Cui bono?

honor hominesque honesti floreant

Month: January, 2016

European Disunion

If consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds, which is almost the only good remark attributed to Emerson (as well as being almost a remark he did make) then there is no future in trying to fit the collective mind of the EU into a size 8 hatbox. A union avowedly pusuing ever greater integration is now an organ of discord, and the question is not whether the UK (hereinafter referred to as London in order to reflect political realities, however distasteful) will leave but why it ever applied to join in the first place. Differences of outlook have been becoming more ominous for several years. One has sympathy for the poor spokesman who had to explain why it was once noble and idealistic of the west to bomb Serbia’s cities with a view to detaching Kosovo [1], whereas the actions of Russia in stopping Poroshenko’s forces bombarding part of what he claimed as his country’s population in order to keep them on Kiev’s electoral roll, were entirely different and utterly evil. When the EU reached a membership of fifteen (unfortunately and inexplicably including Greece) anyone with a milligram of political nous could see that was the point to stop for a decade or three, however hard Nato squeezed the European arm. A further mouthful of eastern Europe looked unappealing at the time and has indeed resulted in painful indigestion. In any case the approach was always entirely wrong. If the project was to have any chance of success it had to be carried on as a crusade (the word not yet expunged in those days). To conceive it as an effort at ‘ever greater integration’ and entrust the task to a largely self-appointing class of eurocrats was folly in red bloomers. What has emerged is an ever more complex bureaucracy, impenetrable in fact, unless you happen to know a side door and the password to use on approaching it. I would like to start a rumour that a man is employed in Brussels whose only work is pushing the trolleys full of the daily correspondence sent to one of the Commissioners, from her office to the incinerarium, but it would cause trouble since it would undoubtedly soon appear in one of the British newspapers as a well-known fact.

          Political union is clearly a non-starter, and that was obviously already clear to the Brussocrats when my wife’s native land rejected in a referendum the proposed Lisbon treaty (a.k.a ‘constitution of the European megastate’) which foresaw a future where laws, policies, regulations, and general interference with real people should be as decided by world leaders and their special advisors, with elections to continue of course, as a kind of colourful meaningless folkdancing. (The Irish were to their credit the only nation of 27 which insisted on asking the people what they wanted, producing a result which dismayed that fluent gasbag Barroso; to their shame, the Irish, when they were told they had given the wrong answer, had another go, and approved the treaty.) Economic union may advance economic growth, but we all know the benefits will go to those who are already rich and privileged. Moral union. There used to be a lot of proclamation from Brussels about European values. For some unprovable reason (though most of us could make guesses) that sort of talk has gone quiet recently. A pity. Just think what Europe would be like if we could achieve something there. Danes allowing starving widows to keep the small change with which they reach Denmark.   Hungarians saving all the money they spend on razor wire (offences, not defences); (perhaps they could use it for Rom villages in Hungary). The French could provide clean water, warmth, sanitation and food to strangers (and to SDF – 14 dead on the streets of Paris already since the New Year). Wealthy Greeks could start paying some of their taxes. The Dutch could be friendly to their Moroccans. The British might allow refugee children into their country. (On that last point, 30,000 refugees admitted would be less than one for every 2,000 of the current population. Most people would never even see one of them.) The Spanish… But enough!

[1] this action must of course be sharply distinguished from the campaign in which London nobly bore its share of bombing the infrastructure, sewage plants, and from time to time hospitals, of southern Iraq, between 1991 and 2003; that was for a wholly different purpose, namely to bring democracy to that poor oppressed country.

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Question of the week : the British government is at present enveloped in difficulties over preparing a list of psychoactive substances that exist, or might at some time in the future exist, which with their 36.9% of the vote on a 66.1% electoral turn-out they feel qualified to order people not to consume, to insert into themselves, to prepare, to buy or sell, or do any of the other things which lawyers could think of people doing with them. While they are wrestling with the issue could they spare time to explain to the public why that very psychoactive substance, beer, looks likely to gain an exemption?

 

The end is nigh, but getting there depends where you start from

We are a very kindly and tolerant outfit. I believe somewhere in the early records of this journal there is a mention of Joseph Stalin (or was it Mr Blair?) which is willing to credit him with a certain measure of good intentions in some business which unfortunately had a dire outcome for almost everyone else.  But I had thought we always knew where we were with our Berthold Featherstonehaugh-Cheems; emollient casuistry, and some kind words where possible for the deserving poor, but fundamentally a firm defence of those who understand what is needed for the rational management of a vibrant and growing economy – what we might call the Economist mode. So it was a bit of a shaker when he sent in this little curiosity. In my view, Berthold has left it rather late to turn into some sort of a social commentator, and, to be blunt, a bit of a lefty. We allow him his effusion on this occasion, but shall be keeping a sharp watch on him hereafter.

When faced with ugly shapes looming bulkily on the economic graphs portending imminent disaster a common refrain sung soothingly by investment advisors, bankers, and others in the GHOPM business (Getting Hold of Other People’s Money) has throughout history been ‘Ah, but it’s different this time!’.

They had better hope that the lyric turns out to be equally untrue today. Usually the last notes of the last renderings have been cut short by the first rumblings of the crash about to overwhelm the customers whom those rhapsodes were advising. There were always some experts who thought they could safely leave it till the last moment before heading to the executive lift, to set off for the well prepared safe haven from which in fact only one in two would return, with not many of those returning in the pomp to which they had been accustomed. (Those, however, are the ones you will have read about in the media.) But cool-headed analysis suggests that now we really are facing a major change in the economic climate.  Add together the converging geophysical disasters both natural and humanly contrived, wars between and within states, terrorism, the population curve surging upward while technical developments increasingly find people unnecessary, the blind rush to extract more and more resources where less and less remains, and at the same time continuing and extending reliance on those same resources; add all those together and as each threatening crisis hoists itself up on the shoulders of the ones that are already trampling on the livelihoods, and indeed the lives, of the poor (and, these days, the formerly middle class) you should reflect that human history knows epochal cycles larger and in proportional terms more devastating than mere ‘business cycles’ of a few years or so. As these megacycles come towards their end they have a graphic shape dramatically different from anything like the sinusoidal curves in the economics textbooks. Look at things on the same scale as that adopted by Arnold Toynbee, and you will see that even after generations – even in some cases after millennia – of success and economic growth, human societies end in failure, and nearly always failure accompanied by the sound of galloping hooves as four horsemen come on the scene.

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An editorial note: Berthold is distressed at hearing his name mispronounced. Modern education, being a thing of shreds (ill-fitting) and patches (artificial fabric), joined together by irregularly shaped lacunae, has left many people unable to pronounce their own name correctly. Berthold has asked me to include the advice to learners that the first part of his family name is properly pronounced ‘Fanshaw’.

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An extract from another e-mail from the Mad Doc, which we offer in case it may be a useful warning to any readers considering holiday plans.

Before the great Asian crash of 1997, one of the delights of Thailand, if you could find a car to hire, was driving between cities, so long as you remembered to fill up with gasoline wherever you found it being sold. Road surfaces were remarkably good, which was largely because there was almost no traffic to show how badly the tarmac was laid You could drive literally a hundred miles and meet maybe just seven or eight other motorised vehicles. The only things to watch out for were sharp bends, which might be concealing a slow-moving buffalo cart in the middle of the road, or very occasionally an elephant. In the city the only real problem was again the sharp bends but this time because the few drivers around operated on the principle (still widely observed today) that if they couldn’t see something coming, then it wasn’t there. The 1997 crash changed all that. The IMF ably following the instructions of the US made the country safe for multinational exploitation, as a condition of providing financial assistance. This was followed by the prime ministerial reign of a canny operator, who from being a humble police colonel quickly became one of the richest men in southeast Asia, following modern commercial principles and helping his compatriots to feel rich either by selling their assets or by borrowing money. (Britain seems to have been rather a slow learner, but under the Tories has been going at it hammer and tongs for some years now.) One result was that most males in the country hocked themselves to the eyeballs, or else sold off parts of the family farm, and bought first a motorcycle and then a pick-up truck, and rushed out onto the public roads, with most of them learning to drive over the next two or three years. Consequently in a city like Chiangmai there has been a phenomenal increase in the number of cars, vans, pick-ups, SUVs, trucks and trucks-with-trailers. There are five or six major double carriageway routes from out in the country into Chiangmai, and seven days a week each of them has three or four kilometres of traffic jam creeping slowly along in three and a half lanes (ie three and a half lanes’ worth of vehicles on three lanes of road, on each side) from 7.30 am much of the day to 6 pm. This has two paradoxical results. First it has slightly reduced the number of serious accidents, an economic activity in which the country far outdoes the notorious French, because it greatly reduces traffic speed. Second, it has produced an even more phenomenal increase, from almost zero, in the number of cyclists, since you have a good chance of evading the worst traffic blockages entirely, by taking little alleyways or other walkable shortcuts, and generally can actually be faster (as well as finding somewhere to park at the other end) if you use a bike so long as you survive the journey. At any red lights now you see not merely motorcyclists (traditionally insane in this country) but also the engineless amateurs inserting their lives into non-existent gaps between the ranks of vehicles, as they edge their way to the front of the pack before – maybe – the light goes green. The effect on the previously staid and sedentary Thai middle-class is uncertain but could be dramatic.

            Another result is that we now lead the world except for China in rates of several kinds of air pollution if measurements are made within half a kilometre of a road. These days, as viewed from the Hangdong Road dawn is seen to be a heavy smoker, her hands not rosy-fingered but yellow-brown. And to all these chemicals we have to add the alien organisms pouring into the Thai atmosphere with the Chinese tourists bringing bacteria hitherto unknown except in remote regions of Inner Mongolia or Yunnan, and the westerners (Russian, American, Australian) similarly bearing viruses developed and nourished in far flung corners of the domains they have stolen from the indigenous inhabitants (viruses which evidently in some cases affect mental or at least political function). We need more and fiercer air pollution to kill all these pests, provided of course that all local inhabitants can be either equipped with truly effective filters and masks, or else genetically modified.

Dr Malory Philipp von Hollenberg

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Observation of the week (from Monty Skew, our political correspondent)

A civilised country (and a civilised union of allegedly independent nations) would support economic development in the interests of improving education, not education so as to support economic development.

 

Private individuals under public order

On behalf of the whole team I apologise to our readers for the late arrival of this posting. As a reward for work done out of office hours over the past year, we took ourselves over to France to celebrate the New Year. Alas, Manos was one of the party.

He joined us some years ago during an early phase of the (still vigorous) Greek crisis, having rowed through the Mediterranean and up through the canals and rivers of France, in a small boat which – by his own account – he had bought in a bargain which involved him parting with his wife. At that time he was monoglot. Now he is unfortunately fluent in English, even when his enunciation is fighting a desperate battle with alcohol, and he proved this by volubly insulting two French policemen he saw questioning a fellow who looked as if he could possibly be one of the refugees from the Middle East. There was no particular reason to suppose he actually was a refugee from anywhere. The questioning in any case seemed to the rest of us to be quite orderly and the suspect (even in Britain these days anyone stopped in the street by a policeman realises that he is a ‘suspect’ until proved otherwise) looked quite relaxed; until, that is, Manos charged in shouting that he too was a migrant and the time was past when the migrants of the world could be treated like cattle by any petty official who wanted to exercise his authority. Manos was entirely mistaken. The time is nothing like past; indeed in France under the current state of emergency you could get the impression it’s just gathering its strength. Despite his weight and his rage for justice, he was no match for the trained skill of the two French operatives, at least not after their eight colleagues who must have been lurking round the corner for some chance just like this piled in. Indeed one got the impression that sort of thing may have been why they joined the ‘security’ forces in the first place. The rest of us only avoided being loaded into the black waggon with Manos by walking on as casually as possible looking in all the other directions, and pretending it was nothing to do with us.

Next morning, discreet enquiries had much the same effect you might have got from an appeal to the East German Stasi to ‘bend the rules a bit this time, wouldn’t you?’, so I rang the Paris Embassy.   There I could only get a mechanical voice claiming that ‘for security reasons the Embassy will be closed for all services until 8th January when it will open, for urgent medical cases only, between 3 and 4.15 pm by prior appointment . In case of other urgent business please leave a recorded message after the tone. This will be attended to at the earliest possible opportunity.’   So then I resorted to (very expensive!) phone calls to some of my more influential English friends, starting with King Charles Street. But by 12.30 having found those efforts as rewarding as most of my attempts to get helpful responses from the help files of computer companies not providing the services they boast of providing, I switched to the press and other media outlets, with only a short break early afternoon when I had a difficult interview with the hotel manager who tried to get me to admit liability for the damage to the hotel when the police came round to search the room where Manos was booked in. Even though the manager had gone up with them, holding the key to the room, they had instead broken the door down, alleging this was necessary since the keyhole might be linked to an explosive device. Apparently under the state of emergency they can search wherever they choose and enter any way they like. They can also manacle and ‘assign to residence’ anyone they find inside (i e place them under house arrest) for up to three months. This has happened to, among others, individuals well known in their communities for their work supporting community relations, and to people as threatening to society as ecological activists. I happened to see our breakers and enterers coming down after their search, evidently in high good humour.   Who, I wondered, would wish to join a police force that behaved like that? (And why? Those doing the recruiting for police forces should make serious efforts to find out.)

Mid-afternoon I finally received a call through the hotel switchboard from the consular service. A young man combined polite formalities with an insulting tone of voice so skilfully that I almost congratulated him. He told me that a French lawyer would accompany me to the place where Manos was held. This went according to plan, but instead of being allowed to take him back to join the rest of us, I was amazed to find him facing a list of accusations as long and as realistic as a fairy tale, from ‘forgery and use of forged documents’ to ‘misuse of social assets’. He was facing them with equanimity knowing they were airy fiction. I, though, was now seriously worried. Back to the cross-Channel telephone calls. But at this point the Ecuadorian cavalry arrived, in other words Isabelita. She was in France because she had learnt that someone had brought out a book on oysters that looked close to her own project (Biochemistry of oyster consumption) not yet completed, so she had come over to meet Catherine Flohic, the author. The idea had been that we would come over on a separate trip to see her later in the month but Karela managed to contact her in Paris and tell her about our problems. Isabelita is one of the brightest people I’ve ever met, and with the social gift I so conspicuously lack, of knowing how to deal with all manner of people in all manner of situations. Also near-native fluency in French. It still took two days to argue Manos out of his cell, though at least he got decent food during that time.

Not all that time was spent in activity. There were plenty of hours for reflecting on Liberté, and on how far one can hope for either of Égalité and Fraternité without the other, and how police states come into being. (For those who have not been following closely current events in France, the President is trying to prove he is not useless by getting the new privileges for police action and other security measures under the state of emergency actually incorporated into the French constitution.) Time also for pondering how far shortages in Égalité and Fraternité are bound to lead to restrictions on, or loss of, Liberté. Perhaps we could learn useful lessons by asking the Rom, including those who were expelled from France, not of course for being Rom because that would have been racism, but only for being unauthorised Bulgarians or Romanians. Time also for reflecting on the fact that in the most recent British elections it was just 36.9% of the voters in a turn-out of only 66.1% of eligible voters who let in a government which has a policy of resolute limits to taxation of the wealthy, and no less resolute restrictions on social assistance for those who, lacking health or wealth or a privileged status, are held not to be contributing to the economic growth of the nation.

(Readers are invited to send their suggestions for the best discussion available of the concept of ‘nation’.)

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Observation of the posting : as a good general rule the intelligence quotient of a television programme is inversely proportional to the regularity and speed of the beat of the muzak which will (regrettably) be played in the background

Late news : As an experiment, the School of Management of Bognor Sophia University (Wales) is to set up a Department Without Portfolio to see if it will find things to do.

Linguistic notes : It is clear that the political word of the year 2015 was ‘hub’. For instance, speaking in Kuala Lumpur last month an Asean minister said that his ‘superhub’ could not by its nature have a physical location since the hubs of which it was the metahub were themselves of different types, but it would be a virtual hub located on the internet.

 Thought for dismay: It is a commonplace of government statements to say that they want to raise the level of education of their subjects (or victims). Note that they do not normally speak of raising levels of intelligence.  When you look around at the sort of governments currently in control of so many countries, you may think this is not a co-incidence