Archives for category: EU

My best beloved reads the Economist every week, and occasionally I’ll read an article or two as well. She’s noted to me that periodicals like the Economist, the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal are written for people with an interest in the proliferation of money. As such they’re (historically) neither right-wing nor left-wing. Save for the elephant in the room, of course.

I was rereading a column from last June from the Economist’s ‘Bartleby Blog’. On the web site, this blog is subtitled ‘Thoughts on management and the world of work, in the spirit of the “scrivener” of Herman Melville’s 1853 novel’. This alone is problematic for a number of reasons:

  • Bartleby the Scrivener is a short story, not a novel.
  • The titular character of Bartleby the Scrivener would rather starve than work. His catch phrase is ‘I would prefer not to.’ He utters this phrase whenever his boss or others ask him to do something.
  • It seems that whoever named the blog took note of Bartleby’s initial burst of hard work, not the fact that by the end of the story, he’s been evicted, arrested, and starves in the Tombs, Manhattan’s municipal jail.

With all of this in mind, I point you to the June 29th edition of the blog in which the writer discusses the differences between American and European working hours and vacation habits.

First point: In 1979, the average worker in the US and Europe put in about 38.2 hours per week. Later measurements diverge. By 2000, the US worker was putting in 39.4 hours. This fell to 38.6 hours in 2016.

Second point: European and US workers differ in the amount of holiday they take. Rather than looking at the number of days off each culture has, the blogger points out that over the course of a year, Americans average 34 hours per week, the French 28 hours and the Germans 26.

Third point: The wealthy in the US work longer hours, but still tend to work in daylight as opposed to cleaners and food delivery people who mostly work at night.

Why the differences? Taxation? Possibly. But the key point is made in the passive voice: ‘Another potential explanation is that a decline in trade union membership has weakened American workers’ bargaining power. Except that unionization rates in France and America are not far apart.’

Let’s take a look at that for a moment: What happened to the unions in the US shortly after the 1979 calculation? I’d point to Ronald Reagan’s firing of almost the entire membership of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization rather than bargaining in good faith, given that he had supported the union during his campaign. This act alone signaled the death knell for unions in the United States.

The blogger distinguishes between unionization and policy. What isn’t spoken is how a well unionized country affects policy. Employers in underunionized countries also affect policy. Far more now than they used to. In the US, legislators financed by large employers have succeeded in gutting union power in a variety of areas. And they also succeed in breaking labor laws that protect the rights to unionize. So the question of who shapes policy goes unanswered.

I can’t speak for unionization rates in France, but labor in general speaks louder in Western Europe. Mandated holiday time of at least 20 days per year as a matter of national policy in most EU countries makes a big difference in that average number of hours worked.

Continuing through the blog, we get an assertion that ‘champions of workers’ rights have focused on raising the minimum wage (so far to little avail at the federal level)’. Again, begging the question as to WHY these efforts fail at the federal level. Might it have something to do with who is financing those who set the policy? I have a feeling that it might.

The writer then discusses the longer hours worked by the higher paid than the lower paid in the US. And this class of people discussed: cleaners and food delivery workers? Take a wild guess as to the areas of employment that are the least stable from the employee perspective? And which have unionization efforts stymied by both legal and illegal measures almost before such efforts have begun? Yeah, that would be those classes. It’s not that unionization rates have dropped simply through attrition or that the US minimum wage has stagnated through some kind of Adam Smithian invisible hand of the market. Those with money have made it higher to increase either one to the point of impossibility.

I’m working up a series of entries around the concept of living compassionately. This is not a new idea, and I’m willing to accept that I’m not the best qualified to preach it, but (in the words of someone better qualified): if not me, who?

Nicked wholesale from Wikipedia:

Radical compassion is a term coined by the philosopher Khen Lampert, in 2003. His theory of radical compassion appeared in Traditions of Compassion: from Religious Duty to Social-Activism (2006). Lampert identifies compassion as a special case of empathy, directed towards the “other’s” distress. Radical compassion is a specific type of general compassion, which includes the inner imperative to change reality in order to alleviate the pain of others. This state of mind, according to Lampert’s theory, is universal, and stands at the root of the historical cry for social change.

“I have noted that compassion, especially in its radical form, manifests itself as an impulse. This manifestation stands in stark opposition to the underlying premises of the Darwinist theories, which regard the survival instinct as determining human behavior, as well to the Freudian logic of the Pleasure Principle, which refutes any supposedly natural tendency on the part of human beings to act against their own interests and proposes viewing such an inclination as the product of cultural conditioning…”

While I’m not sure how much I agree with Lampert’s reduction of both Freud and Darwin, I agree with the basic premise: that there is an imperative to alleviate the pain of others. If I’m reading the summaries correctly, Traditions of Compassion looks at Christian, Buddhist, and modern secular traditions of so-called compassion and finds all of them wanting. The key to Lampert’s philosophy seems to be that the heart of the social contract is the need (and compulsion) to act in the interests of those in pain, distress, or otherwise at a disadvantage.

I started to formulate my own idea of radical compassion while watching the run-up to the recent parliamentary elections in the UK. Some of my friends who are able to vote there discussed ‘holding their noses’ and voting conservative for a variety of reasons, the main one being that they didn’t find that the Labour leader could realistically bring the UK out of its current crisis. I don’t fault this reasoning, but it seems to me myopic. The idea of ‘getting Brexit done’ doesn’t contain a plan, for example, for securing the food supply, keeping the peace in Ireland, or maintaining a functioning and affordable health service in light of how many medications and members of staff come from outside of the UK.

One aspect of this compassionate behavior is voting compassionately. My friend RC was accused of treason when campaigning for her preferred not-conservative candidate in this election. Treason for advocating for participating in the democratic process. (The shades of pre-fascist Europe in this exchange don’t escape me.) It won’t escape the reader’s notice that I’m socially liberal in my philosophy, and that when I talk about compassionate voting, my perspective is to vote for candidates who advocate for reducing suffering in whatever form.

My friends who advocated for the conservative candidates may very well project that there is greater long-term good to come out of what those candidates offer and promise and what their track records show they might get done.

I would argue that hunger and need shouldn’t have to wait for the undefined solution of this human-engineered crisis. Yes, I’m shouting at the barn door long after the horses have bolted.

To use another hackneyed metaphor, I know that expecting compassion from politicians is tilting at windmills, and that it’s probably no longer possible for voters to hold their representatives responsible for anything, but I’ll vote for the alleviation of pain rather than its aggravation every time.

There’s a further argument that voting this way can be seen as a kind of enlightened self interest. If we vote for greater access to medicine, we’re voting for a healthier population. (Also true for voting not to make life difficult for the large percentage of National Health Service medical staff who are from outside the UK.) Voting in favour of better primary schools sufficiently staffed with better-paid and -supported teachers so that your country’s children don’t grow up undereducated and resentful of the education system can also be seen as enlightened self interest. If that works for you, run with it, but I would suggest also doing so out of compassion for all the others concerned.

In William Gibson’s novel The Peripheral, we meet a class of people, the klept, who have more money than they could ever use and play games with large swaths of humanity, often to the death. Gibson didn’t have to reach far for models; examples of the kleptocracy are all around us. The damage they do is not quite at the scale of Gibson’s klept only because Gibson imagines hundreds or thousands of timelines they can use for their playgrounds. (The chapter entitled Parliament of Birds (pdf) gives a good idea of what the klept are about.)
I’ve been considering writing about our modern klept for several weeks now and just when I think there’s nothing worse that could happen, I only have to consider the headlines for a moment. The most public members of the Klept, or maybe just their public representatives, are (not surprisingly) Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, and (new member!) Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro. When I thought I might be able to let this idea go, go on to writing something else, I saw this BBC headline: US and Brazil agree to Amazon development.
The world is quite literally on fire from Alaska to Siberia to Australia to, indeed, the Amazon. Instead of finding ways to protect these places for future generations, these so-called leaders are letting them burn so that the land can be exploited for oil and agribusiness. Bolsonaro’s very clever – if he doesn’t do anything about the fires, he solves one issue that he’s publicly declared a problem: the native populations of the Amazon basin. If they no longer have a forest in which to live, they’re no longer in need of any kind of protection. The other advantage I’ve read about is that he can then allow monoculture farming of in-demand commodities such as soybeans. (This becomes attractive given how Trump has buggered up the Chinese market for American soybeans. Trump’s trade war with China is one that probably could use some delving but it makes little sense to me as yet.)
And if neighboring Venezuela is anything to go by, there’s probably oil to be drilled as well. (Note that the vast majority of Brazil’s untapped oil holding is found in a region off the coast of Rio de Janeiro, rather far from Venezuela.

Man looking right forking dollars into his mouth while much smaller man has pennies to eat. Caption: When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men in a society, over the course of time they create for themselves a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that glorifies it. Frederic Bastiat, French economist.

I know that equating fat and eating with greed is problematic, but we’re dealing with the oversized share of wealth consumed by the few at the expense of the many. I think this illustration addresses that pretty well.

And if we let Alaska burn, it may be easier for the oil companies to get into ANWAR (Arctic National Wildlife Refuge – a protected area that contains some desirable oil reserves). At the moment there are fires throughout central Alaska, but not in the northeast corner where ANWAR is located. Difficult to access Siberian reserves are also going to be easier to get at once the place burns. (Yes, I’m being terribly reductive. The fact that these fires are starting because of record high temperatures caused is not lost on anyone concerned, though.)
This isn’t exactly the klept in a nutshell. But the high-stakes games being played with the lives of large numbers of inconveniently located people form the heart of what the ultra-rich and the world leaders who front for them are about (and have always been about).
The thing with Johnson and the mess that Parliament is trying to clean up is that Johnson’s a really minor member of the klept. Cursory web searches suggest that his net worth is about two million pounds. More than I’ll ever see in a personal bank account (unless things go really tits up, Zimbabwe style), but in the grand scheme of the very wealthy, not very much. So why is he pushing for no-deal Brexit so hard? The short answer is that the klept in the UK stand to lose a lot of money when the new EU Anti-Tax Avoidance Directive goes into effect next year. Pretty much all of the large-scale folks who have pushed Brexit stand to lose a lot of money. Johnson, it seems, is mostly just a front for those folks.
There’s more to address regarding the American klept, including folks like Mitch McConnell, but it’s going to have to wait.

MP Ben Bradley wants to ‘fix Tory image problem’ according to a massively disingenuous BBC Newsbeat article. According to the young conservative MP for Mansfield, the Tories’ problem is that they’re perceived by the young as being old, grey, and boring. He wants to appeal to ‘Young people, people from ethnic minorities who just don’t vote for us’. He’s pushing for conservatives from popular culture to get the message out. The article goes on to say that ‘any improvement in image would have to be backed up by policy.’income_inequality

You can see the problem here, right? Tory policies that appeal to young voters are pretty thin on the ground. The article cites ‘The Conservatives cut housing benefits for 18 to 21-year-olds, introduced a lower minimum wage for under-25s and is the only major party against lowering the voting age to 16.’ Well, there’s a start. What else?

How about hard Brexit? Voters under 50 voted overwhelming to remain in the EU. (18-24s did so by a 3-1 margin; 56% of 25-49s voted remain.) All current evidence points to the Tories staying on that very unpopular highway despite all the signs advising them to turn off.

Brexit, like the recent US tax plan, is a boondoggle for the already very wealthy. The reason the government is pushing it so hard, despite the referendum having been clearly an advisory measure (see the first paragraph here, is because there’s so much money to be made getting Britain out from under EU regulatory regimes. It’s not as though the boot is onerous, just that it’s portrayed as such by whiny-ass bitches like Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch’s media empire was massively pro-Brexit. Why? When Anthony Hilton of the Evening Standard asked Rupert Murdoch why he was so opposed to the European Union, he replied, ‘That’s easy. When I go into Downing Street they do what I say; when I go to Brussels they take no notice.’

That’s several other articles that have already been written by folks better at this than I am. Laurie Penny, for example.

What does this have to do with what young people want? Young people want a government that acts in the interests of all citizens and does so with transparency. Simple.

What else do young people want? They want for the parties in power to act with resolve against keeping them in poverty. A fully functioning and fully funded NHS and reasonable/zero tuition fees are absolutely at the heart of this.

Reasonable secondary education tuition fees. You know, the ability to leave college not ass-deep in debt. Anywhere in the Tory manifesto? Of course not. If every second 23 year old already owes one of the banks nearly 30,000 pounds, the banks are happy. (Personal history: Tuition fees were introduced in the California public college/university system by Ronald Reagan when he was governor. Once the fee was introduced, it only went up. The CSU system’s tuition increased about 300% in the four years I attended (1985-1989) and is now almost USD 6000 per year. The UC system is over USD 12000 per year.

However, when the banks are happy, Tory campaigns are funded. One can’t expect the current government to rescind that.

And the NHS? Chronically underfunded under the Tories for almost seven years. Setting the NHS up for failure seems to be the Conservative party’s national sport. And they’re winning. They set up metrics like getting some percentage of A&E patients seen in under four hours that they then don’t fund the service to meet. And the papers all bemoan how poorly the NHS is doing. The rest of the world sees in this an obvious ploy. Set the NHS up to fail and then sell it off to the lowest bidder. Worked out beautifully for the Royal Mail as well, but the Royal Mail is only tangentially related to the real world health of its users.

What else? Safe housing estates. Because young people don’t just think only about themselves (all the stupid cracks about Millennials aside), they want for the people amongst us with the least to at least be safe in their own flats. You’d think that’d be a no-brainer, especially after the Grenfell tragedy. Nope, we’re not going to do anything to require property owners to make sure they’re buildings aren’t twenty-story fire traps. Thanks for asking.

Other things? How about a rail system that doesn’t gouge the young commuter (who may no longer be able afford to live near the city they work in) out of a large chunk of their pay packet. Well, nationalization isn’t going to happen, but rail networks that work for commuters and not shareholders? Too much to ask. I suppose the manifesto’s commitment to putting 40 billion pounds into improving Britain’s transport over the next decade is nothing to sneeze at, though it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the rail companies’ revenue. In 2016 alone, one parent of Govia Thameslink (operator of Gatwick Express, amongst other services) saw revenues of 3.4 billion. And because of privatization, Govia Thameslink is only one of about 20 different rail operators in the UK.

So, to recap: The way to appeal to the young is to champion and implement policies that affect them and the people they see around them positively rather than negatively. It’s quite simple, but the Tories know who butters their crumpets, and it’s not the youth of Britain.

Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith, set in Victorian England, tells of an illiterate girl, raised with an Oliver Twist-like band of criminals, who is hired out as a maid to an orphaned Japanese heiress in the care of her uncle. There are some truly Dickensian plot twists including an involuntary commission to a madhouse. Central to the plot is the love that develops between the young thief (Sue) and the young lady (Maud).

Chan Wook-Park’s Handmaiden is a Korean adaptation set in World War II-era occupied Korea. While there are obviously some dynamics between the Korean and the Japanese characters that might be lost on a Western audience, there are only a few indications of the period. Japanese soldiers on a ferry, for example. A note at the beginning of the film lets us know that subtitles in white indicate Korean, while subtitles in yellow indicate Japanese. That said, the film mostly takes place on a wooded country estate. (Occasional music cues indicate a debt the filmmakers feel they owe to Downton Abbey.)

Arranged in three parts, the first details the story from the perspective of the thief (Sook-Hee). She arrives, plays her part, which is to make the heiress (Lady Hideko) fall in love with he Fagin character (Count Fujiwara – a Korean who can play a convincing Japanese aristocrat) so that he can have her committed. It concludes with the three going off to celebrate the marriage and the honeymoon. Hideko’s role is to play a somewhat head-sick ingenue.

The second part goes back earlier in the story to when Fujiwara conspires with Hideko’s uncle (Kouzuki) and guardian to take the girl away so that her inheritance will devolve back to the uncle. Kouzuki, we learn, is a collector of pornography. Lady Hideko has been trained from a young age to give dramatic readings of this material to selected guests. She’s not the naïf we thought we’d met in part one. These readings are some of the most intense scenes in film. With everyone in the room fully dressed, they’re more sensual than the actual sex that the film portrays.

In the third we learn of the double-cross planned by Hideko and Fujiwara. I don’t want to give anything away to folks who’ve neither read the novel nor seen the movie, but the film gives very little time to the madhouse sequence which was one of the more unexpectedly harrowing pieces of writing I’d ever come across. The fact that Sook-Hee is illiterate makes for some amusing moments early in the movie, but these moments are used to contrast only Hideko’s dramatic readings. The contrast is far more disturbing and used to much greater effect in the novel.

Kouzuki and Fujiwara both receive an interesting (and somewhat horrific) comeuppance.

I’ve become rather prudish in my old age and found some of the sex rather gratuitous. Beautiful, but distracting from the power of the rest of the film. I knock off a star for the combination of that and the missed opportunity of the madhouse. Otherwise, Handmaiden is beautiful, intriguing, and very well crafted.