U.S. lags behind rest of the world in generating electricity from renewable energy

The Wall Street Journal reports: The Renewables 2014 Global Status Report released earlier this month has good news for the environment, namely that an estimated 22.1% of the world’s electricity was generated from renewable sources in 2013. That percentage is expected to rise as countries across the globe pour money and resources into alternative, clean energy.

The U.S. ranks second, after China, for annual investment in renewable energy and for generating electricity from renewable sources, yet the U.S. has a lower share of energy (13%) generated from renewable sources than the world average of 22.1%, according to the data compiled by Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century, an international, government-supported institute that supports renewable-energy development. That’s because the U.S. uses a lot of electricity and resources in general. [Continue reading...]

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How American history judges Bowe Bergdahl

Mark Perry writes: When the movie “Patton” was released in 1970, in the midst of one of our most divisive wars, it thrilled American theatergoers. The account of our nation’s finest tank commander won seven academy awards, including best picture.

The movie opens with a reprise of George Patton’s legendary speech to the U.S. Third Army just before D-Day, in 1944. In his address, the full-throated Patton extolled the virtues of American manhood and the sanguine character of combat. His words brought howls of appreciation in 1944 — and have ever since.

“Men,” Patton said, “all this stuff you hear about America not wanting to fight, wanting to stay out of the war, is a lot of bullshit. Americans love to fight. All real Americans love the sting and clash of battle.”

Was Patton right? Do we Americans love “the sting and clash of battle”?

The controversy over President Barack Obama’s swap of five Guantanamo detainees for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, held in Afghanistan as a Taliban prisoner since June 2009, places Patton’s claims in a new light, just as Bergdahl’s return has spurred questions about whether he is a hero, or should be put on trial for deserting his post. Claims that the search for Bergdahl might have resulted in as many as six U.S. combat deaths have deepened the controversy. And Bergdahl’s return has aroused impassioned criticism of Obama from his partisan opponents.

The Bergdahl controversy masks the difficulty all militaries have in defining when a soldier has deserted, or “just wandered off” — which might have been the case with Bergdahl. For the U.S. military, the key is intent: A soldier is listed as a deserter when he intends to separate himself from his unit permanently, and forever shirk his service. In wartime, as Article 85 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice makes clear, desertion is punishable by death.

You would think that this punishment, when added to the opprobrium that a deserter suffers from his family and fellow soldiers, would dampen the rate at which men (or women) in uniform leave their posts. But an examination of American military history shows that that’s not true.

Desertion rates in George Washington’s Continental Army peaked in the early years of the Revolutionary War (when desertion rates averaged an astonishing 20 to 25 percent of all men under arms), but fell off when his army became more professional. This didn’t keep Washington from lamenting his losses. The situation was so bad, he said, that the mountainous areas between New Hampshire and Vermont were “populated by hundreds of Deserters from this Army.”

Desertion rates during the Civil War were not as high, with the Union Army suffering a 9 to 12 percent desertion rate. Of the approximately 42,000 Union soldiers court-martialed during the war, just over 14,000 were for desertion, with 147 executions for the offense. The desertion rate among Confederate units was much worse. In the wake of the Gettysburg defeat, Robert E. Lee struggled to keep his army together, with desertion rates peaking at between 20 to 25 percent. In all, more soldiers (North and South) were executed during the Civil War (some 500 in all) than in all our other conflicts combined — two-thirds of them for desertion.

With the Civil War as its model, the Army created a Morale Division after the U.S. entered World War One. The unit’s commander later noted that explaining to recruits why they were fighting kept them on duty. A 1918 memo noted that many U.S. recruits “seemed unclear about the purpose of the war.” The division’s work had an effect: 5,584 men were charged with desertion during the conflict (the lowest rate of any U.S. war), and 2,657 were convicted — with no executions.

Explaining a war’s purpose is a significant factor in the Bergdahl case. His unit was isolated for long periods of time and fighting a conflict that was fast becoming an afterthought for the American people. In truth, most Americans didn’t even know that Bergdahl was being held by the Taliban until his release, a chilling commentary on America’s focus on the war. [Continue reading...]

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Israel no longer a cause that unifies Jewish Americans

The Associated Press reports: Once a unifying cause for generations of American Jews, Israel is now bitterly dividing Jewish communities.

Jewish organizations are withdrawing invitations to Jewish speakers or performers considered too critical of Israel, in what opponents have denounced as an ideological litmus test meant to squelch debate. Some Jewish activists have formed watchdog groups, such as Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art, or COPMA, and JCC Watch, to monitor programming for perceived anti-Israel bias. They argue Jewish groups that take donations for strengthening the community shouldn’t be giving a platform to Israel’s critics.

American campuses have become ideological battle zones over Israeli policy in the Palestinian territories, with national Jewish groups sometimes caught up on opposing sides of the internal debate among Jewish students. The “Open Hillel” movement of Jewish students is challenging speaker guidelines developed by Hillel, the major Jewish campus group, which bars speakers who “delegitimize” or “demonize” Israel. Open Hillel is planning its first national conference in October.

And in a vote testing the parameters of Jewish debate over Israel, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, a national coalition that for decades has represented the American Jewish community, denied membership in April to J Street, the 6-year-old lobby group that describes itself as pro-Israel and pro-peace and has sometimes criticized the Israeli government. Opponents of J Street have been showing a documentary called “The J Street Challenge,” in synagogues and at Jewish gatherings around the country, characterizing the group as a threat from within. [Continue reading...]

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Americans are more worried about ‘global warming’ than they are about ‘climate change’

AlterNet: What’s in a name? According to a recent Yale University Poll, quite a bit. In fact, the poll found that the public greatly prefers the term “global warming” over “climate change” when referring to the world’s epic climate shift.

The pollsters found that the term “global warming” is associated with “greater public understanding, emotional engagement, and support for personal and national action than the term ‘climate change.’”

And not only is the term “global warming” preferential, the term “climate change” appears have been a bad public-relations shift for scientists and environmentalists, at least in the short term.

“[T]he use of the term “climate change” appears to actually reduce issue engagement by Democrats, Independents, liberals, and moderates, as well as a variety of subgroups within American society, including men, women, minorities, different generations, and across political and partisan lines,” the poll found. “Within the Weather category, global warming generates a higher percentage of associations to “extreme weather” than does climate change, which generates more associations to general weather patterns.” [Continue reading...]

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Maya Angelou: American titan who lived as though there were no tomorrow

Following the death of Maya Angelou, Gary Younge writes: By the time she reached 40 she had been a professional dancer, prostitute, madam, lecturer, activist, singer and editor. She had worked with Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, lived in Ghana and Egypt, toured Europe with a dance troupe and settled in pretty much every region of the United States. And then she wrote about it, the whole time crafting a path as a poet, epigrammist and performer. “My life has been long,” she wrote in one her last books. “And believing that life loves the liver of it, I have dared to try many things, sometimes trembling, but daring still.”

In a subsequent interview I described her as the “Desiderata in human form” and “a professional hopemonger”. She lived as though there were no tomorrow. And now that there really is no tomorrow, for her, we are left to contemplate – for us as well as her – where daring can get you.

But with her passing, America has not just lost a talented Renaissance woman and gifted raconteur. It has lost a connection to its recent past that had helped it make sense of its present. At a time when so many Americans seek to travel ‘color blind’, and free from the baggage of the nation’s racial history, here she stood, tall, straight and true: a black woman from the south intimately connected to the transformative people and politics who helped shape much of America’s racial landscape.

A woman determined to give voice to both frustration and a militancy without being so consumed by either that she could not connect with those who did not instinctively relate to it. A woman who, in her own words, was determined to go through life with “passion, compassion, humor and some style”, and would use all those attributes and more to remind America of where this frustration and militancy was coming from.

She described the 9/11 attacks as a “hate crime”, and said: “Living in a state of terror was new to many white people in America, but black people have been living in a state of terror in this country for more than 400 years.” [Continue reading...]

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The case for reparations

Ta-Nehisi Coates writes: Clyde Ross was born in 1923, the seventh of 13 children, near Clarksdale, Mississippi, the home of the blues. Ross’s parents owned and farmed a 40-acre tract of land, flush with cows, hogs, and mules. Ross’s mother would drive to Clarksdale to do her shopping in a horse and buggy, in which she invested all the pride one might place in a Cadillac. The family owned another horse, with a red coat, which they gave to Clyde. The Ross family wanted for little, save that which all black families in the Deep South then desperately desired — the protection of the law.

In the 1920s, Jim Crow Mississippi was, in all facets of society, a kleptocracy. The majority of the people in the state were perpetually robbed of the vote—a hijacking engineered through the trickery of the poll tax and the muscle of the lynch mob. Between 1882 and 1968, more black people were lynched in Mississippi than in any other state. “You and I know what’s the best way to keep the nigger from voting,” blustered Theodore Bilbo, a Mississippi senator and a proud Klansman. “You do it the night before the election.”

The state’s regime partnered robbery of the franchise with robbery of the purse. Many of Mississippi’s black farmers lived in debt peonage, under the sway of cotton kings who were at once their landlords, their employers, and their primary merchants. Tools and necessities were advanced against the return on the crop, which was determined by the employer. When farmers were deemed to be in debt—and they often were—the negative balance was then carried over to the next season. A man or woman who protested this arrangement did so at the risk of grave injury or death. Refusing to work meant arrest under vagrancy laws and forced labor under the state’s penal system.

Well into the 20th century, black people spoke of their flight from Mississippi in much the same manner as their runagate ancestors had. In her 2010 book, The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson tells the story of Eddie Earvin, a spinach picker who fled Mississippi in 1963, after being made to work at gunpoint. “You didn’t talk about it or tell nobody,” Earvin said. “You had to sneak away.”

When Clyde Ross was still a child, Mississippi authorities claimed his father owed $3,000 in back taxes. The elder Ross could not read. He did not have a lawyer. He did not know anyone at the local courthouse. He could not expect the police to be impartial. Effectively, the Ross family had no way to contest the claim and no protection under the law. The authorities seized the land. They seized the buggy. They took the cows, hogs, and mules. And so for the upkeep of separate but equal, the entire Ross family was reduced to sharecropping.

This was hardly unusual. In 2001, the Associated Press published a three-part investigation into the theft of black-owned land stretching back to the antebellum period. The series documented some 406 victims and 24,000 acres of land valued at tens of millions of dollars. The land was taken through means ranging from legal chicanery to terrorism. “Some of the land taken from black families has become a country club in Virginia,” the AP reported, as well as “oil fields in Mississippi” and “a baseball spring training facility in Florida.” [Continue reading...]

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Israel won’t stop spying on the U.S.

Jeff Stein reports: Whatever happened to honor among thieves? When the National Security Agency was caught eavesdropping on German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone, it was considered a rude way to treat a friend. Now U.S. intelligence officials are saying—albeit very quietly, behind closed doors on Capitol Hill—that our Israeli “friends” have gone too far with their spying operations here.

According to classified briefings on legislation that would lower visa restrictions on Israeli citizens, Jerusalem’s efforts to steal U.S. secrets under the cover of trade missions and joint defense technology contracts have “crossed red lines.”

Israel’s espionage activities in America are unrivaled and unseemly, counterspies have told members of the House Judiciary and Foreign Affairs committees, going far beyond activities by other close allies, such as Germany, France, the U.K. and Japan. A congressional staffer familiar with a briefing last January called the testimony “very sobering…alarming…even terrifying.” Another staffer called it “damaging.”

The Jewish state’s primary target: America’s industrial and technical secrets.

“No other country close to the United States continues to cross the line on espionage like the Israelis do,” said a former congressional staffer who attended another classified briefing in late 2013, one of several in recent months given by officials from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the State Department, the FBI and the National Counterintelligence Directorate. [Continue reading...]

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Todd Miller: The creation of a border security state

Sometimes you really do need a map if you want to know where you are.  In 2008, the ACLU issued just such a map of this country and it’s like nothing ever seen before.  Titled “the Constitution-Free Zone of the United States,” it traces our country’s borders.  Maybe you’re already tuning out.  After all, you probably don’t think you live on or near such a border.  Well, think again.  As it happens, in our brave, new, post-9/11 world, as long as we’re talking “homeland security” or “war on terror,” anything can be redefined.  So why not a border?

Our borders have, conveniently enough, long been Constitution-free zones where more or less anything goes, including warrantless searches of various sorts.  In the twenty-first century, however, the border itself, north as well as south, has not only been increasingly up-armored, but redefined as a 100-mile-wide strip around the United States (and Alaska).  In other words — check that map again — our “borders” now cover an expanse in which nearly 200 million Americans, or two-thirds of the U.S. population, live.  Included are nine of the 10 largest metropolitan areas.  If you live in Florida, Maine, or Michigan, for example, no matter how far inland you may be, you are “on the border.”

Imagine that.  And then imagine what it means.  U.S. Customs and Border Protection, as Todd Miller points out today, is not only the largest law enforcement agency in the country you know next to nothing about, but the largest, flat and simple.  Now, its agents can act as if the Constitution has been put to bed up to 100 miles inland anywhere.  This, in turn, means — as the ACLU has written — that at new checkpoints and elsewhere in areas no American would once have considered borderlands, you can be stopped, interrogated, and searched “on an everyday basis with absolutely no suspicion of wrongdoing.”

Under the circumstances, it’s startling that, since the ACLU made its case back in 2008, this new American reality has gotten remarkably little attention.  So it’s lucky that TomDispatch regular Miller’s invaluable and gripping book, Border Patrol Nation: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Homeland Security, has just been published.  It’s an eye opener, and it’s about time that “border” issues stopped being left to those on the old-fashioned version of the border and immigration mavens.  It’s a subject that, by definition, now concerns at least two-thirds of us in a big way. Tom Engelhardt

They are watching you
The national security state and the U.S.-Mexican border
By Todd Miller

With the agility of a seasoned Border Patrol veteran, the woman rushed after the students. She caught up with them just before they entered the exhibition hall of the eighth annual Border Security Expo, reaching out and grabbing the nearest of them by the shoulder. Slightly out of breath, she said, “You can’t go in there, give me back your badges.”

The astonished students had barely caught a glimpse of the dazzling pavilion of science-fiction-style products in that exhibition hall at the Phoenix Convention Center. There, just beyond their view, more than 100 companies, including Raytheon, General Dynamics, and Verizon, were trying to sell the latest in futuristic border policing technology to anyone with the money to buy it.

The students from Northeastern Illinois University didn’t happen to fall into that category. An earnest manager at a nearby registration table insisted that, as they were not studying “border security,” they weren’t to be admitted.  I asked him how he knew just what they were studying.  His only answer was to assure me that next year no students would be allowed in at all.

Among the wonders those students would miss was a fake barrel cactus with a hollow interior (for the southern border) and similarly hollow tree stumps (for the northern border), all capable of being outfitted with surveillance cameras. “Anything that grows or exists in nature,” Kurt Lugwisen of TimberSpy told a local Phoenix television station, “we build it.”

[Read more...]

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The living death of solitary confinement

Lisa Guenther writes: I first met Five Omar Mualimm-ak at a forum on solitary confinement in New York City. He wore track shoes with his tailored suit. ‘As long as the Prison Industrial Complex keeps running, so will I,’ he explained. After hearing him speak about the connections between racism, poverty, mass incarceration and police violence, I invited Five to speak at a conference I was organising in Nashville, Tennessee. He arrived, as always, in a suit and track shoes. As we walked across campus to a conference reception, I worked up the courage to ask him how he got his name. He told me: ‘I spent five years in solitary confinement, and when I came out I was a different person.’

In an article for The Guardian last October, Five described his isolation as a process of sensory and existential annihilation:

After only a short time in solitary, I felt all of my senses begin to diminish. There was nothing to see but grey walls. In New York’s so-called special housing units, or SHUs, most cells have solid steel doors, and many do not have windows. You cannot even tape up pictures or photographs; they must be kept in an envelope. To fight the blankness, I counted bricks and measured the walls. I stared obsessively at the bolts on the door to my cell.

There was nothing to hear except empty, echoing voices from other parts of the prison. I was so lonely that I hallucinated words coming out of the wind. They sounded like whispers. Sometimes, I smelled the paint on the wall, but more often, I just smelled myself, revolted by my own scent.

There was no touch. My food was pushed through a slot. Doors were activated by buzzers, even the one that led to a literal cage directly outside of my cell for one hour per day of ‘recreation’.

Even time had no meaning in the SHU. The lights were kept on for 24 hours. I often found myself wondering if an event I was recollecting had happened that morning or days before. I talked to myself. I began to get scared that the guards would come in and kill me and leave me hanging in the cell. Who would know if something happened to me? Just as I was invisible, so was the space I inhabited.

The very essence of life, I came to learn during those seemingly endless days, is human contact, and the affirmation of existence that comes with it. Losing that contact, you lose your sense of identity. You become nothing.

Five’s experience of solitary confinement is extreme, but it’s not atypical. His feeling of disconnection from the world, to the point of losing his capacity to make sense of his own identity and existence, raises philosophical questions about the relation between sense perception, sociality, and a meaningful life. Why does prolonged isolation typically corrode a prisoner’s ability to perceive the world and to sustain a meaningful connection with his own existence? The short answer to this question is that we are social beings who rely on our interactions with other people to make sense of things. But what does it mean to exist socially, and what is the precise connection between our relations with others, our perception of the world, and the affirmation of our own existence?

My response to this question is shaped by the philosophical practice of phenomenology. Phenomenology begins with a description of lived experience and reflects on the structures that make this experience possible and meaningful. The main insight of phenomenology is that consciousness is relational. [Continue reading...]

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Fear in America

A pencil is a sharp instrument. It could be used in a threatening way. Someone could be stabbed with a pencil. But no one’s ever been shot by a pencil.

Instead of sending off Ethan Chaplin for psychiatric evaluation after he “twirled a pencil like a gun,” it sounds like it’s his teachers and the school authorities who need their heads examining.

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National Popular Vote: New York State climbs aboard

Hendrik Hertzberg writes: On Tuesday, the State of New York took a baby step — or maybe a giant leap! — toward making the United States of America something more closely resembling a modern democracy: Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill joining up the Empire State to the National Popular Vote (N.P.V.) interstate compact.

As I’ve explained many times (fifty-one, to be exact), N.P.V. is a way to elect our Presidents the way we elect our governors, our mayors, our senators and representatives, our state legislators, and everybody else: by totting up the voters’ votes — all of them — and awarding the job to whichever candidate gets the largest number. And it does this without changing a word of the Constitution.

Impossible, you say? No. Quite possible — even probable — and in time for 2020, if not for 2016.

Here’s how it works: Suppose you could get a bunch of states to pledge that once there are enough of them to possess at least two hundred and seventy electoral votes — a majority of the Electoral College — they will thenceforth cast all their electoral votes for whatever candidate gets the most popular votes in the entire country. As soon as that happens, presto change-o: the next time you go to the polls, you’ll be voting in a true national election. No more ten or so battleground states, no more forty or so spectator states, just the United States—all of them, and all of the voters who live in them.

Unless you’ve been following this pretty closely, it will surprise you to learn that, before this week, ten states (counting D.C.) had already signed on. Now it’s eleven, and between them they have a hundred and sixty-five electoral votes—sixty-one per cent of the total needed to bring the compact into effect. [Continue reading...]

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The overwhelming power of money in American politics

Al Jazeera reports: It’s not just your imagination: The influence of money in politics has indeed drowned out the voices of American voters, a new analysis shows, with runaway corporate lobbying and a lack of campaign finance reform to blame for giving much more political weight to the wealthy.

Researchers at Princeton University and Northwestern University compared the public’s influence on 1,779 policy issues between 1981 and 2002, finding that more often than not, the interests of wealthy groups and individuals won out over the demands of the general public. For instance, when 80 percent of the public asked for a change of some sort, they got their way only about 43 percent of the time.

The study, its authors say, points to the overwhelming power of wealthy lobbying groups and individuals backing certain interests in American politics, and the marginalization of voters and public advocacy groups.

“I expected to find that ordinary Americans had a modest degree of influence over government policy and that mass-based interest groups would serve to promote those interests,” Martin Gilens, a political scientist at Princeton and a co-author of the study, wrote in an email to Al Jazeera.

“What we found instead was that ordinary Americans have virtually no influence over government policy and that mass-based interest groups as a whole do not reliably side with the wishes of the average citizen.” [Continue reading...]

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NYPD shuts down worthless unit that spied on Muslims

The New York Times reports: The New York Police Department has abandoned a secretive program that dispatched plainclothes detectives into Muslim neighborhoods to eavesdrop on conversations and built detailed files on where people ate, prayed and shopped, the department said.

The decision by the nation’s largest police force to shutter the controversial surveillance program represents the first sign that William J. Bratton, the department’s new commissioner, is backing away from some of the post-9/11 intelligence-gathering practices of his predecessor. The Police Department’s tactics, which are the subject of two federal lawsuits, drew criticism from civil rights groups and a senior official with the Federal Bureau of Investigation who said they harmed national security by sowing mistrust for law enforcement in Muslim communities.

To many Muslims, the squad, known as the Demographics Unit, was a sign that the police viewed their every action with suspicion. The police mapped communities inside and outside the city, logging where customers in traditional Islamic clothes ate meals and documenting their lunch-counter conversations. [Continue reading...]

There aren’t too many occasions on which we can celebrate the effectiveness of the Fourth Estate in identifying and thereby curtailing the abuse of state power, but hats off to the Associated Press for running their Pulitzer Prize-winning probe into the NYPD’s Islamophobic intelligence operations.

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The less Americans know about Ukraine’s location, the more they want U.S. to intervene

Kyle Dropp, Joshua D. Kertzer, Thomas Zeitzoff write: Since Russian troops first entered the Crimean peninsula in early March, a series of media polling outlets have asked Americans how they want the U.S. to respond to the ongoing situation. Although two-thirds of Americans have reported following the situation at least “somewhat closely,” most Americans actually know very little about events on the ground — or even where the ground is.

On March 28-31, 2014, we asked a national sample of 2,066 Americans (fielded via Survey Sampling International Inc. (SSI), what action they wanted the U.S. to take in Ukraine, but with a twist: In addition to measuring standard demographic characteristics and general foreign policy attitudes, we also asked our survey respondents to locate Ukraine on a map as part of a larger, ongoing project to study foreign policy knowledge. We wanted to see where Americans think Ukraine is and to learn if this knowledge (or lack thereof) is related to their foreign policy views. We found that only one out of six Americans can find Ukraine on a map, and that this lack of knowledge is related to preferences: The farther their guesses were from Ukraine’s actual location, the more they wanted the U.S. to intervene with military force. [Continue reading...]

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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 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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