The lack of seriousness in many voting decisions

Initial digression…
Back in 1991, I found myself in Kuwait for 6 weeks, training staff at the Ministry of the Interior.
In my lunch break and other breaks, I found myself discussing issues with a number of expatriate workers at the Ministry. Included in those workers were a number of IT guys from Pakistan, who were working in Kuwait, not just for the higher salaries, but also because as a Muslim country, Kuwait was aligned with Pakistan.
One issue we touched on in discussions was their view of Christianity. While there seemed to be a whole lot about Christianity that they did not understand (and they understood even less about events in Western Europe, such as the Reformation), one of them said something that stuck with me. (I’m paraphrasing here). “It seems to me that for Western people, your Christianity is only something you do in your spare time. For Western Christians it is almost a hobby, like fishing. For us, Islam is our entire life”. He was trying to explain the total emotional spiritual and intellectual committment to Islam, as part of a debate we were having about the Western tradition of free speech, which, as it turned out, he flat out did not understand.
I was reminded of this discussion when I found myself talking with a person the other day about the whole immigration landscape in the USA. We were discussing the bellicose statements from Donald Trump about deporting 3 million illegal immigrants.
I felt compelled to point out one thing that keeps being overlooked. In order to be able to deport people from a country, you have to have somewhere to deport them to. That usually means another country, unless your plan is to load them onto container ships and have them circling in international waters for ever and a day. What countries would agree to take these 3 million illegals, I wondered.
It was clear that the person I was talking to had never consdered this. His response was bascially “Well, if they came from another country, they should be deported back to that country”.
Well, yes, that all makes sense in a logical fashion. But how will it actually work in practice. Imagine the conversation:

US SoS: Good day Ambassador
Amb: Good day Mr. Secretary
US SoS: Well, we did the math, and we have 234,000 people from your country who are here in the US illegally
Amb: (shrugs)
US SoS: We intend to start deporting them via sea ports next month
Amb: I see
US SoS: We expect you to accept them
Amb: How do we know they are even from my country? You have proof of their origin?
US SoS: Yes, so you will take them back
Amb: And if we refuse?
US SoS: See that picture? (points to wall upon which is hung a picture of a US Navy carrier group)
Amb: I see. Well, there appear to be 10,000 US citizens in our country at this point in time. If you propose something like that, I do not see how we can guarantee their safety. Then there is the little matter of that covert base that we let the CIA set up in the jungle. We cannot guarantee that base’s safety either.
By the way, after I leave this meeting, I am off to lunch with the Chinese Ambassador. I understand that he has an interesting proposition for some economic assistance that may help my country immensely.
(awkward silence)

The idea that the USA can start sending hundreds of thousands of people back to their countries of origin is a cloud-cuckooland fantasy. It is a fantasy because no country in its right mind is going to agree to take them back without a very big quid pro quo. This, folks, is how geopolitics works. This is not building hotels, or casinos. It’s a whole lot more subtle, serious and complex than that.
I eventually suggested to my discussion partner that perhaps Trump would need to have a gate in his wall or fence so that he could open it at periodic intervals and push some of those illegals back to Mexico where they obviously came from.
Folks, this is the problem with most of the ideas that Donald Trump has been throwing out there for the last year or more. Not all of his ideas are stupid (although many of them are). The real underlying issue that they have no plan, no thought-out substance to back them up. There is no “plan” to deport 3 million illegals. It can’t be done in any reasonable timescale, period.
When I find myself talking to people who sign on to cockanamie stuff like this, I know I am dealing with people who are treating politics less than seriously, perhaps like fishing, or watching sport. They have never thought any of this stuff through. Their views are formed from treating issues with a total lack of seriousness, and their conclusions are, as a result, mostly unserious.
This is what I meant when I wrote several times on this blog that politics is a serious subject for adults.

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How the Trump era can damage the USA

This is a series of quick takes on the ways in which I think a Trump presidency has the ability to negatively impact the USA in terms of how it changes the openness of the USA to it’s citizens and immigrants.
I am leaving out other possible impacts such as Trump deciding to start World War III. If that happens, most of what is listed below won’t matter.

1. Balkanization within the USA
If the new administration pushes decisions on issues like lesbian and gay protections back to the states, as it is threatening to do, the states will have to live with the consequences of whatever changes are made at state level.
Based on recent history, states that repeal protected class extensions can expect pushback from large businesses, who are fundamentally egalitarian most of the time on hiring. The fate of Gov. Pat McCrory, who may have lost his job in North Carolina, is a cautionary tale.
However, if some states decide to enact discrimination in law, I expect that many creative and technical class people will simply move to other states that still have protections. For example, if Texas decides to implement punitive legislation against minorities or others based on sexual orientation, you can kiss goodbye to the Austin-San Antonio tech corridor, and to a lot of IT business work in Dallas. Corporations and people will vote with their feet.
It is likely that inland enclaves will empty out as people move towards the coasts. This will further exacerbate the existing divisions in the USA. It will also have a severe impact on a number of cities. Creative and knowledge workers raise property values and create tax revenues.

2. Cessation of skilled immigration
If the Trump administration stuffs its committees with fringe scientists and anti-science dogmatists, and enacts legislative changes to override environmental protections, it is likely that scientific researchers and top flight scientists will not be interested in living and working in the USA. As a rule, scientists know how their work can be abused and undermined by unfriendly governments, and historically they have been mobile, willing to work where their work is properly funded and respected.
Remember that the Manhattan Project in World War II became possible in large part by the presence of numerous leading atomic scientists and physicists, who settled in the USA due to persecution in Europe.

3. Expulsion of non-resident visa holders
The H1-B visa program and similar non-permanent resident visa programs could be abolished or scaled back. That could result in a lot of people leaving the USA.
I regard this as unlikely, for two reasons:

– big business likes these sorts of immigrants. Because they are beholden to their employers for residence, they have limited leverage (I know, I was one of them once). If they are not available, businesses will have to employ US citizens who do have job options and mobility, which will drive up salaries for technical and other skilled resources
– many of the US visa programs are part of bilateral agreements between the USA and other countries. If the USA starts unilaterally modifying visa rules, other countries can cancel the bilateral agreements, forcing US workers and visitors to other countries to obtain visas. Once again, business leaders will not like this.

4. Mass deportations
I regard this as a less likely scenario. In order to deport people from a country, you have to have an agreed destination for them. If the Trump administration decides that it wants to deport 3 million illegals, it will have to get other countries to agree to accept them. This is just not going to happen. In order to get countries to agree to those kinds of actions, the USA would have to more or less threaten to nuke them. Of course, with a narcissist in the Oval Office, this might just happen…

5. Flight of non-citizens
A more likely scenario is that many people pre-emptively decide to leave the USA. This will, once again, result in an increase in US wages and salaries in the industry areas most affected. It may also be very disruptive to some key sectors such as farming, food services and yard care. Those restaurants that people like to visit in cities are often staffed by temporary immigrant labor.
Alternatively, if they can do so, corporations will simply send the work to wherever the non-citizens move to. More IT work may disappear overseas, and not be retained in the USA.

6. Flight of citizens and renunciation of citizenship
If the civil climate deteriorates in the USA, many creative class and knowledge class workers, mainly younger people or older experts with options, will leave the USA. There are other English speaking countries that they can move to, many of which will be a lot more lifestyle tolerant.
They may also decide to renounce their citizenship. This trend has already started. The article makes it clear that there is currently mostly happening for high net worth individuals who do not wish to have the IRS asserting jurisdiction over all of their assets worldwide, particularly if those assets were accumulated outside of the United States. However, this small trickle could increase dramatically if people determine that they are no longer safe or welcome in the USA. Unless protectionism shuts down migration (and if that happens we will be in the middle of a far bigger crisis), the option to leave will always exist for the skilled and mobile.

Most of the outcomes listed above will negatively impact the USA. Whether they will improve the position of poorer and less educated Americans is debatable. If prices rise overall due to the inflationary impact of wage and salary increases, then many poorer people may well still end up worse off. At the end of the day, the Law Of Unintended Consequences will almost certainly come into play, and any poorly considered policy changes will backfire and probably cause more problems than they solve.

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Friday round-up

1. How to channel anger
This week, after the election, I have been disappointed and slightly angry.
I always become irritated and frustrated during election seasons as I realize that many of my fellow humans are perfectly capable of abandoning all efforts at fact-checking or critical thinking when it comes to voting for Their Guys. It became obvious in 2012, and it has been very bad this year.
After this election result, realizing that the USA might be about to morph into a place that is not what I thought it was when I moved here in 1998, I have been taking stock of a lot of things.
When I used to play tennis, my intolerance of my own personal errors and imperfections would irritate me and occasionally anger me. (Yes, when I watched John McEnroe playing tennis, I recognized a kindred spirit, not, as many people claimed, an asshole brat. If you wanted to watch an asshole brat, you could always watch Jimmy Connors, who was a devious little chickenshit when competing on-court. McEnroe struggled to control himself. Connors sought to control the referees, work the crowd and generally engage in any and all tactics that he thought he could get away with).
When you get angry on court you have two options. You can allow the anger to take over your thought patterns, which usually ensures that you lose. Or you can channel the anger productively into something that will help you.
I have been channeling my frustration and anger into life planning. At age 61, I have limited full-time working years left, a totally insecure work outlook, and I also want to move into book writing. So Mary and I are beginning to plan the future out. We are going to visit Belize in December, and we are considering possibly investing in property there. I am working to consolidate my financial future, improve the management of my investments, and prepare for life after working in I.T. All of this is more constructive than foaming at the mouth on Facebook. There are way too many people either thrashing around or being juvenile end-zone dancers there this week. Most of them don’t know it, but I already Hid them. Life is too short to read their nonsense.

2. How kill-or-be-killed approaches debase human behavior
This article from a primatologist explains how unregulated, amoral competition within organizations ultimately debases human behavior (but some of you probably knew that already).

3. Sci-Fi writers
Of all of the artistic creative people out there, Sci-Fi writers are some of the most deep-thinking about societal models. They mostly write about the future, so they are both futurists and story-tellers, imagining what life might be like in the near to distant future. They also tend to skew towards the libertarian end of the political spectrum.
John Scalzi opened a thread on his blog to discuss the aftermath of the election. Scalzi being Scalzi, he intervenes to prevent people from going down rabbit holes from time to time. I like the “cable package purchase” analogy that he deploys here in an attempt to explain how people voting for Trump could vote for a candidate who deployed misogyny, racism and other anti-social attitudes as part of his campaign approach.

3. The Othering of the media
This article in Slate magazine explains how Donald Trump used the media as a prop, a proxy for those damn “coastal elites” that the art and science of resentment politics created 40+ years ago as a punching-bag. Most of Trump’s audience, already invested in the idea that he was some sort of outsider, failed to spot the irony.
Some day, historians will write about how many established veteran political and business insiders were able to convince electors that they were in fact insurgents in order to get elected to public office.

4. The cry of “hear us and understand us!” cuts both ways
For a lot of this election cycle, we have been hearing all about “the heartland” of the USA, and how the people there are to varying degrees resentful of “coastal elites” who look down on them both literally and figuratively (there is a reason for the term “flyover country”). Quite clearly, resentment played a large part in a surge of voters to the polls to vote for Donald Trump.
As J.D. Vance and other insightful authors have pointed out, the attitudes of people in the depressed rural regions of the USA are a lot more multi-faceted than is sometimes portrayed, and they are not always blameless victims of outside forces beyond their control. However, the “Deliverance” portrayal of rural people as scary psychos, or ignorant hillbillies, definitely informs a lot of stereotypes. A lot of media visitors to rural areas often act like tourists, seeing a lot and understanding next to nothing, and media portrayals tend to pick out people who visually stand out. Toothless people waving guns make for better visuals than regular folks going about their daily business. For every insightful article from Vance, I have read a bunch of superficial portraits that usually end up saying something like “I went to Outer Podunk and met a bunch of white folks and boy, they are mad as hell and not gonna take it any more”. This is usually accompanied by a few examples of weird, or downright hair-raising utterances from the people the journalist met.
However, it takes two to make an argument, and the images and stereotypes that exist among rural people about urban and city dwellers are, in their own ways, no better. Rural dwellers tend to sneer contemptuously at city people with their “fancy talk” and “posh ways”, their perceived lack of community and faith, their lack of ability in fundamentals like physical work, hunting and working the land, and to wish them to tumble down a peg or two.
None of this is new. The urban-rural divide has existed for hundreds of years, and probably will continue to exist. However, the mutually expressed antagonisms have become toxic this election cycle.
As Patrick Thornton, himself an export from the Mid-West, explains in this article, it is probably time for the rural disaffected to start trying to understand urban people a lot better also:

If we pin this election on coastal elites, we are excusing white working-class and rural Americans for voting for a man accused of violating the Fair Housing Act by refusing to rent apartments to black people. If we pin this election on coastal elites, we are excusing white working-class and rural Americans for voting for a man who called Mexicans rapists, drug dealers and criminals. If we pin this election on coastal elites, we are excusing white working-class and rural Americans for voting for a man who called for a complete ban on Muslim immigration.
I have friends and acquaintances who are Trump supporters. They genuinely do not understand today’s shock, particularly from minorities. These Trump supporters do not understand that many minorities believe the people who voted for Trump endorse his racism and bigotry — that those voters care more about sending a message to the political establishment than they do about the rights and welfare of human beings.

The last sentence is important. Whenever I read or hear somebody saying they are engaging in punitive action against a person or group to “send a message”, I know I am witnessing or about to witness an abusive action that is fundamentally unjustifiable. This is true in corporate governance, sport, politics or human conquest. (The Nazis in World War II used to regularly round up and execute local people in occupied countries to “send a message” about not collaborating with resistance groups).
When your stated objective is more about “sending a message” it invariably means that you are going to behave like an abusive asshole.

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America’s decision…and what comes next

…was not the one that most people expected. That in itself shows that a lot of the tools for determining likely voting patterns in US elections have ceased to be effective or accurate, and a big change is needed for them to become credible again.
As for the decision itself, well, once again the USA, in my humble opinion has flunked its Civics test, on two grounds:

1. They elected the carnival barker
2. Turnout, in what was definitely an election with clear choices, was down from 2012. Significantly.

When only about 50% of eligible electors are voting in a national election, that undermines the legitimacy of the entire political process. The argument that non-voters can’t complain is a logically compelling one, but it overlooks the reality that those people are not voting because they decided not to. And nobody can determine their preferences because there is no clear record of them. Political parties should be concerned about this issue, but in practice they don’t care because it reduces the number of people they need to persuade to win elections.
As for the decision itself…I am not happy with it, for reasons that I previously wrote about. I do not have much optimism for the next 4 years. The nativist and racist genie has been well and truly uncorked, as I can see on Twitter and other social media forums. It is almost certainly true that racist and nativist sentiment is a symptom, not the cause. However, as somebody who grew up in Europe with an understanding of European history, the parallels with the 1930s are too close for comfort.
Donald Trump talked a lot about blowing the system up, but what he carefully avoided discussing was the extent to which the major political parties have, over time, become funded by and largely subservient to the wishes of big business. Big business wants easy immigration and cheap labor. Anybody who voted for Donald Trump expecting that he would kick out all of the immigrants stealing their jobs is probably in for a rude awakening. Trump is a businessman (a not very successful one, and a cowboy at that) but he respects business and, of all of the interest groups that he claims he will knock into line, that is where i expect the least change, mainly due to the reality that running mass market politics is a process requiring horse-choking sums of cash. The cozy duopoly will continue, and the blue collar workers are likely to be disappointed.
One possibility that I think has not been seriously discussed is that the outcome of the election will make the United States a much less attractive place to live and work for people who truly have choices. Knowledge workers and and creative class people, who usually skew to younger age groups, may vote with their feet. If the nativist sentiments start to bleed through into deportations and other endemic discrimination against migrants, many professional people with options and the ability to move will up sticks and leave. IT will be particularly badly affected, since there are massive numbers of overseas people in IT. That might improve my lot in the short term, but it might not. The shortage of tech workers might simply lead to companies offshoring all IT support.
If skilled and creative class workers do start to leave in significant numbers, the USA’s competitiveness will decline quite quickly. The Western World is now in the post-industrial age, and the USA cannot continue forever Digging Stuff Up And Selling It. Eventually all countries run out of Stuff To Dig Up. Many of the ideas espoused by Donald Trump, based on the magical return of jobs to the USA, are not only unrealistic, but are not amenable to execution on electoral timescales. The loss of manufacturing overseas has been happening for 40+ years, and slapping tariffs on foreign goods is about the stupidest way to address the issue, even if it plays well with the discontented folks in Upper Podunk. A worldwide economic recession in an interconnected world will, as always, disproportionately impact the people near the bottom of the economic ladder.
We are US citizens, Mary by birth and me via assimilation. However, the United States is starting to indicate to me that it may no longer be the “shining city on a hill” that I was originally convinced that it was. As a person who grew up in an out group, I have no intention of finding myself in an out group in my adopted country, and having to co-exist with people reacting to circumstances by practising casual racism and sexism.
Mary and I are therefore looking at all of our options. In December we will be visiting Belize, and we intend to look at purchasing land there to build rental property. We were already discussing what should happen in the next phase of our lives, and this election result may have accelerated the decision timetable.

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America eventually has to decide…

…what sort of country it wants to be when it grows up.
Does it want to try to be that “shining city on a hill”, a beacon of hope and freedom and opportunity?
Or does it want to be a hypocritical, bullying imperial power, dominated domestically by mean-spirited, nativist behaviors?
The USA is a young country in relative world terms, constituted by a bunch of smart people 240+ years ago. It currently behaves like an an adolescent. Adolescents have boundless energy and ideas. They also think they know it all, and they won’t listen to anybody who looks older. The USA is that adolescent. As a country, the USA shows a pathetic level of genuine curiosity about how things get done elsewhere. Some of us like to travel and act like tourists, but tourists go everywhere, see a lot, and understand almost none of it. The rest of us sit close to home, getting a cartoon heroes vs villains worldview from TV and cable channels. As a result, many people are voting today without any clear idea or understanding of the underlying issues facing the USA. Many people are signed on to cockanamie conspiracy theories, dystopian binary fantasizing (Vote XXX or the country is Doomed!) and all manner of odd ideas that cannot be supported by facts.Countries are never perfect, and countries that rise to #1 in the world eventually fall back again. History teaches us that. At some point the USA will be overtaken by other countries. This does not mean that the USA will cease to exist and suddenly become inconsequential. It took us a fair amount of time to rise to #1, and the decline, if it has begun, will be slow.
America is a nation of immigrants (even the First Nations people, who seem to have arrived via the Bering Land Bridge). The rapid growth to world dominance of the United States was fuelled by the energy, drive and enterprise of waves of immigrants who continue to arrive to this day. Unfortunately, a lot of people currently want to pull up the Welcome mat. There are understandable reasons why, but reinvention of countries and rejuvenation of countries is always triggered by human migrations. Another thing that history teaches us.
Right now the US is #1 in a lot of things, including GDP, and defense spending. We’re not #1 in some other areas, most notably healthcare. Those issues are fixable, but denial never fixes issues. On the other hand, dystopian fantasizing about the Global Conspiracies against the USA, and the identification of internal enemies, won’t address issues either. That mindset is exactly what led to the Second World War. History pointer number three.
People need to think about what the future of the country should be. We live in an interconnected world. Time does not run backwards. The past is indeed gone for ever. There is a reason why historians call The Golden Age a fallacy. It was never a Golden Age. As a species we have an uncanny ability to remember mostly good stuff and forget about bad stuff. It actually serves us well most of the time, but sometimes it doesn’t. There is good reason to beware anybody who promises to turn the clock back. That can never happen.
Decisions made in anger are usually poor decisions. Many of the voters expressing opinions this election cycle are voting negatively (the lesser of two evils approach). You wouldn’t pick a life partner on the basis of selecting the least horrible one. We shouldn’t be doing the same for voting preferences.
I also believe that arguments based on “left or right”, “liberal or conservative” are based on outdated fallacious binary language promulgated by the mass media, and everybody would do well to stop buying into those sorts of false dichotomies. Binary thinking is for computers, not societal and governance issues.
The political landscape in the USA is dangerous and toxic today. We have elected representatives and candidates quite seriously suggesting that opponents should be arrested and jailed, and in some cases executed. This is not the rhetoric of mature people operating in a representative democracy. This is seditious, third world bully-boy posturing. It needs to be called by those names, and the people engaging in that behavior need to be ejected from the process and told to not come back until they learn to behave a lot better.
We also have a lot of people arguing from memes and slogans. That’s not argument. It’s rote repetition of somebody else’s simplistic, often bullshit view of a complex issue. If you argue in memes and slogans, that’s somebody else’s voice, not yours. We also have a lot of people expressing views that are varying combinations of racist and/or anti-Semitic. Personally, I avoid those kinds of people. However, they are symptomatic of a deeper underlying dystopian worldview that many less fortunate people in the USA have acquired over time. I would need a doctoral thesis to adequately explain how that came about, but the move to the post-Industrial age in the USA, which has removed economic stability and growth from many areas, is one underlying cause.
Complex societal problems require complex strategies, not quick flashy band-aids. There is a lot of shouting in the USA, and little substantive debate. Many people have stopped listening this election cycle, and I have been dismayed to see intelligent people on my Facebook timeline abandoning all pretense of logical and critical thinking as they line up behind Their Guys. This sort of approach is not a good indicator for how the USA can address issues. Everybody needs to stop emoting and start thinking and listening.
Most of you made up your minds long ago. I have nothing to offer in the way of input on voting choices.
I also don’t have much to say about my likely voting choices, except that I lean Libertarian. However, I believe I know which of the two major party candidates for POTUS is better qualified and temperamentally suited to leading the USA, and it’s not a four-times bankrupt, narcissistic, bullshitting rabble-rouser and carnival barker from Queens. There are over 150 candidates for POTUS. Don’t tell me you don’t have choices. You simply need to be able to do some research.
Just VOTE. A high turnout cements the legitimacy of winners.

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Today’s round-up

1. Trump as propagandist
This philosopher explains that Donald Trump is engaging in alternate universe propaganda, which means that attempts to fact-check his statements are, to some extent, meaningless. Trump is defining his own alternate reality where America is a mess (to support his slogan “Make America Great Again”) so fact-checks are merely a pea-shooter attempt to impose reality on a narrative that is not rooted in reality.

2. A reminder of how media coverage got to where it is today
Jay Rosen reflects on media coverage of Donald Trump by connecting the dots back to media coverage of US politics and world affairs since 9/11.

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Hope, change and all that stuff

One of the juvenile put-downs that I have been reading from GOP partisans for close to 8 years is :how’s that hopey-changey thing working for YOU?”. This, of course, being a riff off of Barack Obama’s “Hope and CHange” tagline from his 2008 campaign.
Well, right now, every other damn commercial break, I see adverts for Donald Trump on TV. Hope and Change? Some of these adverts make that tagline look utterly, mundanely unambitious. Donald Trump is promising to fix Everything That Ails America (although as is usual with him, he is claiming to be planning to fix issues that I don’t think exist – at least not in the way that he and his supporters think).
“Make America Great Again”, for sheer ludicrous overreach, knocks “Hope and Change” out of the park. The promises associated with his ideas are expansive, incoherent, and seem to be mostly rooted in the Golden Age Fallacy. He is not going to resurrect the Appalachia coal industry for example. Those days are gone for ever, over a long time ago.
If Trump does win the election, I suspect that his supporters will be hearing one hell of a lot of comments like “How’s that Make America Great bullshit working for YOU?” in a year or so. Given that Trump has already demonstrated his utter cluelessness on so many topics, it won’t be long before fundamentals start to unravel. One of the skills of being a leader is knowing when to stay the hell away from something that isn’t broken. Trump’s behavior pathology, one of the aspects of which is that of an impulsive gambler, is a poor fit for that measured approach.

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Lester Piggott – expert jockey, iconoclast and poly person

This weekend is the 81st birthday of Lester Piggott, the retired (but still very much alive) former flat race jockey.
Piggott occupies the same space in the horse racing world in the UK that Bill Shoemaker occupied decades ago in American racing.
The two men came from very different backgrounds, and looked completely different. Piggott, born into a horse racing family in England, was uncommonly tall for a flat racing jockey at 5 foot 8 inches, and by all rights should have been a hurdles and steeplechase jockey instead (he did in fact ride occasionally over hurdles in the winter in the 1950s). He rode with a long rein, his tall body standing up on the hourse. Shoemaker, born prematurely in Fabens Texas, grew to be a perfectly proportioned miniature man at 4 feet 11 inches. He rode in the classic American jockey style with a much shorter rein, his hands way up the horse’s neck, almost welded to the animal. Shoemaker’s, drive and will to win matched that of Piggott, but Shoemaker would accumulate a much higher number of race winners (8,833 to Piggott’s 4,493), partly because he could ride at any weight, and partly because of the more intensive US racing schedule.
Piggott, from his late teens, had to diet ferociously to be able to ride at a reasonable weight, and his lined face would become a reminder of his daily struggle to be able to continue in his profession. If he had been born in the USA, he would probably have not had a long career, for riding weights in the USA are 4-5 pounds lower than in the UK and Europe. Steve Cauthen, realizing that his increasing weight would soon consign him to the ranks of retired jockeys in the USA, would move to Europe in 1979 and enjoy 12 more years of success, thanks partly to the weight difference.
This image of a group of UK and US jockeys shows the difference in stature between Piggott, the tallest jockey, in the checked silks, and Cauthen and the miniature dynamo Shoemaker, at the right end of the line.
Piggott’s riding history is abundantly documented. Something of a child prodigy, he first rode in the English Derby at age 12. At the age of 18, not long after winning his first English Derby on Never Say Die, he was banned from racing for 6 months, as his hyper-competitive nature collided head-on with the hammer of racing officialdom after a racing incident. He would have frequent collisions with stewards for much of the rest of his career.
Piggott was born with deafness in one ear and a speech impediment, which made him appear shy and diffident in public and almost monosyllabic with strangers, and it probably handicapped his ability to make his case after races when called in to explain his riding tactics. However, it probably insulated him from excessive public scrutiny throughout his life, and being the smart man that he is, he almost certainly worked out after a while how to use it to his advantage.
Throughout the 1950’s, Piggott consolidated his reputation as a fine, competitive rider. He seemed to be at his best in big races, where his competitive instincts kicked in. Before long he was one of a small number of flat race jockeys, along with Gordon Richards, and Scobie Breasley, who were household names.
However, within racing, jockeys were still paid and treated like indentured servants. Most of them rode for a primary trainer, for whom they were expected to ride work every day, sometimes multiple times, and the trainer expected them to ride their horses anywhere on command. Some top jockeys were paid a retainer by trainers, but even jockeys like Lester Piggott were not paid a lot of money as a retainer. Jockey riding fees were fixed, so Lester and other top jockeys could not demand extra money as a riding fee. Winning jockeys in big races could expect a “present” in the form of a one-time cash payment, again usually modest. Jockeys rode for trainers whose owners, in many cases, were multi-millionaires or even royalty, but the relationship was decidedly one-sided. Most jockeys made only modest amounts of money, as reward for working a lot of hours, with the ever-present risk of death of debilitating injury. Sooner or later, riding large animals traveling at 35+ miles per hour, jockeys fall and hit the ground at speed.
In the early 1960’s, Piggott served notice of his leading-edge nature and influence, when he began to ride with what were, at the time, incredibly short stirrup leathers, instead of the much longer leathers that were the norm at the time. This led to the famous Piggott crouch, his posterior way higher in the air than his head as he rode down to the starting gates. He also refined his compact, driving finish, much imitated but never equalled. The new style horrified many racing purists, but the race wins and championships continued to flow, and soon an entire generation of younger riders, taking note of the Long Fellow’s success, began to ride with shorter stirrup leathers.
By the mid-1960’s, Piggott’s new, distinctive riding style, coupled with his lined face, seemingly fixed somewhere between a frown and a scowl (his face was memorably described by a journalist as “looking like a well-kept grave”, and he became known occasionally by another nickname of “Old Stoneface”), made him an instantly recognizable figure in British sport.
Piggott has always been very astute at spotting up and coming trainers, and is also a fine judge of the abilities of young racehorses. He was the retained jockey to the Newmarket trainer Noel Murless for a long period of time until the middle of the 1960s. He rode all of the top animals in the Murless stable. However, Piggott was noticing that a former National hunt trainer, Vincent O’Brien, training out of Ballydoyle in Ireland, was beginning to become a powerhouse trainer of flat racehorses. O’Brien had courted American owners, who were sending some of their best-bred horses to him to train. Piggott became a beneficiary of this new trend in 1968, when he won the Derby on Sir Ivor, bred in the USA and trained by O’Brien. Piggott began to realize that being a retained jockey to one trainer, even one as prestigious as Noel Murless, was potentially limiting his ability to ride the best horses in big races. As a retained rider, he was contractually obligated to ride Murless horses in big races if instructed to, even if they were no-hopers.
So Piggott, once again operating as the iconoclast, told Murless that he wanted to go freelance. Murless attmpted to dissuade him, but Piggott forced the issue by simply refusing to accept a contract renewal. His decision was greeted with stony hostility by the UK racing authorities, who even held an enquiry, although it was far from clear exactly what Piggott had done wrong, other than to piss off a leading trainer. Once again, the former child prodigy was tweaking the nose of authority and bucking the system.
Thereafter, Piggott rode as a freelance for many years (although his relationship with Murless was fractured beyond repair, and Murless employed other top riders to replace him), and the era began of riders in England and Europe looking over their shoulders, as they wondered if Piggott was going to “jock them off” their prized ride in a big race. Piggott’s winning record in big races was second to none, he knew that many owners had the last word on who rode their horses, and he was unafraid to pick up the phone and lobby for the chance to ride a fancied horse. Once again, Lester was changing the game, converting the jockey from a passive order-taker into an entrepreneurial go-getter.
In addition to riding as a freelance, Piggott also began to ask for different rewards for winning big races. He began to move away from the “present” reward system, asking for other instruments of reward, such as shares in colts once they became stallions, and breeding rights slots for fillies when they became broodmares.
There was a strong economic rationale for this; Piggott was reaching his earnings peak at a time when income tax rates in the UK were confiscatory for high earners. At the time, the highest marginal rate of income tax was an astonishing 83%. Piggott realized that instead of accepting a one-off cash payment which would be heavily taxed, it made more sense to take an opportunity to earn money over time in the future.
Some leading showbusiness personalities and wealthy businessmen left the UK mainland to either live in offshore UK provinces or further afield in order to minimize their income tax bills. Piggott, based in the heart of the UK in Newmarket, and riding most of the time in the UK, could not physically relocate in the same way. Tax exile was not an option for him. His move to accept payments in kind and setting up investments that would reward him over time was therefore part of his own personal tax avoidance strategy. Piggott, like many top practitioners in many professions, was not content with just the public plaudits and prestige of his success. For him, money, over time, became his own private way of measuring success, a means of keeping score. He gained a reputation for being very careful with his money, which may have been unfair. He was however, adamant that jockeys deserved to be paid well, noting “when you add up all of the riding out, and the travel and the pressure, we put in a lot more hours and effort than the average chap”.
Piggott’s status and reputation kept growing through the 1960’s and 1970’s, as he won more jockey’s championships and Classic races. He forged a winning partnership with Vincent O’Brien, riding a string of big-race winners on his horses. His fame grew exponentially, with racing neophytes regularly betting on horses in big races whenever the name Piggott appeared alongside the name of the horse. His riding style was much-imitated, with most jockeys following his move to shorter stirrup leathers, and his freelance-based approach and creative demands for side payment began to be imitated by other top jockeys. He had, single-handedly, changed the relationship between horse owners, trainers and jockeys from one where the jockey was the indentured servant, sometimes almost an afterthought, to one where the jockey was a much more highly-rewarded, sometimes equal partner in a winning partnership. For the first time, top jockeys in the UK and Europe were being well-paid for a hard-working and somewhat risky profession. Retainers, from the lower tens of thousands of pounds, rose by an order of magnitude at the end of the 1970’s due to an influx of new wealthy owners, with rumours abounding that one or two top jockeys were on contracts paying them close to $1m a season before they had so much as sat on a horse. Piggott himself, who had started the freelancing trend, went back to being a retained jockey for Henry Cecil after a while, and, being Piggott, it is safe to assume that his retainer was one of the ones approaching telephone numbers, with a foreign area code…
Piggott, however, would overreach on his personal tax avoidance strategies and tactics. At some point, he began to conceal payments and rewards from the tax authorities, and eventually, after he had initially retired from riding and become a trainer, he was charged with tax evasion in the UK, found guilty and sentenced to 3 years in jail. The jail sentence led to him being stripped of his OBE, and is probably the single reason that he is not known today as Sir Lester Piggott. Released after one year on parole, he promptly decided to return to race riding and won on his first big-race ride on the horse Royal Academy, again trained by…Vincent O’Brien, at the age of 54. Eventually he retired again, and is now very much the elder statesman of UK racing, giving occasional interviews (his brush with the tax authorities is generally off-limits) and attending reward ceremonies, despite a brief heart scare in 2007, which, in typical Piggott fashion, he dismissed as nothing of any importance.
Privately, Piggott is a lot different to his public image; he is said to smile a lot, and has a ready, dry wit. (Asked once why he rode with his bottom in the air, he replied thusly). In a biography, he once said of the public image, “racing is a serious business, there is not a lot to smile about…but I do smile a lot at home”. He also has a lifetime love of fast cars and driving fast. He regularly used to accumulate speeding tickets and fines while he was an active rider, and at least one other jockey, Harry Carr, refused to travel to races with him after Piggott scared him witless. (Sadly, Bill Shoemaker, like Lester also a lover of fast cars, would crash a road car and wind up as a quadriplegic after his own retirement).
However, one less-noted area of Piggott’s life that makes him very interesting is that he is a polyamorous person. Married in 1961 to Susan Armstrong, the daughter of leading trainer Sam Armstrong, Piggott had a seemingly conventional married life for a long time, fathering two daughters, but then he formed a long-term relationship with another woman, which gave him his son Jamie. More recently, he has been living with Lady Barbara FitzGerald, who remains married to her husband, dividing his time between the UK and her home in Switzerland. He remains married to Susan, and all of his domestic changes appear to have been totally amicable, so my conclusion is that Piggott is polyamorous, which is another way that he appears to have broken with convention.
As as he celebrates his 81st birthday, let us raise a glass in toast to a great jockey, a trail-blazer and an all-round interesting person.

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Social media and poor behavior in election season

One of my better and also one of my more dangerous personality traits is that I have a long memory. Sometimes I wish I did not, but I can’t suddenly acquire amnesia, and knowing my luck, if I did, I would forget the good and/or important stuff and remember the useless or bad stuff.
I have an especially long memory for events where people amaze me (and not in a good way) or piss me off.
I tend to remember people who talk total nonsense in election season. It tends to make me a lot less interested in or respectful of their views and opinions going forward if they consistently show that they are uninterested in facts, and are prepared to sign on to umpteen cockanamie falsehoods and claims on the internet, as long as the cockanamie nonsense supports Their Guys.
I really really remember people who engage in tone trolling in lieu of discussions about substance. Calling me “arrogant” or “patronizing” may make the caller feel better, but I what I really hear is “I don’t have an argument/I feel it is more important to complain about style instead of discussing substance”. That does not incline me to respect them or their opinions.
I expect that many people on social media, once the election season is over, will stop being primo-grade pains in the ass, and revert to their normal activities like posting cute pictures of animals, recipes and discussing the weather and the price of fish.
Not me.
I treat politics seriously. A lot more seriously than some people do. Politics is a serious subject to be discussed and debated in an adult and respectful way in the world I live in. I will continue to write about it on my blog, and link to other platforms. And I will probably remember the people who behaved like blabbering juveniles in election season, and hide them or ignore them.

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