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I have long been fascinated by Britain’s refusal to return the Elgin Marbles to Greece, and the story above is just the latest in the saga. There have been moves in the last decade by museums and universities to return artifacts and bones to the aboriginal tribes from whom they were taken. At present in parts of North America, new archaeological finds of ancient remains are studied and then returned to nearby groups for traditional burial. But the British Museum (or more properly, the UK government) has been reluctant to return cultural treasures brought from Greece, Egypt and other parts of the Levant, India and beyond.
The fact that the Marbles were “purchased” from the Ottomans is a very convenient rationale. Modern western legalistic thinking is broadly based upon the Ten Commandments as a moral code, especially the shorthand version:
Thou shall not steal
. Apparently this originally referred to stealing people – kidnapping – and not to stealing goods. Stealing goods was proscribed in many other parts of the Old Testament, with varying penalties / remedies. (Wikipedia has a good article. )
“Thou shalt not steal” is a rule that very much operates for the benefit of those with something worth stealing, and it also reinforces the moral high ground of the victim: never mind that the thief was starving and you have lots of food – it is still wrong and an affront against the natural order.
I prefer the Buddha’s version as offered in his precepts, which I understand as meaning:
Do not accept what is not freely given
. This moral law weakens the legalistic position of the British Museum because the Greek people did not freely give the marbles to Lord Elgin. Buying hardwood from the Burmese junta falls into a similar category: the Burmese people are not freely giving or selling their forests. Just because you bought a boatload of timber from someone doesn’t mean that you have a moral right to it.
The British Museum and others used to say that the artifacts from developing nations are being protected, and when those nations are able to adequately preserve and protect those artifacts , they will be returned. I am pretty sure that the Greeks can protect their antiquities at least as well as the British Museum.
How sad that this is still an issue.
Mr Galbraith’s article on the troubles with Texas’ electrical grid structure was excellent reading, not least because it is one more example of the inevitable civic distress that accompanies the privatisation of public utilities. The theory, beginning with Mr Mises and promoted extensively by Mrs Thatcher, is that the owners of rent-producing capital projects will invest for the long term to ensure the continued extraction of economic rents. This rarely happens. The owners almost always maximise the rents and minimise investment, and then they are shocked (shocked, I say) when they discover that their systems are not resilient in the face of unusual conditions.
The Grenfell enquiry in UK is exposing the rot that follows the privatisation of regulatory functions; the building code was manipulated and enforced by private actors operating for gain. Boeing assumed the regulatory functions of the FAA and we know how that worked out.
There was a time when I believed that most actors were capable of enlightened self-interest, and would do a good job for the public good even though they were not closely watched. And then I started watching private firms loot our province’s woodlands, coastal waters and other natural resources (which are owned by my fellow citizens) and I came to realise that rent-seekers need to be very closely watched and their activities widely visible.
That won’t always work; too many rent-seekers have no shame. I have no doubt that Texans will freeze in the dark again.
The recent article on stocking rates for cattle in re-purposed subdivisions made me think of the chatter that surrounds any discussion of the theories of Thomas Malthus, the cleric who predicted in 1798 that Britain would soon run out of food if population growth was not checked. He was absolutely correct, and had the advances in agriculture not occurred Britain would indeed have known great food insecurity.
Malthus was writing in the 1790’s, when agricultural practices in Britain were hobbled by lack of scientific knowledge and by lack of good and efficient machinery. Both of these were remedied in the next 20 years, and good thing too, because the Napoleonic sea blockades of Britain would have caused considerable hardship. There were several significant advances in those years: improved livestock breeding by gentleman farmers produced much better sheep, cattle and poultry breeds. Improved agricultural implements (all blacksmith made) made tilling the soil much more efficient. And the great surge in scientific knowledge developed by gentleman scientists enabled agronomists to make much better decisions.
The biggest problem for farmers was their inability to control weeds. Because the tillage implements were so crude, the fallow year (keeping the soil bare, and harrowing often) became very important. And much of the time the rotation was a fallow year followed by a grain crop followed by several years of pasturing. In very short succession farmers learned of improved ploughs and harrows, improved horse breeds for stronger draught, the invention of the seed drill (which could efficiently plant small seed in rows) and the adoption of improved crop rotations from Flanders. Adopting turnips as a field crop was incredibly important as it provided a cheap feed source for overwintering cattle, especially dairy cattle. Turnips and grain could be planted in rows and then the soil between the rows could be cultivated with a horse-hoe, dramatically reducing the weed burden in the crop year and in subsequent years. Another feature of the new rotation was a legume crop although they did not know about fixing nitrogen.
Knowledge of soil science was sparse, and largely empirical. There was still great debate over the role of soil – was it merely a substrate to provide support to the roots? or to deliver moisture? or nutrients? Some knew that soil needed to be improved with sand, lime and organic material, although they did not know the ideal proportions. Some knew that manure was invaluable, and I have seen instructions for constructing composting pits from the late 1810’s.
All of these advances enabled Britain to feed it’s growing urban population and Malthus was mocked (again).
Advances in steel-making in the 1850’s was a huge game-changer. The smelting of iron was well-known but it naturally came with a high proportion of carbon, and at over 4% the carbon formed graphite pockets in the iron which made it very weak. The carbon could be made into strands of slag by repeated heating and hammering the iron (hence, wrought iron) or the carbon could be burned away by the process know as puddling, which required skilled and dangerous work by craftsmen and could produce steel in batches of 1,000 pounds or so. The invention of the Bessemer process in the early 1850’s changed everything. Air was fed into the bottom of a great pear-shaped refractory vessel of molten iron and the carbon burned off, yielding tons and tons of mild steel per batch ready to be worked, cast, or improved with alloy minerals. Alloy steel was well-known at a workbench-technology level but now alloy steel could be made in industrial quantities. The blast furnace was soon developed, which was even more efficient.
The effect of cheap steel on agricultural machinery was immediate. Tillage machinery had been made of wood with iron wearing parts. Now it could all be steel – strong and light. Moldboard ploughs changed the agricultural world. And the good cheap steel enabled iron ships, high pressure steam boilers, rolled train rails. The invention of horse-drawn cutting machines and combines, along with railways and ships, meant that the grain fields of France, Syria, eastern Europe and the American mid-west could feed the world! Malthus be damned!
New developments kept piling up: artificial nitrogen fertiliser, chemical weed control, advances in irrigation, deep-well sources of irrigation water, improved plant and animal varieties, industrial-scale meat production, and now totally artificial food. In all of this there are two principal themes:
One: since the development of grain agriculture in Mesopotamia and China the surplus food available to a society meant that non-producing sectors of society could be supported: merchants, priests, soldiers, and rulers; and the general population could and would increase in numbers although with a less-healthy lifestyle;
and two: the non-producing sectors always made sure that the farmers were left with just enough to survive, and no more. Taxes, tithes, monopolies and looting troops made sure of that.
And now here we are entering a new decade and we are seriously discussing the carrying capacity of re-purposed subdivisions. All of the advances that made Malthus’ name a joke have stalled. Fossil aquifers are running dry, weeds and pests are evading the chemical herbicides and pesticides, and climate change is making the planting of each crop more of a crapshoot. The elites are draining even more from the productive classes of our societies. And as Thomas Malthus suggested 200 years ago, we will face either population reduction through famine and disease or we will face a dramatically lower standard of living. That latter might mean 5 families living in what used to be a McMansion, with no central heating or cooling, no public utilities, and a diet of mostly pulses and coarse grains. Meat may come from feral cats and dogs, and pigeons from what used to be the park before the homeless encamped there. This dark future need not be permanent – once expectations and the population have both been reduced – people will find a way to be happy with their lot, and to live in much less dense circumstances. It’s just getting there that will be the hardship.
Life has been so much worse for so many. Imagine being in the way of the aforementioned Napoleon’s army on its way to Moscow, or worse, being in the way of the desperate remnant on its way back. A crowded life in Cincinnati would look good to those peasants on that great Eurasian plain.
I live in rural Canada and I do not have television, so my information on the American presidential election comes from newspapers and some online blogs. But what impresses me the most in this cycle is what good theatre it is!
It is my view that the choice for American voters is simply this: which collection of billionaires will run the country? The Democrats or Republicans? At root, their policies are not very different; their principal goal is to maintain and extend their privilege, and to continue to develop the legal and fiscal framework that supports their activities. This framework consists of, among other things, the following policies, and most crucially, broad public acceptance of the righteousness of these policies:
⦁ to maintain very low taxes on income and capital gains, favourable treatment of dividend and interest income, and no inheritance tax
⦁ in the financial manipulation field, improve public and regulatory acceptance of the attitude usefully articulated by JH Kuntsler as “nothing matters and anything goes”. This allows (among many other things) private equity firms to buy up useful and productive enterprises, strip out all the assets in fees and special dividends and through the sale of high-yield (and chancy) bonds, and to then release the debt-ridden hulk back into the marketplace to sink (mostly) or swim (rarely). Also supports share buybacks, collateralised debt instruments, relocation of factories to low-wage states and countries.
⦁ keep the American military actively working around the world, preferably using expensive armaments. Where possible avoid stationing troops in warzones as casualties provoke bad publicity. Promote demand for novel and very expensive war materiel. (Smart bombs and drones sell to government on a cost-plus basis.)
⦁ Support the National Rifle Association, which is in fact an association of arms manufacturers and merchants with a noisy public relations arm consisting of private members defending their Second Amendment rights. Until forty years ago the Second Amendment right was the right to join a well-regulated militia, but now it is the right to have many expensive weapons in your house.
⦁ Everyone must recognise that public healthcare is un-American. It is a moral issue: if you cannot afford healthcare you do not deserve it. Some of the highest paid executive teams in the US are in the healthcare field, while executive teams in Canadian and European countries are mostly paid on a civil service scale. Shareholders in American healthcare companies become very rich. Were healthcare to become nationalised like in Canada and most European nations, most of the private profit would be lost
⦁ large corporations must be permitted to manipulate share prices through buybacks and curious business practices (Boeing, the airlines), but must then be protected by bailouts if their business falters.
⦁ the financialisation of the economy must be regulated as lightly as possible so that fees can continue to flow.
⦁ regulatory capture must be celebrated (under a different name). The two-way flow of personnel from regulated industries to regulatory government departments ensures that little impedes business development.
⦁ to ensure that the courts at all levels are staffed with conservative, business-friendly judges.
⦁ to ensure that environmental protection regulations do not unduly interfere with business operations
I do not for a moment think that the billionaires and multi-millionaires conspire to run the American system. They are not a cabal; they do not meet. Rather, theirs is an emergent system: many individuals working towards their own goals will thus help others pursuing their own goals. It is like a flock of shorebirds wheeling and swooping in perfect unison; they are not directed, but they are simply responding to the actions of their neighbouring birds. The billionaires achieve this through owning mainstream media companies, funding think tanks and policy research institutes, and supporting lobbyist groups and public relations shills. And they have been astonished , I am sure, to discover how cheaply they can buy the support of members of Congress. Chump-change donations to campaign funding pays off in spades. Lobbyists have language ready to drop in to any bill, to achieve corporate aims. That’s how emergency support of American workers became bailouts for cruise companies, who are based offshore and pay few American taxes.
And then members of Congress have to be made part of the investing class. For example, a fabulous oil & gas play is spun off into a Special Purpose Vehicle whose success is assured, and select politicians are invited to invest in it. If they cannot afford to purchase shares a private loan is arranged and documented and subsequently repaid, all above board. The company is spectacularly successful and the “investors” score big-time and repay any loans. Didn’t George W Bush succeed in an investment in professional sports in Texas, in a similar way? And by the way, how did Senate Majority Leader McConnell amass a self-declared net worth of $10 million after a lifetime of working as a civil servant at $200k per year?
All of the rest is theatre. In this election cycle the hot-button issues are access to abortion (again), racism and social justice (again), overseas wars, China as an economic threat, Russia! Russia! Russia!, voting systems and practices, and the age and personalities of the presidential candidates. All theatre. The Billionaires don’t care about any of these things, as almost none of these things personally affect them. Safe and discreet abortion is always available somewhere in the world where private jets fly. Billionaires do not ever see people of different colour or status or class unless they choose to, and then only in circumstances they control. Russia and China are opportunities, not threats. And the presidential candidates can be influenced very cheaply. A Nevada casino magnate had the American embassy moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem for only $25 million in campaign donations to a notoriously cheap candidate.
The one thing that most amazes me is how the billionaires can continue to convince people to vote against their own best interests, whether economic interest, social interest or even national interest. At one time they used “race” quite openly, appealing to feelings of racial superiority or to fears of being electorally overwhelmed by “those people”, whether black or brown or oriental or poor. When openly racist campaigning became no longer acceptable, some genius concluded that “abortion” would make an excellent substitute, as it can combine all of the race and class issues and can bring in all of the family values baggage as well. Few other issues can motivate such a wide cross-section of the American public, and it can motivate people on either side of the issue. With so much focus on abortion who has time to worry about the domination of government by corporate interests?
Many commentators focus on the gross inequality of incomes and wealth in the USA, and a recent report by the Rand Corporation brings this in to clear focus. They analysed the growth in incomes across the entire working population of the USA for the period from the end of World War II to the present, and they found that up until 1975 or so the increase in general prosperity in the nation was shared equally across all income groups. Starting in the mid-1970’s however, most of the increase in prosperity was arrogated by the top income earners, so that the rich got richer and no-one else shared in the good times. The astonishing figure that the Rand researchers came up with was that the top 1% has actually taken all of the $50 trillion dollars in new wealth from everyone else in the 45 year period to 2020. There is a reason why so many people feel that the American Dream has passed them by – it’s because it actually has.
The usual remedy for this sort of gross inequality of power and wealth in society is revolution. The French Revolution comes to mind, but also the Russian Revolution. I wonder what was the root cause of the great social and political upheavals in Europe in 1848? (I can’t remember.) A less frequent remedy is the rise of a genuine populist movement, one that can actually re-distribute power (and thus wealth and opportunity). As Gwnne Dyer usefully says: populism is not an ideology, it is a technique. In America, I suspect that a true populist leader could only arise at the state level, and then from outside the two main parties. If the current polarisation in American politics continues, the states may become the primary protector of social values (progressive or conservative) and the regulations that flow from them (access to abortion, gun rights and restrictions, access to health care, role of religion in public life, etc), and it may be that a true populist, charismatic leader can emerge and accrue the political power and authenticity to restrict the ability of the elites to organise state society. And that might spread, state by state. We outsiders can only hope that our fellow citizens in the USA can get their sh!t together at some point. Watching civil unrest unfold is no fun – I have cousins in America.
American politics amuses/interests me becasue their political system is so different from our Canadian one – a “Westminster” parliamentary system similar in principle to that of New Zealand and Australia.
One of the features of our system is that when the government changes, so also do so many of the Members of Parliament. And the ones that retain their seats find that they have almost no power or influence relative to what they had while in government. Accordingly, the surviving MP’s tend to retire from public life unless they are exceptionally ambitious and are prepared to wait 5 or 6 years to regain power.
As a result of this and other features our Prime Ministers and Leaders of the other parties tend to be very young. In Canada, almost all are in their 40’s, and their hold on power is fleeting (relative to Mr Mitch McConnell or Ms Nancy Pelosi, for example). Didn’t New Zealand’s PM have a baby recently? Our Conservative Party just elected a new leader and his two children are still in school.
Our leaders tend not to be sclerotic. I don’t think any of them are sundowning quite yet. And the turnover ensures that there are fresh ideas always bubbling along. America’s leaders are all well into their 70’s, or 80’s. Our Supreme Court judges retire at age 75, and more and more of them are retiring before that so they can have a life with their grandchildren.
It’s just that Canadian politicians do not have a lock on power the way the old Trump / Biden / Pelosi / McConnell / Clinton cabal do. I wonder if term limits would help fix that? The wisdom of the elderly reaches a world of diminishing returns in one’s 60’s, I think.
Something that puzzles me is the extent to which Democratic politicians are encouraging BLM unrest in American cities. I live in rural Nova Scotia and I do not have television so I do not see images of unrest, but is it still going on? Are there still riots in the streets very night? And how exactly do the politicians encourage this?
JHK is quite emphatic that the Democrats are encouraging civil unrest but I cannot find examples of this in my newspapers (which I rely on, along with the CBC news feed).
Can anyone comment? Thanks.
A few days ago you said that you were not sure when you would be able to air travel from Netherlands to Greece. I am a woefully under-travelled old man from Nova Scotia Canada and I wonder: Could you drive a car from Netherlands to Greece? and How far is it, and how long would it take?
Canadian mortgage debt is really quite worrying in the Toronto and Vancouver areas. In the Maritime province and Quebec, not so much – house prices never really inflated to the same extent.
A good site for commentary and analysis on housing in Canada can be found at http://www.greaterfool.ca
I have been reading Mr Turner’s stuff for years