I am still trying to get this site to work well and I am not sure I am getting there. The following are below: my July letter, pictures of the garage building, memories of feral cats in childhood, a explanation of inflammation, the magic of story-telling and a long piece on neo-liberal economics and its effects on democracy. Enjoy. Janet
July 2015 letter
We are just coming out of a drought with more than a month of very hot and dry weather. It more or less killed my not very big or healthy garden. The onions are OK and we may get some more courgette and some carrots. We are currently eating the potatoes and that may last a couple of weeks. We will see what August brings in weather. We got our first really rain on the July 26th.
The garage is coming along. There are pictures below.
We had sad news that a friend we met 52 years ago has died, Ron Parker. We were very much looking forward to another visit from the Parkers this year. It is especially sad when one of your oldest friends dies.
Merrilee and Aydon will be visiting near the end of August. (I am about to start cleaning house.)
Progress on the garage
Harry has made great progress on the garage despite very hot weather.
Harry put a lintel across the garage where the ceiling and roof will need support. A very difficult job of cutting drilling, lifting the steel and getting it just right.
Next was the other long wall (the north wall)that will go up with sheathing etc. in place.
The frame needs to be square before it is sheathed because it can’t adjust once the sheathing is on. Here it is made right and then the first piece of sheathing nailed down.
The umbrella material (passes water vapour but not liquid water) going down.
The north wall ready to lift with the hinges, ropes and adjustable rod attached.
It was late in the day but we found three neighbours will to help (Sylvain, Sebastien, and Pascal). Up it when, got adjusted and screwed down. No more than 15 minutes work.
The west wall is in two halves, one closing the west end of the workshop part and the other is on one side of a space that will be open and not floored but roofed - a place to store mower and the like. Here the first half is framed.
There is the first half up and partly sheathed.
The second half of the west wall framed.
Second half up in place. All the walls are framed. Now the next thing is to get our concrete mixer back and make some concrete.
Cats in the barn
When I was a little girl, there were sometimes cats in the barn. They were wild; they came and went as they pleased. Grandpa Barmby told me that they had a number of local barns that they lived in. They would move in, eat the local mice etc. until the prey was scare, and then move on to the next barn. Around the circle of barns they went. It seems odd to me now to imagine cats as pack animals, but that is what they seemed like.
I found that if I sat in the hay loft perfectly still that the cats would start to ignore me. This was my first introduction to Biology, and love of watching and thinking about animals has never left me. In particular I remember watching a mother cat teaching kittens to hunt. She would get all the kittens together and paying attention and then she would drop a mouse among them. The mouse would run and the kittens scatter. Mother cat would catch the mouse and get the kittens back and repeat. After a while the kittens would get better at stopping the mouse. After a longer while they would get the hang of killing it.
We had a cat in Africa that was not what you would think of as a hunter – didn’t appear to kill anything. She had kittens. And one night she wanted to go out. Out she went and came back in no time with a mouse in her mouth. She started getting the kittens in an attentive group. He and I went to a movie and when we came home the cat family was asleep and all that remained of the mouse seemed to be a skull.
Back to the barn cats. Once I decided to steal a kitten and keep it in the house as a pet. The mother cat did not accept this and although the cats avoided humans most of the time, she walked into the house, bold as brass, picked up the kitten in her mouth and walk out with it.
The only other time one of the cats came in the house was when we were away.She or he came through a broken screen on a window. We had to piece together what happened from the crime scene. The cat saw the canary in its cage through the window and came to get it. The canary cage was one that hung from a hook on top and the cat could not get into it. But it could swat at it. The result was a mess and a dead canary, but not an eaten bird. It must have died of fright while safe in the cage. Although I was young and the canary was mine as a Christmas present, I did not resent the cat that tried to get it. The cat was just being a feral cat and doing what cats do. I have always found it odd that people take sides between carnivores and prey. I tend to be happy for the prey if it escapes and happy for the hunter if it gets its meal and not judge the situation at all.
The body has systems of homeostasis to keep everything working well. Take temperature: the body has a thermostat and if the temperature of the body rises or falls out of the set zone, then metabolic, physiological and behavioral measures start attempting to bring the temperature back to normal. Almost all the systems of the body have homeostatic reflexes (cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, respiratory, renal, musculoskeletal, and neuroendocrine systems). They are fine tuned responses to changes in the body and in the environment. The more the immune system is understood, the more it appears to also by governed by homeostasis. The body is posed between the danger of too little immune response and the harm of unnecessary responses and it attempts to stay in that zone. On a sort of knife edge.
When immunity is to weak, the result is infections, parasite invasion and unhealed tissue damage. Perhaps even cancer can result from a weak immune system. A immune system that is too strong, not only over reacts to real threats but reacts to non-threats and can even treat the body itself as an enemy, as in auto-immune diseases.
Inflammation has become a real problem in the modern world. There are a number of possible reasons: we get fewer other disease so the percentage of autoimmune disease rises, we are cleaner and more free of parasites and so the ‘thermostat’ is set wrong in childhood, we are exposed to new chemicals and some of them may encourage unnecessary immune responses, or our life style (weight, exercise, stress etc.) may make immune responses more damaging. For example, if we are relatively free from cuts and bruises, dirt and pollen, infections, worms and so on, then the absence of triggered immune responses may be taken by the homeostasis system as an indication that the body is not recognizing its enemies and the trigger should be lowered. Another example: chemicals called adjuvants are added to vaccines to heighten the immune response to the antigen in the vaccine. The adjuvant is not the target of the immune response but just encourages it. These are ordinary compounds like alum. Who knows what adjuvants occur in our environment?
Inflammation is a very complex event – ideally it starts as an alarm, becomes a destructive fighter, cleans up the debris and ends up as a healer. When it works well it is a wonderful response. We do not want to be without inflammation; we just want to have it under good control. We want it to ‘resolve’ and complete the healing stage. When inflammation does not have resolution the result is sepsis, atherosclerosis, obesity, cancer, pulmonary disease, inflammatory bowel disease, neurodegeneration, multiple sclerosis, and rheumatoid arthritis. Probably other diseases will be added to this list. There is also allergic responses that are out of proportion such as hay fever and various food and skin allergies. As well as treating the body as an enemy, the system can also be triggered by harmless things in the environment.
During the course of normal inflammation, the immune system produces chemicals that turn down the immune responses. The chemicals keep the response from getting out of hand and also move the emphasis from alarm to fight to repair. One of the first of these signals is glucocorticoid levels that rise early in the onset of inflammation (or stress) and provides feedback to suppress the immune response and protect us from tissue injury by excessive inflammation. A good number of anti-inflammatory compounds have been discovered that are produced by the cells involved in inflammation. Phagocyte cells are pro-inflammatory in early inflammation but switch to being anti-inflammatory in later stages. They start by destroying tissue and end up repairing and healing tissue. The produces of inflammation also reach the brain and it responds by controls of the autonomic nervous system and the endocrine system.
Unresolved inflammation has been called ‘immune tsunami’ and it causes erosion of the integrity of tissues. Tissues that should be responsive to immunity can escape and become cancers, tissues that should be privileged and not attacked by the immune system can become targets and result in auto-immune disease.
There are a number of causes of unresolved inflammation. Oxidative stress, ageing of the immune system especially atrophy of the thymus, changes with age in hormones, metabolites and lipids, and genetic and epigenetic damage. The biggest problem is just ageing and that just happens. But avoiding diets that promote oxidative stress is also important and is at least not as inevitable as ageing.
Humans have probably been telling stories since the beginnings of language. Around the fire after eating and before sleeping, it’s story time. Most of our talking is story-like. Why?
I think it is because we are predicting beings, always trying to predict what will happen next. That is how our minds work. We are comfortable, effective and successful to the extent that we can predict the outcomes of our actions and the behaviour of other people and things. And prediction is about cause and effect. We are attuned to seeking out causal links and chains of events – that is how we understand the world. And what is a story? It is a chain of events that are connected by each effect being the cause of another effect. We love a good plot.
We find it easier to remember a story then simple facts. This is because our ‘episodic’ memory remembers events. It creates connections so that the world makes causal sense and these are then events and can be remembered. Because stories are ready made chains of events, they are easy to remember and retrieve.
Of course there are very good stories and so-so ones and even simple sentences that describe a mundane event. There are stories with a lesson or moral, with humour, with emotion, with suspense. There are good storytellers that can bring a story to life. It maybe the oldest art, at least one of the oldest.
One of the beauties of language is the story. My dog, Ginger, is Miss. Prediction, always watching for signs of what is to come. Does opening that cupboard door mean that someone is going to have a cookie? Does that sound mean that the neighbour is coming home? But the dog cannot learn from any experiences it has not had for herself. I, on the other hand, have heard millions of stories about experiences that have happened to others, or simply made up by imaginative minds. What would I be without all those stories? I would have much fewer (a small fraction of) ideas, knowledge and concepts. I might not appear to be much smarter than my dog.
Looking at Neo-liberal economics
Lately I have been trying to understand neo-liberal economics. This is prompted by many events and a sense of surprise about ignoring democracy and trying to be rid of nation states. Greece on the one hand and the secretive ‘T’ trade deals on the other. We are used to the idea that fascists and communist are not very democratic but we think of socialist, liberals and conservatives as very much on the side of democracy. It seems neocons and neo-liberals are not although they often pretend to be.
Among the things I read was an essay by Wendy Brown, chapter 3 of Edgework, “Neoliberalism and the End of Liberal Democracy”. It is interesting to have the word ‘liberal’ used in such opposite senses in politics and economics. It originated long ago with neither of its modern associations.
Neo-liberals do not actually care what political stripe a government is as long as it does not mess up the economics. People, governments, organizations, companies and whatever else – are just economic agents in their scheme of things. Everything can be viewed, and SHOULD be viewed, in economic terms, so if the ‘will of the people’ conflicts will the ‘neo-liberal economic dictates’ than economy should win over people – but usually they are quiet about this attitude because people like to think they are in charge. Sometimes the attitude shows very clear, as during the Greek election. When the referendum was announced, the Troka cry foul, this was a break of trust, this was illegal (no?, then it should be illegal), there is no way back from this act, that is on the table will be removed and whatever returns will definitely be worse for you. The reaction of the Troka was for the first time describe as ‘fury’ and ‘rage’. The banks were shut down and the deal offered after the No result was indeed worst than the one the Greeks voted on. The reason given for the worse deal was that Greece could not be trusted and it might again play the democracy trick. They just could not trust a government that allowed the population to decide an monetary question.
Wendy Brown describes the nature of neo-liberalism: “Neoliberal rationality, while foregrounding the market, is not only or even primarily focused on the economy; it involves extending and disseminating market values to all institutions and social action, even as the market itself remains a distinctive player.
1. The political sphere, along with every other dimension of contemporary existence, is submitted to an economic rationality; or, put the other way around, not only is the human being configured exhaustively as homo œconomicus, but all dimensions of human life are cast in terms of a market rationality. While this entails submitting every action and policy to considerations of profitability, equally important is the production of all human and institutional action as rational entrepreneurial action, conducted according to a calculus of utility, benefit, or satisfaction against a microeconomic grid of scarcity, supply and demand, and moral value-neutrality. Neoliberalism does not simply assume that all aspects of social, cultural, and political life can be reduced to such a calculus; rather, it develops institutional practices and rewards for enacting this vision. That is, through discourse and policy promulgating its criteria, neoliberalism produces rational actors and imposes a market rationale for decision making in all spheres. … (This is not assumed to be natural behaviour but creating it is a task of neo-liberals, so finding that people do not act like homo economicus does not affect their theory - people must be made to act like homo economicus.)
2. In contrast with the notorious laissez-faire and human propensity to “truck and barter” stressed by classical economic liberalism, neoliberalism does not conceive of either the market itself or rational economic behavior as purely natural. Both are constructed—organized by law and political institutions, and requiring political intervention and orchestration. Far from flourishing when left alone, the economy must be directed, buttressed, and protected by law and policy as well as by the dissemination of social norms designed to facilitate competition, free trade, and rational economic action on the part of every member and institution of society. … The neoliberal formulation of the state and especially of specific legal arrangements and decisions as the precondition and ongoing condition of the market does not mean that the market is controlled by the state but precisely the opposite. The market is the organizing and regulative principle of the state and society, along three different lines:
a. The state openly responds to needs of the market, whether through monetary and fiscal policy, immigration policy, the treatment of criminals, or the structure of public education. … neoliberal rationality extended to the state itself indexes the state’s success according to its ability to sustain and foster the market and ties state legitimacy to such success. … economic liberty produces the legitimacy for a form of sovereignty limited to guaranteeing economic activity . . . a state that was no longer defined in terms of an historical mission but legitimated itself with reference to economic growth.
b. The state itself is enfolded and animated by market rationality: that is, not simply profitability but a generalized calculation of cost and benefit becomes the measure of all state practices. Political discourse on all matters is framed in entrepreneurial terms; the state must not simply concern itself with the market but think and behave like a market actor across all of its functions, including law.
c. Putting (a) and (b) together, the health and growth of the economy is the basis of state legitimacy, both because the state is forthrightly responsible for the health of the economy and because of the economic rationality to which state practices have been submitted.
3. The extension of economic rationality to formerly noneconomic domains and institutions reaches individual conduct, or, more precisely, prescribes the citizen-subject of a neoliberal order. … neoliberalism normatively constructs and interpellates individuals as entrepreneurial actors in every sphere of life. It figures individuals as rational, calculating creatures whose moral autonomy is measured by their capacity for “self-care”—the ability to provide for their own needs and service their own ambitions. In making the individual fully responsible for her- or himself, neoliberalism equates moral responsibility with rational action; it erases the discrepancy between economic and moral behavior by configuring morality entirely as a matter of rational deliberation about costs, benefits, and consequences. But in so doing, it carries responsibility for the self to new heights: the rationally calculating individual bears full responsibility for the consequences of his or her action no matter how severe the constraints on this action—for example, lack of skills, education, and child care in a period of high unemployment and limited welfare benefits. Correspondingly, a “mismanaged life,” the neoliberal appellation for failure to navigate impediments to prosperity, becomes a new mode of depoliticizing social and economic powers and at the same time reduces political citizenship to an unprecedented degree of passivity and political complacency. The model neoliberal citizen is one who strategizes for her- or himself among various social, political, and economic options, not one who strives with others to alter or organize these options. A fully realized neoliberal citizenry would be the opposite of public-minded; indeed, it would barely exist as a public. … This mode of governmentality (techniques of governing that exceed express state action and orchestrate the subject’s conduct toward him- or herself) convenes a “free” subject who rationally deliberates about alternative courses of action, makes choices, and bears responsibility for the consequences of these choices. In this way, Lemke argues, “the state leads and controls subjects without being responsible for them”; as individual “entrepreneurs” in every aspect of life, subjects become wholly responsible for their well-being and citizenship is reduced to success in this entrepreneurship. Neoliberal subjects are controlled through their freedom.
Brown goes on to show that neo-liberalism is not healthy for democracy.
“Liberal democracy cannot be submitted to neoliberal political governmentality and survive. There is nothing in liberal democracy’s basic institutions or values—from free elections, representative democracy, and individual liberties equally distributed to modest power-sharing or even more substantive political participation—that inherently meets the test of serving economic competitiveness or inherently withstands a cost-benefit analysis. And it is liberal democracy that is going under in the present moment…”
The opposition to neo-liberalism has lost the fight in economic terms and the fight needs “to tap the desires— not for wealth or goods but for beauty, love, mental and physical well-being, meaningful work, and peace—manifestly unmet within a capitalist order and to appeal to those desires as the basis for rejecting and replacing the (neo-liberal) order.” The battle must be a moral one.
Of course much of neo-liberalism is not so ‘neo’. There are many items in the news that remind me of stories from the ’30s or even Dickens. Here are some remarks from George Mombiot: “Take the 19th century Irish and Indian famines, both exacerbated (in the second case caused) by the doctrine of laissez-faire, which we now know as market fundamentalism or neoliberalism.
In Ireland’s case, one eighth of the population was killed – one could almost say murdered– in the late 1840s, partly by the British refusal to distribute food, to prohibit the export of grain or provide effective poor relief. Such policies offended the holy doctrine of laissez-faire economics that nothing should stay the market’s invisible hand.
When drought struck India in 1877 and 1878, the British imperial government insisted on exporting record amounts of grain, precipitating a famine that killed millions. The Anti-Charitable Contributions Act of 1877 prohibited “at the pain of imprisonment private relief donations that potentially interfered with the market fixing of grain prices”. The only relief permitted was forced work in labour camps, in which less food was provided than to the inmates of Buchenwald. Monthly mortality in these camps in 1877 was equivalent to an annual rate of 94%.”
Doesn’t this remind us of the communities that criminalize feeding the homeless?
It is not quite so bad currently but it is similar. “As Karl Polanyi argued in The Great Transformation, the gold standard – the self-regulating system at the heart of laissez-faire economics – prevented governments in the 19th and early 20th centuries from raising public spending or stimulating employment. It obliged them to keep the majority poor while the rich enjoyed a gilded age. Few means of containing public discontent were available, other than sucking wealth from the colonies and promoting aggressive nationalism. This was one of the factors that contributed to the first world war. The resumption of the gold standard by many nations after the war exacerbated the Great Depression, preventing central banks from increasing the money supply and funding deficits. You might have hoped that European governments would remember the results.
Today equivalents to the gold standard – inflexible commitments to austerity – abound. In December 2011 the European Council agreed a new fiscal compact, imposing on all members of the eurozone a rule that “government budgets shall be balanced or in surplus”. This rule, which had to be transcribed into national law, would “contain an automatic correction mechanism that shall be triggered in the event of deviation.” This helps to explain the seigneurial horror with which the troika’s unelected technocrats have greeted the resurgence of democracy in Greece. Hadn’t they ensured that choice was illegal? Such diktats mean the only possible democratic outcome in Europe is now the collapse of the euro: like it or not, all else is slow-burning tyranny.”
Governments outside the euro are passing laws to make budget deficits illegal to “deny themselves the possibility of change. In other words, they pledge to thwart democracy. So it has been for the past two centuries, with the exception of the 30-year Keynesian respite.” Although economists agree that Keynes had the answer that would stop a depression, the neoliberal economists treat it as a no-no. This comes as a shock to many like me that grew up during the Keynesian period and believed there would never be another depression. The countries that are managing the present situation are using Keynes-lite but not admitting to it (US, UK, Germany) while trying to encourage others to toe the line.
The IMF has only neo-liberal tools in its toolkit these days. “The same programme is imposed regardless of circumstance: every country the IMF colonises must place the control of inflation ahead of other economic objectives; immediately remove barriers to trade and the flow of capital; liberalise its banking system; reduce government spending on everything bar debt repayments; and privatise assets that can be sold to foreign investors.”
“Consider the European Central Bank. Like most other central banks, it enjoys “political independence”. This does not mean that it is free from politics, only that it is free from democracy. It is ruled instead by the financial sector, whose interests it is constitutionally obliged to champion through its inflation target of around 2%. Ever mindful of where power lies, it has exceeded this mandate, inflicting deflation and epic unemployment on poorer members of the eurozone.”
“The crushing of political choice is not a side-effect of this utopian belief system but a necessary component. Neoliberalism is inherently incompatible with democracy, as people will always rebel against the austerity and fiscal tyranny it prescribes. Something has to give, and it must be the people. This is the true road to serfdom: disinventing democracy on behalf of the elite.”
It is not just on a national level that neo-liberalism is attacking democracy. Neo-liberals have pronounced that the global economic system is also more important than democratic institutions, even than sovereign states. Corporations got very upset at not being able to get their way in the World Trade Organization. Small nations and the BRICs were not willing to accept many of the trade arrangements they proposed. This was just impossible for multinational corporations to accept. They decided to do trade deals that bypassed the WTO. They are the ‘T’ deals. Negotiation is closed, secret and includes the corporations as well as national trade officials. They do not want citizens voting on these deals. A legislative vote with no debate is more to their liking – if there has to be a vote at all.
Lee Williams says: “TTIP’s biggest threat to society is its inherent assault on democracy. One of the main aims of TTIP is the introduction of Investor-State Dispute Settlements (ISDS), which allow companies to sue governments if those governments’ policies cause a loss of profits. In effect it means unelected transnational corporations can dictate the policies of democratically elected governments.
ISDSs are already in place in other bi-lateral trade agreements around the world and have led to such injustices as in Germany where Swedish energy company Vattenfall is suing the German government for billions of dollars over its decision to phase out nuclear power plants in the wake of the Fukushima disaster in Japan. Here we see a public health policy put into place by a democratically elected government being threatened by an energy giant because of a potential loss of profit. Nothing could be more cynically anti-democratic. (These courts can override more than public health: public and worker safety, environmental protection, consumer protection, cultural protection, labor relations and the like.)
There are around 500 similar cases of businesses versus nations going on around the world at the moment and they are all taking place before ‘arbitration tribunals’ made up of corporate lawyers appointed on an ad hoc basis, which according to War on Want’s John Hilary, are “little more than kangaroo courts” with “a vested interest in ruling in favour of business.”
So I don’t know about you, but I’m scared. I would vote against TTIP, except… hang on a minute… I can’t. Like you, I have no say whatsoever in whether TTIP goes through or not. All I can do is tell as many people about it as possible, as I hope, will you. We may be forced to accept an attack on democracy but we can at least fight against the conspiracy of silence.”
Another T deal is TISA, even more secret than others. “TISA would expand deregulatory ‘trade’ rules written under the advisement of large banks before the financial crisis, requiring domestic laws to conform to the now-rejected model of extreme deregulation that led to global recession.” - Ben Beachy. After the 2008 financial crisis many governments moved to re-regulate financial firms. The industry wants this undone and to be deregulated again. Leaks from TISA negotations would require nations to pass laws to conform to neo-liberal dogma and remove financial regulations. The global attack on nation state sovereignty goes on.
All this would not be a life and death matter (expect to a large number of individuals) and no worse than a return to feudalism, for example, if it were not for climate change. It is not easy to make good decisions on this problem using neo-liberal rational logic. How do you put a monetary value on the destruction of the planet? We may all die of ‘externalities’! Among the negative externalities listed in Wikipedia: “Anthropogenic climate change as a consequence of greenhouse gas emissions from burning oil, gas, and coal. The Stern Review on the Economics Of Climate Change says “Climate change presents a unique challenge for economics: it is the greatest example of market failure we have ever seen.””