Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Eventually, we will all hate Obama too

A British commentator says below that: "What makes America such an indispensable power is precisely what makes anti-Americanism inevitable"

It amuses me that some of those who criticise the present US Administration for its Manichaeism - its division of the world into good and evil - themselves allocate all past badness to Bush and all prospective goodness to Obama. As the ever-improving myth has it, on the morning of September 12, 2001, George W. and America enjoyed the sympathy of the world. This comradeship was destroyed, in a uniquely cavalier (or should we say cowboyish) fashion, through the belligerence, the carelessness, the ideological fixity and the rapacity of that amorphous and useful category of American flawed thinker, the neoconservative. They just threw it away.

But there isn't anything that can't be fixed with a sprinkling of genuine fairy dust. What Bush lost, Obama can find. Where the Texan swaggered, the Chicagoan can glide. Emotional literacy will replace flat iteration, persuasion will supplant force as the preferred means of achieving what needs to be achieved, empathy will trump narcissism. Those who hate America may find their antipathy waning, those who were alarmed by unilateralism will warm to softer, moral leadership. A new dawn will break, will it not?

Some on the Left are getting their count-me-outs in already, realising that Mr Obama is, after all, a big-game hunter, a full-trousered American candidate. They, I think, are more realistic than those who manage on one day to laud the Democrat as not being a real politician, and on the next to praise him for his sensible left-trimming when seeking the party's nomination and his equally sensible centre-hugging once it was in the bag. I say the antis are more realistic because, eventually, we will hate or ridicule Mr Obama too - provided, of course, that he is elected and serves two full terms.

George W.Bush, of course, represents a particular kind of offence to European sensibilities. He blew out Kyoto, instead of pretending to care about it and then not implementing it, which is what our hypocrisies require. He took no exquisite pains to make us feel consulted. He invaded Iraq in the name of freedom and then somehow allowed torturers to photograph each other in the fallen dictator's house of tortures. He is not going to run Franklin Roosevelt a close race for nomination as the second greatest president of the US.

But even if he had been a half-Chinese ballet-loving Francophone, he would have been hated by some who should have loved him, for there isn't an American president since Eisenhower who hasn't ended up, at some point or other, being depicted by the world's cartoonists as a cowboy astride a phallic missile. It happened to Bill Clinton when he bombed Iraq; it will happen to Mr Obama when his reinforced forces in Afghanistan or Pakistan mistake a meeting of tribal elders for an unwise gathering of Taleban and al-Qaeda. Then the new president (or, if McCain, the old president) will be the target of that mandarin Anglo-French conceit that our superior colonialism somehow gives us the standing to critique the Yank's naive and inferior imperialism.

Often those who express their tiresome anti-Americanism will suggest, as do some of the more disingenuous anti-Zionists with regard to anti-Semitism - that they, of course, are not anti-American, and that no one really is. But, coming as I do from an Anti-American tradition that wasn't afraid to proclaim itself, I think I know where the corpses are interred. For example, the current production of Bernstein's Candide at the English National Opera is a classic of elite anti-Americanism, in which we are invited to laugh at the philistine invocation of "Democracy, the American Way and McDonald's". The laughter that accompanied this feeble satire showed our proper understanding that we, the audience, had a proper concept of democracy, and would never soil ourselves with an Egg McMuffin.

The true irony went way above the sniggerers' heads, which was that Leonard Bernstein was the American cultural import that we were, at that very moment, enjoying. But the prejudice is that American culture has had a negative influence on the world, tabloidising our journalism, subverting the gentle land of Ealing with the violent pleasures of Die Hard 10 and commercialising our most intimate lives. And so we have ever complained; my father, back in the early Fifties, once wrote an entire communist pamphlet about the terrible effect of Hollywood and jazz on the land of Shakespeare and Elgar.

This week you could hear the author Andrew O'Hagan on Radio 4, reading from his collection of self-conscious essays, The Atlantic Ocean, in which - despite his own claims - every impact of American life on Britain is somehow configured negatively. He writes of an exported popular culture "born in the suburbs of America" and defined as "Spite as entertainment. Shouting as argument. Dysfunction as normality. Desires as rights. Shopping as democracy." This in the country that has sent Big Brother, Pop Idol, Wife Swap and Location, Location, Location over the Atlantic in the other direction, while taking delivery of Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Wire.

I should admit that I am irked by O'Hagan's dismissal of the "idiots who supported that bad and stupid war (ie, Iraq)" and am willing to match my idiocy against his intelligence in any debating forum that he cares to name. More interesting, though, is the desire to blame America. For all that O'Hagan claims that the US has lost its purchase on the world's affections, it remains the chosen destination for the most ambitious of the planet's migrants. For all that he claims that this change in sentiment is recent, I can't help recalling those - the most honest - who commented, in journals he writes for and on the very day after September 11, that the Americans had had it coming.

In part I think that anti-Americanism is linked to a view of change as decline. The imagination is that dynamic capitalism, associated with the US, is destroying our authentic lives, with our own partly willing connivance. It is a continuing and - at the moment - constant narrative, uniting left and right conservatives, which will usually take in the 19th- century radical journalist William Cobbett (conveniently shorn of his anti-Semitism), and end with an expression of disgust over the Dome, the Olympics or Tesco. Just as bird flu is a disease from out of the East, runaway modernity is a scourge originating to the West.

So Barack Obama, en fete around the world, will one day learn that there is no magical cure for the envy of others. What makes America the indispensable power (and even more indispensable in the era of the new China), is precisely what makes anti-Americanism inevitable.


The financial irresponsibility of the British Left

Billions wasted

For an economic historian brought up in Kirkcaldy, Gordon Brown seems remarkably indifferent to the writings of that town's greatest son, Adam Smith: "It is the highest impertinence and presumption in ministers to pretend to watch over the economy of private people, and to restrain their expense," Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations. "They are themselves always, and without any exception, the greatest spendthrifts in the society." In his wildest dreams, Smith could not have imagined just how spendthrift they could be. UK public sector net borrowing for the first three months of the financial year was at $48.8 billion, the highest quarterly since records began in 1946.

When a country, like a household, is in financial difficulties, it has two options: to increase income or cut spending. Labour has decided to do the former by simply borrowing the money, which will make the necessary correction worse when it comes in the form of higher taxes (though presumably they think that will be the Tories' problem, a sort of economic scorched earth policy). What Labour is incapable of is the other option: cutting the spending - not just by paring back programmes that add nothing to the wealth of the nation, but by eradicating the mind-boggling waste.

It went almost unnoticed last week when the National Audit Office refused to sign off the annual accounts of HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) because of massive losses on the tax credit scheme. These amounted last year to overpayments and fraudulent claims of about $3 billion. We have come to a pretty pass where a loss of $3 billion and the admonishment of the public auditor can be virtually shrugged off. Have we become so inured to waste on such a colossal scale that we no longer care? Or are the numbers too big for us to grasp? Add to that $3 billion the $8 billion bill the taxpayer may now have to pick up as a result of the inquiry into the shambles at Equitable Life.

Much of the blame for the shortfall in the funds of policyholders can be laid at the door of the society's board for running an over-generous, and ultimately unpayable, annuities scheme over many years. But Ann Abraham, the Parliamentary Ombudsman, was emphatic in her view that culpability could also be attached to the Government for its failure to regulate the company properly, not least when it was aware of what was happening in the late 1990s. At the time, the individual in overall charge of the regulatory system, indeed, the person who had established a new one under the auspices of the Financial Services Authority, was our old friend from Kirkcaldy (Mr Brown, not Mr Smith).

If we are generous, and say that one quarter of the eventual bill to compensate Equitable Life losers can be attributed to the regulatory failures on Mr Brown's watch, that's another $2 billion in the waste column. So, in one week, $5 billion went west. That is a sum equivalent to the fall in tax receipts over the first three months of this year. Over the same quarter, spending rose by $17.6 billion.

The tax credits losses for last year, however, are a drop in the bucket compared to the accumulated additional costs of the system, caused by poor political direction, shoddy administration and failed computer systems. The grand total wasted in overpayments, underpayments or fraud is at least $20 billion since they were introduced in 2003, again by the Kirkcaldy maestro. They were meant to subsidise poorly paid work through the tax system, remove the stigma of benefits, and make work pay. Yet within months of their introduction, they were the subject of more complaints to MPs, the Inland Revenue, the Ombudsman and citizens' advice centres than any public policy in history.

Years later and the system is still in chaos. The Parliamentary Ombudsman and Citizens Advice Bureaux continue to report an inundation of complaints. Though it was Gordon Brown's personal creation, he appears to have emerged remarkably unscathed from the botched implementation and the incessant, almost compulsive, tinkering.

Frank Field, the former welfare reform minister, once compiled a list of changes to the system made by the Kirkcaldy wizard: over a four-year period from 1999, the Government abolished family credit, introduced working families' tax credit, introduced the disabled person's tax credit, introduced a childcare tax credit, introduced an employment credit, abolished the married couple's tax allowance, introduced the children's tax credit, introduced a baby tax credit, abolished the working families' tax credit, abolished the disabled person's tax credit, abolished the children's tax credit, abolished the baby tax credit, introduced a child tax credit, abolished the employment credit and introduced a working tax credit. As Mr Field said: "It was like gardeners going round pulling up their plants all the time to see whether the roots are still there."

Last week, after the NAO refused to sign off the Inland Revenue accounts, ministers said the system was undergoing "teething problems". What? After five years? In any case, why take money off people to use to administer a system that gives them the money back; why not give them tax cuts to start with?

Given that the implementation of the policy was such a shambles, and payments were so erratic, that many of our poorest people were reduced to misery, how can it be considered anything other than a disaster?

Here was a classic example of an attempt by Whitehall to make things better that simply made them worse. It combined the micro-managerial, social engineering obsession of Gordon Brown with an ineffective IT system and conspired to cause hardship that was not there before. The scale of official error was completely unacceptable, yet nobody took the rap.

I don't know about you, but I am getting heartily sick seeing my hard-earned cash squandered on an almost daily basis without anyone responsible actually feeling any pain at all. It's time somebody did, and I think we all know who. A reckoning is due.



The climate change lobby tends to react like scalded cats should anyone have the temerity to question their assertion that global warming is a man-made phenomenon. So certain are they of the righteousness of their case that it has taken on the aura of a religious faith - and heresy will simply not be tolerated.

The latest example is Ofcom's ruling that Channel 4's programme The Great Global Warming Swindle breached its guidelines by not being impartial and by failing to reflect a range of views on a controversial issue. The programme was actually polemical and since when are polemics supposed to be impartial? Yet for daring to suggest that there is no proven link between human activity and global warming (not least because there has been a marked atmospheric cooling in recent years), the programme makers were deluged with protests in what looked suspiciously like an orchestrated operation by the true believers. One complaint was 188 pages long and alleged 137 breaches of the Broadcasting Code.

Yet while Ofcom ruled that its rules on partiality had been broken, it also concluded that that this did not lead to viewers being "materially misled". In other words, the programme makers had sought to debunk a cherished theory by challenging an orthodox view, yet did so in a way that did not mislead the viewer. So what exactly is the problem?

This bullying is unappealing. Climate change protagonists would carry more conviction if they encouraged free debate on this issue, rather than trying to silence dissenting voices. I don't recall Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth - that's the same Al Gore whose Tennessee home consumes 20 times the amount of energy as the average American home - being impartial, or giving a voice to a range of views. It was polemic, and highly effective polemic at that. So was The Great Global Warming Swindle.



Ofcom, Britain's media regulator, seems to have been too quick to damn the Great Global Warming Swindle, and too quick to exonerate one of Britian's leading warming hysterics:
"In the closing moments of the program a voiceover from the climate change sceptic Fred Singer claimed that the Chief Scientist of the UK had said that by the end of the century the only habitable place on the planet would be in the Antarctic and that "humanity may survive thanks to some breeding couples who moved to the Antarctic". Sir David has never made such a statement. It is thought that Mr Singer confused the comments with those made by the scientist James Lovelock, who infuriated many colleagues in the science community when he publicly questioned global warming."

Actually, Lovelock didn't publicly question global warming, but claimed in fact: "Before this century is over, billions of us will die, and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable."

But it turns out that that Singer didn't really misrepesent King that much at all. Reader Paul in a few minutes of searching discovered some King quotes that Ofcom seems to have missed in 15 months of inquiry:
"Antarctica is likely to be the world's only habitable continent by the end of this century if global warming remains unchecked, the Government's chief scientist, Professor Sir David King, said last week."

With such extreme and scientifically unsupported scare-claims like those, why is it that King and Lovelock aren't being hounded that way that The Great Global Warming Swindle was for criticising such alarmism?


Outcry at British drug watchdog's plan to cut arthritis treatments

Tens of thousands of arthritis sufferers will be denied powerful drugs on the NHS under a controversial decision by the Government's rationing body

Patients' groups have reacted angrily to new guidelines which will mean 40,000 people with rheumatoid arthritis will have possible treatments withdrawn. Without the drugs the patients will suffer more pain, the possibility of more surgery and long-term disability, it is claimed. The decision amounted to a "prescription for pain", experts warned.

The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (Nice), today issues a final appraisal document - the last draft before definitive guidance is issued - stating that patients who do not respond to one powerful drug cannot try another of the same type. Currently doctors are able to try patients on three variants of a drug type which work by blocking the action of a chemical. If one does not work or its effectiveness wears out over time, sufferers can switch to another, prolonging the period they can remain fit and active. But the drugs are very expensive, with even the cheapest costing around $200 a week per patient.

Many rheumatoid arthritis patients live with the disease for decades. They argue that cutting down the options will leave them needlessly living in agony for years. Cutting access to the drugs will speed their decline, meaning they are less able to work for a living and will have to rely more on benefits and care, campaigners say. Ailsa Bosworth, Chief Executive of the National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society, said: "This decision is another nail in the coffin for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis in England and Wales. "Nice is re-writing the rules of rheumatoid arthritis treatment in this country ignoring the clinical effectiveness of drugs and ignoring the views of patients and clinicians."

Rheumatoid arthritis, which differs from osteoarthritis, is an auto-immune disease in which a person's joints are attacked by their body's own defences. It affects 400,000 people of all ages in the UK. Most suffer with a mild form that can be controlled with ordinary painkillers. However, tens of thousands needed the stronger drugs, called anti-TNFs as they block the action of a chemical called tumour necrosis factor (TNF). Between 20,000 and 40,000 people in England and Wales are taking an anti-TNF at any time, and 50 per cent have needed to switch treatments at least once. The anti-TNF drugs currently available on the NHS are Enbrel (its generic name being etanercept), Humira (adalimumab) and Remicade (infliximab).

Scientists are not sure why one anti-TNF drug might stop working over time but doctors and patients agree being able to switch between them can be highly beneficial. Once arthritis patients have exhausted the anti-TNF options, under NHS rules they can move on to another drug called rituximab, a 'biologic' which works by modifying the immune system. Until recently they would have then been able to try a separate drug called abatacept, but in April Nice quashed that option, saying it was not cost effective. Consequently campaigners say Nice has reduced the treatment options for people with the disease from five to two.

Professor Rob Moots, Professor of Rheumatology at Liverpool University, said: "It's almost impossible to know which anti-TNF will work for a patient at the outset. Before this decision we could try patients on each of the three treatments in turn to find one that was effective for them - now we only have one shot at success. "This flies in the face of clinical judgment. Many patients will be left in astonishing pain, while knowing we haven't explored all the options for them."

Ros Meek, Director of the Arthritis and Musculoskeletal Alliance, added: "Rheumatoid arthritis is a debilitating disease and living with it is an extremely painful experience. Nice's decision takes away access to a normal and independent life for the many thousands of people battling with the condition. It also totally contradicts Lord Darzi's pronouncements in his recent review of the NHS - in particular his focus on patient choice and patient empowerment. It's a prescription for pain."

A spokesman for Nice said: "Having taken all the available evidence of clinical and cost effectiveness into consideration, together with the views of patients and clinicians, the independent Appraisal Committee was not persuaded that TNF -? inhibitors, when used after the failure of a previous TNF - inhibitor, would be an appropriate use of NHS resources. "However, the Committee agreed on the importance of further research that examines the comparative effectiveness of all possible options for treating people with Rheumatoid Arthritis". "People currently receiving adalimumab, etanercept and infliximab for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis after the failure of a previous TNF -alpha inhibitor should have the option to continue therapy until they and their clinician consider it appropriate to stop."

Nice's final guidance is expected in September but campaigners hope their appeals will lead to a last minute U-turn. In April, following public outcry, Nice changed its prescription guidance for Lucentis, a drug which slows down onset of the severe eye condition macular degeneration. And in May the Court of Appeal ruled that Nice must explain how it reaches its decisions on whether or not to recommend drugs, in an ongoing battle over the Alzheimer's treatment Aricept. However, it has never lost a case regarding its guidance in court.


European Union abolishes the British acre: "The acre, one of Britain's historic imperial measurements, is to be banned from use under a new European directive. The measurement, which will officially be replaced by the hectare, will no longer be allowed when land is being registered. After being agreed last week, the new ruling will come into force in January 2010. The Tories are angry that unlike some other EU countries, who sent Cabinet-level ministers to the meeting on 15 July, the Government only sent Jonathan Shaw, a junior minister at the Department for Environment Farming and Rural Affairs, to represent Britain's interests. Mark Francois, the Shadow Europe Minister said: "It is this kind of pointless interference into the nooks and crannies of our national life that frustrates people about the EU. Whether we use hectares or acres should be a matter for Britain to decide, not the EU."

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