Earth at a Tipping Point


A prestigious group of scientists from around the world is warning that population growth, widespread destruction of natural ecosystems, and climate change may be driving Earth toward an irreversible change in the biosphere, a planet-wide tipping point that would have destructive consequences absent adequate preparation and mitigation.

"It really will be a new world, biologically, at that point," warns Anthony Barnosky, professor of  at the University of California, Berkeley, and lead author of a review paper appearing in the June 7 issue of the journal Nature. “The data suggests that there will be a reduction in biodiversity and severe impacts on much of what we depend on to sustain our quality of life, including, for example, fisheries, agriculture, forest products and clean water. This could happen within just a few generations.”

The Nature paper, in which the scientists compare the biological impact of past incidences of global change with processes under way today and assess evidence for what the future holds, appears in an issue devoted to the environment in advance of the June 20-22 United Nations Rio+20 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Nanoparticles heated by radio waves switch on genes in mice

Helen Shen

Researchers have remotely activated genes inside living animals, a proof of concept that could one day lead to medical procedures in which patients’ genes are triggered on demand.

The work, in which a team used radio waves to switch on engineered insulin-producing genes in mice, is published today in Science1.

Jeffrey Friedman, a molecular geneticist at the Rockefeller University in New York and lead author of the study, says that in the short term, the results will lead to better tools to allow scientists to manipulate cells non-invasively. But with refinement, he thinks, clinical applications could also be possible.

Romney the Bully isn’t the issue

This is a lengthy, well researched piece that Romney supporters are likely to instinctively recoil at, and detractors are likely to find superfluous. I’m far less interested in the alleged bullying than I am the narrative arc of Mitt’s life. He has lived in a cocoon of privilege and, not withstanding his own considerable work ethic, it’s not clear that he has the personal experience necessary to empathize and understand the plight of those less fortunate than himself. A belief in the power of hard work seems overly simplistic within the context of an elite prep school upbringing, selling stock to pay for an undergraduate education, dual graduate degrees from Harvard, and a career in debt leveraged financial restructuring. This doesn’t naturally prepare someone to appreciate the vagaries of life for those not ensconced in affluence, or the different calculus of risk for those without such a sturdy backstop, and it would only seem to reinforce the personal belief in a strict correlation between achievement and merit. The basic economic question of the election is whose agenda is more likely to provide more opportunity for those not born with the natural class advantages Mitt Romney was. The farcical carrot that we are a nation of the rich and the soon to be rich is a mirage of delusion or deception, self or otherwise. It isn’t inherently a disqualifier, but combined with his economic plan of massive tax cuts for the rich and a large scale dismantling of federal safety net programs, it’s difficult not to cross reference the political agenda with the personal history.

The Daily Show - Victory Lapse

Republicans accuse President Obama of politicizing the anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death.

Welcome to the Asylum

By Chris Hedges

The quest by a bankrupt elite in the final days of empire to accumulate greater and greater wealth, as Karl Marx observed, is modern society’s version of primitive fetishism. This quest, as there is less and less to exploit, leads to mounting repression, increased human suffering, a collapse of infrastructure and, finally, collective death. It is the self-deluded, those on Wall Street or among the political elite, those who entertain and inform us, those who lack the capacity to question the lusts that will ensure our self-annihilation, who are held up as exemplars of intelligence, success and progress. The World Health Organization calculates that one in four people in the United States suffers from chronic anxiety, a mood disorder or depression—which seems to me to be a normal reaction to our march toward collective suicide. Welcome to the asylum.

When the most basic elements that sustain life are reduced to a cash product, life has no intrinsic value. The extinguishing of “primitive” societies, those that were defined by animism and mysticism, those that celebrated ambiguity and mystery, those that respected the centrality of the human imagination, removed the only ideological counterweight to a self-devouring capitalist ideology. Those who held on to pre-modern beliefs, such as Native Americans, who structured themselves around a communal life and self-sacrifice rather than hoarding and wage exploitation, could not be accommodated within the ethic of capitalist exploitation, the cult of the self and the lust for imperial expansion. The prosaic was pitted against the allegorical. And as we race toward the collapse of the planet’s ecosystem we must restore this older vision of life if we are to survive.

Global Corporate Capitalism is an Economic Ouroboros

ARUNDHATI ROY

Though capitalism is meant to be based on competition, those at the top of the food chain have also shown themselves to be capable of inclusiveness and solidarity. The great Western Capitalists have done business with fascists, socialists, despots and military dictators. They can adapt and constantly innovate. They are capable of quick thinking and immense tactical cunning.

But despite having successfully powered through economic reforms, despite having waged wars and militarily occupied countries in order to put in place free market “democracies”, Capitalism is going through a crisis whose gravity has not revealed itself completely yet. Marx said, “What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.”

The proletariat, as Marx saw it, has been under continuous assault. Factories have shut down, jobs have disappeared, trade unions have been disbanded. The proletariat has, over the years, been pitted against each other in every possible way. In India, it has been Hindu against Muslim, Hindu against Christian, Dalit against Adivasi, caste against caste, region against region. And yet, all over the world, it is fighting back. In China, there are countless strikes and uprisings. In India, the poorest people in the world have fought back to stop some of the richest corporations in their tracks.

Capitalism is in crisis. Trickledown failed. Now Gush-Up is in trouble too. The international financial meltdown is closing in. India’s growth rate has plummeted to 6.9 per cent. Foreign investment is pulling out. Major international corporations are sitting on huge piles of money, not sure where to invest it, not sure how the financial crisis will play out. This is a major, structural crack in the juggernaut of global capital.

Capitalism’s real “grave-diggers” may end up being its own delusional Cardinals, who have turned ideology into faith. Despite their strategic brilliance, they seem to have trouble grasping a simple fact: Capitalism is destroying the planet. The two old tricks that dug it out of past crises—War and Shopping—simply will not work.

Romney’s Fiscal Fantasy

By Lawrence Summers

The Romney campaign has been very clear about what the former governor is promising: $5 trillion in tax cuts on top of extending the Bush tax cuts, with those benefits heavily weighted toward the country’s wealthiest taxpayers. Romney himself has acknowledged the lack of details, stating in reference to his tax plan that “frankly, it can’t be scored.” I have been party for many years to searches for “high-income tax shelters” that can feasibly be closed. I know of no reputable expert in either political party who would find that there is anything even approaching $5 trillion in potential revenue to be generated from this source.

Romney has also proposed a massive defense buildup, even while he says he will cut spending deeply enough to balance the budget. I think it’s clear why he won’t tell voters which cuts he would make: In the past, disclosing his planned budget cuts was politically damaging

This is a consequential presidential election. As the country continues to recover from the largest economic crisis in generations, we need to strengthen the job market, address big fiscal challenges and build an economy that is based on sustainable, shared economic growth. Voters should have a chance to choose between clear alternatives. Obama — consistent with his obligations as president — has laid out a multiyear budget embodying his vision for the future, and it has been evaluated by independent experts. It is time for Romney to do the same.

The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.

When one party moves this far from the mainstream, it makes it nearly impossible for the political system to deal constructively with the country’s challenges.

“Both sides do it” or “There is plenty of blame to go around” are the traditional refuges for an American news media intent on proving its lack of bias, while political scientists prefer generality and neutrality when discussing partisan polarization. Many self-styled bipartisan groups, in their search for common ground, propose solutions that move both sides to the center, a strategy that is simply untenable when one side is so far out of reach…

Today, thanks to the GOP, compromise has gone out the window in Washington. In the first two years of the Obama administration, nearly every presidential initiative met with vehement, rancorous and unanimous Republican opposition in the House and the Senate, followed by efforts to delegitimize the results and repeal the policies. The filibuster, once relegated to a handful of major national issues in a given Congress, became a routine weapon of obstruction, applied even to widely supported bills or presidential nominations. And Republicans in the Senate have abused the confirmation process to block any and every nominee to posts such as the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, solely to keep laws that were legitimately enacted from being implemented.

Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein

Inequality may lead to rage against the machines

By Sebastian Mallaby

Citigroup just hired a brilliant consultant called Watson to build out its digital banking. This very same Watson also advises healthcare companies such as WellPoint and, in his time off, took the top prize last year on Jeopardy!, the television quiz show. According to his friends, Watson has other corporate gigs that he is coy about, and will soon earn more than $1bn annually. His astronomical income puts him in the top 1 per cent of the top 1 per cent of all American workers. Or rather, it would if he were human. He is a machine.

It is worth contemplating the rise of this IBM supercomputer amid a fraught election season. Out on the campaign trail, Republicans promise to bring jobs back by reining in the government and bashing China. Barack Obama counters with a mirror-image populism, blaming the super-rich for the troubles of ordinary workers. Watson stands as a reminder that something more profound is happening. We are in the midst of a technological upheaval; and financial rewards are flowing to the elites who create and control the new machines. Almost everybody else is threatened – including sophisticated bank executives at Citi and WellPoint’s healthcare analysts.

Watson is the standard bearer of a formidable army. Thanks to the relentless arithmetic of Moore’s law, the latest Intel chip contains 2.6bn transistors, a million times more than the path-breaking Intel 4004 of four decades ago. The cost of computer storage has fallen about 90 per cent in just six years, according to Martin Barnes of BCA Research; today’s transistors are so tiny that you can fit 3,000 of them into the width of a human hair. As a result, companies can store and analyse information on every aspect of the world around them. The era of Big Data is at hand.

How Will Romney Pay For Tax Cuts? Wouldn’t You Like To Know.

Mitt Romney has proposed massive new tax cuts and promised to balance the federal budget. How will he achieve these seemingly contradictory goals?

For now, he isn’t saying. And, in fact, his campaign has been sending out vague and somewhat conflicting signals about where the money would come from to finance his rate cuts and other tax reductions.

When Romney rolled out his latest revenue plan on Feb. 22, senior aides were asked how he’d pay for these substantial tax reductions (the Tax Policy Center estimates they’d add $900 billion to the deficit in 2015 alone—about $400 billion from extending the 2001/2003 tax law and another $500 billion in new rate reductions and other tax cuts). Their response: Tax cuts would be funded by offsetting tax increases combined with stronger economic growth and changes in behavior driven by the tax reductions themselves.

The aides did not identify which taxes Romney would raise or estimate the economic effects of his plan. But they were clear that his tax reductions would be funded inside the revenue system. And, at least by their calculation, Romney’s new initiative would not be a net tax cut at all. It would be a classic tax reform—lowering rates while eliminating tax preferences. But it would result in no net change in tax revenues (at least as Romney measures it).

are we really going to try this again? it’s laughable when Romney tells us we can’t afford four more years of Obama, as if we can afford another round of massive tax cuts for the wealthy, a 61% increase in defense spending when we already spend more than nearly every other nation COMBINED and a promise to balance the budget without specifying what he would cut.. rather than trying to out muscle Obama by expanding the already bloated defense budget, maybe he could try honestly detailing his vision for cutting the federal budget? or just be bold enough to release as many tax returns as his father did when he ran for President…

Taxed by the Boss

By David Cay Johnston

(Reuters) - Across the United States more than 2,700 companies are collecting state income taxes from hundreds of thousands of workers - and are keeping the money with the states’ approval, says an eye-opening report published on Thursday.

The report from Good Jobs First, a nonprofit taxpayer watchdog organization funded by Ford, Surdna and other major foundations, identifies 16 states that let companies divert some or all of the state income taxes deducted from workers’ paychecks. None of the states requires notifying the workers, whose withholdings are treated as taxes they paid.

Deals cut with the states over the past two decades diverted $5.5 billion from public purposes to private gain, the report says. Close to $700 million more was diverted last year, Good Jobs First estimates.

New Jersey approved $73.2 million in new deals in 2011 on top of $178 million diverted that year alone under previous deals. I calculate that at nearly $80 per household in corporate welfare based on New Jersey’s 3.1 million households.

These deals typify corporate socialism, in which business gains are privatized and costs socialized. They also mean government picks winners and losers, interfering with competitive markets. Leaders in both parties embrace these giveaways because they draw campaign donations from corporate interests and votes from people who do not understand that they are subsidizing huge companies.

Born This Way

By Sasha Issenberg

At the vanguard of this movement is Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist whose best-selling new book,The Righteous Mind, collects his own experiments—testing biases, prejudices, and ­preferences—and the work of like-minded colleagues to unmask much of our political “thinking” as moral instinct papered over, post facto, with ideological rationalization. We may tell ourselves that we believe welfare is just or that abortion violates the sanctity of life, but we’re really using borrowed language to express much more visceral attitudes, oriented around one of six moral dials—harm, fairness, loyalty, authority, liberty, and sanctity. Much of what passes for the daily scrum of electoral politics, he says, is merely an effort to find language that can help citizens justify these instincts. “Once people join a political team, they get ensnared in its moral matrix,” Haidt writes. “They see confirmation of their grand narrative everywhere.”

But the new science of primal politics goes quite a bit deeper than psychology. Over the past few years, researchers haven’t just tied basic character traits to liberalism and conservatism, they’ve begun to finger specific genes they say hard-wire those ideologies. If that work is to be believed, it would mean that an individual’s path to a political identity starts not with a series of choices but with long-ago genetic mutations, and that our collective experience of politics may be less a battle of ideas than a Darwinian contest in which we are all unwitting participants. After a team of geneticists claimed in a 2005American Political Science Review article that they had evidence of DNA’s influence on politics, Duke political scientist Evan Charney rebutted that their findings “would require nothing less than a revision of our understanding of all of human history, much—if not most—of political science, sociology, anthropology, and psychology, as well as, perhaps, our understanding of what it means to be human.”

To those immersed in the science, moral concerns have seemed to exhibit the strongest hereditary influence and to manifest themselves earliest in life. They are the most stable over a lifetime and the least susceptible to persuasion. That may explain why the most angry, permanent divisions in modern American politics have surrounded “God, guns, and gays” and why an intra-Republican truce on such cultural issues strikes nearly everyone as particularly fanciful. What if positions on these issues evoke the most primal responses because, in animal terms, they are most primal?

Such thinking would threaten the pieties of both left and right. Conservatives might have to adjust to a world in which few human failings could be fully blamed on cultural decline. At the same time, the liberal mind would be forced to rethink its posture toward ­cultural backwardness, and decide whether it ought to treat illiberal attributes like intolerance and racism as part of human nature. Would those who oppose discrimination against gays on the basis that sexuality is no choice still feel empowered to hate the right wing if they knew homophobes, too, were just born that way?

The Second Economy

by W. Brian Arthur

Business processes that once took place among human beings are now being executed electronically. They are taking place in an unseen domain that is strictly digital. On the surface, this shift doesn’t seem particularly consequential—it’s almost something we take for granted. But I believe it is causing a revolution no less important and dramatic than that of the railroads. It is quietly creating a second economy, a digital one…

With the coming of the Industrial Revolution—roughly from the 1760s, when Watt’s steam engine appeared, through around 1850 and beyond—the economy developed a muscular system in the form of machine power. Now it is developing a neural system. This may sound grandiose, but actually I think the metaphor is valid. Around 1990, computers started seriously to talk to each other, and all these connections started to happen. The individual machines—servers—are like neurons, and the axons and synapses are the communication pathways and linkages that enable them to be in conversation with each other and to take appropriate action.

Is this the biggest change since the Industrial Revolution? Well, without sticking my neck out too much, I believe so. In fact, I think it may well be the biggest change ever in the economy. It is a deep qualitative change that is bringing intelligent, automatic response to the economy. There’s no upper limit to this, no place where it has to end. Now, I’m not interested in science fiction, or predicting the singularity, or talking about cyborgs. None of that interests me. What I am saying is that it would be easy to underestimate the degree to which this is going to make a difference.

I think that for the rest of this century, barring wars and pestilence, a lot of the story will be the building out of this second economy, an unseen underground economy that basically is giving us intelligent reactions to what we do above the ground. For example, if I’m driving in Los Angeles in 15 years’ time, likely it’ll be a driverless car in a flow of traffic where my car’s in a conversation with the cars around it that are in conversation with general traffic and with my car. The second economy is creating for us—slowly, quietly, and steadily—a different world.

Of course, as with most changes, there is a downside. I am concerned that there is an adverse impact on jobs. Productivity increasing, say, at 2.4 percent in a given year means either that the same number of people can produce 2.4 percent more output or that we can get the same output with 2.4 percent fewer people. Both of these are happening. We are getting more output for each person in the economy, but overall output, nationally, requires fewer people to produce it. Nowadays, fewer people are required behind the desk of an airline. Much of the work is still physical—someone still has to take your luggage and put it on the belt—but much has vanished into the digital world of sensing, digital communication, and intelligent response.

Physical jobs are disappearing into the second economy, and I believe this effect is dwarfing the much more publicized effect of jobs disappearing to places like India and China.

There are parallels with what has happened before. In the early 20th century, farm jobs became mechanized and there was less need for farm labor, and some decades later manufacturing jobs became mechanized and there was less need for factory labor. Now business processes—many in the service sector—are becoming “mechanized” and fewer people are needed, and this is exerting systematic downward pressure on jobs. We don’t have paralegals in the numbers we used to. Or draftsmen, telephone operators, typists, or bookkeeping people. A lot of that work is now done digitally. We do have police and teachers and doctors; where there’s a need for human judgment and human interaction, we still have that. But the primary cause of all of the downsizing we’ve had since the mid-1990s is that a lot of human jobs are disappearing into the second economy. Not to reappear.

Seeing things this way, it’s not surprising we are still working our way out of the bad 2008–09 recession with a great deal of joblessness.

There’s a larger lesson to be drawn from this. The second economy will certainly be the engine of growth and the provider of prosperity for the rest of this century and beyond, but it may not provide jobs, so there may be prosperity without full access for many. This suggests to me that the main challenge of the economy is shifting from producing prosperity to distributing prosperity. The second economy will produce wealth no matter what we do; distributing that wealth has become the main problem. For centuries, wealth has traditionally been apportioned in the West through jobs, and jobs have always been forthcoming. When farm jobs disappeared, we still had manufacturing jobs, and when these disappeared we migrated to service jobs. With this digital transformation, this last repository of jobs is shrinking—fewer of us in the future may have white-collar business process jobs—and we face a problem.

The system will adjust of course, though I can’t yet say exactly how. Perhaps some new part of the economy will come forward and generate a whole new set of jobs. Perhaps we will have short workweeks and long vacations so there will be more jobs to go around. Perhaps we will have to subsidize job creation. Perhaps the very idea of a job and of being productive will change over the next two or three decades. The problem is by no means insoluble. The good news is that if we do solve it we may at last have the freedom to invest our energies in creative acts.