Isidore, money and birds

Isidore of Seville lived at an interesting but often forgotten time. His life straddled the sixth and seventh centuries AD, falling in a period some might call Late Antiquity, others the Early Middle Ages, and still others the Dark Ages. Although most people would probably say, it’s a bloody long time ago, I came here for the talk about money and birds, get on with it.

OK, I’m coming to that. He lived at an interesting time because he lived after the Western Roman Empire had fallen, but where he lived still formed part of a wider Mediterranean community, stretching from Spain to Italy and North Africa, and whose members continued to communicate in Latin. Amongst all the praying, blessing and anointing he would have done (he was a bishop), he managed to find time to write. One of the things he wrote was a kind of encyclopedia, called the Etymologies. This gave wild and wonderful explanations for all kinds of things, such as the fact that the word used at that time for “looking”, cattare, derived from they way in which cats (cat = cattus) looked around in the dark with their gleaming eyes. This is utterly wrong, but hey, it’s this kind of entertainingly ludicrous explanation that makes this ancient work fun to read.

I digress. Isidore tackles many things in the Etymologies and occasionally does say more sensible things. For example, Isidore talks about war, specifically what a just war would consist of:

A war is just when… it is undertaken to regain what has been stolen or to repel enemies.

Most people would agree with this sentiment. Had he lived a century later, he would doubtless have thought it right for the inhabitants of Spain to take up arms against the Arab invasion of the peninsula which occurred less than a century after his death, in 711.

The issue of a just war against Islamic combatants is, of course, highly topical. Is it just, on this basis, for France to bomb Raqqa after the events at the weekend?

I’m not sure of the answer, but I’m not, in principle, against the idea of military action against ISIS. I find it hard to empathise with the people who encourage and approve of the acts of barbarity seen in Paris. It would seem to be just to take action against these people, to prevent more innocent people being killed.

That’s the rub, of course. How can we be sure that when a town is bombed only “the enemy” are killed? There’s a lot of talk about “precision strikes” but the military didn’t invent terms such as “collateral damage” for nothing. People die like you and me die when bombs get dropped – it’s not always the bad guys. You might say the end justifies the means. Some people die, but a lot more are made safe. Maybe.

There’s something else which bothers me about this. The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, has today announced a significant increase in security spending and we should apparently also see this in the context of setting defence spending to 2% of GDP. 2% of GDP is an incredibly huge amount of money. Remember that this isn’t 2% of the money the government receives in tax, but essentially 2% of all the money produced by the work of all the British people will be spent on soldiers, vehicles, weapons and facilities. Remember also, that money, like energy, isn’t destroyed by spending it – when you spend it, someone receives it. Who? In this case, soldiers, vehicle and weapon manufacturers, and construction companies. So an increase in spending means some companies do very well. If a terrorist atrocity leads to an increase in spending, then, it is true that terrorism is actually good for business for some companies.

The ethics of being an arms manufacturer is a thorny issue, but I’m sure that the stocks and shares of such companies will have undergone a significant bounce in the last few days – I haven’t checked, but the contrary would surprise me. So, before thinking about war, we should consider carefully who benefits and who’s arguing for it, before we spend a huge amount of money on killing people.

OK, so, Isidore, money… wasn’t I going to talk about birds? Here we go. It’s about to get hot in here.

Do you remember all the kerfuffle about bird flu and swine flu? Remember how we were all going to die in a sweaty fever? The newspapers were fascinated by the health of birds and pigs for a while and the UK government alone spent 560 million pounds on Tamiflu, the drug that was going to save us all. The US government spent billions stockpiling it for the inevitable pandemic. In the end, of course, the square root of sod all happened and the whole thing was a massive waste of money. You might say that we couldn’t have known for sure how it would turn out, and maybe this is true, but it’s also true that a lot of people did very well out of the panic.

Who benefited? Principally the drug companies, Roche and Gilead. Gilead’s share price rose by 50% in 2005 when the US government announced the plan to stockpile Tamiflu. So, if you had 20 million dollars worth of shares in the company at the start of 2005, you made a cool 10 million dollars over the course of the year.

So, a quiz question for you. Who was the chairman of Gilead Sciences between 1997 and 2001 and still had millions invested in the company in 2005? You don’t know? Look it up and prepare to be amazed – or not.

I’m not sure whether waging war on ISIS is the right thing to do, partly because I get the feeling that that’s exactly what the terrorists want western countries to do. But there does seem to be a case for a more just war than the disastrous war in Iraq in 2003. But I think that when making choices like this, we need to look around us, just like those cats with the gleaming eyes, and be absolutely sure we’re doing things for the right reasons – and not get rushed into panicked decisions which are sure to benefit the interested few.

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