Digest: 4 February 2014

 

 

Highlight

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In The Next New Deal, Neil Howe and Phillip Longman (for The Atlantic) call for a next “new deal” twenty two years ago in 1992.  The arguments raised by Howe and Longman, that our entitlement and tax systems actually benefit the rich rather than the poor, are much the same as those being increasingly raised in the current socio-economic environment. As a result they give some valuable context to current issues – the problems they describe were not solved and have instead increased dramatically.  The authors discuss the problems in 1992 with the health care system, with medicare, pensions for government employees, and social security. They describe how despite the costs of entitlements growing into a “trillion-dollar river”, the policy employed was to ignore it while relying on economic growth to outpace it. This was a gamble and we are increasingly seeing the negative results of it for the vast majority of the population – an incredibly problematic national socio-economic structure hemorrhaging lifeblood into the mouths of the few – that’s not really the idyllic picture of a free-market democracy that we like to export, but that is the reality we have to accept if we are to fix what has been apparent now for decades.

Economic

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In Mining Tar Sands Produces Much More Air Pollution Than We Thought, Joseph Stromberg (for Smithsonian Magazine) discusses some newfound risks arising from the extraction of oil from tar sands. A new study of Western Canada’s Athbasca oil sands region has shown that the emission of poly cyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (which cause tumors and reproductive problems in animal experiments) is 100-1000 times greater at the extraction site than previously thought.  Previous estimates had measured only the  expected emissions from the oil extraction process itself, but these did not correspond with actual measurements taken from the air at the scene. The study has determined that when emissions from wastewater is taken into account the discrepancy is accounted for.

Environmental 

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In Ending the World the Human Way, Tom Englehardt (for Tom’s Dispatch) discusses the difficulty of keeping climate change in the news when it isn’t news as we ordinarily know it. Climate change isn’t like other news – the sort that comes and goes – rather it is the thing that potentially makes all other news irrelevant. News, generally, rides the ripples that come and go hour after hour, it responds to and reinforces short time horizons. The major repercussions of climate change by contrast will take place in the future, not necessarily even (relatively speaking) to current generations. Continued denial will end in disaster, but until we can break the profit-based energy consumption paradigm we will have to face that disaster.  

Political

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In State of the Union Leaves Obama’s Environmental Policy in a Haze, Peter Moskowitz (for Al Jazeera America) discusses the speech’s lack of specific environmental goals and policies.   In the past Obama has discusses such goals and initiatives in speeches, but in the State of the Union his comments were limited to energy independence, to upholding his “all of the above” approach, and to drilling for natural gas. There are some causes for concern, the ongoing question of the Keystone Pipeline, and environmental worries related to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Some are saying that it is good that the President should mention climate change at all, but that is a pretty low bar to set.

In Snowden Revelations of NSA Spying on Copenhagen Climate Talks Sparks Anger, (for The Guardian) discusses the effect of spying on mutual trust in an area of negotiation where trust and cooperation are vital to success.  The climate talks did not reach a successful conclusion, and “were marked by subterfuge, passion and chaos.” Treating the talks as if they were merely an empty competition of interests fails to take account of what is at stake.  Perhaps the US deemed the risk to good will of spying to be less than the risk of navigating the climate negotiations without knowing the other players’ confidential positions, but as one commentator said, “Would you play poker with someone who can see your cards?”

In Strategic Survey 2013: The Annual Review of World Affairs – Prospectives, the International Institute for Strategic Studies discusses the breakdown of the possibility for strategic design in the last year.  With a series of problems that have proved insoluble for various structural and dynamic reasons, it has become clear that grand development strategies, and related long-term planning, will be impossible. Responses to problems are increasingly ad hoc, and this is a problem because some of the issues we face will require larger, more coordinated designs.

In Obama’s Free-Trade Conundrum, David E. Bonior (for The New York Times) discusses the incompatibility of Obama’s push for agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and his stated intention to fight economic inequality.  Bonior argues that to understand what the effects of the TPP will be it is necessary to look at the effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which the TPP resembles in some key respects. These effects include a ballooning trade deficit, the shifting of jobs overseas, and a decline in manufacturing wages in the US. Additionally, the promise that lower wages will be made for with cheaper goods apparently doesn’t bear out.

Social

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In We Are a Cosmic Accident, Maria Popova (for Brain Pickings) discusses Alan Lightman’s book The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew.  The book considers whether dark energy might help to answer the question of why we exist. It proposes that the universe we know is actually part of a multiverse system in which each individual universe holds different values of dark energy. Ours just happens to hold the values required to allow life as we know it to take form.

In Tom Perkins and the Guilt of the Gilded, Katrina vandan Heuvel (for The Washington Post) discusses the worrying and embarrassing situation of billionaires. Mega-rich attendees were greeted at Davos with an Oxfam report pointing out that the 85 richest people in the world held as much wealth as the lower 50% of the entire world’s population combined. They are perhaps right to be nervous, as Vandan Heuvel points out, while Obama might place the blame at impersonal doorsteps it is possible for more specificity to be accomplished, and this is beginning to take place – plutocrats should recognize the issue for what it is and work to fix it before they get run over by it.

In Catalyzing Development Revisited, Homi Kharas (for the Brookings Institution) discusses the vital role that aid plays in developing countries.  While the provision of aid can be complicated and problematic, it is damaging to discount it too far. Kharas argues that for the value of aid to be determined it is necessary to look at the difference it makes to the lives of the poor – it may not be useful in and of itself, but it as a catalyzer of development it is not only useful but necessary.