Digest: 7 April 2013


Money predicts policy in US democracy, the preferences of the lower and middle classes do not predict instituted policy except to the extent they align with upper class preferences; the US economic recovery is far more fragile than it seems, unsustainable policy decisions are leading the US down a very dangerous road; innovation is not reliant on freedom, rather it is reliant on wealth, and China’s innovative potential will soon be apparent and will surpass the US; Obama appoints new senior environment officials; the history of the New Deal and related literature discussed; the US should take a pragmatic view on the legalisation and taxation of marijuana;  the repercussions of US policy on the use of Drones for assassination will be dire; division in US politics, if not fixed, will take the US down the same path it so avidly abhors, that of the EU; new teacher evaluation systems, after millions of dollars of investment, show suspiciously rosy results; efforts to institute more sensible health policy stymied by sugar drinks lobby; new computer models are increasing our understanding of collective behaviour.


In The Political Clout of Superrich, Chrystia Freeland (for Reuters) discusses a report, by the progressive research organisation Demos, which demonstrates a distortion of political power in the US. Comparing the results of political action and the preferences of various segments of the population shows that the preferences of the economic top 10% predict the course of political change.  The preferences of the poor and middle class are represented in political results to the extent they are aligned with the preferences of the top 10%.  The result is a weakening of the US democratic system, and decreased social mobility.

Meanwhile, in a scathing article for The New York Times called, The Corruption of Capitalism in America, David Stockman, a former Republican congressman and budget director for Ronald Reagan, sheds light on the fragile (or dangerous) state of the economy despite gains made since the 2007 crisis.  Rather than feel confident about the gains that have been made, he argues that the real financial crisis, created through unsustainable policy decisions, has yet to happen.

Taking the messages of the above two articles together, the reader may consider whose interests are being served by current and recent policy, and further consider what will be the result of a continuation of such policies.

On another related front, consider America the Innovative, by Eamonn Fingleton (for The New York Times).  Fingleton examines the potential for future US economic growth – specifically the United States’ potential for continued dominance in the area of productive innovation.  Fingleton questions the extent of US dominance in the area of innovation particularly in regards to the relationship between the concept of freedom and innovation.  Fingleton points out that innovation may be more closely related to wealth than to freedom and makes reference to the innovative abilities of civilisations in the past that produced high levels of innovation despite the absence of freedom as we know it today in free-market, democratic western societies.  In this construct the question he poses is whether China, where R&D investment is expected to surpass that of the US by 2023, will also surpass the US in innovative ability.  He highlights several factors that argue that this will be the case.


In Green Steps, The Economist briefly discusses President Obama’s early March appointments for the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Gina McCarthy, and for the position of Secretary of Energy, Ernest Moniz.  These appointments will be important in implementing Obama’s environmental policy as discussed in his most recent State of the Union address.


In How the Deal Went Down: Saving Democracy in the Depression, Louis Menand (for The New Yorker) reviews Ira Katznelson’s book “Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time”.  The article discusses Katznelson’s view of the history of the New Deal, including that pre-existing histories inflate or misrepresent Roosevelt’s role, the North/South split in the Democratic Party over the policies to be instituted, and the powerful, interventionist central government that ultimately contributed to the end of the Southern way of life.

In Marijuana Legislation: Tax, and Tax Again, The Economist discusses developments in marijuana-related legislation in Colorado, specifically the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act, and Federal and international responses to those developments.  While the Governor of Colorado remains a legalisation sceptic, he recognises the need for pragmatism.  As The Economist states, “With luck, his attitude may prove infectious.”

In The Trouble with Drones, Carla Anne Robbins (for Bloomberg Businessweek) discusses the use of drones by the Obama Administration in its international fight against terrorism.  While the increasingly widespread employment of drones is an understandable and in some ways attractive response to the problem of combatting terrorists, it is a highly controversial method with so far underdeveloped boundaries and limited accountability.  Drones are employed not only for surveillance, but also as a method of assassination that avoids the risk of the loss of troops in hostile territory.  The apparent lack of risk is misleading, in addition to the civilian deaths that have occurred as collateral damage, drones create enormous animosity in the jurisdictions that present a current and likely future threat to the US.  The current lack of accountability, transparency, and governance related to the use of drones needs to be addressed. Furthermore, while the use of drones for assassination by the Obama Administration might be considered acceptable by those who trust his judgement, the precedent set by his use has the potential to be employed by later administrations (or by other countries) as justification for far more questionable employment of the same practice.

In When Not in Rome, The Economist warns that unless US politicians work to shore up mutual dislike and distrust between their constituents, they will find itself travelling down precisely the same path they abhor, that of Europe.  While the EU lacks cohesion in the form of a shared social contract, the US must avoid the dismantling of its own, as without this social contract division in the US will undermine the possibility for positive stability, growth, and the wellbeing of the country as a whole.  As The Economist states, “Mutual dislike is the dirty secret that best explains European paralysis.  American politicians have no business stoking it in their far more ambitious union.”


In Curious Grade for Teachers: Nearly All Pass, Jenny Anderson (for The New York Times) discusses the early results of newly instituted teacher evaluation systems.  These results are conspicuous for their rosiness, and undermine confidence in the objectivity of the tests.  On the positive front, although a suspiciously low percentage of teachers have received an “ineffective” rating, those that have will be in danger of losing their jobs, and this increases the chance that students will receive on the whole a better education.  But after millions of dollars of investment in the new system, and taking into account the generally poor results of US students as against those of other international jurisdictions, the question remains whether the approach itself has been satisfactory.

In Health Policy: Let’s Move Slowly, The Economist in discussing efforts to bring about changes to unhealthy consumption patterns in the US, focuses on NY Mayor Bloomberg’s efforts to limit the size of soda containers and the legal backlash he has received from the American Beverage Association, which represents Coca-Cola and other soda companies.  The article addresses the question of what segment of society is best positioned to act on healthy consumption issues.  Congress is unable to act quickly, cities and states may be more successful, but unless the influence of unhealthy industry can be curbed, political action will be slow if even possible.

In How the Science of Swarms Can Help Us Fight Cancer and Predict the Future, Ed Yong (for Wired) discusses scientists’ efforts to understand, through the use of computer models, the fundamentals of collective behaviour whether in birds, molds, people, fish, insects, bacteria, etc.  Until recently the ability to understand swarms was limited by the inability to adequately observe individual action and collective action simultaneously.  Computers allow the collection of vast quantities of data for purposes of analysis and have opened up our ability to comprehend not only how swarms work, but what they can accomplish through abilities generated as a result of swarm behaviour.  Now efforts are being made to replicate swarm behaviour in robots.