Ad industry may gripe about adblockers, but they broke the contract – not us

By Andrew McStay, Bangor University

The latest version of Apple’s operating system for phones and tablets, iOS9, allows the installation of adblocking software that removes advertising, analytics and tracking within Apple’s Safari browser. While Apple’s smartphone market share is only around 14% worldwide, this has prompted another outpouring from the mobile and web advertising industry on the effects of adblockers, and discussion as to whether a “free” web can exist without adverts.

It’s not a straightforward question: advertising executives and publishers complain that ads fund “free” content and adblockers break this contract. Defenders of adblocking point out that the techniques used to serve ads are underhand and that the ads themselves are intrusive. Who is right?

[Read more…]


After eight futile years, Shell has given up drilling for oil in the Arctic

Quartz reports: After eight years and $7 billion of work, including some humiliating seafaring blunders and the black eye of the environmental spotlight, Shell has abandoned a high-stakes effort to find oil in the Arctic sea near Alaska.

The oil giant appears to have decided that, while global warming is melting a lot of northern ice, thus potentially opening up huge oil reserves, the Arctic is still an extraordinarily tough, risky, and expensive place to work.

The drilling effort in the Chukchi Sea may mark a close to an Arctic oil fever ignited in 2008, when the US Geological Survey issued a report saying that some 13% of the world’s remaining oil lay in the north — perhaps as much as 90 billion barrels of oil. Given that a 1-billion-barrel field is known as a supergiant, and that oil prices at the time were closing in on $100 a barrel, oil companies drooled over the prospects. Climate change even seemed to be co-operating, making the northern sea routes passable to drilling vessels and supply ships. [Continue reading…]


How do we get people to care about the environment? What if we’re asking the wrong question?

Brooke Jarvis writes: [Chris] Jordan is a photographer who once referred to himself, while joking with Stephen Colbert, as a paparazzo of garbage. Before going to [the Pacific atoll] Midway, he spent years trying to visually represent the baffling scale on which we produce and scrap the materials of consumer society. He explored ports and scrap yards, photographing immense, looming walls of crushed cars and oil drums, shipping containers and pallets, and later began creating digital composites to illustrate statistics too vast for the human brain to compute: a forest made from the cigarette butts thrown out every 15 seconds in the United States; a swirl of hundreds of thousands of cell phones, the discards of a single American day.

He’d created other series in the past — nature scenes, studies of alleys and puddles and urban trees bathed in the glow of neon signs — but nothing felt relevant to contemporary culture until he began trying to make the grand scale of human waste visible. It was his way of hunting the perpetual, elusive quarry familiar to environmentalists: a message that can get people to care.

But over time this work began to feel cold and conceptual, almost numbing. Jordan began to doubt that it could accomplish the breakthrough he wanted. So he started searching for something different: a way to help people make a powerful emotional connection to a broken world.

That’s when he heard about what happens to many Laysan albatrosses on the verge of flight. [Continue reading…]


Pope Francis’s reception in the U.S. from the left and the right

Gerard O’Connell writes: Pope Francis comes to embrace all the people of the United States and is likely to encourage them to renew their devotion to family life and their understanding of the demands of solidarity as well as the responsible use of their global power.

As we have read in his programmatic document, “The Joy of the Gospel,” and as he spelled out clearly in the encyclical “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home,” this Jesuit pope from Argentina is calling Christians to a new simplicity of life and a depth of spirit that replaces materialism, hyper-individualism and the pursuit of constant pleasure with an integrity that knows what it is to sacrifice, to live in compassion and solidarity, to work for the common good, to care for creation, to show mercy and to attempt to pattern our lives after Jesus himself. His radical message is clear, simple and firmly rooted in the Gospels, which he never tires of encouraging people to read. [Continue reading…]

Jesus said to Rush Limbaugh, “Go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” But when Rush heard this statement, he went away grieving; for he was one who owned much property. (Matthew 19)

Jesus wouldn’t have been welcome on Fox News. Indeed, as an undocumented Palestinian, he wouldn’t have even made it through U.S. Immigration.


Krushnic and King: The corporate nuclear complex

They’ve run the most profitable companies in history and, to put it bluntly, they are destroying the planet.  In the past, given an American obsession with terrorists, I’ve called them “terrarists.”  I’m referring, of course, to the CEOs of the Big Energy companies, who in these years have strained to find new ways to exploit every imaginable reservoir of fossil fuels on the planet and put them into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide emissions.  One thing is certain: just as the top executives running tobacco companies, the lead industry, and asbestos outfits once did, they know what their drive for mega-profits means for the rest of us — check out the fire season in western North America this year — and our children and grandchildren.  If you think the world is experiencing major refugee flows right now, just wait until the droughts grow more extreme and the flooding of coastal areas increases.

As I wrote back in 2013:

“With all three industries, the negative results conveniently arrived years, sometimes decades, after exposure and so were hard to connect to it.  Each of these industries knew that the relationship existed.  Each used that time-disconnect as protection.  One difference: if you were a tobacco, lead, or asbestos exec, you might be able to ensure that your children and grandchildren weren’t exposed to your product.  In the long run, that’s not a choice when it comes to fossil fuels and CO2, as we all live on the same planet (though it’s also true that the well-off in the temperate zones are unlikely to be the first to suffer).”

Remarkably enough, as Richard Krushnic and Jonathan King make clear today, the profits pursued by a second set of CEOs are similarly linked in the most intimate ways to the potential destruction of the planet (at least as a habitable environment for humanity and many other species) and the potential deaths of tens of millions of people.  These are the executives who run the companies that develop, maintain, and modernize our nuclear arsenal and, as with the energy companies, use their lobbyists and their cash to push constantly in Washington for more of the same.  Someday, looking back, historians (if they still exist) will undoubtedly consider the activities of both groups as examples of the ultimate in criminality. Tom Engelhardt

Privatizing the apocalypse
How nuclear weapons companies commandeer your tax dollars
By Richard Krushnic and Jonathan Alan King

Imagine for a moment a genuine absurdity: somewhere in the United States, the highly profitable operations of a set of corporations were based on the possibility that sooner or later your neighborhood would be destroyed and you and all your neighbors annihilated.  And not just you and your neighbors, but others and their neighbors across the planet. What would we think of such companies, of such a project, of the mega-profits made off it?

In fact, such companies do exist. They service the American nuclear weapons industry and the Pentagon’s vast arsenal of potentially world-destroying weaponry.  They make massive profits doing so, live comfortable lives in our neighborhoods, and play an active role in Washington politics.  Most Americans know little or nothing about their activities and the media seldom bother to report on them or their profits, even though the work they do is in the service of an apocalyptic future almost beyond imagining.

[Read more…]


Nature can’t pay its own way – so let’s take the market out of conservation

By Benjamin Neimark, Lancaster University

For years, scientists and environmentalists have debated the best ways to conserve and protect natural resources from pollution and over-exploitation.

In the late 19th century, conservation advocates with the help of President Roosevelt succeeded in making Yellowstone the first US national park. Yellowstone’s status sent a strong message against unregulated commercial extraction and the model has since been replicated worldwide. However, the strict exclusionary nature of national parks was extremely burdensome for local and indigenous peoples who remained reliant on natural resources within protected areas.

The policy of “fortress conservation” was intended to give way in the late 20th century to a host of more sustainable alternatives, announced at the first Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. Conservation and development would be better integrated, and rural poverty addressed by bringing the poor into a global marketplace, while simultaneously delivering the market deep into the rainforests.

Since Rio, market-based conservation has gained a lot of traction, and almost all forms of nature have been commodified. Packaged into sleek financialised terminology such as carbon credits, ecosystem services or species banking, the market has become such a supposed panacea for conservation that selling nature has become, for many, the only method of conserving it.

[Read more…]


Edelman ends work with coal producers and climate change deniers

The Guardian reports: The world’s biggest public relations company has decided it will no longer work with coal producers and climate change deniers.

Edelman said it believes such clients pose a threat to the company’s legitimacy and its bottom line.

The exclusion of coal and climate denial, as well as fake front groups that oppose action on global warming, is outlined in internal communications obtained by the Guardian and confirmed by company executives. It signals an important shift in a company that reported earnings of $833m (£540m) and has played a critical role in shaping public opinion in the US and globally about climate change.

The new approach follows a two-year review of Edelman’s operations aimed at protecting what the company calls its “licence to lead”, following negative publicity about its work on behalf of the oil lobby and pipeline companies.

The conclusion was that coal producers and climate denial, as well as tactics such as greenwashing, were high-risk. [Continue reading…]


Living without money: What I learned

Mark Boyle writes: With little idea of what I was to expect, or how I was to go about it, seven years ago I began living without money. Originally intended as a one-year experiment in ecological living, I wanted to explore how it felt as a human being to live without the trappings and security that money had long-since afforded me. While terrifying and tough to begin with, by the end of the first year I somehow found myself more content, healthier and at peace than I had ever been. And although three years later I made a difficult decision to re-enter the monetary world – to establish projects that would enable others to loosen the grip that money has on their lives – I took from it many lessons that have changed my life forever.

For the first time I experienced how connected and interdependent I was on the people and natural world around me, something I had previously only intellectualised. It is not until you become physically aware of how your own health is entirely reliant on the health of the great web of life, that ideas such as deep ecology absorb themselves into your arteries, sinews and bones.

If the air that filled my lungs became polluted, if the nutrients in the soil that produced my food became depleted, or if the spring water which made up 60% of my body became poisoned, my own health would suffer accordingly. This seems like common sense, but you wouldn’t think so by observing the way we treat the natural world today. Over time, even the boundaries of what I considered to be “I” became less and less clear. [Continue reading…]


Evidence-based medicine lacks solid supporting evidence

Tom Siegfried writes: For millennia, medicine was more art than science.

From at least the time of Hippocrates in ancient Greece, physicians were taught to use their intuition, based on their experience.

“For it is by the same symptoms in all cases that you will know the diseases,” he wrote. “He who would make accurate forecasts as to those who will recover, and those who will die … must understand all the symptoms thoroughly.”

In other words, doctors drew general conclusions from experience to forecast the course of disease in particular patients.

But Hippocratic medicine also incorporated “scientific” theory — the idea that four “humors” (blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm) controlled the body’s health. Excess or deficiency of any of the humors made you sick, so treating patients consisted of trying to put the humors back in balance. Bloodletting, used for centuries to treat everything from fevers to seizures, serves as an example of theory-based medicine in action.

Nowadays medical practice is supposedly (more) scientific. But actually, medical theory seems to have taken a backseat to the lessons-from-experience approach. Today’s catch phrase is “evidence-based medicine,” and that “evidence” typically takes the form of results from clinical trials, in which potential treatments are tested on large groups of people. It’s basically just a more systematic approach to Hippocrates’ advice that doctors base diagnosis, treatments and prognosis on experience with previous patients. But instead of doctors applying their own personal clinical experience, they rely on generalizing the results of large trials to their particular patients.

You should call this approach the “Risk Generalization-Particularization” model of medical prediction, Jonathan Fuller and Luis Flores write in a paper to be published in Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences. (It’s OK to call it ‘Risk GP’ for short, they say.) “Risk GP” they note, is “the model that many practitioners implicitly rely upon when making evidence-based decisions.”

Risk GP as a model for making medical judgments is the outgrowth of demands for evidence-based medicine, write Fuller, on the medicine faculty at the University of Toronto in Canada, and Flores, a philosopher at King’s College London in England. It “advocates applying the results of population studies over mechanistic reasoning … in diagnosis, prognosis and therapy.” Evidence-based medicine has set a new standard for clinical reasoning, Fuller and Flores declare; it “has become dominant in medical research and education, accepted by leading medical schools and all of the major medical journals.”

So it seems like a good idea to ask whether the “evidence” actually justifies this evidence-based approach. In fact, it doesn’t. [Continue reading…]


Guns, germs, and steal

We have all been raised to believe that civilization is, in large part, sustained by law and order. Without complex social institutions and some form of governance, we would be at the mercy of the law of the jungle — so the argument goes.

But there is a basic flaw in this Hobbesian view of a collective human need to tame the savagery in our nature.

For human beings to be vulnerable to the selfish drives of those around them, they generally need to possess things that are worth stealing. For things to be worth stealing, they must have durable value. People who own nothing, have little need to worry about thieves.

While Jared Diamond has argued that civilization arose in regions where agrarian societies could accumulate food surpluses, new research suggests that the value of cereal crops did not derive simply from the fact that the could be stored, but rather from the fact that having been stored they could subsequently be stolen or confiscated.

Joram Mayshar, Omer Moav, Zvika Neeman, and Luigi Pascali write: In a recent paper (Mayshar et al. 2015), we contend that fiscal capacity and viable state institutions are conditioned to a major extent by geography. Thus, like Diamond, we argue that geography matters a great deal. But in contrast to Diamond, and against conventional opinion, we contend that it is not high farming productivity and the availability of food surplus that accounts for the economic success of Eurasia.

  • We propose an alternative mechanism by which environmental factors imply the appropriability of crops and thereby the emergence of complex social institutions.

To understand why surplus is neither necessary nor sufficient for the emergence of hierarchy, consider a hypothetical community of farmers who cultivate cassava (a major source of calories in sub-Saharan Africa, and the main crop cultivated in Nigeria), and assume that the annual output is well above subsistence. Cassava is a perennial root that is highly perishable upon harvest. Since this crop rots shortly after harvest, it isn’t stored and it is thus difficult to steal or confiscate. As a result, the assumed available surplus would not facilitate the emergence of a non-food producing elite, and may be expected to lead to a population increase.

Consider now another hypothetical farming community that grows a cereal grain – such as wheat, rice or maize – yet with an annual produce that just meets each family’s subsistence needs, without any surplus. Since the grain has to be harvested within a short period and then stored until the next harvest, a visiting robber or tax collector could readily confiscate part of the stored produce. Such ongoing confiscation may be expected to lead to a downward adjustment in population density, but it will nevertheless facilitate the emergence of non-producing elite, even though there was no surplus.

This simple scenario shows that surplus isn’t a precondition for taxation. It also illustrates our alternative theory that the transition to agriculture enabled hierarchy to emerge only where the cultivated crops were vulnerable to appropriation.

  • In particular, we contend that the Neolithic emergence of fiscal capacity and hierarchy was conditioned on the cultivation of appropriable cereals as the staple crops, in contrast to less appropriable staples such as roots and tubers.

According to this theory, complex hierarchy did not emerge among hunter-gatherers because hunter-gatherers essentially live from hand-to-mouth, with little that can be expropriated from them to feed a would-be elite. [Continue reading…]


How the super-rich threaten American democracy

Markus Feldenkirchen writes: The two candidates currently attracting the most attention in the American presidential primaries seem to be polar opposites. First, there’s self-declared socialist Bernie Sanders, who can pack entire arenas with as many as 20,000 supporters. And then there’s a man who claims to possess $10 billion, Donald Trump, who is leading in the broad field of Republicans. The two do, however, have one thing in common: They reject the US campaign finance system. One out of conviction; the other because he has the resources to finance his own campaign.

One, Bernie Sanders, takes pride in stating that he doesn’t want rich people’s money. Some 400,000 largely middle class Americans have contributed to his campaign so far, donating $31.20 on average. The other, Donald Trump, proudly announced recently that he had rejected a $5 million donation from a hedge fund manager. And that he is prepared to pump $1 billion of his own wealth into the campaign. One of Trump’s most popular arguments so far is that his rival Jeb Bush has managed to raise over $150 million. “Jeb Bush is a puppet to his donors,” Trump says disparagingly. Sooner or later, he argues, they will call in their favors. “I don’t owe anyone any favors.” It’s a message that is proving popular with potential voters. But is it really any more democratic that a billionaire can buy his own election instead of allowing himself to be bought by others?

Two fatal developments are converging during this election in the United States. The decoupling of the super-rich from the rest of society is an accelerating trend in recent years. And also the consequences of a series of rulings by the Supreme Court in 2010 that enable politicians and support groups to accept unlimited donations. This confluence of events is undermining the development of the world’s proudest democracy. [Continue reading…]


The web has become a hall of mirrors, filled only with reflections of our data

By mc schraefel @mcphoo, University of Southampton

The “digital assistant” is proliferating, able to combine intelligent natural language processing, voice-operated control over a smartphone’s functions and access to web services. It can set calendar appointments, launch apps, and run requests. But if that sounds very clever – a computerised talking assistant, like HAL9000 from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey – it’s mostly just running search engine queries and processing the results.

Facebook has now joined Apple, Microsoft, Google and Amazon with the launch of its digital assistant M, part of its Messaging smartphone app. It’s special sauce is that M is powered not just by algorithms but by data serfs: human Facebook employees who are there to ensure that every request that it cannot parse is still fulfilled, and in doing so training M by example. That training works because every interaction with M is recorded – that’s the point, according to David Marcus, Facebook’s vice-president of messaging:

We start capturing all of your intent for the things you want to do. Intent often leads to buying something, or to a transaction, and that’s an opportunity for us to [make money] over time.

Facebook, through M, will capture and facilitate that “intent to buy” and take its cut directly from the subsequent purchase rather than as an ad middleman. It does this by leveraging messaging, which was turned into a separate app of its own so that Facebook could integrate PayPal-style peer-to-peer payments between users. This means Facebook has a log not only of your conversations but also your financial dealings. In an interview with Fortune magazine at the time, Facebook product manager, Steve Davies, said:

People talk about money all the time in Messenger but end up going somewhere else to do the transaction. With this, people can finish the conversation the same place started it.

In a somewhat creepy way, by reading your chats and knowing that you’re “talking about money all the time” – what you’re talking about buying – Facebook can build up a pretty compelling profile of interests and potential purchases. If M can capture our intent it will not be by tracking what sites we visit and targeting relevant ads, as per advert brokers such as Google and Doubleclick. Nor by targeting ads based on the links we share, as Twitter does. Instead it simply reads our messages.

[Read more…]


Why liberals separate race from class

Touré F. Reed writes: After shutting down a Bernie Sanders speech at a Seattle rally for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, Black Lives Matter activist Marissa Johnson declared to MSNBC’s Tamron Hall that she was motivated by a desire to hold liberal candidates accountable.

This is more than understandable. Despite boosting progressives’ expectations, President Obama has continued to prosecute a shadowy global “war on terror,” undermined public education by promoting charter schools, and reneged on promises to organized labor for the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) and to the American public for a truly universal health care system.

All this has certainly made clear the importance of holding putative liberals to their rhetoric, even for someone as young as Johnson, whose progressive political awakening only dates back to Trayvon Martin’s murder in 2012 at the hands of sociopathic vigilante George Zimmerman.

On some level, then, Johnson’s circumspection about Sanders and Gov. Martin O’Malley (no word on Clinton) could be considered encouraging, even if her decision to hijack the Sanders rally falls somewhere between arrogant (she represents no constituency to speak of) and politically misguided — many black lives, including both of my grandmothers’, have benefited greatly from Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid for decades.

If we could chalk up Johnson’s actions in Seattle to youthful hubris, this incident could be easily dismissed. However, as the interview on MSNBC continued, Johnson laid out a problematic perspective that has spread through the universe of activists, political operatives, and pundits plugged into Black Lives Matter. [Continue reading…]


Tropical forests will still exist in 2100 – but they will be a sorry sight

By Simon Lewis, UCL

By the end of the century, the world’s remaining tropical forests will be left in a fragmented, simplified, and degraded state. No patch will remain untouched – most remnants will be overrun by species that disperse well, which often means “weedy” plants like fast-growing pioneer trees and small rodents that thrive in disturbed areas. Most of the rest will be “the living dead” – tiny remnant populations of plants and animals hanging on with no future.

There is no cast-iron law that dictates this scenario – but it appears likely unless we see a series of major policy changes. What could unfold? In research published in the journal Science, colleagues and I outline an all too common chain of events.

The first cut of timber from any natural forest is the most lucrative. The most remote places, in the interior of Amazonia, in central Congo and the heart of Borneo are all coveted by industrial loggers. The logging frontier marches relentlessly on. They selectively take the biggest trees and along with them the habitat of species that rely them.

[Read more…]


Ad blockers and the nuisance at the heart of the web

Farhad Manjoo writes: The great philosopher Homer Simpson once memorably described alcohol as “the cause of and solution to all of life’s problems.” Internet advertising is a bit like that — the funder of and terrible nuisance baked into everything you do online.

Advertising sustains pretty much all the content you enjoy on the web, not least this very newspaper and its handsome, charming technology columnist; as I’ve argued before, many of the world’s most useful technologies may never have come about without online advertising. But at the same time, ads and the vast, hidden, data-sucking machinery that they depend on to track and profile you are routinely the most terrible thing about the Internet.

Now, more and more web users are escaping the daily bombardment of online advertising by installing an ad blocker. This simple, free software lets you roam the web without encountering any ads that shunt themselves between you and the content you want to read or watch. With an ad blocker, your web browser will generally run faster, you’ll waste less bandwidth downloading ads, and you’ll suffer fewer annoyances when navigating the Internet. You’ll wonder why everyone else in the world doesn’t turn to the dark side.

Well, everyone may be catching on. Ad blocking has been around for years, but adoption is now rising steeply, at a pace that some in the ad industry say could prove catastrophic for the economic structure underlying the web. That has spurred a debate about the ethic of ad blocking. Some publishers and advertisers say ad blocking violates the implicit contract that girds the Internet — the idea that in return for free content, we all tolerate a constant barrage of ads.

But in the long run, there could be a hidden benefit to blocking ads for advertisers and publishers: Ad blockers could end up saving the ad industry from its worst excesses. [Continue reading…]


Living and working under the control of invisible digital overlords

Frank Pasquale writes: In a recent podcast series called Instaserfs, a former Uber driver named Mansour gave a chilling description of the new, computer-mediated workplace. First, the company tried to persuade him to take a predatory loan to buy a new car. Apparently a number cruncher deemed him at high risk of defaulting. Second, Uber would never respond in person to him – it just sent text messages and emails. This style of supervision was a series of take-it-or-leave-it ultimatums – a digital boss coded in advance.

Then the company suddenly took a larger cut of revenues from him and other drivers. And finally, what seemed most outrageous to Mansour: his job could be terminated without notice if a few passengers gave him one-star reviews, since that could drag his average below 4.7. According to him, Uber has no real appeal recourse or other due process in play for a rating system that can instantly put a driver out of work – it simply crunches the numbers.

Mansour’s story compresses long-standing trends in credit and employment – and it’s by no means unique. Online retailers live in fear of a ‘Google Death Penalty’ – a sudden, mysterious drop in search-engine rankings if they do something judged fraudulent by Google’s spam detection algorithms. Job applicants at Walmart in the US and other large companies take mysterious ‘personality tests’, which process their responses in undisclosed ways. And white-collar workers face CV-sorting software that may understate, or entirely ignore, their qualifications. One algorithmic CV analyser found all 29,000 people who applied for a ‘reasonably standard engineering position’ unqualified.

The infancy of the internet is over. As online spaces mature, Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon, and other powerful corporations are setting the rules that govern competition among journalists, writers, coders, and e-commerce firms. Uber and Postmates and other platforms are adding a code layer to occupations like driving and service work. Cyberspace is no longer an escape from the ‘real world’. It is now a force governing it via algorithms: recipe-like sets of instructions to solve problems. From Google search to OkCupid matchmaking, software orders and weights hundreds of variables into clean, simple interfaces, taking us from query to solution. Complex mathematics govern such answers, but it is hidden from plain view, thanks either to secrecy imposed by law, or to complexity outsiders cannot unravel. [Continue reading…]


What is wrong with the West’s economies?

Edmund S. Phelps writes: What is wrong with the economies of the West — and with economics? It depends on whether we are talking about the good or the just.

Many of us in Western Europe and America feel that our economies are far from just, though our views on justice differ somewhat. One band of economists, led for decades by the British economist Anthony Atkinson, sees the West as being in another Gilded Age of inequality in income and wealth. Adopting Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarian view, they would redistribute income from those in high brackets to those farther down—until we reach the highest “sum of utilities.” It is a question, though, whether this doctrine captures intuitive views of what is just.

Philosophers over these same decades have been more interested in the work by the American philosopher John Rawls. His book A Theory of Justice argues for a fundamental shift away from Bentham: economic justice is about the distribution of “utilities,” for him a word usually denoting the satisfactions of consumption and leisure, not the sum of those utilities. It is about the terms on which each participant contributes to the fruit of the society’s economy. For Rawls, justice requires the state to use taxes and subsidies to pull up people with the lowest wages to the highest level possible. That way, the least advantaged get the largest possible portion of the gain from people’s cooperation in the economy.

A struggle persists between these views. The Benthamite view has morphed into the corporatist idea that a nation’s government ought to provide benefits, whether in the form of money or tax advantages, or free services, to interest groups — whether corporations, or unions, or consumers — that voice a need until more benefits would be deemed to cost too much. Meeting these claims of many different interests has left little in the public purse for low-wage workers.

The Rawlsian view has found little support among legislators, it is true. In the US, the Earned Income Tax Credit was passed in 1975. But it mainly supplements the income of low-wage mothers of young children. It does nothing for low-end workers as a whole and, to some extent, it actually reduces paychecks for low-paid work of childless women and single men. In Europe, a few countries spend much more than the US on job subsidies but statistical analyses have not found large effects on wages or unemployment.

With little or no effective policy initiative giving a lift to the less advantaged, the jarring market forces of the past four decades — mainly the slowdowns in productivity that have spread over the West and, of course, globalization, which has moved much low-wage manufacturing to Asia — have proceeded, unopposed, to drag down both employment and wage rates at the low end. The setback has cost the less advantaged not only a loss of income but also a loss of what economists call inclusion — access to jobs offering work and pay that provide self-respect. And inclusion was already lacking to begin with. In America, black urban teenagers have long been lacking in inclusion. In France there is a comparable lack of inclusion among North Africans. In much of Europe there has been little attempt to include the Roma.

This failing in the West’s economies is also a failing of economics. The classical idea of political economy has been to let wage rates sink to whatever level the market takes them, and then provide everyone with the “safety net” of a “negative income tax,” unemployment insurance, and free food, shelter, clothing, and medical care. This policy, even when humanely carried out, and it often is not, misses the point that, even if we confine our attention to the West since the Renaissance, many people have long felt the desire to do something with their lives besides consuming goods and having leisure. They desire to participate in a community in which they can interact and develop. [Continue reading…]


California pension funds lose $5 billion on fossil fuels

San Francisco Chronicle reports: California’s huge public pension funds, CalPERS and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System, have lost more than $5 billion on their fossil fuel investments at a time when some legislators are urging the funds to dump their coal company stocks.

An analysis from the environmental group found that the two pension funds lost $5.2 billion from June 2014 through June of this year on companies that produce coal, oil and natural gas. And many of those stocks have plunged even further since then, driven down by sinking oil and coal prices.

“It’s important to see that fossil fuels in general, and coal in particular, are risky bets for the pension system,” said Brett Fleishman, senior analyst with, which promotes fossil fuel divestment as a way to fight climate change. “When folks are saying divestment is risky, we can say, ‘Well, not divesting is risky.’” [Continue reading…]