Digest: 1 October 2013
In N.S.A. Gathers Data on Social Connections of U.S. Citizens, James Risen and Laura Poitras (for The New York Times) discusses how the NSA uses the information it collects to create large scale networking maps of US citizens. Based on a 1979 Supreme Court ruling that found that Americans may not expect their privacy rights to extend to the numbers they have called, the Justice Department may create analyses of telephone metadata without seeking warrants from the Foreign Surveillance Court. The NSA is in the process of collecting vast volumes of information and developing the computer systems necessary to cross-analyse that information, bringing into play “material from public, commercial and other sources, including bank codes, insurance information, Facebook profiles, passenger manifests, voter registration rolls, and GPS location information, as well as property records and unspecified tax data”. The NSA is allowed to collect and keep such raw data for as long as fifteen years.
Editor’s Consideration: This disclosure, a result of Edward Snowden’s release of classified documents, sheds further light on the usefulness of this large-scale collection of information for intelligence purposes. With access to such wide-ranging information, the NSA is able to effectively map networks of individuals and organisations with information on their public and private interests and activities. Further, by developing the technology to effectively digest this information the NSA is able to effectively overcome the “too-much-information” problem, in one respect at least. While the usefulness of the information for the NSA’s interests is obvious, the disclosure highlights what some may consider to be the most worrying aspect of the NSA’s activities – namely, not what the information has so far been used for, but what the ability to collect and digest such information might be used for in the future. Arguments have been made that those who are not in contact with terrorist cells abroad have nothing to worry about, but this disclosure places that argument in question as being incomplete in its scope of consideration. Evidently the NSA is not only collecting information on foreign terrorist interests, but has also been collecting vast quantities of data on US citizens, has been doing so (in certain respects) without the oversight of the FISA Court, and thus is in the process of compiling a web of interaction networks that already vastly exceeds in scope and detail what the Stasi compiled on the citizens of the former East Germany. Questions US citizens may do well to consider are: What are the potential repercussions of this concentration of information by the government? Whom within government, as a matter of potential, has or will have access to the information both now and in the future? While we may decide we would trust the current government with this information, are we able to say that we would trust any potential future government with such access? Are we comfortable with the idea the information may be tapped on behalf of corrupt interests within the government, now or in the future? Those who diminish the significance of the NSA’s activities might do well to employ their imagination, or to consult the historical record, in the process of reconsidering the extent of the seriousness of the potential consequences, in the social, governmental, and economic spheres, of the NSA’s current activities.
In Financial Armageddon is Building in the Shadows, And You Bear the Risk, Ellen Brown (for AlterNet) discusses how increased regulation and low interest rates are causing lending to shift from the regulated commercial banking system into the unregulated shadow banking system. The “shadow banking” sector is unregulated and is thought to have a value of about $60 trillion. Recent amendments to the US bankruptcy code that were pushed through by the banking lobby allow repurchase agreements and derivatives, products employed by shadow banks, to have priority over other claims (such as those held by bondholders) in the bankruptcy context. This creates an incentive for banks to invest in these products, with their liquidation priority acting as insurance for their investment. But while this mechanism allows the possibility for larger banks to loot smaller banks in the event of financial trouble, it also means that they will have priority over those who hold bonds issued by those banks, such as taxpayers who have in interest in bond-holding entities like the Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank, and various taxpayer funded bail out funds.
In A Pause, Not An End, to Warming, Richard A. Muller (for The New York Times) discusses how in 2004 he predicted in an MIT Technology Review article in 2004 that global warming could temporarily slow as a result of natural fluctuations, but that this would not mean that global warming was not taking place overall. He argues that the hockey stick graph often used to represent global warming was oversimplified and thus was misleading as to the reality of temperature change over time. He recommends a graph that looks more like a staircase, with a step pattern. Right now warming seems to have slowed, but that is only because we are in a phase during which natural fluctuations are offsetting the greenhouse gas factors that give rise to the overall warming trend. We can expect the warming to continue again once we move out of this micro phase.
In The Larry Summers Flop: More Proof Obama is Getting Bad Economic Advice, Heidi Moore (for The Guardian) discusses how President Obama overstates the success of his economic policy over the last five years. She details in what ways the White House has systematically failed to achieve what it should have achieved to help the US economy. Larry Summers’ candidacy for Federal Reserve Chairman was representative of this failure. To not have seen that the candidacy would fail, the President was perhaps following too closely the advice of “trusted” finance advisors, many of whose policies fed into the problems that brought about the financial crisis they are now trying to fix.
In Empty F-16 Jet Tested by Boeing and US Air Force, Leo Kelion (for BBC News) discusses how Boeing and the USAF have now flight-tested an unmanned F-16 jet fighter and how the next step will be to employ it in live fire exercises. Initial thoughts for the use of unmanned fighter planes are as training tools – they can be employed in dog-fight scenarios providing pilots with adversaries they can fire on. Unmanned fighter jets have an advantage over manned jets in that they are able to manage G-forces that would cause physical problems for pilots. But this development is seen by critics as a further worrying step in the development of drone warfare.
In Conservatives Who Love to Brag About American Exceptionalism Must Come Here to California, Bill Maher (for The Huffington Post) discusses – in his particular way – how California is successfully accomplishing everything conservatives hate, and how by its sheer size and success it will force conservative US to follow. California is surging ahead on its own in a variety of directions including immigration, high speed rail, abortion, gun control, medical marijuana, raising taxes, gay marriage, technological innovation, and healthcare. With a population of 40 million, and as the 15th largest economy in the world and the 5th largest exporter of agricultural products, conservative US will have little choice but to follow suit – if it doesn’t it will become irrelevant.
In How Technology is Killing Eye Contact, Carolyn Gregoire (for The Huffington Post) discusses how the diminishing eye contact we have as a result of increased use of technology has actual repercussions for our ability to emotionally interrelate. The article discusses this use of technology, particularly our use of it in the context of situations that would formerly have involved uninterrupted contact with those around us. Now we check our mobile phones as many as 150 times per day, often during conversations or meals with others. We are tied to these devices, which means that we are able to remain in contact with the outside world, whether news, work, entertainment, or texting, to an unprecedented extent, but there is a cost. Human contact through computer devices does not provide the same strength of bonding that eye contact provides. This has repercussions for families, in the context of eye contact between a child and a parent for example. But it will also have repercussions in the workplace – if we have not experienced and exercised our ability for emotional connection, then empathetic sensitivity may become increasingly distant as a factor in our various daily considerations.
In Early Childhood Achievement Gaps and Social Mobility, Richard V. Reeves (for The Brookings Institution) in a three part article discusses evidence showing how gaps in ability in both cognitive and non-cognitive skills take their root at the pre-Kindergarten stage of childhood, and how a major factor in the development of these gaps has to do with income. Test scores show that higher income correlates with higher cognitive test scores and lower income correlates with lower income regardless of the age of the child tested. Currently the strongest efforts to make a difference are taking place at the pre-K level, but the results have been disappointing. Further efforts need to be directed towards improving the home environments of disadvantaged children.
In RIP, the Middle Class: 1946-2013, Edward McClelland (for AlterNet) discusses the rise and fall of the middle class over the last sixty years. He points out that the wealth the US enjoyed over that period was less the result of capitalism than it was the result of a windfall the US received as the only country left after the Second World War with its industry intact. The high point of this wealth was felt through the 1950s and 60s, but that still in the 1970s the blue-collar middle class was able to get solid paying jobs that provided them with enough income to join the consumer movement of the time – even factory workers could buy Corvettes and motorboats. This demographically-wide boom began to come apart during the Carter administration and has been taken to pieces by every Administration and Congress ever since. Although it is easy to think of the post-New Deal time as the norm to which some might like to return, that period – the period of the middle class – was something of an aberration in human history. Throughout history and around the world societies normally have stratified into, fundamentally, an aristocracy supported by a peasantry. Now we are returning to that norm. The aberration was not the inevitable result of a free-market, it was the result of wide-ranging concerted government action in response to the failure of the free-market and the experience of the Great Depression. Likewise, the failure to maintain the aberration is also the result of government action, or inaction, in the face of market influence. If the middle class is to survive, if the aberration is to be maintained and if the US is not to return to the stratified norm, then it is the government and the socio-economic structure that it creates through the influence of its laws, that must act to ensure it.