Digest: 29 October 2013



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In The White House on Spying, The Editorial Board of The New York Times discusses the inadequacy of the Obama Administration’s response to the spying scandal. While some may be satisfied with the consideration that everyone spies on everyone, that is not a sufficient response to the news that the NSA has been tapping Angela Merkel’s phone for ten years, nor for the fact that it was collecting information from more than a hundred million French and Germans over two 30-day periods. The scope of the government’s data collection efforts are unacceptable – they are the product of the Bush Administration’s notion that everyone is potentially the enemy. International spying should be employed against concrete threats to national security, not to society at large, and not to the heads of state of our closest allies. New legislation is being proposed that will end the NSA’s bulk collection of American’s communications data. This legislation will not affect spying on foreigners, but it and consistent policy shifts are long overdue.



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In The Dangers of Debt: Lending Weight, The Economist discusses the role of debt in the financial crisis, specifically how debt contributed to the crisis and how the crisis has contributed to its expansion.  While debt is an ancient and useful means of distributing capital where it is most needed, in the macro context of the crisis and in the micro context of individual finances, it has showed that its alter-ego is a dangerous instigator of ruin. The Economist considers debt’s role in government, company, and personal financial interrelations. It compares the different uses to which debt can be employed, and the differing effects of those usages on GDP. When the financial cycle peaks households and companies deleverage. While relieving immediate strain, the deleveraging can have negative effects on the overall economy when too much of it is done simultaneously.  The result of the process tends to be an increase in public debt and a focusing of wealth in the accounts of those least susceptible.



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In its Special Report on Biodiversity, The Economist discusses the role of human development in the decimation of biodiversity since the industrial revolution, and how economic growth and technological progress may provide the means to cease the damage, but only if that growth and progress can be both embraced and carefully regulated.  With the development of the capacity of humans to control their environment, from the creation of the spear to the development of factories, other species have suffered.  Our ascendancy was very often supported and sanctioned by the beliefs we held within the context of our religions. In recent decades however we have come to understand the massive damage we have done and policy is beginning to shift accordingly. We now increasingly realize that environmental health, including biodiversity, is of vital importance to our own wellbeing. While economic growth and technological progress have played important roles in developed countries’ ability to decrease their overall ecological footprint, they must be carefully regulated if they are to evolve in such a way as will protect rather than destroy the world we rely on.

In Europe Gone Wild, Manfred Dworschak (for Der Speigel) discusses growing interest in the establishment of wilderness zones in Europe. Tens of thousands of square miles of farmland in Europe are expected to be abandoned over the coming decades. That land, if not mown by farmers, will grow into woodland. While such a development would comport with some people’s ideas of wilderness, there is another option – to let large herbivores onto the land, along with predators, and let them graze without human interference. It is thought that by doing this, the landscapes in question will in time return to a state of increased biodiversity. The idea is catching on across the continent from The Netherlands to Spain to Germany to Croatia.

In Global Risks 2013, the World Economic Forum discusses global risks, particularly the threat that persistent economic weakness will undermine our ability to tackle environmental challenges. The report, based on a survey of over 1000 experts, filters the results into three major risk categories: economic and environmental resilience, digital threats in a hyper-connected world, and dangers regarding hubris with human health. The Report also highlights emerging concerns such as geoengineering and brain-altering technologies.



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In Why America Doesn’t Work, Mark Mardell (for BBC News) discusses the role that the US party system plays in Washington’s dysfunction. The US political system was specifically designed so that the minority may counteract the majority. These days the Republican Tea Party is in the spotlight for holding Washington hostage. In the UK, the Tea Party would have no control over the government, instead it would hold the position of a vocal minority in Parliament with no governing power. Currently in the UK the government is made up of a coalition of political parties, and this falls in line with what is typical in EU countries. But in such coalition governments compromises must be made beforehand, and only after those compromises have been made may the business of government be conducted – in other words you have to compromise before you get to sit at the table. The US system is currently doing precisely what it specifically allowed itself to do – and on that basis we should not be surprised, however the design of the system seems at the moment to be hastening its own downfall.

In Federal Data Transparency: Opportunities Remain to Incorporate Recovery Act Lessons Learned, the Government Accountability Office discusses lack of transparency issues in the spending of the $1 trillion the US government pays out each year on contracts, grants, and loans.  The report considers efforts underway to increase transparency and the extent to which such initiatives address lessons learned from the Recovery Act (such as the standardization of data so as to integrate systems and enhance accountability, the obtaining of stakeholder involvement to develop reporting requirements, and the delineation of clear requirements and lines of authority to enhance implementation). The GAO recommends the development of a long-term plan to implement comprehensive reform.

In Pesticides: EPA Should Take Steps to Improve Its Oversight of Conditional Registrations, the Government Accountability Office discusses the lack of oversight in the provision of conditional registration of pesticides in the US. When companies develop new pesticides they must submit data to the EPA regarding health and environmental effects. The EPA may then register the pesticide, or provide conditional registration – which allows the marketing of the product but requires that further documentation be provided later. Environmental groups have claimed that the EPA has provided too many conditional registrations and does not have a sufficient system in place to make sure that the required additional documentation is provided. Industry groups claim that it is important for products to get quickly to market. The GAO study found that the EPA does not have a sufficiently reliable system in place to monitor conditional registrations of pesticides and, as a result, many pesticides are on the market without having been properly tested for health and environmental repercussions.



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In Inequality: Growing Apart, The Economist discusses how rising inequality in the US is both politically dangerous and economically damaging.  While statistics in the US show a degree of stability returning to living standards, most of the actual growth has been limited to the richest segment of the population. This growing discrepancy of wealth is mirrored by a rising discrepancy in school test scores between rich and poor children – in other words, the affluent are building not only their wealth but also opportunity for their children. Meanwhile, the vast majority of people are quickly falling far behind. This is not a sustainable course – to remedy it, the wealth and opportunity discrepancy should be simultaneously addressed through reducing subsidies for the wealthy and through investment in early eduction.

In Denmark is Considered the Happiest Country. You’ll Never Guess Why, The Huffington Post discusses some of the factors that contribute to the Danish sense of well-being.  Six key factors have been identified by the World Happiness Report as contributing to a country’s happiness; these are a high GDP per capita, strong life expectancy, lack of corruption in leadership, a sense of social support, freedom to make life choices, and a culture of generosity. But even above other high-scoring countries, Denmark won out – certain factors placed it at the top of the list – it provides strong support for parents in the form of maternal and paternal leave, free or low-cost child care and education, health care as a civil right, the opportunity for regular and frequent preventative medical attention, high levels of gender equality, a lot of opportunity for cycling (50% of Copenhagen’s workers commute by bicycle), and a strong sense of collective responsibility.