Thursday, June 9, 2011

Assessing Current Events

by Richard Crews
A politician gets caught not paying taxes, hiring an illegal immigrant gardener, or molesting women.
Wildfires sweep across millions of acres of the Southwest U.S.
A famous athlete is accused of doping to boost his triumphs.
Political gridlock ("petty politics") threatens the world economy.
Dirty food kills several people and millions of pounds of something-or-other is recalled and discarded.
The price of wheat triples due to shifting weather patterns, tariffs, and speculation.

Stories like these splash across the headlines of newspapers daily--well, actually across our computer and TV screens. How are we to assess whether or not they have any "real" significance?

I have two criteria:
(1) How BROAD is the story? Does it significantly effect the lives of millions (if not tens of millions) of people?
(2) How ENDURING? Does it have significant implications for years (if not decades) to come?

There are several major story lines I am following (with alphabetic mnemonics):

"A" stands for the "Arab Spring": tens of millions of people across North Africa and the Middle East have risen up against their tyrannical rulers. In some places (like Tunisia and Egypt) this has led to significant reforms; in some places (like Libya and Yemen) there are terrible, bloody revolutions under way. While for the most part these people are not asking for democratic institutions (and they do not have the social or political infrastructure to establish them), they do want freedom from police-state fear, less of the government corruption that stifles the economy, freer speech, jobs (unemployment rates run up to 40%), and education and opportunity for their children. The inspiration for all this has been Western TV and movies (they see an ordinary Joe driving his own car and arguing with a cop); the lubricant has been iPhones and social media (like Twitter and FaceBook).

The Arab Spring significantly affects the lives of tens of millions of people and will remake the international political and cultural scene over the next several decades. It certainly makes it onto my list of “significant” current events.

"B"--"Budget Woes," both for the U.S. federal government and for U.S. states, but also around the world. This includes the enormous national debt (and foreign sovereign debts). Also national, state, and foreign government shortfalls of income versus expenses. It affects tens of millions of people. In the years ahead it means higher taxes, and also cut-backs in government programs for the elderly, poor, and disabled; in education and science research; in environmental protection; etc. Related to this is the huge disparity that has grown up over the past 30 years between the very rich and the rest of us--nowadays the CEO of a large corporation typically makes 300 to 400 times the salary of a "line" worker; a few decades ago it was 20 to 30 times. Another part of this problem is that the U.S. tax code is unwieldy (14,000 pages) and unfair (a huge mishmash of perks and special deductions--it has been called "institutionalized corruption"). For example, the very wealthy pay an average of 18% tax on their incomes; less wealthy folks pay more.

"C"--"Catastrophy in Japan": the huge earthquake in 2011, the resulting tidal wave, and the resulting destruction of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. This not only led to economic disruption in Japan, one of the world's largest and most advanced economies, but decisions in Japan and around the world to cut back on the use of nuclear energy. It certainly affects the lives of many tens of millions of people, and for many decades to come.

"D"--"Democracy": the governmental gridlock, and the erosion of civil liberties in the U.S., and the fits and starts of fledgling democratic institutions around the world.

"E"--"Energy": the evolution from polluting fossil fuels (oil, coal, and natural gas) to "green" (non-polluting, renewable) energy sources such as solar, wind, and geothermal.

"F"--"Food": a billion people around the world are hungry right now, although there is enough food to go around (and there is expected to be enough for the foreseeable future). Because of shifting production patterns and misguided distribution (including subsidies and tariffs, speculation, waste, and greed), food does not get to many people who need it.

"G"--"Global Warming": the science has become clear, the effects will be catastrophic--but it is terribly politically "inconvenient" to do anything about it.

"H"--"Housing Myths": the "American dream" that an average middle-class family should own its own house and yard--a myth that emerged largely as an advertising ploy in the 1950's and 1960's--is absurd financially, geographically, and socially. One recent symptom is the burst of the housing bubble. More (worldwide) disruption lies ahead as this cultural fantasy is gradually dethroned.

"I"--"Infrastructure": there are two significant problems with the U.S. infrastructure (by which I mean mainly roads, bridges, tunnels, rails, power stations, wires, telephone poles, and stuff like that). One problem is that it was largely built up decades ago and has not had needed upkeep--it is always easier to put off fixing it up if it is still functioning at all. At this point it would cost several trillion dollars to rebuild our U.S. infrastructural base, and there is neither the money nor the political will to do so. The result is that the U.S. infrastructure continues to get more rusted, pot-holed, and decrepit year by year.

The other problem is that, even if we rebuild it, it is not the infrastructure we want--it is 20th not 21st century infrastructure. The U.S. needs high-speed, mass transport (not more and better highways for single-passenger cars); wireless and fiber-optic communications (not more poles, wires, and transforming stations); and renewable energy on a "smart" power grid (not inefficient and polluting fossil-fuel power stations and power transmission cables).

"J"--"Jobs": Factories and "grunt labor" are moving to China and India; technical jobs are being replaced by robotic and automated computerized systems (and one technician who replaces 10 line workers). Ten percent of the U.S. workforce is unemployed (the figure is closer to 20% if you figure those who reluctantly work only part time, and the early retired). And the jobs that the unemployed left are not coming back. These people have been abandoned by an economy that is rushing forward; they need to rethink their futures, retrain, and perhaps relocate. It's a massive social upheaval.

"K"--"Killer Epidemics": Modern urban concentrations of population; cultural intermingling; and worldwide, fast, mass transportation render the human race vulnerable to catastrophic epidemics.

L, M, N . . . any ideas?