A talk with Steve Mickevics, my tutor in 2021

 

 

 

 

 

Every month, a talk with Steve on various topics will be posted. Steve comes from Adelaide, Australia. He’s been in Japan for more than 10 years.

  

 

 

 

 

 

A topic of discussion for June 9, 2021: Nordic countries are well known for their welfare, medical, educational services and so forth; but people have to pay higher taxes in return, for example consumer tax being 24 to 25%. What is your take on this system, higher welfare but higher burden?  

For Steve, this is acceptable. His remark was that “I have no problem of paying 24 or 25 % consumer tax as long as there is no concern for retirement, medical expenses, education fees and so on”. I think this goes with the majority of people living in Nordic countries; they can see and appreciate welfare services in return for paying higher taxes. There was once a skeptical view of welfare states that people would become too complacent with life leading to economic stagnation on a national level. What about Nordic countries? 

 

According to one report about world competitiveness for 2007-2008, Nordic countries ranked high: Denmark the third, Sweden the fourth, Finland the sixth. As is well known, there are many global Nordic companies such as Sweden’s Ikea for furniture, Erikson for cell-phone networks, H&M for hip clothes, SAAB and Volvo for cars, Denmark’s Vesta for wind turbines, Carlsberg for beer, Finland’s Nokia for cell-phones and so forth. What has brought about this success story? I would like to say that it has been due to the Nordic governments’ exercising appropriate policies on education, economic development, labor management coupled with providing a welfare “safety net.”

 

Now turning to Japan, what is the possibility of adopting a higher welfare but a higher burden system? I personally think this is an unlikely scenario. The welfare system here is not financed entirely by tax but, basically, welfare insurance premiums born by both employees and employers in return for welfare services provided by the government. So, simply put, a “medium welfare and medium burden” falling somewhere between Nordic countries and so-called free America. As is well known, Japan is the front runner of ageing societies, resulting in a huge financial deficit. I hope it will not lead to “higher taxes but lower welfare.” 

 

 

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A topic of discussion for May 12, 2021: After observing somewhat crude and blunt consequences rendered by capitalism as of late, aren’t there any lessons to be learnt from socialism or communism, which are meant to be the antithesis of capitalism?  

We are of the opinion that capitalism has been working well in most of the developed nations as strikingly exemplified by the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, which ushered in the fall of the Soviet Union, a champion of socialist states, a few years on. In this sense, people can say that “capitalism has prevailed over communism”. It is remarkable that GDP as well as per capita income in many countries have kept going up for decades. Of course, there are downsides to today’s capitalism. We talked about them.

 

Firstly, it has become evident that the economic and social divide among people has widened alarmingly, also among nations; simply put the richer get ever richer, the poorer ever poorer. Secondly, we have seen that big private companies and corporations have become bigger and bigger, exercising more clout economically as well as politically. Their global operations are often criticized for environmental abuses like over-deforestation in the Amazon, Indonesia and more. Seeking cheap labor sometimes ends up in utilizing child labor with poor working conditions. 

 

Surely, these are abuses but probably not as severe and critical as those observed during the late 19th to the early 20th Centuries: dire working conditions coupled with an unhealthy living environment for the masses, who were “exploited” under a Marxian term. Charles Dickens famously depicted such lives in his several books.

 

Thanks to those who have endeavored decade after decade to tackle and mitigate these problems, things have improved drastically, such as the realization of universal suffrage, labor unions, health insurance systems, compulsory education and much more. Here, one must not overlook the historical role or input of communism and socialism as an ideal concept, affecting many “progressive” politicians, bureaucrats, pundits and so forth. In this sense, isn’t it quite appropriate to look back at Marx’s communism now?

 

 

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A topic of discussion for April 14, 2021: It seems to me that tragedies are more popular than comedies. I wonder why? Could you comment on this?  

 

 

 

 

 

It is said that the origin of tragedies goes back to ancient Greece. There were three outstanding Greek writers of tragedies in the 5th Century BC: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. As compared with comedies, Steve explained that tragedies have three perceived points of superiority.

 

The first, the superiority of structure.

Usually, tragedies come with a complex and dramatic structure, as opposed to comedies that take a simple story line.

 

The second is the superiority of responses.

Tragedies solicit complex responses from us based upon sympathy. Comedies on the contrary are superficial and generally do not leave a deep message.

 

The third is the superiority of significance.

Tragedies often follow negative topics, such as death, sadness and so on, reaching, touching one’s morality. Comedies are funny more or less at the expense of others, but do not reach our morality in a serious way. Simply put, they do not resound within us.

 

In ancient Greece, comedies came about one century after tragedies. Perhaps the ancient Greeks found relief from something light, not so serious for a change? What do you think?  

 

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A topic of discussion on March 10, 2021: This is a blunt “if” question in recent history. If the Treaty of Versailles had not stipulated as harsh treaty terms and conditions as it did on post WW1 Germany, the Second World War would not have occurred?  

 

 

The Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28, 1919 between Allied Powers and Germany to formally end World War I. The treaty laid down stipulations to essentially deprive the strength of defeated Germany by ceding its contested territories to surrounding countries, limiting military power, paying a large sum of reparations among others. These terms and conditions reflected the victors’ argument that Germany was solely responsible for causing World War I.

 

Based on the general resentment of the German people against the treaty, which Adolf Hitler vehemently criticized, Hitler surprisingly adhered to his own book “Mein Kampf” and began to take back territories which were ceded by the treaty, one by one. Coupled with his declaration of rearmament and effectually repudiating the reparations, Hitler subsequently took Germany into WWII.

 

As Steve mentioned, The Treaty of Versailles gave Hitler a “Casus Belli”, which according to Wikipedia means “an act or event that provokes or is used to justify war”. So, yes, it was a contributing factor to WWII. But we know that there were other factors. Let’s look at some of them briefly.

 

One perspective is confrontation between the rising authoritarian powers of Germany, Italy (invading Ethiopia) and Japan (expanding its influence in China) on one side and the “incumbent” western powers of the UK, France and the US on the other. Another perspective was the Great Depression that began in 1920. As a result, the UK and France took the policy of “Block economy” by utilizing for themselves their vast expanse of colonies and natural resources, whereas Germany, Italy and Japan were in desperate need for them but were out of their reach. The so-called appeasement policy of the UK and France to intentionally overlook Germany’s territorial claims in Europe in return for Germany standing against the expansion of communism was another contributing factor.    

     

So, our talk had focused on the negative aspects of the treaty but there was

a hopeful concept of sustaining peace as set forth by Woodrow Wilson to create the League of Nations. It was well intended in that a collective security and disarmament process would be employed to prevent war; and any international disputes would be settled by means of negotiation and arbitration. It was created in 1920. But it was an irony of history that the US did not participate in this institution because of internal political affairs. The Soviet Union was expelled from the League when it invaded Finland. Germany, Italy and Japan withdrew from it for various reasons respectively. To prevent WWII from happening, the League of Nations was totally powerless.   

 

 

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A topic of discussion for February 10, 2021: This time we would like to talk about philosophy. If you are interested in contemporary philosophers, please introduce us to some of them.  

Steve’s first comment was that because he didn’t study contemporary philosophers, he is not so much interested in them. Having said that he has delved into the subject and managed to pick some prominent figures as detailed below that we could talk about. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

His first pick was Sam Harris (1967~), an American author, philosopher, and neuroscientist.

 

(Photo by Christopher Michel)

Harris covers topics from a wide field, such as rationality, religion, ethics, free will, neuroscience, meditation, politics, terrorism, AI among others. Steve gave a good example of what is meant by “free will”: imagine you were asked to choose 3 cities. Is what you choose really a result of your free will, or to a certain extent influenced by your preferences? “Do we really have free will or not?” The basic stance of Harris seems to be centered around his “love” of science. So, he is very critical of anything that cannot be explained scientifically. This is especially true when it comes to religion. “Pretending to know things one doesn’t know is a betrayal of science and yet it is the lifeblood of religion.” 

 

 

 

 

 

Christopher Hichens (1949-2011), an English intellectual, polemist, social-political critic

  (Photo by ensceptico)

He challenged anything, anyone as a true polemist. He asserted that “all religion was false, harmful and authoritarian: he favored free expression, scientific discovery, and advocated for separation of church and state”. Let me quote this: “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Richard Dawkins (1941~), a British ethologist, evolutionary biologist and author

(Photo by David Shankbone)

 

 

Based on his scholastic achievements in his scientific field, he has appeared on TV, radio and the Internet talking about many topics. He is very critical of religion and the existence of deity. 

 

                                             

 

 

                                             

                                              Neil deGrasse Tyson (1958~), an American astrophysist, planetary scientist, author and science communicator

(Photo by the Norwegian University of Science)

Tyson has talked about the “spirituality of science” a lot. Here is one, “We think about the universe as an intellectual playground, which it surely is, but the moment you learn something that touches an emotion rather than just something intellectual, I would call that a spiritual encounter with the universe.”   

 

 

 

 

 

                                                                            Brian Cox (1968~), an English particle physicist and former musician

 

       (Photo by Duncan Hull)

Besides his core academic activities, Cox is very active to publicize science through various means. “He said that he has no personal faith”, but went on

“he cannot be sure there is no god and that science cannot answer every question.”  

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stephen Fry (1957~), an English actor, comedian and  writer

 

 

Fry’s view on religion. “He is opposed to organized religion being an atheist and humanist, while declaring some sympathy for the ancient Greek belief in Capricious gods.”

 

As seen here, Steve picked these scholars and an intellectual, who are all non-professional philosophers. From their core competence, they are talking about a lot of other subjects, but it’s interesting to know that they all have negative stances on religion as not scientific. For your information, this is the definition of contemporary philosophy according to Wikipedia: “…. a number of new philosophical schools—including logical positivism, analytic philosophy, phenomenology, existentialism and poststructurism.”    

 

 

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A topic of discussion for January 13, 2021: Because of Covid-19 how has life in Australia changed as far as what you hear from your family members and friends there? 

 

Australia has been praised for taking strong measures like neighboring New Zealand, including lock-downs, to combat Covid-19 where and when necessary. On the other hand, Japan declared a national emergency across the whole country from April to May last year, but it was not as strict as other lock-downs at all: yes, schools were closed but restaurants and shops remained open for shorter business hours, working places were not closed but office worker were asked to work from home, public transportation remained open and so on. 

 

Steve mentioned recent measures taken in Brisbane. Lock downs were lifted but “restrictions” remain. According to the website of the Queensland government, these restrictions mandate limiting max. capacity for visitors at any place and a must for wearing masks in public places, shops and so on. Also, Steve mentioned that “quarantining” hotels in Melbourne were not properly administered, so soldiers were placed instead to maintain strict procedures there.

 

 

Faced with a grave surge of Covid-19 cases Japan has recently but belatedly declared a state of emergency to major cities for the second time. But it has been criticized for its lax nature of targeting mainly restaurants and bars, which are “requested” to close by 8 pm. Then we discussed vaccines. Steve thought that Japan is acting too slowly to implement vaccines. We both agreed to receive shots when they become available. 

 

 

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