A new wave of environmental protest rocks China

by James Smart on April 18, 2014

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As recent protests against the construction of a PX refinery in Maoming attest, environmental issues are of greater concern than ever for the Chinese.

It began as an environmental protest of about a thousand people a few weeks ago on Sunday, March 30 in Maoming, southern China. By day five it had grown to over twenty times its initial size, with about a dozen deaths, scores of arrests and images of dozens of unarmed protesters scattered across the streets, lying in pools of their own blood. The government blamed protesters for the tipping over of police vehicles and attacking official buildings, while the protesters in turn accuse the police of attacking unarmed, peaceful citizens.

In an authoritarian state like China, where people are unable to let off steam on election day, protests are common — albeit risky and usually illegal. But what was behind this particular environmental protest, and how did it get so out of hand? We start by looking at the production of a chemical that is common, but seemingly misunderstood: paraxylene.

Paraxylene, or PX for short, is made in large quantities for the production of plastic bottles and polyester. China is the world’s largest user of PX, and has to import about half of what it consumes. The government recently decided that a 500 million dollar factory would help make up the shortfall, and went into partnership with Sinopec, Asia’s biggest refiner, to open a factory near Maoming.

Paraxylene is dangerous to produce. It affects the nervous system if ingested through the skin or breathed in. Organs can be affected upon bodily exposure. It affects body development and reproduction — at least in mice. Pregnant women are told not go near it. It damages hearing, and can cause chemical pneumonia. And it is highly flammable, even explosive at warm temperatures. Local people became concerned that a dangerous behemoth on their doorstep could damage the environment and affect their health.

Still, the production of most chemicals carries an element of danger, and one might have thought that, if properly regulated, such a large factory would have enormous economic benefits for the community. Indeed, the local authorities believed just that, but when they sent ten thousand brochures to the public informing them of the economic benefits the factory would bring, it backfired — culminating in a popular protest shortly afterwards. Why the public didn’t trust the state to provide a safe, regulated factory is not difficult to see in the context of rapid capitalist development, widespread environmental irresponsibility and an authoritarian state apparatus.

Ahkok Wong is an activist and school lecturer from down the road in Hong Kong, potentially enjoying his last two days of freedom.

“Environmental problems are one of the main outcomes of a one party-ruled, corrupted, non-humane government,” he starts. “The citizens started discovering what harm the PX plant can bring, so there are [a lot] of protests, and then the police arrest and kill protesters, forcing people to sign agreements that they support PX plants,” he continues. “They control the media and the internet so the news cannot get across the country.”

Protesters like Ahkok are sentenced by a judiciary with links to the government, which in turn has links to big business — for example, the Maoming PX joint venture between Sinopec and the state. Ahkok is going to court in a few days, for his participation in a 300,000 person-strong anti-Chinese government protest in Hong Kong. Is he expecting a fair trial? “I’m expecting nothing, to be honest.”

The other context in which to see this disagreement is with regards to the catastrophic levels of pollution and environmental damage all over China, particularly in the north. For example, at any given moment the air in most Chinese cities is somewhere along a spectrum between mildly harmful and extremely unsafe. Furthermore, China produces nearly twice as much carbon dioxide as the second biggest emitter, the USA. On top of this, one quarter of China already is, or is rapidly becoming, desertified. This leads to silted rivers, floods, drought, dust storms and erosion. In addition, a wealthier population with a penchant for ivory, rhino horn and shark fin soup is leading to diminishing biodiversity, within its borders and beyond.

Most of China’s groundwater is so polluted that it can’t be used for drinking even if treated. Underground water supplies are also extremely polluted. Wildlife soon perishes upon contact with the water from many rivers. Last year thousands of dead pigs clogged up a river running through Shanghai which was contaminated by benzene through a factory spillage. Twenty people were hospitalized. Factories pollute rivers with impunity — and this has in many cases lead to cancer villages — areas so polluted as to now be uninhabitable. Animals in these villages die, the rivers change color, touching the water makes the skin itch, and as the name suggests, there are high levels of cancer.

With this in mind, it is not surprising that the state of the environment is up to fourth — and rising — on the list of Chinese public concerns, according to a Pew Survey carried out earlier this year, behind inflation, corruption and inequality. With growing environmental concerns comes a growing grassroots movement. No surprise, then, that environmental issues were at the heart of half of all the protests in 2013 that had over 10,000 participants. Meanwhile, the government is taking notice, and has taken steps to be seen to be paying attention.

“We shall resolutely declare war against pollution as we declared war against poverty,” Li Keqiang, China’s Prime Minister told parliament, live on state television, last month. This was followed by an increased budget to help prevent deforestation, a sizable clean water fund, and some modest pollution-culling targets. Fifteen thousand companies now have to declare all of their pollution levels to the environment ministry, which will make the information public.

This seems quite impressive, particularly as China didn’t even have an environmental ministry until 2008. Rules are all very well of course — the problem is implementation. Factory owners discharge waste at night, sabotage monitoring equipment, and easily skip around or bribe underfunded law enforcement agencies. They can quietly mix leftover chemicals with water and dump it into the nearest river. Still, the new laws show that the government is paying attention, so perhaps that ought to placate a restless public. Some give the government credit — others think it is mostly for show.

To understand where the government might really stand on this issue, we need to think in terms of how China values itself when comparing itself with the rest of the world. Economic indicators such as GDP seem to have a higher priority than harder-to-measure indicators of quality of living, especially when national pride vis-à-vis America comes into play. A paraxylene plant boosts business, jobs and output. As long as the state can be seen to be taking action with pollution, while doing relatively little, the government can help to maintain its position so long as the media remains compliant. And here seems to lie the Chinese contrast — what seems to be the case is sometimes quite the opposite.

Take the PX plant protests. At one point, authorities told the local newspaper that the building of the plant was being suspended. But it seems they told Sinopec no such thing, and work on the plant continued uninterrupted. While the authorities are now finally acknowledging the existence of cancer villages, they go into opaque partnerships with polluting industries. They allow protests in theory, but put so many restrictions into the ‘small print’ as to make them almost impossible in practice.

“If there are more than three people gathering in public and the police assume you are a threat to society, you can be arrested,” says Ahkok.

The government tell their own citizens they are listening to their environmental concerns. Meanwhile they block searches for “Maoming” or “PX” on search engines and on the popular social media site Weibo. People are told to trust the authorities. Meanwhile, on the very first day of the protests, seventy Maoming city officals were investigated for graft. A supposedly communist government represses the poor and benefits the wealthy. China starts to resemble a chemical spillage, public health deteriorates and those who speak out get arrested.

On a somewhat more optimistic note, however one may feel about the obvious human rights challenges that come with China’s one-child policy, there is no doubt it helped curb the country’s dangerously oversized population. With the help of a burgeoning economy and a strong inclination towards school success, an educated cadre is growing within the population; one that is more and more aware of the world, of their government, and of the quality of their lives. China’s hyperactive microblogger community are a byproduct of this, and are helping to heighten awareness for a lot of people.

But calling for the truth has its own risks. Xu Zhiyong, an anti-government activist, is halfway though a four-year prison sentence for calling on government officials to disclose their assets. “Those of you watching this trial from behind the scenes, or those awaiting for orders and reports back, this is also your responsibility. Don’t take pains to preserve the old system simply because you have vested interests in it,” he said as he was being sentenced. “No one is safe under an unjust system. When you see politics as endless shadows and reflections of daggers and swords, as blood falling like rain with its smell in the wind, you have too much fear in your hearts.”

Back to Ahkok Wong: “China does not have law and system,” he says. “They bribe, they arrest people who investigate truth, but there are no standards to follow. Only those who have absolute power and capital can change the situation, but then they benefit from all of this development and capital growth.”

“China is not meant to last,” concludes Ahkok. “It wouldn’t make any sense if this country could last.”

James Smart is from the South of England and is currently working as a university teacher and teacher trainer in Istanbul, Turkey.

The commons lies at the heart of a major cultural and social shift now underway.

The New Economic Events Giving Lie to the Fiction That

We Are All Selfish, Rational Materialists

Photo Credit: AllanGregg; Screenshot / YouTube.com

Jeremy Rifkin’s new book, “The Zero Marginal Cost Society,” brings welcome new attention to the commons just as it begins to explode in countless new directions. His book focuses on one of the most significant vectors of commons-based innovation — the Internet and digital technologies — and documents how the incremental costs of nearly everything is rapidly diminishing, often to zero. Rifkin explored the sweeping implications of this trend in an excerpt from his book and points to the “eclipse of capitalism” in the decades ahead.

But it’s worth noting that the commons is not just an Internet phenomenon or a matter of economics. The commons lies at the heart of a major cultural and social shift now underway. People’s attitudes about corporate property rights and neoliberal capitalism are changing as cooperative endeavors — on digital networks and elsewhere — become more feasible and attractive. This can be seen in the proliferation of hackerspaces and Fablabs, in the growth of alternative currencies, in many land trusts and cooperatives and in seed-sharing collectives and countless natural resource commons.

Beneath the radar screen of mainstream politics, which remains largely clueless about such cultural trends on the edge, a new breed of commoners is building the vision of a very different kind of society, project by project. This new universe of social activity is being built on the foundation of a very different ethics and social logic than that of homo economicus — the economist’s fiction that we are all selfish, utility-maximizing, rational materialists.

Durable projects based on social cooperation are producing enormous amounts of wealth; it’s just that this wealth is not generally not monetized or traded. It’s socially or ecologically embedded wealth that is managed by self-styled commoners themselves. Typically, such commoners act more as stewards of their common wealth than as owners who treat it as private capital. Commoners realize that a life defined by impersonal transactions is not as rich or satisfying as one defined by abiding relationships. The larger trends toward zero-marginal-cost production make it perfectly logical for people to seek out commons-based alternatives.

You can find these alternatives popping up all over: in the 10,000-plus open access scientific journals whose research is freely shareable to anyone and in community gardens that produce both fresh vegetables and neighborliness. In hundreds of “timebanks” that let people meet basic needs through time-barters, and in highly productive, ecologically minded commons-based agriculture.

Economists tend to ignore such wealth because it generally doesn’t involve market activity. No cash is exchanged, no legal contracts signed and no measureable Gross Domestic Product is generated. But the wealth of the commons is not accumulated like capital; its vitality comes from being circulated. As I describe in my new book, “Think Like a Commoner,” the story of our time is the rise of the commons as a new way to emancipate oneself from predatory markets and to collaborate with peers to protect and expand one’s shared wealth. This is a story that is being played out in countless digital arenas, as Rifkin documents, but also in such diverse contexts as cities, farming, museums, theaters and indigenous communities.

One reason that so many commons arise and flourish is because they help their participants meet important basic needs in fair, responsive and socially satisfying ways. That’s quite attractive to those who are otherwise held captive by conventional, predatory markets. Big agriculture is more concerned with efficiency and profit than ecological stewardship. Large transnationals are more interested in rip-and-run resource extraction (mining, fracking, timber) than in the protection of sacred lands and time-honored ways of life. “Copyright industries” like Hollywood and record labels want to treat all of culture as tightly controlled “product,” not as something that is freely shared and built upon.

Nowadays the commons has a special appeal for people of the global South who are often victimized by the “enclosures” inflicted by neoliberal investment and trade policies. Enclosures are the act of privatizing and commodifying previously shared resources. For example, millions of acres of land in Africa, Asia and Latin America are currently being seized by investors in a massive international land grab. Hedge funds and even the government of South Korea, Saudi Arabia and China are enacting an eerie replay of the English enclosure movement. Commoners who have worked the land for generations as a customary right are being forced to migrate to cities in search of work, where they often end up as paupers and sweatshop employees: a modern-day replay of Charles Dickens’ novels.

By the lights of modern economic theory, it’s all for the best because it promotes “development” (i.e., consumerism and other market dependencies). But many commoners are now fighting the dispossession and dependencies that enclosures entail by struggling to retain some measure of dignity and self-determination through their commons. The International Land Alliance estimates that 2 billion people around the world depend upon subsistence commons of forests, fisheries, arable land, water and wild game to meet their everyday needs.

Strangely, the leading introductory economics textbooks in the U.S. virtually ignore the commons except for the obligatory warning about the “tragedy of the commons.” They prefer not to recognize that the commons represents an entirely viable but different paradigm of “development” – one that can transcend the unsustainable consumerism, cultural disintegration and economic growth of our time. As the late Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom showed, commons are an entirely sustainable, ecologically friendly model of resource management, contrary to the “tragedy” parable.

Commoners are not all alike. They have many profound differences in their governance systems, management practices and cultural values. And commons are not without their conflicts, struggles and failures. That said, most commoners tend to share fundamental commitments to participation, openness, inclusiveness, social equity, ecological respect and human rights.

The politics of the commons movement can be confounding to conventional observers because political goals are not the paramount priority; protection of the commons is. Commoners tend to be more focused on “prepolitical” social activity and relationships, which is why commons are embraced by such a wide variety of people. As German commons advocate Silke Helfrich notes in The Wealth of the Commons, “Commons draw from the best of all political ideologies.” Conservatives like the tendency of commons to promote responsibility. Liberals are pleased with the focus on equality and basic social entitlement. Libertarians like the emphasis on individual initiative. And leftists like the idea of limiting the scope of the Market.

It is important to realize that the commons is not a discussion about objects, but a discussion about who we are and how we treat each other. What decisions are being made about our resources? Does economic activity satisfy basic human needs and honor human rights and dignity? These kind of discussions are not often heard in in conventional business and policy circles, alas.

To conventional minds, the idea of the commons as a paradigm of social governance appears either utopian or communistic, or at the very least, impractical. But a diverse, eclectic universe of commons around the world demonstrates otherwise. It is the neoliberal project of ever-expanding consumption on a global scale that is the utopian, totalistic dream. It manifestly cannot fulfill its mythological vision of human progress through ubiquitous market activity and greater heaps of private consumption, if only because it demands more from Nature than it can possibly deliver – while inflicting too much social inequity and disruption as well.

Fortunately, the Internet and indigenous peoples, the re-localization movement and hackers, community foresters and fishing cooperatives and many, many others, are showing that the commons can be an effective vehicle for social and political emancipation. Jeremy Rifkin’s astute analysis of this powerful trend will help open up a much-needed discussion in the stodgy precincts of conventional economics.

David A. Bollier is an author, activist, blogger and independent scholar with a primary focus on “the commons” as a new paradigm for economics, politics, and culture. He is the founding editor of Onthecommons.org (2002-2010), co-founder and principal of the international consulting project Commons Strategy Group, and co-director of the Commons Law Project. Bollier is the author of numerous books, including “Think Like a Commoner: A Short Introduction to the Life of the Commons.”

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How the Corporate Takeover of Society Is Leaving Us Feeling Empty Inside

Corporate Accountability and WorkPlace  

They big corporations do not represent us and they have no right to run our lives.

How do you engineer a bland, depoliticised world, a consensus built around consumption and endless growth, a dream world of materialism and debt and atomisation, in which all relations can be prefixed with a dollar sign, in which we cease to fight for change? You delegate your powers to companies whose profits depend on this model.

Power is shifting: to places in which we have no voice or vote. Domestic policies are forged by special advisers and spin doctors, by panels and advisory committees stuffed with lobbyists. The self-hating state withdraws its own authority to regulate and direct. Simultaneously, the democratic vacuum at the heart of global governance is being filled, without anything resembling consent, by international bureaucrats and corporate executives. The NGOs permitted – often as an afterthought – to join them intelligibly represent neither civil society nor electorates. (And please spare me that guff about consumer democracy or shareholder democracy: in both cases some people have more votes than others, and those with the most votes are the least inclined to press for change.)

To me, the giant consumer goods company Unilever, with which I clashed over the issue of palm oil a few days ago, symbolises these shifting relationships. I can think of no entity that has done more to blur the lines between the role of the private sector and the role of the public sector. If you blotted out its name while reading its web pages, you could mistake it for an agency of the United Nations.

It seems to have representation almost everywhere. Its people inhabit (to name a few) the British government’s Ecosystem Markets Task Force and Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, the G8′s New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, the World Food Programme, the Global Green Growth Forum, the UN’s Scaling Up Nutrition programme, itsSustainable Development Solutions NetworkGlobal Compact and theUN High Level Panel on global development.

Sometimes Unilever uses this power well. Its efforts to reduce its own use of energy and water and its production of waste, and to project these changes beyond its own walls, look credible and impressive. Sometimes its initiatives look to me like self-serving bullshit.

Its “Dove self-esteem project”, for instance, claims to be “helping millions of young people to improve their self-esteem through educational programmes”. One of its educational videos maintains that beauty “couldn’t be more critical to your happiness“, which is surely the belief that trashes young people’s self-esteem in the first place. But of course you can recover it by plastering yourself with Dove-branded gloop: Unilever reports that 82% of women in Canada who are aware of its project “would be more likely to purchase Dove“.

Sometimes it seems to play both ends of the game. For instance, it says it is reducing the amount of salt and fat and sugar in its processed foods. But it also hosted and chaired, before the last election, the Conservative party’s public health commission, which was seen by health campaigners as an excuse for avoiding effective action on obesity, poor diets and alcohol abuse. This body helped to purge government policy of such threats as further advertising restrictions and the compulsorytraffic-light labelling of sugar, salt and fat.

The commission then produced a “responsibility deal” between government and business, on the organising board of which Unilever still sits. Under this deal, the usual relationship between lobbyists and government is reversed. The corporations draft government policy, which is then sent to civil servants for comment. Regulation is replaced by voluntarism. The Guardian has named Unilever as one of the companies that refused to sign the deal’s voluntary pledge on calorie reduction.

This is not to suggest that everything these panels and alliances and boards and forums propose is damaging. But as the development writer Lou Pingeot points out, their analysis of the world’s problems is partial and self-serving, casting corporations as the saviours of the world’s people but never mentioning their role in causing many of the problems (such as financial crisis, land-grabbing, tax loss, obesity, malnutrition, climate change, habitat destruction, poverty, insecurity) they claim to address. Most of their proposed solutions either require passivity from governments (poverty will be solved by wealth trickling down through a growing economy) or the creation of a more friendly environment for business.

At best, these corporate-dominated panels are mostly useless: preening sessions in which chief executives exercise messiah complexes. At their worst, they are a means by which global companies reshape politics in their own interests, universalising – in the name of conquering want and exploitation – their exploitative business practices.

Almost every political agent – including some of the NGOs that once opposed them – is in danger of being loved to death by these companies. In February the Guardian signed a seven-figure deal with Unilever, which, the publisher claimed, is “centred on the shared values of sustainable living and open storytelling“. The deal launched an initiative called Guardian Labs, which will help brands find “more engaging ways to tell their story”. The Guardian points out that it has guidelines covering such sponsorship deals to ensure editorial independence.

I recognise and regret the fact that all newspapers depend for their survival on corporate money (advertising and sponsorship probably account, in most cases, for about 70% of their income). But this, to me, looks like another step down the primrose path. As the environmental campaigner Peter Gerhardt puts it, companies like Unilever “try to stakeholderise every conflict”. By this, I think, he means that they embrace their critics, involving them in a dialogue that is open in the sense that a lobster pot is open, breaking down critical distance and identity until no one knows who they are any more.

Yes, I would prefer that companies were like Unilever rather than Goldman Sachs, Cargill or Exxon, in that it seems to have a keen sense of what a responsible company should do, even if it doesn’t always do it. But it would be better still if governments and global bodies stopped delegating their powers to corporations. They do not represent us and they have no right to run our lives.

Twitter: @georgemonbiot. A fully referenced version of this article can be found at monbiot.com

 

George Monbiot is the author Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning. Read more of his writings at Monbiot.com. This article originally appeared in the Guardian.

Global Rankings Study Depicts an America in Warp Speed Decline

From access to healthcare and education, gender equality, attitudes toward immigrants and minorities, the U.S. looks like a second-rate nation.

http://www.ncr-iran.org/en/images/stories/2014/news1/social-progress-index.jpg

If America needed a reminder that it is fast becoming a second-rate nation, and that every economic policy of the Republican Party is wrongheaded, it got one this week with the release of the Social Progress Index (SPI).

Harvard business professor Michael E. Porter, who earlier developed the Global Competitiveness Report, designed the SPI. A new way to look at the success of countries, the SPI studies 132 nations and evaluates 54 social and environmental indicators for each country that matter to real people. Rather than measuring a country’s success by its per capita GDP, the index is based on an array of data reflecting suicide, ecosystem sustainability, property rights, access to healthcare and education, gender equality, attitudes toward immigrants and minorities, religious freedom, nutrition, infrastructure and more.

The index measures the livability of each country. People everywhere depend on and care about similar things. “We all need clean water. We all want to feel safe and live without fear. People everywhere want to get an education and improve their lives,” says Porter. But economic growth alone doesn’t guarantee these things.

While the U.S. enjoys the second highest per capita GDP of $45,336, it ranks in an underperforming 16th place overall. It gets worse. The U.S. ranks 70th in health, 69th in ecosystem sustainability, 39th in basic education, 34th in access to water and sanitation and 31st in personal safety.

More surprising is the fact that despite being the home country of global tech heavyweights Microsoft, Cisco, IBM, Oracle, and so on, the U.S. ranks a disappointing 23rd in access to the Internet. “It’s astonishing that for a country that has Silicon Valley, lack of access to information is a red flag,” notes Michael Green, executive director of the Social Progress Imperative, which oversees the index.

If this index is an affront to your jingoistic sensibilities, the U.S. remains in first place for the number of incarcerated citizens per capita, adult onset diabetes and for believing in angels.

New Zealand is ranked in first place in social progress. Interestingly, it ranks only 25th on GDP per capita, which means the island of the long white cloud is doing a far better job than America when it comes to meeting the need of its people. In order, the top 10 is rounded out by Switzerland, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Canada, Finland, Denmark and Australia.

Unsurprisingly these nations all happen to rank highly in the 2013 U.N. World Happiness Report with Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Sweden among the top five.

So, what of the U.S? In terms of happiness, we rank 17th, trailing neighboring Mexico.

We find ourselves languishing for the very fact we have allowed corporate America to hijack the entire Republican Party, and some parts of the Democratic Party. This influence has bought corporations and the rich a rigged tax code that has redistributed wealth from the middle class to the rich over the course of the past three decades. This lack of shared prosperity and opportunity has retarded our social progress.

America’s rapid descent into impoverished nation status is the inevitable result of unchecked corporate capitalism. By every measure, we look like a broken banana republic. Not a single U.S. city is included in the world’s top 10 most livable cities. Only one U.S. airport makes the list of the top 100 in the world. Our roads, schools and bridges are falling apart, and our trains — none of them high-speed — are running off their tracks.

With 95 percent of all economic gains funneled to the richest 1 percent over the course of the last decade, and a tax code that has starved the federal government of revenues to invest in public infrastructure, America will be a country divided by those who have and those who have not. In The World As It Is, Chris Hedges writes, “Our anemic democracy will be replaced with a robust national police state. The elite will withdraw into heavily guarded gated communities where they will have access to security, goods, and services that cannot be afforded by the rest of us. Tens of millions of people, brutally controlled, will live in perpetual poverty.”

This week the Republican Party rolled out its 2014 Ryan budget. Robert Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, noted that under the Ryan budget, “[affluent] Americans would do quite well. But for tens of millions of others, the Ryan plan is a path to more adversity.” Greenstein pointed out that the plan would leave millions without health insurance through repeal of the Affordable Care Act and changes to Medicaid funding.

Greenstein also criticized the budget for its impact on anti-poverty programs, estimating that it would slash basic food aid provided by SNAP by at least $135 billion and convert the program to a block grant, make it harder for low-income students to attend college and make massive unspecified cuts to domestic non-military spending, which means cuts to social welfare programs.

The countries ranked highest in social progress are doing the complete opposite. They’re investing in schools rather than drones. They’re expanding collective bargaining laws rather than busting unions. They’re providing their citizens with universal healthcare and education rather than selling these basic human rights to the highest bidder.

“Those who care about the plight of the working class and the poor must begin to mobilize quickly, or we will lose our last opportunity to save our embattled democracy. The most important struggle will be to wrest the organs of communication from corporations that use mass media to demonize movements of social change and empower protofascist movements such as the Christian Right,” observes Hedges.

It’s your move, America.

CJ Werleman is the author of “Crucifying America,” and “God Hates You. Hate Him Back.” Follow him on Twitter: @cjwerleman

Fast Fortunes on the Diamond and Beyond

Too Much
THIS WEEK
Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz had some interesting comments to make about inequality at a U.S. Senate hearing last Tuesday. But his week’s wisest observation may have come in an interview with a Chinese journalist.

China’s richest 50 lawmakers, the journalist noted, hold a combined $15.3 billion in personal wealth. In the United States, the richest 50 lawmakers only hold $1.6 billion. Does this mean, the interviewer asked, that the U.S. Congress “represents the people” while China’s “represents rich capitalism”? 

Stiglitz didn’t laugh. America’s lawmakers, he patiently explained, may not have billions. But they need billions to get elected. They get those billions from the rich. These rich see their contributions as an investment. And, Stiglitz added, “when they make an investment, they expect a return.”

A simple point. Why can’t the Supremes get it? The McCutcheon ruling last week from America’s highest court basically leaves our rich perfectly positioned to maximize their political investment return. But all’s not lost. We do still have baseball. This week in Too Much: an inequality take on our national pastime.

GREED AT A GLANCE
Sometimes “reality TV” actually offers a window into reality. That may be the case with the truTV’s Bait Car series. The show’s set-up: Real police leave nice cars in impoverished neighborhoods, with keys in the ignition, and wait for a local to “take the bait.” Then viewers get to see the local panic when the police lock the car down and make the arrest. So what does the perverse humor of this bait-the-poor reality show tell us about our actual reality? In today’s deeply unequal America, notes Bait Car critic Jake Weissbourd, TV producers would never subject rich people to such humiliation, say with a set-up that offers a power suit an insider stock tip or clever tax evasion scheme. A show like that, points out Weissbourd, simply wouldn’t survive: “The full weight of the wealthy — the cries of entrapment, the libel suits — would crush it.”

Brian MoynihanCEO pay consultant Graef Crystal’s landmark 1991 book on soaring executive pay, In Search of Excess, wittily dissected the “almost infinite number of scenarios” that top execs had evolved to enrich themselves. Crystal seems to have lost his sense of outrage. His latest study rates Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan as underpaid because he’s making less than the “going rate” for similar execs elsewhere. Moynihan made $13.1 million in 2013. He should have made, holds Crystal, $18.8 million. AFL-CIO pay watcher Vineeta Anand’s reaction last week to Crystal’s Moynihan analysis: “Underpaid? Seriously?” Anand points to the share value Bank of America destroyed during the financial crisis. B of A, the Financial Times added Friday, will shortly pay out $800 million to settle charges the bank “misled customers” on credit card services.

Please don’t call the folks who work at London’s Benedict and Company “concierges.” They prefer to be known as “procurement specialists” — for the global “ultra high net worth” crowd. The firm’s specialists don’t do dinner reservations. They concentrate, notes spokesman Benedict Wormald, on “property and aircraft and yachts.” For one client, the firm came up with a classic 1940s Jaguar convertible painted in bright yellow, “a color they didn’t even do in the original.” Another client had the firm retrieve a set of beloved Louis Vuitton soft luggage that had sunk with her yacht and turn the water-logged pieces into a coffee table. The firm also arranges miniature versions of luxury cars for client children — at $27,000 a pop. Observes Wormald: “Until I got into this business, I never could have realized the level of wealth that is actually out there.”

Quote of the Week

“Since the 1960s, the richest one-thousandth of U.S. households, with a minimum net worth today above $20 million, have more than doubled their share of U.S. wealth, from around 10 percent to more than 20 percent. Take a moment to process that. One-thousandth of the country owns one-fifth of the wealth.”
Jordan Weissmann, The Shocking Rise of Wealth Inequality: Is it Worse Than We Thought? April 2, 2014

PETULANT PLUTOCRAT OF THE WEEK
Reed HastingsReed Hastings, the Netflix billionaire, has discovered the rot that’s eating away at America’s future: locally elected school boards. In a California speech last month, Hastings called the nation’s schools “prisoners” of democratic governance and called instead for networks of charter schools run by “self-perpetuating” boards “not elected by the general public.” Hastings currently sits on the board of two major charter chains working to expand their student “market share.” Local school boards pose an obstacle to that expansion. They often don’t take kindly to for-profit chains grabbing public tax dollars to run schools that never have to answer to the public. The danger in the Hastings vision? Notes education historian Diane Ravitch: “No high-performing nation in the world has handed its schools over to private management.”

IMAGES OF INEQUALITY

Retired Citigroup CEO Sandy Weill is now offering this Connecticut manse he owns for just $14 million. Why is Weill selling? Maybe because he owns a manse just as impressive as this one right next door. Weill also owns abodes in California’s Sonoma County, the Adirondacks, Manhattan, and the Bahamas. Weill made his first billion off the deregulation of the late 1990s that let commercial bankers make risky investments with the cash of their depositors.

Web Gem

Money Out/Voters In. A broad array of public interest, environmental, and labor groups are using this site to raise the alarm over the growing influence of big money on American politics. Last week’s Supreme Court decision to remove limits on total direct donations to political candidates and parties only makes this Web presence even more essential.

PROGRESS AND PROMISE
American workers today have a much higher level of education and work more productively than American workers four decades ago. Yet real wages have essentially not increased at all. What can the nation do to raise worker wages? The American Prospect has just advanced eight concrete proposals. The most original: Congress should link corporate tax rates to each company’s CEO-worker pay ratio. Corporations that pay CEOs 350 times what they pay their workers, about the current typical gap, would pay much more tax than corporations with only a 15-times gap, the ratio that management guru Peter Drucker first suggested in a 1977 Wall Street Journal analysis. A ratio-linked tax, adds American Prospect editor-at-large Harold Meyerson, would give corporate boards an incentive to finally start sharing the gains from rising productivity.

Take Action
on Inequality

Tell Congress to mandate disclosure, within 48 hours, of all political contributions of $1,000 or more to candidates, a first step in the fightback against last week’s Supreme Court McCutcheon decision.

inequality by the numbers
U.S. wealth distribution

Stat of the Week

CEO pay for 2013, USA Today reports, “could be one for the record books.” Compensation for the typical top exec jumped 13 percent for the year, says the paper’s annual executive pay report, and 15 execs realized over $100 million. Some perspective: Median full-time worker wages increased 1.4 percent in 2013 to $40,872.

IN FOCUS

Fast Fortunes: On the Diamond and Beyond

Baseball’s top hitter and Wall Street power suits both ply their trades in a high-speed world. That hitter will make over a quarter-billion in the next decade. The top suits stand to ‘earn’ astonishingly more.

Detroit Tigers infielder Miguel Cabrera may or may not turn out to be, by the time he retires, the best hitter in baseball history. But Cabrera already holds a historic distinction. Last month, just before baseball’s 2014 opening day, the 31-year-old slugger became America’s highest-paid professional ballplayer ever.

Miguel CabreraCabrera’s newly signed contract runs 10 years. Over that span he’ll receive paychecks totaling a record $292 million, a tidy sum that comes to a near $30 million annual average.

An even more compelling stat: Every time Cabrera steps up to the plate over the course of the next decade, he’ll pull in an average $43,195. For a five at-bat game, Cabrera will clear over $215,000.

How much revulsion should these numbers make us feel? On the one hand, Cabrera can do what only a relative handful of humankind can ever dream of doing. He can hit — with astounding regularity and power — a baseball coming at him at speeds up to 100 miles per hour.

On the other hand, Cabrera plays half his games in the city of Detroit, a bankrupt metropolis that can’t afford to fix its roads, police its streets, or meet its promises to retired teachers. Cabrera will make more in a week this season than current Detroit teachers will earn over their entire careers.

But these Detroit comparisons only take us so far. To truly appreciate the revolting significance of Cabrera’s new contract, we need to look up, not down. The rewards Miguel Cabrera will pull down pale against the windfalls now cascading into the pockets of America’s truly super rich, a fraternity that most definitely does not include Cabrera — or any other professional ballplayer.

In 2012, America’s top 25 hedge fund managers — the elite of the financial services industry — averaged $565.6 million each. That average for a single year nearly doubles what Cabrera will take home over the next 10 years.

And how do the kingpins of high finance hit their incredibly generous jackpots? What exceptional skills do they demonstrate? They have no exceptional skills. They have only exceptional power, the economic and political capacity to bend the rules and rig the games they play — to our disadvantage.

Last week a new book focused some long overdue public attention on one piece of that rigging. Miguel Cabrera hits high-speed fastballs. Our financial elite profit off high-speed trades.

The best-selling author Michael Lewis vividly describes this world of high-speed trading in his just-published book Flash Boys. The wonders of high tech, Lewis explains, are letting Wall Street’s shiftiest see the shares other investors are buying and selling milliseconds before the overall market finds out.

Armed with this inside info, high-speed traders can then make what essentially amount to sure bets. How sure? One high-speed trading hub, Virtu Financial, last month boasted that over the previous 1,278 Wall Street trading days, the firm had made money buying and selling shares of stock on exactly 1,277.

High-speed trading may now account, the New York Times notes, for half of all shares traded. This enormous volume translates into huge windfalls for players like Virtu and the big banks, hedge funds, and stock exchanges that enable their high-speed trading. The losers amid this rigging? Average Americans with their pension fund savings invested in the stock market.

Miguel Cabrera may be outrageously overpaid, but he at least comes by his rewards honestly. Cabrera never knows whether the baseballs that pitchers hurl at him will come in straight or curved, high or low, inside or outside. He has to make all these tricky distinctions in just a fraction of a second.

High-speed traders have their fractions of a second, too. But they don’t use their fractions to fashion skilled and honest decisions. They use their fractions to manipulate markets and make themselves fabulously rich.

We could curb this manipulating in a flash, points out economist Dean Baker, simply by putting in place a tiny tax on each and every Wall Street financial transaction.

Such a financial transaction tax may soon be in place in Europe. Legislation that would establish a similar levy stateside is currently pending before Congress — and going nowhere. Republicans across the board oppose the tax, and so do lawmakers in the Democratic Party’s hefty Wall Street-friendly wing.

So what can and should we do? Let’s leave our uneasiness over Miguel Cabrera’s paycheck on the back burner. We have bigger fish to fry. We have, for starters, a financial transaction tax to win.

New Wisdom
on Wealth

Matthew O’Brien, Why Don’t the 1 Percent Feel Rich? Atlantic, April 2, 2014. The merely rich are making more, but only the top 0.01 percent are creating our new Gilded Age.

Calvin Exoo and Christian Exoo, A Supreme Court out of control! How McCutcheon will spur corruption and inequality, Salon, April 2, 2014. Plutocracy’s moment has arrived.

Hamilton Nolan, The Myth of the CEO, Gawker, April 3, 2014. How CEO pay excess contributes to corporate disasters like GM’s years-long failure to fix known safety defects.

Robert Reich, McCutcheon and the Vicious Cycle of Concentrated Wealth and Political Power, April 3, 2014. Have we reached another tipping point?

Gawain Kripke, Five reasons to fight inequality: Pick one, The Politics of Poverty, April 4, 2014. An Oxfam analyst explains the choices.

Ruth Walker, Of ‘oligarchs’ and ‘plutocrats,’ Gulf News, April 5, 2014. Should we start teaching our children that they’re growing up in a plutocracy?

The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class cover

Read the full Intro to Too Much editor Sam Pizzigati’s new history of the triumph over America’s original plutocracy. More details.

NEW AND notable

How Differently Do the Rich See Our World?

Benjamin Page, Larry Bartels, and Jason Seawright, Democracy and the Policy Preferences of Wealthy Americans, Perspective on Politics, American Political Science Association, March 2014.

The Supreme Court’s ruling last week that wiped away limits on how much overall the wealthy can contribute to political candidates has generated all sorts of headlines and hand-wringing. But do average citizens really need to worry about how much political influence the wealthy are wielding?

That depends, say political scientists. If the wealthy have “policy preferences” more or less in line with the general public, scholars point out, then more influence for the wealthy won’t have much of an impact one way or another.

But if the wealthy have “distinctive preferences that conflict with the interests of other citizens,” as Benjamin Page, Larry Bartels, and Jason Seawright note in this insightful new paper, any “disproportionate influence” they can bring to bear “would seem to create a serious problem for the working of democracy.”

In other words, how differently the wealthy and the rest of us think about our political options really matters. But you wouldn’t know that from the existing scholarly literature. We have, observe Page, Bartels and Seawright, precious little research “about the political attitudes and behavior of wealthy citizens.”

Thanks to the new work of these three investigators, we now know a good bit more. The three have given us a rather unique window into the world of America’s wealthiest 1 percent, based on a sophisticated polling project that has queried deep pockets in the Chicago metro area.

And what do we see when peer through this window? Do the attitudes of our richest differ markedly from attitudes in the general public? They most certainly do. Examples abound in this new Page, Bartels and Seawright paper.

Should the minimum wage be high enough so that no family with a full-time worker falls below the official poverty line? Some 40 percent of top 1 percenters think so. In the general public, by contrast, a whopping 78 percent feel that way.

Should the government in Washington see to it that everyone who wants to work can find a job? Only 19 percent of our wealthiest 1 percent say yes, this new polling informs us, compared to 68 percent of the general public.

Should the federal government spend whatever is necessary to ensure that all children have really good public schools? Yes, say 35 percent of the rich. Yes, say 87 percent of everyone else.

The wealthy, this fascinating research goes on to show, lean much more favorably toward cutting Social Security. And they lean much more against increasing government regulation of Wall Street and big corporations.

All these huge attitudinal differences, the authors sum up with more than a tad of academic understatement, “could be troubling for democratic policy making.”

Yeah, we’ve noticed.

Noam Chomsky: Ecology, Ethics, Anarchism


Earth was never an ‘infinite resource,’ but capitalist practice treats it like ‘an infinite garbage can.’

Photo Credit: Education Rediscovered; Screenshot / YouTube.com

There can be little doubt about the centrality and severity of the environmental crisis in the present day. Driven by the mindless “grow-or-die” imperative of capitalism, humanity’s destruction of the biosphere has reached and even surpassed various critical thresholds, whether in terms of carbon emissions, biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, freshwater depletion, or chemical pollution. Extreme weather events can be seen pummeling the globe, from the Philippines — devastated by Typhoon Haiyan in November of last year — to California, which is presently suffering from the worst drought in centuries. As Nafeez Ahmed has shown, a recently published study funded in part by NASA warns of impending civilizational collapse without radical changes to address social inequality and overconsumption. Truthout’s own Dahr Jamail has written a number of critical pieces lately that have documented the profundity of the current trajectory toward anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD) and global ecocide: In a telling metaphor, he likens the increasingly mad weather patterns brought about by ACD to an electrocardiogram of a “heart in defibrillation.”

Rather than conclude that such distressing trends follow intrinsically from an “aggressive” and “sociopathic” human nature, reasonable observers should likely associate the outgrowth of these tendencies with the dominance of the capitalist system, for, as Oxfam noted in a January 2014 report, the richest 85 individuals in the world possess as much wealth as a whole half of humanity — the 3.5 billion poorest people — while just 90 corporations have been responsible for a full two-thirds of the carbon emissions generated since the onset of industrialism. As these staggering statistics show, then, the ecological and climatic crises correspond to the extreme concentration of power and wealth produced by capitalism and upheld by the world’s governments. As a counter-move to these realities, the political philosophy of anarchism — which opposes the rule of both state and capital — may hold a great deal of promise for ameliorating and perhaps even overturning these trends toward destruction. Apropos, I had the great good fortune recently to interview Professor Noam Chomsky, renowned anarcho-syndicalist, to discuss the question of ecological crisis and anarchism as a remedy. Following is a transcript of our conversation.

Transcript

Javier Sethness for Truthout:Professor Chomsky, thank you so kindly for taking the time today to converse with me about ecology and anarchism. It is a true honor to have this opportunity to speak with you. Before we pass to these subjects, though, I would like to ask you initially about ethics and solidarity. Would you say that Immanuel Kant’s notion of treating humanity as an end in itself has influenced anarchist and anti-authoritarian thought in any way? The concept of natural law arguably has a “natural” affinity with anarchism.

Noam Chomsky: Indirectly, but I think it’s actually more general. My own view is that anarchism flows quite naturally out of major concerns and commitments of the Enlightenment, which found an expression in classical liberalism, and classical liberalism essentially was destroyed by the rise of capitalism — it’s inconsistent with it. But anarchism, I think, is the inheritor of the ideals that were developed in one or another form during the Enlightenment — Kant’s expression is one example — exemplified in a particular way in classical liberal doctrine, wrecked on the shoals of capitalism, and picked up by the libertarian left movements, which are the natural inheritors of them. So in that sense, yes, but it’s broader.

JS:You have described humanity as being imperiled by the destructive trends on hand in capitalist society — or what you have termed “really existing capitalist democracies” (RECD). Particularly of late, you have emphasized the brutally anti-ecological trends being implemented by the dominant powers of settler-colonial societies, as reflected in the tar sands of Canada, Australia’s massive exploitation and export of coal resources, and, of course, the immense energy profligacy of this country. You certainly have a point, and I share your concerns, as I detail in “Imperiled Life: Revolution against Climate Catastrophe,” a book that frames the climate crisis as the outgrowth of capitalism and the domination of nature generally understood. Please explain how you see RECD as profoundly at odds with ecological balance.

NC: RECD — not accidentally, pronounced “wrecked” — is really existing capitalist democracy, really a kind of state capitalism, with a powerful state component in the economy, but with some reliance on market forces. The market forces that exist are shaped and distorted in the interests of the powerful — by state power, which is heavily under the control of concentrations of private power — so there’s close interaction. Well, if you take a look at markets, they are a recipe for suicide. Period. In market systems, you don’t take account of what economists call externalities. So say you sell me a car. In a market system, we’re supposed to look after our own interests, so I make the best deal I can for me; you make the best deal you can for you. We do not take into account the effect on him. That’s not part of a market transaction. Well, there is an effect on him: there’s another car on the road; there’s a greater possibility of accidents; there’s more pollution; there’s more traffic jams. For him individually, it might be a slight increase, but this is extended over the whole population. Now, when you get to other kinds of transactions, the externalities get much larger. So take the financial crisis. One of the reasons for it is that — there are several, but one is — say if Goldman Sachs makes a risky transaction, they — if they’re paying attention — cover their own potential losses. They do not take into account what’s called systemic risk, that is, the possibility that the whole system will crash if one of their risky transactions goes bad. That just about happened with AIG, the huge insurance company. They were involved in risky transactions which they couldn’t cover. The whole system was really going to collapse, but of course state power intervened to rescue them. The task of the state is to rescue the rich and the powerful and to protect them, and if that violates market principles, okay, we don’t care about market principles. The market principles are essentially for the poor. But systemic risk is an externality that’s not considered, which would take down the system repeatedly, if you didn’t have state power intervening. Well there’s another one, that’s even bigger — that’s destruction of the environment. Destruction of the environment is an externality: in market interactions, you don’t pay attention to it. So take tar sands. If you’re a major energy corporation and you can make profit out of exploiting tar sands, you simply do not take into account the fact that your grandchildren may not have a possibility of survival — that’s an externality. And in the moral calculus of capitalism, greater profits in the next quarter outweigh the fate of your grandchildren — and of course it’s not your grandchildren, but everyone’s.

Now the settler-colonial societies are particularly interesting in this regard because you have a conflict within them. Settler-colonial societies are different than most forms of imperialism; in traditional imperialism, say the British in India, the British kind of ran the place: They sent the bureaucrats, the administrators, the officer corps, and so on, but the place was run by Indians. Settler-colonial societies are different; they eliminate the indigenous population. Read, say, George Washington, a leading figure in the settler-colonial society we live in. His view was — his words — was that we have to “extirpate” the Iroquois; they’re in our way. They were an advanced civilization; in fact, they provided some of the basis for the American constitutional system, but they were in the way, so we have to extirpate them. Thomas Jefferson, another great figure, he said, well, we have no choice but to exterminate the indigenous population, the Native Americans; the reason is they’re attacking us. Why are they attacking us? Because we’re taking everything away from them. But since we’re taking their land and resources away and they defend themselves, we have to exterminate them. And that’s pretty much what happened — in the United States almost totally — huge extermination. Some residues remain, but under horrible conditions. Australia, same thing. Tasmania, almost total extermination. Canada, they didn’t quite make it. There’s residues of what are called First Nations around the periphery. Now, those are settler-colonial societies: there are elements of the indigenous populations remaining, and a very striking feature of contemporary society is that, throughout the world — in Canada, Latin America, Australia, India, all over the world, the indigenous societies — what we call tribal or aboriginal or whatever name we use — they’re the ones who are trying to prevent the race to destruction. Everywhere, they’re the ones leading the opposition to destruction of the environment. In countries with substantial indigenous populations, like say in Ecuador and Bolivia, they’ve passed legislation, even constitutional provisions, calling for rights of nature, which is kind of laughed at in the rich, powerful countries, but is the hope for survival.

Ecuador, for example, made an offer to Europe — they have a fair amount of oil — to leave the oil in the ground, where it ought to be, at a great loss to them — huge loss for development. The request was that Europe would provide them with a fraction — payment — of the loss — a small fraction — but the Europeans refused, so now they’re exploiting the oil. And if you go to southern Colombia, you find indigenous people, campesinos, Afro-Americans struggling against gold mining, just horrible destruction. Same in Australia, against uranium mining; and so on. At the same time, in the settler-colonial societies, which are the most advanced and richest,that’s where the drive is strongest toward the destruction of the environment. So you read a speech by, say, Obama, for example, at Cushing, Oklahoma — Cushing is kind of the center for bringing together and storing the fossil fuels which flow into there and are distributed. It was an audience of oil types. To enormous applause, he said that during his administration more oil had been lifted than any previous one — for many, many years. He said pipelines are crossing America under his administration to the extent that practically everywhere you go, you’re tripping across a pipeline; we’re going to have 100 years of energy independence; we’ll be the Saudi Arabia of the 21st century — in short, we’lllead the way to disaster. At the same time, the remnants of the indigenous societies are trying to prevent the race to disaster. So in this respect, the settler-colonial societies are a striking illustration of, first of all, the massive destructive power of European imperialism, which of course includes us and Australia, and so on. And also the — I don’t know if you’d call it irony, but the strange phenomenon of the most so-called “advanced,” educated, richest segments of global society trying to destroy all of us, and the so-called “backward” people, the pre-technological people, who remain on the periphery, trying to restrain the race to disaster. If some extraterrestrial observer were watching this, they’d think the species was insane. And, in fact, it is. But the insanity goes back to the basic institutional structure of RECD. That’s the way it works. It’s built into the institutions. It’s one of the reasons it’s going to be very hard to change.

JS: In “Nuclear War and Environmental Catastrophe (2013),” you argue that global society must be reorganized so that “care for ‘the commons’ [...] become[s] a very high priority, as it has been in traditional societies, quite often.”(1) You make similar conclusions in an essay from last summer reflecting on the importance of the efforts to defend Gezi Park in Istanbul, which you frame as being part of a “a struggle in which we must all take part, with dedication and resolve, if there is to be any hope for decent human survival in a world that has no borders.” How do you see the possibility of thoroughgoing social transformation and the devolution of power taking place in the near future — through the emergence and sustained replication of workers’ and community councils, as in the participatory economic model (Parecon), for example?

NC: That’s a well-worked out, detailed proposal for one form of democratic control of popular institutions — social, economic, political, others. And it is particularly well-worked out, in extensive detail. Whether that’s the right form or something other, I think it’s a little early to tell. My own feeling is that a fair amount of experimentation has to be done to see how societies can and should function. I’m a little skeptical about the possibility of sketching it in detail in advance. But that certainly should be taken very seriously, along with other proposals. But something along those lines seems to me a prerequisite first of all for reasonable life, put aside the environment — just the way a society ought to work, with people in a position where they can make decisions about the things that matter to them. But also I think it is a prerequisite for survival at this point. I mean, the human species is reaching a point which is unique in human history — just take a look at species’ destruction, forget humans. Species destruction now is at the level of 65 million years ago, when an asteroid hit the Earth and destroyed the dinosaurs and a huge number of species — massive species destruction. That’s being replicated right now, and humans are the asteroid. And we’re on the list, not far.

JS:In a speech reproduced over 20 years ago in the film version of “Manufacturing Consent,” you describe hegemonic capitalist ideology as reducing the life-world of Earth to an “infinite resource” and “an infinite garbage can.” Even then, you had identified the capitalist tendency toward total destruction: you speak of a looming cancellation of destiny for humanity if the madness of capitalism is not halted within this, the “possibly terminal phase of human existence.” The very title and argumentation of “Hegemony or Survival” (2003) continue in this line, and in “Hopes and Prospects (2010),” you claim the threat to the chance for decent survival to be one of the major externalities produced, again, by RECD. How do you think a resurgent international anarchist movement might respond positively to such alarming trends?

NC: In my view, anarchism is just the most advanced form of political thought. As I’ve said, it draws from the Enlightenment, its best ideals; the primary contributions of classical liberalism carry it forward. Parecon, which you mentioned, is one illustration — they don’t call themselves anarchists — but there are others like it. So I think that a resurgent anarchist movement, which would be the peak of human intellectual civilization, should join with the indigenous societies of the world so that they don’t have the burden to save humanity from its own craziness. This should take place within the richest, most powerful societies. It’s kind of a moral truism that the more privilege you have, the more responsibility you have. It’s elementary in every domain: you have privilege; you have opportunities; you have choices: you have responsibilities. In the rich, powerful societies, privileged people like us — we’re all privileged people — we have the responsibility to take the lead in trying to prevent the disasters that our own social institutions are creating. It’s outrageous to demand or even observe the poorest, most repressed people in the world taking the lead in trying to save the human species and in fact innumerable other species from destruction. So we should join them. That’s the role of an anarchist movement.

JS:In “Human Intelligence and the Environment” (2010), you raise the possibility of factory workers taking control of the means of production and autonomously deciding to break with business as usual, opting instead to produce solar panels or high-speed rail. This recommendation is entirely anarcho-syndicalist in nature, in keeping with your own proclivities: indeed, it bears much affinity with the prospect of an ecological anarcho-syndicalism, a concept that has been advanced by the Environment Union Caucus of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW-EUC) recently. A particularly promising proposal the EUC has made is that of an ecological general strike. In a similar vein, economic historian Richard Smith recently called for the mass shuttering of large corporations and vast swathes of industry as a means of giving humanity and nature a chance against climate destruction. Moreover, since the US military is the single largest contributor to the problem of anthropogenic climate disruption, the Pentagon should effectively be dismantled for this reason, among others, of course. How might activists present these pressing goals in ways that do not lend themselves to being dismissed as mere utopianism?

NC: Well, let’s take the idea of converting industry to producing solar panels, mass-transportation, and so on. That was not utopian. The US government virtually nationalized the auto industry a couple years ago — not entirely, but took over large parts of it. There were choices at that point. If there had been a powerful movement of the kind that we’re discussing, with a popular base, it could have pressed for something very realistic, which I think would have had the support of the working class. A strike will be regarded as a weapon against them — it’s taking away their livelihoods, their survival. The choices were two, really: either the government rescues the auto industry at the taxpayers’ expense and hands it back to pretty much the original owners, maybe different faces, but structurally the same owners, and have them produce what they were doing before, which is destructive. That was one possibility; that was the one that was taken. The other possibility, which could have been taken, and with a sufficient powerful popular movement might well have been taken, is to put those factories into the hands in the working class, and have them make their choices rationally, in the interests of themselves, their communities, the general society — and do exactly what you were describing: produce solar panels.

Take mass transportation. Going back to markets — if you take an economics course, they tell you markets offer choices. That’s partly true, but very narrowly. Markets restrict choices, sharply restrict choices. Mass transportation is an example. Mass transportation is not a choice offered on the market. If I want to go home today, the market does offer me a choice between a Ford and a Toyota, but not between a car and a subway. That’s just not one of the choices available in market systems, and this is not a small point. Choices that involve common effort and solidarity and mutual support and concern for others — those are out of the market system. The market system is based on maximization of individual consumption, and that is highly destructive in itself. It’s destructive even for the human beings involved — it turns them into sociopathic individuals. But it also means that the kinds of things that are needed for survival are out of the market system — like mass-transportation. That’s the form of economic growth that could help preserve the hopes for survival. I don’t think that it was at all unrealistic for that to have been done; there was nothing utopian about that.

Now as compared with things like say general strikes, I think that’s much a better step to take. It’s not saying, let’s throw a wrench in the machine and harm everybody in the interest of some longer-term goal. It’s saying, let’s take a wrench and fix the machine, so it can function right now, with all you guys working, doing better jobs, running it yourselves. You’re better off psychologically, socially, in every respect, and you’re also producing a world that makes sense to live in. That’s, I think, the better way to proceed, in general.

JS:According to German critical theorist Herbert Marcuse, revolution can be defined in part as action which seeks to secure the life, freedom, and happiness of future generations.(2) In light of looming catastrophic climate change, this definition would seem to hold a great amount of importance today. Within the modern Western revolutionary tradition, some of the most promising movements have arguably been Gracchus Babeuf and the Conspiracy of Equals, Rosa Luxemburg and the Spartacus League, and the Spanish anarchists. What would you say is the role of direct action in revolutionary struggle?

NC: First of all, I think we shouldn’t assume that revolutionary struggle is the only option. What we’ve just been discussing, for example, you can call reformist if you like: it’s taking the institutions, reshaping them, reconstructing them, turning them into democratic institutions, and carrying out actions that are quite feasible and would be beneficial for all of us. Is that a revolution, is it a reform? Who knows? What’s the role of direct action, say, in that? Well, the role of direct action would have been realistically for popular movements to have pressured the government to take that direction, which would not have been impossible. In fact, right now in the Rust Belt — something like this happened in the old Rust Belt, on a much smaller scale. Back in 1977, US Steel, a major corporation, decided to close its operations in Youngstown, Ohio, which was a steel town that had been built by steelworkers, by the union; it was a major steel town. That was going to destroy everyone’s occupation, the community, the society, everything — and it’s a decision made by bankers somewhere, who weren’t making enough profit. The steelworkers union offered to buy the plants and have them run by the workforce. This was an effort that the corporation didn’t want. Actually it’s kind of interesting — it would have been more profitable for them, but I think a class interest militated against it. This happens frequently. A multinational frequently will refuse an offer by the workers to buy out something they want to close and prefer to take the loss of just destroying it to having the precedent of worker-owned enterprises. That’s what it looks like to me; I can’t prove it. Corporations are totalitarian institutions — we don’t get access to their internal decisions — but that’s what it looks like.

Anyway, the company refused, and it went to the courts. I think it went all the way to the Supreme Court. Staughton Lynd argued the case for the community and the steelworkers; they lost, but they could have won, with enough popular support. Anyhow, after they lost, the steel [factories] were abandoned, but they didn’t give up. Working people started developing small enterprises — worker-owned — which they tried to integrate into the community, and it’s now proliferated significantly. Around Cleveland, northern Ohio, there’s quite a network of worker-owned enterprises — not worker-managed. There’s a gap. But worker-owned enterprises which can become worker-managed. It’s expanding. Right now there’s an effort by the US steelworkers union to make some sort of a deal with Mondragón, the huge Basque conglomerate which is again worker-owned, with management selected by workers, but not worker-managed. And that’s got some prospects, too.

So what is direct action? Well, all of these things are direct action; they’re direct action geared to the existing circumstances. Direct action has to be based on an analysis of what the existing circumstances are, and how an action can modify them positively. There’s no general formula; you can’t say direct action is good or bad. Sometimes it can harmful, sometimes it can be beneficial; sometimes it can be revolutionary, sometimes it can be reformist. You simply ask yourself what can be achieved now. So these developments in, say, northern Ohio, really are reformist — they’re even supported by Republican governors and by some sectors of business, because it sort of fits their right-wing, libertarian conceptions. Fine, let’s pursue that — nothing wrong with it. But you just can’t give general formulas for tactical choices. They depend on an exact, close analysis of the situation.

The Spartacists are a good case in point. Rosa Luxemburg went along with the Spartacist uprising, though she was opposed to it. She was opposed to it not in principle but because she realized it was going to fail, was going to be crushed. But out of solidarity she went along with it, and she was killed.

JS:Returning to the question of natural law, I would like to ask whether you think natural right applies to non-human animals? In an interview from 2010, you acknowledged that there exists a “moral case” for vegetarianism, but at a recent talk at University College London, you claimed that animals cannot have the same rights as humans because, lacking reason, they cannot be considered to have responsibilities. Can you clarify what you mean by this? As you likely know, many anarchists and anti-authoritarians today consider vegetarianism and veganism essential to the project of reducing humanity’s domination over nature.

NC: That makes sense, but that’s separate from the question of whether animals have the same rights as humans. It’s a fact that animals don’t have responsibilities; we can’t overlook that. If I have a dog, the dog has no responsibilities. Maybe I’d like it to bark when a criminal comes, but I can’t say the dog’s guilty if it didn’t do it. So it’s a fact that animals don’t have responsibilities. Responsibilities are related to rights. This does not say you should murder animals, but it is a recognition of reality. In fact, vegetarianism or veganism, I think, have a moral basis. But so do lots of other things. Like when you got here, you drove or took public transportation, meaning you used energy — that harms the environment. You made a choice: your choice was to harm the environment in order to come here so we could have this discussion. We’re making choices like that every moment of the day. Well, one of the choices has to do with people in countries where there is meat, but not much else: should they eat it? That’s another choice. We have our own choices. We are always — we can’t overlook the fact that we are constantly making choices which have negative effects, and this is one of them. There is an opportunity cost to vegetarianism.

Personally, I’m not a vegetarian — I almost never eat meat. The reason is I just don’t have time for it; I don’t have the time to think about it; I don’t want to think about it. I just pick up whatever saves me time, which usually is not meat, but I don’t purposely check to see if there’s a piece of chicken in the salad. Okay, that’s a choice. I don’t like — I don’t think we should have factory farming; the free-range business is mostly a joke — I understand that very well. With regard to rights and responsibilities, they do relate, and I don’t think we can overlook that. You can say the same about an infant: an infant doesn’t have responsibilities. But the reason we grant the infant rights is because of speciesism, and you can’t overlook that, either.

JS:In theoretical terms, I sense a great affinity between the analysis you and Edward S. Herman present in “Manufacturing Consent” and the dissident cultural research engaged in by Western Marxists during the twentieth century. You are famously given to quoting Antonio Gramsci’s saying, “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” I would like to ask whether you believe the US populace to be too conservative, distracted, and enthralled by the system to move radically against it? Do you think the public will become the “second superpower” you hope for in “Hegemony or Survival”?

NC: I’m not sure the public is that conservative, frankly. There are some interesting indications to the contrary. So for example in 1976, the bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence, there were polls taken in which people were asked what they thought was in the Constitution. Nobody has a clue what’s in the Constitution. But the answers basically were: Do you think this is an obvious truth, and if it is — it’s probably in the Constitution. One of the questions was “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs,” and the majority of the population thought that was in the Constitution, because it’s obviously true. In the late 1980s, there were polls taken asking people, “do you think that a right to health care is in the Constitution?” A very large proportion, I think maybe a majority of the population, thought it was in the Constitution. If you take a look at polls generally, you find that even among sectors of the population that are considered very right-wing — you do studies of people who say, “get the government off my back, I don’t want the government” — they turn out to be social democrats. They want more spending on health, more spending on education, more spending on, say, mothers with dependent children — but not welfare, because welfare was demonized by racists, Reagan and others. And this runs across the board, even on international affairs. So a majority of the population thinks that the US ought to give up the veto at the Security Council, and follow what the general world population believes is right. You take a look at taxes, and it’s striking. There’ve been polls on taxes for about 40 years. Overwhelmingly, the population thinks the rich should be taxed more — they’re undertaxed. The policy goes in the opposite direction. Polls are not definitive: you have to inquire into why people are answering the way they do; there could be a lot of reasons. But they’re not insignificant, either.

My own feeling is that people like Adam Smith were basically right, that there is a natural sympathy for others. I think the rich and powerful understand that. I think that’s one of the reasons why there’s such massive effort to destroy the institutions in the society that are based on solidarity. So, for example, why is the right wing — and in fact not just the right wing, because it goes over to Obama — so intent on undermining Social Security? It costs nothing, essentially; it’s a very efficient program; people survive on it; it works very well; there’s no economic problems that couldn’t be tinkered with — it’s really marginal. But there’s a major effort to destroy it. Why? It’s based on solidarity. It’s based on concern for others. There’s a major attack on the public schools — deep underfunding, vouchers, all kinds of things. Foundations are trying to undermine them. Why? Public schools are a major contribution to modern society. They’re one of the real contributions of American society — mass public education. Why destroy them? Well, they’re based on solidarity. If you take the ideology that we’re supposed to believe in, why should I pay taxes for the schools in my neighborhood? I don’t have kids in school, I don’t have grandchildren in school, and I never will. Why should I pay taxes? Well, you pay taxes so that the kid across the street will go to school, because you care about other people. But that has to be driven out of people’s heads. It’s a little like markets and consumption. Markets are favored by the economics profession, by the rich, and so on, up to a point — they really don’t believe in them, they want the powerful state to come in and save them if they’re in trouble. But ideologically they’re preferred, because they restrict human action to individual self-gratification — not mutual support, not protection of the commons.

Actually the commons are an interesting case. We’re coming up to the eight hundredth anniversary of the Magna Carta. The Magna Carta had two parts. One part was the Charter of Liberties — the central part was presumption of innocence. That’s out the window. By now, being “guilty” means Obama wants to kill you tomorrow; that’s the definition of guilty. “Innocent” means he hasn’t gotten around to it yet. But the other part of the Magna Carta was the Charter of the Forests — that’s the part that you find in popular myth, like the Robin Hood myths. Robin Hood was protecting the commons from the predators. That’s a big part of our history — English history. The commons were cultivated by the general population. The commons were the forests, the fields, the source of fuel, food, welfare — you know, widows would pick things from the forest to survive. And it was nurtured — it was nurtured by the public, it was cared for — they weren’t let to grow into jungles. They were carefully cared for. The Charter of the Forests was an effort not by the population but by the barons to protect the commons from the king, but the population wanted to protect the commons for themselves.

Then you move into the capitalist period, beginning with the enclosure movements which drove people off the land and so on, and you have a destruction of the commons. Today, in the capitalist ethic, there’s a concept called the “tragedy of the commons” which you study in economics, which teaches you that if you don’t have private ownership of the commons, it’s going to be destroyed. Well, based on capitalist morality, that’s true. If I don’t own it, what should I do to try to preserve it? But in ordinary human life, that’s just totally false. Privatization is the tragedy of the commons. We can see that in fact: When you privatize the commons, it gets destroyed for private profit. If the commons are kept under common control, they are cultivated and nurtured, because people care about each other, and they care about the future. When you ask, is the population conservative? I doubt it. I think these are deeply rooted sentiments and understandings which show up all the time: They showed up in labor struggles against the industrial system which was dehumanizing people, in peasant societies they show up, in indigenous societies today struggling against, say, gold mines — maybe it’ll give them more material wealth, but it’ll destroy their lives. You find this everywhere. And in the great thinkers of the past, you know, in the people we aren’t supposed to admire, like Adam Smith, it’s a central doctrine.

Actually it’s kind of interesting, if you look at Smith — everybody knows the phrase “invisible hand,” but practically nobody looks at how he used the phrase. He rarely used it, a couple of times. One of the uses is when he discusses what would happen — it’s an agrarian society he’s talking about — what would happen if some landlord controlled almost all the land? What would happen? He says, well, out of his natural sympathy and concern for other people, he would distribute the wealth, so, as if by an invisible hand, society would end up being egalitarian. That’s the invisible hand. The other major usage of it actually is in an argument against — against — what we call neoliberal globalization. He considers England and asks what would happen if in England the merchants and manufacturers decided to invest abroad and import from abroad. He says, they would gain, and England would suffer. However, they have a kind of natural tendency to want to function in their own society — a kind of a “home bias,” it’s sometimes called, kind of like an affinity to their own societies. So as if by an invisible hand, England will be saved from the ravages of what we call neoliberal globalization. That’s not what you’re taught. But they’re coming from a different era. That’s the precapitalist era, and conceptions were quite different before capitalist morality distorted them.

_______________________

1. Noam Chomsky and Laray Polk, Nuclear War and Environmental Catastrophe (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2013), 83.

2. Herbert Marcuse, “Ethics and Revolution,” in Ethics and Society: Original Essays on Contemporary Moral Problems, ed. Richard T. De George (New York: Anchor Books, 1964), 140-1.

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

Javier Sethness is a libertarian socialist and rights-advocate, author of “Imperiled Life: Revolution against Climate Catastrophe” and “For a Free Nature: Critical Theory, Social Ecology, and Post-Developmentalism.” His essays and articles have appeared in Climate and Capitalism, Counterpunch, Dissident Voice, MRZine, Countercurrents, and Perspectives on Anarchist Theory. Currently, he is writing a political and intellectual biography of Herbert Marcuse. He blogs on various aspects of the crises of capital at Notes Toward an International Libertarian Eco-Socialism.

 

http://www.alternet.org/economy/noam-chomsky-ecology-ethics-anarchism?akid=11689.265072.WjVEXZ&rd=1&src=newsletter978617&t=5&paging=off&current_page=1

 

Am I My Brother or Sister’s Keeper?

http://www.rifuture.org/wp-content/uploads/inequality.jpg

The Unequal Divide

by JOHN K. WHITE

One could imagine that inequality has been around forever, part of a natural process whenever people or groups compete. Today’s obscene levels of inequality, however, suggest that the divide is not a natural condition of human existence, but a product of how we compete, with the rich always getting richer. In any competitive society, there will always be winners and losers. In a stacked, speed-of-light trading society, big winners and big losers.

We see it everywhere. Fewer children from poor backgrounds go to university, higher levels of incarceration for those in bottom-income brackets, death rates among the less well-off much higher than average. In fact, increased poverty is directly related to increases in cancer and stroke, a correlation unchanged since the late 19th century and the start of modern economic practice.

In The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, Wilkinson and Pickett cited the greater likelihood of health problems the greater the divide between rich and poor, including depression, heart disease, and drug addiction. In case after case, they show how health and social problems are a function of zip code, alarmingly depicting how mortality rates are almost double for the poor (~90 per 10,000) compared to the rich (~50 per 10,000).

The effect on the economy is devastating, where wealth instead of merit determines who succeeds and fails, ripping apart lives and communities. In the process, the rich get richer, because a leg up at the start magnifies the discrepancy between winners and losers. In Stock Buybacks and Margin Debt (April 1), Mike Whitney noted that the top 20 percent own over 85 percent of financial assets. All because of a financial feedback loop, stacked in favour of those in the know.

We are all familiar with feedback loops, from the screeching sound of a microphone held too close to a speaker to the snowballing effect of exponential doubling. Division over a small number, excessive bank leverage, or the focusing power of a lens, which magnifies the output relative to the input, is similar.

Feedbacks loops apply especially to markets: VHS beating Betamax in video recording, despite being a poorer technology; Microsoft topping Apple in the operating system wars; Donald Trump buying his own book to make the best-seller list. A small advantage leads to a dominant market share. The rich profiting more and more from cheap, disenfranchised labour.

Think of a movie that became a summer hit. Why did it succeed when others failed—word of mouth, advertising, poor competition? It isn’t always down to merit. As noted by Frank and Cook in The Winner-Take-All Society: Why The Few At The Top Get So Much More Than The Rest Of Us, “In all these processes, small differences at the early stages of competition can prove decisive.”

The basics of a feedback system can be seen in a simple game from evolutionary theory, which shows how one player (or side or gene or species) ultimately ends up dominating another when in competition (or reaches “fixation” in evolutionary parlance). The computational rules are easy: Put 50 red and 50 black marbles into a bag, double the number of each, then randomly select 100 from the new 200. The number of red (or black) marbles is observed over a series of trials (double the 100 to 200, randomly choose 100 from the new 200, etc.), showing the evolution of each marble “species.”

As one might expect, one colour (or side or gene or species) eventually dominates the other (100-0), despite the randomness of the selection process, and sooner than later if the original balance is biased. A little push at the start makes a huge difference, highlighting the winner-take-all nature of a feedback loop.

Capitalism, however, is meant to reduce prices with increased competition, where companies adapt to create viable alternatives with competitive prices. An enlightened, supposed Christian society is also meant to help those who haven’t climbed aboard the life train. Everybody knows not to leave friends and family behind.

It would seem that competition itself is the problem, where the irony is that the more successful a venture, the more market share it realizes, which creates an advantage or monopoly position for some and, thus, less competition. In the process, we become losers in the race to pay more as our world becomes swamped with profit-only-minded junk and inefficient consumption. Without controls and intermediation, such success overheats the system. Always.

Indeed, the levels of inequality are becoming greater. Economists Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz have been reminding us for decades about the widening income gap and the missed opportunities for the talented to succeed. Instead, our failed financial system has created swaths of unemployed with marginalized lives. Another Nobel economist, James Heckman noted that “skills beget skills” and “motivation begets motivation,” showing a tenfold return for every dollar invested on the very young. According to Heckman, it is much better to help the disadvantaged at the earliest age possible, because a later, albeit well-intentioned intervention is much less effective. If only to stop the unfair feedback loop from feeding back to those who need it least.

The numbers really are shameful. Oxfam recently calculated that 85 people have as much wealth as half the world. In The Harder You Work, the Richer They Get (March 28), Peter Dolack noted that the world’s top billionaires have “an aggregate net worth of US$6.4 trillion, an increase of $1 trillion in just one year.” Yet minimum wages for workers keep decreasing, making it harder for many families to survive. Dolack noted that the minimum wage in 1963 was less than $2 or $15.25 in inflation-adjusted dollars, yet the minimum wage today is only $7.25. Relatively speaking, we’re going backwards. A more dignified and appropriate $15-rate makes sense, to get people working in authentic ways.

Sadly, modern economics is a zero-sum game with money as its measure. The billionaires should be ashamed. We’re meant to be building societies with shared goals not gated communities under a pretend umbrella of liberty.

Imagine if Warren Buffet received only 50 cents on each dollar he invested. If Berkshire Hathaway kept losing like everyday workers are, Buffet would be out of a job, possibly ending up collecting food stamps with the 47 million other “unfortunate” Americans. I doubt it, but maybe then the needed politics would follow.

But at every turn, the system is stacked, rewarding those with insider knowledge and privileged access. Turning a small advantage into a huge advantage. Major corporations and multi-millionaires pay less tax than you or I. For example, Apple paying 0.5 percent on its Irish profits of over $7 billion. Others shelter their money because of preferred access to a members-only financial system. Michael Lewis even stated that the stock market is rigged in favour of the technologically elite, further separating the winners and losers.

Of course, when those same elites crash the system, the public pays. Fines are never appropriate, burdening the rest who end up “socializing” the costs. Fines related to the 2008 meltdown were only a small fraction of holdings—less than 0.2% to settle charges brought by the Securities and Exchange Commission against Citigroup, or roughly one week’s profits. Goldman Sachs paid only $550 million or 2 weeks’ profits to settle charges that it sold subprime investments secretly designed to fail, while no senior executives were charged.

In today’s ultra-fast wired world, winners become bigger winners, sheltering more, paying less, receiving more advantage, getting better access and extra privileges at every stage. The haves and the have nots have become the good and the bad as labelled by the wealth-obsessed game players.

To be sure, many are still mired in a Social Darwinist past, thinking that money is the only measure, believing in failed “trickle-down” economics, claiming that a rising tide raises all boats, a common refrain when talking about economic investment and growth.

But it just isn’t so, when some don’t have boats. Or if they do, a leaky raft compared to a luxury yacht, without access to state-of-the-art protection, insurance, radar. Even an engine. In fact, a rising tide destroys many boats. It may be fun to imagine, but tides aren’t a useful comparison. If they were, it would be more apt to say that an economic tsunami has been wiping out our world.

It’s hard to believe we are still arguing over basic ideological differences between left and right, when it is greed that is to blame. But imagine a world where people and not bank accounts were used to determine wealth. Imagine a world where the very rich recognized their complicity in the pain of others. Martin Luther King summed it up best 65 years ago when he noted that truth could not be found in either communism or capitalism:

[C]apitalism is always in danger of inspiring men to be more concerned about making a living than making a life. We are prone to judge success by the index of our salaries or the size of our automobiles, rather than by the quality of our service and relationship to humanity. Thus capitalism can lead to a practical materialism that is as pernicious as the materialism taught by communism.

Or new Federal Reserve chairwoman, Janet Yellen, who in her first public speech, told the story of three unemployed people: “They are a reminder that there are real people behind the statistics.”

We have to end our basest obsession, the money game. We cannot all be rich, and if we’re not careful, the whole system will come crashing down. Am I my brother or sister’s keeper? Sadly, that seems to depend on who I consider my brother or sister. The human family has become divided by the cruellest of measures: our own selfishness. What a crying shame.

JOHN K. WHITE, an adjunct lecturer in the School of Physics, University College Dublin, and author of Do The Math!: On Growth, Greed, and Strategic Thinking (Sage, 2013). Do The Math! is also available in a Kindle edition. He can be reached at: john.white@ucd.ie.

http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/04/02/the-unequal-divide/

 

How the US Undermined the Copenhagen Climate Summit

What Was the NSA Really Up To?

by OLIVER TICKELL

Today the IPCC revealed its latest information on how human emissions of greenhouse gases are affecting planet Earth, and will continue to do so way into the future.

The diagnosis, and the prognosis, both make terrifying reading. We can expect declining crop yields, increasing climate instability, more extreme weather events, rising sea levels, ocean acidification – and all the rest of it.

But what really matters is what, if anything, we do about it. And despite the increasing certainty that the world is already experiencing the impacts of climate change, there is precious little chance that the world’s governments will suddenly do anything effective.

Last time it seriously tried, at Copenhagen in 2009, that attempt was spectacularly blown out of the water. Today we ask – how, why, and who did it?

What really happened at Copenhagen?

The 2009 Climate Summit in Copenhagen was promoted as being the world’s ‘great hope’ to secure an international agreement to tackle climate change.

Most countries entered into the negotiations with immense goodwill – even though there were always going to be thorny, complex issues to tackle, such as: how emissions cuts were to be divided up among countries; and how much money rich countries would pay over to poor countries suffering the impacts of climate change to help them adapt and move to low carbon development pathways.

But the hope did not last long. As The Guardian‘s Environment Editor John Vidal commented on Democracy Now:

“Copenhagen was just a complete nightmare, a diplomatic meltdown, I think is the fairest way to say it, where you had countries accusing each other of genocide.

“You had a total failure of the diplomatic process, that text which was meant to enhance everybody and bring them together in fact did the absolute opposite, and it shattered the confidence and the trust between different countries.”

So what caused the meltdown?

The event that caused the initial breakdown in trust at Copenhagen was the leak of the so-called ‘Danish text‘ by The Guardian on 8th December – an outline agreed by several EU states. The US was deliberately kept out of the formulation of the text due to suspicions by Denmark and other countries that it would abuse the information.

As the newspaper reported in its lead news story of the day:

“The UN Copenhagen climate talks are in disarray today after developing countries reacted furiously to leaked documents that show world leaders will next week be asked to sign an agreement that hands more power to rich countries and sidelines the UN’s role in all future climate change negotiations.”

Among other measures, it proposed ending the Kyoto Protocol mechanisms, getting developing countries to agree to emissions cuts, and to weaken the role of the UNFCCC in taking negotiations forward and running climate financing arrangements.

The problem was how it happened

This is all controversial stuff – but then again, it was only a negotiating position that would be subject to change as the talks progressed.

Moreover the Danish text did not in truth contain much that developing countries might not reasonably have expected to be raised during the talks.

Indeed most developing countries would have been happy to negotiate over the proposals, giving and taking ground, reaching in the end a compromise agreement that would also include considerable funding for them to move to low carbon development paths and undertake adaptation.

The problem was rather the manner of its release – highly inflammatory given the extreme sensitivities of the issues it raised. It was surely intended for one purpose only: to scupper the talks before they had truly begun.

This is not to blame The Guardian – they are after all a newspaper and they pulled off an enviable journalistic ‘scoop’. In any case, even had they not published it, their source would have simply taken the story elsewhere.

A subsequent discovery: the NSA was spying

Thanks to the whistle-blower Edward Snowden, we now know that the US National Security Agency (NSA) gathered intelligence from key countries involved in the Copenhagen talks.

Snowden’s documents were published online on 30th January by Danish newspaper Information, which worked together with American journalist Laura Poitras.

The NSA documents show that the US monitored communications between countries before the summit, and planned to spy on the negotiations during the conference:

“While the outcome of the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference remains uncertain, signals intelligence will undoubtedly play a significant role in keeping our negotiators as well informed as possible throughout the 2-week event.”

The document was originally posted on an internal NSA website on 7th December 2009, the opening day of the summit. Some of the paragraphs of the document are classified as ‘TS’ (Top Secret), the highest level of classification in the United States.

Some of the top secret sections are marked ‘SI’ (Special Intelligence), which means data yielded by monitoring of electronic communications.

Did the deliberately NSA scupper progress?

There are very good reasons to believe that the failure of the Copenhagen talks was in part due to the Americans’ information war against other negotiators.

Sources from the Danish COP15 delegation said that during the negotiations, the Americans were often surprisingly well informed about confidential discussions. “I was often completely taken aback by what they knew”, an official from the Danish COP15 office told Information.

The NSA also knew of China’s efforts to line up its negotiating position with India. A report, already gathered before the summit,

“detailed China’s efforts to coordinate its position with India and ensure that the two leaders of the developing world are working towards the same outcome.”

The leaked document also suggests the NSA were spying on Denmark, the host country of the summit, and knew of the Danish text well in advance of its release to US negotiators, and of a Danish plan to “rescue” the talks if needs be:

“Another report provided advanced details of the Danish proposal and their efforts to launch a ‘rescue plan’ to save COP-15.”

Making China ‘lose face’

The undermining of China’s role in the negotiations was one of the main reasons for the failure of the talks. It is now appreciated that Chinese negotiators entered into the talks willing to undertake mandatory emissions cuts, as the de facto leader of the developing world.

This was even signalled shortly before the conference by China’s announcement that it would reduce the carbon intensity of its economy.

But to publicly adopt this new position was always going to require subtle and complex political engineering. It would need to do this as leader as group of other high emitting developing nations, especially high-emitting countries like India and Brazil.

And it would have to propose these cuts itself as a grand political and humanitarian gesture, so garnering worldwide political credit.

What would be totally unacceptable was to agree to take on emissions cuts at anyone else’s demand – and especially at the insistence of the US and the EU.

And of course: in return for voluntarily taking on mandatory emissions cuts, the developing countries would demand comparable gestures from the industrialised nations – both in cutting their own emissions and in committing substantial new funding for developing country adaptation and mitigation.

A price too high?

But was the price that China, India, Brazil and other countries would demand too high for the US and its enormous fossil fuel industry, which had already prevented the US from ratifying the Kyoto Protocol?

In the event the US worked assiduously at the conference to engineer a split in the developing country bloc of countries – a highly effective means to counter a Chinese proposal before it was even made.

This appears to have been part of a deliberate strategy to make China ‘lose face’ as its negotiating tactics were pre-emptively undermined.

And it worked. China emerged from the talks universally condemned as the ‘climate baddie’ – as eloquently expressed by the journalist Mark Lynas – again in The Guardian:

“What I saw was profoundly shocking. The Chinese premier, Wen Jinbao, did not deign to attend the meetings personally, instead sending a second-tier official in the country’s foreign ministry to sit opposite Obama himself. The diplomatic snub was obvious and brutal … “

But why did this adopt this curious stance? Was it out of fury and a desire for revenge after the US has succeeded, aided by its formidable intelligence effort, to undermine China, and leave it appearing weak, exposed and belligerent?

In the end the USA emerged the clear political victor. As Lynas noted, “I saw Obama fighting desperately to salvage a deal, and the Chinese delegate saying ‘no’, over and over again.” So Obama came out smelling of roses, while China was universally vilified.

Whodunnit?

Looking at the evidence as a whole there can be little doubt that the Copenhagen climate talks were deliberately and highly effectively scuppered by a ‘dirty tricks’ operation carried out by the NSA and other US security agencies – including the pivotal leak to The Guardian of the Danish text.

Following Snowden’s revelations, we know that they had the ability to do that in spades. They also had motives. The US wanted:

* to protect their politically powerful fossil fuel industries, and their right as a nation to carry on polluting;

* to avoid having to pay out billions of dollars in climate funding to developing countries;

* to deny China the global leadership role it sought to secure for itself, and instead leave it humiliated;

* to present the USA and its President Barack Obama as trying against the odds to secure a climate agreement, in the face of obdurate resistance by other countries.

The operation was, in other words, spectacularly successful. The rest of the world were played for suckers. China emerged with a bloody nose. And the US was free to carry on letting rip with its emissions.

Now, faced with the brutal reality of how the US scuppered Copenhagen, we must ask ourselves – how can dark powers such as these be overcome in the future, so that the world can secure the global climate agreement that we so desperately need?

Oliver Tickell edits The Ecologist, where this article originally appeared.

Additional reporting by Sophie Morlin-Yron.

 

http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/03/31/how-the-us-undermined-the-copenhagen-climate-summit/

 

A Better Yardstick for Measuring Inequality

 

Too Much
THIS WEEK
How many of America’s most awesomely affluent would have to come together to create a group with enough combined wealth to equal $1 trillion? Phoenix tax lawyer Bob Lord posed that question last fall. His initial answer, based on an analysis of the September 2013 Forbes list of America’s 400 richest: just 51.

Those 51 deep pockets, Lord calculated in the Arizona Republic, held 1.5 percent of America’s wealth. Back in 1982, the year the annual Forbes 400 list began, that same 1.5 percent share sat in the hands of about 1,500 rich Americans.

And what about today? Bob Lord last week updated his figures, based on the latest available billionaire data. We now need to gather together, he notes, just 37 super-rich Americans to reach the $1 trillion threshold. And to hit $1 trillion 20 years from now, if current trends continue, we’ll likely need only five.

What would have to happen for current trends not to continue? We have some statistical ideas on that score. More on them in this week‘s Too Much.

GREED AT A GLANCE
First we had primaries, contests where candidates chased after real voters. Then came what reporters dubbed the “money primary.” In an ever more unequal America, candidates were first chasing after billionaires, to raise enough cash to prove their “viability.” Now comes what the Washington Post is calling the “Sheldon primary.” The nation has become so top-heavy that candidates today need only corral one billionaire to prove their mettle. For Republicans, Sheldon Adelson, the casino king who spent over $92 million on the 2012 election, has emerged as that one. Adelson is now looking for a horse to back in 2016, and “a lengthy list” of Republican presidential contenders, says the Post, is “jockeying” to win his affections. Last week, four top GOP hopefuls joined Adelson for a VIP dinner at the Las Vegas hangar where Adelson keeps his private jet fleet . . .

Richard GonzalezAmerica’s pharmaceutical giants had a real problem a dozen years ago. Their monopoly power had raised drug prices so high that Americans couldn’t afford their prescriptions. But to the rescue came the Bush White House, with legislation that gave seniors taxpayer subsidies to pay for drugs that cost Americans as much as five times what people elsewhere in the world are paying. The latest beneficiary of this generous subsidy: Richard Gonzalez, the CEO of AbbVie, an Abbott Labs spinoff. Gonzalez took in $18.2 million last year, after hitting, says AbbVie, all his “performance targets,” including one goal of getting the firm’s 25,000 employees fired up about the new company’s mission. Hitting that target must have come easy. Nothing, after all, gets employees fired up more than working for a CEO making $18.2 million . . .

Luxury Swiss watchmakers, reports Reuters, have come up with a new way to separate the financially fortunate from tidy chunks of their fortunes. Innovators in the fine timepiece industry are now letting the uber wealthy personalize their wrist wear with just about anything from diamond stars to engraved images of their nearest and dearest. The jewelers at Buccellati, for instance, are offering “a bespoke service where the customer has a say on everything: the material, the case, the dial, the hands.” The cost for this bespoking: a minimum of 100,000 Swiss francs, about $113,000. What’s driving the new personalization push? Industry analyst Mario Ortelli has an explanation: “Customers will pay more if they feel a stronger emotional link to the product.”

Quote of the Week

“The rich can buy more of everything. More food. More cars. More houses. More vacations. More boats. But for a democracy to function properly, they should be forbidden from buying more votes.”
Leo Gerard, president, United Steelworkers, Our Plutocracy Problem, March 25, 2014

PETULANT PLUTOCRAT OF THE WEEK
Howard SchultzHoward Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, doesn’t think much of the emerging national movement to establish a $15 minimum wage, an effort that’s running particularly strong in his own Seattle backyard. Schultz told reporters earlier this month that “most companies, especially small and midsized companies, would not be able to afford” a minimum set at $15 an hour. Added the billionaire: “I wouldn’t want to see the unintended consequences of job loss as a result of going that high.” Activists at the “15 Now” campaign quickly noted that the billionaire Schultz makes $9,637 an hour. The campaign is urging the Starbucks chief to “stop hiding behind small businesses and pay your own workers 15 now!”

IMAGES OF INEQUALITY
Cook Islands

Sand, palms, breezes. None of these wonders are attracting the world’s wealthy to the Cook Islands, tiny flyspecks halfway across the Pacific. What is? The Cooks, says the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, have become “a global pioneer in offshore asset-protection trusts,” devices that can shield the assets of the rich from nasty lawsuits back home. Island officials had a Denver attorney write their nation’s trust law, and so far Americans have parked the most money in Cook Islands accounts. Among them: wealthy doctors convicted of Medicaid fraud and execs who’ve bilked employee pension funds.

Web Gem

PolicyShop/ This site, hosted by the Demos think tank, frequently features inequality-related resources, like this chart pack on how “class haunts people from womb to grave, limiting their ability to flourish and pursue the good life as they define it.”

PROGRESS AND PROMISE
Sanjay SanghoeeLawmakers love business tax credits. They hand them out all the time, ostensibly to encourage investment and innovation. Why not use tax credits instead, asks former Lazard Freres banker Sanjay Sanghoee, to rein in CEO pay? Sanghoee has spelled out one approach toward that end in the business magazine Fortune. Under his proposal, a 3,000-worker firm with a 250-to-1 CEO-worker pay ratio would get a credit that equals $1,000 multiplied by 3,000 multiplied by 1/250, the inverse of the pay ratio. Total credit: just $12,000. But if that company’s CEO-worker pay ratio dropped to 25:1, the credit would jump to $120,000, the sort of incentive that might encourage companies to moderate their CEO pay. How to pay for the credits? Start closing, says Sanghoee, the offshore corporate tax loopholes that run $150 billion a year.

Take Action
on Inequality

Tell the nation’s top lawmakers that inequality in the United States has gone “too damn high.” Sign this new petition that proposes a progressive wealth tax and more.

inequality by the numbers
Penthouse prices

Stat of the Week

Business income in the United States sits increasingly in the hands of a few. In 1979 the top 1 percent of America’s households accounted for 17 percent of the nation’s business income, notes economist Paul Krugman. By 2007: 43 percent.

IN FOCUS

A Better Yardstick for Measuring Inequality

We always get what we measure. And if we measure inequality with a yardstick that only wonks can decipher, we’ll end up with a society too confused about inequality to do anything meaningful about it.

Just 85 of the world’s billionaires, the anti-poverty group Oxfam reported earlier this year, hold as much wealth as the entire bottom half of the world’s population, 3.5 billion people in all.

Seven of every ten people on earth today, Oxfam added, live in nations where inequality has jumped since the 1980s. Our richest global 1 percent currently own a whopping 46 percent of the world’s wealth.

Corrado GiniWe can’t blame Corrado Gini for this incredibly extreme global divide. He never set out to create inequality. He just tried to measure it.

This eminent Italian sociologist once ranked as one of the world’s premiere statisticians. Almost exactly a century ago, he developed what would become the most widely accepted default statistic for measuring inequality, a yardstick now commonly known as the “Gini coefficient.”

In Gini’s formulation, a society where one person grabbed all the income would have a value of one. A society with all income shared evenly would have a value of zero.

No nation, of course, has ever had either absolute income equality or absolute income concentration. Most nations end up with Gini numbers like 0.57, the Gini rating for the United States last year, or 0.49, the Gini for Japan.

These numbers tell statisticians a great deal. A rise or fall of a mere 0.1 in Gini values can be a big deal and signify a major change in income distribution. But these abstract numbers mean nothing to the general public and, consequently, essentially do nothing at all to raise inequality’s political profile.

The Gini numbers have other problems as well. Gini ratings say a good bit about a society’s overall level of inequality, but offer no clue about what’s driving changes in that level. Are the rich grabbing more or less of the income pie? Are the poor losing ground? Or households in the middle?

On questions like these, note inequality-watchers Andy Sumner and Alex Cobham, “the Gini won’t be a great deal of help.”

Gabriel PalmaSumner, the co-director of the International Development Institute, and Codham, a Center for Global Development researcher, have been beating the drums for a new inequality yardstick based on the work of Gabriel Palma, a Chilean economist now based at Cambridge University.

In almost every society, Palma’s research shows, the income share of people who make less than the most affluent 10 percent and more than the poorest 40 percent tends to remain fairly stable. Substantial shifts in income share typically only turn up in that top 10 and bottom 40.

The “Palma ratio” addresses this volatility at the edges by defining income inequality as a ratio between the top 10 and bottom 40. In a society with a Palma ratio of 4, the top 10 percent is grabbing four times the income of the bottom 40 percent.

This simple relationship gives every Palma ratio figure a readily understandable meaning. In a society where the Palma ratio has gone from 2 to 3, households in the top 10 percent have gone from making double the income of that society’s poorest 40 percent to making triple the bottom 40′s income share.

Last March 90 noted social scientists urged a key UN economic development panel to place the Palma ratio front and center. The top 10-bottom 40 inequality that Palma stats measure, they argued, really matters. Nations with shrinking Palma ratios, as researchers have detailed, turn out to be three times better at reducing extreme poverty and hunger than nations with rising Palma ratios.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz has just added to this growing push for the Palma yardstick. In a new co-authored paper, he’s asking world leaders to add a new ninth goal — eliminating extreme inequality — to the eight adopted at the UN Millennium Summit in September 2000.

Top-heavy income distributions, Stiglitz and his colleague Michael Doyle observe, “undermine both political equality and social stability” and generate chronic underinvestment in infrastructure, education, and other public goods that make for “long-term economic prosperity.”

Stiglitz and Doyle, a former UN assistant secretary-general, suggest a specific target for ending these top-heavy distributions. By the year 2030, the two analysts advise, all nations should have their top 10 percents taking in no more income than their bottom 40 percents, a Palma ratio of just 1.

Scandinavian nations already at or near this Palma ratio level, the pair adds, are benefiting from an “equality multiplier” that has left them not just more “equitable and stable” economically but more “efficient and flexible” as well.

“Sustainable development,” Stiglitz and Doyle sum up, “cannot be achieved while ignoring extreme disparities.”

And shoving Gini aside for Palma might make that ignoring all the harder.

Want to learn more about Palma ratios? Check this two-minute video.

New Wisdom
on Wealth

Ryan Cooper, Free Money for Everyone, Washington Monthly, March/April 2014. In an unequal America, the old tools for managing the economy no longer make much impact.

Doug Henwood, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, BookForum, March 25, 2014. An important review of Thomas Piketty’s new take on the long-term reign of the 1 percent.

Helaine Olen, Self Help is no help for inequality, Reuters, March 25, 2014. How the self-help industry is poisoning our politics.

Tony Atkinson and Salvatore Morelli, The chartbook of economic inequality, Vox, March 26, 2014. A new summary of changes in inequality for 25 countries over more than 100 years.

Paul Caron and James Repetti. Revitalizing the Estate Tax: Five Easy Pieces, Tax Prof, March 27, 2014. The estate tax could again make a difference.

Dan Rodricks, With Democrats like these, who needs GOP? Baltimore Sun, March 27, 2014. A Democratic-dominated legislature is throwing millions at millionaires.

Paul Krugman, America’s Taxation Tradition, New York Times, March 28, 2014. The demonization of anyone who talks about really taxing concentrated wealth reflects a misreading of both the past and the present.

Stein Ringen, Is American democracy headed to extinction? Washington Post, March 29, 2014. In Athens, democracy ended when the rich grew super rich and undermined the polity, a point the United States has now reached.

John Cassidy, Forces of Divergence: Is surging inequality endemic to capitalism? New Yorker, March 31, 2014. Another solid write-up on Piketty’s new blockbuster.

The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class cover

Now online: the full Introduction to Too Much editor Sam Pizzigati’s new history of the triumph over America’s first plutocracy.

NEW AND notable

Must Taxpayers Pay Tribute to Wall Street?

No Small Fees reportNo Small Fees: LA Spends More on Wall Street than Our Streets, A Report by the Fix LA Coalition, March 25, 2014.

Wall Street banks handed out $26.7 billion in bonuses last year, the New York state comptroller recently informed us, to some 165,200 execs and staff.

This same $26.7 billion, an Institute for Policy Studies analysis noted earlier this month, would have been “enough to more than double the pay” of all 1,085,000 Americans who work full-time at the current federal minimum wage.

And where did all those bonus billions come from? A hefty share came directly from America’s taxpayers, this clever new study makes outrageously plain.

No Small Fees drills down deep into the finances of a single city, Los Angeles. L.A. city officials, the study details, are annually passing Wall Street at least $204 million in financial fees, for everything from managing the city’s pension funds to selling the city’s bonds.

Some perspective: Last year L.A. spent only $163 million on its own streets.

The difference between what Los Angeles pays for its own streets and to Wall Street actually runs wider than these numbers suggest. The Wall Street total doesn’t include city dealings with private equity and hedge funds, exchanges, notes the Labor Institute’s Les Leopold, that don’t have to be publicly disclosed.

Nationwide, estimates Leopold, “the fees Wall Street extracts from public entities could total more than $50 billion a year — enough to provide free tuition at every public college and university in the country.”

We have, adds Leopold, distinct alternatives to Wall Street’s gouging of America’s public entities. State public banks — with modestly salaried executives — could save localities big-time on fees. North Dakota already has one.

The Federal Reserve could also “directly purchase municipal bonds from cities and states,” as the Fed is already doing with the toxic mortgage securities held by Wall Street’s largest banks. That move would save states and localities billions in fees and also “dramatically reduce municipal interest rate costs.”

Conclude the labor, religious, and community groups in the Fix LA Coalition: “City leaders have a choice: invest in our streets or Wall Street.”

Climate change: Apocalyptish

“THE four horsemen of the apocalypse”: that was the disparaging appraisal by Richard Tol of the University of Sussex of a report published in Yokohama on March 31st by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a group of scientists (including Dr Tol) who provide governments round the world with mainstream scientific guidance on the climate. Every six or so years, the IPCC produces a monster three-part encyclopedia; the first instalment of its most recent assessment came out last September and argued that climate change was speeding up, even if global surface temperatures were flat. The new tranche looks at the even more pertinent matter of how the climate is affecting the Earth’s ecosystems, the economy and peoples’ livelihoods.

Profoundly, is the headline answer, even though temperatures have warmed by only 0.8°C since 1800. They are likely to warm by at least twice that amount (and probably much more) by 2100. The report—the first since the collapse in 2009 of attempts to draw up a global treaty to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions—argues that climate change is having an impact in every ecosystem, from equator to pole and from ocean to mountain. It says that while there are a few benefits to a warmer climate, the overwhelming effects are negative and will get worse. It talks of “extreme weather events leading to breakdown of…critical services such as electricity, water supply and health and emergency services”; about a “risk of severe ill-health and disrupted livelihoods for large urban populations due to inland flooding”; and sounds the alarm about “the breakdown of food systems, linked to warming”.

Behind such headline scares, though, lies a subtler story, in which the effects of global warming vary a lot, in which climate change is one risk among many, and in which the damage—and the possibility of reducing it—depends as much on the other factors, such as health systems or rural development, as it does on global warming itself.

Compared with previous IPCC reports—the last was in 2007—the new one is confident about its assessment of damages, and more willing to attribute the harm to human influence on the climate. Take the rise in sea levels, which (pushed up by thermal expansion) has been increasing more in the 14 years of this century than it did from 1971 to 2000. The report reckons that, at current rates, average sea levels could rise by another half a metre or more by the end of the century, if greenhouse gases are not significantly curtailed. That is nothing but bad news for the people living in cities vulnerable to flooding from the sea: they now number 271m, and may increase to 345m by 2050, says the IPCC (some estimates put the figures higher). Nor are there any benefits from ocean acidification (caused by the absorption of carbon dioxide in seawater) which the report calls “a fundamental challenge to marine organisms and ecosystems”.

Equally stressed are terrestrial ecosystems facing sudden and irreversible change: climate “tipping points”. In the Arctic, for example, which is warming faster than any other large environment on earth, new shrubs and plants are invading formerly inhospitable areas. The vast boreal forests or Siberia and Canada are dying back faster than was expected in 2007, and may be more sensitive to warming than was then thought.

On the other hand, there are substantial areas where the influence of the climate is modest compared with other factors. Health is one. Pollution from factories adds to global warming and causes health problems directly: a new report by the World Health Organisation linked around 7m deaths to air pollution. In a warmer world, some diseases, such as malaria, will spread their range. Heat-related deaths will rise but cold-related ones will fall. In parts of the world where there are more cold-related than heat-related deaths, such as northern Europe, warmer temperatures could actually reduce the number of early deaths. By and large, the report says, the negative impacts will outweigh the positive ones but, for good or ill, the climate is not the dominant influence on mortality and morbidity. Public health and nutrition matter more.

Something similar is true for civil conflicts. Poverty and economic shocks help cause conflicts and are themselves influenced by climate change. Global warming can bring about changes in land use, reduce water supplies, and push up food prices, all of which contribute to riots (arguably, all this happened in Darfur). But it is hard to show that climate change has had a direct impact on levels or patterns of violence. If anything, it is the other way around: conflict reduces peoples’ ability to cope with climate change by, for example, laying mines in farmland. Surprisingly, global warming does not seem to be the culprit in most extinctions, either. With the exception of some frog species in Central America, no recent extinctions have been attributed to climate change.

So climate change has been powerful (in the oceans) and secondary (in health). But there is a third category: areas where the climate has had a large distributional effect, which may be good or bad, but usually appears to be negative. Fish are the most mobile of creatures and as the seas warm, marine animals and plants follow the cooler waters, migrating from the tropics to temperate latitudes. Benthic (bottom-feeding) algae are moving polewards at a rate of 10km per decade; phytoplankton are moving at over 400km a decade. The result, says the report, is that by 2055, fish yields in temperate latitudes could be 30%-70% higher than they were in 2005 (assuming there are any fish left by then) whereas the tropical fish yield will fall 40-60%. A similar distributional change, the scientists argue, is affecting the hydrological cycle: the rate at which groundwater is recharged is likely to increase in temperate climes and fall in tropical ones, leading to further drying of the soil in the dry tropics.

The most important distributional change, the IPCC reckons, concerns food, especially cereal crops. A warmer climate, in principle, should lengthen the growing season, since it becomes warm enough to plant seeds earlier. More carbon in the atmosphere should increase the rate of photosynthesis. Both these influences should mean that some plants will do better in a world with higher temperatures and more carbon dioxide. The previous IPCC assessment thought the world’s main cereals—wheat, rice, maize and soya—would see improved yields in temperate climates, offsetting yield declines elsewhere. Some climate sceptics have used this to argue that, at least until the middle of the century, a modest amount of global warming might be good for the world.

The new report pours cold water on that. It confirms that tropical cereals suffer declining yields when temperatures rise 2°C but finds that the benefits to temperate-climate crops are smaller than was thought. Rainfed or water-stressed crops, which were once thought to respond well to higher levels of carbon dioxide, now seem not to. Plants—especially maize—may like a long growing season but they hate temperature spikes more: even one day above 30°C may be enough to damage them. And it turns out that rates of photosynthesis in maize, sorghum and sugarcane are not responsive to changes in concentrations of CO2, so the effect of more carbon on temperate crops is patchy. Whether more heat and carbon produce yield increases seems to depend mostly on local conditions.

Meanwhile, the impact of other negative influences is more important than was thought. Weeds seem to benefit more than cereals at temperate latitudes, so they provide more competition to food crops for water, sunlight and nutrients. Greater concentrations of ozone are more damaging than was thought: the new report reckons high ozone levels cause an 8-15% reduction in yields compared with normal crops. Perhaps most important, higher CO2 concentrations reduces the quality of cereals, that is, their protein and starch content, taste and mineral components (and hence nutritional value). This is particularly significant for forage crops: with poorer quality grains, animals are smaller and less healthy. Cattle are suffering anyway because they are being bred for meat yield alone, which, in practice, has made them more heat-sensitive: a double burden.

At the moment, the report concludes, wheat yields are being pushed down by 2% a decade compared with what would have happened without climate change; maize is down 1% a decade; rice and soyabeans are unaffected. Over time, though, this could worsen. If you look at studies of likely cereal yield in the next decade, roughly half of them forecast an increase and half a decline. But for the 2030s, twice as many studies are forecasting a fall as a rise.

So how much might all these influences affect the world economy? The IPCC’s surprising answer to that is: hardly at all. A 2°C rise in temperature, it says, could result in worldwide economic losses of only 0.2% to 2% of GDP a year. The trouble is, as the IPCC also says, this figure is misleading. GDP is a bad measure of climate impacts and the economic models used are hopeless (“completely made up”, said one recent critic). GDP does not account for catastrophic losses, which may be the most important kind. As an income measure, it gives less weight to the poor—but the poor are more vulnerable to climate change than the rich. That is true both between countries (Bangladesh is more vulnerable to floods than the Netherlands) and within them (richer Bangladeshis live in safer areas). The models do not take account of things like “tipping points”; do not care if carbon concentrations go sky-high and assume that if an economy were ravaged by drought or floods, it would suddenly have lots of “spare capacity” that could be redeployed.

But in some ways, the IPCC’s new assessment also explains why all this does not really matter. Models are useful for calculating costs and benefits: you invest this much in new capacity and earn that much as a result. But, as the report implies, climate change is not a problem just because its costs outweigh its benefits. Rather, it matters because it increases risk, causes unpredictable interactions between climate and social or factors and because it manifests itself as extreme events (floods, heat waves) which inflict huge damage in a flash. Previous IPCC reports are looked at particular parts of this picture. The new assessment for the first time looks at climate change not just as a problem in its own right but as something that is merely part of an even bigger context.

http://www.economist.com/blogs/newsbook/2014/03/climate-change-0?fsrc=nlw|newe|3-31-2014|8191566|37449986|

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