Digest: 14 July 2013

Abstract

Global warming arctic ice is melting and freeing up vast areas of sea and land rich in natural resources for exploitation. —  Recent employment results are actually entirely insufficient, and will not improve until something severe happens to force change. – Germany has instigated significant growth in solar power usage, as contrasted with the highly damaging and ongoing focus on the use of oil-based energy elsewhere. — Few fiscal issues are as grave as underfunded state and municipal pension schemes, indeed, the funding gap is estimated to be $4 trillion. — On climate change, President Obama is employing executive orders to skirt Congress in the implementation of climate action plans, but some of the methods employed in these plans are inefficient. – Drones are breeding worrying levels of resentment in precisely the locales where anti-US feeling should ideally be diminished rather than exacerbated. — The increased possibility for later misuse of eavesdropping programs is a current harm, even if no citizen’s civil liberties have been as yet directly infringed upon. – Publication of state secrets related to NSA eavesdropping has benefitted public debate around the world, by triggered the asking of questions and the unearthing of information.

Highlight

In Genes Are Us. And Them, Carl Zimmer (for National Geographic) discusses how all animals, plants and fungi share an ancestor that lived about 1.6 billion years ago.  For examples, we humans share 25% of our genes with rice and 90% of our genes with chimpanzees – all other living organisms fall somewhere along this spectrum of similarity, as demonstrated in the interactive info-graphic included with the article.  It is now clear we have much to learn about our own human biology and diseases from studying the genome of other species – a fact which at least speaks to the importance of conserving as wide a biodiversity as possible.

Economics

In The Coming Arctic Boom, Scott G. Borgerson (for Foreign Affairs) discusses how with global warming arctic ice is melting and freeing up vast areas of sea and land, rich in natural resources, for exploitation.  Thankfully, after a somewhat rocky start, those nations that have a territorial interest have so far been behaving, politically, particularly well over this boom in the making, a boom which has the potential to easily cause disputes.  One thing is for sure, economic exploitation of the arctic region will take place – the question is how will it be done.  An opportunity presents itself here for a thoughtful, sustainable approach – and this is the approach that should certainly be pursued at this early stage.  If we do not learn from past failures, and simply bring the region to ruin through unconsidered exploitation, we will surely have failed to live up to our own potential for intelligent endeavor, and that would be a shame.

In Defining Prosperity Down, Paul Krugman (for The New York Times) discusses that while recent employment results might be argued by some to be promising, they are actually entirely insufficient, and will not improve until something severe happens to force change.  The question is what will bring us back to full employment.  Krugman discusses how we can not count on fiscal policy to do so, and nor can we necessarily rely on the private sector to do so when it is undermined by the detrimental affect of policy decisions.  An important such policy position is that potentially maintained by the Fed under pressure from monetary hawks who push for tighter money (deflation) and higher interest rates.  The monetary hawks position is economically flawed as support for employment growth.  All that is left is the demand of the voting populace – but this is unlikely to be mustered when taking into account the historical reality of the relationship between economics and elections.  The last time a similar situation existed it took World War II to fix it.

In Household Debt, The Economist presents an info-graphic demonstrating the level of household debt as a percentage of disposable income in OECD countries.  The caption describes how between pre-boom 2000 and pre-crisis 2007, this ratio rose by an average of 30 points in these countries to 130%.

In Germany Sets Record for Solar Power Use: Shows Uselessness of Petro-Dollar, Christina Sarich (for Nation of Change) discusses the significant growth of solar power usage in Germany, and contrasts this considered approach with the highly damaging and ongoing focus on the use of oil-based energy elsewhere.  The article highlights the externalised costs of the use of widespread use of oil-based energy and argues that the German experience demonstrates how through strong government policies and incentives the use of solar power can be increasingly widespread, and in fact should already be widespread.

In State Pensions in America: Ruinous Promises, The Economist discusses the pressures US States are under in the context of pensions.  The article points out that few fiscal issues are as grave as underfunded state and municipal pension schemes – indeed, the funding gap is estimated to be $4 trillion.  The pensions in question were granted on overly optimistic economic forecasts – forecasts made during what has since proved to be a massive economic bubble.  If the cost of these pensions is calculated with a more realistic expectation of future investment returns, the picture becomes very worrying indeed – taxpayers will be called upon to fund the liabilities, and unless there is a strong positive shift in markets before that time, that won’t be an easy burden to meet.

Environmental

In Tepid, Timid, The Economist discusses US approaches to cutting carbon emissions.  Because Congress has not acted President Obama is employing executive orders that allow him to skirt Congress, but some of the methods employed, such as retrofitting carbon capture and storage devices, are inefficient. Large polluter countries should apply a stiff carbon tax instead.

In Climate Change: While Congress Sleeps, The Economist discusses various measures being employed in President Obama’s climate scheme.  These include limiting the amount of carbon dioxide produced in powerplants, strengthening fuel economy standards for vehicles, guaranteeing loans for deployment of certain technologies, constructing wind farms and solar arrays, setting energy-efficiency standards for buildings, curbing leaks of natural gas, managing forests, and phasing out HFCs.  However, the possibility remains that the measures will be reversed in court, or discarded by a future administration before they can make any difference.

Political

In Why Drones Fail, Audrey Kurth Cronin (for Foreign Affairs) discusses the problematic side of the US use of drones in combatting terrorism.  Although drones have proved highly effective means of decapitating terrorist networks, and while this method has certainly seemed to be useful in decreasing violence levels in particular areas, it is failing in another sense – it is breeding worrying levels of resentment in precisely the locales where anti-US feeling should be diminished rather than exacerbated.

In Snoops Scoops, Hendrik Hertzberg (for The New Yorker) discusses what we should and what should not worry about NSA eavesdropping activities.  He points out that reports have surfaced over the years going back to the 1990s, so this is not new news.  Also, so far as we know, he points out, we do not know of any example in which a citizen’s civil liberties have been infringed upon – in the sense that neither their freedom of speech, nor their expressions or associations, has been in infringed upon in any identifiable way.  However, that is not the only harm that can be done.  One harm is the increase in the possibility of future State-perpetrated wrong-doing.  In sum, we don’t know enough.

Social

In The Snowden Effect: Definition and Examples, Jay Rosen (for PressThink) discusses the various ways that Edward Snowden’s publication of state secrets related to NSA eavesdropping has benefitted public debate around the world.  By shedding light on the extent of NSA spying activities, he triggered the asking of questions and the unearthing of information on a variety of related fronts related to the sharing of sensitive information.  Rosen provides links to numerous articles of interest related to the topic.

In The One Percent Want Your Kidney: Tales of Redistribution, Dean Baker (for Nation of Change) discusses the irony of a recent comment by the economist Greg Mankiw that described progressive taxation as like forcefully removing a person’s kidney.  Baker describes various ways by which the government maintains the ability for the rich to get richer, including the subsidisation cost of the “too big to fail” policy, reported to be in the region of $83 billion per year. He points out that the more apt organ removal analogy would be applied to the way in which such policies have undermined and then drained the wealth of tens of millions of others.