Politics

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The Browser pointed me to “Saving Horatio Alger,” Richard Reeves’ excellent Brookings essay about American mobility, which is our national religion even though we currently trail Europe in this area by most measures. We boomed in our early days because of Manifest Destiny, busted once there was nowhere left to push our borders and had another rising-tide moment at the end of World War II. Great stuff like a tidy little explanation of how Alger would have made a poor character in his own books, since he was never ragged nor rich. An excerpt about the downward slope that set in starting in the 1970s:

“America’s decisive role in World War II and its subsequent emergence as a superpower gave rise to the Great Prosperity: a new surge of economic energy alongside sizeable government investments in infrastructure, the military, science, and Social Security, and a recommitment to education, not least through the G.I. Bill. Between 1950 and the mid-1970s, as the U.S. economy grew by an average of 4 percent a year, the economic expansion drove wages and employment up, and income and wealth gaps narrowed. High taxes—high by historical standards, anyway—were levied on those with the biggest incomes and greatest wealth, and the government provided more services and cash assistance to the poor as part of Lyndon Johnson’s vision for the ‘Great Society.’ Upward mobility may not have improved; but since standards of living were rising at about the same rate across the income distribution, most people were much better off than their parents had been, even if they remained on the same rung of the income ladder.

From the mid-1970s on, however, the mass prosperity machine began to grind to a halt; productivity stagnated and growth slowed as global competition intensified. Inequality trends returned to their pre-war trajectory, with those on the top rungs climbing ever further upward, helped along by Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts, while those at the bottom and in the middle lagged behind. George H.W. Bush broke his ‘no new taxes’ pledge, but did nothing to alter the growing fissure between the rich and the rest.

Bill Clinton’s electoral success presaged a period of strong economic growth and some restoration of the fortunes of the middle class. But U.S. politics soon veered to the right. With the election of George W. Bush as president and the emergence of a new strand of populism culminating in the muscular Tea Party movement, the rightward drift continued, and the carefully tied knots of financial regulation were quietly loosened, one by one. Mobility rates remained flat.

The election of Barack Obama fleetingly signaled a new, more optimistic mood, the promise of a more generous, post-partisan politics, and a renewed commitment to the upward mobility Americans believe in so fervently. Here was a president whose election seemed a testament to America’s progress, and whose personal story proved, so it seemed, that the Horatio Alger story could be rewritten for a multi-racial nation. The uplift was short-lived. Today, the nation is limping away from the economic car-crash of 2008. Politics remains deeply partisan. And yes, mobility rates are still flat.”

 

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While Grover Norquist is baking his Libertarian ass at Burning Man, he’s simultaneously planning for Republicans to win back urban American by bogarting the Uber, riding the sharing economy to voting-booth victory. Of course, as Emily Badger pointed out last month in the Washington Post and Andrew Leonard expands on today in Salon, this economic disruption isn’t really staying within traditional Right and Left lanes. From Leonard’s piece:

“The semiotics of the announcement of David Plouffe’s hiring by Uber are fascinating. For example, consider how Plouffe used the word ‘inexorable’ in an interview with the New York Times.

‘We’re on an inexorable path of progress here,’ said Plouffe. Which translates as: Uber and the rest of Silicon Valley’s innovative disrupters are going to conquer us all in the long run, so we might as well just get used to it and stop throwing roadblocks in their way.

Beware! When a company with a name like ‘Uber’ is associated with ‘inexorable,’ resistance is obviously futile. And it’s worth recalling, this isn’t just about crushing existing taxi ‘cartels.’ Uber has made no secret of its ambitions to become a logistical hub that will compete with the likes of UPS and FedEx and Hertz, that will deliver groceries, as well as human beings, more efficiently than any other company. Uber’s algorithm is what’s inexorable. And an algorithm doesn’t boast any particular party identification: It’s just there to make consumers happy.

But fast on inexorability’s heels comes the issue of what the word ‘progressive’ really means. As Emily Badger reported, John Hickenlooper, the Democratic governor of Colorado, supported Uber’s hire by saying that Plouffe will bring the same ‘progressive approach’ to campaigning for Uber as has been demonstrated by Colorado’s ‘embrace of innovation and disruptive technology.’

When you pull your phone out of your pocket, click a couple of buttons, send a signal that bounces off a satellite, and a car-for-hire magically appears in front of you in a few minutes, it certainly feels like we are living in an age of technological progress. But the jury is still out on whether this kind of innovation is truly socially progressive. A society that puts consumers first has obvious disadvantages for workers.”

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China remaining under authoritarian rule may be great for the environment. Seems odd, right? One of the government’s chief fears is that pollution caused by the nation’s hasty mass urbanization might lead to rebellion, so we’ll likely see large-scale green innovation until the situation is markedly improved. In the case of this one country, the world’s most populous, oppression may have an unintended positive consequence. Strange planet, isn’t it?

It’s still surprising that capitalism’s rise in China hasn’t been attended by a growth of democracy. From John Osburg’s Foreign Affairs review of the new book on the topic by Evan Osnos:

“Meanwhile, although growth has created a middle class of sorts and even an upper crust of very wealthy Chinese, neither group has followed the anticipated script. For the most part, the new middle class seems too preoccupied with the intense pressures of owning a home and raising a child in a hypercompetitive society to get involved in politics. As for the new rich, they have hardly pushed for a fairer and more representative government to protect their new prosperity. Instead, most of them have been co-opted by the Communist Party — or have simply emigrated to countries with more reliable legal systems. 

Perhaps most telling, today young Chinese across the socioeconomic spectrum exhibit almost none of the political fervor that led thousands of students to take to the streets in 1989. China’s educational system has fed the country’s youth a steady diet of patriot-ism to ward off rebellious thoughts. But such measures appear almost redundant, since many young Chinese seem more interested in buying iPhones and Louis Vuitton products than in fighting for democratic change. 

On the surface, then, the prediction that Chinese economic and political reform would go hand in hand seems not to have panned out. In truth, however, the story is more complicated. As Evan Osnos suggests in Age of Ambition, the optimistic view of China’s evolution wasn’t entirely wrong; it merely relied on a conception of politics too narrow to capture a number of subtle but profound shifts that have changed China in ways that are not always immediately visible. In his riveting profiles of entrepreneurs, journalists, artists, dissidents, and strivers, Osnos discovers the emergence in Chinese society of something even more fundamental than a desire for political representation: a search for dignity.”

 

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Another reaction to the Pew Research Center report about labor and technology in the near-term, this one by Eric Reid at MSN Money, who focuses on one of the most essential questions: Will the Digital Age trump the patterns of the Industrial Age, whereby the rise of the machines lifted everyone, increasing production, creating new jobs and industries to replace the ones it disrupted? An excerpt:

“The traditional relationship between labor and technology has been a positive, if contentious, one. When new devices improve productivity, companies can maintain the same output with fewer people, so they lay some off. Although this leads to temporary unemployment, it also improves incomes for the remaining workers and management, who go out and spend their extra money. This creates jobs elsewhere, and the combined productivity of these new jobs along with the new technology means that the economy as a whole ends up both producing and consuming more overall.

In other words, the pie gets bigger and increases everyone’s slice with it. As Professor Donald Grimes, an economist with the University of Michigan, wrote:

‘Think of tractors and all of the other agricultural productivity gains. We are now producing far more output with a small fraction of the number of farmers that we used to have. Or of the productivity effect of the assembly line. And in terms of IT, think about how spreadsheet programs reduced the number of ‘book keepers.’ Or how the internet allowed people to buy their own airline tickets, thus eliminating lots of travel agency jobs.

‘In terms of the big picture these productivity gains raised the incomes of the people who continued to work in these professions, and/or made the owners of the machinery richer, or helped to make airline tickets cheaper. When people spent their extra money they created jobs in other industries and the people who lost their jobs were re-employed in new jobs. Over time these productivity gains raised our wages and our standard of living.’

This model makes two assumptions, however: First, that we all share in the profits of increasing productivity, and second, that laid-off workers will have other industries to move into. Both of these assumptions may be falling apart.”

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All my condolences got to the family of photojournalist James Foley, who was executed by ISIS. What a brave and decent person he was, right down to the final harsh seconds of his life. If only all of us possessed such strength.

When you see such utter brutality of ISIS in Iraq, you’re reminded that such a group gained power only because we destabilized that region with a needless war, just one of the bad decisions we made in the wake of 9/11. Another was torture. We lowered ourselves to the level of our inhumane attackers. We never needed to carry out a holocaust to defeat Hitler, and we don’t have to turn ourselves into terrorists to overcome them. Let’s face it: The world has already overcome them, modernity rendering them merely a dangerous anachronism. We don’t need to head back to the 13th century ourselves to win this ever-shifting war.

One of the key figures in allowing waterboarding and renditions was CIA lawyer John Rizzo, who has written a book of his experiences, Company Man: Thirty Years of Controversy and Crisis in the CIA. He just sat for an interview with Spiegel’s Holger Stark. An excerpt:

Spiegel:

Just days after 9/11, you also wrote up a list of possible covert actions. What did you suggest?

John Rizzo:

I actually wrote the first list the day of 9/11, literally two hours after the attack. Like everyone else, I was in a state of shock and bewilderment, but I knew that we were going to undertake counteractions that were unprecedented in my career. I scribbled down on my yellow legal pad conceivable options, including lethal operations against al-Qaida — not just the al-Qaida elements who carried out the 9/11 attack, but also those who would be planning future attacks. The list included, for the first time in the history of the CIA, a program to detain and interrogate senior al-Qaida leaders.

Spiegel:

Would you describe yourself as the architect of the renditions program through which suspected al-Qaida members were secretly kidnapped and abused?

John Rizzo:

I was certainly an architect of the interrogation program, even if I didn’t originally come up with it. I was the legal architect of the proposed list of techniques and played the lead role in obtaining legal approval for their use.

Spiegel: 

Who came up with the original idea?

John Rizzo:

Our people from the Counter Terrorism Center. One day they came to my office and listed all the enhanced interrogation techniques for me. I had never heard of waterboarding. Some techniques, such as waterboarding and sleep deprivation …

Spiegel:

… which kept those suspected by the CIA of terrorism awake for more than seven days non-stop …

John Rizzo:

… seemed harsh, even brutal to me. On the original list of proposed techniques was one which was even more chilling than waterboarding. It was never used.

Spiegel:

What technique was it?

John Rizzo: 

I’m not allowed to specify it; it is still classified. I had no preparation when the counterterrorism people came to me, and so my first reaction was one of being rather stunned by what was being proposed.”

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Reddit pointed me to a post at economist Robin Hansen’s blog, in which he engages in some extreme speculation. Hansen looks at how the trends of longer lifespans and accelerated social change may lead to a multi-generational disconnect, which has encouraged some futurists to suggest governance by totalitarian computer, or Fascism by algorithm. They think it inevitable anyway, so they want to try to commandeer this brave new world to some extent. I don’t think we get that option should the computer apocalypse occur. An excerpt:

“In history we have seen change not only in technology and environments, but also in habits, cultures, attitudes, and preferences. New generations often act not just like the same people thrust into new situations, but like new kinds of people with new attitudes and preferences. This has often intensified intergenerational conflicts; generations have argued not only about who should consume and control what, but also about which generational values should dominate.

So far, this sort of intergenerational value conflict has been limited due to the relatively mild value changes that have so far appeared within individual lifetimes. But at least two robust trends suggest the future will have more value change, and thus more conflict:

  1. Longer lifespans – Holding other things constant, the longer people live the more generations will overlap at any one time, and the more different will be their values.
  2. Faster change – Holding other things constant, a faster rate of economic and social change will likely induce values to change faster as people adapt to these social changes.
  3. Value plasticity – It may become easier for our descendants to change their values, all else equal. This might be via stronger ads and schools, or direct brain rewiring. (This trend seems less robust.)

These trends robustly suggest that toward the end of their lives future folk will more often look with disapproval at the attitudes and behaviors of younger generations, even as these older generations have a smaller proportional influence on the world. There will be more ‘Get off my lawn! Damn kids got no respect.’

The futurists who most worry about this problem tend to assume a worst possible case. (Supporting quotes below.) That is, without a regulatory solution we face the prospect of quickly sharing the world with daemon spawn of titanic power who share almost none of our values. Not only might they not like our kind of music, they might not like music. They might not even be conscious. One standard example is that they might want only to fill the universe with paperclips, and rip us apart to make more paperclip materials. Futurists’ key argument: the space of possible values is vast, with most points far from us.

This increased intergenerational conflict is the new problem that tempts some futurists today to consider a new regulatory solution. And their preferred solution: a complete totalitarian takeover of the world, and maybe the universe, by a new super-intelligent computer.

You heard that right.”

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You can have a very low crime rate in a police state, provided you don’t count the crimes committed by the police.

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I still remember when Rudolph Giuliani was mayor of New York, and he sent helicopters to break up a gathering of African-American youth in Harlem at the precise second the city said it had to end, because one of the adult speakers was a well-known bigot. What if one of the copters had malfunctioned and crashed into the children? Imagine that horror.

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War is big business in America, and we seem to use every reason–War on Drugs, War on Terror, etc.–to arm ourselves to the teeth, often getting bitten ourselves in the end. Those drones and weapons developed during the travesty of the Iraq War have begun making their way to your local police departments. But the problem stretches back further than that. From the Economist:

“ON AUGUST 9th Darren Wilson, a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, shot and killed Michael Brown, an 18-year-old unarmed black man. Two days after the shooting, tactical officers—paramilitary police generally referred to as SWAT (for Special Weapons and Tactics)—were called in to help clear protestors from in front of Ferguson’s police department. They arrived dressed for war, in riot gear and gas masks, bearing long truncheons and automatic weapons—despite the fact that aside from some ugly looting incidents the day after the shooting, Ferguson’s protests have largely been peaceful. In the days that followed, tactical officers have tear-gassed a news crew, aimed automatic weapons and sniper rifles at unarmed protestors and patrolled the streets of a small town in Missouri in vehicles that would not look out of place in Baghdad or Aleppo. The days of the beat cop walking the street with nothing more than a trusty old revolver seem distant indeed. How did America’s police forces get so well-armed?

In this as with so much else in American governance, it starts with federal cash. Every year Congress passes the National Defence Authorisation Act, which sets out the Defence Department’s budget and expenditures. The version passed in 1990, in the wake of a sharp rise in drug-related violence, allowed the Defence Department to transfer military gear and weapons to local police departments if they were deemed ‘suitable for use in counter-drug activities.’ Between 2002 and 2011 the Department of Homeland Security, established after the attacks of September 11th 2001, disbursed more than $35 billion in grants to state and local police forces. In addition the ‘1033 programme’ allows the Defence Department to distribute surplus equipment to local police departments for use in counter-terrorism and counter-drug activities. The American Civil Liberties Union found that the value of military equipment used by American police departments has risen from $1m in 1990 to nearly $450m in 2013.”

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Iran’s theocracy is one thing, and its people seem another altogether. It’s a strange state where the rules can be broken as long as everyone pretends otherwise. From an Economist report about a Middle Eastern Masters and Johnson-ish sex survey:

“An 82-page document recently issued by Iran’s parliamentary research department is stark in its findings. Not only are young adults sexually active, with 80% of unmarried females having boyfriends, but secondary-school pupils are, too. Illicit unions are not just between girls and boys; 17% of the 142,000 students who were surveyed said that they were homosexual.

In Tehran, the capital, long known for its underground sex scene, chastity is plainly becoming less common. The scope and pace of change are challenging the government and posing a headache for the clerics who dispense guidance at Friday prayers.

The report is also a rare official admission of the unspoken accord in Iran: people can do what they want so long as it takes place behind closed doors. Parliament’s researchers, on this occasion, were allowed to say the unsayable.

Their suggestion for stopping unsanctioned sex is remarkably liberal. Instead of seeking to cool the loins of the youngsters altogether, they should be allowed publicly to register their union by using sigheh, an ancient practice in Shia Islam that lets people marry temporarily. A legal but loose and much-deprecated arrangement, which can last from a few hours to decades, sigheh is often viewed as a cover for promiscuity or prostitution. Clerics themselves have long been suspected of being among its biggest beneficiaries, sometimes when they are on extended holy retreats in ancient religious cities such as Qom.”

Ferguson, Missouri, August 2014.

Ferguson, Missouri, August 2014.

The Iraq War is one that keeps on giving–grief–and not only overseas. The fog of that war has clouded American neighborhoods as the weapons and tools used by soldiers there have come home to roost in a neighborhood near you. Militarized police forces have drones and AR-15s, a dubious dividend, and every officer can be a Robocop now. It’s overkill that leads to actual killing, especially when the ugliness of racism shows its teeth.

Some of these arms and armor might have happened eventually anyhow in our high-tech society, but the often-misguided War on Terror has rebounded furiously back at us with weaponry the way the mission to the moon brought us memory foam and freeze-dried food. We’re all on the moon now. A brief excerpt from Sadhbh Walshe in the Guardian:

“What is happening in Ferguson is exactly what opponents of the rise in military-style policing across America have long feared: when the feds arm white local cops with weapons of war and their superiors encourage them not to just play dress-up but to use their new war toys, it is inevitable that ordinary citizens – especially citizens of color – will get treated as the enemy. As we’ve seen in Ferguson, when military might comes to Main Street, ‘hands-up, don’t shoot quickly turns into a quasi-declaration of war on a grieving community.

How the hell do we stop equipping and training suburban cops as warriors?”

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A couple of entries from one argument in the new Pew Research Center report, “AI, Robotics, and the Future of Labor,” which tries to divine how automation will alter the workforce by 2025. 

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Argument #2: The consequences for income inequality will be profound

For those who expect AI and robotics to significantly displace human employment, these displacements seem certain to lead to an increase in income inequality, a continued hollowing out of the middle class, and even riots, social unrest, and/or the creation of a permanent, unemployable “underclass.”

Justin Reich, a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, said, “Robots and AI will increasingly replace routine kinds of work—even the complex routines performed by artisans, factory workers, lawyers, and accountants. There will be a labor market in the service sector for non-routine tasks that can be performed interchangeably by just about anyone—and these will not pay a living wage—and there will be some new opportunities created for complex non-routine work, but the gains at this top of the labor market will not be offset by losses in the middle and gains of terrible jobs at the bottom. I’m not sure that jobs will disappear altogether, though that seems possible, but the jobs that are left will be lower paying and less secure than those that exist now. The middle is moving to the bottom.”

Stowe Boyd, lead researcher at GigaOM Research, said, “As just one aspect of the rise of robots and AI, widespread use of autonomous cars and trucks will be the immediate end of taxi drivers and truck drivers; truck driver is the number-one occupation for men in the U.S.. Just as importantly, autonomous cars will radically decrease car ownership, which will impact the automotive industry. Perhaps 70% of cars in urban areas would go away. Autonomous robots and systems could impact up to 50% of jobs, according to recent analysis by Frey and Osborne at Oxford, leaving only jobs that require the ‘application of heuristics’ or creativity…An increasing proportion of the world’s population will be outside of the world of work—either living on the dole, or benefiting from the dramatically decreased costs of goods to eke out a subsistence lifestyle. The central question of 2025 will be: What are people for in a world that does not need their labor, and where only a minority are needed to guide the ‘bot-based economy?”

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The New Republic has republished “The Billion-Dollar Fight Over Who Owns the Sun,” a 1975 article by Peter Barnes about the city of Santa Clara working to ensure our brightest star would be a public utility. The opening:

“The city of Santa Clara lies 50 miles south of San Francisco in a robustly sunny valley. As in much of California, rain is concentrated in the winter months, leaving nearly 300 days a year of clear skies. Until now no one paid much attention to the economic value of all that sunshine. But things are changing. By July the city will have completed a new recreation building that will draw about 80 percent of its heating and cooling energy from solar collectors mounted on the roof. After that the city itself will plunge into the solar energy business. ‘What we see is a city-owned solar utility,’ says City Manager Donald Von Raesfeld. ‘The city will finance and install solar heating and cooling systems in new buildings. Consumers will pay a monthly fee to cover amortization and maintenance of the solar units. This will be done on a nonprofit basis, with the capital raised through municipal bonds.’

Santa Clara isn’t alone in its effort to convert sunshine into useful energy. A recent survey listed 68 US buildings, either completed or near completion, that are getting some or all of their energy from the sun. Dozens of corporations are involved in solar research. The federal government is pouring millions of dollars into solar research and development projects. And while the big commitment of government and industry is still to fossil fuels and nuclear fission, energy from the sun is no longer dismissed as farfetched or far off. According to a Westinghouse study funded by the National Science Foundation, solar heating and cooling of buildings will be economically competitive in most parts of the country by 1985-90, and are already almost competitive in sunny regions like California and Florida. By the end of the century, says the NSF, the sun could provide more than one-third of the energy we use to heat and cool buildings, plus 20 to 30 percent of our electricity needs. It could dramatically reduce peak demands for electricity—mainly for summer air-conditioning — and conserve fossil fuels for petro-chemical uses for which there are no ready substitutes. Congress is equally enthused. Last year it passed five laws dealing wholly or partly with solar energy research, spreading money somewhat chaotically among the NSF, NASA, HUD and a new energy research and development agency.

The attractions of solar energy are apparent. It doesn’t pollute or otherwise damage the environment. It creates no dangerous waste products such as plutonium. It won’t run out for a few billion years. It can’t be embargoed by Arabs or anyone else. It’s virtually inflation proof once the basic set-up costs are met, and would wondrously improve our balance of payments. The technology involved, while still not perfected, is much less complex than nuclear technology. And of all energy sources the sun is the least amenable to control by cartel-like energy industry.

Why then has it taken so long to discover the sun? One reason is that the energy contained in sunshine is diffuse and fickle compared to the concentrated energy found in fossil fuels. As long as fossil fuels were plentiful and fairly easy to get at, it was considerably more profitable to collect and sell these stored forms of solar energy than to capture the sun’s current energy emissions. Another reason is the massive commitment of dollars and scientists the US made after World War II to the development of nuclear energy, a commitment that in retrospect appears to have derived at least partly from guilt over having unleashed the atom for destructive purposes, (‘If sunbeams were weapons of war, we would have had solar energy centuries ago,’ chemist George Porter has observed,) Solar energy is finally looking attractive because fossil fuels are no longer cheap, and because the drawbacks of nuclear fission—its hazards, huge capital costs, and low gains in net energy terms (it takes enormous amounts of energy to build reactors and prepare their fuel)—are now more widely appreciated.”

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Information may not want to be free from a financial standpoint, but it does want to be unfettered, with centralized, controlled data no longer a possibility in this connected age. That’s the reality made clear by the Edward Snowden leaks, even if his NSA revelations weren’t exactly a shocker to anyone with open eyes. In many cases this new normal will be a good thing and in some a bad one. But no legislation will really stop it.

Further complicating matters is that most Americans don’t seem to mind if their government snoops on them in the (supposed) name of protecting them. In these scary times, they want a big brother, even if it’s Big Brother.

From “The Most Wanted Man in the World,” James Bamford’s Wired cover article, a passage about a possible second leaker, which is likely though Snowden neither confirms nor denies:

“And there’s another prospect that further complicates matters: Some of the revelations attributed to Snowden may not in fact have come from him but from another leaker spilling secrets under Snowden’s name. Snowden himself adamantly refuses to address this possibility on the record. But independent of my visit to Snowden, I was given unrestricted access to his cache of documents in various locations. And going through this archive using a sophisticated digital search tool, I could not find some of the documents that have made their way into public view, leading me to conclude that there must be a second leaker somewhere. I’m not alone in reaching that conclusion. Both Greenwald and security expert Bruce Schneier—who have had extensive access to the cache—have publicly stated that they believe another whistle-blower is releasing secret documents to the media.

In fact, on the first day of my Moscow interview with Snowden, the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel comes out with a long story about the NSA’s operations in Germany and its cooperation with the German intelligence agency, BND. Among the documents the magazine releases is a top-secret ‘Memorandum of Agreement’ between the NSA and the BND from 2002. ‘It is not from Snowden’s material,’ the magazine notes.

Some have even raised doubts about whether the infamous revelation that the NSA was tapping German chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone, long attributed to Snowden, came from his trough. At the time of that revelation, Der Spiegel simply attributed the information to Snowden and other unnamed sources. If other leakers exist within the NSA, it would be more than another nightmare for the agency—it would underscore its inability to control its own information and might indicate that Snowden’s rogue protest of government overreach has inspired others within the intelligence community. ‘They still haven’t fixed their problems,’ Snowden says. ‘They still have negligent auditing, they still have things going for a walk, and they have no idea where they’re coming from and they have no idea where they’re going. And if that’s the case, how can we as the public trust the NSA with all of our information, with all of our private records, the permanent record of our lives?'”

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From Kate Dailey at BBC, a recollection of the lifestyle of thousands U.S. citizens like John McCain who lived in the Panama Canal Zone, a stamp-sized America, yes, yet a dreamworld all its own:

“For almost 100 years, thousands of Americans lived a life of luxury in secluded tropical communities close to the Bay of Panama. Known as ‘Zonians,’ they maintained one of the world’s great engineering feats – the Panama Canal.

Established in 1903, the Panama Canal Zone constituted a home away from home for the Americans who built and maintained the Panama Canal and the workers who supported them.

The zone was an area of 533 square miles that ran the course of the canal and was controlled by the US. Families were given generous benefits, including subsidised housing, ample holiday time, well-stocked commissaries and attentive staff.

Its residents enjoyed the beautiful weather and more relaxed lifestyle of Panama, while also living in comfortable American-style housing, experiencing a top-notch American education and enjoying all the perks of US citizenship.

‘It was a strange kind of artificial place,’ says Michael Donoghue, author of Borderland on the Isthmus: Race, Culture, and the Struggle for the Canal Zone. His father travelled through the zone during World War Two, and compared it to ‘a small southern town transplanted into the middle of Central America.'”

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Jane Arraf, Al Jazeera’s Iraq correspondent, has more hope than most for a one-state solution for the exploding country and its warring factions. She just did an Ask Me Anything at Reddit. A few exchanges follow.

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Question:

How are the Sunni and Shiite Arabs in Iraq feeling about the U.S. air campaign against ISIS? Most of the media coverage so far has only focused on how the Kurds and Assyrian Christians feel.

Jane Arraf:

I think apart from Iraqi minorities under threat and perhaps the Kurds, very few Iraqis want a large US military presence here. They are though – particularly the Shiite – quite aware of how much of a threat IS fighters pose and when push comes to shove most people are quite happy with US air strikes if it helps restore some stability.

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Question:

Do you think ISIS has momentum and resource to become an established state, or is its success fleeting?

Jane Arraf:

Great question – it does have resources and certainly momentum but I think the momentum is being stopped. I think people have to look at the root causes of why they are getting support in some regions. The fact remains that in areas they have taken over they are not proving able to run a state that many people would want to live in.

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Question:

Do you think the Kurds can hold off ISIS much longer?

Jane Arraf:

Not without help no. I think their forced retreat has been a wake-up call. Some of the units that gave up cities in the Nineveh plains seem to have performed quite badly and there are indications that the lack of professionalism that has plagued Iraqi security forces, although to a lesser extent, was to blame. It’s been a long time since the Kurdish region was really threatened and now they are returning to their warrior roots – but they need help.

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Question:

Do you think peace might be achieved by some sort of neo-Westphalian agreement, in which each particular identity (Shia, Sunni, Kurd, Alawite, Christian, etc.) is given sovereignty over its own national/religious state?

Jane Arraf:

I like to think Iraq can still hold together – people revert to religious and tribal identities when they feel threatened and politicians do it when they have something to gain from it. Everyone now is very insecure and determined to hold on to whatever they have. Eventually there might well be separate Sunni and Kurdish states but I don’t think its inevitable.

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Question:

As a more broad question, do you think a unified single state solution in Iraq is possible, or is it untenable given the historical strife between different groups within the country (Kurds, Sunnis, Shiites, etc)?

Jane Arraf:

I think Saddam was the awful glue that kind of kept the country together but I would like to think the frequent Iraqi comment that Iraq needs a strong man doesn’t do the country justice. I think with good governance a lot is possible and I’m not sure Iraq has had that so far for a variety of reasons rather than the fault of any one politician.•

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Here’s a scary development from our big-data reality: predictive sentencing for defendants based on statistics which suggest future-crime risk. The actual offense committed is only part of the equation, with much thornier things, like race and class, considered. It’s often referred to as “smart sentencing,” but you might not agree if you happen to fit into the wrong statistical quadrant. It’s math run amok. From Sonja B. Starr at the New York Times:

“ANN ARBOR, Mich. — IN a recent letter to the United States Sentencing Commission, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. sharply criticized the growing trend of evidence-based sentencing, in which courts use data-driven predictions of defendants’ future crime risk to shape sentences. Mr. Holder is swimming against a powerful current. At least 20 states have implemented this practice, including some that require risk scores to be considered in every sentencing decision. Many more are considering it, as is Congress, in pending sentencing-reform bills.

Risk-assessment advocates say it’s a no-brainer: Who could oppose ‘smarter’ sentencing? But Mr. Holder is right to pick this fight. As currently used, the practice is deeply unfair, and almost certainly unconstitutional. It contravenes the principle that punishment should depend on what a defendant did, not on who he is or how much money he has.

The basic problem is that the risk scores are not based on the defendant’s crime. They are primarily or wholly based on prior characteristics: criminal history (a legitimate criterion), but also factors unrelated to conduct. Specifics vary across states, but common factors include unemployment, marital status, age, education, finances, neighborhood, and family background, including family members’ criminal history.”

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The dominant idea in space colonization today is that we’ll fill up the moon or Mars in a large-scale settlement of 4D cities, try to make it approximate another Earth, with all the comforts of home. But while something with such familiarity may appeal to the masses, Freeman Dyson has long dreamed of exploration on the margins, of something stranger, more diffuse and, perhaps, more dangerous: He wants pioneers to grow vegetables on asteroids.

In a 1978 interview with Omni’s Monte Davis about artificial biodomes and smart clouds, the physicist stood in contrast to his fellow Princeton professor Gerard K. O’Neill, who envisioned massive, standardized space habitats. Regardless of which schemes are superior, Dyson presciently realized at the time that the future of space settlements might be powered by private interests, and in 2014 those entrepreneurs favor O’Neill’s view over his. An excerpt:

Freeman Dyson:

I’ve done some historical research on the costs of the Mayflower’s voyage, and on the Mormon’s emigration to Utah, and I think it’s possible to go into space on a much smaller scale. A cost on the order of $40,000 per person would be the target to shoot for; in terms of real wages that would make it comparable to the colonization of America. Unless it’s brought down to that level, it not really interesting to me, because otherwise it would be a luxury that only governments could afford.

Omni:

Where would your Mayflower-style colonists go?

Freeman Dyson:

I’d put my money on the asteroids. Dandridge Cole and others suggested using a solar mirror to melt and hollow out an iron asteroid, and in O’Neill’s book his homesteaders build their own shells from the minerals available out there. I wouldn’t accept either of those as the most sensible course: I think you should find an asteroid which is not iron or nickel, but some kind of soil you could grow things in.

Omni:

What do you mean by soil?

Freeman Dyson:

Well, we have specimens of meteoritic mineral called carbonaceous chondrite, which looks like soil–it’s black, crumbly stuff containing a good deal of water; it has enough carbon, nitrogen, oxygen so that there’s some hope you could grow vegetables in it, and it’s soft enough to dig without using dynamite.

Omni:

So you think it would be worth looking for an asteroid like that rather than trying to transform a raw stone or metal asteroid?

Freeman Dyson:

Yes, if it’s to be done on a pioneer basis, you’d jolly well better find a place where you can grow things right away. Otherwise it’s inevitably a much slower and more expensive job.

Omni:

Is the sunlight at a distance adequate to grow plants?

Freeman Dyson:

I think so. Plants are very flexible in their requirements, you know, and they could be genetically altered if it’s needed. After all, a lot of things grow very well even in England…

Omni:

What about colonizing the moon? Too much gravity?

Freeman Dyson:

That…and it’s simply too close to home. Too easy for the tax man to find you. And choosing a place to go is not just a question of freight charges. There have always been minorities who valued their differences and their independence enough to make very great sacrifices, and it seems obvious to me that it’s going to happen again.

Omni:

So you think we may not go in for the big O’Neill-type colonies after all?

Freeman Dyson: 

We may not, but others may. I was in Russia two years ago for a conference on telescopes, and all that anyone there wanted to hear about was O’Neill’s ideas. They knew that he and I were both at Princeton, and assumed I could tell them everything about space colonies. The point is that in Russia, they have very little of our current mistrust of technology on the grand scale–in fact, it fits very well with their ideas about our relationship to nature. Thousands of engineers working on a giant framework floating in space, that’s a picture that excited them very much. I wouldn’t be surprised if they choose that.

If they do, the historical analogy becomes very strong: the Russians play the role of Spanish colonies in the New World, and people like me are more like the English, with smaller, scattered, decentralized colonies. Of course, it took the English much longer to get going, but when we did go we did a better job.”

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From “Soccer in Oblivion,” a perfectly written Grantland piece by Brian Phillips, which examines the intersection of sports and war, one of which is just games and the other often mistaken for one: 

Fighting on the scale of the Great War is essentially incomprehensible, like the atom or the spaces between stars. Its extremity defeats the imagination. You can say ’16 million dead,’ but what’s 16 million? You can picture the lunar hell between the trenches, the broken trees and craters; you can try to fathom the misery of life in the armies, where rats outnumbered men. But these are conventional images. It may be that all you can do is to sift through fragments, to search for illumination in unexpected places. Sixty thousand men vaporized in an afternoon is inconceivable, but you can find a statistic that makes you catch your breath. This one is eloquent: In August 1914, a British recruit had to stand 5-foot-8 to be accepted into the army. In October, the limit was lowered to 5-foot-5. By November, it was set at 5-foot-3.

Or you can notice, say, the prevalence of soccer balls in group photos from the war. They’re everywhere. You’ll see the Isle of Wight Rifles, 8th Battalion Hampshire Regiment, posed around a cannon, jaunty and smiling, their hats on crooked — and a football tucked between the feet of the man in the center. The football is there because the men like football, of course. But there’s a deeper reason, which is that the men are trying to see war as a game.”

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Former MTV VJ Kennedy, no less an accident of modern free-market capitalism than the Kardashians, is given the first word in Robert Draper’s New York Times Magazine article, “Has the ‘Libertarian Moment’ Finally Arrived?” Without thinking, as is her custom, the Fox political analyst unwittingly labels Sen. Rand Paul just right by identifying him as the “Pearl Jam” of the ideology. You know, because he’s overrated, his words are simplistic, and to paraphrase Portlandia, you liked him…in high school. 

Libertarianism can be useful as can most belief systems in certain cases, but the thought of extreme isolationism overseas and an utter lack of collectivism domestically is beyond plausibility for most American adults.

Of course, the piece could have just as easily asked if Liberalism’s moment has finally arrived, since decriminalizing drugs, reducing the prison population, curtailing government snooping and marriage equality (the latter of which seems to escape Paul’s enthusiasm for liberty) have long been planks of that ideology. But perhaps that wouldn’t have made for as catchy a feature-article angle. The opening:

“‘Let’s say Ron Paul is Nirvana,’ said Kennedy, the television personality and former MTV host, by way of explaining the sort of politician who excites libertarians like herself. ‘Like, the coolest, most amazing thing to come along in years, and the songs are nebulous but somehow meaningful, and the lead singer kills himself to preserve the band’s legacy.

‘Then Rand Paul — he’s Pearl Jam. Comes from the same place, the songs are really catchy, can really pack the stadiums, though it’s not quite Nirvana.

‘Ted Cruz? He’s Stone Temple Pilots. Tries really hard to sound like Pearl Jam, never gonna sound like Nirvana. Really good voice, great staying power — but the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts.’

I met Kennedy (a gabby 41-year-old whose actual name is Lisa Kennedy Montgomery) in Midtown Manhattan at Fox News headquarters, where she hosts a Fox Business Network program called The Independents. By cable TV standards, the show, which is shown four times a week, is jarringly nonpartisan, for the simple reason that she and her co-hosts — the Reason magazine editor in chief Matt Welch and the entrepreneur Kmele Foster — are openly contemptuous of both parties. Kennedy spent most of the Bill Clinton ‘90s as MTV’s most vocal Republican, but then she soured on the G.O.P., a political shift that solidified during the spending and warring and moralizing excesses of the George W. Bush years. Sometime after the elephant tattoo on her left hip ‘got infected and started looking more like a pig,’ Kennedy began thinking of herself as a libertarian instead. She, Welch and Foster take turns on the show bashing not only ‘Obamacare’ but also the N.S.A., neoconservatives and social scolds. It’s not a hospitable forum for G.O.P. talking points. ‘There are some libertarian-leaning Republicans who are afraid to be on our show,’ Kennedy told me. Libertarianism’s Nirvana, a k a the former congressman and former presidential candidate Ron Paul, has been on The Independents more than once. But Pearl Jam — a k a Ron Paul’s son Rand, a one-term Republican senator who may well run for the presidency in 2016 — has yet to appear.

A few weeks after our conversation, I saw Kennedy onstage in a hotel ballroom, wearing purple spandex, gyrating to the soundtrack of Flashdance and hollering into a microphone, ‘Are you hungry for more liberty?'”

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Israel has won the latest military battle with Hamas by a large body count, but it’s lost the public-relations war by an even wider margin. That’s the kind of thing that occurs when there’s one dominant force in a government that doesn’t have to answer to internal dissent. In the case of Israel, it’s the current hard-right wing. America displayed the same type of tone-deafness during the Iraq War, when neocons made us unpopular the world over. That’s not to say that some of the criticism of Israel hasn’t been commingled with anti-Semitism–there are sadly still a lot of those feelings in the world–but that Israel, like America, is a deeply polarized country, and the current regime is directing it in a path that’s injurious to others and itself. I mean, it’s made Hamas seem sympathetic to a lot of people!

From Julia Amalia Heyer’s Spiegel interview with Israeli sociologist Eva Illouz, an explanation of how Israel swung so far to the right:

Spiegel:

Why is the right so strong at the moment even though there are far fewer terror attacks in Israel than there used to be?

Eva Illouz:

Entire generations have been raised with the territories, with Israel being a colonial power. They do not know anything else. You have the settlements which are highly ideological. They expanded and entered Israeli mainstream political life. Settlements were strengthened by systematic government policies: They got tax breaks; they had soldiers to protect them; they built roads and infrastructure which are much better than those inside the country. There are entire segments of the population that have never met a secular person and have been educated religiously. Some of these religious segments are also very nationalist. The reality we are faced with in Israel is that we must choose between liberalism and Jewishness, and if we choose Jewishness, we are condemned to become a religious Sparta which will not be sustainable. Whereas in the 1960s, you could be both socialist and Zionist, today it is not possible because of the policies and identity of Israel. Then you have the role which Jews who live outside Israel play in Israel. Many of these Jews have very right-wing views and contribute money to newspapers, think tanks and religious institutions inside Israel. Let’s face it: the right has been more systematic and more mobilized, both inside and outside Israel.”

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The Frost-Nixon interviews of 1977 were the final word on Watergate figuratively, though not literally. In 1983, Frank Gannon, a former Nixon aide who went on to work as a producer for David Letterman, recorded 30 hours of interviews with his old boss. The tapes, not erased but largely forgotten, have resurfaced on the 40th anniversary of America’s only Presidential resignation. From the Associated Press:

“The segments were culled from more than 30 hours of interviews that Nixon did with former aide Frank Gannon in 1983. The sections on Watergate aired publicly once, on CBS News, before gathering dust at the University of Georgia for more than 30 years.

‘This is as close to what anybody is going to experience to sitting down and having a beer with Nixon, sitting down with him in his living room,’ said Gannon, now a writer and historian in Washington DC.

‘Like him or not, whether you think that his resignation was a tragedy for the nation or that he got out of town one step ahead of the sheriff, he was a human being,’ he said.

Nixon, who died in 1994, had hoped that providing his own narrative would help temper America’s final judgment of him.

Perhaps with that in mind, he didn’t shy away from the tough questions, commenting on everything from the threat of impeachment to the so-called ‘smoking gun’ conversation that included evidence he participated in a Watergate cover-up.

‘This was the final blow, the final nail in the coffin. Although you don’t need another nail if you’re already in the coffin – which we were,’ Nixon said in a segment about the 23 June 1972 tape.

Nixon said when he decided to resign, he faced such strong resistance from his wife that he brought a transcript of the ‘smoking gun’ tape to a family meeting to show her how bad it was.

‘I’m a fighter, I just didn’t want to quit. Also I thought it would be an admission of guilt, which of course it was,’ he said. ‘And, also, I felt it would set a terribly bad precedent for the future.’

The tone of the tapes contrasts with the sometimes adversarial tone of the well-known series of Nixon interviews done in 1977 by British journalist David Frost.”

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Bill Keller, former New York Times executive editor, is spearheading the Marshall Project, a fledgling, non-profit news organization that covers criminal justice, something incredibly necessary with current U.S. drug policies, a too-large prison population and print outlets downsizing and capsizing. A quick exchange about the non-profit journalism model from an Ask Me Anything he and reporter Maurice Possley just conducted on Reddit:

“Question:

Many Future of News talking heads think that when news orgs become non-profit, they muddy the waters for everyone trying to find a new, sustainable financial model for doing the news.

Do you think the non-profit model is here to stay, or a temporary solution while journalists scramble for the next few years figuring out what works in for-profit?

Bill Keller:

Honest answer? Who the hell knows? We’re in the Mad Max stage of the media business. I expect some non-profits (meaning non-profit-on-purpose, as opposed to trying-unsuccessfully-to-be-profitable) will be around for a long time, as long as there are philanthropies and individuals who value quality journalism. After all, NPR seems to be pretty permanent, and it’s the ultimate non-profit news outlet.”

 

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Boy, that David Carr is a flawless writer. You never see the editor’s hand in his work, something that is rarer than you might think for reporters unless you’re reading closely. Emily Nussbaum, the TV critic at the New Yorker, is the same way. Pretty much perfect every time out. Journalists who write on that level can pull you into reading something you might not be initially interested in, give you something you didn’t expect.

From Carr’s latest New York Times piece in which he visits Glenn Greenwald, a bothersome man who’s useful even if you’re not sure you always trust his judgement, at his Rio de Janeiro home base, a surprisingly lo-fi lair for perhaps the most wired journalist on Earth:

“For all its challenges — the monkeys and dogs have daily throw-downs and some of the spiders are large and remarkably deadly — the location suits him, the eternal guerrilla fighting from the mountains. When cable television calls, he races down the hill to a satellite facility, suit coat and tie on top, sandals and shorts on the bottom.

On Tuesday morning last week, Mr. Greenwald was pleased. He woke up early and wrote an uncharacteristically brief post about the huge number of civilian casualties in the Gaza conflict. He was proud of the pie charts he had managed to conjure to go with his post.

‘I went to Google and typed in ‘create a pie chart’ and I ended up with an online pie-chart maker probably intended for first graders,’ he said. I mentioned that he now works for a digital news site that has a $250 million endowment from Mr. Omidyar and some very talented data journalists and graphic artists.

‘Yeah, I know, but I would have had to wait and I didn’t want to wait,’ he said. ‘There are others things, like the 7,000-word story we just did on the surveillance of Muslim Americans that 15 people probably worked on — the video, graphic and editing resources make a huge difference. But I wanted this to be simple and I wanted it to be mine.’

True to his intent, Mr. Greenwald’s first-grade pie charts entered the bloodstream of the web, coursing around Twitter and various blogs. Nothing — other than yet another dog rescue — pleases Mr. Greenwald more than lobbing in something from a great distance and watching it detonate.”

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When Vladimir Putin went aggressive with Ukraine, he was heralded by some in this country as appearing “strong” and President Obama as seeming “weak,” although you’d have to be pretty simple to view things that way. Putin was sticking his foot in it but good–his ass, too–becoming ensnared in a quagmire the way the U.S. did when invading Iraq, leaving himself wide open for things to career out of control (like MH-17 being shot down). Putin was a 20th-century leader adrift in the 21-st century, a visitor from the past trying to commandeer the future, and that never turns out well.

One passage from the new long-form Economist interview with Obama, which focuses on his dealings with Russia and China:

“The Economist: 

Because that is the key issue, whether China ends up inside that system or challenging it. That’s the really big issue of our times, I think.

President Obama: 

It is. And I think it’s important for the United States and Europe to continue to welcome China as a full partner in these international norms. It’s important for us to recognise that there are going to be times where there are tensions and conflicts. But I think those are manageable.

And it’s my belief that as China shifts its economy away from simply being the low-cost manufacturer of the world to wanting to move up the value chain, then suddenly issues like protecting intellectual property become more relevant to their companies, not just to US companies.

One thing I will say about China, though, is you also have to be pretty firm with them, because they will push as hard as they can until they meet resistance. They’re not sentimental, and they are not interested in abstractions. And so simple appeals to international norms are insufficient. There have to be mechanisms both to be tough with them when we think that they’re breaching international norms, but also to show them the potential benefits over the long term. And what is true for China then becomes an analogy for many of the other emerging markets.

The Economist:

What about the people who are just outright difficult? Russia being the obvious example at the moment. You tried to ‘reset’ with Russia. Angela Merkel spent the whole time telephoning Vladimir Putin. To what extent do you feel let down almost personally by what’s happened?

President Obama: 

I don’t feel let down. We had a very productive relationship with President Medvedev. We got a lot of things done that we needed to get done. Russia I think has always had a Janus-like quality, both looking east and west, and I think President Putin represents a deep strain in Russia that is probably harmful to Russia over the long term, but in the short term can be politically popular at home and very troublesome abroad.

But I do think it’s important to keep perspective. Russia doesn’t make anything. Immigrants aren’t rushing to Moscow in search of opportunity. The life expectancy of the Russian male is around 60 years old. The population is shrinking. And so we have to respond with resolve in what are effectively regional challenges that Russia presents. We have to make sure that they don’t escalate where suddenly nuclear weapons are back in the discussion of foreign policy. And as long as we do that, then I think history is on our side.”

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One of the best things I’ve read this year is an excellent longform conversation at the Baffler between Thomas Piketty and David Graeber, both of whom believe the modern financial system is passé, but only one of whom (Graeber) believes it’s certain to collapse. An exchange:

Moderators:

Is capitalism itself the cause of the problem, or can it be reformed?

Thomas Piketty:

One of the points that I most appreciate in David Graeber’s book is the link he shows between slavery and public debt. The most extreme form of debt, he says, is slavery: slaves belong forever to somebody else, and so, potentially, do their children. In principle, one of the great advances of civilization has been the abolition of slavery.

As Graeber explains, the intergenerational transmission of debt that slavery embodied has found a modern form in the growing public debt, which allows for the transfer of one generation’s indebtedness to the next. It is possible to picture an extreme instance of this, with an infinite quantity of public debt amounting to not just one, but ten or twenty years of GNP, and in effect creating what is, for all intents and purposes, a slave society, in which all production and all wealth creation is dedicated to the repayment of debt. In that way, the great majority would be slaves to a minority, implying a reversion to the beginnings of our history.

In actuality, we are not yet at that point. There is still plenty of capital to counteract debt. But this way of looking at things helps us understand our strange situation, in which debtors are held culpable and we are continually assailed by the claim that each of us “owns” between thirty and forty thousand euros of the nation’s public debt.

This is particularly crazy because, as I say, our resources surpass our debt. A large portion of the population owns very little capital individually, since capital is so highly concentrated. Until the nineteenth century, 90 percent of accumulated capital belonged to 10 percent of the population. Today things are a little different. In the United States, 73 percent of capital belongs to the richest 10 percent. This degree of concentration still means that half the population owns nothing but debt. For this half, the per capita public debt thus exceeds what they possess. But the other half of the population owns more capital than debt, so it is an absurdity to lay the blame on populations in order to justify austerity measures.

But for all that, is the elimination of debt the solution, as Graeber writes? I have nothing against this, but I am more favorable to a progressive tax on inherited wealth along with high tax rates for the upper brackets. Why? The question is: What about the day after? What do we do once debt has been eliminated? What is the plan? Eliminating debt implies treating the last creditor, the ultimate holder of debt, as the responsible party. But the system of financial transactions as it actually operates allows the most important players to dispose of letters of credit well before debt is forgiven. The ultimate creditor, thanks to the system of intermediaries, may not be especially rich. Thus canceling debt does not necessarily mean that the richest will lose money in the process.

David Graeber:

No one is saying that debt abolition is the only solution. In my view, it is simply an essential component in a whole set of solutions. I do not believe that eliminating debt can solve all our problems. I am thinking rather in terms of a conceptual break. To be quite honest, I really think that massive debt abolition is going to occur no matter what. For me the main issue is just how this is going to happen: openly, by virtue of a top-down decision designed to protect the interests of existing institutions, or under pressure from social movements. Most of the political and economic leaders to whom I have spoken acknowledge that some sort of debt abolition is required.”

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Education in and of itself is something American universities do very well, however exorbitant in price many of them are. But education is not merely the goal of the education system in the U.S. (and pretty much everywhere else). It’s about utility, about getting jobs. When a very difficult economic time rolls along like it has now, with threats of massive automation in the future, the follies of the system’s cost structure come under attack. From David Bromwich at the New York Review of Books:

“Andrew Rossi’s documentary Ivory Tower prods us to think about the crisis of higher education. But is there a crisis? Expensive gambles, unforeseen losses, and investments whose soundness has yet to be decided have raised the price of a college education so high that today on average it costs eleven times as much as it did in 1978. Underlying the anxiety about the worth of a college degree is a suspicion that old methods and the old knowledge will soon be eclipsed by technology.

Indeed, as the film accurately records, our education leaders seem to believe technology is a force that—independent of human intervention—will help or hurt the standing of universities in the next generation. Perhaps, they think, it will perform the work of natural selection by weeding out the ill-adapted species of teaching and learning. A potent fear is that all but a few colleges and universities will soon be driven out of business.

It used to be supposed that a degree from a respected state or private university brought with it a job after graduation, a job with enough earning power to start a life away from one’s parents. But parents now are paying more than ever for college; and the jobs are not reliably waiting at the other end. ‘Even with a master’s,’ says an articulate young woman in the film, a graduate of Hunter College, ‘I couldn’t get a job cleaning toilets at a local hotel.’ The colleges are blamed for the absence of jobs, though for reasons that are sometimes obscure. They teach too many things, it is said, or they impart knowledge that is insufficiently useful; they ask too much of students or they ask too little. Above all, they are not wired in to the parts of the economy in which desirable jobs are to be found.”

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