Digest: 9 September 2014




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In Foreign Powers Buy Influence at Think Tanks, Eric Lipton, Brooke Williams and Nicholas Confessore (for The New York Times) discuss how foreign powers buy influence in Washington through contributions to US think tanks. Unlike traditional lobbyists, think tanks are often assumed to give a [relatively] objective, non-partisan viewpoint – on that basis they can be particularly useful to policymakers. However, a New York Times investigation has uncovered that while think tanks do not have to register as lobbyists, they wield influence, and often successfully advocate for policy aligned with the interests of their donors.  The relationships between the think tanks and the donors seems to place at risk the intellectual freedom of researchers, and may be in violation of federal law. 


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In The Age of Rentier Capitalism, Guy Standing (for Al Jazeera America) discusses how intellectual property laws contribute to inequality. Intellectual property, like other manifestations of ownership, is a source of rental income. Standing describes how intellectual property has developed as a source of rental income through the spread of trademarks, trade secrets, copyright and patents.  The income derived from such ownership is in addition to that derived from other forms of rental income such as government subsidies, tax breaks, tax credits, and personal debt. Standing proposes establishing sovereign capital funds and distribution systems to counter the imbalance in the current system.


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In Greenhouse Gas Levels Rising at Fastest Rate Since 1984, Matt McGrath (for BBC News) discusses the findings of the World Meteorological Organization’s annual Greenhouse Gas Bulletin. The Bulletin shows that the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increased last year at the fastest rate in 30 years. Ocean acidification is taking place at a rate not seen in the last 300 million years. The findings have been published shortly before a meeting of world leaders to discuss the establishment of a new climate change agreement. Questions remain as to the extent any such agreement will be binding on its signatories.

In Growing Threat to American Birds, Says Report, Jane O’Brien (for BBC News) discusses the findings of the State of the Birds report, which shows that many US birds are at risk of extinction. The report is the most comprehensive review of US birds ever undertaken. It shows that almost half of shoreline species are endangered or close to endangered. Even many birds considered common are at risk. Laws have been in place for more than 100 years to protect birds, but while they have not been entirely successful the situation would be far worse without them.


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In G.O.P. Presidential Hopefuls Look to Build International Credentials, Jeremy W. Peters (for The New York Times) discusses the difficulty many GOP potential presidential candidates will have putting themselves forward as better able to manage foreign policy than President Obama. Like Obama when he ran for president, Senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, for example, are first term senators with minimal foreign policy experience. The possibility of serious unforeseen events taking place in a complicated global environment perhaps calls for candidates who are better tested in international affairs.

In Democracy in the Twenty-First Century, Joseph E. Stiglitz (for Project Syndicate) discusses how the problem of inequality is really a problem of democracy. If inequality is to be tackled, then attention must be paid to the political structure that creates and perpetuates it – if the rules are right we may again benefit from the rapid and shared economic growth of the 20th century.

In ISIS Jihadis Aren’t Medieval – They Are Shaped By Modern Western Philosophy, Kevin McDonald (for The Guardian) discusses the influence of western political philosophy on jihadist principles. By seeing ISIS as a throwback to a distant past, we risk bolstering its claim to Muslim heritage. In fact, McDonald argues, the philosophy that lies behind the recent movement to create an Islamic state is one strongly influenced by 17th and 18th century European ideas regarding sovereignty and the relationship between the citizen and the state. 


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In A Military Contractor Just Went Ahead And Used an Xbox Controller For Their New Giant Laser Cannon, Colin Schultz (for Smithsonian Institution) discusses the new High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator – a laser cannon mounted to the top of a truck. The laser can be used “to shoot down everything from drones to mortar rounds.” The use of video game technology in military settings has already generated some attention, with the job of drone pilots reminiscent of video games, and the potential moral hazard that scenario involves. But the likeness to video games was a factor in the choice to use the Xbox controller – there is no learning curve, the operator might as well be playing a game.