Conspiracy theory has long been part of political life. Those who exercise power keep it so because of their secretiveness and self-service, such that citizens who value vigilance and even a degree of mistrust then amplify it. Some theories are way far-fetched.
Of course, sometimes the dots and patterns that support a conspiracy theory prove the charge. It’s like the Panama Papers saga and hospital deal in Malta. Each of the hundreds of claims made about them looks flimsy and unfounded, but together they weave a pattern of deceit and corruption. It took years until even the courts of law said so. On other occasions, the conspiracy theories are frivolous, though not necessarily less dangerous.
Today we are seeing something even more sinister – conspiracy without the theory. Its proponents ditch all evidence and explanation. We all remember Trump’s assertion: “The election is rigged!” The claim was totally devoid of any evidence of fraud. Or take Pizzagate – the charge that Hillary Clinton and the Democrtats are running a child sex-trafficking ring in a pizzeria in Washington, DC. It is sheer fabrication.
Elon Musk, who famously shot himself in the foot when he told big multinationals giving him millions in advertising revenue to fuck off if they didn’t like X, has now lent his name to Pizzagate. On X he reproduced a meme from the TV show The Office which included fake dialogue superimposed on images of a character arguing that “Pizzagate is real”.
The billionaire and world-leader-hopeful then reinforced the charge by linking the post to an Associated Press article published by NBC News about an ABC journalist pleading guilty to federal child pornography charges. Musk’s comments included expressions of shock at the charges. He wrote in one post, “any reporter who is this horrifically evil obviously cannot be trusted.” It is no small matter that NBC had never published any such news, nor was an ABC journalist ever charged in connection with Pizzagate – it was all fake.
Today, anyone can say anything to everyone in the world instantly and for free. There is no editor to check their claims and ask them to substantiate them. And because validation of conspiracy claims takes the form of repetition and assent, even the most casual “likes” and “retweets” give authority to senseless, destructive charges (“a lot of people are saying”).
I am again reminded of the conspiracy theory being circulated in Malta that “the foreigners are taking over”. All these foreigners are supposed to be mostly dark-faced people, Muslims, dirty, given to crime and rape, even intent on replacing the native Christian population. They are linked together to create a narrative that triggers fear and undermines the social fabric. Most of the claims are totally unfounded, though one cannot exclude there may be isolated instances of them.
As far as the political class is concerned, the same distortion is happening. One only has to follow the posts in the social media to realise that “all politicians are corrupt”, they all want to debase traditional Maltese values, they are all in it for their personal and family gains. This flies in the face of the reality that there are some decent and honest politicians, even though regrettably not enough of them.
The new conspiracism obliterates nuance and judgment and replaces it with a distorted unreality in which some things are wholly good and others (say, Hillary Clinton in Pizzagate or the foreigners in Malta) wholly evil. This is its appeal. People who feel insecure because the world and Malta have become so disorientating soon succumb to the idea that they, being good, have to fight against the supposed enemies, being evil.
If anyone wants to learn more about this phenomenon, I recommend a book by Nancy L. Rosenblum of Harvard University and Russell Muirhead of Dartmouth College. In A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy, they explain how conspiracism has become a powerful force, with the capacity to animate popular fury, to delegitimise political opposition, and to hijack government institutions.
When we burn fossil fuels, we release gases that create a greenhouse effect in the atmosphere, changing our planet’s climate. As a result, we experience changes to our climate (e.g. shifts in snow and rainfall patterns, rise in temperatures, and other extreme climate events such as heatwaves and floods). These climate- and weather-related events also have negative impacts on our health.
There’s still a long way to go in the fight against climate change and one could reasonably argue that, in the last few years, we have lost ground. However, some recent Eurostat statistics show a positive development in at least one aspect. In fact, over the last decade, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the EU economy per employed person decreased by 26%, or 3.6 tonnes. In 2021, the emissions stood at 13.7 tonnes per employed person, compared with 17.3 in 2012.
According to Eurostat, two factors contributed to this: a decrease in GHG emissions as well as an increase in employment. The emissions per employed person showed a continuous decline until 2020. However, in 2021 there was an increase of 0.4 tonnes compared with the Covid-19-affected 2020. Nevertheless, GHG emissions per employed person in 2021 were still 6% lower than in the pre-pandemic year 2019.
Looking at the country data for 2021, the highest emissions per employed person were recorded in Ireland (22.8 tonnes per employed person), Poland, and Denmark (both 21.4). In contrast, Malta (7.5 tonnes per employed person), Sweden (7.9) and Portugal (9.7) recorded the lowest values. Malta’s figure was down by 57% from 17.4 tonnes in 2011.
The EU has a set target for 2030 of a 55% net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. It appears that Malta’s switch from heavy diesel oil to gas in 2017 has contributed in a big way to Malta’s ability to meet the EU target. The same cannot be said for emissions from transport which remain problematical due to the heavy use of private vehicles.
Pricey baby milk
The boss of the supermarket chain Iceland in the UK has hit out at “exploitation” of new parents and joined calls for a price cap on baby formula after the competition watchdog found evidence of greedflation by leading manufacturers.
The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) revealed manufacturers had increased prices by more than their costs during the inflation crisis, fattening profit margins and imposing an average 25% increase on shoppers in two years. It warned competition could be hampered because the market is dominated by two companies, Danone and Nestlé, which between them account for 85% of sales.
Richard Walker, the executive chair of Iceland, said: “This is exploitation. We need this to stop immediately. There is a cost of living crisis. Some people cannot afford to feed their babies. This is a real issue with real consequences and we need to do something about it. It’s crazy and I don’t know how some people can afford it. It’s a myth to say people should rely on breast milk, which many can’t do.”
Walker said the government should convene a roundtable of brands and retailers and agree price controls. “It seems an obvious thing to do,” he said. The First Steps Nutrition Trust also called for a price cap alongside other measures including a public health campaign that would highlight the nutritional equivalence of all first infant formula – the contents of which is strictly regulated no matter the price or brand.
My own desktop research shows that an 800g pack in Malta currently costs an average €17 – that is 21.4% higher than in the UK, though I am not aware whether that is an increase over the price range, say, a year ago. That means that a baby’s milk supply in Malta costs €9.50 per week more than in the UK. If the situation is “crazy” in the UK, then what is it in Malta? This reminds me of MEP Alex Agius Muscat’s request to the European Commission to investigate certain abuses in Malta.
So, I think it is quite legitimate to ask whether our Competition Authority is taking a long baby’s nap. Some forms of action could include lifting the limits on advertising infant formula. I realise that this had been done many years ago to protect consumers, but isn’t it time to revisit that? Why should businesses be able to advertise vapes or chocolate but not formula milk? The Government should also consider getting around the table with major importers and using moral suasion (if not bang heads) to bring prices down.
A long shot
I have a great deal of respect for the former central banker and ex-Italian prime minister Mario Draghi. But a recent appeal to the European Union to unite and “become a state” made me wonder whether he is living in the real world.
Draghi, the economist famous for the ‘whatever it takes’ approach, who governed Italy during the pandemic, says he is ‘worried’ about the critical moment Europe is going through. “Today, the growth model has dissolved, and we need to reinvent a way of growing, but to do this, we need to become a State,” he said.
Draghi argued that only a union would enable the EU to overcome the difficulties linked to fragmented EU regulations in every sector, which slow down the EU’s operation, particularly in response to emergencies. He called the EU “too small”, adding that the small companies that are born in Europe sell or go to the United States as soon as they grow.
Is Draghi the only one who is unaware that there is no appetite for a further breaking down of the nation-state in Europe? With the rise of the far-right in many countries, the idea of a real political union where individual nations lose the sovereignty, however limited, that they have is a long shot indeed.
When Germany’s finance minister Christian Lindner addressed the Davos World Economic Forum, heshrugged off suggestions his country had once again become the sick man of Europe. “It’s just a little tired and in need of a “cup of coffee”, he said.
Long the engine of growth in Europe, Germany’s economy had the weakest performance last year, with a drop of 0.3%. Some analysts are forecasting zero growth in 2024. Lindner shrugged it all off and said that said Germany was “at the beginning of an era of new structural reforms”, though he did not provide details.
Germany’s Federal Statistical Office attributed the drop in gross domestic product to “multiple crises”, including historically elevated levels of inflation, high interest rates, and weak domestic and foreign demand for German goods.
In comparison, Malta’s GDP grew by 4.0% in 2023 and is projected to rise by 4.2% this year. So, our Finance Minister, Clyde Caruana, could go to Davos and justifiably tell the gathering that Malta does not drink coffee but prefers a cup of Viagra!
Main photo: Times of Malta