Archive for November, 2013

More on Global Warming – An Analysis (22 November 2013) by Lawrence Davidson



Part I – Global Warming Is Real


On 12 September 2013 I wrote a piece entitled Crisis Today, Catastrophe Tomorrow, through which I joined numerous others warning of the consequences of global warming. The evidence for the evolving dire effects of building CO2 and other greenhouse gases is getting increasingly conclusive. The question is what, if anything, will be done about it?  


That question was recently addressed by Paul Krugman in an article, “Gamboling with Civilization,” in which he reviewed economist William Nordhaus’s new book on climate change, The Climate Casino. The article appears in the 7 November 2013 issue of the New York Review of Books. Here are some of the points Krugman makes:


— The scientific consensus laid out in the most recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects a global temperature increase of between 1.8 and 4.0 degrees Centigrade (3 and 7.5 degrees Fahrenheit) by the year 2100. According to Nordhaus, in the years following 2100 the temperature rise will continue upward perhaps to a maximum of 6.0 degrees Centigrade (10 degrees Fahrenheit). These increases can be directly tied to human activities.


If anyone doubts the negative consequences of the heat waves such rising averages will make more frequent, they should consider what happened in Europe a decade ago. In the summer of 2003, with prolonged temperatures hovering around 100 degrees Fahrenheit, an estimated “70,000 citizens of 12 countries died of heat-induced illnesses over a four month period.” 

— There are other things to anticipate, including “sea levels will rise … hurricanes will become more intense … [and] the oceans become more acidic.”


— All of this evidence makes an “overwhelming case for action to limit the temperature rise.”


— At the heart of any effort to do this is the need “to sharply reduce emissions from coal-fired electricity generation.”


One point that Krugman does not make, but that is important, is without further regulation the shift to natural gas will not help solve the global warming problem.The use of natural gas has been hailed as a step toward cleaning up the atmosphere because gas-fired generation of electricity releases only half as much CO2 as does coal. Unfortunately, this is only part of the story. In the first two decades after its release into the atmosphere, natural gas (methane) traps heat 72 times better than does CO2. As natural gas is mined (now more than ever with new “hydraulic fracturing technology”) and transported, it leaks into the atmosphere at an estimated 2.4 percent of volume. Only further government-enforced regulation can control this contribution to global warming. By the way, this source of environmental methane outweighs that coming from cows, which were Ronald Reagan’s favorite source of methane gas


Part II – Denial and Real Power


For those who pay attention to the evidence it is not difficult to come to an understanding of what the goal is, nor is it difficult to itemize steps to accomplish the task. For instance, Krugman touches on such policies as taxing emissions of greenhouse gases; “cap and trade” programs such as those now used to limit sulfur emissions that produce acid rain; creating consumer incentives to lower energy usage; and investment in technology that captures CO2 at the plants that burn coal. 


The real problem is moving from an understanding of all these varied aspects of the situation to action, to finding, in the USA, “the political will to do what is necessary.” Given what is at stake – and Krugman believes that it is the preservation of civilization as we presently experience it – you would think that taking action is a no-brainer. Yet that is a naive assumption. Krugman goes on to give a partial explanation of why:


— “There’s real power behind the opposition to any kind of climate action.” For instance, the major work asserting that human-generated global warming is a sham, The Greatest Hoax: How the  Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future, was written by Senator James Inhofe. Inhofe just happened to be chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works between 2003 and 2007. His book is a sign that those claiming that there is no human-generated global warming have the power, in Krugman’s words, “warp the debate by … denying climate science.”  



— The problem of ideology. Inhofe represents an ideological position that appears resistant to “calm, rational argument.” There are two aspects to this ideological resistance. One is economic, an insistence by a subset of capitalists who “imagine themselves as characters in an Ayn Rand novel,” that the free market be allowed to operate no matter what. Unfortunately, as William Nordhaus points out, “there is no genuine ‘free-market solution’ to global warming.” Government intervention must be a part of the answer. The other aspect of ideological resistance is a religiously inspired suspicion of science itself, a “rejection of the scientific method in general,” as Krugman puts it. Many of both sort of ideologues are embedded within the Republican Party and it continues to control half of Congress. 


— There is also “naked self-interest.” There are billions of dollars at stake for coal and natural gas companies, and associated businesses, many of whom, according to Krugman, are “subsidizing climate denial.” 


Part III – The Problem of Natural Localism


All together this adds up to a “huge roadblock to action” and it troubles me to find still further impediments. Krugman only cites special interests groups and ideologues. Beyond these is another problem group – the biggest group of all – the general public.


The problem with the general public is “natural localism.” This is the tendency for most people to focus their activities and interests within a narrow local range. Statistics tend to provide evidence for a geographical form natural localism. As of January 2013 only 39% of Americans have valid passports. And, for most of the rest, travel is normally associated with vacations by car. The average one-way distance for such travel is 314 miles.  


However, natural localism is not only geographic. It is also temporal. That is, most people are aware of time through their own experiences and those related to the timespans of close relatives and friends. This usually goes back in time as far as grandparents and forward in time as far as our grandchildren. Beyond that range both the past and the future become nebulous and are often perceived as irrelevant to one’s own present. 


What has all this to do with global warming? Natural localism makes it very difficult for the average man or woman to feel personally connected to a process whose worst consequences   are projected out one hundred plus years into the future. For most, the shorter-term effects may happen beyond their local geographical sphere, or will accrue slowly enough over time to be ignored. It was to break through this barrier and make global warming a part of local consciousness that the organizers of the 2013 Earth Day events adopted the theme “The Face of Climate Change.” The impact was minimal at best. 


Thus, the sort of galvanized citizen concern that might successfully contest the industrial and business lobbies fighting against the legislation and regulation necessary to rein in global warming will most likely not be possible until it is too late.


Part IV – Conclusion 


Krugman points out that the rise of civilization coincides with a period of climatic stability. Civilization itself, in its industrial and post-industrial phases, is now undermining that stability and by doing so puts itself in peril. There are some who say that science will save us. That is, instead of fighting the special interests and the ideologues, its easier to assume that someone will invent ways of reversing global warming in a way that does not require sacrifice. This is really a childish wish and no one should bet on some inventor riding in on a white horse at the last moment to save the day.  


So, what is the answer to Krugman’s question? What will we ultimately do about global warming? It might well be that the answer is not nearly enough. We are a species influenced by natural localism, and therefore the majority of Americans, and others in the West as well, are not going to abandon a present full of profit and relative comfort as long as the sky is clear in their own local place and time. As to the future beyond their grandchildren, it simply does not seem real. 

A Culture of Walls – An Analysis (13 November 2013) by Lawrence Davidson



Part I – Israel’s Walls


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has announced his government’s intention to construct another “separation barrier” – a large fortified wall or fence referred to by Palestinians as an apartheid wall – “between the West Bank and Jordan after completing walls on the Egyptian and Syrian borders.” Netanyahu is doing this for a variety of reasons, such as to keep Arab and other non-Jewish refugees from coming into Israel and, in the case of the West bank – Jordan wall, to symbolize Israel’s ongoing control of the area.


The original Zionist rationale for the state of Israel was that it would serve as a place of safety for the world’s Jews as anti-Semitism played out its allegedly inevitable horrid destiny. Well, the problem today is that the policies of Israel are the major motivators of worldwide anti-Semitism, and because of these same policies, there is no place in the world more potentially dangerous for Jews than Israel. Thus the Israeli fondness for walls. It may very well be that when all of this wall construction is finished, Israel will look like the world’s largest ghetto. 


Within their walls, Israel’s leaders are busy making their ghetto religiously pure. Just this week buildings occupied by 15,000 East Jerusalem Arabs were scheduled for demolition. Those serving the notices to the 200 residential blocs had to be “escorted by Israeli soldiers.” Thus, while the walls discourage the non-Jews outside from breaking in, the home demolitions (along with a host of other nasty policies) encourage the inside non-Jews to get out. 


It makes not a bit of difference that all this wall building, to say nothing of the accompanying ethnic cleansing, is illegal. The Israelis don’t care. They make their own “law” based on their military capacity to enforce their will, and their perverted psychology – the belief that their past suffering (at least that of the Jews of Europe) somehow justifies imposing suffering on others.  


Part II – Some Related Walls


Historically, what sort of company does Israel keep with all this wall building?  Here are some examples set down in chronological order:


— The walls of Jericho


Jericho is a West Bank town that, according to the archaeological evidence, has existed for about 9,000 years. It is also a place dear to the hearts of militant Zionists, for it was there, according to the biblical narrative, that the ancient Israelites began the first bloody conquest of Palestine. According to the legend (but not the archaeological evidence), Joshua led an ancient Israelite army against Jericho and, on God’s orders, marched around the town walls six times blowing rams’ horns as they went. On the seventh revolution, Jericho’s defensive walls “came tumbling down.” Then Joshua burned down the town and, again on God’s orders, slaughtered every man, woman, child and animal too (except for the family of the woman Rahab, who had betrayed the city by hiding Israelite spies). Finally, Joshua placed a curse on anyone who might try to rebuild the place. From a Zionist perspective, this may mark one of the few times that tearing down walls seemed preferable to building them up.  


— Wailing or Western Wall


The Wailing, or Western, Wall was not a defense structure. Rather it was part of a courtyard adjacent to the Second Temple. The courtyard was originally part of an expansion program begun in about 19 BCE during the reign of Herod the Great. The Second Temple was eventually destroyed, along with much of the rest of Jerusalem, by the Romans in 70 CE. The Western Wall is all that is left. This destruction established the fact that it was not only Israelite armies that could bring down other people’s walls. Gentiles could do it too.


Nonetheless, this provenance has made the Western Wall “the most sacred site” in the Jewish religion. When the Israelis took Arab Jerusalem in 1967 they turned the sacred site into a nationalist shrine. From that point on, there has been an unspoken assumption among militant Zionists that this holy of holies could stay Jewish only if the subsequently created barrier walls, and their accompanying policies of ethnic cleansing, stood firm. That makes the “separation barriers” the real symbols of modern-day Israel.  


 — Ghetto Walls 


In modern times some walls have taken on a sinister character for Jews. The archetypal modern ghetto wall was constructed by the Nazis in 1940 to enclose the Jewish quarter of Warsaw, Poland. It was made of brick, stood about 10 feet high and ran for 11 miles. Like the Western Wall, only a fragment of this ghetto wall survives. 


While Zionists consider any comparison between their “separation barriers” and the walls that separated out Europe’s Jews anathema, some other very knowledgable Jews see a connection. For instance, Sygmunt Bauman, a well-known Polish-Jewish sociologist who once taught in Israel but now lives in England, has likened Israel’s present-day barriers to those that surrounded the Warsaw ghetto. He believes that successive Israeli governments have not been interested in peace and “a younger Israeli generation was being raised on the understanding that the state of war and military alert was natural and unavoidable.” That would certainly fit well with a culture of walls. 


— The Berlin Wall 


Comparisons have also been made between Israel’s “separation barriers” and the infamous Berlin Wall. Constructed by communist East Germany starting in 1961, the Berlin Wall separated the East German population from West Berlin. The Berlin Wall ran for some 87 miles and at its completion was almost 12 feet high. On its eastern side it was paralleled by a 110-yard “death strip” offering a “clear field of fire for the wall guards.” By comparison, the Israeli wall will at completion run over 400 miles, be 26 feet high, and be paralleled by a 200-foot “exclusion zone.” 


Like the Berlin Wall, Israel’s walls are designed to separate populations, but unlike the one in Berlin, the Israeli version also facilitates the systematic ethnic cleansing of elements of the Palestinian population. It is perhaps for this reason that the musician Roger Waters, a strong supporter of the boycott Israel movement, called the Israeli separation barriers “100 times more horrifying than the Berlin Wall.” 


Part III – Conclusion


Walls on the ground reflect walls that already exist in the mind. The Zionists came to Palestine with a wall already fixed in their minds. That wall existed as a conviction that anti-Semitism was inevitable and eternal. Only possessing their own state could protect the Jews from this incessant danger. Subsequent Palestinian resistance was almost instinctively seen by the Zionists as anti-Semitism. In time this led to 26-foot walls, which one can understand as the physical manifestations of the mental wall all Zionists carry with them. In this sense a culture of walls comes naturally to the Zionists.


From a historical perspective, no physical wall can be permanent. Things change and walls crumble. The walls in our minds might prove more resistant to erosion.They can be very deep rooted and passed on for generations. Yet even these barriers eventually give way. That suggests that Israel’s culture of walls will someday be breached. It is just a matter of time and suffering.  

The Mind of the Poor – An Analysis (2 November 2013) by Lawrence Davidson



Part I – Poverty


Most of the poverty in the United States is . It is poverty created in the pursuit of “free market ideals,” expressed in recent times by the imposition of neoliberal economic policies – the sort of policies that cut taxes on the wealthy, do away with fiscal and other business regulations, undermine the social safety net and erode middle-class stability – all while singing the praises of self-reliance and individual responsibility. As a result we have done very well in making the rich richer and the poor both poorer and more numerous.


How many poor people are there in the United States? According to Current Population Survey (CPS), which puts out the government’s official figures, as of 2012 about 15 percent of the population, or some 46.5 million people, were living in poverty. The rate for children under 18 comes in higher, at about 21.8 percent. 


The U.S. government measures poverty in monetary terms. In 2012 poverty was defined as yearly total income of $23,050 or less for a family of four. The figure is adjusted for individuals or other size families. Then there is the depressing fact that “most Americans (58.5%) will spend at least one year below the poverty line at some point between the ages of 25 and 75.” 


There happens to be more than one level to this economic version of hell, and so we should take note of the category of “deep poverty.” Deep poverty is defined as having an income that is 50 percent of the official poverty level. This part of the population is growing. In my area, which takes in southeast Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey, the percentage in deep poverty runs from 5 to 19 percent, depending on the county. These are people who, according to social service and charity workers, “Have given up hope” and “given up on finding jobs.”  


Consider what all this really means. Our economic system is condemning at least 48.5 million people to high rates of un- or underemployment, poor performance in school and at work (when it is available), poor nutrition and eating habits, high instances of drug abuse, high crime rates, homelessness, high rates of preventable diseases, shorter life-spans, and all the other vicissitudes typically associated with a life of poverty. Yet neoliberals and their allies would say none of this is society’s fault or responsibility, rather it is the fault of the individual who, living in a “free” economic environment, makes his or her own choices and then must live with the consequences. 


Well, that is one particularly inhumane way of looking at the situation. However, we have proof from relatively recent U.S. history that poverty can be ameliorated through government action without seriously disrupting “market choice.” Back in the mid 1960s millions of citizens marched on Washington for “jobs and freedom,” and President Lyndon Johnson responded with his War on Poverty programs. Those programs reduced poverty significantly and did so without transforming the U.S. into a socialist republic. Unfortunately, this momentum was not to last. Two things brought it to a crashing halt: a murderous war in Vietnam and the tragically wrongheaded neoliberal economic policies mentioned above. We are still stuck in this rut. We are still at war (though now it is in the Middle East) and our economic policies continue to be self-destructive.


Part II – Cognitive Dysfunction


The neoliberal outlook is demonstrably wrong in a significant way. The notion that the poor can make “free and rational choices” and thus can be held responsible for their situation is incorrect. There is accumulating evidence that poverty literally “messes with your mind” in a way that obstructs responsible choices. In fact, the “free market” contributes to an environment that makes the poor decidedly unfree: confused, preoccupied, and feeling overwhelmed and hopeless. In other words, being poor makes you cognitively dysfunctional.


The latest research to show this was published in August 2013 in the journal Science and is titled “Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function.” The gist of the argument is, “Poverty captures attention, triggers intrusive thoughts, and reduces cognitive resources.” In other words, the more preoccupied one is with troubles, the less able one is to muster the “cognitive resources” necessary to rationally “guide choice and action.” Most people find themselves overwhelmed with problems now and then, but not constantly. What living in poverty does is to hit a person with a toxic cocktail of overwhelming problems day in and day out: financial problems, health problems, parenting issues, victimization by criminals and others, and the problem of just finding and keeping a job.   


The authors also point out that the IQ difference between those living in poverty and those living above the poverty line can be as high as 13 points. This difference is not a function of genetics or race. It is created by the environment of poverty itself. 


This study is political dynamite. It lends support to the assertion that as long as neoliberal economics claims our allegiance, we will continue to condemn tens of millions of our citizens to a life not only of want, but also of high anxiety and poor cognitive ability. This puts the lie to the popular myth that the poor are disadvantaged because most of them are congenitally lazy. It likewise challenges the conclusions of such works as Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve, which attributed at least part of the statistical difference in intellectual performance between American blacks and white to genetics. In truth, whatever statistical difference there is does not reflect inherent intellectual ability so much as high levels of long-term stress, which reduces a person’s ability to develop and apply their cognitive strengths. 


Part III – Conclusion


It is quite interesting how the authors of the Science article conclude their piece. As it turns out, they have chosen to sidestep the real implications of their own data. Thus, they tell us “this perspective has important policy implications. First, policy-makers should beware of imposing cognitive taxes on the poor.” What does that mean? It means that policy-makers should try to reduce the number of forms the poor have to fill out, the number of “lengthy interviews” they have to experience, the number of “new rules” they have to “decipher,” all of which “consume cognitive resources” that we now know the poor have less of than those who are better off. Also, policy-makers should time their demands on the poor for specific periods when they are best able to handle them, such as when they receive whatever periodic income that they do get and momentarily feel less monetary stress. These conclusion constitute a rather shocking anticlimactic letdown!


The authors have helped us see the enormous damage poverty does. In response society has a moral obligation to deal with more than forms and lengthy interviews. History tells us that we can do, and indeed have done, much better. Short of radical changes in our economic thinking, what the poor in the U.S. need is another “War on Poverty.” Indeed, the obligation is not just a moral one. There is a collective economic self-interest to minimize poverty for to do so will decrease income inequality, increase overall health, promote social stability and lessen crime. It will also promote consumption, which should make the capitalists among us happy. 


Do our politicians understand any of this? Seems not. Just this week Congress cut the Food Stamp program by some $40 billion. That is neoliberal economics in action and proof positive that ideology and prejudice are stronger than scientific research when it comes to policy formulation. Is there a way to reverse this stupidity? Yes, but it will take mass action. It is time to consider replaying the 1960s and force the politicians to act responsibly despite themselves.