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Shantaram

The book Shantaram is from 2003.  I read it recently, after seeing it in the bargain section of a local bookstore.  I almost bought it then, but decided to get another book.  Shortly afterwards, I noticed it in a little free library on my street.  I couldn’t resist.  The book was written by Gregory David Roberts, who grew up in Australia, but now lives in Bombay, India.

The first thing people will notice about Shantaram is its size: it’s over 900 pages long.  Some people will reject it for that reason.  Those who are used to reading long novels will persist.  I’d say that it’s worth reading.  Charles Dickens, for example, wrote some long novels.  David Copperfield is one of them.  I’ve read all of Dickens’ novels.

Shantaram is described as a novel.  It’s also partly autobiographical.  I can’t tell where the true story leaves off and the fiction begins.  Parts of it are certainly fictional.

In the story, the protagonist loves people immediately, but eventually grows disappointed in some of them.  This behavior happens many times as the story progresses.  People are only human, after all.  It’s really a story of discovery, both about himself and about other people.

Scientific principles are mentioned several times in the book.  Some of it is wrong.  Philosophy of life is really the heart of the book.  Some of it may also be wrong, but I can’t tell.  Should we even expect to obtain accurate information from a work of fiction?

It is a good story, well worth reading.  One curious thing I noticed was that it did not employ flashbacks.  Instead, one of the characters will describe past events in conversation with another character.  It’s a gripping adventure story, well worth reading.

 

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Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky is a retired professor from MIT, in the field of linguistics.  I had heard of him before, especially for his theory of language.  I also knew that he wrote political books.  I found out recently that he wrote dozens of them.  I decided to read one, to find out what it was all about.

I read Hegemony or Survival, written in 2003.  Then I moved on to Failed States, from 2006.  These seem to be his most recent books.  They missed some significant events in the US, notably the 2008 recession and the governments of Barack Obama and Donald Trump.  Still, the behavior of the US government seemed quite familiar.  Both books were quite similar.  I liked the way Chomsky always provides references and points out when other make a statement with no evidence.  The books make depressing reading when they reveal the extent of duplicity in the US government.  I was only revived by reading about the basic goodwill of the US population.

Both books describe the attitudes and actions of the US government.  Their actions are often covert, only coming to light long after they were carried out.  Still, they reveal unchanging attitudes.  The basic one is that the US can do no wrong.  They make exceptions for themselves in international agreements, or withdraw from them if they can’t force an exception.  They believe that achieving security means being in control of the world.  Countries that don’t surrender to US control are subject to regime change.  The US has the economic and military power to compel such a change.

They have a strategy that they follow with defiant countries.  It begins with harsh economic sanctions, denying the people food and medicine, with the expectation that they will blame their own government.  Next, the US supports an armed opposition group with money and weapons.  This is typically a right-wing group or the military.  The last step is for this group to overthrow the government, replacing it with a new government that favours the US.

At the same time, they launch a propaganda campaign.  You may hear the president, or somebody from the administration, telling you about a battle between good and evil, or a divine mission, or how they are bringing freedom and democracy to another country.  That’s the propaganda campaign.

Who is it in the US that’s doing all of this?  According to Chomsky, it seems not to matter if Republicans or Democrats are elected.  Either the politicians must share the same attitude, or the ones who do have that attitude must have great power over politicians.  Permanent employees of the administration may be at fault.  Some of them have a long history of promoting regime change in other countries.  They tell the politicians what to say and what to do.  At the same time, they revile politicians as ignorant opportunists.  They also revile they voters as plain ignorant.  Fortunately, voters are smarter than that.

 

Carbon Tax

You can read more about a carbon tax here.  Our Canadian carbon tax follows this description quite closely.  Even though it’s called a tax, it’s not a tax like any other.  Instead, it’s a means to change public behavior.

In Manitoba, the carbon tax follows federal government rules.  That’s because Manitoba failed to bring in one of it’s own.  Several other provinces have done the same thing.  I suppose that it allows them to blame the federal government for any hardship that the carbon tax imposes.

Our carbon tax is a tax on fuels that contain carbon.  The increased cost of gasoline and natural gas will affect most people.  There’s also a carbon tax on heating oil, but that fuel is little used in this province.

Coupled with the new tax, there is a rebate that people receive when they file their income tax return.

Of course, there have been complaints:  It’s a tax.  It’s a cash grab.  It doesn’t work.

As I mentioned, a carbon tax is not like other taxes.  The carbon tax on gasoline right now is about four cents a litre.  The provincial gasoline tax is about 30 cents a litre, with no rebate.  In other provinces, it’s about 45 cents a litre, also with no rebate.

There is a rebate on carbon taxes, dependent only on the number of people in the household.  The rebate is 100%, meaning that all of the money collected will be paid back to taxpayers.

People can do many things to reduce their carbon tax but still receive the rebate.  This is the purpose of such a tax.  They can move closer to work,  purchase more fuel-efficient cars, join a car pool, or use public transport.  In the case of home heating, they can upgrade insulation or find alternative heat sources.  If they choose to live just as they are, they can do that too, but they will pay more for fuel.

Eventually, our carbon tax will reduce carbon dioxide emissions.  Eventually, it will affect climate change.  That’s it’s ultimate purpose.

 

Political Decision

You’ve probably heard about Jody Wilson-Raybold and the SNC Lavalin affair.  It was in the news recently.  As Attorney General, she had to choose between a political decision and a legal one.  She was under considerable pressure to choose a political decision, but instead she chose a legal decision.  As a result, she was demoted from her cabinet post.  This is an example of something that happens frequently to government ministers.

There’s a better example.  It has to do with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, regarding the east coast fisheries.  I heard about this one on the radio, several years ago.  The minister had to choose between a scientific decision and a political one.  They had always chosen the political decision, disregarding the recommendations of their own scientists.  The department always decided to keep the fishery open.  This decision meant that the fishermen could keep fishing until all the fish were gone.

I don’t recall the fish species, but the scientists recommended closing the fishery to save the fish stocks.  Doing this would drive the companies out of business, putting the fishermen and fish plant workers out of jobs.  It is a difficult choice to make.

Political choices like these are made in response to regional or local conditions.  They are unpopular in the rest of the country.  That explains why these type of deliberations are generally held in secret and concealed from the public.  The other reason, of course, is that politicians from the region or local area want to win the next election; they are forced to recommend a political decision.

 

Have You Read Kropotkin

His name was Pyotr Alexeyevich Kropotkin, a Russian scientist and anarchist.  He had a round face, a bald head, and a bushy white beard.  You can read about him here.

I recently read his book The Conquest of Bread, written in 1892.  I read it because I wanted to learn about anarchism.  I had only before heard the word anarchy, used in a derogatory sense and meaning chaos.  I knew that there must be more to the story than that.

He was an advocate of anarchic communism, a system of complete sharing but without leaders, one that developed spontaneously.  It’s completely different from the style of communism that we have today, with sharing imposed on the people by strong leaders.  In fact, he believed in a system with no government.  That makes his favoured system more exteme than libertarianism, at least in that aspect.

Such a system requires a revolution, with power placed in the hands of the people, as well as an inversion of social classes.  Private property would have no value.  Groups of people could expropriate property whenever it was needed.  Wages would be abolished.  All work would be volunteer work.  People would all do agricultural work for part of their day.  All these changes would happen spontaneously, as if by magic.

Private ownership would disappear.  Payment of rent would disappear too.  Housing space would be allocated by neighborhood committees.  Imports would be abolished.  Instead, regions would become self-sufficient.  Social classes would be abolished;  Everybody would be equal.  Groups would form spontaneously to carry out duties formerly done by bureaucracies.  Collective enterprises would form spontaneously instead of businesses.

He abhors many features of present society, especially including exploitation of the workers.  There’s also the investors who he calls idlers, the middle men who produce nothing, and the wealthy elite who are motivated only by profit.

There’s much to criticize in this book.  He contends that the natural state of a tribal society is anarchic communism.  There is scant evidence now for this view.  It was probably a result of wishful thinking.  There have always been leaders in any society.  Communism in tribal society is probably an illusion.  As well, our society has changed.  We used to be mostly manual labourers.  Now we are consumers.  The ideas put forward in this book seem to be obsolete.

 

What is a Populist

There are two aspects to being a populist politician.  The first is a focus on the class division between the elite and the ordinary people.  There has to be a conspiracy by the elite class to deprive the ordinary people of their rights or of their money.  It’s usually done by misleading the ordinary people with false news.  The second aspect is taking the side of ordinary people, by being one of them or by representing them.

US President Donald Trump is a false populist on both counts.  If there is a conspiracy by the elite class, he became part of it.  He didn’t drain the swamp;  He waded into the swamp.  As well, he is not one of the ordinary people, and does not represent them.  All you have to do is to look at his wealth;  He can’t be an ordinary person because of that.  He can’t even represent them;  He has no idea how ordinary people live, or what they want.

Is there a conspiracy of the elite?  Conspiracies usually don’t exist, but it’s always possible that they do.  We will have to wait for the judgment of history to be sure of that.  Right now, it’s an open question.

 

Acute and Chronic Conditions

When I went to the grocery store where I usually shop, a few weeks ago, the shelf of romaine lettuce was empty.  I expected this, because Health Canada had issued a warning about a possible contamination of romaine lettuce with a dangerous strain of E coli.  I bought head lettuce instead.  When eventually I went through the checkout, the bagger remarked: It’s a strange world we live in;  you can’t buy romaine lettuce but we have plenty of chocolate bars.

Yes, both E coli and chocolate are detrimental to your health, but in different ways.  The Canada Food Inspection Agency only issues recall notices for acute conditions.  These are things that cause immediate sickness, like Listeria or E coli contamination.  They don’t issue recalls for chronic conditions, like food that is high in sugar, fat, or salt.  Eating these foods over the long term will likely cause health problems too, but they must assume that most people won’t do that.

The consequences, ideally, are that all food sold in grocery stores is safe to eat.  It contains no dangerous bacteria or toxins, or other types of contamination.  Chocolate bars are also safe to eat, at least in reasonable quantities.