Sadly, there’s nothing new about the prejudice against baby girls. In many parts of the world female infanticide has been practiced since time immemorial. But as Fraser Nelson explains in an important article for the Daily Telegraph, the problem is getting worse not better – and it is modern techniques that are to blame:
Female foeticide is not yet a major problem in this country – not to the extent of affecting the gender ratio. Yet it does happen:
Then, last week, came the news that the CPS had decided that the prosecution would not go ahead, despite the fact that gender-specific abortion in this country is against the law. However, as Nelson explains, bringing a prosecution would require that the abortion law be upheld as it was originally intended:
In other words, the widespread availability of abortion in this country depends on a loose interpretation of the law. The implication, therefore, is that if the authorities were to uphold the law rigorously in order to prevent female foeticide, they would have to uphold it rigorously in other cases too.
Fraser Nelson argues that the solution is to make gender-specific abortion a specific offence against the law.
Any such move, though, would open up a debate that supporters of abortion on demand would not wish to take place. For instance, if it’s not OK to kill an unborn child because she is female, why is it OK to sanction her destruction because she has Down’s Syndrome?
These are questions that a ‘pro-choice’ society would rather not face – which is why we can expect this and any related issue to be quitely, but firmly, avoided.
Obesity isn’t just a problem in the developed world, it is a global (and, indeed, globular) crisis. We must, of course, resist the temptation to make light of this issue, because the implications are deadly serious – as David Berreby reminds us in a startling article for Aeon:
Furthermore, the financial costs of the obesity epidemic will fall on taxpayers of all shapes and sizes:
Who’s to blame for this crisis? Some people say the food and drink industry, while others insist that obesity is obviously the fault of obese people. Alternatively, one can target both the producers and the consumers of fattening products:
Individuals should, of course, take responsibility for their own health – but what if there's more going on here than a simple failure of personal restraint?
Is this just a case of fat people having fat pets – or feral animals growing fat on all the food we throw out? The fact that laboratory animals are getting fatter too would indicate that something else is at work:
It is sometimes argued that social factors such inequality and sexism are to blame for the rise in obesity. However, it’s unlikely that such concerns impact greatly upon the lives of marmosets and laboratory mice. Rather, if the evidence on weight gain across species really does stand up, then an environmental factor would seem to be involved:
It isn’t unreasonable to suppose that at least one of the countless changes we’ve made to our environment is exerting an influence on human (and animal) metabolisms. Furthermore, the effect doesn’t need to be a very large one. As David Berreby points out “eating a mere 30 calories a day more than you use is enough to lead to serious weight gain.”
Food for thought.
There are many problems with describing politics in terms of left and right – and one of them is that it encourages us to see the main political parties as mirror images of one another. Of course, symmetries do exist on issues like public expenditure (the left wants more, the right wants less). But beyond these matters of political economy, there’s something profoundly asymmetrical about the red and blue corners of the British political arena.
In particular, the mainstream right is much more tolerant of ideological differences than the mainstream left. British Conservatives are able to hold sharply differing views on hot-button issues like abortion, immigration, climate change, capital punishment or foreign intervention and still co-exist. To an increasing extent the same does not apply on the other side of the aisle. Thoughtful leftwingers can quite easily find themselves beyond the pale if they think (and say) the 'wrong' things.
Dissident lefties like the Blairite Dan Hodges or the liberal interventionist Nick Cohen often find a friendlier reception on the right than the left. The same goes for David Goodhart, the editor of Prospect. His thought-crime was to question the liberal left orthodoxy on immigration. In a confessional piece for Standpoint – the centre-right counterpart to Prospect – he gives an account of himself:
By his own admission, he was for most of his adult life an unthinking subscriber to the standard line:
Though it’s still a touchy subject on the left, the wider debate on immigration has become a great deal more open in recent years. It is now possible to address issues of identity and citizenship without being accused of racism. Yet for many decades, the grip of political corrrectness was stronger on this issue than any other. Goodhart has some interesting ideas as to why this was:
There’s an important lesson here for the right. When conservatives have nothing constructive to contribute on an issue, it gives the doctrinaire left an opportunity to establish an ideological monopoly, one which can take a long-time to break open.
We should therefore take encouragement from the fact that the modern-day British right is a place of diverse opinions and lively debate. Unlike the American right, conformity is not confused with authenticity.
But you may disagree.
The outcome of the forthcoming German general election could be determined by the performance of a new eurosceptic political party called the Alternative for Germany (AfD).
It's tempting to describe the AfD as Germany’s UKIP, but its leaders have made it clear that they have more in common with the British Conservative Party than with Nigel Farage and friends. Furthermore, while the AfD wants an end to the Eurozone, it supports Germany’s continued membership of a reformed European Union.
Despite a policy platform that would be considered wholly unremarkable in a British context, the AfD is the target of sustained abuse in Germany – some of it violent. Friederike Heine reports on recent events for Spiegel Online:
The pressure hasn’t just come from leftwing rentamobs, but also from the mainstream media:
Might these newspapers have a point? The facts would suggest that they don’t:
Despite this evidence, the criticism of the AfD continues. For instance, in her otherwise fair and balanced article, Friederike Heine argues that “by advocating a break from consensus-oriented politics and decrying political correctness as a burden on free speech, the party is aligning itself with other right-wing populist movements across Europe.”
And yet the consensus that the AfD is breaking is on the Eurozone – which is hardly unreasonable in the circumstances. As for its European alignments, the AfD seems closest to David Cameron’s Conservative Party – which, in German eyes, is obviously what counts as a rightwing populist movement.
With Syria and Egypt dominating the headlines, an international crisis of a different kind is going largely unnoticed. In countries like Turkey, India, Indonesia and Brazil, currencies and stock markets are plunging in value, with governments desperately trying to control inflation and prevent capital flight.
But, hang on, aren’t these the fast-growing ‘emerging economies’ that are supposed to be compensating for the moribund West? Er, yes.
So, why the sudden crisis of confidence? In an eye-opener of an article for Project Syndicate, Stephen Roach pins the blame on trade imbalances:
Worried about how these imbalances are going to be financed, investors are pulling their money out, thereby exacerbating matters in the time-honoured fashion.
But as Stephen Roach explains, there’s more to it than that. While we in the West worry about the impact that quantitative easing (QE) might have on our economies, we’ve given very little thought to the impact it might have further afield – and, in particular, upon global flows of capital.
The original purpose of QE was to artificially reduce interest rates and ease the repayment of accumulated debts. The inevitable side effect was that some investors took their money elsewhere in the hope of a better return. And where better than those exciting emerging economies?
Now that western economies are showing signs of recovery, finance ministers and central bankers are making plans for the unwinding of QE. Again this is a very self-centred debate, in which the experts worry about getting the timing just right (exit from QE too soon and we could stall the recovery; exit too late and we could unleash inflation).
Meanwhile, the money markets are anticipating the fact that QE is on its way out – and are looking towards a QE-free future:
Thus much of the capital that flowed into the emerging economies is flowing back out again – returning home to the West where interest rates and investment yields can only move in one direction.
In terms of distorting capital flows, QE has worked in a remarkably similar way to the Eurozone – pushing easy money at unreformed economies and then yanking the prop away at the worst possible moment.
Who could not be horrified by the sight of children slain by sarin gas? Thanks to the newspapers we’ve all seen the photographic evidence. But if those children had been killed by conventional munitions – as many thousands of others have been in Syria – would the front pages have shown their corpses then?
Probably not. To use a nerve agent against innocent civilians is a crime against humanity, but surely the same applies to the use of burning, crushing and dismembering agents – or 'bombs' as they're otherwise known.
Given the foreign policy implications, we need to ask if our special horror of chemical weapons is justified. Writing in Foreign Affairs, John Mueller is sceptical:
Gas was also a notoriously difficult weapon to use – sometimes blowing back in the faces of those deploying it. It is therefore not surprising that the “militaries of the combatant nations were quite happy to get rid of the weapons.”
In more recent times, chemical weapons have come under the politically-potent heading of WMD:
Yet, as John Mueller points out, chemical weapons are not especially destructive – not when compared to other instruments of war:
Indeed, if you want to see what mass destruction looks like, then the conventional shelling and aerial bombardment of Syria’s towns and cities provides a stark modern-day example. Nerve agents, by way of contrast, leave buildings and infrastructure completely untouched – which, while of little consolation to those killed, means that post-conflict recovery is that much easier.
Yet this is precisely why chemical weapons are so dangerous. Quite simply there is no more efficient an instrument in the ethnic cleanser’s tool-kit. The destructiveness of each individual attack may be limited, but that’s the point: Enemy populations can be eliminated at the level of the village or the neighbourhood – always handy when the ethnic mix is as granular as it is in Syria.
The only constraint on the use of chemical weapons is the morality of those who possess them or the fear of external punishment – and, in Syria it is difficult to see where either of those are going to come from.
The Syrian conflict is full of complicating factors, but oil isn’t one of them. Syria accounts for less than half of one per cent of global production, most of which is consumed domestically. That said, Iran and Saudi Arabia stand on opposite sides of Syria’s civil war – and of the world’s most important oil and gas shipping lane. Fears of a wider regional conflict are therefore putting upward pressure on energy prices.
Still, at least we don’t have to worry about ‘peak oil’ anymore. Though we may face serious threats to security of supply, fears of an imminent decline in the world’s capacity to produce oil are subsiding.
In an article for IEEE Spectrum, Bill Sweet says that this new confidence has been engendered by technological advances:
This is a crucial point that many people miss in the debate over peak oil. No one doubts the fact that most of the world’s oil remains in the ground. But the question that matters is whether we can continue to extract it at a reasonable price. The true limiting factor in the most credible peak oil scenario is not so much our capacity to produce oil as our capacity to pay for it:
Huge sums are being invested in new extractive technologies, but it remains to be seen whether these efforts can shift oil prices downwards or whether such investment depends on oil prices remaining high.
Meanwhile, it’s worth remembering that conventional oil production will continue for some time to come. In particular, major oil fields in countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran have yet to be exhausted. Thanks to high oil prices they provide their owners with a fat profit – and a means of funding the slaughter of Syria’s unfortunate people.
The decision to ring-fence the NHS budget is taken by some on the right as evidence that the Government is insufficiently serious about cutting public expenditure. In fact, securing acceptance for a near freeze in health spending is one of David Cameron’s more notable achievements.
Just how long this restraint lasts remains to be seen. It is widely assumed that the aging (and fattening) of the population will, in the long term, drive healthcare expenditures ever higher.
However, in an article for Bloomberg, Megan McArdle brings us some mildly encouraging news from America. Spending on Medicare (state funded health insurance for the over-65s and younger people with disabilities) “has been growing more slowly than its historical average”.
It should be stressed that it is the rate of increase in spending per beneficiary that is slowing down. Nevertheless, this could be a sign that an end to the escalation of healthcare costs is finally at hand.
A Congressional Budget Office investigation has tried to identify the causes of the slow-down:
Instead, the leading identifiable cause is demographic change:
Actually, this isn’t at all encouraging. All those newly retired baby-boomers may be bringing down the average age of people on Medicare – but only by increasing the overall number of beneficiaries. Furthermore, as time goes on, younger retirees will become older retirees – with all that implies for demand on the system.
However, the average age effect only accounts for some of the reduction in the rate of increase in spending per beneficiary:
If true, this really would be good news, because progress on efficiency is absolutely vital if healthcare is not to bankrupt the western world.
It’s also worth noting that if such progress is being made in America, then it began before Barack Obama’s much-vaunted reforms:
Perhaps healthcare providers have realised that the future of their industry is all about value-for-money. Certainly, there can be no more blank cheques from the taxpayer – not even for the NHS.
Sometimes you have to wonder whether most people understand the enormity of our national debt, let alone the debts of other nations. Perhaps the problem is one of terminology. We hear talk of trillions of pounds or euros, but what proportion of the public knows what a trillion actually is?
Here's a quick reminder (not that you'll need it, of course): a million is a thousand thousands, a billion is a thousand millions and a trillion is a million millions. In other words, for every thousand-fold increase there’s a new name for the numbers we’re talking about.
According to Jay Zawatsky in the National Interest, the Japanese have moved beyond trillions to the next level:
So, what are the Japanese doing about their quadrillion yen debt? Well, much like the British and the Americans, they’re turning on the printing presses – only more so:
Indeed, the BOJ’s actions are set to double Japan’s monetary base in the space of just two years. But why? What could have possibly prompted the Japanese to follow such an extreme course of quantitative easing? The answer to that is is the failure of fiscal stimulus. The kind of expansionary spending policies that Ed Balls wants us to try in Britain simply haven’t worked – and not for want of trying:
If the Japanese economy isn't growing, then how are they funding all that stimulus?
Hence the extreme QE – when your debt burden is so huge, it’s vital that interest rates are kept low. For rates to stay low, you either need the confidence of the money markets or a population that’s willing and able to lend to the state. For decades Japanese governments mostly borrowed from their own citizens, but in the world’s fastest aging society that’s not the option it used to be. Thus it is increasingly vital that foreign investors see Japan as a safe haven.
Unsurprisingly, Japan’s aggressive monetary expansion has led to a weakening of the yen – which, in an export-orientated economy, should be a good thing. Unfortunately, the theory isn’t working out so well in practice:
And to think we used to worry about Japan's economic strength.
We may sometimes regret the anonymity of modern life, but would we really have it any other way? To be able to conduct our private business in public spaces is a privilege that most people throughout most of history could not have imagined.
In our own day, it is only the famous – or infamous – who are unable to lose themselves in a crowd. Even in the age of ubiquitous CCTV, being caught on camera is not the same thing as being recognised.
That however may be about to change. According to Charlie Savage of the New York Times, the US government is working on a facial recognition technology that has serious implications for privacy:
It sounds like the Department of Homeland Security could do with a little PR advice. If you’re developing a technology that will have every civil libertarian in the western world fearing for our basic freedoms, then calling it ‘BOSS’ isn’t really going to help, is it? They should try a less sinister name, such as ‘Hi-Tech Homeland Emergency Recognition Electronics’ – or ‘Hi-THERE’ for short. Sounds much friendlier.
If you recall, the last Labour government wanted us all to carry ID cards. It was only a public backlash and Conservative opposition that frustrated their plans. However, if something like BOSS is deployed in Britain, ID cards will become irrelevant – because as long as your photo is on file, the state will always know who you are and where you are.