an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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Supporting Hong Kong 3: it’s all about freedom

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shades of Tiananman – tanks on the Hong Kong border

As I begin to write this, I’ve learned that Hong Kong developments and tensions are playing out here in Adelaide too, as well as elsewhere in Australia. Supporters of Hong Kong’s independence and its freedoms have turned out in unexpected numbers, but they’ve met with violent pro-Chinese opposition, chanting ‘Hong Kong belongs to China’, a slogan that, of course, misses the point completely. Hong Kong would be delighted to belong to China if the mainland people enjoyed the freedoms that Hong Kongers have become accustomed to over the years, but that ain’t gonna happen in the foreseeable.

In preparation for this piece I’ve been reading the fulsome Wikipedia article, Human rights in China, and it truly makes the heart sick. I’ve already written about the Uyghur people of the Xinjiang ‘frontier’ (as many as a million of them are in prison), as well as the bullying, and worse, of (pretty mild) feminist activists by the Thugburo, but there’s also virtually no freedom of the press or the internet, limited freedom of movement within China (especially for the poor), regular repression of ethnic minorities (there are over a hundred of them), selective repression of religions (the Falun Gong have been bizarrely targeted, and organ-harvested), imprisonment and torture of political dissidents, application of fake and damaging ‘psychiatric’ treatments to non-conformists, and wide-ranging use of execution – China still executes more of its own citizens than the rest of the world combined (though global rates are thankfully falling, and Iran executes more on a per capita basis).

Of course, as far as Hong Kong is concerned, the one human rights ‘event’ that dominates all others is the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, as tanks are currently taking up positions around Hong Kong. So one has to wonder, considering this grim history, and considering that the controversial extradition bill which set off the protests has been shelved, why Hong Kongers are courting disaster in this way. One reason must surely be the initial success of the movement re extradition. Another is likely to be safety in numbers (illusory or not). Hong Kong is no Tiananmen, it’s far far bigger. Even so, if the PRC acts decisively and brutally, can anybody see the international community responding to save the people of Hong Kong? It’s more likely there will be a great deal of impotent outrage, and a weak round of sanctions before hastening back to business as usual.

And yet. Another huge difference between 2019 and 1989, of course, is the democratisation of recording technology. It’s another difference that has doubtless emboldened Hong Kongers. It’s also playing massively on the minds of a government that has taken media control to an extreme never before seen in human history. The PRC has made a habit of demonising ‘western values’ in recent decades, and it knows full well that a frontal attack on Hong Kong will demolish their claims to moral superiority overnight. Smart Hong Kongers also know this – so it’s a fascinating, frightening stand-off situation. I’ve had a number of Hong Kong students over the years, and many of them are still in Australia pursuing further studies. I can’t imagine what they’re going through at this point.

The hope we should all be holding to is for a peaceful resolution, but there are questions as to who should be negotiating for each side – and particularly for the people of Hong Kong. The protesters have made five ‘formal demands’:

  • the complete withdrawal of the proposed extradition bill
  • the removal of the use of “riot” concerning the protests
  • the release of arrested protesters
  • an inquiry into alleged police brutality, and
  • genuine universal suffrage

All of these demands seem reasonable, prima facie, unless of course there were protesters guilty of brutal acts etc, but in any case it’s highly unlikely that the Grand Poohbahs of the Chinese State would demean themselves by negotiating with mere protesters, especially after labelling them as ‘terrorists’ according to Thugburo convention. Leading protesters are also reluctant to identify themselves, as they know they’ll be immediately targeted by the PRC government. That leaves the Hong Kong administration, and its Chief, Carrie Lam. It’s interesting, and perhaps surprising, that protesters didn’t include her resignation as one of their official demands – though many are unofficially demanding it, and it’s implicit in the universal suffrage demand. She has apparently warned recently that Hong Kong may be on a ‘path of no return’, a comment as frightening as it is vague. Certainly such warnings don’t seem to be working; student demos are being supported by general strikes, and specific actions by lawyers, civil servants, hospital workers and others. Most of these actions have been peaceful, but there have been violent incidents, and the role of the Hong Kong police in suppressing/exacerbating such incidents is crucial, and concerning. Police tactics have become more aggressive, but they don’t seem to be dampening the determination of the protesters, who’ve had enough of increasing PRC interference in Hong Kong affairs. They’ve also developed smart tactics, such as ‘being water’, flowing from place to place, continuous and uniform, without leaders or followers. This and other tactics were born from years of experience of failed and partially successful protest movements of the past. Perceived and documented police brutality has also been harnessed for the cause, as in the photo of a women hit in the eye, apparently by a police ‘bean-bag round’ a non-lethal form of ammunition. Women throughout Hong Kong and Taiwan are now sporting ‘bloodied’ eye-bandages in solidarity.

Unsurprisingly, those of us who’ve been around for a while are hardly sanguine about how this will end, and our greatest hope is that the PRC will see that the cost of engaging in what would certainly be a bloodbath, carried out in front of the world, would be greater than any economic or other foreseeable long-term benefit for a nation whose economy is already the envy of most nations. The Hong Kong and Taiwan protests are undoubtedly a smack in the eye to PRC pride, as, inter alia, they expose the lie about ‘Asian values’ the PRC is keen to promote in its battle with ‘the west’. I suspect that what will happen in the near future is a war of attrition, with the Chinese hoping that some sort of over-reach by the protesters will justify anti-terrorist ‘action’. The noises from the international community thus far haven’t by any means convinced me that the PRC won’t get away with mass slaughter when the time comes.

Written by stewart henderson

August 20, 2019 at 1:49 pm

supporting Hong Kong 2: handover/return

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Hong Kong handover ceremony, July 1997

Terms redolent of significance: in talking yesterday of ancient Egypt to my students, many of whom I tend to assume, after years of experience, are geographically challenged, I mentioned that it was in the north-east corner of Africa, just across the Red Sea and the Suez Canal from Israel. ‘Palestine’, one of my older Saudi students corrected, with a little grin.

I think also of the term ‘nakba’, which the Israeli government has been trying to erase from written records. It’s of course a very significant term for Palestinians everywhere. The Brits refer to 1997 re Hong Kong as the ‘handover’, which fails to refer to the extremely doubtful terms of its original acquisition. The Chinese refer to it as ‘the return’, which fails to refer to the massive value-adding, in human if not in environmental terms, that occurred under British control.

Hong Kong is now a ‘special administrative region’ of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and in relinquishing it, Britain brought its once-mighty empire to a whimpering end.

The twenty years or so before 1997 saw a lot of diplomatic manouevring, principally between the PRC’s main man Deng Xiaoping and Britain’s Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher. At first, the negotiating teams were a long way apart. Deng was insistent that the territory should be handed over unconditionally, and that if necessary it would be taken by force, which, he argued, would be easy-peasy. Thatcher argued that a treaty was a treaty and that Britain always stood by its treaties, cited a ‘Convention for the extension of Hong Kong territory’, signed in 1890, and quibbled about the wording of the old treaties, but it was clear that the PRC had the upper hand. Even so, the economic transformation of the region, especially since the seventies, and the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, encouraged British officials to provide as many democratic safeguards against the Chinese oligarchy as possible, as 1997 drew near. Chris Patten, the last British governor, battled to increase the voting franchise in the early nineties, while the PRC fumed over lack of consultation. A watered-down package of reforms was accepted in 1994. It fell well short of full democracy. So when the big day came, on July 1 1997, the proposed ‘one country, two systems’ future was being much questioned and worreted over.

In the 22 years since, that date has been marked by demonstrations organised by Hong Kong’s Civil Human Rights Front, demanding universal suffrage. They started small, but in 2002-3, anti-PRC activists received a boost of sorts when a proposed law, Article 23, designed to suppress political activity and freedom of speech, especially criticism of the PRC, became a rallying issue. Article 23 was indefinitely shelved when half a million people came out in demonstrations against it in July 2003. Since that time the struggles between pro-democracy and pro-Beijing forces in Hong Kong have been increasingly overt. Since 1997, the PRC has been keen to have the territory controlled by regime puppets. The first was Tung Chee-hwa, a more or less unknown businessman given the title of Chief Executive of Hong Kong at handover. He faced extreme pressure to resign during the 2003 demonstrations, and finally stepped down in March 2005, under some pressure from Beijing for corporate mismanagement. He’s still influential in Hong Kong and recently blamed, at least in part, the introduction of liberal studies (during his administration) for the current unrest. Might be right there.

Tung’s replacement was Donald Tsang, who seems to have been a more able administrator, though his popularity gradually declined during his 7 years in office as he became involved in business scandals as well as mishandling, according to his own admission, a new Political Appointments System, which critics found lacking in transparency, among other things. Clearly with so much at stake, and with so much suspicion of Beijing interference, the Chief Executive role has been anything but an easy ride.

The third Chief Executive was Leung Chun-ying, surprisingly elected in 2012 – the electors being the 1200 or so members of the Election Committee, largely controlled by Beijing. He had a reputation as a reformer, within the extremely narrow confines acceptable to the PRC. During his incumbency social unrest culminated in the umbrella movement of late 2014. Like many similar protest movements over the past few years, this changed nothing in terms of democratisation for the region, even if it proclaimed to the world that Hong Kong was prepared to fight hard for its freedoms. Serious rioting also broke out in late 2016, in response to an attempted government crackdown on street hawkers. Again, Hong Kong residents and business people were showing their spirit for combatting government heavy-handedness. It’s also clear however, that the Beijing thugocracy knows nothing other than heavy-handed control of ‘its’ people. It’s a recipe for major confrontation.

In recent times Hong Kong has experienced serious housing problems and a growth in the proportion of people living below the poverty line. This and concerns about PRC interference have created growing levels of unrest. The manner in which the Hong Kong Chief Executive is elected has been a sore point, with protest leaders pointing out that it fails to satisfy ‘international standards in relation to universal suffrage’ – this is enshrined, for what it’s worth, in Article 45 of the Basic Law of Hong Kong, which requires ‘selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures’. Of course, this is as likely to be honoured by Beijing as is the UN-directed Palestinian ‘right of return’ by the Israeli government, and no reforms have occurred for the most recent election in 2017, which brought the current Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, to power. All of these CEs have been more or less pro-Beijing puppets.

The most recent unrest was, of course, sparked by a recent bill proposed by Lam, which would allow criminals, and political prisoners, to be extradited from Hong Kong to China. And we all know that political prisoners are to the Thugburo as an Englishman is to the Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum giant. The protests have been massive, causing the bill to be indefinitely shelved. Lam has since stated publicly that ‘the bill is dead’. Interestingly, though, the protest movement has continued…

This obviously inadequate summary of Hong Kong’s history has helped me in coming to a better understanding of current events, which the democratic world in particular is watching with fascination and foreboding. As I may have mentioned, I would’ve been in Kowloon next week but for a health issue (not my own) which caused us to cancel, so that adds to my interest in these tensions and their possible outcomes. In my next post I’ll try to get my head around more of the details of the current situation.

References

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Hong_Kong

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Handover_of_Hong_Kong

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2019_Hong_Kong_extradition_bill

Written by stewart henderson

August 15, 2019 at 9:08 pm

Supporting Hong Kong 1: some history

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Hong Kong has been on a rocky road since 1997, when the Brits reluctantly handed it over to China after 140 years of control. Of course it’s fair to say that the famous east/west entrepôt is largely a product of 19th century British chauvinism. I’ve never been there, though we would’ve spent a few days there later later this month if it hadn’t been for some unfortunate medical problems. So now I’m reading some history and studying maps to get at least a vague feel for the region.

The region called Hong Kong is a complex mix of islands – especially Hong Kong Island – and the mainland Kowloon Peninsula, along with ‘New Territories’ stretching northward to the city of Shenzhen in Guangdong Province. Directly east, across the Pearl River Estuary, is Macao, a former Portuguese trading post, now a massive gambling hub, and one of the most densely populated region in the world. Macao, like Hong Kong, is a ‘special administrative region’ of China, though its status doesn’t seem to be under the same kind of threat from China’s Thugburo.

A part of the extended region now known as Hong Kong – which had been Chinese for the best part of 2000 years – was ceded to Britain in the 1840s, after the first Opium War (1839-42). After a second Opium War, Britain gained other territories in the region, but the Brits, unsurprisingly, found it difficult to maintain a far-distant island outpost surrounded by Chinese territory, as well as to justify its right to the area, and in 1898 a deal was brokered in which Britain retained its territories under a 99-year lease. Hence the 1997 hand-over. So ‘British’ Hong Kong consisted of, first, the territory ceded to Britain after the ‘unequal’ treaty of Nanjing in 1842 (essentially Hong Kong Island), second, the territory of mainland Kowloon ceded in 1860 by the Convention of Peking/Beijing (the Kowloon peninsula adjacent to the island), and third the ‘New Territories’ leased to the UK for 99 years at the second Convention of Beijing in 1898 (including the mainland south of the Sham Chun River, which forms the border with Guangdong Province, and assorted islands).

But what were these Opium Wars and what was Britain doing in China in the nineteenth century?

Of course, it was all about trade, finance and power. From early in the nineteenth Britain was importing massive amounts of tea from China for its mandatory tiffins. Tea drinking, starting as an upper-class sine qua non, had trickled down to the masses during the 18th and 19th centuries, much faster than wealth does today. And, while the Brits did manage to introduce its cultivation in its Indian colony, the vast majority of this purifying medicinal leaf was Chinese, resulting in a problematic trade imbalance. The difficulty was that China wasn’t much interested in what Britain had to offer in return, apart from the odd luxury item. According to most experts, China actually had the largest economy in the world in the early 19th century (and for many centuries before), and it had healthy trade surpluses with most western nations.

So that’s where opium came in. It began to be cultivated in Britain in the eighteenth century, where it was perfectly legal and rather revered for its soothing, pain-relieving properties (Paracelsus recommended its use in the 16th century). Available from any British apothecary, its popularity increased markedly in the 18th and 19th centuries, and it was accordingly cultivated in ever greater quantities, especially in India. Britain’s East India Company began sending the stuff to China, against the wishes of the Chinese Emperor, who issued many edicts banning it from the 1720s to the 1830s. Millions of Chinese became addicted, especially in the coastal cities visited by East India Company vessels. Things came to a head when a Chinese high official, Lin Tse-hsu, sent a remarkable letter to Queen Victoria in 1839, demanding an end to the trade. Its opening salvo is pretty clear:

We find that your country is sixty or seventy thousand li [a Chinese mile, about half a kilometre] from China. The purpose of your ships in coming to China is to realize a large profit. Since this profit is realized in China and is in fact taken away from the Chinese people, how can foreigners return injury for the benefit they have received by sending this poison to harm their benefactors?

The letter received no response, and was probably never read by Queen Vic, but it gives an indication of Chinese frustration and anger. Lin Tse-hsu, implacably opposed to the trade, was placed in charge of bringing it to an end. Within a brief period, more a thousand tons of the drug were confiscated without compensation, and foreign ships were blockaded. The Brits responded as powerful countries are wont to do, and the first opium war was the result. The Qing government, riven with internal problems, was no match for its foreign adversary (assisted by other European powers) and was forced to cede the aforementioned territory as well as to pay sizeable reparations. It also had to cough up some land and trading rights to France.

And then it all happened again. Between the first and second opium wars, civil war raged in China, and a rival emperor was enthroned in Nanjing, where the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom was modestly proclaimed (in fact its aim was to slaughter all the Manchus in China), so it wasn’t a good time to provoke the rapacious Brits again. However, a new foreigner-hating administrator in Canton did just that, whipping up local support to target traders and missionaries. Again the French helped out, and Britain prevailed once more, gaining new territories, ports and trading privileges.

While these gunboat diplomacy skirmishes weren’t much compared to the slaughter and mayhem the Chinese were inflicting on each other during the Taiping rebellion, their future implications were obviously enormous for the Hong Kong region. The population grew rapidly after colonisation, and the region was gradually being transformed from an entrepôt to a manufacturing centre, with refugees from the ‘mainland’ being attracted to its relative stability as well as employment opportunities. By the 1940s, the population had grown from a few thousand a century before to over a million, but then the Japanese occupation (1941-45) rapidly reversed the trend. By the time of liberation the population had been cut by more than half. Many starved, while others managed to escape.

The post-war period saw a rise in anti-colonial sentiment (a trend bucked by the Zionists, obviously), and Britain had to make political and economic concessions to the locals to maintain its strategic colony. It was both assisted and hampered by a new influx of immigrants from mainland China, as the ’49 revolution took hold. Since that time, Hong Kong has experienced steady, rapid growth, from a population of 2.2 million in 1950 to 6.7 million in 2001. Its reputation also grew as a producer of quality goods.

So that was the situation when the 99 year lease ran out. Hong Kong was a thriving multicultural centre, and China an awakened giant, its democratic momentum crushed in Tianenmen Square. The handover had been negotiated with a ‘one country, two systems’ deal which would last for fifty years, after, which, presumably, the Thugburo would be free to dictate terms. And this thoroughly superficial and at-a-distance historical tour brings us to the present state of a fascinating, more or less accidental, but financially successful (for many), experiment in business and trade multiculturalism.

Next time I’ll look more closely at the 1997 handover and how Hong Kong has been governed over the past 20 or so years.

References

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Hong_Kong

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-pacific-16526765

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Opium_War

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treaty_of_Nanking

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lin_Zexu

Written by stewart henderson

August 10, 2019 at 11:18 am

Newstart problems

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Australia has been described as a/the ‘lucky country’, and considering that we’re thrown into the world, with no choice as to parentage, genetic inheritance, social environment or time period (or species, for that matter), it’s pretty clear that being born or brought up in Australia in the second half of the twentieth century constitutes a lucky deal for most. I’ve recently been reading, with a deal of squeamish reluctance at times, stories and histories of the struggles and sufferings of today’s Palestinians, either under Israeli authority or in impoverished and humiliated exile, which has further emphasised for me my sense of my own luck in the dice-throw of life.

But of course there are problems and inequities here too. I haven’t written much about Aussie domestic issues, having been strangely mesmerised by the Trump train-wreck and other exotica. Australia seems boringly stable by comparison, though somewhat influenced by the conservative, isolationist turn taken by advanced and not-so-advanced nations elsewhere. Certainly our current conservative government has succeeded in maintaining power, much like governments elsewhere, by doing virtually nothing. No energy policy, no healthcare policy, no education policy, no attempt to deal with the long-term refugee situation offshore, no employment policy, and of course as little taxation as can be gotten away with. This is what they describe as ‘responsible government’ – don’t do anything which will draw attention let alone criticism. The best governments should be invisible, not to say inert – for, as Reagan more or less said, government is always the problem, never the solution.

Which brings me to the subject of this post – employment, unemployment and Newstart, the interestingly named allowance given to jobseekers under Australia’s welfare system. Our country’s principal advocacy agency for the poor, the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) has been campaigning for some time to ‘raise the rate’ of Newstart, which currently sits at around $39 a day, a figure which, it says, hasn’t changed in 25 years. The question of raising the rate became a hot issue in the recent federal election, with Labor making noises about the poverty trap problem, but failing to commit to any changes. Only the sadly unelectable Greens had a policy, promising to almost double the rate to $75 a day. All of this amid claims that various policies and strategies are aimed at maintaining a pool of unemployed at a certain rate that’s beneficial to the overall economy. Of course the cost of unemployment to government is related both to the amount paid and the number of unemployed. The unemployment rate is always a dodgy measure, as people can be employed part-time, or voluntarily, or simply doing questionably useful things like writing blogs… We don’t look at the unemployment rate of birds, or sharks, but we can be sure there aren’t too many of them wasting time tweeting inanities and cheating at golf…

It’s also been pointed out regularly enough that, if unemployed people aren’t contributing by making lovely foamy shapes on our daily lattes, or adding to the rate of diabetes and diet-induced heart conditions, they’re at least contributing to the economy by spending their dole on whatever’s needful for their survival. And if they were given a little more – as, say, advocates of a universal basic wage would have it – the flow-through would arguably be even more helpful.

Whatever the definition of ‘unemployed’ might be, it hasn’t changed here for some time, so the rate can be reliably compared to previous months, years and decades. It currently sits at 5.2% and hasn’t changed much over the past year or more, but it seems the underemployment rate is on the rise, and advertising for jobs is dropping. There’s also been a gradual trend in rising unemployment and underemployment among older people, and this is a feature of particular interest to me. There are mutual obligation requirements for everyone on Newstart, though they’re different for those between 55 and 59, and they change again for those 60 and over, though it’s not easy to work out the details from Centrelink’s website.

If you’re registered with the Department of Human Services online portal, MyGov, you can find out what a person’s commitments are for obtaining a Newstart allowance. For a start you have to agree to and sign a Job Plan, overseen by a service provider. For older clients, the person engaged in this supervision is often young enough to be their daughter – or grand-daughter if you’re lucky/unlucky. As part of this Job Plan, you need to have looked for 20 or 30 jobs in the previous month to continue getting benefits, and to show proof of this to your provider. I believe the number is actually 20, though I know of one person over 60 who was asked to do 30 a month, and when he asked about voluntary work he was told that was all fine, but he still had to fulfil the obligation of applying or inquiring about 30 paid jobs per month. Possibly he was informed incorrectly, but it’s an indication of the kind of thoughtless humiliation some older jobseekers are put through. The undervaluing of voluntary work is, of course, a common theme in modern post-industrial society. The current government, for example, in resisting any increase to the Newstart allowance, insists in interview after interview that Newstart should always be seen as a temporary payment, a bridge to paid employment – no matter the age of the recipient. It seems that talk of voluntary work as a value in this area is strictly forbidden.

Unemployment is often seen as primarily a youth problem, but an ACOSS report from September last year states that only 17% of Newstart and Youth Allowance recipients are under 25, while 43% are over 45, with that older percentile growing. Changing work practices and automisation are likely to exacerbate this trend. Government spokespeople, including ministers, continually argue that there is plenty of work available, as long as people are prepared to move, but this is hardly an appealing option for older people, whose social and family lives have become, over time, connected to a particular region. Politicians often spruik about a flexible, mobile workforce, but there’s a clear clash between hyper-mobility and building and maintaining communities.

There is also the question of whether politicians are sincere in claiming that they want full employment – whether it has ever been a target to aim for. There is apparently a theory popular among economists that if the unemployment rate drops below about 5%, the lack of labour supply will give workers more bargaining power in terms of wages and conditions, to the ‘detriment’ of employers – the favoured sector of conservative governments. It’s notable that the current federal government has recently started a new round of union-bashing. So it’s quite plausible that these conservatives are playing a double game here – blaming the unemployed for their predicament while seeking to maintain a sufficient pool of unemployed to stifle wages growth. Wages have certainly been stagnant here for some time (especially for low wage earners – see the graph above), while CEO salaries continue on an upward spiral. It’s worth noting, however, that the RBA is talking about the need for ‘spare capacity’ reduction in the marketplace, which would be assisted by a reduced unemployment rate. Such reduction would bring higher levels of growth to what is currently a sluggish market with a 1.3% inflation rate.

Meanwhile, there are many other issues with Newstart. DHS administrative data from two years ago revealed that some 25% of recipients had a significant disability. Most of these disabilities were physical but unsurprisingly depression, anxiety and hypertension were reported as common problems among the unemployed and underemployed. It’s unlikely that many of these people could afford adequate treatment. Young people on the payment are struggling with rents and utilities while trying to live on part-time, unreliable jobs. Pay rates in vital but under-funded and under-respected jobs in aged care, for example, are inadequate – and often the work is too demanding as a full-time occupation. There appear to be problems with inadequate and poorly targeted training courses that young people – and some older people – are shunted into in order to meet their obligations. Then there’s the problem with Centrelink’s automated communications system – a cost-saving measure that’s causing plenty of headaches for recipients. I won’t go into detail here, but it’s certainly getting harder to talk to real people if you’re unemployed, with all the automated messages you’re bombarded with – many of them providing misleading or incorrect information – being marked ‘no reply’. It all adds to the humiliation of the experience, to the sense that you’re not being dealt with as a real person. The estimated cost-saving to the government of this increased automation – some $2 billion – will help to make up for the revenue lost from tax cuts to the nation’s highest earners. And so it goes…

Written by stewart henderson

August 4, 2019 at 11:29 am

Tanah Papua, the bird paradise

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There are few simple pleasures to compare with watching birds of paradise display and perform, even if it’s only on video – and it would be pretty hard to see them otherwise. The forests of Papua are a wonderland for birds, and 39 of the 42 known species of birds of paradise are found only there. My attention was drawn to these very striking birds – in their very various ways – when I read Peter Raby’s biography of Alfred Russel Wallace several years ago, and I’ve associated them with exotic forest regions, miserable weather, malaria and an almost toxic other-worldliness ever since. A sort of anti-paradise doused with bewildering colour and cacophony.

The lineage of these birds has been hard to reconstruct, and apparent similarities to other birds, such as bower birds, have led ornithologists astray in the past. And to be scientific about it all, I’d have to master such concepts as order, family and clade, but I won’t go there in this post, except to say that the whole classification system looks a mess from the outside.. The most recent mitochondrial DNA research has set their ‘moment’ of emergence at about 24 million years ago. They’re quite close, genetically, to corvids, always a plus.

king bird of paradise (cincinnurus regius)

To an amateur, the most striking features of these birds are the plumage and displays of the males. And the females surely agree, even when they try to appear unimpressed. One immediately thinks of sexual selection – and Darwin. Here’s what Darwin had to say about the process, in The Origin of Species:

Sexual selection… depends, not on a struggle for existence, but on a struggle between the males for possession of the females; the result is not death to the unsuccessful competitor, but few or no offspring.

…when the males and females of any animal have the same general habits… but differ in structure, colour or ornament, such differences have been mainly caused by sexual selection

On the origin of species, 1st edition, pp88,89

One has to wonder why it’s the males who grow their weird and wonderful plumage and create their elaborate dances to attract the females, and not the other way around. Generally the female coloration – and that of both sexes when young – has evolved so that they match and blend in with their surroundings. The males are taking serious risks in drawing attention to themselves in this way, which is why the differences appear late – as secondary sexual characteristics. In fact, males generally mature later than females, by quite a wide margin. But since they don’t bear the offspring the males are more dispensable. It’s interesting to note, in this light, that in polygamous species, birds are sexually dimorphic both in appearance and lifespan. That’s to say, monogamous birds tend to look alike and to have the same lifespans, whereas in polygamous species, the females live longer. In fact this is the case in all species, not just birds. The San Diego zoo, which specialises in this family, tells us that birds of paradise can live for some 30 years in captivity – but surely it would be tougher in the wild, especially for males.

Not all birds of paradise are polygamous though – they have a range of breeding systems, of which the most interesting is ‘lek-type polygamy’. Lek is a Swedish term which refers to fun activity bound by the loosest of rules. It was first used in a book about the avian life of that region back in the 1860s, and is now adopted worldwide, and applies to a bewildering variety of species, including birds, bees, butterflies and bats (and various species of reptiles, amphibians and fish). And not just because they all like to have fun; the term has been refined to refer to specific behaviours. Two general types of lekking are identified – classic and exploded. They refer essentially to the physical space occupied – the lek. In a classic lek (a more or less circular region), each of the males is within sight of at least some of the others, whereas in an exploded lek, this isn’t ‘necessary’, as long as they’re in earshot. In fact, with some booming birds, like the New Zealand kakapo, they can be kilometres apart. In these exploded leks, the variety of behaviours is greater, as if the woo-ers are less inhibited by their neighbours.

Of course the leks in thickly forested Papua would be very different from Sweden. Sometimes the males share and compete in a common ground such as a forest clearing, while in other species they display and dance in the trees, controlling their territory vocally. Displays involve spinning, charging, freezing, hopping and skipping, hanging upside down, making show of their most irridescent plumes, all the kind of stuff imitated by the Folies Bergère, but with males rather than females as the beauties.

Breeding behaviour, though, is very varied. Not all male species are brightly festooned, and male-female relations run from bim-bam-thanks-mam polygamy to the sharing of nest-building and child-rearing among monogamous species such as the manucodes (they don’t all bear the bird-of paradise name – apart from manucodes there are sicklebills, riflebirds, parodias, astrapias and others).

splendid astrapia (astrapia splendidissima)

These birds are, unsurprisingly, and more than other types, very much tree-dwellers, preferring the high canopies and living largely off their fruits, so they need to have their forests protected. They’ve been hunted for centuries, and Wallace had no hesitation in killing as many as he could himself in the 1850s. Of course, being in straitened circs in those years, his income was largely dependent on producing exotic specimens for the home trade, and birds of paradise were like gold. But local tribesmen also valued the bright plumage as a status symbol. In recent times the popularity of the birds for twitchers has helped in their protection.

They’re a fairly raucous lot, and the striking, machine-like notes of riflebirds and sicklebills are very much worth listening to online. One might assume that in dense forest, loud calls to indicate location are a must.

magnificent riflebirds (ptilorus magnificus)

In conclusion, I began writing this to find out more about a particular family of birds, but got sidetracked by a lot of fascinating stuff I’ve only touched upon here, such as sexual selection, sexual dimorphism and anisogamy. More about all that in later posts, I hope.

Written by stewart henderson

July 28, 2019 at 1:24 pm

getting roolly rich in the USA 1: Jeffrey Epstein

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Epstein’s two islands in the Caribbean – Little St James is immediately below the Great one

The Jeffrey Epstein case, in terms of women, girls and exploitation, is something I’m far too squeamish to explore, and of course it’s very very sad and disgusting, but my interest was also piqued by the news that he was/is a hedge fund manager (but maybe not), with mansions and an island and oodles of moolah to invest in all sorts of science projects. This raised many questions. Was he obnoxiously rich to begin with, like little Donny Trump? And what is a hedge fund, and can you legitimately make millions from one?

I’ve never been rich and I’ve never invested in anything, unless you call giving money to Oxfam or UNHCR an investment, so I’m really starting from scratch here. The first definition I’ve found is that a hedge fund is ‘an offshore investment fund, typically formed as a private limited partnership, that engages in speculation using credit or borrowed capital’. So, if this is true, why invest ‘offshore’, and how are you able to do this with money you don’t really have or haven’t earned? I suspect I won’t find easy answers to these questions. The website Investopedia (which sounds immediately suss!) starts with another definition: ‘Hedge funds are alternative investments (?!) using pooled funds that employ different strategies to earn active return, or alpha, for their investors’. Alpha! What a lovely musical note that hits for investors (especially combined with ‘male’). But the mention of pooled funds (e.g. mutual funds and pension funds, as well as hedge funds) might explain how you can make money even if you have little personally to invest. Investopedia also tells us that hedge funds ‘are generally only accessible to accredited investors’, because they’re less regulated than other funds. And we all know that the wealthy are very very keen to have less regulation and oversight than what the Yanks call ‘regular folks’

However, it does seem that, to be an ‘accredited investor’, it helps to be already rich. The term applies to financial institutions such as ‘investment banks’ and corporations as well as individuals. Needless to say, this is a world of which I know absolutely nothing. All I’ve really heard about it is negative – high rollers, corruption, anti-government arrogance and the like – which says much about where I get my information from. Even so, the most objective analysis raises questions – for example, the Australian Corporations Act of 2001 ‘defines “sophisticated investor” [basically synonymous with ‘accredited investor’] so as to exclude them from certain disclosure requirements.’ That rings alarm bells for me – you’d think that these heavy investors would be the last people to be excluded from disclosure. The Act also says that such investors require an accountant’s certificate to the effect that they have a minimum of $2.5 million in net assets or a gross income of $250,000 over each of the previous two years. Presumably they’re not asked about how they acquired such income/assets. And the financial bar is considerably lower in the USA.

Hedge funds have grown in popularity, and as a proportion of the asset management field, over the years. After the GFC of 2007-8 there was an attempt (probably feeble) to rein in the sector. The essential hedge fund strategy (think ‘hedging your bets’) is to receive a positive return regardless of bear or bull markets, by spreading the risk in some clever non-risky way. If you get to be a hedge fund manager (which some reports have claimed Epstein to be, though Wikipedia doesn’t mention this in a fairly comprehensive bio) you get to keep a certain percentage of invested funds for yourself – generally a management fee (maybe 2% of assets) and a performance fee (a substantial percentage of any annual increase in net asset value). You can see how disclosure is essential in payment of such fees, and why the temptation to cook the books would be high.

Epstein seems to have ‘risen’ from humble beginnings. His mother was a ‘homemaker’ and one-time school aide, and his father was a groundsman and gardener, yet Epstein is described, at various periods in his career from the early eighties, as an options trader, a financial consultant, a limited partner (at the dodgy investment bank Bear Stearns), a finance manager and other such vagueries – all despite a patchy scholastic record (but as an autodidact and dilettante I certainly don’t hold that against him). However, one very interesting item stands out….

Back in the eighties, Epstein became an associate of one Steven Hoffenberg, who hired him as a consultant for his company, Tower Financial Corporation (TFC). Epstein was paid $25,000 a month, which to me is an absurdly huge amount for anyone to be paid, though in this world it’s probably peanuts. Even before joining TFC (a collection agency that bought up other people’s debts – and if you think that’s dodgy, read on), Epstein had been bruiting it about among the crooked rich that he was a ‘high-level bounty hunter’, sometimes working for governments or the super-rich to recover embezzled funds, sometimes working for clients to secure embezzled funds. He and Hoffenberg became very close, flying around the world to do their dodgy deals, done not so dirt cheap, but in 1993 TFC collapsed and was exposed as one of the biggest Ponzi schemes in US history, with some $475 million of investor funds vanishing. Epstein, though, had already left the company and managed to escape without charge. Hoffenberg was sentenced to 20 years’ jail, and has always claimed that Epstein was intimately involved in the scheme. In fact, Wikipedia’s brief entry on Hoffenberg ends with this fascinating line:

In July 2019, he claimed that the American financier Jeffrey Epstein was his co-conspirator in the Ponzi scheme.

That’s right now, folks. Presumably he has the evidence for that – so why wasn’t Epstein prosecuted way back then?

Anyway, it appears, surprise surprise, that Epstein’s criminality isn’t restricted to his treatment of the opposite sex, which makes you wonder how many super-rich types who don’t draw attention to themselves vis-a-vis sexual exploitation can be shown to be criminals. And how is it possible to buy what is presumably an American island to use as a tax haven?

Tax havens are always described as ‘offshore’. That’s to say, not a part of the country in which you want to avoid paying taxes. The US site Investopedia underlines its dodginess by providing plenty of info on tax havens (hey man, we’re just tellin’ stuff, not selling’ stuff, I mean, peace off man), as well as providing a list which includes the British (but not the US) Virgin Islands. Epstein owns two of the US Virgin Islands, Great Saint James and Little Saint James, where he has one of his mansions. Great Saint James cost him $18 million in 2016, pretty cheap for an island I would’ve thought, and I can’t find the price he paid for Little Saint James back in 1998. This tiny island was his principal centre of sexploitation, aka Orgy Island by the cognoscenti.

The USA has an international reputation as a bad actor in respect of tax disclosure. With monumental hypocrisy, it implemented the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act in 2010, requiring or ‘forcing’ (dog knows how) financial firms everywhere in the world to report accounts held by US citizens to their IRS, while at the same time refusing to comply with the OECD’s Common Reporting Standard – the only major nation to do so. To be clear about this the USA demands that other countries share information about US citizens’ offshore dealings, but refuses to share the same information with those countries about foreign investment in the USA. As a result, the USA is arguably now the world’s biggest tax haven. How this works exactly for US citizens like Epstein I’m not sure at this point, but the USA has become, especially over the last decade, one of the easiest places in the world for successful tax evasion, especially through the use of LLCs or shell companies. We’re finding this out through examination of Trump’s criminal activities, but of course I’m far from understanding the detailed nature of LLCs, offshore trusts and the like. I need to lern more.

I’ll end this piece – almost – with a quote from an organisation and site that’s the polar opposite of Investopedia, the Tax Justice Network:

The United States, which has for decades hosted vast stocks of financial and other wealth under conditions of considerable secrecy, has moved up from sixth to third place in our index. It is more of a cause for concern than any other individual country – because of both the size of its offshore sector, and also its rather recalcitrant attitude to international co-operation and reform. Though the U.S. has been a pioneer in defending itself from foreign secrecy jurisdictions, aggressively taking on the Swiss banking establishment and setting up its technically quite strong Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) – it provides little information in return to other countries, making it a formidable, harmful and irresponsible secrecy jurisdiction at both the Federal and state levels.

Of course, none of this clearly explains how Epstein ill-got the wealth to be tax-liable in the first place. Certainly the Ponzi scheme he seems to have gotten away with was one, possibly the main, source, but he seems even before this to have ingratiated himself into the world of dodgy financial entities and personae, presumably through schmoozing and force of personality. Certainly his relationship with Ghislaine Maxwell, daughter of that supremo of repugnant dodginess, Robert Maxwell, is an indication of the world Epstein had become familiar with, a world in which everyone is advising everyone else on how to make money out of nothing and how to retain as much of that money as possible, regardless of anything so inconvenient as the law.

References

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeffrey_Epstein

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hedge_fund

https://www.investopedia.com/terms/h/hedgefund.asp

https://www.investopedia.com/terms/p/ponzischeme.asp

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_as_a_tax_haven

https://www.investopedia.com/terms/t/taxhaven.asp

Home

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Maxwell

Written by stewart henderson

July 21, 2019 at 2:14 pm

I walked into a bar…

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I walked into a bar the other day. There were about 30 or 40 people inside, and about 80% of them were women.
Okay, that was a lie – or a fantasy (a beautiful lie?) In reality that has never happened.
However, the exact opposite has happened, more times than I can recount. In fact it’s the norm.

What does this mean?

Written by stewart henderson

July 19, 2019 at 6:13 pm

Posted in Uncategorized