off-topic ranting


Recently in conversation with one of my players I was led to ponder whether or not SpaceX is revolutionizing space travel, and whether it has driven costs down to new record levels. My initial response was skeptical, but upon reflection I thought there should be data on this, and it should be possible to make some judgements about whether SpaceX is really doing what people claim. This post is an attempt to understand whether SpaceX rockets, in particular the Falcon 9, really are as cheap as people say, whether SpaceX has revolutionized space travel, and what we can expect in the future from this country or from rocketry in general. The key objectives are to:

  • Determine the truth of the claims about the cost of SpaceX rockets
  • Compare these claims with historical trends in rocket prices
  • Examine the role of reusable rockets in these trends

I hope by the end of this post to penetrate some of the hype around this company’s work, and understand a little more about the economics of space travel generally. A warning: this post is likely to be long, involves lots of dry figures, and is predicated on the assumption that Musk is a dishonest businessman.

Why do this?

First of all, why do this at all? Partly because it’s a rainy public holiday here and I have nothing better to do, but mostly because I think Elon Musk is an utter and complete fraud, who lies about all his companies’ activity, over-hypes his products, delivers dangerous, over-priced or poor quality goods, and wrecks the companies he runs. This is obvious for Tesla, Solar City and (now) Twitter, so it doesn’t seem unreasonable that the same would be true of SpaceX. But unlike Tesla and Twitter, SpaceX does seem to be delivering an actual usable product to high performance standards, so maybe its achievements buck the general Musk trend towards hyperbole and failure? However, on the flip side, Musk has spent a lot of time hyping his plans to go to Mars with SpaceX and everything about that project is obvious vapourware, hype and bullshit. The Youtube Common Sense Skeptic channel goes through this in great detail, showing how every aspect of everything Musk says about his Mars plans is completely and insanely untrue. So why should we assume the rest of his SpaceX plans are anything different? Remember, the first rule about liars is that if you know someone has lied repeatedly and consistently in the past, you should not trust anything they tell you now.

So actually I think it is possible SpaceX is burning money hand over fist, lying about the price of its launches and losing money on them. It’s a “disruptive start up” and it’s not uncommon for this kind of business to over-hype its product while burning through huge amounts of venture capital money. They do this either because they’re built on a completely unrealistic business model and refuse to admit it (Uber, Wework, and Theranos are examples of this); or they hope to smash regulatory hurdles to reduce costs and become profitable (AirBNB, Uber, Lyft); they’re straight-out fraud and hoping to burn through the money and no-one will notice (Theranos); they’re hoping to drive down the price so far that their competitors go bust and then they can ramp up prices before the venture capital runs out (Uber); they’re a business idea that depends on hype and people not noticing how awful the actual product is (AirBNB); or they’re hoping for a breakthrough that will suddenly render their business model profitable, or is the secret reason they’re doing it all (Uber’s self-driving taxi idea). It’s possible that this is what SpaceX is doing – keeping prices low and burning through venture capital in hopes of pushing out its opposition so that it can start charging monopoly rates, and/or hoping for a breakthrough in tech that will lower prices so much it can actually compete.

The history of rocket prices

Launching stuff into space doesn’t come cheap, and getting stuff up there is a big technological challenge. Humans have been launching rockets into space since 1957, and the general trend has been to see lower costs over time, with a noticeable hiccup in costs during the Space Shuttle era when the price of re-using the vehicle itself considerably inflated costs. Figure 1 shows the long-term pattern of prices for major rockets, and is divided into approximately four stages of development, characterised as Vanguard (when the first rockets were developed), Saturn V (when non-reusable rocket technology matured), Shuttle (when prices rose for the use of this orbital vehicle) and Falcon, when SpaceX started dropping prices. I took Figure 1 from a paper by Harry Jones, entitled The Recent Large Reduction in Space Launch Cost. I will recreate figure 1 with some changes later in this post.

Figure 1: Historical trend in rocket launch prices

Rocket launch prices are typically given in dollars per kg; figure 1 shows them in current 2018 prices (so early prices have been adjusted for inflation) but not, as far as I know, in purchase-power-parity prices (a few of the data points in the picture are from non-US sources; we’ll come back to that). Most rockets last for long periods of time, and the prices given in the figure are for the first launch date, not for example the last date, or tracking price over time. A good rule of thumb for a rocket launch is to assume it might cost about $10,000 per kg, and a typical rocket will launch 4000 – 20000 kg into space at a cost of between 50-200 million dollars. It’s not cheap to get shit up there!

But note the extremely low price of Falcon 9: it is listed as $2,700 per kg in Figure 1, which is enormously cheaper than the nearest competitor. Figure 2, which I took from a reddit post, shows different prices alongside the price of other rocket companies currently in operation – there are now a lot of startups in the commercial space industry, since Obama deregulated it in 2010, and these have been pushing their own prices down. In Figure 2 you can see a different set of figures for Falcon 9, with the reusable having a price of $4,133 per kg, and Falcon 9 divided into two kinds of launch (reusable and expendable). Figure 2 puts Falcon 9 prices to low earth orbit in a similar range to the Russian Proton M, or the US Vulcan rocket.

Figure 2: Launch prices for various rockets from a Reddit SpaceX forum

But as I will show, the prices listed in these figures are dishonest, and we will discuss the true price of launching Falcon 9. We will also analyze the data from Figure 1 in a little more detail, and see what we can learn from it.

Claims about SpaceX

The common claims made about how SpaceX has “revolutionized” space travel are available at booster sites like Space.com, which lists 8 mostly bullshit ways in which SpaceX has completely transformed space travel. For an example of bullshit consider their claim that it has made the uniforms fashionable … also note the uncritical reference to “German-American” rocket pioneer Werner von Braun (spoiler: he was a Nazi). In amongst the various nonsense we can find two main claims:

  1. SpaceX has reduced the cost of space travel, typically people giving unsourced claims that it has driven prices down, or using phrases that Musk himself constantly uses but clearly doesn’t understand like “by an order of magnitude”.
  2. SpaceX has developed completely new technology like reusable rockets which have both helped to push down the price of star travel and opened up new fields

Neither of these claims, as we will see, has any basis in reality. Incidentally, during this search for claims about SpaceX, I learnt that Musk claims to have spent 350 million dollars developing Falcon 9 and 750 million developing Falcon Heavy. I will use these numbers even though I don’t believe anything Musk says.

Methods

For this post I have performed three main analyses:

  • Analysis of SpaceX funding sources and costs
  • Analysis of SpaceX launch activity and prices
  • Analysis of the history of rocket launch prices

Here I briefly describe the methods I used for each of these analyses.

SpaceX Funding and costs

SpaceX obtains funding from launching rockets, Starlink subscriptions, government contracts, and venture capital. For launch prices I used the stated prices on the SpaceX website and associated forums, generally given at 62 million for a new Falcon 9 rocket and 50 million for a recycled one. Data on Starlink subscriptions I obtained from a website called nextbigfuture, for what that’s worth. I obtained contract information from a search on the govconwire.com website, which lists contracts and funding. Venture capital information I obtained from crunchbase.com. I put this data in mostly for 2017 onward (government contracts), 2010 onward (launches), 2016 onward (Starlink) and 2002 onward (venture capital). Note that some contract data is for “potential” contracts, which may vary in detail on delivery, but I wasn’t able to work out exactly how and when the money was delivered. For some obvious future contracts I did not include them as a funding source, but my numbers on government contracts are definitely shaky because of this.

For costs I used information on the total number of Starlink satellites launched from Wikipedia, cost of a satellite from nextbigfuture, and vague reports on Falcon 9 launch costs sourced around the web – about 50 million dollars for a launch of a new rocket, and 15 million for a reused rocket (these figures are attributed to Musk in interviews but seem dodgy to me). I used google to get the total number of current employees and their average salary (11,000 or so, at an average salary of $90,000) and assumed on-costs of 30%.

Note that SpaceX is not a public company and it is difficult to identify exactly how much money it has or is using. I do not know if it pays dividends on the shares it sold, what its rental or real estate costs are, how much money it is burning in fines and compensation, and any interest repayments on loans. This is only a blog post, after all!

SpaceX launch activity and prices

I obtained Falcon 9 launch data from Kaggle, though I think it’s just a scrape from the Wikipedia website. This data contains the date of the launch, the booster used, the client, the payload and its weight, whether the booster was new or used, and the result of both the launch itself and the attempt to recycle the booster. A small number of launches were classified launches for US government defense contractors, with no information on the weight or type of payload.

I also visited the SpaceX website and put in data on small payloads for their Rideshare plan, which confirmed that for all payload weights up to 800kg SpaceX charges $6000/kg, much higher than the sticker price and generally consistent with the prices in Figure 2 for other mature competitors. Not quite revolutionary is it …

Once I downloaded this data and did some unpleasant work importing it to Stata I produced some basic summaries of the data, such as mean payload weights, maximum weights, proportion of flights that were government contracts, etc. I also calculated a price/kg for each flight based on the sticker price of 62 million for a new rocket or 50 million for a recycled one, and also attempted to identify rockets that were new on launch and were not recycled (these would be “expendable” rockets).

Analysis of the history of rocket prices

I imported data from the Jones paper (it is provided in the Appendix) and added some additional information: I categorized rockets as communist or non-communist, and added some additional data for Falcon 9 launches based on the analysis of launch prices to give some more reasonable numbers for these launch prices. I deleted Falcon Heavy (which I don’t have launch data on and which seems largely to be vapourware at the moment) and made a fake data point for Communist launches in 2018 (these are still happening – China has a whole communist space station now!).

I then fitted a regression model of natural log of launch price per kg by year, with a term for communist/non-communist, generated the predicted values of price per kg from this model, and plotted curves for communist and non-communist launches. I plotted these against the observed price data and added Falcon 9 data separately. I ran the models and plotted for launches after 1961, because the first 4 years of the rocket program were, obviously, slightly special.

This gives a reproduction of Figure 1 with a little more detailed statistical analysis, with very different implications.

Results

The first thing I want to say before we get into details is that the sticker price everyone reports for Falcon 9, of $2700 / kg to launch into low earth orbit, is a lie, or at least very dishonest. This is taken from the SpaceX website description of Falcon 9, which states that it has a payload of 22,800 kg, and the common price of 62 million dollars for a launch of a new rocket. This is dishonest because it gives the payload for a fully expendable Falcon 9 rocket, but this rocket does not exist. No Falcon 9 is intended to be fully expendable, and if such a rocket existed it would need a separate production line to the current Falcon 9s in use. Reusable rockets need to be more robust and stronger than expendable ones, which means they have a different frame and fairings. This discussion of reusability makes clear that up to 40% of the payload can be lost in a reusable rocket due to the need to have a stronger structure and to keep some fuel for re-entry. You can’t just build a reusable rocket and use it as if it were expendable! This is backed up by the data – in 165 flights on which I have data, no flight ever flew at full payload, but there are multiple flights at a maximum value of 16,250 kg. The true maximum payload of the Falcon 9 rocket is 16,250 kg, not 22,800kg, and it will never fly at this value. In case you doubt me, note that all the max payload flights were Starlink deliveries, and it is just inconceivable that SpaceX would never use the full payload of their rockets to deliver their own satellites to orbit. The hard limit on a Falcon 9 rocket is 16,250kg, and the website is lying.

As we will see, this sticker price is also dishonest because in reality the rockets only ever fly fully laden when they are delivering Starlink satellites, and often the price paid by commercial buyers is much higher than 62 million. We will explore this below.

SpaceX funding and costs

SpaceX has been burning through money at a staggering rate. Here are my estimates of its income streams:

  • Approximately $7.5 billion in venture capital since 2017
  • Approximately $15 billion in government contracts since 2016
  • Approximately $3 billion in commerical launch fees since 2016
  • Approximately $3.75 billion in Starlink subscriptions since 2016

This amounts to about $4.8 billion in income per year. Its annual costs over the same period appear to be about $3.7 billion if we assume a recycled rocket costs 15 million to launch, a new rocket 50 million, and a starlink satellite costs $250,000 to build.

From this we should assume that SpaceX is making $1 billion per year in profit, if it has no dividend payment, interest or other expenses. Obviously this isn’t true (someone probably has to buy some stationery!) and maybe its other operating costs overrun this spare billion. But I think the story is likely dire. Why is SpaceX raising venture capital worth a billion a year if it is also getting enormous amounts of money in government contracts? I would suggest it is because it is losing money hand over fist on launches, which actually cost a half billion more than Musk is letting on, and/or rocket development (particularly Falcon Heavy and the Starship project) are costing an enormous amount more than he has let on.

Let’s also note that more than half of SpaceX’s revenue is government contracts. Without those government contracts, it would be dead in the water. Note that some of these contracts cover specific launch tasks, and almost always pay much more per launch than the SpaceX sticker price. For example, the Heliosphere contract pays 109 million to launch a satellite for NASA in 2024, while the cargo resupply mission to the ISS covers 32 flights for $14 billion (about $400 million per flight). Nobody in NASA seems to believe that the cost of a single mission is a mere $50 million!

SpaceX launch costs

The data on SpaceX launches covers Falcon 9 launches from 2002 to mid-2022, for a total of 165 launches. Of these 45 (26.5%) are aerospace/military contracts, and 52 (30.6%) are SpaceX flights, mostly delivering starlink satellites to low earth orbit (LEO) were they can vandalize the night sky in service of a poor-quality internet supply. Most of the flights (80.6%) used recycled boosters, and only in 12 flights (7.1%) was a new rocket used with no attempt to recover the booster – these 12 flights are the only ones that potentially used an “expendable” rocket. Of these 12 flights, seven were to GTO, which has a sticker payload of 8,300 kg. The maximum payload in those 7 flights was only 5600 kg, well below the sticker payload.

In fact most flights of the Falcon 9 have been far below its maximum payload. Figure 3 shows the mean, median, minimum and maximum payload by orbital destination for the 153 launches on which this data is available. No GTO flight has reached the sticker payload of 8300 kg, and the largest payload for LEO is 16250kg (all these flights were starlink deliveries, when the incentive and opportunity to use the maximum payload was greatest). Note the LEO(ISS) weights – these are deliveries to the International Space Station. Under the contract linked above, these flights are being paid for at somewhere between 100 and 400 million dollars per flight, giving a ludicrously high cost of – on average – between $20,000 and $85,000 per kg. This is potentially more expensive than the space shuttle, depending on the content and nature of the contract.

Figure 3: Mean, median, minimum and maximum payload weights by orbital destination, Falcon 9 flights to mid-2022

Figure 4 converts the values in Figure 3 to price/kg, assuming a price of $62 million for a new rocket or $50 million for a reusable rocket and ignoring higher prices for NASA or NRO contracts. These are to the best of my ability to tell the minimum price charged by SpaceX – in reality it is probably charging a lot more. For example on 30th June 2021 a Falcon 9 was launched that carried 88 rideshare payloads – this probably cost $6000/kg, judging from the website, and so the whole flight could have cost as much as $98 million. Even then, this figure is low compared to some of the low earth orbit launches, which could have cost as much as $360,000 per kg.

Figure 4: Mean, median, minimum and maximum price per kg, in thousands of dollars, for Falcon 9 launches to 2022

Figure 4 makes very clear that the sticker or theoretical price of rocket launches has almost no relationship to the actual costs, which can be much larger depending on the type of cargo shipped and the nature of the orbit it is sent to. This should be borne in mind in the next section.

Analysis of the history of launch prices

Figure 5 shows the price/kg of rocket launches from 1962 to 2018, with launches coloured blue for non-communist and red for communist states. Corresponding lines of best fit from the regression model are shown in the same colour, and some indicative Falcon 9 launch prices are plotted at the end in green. For indicative Falcon 9 prices I chose a) the median LEO price of $3210/kg; b) the optimum true LEO price of $3030/kg; c) a likely ISS supply price of $7,880/kg based on a $134 million contract; and d) the dishonest website price everyone quotes of $2,700/kg. We could also include $6000/kg, which is cited on the website for rideshares, but I forgot to, and can’t be bothered making this figure again.

Figure 5: Historical launch prices and modeled trends for communist and non-communist states, 1962 – 2018

As can be seen, the Falcon 9 optimum and some of its median launch costs are on the curve for communist systems, while the optimum ISS launch contract price lies just above the historical trend for US rockets. In fact, the predicted price for 2022 for the US system would be about $6000/kg, which is exactly the rideshare price that SpaceX cites on their website.

So in fact, far from revolutionizing the cost of launching rockets, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 is exactly consistent with the long-term historical decline in prices observed for launches from the US or its allies (mostly Japan). SpaceX have done nothing to advance the price of launches except to be there, commercializing a mature technology.

Conclusion

The final conclusion of all of this is that SpaceX are lying about the price to launch stuff into space on their rockets, and the media are uncritically repeating their fabricated price without checking its validity, comparing it with other prices available on the SpaceX website, comparing it with the prices that would be implied by SpaceX’s government contracts, or looking at the evidence from actual SpaceX flight data. The true price of launching stuff into space on a SpaceX rocket is likely more like $6,000/kg, more than twice the number they are citing.

Furthermore, this price is not a revolutionary drop in the cost of launching, and is in fact entirely consistent with the historical trend in US rocket launch prices. The best prices Falcon X manages to achieve are also not unusual, being simply normal prices for a Chinese or Russian rocket. The claim that SpaceX is doing anything special to drive down rocket prices is just more Muskrat hype, with no basis in reality at all.

It is also clear that reusability has not driven down the price of launches. Reusability incurs a payload penalty, since the rocket needs to be stronger and some fuel needs to be reserved for re-entry. Reusability is also not a radical new idea: the space shuttle’s booster rockets were reusable, and SpaceX’s sole advance on this 1980s technology has been to land them on a barge rather than beside one. This likely speeds up the time to return them to use, and slightly reduces the penalty incurred for robustness (since the rockets don’t need to resist the crash into the water) but it also significantly increases the amount of reserve fuel needed for re-entry. In fact United Launch Alliance (ULA), a SpaceX competitor, analysed reusability and found that it does not necessarily deliver much cost benefit for these reasons. There are formulae for the calculation of how many re-uses are needed for a recyclable rocket to be cheaper than an expendable one, available at the documents linked in this discussion board, and they suggest that in general it only reduces costs in the long-run by about 5%. So no, SpaceX has not revolutionized anything in this regard either.

So in conclusion, SpaceX is not revolutionizing space travel, it has not driven prices down at all relative to the long-term trend, launches with SpaceX cost considerably more than their PR suggests, and SpaceX is essentially a low-quality internet service provider with a side-hustle in military contracting, being heavily propped up by murky venture capital. Elon Musk is not, and never will be, anything except a scammer, and in future decades people will look back on how he was viewed in this period with confusion, scorn and disbelief.

I wrote a comment under this post at the left-wing academic blog, Crooked Timber, and it was deleted during pre-approval. This has been happening a lot recently, so this time I saved it and present it here, with some additional discussion below:

I guess JohnQ hasn’t heard of the insect apocalypse, or thinks it’s a good thing. It’s weird he thinks that pesticide use is down since he supports GMOs that are specifically intended to allow increased use of herbicides. There isn’t any evidence that their use is going down anyway, this is just wishful thinking. Furthermore, dismissing deforestation in low-income countries as due to “the need for firewood” is really something else. Did you really mean to reduce the entire structure of post-colonial appropriation of ecosystem services in poor countries to “they use too much firewood”??

There is a democratic pathway out of this disaster but enabling it requires choices that aren’t easy reading for the liberal left. That pathway was on clear display in the UK between 2015-2019, and the response of the liberal left was to move heaven and earth to destroy it – first by the action of Starmer and his clique of class traitors in undermining the 2017 election, and then when that failed to dislodge radical democracy from the labour party, enlisting the entire liberal left elite (from octopus Cohen in the Guardian to various enablers in the US blogosphere) to destroy the project with a fake campaign of “anti-semitism”, which allowed an actual anti-semite to win a crushing victory for capital in 2019 and usher in the greatest impoverishment of the British working class in generations. A simple search of past posts at CT will show where its liberal left members stood on this – one of them continued to support Starmer after the revelations of his treachery. 

If we want a democratic path out of this we are going to need the liberal left to accept that their ideas have failed, and the campaign to deradicalize leftism in western democracies has hollowed it out and led to a 30-year long string of defeats, while the right has consistently grown more and more radical. This is going to involve throwing away some of the most cherished ideas of the centrists and the liberal left, like “free speech” and “british values” and also it’s going to require recognizing that liberalism has always served as the intellectual and political handmaiden of fascism. It’s going to require a proper commitment to decolonization, recognition that the western left has been complicit in the colonial project, and along with that a far greater tolerance of “authoritarian” and “illiberal” regimes, along with a recognition that the entire concept of “authoritarian” is an empty nonsense intended to hold back national liberation and progressive movements.  This is going to require recognition that fascism is an entirely western political movement that is constantly at risk of returning, it wasn’t put to bed at the end of world war 2 and it is our duty as leftists to oppose it everywhere and stridently. This means fantasies like those sometimes put forward here and elsewhere that Trump wasn’t special, or that Ukraine is a liberal democracy, need to be ruthlessly dealt with. We don’t have time for liberal wet dreams anymore. 

This is also going to require that the liberal left and its elite allies in media, academia and politics recognize some hard truths about their own disconnection from the realities of political struggle. This can start with a recognition that the entire discipline of economics is a failed joke that exists solely to support the propagandistic needs of capital. We can follow that with a hard look at exactly which political and organizing principles much of the western left has thrown out because of the taint of leftism associated with them rather than any real intellectual or ideological problem with them – e.g. nationalization, which should absolutely be at the centre of every political program in the west, proudly and with force, along with unionism. Pacifism – both locally and internationally – needs to go in the bin. The idea that we can sell out some small parts of our movement to win hearts and minds in “the mainstream” needs to go – trans women is the current vogue for under-bussing in the UK, but they’ve already thrown the entire cis female community in the US under the bus so they can slightly increase their chances of winning a couple of milquetoast senate seats. It’s going to require that the elite left and its remaining institutions – the Guardian, the left wing university departments and organizations that remain – recognize that all the best ideas and action are in the gritty, embarrassing corners of our society, amongst environmentalists and uncool allotment-working grandpas and not the suits and spivs of the Blairite movement.

It’s also going to require a return to the cynicism about western media, intelligence and military sources that we had before and after the Iraq war. They’re lying to you – about everything. This means that you need to reject all their narratives, not just the ones that are politically convenient. This is going to mean asking some hard questions about your own complicity in the ridiculous, facile, and openly far right propaganda campaigns of the past 10 years that too many liberals have supported. That means being full-throated in support of Palestine, putting a Yemen flag in your Twitter profile pic in place of the blue-and-yellow, and listening to the voices of ordinary people in low and middle income countries, not whatever fashionable cipher or white representative the western media have currently chosen to parade about.

I don’t see any of this happening anytime soon, and we’re running out of time. If we don’t re-energize a real left there will be no democracy of any kind within a decade, and no pathway – democratic or not – out of this ecological crisis. But as a first step to that rejuvenation it would be nice to see it start with a few mea culpas here.

The collapse of Crooked Timber (CT) over the past 7 years from a relatively well-subscribed, combative and intellectually engaged blog to a liberal vanity project that serves primarily to recycle Economist talking points and American mainstream propaganda is a microcosm for the collapse of left-liberal thought in the west more generally. The liberal order has completely failed, and while right-wing liberals have largely accepted this and shifted so far to the right that they’re indistinguishable from the fascists who are going to eat them, there remains a rump of “centrists” and leftist liberals who haven’t got the message yet, and somehow think that a political system of moderate leftist democracy with mildly regulated capitalism, coupled to the “rules-based international order” is going to save us from the catastrophes that are coming. It isn’t, and while these left-liberals fiddle with electoral politics through the machinery of empty suits like Starmer’s labour, vapid clown shows like the Liberal Democrats, or hollowed out fund-raising machines like the US Democratic Party, the world is shambling faster and faster towards the inevitable mid-game crisis of full-blown environmental collapse coupled with the demise of late-stage capitalism. The material conditions in which democratic countries attempt to manage their politics are not getting any easier from here, and from now until we find a radical solution to our problems every year of your life is going to be the best year of the rest of it. In the face of this we can see what left liberals and their scammy political parties are doing: nothing, coupled with useless propaganda.

So it is that on the same day that the Uvalde mass shooting occurred Matt Yglesias tweeted out some pro-American bullshit about how America is the greatest country on earth; or on the same month that we learnt about Keir Starmer’s treachery the authors at CT were admitting they voted for him as leader and would do so again; or in another week of multi-thousand COVID deaths in the USA the democrat-appointed leader of the CDC’s covid response proudly stated that he wanted to privatize vaccine provision and testing as soon as possible; or as we learn as many as two thirds of Britons face fuel poverty this winter the Starmer-led “Labour” party refuses to consider nationalizing the bandits that are driving the British population into poverty. We have resource economists like John Quiggin of CT still breezily confident that technology plus free markets will avert climate change disaster even as half of the world is struggling to deal with actually-existing climate change disaster – and dismissing deforestation in poor countries as “too much firewood” (see above my point about leftists having to grapple with their role in the colonial project!)

Ordinary people can see this and are voting with their feet. The UK Labour party recently revealed it lost some 90,000 members after its betrayal of Corbyn and is now millions of pounds in the red, which puts it even more in hock to the corporate donors who wanted Corbyn out. UK unions are considering removing funding from that same party while a wave of strikes rolls across the country, and union leaders demand Labour return to its roots, but Starmer bans his frontbench from being seen near them. The gulf between the beliefs and aspirations of left-liberal public intellectuals, political leaders and organizations grows wider and wider, while the political leadership that represents this political tendency tries to convince itself that it can assemble winning electoral coalitions from the shrinking number of ordinary people who can still convince themselves that this is working – in the face of obvious evidence that it isn’t, and can’t, and most people know it.

The political endpoint of this will be fascism. We can see it in the USA, where this tendency is at its most advanced: ordinary voters have checked out in the face of the Democratic party’s ridiculous oblivious optimism, refusing to engage with either the party itself or the ballot box, as the Republican party carefully and consistently dismantles democracy everywhere it can. There is some hope that the Democratic Party – on the back of a wave of cruelty unleashed on women by the outlawing of abortion – will recover a bare majority of seats in the Senate this Autumn (though they may lose the House!) but no sign that they’ll do anything remotely useful with them, because they value the “institutions” of liberalism far more than the actual political goals they claim to pursue. After they fail to capitalize on even that small gain (or can’t, if they lose the House), and with their liberal blindness paralyzing them in 2024, what hope that they will retain the White House or that they will survive the fascist uprising that follows a Dem victory? And what hope that in the face of Starmer’s prevarications in the UK, the Tories will lose the next election? We can already see that the strategy for UK Labour is going to be a continued rightward shift, that will fail to satisfy anyone and alienate everyone who cares about our future, while the Tories continue to advocate openly fascist ideas. In order to prevent climate disaster we need an active, strong and committed left wing political leadership in every major western economy within the next 5 to 10 years, even sooner in the case of the USA, but we’re going to see nothing short of fascism.

This is the end of the liberal project. It’s not going to win anything anymore, and when it does it will achieve nothing of any good anyway, because there is nothing left within its ideology that is able to stand up to the pressures of these times. We need a return to radical leftist democratic parties, or there will be no democracy left. So no, CT, there is no democratic pathway to civilization survival, until we all give up on the petty little daydreams of liberalism and return to a real left-wing politics that prioritizes the needs of ordinary people over glib liberal shibboleths.

UPDATE (2022/8/25): There is some doubt being expressed in comments as to whether this is a real issue outside of some anonymous commenters on CT, so I present here a screenshot of a tweet from Andrew Harrop, general secretary of the Fabian Society, an important left-wing organization in the UK that forms the intellectual underpinnings of the labour party there. It is a simple, categorial dismissal of a bill strike in the UK, not on the basis that it wouldn’t work, but that it is simply too radical for ordinary British people. There are serious concerns being expressed by some left-wing people about the dangers of acting on the Enough is Enough campaign’s suggestions, but that is not Harrop’s concern. No, his concern is that a payment strike is “far left” politics that ordinary British people wouldn’t be able to support. See how far British left-wing politics has been enervated by this kind of liberal drivel!

Today’s looming disaster

Where I live in Japan mask-wearing is now pretty much universal – almost no one goes out in public and to see someone without a mask on in public is a kind of shock. The economy reopened after lockdown, in Tokyo, on 23rd May, on which date the number of cases had dropped to 5. Today the Tokyo Governor’s office released the daily update on COVID-19 (pictured above), and we have now returned to 107 cases, with the 7-day smoothed average hitting 65. Depending on how charitable you’re feeling that’s either a 21-fold or 13-fold increase in cases in 5-6 weeks. At its most charitable then we can say that cases have been doubling every 7 days. Today’s peak of 107 cases comes pretty much 5 days after the Tokyo government allowed bars and night clubs to reopen. All of the personal measures we have been asked to adopt – maintaining social distancing, wearing masks in public, and reducing our social interactions, have amounted to a hill of beans. In particular I think mask-wearing has been a completely useless strategy, and worse than that, I think the misguided possibility that widespread mask use will prevent transmission has led many countries to take unnecessary and stupid risks with reopening their economies. This is particularly tragic in the case of Tokyo, because Japan had a very good early response to the epidemic and Tokyo was down to just 5 cases when the government ended the lockdown early. One or two more weeks of actually effective strategies would have ended the epidemic in Japan but instead the government chose to begin reopening the economy early and rely on personal behavior change to prevent its spread.

This was a disaster, and anyone who understands public health should have seen how disastrous this idea is. Infectious diseases are never stopped by individual behavioral change or personal responsibility: they are only ever affected by social changes and policy. We know this from 40 years of responding to HIV, and in this blog post I want to explain how the terrible failures of the early response to HIV should have served as a warning about relying on barrier methods and personal responsibility for preventing the spread of the disease. What is happening in America was entirely predictable based on 70 years of public health knowledge, and it’s a depressing indictment of public health policy-makers that they did not do more to stop it.

The narrative of mask use and economic reopening

First let us examine the history of moves to reopen economies from lockdown and the heavy dependence on mask use to achieve this reopening. Some academics at Stanford University recommended mask use as a way to prevent further shutdowns after reopening in late April. In an April 22 news report the governor of Louisiana made clear that mask use was a key part of his reopening strategy:

It’s just like opening a door for them, or saying good morning or whatever it’s being kind and being courteous, and when others wear masks they protect you. So we’re all in this together. When we all wear masks we’ll effectively protect one another which is why I’m calling upon Louisiana to mask-up.

The governor of Georgia suggested mask use could help with reopening that state in mid-May. The governing.com website lists individual state’s reopening plans and makes clear that almost every state mandated, requested or advised face covering and mask use as a form of protection in sites that were considered high risk but were now slated for reopening. For example California has moved to Stage 2 of its resilience roadmap, and recommends

Crowded settings increase your risk of exposure to COVID-19. Wear a face covering or cloth mask, stay 6 feet away from others, avoid touching your face, and wash your hands when you get home.

Rather than limit access to crowded settings, the government simply advises people to cover themselves and take individual actions to protect themselves and others.

On 1st July Louisiana saw 2083 cases, a five-fold increase on the number it saw on April 22nd; Georgia saw 2,946, probably a 4-fold increase on mid-May; and California saw 6,497, a 3-fold increase over the number it saw when it moved to stage 2 of its “resilience roadmap”. All these states are now at the inflection point of a major upward surge in cases. All the personal responsibility and individual actions they advised to prevent the spread of the virus have done very little to protect their citizens from this epidemic.

The scientific evidence for masks and social distancing

On 1st June the Lancet published a systematic review of the evidence for face masks as a protection against coronaviruses. It found only 3 studies with quantifiable evidence of the effect of masks in non-health-care settings, and pooling the results of these studies found a 44% reduction in risk, which is shown in the figure above. While mask use in health care settings has a very large protective effect (70% reduction in infection, with a narrow range of effect from 57 – 78%), it is nowhere near as effective in non-healthcare settings, and there is little evidence to support it. This is why at the time of writing the CDC still does not suggest there is any evidence for the effectiveness of surgical masks, and why the WHO was unwilling to recommend their use during the early stages of the epidemic.

Why is there so little evidence and why would masks not work in public when they’re so effective in hospitals? The lack of evidence is because most countries don’t use masks in any disease-prevention way in public, and so it is very hard to conduct studies. The lack of effectiveness probably arises from the fact we aren’t trained to use them: we don’t know how to take them off properly or even which side to place on our face, we don’t treat them as single-use items, we often don’t carry spare ones so we need to lower them in public to eat and drink and then raise them again, they get damp and become ineffective because we wear them too long, we wear the wrong masks for settings with high infection risk, and we don’t combine their use with the regular, intensive and disciplined hand hygiene that medical personnel use. I have recently spent a week in hospital during lockdown for surgery, and the aggressive and disciplined pursuit of hand hygiene was noticeable and completely different to community life. If you don’t know how to use a mask and don’t practice proper hand hygiene it is not much use. Here are some examples of mask use I have seen in Japan, when commuting or wandering my suburb (in a mask):

  • A man pulling his mask down on the train so he can pick his nose and wipe it on the poles people hold
  • People wearing their mask pulled down so their nose is uncovered (so common)
  • People folding their mask up and putting it in their pocket or a bag
  • People putting their mask on a table or other unwashed surface and then putting it back on again
  • People putting their mask on backwards
  • People taking their mask off to use a shared microphone in a public meeting
  • People wearing masks to karaoke and taking them off to sing

It is of course also impossible to maintain social distance on commuter trains in Japan. I have also noticed that everyone complains that when they wear a mask their breath steams up their glasses, which means constantly fiddling with the mask and wearing it too loose. If your breath is getting out of your mask rather than through it, you are not protecting anyone and you aren’t protected.

Even if masks were 90-100% effective though, we still know that a strategy of mask wearing will not work. We know this because we tried the exact same strategy for HIV and failed.

The failure of barrier methods for HIV prevention

HIV first entered western consciousness in the early 1980s. It was initially identified in men who have sex with men (MSM) in America but the pandemic really took off in heterosexual people in sub-Saharan Africa, probably because it was already widespread by the 1980s. The first treatment was introduced in 1987 but the first really effective treatments, highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART), were only introduced in 1997. In the early 2000s HAART was discovered to reduce the transmissibility of HIV, meaning that people taking HAART were less likely to pass the infection to others even if they were having unprotected sex. This discovery came at about the same time as George W Bush introduced PEPFAR, a massive program of HIV testing and treatment in sub-Saharan Africa, and this widespread testing plus availability of a treatment that could render people non-infectious led to some gains in the battle against HIV.

Now that HAART is available the fight against HIV is almost exclusively based on testing and treatment, but until the mid 1990s the only effective strategy we had for prevention was condom use. Condoms are 90-100% effective in preventing the spread of HIV, and we ran aggressive condom promotion and distribution schemes in the 1980s and 1990s to encourage safer sex and prevention of HIV. Despite dumping huge amounts of money and resources into these programs in the 1980s and 1990s HIV continued to spread rapidly in both heterosexual communities in Africa and MSM and some other at-risk communities in the rest of the world. Condom promotion strategies did not work to prevent the spread of HIV even though we knew that they were highly effective tools for prevention. Barrier methods were all we had – our entire strategy was based on behavioral change and personal actions – and it failed miserably.

The same is also true of all the other STIs: gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis are all still widespread in heterosexual and MSM communities despite the sure knowledge that they are easily prevented by condoms. Indeed, these diseases are much more prevalent in communities that have easy access to condoms but poor access to testing and rapid treatment, such as indigenous populations in Australia or very poor communities in the USA. It is the structural factors of access to testing and treatment that determine the spread of these diseases, not the ability of individuals to take individual action to protect themselves or others.

Why is this possible? How did this program fail so monumentally when the individual preventive action it was based on is so well known to be highly effective? The reason is that sex is a social act, and social acts are mediated by complex social forces that it is difficult for us to navigate and control on our own. When people have sex they choose to flout social rules, they don’t always plan ahead, they are sometimes under the influence of drugs or alcohol or in a rush or not quite sure of exactly what is safe. Power relations are common in sex and can lead to people not being able or willing to negotiate condom use. Just as masks interfere with the ease and enjoyment of basic social interactions, so condoms interfere with the ease and enjoyment of sex, and people sometimes choose not to use them for this and other personal reasons. People also often make judgments about who and what is “safe”, and make these decisions with partial information in very emotionally fraught circumstances. And of course if you want children – a fundamental consequence of and reason for this social interaction – you can’t wear a condom. And so HIV spreads.

There are communities where condom distribution has worked but this is rare. It was probably partially successful among MSM in Australia, but probably because the campaign to use protection and beat HIV was explicitly tied in with the campaign for rights for MSM. It has been successful among sex workers, but this is because sex workers have no social incentive not to use condoms and have powerful tools at their disposal to enforce their own protection, and this is only true in some communities of sex workers who are strongly protected by cultural, social and legal norms that give them the social power to control their sexual interactions. There are many communities of sex workers in the world who cannot negotiate condom use precisely because these structural factors are aligned against their personal protective choices.

In contrast, we can identify a group of people who are at very high risk of HIV but have very low rates and among whom outbreaks of HIV are quickly identified and shut down: porn actors. Porn actors have large amounts of completely unprotected and often high-risk sex with multiple partners regularly, but have low risk of HIV. This is because they work in an industry with rigorous, regular testing policies that ensure that HIV cases are caught before they can become widespread. This is an example of how high-risk behavior can be safe if it is regularly tested and treated, but low risk behavior (for example among heterosexual people in Africa) can be dangerous if it is forced to rely on personal protective actions without the support of a health infrastructure.

Against infectious diseases, social and policy actions are always more powerful than individual actions, because infectious diseases are a consequence of our social interactions, not our personal decisions.

The difference between strategies and individual actions

Public health strategies obviously always rely on individual actions: we need people to report symptoms, to attend clinics for medical care, to comply with test and trace strategies, and to cooperate with the health system. Many of these actions can be guaranteed to happen under the right circumstances because they benefit the individual: if you can afford care, getting care is good for you, so you are likely to do it. But any policy which requires people to do the right thing in a burdensome way runs up against a huge problem: many people do not want to, or are not able to, do the right thing. This is why states have to mandate seatbelt wearing and introduce random breath testing to prevent drunk driving: the action they request of individuals is burdensome and unpleasant, so people won’t do it if they aren’t forced. The same is true of mask-wearing and social distancing, which is fundamentally against all of our social and cultural norms and obviously, objectively makes social interactions worse. Any policy based on requiring (or expecting) people to perform these actions is bound to fail, especially if no one is trained in how to do these actions safely and is not receiving the correct equipment. The policy is particularly likely to fail because the people who don’t conform will spread their virus in ways that people who are conforming cannot see and prevent (such as touching surfaces that mask-wearers touch).

A good public health strategy needs to take into account what people are willing and able to do, and not assume everyone will act correctly and in good faith. A policy which plans to increase risk in other ways – by reopening the economy – while relying on people doing these difficult and unpleasant individual actions to offset the risk is guaranteed to fail. And as we see in America, and now increasingly in Japan, that is exactly what has happened.

What does this say about the future of COVID-19 policy

There is only one safe and reliable way to control this epidemic: lockdown your cities until there are 0 cases, then reopen slowly and carefully with immediate and aggressive lockdowns as soon as outbreaks happen. Coupled with rigorous control of national (and sometimes sub-national) borders, this will ensure that states can get to 0 cases and stay there with minimal future risk. If every country proceeds on this basis we can slowly reconnect countries that have eliminated the virus, and reopen the global economy. But so long as governments think they can reopen the economy provided that individual citizens take reasonable actions to protect themselves in the presence of remnant cases, the epidemic will restart and countries will continually bounce between lockdown and tragic, fatal reopening. This does not mean that you should not wear a mask – as we saw above, they probably have some mild protective effect. But you should not – and your government should not expect you to – use it as the only defense against this virus just so that economies can reopen. In the face of a virus this transmissible and deadly, there is no way your individual actions will make any difference. We need to work together through collective action to destroy this thing. Until a vaccine comes along, our individual effort is meaningless: we rely on policy and social action to end this scourge. Whenever a government asks you to wear a mask to protect yourself and your friends, that government is asking you to take the blame for its failures. Don’t let it happen. Demand real collective action to end this epidemic and restart our lives.

 

The future of British youth

Are you young, British, and scared about where your country is headed? Want to get out before it all goes down? Are you worried about what’s going to happen after you leave the EU, and expect everything to come crashing down? Don’t think that the healthcare situation is going to get better or even stay as bad as it is? Come from an ethnic minority and are getting increasingly uncomfortable about how non-white British are being treated? Are you poor and doubt you’ll ever be able to get into a good university and make a decent career, but don’t want to be stuck in an Amazon warehouse the rest of your life because working class work no longer pays in the UK? Did you have a future plan that involved living and working in Europe, and now you need a completely new plan?

Do you need to get out? This post outlines two strategies for a simple and easy way to get out of the UK, for people aged 16-21 who are either finishing high school or finishing university, and not sure what to do next. If you’re confident that even if Labour win the next presidential election things still aren’t going to get better, you might want to consider one of these two strategies. Both involve leaving the UK for Japan, and this post is to tell you how.

Strategy 1: English Teacher

Lots of young people don’t know about this, but there are lots of private English teaching companies in Japan that are always looking for staff from native English speaking countries to work in them. To get a job at an English teaching company in Japan you need three basic qualifications: you need to be a native speaker, you need a bachelor’s degree, and you should still be in possession of a face[1]. Most of the big English teaching companies do recruitment tours in the UK, but they usually also have open recruitment on their websites. You can find them pretty easily on google. For a company like Aeon you will go to a day-long recruitment seminar that doubles as an interview, and usually you’ll get a job offer as a result. You just need to turn up looking presentable, act like you care, and be willing to work with kids. You do not need to be able to speak Japanese or have any knowledge of Japanese culture (though knowing more about Japan than “manga!” and “geisha!” would be helpful probably).

Once you get the job the English teaching company will place you in a random city in Japan, pay for your airfare, and organize an apartment for you. This may be a share house or it may be a one room. You’ll get paid probably 200-250k yen per month (about 1500 – 2000 GBP[2]) and will have to pay taxes and health insurance from that. Health insurance is affordable, and it covers everything – and unlike the NHS, there are no waiting times to get into most straightforward treatments, doctors are same day without an appointment, and your kids won’t get their pneumonia treatments on the floor. It starts from the day you arrive in the country. Usually the company will help you set up bank account, phone etc., so even if you don’t speak Japanese you’ll be good to go. Once you arrive and get settled you can save a bit of money and after a few months you’ll be in a position to move somewhere you like, or change companies to a better one. If you speak Japanese because you were lucky enough to study it at high school you can maybe shift to a better job. But the key thing is you’ve landed in civilization, and you’ll be safe.

The salary isn’t great but it’s enough to save money if you don’t do dumb-arsed things, and you will be able to make occasional short trips in Asia on that salary. Japan is not an expensive country and especially if you aren’t in Tokyo or Osaka it’s a super cheap place to live. The working conditions at teaching companies aren’t great (typically some evening and weekend work, and your days off may not be guaranteed to be Saturday and Sunday) but they don’t have at-will firing over here and even though you’re foreign you have all the employment rights of a local, including unemployment benefits after a minimum period of time in the job. English teachers are generally considered to be the lowest of the low among foreigners living in Japan, for reasons you’ll understand within minutes of meeting your colleagues, but it’s better to be the lowest of the low in Japan than to be poor in modern Britain. So do it!

If you’re a high school student this option isn’t open to you (these companies require a bachelor’s degree) but you can aim for it: they don’t care where your degree is from so you can attend any university in the UK and still get accepted when you graduate. See my special notes for high school students below.

There are also similar companies in China and Korea (see my notes on other Asian countries below). There is also an Assistant Language Teacher program where you work in schools, which is apparently a little more demanding to get into. Google is your best friend here!

Strategy 2: Japan government scholarship

The Japanese government runs a large scholarship program for students from overseas, called the Japan Government Scholarship, also known as the MEXT scholarship or Monbusho scholarship. This is available for all education levels: undergraduate, masters or PhD. You apply through your embassy (the US website is here) about now. The scholarship pays your university fees, a monthly living allowance, and a return airfare. You can apply for this for your undergraduate studies, so you apply from high school and go straight to university study in Japan. Unless you are planning on studying certain topics (e.g. Japanese literature) you don’t need to be able to speak or read Japanese: they set a Japanese test during the application process but this is used to determine what level of training you need, not to screen you out. The amazing thing about MEXT scholarships is that they’re not very competitive – not many people know about them and not many people want to move to study in Japan – so even if you don’t have a stellar record you still have a chance. Also they don’t discriminate on race or economic background, as far as I know, and it’s a straight-up merit-based application. The allowance is not great – I think about 100k yen for undergrads and about 150k for postgrads – but you’ll get subsidized uni accommodation and won’t pay tax, so it’s perfectly viable. If you go for Masters you need to find a supervisor who teaches in English and isn’t an arsehole – this is a big challenge – but you can do it if you try. One big benefit of the MEXT scholarship at postgrad is you get a year as a “research student” during which you don’t study in the department you’ve chosen but instead just learn Japanese. You can get really good at Japanese this way if you pay attention. Another great thing is that once you’re in the MEXT program it’s easier to go to the next step – so you can go from undergraduate to masters to PhD. Theoretically you could go from 1st year undergraduate to the end of a post-doc on Japan government money, which would put you in Japan for 11 years and probably stand you in a good position for a permanent faculty position, which are like hens’ teeth in many western countries but quite common here. Also, if you do undergraduate study here you have a very good chance of being able to get a job in a Japanese company when you graduate, probably quite a good one, and build a career here.

The application period is usually about now so get busy!

An example: Oliver Greenstar’s Education and Career Path

As an example of the Monbusho scholarship in action, let me describe the career trajectory of the guy who plays Oliver Greenstar in my Coriolis campaign. Oliver studied in a relatively well-respected university in the UK, and came to Japan on a MEXT scholarship to do his masters at a prestigious university here. He spent a year as a research student, studying Japanese full time, before entering the master’s program. Despite being viciously bullied by his professor near the end of the degree he passed, published his master’s thesis, and obtained a job at a prestigious Japanese bank (one of the big ones). After his year of Japanese study his Japanese was good enough to do the interviews and applications in Japanese, and to work entirely in Japanese. He worked there for about two years before the work got boring, and then jumped ship to an international consultancy where his educational background, English and Japanese are in demand. He’s dating a nice girl from another part of Asia and living his best life in Tokyo. Basically he got into the international consultancy business without having to take any education loans, and got a second language skill as part of the deal. As a consultant for one of the big international companies he’ll be the first against the wall when the revolution comes, but hey, he’s not in Bojo’s Britain so at least he’ll be able to face the firing in squad in good health.

Special notes for high school students

Note that if you’re finishing high school you can target all of these strategies now. Apply for the MEXT scholarship and if you don’t get it, go to a local university. Target one where you can study an Asian language, either Chinese, Korean or Japanese. Then apply for MEXT again at the end of your undergraduate, and if you don’t get it apply for an English-teaching company in whatever country you studied the language for. You can use this English teaching job as a base to find a job in whatever field you actually want to work, because you’ve got four years of language training under your belt and so should be able to speak the local language reasonably well. If this falls through you’re still okay because no matter how shit your degree was at that local polytechnic, a second language is a skill you can take to the bank. You can probably then find an okay job in a UK company targeting that country. This means you’re still trapped in a failing state, but at least your attempt to get out didn’t doom you to work at Brighton pier.

Remember, if you get the MEXT scholarship you’re going to graduate from university with no debt, proficient in a second language, and with a full career path in Japan likely right there in front of you.

Notes on other Asian countries

Most Asian countries have the English-teaching option available – for sure you can get to China or Korea if you don’t want to go to Japan, and they all have approximately the same requirements. All three countries now have functioning health insurance systems and decent public services. Obviously there are some issues about personal freedom in China and once the UK becomes a US vassal state you may find your British citizenship puts you a little danger there. Other countries like Thailand, Vietnam etc. also have English-teaching jobs but I’m not sure about the pay and conditions – you might find you can’t save money in these countries and it becomes a kind of trap. I don’t know. But any of the high-income Asian countries are good places to teach English.

China also offers scholarships for overseas students through the CSC. The Chinese education system is very good and if you get a degree at a good Chinese university you’re probably getting a better education than you’d expect in any British uni. I don’t know if the CSC offers scholarships to Brits or what the long-term consequences of that will be for your career in either country, but it could be worth investigating. You might also want to consider Singapore, which has excellent universities, but I have no idea how it works.

A note on the long-term risks of English teaching

You can make a life time career as an English teacher in Japan but it won’t be well paid and you’ll remain permanently lower middle class, which is not a big deal over here (Japan is an equitable country) but also not the best working life to pursue. But most importantly, if you spend more than a few years as an English teacher straight out of uni, your employability in your home country will take a nose dive, because you have no skills or experience relevant to a real job. So you need to make an exit plan if you want to return to the west. One option is to get an English as a second language (ESL) masters (you can do this online) and try to move into teaching English at uni, which pays slightly more and has a bit more prestige, but is a slightly riskier career (it can mean a permanent career as an adjunct, which is tough). Another option is to try and jump ship to a real company using whatever skills you’ve got but this can take time and may not lead you to a good place. If your Japanese is good you can maybe shift to being a standard office worker, but if you have no Japanese you need to bear in mind that English teaching is a trap if you do it for more than a few years. Bear in mind that Japan is aging fast, the pool of available workers is dropping in size, and as time goes on opportunities for foreigners here (even foreigners with weak language skills) are only going to grow. Also contrary to what you’ve heard (see below) Japan is becoming more and more open and welcoming to foreigners, even under supposedly militarist Prime Minister Abe, so things will just get easier as time passes. It’s worth risking for a year or two to try and build an escape plan, and if it doesn’t work out what have you lost? Just be ready to jump out if you see that trap closing before it’s too late.

Why Japan?

I’m recommending this escape plan because I know Japan: I live here and I know it’s a good place to live. You’ve probably heard that it’s expensive, treats foreigners badly and is very inward-looking. None of this is true. You’re not going to experience much racism at all, if you’re a woman you’re not going to get sexually assaulted on the train, and it’s not an expensive place to live. Rent is affordable even in Tokyo on an English teacher’s wage, your health insurance is fixed at a small proportion of your salary and is always affordable, food is good and cheap, and you can live a good life here even on low wages.

If you live in Japan you will be safe, you will be healthy, and you’ll be able to build a life for yourself even on a low income. If you want to live here long term you’ll need to learn the language (which is boring and bothersome to do); you may find that as a foreigner you are not going to be able to ascend to the peak of your career here no matter what it is. It may be hard for you to buy a place here either because your low salary precludes saving a lot of money for a deposit, or the bank won’t loan you money if you don’t have permanent residency. You won’t be able to afford to go back to the UK a lot unless you get out of the English teaching trade, and you will be restricted to short visits to nearby Asian countries. You’ll probably have to work hard and if you choose the wrong company after university (or the wrong post-graduate supervisor) you’ll be bullied and overworked. These are risks of moving here! But you’ll definitely have healthcare, your country won’t be collapsing around you, if you’re a woman you can walk safely at night no matter what time or how deserted the streets, and no matter what you earn people will show you the respect you deserve as a human being. And the government is not going crazy, nor will it.

So if you’re young and scared and worried about your future in Britain, and you really want to get out, consider these two strategies, and get out while you still can.

[Note: I wrote this a few months ago for Americans worried about what’s happening there, but in light of the coming Brexit storm I thought young Brits might want the same advice. I’ve copy-pasted that advice, added the example, and changed the bitchy asides to suit the political climate of your benighted isles].


fn1: Actually I’m not sure if they care about whether you have a face. But just to be sure, apply now before some lunatic gets a chance to stab you in the face.

fn2: or 30000GBP after Brexit works its magic on the pound

Some commentators on Twitter and in the media are saying that Labour lost the 2019 General Election because it lost too many votes to remain parties, and that failure to retain support from remainers was the problem. Angry Labour activists on Twitter have been listing off the remain seats that were lost, and saying that a strong remain strategy would have saved the party.

This is completely wrong, and I will show this using data from the 2019 election and the 2016 referendum.

Methods

First I used the dataset of constituency-level results I assembled over the weekend, which contains results for 339 constituencies, semi-randomly sampled from the list of all constituencies on the BBC election site and linked to leave voting data from the 2016 EU referendum. The detailed methodology for assembling this dataset is given here. I then assembled a separate data set of only the seats Labour lost, using this handy (but not quite alphabetical) guide from the Metro newspaper. I merged these with EU referendum data.

Using the full constituency data set, I created a logistic regression model of probability of retaining a seat against constituency leave vote, for all the seats that were held by Labour at the 2017 election. I plotted the predicted probability of losing a seat against the proportion of the population in that seat. Then, I conducted a crosstabs and chi-squared test for the seats held by Labour in 2017, showing the probability of losing a seat in 2019 by whether or not it was a leave-voting constituency. I defined a “leave-voting constituency” as any constituency voting above the median leave vote (which was 53.55).

Next, using the data set of the 59 constituencies Labour lost, I calculated the mean vote in this set of constituencies, and the proportion of constituencies that were leave-voting constituencies. I compared this with data for all Labour held seats that were not lost in the 2019 election.

Results

In my constituency data set there were 142 seats held by Labour in the 2017 election, of which 30 (21%) were lost in the 2019 election. Figure 1 shows the cross tabulation of leave seats with seats Labour held in 2019[1].

Figure 1: (Hideously ugly) cross tabulation of Labour-held seats by whether those seats voted leave

As can be seen, 92% of remain seats were held, compared to 66% of leave seats. This is extremely statistically significant (chi-squared statistic 14.35, p<0.001). That’s a nasty sign that the main risk of losing a seat was that it was a leave seat, not a remain seat.

We can show this explicitly using logistic regression. Figure 2 shows the predicted probability of a seat being held by Labour in 2019, plotted against the proportion of the seat that voted to leave in the EU referendum. The red dots on this figure indicate whether it was held by Labour in 2019: red dots on the top of the figure are seats retained, plotted at the value of their leave vote; red dots at the bottom are seats that were lost, plotted at the value of their leave vote.

Figure 2: Probability of losing a seat in 2019 by leave vote

This model was highly significant, and showed that every 1% point in the leave vote reduced the odds of Labour holding the seat by 7%. Note that this figure includes Scotland, so the results might be slightly different if only England were considered, but even the strongest remain-voting seat that was lost – even were it in Scotland – is well above the remain vote of some seats that were held. This model shows that at the extreme end of the leave spectrum, up above 60% of the electorate voting for leave, the probability that Labour retained the seat dropped to around 50%. That’s terrible!

My constituency data set contains only 142 Labour seats, and 30 seats that were lost, but actually 59 seats were lost. Since my data set is semi-random, there is a small chance that it will misrepresent the results. So I checked with the dataset of all seats that were lost. This data set contains 59 seats. Here are some basic facts about this data set, and comparisons with the constituency data set and the full list of Labour-held seats:

  • Labour lost 14 remain-voting seats (24% of all seats lost) and 45 leave-voting seats (76%). This is very similar to my crosstabs, where 24 of 30 seats lost (80%) were leave
  • The average leave vote in the 59 seats that were lost was 57.7%, slightly above the median, ranging from 31.2 – 71.4%.
  • In contrast, the average leave vote in the 112 seats in my constituency data set that Labour held was 48.8%, ranging from 20.5 – 72.8%
  • The average leave vote in all seats held by Labour going into this election was 51.1%, ranging from 20.5 – 72.8%

This is clear statistical evidence that Labour went into this election having a slightly remain-leaning set of constituencies, primarily lost leave-voting constituencies, and emerged from the election even more remain-focused than when it went in.

Conclusion

Labour did not lose this election because of a large swing in votes to the remain parties. It did not lose a large number of remain-voting seats, but was decimated in the leave-voting areas. Labour held on to all of its most heavily remain-focused seats. In attempting to appeal to both leavers and remainers, Labour managed to retain most of the remainers and lose a lot more leavers. Labour emerged from this election even more remain-focused than it was when it went in[2]. There are some very simple reasons for this:

  • The swing to the Tories and away from Labour was much bigger in leave-voting seats
  • The Brexit party was only active in Labour-held seats, and got its largest vote share in the strongly leave seats
  • The swing to the Lib Dems was much less closely related to the leave vote than was the swing away from Labour (see my last blog post, Figure 4)
  • The intensity of the relationship between leave voting and swinging to Lib Dems was lower in Labour-held seats than Tory-held seats (see my last blog post, Figure 4)

In trying to please both sides of the Brexit divide, Labour failed to satisfy the leavers. Pro-brexit Labour voters were simply much, much more committed to Brexit than pro-remain Labour voters were to remain, and so Labour lost the leave areas. There are lots of remainers out there who want to claim that remain is wot did it, but they are simply wrong. I’m super pro-remain myself, but the data makes it very clear: British Labour voters want to leave, and they were willing to pack in their allegiance to the Labour movement to get that done. Whatever you might think of their politics, that is the simple hard fact of the electorates Labour represented.

It’s worth noting that in 2017 Corbyn campaigned on Brexit. The Labour manifesto explicitly accepted Brexit and said Labour would negotiate and leave. At that election Labour won a historically high share for a party in opposition, a higher share of the vote in fact than Blair won in 2005 (when he retained government). In that election they came within a bees’ dick of winning government, and in that period before Corbyn accepted the compromise of a second referendum two Tory PMs left, and Johnson only held onto government by the skin of his teeth (recall there was talk of a unity government). Blair and Cameron have both shown it’s possible to hold government with 35% of the vote, so it’s perfectly possible that had Corbyn gone into this election on a leave platform he would have seen a much smaller swing against him, and could have won it. We don’t know, but on the basis of all the evidence here it seems like the second referendum policy was a disaster for Labour.

This gives two clear lessons for Labour to take in over the next few years and as they choose a new leader:

  1. Labour’s policies and Corbyn were not the primary problem, and dropping them is not going to help. Obviously Corbyn is going to go, it’s traditional, but the manifesto’s policies were not the problem. The Labour right is going to push for the party to throw the Corbyn years down the memory hole (in today’s Guardian we have Suzanne Moore begging for a vet to “sedate” the Corbyn supporters!), because they are and have always been intent on fighting these genuinely left wing policies. Ignore them, and stick to the real Labour platform that will really help the country as it recovers from the horrors of this Tory leadership
  2. Labour – and the British left generally – have to get over Brexit. There is no option left to remain, and no chance it will ever happen now. The Labour right want to claim that Corbyn doesn’t understand working class voters but his original policy – of full-throated Lexit – was much more in tune with what ordinary working class Labour supporters want than anything that the Blairist rump have to say. The debate now for Labour has to be about the type of Brexit, and how to make it work. This means fighting Johnson’s bullshit deal, but on the basis that they can make a better one – obviously this doesn’t matter now but it is the job of the opposition to hold the government to account, and they should do so from the clear perspective of their voters, that Brexit has to happen. This is going to be hard for some of the urban remainers from the south and east, but that’s life if you’re a politician. Further talk of remain just has to end

For 20 years the EU was a thorn in the Tory side, constantly causing them trouble. Cameron ripped that thorn out with this referendum, and although May spent some time botching the healing process Johnson has patched up the damage and squeezed out the last remainer pus from the Tory body politic. If Labour don’t face the reality of Brexit and what it did to this party at the 2019 election, then the issue will fester for them – as it did over so many years for the Tories – and hold them back just as it did the Tories. It is time for Britain to move on from Brexit, and for the Labour movement to accept the reality of the disaster that is coming. Once people realize how Johnson’s Brexit has screwed them, they will turn to Labour – and Labour needs to be ready with a transformative, genuinely left wing agenda in order to recapture its heartland and do what is right for working people. Corbyn was right about Brexit, right about the policies Britain needs, and after he is gone he will still be right about what has to be done. Don’t repudiate those lessons, and in the process destroy the movement.


fn1: My apologies for pasting this as a picture directly copied from Stata, instead of making a nice pretty table – I hate it when people do this but it’s late and I hate making tables in html. Stata offers an option to copy as html but it doesn’t work. Sorry!

fn2: This final conclusion is shakey because it depends on my constituency data set, and I don’t know if it would still be true once all the remaining Labour-held seats are entered into the dataset. I think it will, but there’s a chance the final data set will end up the same level of leaviness as the 2017 constituencies, statistically speaking. But this conclusion is not a very important one anyway, so it doesn’t matter if it isn’t held up by the full dataset.

The rule of law …

On 1st April this year the first protest march against the Hong Kong extradition law was held in Wan Chai. Ten years ago on that same day, 1st April, the London Metropolitan police murdered Ian Tomlinson, a newspaper vendor, at the G20 protest in London. They killed him on film, in front of thousands of citizens, by pushing him onto his face from behind and beating him with a baton. They then refused to help him, denied that they had done it, and refused to accept any responsibility until the film of the event was released. The day after his death the police attacked peaceful protestors at a candelight vigil to remember him, also on film. They lied about his death for days and found a corrupt coroner to do an autopsy, in a scandalous miscarriage of justice that took a year to be undone. Finally, after a second autopsy and an inquiry the police officer who killed him, PC Harwood, was found not guilty of manslaughter, and eventually dismissed from the police force. He was never convicted of any crime, and neither were the police who assaulted mourners at the vigil for Tomlinson. For weeks after the event the police and their friends in media organizations like the Sun, Daily Mail and the Telegraph maintained that demonstrators had prevented ambulance officers from reaching Tomlinson, when in fact the police had refused to provide first aid and the only help Tomlinson received was from protestors.

At the G20 protest in London – which lasted for 4 days – the police used aggressive “kettling” procedures, police dogs and horse charges. A total of 180 protestors were injured. While PC Harwood and the police who assaulted the mourners were never convicted of any crime, one demonstrator was sentenced to two years in prison for throwing a chair through a bank window.

Today in Wan Chai the protests against the Hong Kong extradition law continue, as they have done almost continuously since the events began on 1st April. During this four months no one has been killed, although the police have fired rubber bullets, tear gas and pepper spray at the protestors. Police in London 10 years ago also used batons and pepper spray, along with horses and kettling tactics. What have the Hong Kong protestors done, and how does it compare with the G20 protest?

  • They sprayed the Chinese for “chink” (支那) on the walls of the Beijing Liaison office, knowing full well that in mainland China this is a vicious racial slur
  • They broke into the legislative building and trashed it
  • They have repeatedly torn down the Chinese flag and replaced it with the former Hong Kong colonial flag, a reminder of a time when China was humiliated by a foreign power
  • They graffitied the graves of important historical figures in Hong Kong history with racial slurs
  • They attacked mainland Chinese people and chanted “go back” at them
  • They occupied the airport and railway stations, disrupting major transport hubs and interfering with the business of ordinary Hong Kong people, and deliberately disrupting the business of mainland traders near the border
  • They forced mainlanders to hand over their phones to demonstrators to prove they weren’t filming them

How many of those things did the G20 protestors do? And how many of those things did you see reported in the western press? I’ll wager you saw none of it, but if you read today’s feed on the Guardian about the demonstrations you will see all manner of cute little tidbits about all the peaceful and happy things the demonstrators are doing, told with a breathless tone as if it’s just a day out in the park and the first time the reporters have ever seen a demonstration. Breathless reports about how the demonstrators are cheered by passing citizens and told to “add oil”, reports of them using cute codewords to alert teams to raise umbrellas, pictures of decorated barriers, uncritical reporting of rival demonstrators as “triads”, reports from the airport of protest banners saying they can handle tear gas, talking about flash mob tactics with an approving tone and cute exclamation marks … it could almost be a picnic!

You didn’t see any of that style of reporting back in the G20 protests in London. There was no breathless tone of approval, no reports on the cute things that everyone does at demonstrations to defuse tension, pass the time or relieve boredom. Western reports did not describe protest tactics with approval at how smart and organized they were, or talk about which passersby approved (they only reported disapproval). When protesters at the G20 wore masks to hide themselves from police cameras or pepper spray they were described as thugs or maligned as “black bloc”, not seen as innocent young people taking necessary measures to defend themselves from police violence. In the Hong Kong riots police attack protesters; in the G20 London protest “violence broke out”, the passive voice used to ensure the police did not take the blame. There were no lasers used by demonstrators at the London protest, but rioters in Hong Kong have fired lasers at police “to obscure their identity”, and the media have not reported this as if it might carry some risk of blindness for police. For weeks they have reported about demonstrators helping old men across the road, about their kindness to strangers, about the organized way they care for their town and each other. There was even some ridiculous footage of them cleaning up their rubbish. You didn’t see any of that at the G20 London Protest, even though it all happened (these things always happen at protests).

The underlying demands of the protest are also reported differently. The G20 protestors’ concrete demands for change – for a fairer distribution of the wealth that global elites have been stealing from ordinary people, for greater equity, for environmental action and action on global warming – were ignored, and the whole movement made out to be a seething mass of discontented socialists. In the Hong Kong riot the protests are always reported as being about the extradition law, even though their actions – the “Hong Kongers!” chants, the “go back” chants, the racial slurs, the equivalent of Pride Boys moving in the mass[1], the tearing down of the Chinese flag, the calls for independence – make it clear that a large part of this movement is not about that at all, but a demand for independence from China. They also completely misrepresent the law itself, presenting it as a law to extradite people to China when it is not that at all, and conflate it with things completely unconnected to the law (like the bookseller issue). There is also a constant breathless expectation that the police will turn more violent or the army will be sent in, even after four months of restraint and patience on behalf of the Hong Kong government that would never have been seen in the UK.

If the G20 protests had lasted 4 months, shutting down Heathrow Airport and the Tube and involving vicious attacks on European bank workers on the streets week in and week out, would the Metropolitan police have been so restrained? Considering that they murdered an unconnected civilian on the first day, and covered it up? No, I don’t think they would have. And rather than having the main media organizations wondering daily whether the police would escalate, by the time a month had passed outlets like the Times and the Daily Mail would be begging them to. Western media coverage of the G20 protest in London was shameful, and their pathetic acquiescence to the lies the police told about the murder of Ian Tomlinson was a deep stain on their profession. Now we have to watch them uncritically refusing to report anything bad about the Hong Kong demonstrations, and reporting them as if they were a fun family picnic for the simple reason that their government doesn’t like the Chinese government – and for reasons of good old fashioned racism, of course. Today, for example, the Hong Kong chief of AFP tweeted a claim that the Opium War was good for China, and doubled down on it when challenged. These people are responsible for reporting to you about what is happening in Hong Kong, and they don’t care about any truth or any balance at all.

Underneath all of this unrest in Hong Kong is another tragedy. The extradition law was brought to parliament after a 20 year stay because a Hong Kong national murdered his pregnant girlfriend in Taiwan and fled the country, and because there is no extradition treaty with Taiwan he cannot be sent back to face justice. The story of that murdered girl and her family’s need for justice has been buried in the hyperbole about freedom and the rule of law, just as 10 years ago the truth of Ian Tomlinson’s murder was buried by a complicit, lickspittle press under an avalanche of lies and obfuscations. It is looking likely that the murderer of that Taiwanese woman will get away with his crime, just as PC Harwood suffered no legal consequences for murdering Ian Tomlinson. And in both cases the press will look the other way, forget the ordinary people that mattered, and offer up lies and calumny in the service of the national interest. They shamed themselves then and they shame themselves now.


fn1: It’s pretty well established that the 2014 umbrella movement had a nasty racist component, probably led by a movement called Civic Passion that is also present in the current demonstrations, and seems to be a little bit like a Pride Boys movement for Hong Kongers.

Are you young, American, living in America and scared about where your country is headed? Want to get out before it all goes down? Are you worried about getting shot at school or work, or by the police? Don’t think that the healthcare situation is going to get better or even stay as bad as it is? Have a pre-existing condition and don’t know how you’re going to be able to afford medicines after you turn 26 (or even now)? Are you worried about Roe vs. Wade and pretty sure your reproductive rights are going down the tube in the next few years? Noticed that the new Georgia anti-abortion bill includes ectopic pregnancies, so is actually gynocidal? Are you poor and doubt you’ll ever be able to get into a good university and make a decent career, but don’t want to be stuck in an Amazon warehouse the rest of your life because working class work no longer pays in America? Are you black and don’t want to get shot by the police, or Jewish and a little bit worried about where those Proud Boys are taking your country?

Do you need to get out? This post outlines two strategies for a simple and easy way to get out of the USA, for people aged 16-21 who are either finishing high school or finishing university, and not sure what to do next. If you’re confident that even if the Dems win the next presidential election things still aren’t going to get better, you might want to consider one of these two strategies. Both involve leaving America for Japan, and this post is to tell you how.

Strategy 1: English Teacher

Lots of young people don’t know about this, but there are lots of private English teaching companies in Japan that are always looking for staff from native English speaking countries to work in them. To get a job at an English teaching company in Japan you need three basic qualifications: you need to be a native speaker, you need a bachelor’s degree, and you should still be in possession of a face[1]. Most of the big English teaching companies do recruitment tours in the USA, but they usually also have open recruitment on their websites. You can find them pretty easily on google. For a company like Aeon you will go to a day-long recruitment seminar that doubles as an interview, and usually you’ll get a job offer as a result. You just need to turn up looking presentable, act like you care, and be willing to work with kids. You do not need to be able to speak Japanese or have any knowledge of Japanese culture (though knowing more about Japan than “manga!” and “geisha!” would be helpful probably).

Once you get the job the English teaching company will place you in a random city in Japan, pay for your airfare, and organize an apartment for you. This may be a share house or it may be a one room. You’ll get paid probably 200-250k yen per month (about 1800 – 2000 USD) and will have to pay taxes and health insurance from that. Health insurance is affordable, and it covers everything: no pre-existing condition exemptions or any shit like that. It starts from the day you arrive in the country. Usually the company will help you set up bank account, phone etc., so even if you don’t speak Japanese you’ll be good to go. Once you arrive and get settled you can save a bit of money and after a few months you’ll be in a position to move somewhere you like, or change companies to a better one. If you speak Japanese because you were lucky enough to study it at high school you can maybe shift to a better job. But the key thing is you’ve landed in civilization, and you’ll be safe.

The salary isn’t great but it’s enough to save money if you don’t do dumb-arsed things, and you will be able to make occasional short trips in Asia on that salary. Japan is not an expensive country and especially if you aren’t in Tokyo or Osaka it’s a super cheap place to live. The working conditions at teaching companies aren’t great (typically some evening and weekend work, and your days off may not be guaranteed to be Saturday and Sunday) but they don’t have at-will firing over here and even though you’re foreign you have all the employment rights of a local, including unemployment benefits after a minimum period of time in the job. English teachers are generally considered to be the lowest of the low among foreigners living in Japan, for reasons you’ll understand within minutes of meeting your colleagues, but it’s better to be the lowest of the low in Japan than to be middle class in America. So do it!

If you’re a high school student this option isn’t open to you (these companies require a bachelor’s degree) but you can aim for it: they don’t care where your degree is from so you can attend a local low-cost uni (I believe you guys call this “community college”?) and still get accepted when you graduate. See my special notes for high school students below.

There are also similar companies in China and Korea (see my notes on other Asian countries below). There is also an Assistant Language Teacher program where you work in schools, which is apparently a little more demanding to get into. Google is your best friend here!

Strategy 2: Japan government scholarship

The Japanese government runs a large scholarship program for students from overseas, called the Japan Government Scholarship, also known as the MEXT scholarship or Monbusho scholarship. This is available for all education levels: undergraduate, masters or PhD. You apply through your embassy (the US website is here) about now. The scholarship pays your university fees, a monthly living allowance, and a return airfare. You can apply for this for your undergraduate studies, so you apply from high school and go straight to university study in Japan. Unless you are planning on studying certain topics (e.g. Japanese literature) you don’t need to be able to speak or read Japanese: they set a Japanese test during the application process but this is used to determine what level of training you need, not to screen you out. The amazing thing about MEXT scholarships is that they’re not very competitive – not many people know about them and not many people want to move to study in Japan – so even if you don’t have a stellar record you still have a chance. Also they don’t discriminate on race or economic background, as far as I know, and it’s a straight-up merit-based application. The allowance is not great – I think about 100k yen for undergrads and about 150k for postgrads – but you’ll get subsidized uni accommodation and won’t pay tax, so it’s perfectly viable. If you go for Masters you need to find a supervisor who teaches in English and isn’t an arsehole – this is a big challenge – but you can do it if you try. One big benefit of the MEXT scholarship at postgrad is you get a year as a “research student” during which you don’t study in the department you’ve chosen but instead just learn Japanese. You can get really good at Japanese this way if you pay attention. Another great thing is that once you’re in the MEXT program it’s easier to go to the next step – so you can go from undergraduate to masters to PhD. Theoretically you could go from 1st year undergraduate to the end of a post-doc on Japan government money, which would put you in Japan for 11 years and probably stand you in a good position for a permanent faculty position, which are like hens’ teeth in the USA but quite common here. ALSO, if you do undergraduate study here you have a very good chance of being able to get a job in a Japanese company when you graduate, probably quite a good one, and build a career here.

The application period is usually about now so get busy!

Special notes for high school students

Note that if you’re finishing high school you can target all of these strategies now. Apply for the MEXT scholarship and if you don’t get it, go to a local community college or whatever they’re called. Target one where you can study an Asian language, either Chinese, Korean or Japanese. Then apply for MEXT again at the end of your undergraduate, and if you don’t get it apply for an English-teaching company in whatever country you studied the language for. You can use this English teaching job as a base to find a job in whatever field you actually want to work, because you’ve got four years of language training under your belt and so should be able to speak the local language reasonably well. If this falls through you’re still okay because no matter how shit your degree was at that community college, a second language is a skill you can take to the bank. You can probably then find an okay job in a US company targeting that country. This means you’re still trapped in a failing state, but at least your attempt to get out didn’t doom you to work at Starbucks (though who knows, four years from now maybe America won’t have any industry except Starbucks).

Remember, if you get the MEXT scholarship you’re going to graduate from university with no debt, proficient in a second language, and with a full career path in Japan likely right there in front of you.

Notes on other Asian countries

Most Asian countries have the English-teaching option available – for sure you can get to China or Korea if you don’t want to go to Japan, and they all have approximately the same requirements. All three countries now have functioning health insurance systems and you won’t get shot in any of them. They’re all aging and need young people, and at least in Korea as well as Japan Americans are generally still viewed well (for now; this is changing). Obviously there are some issues about personal freedom in China and if things continue to go south in the US-China relationship you might not feel safe from reprisals from the government. Other countries like Thailand, Vietnam etc. also have English-teaching jobs but I’m not sure about the pay and conditions – you might find you can’t save money in these countries and it becomes a kind of trap. I don’t know. But any of the high-income Asian countries are good places to teach English.

China also offers scholarships for overseas students through the CSC. The Chinese education system is very good and if you get a degree at a good Chinese university you’re probably getting a better education than you’d expect in any American uni. I don’t know if the CSC offers scholarships to Americans (since, let’s face it, you guys suck) or what the long-term consequences of that will be for your career in either country, but it could be worth investigating. You might also want to consider Singapore, which has excellent universities, but I have no idea how it works.

A note on the long-term risks of English teaching

You can make a life time career as an English teacher in Japan but it won’t be well paid and you’ll remain permanently lower middle class, which is not a big deal over here (Japan is an equitable country) but also not the best working life to pursue. But most importantly, if you spend more than a few years as an English teacher straight out of uni, your employability in your home country will take a nose dive, because you have no skills or experience relevant to a real job. So you need to make an exit plan if you want to return to the west. One option is to get an English as a second language (ESL) masters (you can do this online) and try to move into teaching English at uni, which pays slightly more and has a bit more prestige, but is a slightly riskier career (it can mean a permanent career as an adjunct, which is tough). Another option is to try and jump ship to a real company using whatever skills you’ve got but this can take time and may not lead you to a good place. If your Japanese is good you can maybe shift to being a standard office worker, but if you have no Japanese you need to bear in mind that English teaching is a trap if you do it for more than a few years. Bear in mind that Japan is aging fast, the pool of available workers is dropping in size, and as time goes on opportunities for foreigners here (even foreigners with weak language skills) are only going to grow. Also contrary to what you’ve heard (see below) Japan is becoming more and more open and welcoming to foreigners, even under supposedly militarist Prime Minister Abe, so things will just get easier as time passes. It’s worth risking for a year or two to try and build an escape plan, and if it doesn’t work out what have you lost? Just be ready to jump out if you see that trap closing before it’s too late.

Why Japan?

I’m recommending this escape plan because I know Japan: I live here and I know it’s a good place to live. You’ve probably heard that it’s expensive, treats foreigners badly and is very inward-looking. None of this is true. You’re not going to experience much racism at all, if you’re a woman you’re not going to get sexually assaulted on the train, and it’s not an expensive place to live. Rent is affordable even in Tokyo on an English teacher’s wage, your health insurance is fixed at a small proportion of your salary and is always affordable, food is good and cheap, and you can live a good life here even on low wages. You can’t live an American life of huge housing, a car, an assault rifle and all the home-delivered pizza you can eat but that’s a good thing, not a bad thing: those are the reasons your country is killing the planet and itself.

If you live in Japan you will be safe, you will be healthy, and you’ll be able to build a life for yourself even on a low income. If you want to live here long term you’ll need to learn the language (which is boring and bothersome to do); you may find that as a foreigner you are not going to be able to ascend to the peak of your career here no matter what it is. It may be hard for you to buy a place here either because your low salary precludes saving a lot of money for a deposit, or the bank won’t loan you money if you don’t have permanent residency. You won’t be able to afford to go back to America a lot unless you get out of the English teaching trade, and you will be restricted to short visits to nearby Asian countries. You’ll probably have to work hard and if you choose the wrong company after university (or the wrong post-graduate supervisor) you’ll be bullied and overworked. These are risks of moving here! But you’ll definitely have healthcare, you’ll have no risk of being shot by either crazy white guys or police, if you’re a woman you can walk safely at night no matter what time or how deserted the streets, and no matter what you earn people will show you the respect you deserve as a human being. And the government is not going crazy, nor will it.

So if you’re young and scared and worried about your future in America, and you really want to get out, consider these two strategies, and get out while you still can.


fn1: Actually I’m not sure if they care about whether you have a face. But just to be sure, apply now before some lunatic gets a chance to shoot you in the face.

Warboss Wilde says: To lose one brexit minister may be considered unfortunate; but to lose both looks like carelessness

Tonight I was walking home from kickboxing thinking about the pickle Theresa May finds herself completely unable to resolve, and I really wanted to feel a little sympathy for her, even though she’s not a Tory. This is a state-educated woman who basically stepped in to clean up the mess the Bullingdon Boys made, and at every turn she has faced these useless red-faced Etonian babies throwing their toys back out of the pram and spitting the dummy, bawling and squealing because they can’t have their roast pork and face-fuck it too. It really smacks of the hired help being punished for doing her job, and I want to feel some sympathy for the terrible situation that she (and much more poignantly, all Britons) faces. But I can’t, because she would have a lot more bargaining space if she hadn’t arrogantly assumed she could beat Labour, and called an election she didn’t need to in order to do a blatant power grab. This duly backfired, and now she – and by extension all of Britain – are held in thrall to the whims of the DUP, who hold the balance of power and are clearly a bunch of certified religious nutjobs.

Somehow while I was ambling through the narrow streets of Koenji this reminded me of the time before the Good Friday agreement, and a common argument that was made back then against the idea of a united Ireland: That if Ireland united, the protestants of Northern Ireland would be forced against their will to live in a backwards country ruled by religious nutjobs. This argument pretended to be a reasonable centrist (or even left wing) argument. It accepted the validity of the nationalist cause, but argued that a large part of the Northern Irish community was protestant, and if the nationalists got their justice for past colonialism and oppression, this would mean that protestants – who were all loyalists – would be forced to accept living under the Roman Catholic leadership of Ireland, who at the time were religious nutjobs. In this argument often Sinn Fein weren’t first and foremost socialists, but were actually closet creationists. But even putting aside Sinn Fein’s loyalties, people were urged to reject unionist politics on the basis that it would force protestants to live under the christian equivalent of Sharia law, in an economically backward country[1].

Well, isn’t it funny how times have changed? In the 20 years since the Good Friday agreement Ireland’s economy boomed, it became a modern and open European country, legalized gay marriage and abortion, and now has a child of migrants as its president. It has a climate change policy, and recently had an inquiry into abuses by the catholic church. Meanwhile Northern Ireland is ruled by a bunch of creationist climate-change denying dipshits, who are holding the entire UK to ransom over the possibility that their little fiefdom might be treated mildly differently to the rest of the UK, and threatening to bring back the troubles (which, let us not forget, their older members were likely deeply involved in). Northern Ireland still doesn’t have legal same-sex marriage, while the rest of the UK and Ireland do. Can anyone look at the two countries now and conclude that unionism would have been worse for Northern Ireland’s protestants than staying in the UK, and being forced into the christian equivalent of Sharia law by the DUP?

Another, perhaps inverted version of this way that history washes away all the too-comfortable positions of its ideologues is the UK miner’s strike. I was in the UK when this happened and even though I was young it was a terrifying and all-consuming political event. I do not remember anyone ever discussing the strike in terms of climate change or clean air, only in terms of worker’s rights, industrial struggle and nationalization. The Tories blatantly lured Scargill’s union into striking in order to break them, and to break the back of a powerful force in the British left, to set the stage for the privatization drive of the late 1980s; the union and the left defended itself on these grounds. It’s worth remembering that the same police who committed violence on the picket lines also fabricated lies about the Hillsborough disaster, and were in Jimmy Saville’s pocket. These were evil times. But when you look back on what happened, for all the evil and corruption it unleashed on the UK, the closure of the mines was essential for the UK’s environment and for preventing climate change. Had they not closed, the UK’s air would remain filthy, northern children would be dying from asthma and growing up stunted, and the UK would be completely unable to meet its climate change commitments. It’s even possible to imagine that Scargill, emboldened by defeating the Tories, would have led his union to greater power in the Labour party, and that in the early 1990s they would have become climate change denialists. By now of course the closure of the coal industry would have become imperative, but it’s easy to see how this debate would unfold now: poisoned by Trumpism, with the utilities fighting against alternative energy, the Miner’s union would become a proto-fascist body, spreading climate change denialism and embracing some kind of UKIP-style demagogue in order to protect their patch. The miner’s strike was a terrible time for the north, the Tories were cruel and showed the worst side of the industrial ruling class, and the corruption and police violence unleashed by it took 20 years to be put back under control (and in some ways still isn’t); but if it hadn’t happened, it would be happening now, with scary Trumpist and brexit overtones.

History has a weird way of laying waste to ideologies.

 


fn1: I’m not here trying to say that the people making this argument didn’t also make the point that e.g. you shouldn’t give in to terrorists, there was never any colonialism to start with, only the IRA killed people, etc. Just that I remember this argument a lot, and often as a kind of “okay so let’s say we ignore the terrorism for now, even then we have the problem that …” It was a kind of “even if there was no terrorism, this unionist idea would still be terrible because… ” argument.

When I was a teenager I remember my father as a difficult man with frustratingly retrograde opinions, which were typical of men of his nationality (British) and his generation (born just before WW2). He was a typesetter, a classic tradesman’s job from the post-war years, and he had the kind of views on race, gender, sexuality and social issues that you might expect of a man of this background and this age. He could say shocking things about non-white people, about women, or about any man who had not followed the same straight and narrow path from school to work that he had done. But his views were mellowed by his love of reading, and by a vague sense of groundedness about how the world actually worked. So for example he would say racist things about Aboriginal people, while also recognizing that they had been treated poorly by white colonizers; he could recognize the basic humanity of non-white people while believing basically that the races shouldn’t mix, and that his race (in particular the “English”) was superior. In my memory of my teenage years, he could say bad things but race issues were not always at the forefront of his mind. If welfare fraud or racial stereotypes or “young people today” came up in conversation he would be difficult, but somehow he still seemed to be navigating the world as it was, despite his limited education and because of his love of reading. My father introduced me to a lot of terrible ideas about Aborigines and women, but he also introduced me to National Geographic magazines, liberal views on sex work and drugs, Erich von Danniken[1] and archaeology more generally, and he always supported my interest in science, geography and reading.

When I was 17 my father lost his job and left me behind in rural Australia to return to the UK, where presumably he thought he might still be able to find work. Sadly a fifty-something typesetter in the late 1980s had no chance of finding new work, since his job had basically been automated away in the space of five years of rapid computer growth, so he ended up living on benefits in a trailer park in Devon. And over the years since he returned to the UK he went from being the infuriatingly backward but still-reachable uneducated man of my childhood to an out-and-out bigot, hating anyone and everyone who was different to him, full of bile and rage at the world and terrified of all the possibilities in it. He went from someone who worked alongside Indian and Caribbean men in industry to a scared old man who refused to visit London because it had “too many foreigners”; from a man who recommended Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring to an ignorant climate change denialist; from a migrant in Australia to a man who hated all migrants and believed there were millions of “illegal asylum seekers” living in the UK; from a proud working man to a benefit fraudster who sat in the mobile home he was illegally buying with government rental support complaining about European benefit fraudsters coming to the UK to “abuse our generosity”; from a man who took pride in his nation’s role in resisting the Nazis, to a believer in every sinister lie he heard about Jews, gypsies, communists and gays. Over 30 sad years he became the Racist Uncle from central casting, terrified of the world and angry at everyone who was not an old, bitter man like him.

It was not just my father either: everyone else in my own and the older generations in my family became the same over those 30 years. Before I returned from a brief period working in the UK to Japan, I remember sitting in my grandmother’s living room while she told me that “them black people will get what’s coming to them when Cameron’s elected”, and my uncle warned me “don’t argue with me, sunshine” while he spat bile and invective over the EU – while he was resting in the UK in between work placements in the Europe. Of the four men in my generation or above who I still know alive and living in the UK, two of them had their best career opportunities in Europe, and one of those got his first wife there.  Yet there they sat, hurling hatred and scorn at everyone connected with the European project, at black people, foreigners, young women – anyone who wasn’t like them.

This kind of hateful bile was a constant of my visits to my family in south west England, Brexit country. But there was one other constant every time I went down there: on every tea table, or clipped and stuck to the wall, or in the recycling bin (that they hated), or left scattered around to finish the crosswords: The Daily Mail. And from every bitter, pinched and angry mouth: “The news tells me that the gypsies are now …” “Which news?” “The Daily Mail!” Every opinion, every vicious and vengeful bit of hate speech, every tenuous or blatantly untrue “fact” they used to justify every one of their horrible, scornful opinions was dragged straight from the lying, filthy pages of that lying, filthy rag. Every day it headlined with some story about gypsies or travelers stealing land; or about hordes of “unregistered asylum seekers” who were getting free homes and cars and money while good deserving white people lived in the streets; or about how homeless white people were filthy pigs who brought it on themselves. Every day they bought it and read it and consumed its unfiltered hatred, mainlining discrimination and scorn to the point that my father, disabled by polio at the age of 5, would place his free disability parking sticker on the window of his car while ranting about some article from the Daily Mail and sneering at all these stupid young people who demand their human rights be respected. This man, whose entire twilit years were coddled by disability pensions and free healthcare and physiotherapy and special support for his disability, would mouth that phrase “their human rights” with such bitter rage that you would think he was talking about satan’s ballbag itself. But he wasn’t, he was speaking about himself, spurting out self-hatred and bitterness that he had been mainlining for 30 years from that disgusting, stupid rag, the Daily Mail.

So it was with a sense of profound disappointment that I read this morning in the Guardian that Paul Dacre, the editor of the Daily Mail for 26 of those 30 years that it was slowly turning my father from a normal human being to a rage-infested muppet, has received a lifetime achievement award from the Society of Editors, presented to him by the Editor of that other esteemed vessel of white men’s hate, the Daily Telegraph.

Some achievement. The newspaper most famous for its support of Oswald Mosley and Hitler turned into the delivery device for weaponized hatred, straight into the minds of uneducated men like my father who didn’t know better. By the time Dacre’s tenure was over he had managed to get UKIP national support, and bring on the Brexit he longed for that will destroy the economic security the Mail‘s own readers crave. This newspaper turned a nation of mild-mannered, stoic shopkeepers into a nation of rabid xenophobes and bilious haters, intent on kicking out anyone who was different in any way, or just plain kicking them if they couldn’t kick them out. Even on the Iraq war, the one thing the newspaper ever got right, it only opposed the war because it wanted to pull up the drawbridge and leave the rest of the world to burn, confident in the idea that Britain doesn’t need anyone and that any kind of social connection or sharing is weak, wrong and bad for the English. This newspaper poisoned the minds of a generation, so that it could get Britain out of Europe and damn the working people of Britain to a generation of peonage in service to its rich owner and his rich friends.

The Daily Mail did this by combining a tight writing style that perfectly appealed to the poorly-educated men and women of the war generation and the baby boom, appealing to their worst instincts and their colonialist nostalgic, and boosting that nascent racism and nostalgia into inflamed hatred and terror of any change. There is no policy the Daily Mail has supported in the past 30 years that was intended to benefit the lives of ordinary working or middle-class Britons, and the editor and his rich buddies knew that, so they coated every dodgy policy they pushed in the sweet and intoxicating icing of racism, hatred, and self-aggrandizing scorn. They pushed and amplified that scorn and racism, and used it to wrap every new and discriminatory policy they could, as they pushed Britain towards plutocracy. The final poison pill they tricked the elderly population of Britain into swallowing was Brexit, the bitter medicine that will strangle their grandchildrens’ futures. And the visionary who conceived of this horrible 30 year con receives a medal for his efforts.

In the future our grandchildren will look back on these 30 years as the last chance humanity had to change its direction. They will see that even as the planet went onto the boil, and inequality consumed the social order we had been building, a small gang of thieving plutocrats seized the media and politics and used their power to make sure no meaningful action was taken to turn society onto a different, better course. They will see how the many possible future pathways we could have taken to a better world were blocked off one by by these rich gangsters, until at the end of that 30 years we were left with a very small number of possible pathways to follow that would not end in civilization collapse and ruin. And then they will note that the people who spent 30 years heading off every road to a better future were given a prize for their efforts. Paul Dacre may be able to take that prize to his gold-plated grave, but the children of the future won’t deem him worthy of anything except scorn and ridicule. The same will apply to all those other titans of industry and media masters who brought us to this ruinous pass: all the newspaper editors who supported the Iraq war and unleashed Isis on a middle east already struggling under inequality and climate change; Rupert Murdoch, who unleashed Fox news on America and turned it from hope to hatred; Bari Weiss and Bret Stephens and all the other idiot centrist both-siders who twiddled while their nation slouched into nihilistic fascism, and put nazis and climate change denialists on the precious space of their editorial pages because they felt that “ideological balance” was more important than basic decency or a future for their children. All these people will be remembered as enemies not just of the people they were supposed to serve, but of human civilization. Remember the day this man got this prize, and the people who gave it to him. Some day there will have to be an accounting for the great evil being done in this time by our parents’ generation, and it might as well start with this man, who poisoned my parents minds against their own childrens’ futures, and turned a generation of hard-working, decent people into terrified haters. He will get away with what he did, but history will reward him with infamy.


fn1: I am not a believer!

 

You want to do *what*!?

By now the series of indictments and convictions of Trump’s hangers-on are old news, but there are some things about these stories that I am finding really mystifying, and/or confirmatory of the suspicions I have always had about super rich people. Trump’s hangers-on give the appearance of being super-rich, and they’re all attached to the “conservative” (i.e. religious radical) side of US politics, but some of the things we learn about them have been, shall we say, disappointing? I’m not sure if there is a word for how you feel when you learn what these people have been up to, especially now that “WTF” is about to be patented by Proctor and Gamble. Some things that have particularly amused (and surprised) me include …

  1. None of them seem to have any money: Cohen seems to have been sucking in vast quantities of cash, but none of it ended up in his pockets, and he was constantly lying to banks about his money in order to get loans to have more money, which promptly seems to have been blown paying off past loans. The Hunters were basically up to their necks in debt, and one assumes using their entire salary to pay off their overdraft fees, and then financing their lifestyle with campaign money, but refusing to tone down the business class rabbit seats despite being in hock. Pruitt was trying to use his position in the EPA to score his wife a chik-a-fila franchise to pay their debts. And of course Donald Trump, supposedly a billionaire, couldn’t manage to find 130k to pay off a porn star in order to smooth his path to becoming the president – instead Cohen did it, and did it by fraudulently leveraging his house because none of these people have any money. And of course Broidy – the only one who seems to have had any money, probably from Russian sources – paid for Trump’s girlfriend’s abortion, and was repaid not with money but with political favours. Beyond the question about whether any of these people have even a basic sense of public ethics, do any of them have any actual money?
  2. These people have no taste: Ostrich jackets, really? Golf? Who goes on vacation to Boise Idaho? Did you really need to fly your rabbit on holiday with you?[1] And we all know about the Donald’s penchant for ridiculously tasteless furniture and fittings (that family photo really is a gem). I used to joke that rich people had no taste, but I mostly made that joke on the basis that I don’t like Foix Gras, champagne or cognac. I didn’t realize that they actually really are this tasteless! Looking at the reports of their personal extravagancies, one is inclined to believe the theory that the super rich really are lizard people wearing skin masks. Surely no human could be this prurient? But apparently they are.
  3. They’re all having affairs: Manafort, Gates, Hunter, they all had a bit going on on the side, and this was part of the reason they were up to their neck in campaign expense violations. Trump of course is most egregious in this regard, and the really cynically ironic thing is that the one person in this little coterie of corrupt fuckwits who appears to have been genuinely devoted to his wife, Broidy, was the one who took the public fall for Trump fucking Shera Bechard and impregnating her and paying her for an abortion. It’s also telling that even then – when these people are caught fucking someone not their wife – they won’t (or can’t) buy their way out of it with their own money, but need to use Russian money (or Broidy’s Emirati money). These people are dirty, soulless losers.
  4. They don’t believe a word of their politics: The Hunters’ indictment is particularly merciless reading on the topic of these peoples’ abject hypocrisy. They used campaign funds to pay for golf shorts[2] and passed it off as a donation of golf balls to a veterans’ organization; they bought haberdashery and pass it off as an event for teachers; they tried to use the navy as an excuse for an international trip and then when the navy wouldn’t comply they said “fuck the navy”. These people have absolutely zero respect for the politics they espouse. They’re traitors, liars, economic wreckers and leeches, and the only time they make a pretense of caring about the politics they supposedly believe in is when they’re trying to cover up illegal spending on their fucking bunny. It’s not unusual in politics to find people who are hypocrites to the cause they believe in, who don’t always toe in private the clear line they maintain in public, but these people obviously don’t give a flying fuck about any principles of any kind at all. They are empty, soulless consumers. The only reason they are Republicans is because – as Trump himself so memorably stated on national TV – Republicans are easy to fool.

I guess it’s reassuring in a sense to see all my prejudices about the tastes and peccadilloes of the super rich confirmed, but it’s also kind of disturbing that people could be such caricatures of themselves. What is less amusing and certainly less satisfying is the clear evidence that these lying fucks are traitors, economic wreckers, and arseholes of the worst kind. Once they’ve been thrown out of office in November I do not want the Democrats to spare them the rod. I want to see them all nailed to the wall for what they have done.

fn1: I can appreciate wanting to buy your rabbit a seat if you do. On an American airline it’ll die in cargo. And I sympathize with the problem of having to find accommodation for your pet when you’re on work travel … except this wasn’t work!

fn2: Seriously what is with these people’s obsession with golf? It’s fucking golf, people. They spend all their time publicly complaining about how the NFL is being ruined, but good luck finding even a cent of their expenses spent on an actual sport!

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