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Feb 042017

I could choose to criticise Trump’s stand in immigration from certain countries based on the rights and wrongs of it, because it’s certainly wrong. But firstly there has been plenty written and said about that aspect of it, and secondly those who don’t see how wrong it is are not likely to change.

But even those who do not see how wrong it is may well be able to see just how stupid this move is.

Just to remind ourselves, Trump has temporarily blocked all travel into the USA by anyone holding a passport issued by seven countries which were previously subject to heightened visa requirements. And for good reasons – the relevant countries have more than their fair share of terrorist activity – and it is more than reasonable to check on immigrants to verify that they are not known terrorists.

The first “own goal” is that the new restrictions blocks many people from travelling to the USA who have made their homes there including famous people like Mo Farah (although the ban may not apply to him). How much safer is the US by blocking Mo from entering the USA and going home?  Or all the others in his position?

And let’s be frank – there’s something less than honourable about issuing a visa allowing someone to travel, and then preventing them from travelling. There are people who have planned the holiday of a lifetime and arranged to visit Disneyworld or Disneyland, and all of a sudden they are prevented from travelling.

Now you could argue that if this action decreases the risk to US citizens it is worth taking. But even if it does significantly reduce the risk, I would argue that it is better to accept the increased risk to do the right thing. And in general if you do not accept a slightly increased risk to do the right thing, you are a morally bankrupt person.

But does this decrease the risk to US citizens? To assess that we need to assess how great is the risk of terrorist attacks to the USA, and specifically terrorist attacks from those seven countries.

In fact the risk attributed to terrorism is vastly overrated. Going through the Wikipedia list of terrorist incidents, I get a total of 5 incidents causing the deaths of 50 people (the perpetrators excluded), which includes the Pulse nightclub shooting. If you go back to 2015, the figures are 4 incidents and 23 deaths, and one of the incidents was a christian terrorist.

Working through a similar list of mass shootings in 2016, I get a total of 14 incidents causing the deaths of 56 individuals.

Which is basically saying that you’re about as likely to walk into a terrorist incident as into a mass shooting, and both are really, really unlikely. That doesn’t help much if you are caught up in such an incident, so taking reasonable and proportionate action to decrease that risk is worthwhile.

And targeting refugees fits into the disproportional category; of those 5 incidents in 2016, only one was perpetrated by a refugee (and nobody died).

And now onto the final bit of stupidity: Firing your legal adviser for telling you an executive order is illegal when it is being found so over and over again makes you look more than a bit foolish.  Particularly when you could accomplish almost as much (although in reality more) by simply stopping new visas being issued; especially when the decreased risk from terrorism is marginal at best.

Nov 112016

So Trump has been elected as the next president of the USA.

Now setting aside my disbelief for a moment (really? He actually won?), let’s look at some of the reasons why he may have won, and why the poll takers got it wrong.

First of all, the polls were not that far out – whilst they got the winner wrong, they did predict that it would be close. And it was close – Clinton got 47.7% of the popular vote whereas Trump got 47.3%. Yes, Clinton actually won the popular vote, but the US electoral system does not work quite so well when the result is so close. But not bad for a 200-year old system, but perhaps it is time for a long and careful review of the process in the light of modern communications.

In addition, there is also the embarrassment factor – if you had decided to vote for Trump, would you really admit it publicly? On a more serious note, when elections are particularly acrimonious, there is a good chance that a significant amount of the electorate will lie (or just keep quiet) about their choice when asked by pollsters.

Enough about pollsters though, how did he win? Of course everyone wants one simple answer to that question, and there isn’t one. There are many factors as to why he won, and each contributes a little.

The first thing to remember is that there are many stupid people in any population. Nothing wrong with being stupid; some of my best friends are stupid (that didn’t come out quite right!). Really! And it is a fact of life that there are many stupid people – it’s how intelligence tests work. You measure everyone’s intelligence, and those who are below average are stupid, and those who are above average are bright.

Besides, Trump won didn’t he? QED.

And stupid people are easily conned by anyone who tells them what they want to hear no matter how fantastical it might be. And Trump has been telling them what they want to hear – abortion is wrong, he can restore manufacturing jobs (presumably by overturning the laws of economics), making America great again (that one always goes down well, even if America is already great), that climate change is not man-made, etc.

Every time that he pushed one of those buttons, and pandered to every wing-nut grouping out there, he gained more supporters. He either didn’t care or didn’t know that he came across as a cretinous fool, as long as he got some votes.

The second big factor was that although Trump was nominated by the Republican party, he was the closest thing to an anti-establishment candidate of the two major parties (I’ll come to the other parties shortly). Of course he isn’t really not part of the establishment being a billionaire property developer, but he hasn’t previously held public office. And anti-establishment is very popular right now. Given that Clinton was very definitely old political establishment, this could very well be the most significant reason.

And of course there is the economy. Like the rest of the world, the US has just been through a huge recession where many lost their jobs or even their homes. And any ruling party suffers in the wake of a recession. Whether or not the Democrats were to blame, they were going to get blamed by the voters – or at least enough of them to make a bit of a difference.

Next there is of course the poor old sane Republican who has always voted for their party. This time around, they had a buffoon to vote for and although some couldn’t face voting for Trump, a good number couldn’t see any other options.

The reason that some people are blaming are the “other” candidates. Despite the media coverage implying that there are only two candidates, there were in fact nearly 30. If all those who voted for one of the others, had voted for Clinton instead, it might have made a difference, but it seems a touch unlikely that they would have all voted for her. Best guess? They would have divided more or less evenly just like everyone else did.

Having said that, it would be nice if the US had a transferable vote system whereby you could vote for (say) the Green Party, but have your vote go towards another if the Green party didn’t win.

I’m not going to bother mentioning those who couldn’t be bothered to vote. They didn’t vote so they don’t count.

So how about the reaction to Trump’s victory?

It’s almost as bizarre as the lead up to the election: When you’re in a room the morning the results came out, and the two embarrassed Americans both apologise for the US having voted in Trump, you know there’s something odd going on. The reaction has been extreme – not just the usual moaning about having an idiot in charge for four years, but protests, riots, and even a group in California that wants to declare independence. It is sort of understandable (after all, it’s Trump!), but the division in the US today may be almost as damaging as the idiocies that Trump will enact.

On the subject of which, Trump himself probably can’t remember all the rubbish he has promised all over the campaign trail. Of course there are those who will remind him of things he has promised, and probably a lot more besides. But how much damage will he actually do?

The worst case scenario (and there’s more than one) is that he brings about some sort of theocratic form of government (he certainly has supporters who would like to see this), and launches nuclear weapons (Trump with his hand on the launch button? Shudder!).

This is not that likely – there are too many obstacles in the way, including the constitution. And there is just the slightest hint that Trump might not be quite that bad.

His first reaction to the protests was typical paranoia – blaming them on paid activists. But his second reaction was quite sympathetic saying he was pleased that the protesters loved their country so much. Trump probably likes being popular, and there’s one obvious thing to do with a president like that – when he proposes some idiocy, protest. Don’t protest about Trump (however tempting it is); protest about his bad policies.

Of course I might be overly optimistic.


Oct 302016

Of course it isn’t; it’s England (I’m English).

It’s all very patriotic to claim your country is the greatest on earth, but it also indicates an immense level of smug complacency. If you live in the greatest country on earth there is no reason to look at your country and see what to do better.

Some questions to ask yourself about your country :-

  1. Where does your country fit in the list of infant mortality?
  2. How free is your country according to the Press Freedom Index?
  3. What ranking does your country get in the list of life expectancy?
  4. How evenly is wealth distributed?

Now you might not agree with my list of how well a country is doing (and mine isn’t necessarily the same as the one above), and I may well disagree with your list vehemently. But that is beside the point – choose your list of what you think is important in a country, assess your country’s level, and then decide if your country is the greatest, or whether it could do better.


Jul 172016

As seen from afar, the USA seems to be having a problem with racial tensions – police shootings, protests, “Black Lives Matter“, etc., and racial inequality such as found at Facebook. Nobody with any sense doubts that there is racism in the USA – everywhere there are bone-headed bigots worrying about the colour of the dead stuff that keeps the squishy bits on the inside.

But we may be too quick to assume that it is simply racism; many of the symptoms could well be caused by wealth inequality and relative poverty.

The wealthy (and their children) are more like to succeed because of a number of factors :-

  1. They are more able to afford private education – either to supplement state education or to replace it with presumably higher quality private education.
  2. They are more able to afford higher education; even though it is possible for those who cannot afford it to get loans to pay for higher education in the USA, this will leave those in debt at a disadvantage.
  3. Social networks (the “old boy network”) that the wealthy have access to includes greater opportunities at internships at organisations that give their children greater opportunities.
  4. And internships themselves seem designed to favour the children of the wealthy – unpaid work in the hope of getting a better job at the end of it is something that is only a suitable option if you already have money to live on.

There are those who point at people from relatively poor backgrounds who have “made it”, and there’s certainly no doubt that exceptional people can succeed whatever their background. But most of us are not exceptional.

Relative poverty and lack of opportunity can easily lead to frustration with the system, and amongst the criminally inclined a tendency to resort to crime – those with more wealth or more opportunities will not resort to crime to the same extent.

So does the USA have a racism problem or a wealth inequality problem? I’m not sure what the answer is, but I would not be at all surprised if the answer is both.

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Apr 052016

During a recently on-line rant about anti-abortion terrorists, I happened to trip over some statistics on the rate of mortality during childbirth (the “Maternity Mortality Rate”) from the WHO. And being the kind of person that statistics interest, I spent some time looking into them; indeed I got so interested I transcribed some of the raw figures to generate a pretty graph :-


This obviously excludes many countries – what we could call the developing countries. The countries included (which you’ll have to peer closely in order to see – sorry about that) are all rich. At least relatively speaking.

Just look at the USA! Down with the also-rans amongst what could be called the relatively dysfunctional countries at the fringes of being considered “developed”. Now you could argue that there is something special about the reason why the USA doesn’t have a single-digit MMR like the overwhelming majority of developed countries. I can think of a few possibilities myself :-

  1. Perhaps the USA is the only country in the world to tell the truth about it’s actual MMR and all the other countries are lying. Perhaps. I am not going to argue there isn’t a bit of shady practices going on with the figures in some cases, but these figures are produced by statisticians and as an overall group statisticians don’t like lying about numbers. Yes there is the old saw about “lies, dammed lies, and statistics”, but the source of that distrust is the twisting that politicians apply to statistics to support their lies.
  2. Perhaps the USA didn’t read the instructions from the WHO properly about what kind of deaths to include in their returns and they’re including deaths that other countries wouldn’t include. But whilst I’ve not read the instructions from the WHO about this, I have read other instructions on statistics and they usually go into excruciating detail about what should and should not be included. It’s possible that the USA handed this little job over to a complete dumb-arse, but it doesn’t seem very likely.
  3. The WHO is anti-American and decided to inflate the figures. This is just laughable – the WHO isn’t going to risk getting called out by doing something so obvious even if it really was anti-American.

Sometimes the most obvious reason is the real reason – and here the most obvious reason is that the US health care system sucks.

There is additional evidence to show that – the WHO figures cover years other that 2013, and the US figures are consistently bad and getting worse.

But how can this be? The USA is one of the wealthiest countries in the world that spends a ridiculous percentage of it’s annual GDP on health care. It also produces many healthcare innovations and undoubtedly has improved maternal care at some point with some new technique. The really rather obvious (although it really needs to be tested) is that healthcare in the USA is divided into three.

There are those who have full insurance, and this group probably gets pretty good healthcare.

There are those who are covered by government schemes and this group probably gets reasonable healthcare.

And there are those who fall between the cracks – they’re not covered for various reasons – and their care is abysmal and probably limited to emergency care only. Which can sometimes be too late.

But when you come down to it, if you are pregnant it may be worth avoiding the USA until you’ve given birth. And if you’re already in the USA, it may be worth thinking about a long break somewhere where they have a healthcare system that doesn’t suck.

Feb 222013

There has been a lot of discussion on how top maths students in schools in the UK, don’t keep up with students in schools in Asia. Funnily enough the difference is much smaller for British Asian kids. Which is an interesting thing given that people are concentrating on what the schools should be doing.

Now it’s not wrong to say that schools could do with improvement; no matter how well the school system is doing, it could always do with improvement. In particular for this particular report, looking at the top performers in a class is worth doing – it is natural, but unfortunate that the top performers in a class are often left just to get on with it. They are after all performing well enough even if they could do better if pushed.

But as can be seen from the performance of British Asians, it’s more than just the schools. Things may well have changed since I was at school, but back then there was this weird cultural thing.

Those of us who were seen as being good at maths were always thought of as a little odd — geeks, nerds, swots, and the like. Of course if you were good at other subjects you got it too, but it wasn’t as bad as being good at maths. Not really as bad as genuine bullying, but it generates an atmosphere where it’s ok not to try too hard at maths.

Does this still go on? If so, it would explain these results.

Dec 112011

David Cameron has officially put the UK into the slow-lane of Europe with the other 26 countries all in the fast lane – including not just the 17 members of the Eurozone, but also those other countries that do not use the Euro. The excuse for doing so is to protect the banking industry – specifically the City of London from a transaction tax.

There are of course the Euro-sceptics whose mindset is stuck in the 19th century who are celebrating and suggesting that we should go further and have a referendum on leaving the EU and ‘going it alone’. Fortunately even the majority of Tories (whose instincts lie in that direction) realise this is a step too far and realise that whatever minor annoyances there are, the membership of Europe is a good thing for us.

To exaggerate the scale of things somewhat, Britain is a country playing in the playground of 900-kilo behemoths – China, the USA, and right next door to us (and we’re effectively part of it … sometimes) the giant of Europe. And it is a giant, although people often underestimate the power of Europe – all those funny Europeans, surely they can’t add up to much can they ? Actually they do – the GDP of the European Union as a whole is larger than any country in the world including the USA and China; admittedly only marginally larger than the GDP of the USA (a trifling 2 trillion dollars larger). This is because we usually rank countries in order of GDP, but miss larger blocks.

It is essentially an “accident” of history that Europe has remained a grouping of 26 independent countries whereas China became a huge land empire, and the USA became a federal union of “nation states”. The accident is of course a complex series of events throughout European history that is beyond the scope of this blog entry!

This could all be an example of short-term thinking – whilst staying out may protect the financial industry (although it is interesting to note that the Financial Times wasn’t entirely positive about this), it may well harm Britain’s prospects in the longer term. And increased regulation and taxation of the banking industry may be what the leaders of banking oppose, but it could well be that people in the UK actually would quite agree with it.

By staying out, we will have less influence over the core of Europe with less say on how Europe progresses. Whilst some people may welcome this, it does seem unwise to risk losing any amount of influence over what is our largest trading partner. And losing any influence with an organisation to which we belong seems unwise.

For some strange reason – perhaps because we seem to like bad news better than good news – the news about the European Union always seems to be bad rather than good. Some of this is merely down to how it is presented – we always hear about draconian regulation of business from Europe, but rarely stop to think that perhaps the regulation was called for by consumers because of abuses by businesses (such as international roaming charges by mobile phone operators), or that the European regulation merely harmonises regulation across Europe – would that business rather have 26 sets of regulations to work with, or 1 ?

There is also a bizarre myth that the European Union is less democratic than the national governments. That all EU power is controlled by unelected European Commissioners. That is a myth put about by politicians who are in danger of losing their cushy jobs if the people eventually device that with the EU parliament in place, there is no more need for expensive national parliaments. In fact, it is entirely possible that the EU is more democratic than national governments.

We often take the earlier accomplishments of the EU for granted – the ability to travel across Europe without visas at every turn. Who has not sailed through the fast lane at airports pitying those from outside the EU who are stuck in the slow lane ? And what about peace across Europe ?

Nov 192011

The interesting thing about what has been happening in Syria over the last few months is that people are just about beginning to ask why the West (as in the UK, France, USA, Germany, etc) are not taking the lead in doing something about Syria. There seems to be an assumption that we only did something about Libya, because it was easy and somehow in our interests to do so (i.e. “oil”).

Well perhaps, although Libyan oil reserves are hardly big enough to risk that much over.

But there are plenty of other reasons why the West isn’t taking the initiative over the Syrian situation.

First, on several occasions those opposing the current Syrian regime have made it clear that they do not want foreign intervention. So intervention could risk making the situation worse.

Secondly if you accept that there would be no Libyan-style intervention, you are pretty much limited to applying for and imposing sanctions of some kind. And the West has been doing that for some time – the EU has been imposing increasingly draconian sanctions since at least May this year, and the US has been imposing sanctions for far longer although in their case this has little to do with support for democratisation and more to do with punishing Syrians for having a government that supports Hezbollah. Yet despite all the talk, the Arab League has yet to impose sanctions. So who is taking the lead here ?

Lastly, it is all very well expecting the West to take the lead in opposition to noxious regimes, but where else in life do you find a situation where nothing happens, because the one who usually takes the lead in a community of equals has nodded off? If the Arab League feels the West isn’t making a strong enough stand, there is no reason why they cannot take the lead here. The West is distracted at the moment with economic problems – in particular the Eurozone crisis; maybe it should be pushing harder for something to happen in Syria, but when it isn’t doing enough (and some people might argue that it is), the Arab League could push itself.


Sep 032011

I have blogged before about the death sentence (and possibly other entries too) but people are still being executed, so there is no reason why I should stop ranting about this. Hopefully this entry will be a little more fact-orientated than previous attempts.

Execution is one of those contentious issues, and in a country that has long banned the death sentence the whole debate starts up again when we discover people such as Harold Shipman and Fred West. It is difficult to argue against the death sentence when such creatures are in the news, but it has to be done.

If You Execute Criminals, You Also Kill The Innocent

Criminal justice systems are run by fallible people; no matter how hard we try, people will always make mistakes and some of those mistakes can cause disastrous consequences – and in the case where criminals are sentenced to death, it is not just possible, but really has happened that innocent people are killed by the government. Detailed statistics on this are practically impossible to locate – partially because we don’t know who has been executed for a crime they have not committed.

All we know is that some people have been executed because they were innocent, and some people were executed because they did not receive a fair trial. For instance, take the case of Sacco and Vanzetti where two men were executed in 1927, but in 1977 the governor of Massachusetts admitted that they had received an unfair trial and that “any disgrace should be forever removed from their names.”. This coming despite the possibility that Sacco was in fact guilty of the crime – ballistic tests on his gun in 1961 indicated it was used in the killings although it had been interfered with enough that any prosecution based on those ballistic tests would be unfair.

So here we have a case where two men were executed – one who was innocent and received an unfair trial, and another at worst received an unfair trial. And of course these two anarchists were involved in a particularly well publicised case – how many others executed have received no help in establishing their innocence ?

Of course other people have tried coming up with useful statistics, and I will myself …

Out of a list of 33 “notable” executions in the UK since 1910, 6 were of people had their convictions quashed posthumously. This gives a rate of 18% of executions being of innocent people! An alternative figure of 632 executions in the UK between 1900 and 1949, would reduce the false execution rate to 1%. Neither of these figures is satisfactory, although the second is probably closer to the mark – although it misses out the number of executions between 1950 onwards, the figure for the number of innocent people executed is probably also not complete.

But it does illustrate that of all executions, some include innocent victims – perhaps 1%. Or in other words, out of every 100 people executed, at least 1 person is innocent of the crime he or she is executed for.

Perhaps you might think that 1 out of every 100 people executed is a small price to pay, but consider how you would feel if that innocent person was someone you loved more than your own life ? Your husband, your wife, your son, or your daughter. How would you feel then ?

Every innocent victim of the hangman’s noose is someone’s loved one.

But We’ll Only Do It For The Really Bad

If you restrict executions to the really heinous crimes where you are really sure that the criminal is guilty, what happens ?

Well firstly, it does not stop innocent people from being executed. Take the example of Timothy Evans, a man who was initially found guilty of murdering his own daughter (and he was suspected of killing his wife too); yet three years later it was discovered that his neighbour John Christie was a serial killer and eventually shown to have killed the daughter and wife. Timothy Evans was eventually pardoned in 1966. Of course it was a bit late for him as he had already been executed.

No matter how certain you are that someone is guilty of a crime, there is always the chance that they are not in fact guilty.

Secondly, it is a slippery slope – if you execute someone for committing a really nasty murder, it becomes easier to allow executions for “less serious” murders, and then so-called lesser crimes. As an example of this in action, see the Bloody Code article where the UK in little more than 100 years went from 50 crimes punishable by death, to 220 crimes punishable by death.

Life Imprisonment Is Cheaper

This is actually an argument in favour of abolishing the death sentence, but a despicable one.

It is true that in the US today, it is probably cheaper to imprison someone for life rather than sentence someone to death. This is because most death sentences go through an excruciating process involving many appeals to all parts of the criminal justice system. If us woolly liberals would just shut up about the death sentence, it would be possible to execute people very cheaply.

But we’re not going to shut up about it.

And looking at the money involved is contemptible – this discussion is about justice, mercy, and all sorts of ideals. If society cannot afford a just criminal justice system, it can no longer be called a society.

Cruel And Unusual Punishment

No matter the method a country chooses to execute a criminal, it amounts to cruel and unusual punishment – prohibited by the UN (article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, although I’ve used the traditional English phrase rather than the wording of the UN). The reasons why the death sentence is inhuman is varied, but includes :-

  1. Most people sentenced to death spend a long time on death row awaiting execution – an average of 14 years in 2009 (and the link contains other interesting information). The reasons for this are irrelevant. The effect on the prisoner amounts to psychological torture sufficient that many on death row have requested rapid execution to end their suffering – even prisoners who were eventually found innocent.
  2. We may have moved on from impaling, or other forms of execution that take the victim many days to die, but that does not mean the current methods are humane – even the “most humane” method of lethal injection has those who claim it causes unnecessary suffering in some cases.
  3. There is a degree of arbitrariness in how the death penalty is applied leading – a serial killer with 48 victims to his name can “get off” with life imprisonment whilst someone who has killed just one victim is executed. The more you dig into just how arbitrary the death sentence is, the more you should get concerned about it. Shouldn’t justice be even-handed ?

Final Word

This may not be the final version of this blog – as things occur to me, as I get the incentive to write, and as facts crop up I will be adding to it. But for now it is enough.

This probably won’t convince anyone in favour of the death sentence to give up and start opposing it, but it might encourage those who are undecided to look a bit deeper and come down in favour of abolishing it.

Jul 102011

Or “There’s Nothing Wrong With America That A Good Strong Dose Of Socialism Wouldn’t Cure”

This is of course written from the perspective of someone who isn’t that familiar with the US – I haven’t lived there since the 1970s, and I was a bit young to be making notes on the political situation (although I do remember the aftermath of the Watergate scandal). And I’m sure I’ll wander off course from the initial subject of “socialism”. Of course I do read about the crazy freak show that is American politics these days.

For some reason the word “socialism” seems to cause most Americans to blow up. It seems a bit like a trump card – accuse something of being socialist and you’ve won the argument against it, whatever the truth of the argument and whether there’s any scrap of truth in the notion that some policy may be socialist. Or whether a socialist policy has any virtue … some Americans would rather do things poorly than risk doing anything with a “socialist” label on it.

Anyone growing up in the US could be forgiven for thinking that “socialism” is some form of hideous dysfunction that causes an irrational desire to punish hard working people in the form of making them pay more than their share. Or something.

Funnily enough, the US does have socialist policies, but they are called something else – except when some troglodyte wants to destroy such policies. Think “Medicaid”. Or the US Postal Service.

Why does this word trigger such a violent response ? Well there’s a whole bunch of possible reasons …

Firstly there is a lot of confusion between “communism” and “socialism”. The first is a system of government that espouses socialist economic principles throughout the economy (amongst other things); the second is an economic system where the means of production are owned collectively – usually by the government. Of course socialism is really about a lot more than the pure dictionary definition – things like health care provision for all, pensions for the old, attempts at income distribution (to avoid the rich getting richer at the expense of the poor – which is a pretty big problem right now), etc.

And in reality a socialist regime is likely to socialise only a limited part of industry – the obvious example (for me) being Britain in the 1950s where railways, and coal industries were nationalised but most industries were left alone. In some ways that is a poor example given the history of the railways and the coal industry in Britain after nationalisation, but that overlooks the fact that the industries were nationalised partly because they were already in such a poor state.

Americans often hear “communist” when someone says “socialist”, and start to worry about communism … or to be more precise an authoritarian state labelling itself “communist” (although the Soviet Union was about as communist as my toenail clippings). The origins of this fear of communism are probably related to the establishment of the Soviet Union and more significantly, their establishment of Comintern with it’s mission of establishment of communist regimes everywhere. Through fair means or foul.

Now here’s where it starts to get interesting: In both the US and Britain between the two world wars, there was a considerable level of official interest and concern in the activities of communists and organisations such as Comintern. By chance, Britain’s “spook” community included someone who believed that whilst action could and should be taken against organisations such as Comintern, targeting legitimate politicians such as members of the Labour party was wrong. This may have helped influence the rather more enthusiastic head of MI5.

Whereas the equivalent in the US (Hoover as the head of the FBI) had no such influence allowing his anti-communist zeal to exceed the real danger and cross over into harassing innocents on the left of the political spectrum. This probably helped the anti-communists on the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities which whilst not quite as loony as McCarthy himself, did go far beyond what was acceptable and far beyond what the risk of communism entailed.

I have known people who were member of the old hard left all their lives – including those who insisted on keeping a portrait of Uncle Joe on the wall. None of those were unpatriotic – they may have wanted a socialist government; they may even have wanted a communist revolution. But none would have countenanced being ruled from Moscow.

You might say they were being deceived, and that Moscow was keeping control of an inner core of hard core supporters to take over a left-wing government and hand over control. But that was always an unrealistic option – it would take Russian tanks in the streets for such a government to keep control, which was more than a little unrealistic for the US.

Not that fighting the cold war was wrong. But the winners of the cold war were far more the people living under “communism” in the Soviet Union and satellite states, and the armaments companies. That is not to say that we did not benefit, but the benefits were less direct than is most obviously thought of. After all the threat of nuclear war was there not because the Soviet Union existed (after all they didn’t get nuclear weapons without us), but because we were facing them down.

But that is all in the past, and the automatic rejection by Americans of policies with the phrase “But that’s socialism” is now outdated. Indeed the correct reaction is “Yeah. So what ? It’s also right.”.

The right-wing in the freak show that is American politics today, is a bizarre and perplexing combination of Ayn Rand‘s seductive denial of society, and the fundamentalist christians. Indeed they seem to have combined the worst aspects of both, and rejected any redeeming qualities – the belief in an infectious imaginary friend but discarding christian charity (except to those “deserving” of charity), and the belief in individualism without the responsibilities of freedom – the responsibility to share in the care of the less fortunate.

Many Americans (and to be fair, plenty of others) hate paying taxes to pay for benefits for those less fortunate – direct benefits, educational benefits, health care benefits, etc. There is a belief that an individual’s income is for their benefit alone, and nobody has a right to take it away. Indeed that taxation is a form of theft by the government.

There is an element of truth to the theft argument, but it is very wrong to assume that an individual’s income is solely down to their abilities. There are too many contributing factors to an individual’s ability to earn – and those factors are commonly paid for by society as a whole. Such as police to keep order, armed forces to defend the country, education, etc.

Sure those services might be provided by private companies under some sort of “libertarian” utopia, but none of us are living under one of those right now.  And frankly, historical experience shows that private provision of what are normally regarded as government services has been less than successful – look at the history of fire fighting for example.

The earliest (in modern history) fire brigades were introduced by insurance companies to protect the property of those who insured with them. Sure enough, they refused to save the property of anyone else, but fire is one of those things that does not protect property boundaries – by stopping the fire of your uninsured neighbour, your own property is protected to a greater extent than if you waited until your own property was on fire. So those private fire brigades were privatised and the brigades funded from the public purse.

It’s a rare and unusual person who complains about socialism when the fire brigade comes up, but isn’t this what it is ?

Socialism and socialist policies are not good in themselves; neither are they bad. The virtue of any policy is whether it would be effective … and more effective than what is currently in place. Not whether it is ‘socialist’, or whatever. The label is irrelevant.

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