politics


China - pollutionHow the world’s priorities have changed over China: not so long ago the US Congress was earnestly debating China’s human-rights record. Today all anyone cares about is that China’s economic wheels keep turning, so it goes on filling its shelves with our goods. Far from worrying about China’s repressive regime, foreign politicians are mainly concerned that it keep a lid on the discontent caused by widespread official corruption. That’s why the outside world got a graphic glimpse of the rioting recently in Hunan last week. The crackdown on the 20,000 or so demonstrators was incredibly vicious, yet remarkably, a BBC TV reporter was allowed to film it. You can be sure that was no accident. Hu Jintao‘s regime is the most media savvy in China’s history: it wanted to show the world that, fine words about justice aside, it has the situation well under control, even if it means sending in a couple of thousand baton-wielding troops and declaring martial law.

It’s a pity China wasn’t as tough on curbing the terrible price exacted by the steep economic growth. Once sleepy rural towns are now boxed in by factories and power plants belch acrid smoke. Even with a face mask it’s hard to breathe when you go outside. The sky is black – cars always drive with their headlights on; the soil is chemically contaminated (vegetables that grow there are covered with ugly black patches); and people are getting sick from skin infections, breathing disorders and cancers. Drinking water is the biggest worry: 90% of China’s water is now seriously polluted.

Europeans also make things worse by sending China all their supermarket packaging and plastic bags. Britain alone dumps around two million tonnes of waste in China every year. What can’t be recycled is melted down in acid baths, or burned, creating noxious fumes and appalling health problems for the locals.

China - pollution streetHowever, China’s main problem is that most of its growth is fuelled by coal. Within a few months, its emission of greenhouse gases will exceed that of America: in 25 years, if left unchecked, it will be twice that of all developed nations put together. Yet China’s leaders remain reluctant to take any steps to stem it, fearing that to curb growth would be to invite social unrest which is crazy since pollution itself is now a prime cause of public anger. Two years ago, there was rioting when four million people had their water cut off following a chemical spill in the Songhua River. Other such accidents, albeit on a lesser scale, occur every other day, and it’s local politicians and businessmen, putting careers and profits before environmental safety, who are blamed for them.

Chinas leaders used to blame the West for global warming, pointing out China has contributed less than 8% of CO2 emissions since 1850. But now they’ve signalled that they’re ready to engage in international negotiations on global warming. Beijing might well commit itself to binding caps on emissions (thereby robbing the US of its key excuse for not doing likewise). Better still, it aims to raise energy efficiency by 20% in four years – mainly by greater reliance on renewable sources and cut-backs in iron and steel production. This is ambitious as these targets far exceed those set by Western countries. Still, there’s an encouraging precedent. In the Sixties, Tokyo and Osaka were as polluted as China’s cities are now, but thanks to tough policies, Japan is now more energy-efficient than any other country. Let’s hope, for the world’s sake, that its neighbour can pull off the same trick.

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“Approximately 80 % of our air pollution stems from hydrocarbons released by vegetation, so let’s not go overboard in setting and enforcing tough emission standards from man-made sources.”

Reagan, Ronald
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Students inspect the bootsWhat is your plan for Iraq? At every press conference, interview and fund-raising event, the presidential candidates are all asked this same pointless question. And it’s pointless because next to nothing can be done to salvage Iraq.

A planned withdrawal from Iraq should start now. To say longer is really just an embodiment of the Sunk Cost Fallacy where it is argued that the amount of time, effort, or money already invested in a project justifies the investment of yet more time, effort and money in order to complete the project.

The US no longer has the capacity to determine the outcome of that country’s civil war, so to ask candidates how they would fix it is merely to invite them to talk and talk without saying anything. Instead we should be asking President Bush’s would-be successors whether they can do what he cannot: acknowledge failure in Iraq and look beyond it. Free cupcake

Iraq, after all, was meant to be just the starting point of an open-ended global war on terror. Candidates who still find merit in that original cause should explain how we might prevail in such an enterprise in the wake of the Iraq fiasco. Where might we fight next? What will victory look like? Candidates who are sceptical of further military action, meanwhile, should be pressed to describe their alternative plans for dealing with violent Islamic radicalism. Will they isolate it? Subvert it? And by what means?

What’s your plan for Iraq? was the right question back in 2002 and 2003. Too bad nobody thought to ask George W. Bush then.

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The motivation for war is simple. The U.S. government started the war with Iraq in order to make it easy for U.S. corporations to do business in other countries. They intend to use cheap labor in those countries, which will make Americans rich. Michael Moore

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Coca SekColombia’s president Alvaro Uribe has been dancing to America’s tune thanks to an annual injection of $600m in US aid, he has beefed up Colombia’s anti-narcotics police, seized record tons of cocaine and extradited 520 drug traffickers to US jails

Hey, this is all good news right? Erm, well he’s gone and overdone it a bit.

He’s has now decided to focus on coca products made by the country’s indigenous Indians, the sale of which, outside Indian reservations, will now be banned. The main item affected is , a coca-based energy drink that looks like cider and tastes like ginger ale, which has become an alternative to the real thing, aka Coca-Cola among Colombia’s kids.

Coca Sek labelClick on the image to see the logo in more detail – kind of like Coca-Cola’s curvy script right?

It’s obvious what prompted this new measure: pressure from Coca-Cola. No matter that the US giant itself uses coca in the flavouring for its own fizzy drink (alegidly): the Nasa Indian tribe, who make Coca Sek, are still being told that their brew infringes the 1961 treaty banning the distribution of products with the slightest trace of coca. So it is that America’s war on drugs is now played out in the supermarket aisles of Colombia.

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[Capitalism] is not a success. It is not intelligent, it is not beautiful, it is not just, it is not virtuous–and it doesn’t deliver the goods. In short, we dislike it, and we are beginning to despise it. But when we wonder what to put in its place, we are extremely perplexed.

John Maynard Keynes

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Italy plus lovely moneyNo other country besides Italy gives in so easily to blackmail. It readily stumps up huge sums in ransoms or insists that terrorists be handed over to get hostages released. Recently, for example, after Repubblica reporter Daniele Mastrogiacomo was kidnapped by the Taliban, it immediately put pressure on Afghanistan’s President Karzai to secure his release, and readily took Mastrogiacomo back in exchange for five high-ranking Taliban prisoners.

Sure, other countries negotiate too: we have just done so with Iran over the return of our 15 sailors. But we did not strike such a disgraceful bargain. Under Italian law, the families of Italian kidnap victims automatically have their assets frozen to stop them paying ransoms; but what’s the point, when the government will do it for them?

What really sticks is that they got their man out, but did nothing for his driver and interpreter, who were kidnapped with him and later butchered. The Italian government should now pledge to take care financially of the families of the two victims, and decree a minute’s silence in workplaces in their memory.

However, the Italian government should focus on the long-term consequences of their actions if they want to go on being seen as a civilised country that does not buy and sell the right to life.

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Terrorism is tempting with its tremendous possibilities. It offers a mechanical solution, as it were, in hopeless situations. … the principles of terrorism unavoidably rebound to the fatal injury of liberty and revolution. Absolute power corrupts and defeats its partisans no less than its opponents. A people that knows not liberty becomes accustomed to dictatorship: fighting despotism and counter-revolution, terrorism itself becomes their efficient school. Once on the road of terrorism, the State necessarily becomes estranged from the people.

The Bolshevik Myth by Alexander Berkman in Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas (Vol. 1) by Robert Graham, ed. (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 2005) p. 312.

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Healthy economies mean full piggy-banksTony Blair has lost the confidence of the country. What is suspiciously unclear, however, is just how Cameron plans to reconcile the strong government intervention necessary to mitigate climate change with the key Conservative chakras of free enterprise, consumer choice and market liberty.

Cameron has turned green faster than the Incredible Hulk. For the first five years of his political adulthood, he barely mentioned the environment. Notoriously, he even voted against Gordon Brown‘s proposed climate change levy, on the grounds of it being a stealth tax on business. And then, on the November 1 2005, during the final weeks of the Tory leadership election, he suddenly went bright green. He called for an overhaul of public and private life:

“Change our political system and our lifestyles: the effects of climate change are being felt right here, right now”.

Nevertheless, it seems that Camerons bid for the centre ground is paying off. Middle England is no longer embarrassed about voting Conservative. But the modernising message has not penetrated the great cities of the north, hence the reason why Labour is still in power. When Labour became a weak government, from the economy’s point of view, that was great news. All the largest economies now have weak leaders. Bush is in trouble and close election results in Germany and Italy produced governments that are unable to do anything radical. And that’s what is so welcome. Prosperous economics require competent, predictable government, rather than idealists who think they can change the world. It’s no coincidence that Britain’s long boom started soon after John Majors administration was ejected from the ERM, forcing it to become more disciplined and cautious. When Gordon Brown became Chancellor, he too was cautious. It was only as Labour became overconfident that we began to see waste of public money and incompetent administration. Calmer periods of government make it easier for the rest of us to plan. If that’s what weak government means in practice, let’s have more of it.

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Too many choices!Economic libertarians are wedded to choice believing that people should be given free rein to make bad choices as well as good – by smoking, for example, or failing to take out a pension plan. Once they have had time to rationally calibrate the costs and benefits, they will realise that bid choices lead to suffering, and change their behaviour. But this is wishful thinking. Generally, I believe human beings consistently underestimate the future costs of their actions, choosing instant gratification instead. Self control is especially hard in affluent societies, where temptation abounds. Hence the obesity epidemic we are faced with so much cheap, tasty food that it becomes impossible to resist, even when we know it will make us fat. This is why, increasingly, people are looking to the state to help them make better decisions. Smokers have willingly submitted to greater and greater regulation, now consumers want the Government to rein in the junk food industry. Libertarians duly rage against the nanny state, but we increasingly run to it for protection – from ourselves.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the UK where we have a worldwide reputation for poor health, thanks to our well publicised fondness for warm beer, cigarettes and deep fried fish and chips. But according to an extensive survey published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, us Brits are actually in better shape than the Americans. Among US citizens aged 55 or over, the likes of cancer, diabetes and heart disease are almost double those in Britain. Even more galling is the the fact that Americans spend $5,200 per capita for health care every year – whereas the British spend just $2,100.

The question is why as some may be tempted to interpret this study as a vindication of socialised medicine, since Britain provides health care free of charge to all its citizens. But that conclusion is debatable when you look more closely at the data. The study actually shows that the wealthiest and best educated Americans – those with access to the best health care – have rates of disease that are comparable to the poorest Britons. The problem, in other words, is not lack of access to doctors. It may be, however, that Britain’s universal health care system puts more of an emphasis on public health and early detection, whereas the profit-driven US system tends to treat diseases without systematically looking to prevent what causes them. Americans need to figure out what they’re doing wrong, otherwise the human and economic costs of their failing health could burden them for decades.

The answer may lie outside the medical care system altogether. Americans exercise less than us Brits and get more nutrition from heavily processed foods – but even after adjusting for differences in rates of obesity, smoking and alcohol consumption between the two nations, the disparities were still stunning. A plausible culprit is different attitudes towards work in our two cultures. The British are far less obsessed with their careers, reserving much more of their time for leisure, their friends at the pub, and family. Americans work harder and longer and take greater risks in switching jobs and starting companies. The benefit of such a vigorous culture is obvious: a more dynamic economy. But the price is relentless, grinding stress means Americans are literally be working themselves to death.

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Big brother is watchingWhen historians look back on New Labour they may conclude that its worst sin was not mendacity or incompetence, but the way it destroyed privacy in this country. We are the most spied-upon society in Europe, with more CCTV cameras (an estimated 4.2 million ) than the rest of the EU combined. We also have the world’s biggest DNA database, containing some 3.6 million profiles – about one in 20 of the population – with 40,000 more being added every month. On top of this, the Government plans to introduce a biometric ID card system linked to a national identity register ; to computerise our medical records and make them available to the police and security services; and to introduce more intrusive questions into the next census about income and sexuality.We are on a dangerous path. The sciences of biometrics , intelligent photography and data processing have all come together at great speed and now have a kind of momentum of their own. The public has gone along with this trend, regarding it as a harmless factor of modern life. But this complacency is misguided. A surveillance society is one that necessarily reduces us all from citizens to subjects. The idea that the innocent have nothing to fear rests on the assumption that official agencies won’t make mistakes. All our data – DNA samples revealing susceptibility to illness; records of shopping habits; bank details – can be exploited by businesses or criminals. Data is a valuable commodity. It should be ours to give away to those we trust, not the state’s to requisition when it sees fit. It’s high time Parliament checked New Labour’s controlling instincts.

In the meantime, the only recourse left to the public is subtle civil disobedience. There’s no need to trash CCTV cameras; we just need to all agree to lie. The next time you are asked for superfluous, intrusive information, invent any old crud . Put down on the ridiculous nationalities form that you come from Rapa Nui; when the census arrives say you are Genderqueer and worship Aquarian Concepts Community Divine New Order Government. Only by swamping them with false information can we confound the data collectors.

You only have to compare the UK to the USA. Americans were up in arms over the White House’s secret wiretapping programme. But if you think that failing to get court warrants to monitor the phone calls of people suspected of contact with al-Qa’edais bad, you should see what goes on in here in the UK. Wire-tapping is far more common and less supervised on this side of the Atlantic -especially in Britain. Police in the UK conduct tens of thousands of wiretaps each year, for which they only need the approval of the home secretary; judges have nothing to do with it. The paradox is that when it comes to consumer information, we guard our privacy much more fiercely than Americans do. While we mostly regard the state as benevolent – unlike Americans, who are ever obsessively vigilant of governmental incursions on individual rights – we are terrified about greedy corporations misusing our personal details. This is despite the fact that European companies can’t legally share most consumer information and cases of identity theft are much less common than in the US. So, feel free to hand over your credit card number willy-nilly, just be careful what you say on the phone.

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