Sunday, 30 April 2017

Left, right, or the good fight?

Tabish Khair in The Hindu

Bestselling author Amish Tripathi recently set people arguing with his contention that he didn’t “believe in left-wing and right-wing ideologies”; he was “just proud of the land” in which he was born, and its culture. Immediately, some of my friends assumed that I would be hostile to such a statement, but I agree with Mr. Tripathi – partly.

The matter of ‘Indian culture’ is easily resolved. Born in Muslim circles, where many claim a similar pride in Islamic practices, I have long looked at matters specifically. As a Muslim I am not proud of the fact that we give fewer opportunities and legal options to Muslim women at times, but I am proud of Islam’s egalitarian and charitable requirements. Similarly, as an Indian I am not proud of our cultural preference for male children and our caste prejudices, but I am proud of a lot of other things: our art, music, philosophy and literature, our civilised ability to live with differences, etc.

I am sure Mr. Tripathi means what I mean: like me, he is proud of the fact that we have an increasing number of women authors, scientists and politicians and not of the fact that we also have female infanticide. So that part of the argument is hardly a matter of controversy.

Making sense of the demarcation

The left-right divide – or its lack – appears more contentious. As I am usually associated with the left by people, except, I suspect, overly assured people on the intellectual political left, who happen to hold tenure in universities like Cambridge or inhabit cities like Delhi and London, I am expected to take exception to this part of Mr. Tripathi’s claim. But once again, I agree – partly.

Yes, the demarcation between the left and the right – in terms of political ideologies – does not make sense. It stopped making sense at least as far back as the rise of Stalinism in the Soviet Union. That is so because the left – as Karl Marx understood – needs to be contextual and relational. The main difference between the left and the right is that the left, if it is really the left, looks at a matter in the present context, and tries to judge it in that living and material context. The right, if it is really the right, depends on the authority of ‘custom’, ‘religion’ and similar inherited matters for justification. Failing to shut you up with ‘god’, it hits you with the fetishised ‘gene for crime!’

With the rise of Stalinism – and similar communist ideologies – a part of the political left basically started thinking like the traditional right. It started justifying its positions not by engaging with the living and the always changing world of people and their social relations, but by telling people how to live and think based on inherited ‘sacred’ ideas and texts. The fact that these texts were attributed to Marx or Lenin and not to the Gospel writers or Luther makes no difference.
Now, one of the problems the actual left has always had – because it (rightly to my mind) wants to engage with the lived materiality of social relations – is its tendency to privilege change. Because the actual left is particularly alive to changes and sceptical of tradition-based arguments, it tends to see change in largely positive terms. You have nothing to lose but your chains, thundered Marx and Engels, momentarily forgetting that people always have more to lose than their chains, and the poor have more to fear losing the little that they have than the superflux-rich.

Similarly, as the right bases its arguments on traditions and custom, it tends to believe that everything inherited from the past – as culture or religion – is necessarily good. This again may not be the case. Inheritances from the past might be good or bad; they might even have been good once and turned bad now. Similarly, a change might be for the better or for the worse.

An unwillingness to engage

Given this basic realisation, just as there are those on the left who think like the right, there are also those on the right who think like the left. In short, there are those on the left who act on the basis of inherited ideas that may have no validity today, and there are those on the right who test traditions on the basis of a lived engagement with the changed conditions of the present.

Actually, many of the political problems of the world today stem from exactly this situation: the fact that there are many on both the left and the right who are unwilling or unable to engage with the changing socio-economic relations of power today. For instance, the political left keeps talking of the proletariat even as workers have been cleverly changed into minor managers of their own labour by neo-liberalism, and the political right keeps talking of the free market of capitalism, even as neo-liberalism survives by enforcing governmental interference in the market but only on the side of the very rich

Fatah ka Fatwa - Islamic Banking

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Whiplash: the myth that funds a £20bn gravy train

Patrick Collinson in The Guardian

Ten years ago I was in a country lane in Leicestershire, indicating to turn right to go into a hotel for a family event. Seconds later my car was a write-off after a young driver careered round the bend, smashing into the rear of my VW Golf. Fortunately I stepped out uninjured. And from that moment I was pestered, again and again, to make a false whiplash claim.

One of the hotel’s guests was first in. “You’ve got to get down the doctors, tell them your neck is really hurting. You’ll easily get £3,000,” said one (I’m summarising here). But my neck, while a little stiff, wasn’t in pain. Others told me I was mad not to apply. But a decade later there is no evidence the crash caused anything other than a mild sprain that lasted a couple of days. And certainly not deserving of the £3,000-£6,000 that is routinely paid out to “victims” of even the mildest of rear-end shunts.

Now one brave consultant neurosurgeon, who has carried out thousands of operations involving neck and back issues, has declared that whiplash is a myth, nothing more than a multibillion-pound gravy train for lawyers, doctors and the victims suffering from “mainly non-existent injuries”.

In a remarkable piece for the Irish Times, Dr Charles Marks, a lecturer at University College Cork, says the medical profession is as guilty as the lawyers. “For 20 years I wrote medical reports which were economical with the truth … the truth being, there was very little wrong with the vast majority of compensation claimants that I saw. I was moving with the herd.” In Ireland, where payouts have reached levels that even the most avaricious ambulance-chasing lawyer here can only dream of, a doctor can earn as much as £3,000 a week in fees after spending 20 minutes with someone involved in a minor car crash, then writing a largely templated report. “It’s a fee of around €350 and you can easily do 10 a week,” Marks says.

Yet whiplash is “almost impossible to prove”, says Dr Marks, with patients self-diagnosing pain that can never be detected using sophisticated imaging techniques such as MRI and bone scans. “All whiplash is minor. Moderate or permanent whiplash is simply non-existent.”

He cites one study of 40 “demolition derby” drivers in the US who had an average of 1,500 collisions each over a couple of years. Compare that to a mild shunt in slow-moving traffic that, somehow, warrants payouts of thousands. Yet just two of the demolition derby drivers reported post-participation neck pain that lasted more than three months.

Dr Marks adds that in Greece and Lithuania, where there is no expectation of financial gain from whiplash, chronic neck pain following a car crash appears simply not to exist.

But one (British) consultant in Ireland is barely sufficient evidence. So I spoke to another whiplash expert, Dr Stuart Matthews, consultant surgeon in major orthopaedic trauma at the Leeds Teaching Hospitals. He sounded even more dismissive than Dr Marks. “There is not a single test that shows abnormality directly attributable to this condition. Diagnoses are purely on the say-so of the person involved. Many orthopaedic surgeons do not believe it is a genuine condition.”

He says early research that provided medical endorsement for whiplash claims has subsequently been rejected. “It’s the emperor’s new clothes. People just go along with it, there is a bandwagon.”

Neck sprain is genuine, he says, but recovery is relatively quick with little evidence of significant physical injury.

Yet the victims of whiplash receive £2bn a year in payouts, a fair chunk of which goes to personal injury lawyers. That’s £20bn over the past decade, paid for out of galloping increases in car insurance premiums. The forthcoming election means that reforms to whiplash payouts, promised in the prison and courts bill, have been shelved.

A new government, of whatever complexion, should reinstate the reforms – and order a major medical review to determine if we have all been conned for years.

Why they lynched Mashal Khan. Lessons for humans.

Pervez Hoodbhoy in The Dawn

THE mental state of men ready and poised to kill has long fascinated scientists. The Nobel Prize winning ethologist, Konrad Lorenz, says such persons experience the ‘Holy Shiver’ (called Heiliger Schauer in German) just moments before performing the deed. In his famous book On Aggression, Lorenz describes it as a tingling of the spine prior to performing a heroic act in defence of their communities.

This feeling, he says, is akin to the pre-human reflex that raises hair on an animal’s back as it zeroes in for the kill. He writes: “A shiver runs down the back and along the outside of both arms. All obstacles become unimportant … instinctive inhibitions against hurting or killing disappear … Men enjoy the feeling of absolute righteousness even as they commit atrocities.”

While they stripped naked and beat their colleague Mashal Khan with sticks and bricks, the 20-25 students of the Mardan university enjoyed precisely this feeling of righteousness. They said Khan had posted content disrespectful of Islam on his Facebook page and so they took it upon themselves to punish him. Finally, one student took out his pistol and shot him dead. Hundreds of others watched approvingly and, with their smartphone cameras, video-recorded the killing for distribution on their Facebook pages. A meeting of this self-congratulatory group resolved to hide the identity of the shooter.

Khan had blasphemed! Until this was finally shown to be false, no proper funeral was possible in his home village. Sympathy messages from Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and opposition leaders such as Bilawal Bhutto came only after it had been established that Khan performed namaz fairly regularly.

Significantly, no protests of significance followed. University campuses were silent and meetings discussing the murder were disallowed. A demonstration at the Islamabad Press Club drew about 450, a miniscule figure against the estimated 200,000 who attended Mumtaz Qadri’s last rites.

This suggests that much of the Pakistani public, whether tacitly or openly, endorses violent punishment of suspected blasphemers. Why? How did so many Pakistanis become bloodthirsty vigilantes? Evening TV talk shows — at least those I have either seen or participated in — circle around two basic explanations.

One, favoured by the liberal-minded, blames the blasphemy law and implicitly demands its repeal (an explicit call would endanger one’s life). The other, voiced by the religiously orthodox, says vigilantism occurs only because our courts act too slowly against accused blasphemers.

Both claims are not just wrong, they are farcical. Subsequent to Khan’s killing, at least two other incidents show that gut reactions — not what some law says — is really what counts. In one, three armed burqa-clad sisters shot dead a man near Sialkot who had been accused of committing blasphemy 13 years ago. In the other, a visibly mentally ill man in Chitral uttered remarks inside a mosque and escaped lynching only upon the imam’s intervention. The mob subsequently burned the imam’s car. Heiliger Schauer!

While searching for a real explanation, let’s first note that religiously charged mobs are also in motion across the border. As more people flock to mandirs or masjids, the outcomes are strikingly similar. In an India that is now rapidly Hinduising, crowds are cheering enraged gau rakshaks who smash the skulls of Muslims suspected of consuming or transporting cows. In fact India has its own Khan — Pehlu Khan.
Accused of cattle-smuggling, Pehlu Khan was lynched and killed by cow vigilantes earlier this month before a cheering crowd in Alwar, with the episode also video-recorded. Minister Gulab Chand Kataria declared that Khan belonged to a family of cow smugglers and he had no reason to feel sorry. Now that cow slaughter has been hyped as the most heinous of crimes, no law passed in India can reverse vigilantism.

Vigilantism is best explained by evolutionary biology and sociology. A fundamental principle there says only actions and thoughts that help strengthen group identity are well received, others are not. In common with our ape ancestors, we humans instinctively band together in groups because strength lies in unity. The benefits of group membership are immense — access to social networks, enhanced trust, recognition, etc. Of course, as in a club, membership carries a price tag. Punishing cow-eaters or blasphemers (even alleged ones will do) can be part payment. You become a real hero by slaying a villain — ie someone who challenges your group’s ethos. Your membership dues are also payable by defending or eulogising heroes.

Celebration of such ‘heroes’ precedes Qadri. The 19-year old illiterate who killed Raj Pal, the Hindu publisher of a controversial book on the Prophet (PBUH), was subsequently executed by the British but the youth was held in the highest esteem. Ghazi Ilm Din is venerated by a mausoleum over his grave in Lahore. An 8th grade KP textbook chapter eulogising him tells us that Ilm Din’s body remained fresh days after the execution.

In recent times, backed by the formidable power of the state, Hindu India and Islamic Pakistan have vigorously injected religion into both politics and society. The result is their rapid re-tribalisation through ‘meme transmission’ of primal values. A concept invented by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, the meme is a ‘piece of thought’ transferrable from person to person by imitation. Like computer viruses, memes can jump from mind to mind.
Memes containing notions of religious or cultural superiority have been ‘cut-and-pasted’ into millions of young minds. Consequently, more than ever before, today’s youth uncritically accepts the inherent morality of their particular group, engages in self-censorship, rationalises the group’s decisions, and engages in moral policing.

Groupthink and deadly memes caused the lynching and murder of the two Khans. Is a defence against such viral afflictions ever possible? Can the subcontinent move away from its barbaric present to a civilised future? One can so hope. After all, like fleas, memes and thought packages can jump from person to person. But they don’t bite everybody! A robust defence can be built by educating people into the spirit of critical inquiry, helping them become individuals rather than groupies, and encouraging them to introspect. A sense of humour, and maybe poetry, would also help.

Friday, 28 April 2017

Of course Theresa May offers stability – just look at her unchanging positions on Brexit and general elections

Mark Steel in The Independent

The Conservative slogan for the election is “Strong and stable”. Because that’s the main thing we want from a government, strength and stability, like you get with Vladimir Putin.

Only idiots get obsessed with the details of what their leaders are strong and stable about, because the important thing is they’re strong while they’re doing it, and they keep doing it even if it’s insane.

Jeremy Corbyn should prove he can match their stability by burning down a public building at precisely half past nine every morning, and display his strength by punching people in the face as they run out the door screaming.

But this would barely touch the Government’s record of strength and stability. For example, every year since they took over in 2010, there has been a rise in the numbers dependent on food banks, going up every year, nice and stable, not haphazardly up one year and down the next so you don’t know where you stand. And weak governments might see hungry kids and feel a pang of conscience, but not this lot because they’re like sodding Iron Man.

George Osborne was so stable he missed every target he set, not just a few or 80 per cent, but every single one because business needs predictability, and when Osborne announced a target, our wealth creators could guarantee he’d come nowhere near it.

I expect they’ll also refer every day to their universal credit scheme, which is five years behind schedule and cost £16bn. You have to be strong to lose that amount and not care. Weak people would get to £3-4bn and think “Oh dear, maybe we should stop”, but not if you’re strong and stable.

The current Chancellor is nearly as impressive. After the Tories promised that under no circumstances would they raise National Insurance, Philip Hammond then raised National Insurance and cancelled raising it a few days later as it was so unpopular, exuding the sort of strength and stability that puts you in mind of Churchill.

Boris Johnson has exhibited the same values, displaying why we can trust him to stand up to dictators such as Syria’s President Assad. After one of Assad’s military victories, Boris wrote: “I cannot conceal my elation as the news comes in from Palmyra and it is reported that the Syrian army is genuinely back in control of the entire Unesco site… any sane person should feel a sense of satisfaction at what Assad’s troops have accomplished”, in an article headlined: “Bravo for Assad – he is a vile tyrant but he has saved Palmyra from [Isis]”.

Since then, the Foreign Secretary has steadfastly stuck with maximum stability to this view, with only the mildest amendment such as: “We must bomb Assad immediately; no sane person could ever wish him to control anything unless they’re a communist terrorist mugwump.”

What a model of stability, because most military experts agree it doesn’t really matter which side you’re on in a war, as long as you don’t compromise your strength or stability by not being in the war at all.

Then there was the Prime Minister’s line on not having an election, from which she hasn’t wavered one bit, and her insistence that we had to remain in the EU, which she’s adjusted a tiny bit to insisting we can only thrive outside the EU, but always either inside or outside, and never once has she suggested we must be somewhere else such as a split in the cosmos consisting of dark antimatter in which we can be both in and out of the EU due to time and space being governed by the European Court of Human Rights.

Thankfully the Labour Party is standing up to Conservative arguments with a dynamic campaign in which they explain how miserable everyone is.

The next party political broadcast will consist of Labour leaders walking through a shopping centre in Wolverhampton, pointing at people and saying: “Look at that bloke – utterly crestfallen. That’s a Tory government for you.”

It feels as if most people have already switched off in this election, so Labour’s best hope could be to answer questions by talking about an entirely different issue. So when Diane Abbott is asked whether Labour’s plans for education have been properly costed, she says, “I’m not sure. But I’ve been reading about koala bears. Did you know they’re not bears at all but marsupials, closer to the kangaroo?”

It doesn’t help that, as in any election, the Conservatives have much greater resources. If we lived in a proper democracy, these would be evened up.

Each newspaper would have to support a different party for each election, so The Daily Telegraph might support the Greens. And the letters column would read: “Dear Sir; with regard to current controversies concerning the use of television replays in Test match cricket, which jeopardise the ultimate authority of the umpire and therefore threaten the rule of law itself, it occurs to me the most sensible way to resolve these matters might be to renationalise the railways and install 40,000 wind turbines round Sussex. Yours sincerely, Sir Bartholomew Clutterbuck.”  

And if a wealthy businessman has money to donate to a party, the one it went to would be decided by lottery. So if Lord Bamford wants to contribute to society, he hands over £1m, then is thrilled to learn it’s gone to the Maoist Rastafarian Ban Fishing on Sundays Alliance.

The Conservatives would be delighted to give money to Maoists, because Mao was always strong and stable. You didn’t get him calling off a Great Leap Forward because he was offended by being called a mugwump. General Franco, Stalin, Ayatollah Khomeini – these are the strong and stable models to aspire to, not these weedy liberal Gandhi types, though Nelson Mandela might qualify as a figure of stability, as he kept to pretty much the same routine for 27 years.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Labour party's hypocrisy on Corbyn

George Monbiot in The Guardian

Where are the nose-pegs this time? Those who tolerated anything the Labour party did under Blair tolerate nothing under Corbyn. Those who insisted that we should vote Labour at any cost turn their backs as it seeks to recover its principles.

They proclaimed undying loyalty when the party stood for the creeping privatisation of the NHS, the abandonment of the biggest corruption case in British history, the collapse of Britain’s social housing programme, bans on peaceful protest, detention without trial, the kidnap and torture of innocent people and an illegal war in which hundreds of thousands died. They proclaim disenchantment now that it calls for the protection of the poor, the containment of the rich and the peaceful resolution of conflict.

Those who insisted that William Hague, Michael Howard and David Cameron presented an existential threat remain silent as Labour confronts a Conservative leader who makes her predecessors look like socialists.

Blair himself, forgiven so often by the party he treated as both ladder and obstacle to his own ambition, repays the favour by suggesting that some should vote for Conservatives who seek a softer Brexit. He appears to believe that the enhanced majority this would deliver to Theresa May might weaken her. So much for the great tactician.

Yes, Jeremy Corbyn is disappointing. Yes, his leadership has been marked by missed opportunities, weakness in opposition and (until recently) incoherence in proposition, as well as strategic and organisational failure. It would be foolish to deny or minimise these flaws. But it would be more foolish still to use them as a reason for granting May a mandate to destroy what remains of British decency and moderation, or for refusing to see the good that a government implementing Corbyn’s policies could do.

Of course I fear a repeat of 1983. But the popularity of Corbyn’s recent policy announcements emboldens me to believe he has a chance, albeit slight, of turning this around. His pledge to raise the minimum wage to £10 an hour is supported by 71% of people, according to a ComRes poll; raising the top rate of tax is endorsed by 62%.

Labour’s 10 pledges could, if they formed the core of its manifesto, appeal to almost everyone. They promote a theme that should resonate widely in these precarious times: security. They promise secure employment rights, secure access to housing, secure public services, a secure living world. Contrast this to what the Conservatives offer: the “fantastic insecurity” anticipated by the major funder of the Brexit campaign, the billionaire Peter Hargreaves.

I would love to elect a government led by someone competent and humane, but this option will not be on the ballot paper.

Could people be induced to see past the ineptitudes of Labour leadership to the underlying policies? I would argue that the record of recent decades suggests that the quality of competence in politics is overrated.

Blair’s powers of persuasion led to the Iraq war. Gordon Brown’s reputation for prudence blinded people to the financial disaster he was helping to engineer, through the confidence he vested in the banks. Cameron’s smooth assurance caused the greatest national crisis since the second world war. May’s calculating tenacity is likely to exacerbate it. After 38 years of shrill certainties presented as strength, Britain could do with some hesitation and self-doubt from a prime minister.

Corbyn’s team has been hopeless at handling the media and managing his public image. This is a massive liability, but it also reflects a noble disregard for presentation and spin. Shouldn’t we embrace it? This was the licence granted to Gordon Brown, whose inept performances on television and radio as prime minister were attributed initially to his “authenticity” and “integrity”. Never mind that he had financed the Iraq war and championed the private finance initiative, which as several of us predicted is now ripping the NHS and other public services apart. Never mind that he stood back as the banks designed exotic financial instruments. He had the confidence of the City and the billionaire press. This ensured that his ineptitude was treated as a blessing, while Corbyn’s is a curse.

I would love to elect a government led by someone both competent and humane, but this option will not be on the ballot paper. The choice today is between brutal efficiency in pursuit of a disastrous agenda, and gentle inefficiency in pursuit of a better world. I know which I favour.

There is much that Labour, despite its limitations, could do better in the next six weeks. It is halfway towards spelling out an inspiring vision for the future; now it needs to complete the process. It must hammer home its vision for a post-European settlement, clarifying whether or not it wants to remain within the single market (its continued equivocation on this point is another missed opportunity) and emphasising the difference between its position and the extremism, uncertainty and chaos the Conservative version of Brexit could unleash.

It should embrace the offer of a tactical alliance with other parties.
The Greens have already stood aside in Ealing Central and Acton, to help the Labour MP there defend her seat. Labour should reciprocate by withdrawing from Caroline Lucas’s constituency of Brighton Pavilion. Such deals could be made all over the country: as the thinktank Compass shows, they enhance the chances of knocking the Tories out of government.

Labour’s use of new organising technologies is promising, but it should go much further. No one on the left should design their election strategy without first reading the book Rules for Revolutionaries, by two of Bernie Sanders’ campaigners. It shows how a complete outsider almost scooped the Democratic nomination, and how the same tactics could be applied with greater effect now that they have been refined. And anyone who fears what a new Conservative government might do should rally behind Labour’s unlikely figurehead to enhance his distant prospects.

The choice before us is as follows: a party that, through strong leadership and iron discipline, allows three million children to go hungry while hedge fund bosses stash their money in the Caribbean and a party that hopes, however untidily, to make this a kinder, more equal, more inclusive nation. I will vote Labour on 8 June, and I will not hold my nose. I urge you to do the same.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Feel the burn: why do we love chilli?

Bob Holmes in The Guardian

I’ve been procrastinating. On my dining room table I have lined up three hot peppers: one habanero, flame-orange and lantern-shaped; one skinny little Thai bird’s eye chilli; and one relatively innocuous jalapeño, looking by comparison like a big green zeppelin. My mission, should I choose to accept, is to eat them.

In ordinary life, I’m at least moderately fond of hot peppers. My fridge has three kinds of salsa, a bottle of sriracha, and a jar of Szechuan hot bean paste, all of which I use regularly. But I’m not extreme: I pick the whole peppers out of my Thai curries and set them aside uneaten. And I’m a habanero virgin. Its reputation as the hottest pepper you can easily find in the grocery store has me a bit spooked, so I’ve never cooked with one, let alone eaten it neat. Still, if I’m going to write about hot peppers, I ought to have firsthand experience at the high end of the range. Plus, I’m curious, in a vaguely spectator-at-my-own-car-crash way.

When people talk about flavour, they usually focus on taste and smell. But there’s a third major flavour sense, as well, one that’s often overlooked: the physical sensations of touch, temperature and pain. The burn of chilli peppers is the most familiar example here, but there are others. Wine mavens speak of a wine’s “mouthfeel”, a concept that includes the puckery astringency of tannins – something tea drinkers also notice – and the fullness of texture that gives body to a wine. Gum chewers and peppermint fans recognise the feeling of minty coolness they get from their confections. And everyone knows the fizzy bite of carbonated drinks.

None of these sensations is a matter of smell or taste. In fact, our third primary flavour sense flies so far under our radar that even flavour wonks haven’t agreed on a single name for it. Sensory scientists are apt to refer to it as “chemesthesis”, “somatosensation”, or “trigeminal sense”, each of which covers a slightly different subset of the sense, and none of which mean much at all to the rest of the world. The common theme, though, is that all of these sensations are really manifestations of our sense of touch, and they’re surprisingly vital to our experience of flavour. Taste, smell, touch – the flavour trinity.
Sensory scientists have known for decades that chilli burn is something different from taste and smell – something more like pain. But the real breakthrough in understanding chilli burn came in 1997, when pharmacologist David Julius and his colleagues at the University of California, San Francisco, finally identified the receptor for capsaicin, the active ingredient in chilli heat. The task demanded a lot of patience: Julius and his team took every gene active in sensory nerve cells, which respond to capsaicin, and swapped them into cultured kidney cells, which don’t. Eventually, they found a gene capable of making the kidney cells respond. The gene turned out to encode a receptor – eventually named TRPV1, and pronounced “trip-vee-one” – that is activated not just by capsaicin but also by dangerously hot temperatures. In other words, when you call a chilli pepper “hot”, that’s not just an analogy – as far as your brain can tell, your mouth really is being burned. That’s a feel, not a smell or taste, and it passes to the brain through nerves that handle the sense of touch.

Like other touch receptors, TRPV1 receptors are found all over the inner layer of your skin, where they warn you of burn risk from midsummer asphalt, baking dishes straight from the oven, and the like. But they can only pick up pepper burn where the protective outer skin is thin enough to let capsaicin enter – that is, in the mouth, eyes, and a few other places. This explains the old Hungarian saying that “good paprika burns twice”.

Further tests showed that TRPV1 responds not just to heat and capsaicin but to a variety of other “hot” foods, including black pepper and ginger. More recently, several more TRP receptors have turned up that give other food-related somatosensations. TRPA1, which Julius calls the “wasabi receptor”, causes the sensation of heat from wasabi, horseradish and mustards, as well as onions, garlic and cinnamon. TRPA1 is also responsible for the back-of throat burn that aficionados value in their extra-virgin olive oil. A good oil delivers enough of a burn to cause a catch in your throat and often a cough. In fact, olive oil tasters rate oils as “one-cough” or “two-cough” oils, with the latter getting a higher rating. (One reason wasabi feels so different from olive oil is that the sulfur-containing chemicals in wasabi are volatile, so they deliver wasabi’s characteristic “nose hit”, while non-volatile olive oil merely burns the throat. Olive oil may also trigger TRPV1 receptors to some extent.) Curiously, TRPA1 is also the heat receptor that rattlesnakes use to detect their prey on a dark night.

Chilli aficionados get pretty passionate about their pods, choosing just the right kind of chilli for each application from the dozens available. The difference among chilli varieties is partly a matter of smell and taste: some are sweeter, some are fruitier, some have a dusky depth to their flavour. But there are differences in the way they feel in your mouth, too.

One difference is obvious: heat level. Chilli experts measure a chilli’s level of burn in Scoville heat units, a scale first derived by Wilbur Scoville, a pharmacist and pharmaceutical researcher, in 1912. Working in Detroit, Scoville had the bright idea that he could measure a pepper’s hotness by diluting its extract until tasters could no longer detect the burn. The hotter the pepper was originally, the more you’d have to dilute it to wash out the burn. Pepper extract that had to be diluted just tenfold to quench the heat scores 10 Scoville heat units; a much hotter one that has to be diluted one hundred thousandfold scores 100,000 Scovilles.

How Britain has gone crazy for chillies

Nowadays, researchers usually avoid the need for expensive panels of tasters by measuring the chilli’s capsaicin content directly in the lab and converting that to Scoville units. The more capsaicin, the hotter the chilli.

However you measure it, chillies differ widely in their heat level. Anaheims and poblanos are quite mild, tipping the scale at about 500 and 1,000 Scovilles, respectively. Jalapeños come in around 5,000, serranos about 15,000, cayennes about 40,000, Thai bird’s eye chillies near 100,000, and the habanero on my table somewhere between 100,000 and 300,000 Scovilles. From there, intrepid souls can venture into the truly hot, topping out with the Carolina Reaper at a staggering 2.2 million Scovilles, which approaches the potency of police-grade pepper spray.

Many chilli heads claim that a pepper’s heat is defined by more than just intensity. If anyone would know about this it would probably be Paul Bosland, the director of the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University. As a plant breeder by trade, he has a keen professional interest in all the tiny details of how chilli heat differs from one pod to the next.

Bosland says he and his colleagues distinguish four other components to chilli heat in addition to heat level. The first is how fast the heat starts. “Most people, when they bite the habanero, it maybe takes 20 to 30 seconds before they feel the heat, whereas an Asian chilli is immediate,” he says. Chillies also differ in how long the burn lasts. Some, like jalapeños and many of the Asian varieties, fade relatively quickly; others, like habaneros, may linger for hours. Where the chilli hits you also varies. “Usually, with a jalapeño, it’s the tip of your tongue and lips, with New Mexico pod types it’s in the middle of the mouth, and with a habanero it’s at the back,” says Bosland. And fourth, Bosland and his crew distinguish between “sharp” and “flat” qualities of burn. “Sharp is like pins sticking in your mouth, while flat is like a paintbrush,” he says. New Mexico chillies tend to be flat while Asian ones tend to be sharp.

For women, there’s no social status to being able to eat the hottest chilli pepper, while for men there is Professor John Hayes, University of Pennsylvania

It’s time to take the plunge. First up, the jalapeño. As you’d expect from its relatively wimpy ranking in the hot pepper standings, it gives only a mild burn, which builds gently and mostly at the front of the mouth. Confronted with such a tame burn, I have plenty of attention left to focus on its thick, crisp flesh and sweet, almost bell-peppery flavour. The Thai bird’s-eye chilli, second on my list, is much smaller, and its flesh proves to be much thinner and tougher. Despite that, though, it almost immediately lets loose a blast of heat that explodes to fill my mouth from front to back, making me gasp for breath. No gradual build to this one – it’s a sledgehammer blow. If I think hard, I might imagine that the chilli heat is a little bit sharper, pricklier, than the jalapeño. But I could just be fooling myself.

Finally, the one I’ve been dreading, the habanero. I cut a tiny slice and start chewing. The first thing that strikes me is how different the flavour is. Instead of a vegetal, bell pepper flavour, the habanero gives me a much sweeter, fruitier impression that’s surprisingly pleasant. For about 15 or 20 seconds, anyway – and then, slowly but inexorably, the heat builds. And builds. And builds, long after I’ve swallowed the slice of pepper itself, until I can’t think of much else besides the fire that fills my mouth. It definitely hits farther back in the mouth than the Thai chilli, though there’s a late-breaking flare-up on my tongue as well. The whole experience lasts five or 10 minutes, and even a good half hour later it’s as though coals are gently banked in my mouth.

Having set my mouth afire, I’d now like to quench the burn. Surprisingly, scientists can’t offer a whole lot of help in this regard. A cold drink certainly helps, because the coolness calms the heat-sensing TRPV1 receptors that capsaicin excites. The only problem – as you’ve no doubt noticed if you’ve tried to cope with a chilli burn this way – is that the effect goes away in just a few seconds, as your mouth returns to normal body temperature. You’ve probably heard, too, that sugar and fat help douse the fire, but the researchers themselves aren’t entirely convinced.

“The best thing out there is probably cold, whole milk,” says John Hayes of the department of food science at the University of Pennsylvania. “The cold is going to help mask the burn, the viscosity is going to mask the burn, and the fat is going to pull the capsaicin off the receptor.” When pressed, though, he notes that there’s not a lot of data to back that up.

Making a food more viscous has been shown to damp down taste – probably just because it provides a competing sensation to distract our attention, Hayes notes, but he can’t think of anyone who’s tested whether it also reduces chilli burn. And he’s not entirely sure that sugar really helps, either. “I’m not convinced that it actually knocks the heat down, or whether it just makes it more pleasant,” he says. Even the value of fats or oils – which sounds like they ought to help wash capsaicin, which is fat soluble, off the receptors – is in dispute. If you’re feeling the burn, says Bruce Bryant of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, the capsaicin has already penetrated your tissue, so a superficial rinse of whole milk or olive oil isn’t going to help much.

Millions of people actively seek out the pain of hot chillies as a form of pleasure.
The burn features prominently in more than a few of the world’s great cuisines, with more than a quarter of the world’s population eating hot peppers daily. Britain spends £20m annually on hot sauce.

We don’t take pleasure in eating food that’s still searingly hot from the oven, even though that delivers exactly the same sensation we get from chillies: same receptors, same nerves. We don’t choose to chemically burn our tongues with strong acids. So why do we happily, even eagerly, inflict pain by chillies? Whatever the secret is, it seems to be unique to humans. No other mammal on the planet has a similar taste for chillies. (Birds eat them enthusiastically, but only because they lack receptors that respond to capsaicin. To a parakeet, the hottest habanero is as bland as a bell pepper.)

One possible explanation is that chilli lovers simply don’t feel the pain as intensely as those who shun hot peppers. In the lab, it’s certainly true that people who are repeatedly exposed to capsaicin become less sensitive to it. Genetics may play some part, too. Studies of identical twins (who share all their genes) and fraternal twins (who share only half) suggest that genes account for 18-58% of our liking for chilli peppers. Some people may have more sensitive TRPV1 receptors, for example – though Hayes, who’s looking into that now, says: “The jury is really still out on whether there is meaningful TRPV1 variation.”

It’s abundantly clear, though, that chilli lovers aren’t immune to the pain. Just ask one. “I like it so all my pores open up and tears are rolling down my face,” says Hayes. “But with two young kids in the house, I don’t get that very often.” For now, Hayes makes do with a handy bottle of sriracha hot sauce. “My kids refer to it as Daddy’s ketchup,” he says.

It’s clear from listening to Hayes that he – and probably most other chilli eaters – actively enjoys the pain. That paradox has drawn the attention of psychologists for several decades now. Back in the 1980s, psychologist and pioneering chilli researcher Paul Rozin of the University of Pennsylvania proposed that chilli eating is a form of “benign masochism”, like watching a scary movie or riding a roller coaster. After all, most forms of pain are warnings of imminent harm. That baked potato still steaming from the oven is hot enough to kill the cells lining your mouth, potentially causing permanent damage. But chilli burn – except at its uppermost, million-Scoville extreme – is a false alarm: a way to get the thrill of living on the edge without the risk of exposing yourself to real danger.

A few decades later, Hayes and his student Nadia Byrnes (perhaps the best name ever for a hot pepper researcher) took Rozin’s ball and ran with it. If chilli heads are looking for thrills, Byrnes and Hayes reasoned, you’d expect them to have sensation-seeking personalities. And, sure enough, when they went to the vast arsenal of tests that psychologists have developed to measure facets of personality, they found several measures of sensation seeking, of which the latest and best was the Arnett Inventory of Sensation Seeking. Then they set out to see whether chilli lovers really do crave excitement.

When Byrnes and Hayes tested nearly 250 volunteers, they found that chilli lovers were indeed more likely to be sensation seekers than people who avoided chillies. And it’s not just that sensation seekers approach all of life with more gusto – the effect was specific to chillies. When it came to more boring foods like candy floss, hot dogs or skimmed milk, the sensation seekers were no more likely to partake than their more timid confreres.

Chilli eaters also tended to score higher on another aspect of personality called sensitivity to reward, which measures how drawn we are to praise, attention and other external reinforcement. And when the researchers looked more closely, an interesting pattern emerged: sensation seeking was the best predictor of chilli eating in women, while in men, sensitivity to reward was the better predictor.

Hayes thinks that’s because machismo plays a role in the chilli eating of men, but not women. “For women, there’s no social status to being able to eat the hottest chilli pepper, while for men there is,” he speculates. Without the heavy hand of machismo on the scales, women’s chilli eating is more strongly governed by their internal drive for excitement.

Incidentally, while chilli lovers laud the rush they get from a spicy dish, and sometimes claim the peppers “wake up” their palate to other flavours, you’ll often hear chilli-averse people complain that the burn keeps them from savouring other flavours in their meal. Which is it? The matter has received surprisingly little scientific study, but the bottom line seems to be that if capsaicin blocks other flavours, the effect is small. Most likely, when people complain that they “can’t taste as well” after a spicy mouthful, it’s largely because they’re paying so much attention to the unfamiliar burn that the other flavours fly under the radar. In other words, it’s not “hot” but “too hot” that interferes with the enjoyment of flavour – and the threshold where hot becomes too hot is a very personal one.

When Your Capitalist Economy Fails, Blame the Foreigners!

Decoding The Bhagwad Gita

Roopa Pai

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Explaining Debt and Deficit - Prof. Wolff

What is Money?

How does the system to debt work?

How to overcome the Master Slave Dialectic in Capitalism

Prof. Wolff on Hegel's Master-Slave Dialectic

Pakistan's Panamagate - I told you so!

Irfan Husain in The Dawn

IN a nation of some 200 million, I doubt if a handful could pinpoint Panama’s location. And yet, this tiny Central American state has dominated Pakistan’s political discourse for the last year to the point of tedium.

Finally, after nearly two months of hearings before a Supreme Court bench, the verdict is here. And, as I had predicted to friends a few weeks ago, it is a cop-out that has both sides declaring victory.

For me, the abiding image is of the Sharif brothers, Nawaz and Shahbaz, embracing and beaming at each other. In the PTI camp, we watched Imran Khan and senior party members pass sweetmeats around.

For the SC, the verdict gave the impression of balance and fairness, with something for both sides to cheer about. Imran Khan had a lot of praise for the two dissenting judges who declared the prime minister ineligible to rule because he didn’t meet the criteria of honesty and integrity laid down in the Constitution.

The ruling PML-N is gloating over a verdict that, for the time being, has let their leader off the hook. As far as the party is concerned, it has every chance of hanging on to power until the 2018 election. Here, according to opinion polls, it is most likely to win a majority. So who’s the real winner in the verdict?

When the Panama brouhaha began a year ago, I had suggested that the Sharif brothers were masters of kicking the can down the road, and would drag matters out indefinitely. Now, with a joint investigative team (JIT) being set up, expect more of the same.

Even though the SC has required the JIT to submit fortnightly progress reports, the fact remains that members of this committee will all be serving members of the civil and military bureaucracy. To expect them all to perform their tasks independently is a rather big ask.

Then there is the problem of the team having to obtain and verify information in different jurisdictions. Will they be able to force banks and government departments in Dubai and Qatar to hand over documents? And all this in two months? Forgive my scepticism, but having first-hand knowledge of the pace at which our bureaucracy works, I have some doubts.
No wonder that Imran Khan is demanding the PM’s resignation. He knows how difficult it will be to get a group of civil servants to report against a sitting PM. But he’s right in underlining Nawaz Sharif’s loss of moral authority to rule.

Irrespective of the legal rights and wrongs of the case, it is clear that the daily drip-drip-drip of corrosive evidence against Sharif and his family has done much to strip away the aura of decency he had tried to project. And his disqualification by the two dissenting judges on the bench has reinforced the impression of corrupt practices at the heart of the Sharif empire.

With supreme irony, Asif Zardari has also demanded Nawaz Sharif’s resignation, and asked if he would be taken to the local police station for questioning, or would the JIT go the PM House? The reference here was to his own vicious treatment over a decade of incarceration.

Indeed, the PPP has good reason to be aggrieved at what has often appeared to be its targeting by the judiciary, starting with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s judicial murder to the sacking of another elected PM, Yousuf Raza Gilani. In many other cases, the judiciary has displayed an apparent animus against the PPP.

And yet, despite demands for his resignation from the opposition, Nawaz Sharif isn’t going anywhere. He didn’t get to where he is by being sensitive to corruption charges. Throughout his political career, he has shown himself to be tough and opportunistic.

Imran Khan has given examples from other countries where leaders tainted by the Panama Papers have either provided full disclosure (David Cameron), or resigned (Iceland’s Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson). However, members of Putin’s and Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle have not even bothered denying the allegations against them contained in the leaks.

As we know, there is no tradition of resignations in Pakistan. Even in Israel, Bibi Netanyahu is mired in corruption charges, but is refusing to step down. But in Israel, the police are far more independent than they are in Pakistan, and have investigated similar charges against presidents and prime ministers before.

Whatever happens next, Panama is a name that will continue to resound on our TV chat shows for some time to come. But will the verdict reduce corruption? I doubt it. But it will force crooked politicians to be more careful about their bookkeeping.

A final factoid: the verdict triggered our stock exchange’s biggest bull run, with the index shooting up by 1,800 points in a single session. Do investors know something we don’t?

----The background of the case to those who don't know by Husain Haqqani

Pakistan’s Supreme Court is an arena for politics, not an avenue for resolution of legal disputes. Unlike other countries where the apex court serves as the court of last appeal, Pakistan’s Supreme Court often entertains direct applications from political actors and generates high-profile media noise. In that tradition its judgment in the so-called Panama Papers case is a classic political balancing act. It raises questions about Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s property in London, but does not remove him from office.

Opposition politician Imran Khan, currently a favourite of Pakistan’s establishment, initiated the case after Mr. Sharif’s name appeared in leaked documents about owners of offshore companies worldwide. The documents indicated that the Sharif family had borrowed money against four flats they own in London’s posh Mayfair district.

Show them the money

Having an offshore account is not in itself a violation of Pakistani law, but transferring money from Pakistan illegally is. Hence the case decided on Thursday revolved around the provenance of the money with which the Sharifs became owners of the property in London. In hearings that began in January, the petitioners insisted that the Sharif family’s ownership of this particular property could not have been possible without their possession of undeclared wealth or illegal transfers of money from Pakistan.

Instead of insisting on the time-honoured principle that accusers must prove their allegation beyond a shadow of a doubt and that investigations must precede judicial hearings, the Supreme Court acted politically. It asked the Sharifs to explain the source of money used to buy property abroad, forcing the Sharif family’s lawyers to offer various (sometimes contradictory) explanations at sensational hearings.

One of these explanations comprised a letter from a member of the Qatari royal family who said that he had transferred $8 million to the Sharif family as return on investments made in cash by the Prime Minister’s deceased father, Mian Muhammad Sharif, in the Qatari family’s real estate business in 1980.

The Qatar letter did not settle the matter because the Sharif family members had, at different times, given different explanations for the source of their funds. Moreover, the timelines of the acquisition of the London properties, the formation of the offshore company that was used to buy them and the apparent cash dealings in Qatar did not always align. In any case, a Qatari royal might be willing to send a letter for his friends, the Sharifs, but could not be expected to testify in person in Pakistan and submit himself to cross-examination, something that would be needed if the case ever went to proper trial.

The Supreme Court’s final verdict was split 3-2 among the five-judge bench, with two ruling that Prime Minister Sharif should be disqualified from holding office for failing to explain the source of money for his property. The majority said there was insufficient evidence for such a drastic step and instead announced the formation of a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) comprising five members.

These would include appointees from the Federal Investigation Agency, the National Accountability Bureau, the State Bank of Pakistan, the Securities & Exchange Commission of Pakistan and one representative each from the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and Military Intelligence (MI).

The fallout

The Prime Minister’s side breathed a sigh of relief that the court did not disqualify him from holding office, a decision it has given in the past for the removal of elected civilian Prime Ministers. Imran Khan, who wanted disqualification, declared victory even with the JIT’s creation. He and other opponents of the government are hoping that Nawaz Sharif will now bleed politically from the thousand cuts that are likely to be inflicted on him through reports emanating from the JIT.

Mr. Sharif has won elections before notwithstanding allegations of personal financial wrongdoing, but a new wave of charges could make things difficult for him in Punjab’s urban centres when Pakistan goes to the polls in 2018.

Ironically, the Supreme Court’s nearly 549-page judgment begins not by invoking some eminent jurist, but with a reference to Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather, citing Balzac’s well-known words, “Behind every great fortune there is a crime.” But then most Pakistanis, including judges and military officers, have known for years that the fortunes of Pakistan’s uber-wealthy families come from bending or breaking laws or using political connections for private advantage. Why go looking into the origins of wealth now?

The creation of the JIT, and including two military intelligence service members who are not trained in matters relating to business and finance, says more about Pakistan’s judicial and political system than it says about the merits of this particular case. The issue in Pakistan is never corruption or failing to explain the source of funds for property. It is where someone fits into the permanent state’s scheme of things.

Nawaz Sharif was fine when he was picked up by General Zia-ul-Haq as leader of a military-backed Punjabi political elite after the coup of 1977. Courts and investigators seldom found anything wrong with the phenomenal expansion of his family’s wealth until he decided to start questioning Pakistan’s military establishment and, in recent years, even assert himself in core policy areas. Politicians can make money as long as they do not seek a role in policymaking. When Benazir Bhutto stood for a different paradigm for Pakistan, she and her husband were subjected to long-drawn legal proceedings over corruption. Asif Ali Zardari might have fewer problems on that score now after he is content to parrot the establishment’s views on national security and foreign policy. Nawaz Sharif is being put through the wringer to become more like Mr. Zardari and less like Bhutto.

As for the Pakistani Supreme Court, it intervenes to swing politics one way or another by favouring the country’s establishment against politicians or vice versa, to justify patently unconstitutional military takeovers and occasionally to embarrass one party against another. Unlike elsewhere in the world, its function is not just to determine the constitutionality and legality of judgments already given by lower courts.

As a victim of one such Commission (ironically, created on Mr. Sharif’s petition) in the so-called Memogate Case, I know that the principal damage inflicted by its proceedings is to public image. The Memogate Commission’s findings never led to criminal charges, not even an FIR, against me for any crime as none was actually committed. But its proceedings and comments created sufficient political noise for some Pakistanis to still think I am a fugitive from Pakistani law.

Signal from the deep state?

Generating smoke without fire against persons deemed difficult or uncontrollable by Pakistan’s permanent state establishment, the deep state, is often the greatest accomplishment of inquiries created by the Supreme Court on direct petitions like the one over the Panama Papers.

The JIT might still find nothing definitive for prosecution but Mr. Sharif is on notice. And that is how Pakistan’s system is designed to work.

Property feeds the roots of inequality in Britain. Inheritance will entrench it

Ian Jack in The Guardian

What did our grandparents leave us? That will depend on who they were and what they possessed, but in my case, not untypical of my generation, it wasn’t very much.

From my father’s side the treasures included: a stuffed canary; a tiny stuffed crocodile (a gharial, taken from the Ganges); some crested china bought in seaside resorts; and a canteen of excellent cutlery given as a wedding present in 1899 and never taken from its box. On my grandmother’s death, a display cabinet was bought to accommodate this sudden Victorian infusion into our household, which already had a fine little portrait of Rob Roy inherited from my mother’s father, to be followed much later (after a diversion to an aunt and then a cousin) by a wall-clock and a watercolour of a street in Kirkcaldy that looked very pretty from a distance. I’m sure to have forgotten other items – for example, I’m just now remembering the 78rpm discs of Enrico Caruso and Harry Lauder – but basically that was it.

If there was money, there was very little. No property, you see. Neither side of the family had ever owned a house – and so, in terms of material changes to their children’s lives, their deaths were inconsequential. I, on the other hand, do own a house. More than that, I own a house in London. My death, and that of a million like me, will be very consequential.

According to Steve Webb, policy director of the Royal London mutual insurance company, “a wall of housing wealth [is] set to cascade through the generations in the coming years”.

A study published this week by Royal London estimates that roughly £400bn presently tied up in homes owned by people aged 65 to 85 will be handed down to their children and grandchildren. A typical estate of what the study calls this “wealth mountain” is worth between £400,000 and £500,000, to be shared out between four or five children or adult grandchildren and often to be reinvested in property.

The study is based on a YouGov survey of more than 5,600 people covering three generations: the so-called “grandparents generation” of 65- to 85-year-old homeowners; the “sandwich” generation of parents aged 45 to 64, who have living parents from whom they might expect to inherit; and a “children’s” generation of adults aged 25 to 44 who have owner-occupier parents and grandparents.

Surveys are only surveys: caveat emptor. Nevertheless, the report discovers some intriguing differences between generations. While the youngest group believes that their grandparents should spend freely to enjoy their retirement, the grandparents themselves think it right to hoard their money for their grandchildren. Many don’t wait to die. A third of those aged 75 and over had given sizeable sums of money to their grandchildren, a generation that according to the study’s calculations have received a total of £38bn from both their parents and grandparents – often, especially in London and the south-east, to spend on property. And while grandparents tend to act out of a sense of distant benevolence, parents are responding to the “pressure” exerted by their children’s predicaments. The study’s title picks up this theme: Will harassed “baby boomers” rescue Generation Rent?

Earlier this year, the Institute for Fiscal Studies published research on the growth of inheritance as a phenomenon in British life. It showed how less than 40% of the cohort born in the 1930s have received or expect to receive a bequest, while for those born in the 1970s the figure is 75%. Their benefactors are on average much richer. In 2002-3, the household wealth of people aged 80 and over averaged £160,000; 10 years later, thanks mainly to increases in home ownership and house prices, the average had risen to £230,000.

So far, the impact of inheritance on entrenching or heightening inequality has been fairly small – the average inheritance equals only 3% of the other income its recipient can expect to generate in a lifetime. But neither the Royal London nor the IFS study expects that to last. “We are entering an unprecedented era where the older generation is retiring with vast housing wealth,” says the first in its final paragraph. “That wealth is largely being preserved through retirement and will in due course find its way down through the generations. Public policy making needs to take far more account of these very substantial financial flows and perhaps focus more attention on those who are not likely to be the beneficiaries.”

In other words, we are re-entering the world of the Victorian novel, in which suitable marriages, contested wills and misplaced legacies drive the plot, while the poor – the people without lawyers – press their faces against the window of this vigorous, scheming world and merely invite our sympathy.

It wasn’t supposed to happen. “Come with us, then, towards the next decade,” said Margaret Thatcher, winding up her speech to the Conservative party conference in 1985. “Let us together set our sights on a Britain where three out of four families own their home, where owning shares is as common as having a car, where families have a degree of independence their forefathers could only dream about.”

Anyone under the age of 45 is now much less likely to be a homeowner than people of the same age 25 years ago

Two years later the writer Neal Ascherson wrote a prescient column in the Observer that he recalls as “the most popular column I ever wrote … It was greedily read by the yuppie generation – and then fiercely denounced for being wrong.” Foreseeing that soaring house prices meant that London’s middle-class young would inherit many millions when their parents died, Ascherson predicted an “explosion of liquid wealth that would create instant and colossal inequality”: a society with an upper class rich enough to maintain servants, in a “court city” drained of industry that had reverted to the production of luxurious baubles.

Economists pointed out that the cash raised from property sales wouldn’t be “liquid” – it would be sucked up by the inflated cost of the new houses the inheritors moved into – but from today’s vantage point Ascherson’s futurism does not look so wrong. A new super-rich class with butlers and housemaids has moved in, though mainly from overseas rather than Britain, while owner-occupation has become a mirage for growing numbers of the less well-off.

Homeownership today stands just slightly above the rate when Thatcher made her speech: 64% of all households compared with 61% of all households in 1985, having declined from a peak of 71% in 2003. Anyone under the age of 45 is now much less likely to be a homeowner than people of the same age 25 years ago, while the reverse is true of older age groups.

Private renters account for more than 20% of the housing market;
in 1985 the figure was 9%. High rents rule out the kind of savings needed for a deposit on a house – with an average price in London equivalent to more than 16 times the average London salary, and 12 and 13 times the mean income of people in their 20s and 30s in prosperous cities such as Cambridge and Brighton. Meanwhile prices, which might be expected to slump amid the economic uncertainty of Brexit, have instead held reasonably steady because the fall in the value of sterling has made them more attractive to international investors.

As the IFS says, these developments mean that inherited wealth is likely to play a more important – I would say crucial – role “in determining the lifetime economic resources of younger generations, with important implications for inequality and social mobility”. What can grammar schools do – supposing they really are agents of social mobility – against this coming weight of money, which will deepen privilege like a coastal shelf? The metaphor is borrowed from Philip Larkin. “They set you up, your mum and dad. They say they mean to, and they do.” For some of us, This Be the Verse.

Friday, 21 April 2017

Why I want to see private schools abolished

Tim Lott in The Guardian

I am inclined towards equality of opportunity for all children. I am also aware that such a phrase is open to multiple definitions – and with most of them, such equality verges on the impossible. For instance, we can all hold up our hands in pious disapproval at the unfairness of, say, familial nepotism – such as that seen among Donald Trump’s brood – yet most of us are not much better. Anyone who is educated, or from a middle-class background is also operating on a manifestly unequal playing field.
This is largely because of the workings of social capital – of which nepotism is simply an extreme example. At a mundane level, it means having parents who are educated, interested in education, connected within the professions and happy to use those connections – what you might call cultural nepotism. I am not innocent of this. Conscience takes a fall when one’s children are involved.
This kind of inequality is difficult to legislate against. The divide between rich and poor families is growing, and largely inescapable. A new report from the Institute for Public Policy Research thinktank shows that the number of internships has risen 50% since 2010 – another leg-up for those who can afford to take low-paid or unpaid positions.

Add in decent housing, good nutrition and the imparting of confidence and the middle classes have a huge advantage, even before you talk about schooling. There are other ineradicable forms of inequality – genetic capital for instance, since intelligence, is, according to most scientific sources, at least 50% hereditary. But social capital is the most visible.

Middle-class kids will, on aggregate, still come out on top because of their pre-existing advantages

This entrenched and inevitable advantage is, perversely, why I oppose private schools far more firmly than grammar schools (which, at least in theory, could be meritocratic). It is not that I hope to take away from privileged children any unfair head start. I just want to take away the only advantage that is purely down to money and entirely subject to legislation.
Private schools add insult to injury. If you get rid of them and shift all the pupils into the state system, nothing will guarantee the latter’s improvement with more certainty. And the middle-class kids will, on aggregate, still come out on top because of their pre-existing advantages – so it is especially egregious that so many people so staunchly oppose their abolition.

Grammar schools, as envisaged in the 1944 Education Act (with selection based not solely on tests but also on aptitude and past performance) might be the answer to those who suggest the abolition of private schools would result in “dumbing down” – as long as they were a resource for the clever and motivated rather than the privileged and tutored. There would still be inequality, but it would be minimised. Absolutely level playing fields are, and always will be, a myth. However, we can make the fields less ridiculously skewed than they are at the moment.

It is doable, practically. Shame that it just appears impossible to do politically. The fact that Jeremy Corbyn is suggesting charging private schools VAT is a step in the right direction. A few more steps in that direction and he might establish a policy that would make me vote for him.

But I’ll take a (state-educated) guess that it won’t happen. There are too many people with too many fingers in the private-schooling pie – among them a fair number of Corbyn’s shadow cabinet. Because when those who stand against inequality simultaneously take advantage of it, their motivation is sorely undermined – whether or not it would be a vote winner.

Such is the insidiousness of educational inequality – so long as it works for the policy-makers themselves, it has little or no chance of real reform. Those responsible can always tell themselves that it’s just for their children’s sake. It is understandable. It may even be forgivable. But it is a total cop-out.

We carry on giving, but isn’t charity an offence to basic dignity?

John Harris in The Guardian

Someone needs cancer treatment only available in Germany. Someone else is leading a 187-mile bike ride across India to pay for research into brain tumours. Top right is a team of swimmers with learning disabilities who want to attend an international competition in Sheffield; bottom left is a girl who desperately needs a bone marrow transplant. And all around are numbers that dance in front of your eyes: “£64,994 raised by 2,773 supporters … £1,044 raised by 47 supporters … £900 raised by 23 supporters.”

The online donation platform JustGiving seemingly soothes the world’s ills with a sleek, altruistic efficiency the pre-digital world could get nowhere near. Since its foundation in 2001, it claims to have raised $4.2bn (£3.3bn) for “good causes” in 164 countries.

It also styles itself as a “for-profit, for-good organisation”, but those two elements might not mesh together quite as gracefully as its founders would like. The 5% that JustGiving skims off each donation – slightly more if they are gift-aided – reportedly amounts to £20m a year. According to its accounts, one director has a salary of £152,000 plus pension contributions of £46,600. Recently there have also been questions about the provenance of two high-profile appeals it has hosted, both related to the recent Westminster attack.

Somewhat unbelievably, online donation platforms fall outside the remit of the fundraising regulator and, as reported by the Guardian this week, there are now loud calls to correct such a glaring anomaly.

According to a recent survey by the Charities Aid Foundation, only 50% of us now think charities are trustworthy. On top of hostility to government and big business, the inward-looking sensibilities crystallised in the Brexit vote might be colouring public attitudes towards the so-called third sector.

There is a sense of the same sentiments in all that noise about aid spending, now the subject of an intervention by that great charitable icon Bill Gates, who wants Theresa May to stick with the UK’s commitment to spending 0.7% of GDP on aid.

There again, even if a new public meanness partly explains some people’s scepticism, it may not explain it all. Many may well have more rational reasons: the sense of a world too beyond scrutiny, highlighted by the Kids Company saga; a reasonable suspicion that high-profile fundraising is often an easy way for governments to be let off the hook, and for wealthy people to draw attention away from their tax affairs.

But here is the strange thing. We still give almost as much to charity as we did 10 years ago, and the imperative to dig in one’s pocket has never been more ubiquitous. The shaking of tins on drizzly Saturday mornings is the stuff of the 20th century: now, charity is loud, brash and firmly built into the narcissistic, virtue-signalling world of social media. The unfortunate are helped via South American trekking and polar hikes; venturing to the other side of the world is said to be the most efficient way of helping the needy. Equally, few question the motives of the apparently selfless soul who has put up a JustGiving page or appealed for help via such platforms as GoFundMe.

Meanwhile, charity increasingly extends to things that once came out of our taxes, with the frontier between the two disappearing fast: NHS appeals for radiotherapy equipment in Swindon, support for people with dementia in Essex, cancer treatment in London, and much more. And whereas fundraising drives for state schools were once presented as a means of funding climbing frames, school trips or specialist sports equipment, donations now increasingly pay for the fundamental things that cuts are putting in jeopardy.

‘Help for Heroes is also a symbol of the fact that the state cannot adequately provide for the soldiers it puts in harm’s way.’ Photograph: Sam Frost

A primary school in Sheffield has just launched a campaign for the £100,000 it needs to fix its roof. In January, a headteacher from Brighton told the Guardian that every computer at her school was bought via fundraising, and that the proceeds from the annual school play now go on “resources to use in lessons”. In that context, if you have affluent parents and staff who know how to tap the right people, you survive. But what happens if you don’t?

Clearly, a lot of the worthy causes that benefit from sponsored walks, bake-offs and Indian bike-rides can easily be recast as examples of outrageous government negligence. There might be no better example than Help for Heroes – which nobly assists those who have “suffered injuries or illness as a result of their service to the nation”– but is also a symbol of the fact that the state cannot adequately provide for the soldiers it puts in harm’s way. Why does such a basic aspect of any advanced society require a begging bowl?

The word “normalisation” springs to mind. That said, some of us are old enough to remember the hardcore socialist values that once damned charity as a get-out for vested interests, and an offence to basic human dignity. As far as I can tell, the basic argument still stands: charity eats away at the idea of a decent life as a basic right, and turns its recipients into supplicants; not for nothing is it the favoured get-out of tyrants, tycoons and monarchs.

Scepticism about fundraising may be a sign that some of this critique lingers in the public mind; the pang of unease people feel when presented with heart-tugging appeals might be about something much deeper than the predicament of the people in the photographs.

Certain economic and cultural changes vividly denote our seemingly endless passage away from the postwar settlement into a much more Darwinian world. Trade union membership declines. Private debt soars. Public housing is consigned to history. And at every turn, what one group of people rely on is suddenly dependent on others’ generosity.

That is not to deny the sterling work charities do, or the inescapable compulsion to meet their appeals by reaching for your debit card. What bothers me is the future implied by some of the categories listed on JustGiving’s website: “education”, “international aid”, “health and medical”, and “disability”, the latter with a cutesy little icon of a wheelchair.

In the midst of an election called by a Tory vicar’s daughter in which the opposition is trying in vain to land arguments about austerity and poverty, the key question seems more relevant than ever: where is all this is taking us, and who will the bowl be passed to next?

Online political advertising is a black box and democracy should be worried

Jasper Jackson in The Guardian

As your mind wearily contemplates being exposed to yet another political campaign, are your dreams haunted by battle buses, billboards and TV debates? Or is it Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Google?

On the evidence of last year’s EU referendum, much of the campaigning, and much of the money spent on political advertising, will be online. And it will happen in a way that will be largely hidden from scrutiny by either the public or regulators.

During the referendum, Vote Leave spent £2.7m with one small Canadian digital marketing firm that specialises in political campaigns – Aggregate IQ. The sum was well over a third of Vote Leave’s total budget.

Two other campaign groups – both of which received large donations from the Leave campaign - gave Aggregate IQ a further £765,000, taking the total pumped through the company to almost £3.5m. Vote Leave director Dominic Cummings is quoted on the company’s website saying “We couldn’t have done it without them.”

Yet the invoices for the money they paid to Aggregate IQ, which were handed to the Electoral Commission, list vague jargon-filled specifications with little indication of how the ads were delivered. It may tell us Aggregate IQ were running a “targeted video app installed and display media campaign” but gives no clue about where those ads appeared or who saw them. Did most of the money go on Facebook or YouTube? Did they spend more money on reaching under 45s in Hull or pensioners in Canterbury? There’s no way of knowing, not least because the Electoral Commission doesn’t ask for the information.

Meanwhile Cambridge Analytica, the digital targeting experts part-owned by US billionaire Robert Mercer, were credited with super-charging the Leave.EU campaign, even getting a mention in a book about campaign by its chief funder Arron Banks. Yet according to filings with the Electoral Commission there was no paid relationship with the firm at all. The Electoral Commission is currently investigating, as is the Information Commissioner’s Office over the company’s use of data.

These two companies promise to sway the electorate using high-tech targeting of voters, yet not only does the Electoral Commission have little idea of how the money is being spent, but many of the different messages those campaigns show chosen sets of targets are hidden from the rest of us.

An ad in a newspaper or magazine, a billboard or tube poster, can be seen by anybody who happens to come across it. They are targeted in a blunt way, by location, readership etc, but who they are appealing to, the messages used and the money spent is clear for all to see.

But online, ads are directed at far more specific target groups, and shown only to them. Suspect someone is a bit racist? Show them pictures of dark skinned migrants lining up at a border. Know someone regularly visits Spain? Emphasise how much longer it will take to go through airport security.

Just as importantly, you can make sure that you don’t show the wrong ads to the wrong people. The racist dog whistle doesn’t get pushed at people likely to be from, or comfortable with, ethnic minorities. The lengthy customs checks don’t get shown to those with an all-consuming fear of terror attacks.

Of course, people will see ads that aren’t aimed at them online – the targeting is far from perfect - but the digital world allows paid-for political campaigning to split into numerous conversations that rarely overlap.

This combination of digital marketing firms that are required to reveal little about what they do, and digital ads that are different for each segment of the population, make political advertising online opaque in way traditional ads were not.

And the approach seems to work. A more sophisticated digital strategy is regularly cited by Cummings and other Leave campaigners as as example of how they outsmarted Remain. If you were planning how to win June’s election, you’d be mad not to pay close attention to how they did it, and do your best to replicate it. And that means as we approach yet another nationwide vote, it will be harder than ever to see what impact money and the political advertising it pays for is having on the result.