Digest: 18 August 2013

Abstract

A history of sugar consumption beginning millions of years ago in Africa, later passing from New Guinea across the Indian subcontinent to the Islamic world, and then through the Caribbean slave trade, to obesity and diabetes in the US today. –  Walmart can be taken as a thermometer of American consumption and its failure to meet sales targets suggests a weakness in the US economy. — Walmart’s success is fading, the stores are a mess, the business model isn’t translating internationally or into urban areas. — Amazon’s food delivery service is representative of Amazon as a distribution company, not merely an online retailer of specific product categories. – President Obama’s handling of Hilary Clinton has had the suggestive effect of placing her as the next US president, it is strange that he should allow himself to seem to give his blessing to one who would seem to so many a return to represent what he was brought in to put an end to. — The drone program has major unappreciated costs, it has caused significant civilian casualties, considerable harm outside of death or injury, has failed to make the US safer, and has set dangerous precedents regarding the rule of international law. — A set of standards are being implemented in US schools that focus on critical thinking and analysis rather than memorization and formulas, these standards have been controversial due to the fact that early results have been deplorable.

Highlight

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In Sugar, Rich Cohen (for National Geographic) discusses the history of the consumption of sugar from our origins as apes millions of years ago in Africa, to the passage of sugar cane from New Guinea across the Indian subcontinent to the Islamic world, to the slave-based cane production in the Caribbean.  We are now realizing that we are consuming far more sugar than our bodies can handle – indeed in the quantities we consume sugar is a poisonous substance; but it is addictive, sparking the same pleasure centers of the brain as heroin and cocaine.  The result is a range of ailments such as diabetes and obesity.  Sugar pervades our consumption – whereas in 1700 the average Englishman consumed about 4 pounds of added sugar a year, the average American consumes 77 pounds a year.  Thankfully, some elementary schools are replacing soda machines with vegetable gardens.

Economic

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In Walmart Earnings Disaster Exposes a Collapsing Economy, Jeff Macke (for Yahoo! Finance) discusses Walmart as thermometer of American consumption – its failure to meet sales targets suggests a weakness in the US economy.  Target also missed expectations, and Macy’s is expected to do so too.  Howard Davidowitz, an expert on retail markets, believes there is a 50% chance the US will be in recession next year, and this is a problem because there is nothing the government will be able to do about it – “We’ve spent all the money, we’ve borrowed all the money, and we’re in the tank.”

In 3 Signs Walmart’s Best Days Are Behind It, Jeff Macke (for Yahoo! Finance) discusses Walmart’s rise, the reasons for its initial success, and the evidence that Walmart’s success is fading.  First, the stores are a mess – they are large and require a large amount of organizational upkeep which they are not getting as a result of cost-cutting. Second, the Walmart business model isn’t translating internationally which is hindering the possibility of Walmart growing into new markets. Finally, not everyone loves Walmart – its negative reputation in some sectors is preventing it from scaling down so as to enter urban areas.

In Amazon’s Secret Plan to Sell You Everything, Jeff Macke (for Yahoo! Finance) discusses Amazon’s food delivery service as representative of Amazon as a distribution company, not merely as an online retailer of specific product categories. Since beginning with books Amazon has gradually expanded into different product categories, recently including groceries in New York. Amazon is achieving what Walmart achieved – a distribution network that allows it to provide a wide range of goods for lower cost than the companies it replaces.  Amazon has the most highly automated warehouses in the world and is able to deliver goods on a same-day basis just about anywhere.

Editor’s Consideration: Taking the above three articles into account, in Walmart Earnings Disaster Davidowitz is quoted as describing Walmart as a “terrific operator”, but Walmart’s Best Days Are Behind It would seem to discredit that opinion.  Amazon meanwhile, which might also be described as a thermometer of American consumption, seems to be doing very well – growing as Walmart did in its heyday.  So the question becomes, is Davidowitz correct that Walmart’s situation can be taken as evidence of an overall collapse of the US economy? Or is the economy fundamentally shifting?  If it is shifting, then in what way? Walmart took business from local Mom and Pop stores as described in Walmart’s Best Days Are Behind It, just as Barnes & Noble took business from local bookstores – Amazon has already done massive damage to Barnes & Noble, is it now doing the same to Walmart? If so, what exactly is the shift that is taking place?  On one front the shift is towards efficiency – it is unnecessary to go to the shops for anything when it can be delivered to one’s door within 24 hrs. What will be the social repercussion of that economic development? Is there something that is lost when people no longer inevitably congregate at the local bakery or market place, or no longer take time to browse in a bookstore? To what extent is human contact necessary or desirable for the development of empathetic consideration in people? What will be the accumulated evolutionary result for a population that increasingly connects socially and economically (and, on another front, in warfare) through computer devices? If the above developments can be called a “shift” rather than a “collapse”, then it must be considered that all shifts entail collapse of the old for the new – a collapse of Walmart stores in favor of something better may not be something to cry over, but what about the longer term shift from local community stores to a situation in which one never needs to leave one’s computer screen?

Political

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In Madam President, Maureen Dowd (for The New York Times) discusses how President Obama’s apparently careless handling of Hillary Clinton has had the suggestive effect of placing her as the next US president. Considering President Obama achieved the presidency on the basis of a hope of change, it is strange that he should either give, or allow himself to seem to give, his blessing to a potential president who would be seen by so many not as a transformational event, but as a third Clinton term in the White House. Editor’s Consideration: Leading into 2012, the White House had seen 24 straight years of Bushes or Clintons in the White House (counting Hillary Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State). Were Hillary Clinton to be elected to the Presidency in 2016, and were she to then be elected to a second term, it would mean that for 36 straight years Clintons and Bushes would have been in the White House (with the sole exception of 2012-2016 in which we may assume Hillary Clinton will be running for the office of President).  Those who enter the White House do so along with their support – those who receive influential positions as a result of their closeness with the President-elect.  Will the electorate be comfortable with establishing such dynasties of political control in a time in which wealth disparity and social mobility reflect more a 19th Century aristocracy than the social principles we normally like to associate with the United States?

In their study, Living Under Drones: Death, Injury and Trauma to Civilians from US Drone Practices in Pakistan, the International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic of Stanford Law School and the Global Justice Clinic at NYU School of Law discuss how US policy regarding the use of drones needs to be reassessed.  The report finds that contrary to what is publicly presented by its supporters, the drone program has serious costs including that there is evidence of significant civilian casualties, there is considerable harm done to the daily lives of civilians outside of death or injury, the use of drones does not necessarily make the US safer when taking collateral damage into account, the use of drones has set dangerous precedents and has undermined the integrity of the rule of international law.  The report provides recommendations including a suggestion that the program be fundamentally reevaluated.

Social

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In School Standards’ Debut is Rocky, and Critics Pounce, Motoko Rich (for The New York Times) discusses Common Core, a set of K-12 school standards being implemented in the US that focus on critical thinking and analysis rather than memorization and formulas.  These standards have been controversial in some sectors due to the fact that early results have been deplorable – in New York State, for example, less than a third of students passed. While some may take these early results to be evidence for the importance of reform, others on whom the results reflect poorly are concerned. Editor’s Consideration: To the extent that contemporary economic and social development are evolving quickly, would a focus on more fundamental skills such as critical thinking and analysis allow for more flexibility in later application? Also, considering the fundamental importance of critical thinking and analysis, should not the fact of poor results on a test that exposes weaknesses in those be embraced as highly valuable as a pointed demonstration of something that needs to be improved?