Cut the Cuts, George

George-Osborne-Bullingdon

This man wants to take your job away.

I know, I’ve covered the cuts before. But a couple of things I read over the weekend really hammered home to me the sheer economic wrong-headedness of the scale and speed of the cuts that are going to happen come October 20th.

The first very simple point was made in a review of Will Hutton’s new book Them and Us. The British public debt is currently at 60% of GDP. Although a long way from Gordon Brown’s 40% golden rule, this is “far from crisis level”. Other countries have held much, much higher debts for far longer, notably the USA. These cuts are done to please jumpy money markets; a good enough reason, but surely the answer is to calm the money markets rather than shrink the state to pre-WW2 levels?

The second, and more important, is that cuts on this scale, at this time, make no economic sense.

The Tories have been bandying about this idea of the Big Society for a while, and have talked of the private sector taking the place of the state once the cuts come in. Both of these concepts are, not to put too fine a point on it: bullshit.

The Big Society is a vague, ephemeral concept involving people working for free in communities that have no community spirit. I think. It’s hard to even be that vague about it. And the idea of a private sector that has just suffered one of the worst downturns in living memory growing to take the pain of public sector cuts is ludicrous.

Instead, you have hundreds of thousands of people already out of work, with the government soon to be laying off further hundreds of thousands of people, who will then go on benefits and not have enough money to spend in the private sector. With people not spending in the private sector, there are no jobs to give people so that they have money to spend. You see where the problem is?

So you end up with a lack of public services not being provided by anyone else except those kind hearted souls who will do it on a volunteer basis (well I suppose the unemployed make up in time what they lack in money) and not enough money going into the economy to stimulate the private sector, let alone tax revenue to fatten up the public purse.

Sounds like we’re all going to have a lot of time on our hands.

The problem with life is…a jumpy money market and a Tory government.

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To God or Not to God

God - Unfalsifiable

Unfalsifiable

I recently read an interesting letter in The Guardian. A reader wrote in taking issue with a review of Stephen Hawking’s new book, in which he disavows the existence of God, seemingly on the basis that science can explain everything without the need for God.

The reader, quite rightly, pointed out that although science can explain many things, this in itself is not a disproof of the existence of God. There is a gap between “we can explain a lot through science” and “God doesn’t exist”.

That is not to say that I think God exists. Far from it, I am a committed atheist. However, my reasoning is not that science can explain the universe alone. Aside from anything else, science cannot. We still don’t know how many universes there are. Quantum physics is still largely a mystery. We are yet to discover dark matter, if it exists at all. Yes, we can trace back the story of our genesis up to a fraction of a second after the Big Bang, but why was there a Big Bang at all? Surely there’s space for a prime mover, God, at least in the moment of the Big Bang and before it. Until we can explain that, science by itself does not disprove God.

This is among many reasons why I personally find Richard Dawkins’ (among others) evangelical atheism distasteful in its approach. Dawkins is regularly seen peddling evolution as the reason for which there is no God. “Look” he seems to be saying “this is what nature does without God”. But he has not explained why nature could not be doing it because God set it in motion.

There is no decisive way of disproving the existence of God, He is set up so as to be unfalsifiable. Similarly, belief in His existence is more a matter of faith than anything else, and if you can say anything for faith, it is that reason is no obstacle to it.

Richard Dawkins - Evangelist

Careful children. He's an evangelist.

I read a book whilst writing my dissertation at university by a 19th century German philosopher by the name of Feuerbach. It was called The Essence of Christianity. It is a fascinating read and provides for me what is the best path to disproving the existence of God.

In it, Feuerbach points out that gods have existed in human civilisation since the beginning of history. But they change over time. We started with many gods that explained all the different facets of nature. As our understanding grew, these gods became fewer in number. And as our dependence on nature lessened, the gods became an anthropomorphic God. As we became self-sufficient, our God reflected ourselves: Jesus.

In tracing this history, the human need for a God is revealed. God is unfalsifiable by His nature. However, by revealing the need for his invention, and dispelling that need through science, there is very little room to manoeuvre for the believer. All that is left is faith.

I respect that faith, and despite the many wrongs committed in the name of religion think that the hyper-individualised society that has replaced the community of religion is not necessarily better. In embracing secularism, we have lost something that is difficult to replace. There is a sense that without God, nothing binds us, and there is no one to ultimately hold us responsible. The consequence is an implicitly Hobbesian view of life as “nasty, brutish and short” where everyone is out for themselves.

I don’t believe that this is the case, but it is hard to shake the feeling sometimes.

The problem with life is…this is all there is.

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The Market, the State and the Credit Crunch

The government’s on-going public spending cull has got me thinking about the role of the state in a free market economy. My distaste for the free market is by now well documented. However, it is still very much the best option. The free market provides the greatest individual freedom, both positive and negative, of any economic system proposed. It allows the realisation of the individual in a way not found in any other. Within a free market, you can be whoever you want to be, do whatever you want to do. For that reason it is a necessity.

However, there is a down side. The free market was originally predicated on the idea that individuals will naturally do what is best for society, as what is good for society is good for them individually. It is a philosophy very much of its time, expressing an essential rationalist optimism about human nature common in the Enlightenment.

This is the foundation of the unfortunate assertion that “greed is good”. However, the systematic deregulation of the markets since Margaret Thatcher has shown unequivocally that this is not the case. Certain members of society abuse their freedom and act only for patently selfish ends. This is how we end up with mortgages sold to people who can’t afford them, and arms sold to terrorists and “rogue states” (to use an old-fashioned term). These are the abuses that led to the Credit Crunch (to use another).

In a free market, the state should act as a counterbalance to the market, to regulate its worst excesses and provide the essential services from which profit cannot be gained, or which would be diluted or corrupted by the pursuit of profit: health, education, justice and defence.

It is this conception of the state that has got lost somewhere along the neo-liberal way. Instead, the state is seen as a facilitator for the market, to create an environment conducive to good business. This is to a certain extent true. But the state should be the gardener, not the garden. After all, what is the state but the representative of the people? And what is the market but a disparate collection of individuals acting toward their own ends?

The free market is undoubtedly the best economic system on offer, but not without the counter-weight of the state. It’s time to wake from the neo-liberal dream and remember that.

The problem with life is…some people are only out for themselves.

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The Current State of Alzheimer’s Research

With an ageing population, Alzheimer’s is one of the largest problems facing our society, and one that I have had some personal experience with. It is also one of my own biggest fears. But there has been a recent spate of studies that offer hope in this direction. I’m excited about the current state of Alzheimer’s research.

The most recent study was widely reported in the mainstream (i.e. non-science) press. Scientists have developed a “100% accurate” test for Alzheimer’s based on spinal fluid. Although the 100% claim was slightly exaggerated it is still an enormous step forward. The test is said to enable us to identify Alzheimer’s very early on, even before the full development of symptoms. It is also said to show that people may develop the disease a long time before they start showing symptoms. By identifying it early we can start treating it early, rather than just managing the symptoms.

Of course, the problem is that, as things stand, we have no real treatment for Alzheimer’s. But here’s the really exciting bit, and the reason why the announcement of the spinal fluid test is more significant than it otherwise could have been.

Two important discoveries have been made recently that represent light at the end of the tunnel. The first is the importance of the protein tau. Previous efforts to develop a treatment for Alzheimer’s have concentrated on plaques on the brain caused by beta-amyloids. It is the presence of these plaques that is used in autopsy to fully diagnose Alzheimer’s. The presence of tau protein tangles was seen as secondary to the beta-amyloid plaques. However, new research has shown that it is more likely to be tau itself that is causing Alzheimer’s. In fact, the beta-amyloid plaques can be present without causing any symptoms associated with the disease.

The importance of this discovery cannot be overstated. For 100 years, efforts to treat Alzheimer’s have been focused on a symptom, not a cause. Identifying the cause could be the catalyst for a new era of Alzheimer’s research.

P7C3 rat

Rodents never forget

The second very interesting piece of research to emerge concerns a chemical compound known enigmatically as P7C3. Used in rats, P7C3 was shown to protect memory-forming cells in the hippocampus both in ageing rats suffering memory problems naturally and in rats engineered to have memory problems. The scientists reported a 100% success rate. Even better, P7C3 is easy to administer and can be taken orally.

Taken together, these studies represent offer tremendous hope. If we can identify Alzheimer’s early and administer treatments based on P7C3 and its derivatives based on greater understanding of tau, Alzheimer’s could become a thing of the past.

The problem with life is…everything’s going to be fine.

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Why the WikiLeaks War Diaries Matter

The recent emergence of the WikiLeaks war diaries has served to re-spark anger about the war formerly known as terror amongst those who oppose it. Although the detail of these diaries as published in The Guardian and other places is of course, important, there has been little in the way of explanation as to why it is important. It seems to have been assumed that the importance of publishing the war diaries need not be explained; that it is obvious why we should know about the incompetencies and atrocities committed by coalition forces. This is perhaps particularly influenced by Julian Assange‘s penchant for letting facts speak for themselves. But without the assumed prior knowledge and attitudes of Guardian readers it is easy to think that the leaking of confidential military files and the accompanying PR disaster is simply playing into the hands of the Taliban.

Nine years into the war in Afghanistan, the WikiLeaks war diaries present an opportunity to remind ourselves of the principles involved; why we should not be fighting wars in the Middle East and why playing into the hands of the Taliban is the least of our worries.

The Numbers Count
On September 11, 2001, America experienced an attack on its homeland. 2,976 people died that day, not including their attackers.

On October 7, 2001, Afghanistan experienced an attack on its homeland. Approximately 17,400 people have died in the nine years that have followed, not including their attackers.

On March 20, 2003, Iraq experienced an attack on its homeland. Approximately 894,531 people have died in the seven years that have followed, not including their attackers.

No one is doubting that Saddam Hussein was a Bad Man, or that the Taliban are a medieval organisation, anachronistic to the 21st century (to say the least). However, the ostensible reason for the coalition invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan was to stamp out terrorism following the 9/11 attacks.

Setting aside tactical errors (you don’t find terrorists with a traditional army) and ulterior motives (we all know how much oil there is in Iraq), the numbers simply don’t add up. Yes, 9/11 was a terrible attack and extremely shocking to a nation who had never experienced an attack on their homeland. Yes, 2,976 civilians died that day. But the response has seen 919,976 people die with little evidence of improved homeland security (including coalition troops).

Whilst every coalition troop death is lamented over in the newspapers, and rightly told as a tragedy, the same privileges are not afforded to the ‘enemy’. Afghan and Iraqi life is cheap.

State-Legitimised Violence
What makes these attacks different? The attacking explosives used in Afghanistan and Iraq are backed by governments.

The WikiLeaks war diaries serve to remind us that we have no moral superiority. We are perpetrating war crimes in places where we shouldn’t even be. The 2,976 people who died in the Twin Towers are worth no more, or less, than the 919,967 who have died as a consequence.

It is too late to redeem ourselves in Afghanistan and Iraq. But perhaps we can learn that a life is a life, no matter where it sprang from; and that a government has no more right to take it than anyone else.

The problem with life is…sometimes it comes cheap.

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Amish in the City

Amish in the CityI was recently watching a TV programme called Amish: The World’s Squarest Teenagers. The show took six Amish teenagers and slapped them into different British social groups each week. It was very similar to an earlier, American programme: Amish in the City. Both programmes followed the fish-out-of-water staple of ‘unscripted TV’ and were fairly unremarkable.

So why bring them up?

Because, observing the Amish encountering the modern world made me think. The Amish have a very simple way of life that is centred around following God and the Bible down to the very last detail. They are humble, simple, honest people who have no use for anything other than practical skills. They are home-schooled and only educated insofar as they need to provide for themselves. The teenagers on the Channel 4 programme had never heard of psychology, let alone anything contained within the subject.

In many ways it is an admirable way of life. They don’t want for anything, don’t covet anything; at no point did any of the Amish seem as if they were dissatisfied with their lot. Contrast this with a society that is obsessed with money in thrall to the ‘invisible hand’ of the market, and where most people’s happiness is, however unconsciously, linked to the possession of material goods.

Every time a happiness index report is released, the relative happiness of many ‘less developed’ nations is always highlighted, and rising depression and suicide rates amongst communities where television and other mod cons have first been introduced are not infrequently reported.

Such reports are in keeping with Durkheim’s concept of anomie. Broadly speaking, anomie is a sort of existential angst arising from increasing individualisation: without a strong sense of belonging or purpose, such as is provided in more primitive societies both socially and theologically, the individual is set adrift. One need only observe the post-graduation, quarter-life crisis and later mid-life crises common in our societies to substantiate this.

The Amish work to live. They worship God and live off the land. We in Anglo-American societies struggle to find meaning and definition to our lives. We have a sense that we must become someone, be someone, do something worthwhile. But ultimately, these are fallacies. We are adrift in an ever expanding universe that may or may not be part of a multiverse where we can only perceive 10% of all existing matter. And what’s worse is that we know it.

I admire the Amish, but also pity them. They don’t have access to the same education we receive. They aren’t aware of all the magical, wonderful things that we are aware of. They don’t know about, or at least have much experience of, quantum physics, rock ‘n’ roll or the internet. They don’t know about any of the things that I love and that excite me.

But are we any happier than them? And if the overarching purpose that we all struggle to define and find for our lives really is just a fallacy, then isn’t that all that matters in the end?

Ignorance is BlissIt comes down to the old saying ‘ignorance is bliss’. Whenever anyone says this there is a certain shade of condescension as if to say: ‘look at those poor bastards; under-educated and happy’. But who smiles more?

There’s no sense in agonising over your existential lot, and that is not what I intend to do. The question is simply this: is ‘progress’, and all its trimmings, really as great as we think it is?

The problem with life is…it keeps getting bigger.

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The Climate Non-Debate

Thanks to earthfirst.comIn the face of the economic crisis climate change has been getting little attention from the media of late. To say that this is a mistake is both obvious and an understatement. Interest and belief in global warming was waning as a result of cold winters and ‘climate fatigue’ before the economy overshadowed the issue, which highlights the need to rejuvenate the ‘debate‘. Climate change looks set to be an almost forgotten problem, and it will be forgotten at our peril.

It’s not just that the issue of global warming has been overshadowed by the economic situation. It’s that the problem isn’t being presented correctly. For decades environmentalism has always been about saving the planet. But this is wrong. The planet will be fine. The Earth is very resilient, and has seen much harder times than what we’re putting it through now. Rather, the issue is saving ourselves. Global warming will change the climate in a way that makes the planet much less habitable for humans, particularly in the poorer parts of the world. By not acting on climate change we are slowly killing ourselves. This point needs to be emphasised over and above saving the planet. To use marketing terminology, it is a much more effective call to action.

Re-framing the issue is also crucial for the climate change ‘debate’. Argument has so far focused largely on whether climate change is man-made. No one is denying that the planet is warming up, sceptics simply point to other possible causes: natural fluctuation, solar activity and the like. These are entirely possible and are no doubt contributing factors. However, aside from the majority of the scientific community agreeing that global warming is man-made, and that faced with such a tide of expertise it is silly for non-experts to argue, whether it is man-made or not simply isn’t the issue. The facts are simple: average global temperatures are rising, carbon traps heat, rising temperatures will cause disaster for humanity.

Given these premises, the conclusion is simple: we need to reduce our carbon output. It doesn’t matter if we caused the rise in temperature or not. To not take what action we can is suicidal.

The source of climate scepticism seems to primarily be business interests. As ever, money is the overriding issue. Pavan Sukhdev, on secondment from Deutsche Bank, recently released a report on behalf of the UN stating emphatically that our economy is harming the environment. Businesses harm the environment; it is in their interests to do so. Or more to the point, not to do so would be expensive. However, as Sukhdev eloquently points out: it will be more expensive in the long run to not restructure our economy.

The problem is, the long run seems very far away.

As a society we are not encouraged to look at the long run, and this short-sightedness is only amplified in business.

For the sake of the survival of the human race, businesses need to stop pumping money into anti-environmental lobbying and phony science and invest in technologies and business practices that will contribute to lowering the global temperature. It is immaterial why the temperature is rising. It is, and we need to do what we can to stop it rising.

The problem with life is…it keeps getting hotter.

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