Inequality of wealth

The novels I write form a “future history”, not of course intended to be predictive, but rather to occasionally slip in a comment on previous times, i.e. our “now”. Predicting the future is not entirely practical because when the future turns up, it usually refuses to comply. But one surprise I have had is that sometimes when it does turn out that I was wrong, it was because I underestimated the problem. Even though it was recently published, my first effort at Miranda’s Demons was written in the late 1980s, and one of scenes has some characters looking back at our time and scoffing at what we call democracy. Thus the first draft had them pointing out the uneven accumulation of wealth, and too much drifting into too few hands, and then too much of that was wasted on lobbying and boosting favoured politicians, i.e. politicians who would protect their wealth. The characters scoffed at tens of millions of dollars being so wasted. Look what could have been done with it.

Well, talk about an underestimate. In the following link:
http://www.theguardian.com/business/2015/jan/19/global-wealth-oxfam-inequality-davos-economic-summit-switzerland
it is claimed that half the world’s wealth is held by 1% of the population, while the 80% least well-off currently own just 5.5% of the world’s wealth. We have to be a little careful with such comparisons, because the ownership of a house, say, in a central western city, will have an enormously greater number of dollars attached to it than a quite liveable house in many of the poorer countries of the world, but no matter how you look at it, the wealth distribution is just plain gross. Then, according to the article, the wealth sector spent $550 million lobbying policymakers in Washington and Brussels alone during 2013, and $571 million in campaign contributions during the US 2012 elections. So much for my “tens of millions”! And think what could have been done with a spare billion dollars.

An interesting question is, how did all this come about? Part of the answer would seem to be, the removal of high taxes on the wealthy. The very wealthy and the giant corporations pay very little tax because they somehow manage to file in tax havens, or conduct enough business in tax havens where somehow they manage to export very large tax losses to their home country while making extremely high profits where there is no tax. This is not so difficult when they set the prices in each place. So, why are they allowed to do this? One reason is the politicians let them. First, they do not want to lose that valuable electoral cash support, for the primary objective of any politician is to get re-elected.

Another contributing reason would seem to involve a widespread economic theory that says such wealth “trickles down”. Well, for the current inequality to be possible, anything coming down really is a trickle, while that going up approaches a flood. All of this happened at the same time that there was a burst of computer technology that has allowed a number of jobs that used to require quite large labour forces to be done by machines. This has led to a hollowing out of the middle classes, and too much control has rested in the hands of those moving money. Huge payments to corporate executives in the form of stock options have also contributed, because for the executives to make money from the option, they need the stock prices to rise. That has led to executive decisions being made for short-term profit for those executives, the classic conflict of interest. The problem is, short-term profits are frequently at the expense of long-term development. A classic example was Hewlett Packard where Fiorina cut research and development to invest in shorter-term boost to the stocks. The overall result was 30,000 people, mainly middle class, lost their jobs and the company nose-dived.

My guess is that my discussion in the book is valid, and that in a couple of hundred years, people will look back at this period and shake their heads in despair. How, they will ask, could someone like Fiorina make so much money by doing so much damage to the company she controlled? And she was far from being alone. The corporate world is littered with fairly mediocre performers who take home incredible rewards, and the tragedy here is, they go to all those extremes to get such rewards, and receive a relatively minute benefit from them.

Are drug prices fair?

Recently in the Huffington Post, Allen Frances wrote a blog asking, “Why are most cancer drugs so expensive and so ineffective?” The link is below for those interested.
(http://www.huffingtonpost.com/allen-frances/why-are-most-cancer-drugs_b_8294392.html?utm_hp_ref=science&ir=Science )
That is most certainly a good question. A summary of his points includes that the pharmaceutical industry is essentially a monopoly, in that only one company will make any given patented product. In the US, it exerts far too much political pressure, and as an example, he claimed Congress denied the Medicare program the right to negotiate drug prices. He claims there is a price monopoly, for even when generic drugs can be made, the pharmaceutical companies buy up the companies. He claims patent lives are extended with phoney variations. But in my mind, even worse, drug companies test their own products, but do not have to release the data for analysis by neutral observers. The companies hype the benefits and minimize disclosure of any risks.

He then cites some data from a Dr Prasad. Some of his findings include, the price of Gleevac rose from $30,000 in 2001 to $70,000 today, despite the fact the cost to make it is $200 (for a year’s course). However, at least Gleevac actually works. According to Dr Prasad, the median improvement in survival for 71 drugs for solid tumours produced in the last decade is 2.1 months. That may well be an overestimate because only 36% of those over 65 yrs old were in the trial, but that age group represents 60% of the patients in the wider community. Another interesting question is, given that many of these drugs have very severe consequences to the patient, is that 2.1 months worth it?

So, how do the companies do? Seemingly, remarkably well, with returns of between 10 – 42%. I saw a recent article that stated one product that had been sold for $20 per prescription had it raised to $1,000. When asked why, a spokesman said they wanted to make more money. Well, yes, I suppose they do. Don’t we all? The products are grossly overpriced, and only too often it appears they don’t really work all that well. There is the argument that research costs a lot. Yes, it does, but despite this, these companies are hugely profitable. In my view, this is simply price gouging, and it shows the ugly side of capitalism. A further interesting question would be, how much tax do they pay on these profits? Given that some large companies pay very little, one suspects the answer is, not much.

Usually, economic theory works on the basis that if there is a bad product, people will not buy it. However, with cancer drugs, that theory goes out the window. The average person has no hope whatsoever of deciding whether the product is any good, and you find out it is not when you die, or come close to it. Earlier this year, my wife died of cancer, so I know the pressure on the relations. Who can tell someone dying that product B is a waste of money, and it will bring penury to the remaining family members? And no, this situation did not arise for me. Claire was diagnosed in November, some simple treatment was provided as a holding measure while various things were done, and proper treatment was to start after Christmas. As it happened, her funeral was on the day scheduled for the start of treatment. Nevertheless, when someone you love is dying, you cannot really think rationally. There is a temptation to grasp at straws, but think what the grasping is like if you hear promising things from the drug companies? The very least we could ask for is a fair and open discussion of the prospects, and the basis for saying that. And we should expect that where there is little to substantiate the claims, at the very least the straw to be grasped should involve only reasonable expenses. Price gouging for performance is, in my view, not justifiable, but price gouging for what may be little better than snake oil is in my view criminal.

Russia in Syria

There was a recent article in the New York Times titled “Is Vladimir Putin trying to teach the West a lesson in Syria?” (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/08/opinion/ivan-krastev-is-putin-trying-to-teach-us-a-lesson.html?smid=fb-share&_r=1)
In Krastev’s view, Putin’s argument is that either America should be prepared to intervene and sort out any civil war inspired by its lofty rhetoric, or it should quit goading people to revolt. Apparently, in Putin’s speech at the UN General Assembly, his question to America was, “Do you realize what you have done?” According to Krastev, America sees global instability as a result of authoritarian regimes’ desperate attempts to preserve a doomed status quo, while Moscow sees it as arising from America’s obsession with democracy, even where it is implausible. Why implausible? Because our Republic-style form of government only works when the people accept the results of the election. They may grizzle and speak out against the current politicians, but they accept the politicians. In turn, the politicians accept that if they lose the next election, they are out. Further, everyone accepts that government might favour a philosophy, but it will not favour a group based on religion, race, or a number of other aberrant behaviours. This may seem very basic, but in most parts of the world nobody trusts any of these conventions. Krastev’s article cites Libya; what he does not mention is that Libya is relatively chaotic right now. We heard a lot of fuss over an incident in Benghazi, but that is only because it involved Americans. I gather there are plenty of similar incidents in Libya.

If Krastev is correct, can Putin succeed in delivering that message? My guess is no. One of the aspects of the Republic form of government is that the representatives have essentially unlimited speaking rights, and once a politician gets hold of a slogan, it is very difficult to persuade said politician to drop it.

Another question is, is that why Putin is in Syria? My view is, almost certainly not. Yes, he wants the naval base, but I doubt that disappearing would worry him enormously. My guess is that what Putin wants least of all is to have ISIS or whatever spreading trouble into Central Asia. In the old Soviet Union, Muslim, Christian and atheist lived their lives peacefully. The standard of living was well below that of the West in terms of consumer goods, etc, but from what I saw the people were essentially happy, or at least content. The last thing Putin will want to see is any of those republics infested with the sort of problems in Syria.

Rightly or wrongly, there is another lesson that Putin is dishing out, although whether it was intended is another matter. That is, the correct use of air power when dealing with ground insurgency or war. The Russians have released some TV clips on what they are doing, and it is impressive. What they are doing is supporting the Syrian army. Up until now, many of the rebel groups have been using modern US supplied weaponry, including anti-tank weapons. Now the Syrian armour and infantry were shown progressing towards some destination, and when they ran into difficulty, now the Russian air force targeted the problems. If the insurgents stayed put, they died from above; if they moved, they were open to the Syrian army.

They are not exactly revolutionary tactics, in fact they more or less follow the procedures required by Colonel-General Heinz Guderian for blitzkrieg. The air power supports the ground forces because it is only the ground forces that can make lasting gains. Apparently the US air strikes refuse to support any of the Shi’ite armed forces (largely Assad’s and Iranian) and therefore while they are a nuisance to ISIS and while we hear of “important results”, the fact is ISIS has not been reversed in any clear way.

The mess that is Syria

In my futuristic SF ebooks, I have one extremely advanced alien race, and they have a very specific policy regarding communication with less advanced races: they do not intervene in that society’s development unless they are prepared to take full responsibility for what follows, and that what follows must be demonstrably better for all concerned than what the situation was at the intervention. The net result of this is they basically refuse to intervene, no matter what they see because there is too much danger that all they can do is make things worse. In short, “Do no harm!”

It is with this in mind that I cannot resist thinking about the Western interventions in what is referred to as the Middle East. As far as I am aware, Tunisia probably just happened, but since then there has been an “Arab Spring” contagion spread across the region, and many Western nations have acted to accelerate and fan the flames of whatever develops, seemingly with the view that they know best how the others should live. Then, before that, there was Iraq. In my view, just about everything the West has done in that region has turned to custard, but what has been learned from the experience? Bearing in mind what we see now, in my opinion, not much, because the same old mistakes keep turning up.

Just to be clear, people like Gadhafi, Hussein, Assad, and others were definitely not saints. However, they did manage some basic functions of governance, such as maintaining order within their boundaries, and as long as their people were not politically active, their lives were basically safe and as prosperous as they were likely to be in that region. And above all else, they enforced religious tolerance. What they knew, and what the West seems to have forgotten, is that when one religious group refuses to tolerate another, there is widespread bloodshed and persecution. These “strongmen” may not have been very bright with their public relations with the West, but they knew they had to keep the lid on a box of some very dangerous problems. All the West has done has been to ignore Pandora, and tear off that lid.

The Western policy in Syria, if there is one, seems to be to replace Assad with someone more moderate in which case (more in hope than based on any trace of evidence) everyone will live happily ever after. Obviously, no lesson learned from Iraq. As for logic, how can any moderate person contain the current religious hatred?

In my opinion, the only reason to intervene against the government in another country having a revolt is that there is a clearly superior replacement in line, should you succeed. There was no such person in Iraq, and instead in flew a number of Iraqis who had been living in the West, who had cultivated support, and who could not wait to get their hands on the treasury and oil money of Iraq. Then there arose a Shi’ite dominated government that was determined to put the boot into the Sunnis. Then there were all the unemployed soldiers and officials from Hussein’s time. By firing the civil service, there was no chance of reasonable governance, and those soldiers were a natural source of fighters for the newly emerged ISIS. What a great strategy that turned out to be.

So, what we have now is the US bombing ISIS and, along with the Saudis, funding “moderate” opposition to Assad. Then, into the mix we have the Russians bombing opposition to Assad, which may include but is not exclusive to ISIS. The “moderate” opposition includes a number of Sunni soldiers from what was the Syrian army, Ahrar al-Sham, which has strong al Qaeda connections, and the Nusra Front, which is the more official Syrian branch of al Qaeda. Thus we have the somewhat ironical outcome that the US is so keen to get rid of Assad that it is busy helping and funding al Qaeda. And just suppose Assad goes; who would you bet on to replace him?

From a military point of view, who, if anyone, is likely to beat ISIS? My guess is the best bet is the Iranians, including their Quds special force. The reason is you cannot win a war without imposing your will through ground troops. If the US really wants to get rid of ISIS, it should support the Iranians, but then again, the US is fixated on opposing Iran on its nuclear ambitions, and has indicated a willingness to bomb Iran. How about that for prioritizing? To add to the complexity, it is unclear whether Iran is really interested. Meanwhile, the Russians have a chance to flex some muscle and demonstrate to Europe that getting involved in the Ukraine might come at a price. And, of course, Iran has an incentive to learn from the Russians how to work advanced anti-aircraft defences in case the US or Israel decides to bomb it. I wonder if any Western politicians are wondering whether it might have been better to leave that area alone? A clear strategy does not guarantee winning, but in this case a virtual absence of clear strategy is a fairly good indication that, in the long term, loss is inevitable.

Water on Mars!

Just after I write a blog on “The Martian”, NASA announces evidence for flowing water on Mars. Yes, the announcement probably was to spark some interest in NASA from the film Matt Damon is going to star in. The evidence seems to depend (and I have yet to see the relevant scientific papers) on some gullies carved in the side of one crater that grow when the temperatures are higher, and these gullies are best described in terms of water flow. The temperature of Mars is below the freezing point of water, and the air pressure is about half that needed for liquid water to exist, so how can this be? Where did this water come from?
There are various theories, one of them being there are underground aquifers where water flows, and these come to the surface. On a personal level, I cannot see this as being likely. An underground aquifer would still need heat to melt the water, and while there might be geochemical heat, why is this heat around craters? Actually, there are a number of craters on Mars that show signs of ancient water flow, and the usual explanation for these is that when the impact occurred, the heat of the impact melted any ice that was around, and this water was available to emerge from time to time, until it froze again. Various calculations suggest liquid water could be available from such impact heating for up to 50,000 years. However, if this were a new crater, and I understand it is not, we would still expect the water to emerge from anywhere along the side or bottom of the crater, and not specifically from near the top.
The most likely explanation I can come up with is that the water comes from the atmosphere. Actually, the atmosphere is quite humid; about 50%, and every now and again we even see cirrus clouds on Mars. The basic problem is that there is not very much air anyway. But, back to the question, how does water flow on Mars?
First, if you dissolve something else in water, the melting point is lowered, so this water is almost certainly a strong solution of something in water. Further, if you dissolve something in water, the boiling point is raised, or alternatively, the vapour pressure is lowered, by an amount dependent on how much solid is in the water. This is likely to be part of the answer, because there appears to be one new piece of information in the announcement. The gullies are not new, nor is the argument that they are caused by water flow, and I had references to that in my survey of information in Planetary Formation and Biogenesis, which was published as an ebook some years ago. No, what is new here is that there is spectral evidence for perchlorates in the bottom of the crater.
What seems to happen on Mars is that chlorides, which are rather common if water can concentrate them (the sea has quite a bit of sodium chloride), are oxidized, thanks to the hard ultraviolet radiation, to perchlorates. Magnesium perchlorate is deliquescent, that is, it sucks water out of the atmosphere and dissolves itself in it, and the melting point of the solutions will be quite lower. I don’t know what it would be, but calcium chloride, which is also deliquescent, when mixed with ice, melts the ice and lowers the temperatures to about minus 40 degrees. Magnesium perchlorate would probably do something similar.
What does that mean for life on Mars? As far as I am concerned, there is no change, and it might have got harder, the reason being that perchlorates are strong oxidizing agents, and may well interfere with certain life functions. Further, the solutions are saltier than “The Dead Sea”, and as the name suggests, it is not brimming with life.
This method of getting fluid water might also be thought to solve the problem of how to “make water” in the book, and presumably the film, “The Martian”. All you have to do is to distill off the water, then reuse the perchlorate. My personal view is this would be far too slow, and to get water, in my novel Red Gold I suggested simply pumping up the air pressure and squeezing/chilling the water out. Even better is finding ice, although that might be easier said than done in an emergency. So, while this announcement really makes little difference to the likelihood of finding life on Mars, it does make the chances of settling on Mars and surviving a little better.