December 30, 2010

How Much Economic Inequality Can the American People Endure?

A New Year's Resolution for the Rich by Sam Harris

This article reminds me of when the US economy almost collapsed in 2009.  Many conservatives said:  "Let it collapse, no bailouts. It will only make the US stronger."  I can only conclude they were either ignorant of or could care less about the social consequences the ensuing 30% or higher unemployment rate would have had.

Had we let it collapse, robbery, mugging, burglary and other crimes commited by the those who would have been most severely affected would have increased proportionate to increased unemployment.  Wealthy conservatives, turning to their most favored responses to such social upheavals, would have called for more police, harsher laws, longer jail sentences, more prisons, more prayer, more secure gated communities, more residential security systems, more personal handguns.  These responses would not have been sufficient for a national catastrophe of this magnitude.  Had the economy collapsed and these measures been implemented, "freedom" would have disappeared from the land of the free and the home of the brave.  A police state of marshall law would have become the American norm, at least until law and order were restored and the economy recovered, if it ever did.  One can easily imagine under such circumstances our new reassuring national slogan becoming:  In God, Money and Force We Trust.  Not exactly the American dream or dream of America most of us have in mind....

More troubling is the fact that the societal impact of skyrocketing crime following such an economic collapse does not take into account the short and long-term economic and psychological damage that would have been done to millions of families and children; and the further hardening of the "political ideology and culture wars" that have already frayed and degraded the fabric of American society.

We might be able to dig ourselves out from the national debt caused by the bailouts and other government spending on the economy but I have my doubts our society and culture would ever recover or become as great as before had the government done nothing.  "Just how much inequality can free people endure?," Harris asks.  I am grateful the Obama administration acted to avert such a national crisis and chose not to find out the answer to this question.  Here are some excerpts from Harris' article on what more can be done to address economic inequality in America:

"We now live in a country in which the bottom 40 percent (120 million people) owns just 0.3 percent of the wealth. Data of this kind make one feel that one is participating in a vast psychological experiment: Just how much inequality can free people endure?"
"There is not a person on earth who chose his genome, or the country of his birth, or the political and economic conditions that prevailed at moments crucial to his progress.  ...  And yet devotees of self-reliance rail against those who would receive entitlements of various sorts - health care, education, etc. - while feeling unselfconsciously entitled to their relative good fortune. Yes, we must encourage people to work to the best of their abilities and discourage free riders wherever we can--but it seems only decent at this moment to admit how much luck is required to succeed at anything in this life. Those who have been especially lucky--the smart, well-connected, and rich--should count their blessings, and then share some of these blessings with the rest of society."

December 24, 2010

Let There Be Light - Cheaply, in Every African House

African Huts Far From the Grid Glow With Renewable Power - "Small" Men and Women in Africa are Bucking Government, Costly Power Grids and International "Developers" to Meet their Green Energy Needs

"Thanks to this $80 solar panel made in China, Sara Ruto in rural Kenya no longer takes a three-hour taxi ride to a town with electricity to recharge her cellphone."  Photo:  Ed Ou/The New York Times

"The United Nations estimates that 1.5 billion people across the globe still live without electricity, including 85 percent of Kenyans, and that three billion still cook and heat with primitive fuels like wood or charcoal."
"Even United Nations programs and United States government funds that promote climate-friendly energy in developing countries hew to large projects like giant wind farms or industrial-scale solar plants that feed into the grid. A $300 million solar project is much easier to finance and monitor than 10 million home-scale solar systems in mud huts spread across a continent.
"As a result, money does not flow to the poorest areas. Of the $162 billion invested in renewable energy last year, according to the United Nations, experts estimate that $44 billion was spent in China, India and Brazil collectively, and $7.5 billion in the many poorer countries.
"Only 6 to 7 percent of solar panels are manufactured to produce electricity that does not feed into the grid; that includes systems like Ms. Ruto’s and solar panels that light American parking lots and football stadiums."
"What has most surprised some experts in the field is the recent emergence of a true market in Africa for home-scale renewable energy and for appliances that consume less energy. As the cost of reliable equipment decreases, families have proved ever more willing to buy it by selling a goat or borrowing money from a relative overseas, for example.
"The explosion of cellphone use in rural Africa has been an enormous motivating factor. Because rural regions of many African countries lack banks, the cellphone has been embraced as a tool for commercial transactions as well as personal communications, adding an incentive to electrify for the sake of recharging."

"This Christmas, for perhaps the first time ever, Britain is a majority non-religious nation."

Religion: Respecting the Minority

December 23, 2010

Is 'Intelligent Design' a Credible Scientific Theory?

UPDATE:  Origin of the Specious by A. C. Grayling, New Humanist, September/October 2008. 

The court's answer:  Trial of the (New) Century: Kitzmiller v. Dover (5 years later) by Andrew Zak Williams, Skeptic, December 22, 2010.

December 21, 2010

Important Building Blocks for Life Present on Earth 2.8 Billion Years Ago

One-Fourth of DNA Born by 2.8 Billion Years Ago

"About 27 percent of all gene families that exist today were born between 3.3 billion and 2.8 billion years ago, two researchers from MIT reported online Dec. 19 in Nature. The surge of gene births — which the scientists have dubbed the Archean expansion — predate some important changes in Earth’s early chemistry, including the appearance of large amounts of oxygen in the atmosphere....

"Genes for shuttling electrons burst onto the scene about 3.3 billion years ago, the researchers calculate. Those genes, known as electron-transport genes, are important for such processes as photosynthesis and respiration. By increasing the energy efficiency of some early life forms, these genes may have enabled populations to thrive.

"Genes for using oxygen appeared at the tail of the genetic expansion around 2.8 billion years ago, long before oxygen began accumulating in the atmosphere around 2.5 billion years ago. The team also found evidence for the birth of genes for processing nitrogen and for using iron, molybdenum, copper and other elements."

Origin of Life Chicken-and-Egg Problem Solved
A Theory of Evolution for Evolution
The Complexity of Evolution
Newly discovered gene shed light on the evolution of life on Earth

December 20, 2010

Recent Govt. of Sudan Comments Encouraging for the South, Not for the North

Islamic Sudan Envisioned if South Secedes

“If South Sudan secedes, we will change the Constitution, and at that time there will be no time to speak of diversity of culture and ethnicity (in the North). ... Shariah and Islam will be the main source for the Constitution, Islam the official religion and Arabic the official language.”
                                                                               - Omar Hassan al-Bashir, President of Sudan

NCP official admits likelihood of South Sudan’s secession, downplays its economic impact

"Meanwhile, President Omer Hassan Al-Bashir has said that the north would only recognize the referendum outcome if it genuinely reflected the will of southern Sudanese.
"Al-Bashir made these remarks during a meeting held on Thursday in Khartoum with a delegation of the African Union Peace and Security Council (AUPSC).
"According to the state minister for foreign affairs, Kamal Hassan Ali, President Al-Bashir assured the AUPSC delegation that the government in the north would cooperate with southern officials to sustain stability and shore up social and economic ties if the south decided to secede."

Other good signs for the South...

Sudan parties, civil society groups discuss referendum code of conduct
South Sudan welcomes Obama push for conduct of referendum
Mubarak, Qaddafi to visit Sudan for talks with Al-Bashir after Obama letters
Biden reminds Sudan U.S. sees on-time vote as vital December 24, 2010

New Evidence That Meteorites May Have Seeded Life On Earth

Life Ingredients Found in Superhot Meteorites—A First

Islam, Christianity and Politics in Nigeria

Clashes Pit Muslims Against Christians - Underlying Issues are Political and Economic BBC 12/28/2010
Religious Clashes Flare in Central Nigeria NY Times 12/26/2010
Northern Nigeria:  Background to Conflict  International Crisis Group (ICG) 12/20/2010

Based in Brussels, the ICG is an independent, non-profit, international non-governmental organization "committed to preventing and resolving deadly conflict."  Its reports are objective, thorough and useful for understanding the full range of issues behind potential and actual conflict.  See the above link for the full report.  From the email notification of this new report:

“While some in the West panic at what they see as growing Islamic radicalism in the region, the roots of the problem are more complex and lie in Nigeria’s history and contemporary politics”, says Titi Ajayi, Crisis Group’s West Africa Fellow.
Many common factors fuel conflicts across Nigeria: in particular, the political manipulation of religion and ethnicity and disputes between supposed local groups and “settlers” over distribution of public resources. The failure of the state to assure public order, contribute to dispute settlement and implement post-conflict peace building measures also plays a role, as does economic decline and unemployment. As elsewhere in the country, the far north – the twelve states that apply Sharia (Islamic law) – suffers from a potent mix of economic malaise and contentious, community-based distribution of public resources.
But there is also a specifically northern element. A thread of rejectionist thinking runs through northern Nigerian history, according to which collaboration with secular authorities is illegitimate. While calls for an “Islamic state” in Nigeria should not be taken too seriously, despite media hyperbole, they do demonstrate that many in the far north express political and social dissatisfaction through greater adherence to Islam and increasingly look to the religious canon for solutions to multiple problems in their lives.
On the positive side, much local conflict prevention and resolution does occur, and the region has historically shown much capacity for peaceful co-existence between its ethnic and religious communities. Generally speaking, for a vast region beset with social and economic problems, the absence of widespread conflict is as notable as the pockets of violence.
The starting point for addressing the conflicts must be a better understanding of the historical, cultural and other contexts in which they take place. The region has experienced recurrent violence, particularly since the early 1980s. These are the product of several complex and inter-locking factors, including a volatile mix of historical grievances, political manipulation and ethnic and religious rivalries.
“Northern Nigeria is little understood by those in the south, still less by the international community, where too often, it is viewed as part of bigger rivalries in a putative West-Islam divide”, says EJ Hogendoorn, Crisis Group’s Acting Africa Program Director. “Still, the overall situation needs to be taken seriously. If it were to deteriorate significantly, especially along Christian-Muslim lines, it could have grave repercussions for national cohesion in the build-up to national elections in 2011”.

December 18, 2010

Development in Africa and Global Climate Change

Africa Needs Aid, Not Flawed Theories - Bill Gates vs. Matt Ridley and William Easterly

"Development in Africa is difficult to achieve, but I am optimistic that it will accelerate. Science will come up with vaccines for AIDS and malaria, and the "top-down" approach to aid criticized by Mr. Ridley (and by the economist William Easterly) will fund the delivery of these life-saving drugs." - B. Gates

December 17, 2010

December 13, 2010

Africa & US Policy: Sudan Govt. Assures US It Will Protect Southerners - What Will We Do If It Doesn't?

Recent State Department Visit to Sudan

Scott Gration , US Special Envoy to Sudan, says the US will keep a "strong eye" on the Sudan government's reaction to the January referendum.  On his recent trip to Sudan Gration received "assurances" from the GOS that they are "working very hard to ensure the people will be protected, especially Southerners...."

I hope GOS means it, but you never really know.  Too often, regrettably, the US takes other governments at their word in such matters.  Many governments know we will go away and not bother them if they tell us they will not harm their people or sign documents to that effect.  Many citizens of these countries have told me privately they can't believe how gullible the US government is - "Well, they said they wouldn't attack, that they would protect their people!  They signed a treaty, an accord, a convention!"  The reality is, the GOS could give any number of reasons for a preemptive strike in the run-up to the voting, during the balloting or afterwards primarily on the pretext that the voting had been tampered with internally or by outsiders and therefore was not valid.

I'm hoping for the best but am very worried that violence will ensue during or after the voting, instigated by the GOS.  There is just too much at stake, especially vast oil reserves in the South, for the GOS to stand by and let the South secede.  Tension and conflict between the GOS and the southern Sudanese have been going on since the 1600s.  More recently, civil war has ravaged the country for all but ten of the fifty years between 1955-2005 at the cost of 2 million southern Sudanese deaths and 4 million internally displaced persons in the South.

December 7, 2010

Reducing Rural Poverty Among the Poorest of the Poor

From the Introduction....

Between 2006 and 2008, international food prices doubled. The effects of the price surge reverberated globally, though the worst hit were low-income, food-deficit countries with meagre stocks. In total, about 100 million poor rural and urban people were pushed into the ranks of the world’s hungry. While international food prices have declined since mid-2008, they are still substantially higher than prior to the price surge, and they are likely to remain at 2010 levels or higher for the next decade. To date, much of the production response to higher prices has come from rich countries. Looking to the future, however, it is calculated that feeding a global population of just over 9 billion in 2050 will require a 70 per cent increase in global food production, while ensuring food security for all will demand that issues of access and affordability are also addressed. This will require that agriculture – particularly smallholder agriculture – play a much more effective role in these countries, and that greater and more effective efforts are made to address the concerns of poor rural people as food buyers.
The population of the developing world is still more rural than urban: some 3.1 billion people, or 55 per cent of the total population, live in rural areas. However between 2020 and 2025, the total rural population will peak and then start to decline, and the developing world’s urban population will overtake its rural population. In Latin America and the Caribbean, and in East and South East Asia, the number of rural people is already in decline. Elsewhere, the growth of rural populations is slowing. Numbers will start to decline around 2025 in the Middle East and North Africa and in South and Central Asia, and around 2045 in sub-Saharan Africa.
Despite massive progress in reducing poverty in some parts of the world over the past couple of decades – notably in East Asia – there are still about 1.4 billion people living on less than US$1.25 a day, and close to 1 billion people suffering from hunger.  At least 70 per cent of the world’s very poor people are rural, and a large proportion of the poor and hungry are children and young people. Neither of these facts is likely to change in the immediate future, despite widespread urbanization and demographic changes in all regions. South Asia, with the greatest number of poor rural people, and sub-Saharan Africa, with the highest incidence of rural poverty, are the regions worst affected by poverty and hunger. Levels of poverty vary considerably however, not just across regions and countries, but also within countries.
In order to broaden the opportunities for rural poverty reduction and economic growth, there is need for a broad approach to rural growth and emphasis on the larger rural non-farm economy.  A focus on these two areas – smallholder agriculture and the rural non-farm economy – requires particular attention to, and increasing investment in, four issues:

Africa & US Policy: Is the US Ready if the Government of Sudan Attacks the South?

The real questions are:  Is the Government of Sudan ready?  Will it accept a southern Sudanese vote for secession?  GOS is already marshaling troops and military hardware along what will be the border between the two new countries if the vote succeeds.

There is a lot of oil in the south.  How badly does the GOS want it?  Badly enough to declare the voting fraudulent and "interfered with by 'outsiders'" thereby justifying a military push into the south and a backing out of its commitment?  I think so but hope not.

If the GOS acts aggressively against the south will the US, the African Union or the broader international community intervene?  Probably, through the UN.  China is Sudan's largest "trading" partner (oil for money and consumer goods) but would not likely involve itself if the international community acted against GOS aggression.  There would likely be cries of anti-Islamism if the GOS was confronted on its "soverign" territory, especially if the US took the lead in the counter-offensive.

I've interviewed hundreds of southern Sudanese refugee resettlement applicants in neighboring countries in the Greater Horn.  The killing, torture, terror, displacement and destruction of their families, communities and ways of life by GOS soldiers has been horrifying, and more so when told in the first person by those who have experienced it.

December 5, 2010

The New Ten Commandments - A Humble Secular Suggestion

An Examination of the Original Ten Commandments
The New Ten Commandments

Plus four more suggested by Richard Dawkins (2006:298-300)*:

(11) Enjoy your own sex life (so long as it damages nobody else) and leave others to enjoy theirs in private whatever their inclinations, which are none of your business.
(12) Do not discriminate or oppress on the basis of sex, race or (as far as possible) species.
(13) Do not indoctrinate your children.  Teach them how to think for themselves, how to evaluate evidence, and how to disagree with you.
(14) Value the future on a timescale longer than your own.

* - The God Delusion (2006) by Richard Dawkins

Charter for Compassion

Living Up To Expectations: Religion, Evolution And Compassion
Charter for Compassion

If the Universe Could Talk, What Might It Say?

The State of the Universe Address

Archive for "Being Human"