Karl Polanyi’s analysis of the destructive influence of organized capital

Robert Kuttner writes: What a splendid era this was going to be, with one remaining superpower spreading capitalism and liberal democracy around the world. Instead, democracy and capitalism seem increasingly incompatible. Global capitalism has escaped the bounds of the postwar mixed economy that had reconciled dynamism with security through the regulation of finance, the empowerment of labor, a welfare state, and elements of public ownership. Wealth has crowded out citizenship, producing greater concentration of both income and influence, as well as loss of faith in democracy. The result is an economy of extreme inequality and instability, organized less for the many than for the few.

Not surprisingly, the many have reacted. To the chagrin of those who look to the democratic left to restrain markets, the reaction is mostly right-wing populist. And “populist” understates the nature of this reaction, whose nationalist rhetoric, principles, and practices border on neofascism. An increased flow of migrants, another feature of globalism, has compounded the anger of economically stressed locals who want to Make America (France, Norway, Hungary, Finland…) Great Again. This is occurring not just in weakly democratic nations such as Poland and Turkey, but in the established democracies—Britain, America, France, even social-democratic Scandinavia.

We have been here before. During the period between the two world wars, free-market liberals governing Britain, France, and the US tried to restore the pre–World War I laissez-faire system. They resurrected the gold standard and put war debts and reparations ahead of economic recovery. It was an era of free trade and rampant speculation, with no controls on private capital. The result was a decade of economic insecurity ending in depression, a weakening of parliamentary democracy, and fascist backlash. Right up until the German election of July 1932, when the Nazis became the largest party in the Reichstag, the pre-Hitler governing coalition was practicing the economic austerity commended by Germany’s creditors.

The great prophet of how market forces taken to an extreme destroy both democracy and a functioning economy was not Karl Marx but Karl Polanyi. Marx expected the crisis of capitalism to end in universal worker revolt and communism. Polanyi, with nearly a century more history to draw on, appreciated that the greater likelihood was fascism. [Continue reading…]

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Think our governments can no longer control capitalism? You’ve been duped

Larry Elliott writes: Blue Planet 2 demonstrated the terrifyingly fragile state of nature’s ecosystem. One of the key messages from the BBC series was that a delicate balance exists in the oceans between predators and prey. If there are too many predators, the stocks of prey fall. The predators go hungry and their numbers dwindle, allowing the prey to recover. Balance is restored.

Humans have their equivalent of this predator-prey model. It is best demonstrated by the workings of the labour market, where there is a constant struggle between employers and employees over the proceeds of growth. Unlike the world of nature, though, there is no self-righting mechanism. One side can carry on devouring its prey until the system breaks down. Over the past 40 years, employers have been the predators, workers the prey.

Consider the facts. By almost any measure, the past decade has been a disaster for living standards. Unemployment has fallen from its post financial-crisis peaks across the developed world but workers have found it hard to make ends meet. Earnings growth has halved in the UK even though the latest set of unemployment figures show that the jobless rate is the lowest since 1975.

The reason is not hard to find. Unions are far less powerful; collective bargaining in most of the private sector is a thing of the past; part-time working has boomed; and people who were once employed by a company are now part of the gig economy. [Continue reading…]

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Trump’s tax plan ‘is at every turn carefully engineered to deliver a kiss to the donor class’

The New York Times reports: The tax plan has been marketed by President Trump and Republican leaders as a straightforward if enormous rebate for the masses, a $1.5 trillion package of cuts to spur hiring and economic growth. But as the bill has been rushed through Congress with scant debate, its far broader ramifications have come into focus, revealing a catchall legislative creation that could reshape major areas of American life, from education to health care.

Some of this re-engineering is straight out of the traditional Republican playbook. Corporate taxes, along with those on wealthy Americans, would be slashed on the presumption that when people in penthouses get relief, the benefits flow down to basement tenements.

Some measures are barely connected to the realm of taxation, such as the lifting of a 1954 ban on political activism by churches and the conferring of a new legal right for fetuses in the House bill — both on the wish list of the evangelical right.

With a potentially far-reaching dimension, elements in both the House and Senate bills could constrain the ability of states and local governments to levy their own taxes, pressuring them to limit spending on health care, education, public transportation and social services. In their longstanding battle to shrink government, Republicans have found in the tax bill a vehicle to broaden the fight beyond Washington.

The result is a behemoth piece of legislation that could widen American economic inequality while diminishing the power of local communities to marshal relief for vulnerable people — especially in high-tax states like California and New York, which, not coincidentally, tend to vote Democratic.

All of this is taking shape at such extraordinary velocity, absent the usual analyses and hearings, that even the most savvy Washington lobbyist cannot be fully certain of the implications.

Mr. Trump and the Republican leadership in Congress — stymied in their efforts to repeal Obamacare, and short of legislative achievements — have signaled absolute resolve to get a tax bill passed by the end of the year. As the sense has taken hold that Washington is now a trading floor where any deal is worth entertaining so long as it brings votes, interest groups have fixed on the tax bill as a unique opportunity to further their agendas.

“There’s a Christmas-tree aspect to the bill,” said C. Eugene Steuerle, a Treasury official during the Reagan administration and now a senior fellow at the Urban Institute. As an example, he cited the provisions in the House bill designed to appeal to the religious right.

“People want to add certain things, and if they don’t cost a lot, it’s a way to buy in agreement,” Mr. Steuerle said.

Economists and tax experts are overwhelmingly skeptical that the bills in the House and Senate can generate meaningful job growth and economic expansion. Many view the legislation not as a product of genuine deliberation, but as a transfer of wealth to corporations and affluent individuals — both generous purveyors of campaign contributions. By 2027, people making $40,000 to $50,000 would pay a combined $5.3 billion more in taxes, while the group earning $1 million or more would get a $5.8 billion cut, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation and the Congressional Budget Office.

“When you put all these pieces together, what you’re left with is we are squandering a giant sum of money,” said Edward D. Kleinbard, a former chief of staff at the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation who teaches law at the University of Southern California. “It’s not aimed at growth. It is not aimed at the middle class. It is at every turn carefully engineered to deliver a kiss to the donor class.”

In a recent University of Chicago survey of 38 prominent economists across the ideological spectrum, only one said the proposed tax cuts would yield substantial economic growth. Unanimously, the economists said the tax cuts would add to the long-term federal debt burden, now estimated at more than $20 trillion. [Continue reading…]

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The deep history of the domestication and enslavement of humans

Steven Mithen writes: When our ancestors began to control fire, most likely somewhere in Africa around 400,000 years ago, the planet was set on a new course. We have little idea and even less evidence of how early humans made fire; perhaps they carried around smouldering bundles of leaves from forest fires, or captured the sparks thrown off when chipping stone or rubbing sticks together. However it happened, the human control of fire made an indelible mark on the earth’s ecosystems, and marked the beginning of the Anthropocene – the epoch in which humans have had a significant impact on the planet.

In Against the Grain James Scott describes these early stages as a ‘“thin” Anthropocene’, but ever since, the Anthropocene has been getting thicker. New layers of human impact were added by the adoption of farming about ten thousand years ago, the invention of the steam engine around 1780, and the dropping of the atomic bomb in 1945. Today the Anthropocene is so dense that we have virtually lost sight of anything that could be called ‘the natural world’.

Fire changed humans as well as the world. Eating cooked food transformed our bodies; we developed a much shorter digestive tract, meaning that more metabolic energy was available to grow our brains. At the same time, Homo sapiens became domesticated by its dependence on fire for warmth, protection and fuel. If this was the start of human progress towards ‘civilisation’, then – according to the conventional narrative – the next step was the invention of agriculture around ten thousand years ago. Farming, it is said, saved us from a dreary nomadic Stone Age hunter-gatherer existence by allowing us to settle down, build towns and develop the city-states that were the centres of early civilisations. People flocked to them for the security, leisure and economic opportunities gained from living within thick city walls. The story continues with the collapse of the city-states and barbarian insurgency, plunging civilised worlds – ancient Mesopotamia, China, Mesoamerica – into their dark ages. Thus civilisations rise and fall. Or so we are told.

The perfectly formed city-state is the ideal, deeply ingrained in the Western psyche, on which our notion of the nation-state is founded, ultimately inspiring Donald Trump’s notion of a ‘city’ wall to keep out the barbarian Mexican horde, and Brexiters’ desire to ‘take back control’ from insurgent European bureaucrats. But what if the conventional narrative is entirely wrong? What if ancient ruins testify to an aberration in the normal state of human affairs rather than a glorious and ancient past to whose achievements we should once again aspire? What if the origin of farming wasn’t a moment of liberation but of entrapment? Scott offers an alternative to the conventional narrative that is altogether more fascinating, not least in the way it omits any self-congratulation about human achievement. His account of the deep past doesn’t purport to be definitive, but it is surely more accurate than the one we’re used to, and it implicitly exposes the flaws in contemporary political ideas that ultimately rest on a narrative of human progress and on the ideal of the city/nation-state. [Continue reading…]

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Americans throw away their own body weight in trash every month

Kadir van Lohuizen writes: Since early 2016, I have traveled to six major cities around the world (Jakarta, Tokyo, Lagos, New York, Sao Paulo and Amsterdam) to investigate how they manage — or mismanage — their waste. There are some remarkable differences. And a question emerges: Is this just garbage, or is it a resource?

The world generates at least 3.5 million tons of solid waste a day, 10 times the amount a century ago, according to World Bank researchers. If nothing is done, that figure will grow to 11 million tons by the end of the century, the researchers estimate. On average, Americans throw away their own body weight in trash every month. In Japan, meanwhile, the typical person produces only two-thirds as much. It’s difficult to find comparable figures for the trash produced by mega-cities. But clearly, New York generates by far the most waste of the cities I visited: People in the broader metropolitan area throw away 33 million tons per year, according to a report by a global group of academics published in 2015 in the journal of the National Academy of Sciences. That’s 15 times the Lagos metropolitan area, their study found.

With a sharp increase in the world population and many economies growing, we are producing more waste then ever. In Europe and the United States our trash is largely invisible once it’s tossed; in other parts of the world it is more obvious, in the form of waste dumps, sometimes in the middle of cities.

Dumps are a problem because they release methane, a potent greenhouse gas that traps heat in the atmosphere. Burning trash outdoors is also harmful, to the environment and people’s health.

Landfills and waste dumps are quickly filling up — with many of the largest receiving on average 10,000 tons of waste per day.

As a country becomes richer, the composition of its waste changes — more packaging, electronic components, broken toys and appliances, and relatively less organic material.

New York and San Francisco now have a goal of “zero waste” to be achieved by a reduction in trash and more recycling, but they still have a long way to go. In New York, plastic shopping bags are still provided in almost every store. The world produces over 300 million tons of plastic each year, of which only a small fraction is recycled.

By 2050, there will be so much plastic floating in the ocean it will outweigh the fish, according to a study issued by the World Economic Forum. Scientists estimate that there are at least 5.25 trillion plastic particles — weighing nearly 270,000 tons — floating in the oceans right now. [Continue reading…]

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Our relentless consumption is trashing the planet

George Monbiot writes: Everyone wants everything – how is that going to work? The promise of economic growth is that the poor can live like the rich and the rich can live like the oligarchs. But already we are bursting through the physical limits of the planet that sustains us. Climate breakdown, soil loss, the collapse of habitats and species, the sea of plastic, insectageddon: all are driven by rising consumption. The promise of private luxury for everyone cannot be met: neither the physical nor the ecological space exists.

But growth must go on: this is everywhere the political imperative. And we must adjust our tastes accordingly. In the name of autonomy and choice, marketing uses the latest findings in neuroscience to break down our defences. Those who seek to resist must, like the Simple Lifers in Brave New World, be silenced – in this case by the media.

With every generation, the baseline of normalised consumption shifts. Thirty years ago, it was ridiculous to buy bottled water, where tap water is clean and abundant. Today, worldwide, we use a million plastic bottles a minute.

Every Friday is a Black Friday, every Christmas a more garish festival of destruction. Among the snow saunas, portable watermelon coolers and smartphones for dogs with which we are urged to fill our lives, my #extremecivilisation prize now goes to the PancakeBot: a 3D batter printer that allows you to eat the Mona Lisa, the Taj Mahal, or your dog’s bottom every morning. In practice, it will clog up your kitchen for a week until you decide you don’t have room for it. For junk like this, we’re trashing the living planet, and our own prospects of survival. Everything must go. [Continue reading…]

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The climate crisis? It’s capitalism, stupid

Benjamin Y. Fong writes: Even casual readers of the news know that the earth is probably going to look very different in 2100, and not in a good way.

A recent Times opinion piece included this quotation from the paleoclimatologist Lee Kump: “The rate at which we’re injecting CO2 into the atmosphere today, according to our best estimates, is 10 times faster than it was during the End-Permian.”

The End-Permian is a pre-dinosaurs era of mass extinction that killed 90 percent of the life in the ocean and 75 percent of it on land. It is also called the Great Dying. Although those who write about environmental change like to add notes of false personalization around this point — “My children will be x years old when catastrophe y happens” — there is really no good way of acclimating the mind to facts of this magnitude.

However, the cause of the disaster that, by all indications, we are already living through should be clearer. It is not the result of the failure of individuals to adopt the moralizing strictures of “green” consciousness, and it is a sign of just how far we have to go that some still believe reusable shopping bags and composting (perfectly fine in their own right) are ways out of this mess.

It is also not the deceit of specific immoral companies that is to blame: We like to pick out Volkswagen’s diesel scandal, but it is only one of many carmakers that “deliberately exploit lax emissions tests.” Nor does the onus fall on the foundering of Social Democratic reforms and international cooperation: Even before the United States backed out of the Paris Accord, we were well on our way to a 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit temperature rise by 2100, “a temperature that at times in the past has meant no ice at either pole.”

The real culprit of the climate crisis is not any particular form of consumption, production or regulation but rather the very way in which we globally produce, which is for profit rather than for sustainability. So long as this order is in place, the crisis will continue and, given its progressive nature, worsen. This is a hard fact to confront. But averting our eyes from a seemingly intractable problem does not make it any less a problem. It should be stated plainly: It’s capitalism that is at fault. [Continue reading…]

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The People’s Republic of Heaven: From the Protestant Reformation to the Russian Revolution

Eugene McCarraher writes: This year marks the centenary of the Russian Revolution of October 1917. Toppling the provisional government that had overthrown the Romanov dynasty in February, Lenin and the Bolsheviks did more than deal a coup de grâce to the old regime; they sparked a wave of revolutionary upheaval that eventually washed over almost every continent. (The Cold War, usually dated from 1945, arguably began with the seizure of the Winter Palace.) The fear of revolution among bourgeois elites in the North Atlantic world induced them either to support fascist movements or to compromise with the working classes. The fascist alternative culminated in tyranny, genocide, and global warfare; the compromise enabled the “golden age of capitalism,” when high wages and widespread access to disposable income—ensured by labor unions and welfare states—fueled rates of economic growth and underwrote a level of social equality never before (and not since) seen in the Western democracies. In the Soviet Union itself, “really existing socialism” ended a feckless and brutal monarchy; provided education, medical care, and other public services; and (despite the images of queues served up for propaganda in the capitalist nations) raised the standard of living for ordinary people through rapid industrialization—all at the price of a ferocious oligarchy and its apparatus of murder and repression. The “Soviet experiment” would seem to have been either the tragic miscarriage of a passion for justice or a barbarous attempt to bring heaven to earth that proves the folly of utopian ambition.

Because the Russian Revolution and its consequences are still relatively fresh in historical memory, its centenary can easily overshadow the anniversary of another, perhaps even more consequential upheaval: the quincentennial of the Protestant Reformation, which commenced in October 1517. When Martin Luther posted the Ninety-Five Theses on a church door in Wittenberg, “out of love for the truth and desire to elucidate it,” he set off a chain of events that ultimately demolished the unity of medieval Christendom. Luther and his fellow reformers triggered a radiating tremor that would shake not only the Roman Catholic Church but all subsequent Protestant denominations, as the “priesthood of all believers” sanctioned the centrifugal energy of Protestantism. (The protest in Protestant hides in plain sight.) If the most hallowed doctrines and even the Bible itself could now be arraigned before the bar of individual judgment, then Christianity could be endlessly transformed and perhaps even ultimately repudiated. While the Russian Revolution launched what E.J. Hobsbawm once dubbed “the short twentieth century,” the Protestant Reformation incited five centuries of turbulence: religious liberty, liberal democracy, capitalist economics, and the “disenchantment of the world” supposedly wrought by the erosion of belief in magic, sacrament, and the occult.

Were the Reformation and the Revolution connected, despite the chasm of 400 years? The British-Pakistani writer and activist Tariq Ali sees a parallel, opening his new book on Lenin by citing Luther’s intransigent (and probably apocryphal) declaration to the Diet of Worms in 1521: “Here I stand, I can do no other.” Shortly after the Bolshevik victory, the young German philosopher Ernst Bloch suggested an even longer historical lineage for Lenin. In The Spirit of Utopia (1920), Bloch sketched a genealogy of revolution that included the Jewish prophets, St. John of the Apocalypse, medieval heretics and millenarians such as Joachim of Fiore, and radical Protestants such as Thomas Müntzer and John of Leyden (John Bockelson). Speaking the language of theology, this pre-Marxist vanguard had imagined the kingdom of God as a communist paradise. Bloch linked the Protestant and Soviet moments even more pointedly in Thomas Müntzer as Theologian of the Revolution (1921), whose protagonist envisioned “a pure community of love, without judicial and state institutions”—in marked contrast to the conservative and submissive Luther, who by supporting the German nobles’ suppression of the peasants’ rebellion of 1524–25 had consecrated the “hard and impious materiality of the State.” If Müntzer’s political theology was mired in mythopoeic conceptions of time, Lenin’s scientific appraisal of history ensured the fulfillment of Christian hope. The Soviet state heralded “the time that is to come,” Bloch declared with eschatological flourish. “It is impossible for the time of the Kingdom not to come now,” he concluded; hope “will not be disappointed in any way.” (“Where Lenin is, there is Jerusalem,” Bloch would later write in The Principle of Hope.)

But hope was disappointed, paradise was postponed, and in 1991 the “pure community of love” was exiled to a neoliberal gulag of dreams. With the revolutionary jitters of the ruling class relieved, capital unilaterally abrogated its burdensome and disingenuous truce with labor, and Margaret Thatcher’s “There is no alternative” became the ukase of plutocrats and incremental reformers. Real wages flatlined, growth rates decelerated, and the welfare states deteriorated. The golden age passed into a fiber-optic era of high-tech toil, gig work, and working-class demoralization. Across the liberal and social democracies, the political imagination of the North Atlantic intelligentsia remains resolutely narrow, pecuniary, and technocratic, preempting or foreclosing any hopes or demands not approved by finance or digital capital. Yet the longing “to put an end to fear, to the State, and to all inhumane power,” as Bloch summarized the lineaments of desire, remains as urgent as ever. As the belle époque of neoliberalism yields to what looks to be a long interregnum of chaos—in which, as Antonio Gramsci put it, “a great variety of morbid symptoms will appear”—it’s an opportune moment to reclaim the theological ancestry of communism. [Continue reading…]

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A lesson from Hurricane Irma: capitalism can’t save the planet – it can only destroy it

George Monbiot writes: here was “a flaw” in the theory: this is the famous admission by Alan Greenspan, the former chair of the Federal Reserve, to a congressional inquiry into the 2008 financial crisis. His belief that the self-interest of the lending institutions would lead automatically to the correction of financial markets had proved wrong. Now, in the midst of the environmental crisis, we await a similar admission. We may be waiting some time.

For, as in Greenspan’s theory of the financial system, there cannot be a problem. The market is meant to be self-correcting: that’s what the theory says. As Milton Friedman, one of the architects of neoliberal ideology, put it: “Ecological values can find their natural space in the market, like any other consumer demand.” As long as environmental goods are correctly priced, neither planning nor regulation is required. Any attempt by governments or citizens to change the likely course of events is unwarranted and misguided.

But there’s a flaw. Hurricanes do not respond to market signals. The plastic fibres in our oceans, food and drinking water do not respond to market signals. Nor does the collapse of insect populations, or coral reefs, or the extirpation of orangutans from Borneo. [Continue reading…]

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How hate groups forced online platforms to reveal their true nature

John Herman writes: The recent rise of all-encompassing internet platforms promised something unprecedented and invigorating: venues that unite all manner of actors — politicians, media, lobbyists, citizens, experts, corporations — under one roof. These companies promised something that no previous vision of the public sphere could offer: real, billion-strong mass participation; a means for affinity groups to find one another and mobilize, gain visibility and influence. This felt and functioned like freedom, but it was always a commercial simulation. This contradiction is foundational to what these internet companies are. Nowhere was this tension more evident than in the case of Cloudflare, a web-infrastructure company. Under sustained pressure to drop The Daily Stormer as a client, the company’s chief executive, Matthew Prince, eventually assented. It was an arbitrary decision, and one that was out of step with the company’s stated policies. This troubled Prince. ‘‘I woke up in a bad mood and decided someone shouldn’t be allowed on the internet,’’ he wrote in an email to his staff. ‘‘No one should have that power.’’

Social platforms tend to refer to their customers in euphemistic, almost democratic terms: as ‘‘users’’ or ‘‘members of a community.’’ Their leaders are prone to statesmanlike posturing, and some, like Mark Zuckerberg, even seem to have statesmanlike ambitions. Content moderation and behavioral guidelines are likewise rendered in the terms of legal governance, as are their systems for dispute and recourse (as in the ubiquitous post-ban ‘‘appeal’’). Questions about how platforms like Twitter and Reddit deal with disruptive users and offensive content tend to be met with defensive language invoking free speech.

In the process of building private communities, these companies had put on the costumes of liberal democracies. They borrowed the language of rights to legitimize arbitrary rules, creating what the technology lawyer Kendra Albert calls ‘‘legal talismans.’’ This was first and foremost operationally convenient or even necessary: What better way to avoid liability and responsibility for how customers use your product? It was also good marketing. It’s easier to entrust increasingly large portions of your private and public life to an advertising and data-mining firm if you’re led to believe it’s something more. But as major internet platforms have grown to compose a greater share of the public sphere, playing host to consequential political organization — not to mention media — their internal contradictions have become harder to ignore. Far before Charlottesville, they had already become acute. [Continue reading…]

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Corporate surveillance in everyday life

Cracked Labs reports: In recent years, a wide range of companies has started to monitor, track and follow people in virtually every aspect of their lives. The behaviors, movements, social relationships, interests, weaknesses and most private moments of billions are now constantly recorded, evaluated and analyzed in real-time. The exploitation of personal information has become a multi-billion industry. Yet only the tip of the iceberg of today’s pervasive digital tracking is visible; much of it occurs in the background and remains opaque to most of us.

This report by Cracked Labs examines the actual practices and inner workings of this personal data industry. Based on years of research and a previous 2016 report, the investigation shines light on the hidden data flows between companies. It maps the structure and scope of today’s digital tracking and profiling ecosystems and explores relevant technologies, platforms and devices, as well as key recent developments.

While the full report is available as PDF download, this web publication presents a ten part overview. [Continue reading…]

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Trump administration brags about how many wealthy people it has

The Washington Post reports: Starting Friday evening, the White House will begin to release financial disclosure forms filed by about 180 members of the Trump administration who are either commissioned officers or paid more than $161,755.

Already, the administration is bragging that its members are way wealthier than those who worked for former president Barack Obama — a point of pride that doesn’t quite match the president’s campaign pledge to “drain the swamp” of wealthy GOP donors, lifelong political operatives and those who are simply out-of-touch with everyday Americans. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports: Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, President Trump’s daughter and son-in-law, will remain the beneficiaries of a sprawling real estate and investment business still worth as much as $740 million, despite their new government responsibilities, according to ethics filings released by the White House Friday night.

Ms. Trump will also maintain a stake in the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. The hotel, just down the street from the White House, has drawn protests from ethics experts who worry that foreign governments or special interests could stay there in order to curry favor with the administration.

It is unclear how Ms. Trump would earn income from that stake. Mr. Kushner’s financial disclosures said that Ms. Trump earned between $1 million and $5 million from the hotel between January 2016 and March 2017, and put the value of her stake at between $5 million and $25 million. [Continue reading…]

The Washington Post reports: Stephen K. Bannon was running an investment banking company in Beverly Hills when his partner called with urgent news: a potential $10 billion deal was about to unfold in New York City involving a company they hoped to continue representing — and they didn’t want to be left out of the action.

Bannon, then in his mid-40s, told his business partner to meet him at the Los Angeles airport in an hour. Soon, they appeared at the Manhattan offices of PolyGram, a worldwide music company that they had previously represented in a film deal and now was for sale.

Before long, Bannon came up with an angle. He had represented Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, in a prior deal, and now he proffered the royal-family member, one of the world’s wealthiest Arabs, as a bidder. PolyGram was impressed and eventually paid Bannon a sizable fee for work on the overall deal. [Continue reading…]

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EPA chief, rejecting agency’s science, chooses not to ban insecticide

The New York Times reports: Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, moved late on Wednesday to reject the scientific conclusion of the agency’s own chemical safety experts who under the Obama administration recommended that one of the nation’s most widely used insecticides be permanently banned at farms nationwide because of the harm it potentially causes children and farm workers.

The ruling by Mr. Pruitt, in one of his first formal actions as the nation’s top environmental official, rejected a petition filed a decade ago by two environmental groups that had asked that the agency ban all uses of chlorpyrifos. The chemical was banned in 2000 for use in most household settings, but still today is used at about 40,000 farms on about 50 different types of crops, ranging from almonds to apples.

Late last year, and based in part on research conducted at Columbia University, E.P.A. scientists concluded that exposure to the chemical that has been in use since 1965 was potentially causing significant health consequences. They included learning and memory declines, particularly among farm workers and young children who may be exposed through drinking water and other sources. [Continue reading…]

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Amazon deforestation, once tamed, comes roaring back

The New York Times reports: A few months ago, a representative from Cargill traveled to this remote colony in Bolivia’s eastern lowlands in the southernmost reaches of the vast Amazon River basin with an enticing offer.

The American agricultural giant wanted to buy soybeans from the Mennonite residents, descendants of European peasants who had been carving settlements out of the thick forest for more than 40 years. The company would finance a local warehouse and weighing station so farmers could sell their produce directly to Cargill on-site, the man said, according to local residents.

One of those farmers, Heinrich Janzen, was clearing woodland from a 37-acre plot he bought late last year, hustling to get soy in the ground in time for a May harvest. “Cargill wants to buy from us,” said Mr. Janzen, 38, as bluish smoke drifted from heaps of smoldering vegetation.

His soy is in demand. Cargill is one of several agricultural traders vying to buy from soy farmers in the region, he said.

Cargill confirmed the accounts of colony residents, and said the company was still assessing whether it would source from the community. That decision would depend on a study of the area’s productivity and land titles, said Hugo Krajnc, Cargill’s corporate affairs leader for the Southern Cone, based in Argentina. “But if a farmer has burned down its forest we’ll not source from that grower,” he said.

A decade after the “Save the Rainforest” movement forced changes that dramatically slowed deforestation across the Amazon basin, activity is roaring back in some of the biggest expanses of forests in the world. That resurgence, driven by the world’s growing appetite for soy and other agricultural crops, is raising the specter of a backward slide in efforts to preserve biodiversity and fight climate change. [Continue reading…]

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Biologists say half of all species could be extinct by end of century

The Observer reports: One in five species on Earth now faces extinction, and that will rise to 50% by the end of the century unless urgent action is taken. That is the stark view of the world’s leading biologists, ecologists and economists who will gather on Monday to determine the social and economic changes needed to save the planet’s biosphere.

“The living fabric of the world is slipping through our fingers without our showing much sign of caring,” say the organisers of the Biological Extinction conference held at the Vatican this week.

Threatened creatures such as the tiger or rhino may make occasional headlines, but little attention is paid to the eradication of most other life forms, they argue. But as the conference will hear, these animals and plants provide us with our food and medicine. They purify our water and air while also absorbing carbon emissions from our cars and factories, regenerating soil, and providing us with aesthetic inspiration.

“Rich western countries are now siphoning up the planet’s resources and destroying its ecosystems at an unprecedented rate,” said biologist Paul Ehrlich, of Stanford University in California. “We want to build highways across the Serengeti to get more rare earth minerals for our cellphones. We grab all the fish from the sea, wreck the coral reefs and put carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. We have triggered a major extinction event. The question is: how do we stop it?” [Continue reading…]

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Bannon: Trump administration is in unending battle for ‘deconstruction of the administrative state’

The Washington Post reports: Stephen K. Bannon, President Trump’s reclusive chief strategist and the intellectual force behind his nationalist agenda, said Thursday that the new administration is locked in an unending battle against the media and other globalist forces to “deconstruct” an outdated system of governance.

In his first public speaking appearance since Trump took office, Bannon made his comments alongside White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus at a gathering of conservative activists. They sought to prove that they are not rivals but partners in fighting on Trump’s behalf to transform Washington and the world order.

“They’re going to continue to fight,” Bannon said of the media, which he repeatedly described as “the opposition party,” and other forces he sees as standing in the president’s way. “If you think they are giving you your country back without a fight, you are sadly mistaken.”

Atop Trump’s agenda, Bannon said, was the “deconstruction of the administrative state” — meaning a system of taxes, regulations and trade pacts that the president and his advisers believe stymie economic growth and infringe upon one’s sovereignty. [Continue reading…]

Michelle Goldberg writes: CPAC, the country’s largest annual conservative gathering, has long drawn energy from young people who are resentful about liberal hegemony on college campuses. Now, however, it’s flailing as it tries to establish its own moral boundaries on right-wing speech. Its trouble started when Matt Schlapp, CPAC’s chairman, invited professional troll Milo Yiannopoulos to give a keynote address, sparking a furious backlash from traditional conservatives, who dug up statements by Yiannopoulos justifying man-boy sex. That ultimately led to Yiannopoulos losing his book deal, as well as his CPAC slot, and resigning from his job at Breitbart. In the aftermath, CPAC is trying to distance itself from the alt-right. Yet top Trump aide Steve Bannon, who once boasted that his website, Breitbart, was the “platform of the alt-right,” still had a prime Thursday afternoon speaking slot. And many young people in attendance reveled in the alt-right’s rebellious frisson of fascism. [Continue reading…]

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Celebrity isn’t just harmless fun – it’s the smiling face of the corporate machine

George Monbiot writes: ow that a reality TV star is preparing to become president of the United States, can we agree that celebrity culture is more than just harmless fun – that it might, in fact, be an essential component of the systems that govern our lives?

The rise of celebrity culture did not happen by itself. It has long been cultivated by advertisers, marketers and the media. And it has a function. The more distant and impersonal corporations become, the more they rely on other people’s faces to connect them to their customers.

Corporation means body; capital means head. But corporate capital has neither head nor body. It is hard for people to attach themselves to a homogenised franchise owned by a hedge fund whose corporate identity consists of a filing cabinet in Panama City. So the machine needs a mask. It must wear the face of someone we see as often as we see our next-door neighbours. It is pointless to ask what Kim Kardashian does to earn her living: her role is to exist in our minds. By playing our virtual neighbour, she induces a click of recognition on behalf of whatever grey monolith sits behind her this week.

An obsession with celebrity does not lie quietly beside the other things we value; it takes their place. A study published in the journal Cyberpsychology reveals that an extraordinary shift appears to have taken place between 1997 and 2007 in the US. In 1997, the dominant values (as judged by an adult audience) expressed by the shows most popular among nine- to 11 year-olds were community feeling, followed by benevolence. Fame came 15th out of the 16 values tested. By 2007, when shows such as Hannah Montana prevailed, fame came first, followed by achievement, image, popularity and financial success. Community feeling had fallen to 11th, benevolence to 12th. [Continue reading…]

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The violent costs of the global palm-oil boom

Jocelyn C. Zuckerman writes: Just after nine o’clock on a Tuesday morning in June, an environmental activist named Bill Kayong was shot and killed while sitting in his pickup truck, waiting for a traffic light to change in the Malaysian city of Miri, on the island of Borneo. Kayong had been working with a group of villagers who were trying to reclaim land that the local government had transferred to a Malaysian palm-oil company. A few days after the murder, the police identified Stephen Lee Chee Kiang, a director and major shareholder of the company, Tung Huat Niah Plantation, as a suspect in the crime, but Kiang flew to Australia before he could be questioned by authorities. (Three other individuals were eventually charged in the case.) Around the world, environmental and human-rights activists added Kayong’s death to the tally of violent incidents connected to the production of palm oil, which has quietly become one of the most indispensable substances on Earth.

The World Wildlife Fund says that half of the items currently on American grocery-store shelves contain some form of palm oil. (“You’re soaking in it,” went the old tagline of the palm-oil-based dish detergent Palmolive.) The move away from trans fats in processed foods was a particular boon for the industry — semi-solid at room temperature, palm oil emerged as an ideal swap-in for the partially hydrogenated oils formerly used to enhance the texture, flavor, and shelf life of products like cookies and crackers. Since 2002, when a report from the National Academy of Sciences found a link between trans fats and heart disease, palm-oil imports to the U.S. have risen four hundred and forty-six per cent, and have topped a million metric tons in recent years. In addition to its widespread use in processed foods, the oil palm plant, Elaeis guineensis, lurks in one form or another in many cosmetics and personal-care products, such as shampoos, soaps, and lipsticks. It’s also used in animal feeds and industrial materials, and, increasingly, as a biofuel.

Elaeis guineensis is native to West Africa, and while its cultivation has spread recently in Central and South America and across equatorial Africa, eighty-five per cent of the palm oil produced today comes from Indonesia or Malaysia. Rising palm-oil exports have helped both countries make enormous economic strides in the past few decades, but the growth has come at a cost: deforestation rates in both places have been listed among the highest in the world. The habitat destruction brought about by palm-oil production has helped push scores of the region’s species, including orangutans and Sumatran elephants, rhinos, and tigers, to the brink of extinction. And, mostly thanks to palm-oil production, Indonesia can boast some of the world’s highest levels of greenhouse-gas emissions.

Yet it is violence — against local populations, farmers, and activists — that has human-rights groups closely watching the palm-oil industry. [Continue reading…]

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