Digest: 14 January 2014

 

 

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In When Einstein Met Tagore, Maria Popova (for Brain Pickings) discusses the meeting between Albert Einstein and Rabindrinath Tagore, and provides an excerpt from their conversation. Einstein questions Tagore on whether he believes in the Divine as isolated from the world. Tagore discusses his view that the two are not isolated, that the truth of the universe is a human truth; Einstein counters with his view that truth exists independent of the human experience. It is a parcel of conversation between two of the greatest 20th century thinkers on the fundamental relationship between the universe and human existence.

 

Environmental

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In Universe to Measured to 1% Accuracy, James Morgan (for BBC News) discusses advancements in our ability to measure distance between galaxies in the universe. The Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey using the Sloan Foundation telescope in New Mexico has mapped the cosmos to 1% accuracy, a new gold standard for accuracy in such measurements. Being able to measure distance is important because it helps in finding the solutions to other problems. The results also allow an increased understanding of the curvature of space – early results suggest that space is infinite and eternal.

 

Political

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 In What happened to Transparency?, The Editorial Board of the New York Times discusses how the Obama administration has not lived up to its promises of transparency in government.  In the latest instance the Justice Department has successfully fought to keep secret the legal authority for the FBI to collect Americans’ phone and financial records without a court order or subpoena. The Editorial Board argues that it is important for the public to know the legal justification behind key government policies, and that the current maintenance of secrecy is reminiscent of that employed by the previous administration.

 In The Unruled World: The Case for Good Enough Global Governance, Stewart Patrick (for Foreign Affairs) discusses the break down of the post war multilateral governance system and the rise of a decentralized informal networks of good-enough governance in its place.  In the post-war period, the UN dominated the structure of global governance worldwide but the UN has lost credibility as a result of a crisis of legitimacy, effectiveness and compliance. Major activity has in the absence of UN action come largely from smaller groups of governments working together. In addition, smaller more manageable projects are replacing difficult to agree on large projects.  The lack of governance is a particular problem for the management of the global commons including rights to exploitation of the sea, the arctic, space, and cyberspace, and for handling the speed of technological development such as drones, biotechnology, and geoengineering.  Development is outpacing governance systems but while current decentralized structures are messy and inelegant, they may be the best we can hope for, and so we might as well embrace them.

In Abolish the Corporate Income Tax, Laurence J. Kotlikoff (for The New York Times) argues that one of the best things that could happen for US workers would be the abolition of the corporate income tax.  Kotlikoff and his colleagues have designed a computer simulation that models how the US economy would respond to changes in the corporate income tax in relation to other nations’ economies. The model shows that enormous economic and welfare gains would result from fully eliminating the corporate income tax and replacing it with somewhat higher personal income tax rates.

In NSA, Benghazi and the Monsters of Our Own Creation, (for Nation of Change) discusses the NSA, the intelligence failure of Benghazi, and the US funding of fighters who then turn against the US.  For all of the diplomatic and social costs of US intelligence gathering, the benefits do not seem to match. Too often the allies we make in the course of pursuing our foreign policy have come back to haunt us. Those with access to secret information end up controlling foreign policy, and not necessarily in the way we would ideally choose – allowing such a secret apparatus to develop without public debate has injured the US’s standing.

In Financial Regulators’ Fine Mess, (for Project Syndicate) discusses the recent settlement between the US Dept of Justice and JPMorgan. The settlement of $13 billion seems large, but when considered against the total balance sheet of the bank it becomes clear that it was not intended to hurt – it will be paid mostly by JPMorgan shareholders and more than half of it will be tax-deductible. Perhaps the most worrying aspect of it though is the fact of the settlement itself which came after a personal phone call from Jamie Dimon to the Attorney General. Others being prosecuted for fraud do not have the option of having the lawsuit against them dismissed as a result of a personal communication to the prosecution’s most senior attorney.

Social

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In How Can We Escape the Curse of Economic Exploitation, Noam Chomsky (for AlterNet) discusses the goals of western democracy, the shortcomings of democracy, and the political philosophy of libertarian socialism.   John Stuart Mill argued the essential importance of human development was its richest diversity, and this sense of the importance of the development of personal freedom resurfaced with Rudolf Rocker in the 20th century.  But the capitalistic system in place prevents such development. Democracy in the US has been shown to resemble more closely a plutocracy in which liberty and security in their fullest sense are enjoyed only by the elite. The question of to what extent the US democracy should be democratic goes back to its beginnings, James Madison for example was nervous that democracy would undermine the power of those with property, and thought that democracy should thus be limited. Aristotle by contrast, seeing the same problem many years before argued instead for a maintenance of democracy with a lessening of inequality to release the pressure.

In Defending What’s Mine: A Critique of ‘Prepper’ Philosophy, Jeriah Bowser (for The Hamptons Institute) discusses his experience with teaching survival skills.  The majority of survival students think that in the event of a catastrophic societal failure it will be every man for himself, and as a result preppers across the US are loading up on supplies and firearms and propose to shoot on sight any who would attempt to take what’s theirs. From a survival specialist’s standpoint this is not the wise approach. Coordination between people, understanding and working with the strengths of others in communities is what will allow survival, not hunkering down in bunkers with guns.