Digest: 22 April 2014
In The One Thing to Remember on Earth Day, Michael Brune (for Sierra Club) discusses the Sierra Club’s approach to environmental issues, specifically its view that it is necessary to not only point out the problems but also to point out solutions. Brune, the Executive Director of the Sierra Club, discusses how his optimism is fueled by the fact that there is much that can be done to establish safe, secure and sustainable energy production. He points out that the sun pours enough light onto the surface of the planet in 90 minutes to fuel the entire planet’s energy needs for a year. The US receives enough wind to fuel the US’s energy needs nine times over. It is just a matter of time before the technologies develop to fully harness these resources – already great strides have been made and renewable energy has become economically competitive far faster than expected. There is much more to do, both as regards protecting natural environments and as regards harnessing natural resources in a safe and sustainable manner. He appeals to the public on Earth Day to help in the process.
In The Oligarchy Fallacy, Jeffrey Frankel (for Project Syndicate) discusses the issue of inequality and argues that there are more useful ways of framing the problem than simply pointing to the oligarchic nature of the US system. Underlying the anti-oligarchic rhetoric are more pertinent graspable foundations: poverty and inequality are not desirable traits for a society to have. The US oligarchy problem will be usefully addressed by attending to the root cause, the fact that voters continue to elect politicians who continue to enact laws that undermine both growth and equality. Frankel argues for the expansion of the earned income tax credit, elimination of payroll taxes for low-income workers, a cut in deductions for high-income taxpayers, and restoration of higher inheritance taxes. Added to this he suggests the importance of pre-school education and of doing away with subsidies for oil, agriculture, and mortgage debt.
Editor’s consideration: Frankel seems to suggest that complaining about oligarchy is to look at the symptom, while not addressing the cause. Perhaps he argues too strongly to disregard the significance of the label ‘oligarchy’ for the US system. A recent study has found after a detailed analysis of policy data that the US more closely resembles an oligarchy than a democracy (see The US is an Oligarchy, Study Concludes below). With all of the talk in the US about democracy and the importance of spreading democracy abroad, the average citizen may not realize the extent to which the average voter lacks political influence. Certainly the labeling of symptoms is insufficient on its own, but labeling is often an important step in realizing the nature of a problem. Labels can be powerful triggering devices, and as the issue of inequality in the US has reached proportions not seen in almost a century, perhaps it is necessary to label the system for what it is, and then be in a better position to shift it towards what it ought to be.
In World Bank Wants Water Privatized, Despite Risks, Anna Lappé (for Al Jazeera America) argues that the problem with water privatization is that it puts public health at risk. Water, she points out, is life, and we are currently facing a global water crisis that is growing with the changing climate. This crisis consists not only of water shortages but also of access to clean water. Private companies may in some cases bring levels of efficiency that public bodies have a difficult time achieving, but in the case of access to water the World Bank’s own experience with privatization has been problematic and hardly gives rise to confidence. The provision of water requires a highly intensive level of infrastructure investment that the private sector is ill-equipped to manage. Privatization of water projects has led to underfunded infrastructure and unpredictable, often high prices. For such an important resource as water, this is simply not good enough, and should instead be understood as a public good and handled by public bodies for the benefit of the people those bodies represent.
In The US is an Oligarchy, Study Concludes, Zachary Davies Boren (for The Daily Telegraph) discusses a report by researchers at Princeton and Northwestern universities titled, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens”. The researchers looked at data on policies implemented by government and compared those policies to the stated preferences of average Americans, affluent Americans, and special interest groups. The report found that the policies executed by government only aligned with those of average Americans if their interests aligned with those of the economic elite or with powerful special interest groups. The implication is that the political reality in the US is not that of a democracy, where mass-based interest groups or the majorities of average citizens hold the significant political power. Instead it represents an oligarchy, in which powerful specific interest groups control or have the material influential effect on government implemented policy. Though the US has democratic traits, they do not seem to have effect where they conflict with elite interests.
In Fueling a New Order? The New Geopolitical and Security Consequences of Energy, Bruce Jones, David Steven and Emily O’Brien (for The Brookings Institution) provide their report on the power transformations taking place in the global energy sector. The US is well-positioned geopolitically as a result of its increased production of oil and natural gas. Other countries will not fare so well. It remains to be seen how the US will manage the leverage that its new power provides. The authors argue the US should use it to foster a more stable international order.
In Wield the Clemency Hammer, Mr. President, Daniel Denvir (for Al Jazeera America) discusses the problem of the US’s long-term incarceration of non-violent drug offenders. Denvir points out that Americans are the most incarcerated people on Earth with 2.4 million in jail. The bulk of this comes as a result of the misguided “War on Drugs”. As a result of “three-strikes” rules and mandatory minimum sentencing many non-violent offenders are serving life or other extended sentences. The US president has the power to commute prison sentences, and Denvir provides graphs demonstrating the number of commutation petitions received by presidents going back to Nixon, and the number of sentences commuted over the same period. Very few such petitions are successful. While past presidents have been known for pardoning political allies, they have been less known for pardoning people who are less well-connected. Denvir argues that right now, President Obama has the power to commute the sentences of offenders serving long sentences for non-violent drug related offenses, but while Obama has criticized excessive sentences he has done little to undo them.
In How the U.S. Made its Putin Problem Worse, David Rohde and Arshad Mohammed (for Reuters) discuss the background to the problem in Ukraine, how through a series of insensitive foreign policy blunders the US managed to repeatedly undermine and aggravate its relationship with Russia. In response Putin has, the authors argue, overreacted. They describe how in the years of the younger Bush presidency the relationship with Putin was not all that bad – he was helpful in the aftermath of the WTC attacks, including allowing US access to Russian airspace and airbases for purposes of flying humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. But then Bush announced that the US was withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and would be installing missile defense systems in Eastern Europe and allowing countries on Russia’s border to joint NATO, a western European and US military alliance that was the counterpoint to Soviet power during the Cold War. The US’s relationship with Putin has been going downhill ever since.