Happy New Year

2020 has been a pretty good year for me and those around me. A couple of people got COVID and recovered, and some others were stuck on their own for months, but nobody died and no-one had serious health issues of any kind. We had more family time than I thought we could handle, and even managed some holidays. Quality of life went sharply up. For the first time in my working life I can walk to the bakery or cook a nice meal at midday. I started to appreciate the city and the neighbourhood that I live in. Our son moved to the UK and got into uni, remarkably at 17 for his exceptional skills, which is the path he wanted to follow. We both got our right to stay in the UK post Brexit secured. Having him in the house motivates me to take care of myself and live better. Overall nothing terrible happened, anxieties and risks have been closed, and life plans have moved forward.

I’m not particularly afraid of COVID. I’m afraid of giving it to other people and I’m ordinarily afraid of boring diseases like stroke/heart/cancer especially during lockdown. I’m a lot more afraid that the loss of freedoms we consented to: electronic transactions, travel restrictions, contact tracing, etc. will be very hard to reclaim. My job in tech was less affected than most, but I did get in a bit of a rut for lack of travel. Turns out a big part of my work was to meet and bring together other teams, and with online meetings although we can work it feels like we’re using up relationships we already got. I miss Japan. 

2020 was politically divisive but relatively benign. It’s the last year of Trump. He was unpleasant, but did less damage than any other president since Jimmy Carter. Trump killed a senior Iranian officer by drone in 2020, setting a bad precedent, but that was it in terms of major hostilities throughout his four year term. No wars, no countries of muslim people invaded or destroyed. Persistent attempts by the Republican party to bypass democracy are more concerning. Over the summer we saw a wave of riots in the US for better or worse causes. It’s good that in 2020 America discovers racism, but exporting BLM as a global brand was a mistake. In the big picture, America’s performative outrage is irrelevant. The darkest news of 2020 was the implementation of Hong Kong’s security law, the ongoing strangling of Venezuela, and the passing of David Graeber. Treatment of refugees in Greece, on the EU’s orders, was not great either.

This year has to be the year of peak woke nonsense. The so-called left, rather than offering any positive vision, has been pointing the finger at people and calling them sinners. It’s become normal and even applauded to get people fired or expelled from uni because of what they think, your social media posts will be scanned and used against you, you can only have the approved opinion expressed using the correct new words, and any resistance is guilt by association. Black people are to be celebrated, but only as victims, and if they don’t want to play that part they’re accomplices. Scotland is proposing a Soviet bill where you can be prosecuted for comments made in private. The irony of using these fascist methods is lost on the left because they’re good people fighting for good causes, and those they hope to silence are bad “intolerant” people. The effect will be a society where people tow the party line but don’t share what they actually think. What they think will shift for the worse, and at some point the masks will fall off and we’ll be in a much worse place. I hope this trend peaks and reverses, as enough people call bluff and society comes to its senses.

For 2021 I expect we’ll return to normal but with bumps. The vaccine will be rolled out over the next few months and we might have a “missing bullet holes” moment: Should we be giving it to older people who shelter or to young ones who spread the disease? But at some point everyone will get it and restrictions ought to lift. Will they? We may see governments try to keep surveillance, emergency powers, etc. citing some tragic “for the children” cause. This has to be resisted. In Scotland the government will harp on about another independence referendum. I think it’s a very bad idea and it’ll fail when life post Brexit continues as normal and people look at the costs of a split more soberly. At work I have a new role, which I wanted for some time. I’d like to see my colleagues, as well as travel but not at the pre-crisis level. If this year teaches us anything it should be to keep better work-life balance as well as be more sustainable. Possibly also not to bite off each other’s head too.

I know it’s expected to say how unbelievably terrible this year has been but, well, it hasn’t. It’s been an OK or even pretty good year for me and I just wanted to share this fact for perspective. Maybe I’m especially lucky, or just optimistic. I hope this year has been OK or pretty good for you too, and I wish you an even better 2021.

More than a % tax

There’s a video going around where Bill Gates refuses to say he’ll vote for Warren over Trump. The implication is that billionaires are greedy. I think that’s too simple a take.
If Warren says to Gates: You own $100 Billion in assets so pay $50 Billion in cash, that’s a very destructive way to deal with inequality.
If she says: You spent $50 million on a private jet so pay $100 million tax (a 67% rate) that’s much more reasonable.
If she makes a plan where listed companies as they grow are forced to deposit a portion of their shares in a public wealth fund, say 40%, that’s also worth discussing.
It’s urgent to climb own from the insane levels of inequality in modern capitalism, but to do so requires better tools than scaling up a % tax. I think separating the power to consume (CEO pay, personal wealth) from the power to direct firms and investment is a key component. If you do this right, the better companies and billionaires will be on your side.
The Left needs to put out articulate policies, which recently they do, and the media has to cover them. Right now there’s media bias casting the Left’s economic plans as vague or unrealistic. I wonder if Gates will visit Warren so she can personally explain her plan.

Insulting the prophet

Presumed Muslim militants (remember, they could very well be provocateurs) have attacked a satirical paper in Paris killing 12 people, including legendary cartoonist Wolinski. How is the West supposed to react? Tolerating these rare events is an option. But if we think there’s a problem to solve, what is the right thing to do?

There are only two ways. One is to convince the overwhelming majority of Muslims that insulting Muhammad is OK. Convince them that no harm is done, or that whatever non-Muslims say in their societies is not worth taking a life over. If the overwhelming majority of spiritual leaders accept that, then you treat a fatwa as an act of war from the few who don’t. It’s a small act of war so you don’t snd the bombs in, but an act of war nonetheless. That was the stance taken by Margaret Thatcher on the Salman Rushdie fatwa, without so much emphasis on the soft convincing part. Typically the West tells Muslims: These are our principles, press freedom first, respect to you on your terms a very distant second or not something we entertain.

The alternative is for the West to censor depicting and insulting Muhammad and treating deviations as hate speech. It’s a revolutionary idea, but perhaps we could agree that antagonising 1.6 billion people is counterproductive. The West does not have sacrosanct freedom of speech. There’s plenty of precedent for censorship, some to protect minorities, most to support government and corporate agendas including copyright. A specific ban on depicting and insulting the prophet is not a slippery slope and certainly falls at the benign end of the spectrum, unless we dislike Muslims or think they’re crazy to take offence. Neither do we have to really eradicate the offending satire. The West just has to say we respect Islam, we make this illegal and will prosecute offenders.

I’m a humanist, mostly utilitarian atheist. To me respect and censorship looks like the option that reduces harm.

It depends if you think Muslim anger is genuine and widespread or the work or oppressors and agitators. Also whether you consider the question open or closed. Free speech exists to resolve open questions. When society reaches a consensus the question is closed, until the consensus is no longer current and it is reopened. The West wants to open a question that Muslims may want closed.