Digest: 21 January 2014




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In Disaster Centennial, Klaus Wiegrefe (for Der Spiegel) discusses the First World War on the occasion of the centenary of its beginning. He argues that the Great War has lessons that are still relevant today, and leads the reader through a history of how it developed, how it played out, and what its repercussions were.



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In Oxfam: 85 Richest People As Wealthy as Poorest Half of the World, Graeme Wearden (for The Guardian) discusses Oxfam’s report that the richest 85 people in the world hold assets equalling in value the combined wealth of the poorest half of the world’s people.  This statistic, taken into account alongside another, that the richest 1% holds assets equal to 65 times the wealth of the poorest half of the world sheds further light on the same point made by Paul Krugman in his article summarized below – that to dilute the discussion to the richest 5 or 20 percent is to avoid the most notable aspect of contemporary wealth discrepancy. The Oxfam report also considers how this wealth is employed so as to lock in further opportunities and further wealth, to the point that the benefits of any market growth go increasingly to this tiny segment of the world’s population.



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In World’s Biggest Solar Plant May Pave Way for Smaller-Scale Renewable Future, Lenny Bernstein (for The Guardian) discusses the current state of development of solar power production in the US. Focusing on the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in the California desert, which uses hundreds of thousands of mirrors to reflect light to generate heat in a tower to form steam, the article describes how various projects are making use of wide open spaces in the west made available by the Federal government. Despite financial incentives, there is much further to go before solar will catch up to natural gas or coal energy which each contribute more than 30% of US energy needs. Further, although these projects reflect efforts to move energy production in a more sustainable direction and away from fossil fuels, they have raised the ire of environmentalists for their impact on their natural environments, particularly local animal populations.  However, Ivanpah’s annual water use is equivalent to that of just two holes of a nearby golf course – no doubt for this and other similar reasons, the Sierra Club, unlike some other environmental groups, has chosen not to kick up a fuss about the threats to natural local animal habitats.

In Al Gore Says Use of Geo-Engineering to Head Off Climate Disaster is Insane, Suzanne Goldenberg (for The Guardian) discusses Al Gore’s highly critical views of geo-engineering as a response to climate change.  Geo-engineering solutions, he argues, reflect the desperation of perhaps otherwise sensible scientists to the failure of political systems to deliver on the serious threats we face from fiddling with the climate. Attempting to fiddle in such a way as will perfectly counter-balance the mess we have already made is incredibly misguided, and incredibly dangerous.


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In Probing America, Der Spiegel discusses the possibility of an investigation being launched by the German Federal Prosecutor Harald Range into breaches of German law by the US in spying on Chancellor Merkel and on German citizens.  Calls in Germany for a tougher response to the NSA’s activities have been growing, particularly as the US has failed to alleviate concerns regarding protection of privacy and the upholding of the rule of law where privacy is concerned. Any investigation would further upset relations between the two countries – for the US it would be embarrassing if nothing else, for the Germans it would very likely result in diminished sharing of US intelligence.  Chancellor Merkel does not generally take on battles she can’t win, but she also has little hope of improvements in her relations with the US, she has been repeatedly disappointed with President Obama almost since the beginning of their relationship – despite being presented with the Medal of Freedom by President Obama, her phone was still tapped, and the problem doesn’t seem to be going away – Obama’s assurance that the US will no longer spy on close friends and allies without a compelling national interest leaves open a lot of room for interpretation.

In Wikileaks Reveals Obama Administration’s Role in Stifling Haitian Minimum Wage, Rod Bastanmehr (for AlterNet) discusses how when Haiti passed a law raising its minimum wage to 61 cents an hour, the US stepped in to prevent it. Companies like Hanes and Levis complained that raising the minimum wage would irreparably undercut their profits. This resulted in the US Ambassador pressuring the Haitian President to keep the minimum wage at 31 cents an hour in the textile industry. Bastamehr points out that raising the minimum wage by $2 per day would have cost Hanes $1.6 million per year, compared with their $4.3 billion in sales last year alone.


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In Obama’s NSA Speech Reflects American Apathy, Anthony Zurcher for (BBC News) discusses Obama’s proposed NSA reforms, specifically that they change little and that Americans, on balance, don’t care. This suits Obama well, it seems, as he would have preferred to continue unchallenged. Zurcher describes views from both sides of the discussion – some don’t believe there is any problem with the NSA’s activities, others are hesitant to question a President from their own party. Europeans show a greater concern regarding the NSA’s spying than Americans. Perhaps this is based on a greater skepticism of using the war on terror and Islamic extremism as bases for establishing total surveillance. One way or another, Americans are showing a distinct lack of concern regarding their own privacy, let alone that of people in other countries, but avoiding consideration of the costs of the NSA’s activities is probably not a good idea.

In Why We Talk About the 1%, Paul Krugman (for New York Times) briefly discusses how we should be careful to not dilute our consideration of the wealth gap by focusing on the top 5 or 20 percent. As he points out, politely avoiding singling out the top 1 percent risks muddying the issue. The problem is not the top 5 or 20 percent – the upper middle class – it is the top 1%, and even more so the top .1%.  As discussed in the Oxfam report referred to above, the global top 1% holds assets 65 times greater in value than the entire bottom 50% combined.  Honing in even further, the 85 richest people in the world hold assets equal to that held by that same 50%. The bottom 4% of the top 5% has seen good income gains with what economic growth we’ve seen – it is the top 1% that has reaped the major rewards.

In Surveillance and Scandal, Alfred W. McCoy (for Nation of Change) discusses at length the privacy risks posed by the US surveillance apparatus by looking at the cyclic history of US surveillance going back to the early 20th century.  Over the last 100 years there have been several growths of surveillance activities which  then prove to be abused, and than have to be cut back by succeeding administrations in light of public outrage. The most recent growth came after 9/11 during Bush’s presidency.  Much of that policy, founded on the stoking of fear at a sensitive time, was so offensive that President Obama was elected into office for a bit of change. But instead of rolling it back, Obama has expanded it. McCoy sees a trend in the most recent growth of surveillance. The US no longer has a sufficient share of global production to maintain the sort of army it maintained through the Cold War. Rising internal costs and external competition have pressured the US to find a more cost effective way of maintaining global control. The Stasi required one officer for every six citizens to keep an effective dossier on the entire population.  The NSA can keep more complete dossiers on practically the entire globe with just one operative for every 200,000 people. McCoy’s narrative runs through the history of US surveillance practices, including those employed against German Americans during WWI, the FBI’s use of wiretapping to develop bases by which to scandalize political opponents between the 1920s and 1940s, and the harassing of civil rights leaders and Vietnam War protestors in the 1960s. To suppose that current abilities have not or will not be abused merely suggests credulity.