

“‘I was pretty astounded at the initial level of hostility to inheritance tax,’ White remembers. ‘Half the focus group members were opposed to inheritance tax in principle. Only one person out of 32 was prepared to give the tax their unequivocal support.’

“The participants were asked about their attitude to taxes in general. Their responses were less hostile. But however much White and his colleagues tried to encourage them to think about the similarities between inheritance tax and these other levies, the proportion of the focus group members utterly against inheritance tax stayed at precisely half – considerably more than the share of the vote a British party needs to win a general election…

“In our focus groups people talked about insecurity,’ he says. ‘People talked about their pensions being insecure, and about their inheritance being a way of plugging the gap. They also talked more generally about insecurity. They basically said: ‘We’re in this extremely insecure, competitive world, and our housing wealth is an enormous source of security. Passing it on is a way for my family to batten down the hatches while the storm rages outside’…

“The ability to inherit a large sum tax-free has become not a doomed and unacceptable privilege… but a right or, to use the Conservatives’ preferred word, an ‘aspiration’. One of the findings of White’s focus groups, which fits with other research in the same area, was that ;the people least likely to pay inheritance tax are more likely to be hostile to it than people in higher social classes’.” [P]

That’s a big shift of attitude since the 1970s, when there was a loss of confidence in the achievements of the 1940s and 1950s. The bulk of the left in the 1970s put all of its efforts into persuading the society that everything that existed was false and a fraud. They thought this would lead to revolution, which was foolish. What we’ve actually got is a society where people worry about their pensions but don’t grasp that fair taxation would make those pensions absolutely safe.

 

China’s Shadow [Tibet and Trade]

Tibetan Buddhism is based on the power of lamas who are chosen as children, in the belief that they are holy men reincarnated. That’s how the present Dalai Lama got his power. That’s the problem that will arise when he dies – there has already been a dispute over the Panchen Lama, Tibet’s second highest religious leader. Beijing has its own candidate, accepted if not much respected. The Dalai Lama’s choice has vanished.

The Dalai Lama has been a complete fool. He misread the situation after European Leninism collapsed. No Asian Leninist state has yet collapsed, nor looks likely to. The nearest has been Mongolia, heavily dependent on the Soviet Union. But even in Mongolia, the ex-Communists are currently ruling, having formed a coalition with the main opposition. As for China, the world’s most successful economy is incorporating its border regions without much trouble.

China is also showing increasing ‘clout’ in the wider world. After the scandals about toys made in China, giant toy-maker Mattel suddenly backed down:

“At a press conference held at the headquarters of the Chinese quality control agency, [a Mattel spokesman] acknowledged the damage done to the reputation of Chinese goods, and said the company remained committed to manufacturing in China, according to Reuters.

“‘But it’s important for everyone to understand that the vast majority of those products that we recalled were the result of a design flaw in Mattel’s design, not through a manufacturing flaw in Chinese manufacturers,’ he added.

“The company said in a statement that it had recalled more toys than it needed to.

“‘Mattel is committed to applying the highest standards of safety for its products. Consistent with this, Mattel’s lead-related recalls were overly inclusive, including toys that may not have had lead in paint in excess of US standards,’ it said.” [K].

Not having listened to Western ‘good advice’ on politics, China has a powerful state-party machine that can force even a large multi-national corporation to behave itself. If they can’t manufacture in China, they go out of business. They may go out of business anyway, if their brand-name ever loses its magic.

Beijing may also hope to outlive its problem with the Dalai Lama. That’s the logic behind the seemingly eccentric decision to demand government approval for ‘Living Buddhas’ wishing to reincarnate within the Peoples’ Republic.[L] Religious leaders will only be tolerated if they behave. And while Bush prepares to meet the Dalai Lama, Beijing is giving publicity to some old stories about the Dalai Lama having been an enthusiast for the lunatic leader of the Aum Shinrikyo cult of Japan.[M] This stuff has previously been advanced by Christopher Hitchens [N] and I keep an open mind on the matter. But the Dalai Lama has all along shown lousy judgement.

 

Monies of the Apes [Chimps Show ‘Economic Rationality’]

Economists claim to work on the basis of rationality. One example was a scheme whereby Tom and Sam would split a sum of money, but only if they agreed on the split. Tom would decide the split and Sam could accept or reject it. In their view, Tom ought to take most and Sam should accept this. Much to their surprise, mostly the split was fair. When it wasn’t fair, the man or woman who thought they were being cheated would be content to get nothing rather than be treated like that.

Now they’ve finally found a population that does behave ‘rationally’. Chimps.

“Unlike humans faced with these games, chimpanzee responders accepted any nonzero offer, whether it was unfair or not. The only offer that was reliably rejected was the 10/0 option (responder gets nothing). The researchers conclude that chimpanzees do not show a willingness to make fair offers and reject unfair ones. In this way, they behave like selfish economists rather than as social reciprocators.”[Q]

Humans feel the need to be part of something, but also expect ‘fair treatment’. Which can vary a lot and people will accept large inequalities if their society’s traditions seem to sanction and justify it. Tolerance of traditional injustice surprises outsiders but seems natural to ‘insiders’. People actually exist in a social context, and could not exist without it. The legend of Tarzan of the Apes remains immensely popular, yet is profoundly false. Heroes like Sharp and Bond and Indiana Jones are heroic exaggerations. But a human raised by apes would be little better than an ape.

[Flores Hobbits]

A couple of other interesting finds. It seems that the ‘Flores Hobbits’ were real after all. It’s not just their skulls that look like the vanished ape-humans, the wrist is just the same:

“Tocheri, an expert in the evolution of the human wrist, could see right away that the hobbit’s wrist bones looked just like those of a chimpanzee or an early hominin such as Australopithecus – and had none of the specialisations for grasping that are seen in the wrist bones of modern humans…

“‘The modern human wrist hasn’t looked like this for at least 800,000 years, and maybe much longer,’ says Tocheri. ‘It was immediately apparent to me that the hobbit is the real deal.'” [R]

Which leaves the problem of how they got to an isolated island. Assuming they were smarter than chimps, I suspect that they had a few human friends helping them. That they were taught advanced tool-use and also boats, if they were not taken there as a dumping-ground. My guess is that the hobbit’s true ‘shire’ will be found elsewhere among the many islands of Indonesia. High ground where a primitive population might have hung on but diminished in size, until someone decided to move them to prevent disputes. Legends of the ‘little people’ of Flores say that they were mischievous and stole things – that they could not understand the social rules of modern humans, I’d suppose.

[Humans As Starch-Eaters]

Looking back to the much deeper past, it seems that humans didn’t just get a taste for meat when they diverged from the other apes. We eat bread as well as meat, even the most expensive meals include starch as well as protein. Everyone was obsessed with ‘man the mighty hunter’, and of course meat leaves behind visible signs in the form of bones. But it seems that was only half the story:

“Humans carry extra copies of the salivary amylase gene… they use the copies to flood their mouths with amylase, an enzyme that digests starch. The finding bolsters the idea that starch was a crucial addition to the diet of early humans, and that natural selection favored individuals who could make more starch-digesting protein.

“Other primates eat mainly ripe fruits containing very little starch. A new ability to supplement the diet with calorie-rich starches could have fed our large brains and opened up new food supplies that fuelled our unrivalled colonization of the planet…

“When early humans mastered fire, cooking starchy vegetables would have made them even easier to eat… At the same time it would have made extra amylase gene copies an even more valuable trait.”[S]

 

References

[A] [http://www.guardian.co.uk/burma/story/0,,2179013,00.html]

[B] [http://www.economist.com/world/asia/displaystory.cfm?story_id=9868041]

[C] [http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/7010202.stm]

[D] [http://www.guardian.co.uk/international/story/0,,2179782,00.html], [[http://www.guardian.co.uk/international/story/0,,2180758,00.html]

[E] [http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/88e161c4-75f8-11dc-b7cb-0000779fd2ac.html]

[F] [http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/0024888a-6f76-11dc-b66c-0000779fd2ac.html]

[G] New Scientist magazine, issue 2624, 03 October 2007, page 10

[H] [http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/f7ebc038-7511-11dc-892d-0000779fd2ac.html]

[J] [http://business.guardian.co.uk/story/0,,2184825,00.html]

[K] [http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/99b42156-683a-11dc-b475-0000779fd2ac.html]

[L] [http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/article2194682.ece]

[M] [http://english.peopledaily.com.cn/90001/90780/6279537.html]

[N] [http://www.salon.com/news/1998/07/13news.html]

[P] [http://www.guardian.co.uk/g2/story/0,,2189370,00.html]

[Q] [http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/10/071005104104.htm]

[R] New Scientist, issue 2623, 29 September 2007, page 14

[S] [http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/09/070909184006.htm]

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