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Posts Tagged ‘politics’

Thus does a large group of eminent scientists frame a pretty gloomy assessment (ScienceDaily summation here) of the failure of multilateral cooperation on a wide range of threats facing Earth, including,

Energy, food, and water crises; climate disruption; declining fisheries; increasing ocean acidification; emerging diseases; and increasing antibiotic resistance are examples of serious, intertwined global-scale challenges spawned by the accelerating scale of human activity. They are outpacing the development of institutions to deal with them and their many interactive effects

Depressingly, there’s nothing to argue with there. But the fact that the authors feel the need to follow the above with the caveat that they are not advocating for countries to abandon sovereignty is troubling for two reasons. First, that scientists are so jumpy about charges of elitism that they feel the need to preemptively defend against the insane (and inevitable) charges from cranks (e.g., some U.S. senators) that global warming is some kind of hoax being perpetuated in the service of a one-world government. Or something.

Secondly, the caveat makes me itch because the authors leave the door open substantially for something similar in their conclusion:

The institution of the nation-state has helped improve the well-being of many individuals, but at the cost of reduced global resilience. To address our common threats we need greater interaction among existing institutions, as well as new institutions, to help construct and maintain a global-scale social contract.

Their proposed solutions on global climate change, fisheries depletion and increased drug-resistance among drugs are to strengthen existing institutions (e.g., WHO) and introduce new institutions along similar lines (e.g., following the WTO). That’s fine as far as it goes, but the thrust of the editorial is to point out the failures of existing frameworks, and the frustration at free-rider problems and the inadequacy of current decision-making processes for addressing these issues. I don’t think it’s reading too many tea leaves to focus on this sentence and parse it out further:

The major powers must be willing to enforce agreements, but legitimacy will depend on acceptance by numerous and diverse countries and by nongovernmental actors, such as civil society and business. [emphasis mine]

I try not to get too paranoid about these things, but this taps pretty deeply into one of my fears with how the conversation on climate change is going to develop over the next 10-20 years. Scientists are rationalists and many are either very bad at or just can’t quite understand the functioning of politics (or are continually frustrated by the results – rightly so, often). Politics, indeed, isn’t very rational. And at the same time, for anyone who cares to look, we’re at a pretty grim moment for the continuance of human civilization along the lines which we’ve grown used to. Many scientists are getting pretty tired of pointing out this fact. As our institutions of shared collaborative decision-making (or not-making, as it may be) continue to dither in the face of planetary doom, it’s a great fear of mine that scientists will look for alternate means of addressing what they see (correctly) as increasingly dire climactic instability. In short, business: the actor with the means and motivation to address these issues on a massive scale, but not answerable to a larger (and often-annoying) polity. The thing is – and I’ve got plenty of dystopian SF narratives to back me up here! – it might work. Multinational corporate rule might save us from planetary self-destruction (or not), but at the great expense of human liberty.

I think that would be a Bad Thing. What would be a Good Thing, would be if scientists would get more engaged in politics. It’s a messy irrational business but that’s how it goes. Rather than pre-emptively defending themselves against Inhofian nonsense, why doesn’t a physics prof at the University of Oklahoma run against him? Or any and every other anti-science, climate-change-denying buffoon out there?

Would they win? Most likely not. But politics isn’t all about winning – or at least, not about winning one particular election. It’s about narratives, and the narrative of a widespread, grassroots effort from scientists to directly address the problems that they see  – rightly – as threatening our continued survival as a species would be a compelling one.

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Education Reform

Education reform means a lot of things, but one of the biggest problems is the gap in post-secondary educational opportunities (particularly the affordability of those opportunities) created by the staggering increases in cost for university education. President Obama wants to change this:

President Obama’s health-care goals may be garnering attention, but his higher-education proposals are no less ambitious.

At stake is a plan to expand the Pell Grant program, making it an entitlement akin to Medicare and Social Security. Key to the effort is a consolidation of student lending that would give the U.S. Department of Education a near monopoly over the practice — a proposal that has mobilized the private loan industry, which lent $55.3 billion to 6.4 million students in the 2007-2008 school year.

He wants to terminate the private Federal Family Education Loan program, the primary source of student loans. Advocates say the move is a formality: The government already effectively controls the program by guaranteeing the loans, paying a special allowance to lenders, and in recent months, buying back loans by the billions from struggling firms.

Shifting all lending authority to the government through its Direct Loan program would save $94 billion over 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Obama would use that windfall to expand the Pell Grant program, created in 1965 to cover most tuition costs for low-income students.

The Department of Education would not, actually, get a “near-monopoly” over college loans. Rather, the federal government would simply stop fully backing private loans – private lenders could continue to do whatever they wanted! The college loan industry – a large chunk of which exists as, essentially, a free government giveaway – responds by saying:

“The only reason they’re doing this is the government can make a lot of money,” said Kevin Bruns, executive director of the trade group America’s Student Loan Providers. “Private-sector lending built this entire industry, and now the federal government has piggybacked off of it.”

Kevin Burns, and the people he represents, are selfish jerks. The federal govenment does not “make a lot of money” off of college loans. The federal government is not a business. It is a collective trust that in this case is acting prudently in the specific interests of millions of citizens – in making college afforable for them – and more generally in the interests of all citizens, by making the U.S. a better-educated nation with more competitive workers and a more informed electorate. America’s Student Loan Providers did not build the entire industry, but rather have sucked at the government teat of totally-secured loans for decades, skimming pure profit without risk off the top. They are advocating for their own interests, of course, the “free money for us forever” lobby, but there’s no reason any of the rest of us should support that agenda.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D[ish]-NE) supports their agenda:

“It’s not just thinking about your state,” he said. “I have a fundamental difference in opinion thinking that all student aid ought to come from the government.”

Of course this proposes nothing of the sort – college loan providers are free to continue their business, just with a higher level of risk involved (which is to say in this case, any risk at all). It’s worth noting that Nelson also opposes expanding health care for Americans for similar reasons:

Nelson’s problem, he told CQ, is that the public plan would be too attractive and would hurt the private insurance plans. “At the end of the day, the public plan wins the game,” Nelson said. Including a public option in a health plan, he said, was a “deal breaker.”

Nebraska is of course home to a number of large insurance companies that would stand to lose their sweet business model of “making gobs of money by making sure not to insure sick people.” And it’s further worth noting that, of course,

Nelson’s state is home to Nelnet, a Lincoln-based corporate loan provider that employs 1,000 people and that has contributed generously to his political campaigns.

So that’s fine, too. Just as long as it’s clear that Sen. Nelson favors the narrow interests of one company and their 1000 employees over the future lives and possibilities for millions of Americans and the nation’s long-term economic competitiveness, as well as favoring the interests of several other companies and several other thousands of people over the health and well-being of several tens of millions of Americans who lack health care. Because he has to represent his “constituents.”

Narrowing the gap in educational access is absolutely one of the most important possible steps towards creating a more just, egalitarian society. The G.I. Bill – along with a strong labor movement and a government willing to enforce labor laws – created the United States’ middle class and drove our prosperity in the half-century following WWII, by giving formerly poor people access to good education and good jobs. Similar measures on both fronts would do the same for the beginning of the 21st century.

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