Digest: 8 October 2013

Highlight

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In When Wealth Disappears, Stephen D. King, chief economist at HSBC and author of “When the Money Runs Out: The End of Western Affluence (for The New York Times) discusses the underpinnings of Western affluence and how the non-ongoing nature of those underpinnings signal the end of Western affluence. Policymakers in the West have assumed that growth would continue and have set policy accordingly, but the forecasts have proved to be overly optimistic. Five developments in particular allowed the economic growth that the West has enjoyed, these include the unleashing of global trade, financial innovation in the form of consumer credit, social safety nets that allowed people to spend more and save less, reduced discrimination allowing women to enter the workforce, and improved quality of education. These factors allowed massive growth, but the result triggered an assumption that the growth could continue forever. This assumption was wrong, but policy makers have been unable to accept the reality, because it is too bleak to digest.

 

Economic

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In Who Pays? A Distributional Analysis of the Tax Systems in All Fifty States, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy provides a comprehensive report on comparative taxation in the United States and how that taxation effects different economic strata of the population. The Report’s main finding is that the tax systems in almost all states are fundamentally unfair in that they place a disproportionate burden on middle and lower income brackets, while placing a lower burden on the wealthy.  The Report considers different types of taxation including taxation based on income, consumption, and property.

 

Environmental 

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In Ikea to Sell Solar Panels in UK Stores, The Guardian reports on Ikea’s decision to sell solar panels in all of their UK stores by the end of next summer. Ikea sees a market for solar panels in the UK where the government subsidizes their use, and where growth of the market is in the region of 25%. Ikea assists customers by including consultation, installation and maintenance, with the sale.  It is thought that purchasers of these panels will break even after approximately seven years. The move is consistent with Ikea’s own interest in sourcing 70% of its energy needs from wind and solar by 2020.

In Has the U.N. Climate Panel Now Outlived Its Usefulness?, Fred Pearce (for Yale Environment 360) discusses the conflicts inherent in the production of IPCC Reports between science and politics. As a result of both past mistakes and political sensitivity, the 2013 Report is thought by some to be overly conservative, to not adequately represent some of the greatest threats we face as a result of human activity and its affects on the climate.  While the Report highlights even greater certainty that climate change is happening as a result of human activity, its need to provide consensus positions for policymakers has meant that some issues are considered by some to have become distorted. These issues include a reduction in predicted warming as a result of not taking into account certain feedbacks that could accelerate warming, failure to take adequate account of collapsing ice sheets on land, and the potential result of increasing quantities of methane being released into the atmosphere. The need to provide consensus is causing the Report to be overly conservative in its assertions and this will have an effect on policymakers’ ability to make what may be difficult but necessary decisions.

In Climate Change: Strategies of Denial, Jeffrey Mazo (for the International Institute for Strategic Studies) discusses how our failure to have intelligent discourse on climate change is undermining our ability to respond to it.  He points out that one of the main failures is a myopic one, it results from a common inability to see beyond the short-term so as to see patterns and trends.  This results in the possibility for people to see major weather events as merely one-off events, unrelated to larger changes in climate patterns.  While this failure remains, it is difficult to establish traction where making necessary major policy changes are concerned.

 

Political

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In The Manning Verdict: Obama’s Defining Injustice, Hans Hoyng (for Der Spiegel) argues that Bradley Manning’s punishment as a result of the invocation of the Espionage Act, represents political despotism on the part of the Obama Administration. Hoyng argues that Manning should be pardoned – he merely highlighted unwelcome truths about government action. Indeed, he argues, if former President Nixon, and Iran-Contra conspirators Weinberger and MacFarlane could be pardoned, surely Manning should also be.  The verdict undermines US credibility in the world and if he is not pardoned then his prosecution will forever mar Obama’s legacy – it will reinforce a precedent that places protection of egregious government behavior in an unwarranted place above protection of whistleblowers, and as a matter of principle that is just about the opposite of what the US government was founded to do.

 

Social

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In Rich People Just Care Less, Daniel Goleman (for The New York Times) discusses recent research that demonstrates how those with the most social power pay the least attention to those without such power and this has significant repercussions for public policy. The attention paid by people to those of other classes operates on a sliding scale – the poor, as a matter of survival, generally have keen interpersonal skills, but the wealthy relatively speaking do not. Interpersonal skills benefit from interpersonal contact and interpersonal reliance. The ability to overlook others helps to undermine compassionate action in the political sphere, particularly where the political sphere is heavily dominated by wealthy individuals who lack exposure to those of a lower economic strata.

In Can We Slash Poverty and Starvation by 2015?, John McArthur (for The Brookings Institution) discusses the upcoming 2015 deadline for the Millennium Development Goals and what that means for policymakers in charge of implementing those goals. The MDGs have particular significance in light of having been set by the then-largest gathering of world leaders ever. The statistics resulting from the passing of the deadline will be poured over and studied, but they may not be the most important aspect of the effort. MDG efforts main significance may be as an instigator of future action, and that alone should provide incentive for achieving as much as possible between now and 2015.

In For Better Social Skills, Scientists Recommend a Little Chekhov, Pam Belluck (for The New York Times) discusses a recent study that has found that reading literary fiction improves empathic ability in readers. The finding seems to result from the emotional nuance and complexity to be found in the characters and interpersonal situations involved in high-quality fiction, aspects which require or at least instigate readers to employ their imagination. The same results do not show from reading popular-fiction, or from reading non-fiction.  While such effects have long been supposed, the new study shows a direct causal link between reading literary fiction and the ability to comprehend and understand the experience of others. This finding has the potential to influence educational policy and common core standards in school curriculums.