Archives for March 2014

How climate pain is being spun into corporate gain

Fred Pearce writes: Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming by journalist McKenzie Funk tells the story of the people and corporations trying to profit from climate change. Many of them don’t want to halt its progress, they want to bring it on.

Here we meet private fire-fighters in drought-hit Los Angeles, selling their services to insurance companies, Russian shipping lines eyeing new routes opened up by the melting Arctic, Dutchmen rebuilding flooded islands in the Maldives, and manufacturers of snow-making machines selling their products to distressed winter resorts.

They all have an interest in global warming’s destructive progress. Funk lays bare their vanities and insanities while also exposing the magic of markets that can profit from anything.”I’m interested in climate change as a driver of human behaviour,” says Funk. “It’s a window into our collective state of mind.”

Many environmentalists have been gratified recently to discover that corporations feature climate change in their annual reports, and entrepreneurs make pitches to bankers and hedge-fund managers that read like back-issues of the environmentalists’ own doomsday scenarios.

The case seems to be won that climate change, rising population, and declining resources – from metals to water and land – are brewing up an environmental apocalypse. Gordon Gekko and the wolves of Wall Street have finally got climate change.

But not so fast. While greens fear the collapsing ecosystems, rising tides, climate migrations and mega-famines, the corporates and speculators see opportunity. Environmental pain can be corporate gain. In this synthesis of some of his great magazine journalism over a number of years, Funk brings the “booming business of global warming” spectacularly to life.

Some of his climate profit-takers do something useful to stem the problem at source – by building bigger and better wind turbines, for instance. But they are a small minority. Most of the windfalls are elsewhere. Seed companies like Syngenta and Monsanto develop more drought-resistant crops. Engineers ship air-conditioners or seek contracts to build sea walls round coastal cities. [Continue reading…]

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So, after the IPCC report, which bit of the world are you prepared to lose?

George Monbiot writes: To understand what is happening to the living planet, the great conservationist Aldo Leopold remarked, is to live “in a world of wounds … An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”

The metaphor suggests that he might have seen Henrik Ibsen’s play, An Enemy of the People. Thomas Stockmann is a doctor in a small Norwegian town, and medical officer at the public baths whose construction has been overseen by his brother, the mayor. The baths, the mayor boasts, “will become the focus of our municipal life! … Houses and landed property are rising in value every day.”

But Stockmann discovers that the pipes have been built in the wrong place, and the water feeding the baths is contaminated. “The source is poisoned … We are making our living by retailing filth and corruption! The whole of our flourishing municipal life derives its sustenance from a lie!” People bathing in the water to improve their health are instead falling ill.

Stockmann expects to be treated as a hero for exposing this deadly threat. After the mayor discovers that re-laying the pipes would cost a fortune and probably sink the whole project, he decides that his brother’s report “has not convinced me that the condition of the water at the baths is as bad as you represent it to be”.

The mayor proposes to ignore the problem, make some cosmetic adjustments and carry on as before. After all, “the matter in hand is not simply a scientific one. It is a complicated matter, and has its economic as well as its technical side.” The local paper, the baths committee and the business people side with the mayor against the doctor’s “unreliable and exaggerated accounts”.

Astonished and enraged, Stockmann lashes out madly at everyone. He attacks the town as a nest of imbeciles, and finds himself, in turn, denounced as an enemy of the people. His windows are broken, his clothes are torn, he’s evicted and ruined. [Continue reading…]

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The grim future is already here for many of the world’s farmers

Richard Schiffman writes: [A]s I found out in east Africa last month, the future is already here for too many of the world’s farmers. In Tanzania, the twice yearly seasonal rains upon which so many growers depend no longer come on time – and they’re sporadic, drenching downpours at that, alternating with prolonged dry spells. Heat spikes have also been withering maize crop, and wells and streams are increasingly drying up.

The area where Dephath Omondi farms in southern Kenya looks lush, with emerald maize fields bordered by towering acacias. But he tells me that appearances are deceptive.

Twenty-five years ago the weather here was predictable – the long rains started mid-March to mid-May, then the short rains started in late August, early September. In the last decade, these rains never come on time. We have had floods and week upon week, with no rain at all. Farmers are confused about when and what to plant. It is all very worrying.

Similar disruptions are already challenging farmers worldwide. In Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, rural people are losing ground as higher sea levels turn rivers too salty to grow rice. In Nicaragua, rising temperatures are spreading “coffee rust fungus”, a disease which is killing thousands of trees and may render 80% of its the nation’s coffee-growing areas unusable by 2050. And in the central Philippines, coconut farmers are struggling to recover from November’s Typhoon Haiyan, which badly damaged or tore out an estimated 33m trees. [Continue reading…]

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NSA infiltrated RSA security more deeply than thought

Reuters reports: Security industry pioneer RSA adopted not just one but two encryption tools developed by the U.S. National Security Agency, greatly increasing the spy agency’s ability to eavesdrop on some Internet communications, according to a team of academic researchers.

Reuters reported in December that the NSA had paid RSA $10 million to make a now-discredited cryptography system the default in software used by a wide range of Internet and computer security programs. The system, called Dual Elliptic Curve, was a random number generator, but it had a deliberate flaw – or “back door” – that allowed the NSA to crack the encryption.

A group of professors from Johns Hopkins, the University of Wisconsin, the University of Illinois and elsewhere now say they have discovered that a second NSA tool exacerbated the RSA software’s vulnerability.

The professors found that the tool, known as the “Extended Random” extension for secure websites, could help crack a version of RSA’s Dual Elliptic Curve software tens of thousands of times faster, according to an advance copy of their research shared with Reuters. [Continue reading…]

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NSA revelations ‘changing how businesses store sensitive data’

The Guardian reports: The vast scale of online surveillance revealed by Edward Snowden is changing how businesses store commercially sensitive data, with potentially dramatic consequences for the future of the internet, according to a new study.

A survey of 1,000 business leaders from around the world has found that many are questioning their reliance on “cloud computing” in favour of more secure forms of data storage as the whistleblower’s revelations continue to reverberate.

The moves by businesses mirror efforts by individual countries, such as Brazil and Germany, which are encouraging regional online traffic to be routed locally rather than through the US, in a move that could have a big impact on US technology companies such as Facebook and Google. [Continue reading…]

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Egypt’s Al Jazeera trial was inspired by America’s global war on journalism

Rozina Ali writes: Today, Egypt resumes its trial of the three al-Jazeera journalists it has held in captivity since December on the grounds that their coverage threatened national security. Media outlets, advocacy groups and foreign governments – including the United States – have all condemned the arrests and criticized the proceedings as a bold political move to suppress opposition.

Indeed, even as Washington keeps its distance from the upcoming election, the State Department has insisted upon “the free expression of political views without intimidation or fear of retribution”. Last month, the US, along with other signatories, filed a declaration through the United Nations condemning Egypt for its violent suppression of dissent, including against journalists.

But the brazen political rhetoric out of Cairo continues: that al-Jazeera’s Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed are guilty of aiding the Muslim Brotherhood, that the Brotherhood is a terror group, and that counter-terror policy is crucial to democracy at all costs – even at the cost of a free press, that beating heart of democracy.

This rhetoric is not new. Egypt seems to draw inspiration from the very country criticizing it – the United States.

Over the past decade, the US not only detained but tortured al-Jazeera journalists under counterterrorism policies. Now, as its War on Terror diffuses into support for an increasing number of local – and secret – wars on terrorism across the globe, the tactic of imprisoning journalists seems to be catching on. [Continue reading…]

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The Sheldon Primary and the occupation

Paul Pillar writes: From the 1890s until finally outlawed by the Supreme Court some fifty years later, one device used in the segregated South to maintain the white power structure and to prevent blacks from any effective political role was called the white primary. This was a sort of preliminary election, open only to white Democrats, that ostensibly was a nonofficial event not run by the state and thus did not adhere to laws and constitutional principles providing for equal treatment and universal voting rights. There would be a later official election in which blacks could vote, but it usually was meaningless because electoral contests had in effect already been decided in the white primary.

Now we have a procedure reminiscent of the white primary that is being called the “Sheldon primary,” as in political bankroller Sheldon Adelson. Republican presidential hopefuls are kneeling at the feet of the casino magnate in the hope of receiving his blessing, and thus his money, as the party’s nominee for 2016. It seems that Adelson, who together with his wife dropped $93 million on political campaigns in 2012, has concluded that he erred in that year in backing for too long candidates whose ideology appealed most to him but ultimately proved unelectable. This time he wants to anoint early on someone he can stick with right through the general election. He doesn’t want to see messy primary contests that would weaken the eventual nominee. If things work the way Adelson wants — and that he is willing and able to pay to make them work that way — caucuses in Iowa or the primary in New Hampshire will matter less than the Sheldon primary. Last time he let us have a good hard look at the likes of Newt Gingrich while votes in Republican primaries still meant something. Next time he doesn’t want primary voters to have that much of a choice.

For this man who will likely have such enormous influence on who will be the Republican presidential nominee, the Republican party isn’t even his first love among political parties. That would be the Likud party. [Continue reading…]

Over the weekend, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, recognizing the importance of sucking up to Adelson, paid homage to Israel but while doing so made the blunder of referring to the “occupied territories.”

In Adelson’s eyes, of course, there is no occupation, nor is there a West Bank — “Judea and Samaria” is part of Greater Israel. Christie was quick to make amends.

I guess both Christie and Adelson can take comfort in the fact that “occupation” and “intervention” have of late become ill-defined terms.

Russia didn’t intervene in Crimea and occupy that part of Ukraine. It just extended a warm embrace and welcomed back some briefly lost territory.

The thousands of Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon now in Syria? They’re just well-armed guests helping restore peace.

And if Palestinians starving in Yamouk aren’t too clear about how they are being helped by the Axis of Resistance, maybe it’s because hardly anyone these days seems to be able to coherently articulate what they are fighting for.

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Dmitry Medvedev visits Crimea as Russia’s army begins border withdrawal

The Guardian reports: Russia flaunted its grip on Crimea on Monday, with the prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, flying in to the newly annexed territory for a cabinet meeting, cementing the sense of resignation in Kiev and the west that the seizure of the territory is irreversible.

At the same time, Russian forces appeared to be pulling back from the border with eastern Ukraine. Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, said in a phone conversation with the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, that he had ordered a “partial withdrawal” from the border, according to Berlin.

The developments came after a four-hour meeting on Sunday between the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, and the US secretary of state, John Kerry, in which both sides put their visions for resolving the Ukraine crisis on the table. After the meeting in Pairs, Lavrov said Ukraine should introduce federalisation of power.

“Both sides had very concrete positions, and it was perhaps the first time over the past few months that things were called by their real names,” said a source in the Russian delegation, who did not elaborate further on whether this left the sides closer or further away from an agreement.

Kerry said after the meeting that any decisions on federalisation ought to be made by Ukrainian authorities, and the Ukrainian foreign ministry released a vicious riposte to the Kremlin, telling it to keep its nose out of Ukrainian affairs: “Do not attempt to teach others. Better bring order to your own country. You have plenty of problems,” read the statement. Ukraine’s acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, said on Monday that he saw no reason for the country to introduce a federal system. [Continue reading…]

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Erdogan declares victory in Turkey election and turns on opposition

Reuters reports: The Turkish prime minister, Tayyip Erdogan, declared victory for his party in local polls and said he would “enter the lair” of enemies who have accused him of corruption and leaked state secrets. “They will pay for this,” he said.

Erdogan, fighting the biggest challenge of his 12-year rule, addressed supporters from a balcony at AKP headquarters, after the end of a long and bitter election campaign in which he had labelled his opponents “terrorists” and an “alliance of evil”.

The harsh tone of his balcony address suggested he felt he now had a mandate for strong action against his enemies. “From tomorrow, there may be some who flee,” he said.

The election campaign has been dominated by a power struggle between Erdogan and a moderate US-based cleric, Fethullah Gulen, whom he accuses of using a network of followers in the police and judiciary to fabricate accusations of corruption in an effort to topple him. Erdogan has purged thousands of police and hundreds of judges and prosecutors since anti-corruption raids in December targeting businessmen close to him and sons of ministers.

“We will enter their lair,” he said. “They will pay the price, they will be brought to account. How can you threaten national security?” [Continue reading…]

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‘Our failure to address climate change is a symptom of things gone wrong in our democracy’

Not everyone in Congress is asleep, delusional, or corrupt.

On February 26 in his weekly “Time to Wake Up” speech, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse discussed the relationship between “dark money” in elections, Congressional gridlock, and the inability of Congress to act on climate change.

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Earth is in deep trouble, says IPCC report

WWF: A UN climate impact report, released today, gives the clearest and most comprehensive evidence yet that the earth we call home is in deep trouble. It reinforces the sobering view that climate change is real, it’s happening now and it’s affecting the lives and the livelihoods of people as well as the sensitive ecosystems that sustain life.

This is the second in a series of four reports being prepared by the world’s leading climate authorities in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It assesses the impacts, adaptation and vulnerability of human and natural systems, the observed impacts and future risks of climate change, and the potential for and limits to adaptation.

Samantha Smith, leader of the WWF Global Climate & Energy Initiative says the report highlights, for the first time, the dramatic difference of impacts between a world where we act now to cut emissions, which now come mostly from using fossil fuels; and a world where we fail to act quickly and at scale.

“This report tells us that we have two clear choices: cut emissions now and invest in adaption – and have a world that has challenging and just barely manageable risks; or do nothing and face a world of devastating and unmanageable risks and impacts.”

“The report makes it clear that we still have time to act. We can limit climate instability and adapt to some of the changes we see now. But without immediate and specific action, we are in danger of going far beyond the limits of adaptation. With this risk posed so clearly, we have to hope that the next IPCC report which is being released in Berlin in April, will provide us with strong statements on the solutions that we know exist,” she says.

Despite the warnings given by the IPCC in its reports over the past 20 years – reinforced by the release of the report today – the gap between the science and what governments are doing remains huge, says Sandeep Chamling Rai, head of the WWF delegation to the meeting.

“The science is clear and the debate is over. Climate change is happening and humans are the major cause of emissions, driven mainly by our dependence on fossil fuels. This is driving global warming. This report sets out the impacts we already see, the risks we face in the future, and the opportunities to act. It has been accepted by the member governments of the IPCC. Now it is up to people to hold their governments to account, to get them to act purposefully and immediately,” he says.

The risks of collective inaction are greatest for developing countries, says Chamling Rai. “All countries are vulnerable but developing countries have a greater sensitivity, with more people living in poverty and fewer resources to respond to climate disasters. We need to put in place those measures that will slow down warming and put us on a fair and just transition to a sustainable world. The report shows that ambitious emissions cuts now can reduce the risk of climate change in the second half of this century.”

And the regional assessments – given in depth in this report – show with a great degree of certainty what the impacts will be in the key regions of the world.

“We now have a better understanding of how climate impacts will affect people and nature in different regions. International adaptation efforts need to be intensified to adequately respond to such varied impacts,” says Chamling Rai. [Continue reading…]

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No one will be immune to the impact of climate change

The Guardian reports: Pensioners left on their own during a heatwave in industrialised countries. Single mothers in rural areas. Workers who spend most of their days outdoors. Slum dwellers in the megacities of the developing world.

These are some of the vulnerable groups who will feel the brunt of climate change as its effects become more pronounced in the coming decades, according to a game-changing report from the UN’s climate panel released on Monday. Climate change is occurring on all continents and in the oceans, the authors say, driving heatwaves and other weather-related disasters.

And the changes to the Earth’s climate are fuelling violent conflicts. The UN for the first time in this report has designated climate change a threat to human security.

The overriding lesson of this report, the scientists said, was that unless governments acted now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adopt measures to protect their people, nobody would be immune to climate change. [Continue reading…]

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The hellish monotony of 25 years of IPCC climate change warnings

Graham Readfearn writes: Entire island nations “rendered uninhabitable”, millions of people to be displaced by floods and rising seas, uncertainties over global food supplies and severe impacts on human health across the world.

The news from the United Nations on the likely impacts of climate change is dire, especially for the poorest people on the planet.

There will likely be more floods, more droughts and more intense heatwaves, says the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

As human emissions of greenhouse gases continue to rise, natural ecosystems come under extreme stress with “significant” knock-on effects for societies.

“Changes in the availability of food, fuel, medicine, construction materials and income are possible as these ecosystems are changed,” says the report.

But in the words of that great British band The Smiths, you can now stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before.

That’s because all of the above comes not from today’s blockbuster IPCC report on the impacts of climate change, but from the first one started in 1988 and published in 1990. Much of the science it drew on was older still.

Just so we can calibrate our memories here, 1990 was the year Tim Berners-Lee invented the world wide web, Nelson Mandela got out of jail and MC Hammer wore those pantaloons (U Can’t Touch This).

Now more than 25 years after scientists started compiling that first report, the latest report is similarly alarming – just with added impacts and greater certainty. [Continue reading…]

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Obama administration confidant lays out possible Iran nuclear deal

Barbara Slavin writes: Robert Einhorn, a former senior U.S. official who is well regarded by the Obama administration and retains close ties to its top nuclear negotiator, has proposed parameters for a long-term nuclear agreement with Iran that would allow it to continue enriching uranium at low levels and would ask Congress to pre-authorize military action in response to Iran violating the accord.

Einhorn’s proposal — unveiled Monday at the Brookings Institution where he is currently a senior fellow — seeks to marry Iran’s current limited need for nuclear fuel to the scope of its nuclear infrastructure, and provide confidence that Iran will not develop nuclear weapons.

In publishing his ideas, Einhorn — who left the Obama administration less than a year ago and retains close ties to chief U.S. negotiator Wendy Sherman and other administration officials — is illustrating that the fate of a long-term nuclear agreement with Iran rests not just on the negotiators meeting in Vienna, but on how political elites in the United States and Iran approach the compromises that will be realistically required to reach an accord. U.S. officials have compared the process of broadening the current six-month interim agreement to solving a Rubik’s Cube, in which changes in any one provision affect all others. [Continue reading…]

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In Memoriam: Jonathan Schell (1943-2014)

The widening lens
Jonathan Schell and the fate of the Earth
By Tom Engelhardt

“Up to a few months ago, Ben Suc was a prosperous village of some thirty-five hundred people.”  That is the initial line of The Village of Ben Suc, his first book, a copy of which I recently reread on a plane trip, knowing that he was soon to die. That book, that specific copy, had a history of its own.  It was a Knopf first edition, published in 1967 in the midst of the Vietnam War, after the then-shocking text had appeared in the New Yorker magazine. An on-the-spot account of an American operation, the largest of the Vietnam War to that moment, it followed American troops as they helicoptered into a village controlled by the enemy about 30 miles from the capital, Saigon.  All its inhabitants, other than those killed in the process, were removed from their homes and sent to a makeshift refugee camp elsewhere.  The U.S. military then set Ben Suc afire, brought in bulldozers to reduce it to rubble, and finally called in the U.S. Air Force to bomb that rubble to smithereens — as though, as the final line of his book put it, “having once decided to destroy it, we were now bent on annihilating every possible indication that the village of Ben Suc had ever existed.”

I had read the piece in the New Yorker when that magazine devoted a single issue to it, something it had not done since it published John Hersey’s Hiroshima in a similar fashion in 1946.  I never forgot it.  I was then 23 years old and just launched on a life as an anti-Vietnam War activist.  I would not meet the author, 24-year-old neophyte reporter Jonathan Schell, for years.

To look at that first edition some 47 years later is to be reminded of just how young he was then, so young that Knopf thought it appropriate in his nearly nonexistent bio to mention where he went to high school (“the Putney School in Vermont”).  The book was tiny.  Only 132 pages with an all-print orange cover that, in addition to the author and title, said: “The story of the American destruction of a Vietnamese village — this is the complete text of the brilliant report to which the New Yorker devoted almost an entire issue.”  That was bold advertising in those publishing days.  I know.  As an editor at a publishing house as the 1980s began, I can still remember having a fierce argument about whether or not it was “tasteless” to put a blurb from a prominent person on a book’s cover.

The year after Ben Suc was published, he wrote The Military Half, his second great book on that horrific American war, in which he widened his lens from a single devastated village to two provinces where almost every hamlet had been destroyed, largely by American air power.  To report it, he rode in tiny forward observation planes that were calling down destruction on the Vietnamese countryside.  He then went to work as a staff writer for the New Yorker and in 1975 widened his lens further in his book The Time of Illusion, taking in the history and fate of a single administration in Washington as it waged “limited war” abroad in a nuclear age and created constitutional mayhem at home, bringing yet more violence to Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians, as well as to the American political system.

In 1982, with his globally bestselling book The Fate of the Earth, whose first chapter, looking directly into a future of annihilation, was memorably entitled “A Republic of Insects and Grass,” he trained his lens on the threat of violence against all humanity.  He memorably explored what was then known as “the nuclear predicament,” the way we had fully taken over a role previously occupied by God and, in the midst of the Cold War, were threatening the extinction not of a village, a couple of provinces in a distant land, or a political system, but the planet itself.

I was by then working at Pantheon Books, where in 1988 I re-read his two Vietnam reports and republished them in a single volume as The Real War.  It’s cover copy read: “The classic reporting on the Vietnam War,” which couldn’t have been more accurate.  And then, some years later, I evidently stumbled across that first edition in New York’s great used bookstore, the Strand.  My copy is dated 8/93 on a little yellow tag inside the front cover and cost me $4. I doubt I read it a third time when I bought it.  I can only imagine that I wanted to have that memorable first book by someone I already considered one of the greats of our age.

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Capital in the Twenty-First Century: Thomas Piketty’s data-driven magnum opus on inequality

Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson write: When Alexis de Tocqueville visited America in the early 1830s, the aspect of the new republic that most stimulated him was its remarkable social equality. “America, then, exhibits in her social state an extraordinary phenomenon,” Tocqueville marveled. “Men are there seen on a greater equality in point of fortune and intellect … than in any other country of the world, or in any age of which history has preserved the remembrance.”

To Tocqueville, who largely ignored the grim exception of the South, America’s progress toward greater equality was inevitable, the expansion of its democratic spirit unstoppable. Europe, he believed, would soon follow America’s lead. He was right—sort of. Democracy was on the rise, but so too was inequality. Only with the 20th century’s Great Depression, two terrible wars, and the creation of the modern welfare state did concentrations of economic advantage in rich democracies start to dissipate and the fruits of rapid growth begin to accrue generously to ordinary workers.

Now another Frenchman with a panoramic vista — and far more precise evidence — wants us to think anew about the progress of equality and democracy. Though an heir to Tocqueville’s tradition of analytic history, Thomas Piketty has a message that could not be more different: Unless we act, inequality will grow much worse, eventually making a mockery of our democratic institutions. With wealth more and more concentrated, countries racing to cut taxes on capital, and inheritance coming to rival entrepreneurship as a source of riches, a new patrimonial elite may prove as inevitable as Tocqueville once believed democratic equality was.

This forecast is based not on speculation but on facts assembled through prodigious research. Piketty’s startling numbers show that the share of national income coming from capital — once comfortingly believed to be stable — is on the rise. Private wealth has reached new highs relative to national income and is approaching levels of concentration not seen since before 1929. [Continue reading…]

John Cassidy writes: Piketty believes that the rise in inequality can’t be understood independently of politics. For his new book, he chose a title evoking Marx, but he doesn’t think that capitalism is doomed, or that ever-rising inequality is inevitable. There are circumstances, he concedes, in which incomes can converge and the living standards of the masses can increase steadily — as happened in the so-called Golden Age, from 1945 to 1973. But Piketty argues that this state of affairs, which many of us regard as normal, may well have been a historical exception. The “forces of divergence can at any point regain the upper hand, as seems to be happening now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century,” he writes. And, if current trends continue, “the consequences for the long-term dynamics of the wealth distribution are potentially terrifying.”

In the nineteen-fifties, the average American chief executive was paid about twenty times as much as the typical employee of his firm. These days, at Fortune 500 companies, the pay ratio between the corner office and the shop floor is more than two hundred to one, and many C.E.O.s do even better. In 2011, Apple’s Tim Cook received three hundred and seventy-eight million dollars in salary, stock, and other benefits, which was sixty-two hundred and fifty-eight times the wage of an average Apple employee. A typical worker at Walmart earns less than twenty-five thousand dollars a year; Michael Duke, the retailer’s former chief executive, was paid more than twenty-three million dollars in 2012. The trend is evident everywhere. According to a recent report by Oxfam, the richest eighty-five people in the world — the likes of Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Carlos Slim — own more wealth than the roughly 3.5 billion people who make up the poorest half of the world’s population.

Eventually, Piketty says, we could see the reëmergence of a world familiar to nineteenth-century Europeans; he cites the novels of Austen and Balzac. In this “patrimonial society,” a small group of wealthy rentiers lives lavishly on the fruits of its inherited wealth, and the rest struggle to keep up. For the United States, in particular, this would be a cruel and ironic fate. “The egalitarian pioneer ideal has faded into oblivion,” Piketty writes, “and the New World may be on the verge of becoming the Old Europe of the twenty-first century’s globalized economy.”

What are the “forces of divergence” that produce enormous riches for some and leave the majority scrabbling to make a decent living? Piketty is clear that there are different factors behind stagnation in the middle and riches at the top. But, during periods of modest economic growth, such as the one that many advanced economies have experienced in recent decades, income tends to shift from labor to capital. Because of enmeshed economic, social, and political pressures, Piketty fears “levels of inequality never before seen.”

To back up his arguments, he provides a trove of data. He and Saez pioneered the construction of simple charts showing the shares of over-all income received by the richest ten per cent, the richest one per cent, and, even, the richest 0.1 per cent. When the data are presented in this way, Piketty notes, it is easy for people to “grasp their position in the contemporary hierarchy (always a useful exercise, particularly when one belongs to the upper centiles of the distribution and tends to forget it, as is often the case with economists).” Anybody who reads the newspaper will be aware that, in the United States, the “one per cent” is taking an ever-larger slice of the economic pie. But did you know that the share of the top income percentile is bigger than it was in South Africa in the nineteen-sixties and about the same as it is in Colombia, another deeply divided society, today? In terms of income generated by work, the level of inequality in the United States is “probably higher than in any other society at any time in the past, anywhere in the world,” Piketty writes. [Continue reading…]

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The 67 people as wealthy as the world’s poorest 3.5 billion

Kasia Moreno writes: Oxfam International, a poverty fighting organization, made news at the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year with its report that the world’s 85 richest people own assets with the same value as those owned by the poorer half of the world’s population, or 3.5 billion people (including children). Both groups have $US 1.7 trillion. That’s $20 billion on average if you are in the first group, and $486 if you are in the second group.

Oxfam’s calculations of the richest individuals are based on the 2013 Forbes Billionaires list. I decided to take a closer look at this group of 85 in search of trends. That’s when I realized that they are by now a much wealthier group. The rich got richer. And it was quite fast and dramatic. For example, while last year it took $23 billion to be in the top 20 of the world’s billionaires, this year it took $31 billion, according to Luisa Kroll, Forbes wealth editor, writing on Forbes.com.

As a result, by the time Forbes published its 2014 Billionaires List in early March, it took only 67 of the richest peoples’ wealth to match the poorer half of the world. [Continue reading..]

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The bitter tears of the American Christian supermajority

Chase Madar writes: The most persecuted minority in the United States is not Muslims, African-Americans or immigrants. It’s our Christian supermajority that’s truly oppressed.

Verily, consider three anecdotes from the past few weeks.

On March 2, three Baptist ministers in Akron, Ohio, arranged for the local police to mock-arrest them in their churches and haul them away in handcuffs for the simple act of preaching their faith. A video was posted on YouTube to drum up buzz for an upcoming revival show. A few atheist blogs object to uniformed police taking part in a church publicity stunt, but far more people who saw the YouTube video (24,082 views), in Ohio and elsewhere, took this media stunt as reality — confirmation of their wildest fears about a government clampdown on Christianity. [Continue reading…]

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