Newsnotes 2008 06

Notes On The News

By Gwydion M Williams

Tax-Evasion Leeches

What the 1960s did for us

Is Burma necessary?

Darfur Wages War

Nepal in flux

Shaken but solid [Chinese Earthquake]

Einstein’s Views [On Religion]

Web Liberation fails again

Legalising Chimeras [Human Chimeras]

 

Tax-Evasion Leeches

“Clamping down on tax dodges by multinationals could save the lives of a thousand children a day, according to the latest pressure group to call for big businesses to pay more tax.

“Christian Aid, the charity, argued billions of pounds were being leeched from developing countries by tax avoidance and evasion by big companies, in a report published today. It echoed calls by ActionAid, another anti-poverty charity, to focus on tax avoidance by multinationals, which ‘denies poor countries billions of dollars which they urgently need to fight poverty’.

“Earlier this year, the Trades Union Congress also called for a crackdown on avoidance, saying £12bn a year was lost to tax avoidance. Unite, the country’s biggest union, is pushing for a shift of the tax burden from low income workers to big business.”[A]

“In a new report, Death and taxes: the true cost of tax dodging, the charity says the sums being lost to tax evasion globally are equivalent to almost one and a half times the amount of foreign aid given to poor countries each year. If legal tax avoidance were added in, the sums would be several times greater…

“Separate research for the TUC showed companies and wealthy individuals are manipulating the British tax system to avoid £25bn of tax each year. Accounting tricks, exploiting loopholes and simple avoidance were undermining government revenues and disguising how much tax is paid by businesses and the better-off.

“Brendan Barber, TUC general secretary, said in February that unpaid tax costs every British worker £1,000 a year. If only a fraction of the missing tax were collected by Revenue & Customs, it would plug the gap in the government’s spending plans and save schools, hospitals and other public services from cuts, says its report, The Missing Billions.”[B]

“The debate on developing-country corruption needs to focus just as much on the money leaving developing countries and where it goes, as the money going in.

“A priority for rich countries serious about stopping corruption should be the closure of tax havens and tightening up of laws to prevent money laundering. This global system of tax evasion operates beyond national borders and should be recognised as what it is – a form of theft that deprives developing countries of cash for their development.”[C]

Thatcherism sold itself as a ‘liberation from taxes’. And so it was – but only for the rich. The main gainers were an Overclass, people with a minimum of a million pounds that they can invest, not tied up in their own homes or savings for retirement.

Thatcherism managed to convince a large chunk of the population that they were being burdened by tax. They played on vanity – it is even worse in the USA, where maybe a quarter of the population think they are part of the richest 5%, and a further quarter expect to qualify eventually. On this basis, lower taxes might begin with the high earners, but the process of’ liberation’ could spread. Just as rich people did genuinely pioneer new appliances like cars and televisions and video recorders, stuff that starts expensive and then become general.

The idea of ‘tax liberation’ would only be valid if a non-tax or low-tax society was compatible with advanced civilisation. There were people who genuinely believed this, but they were never in control. The reality is that tax-funded services fill in for a range of social obligations that people used to accept voluntarily.

The reality is also that a rich minority have done a lot better than the rest of the society. The difference between the incomes of top bosses and ordinary workers used to be 35 to 1: now it is 350 to 1 and rising.

The public mood is turning. Unfortunately, ‘New Labour’ based themselves on Thatcherism being basically true, and can’t take advantage of the shift.

 

What the 1960s did for us

Leninism built a world system in which women, workers and non-whites were equal in principal with the dominant stratum of white middle-class males. This went along with the repression of opposition politics, but at the time this seemed less important.

The West emphasised ‘freedom’, and dropped the formal insistence on the superiority of whites, males and the middle classes. But in practice these groups dominated in the 1950s. Only in the 1960s did a massive counter-culture emerge. Only in the 1970s did the counter-culture swallow and digest the former mainstream.

One little item. It is now normal at weddings for the bride and groom to have been living together for some months or years before making a commitment. The wedding night is mostly spent sleeping off the excesses of the celebration. This was definitely not the norm in the 1960s.

But a lot of it is very selfish, something that was part of the original hippy ideology. The cause was the ‘Liberation of Wonderful Me’ – this ‘ Wonderful Me’ being not quite yourself, but rather the person you’d like to be. People in the grip of that world-view were easily persuaded to favour the interests of those with a much larger income, on the grounds they’d like to be getting that much. And of course some of them really were admitted to the Overclass. Or at least the fringes of the Overclass, with all the fringe benefits that go with that.

Most of the generation who rose in the 1960s now sneer at it. They talk of “a sustained period of centre-right dominance” in reaction to 1960s radicalism.[D] Overlooking that the centre-right totally failed to preserve its own social values. Their popularity rested on talking tough and doing nothing very much, except selling off state assets and cutting taxes for the rich.

Capitalism as an economic system survived and even recaptured lost ground. But middle-class respectability perished utterly, and has been replaced by greed and emptiness. That’s a change that simply cannot be reversed: those people are all for other people making sacrifices, but not themselves. Either socialism or extremist religion will be needed to regenerate the society.

 

Is Burma necessary?

Everyone knows that the West is looking to undermine Myanmar, shows it no respect, refuses even to accept it has the right to change the name by which it is known in English. Myanmar’s current politics are bad, certainly. But there is good reason to doubt that anything better could be generated if the current rulers were swept away.

The main problem over aid has been the insistence of Western aid workers that they must come in with it. They might not be working for any government, but they have a pattern of sharing the same idea – these people should immediately drop their own values and accept ours. In a strong state this might not matter, but Myanmar has always been weak and liable to disintegrate. They were ready to accept goods, but not a bunch of hostile foreigners insisting on shoving aside the existing state to get at the people directly.

“Burma’s military rulers on Friday rejected international appeals to permit foreign aid workers to assist up to 1.5m increasingly desperate survivors, a stand that a top UN official blasted as ‘unprecedented’.

“After a week of seeming ambivalence towards a massive offer of international help, the military regime yesterday made it clear that it does not want foreign aid workers involved in the effort assist cyclone survivors.

“However, the junta said it still would still welcome donations of relief materials that its soldiers, and others close to the regime, can distribute in affected areas…

“The World Food Programme said that it was suspending three planned relief flights carrying food aid because the Burmese military regime had seized control of 38 tonnes of supplies that arrived on Friday.” [E]

 

Darfur Wages War

“Darfur rebels launched an unprecedented attack on the Sudanese capital of Khartoum on Saturday, crossing hundreds of miles of desert in an attempt to overthrow the government of President Omar Bashir, according to Sudanese officials and the rebels.

“Within a few hours, however, the Sudanese government said the attempt had been crushed. State television broadcast pictures of bloodied bodies in the streets and confessions from prisoners who appeared to have been badly beaten.

“Sudanese officials immediately accused neighboring Chad of backing the rebels.” [F]

Sudan is another case of a weak government fighting for simple survival against Western hostility. All of the protests about Darfur ignore the fact that Darfur started it. That some of the Darfur armies are a real threat to the limited stability that this huge African country possesses.

The example of Somalia and the Congo also suggests that even a weak and bad government is better than no government at all.

[Syria, Libya and the newly created South Sudan can now be added to the list of countries that the USA has ‘helped’.]

 

Nepal in flux

Last month I was assuming that the Nepali Congress and the Maoists would form the new government. That could still happen, but things are very much in flux right now.

“Maoist chairman Prachanda has rejected outright pre-conditions put by major political parties (Nepali Congress and UML) such as disbanding of Young Communist League (YCL) and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) for joining a government led by his party and declared that he will be at the helm by June 2…

“Asked whether parties such as the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal (CPN-UML) were ready to support a Maoist-led government, he said a serious debate was going on in these parties, and every party had agreed to it in principle. Terming their pre-conditions ‘ridiculous,’ Prachanda said these were put forward for bargaining.” [G]

The elections gave the Maoists 220 seats out of 601: 36% of the seats from 30% of the vote. The Nepali Congress have 110, the Communist Party of Nepal 103, while two parties for the minority Madhesi in the south have 52 and 20 seats. The rest of the seats are split between a mass of small parties, meaning that in practice the Maoists could govern in alliance with any one of the three main alternatives. How it goes next is anyone’s guess.

 

Shaken but solid [Chinese Earthquake]

“Why did the earthquake that struck China on 12 May cause so many deaths? Because it was just 10 kilometres below the surface, there was less of a chance for the seismic wave’s energy to dissipate than in a deeper quake. What’s worse, buildings in the densely populated Sichuan province were only built to withstand a quake roughly a fifth as powerful, says Hong Hao at the University of Western Australia in Perth.” [G]

“The recent earthquake in Sichuan occurred under some of the steepest and most rugged mountains in the world, the Longmen Shan: the Dragon’s Gate Mountains. This dramatic range, steeper than the Himalayas, is the upturned rim of the eastern edge of Tibet, a plateau that has risen to 5 km in response to the slow but unstoppable collision of India with Asia that began about 55 million years ago and which continues unabated today…

“Millimetre by millimetre, the Longmen Shan are being sliced and displaced much like salami. One of these faults is likely to be the one that gave rise to the 7.9 magnitude earthquake that has now caused 22,069 fatalities. Exactly why the Longmen Shan are here is a mystery. Unlike the Himalaya, which form the southern boundary of Tibet and whose faults chatter continuously with small earthquakes, faults in the Longmen Shan, remnants perhaps of geological events hundreds of millions of years ago, have historically only produced earthquakes up to magnitude 6.” [H]

That was one reason for the big loss of life. On the basis of past experience, there was little reason to fear such a big earthquake. There may also have been shoddy building methods used for schools: there is understandable anger in places where schools fell down. It’s not yet clear how general a pattern this was:

“In Beichuan, the whole town was devastated; only a handful of single-storey buildings seem to have survived. But in Dujiangyan, the distress of parents is magnified by the fact that most buildings – even those directly next to the collapsed schools – still stand.” [I]. Someone at BBC’s Have Your Say suggested it was because Chinese schools have classes of 35 to 50 and hence big rooms, less supporting walls. This could be true, but I’d have thought building codes should allow for that. It is being investigated, and the Central Government has in the past shown itself ruthless in punishing regional corruption.

One overlooked aspect is that the quake happened on the boundary between the Tibetan Plateau and the Sichuan Basin. I think a lot of it would once have been the Tibetan province of Kham, which was broken up into Chinese provinces by the Late Empire and the pre-Mao Chinese Republic. All of it is Sichuan now, but the epicentre was Wenchuan County in the Ngawa Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture. (Qiang are a small minority related to Tibetans but distinct from them.)

It seems that Tibetans in exile feel it and are also unexpectedly polite about what the Central Government are doing:

“‘I am deeply saddened by the loss of many lives and many more who have been injured in the catastrophic earthquake that struck Sichuan province of China,’ the Dalai Lama said in Dharamshala, his home in exile in India.

“‘I would like to extend my deep sympathy and heartfelt condolences to those families who have been directly affected by the strong earthquake and I offer my prayers for those who have lost their lives and those injured in the quake,’ he added.

“His Tibetan government-in-exile praised Chinese authorities for the quick response to the tragedy.

“‘We are full of sympathy for the families bereaved by this great tragedy and we admire the quick response of the Chinese authorities in deploying rescue teams at such short notice to bring out survivors from the rubble,’ spokesman Thubten Samphel said.” [K]

 

Einstein’s Views [On Religion]

“The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish… For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong and with whose mentality I have a deep affinity have no different quality for me than all other people. As far as my experience goes, they are also no better than other human groups, although they are protected from the worst cancers by a lack of power. Otherwise I cannot see anything ‘chosen’ about them.” [L]

This comes from a little-known letter by him that has recently been sold and also publicised. [M] Oddly, this has happened in the year of Israel’s 60th anniversary. Einstein was offered the Presidency of Israel in 1952, in succession to the famous chemist Chaim Weizmann, but turned it down. The subsequent history of Israel has nicely illustrated that Jews will behave just like anyone else when occupying land to which others have a valid claim.

 

Web Liberation fails again

Computers make perfect spies. They never forget, and they’ll obey anyone who knows their hidden codes. Hackers known some, but governments know more and the US government surely knows them all.

The World Wide Web is even worse – you let the whole world onto your machine. You can be safe only if you buy commercial firewalls and anti-virus checkers. Stuff made by people who’re open to all sorts of pressures from their own government, even supposing they would want to help dissidents and radicals. ‘Web activism’ flourishes where the state is basically willing to live with it, does not see it as a serious threat.

There was a recent sad case in Egypt, where life is at least open enough for such things to get reported:

“Worries about the risks of political activism in Egypt were spilling onto his screen. It won’t work, one man wrote. The government’s already infiltrated us, wrote another. This is stupid, wrote a third.

“Since late March, 74,000 people had registered on a Facebook page created and run by Maher and a few other young Egyptians, most of them newcomers to activism. Even some of Egypt’s older, more disillusioned proponents of democracy had let themselves hope that a social networking Web site created by American college students could become an electronic rallying point for protest against President Hosni Mubarak’s 27-year rule.

“But the experience of the Facebook activists showed the limits of technology as a means of organizing dissent against a repressive government. Maher would end up among what rights groups said were 500 Egyptians arrested during two months of political activism in Egypt — and find himself stripped and beaten in a Cairo police station, he said.” [N]

[I overestimated Egyptian competence. Social Media did allow the Arab Spring to smash what existed. But not to replace it, which didn’t surprise me at all.]

 

Legalising Chimeras [Human Chimeras]

In mythology, a chimera was a mix of two or more different animals, most often a lion, a goat and a serpent. In real life, you do get genetic chimeras, seemingly normal individuals whose DNA varies between cells, suggesting that two distinct zygotes (early embryos) fused and formed a normal adult. DNA testing has found that this occurs naturally in humans:

“Lydia Fairchild was pregnant with her third child, when she and the father of her children, Jamie Townsend, separated. When Fairchild applied for welfare support in 2002, she was requested to provide DNA evidence that Townsend was the father of her children. While the results showed Townsend was certainly the father of the children, the DNA tests indicated that she was not their mother.

“This resulted in Fairchild being taken to court for fraud for claiming benefit for other people’s children or taking part in a surrogacy scam. Hospital records of her prior births were disregarded…

“A breakthrough came when a lawyer for the prosecution… realised that Fairchild’s case might also be caused by chimerism. In 1998, 52-year old Boston teacher Karen Keegan was in need of a kidney transplant. When her three adult sons were tested for suitability as donors, it was discovered that two of them did not match her DNA to the extent that her biological children should. Later testing showed that Keegan was a chimera, a combination of two separate sets of cell lines with two separate sets of chromosomes, when a second set of DNA was found in other tissues. This DNA presumably came from a different embryo than the one that gave rise to the rest of her tissues.

“Fairchild’s prosecutors suggested this possibility to her lawyers, who arranged further testing. As in Keegan’s case, DNA samples were taken from members of the extended family. The DNA for Fairchild’s children matched that of her mother to the extent expected of a grandmother. They also found that while the DNA in Fairchild’s skin and hair did not match her children, the DNA from a cervical smear test was different and did match. Fairchild was carrying two different sets of DNA, the defining characteristic of a chimera.”[O]

Catholic theologians chose in the 19th century to make it a dogma that the soul gets attached to the very early embryo. So do women like Lydia Fairchild and Karen Keegan have a pair of souls? Or did the spare go early to limbo? Really, it’s a foolish belief and should be dropped.

It’s likely a lot of people have this condition – God’s Design, if you’re a Creationist. Some men may have been led to believe that their wives cheated when in fact their own body contains two different strands of DNA. And it all makes the fuss about hybrid human animal embryos seem excessive. No one plans to raise an actual hybrid: it seems pretty certain that such a creature would die at a very early stage, as most natural hybrids die even when the species are close. But scientists want to create them as blobs of cells that will be very useful for research, including research into serious human illnesses.

In the event, MPs voted by 336 to 176 to allow the hybrids. Also by 342 votes to 163 against a proposed ban on ‘saviour siblings’ – babies selected to provide genetic material for seriously ill relatives.

At the time of writing, the vote on abortion limits has not yet been taken – I’d support the status quo.

 

References

[A] [http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/5330b6d8-1fbc-11dd-9216-000077b07658.html]

[B] [http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2008/may/12/taxavoidance.taxandspending1]

[C] [http://www.christianaid.org.uk/stoppoverty/powercorruption/stories/dealing_corruption.aspx]. The Christian Aid report can be downloaded at [http://www.christianaid.org.uk/getinvolved/christianaidweek/cawreport/index.aspx]

[D] [http://www.prospect-magazine.co.uk/article_details.php?&id=10164]

[E] [http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/3953d01c-1d9e-11dd-983a-000077b07658.html]

[F] [http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/05/10/AR2008051001618.html]

[G] From issue 2656 of New Scientist magazine, 14 May 2008, page 7

[H] [http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/05/080516123837.htm]

[I] [http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/may/19/chinaearthquake.china2]

[K] [http://news.yahoo.com/s/afp/20080513/wl_sthasia_afp/chinaquakeindiatibetdalai]

[L] [http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2008/may/13/peopleinscience.religion]

[M] [http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2008/may/12/peopleinscience.religion]

[N] [http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/05/17/AR2008051702672.html]

[O] [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lydia_Fairchild]. There is also an account at [http://www.manmed.de/seiten/themen/news/archiv/chimeras.html]

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