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Archive for the ‘politics’ Category

Represent US and ‘US democracy’, part 1

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If there was one decision I would overrule, it would be ‘Citizens United.’ I think the notion that we have all the democracy that money can buy strays so far from what our democracy is supposed to be.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Leaving the weird awfulness of Covid-19 aside for a while, I must thank a good friend for sending this video my way. Jennifer Lawrence is an American actor none of whose films I’ve ever seen, but in this video she and Josh Silver, fellow member of the activist group Represent Us (with presumably a play on the US – and they’ve been making videos for years now), effectively focus on a problem of US politics I’ve largely neglected in my own analyses of the subject since the advent of the most recent incumbent in the white palace.


I’ve referred to it obliquely, for example when writing about the election cycle in that country, and my view that there’s at least one election too many – i.e. the presidential election. It all seems too much of an expenditure of time and energy, but I neglected to focus enough on the most insuperable problem – money.

So in this post I want to look at what Lawrence and Silver claim about the influence of money and wealthy lobbyists on government, especially federal government, and the corresponding lack of influence the relatively disadvantaged generally have, in spite of their vast numbers. Are there claims accurate?

l’ll try to fact check much of this – and their first claim isn’t directly about money, it’s the claim that the last two presidential candidates, Clinton and Trump, were ‘the least popular candidates since they began keeping track of such things’. Australia’s journalistic website The Conversation certainly confirms this about Trump. At election time, he ‘had the highest unfavorability rating in history, with over 61% of Americans having an “unfavorable” or “disapproving” view’. His victory, with fewer votes, says much about the electoral college system and how it favours less populated ‘red’ states, but I won’t go into that here. Clinton, though, was a ‘historically unpopular opponent’, with an unfavourable rating of 52%, the worst rating ever recorded for a losing candidate. So that checks out.

The next claim is that ‘only 4% of Americans have a great deal of confidence in Congress now.’ I imagine that the word ‘great’ is key here, as everything depends on framing. For example the question might be – how much confidence do you have in Congress? (a) no confidence (b) very little confidence (c) a fair amount of confidence (d) a great deal of confidence – or something similar. And how many constituents, anywhere, would say they have a great deal of confidence in their politicians, where there’s space to express skepticism? A quick check shows that the figure comes from a Gallup poll reported in The Atlantic back in 2014, and indeed it was a multiple choice question, but the most interesting/disturbing finding was that the attitude to Congress has suffered a massive downturn in recent decades, as shown by the graph below. So, unless there’s been an uptick in the last few years – and surely there hasn’t – Represent Us is right on this too.

The video next focuses on a Princeton study on ‘how public opinion influences the laws that Congress passes’. Represent Us presents this as a ‘thirty percent rule’. Any law has a 30% chance of being passed by Congress, regardless of its public support (from no support to complete support). The Princeton study concluded, apparently, that ‘the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact on public policy.’

So, the 2014 study, by two professors of politics and decision-making, Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, is self-described as ‘tentative and preliminary’, but they are clear about their findings:

The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.

I’ve just read the study, and, unsurprisingly it’s a lot more nuanced, complex and at times dauntingly technical than the 12-minute video. For example it points out that policies advocated by cashed-up lobby groups may well benefit most of the public in spite of their lack of popular support. However, the economic elites, who have the most influence on Congress through financial, quid pro quo support, favour policies which are generally non-beneficial to the poorer, and far more numerous, sectors of the population. In fact, a lot of the findings remind me of passages in a very different text, Robert Sapolsky’s monumental book Behave, where he examines class-based behaviour (he calls it socio-economic status rather than class, coz we all know that the USA is a classless society haha). Take this example:

… a culture highly unequal in material resources is almost always also unequal in the ability to pull the strings of power, to have efficacy, to be visible. For example, as income inequality grows, the percentage of people who bother voting generally declines.

R Sapolsky, Behave, p292

As Sapolsky also points out, the super-rich, and their children, tend to move in the limited circle of their peers and so reinforce each other in seeking to maintain and enhance their lifestyles. The super-poor, meanwhile, are more often in a battle with each other (and not with the super-rich who are invisible to them) for resources, and tend not to trust government, since it is run by ‘them’. So the more economically unequal the nation, the more political power falls into the hands of the wealthy.

Anyway, returning to the video, the next claim is an odd one: ‘politicians are spending up to 70% of their time raising funds for re-election’. The term ‘up to 70%’ could actually mean anything from zero to 70%, so let’s take that with a pinch of salt. Another Represent Us website quotes former Democrat senator Tom Daschle: ‘a typical US senator spends two-thirds of the last two years of their term raising money’. I’m not sure if this is meant literally, but of course time spent isn’t the issue, rather money raised is the issue. The video goes on to make this interesting claim: ‘in order to win a seat in some races, you would have to raise $45,000 every day for six years to raise enough money to win’. I’m not sure how to fact-check such a claim, though ‘in some races’ could be a warning sign of some exaggeration or over-simplification. Then again, the idea of those kinds of dollars being involved in any electoral race is a sure sign of shonkiness. In any case the claim has to be seen in tandem with the next factoid presented, that ‘only .05% of Americans give more than $10,000 to politics’, which suggests that this tiny sector – the super-rich and wealthy special interest groups – are the funders of election campaigns, generally with agendas that the pollies are politely commanded to comply with – with the inevitable result for the increasingly disengaged majority.

So, whether these facts are precisely correct or not, it’s clear enough that money is poisoning democracy in the USA. As the video goes on to say, Americans are leaving the major parties in droves, and some 42% are registered as independent, rather than members of the duopoly of Republicans and Democrats. And since there are virtually no independent candidates, the quote from Sapolsky above becomes all the more relevant.

I’ve only looked at about a third of the video, but I’ll post this lot and present my take on the rest in my next post. Keep well!

Written by stewart henderson

March 30, 2020 at 2:43 pm

the wanker in the white palace 3: the impeachment failure

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words words words

It’s not accurate to say that impeachment was bound to fail in getting rid of the wanker, but it became increasingly obvious that it would fail, because too many politicians feel they owe their livelihood to him, or their prestigious position as ‘lawmakers’ and public personae. And of course there are a few who are too stupid to see what a wanker the wanker is, but they’re a small minority.

In this blog I’ve often stated that impeachment is a piece of shite. It would be nice to imagine that this latest débâcle would be enough for it be entirely expunged from the political system, but of course that won’t happen. This is the USA we’re talking about, after all.

It’s an odd term, derived from empêchement, a ‘prevention’ or ‘impediment’ from the verb empêcher. It’s used in many countries but has always struck me as an inadequate substitute for solid L-A-W law, as has been shown in this recent case. Of course, in order for this substitution to be effective, the administration of the law needs to be entirely separate from government. This is proving to be a problem in ‘the world’s greatest democracy’.

Three Presidents have been impeached. None of them have been removed from office. It all seems to be an expense of spirit in a waste of shame. But getting rid of impeachment, unfortunately, is just the beginning. I’ve already pointed out some of the failings of the Presidential system in general. Massive power, massive immunity. Are Americans really this stupid?

Yes, they are, or maybe it can happen to any state that promotes an uncritical, worshipful attitude towards its constitution, which, in the case of the USA, has created a Constitutional Presidency on the basis of the British Constitution Monarchy. And there’s no doubt that, at the outset, it was an improvement on the British system, which had, and still has, a hereditary monarch, rather than an elected President. However, the Westminster system has evolved since then, with the monarch’s power gradually reducing to, essentially, nothing, and all power being held by the duly elected parliament, a team with a team leader, working within the parliament, not in a white palace surrounded by thuggish hand-picked courtiers, who, unless they’re responsible citizens – the last people the wanker would choose – need know or care little about the workings of congress.

The USA regards itself as the first modern democracy. Not true. The very reason the founding fathers looked to the British system as a model was because of its parliamentary system, which, without doubt, the founding fathers improved upon. But, following the British system, with its minuscule franchise, those founding fathers, fearful of the ‘unenlightened’, made sure that the unpropertied and feeble-minded – the natives, the blacks and the women, were excluded from any say in government. And just to emphasise the woman issue, no country on this planet can call itself a modern democracy that doesn’t allow half its adult population to vote. American women weren’t given the vote till the 1920s, almost 30 years after women in my region were given it.

But really, all questions about democracy in the USA are now up for grabs. Things will get worse. It’s preposterous to imagine that the wanker (and this epithet shouldn’t entail under-estimation – he’s been made an extremely dangerous figure by the US political-economic nexus) will give up power peacefully. He’s been taught that he’s an eternal winner, so fasten your seat belts, it’s gonna be a bumpy year.

Written by stewart henderson

February 15, 2020 at 11:54 pm

the wanker in the white palace 2: how did the USA get reduced to this?

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Unfortunately, all votes are equal – and by the way, they spelt Guard wrong

As I write, the wanker is, predictably, expending much energy in exacting revenge against his perceived enemies, and in seeking to manipulate the justice system in support of his long-time associates. I note that, over the last day or so, he has casually stated to the media, obviously not for the first time, that ‘I could do x, I have the absolute power to do x, but I think I’ll do it this way…’ I don’t claim this as a direct quote, because of course I don’t listen carefully to the wanker, and in any case, these remarks are essentially formulaic. This is of the thought-bubble type ‘I can do anything I want nya nya, nobody can tell me what to do, but I won’t do that coz mummy might shout at me.’ It’s nonsense from a reasoning perspective, but it’s absolute sense in the wanker’s little world.

Yet, so far, mummy hasn’t shouted at him enough, or he’s found that her shouts aren’t as prohibitive as he’d feared, so he feels more confident about being naughty. And being naughty and getting away with it is the most fun ever. It’s really quite addictive.

This isn’t a joke, and it’s not an exaggeration, or a simplification – it’s the reality. So how did the USA get reduced to this? 

The USA touts itself, more than any other nation, as the land of the individual. You can achieve anything there, apparently. Total freedom. You can advertise just about anything, you can buy a gun just about anywhere, and if you’re an expert at avoiding tax, you’ll be touted as a hero. The rich, in particular, are objects of veneration. And the wanker has been super-rich – at least from my perspective – since the age of three. 

Democracy has its issues, the most obvious of which was highlighted a couple of centuries ago by some Greek philosophers. They had seen how a super-confident-seeming blowhard, a wanker in short, had swayed the crowd towards disaster for their city-state. You can imagine the slogans – ‘lock up x, y and z, they’re enemies of the state’, ‘drain the swamp’, ‘punish states a, b and c, they’re wrecking our economy’, ‘make our State great again’. ..

In Australia, Britain, and most other democratic countries, we don’t directly elect one person to a position of great power, in a competition against another single person. We elect parties. The leader of the party, in election campaigns, will say ‘we will do, this, or that, for you’, ‘we will offer stable, effective government’, and so forth. This ‘we’ makes a big difference. Think about that, it’s really important. In Australia, in Britain, in every other Westminster-based system, we have a Prime Minister, a first minister, primum inter pares, the captain of the team. Famously, and rightly, if the captain goes rogue, she can be dismissed from her position by a simple vote of no-confidence from her party. The captain is replaced by another captain, and the team plays on. 

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that this is a vastly superior system than that which the USA has lumbered itself with. And yet, I have never heard an American journalist or historian or pundit admit as much. Why is this?

I think I’ll have to do a lot of exploring to answer that question.

Written by stewart henderson

February 14, 2020 at 2:33 pm

the wanker in the white palace 1: my position

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I hear comments around me and read reports in the media about how and how not to deal with the wanker in the white palace. My position is straightforward, in its apparent foolishness. Responsible people shouldn’t be dealing with him, they should get rid of him. 

By this I don’t mean putting an end to his life, much as I’m in favour of euthanasia. The wanker can’t stop himself from wanking night and day – there is no free will, but that’s another story. The point is that he’s clearly incapable of holding any position of responsibility, in which he’s expected to work for the good of others. No sensible person, I would argue, disagrees with this, and a number of the USA’s top psychologists have spoken out about the wanker’s mental unfitness for the job he holds. They would also agree with one of their rank, speaking on MSNBC, that the damage which makes it impossible for him to behave like a common and garden adult occurred very early in life and is irreversible. The damage he has done to the role of US President won’t be able to be fully assessed until he’s dumped from office – which may, I believe, involve bloodshed. This wanker won’t go quietly.

So why has the wanker managed to inveigle himself into this extraordinary position, and why is he so hard to get rid of? I’ll be exploring this under two ‘headings’, the ‘American psyche’, and the current Presidential system. The two are very obviously linked.

Why ‘wanker’? Well, I’m essentially Australian (though British-born and a dual citizen), and my first reaction to this bloke after witnessing him briefly on TV years ago was the classic ‘what a wanker’ refrain. If I hadn’t heard his name before I would’ve considered this a badly done black comedy, with the lead actor spouting buffoonish imbecilities, and the other performers pretending to fawn over his oafishness, and appearing dazzled by the kitsch furnishings in ‘Trump’ tower – he trumps over everyone, getit, and yet it’s all trumpery, right?

But it’s no joke, even though it is. Even after all this time, it’s hard to take seriously – but then, I’m not a Kurd, or a Central American refugee. 

The USA is an object of mockery and opprobrium worldwide for its production and promotion of the wanker, and it thoroughly deserves to be. The wanker has trumpeted his wankerdom for the whole of his ‘adult’ life – it’s the USA’s fault that he’s been so successful, and yet even his most vociferous critics trumpet the USA as the leader of the free world, the light on the hill, Guard’s own country, the Greatest Nation on Earth, and other enlightened epithets. There is surely no nation more jingoistic, and unself-critical, than the USA, even allowing for the fallacy that all powerful states have fallen for – Egyptian, Roman, British, Soviet, Chinese and so on, – that economic and military power entail moral superiority. 

In future posts I’ll explore the flaw in the American psyche that has allowed the wanker to swank his way into and perhaps permanently corrupt the most powerful position on the planet (currently) and the many related flaws in a presidential system that fortunately has no equivalent in the so-called free world. 

 

Written by stewart henderson

February 13, 2020 at 5:37 pm

On politics and states – some opening remarks

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‘It takes a village to raise a child’ – Andaman Island girls

One of my abiding interests in life is how to organise society effectively for the benefits of its members. It’s so easy to criticise corrupt and incompetent governments and states, but it seems clear to me that, given the crooked timber of humanity, there’s no ideal form of state or anything close to it. In any case I’m a pragmatist rather than an idealogue, so I’m guessing that the posts I write on this topic will be more about what to avoid rather than what constitutes best practice.

Governments can and should play many roles in trying to provide for an effective society, and these roles often seem to be in conflict. For example, I’ve always been keen on government’s regulatory role in protecting the potentially exploited from would-be or actual exploiters. This would seem to conflict with government’s role in promoting economic success and well-being, in which, for example, traders and producers seek to sell products of highly contested worth. 

Of course one popular view of government is that it should play a minimal role, allowing markets to flow as freely as possible. However the claim that government is ‘always the problem, never the solution’ strikes me as easily refuted. The hands-off approach from government led to the global financial crisis of 2007, in the minds of all but the most hardened libertarians, and in Australia, a recent Royal Commission into the banking sector, which was fought against vigorously by then Federal Treasurer (and now Prime Minister) Scott Morrison, has revealed banking corruption on a massive scale by all of the major banks in the country. Why would anyone think that self-regulation works, given the lessons of history and what we know of human nature?

So I believe that states – that’s to say governments – should have a major role to play in protecting their citizens from exploitation, while providing incentives for industry and capital enterprises to develop and thrive – with certain provisos. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, for example, that I feel that good science, in industrial and other capital enterprises, should be encouraged by government. So good government necessarily entails scientifically literate government. In this respect I believe that good government should be more interventionist than, say, government is expected to be in the USA, where, apparently, pharmaceutical products of highly dubious efficacy can be advertised. Truth in advertising appears not to be a major concern of government in that country, and I thank that’s a mistake.


Looking around the world and reading history, I find the worst governments, in terms of corruption and disastrous consequences for the governed, are those that have managed to avoid being held to account for their actions by those affected. That’s why democracy, bolstered by a free and informed fourth estate, and of course an independent judicial system, has proved to be more effective than its alternatives. But of course democracy is practiced in many different ways in many different states, and it too has its failings.


There’s also the complex role of culture in many states or governing systems. Nationalists tend to exaggerate or manufacture cultural traits, while humanists like myself tend to underplay them or wish them away, but I think the significant increase in globalisation in recent decades has been a benefit overall. Isolationism sees its most extreme examples in North Korea and the Andaman Islands, two very different cases, requiring us to think of culture, its manipulation or otherwise, in complex ways.

I’m not sure where all this is going, but I’ve been wanting to write about this sort of stuff for a long time. I’m currently reading a political history of Korea (north and south) and Russia, in the lead-up to the Putin dictatorship, and of course I’ve learned a lot about the problematic US presidential system over the past three years or so, so there’s plenty to reflect upon…

Written by stewart henderson

January 24, 2020 at 10:43 am

Operation Pressure Pump, the struggle with anti-Americanism, and the future of humanism (!?)

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capital tragedy – Pyongyang

Having succumbed to the strange lure of Korean period dramas, and the not-so-strange allure of the incomparable Ha ji Won, in recent times, I’ve been reading a real history of Korea, Michael Seth’s fast-moving, highly readable book in the Brief History series. 

Seth’s book moves perhaps a bit too quickly through the vast time-span of Korean civilisation before the twentieth century, but no matter, I was keen to find out more about the Korean War, its causes and consequences, about which I knew practically nothing.

In brief, the Korean War was an outcome of the Japanese occupation of the peninsula, and its surrender and withdrawal in 1945. The vacuum thus left was occupied by the Americans in the south, and the Russians in the north, a division demarcated arbitrarily by the 38th parallel. This quasi-official division, which seemed to go on indefinitely and which the Koreans were never consulted about, came as a massive affront to a people who had effectively governed their own undivided region for centuries.

Nevertheless, communism was in the air, and held a certain appeal for some of the Korean peasantry and some intellectuals, fed by Russian and Chinese propaganda. In the poorer north, Russian and local communist leaders were able to introduce reforms which had a direct and immediate benefit for the landless peasantry, while the Americans, apparently clueless about Korean politics and history, tried to maintain order by continuing some of the hated repressive measures of the Japanese.

People on both sides of the 38th parallel wanted and expected reunification of the country in the near future, which makes what eventually happened one of the great tragedies of the twentieth century. The north, under the discipline of Russian Stalinist policies of ‘x-year plans’ and ultra-nationalist workaholism, took the initiative, building up a powerful military force with which to invade the south and enforce reunification, and a Stalinist paradise. By this time Kim Il Sung had imposed himself as the Great Leader of the north, dealing ruthlessly with all rivals.

The north’s attack took the south completely by surprise, and was almost a complete success. They captured all the southern territory except for a small area around Busan, Korea’s second city in the south-east corner. By this time General MacArthur had been appointed to head the southern defence, and with American arms and reinforcements arriving quickly, the invaders were pushed back.

The northern invasion was extremely unpopular in the south, and few of the peasantry, who were generally better off than their northern counterparts, were interested in what Kim’s Stalinists had to offer. So – and again I’m simplifying massively – things eventually went back to a stalemate centred upon the once meaningless, and now very meaningful, 38th parallel. Warfare dragged on for another couple of years, mostly around that parallel.

And that’s how I come to the title of this piece. Operation Pressure Pump, which commenced in July 1952, came about as a result of American frustration with the stalemate. Here’s how Seth describes it:

Thousands of bombing raids destroyed every possible military and industrial target, the dams and dikes that irrigated the rice fields. Pyongyang and other northern cities began to look like Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the A-bomb, with only a few buildings standing. More bombs were dropped by the Americans on this little country of hardly more than 8 million than the allies had dropped on either Germany or the Japanese Empire in WWII. As a result, the North Koreans were forced to move underground. The entire country became a bunker state, with industries, offices and even living quarters moved to hundreds of miles of tunnels. Nonetheless, civilian casualties in these bombing raids were appallingly high.

A brief history of Korea: isolation, war, despotism and revival – the fascinating story of a resilient but divided people, p 126

Now, this was new knowledge to me, and I haven’t heard too many Americans talking about it, in the various media outlets I’ve been listening to lately, as a black mark against the country’s name – and some Americans are self-critical in this way. Okay, it was sixty-odd years ago, and since then there’s been Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq (twice), and a few other ‘minor’ interventions, so, who’s remembering?

So, I’ve been quite critical of the USA on this blog, and I do actually worry from time to time that I’m being unfairly anti-American. I try to relieve this concern by noting that the USA simply follows the pattern of every other militarily and economically powerful country in history. It bullies its neighbours and exploits all other regions, including its allies, to enhance its power. It also falls victim to the same fallacy that every previous powerful nation falls victim to – that its economic power is evidence of moral superiority. Their myth of American exceptionalism is arguably no worse than that of British benevolent imperialism or the civilising influence of the Roman/Egyptian/Babylonian empire. In fact, all nations are 100% self-interested in their own way. A middling country like Australia bullies smaller countries, such as East Timor over oil in the Timor Sea, while kowtowing to more powerful countries like China and the USA, in which case its self-interest lies in how to kowtow to one country without offending the other.

But let me return to Operation Pressure Pump. The greatest casualties of war are ordinary people. It’s worth dwelling on this as ordinary people currently face the consequences of stupid decisions over Iran. ‘Ordinary people’ might seem a condescending term, but it’s always worth remembering that the vast majority of people – in Iran, North Korea, Australia, the USA or elsewhere – aren’t intellectuals or politicians or national decision-makers or religious leaders or general movers and shakers – they’re people whose lives revolve around friends and family and trying to make a reasonable living. Warfare, and the damage and displacement it causes, isn’t something they can ever seriously factor into their plans. It just happens to them, a bit like cancer.

So the US bombing campaign was something that happened to the North Korean people in the early fifties. Another thing that happened to them was ‘communism’ or the despotic nationalist madness of Kim Il Sung. So they were doubly unlucky. As a humanist, I like to think my politics are simple. I consider bullies to be the worst form of human life, and I expect governments to be most concerned about protecting the bullied against the bullies, the exploited against the exploiters. I actually expect government to be an elite institution, like the media, the judiciary, and the science and technology sector. I also expect governments to put humanism above nationalism, but that’s a big ask. The UN hasn’t so far proved to be an enormous success, as members have generally put national interests above broader global interests, but it’s certainly better than nothing, and some parts of it, such the WHO and the UNHCR, have proved their value. I don’t think there’s any other option but to struggle to give more teeth to the UN, the International Criminal Court and other international oversight agencies. We should never allow one nation to accord to itself the role of global police officer. Of course these international bureaucracies are cumbersome when flashpoints occur – the aim is always to prevent these things from happening. The current Iran situation was entirely preventible, and was entirely due to the USA’s appalling Presidential system, which has allowed an irresponsible, attention-seeking buffoon to hold a position with way too much power and way too little accountability. There’s no doubt that Soleimani was an unpleasant character, but reports were that his activities were much reduced due to the Iran Nuclear Deal of 2015, a famously well-crafted deal by most accounts, which was destroyed by the buffoon.

So, this piece of unilateral bad acting by the USA takes us back to the terror bombing of North Korea in the early fifties. I’m certainly not saying that this cruelty made North Korea what it is today, but it didn’t help. We just have to learn to be more collaborative, more willing to negotiate and to understand, to hear, the other side, and stop being such belligerent male arseholes. We have a long way to go.

Written by stewart henderson

January 11, 2020 at 7:24 pm

thoughts on smoking, cancer and government

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a simple and provenly effective solution

Recently I was talking about unhealthy habits to my students – I teach academic English to NESB students – and smoking came up. A student from Saudi Arabia piped up: ‘smoking isn’t unhealthy’.
Now, considering that this same student, a married man aged around thirty, had previously told me that, in ancient times, humans lived to be over 900 years old – ‘it says so in the Bible’ – I wasn’t entirely surprised, and didn’t waste too much time in arguing the point. Actually, I think now he probably mentioned the Bible to show or suggest that Moslems and Judeo-Christians might agree on some things!

Of course, this student was a smoker. Many of my male students are. These students are predominantly Chinese, Vietnamese and Arabic speakers, that’s to say from countries whose governments have acted less forcefully in dealing with smoking than has the Australian government. I myself smoked. albeit lightly, until the age of 24 (a long time ago). Now, having been diagnosed with bronchiectasis, I’m extremely intolerant of cigarette smoke, not to say smokers.

I’m currently ploughing though Siddhartha Mukherjee’s classic Emperor of All Maladies, and have just finished the section on smoking and cancer, and the battle with tobacco companies in libertarianism’s heartland, the USA. 

Cigarette smoke contains a number of carcinogens – but what is a carcinogen? It’s basically a product or agent that has a reasonable likelihood of causing cancer, which doesn’t of course mean that it will cause cancer in every instance. You can play Russian roulette with the 60 or more well-established carcinogens in cigarette smoke, and risk-taking young men in particular will continue to do so, but it’s a massive risk, and the dangers increase with age and length and frequency of use. Lung cancer is the most regularly cited outcome, but as the US surgeon-general’s 2010 report shows in vast detail, cancers of the larynx, oral cavity, pharynx, oesophagus, pancreas, bladder, kidney, cervix, stomach and liver can all be induced by this inhaled chemical cocktail. And cancer isn’t the only issue. There is the problem of nicotine addiction, as well as cardiovascular and pulmonary disease, and fertility and foetal developmental effects. 

With all this evidence, why do people still smoke, and why don’t governments step in? Drugs with far less devastating effects are illegal, so what gives?

Of course the role governments should play in determining or influencing public health has always been debated, as has the efficacy of banning particular substances and practices. The situation isn’t helped by the facts on the ground, an ad hoc regime in which relatively harmless substances such as marihuana are banned almost worldwide, while proven carcinogens like tobacco, costing millions in treatment, are merely ‘discouraged’ to varying degrees. Similarly, in some countries you have ‘cults’ like falun gong being treated as highly dangerous and criminal while more mainstream ‘cults’ such as christianity, no less or more nonsensical, being given a free ride. None of which promotes faith in government decision-making regarding our physical or psychological health.
Even so, I believe governments should play a role. We pay taxes to government so that it can organise our particular state more effectively for all of its citizens – and that means subsidising education, health and general welfare, to reduce inequalities of opportunity and outcome. Democratic government and an open society helps to reduce government ineptitude, ignorance and corruption. The science and technology sector in particular – a proudly elitist institution – should play a more significant role in government decision-making. But a real weakness of capitalist democracy is that political leaders are too often swayed by business leaders, and the money and influence they bring to the table, than by knowledge leaders. This obeisance paid to business success, with insufficient regard paid to scientific evidence, is possibly the greatest failing of modern political society.

Written by stewart henderson

January 5, 2020 at 10:47 am