Digest: 15 October 2013

Highlight

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In The Snowden Files: Why the British Public Should be Worried about GCHQ, John Lancaster (for The Guardian) looks at and provides a novelist’s view of the Snowden Papers. It was the Guardian that telephoned Lancaster with the idea that he look at the GCHQ (the UK’s version of the NSA) papers, not for purposes of making news, but rather so as to gather the perspective of a writer simply interested in the way we live. Lancaster gives a long and illuminating account of the points that stood out for him. While in general GCHQ does the job expected of it, there is another side that is particularly disturbing – specifically, the general direction of the intelligence gathering interest evident in the documents.  He sees us, as a society, at a pivotal fork in our developmental road – the UK government has already gained unprecedented access to domestic and foreign personal information, but there has been very little dissent to counter that development. Quite the contrary has been the case, the UK has proved to be a particularly permissive environment for intelligence gathering. With society in the UK on the cusp of a fundamental shift towards a security state, surely people should be paying more attention.

 

Economic

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In Five Years in Limbo, Joseph Stiglitz (for Project Syndicate) discusses how we should not be satisfied with merely avoiding another depression. Prosperity has not returned and many of the issues that created the crisis have not been effectively dealt with. For many people in the US and Europe the recession remains very much a current reality. In the financial markets, some tightening has been accomplished, but many exploitative practices remain. But the mortgage market remains on life support, and concentration in the form of too-big-to-fail has increased. The costs of the crisis far outweigh the gains that have been made since – there is much still to be done before we will be in a position to congratulate ourselves.

 

Environmental 

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In Expanding the Grid: A Vision for Fueling Europe on Renewables, Christoph Pauly (for Der Spiegel) discusses European Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger’s efforts to expand the provision of renewable energy in Europe. He now has funding, and is seeking EU Council and Parliamentary backing, to pursue as many as 200 infrastructure projects that he sees as necessary to the EU’s future energy needs. The funds are intended to finance and subsidize as much as 75% of investment in the projects. The projects are meeting with opposition however from some property owners and conservationists.

In The New Climate Economics, Felipe Calderon and Nicholas Stern (for Project Syndicate) argue that with the latest IPCC Report it is time policymakers and economist stopped arguing about the existence of climate change and got to work figuring out what to do about it.  While serious debates are necessary and will take time to resolve, many projects are already showing the path forward.  These projects are being executed by both nations and businesses, they can and should be learned from and emulated.

 

Political

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In Business Groups See Loss of Sway Over House GOP, Eric Lipton, Nicholas Confessor, and Nelson D. Schwarz (for The New York Times) discuss how shifts in the Republican Party are affecting the ability of business interests to support the Party. Business interests are finding themselves increasingly at odds with the policies pursued by the far right Tea Party congressmen in the House. The stalemate that such Congressmen have forced in national politics is now being seen as a threat to business.  The problem was partly created by the business interests that pursued redistricting after the 2010 elections – it seems now they may have produced a new problem in addressing the old.

In Defense of World Government, Nancy Birdsall (for Project Syndicate) discusses how global institutions, particularly global government are not popular with everyone. But we should not be so quick to discard them, they can potentially offer something we need that is not sufficiently coming from other sources of power.  International organisations can provide opportunities for governance and international cooperation that are difficult to achieve otherwise and which simultaneously are in their own citizens’ interests. While a world government might not be attractive, the idea of it can provide insight into what we can do to avoid the need to create one.

 

Social

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In Data Discrimination Means the Poor May Experience a Different Internet, David Talbot (for MIT Technology Review) discusses Microsoft principle researcher Kate Crawford’s proposal for a system of due process to be applied to the use of data sets as a means of discrimination. Health data, along with other personal information derived from private sources such as Facebook can be used to create personal profiles which can result in denial of health care or a job. A system should be created by which people can be apprised of what information factored into any such decision. Disclosure and cross-examination rights are enshrined elsewhere in our legal system, Crawford argues we should be employing something similar with regard to the use of our personal information.

In Are Americans Dumb? No, It’s the Inequality Stupid, Sadhbh Walshe (for AlterNet) discusses the results of the recent OECD two year study of adults for skills in literacy, basic math, and technology, in which US adults scored badly in all three categories.  The scores on the tests correspond with the income levels of the test-takers and Walshe posits that out that inequality and rising poverty levels may have something to do with it. While the obvious solution is to respond by investing heavily in school programs, the opposite is happening – one victim of recent federal budget cuts has been school funding.

In The Best, Brightest, and Least Productive?, Robert J. Schiller (for Project Syndicate) discusses the high percentages of those from top universities who go into finance. These students are some of our best and brightest, and while there is much that finance offers society, ultimately it is an unproductive field. Unlike other businesses which directly design or create new products or technologies, much of the finance world is mainly engaged in trading and speculation.  While this source of funding is partly what allows the development of new products and technologies, it also produces costs.

In The Plot Against Pensions, David Sirota (for Nation of Change) discusses the threat to pensions in the context of state budgetary shortfalls. He argues that reports of future shortfalls fail to take account of the business subsidies that states pay out, such as through allowing corporations to take advantage of legal loopholes that allow off-shore tax-avoidance. If states tightened up their other expenditures they would not need to renege on their obligations to those with pensions, who relied on the expectation of those pensions in their employment and other financial decisions over many years.