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Thursday, September 20, 2012

Do You Believe in Global Warming?

On September 16, 2012, “Arctic ice covered just 1.32 million square miles—the lowest extent ever recorded. ‘The loss of summer sea ice has led to unusual warming of the Arctic atmosphere, that in turn impacts weather patterns in the Northern Hemisphere, that can result in persistent extreme weather such as droughts, heat waves and flooding,’ NSIDC scientist Dr. Julienne Stroeve noted in a press release. ‘There's a huge gap between what is understood by the scientific community and what is known by the public,’ NASA scientist James Hansen said, adding that he believed, ‘unfortunately, that gap is not being closed.’ What the scientific community understands is that Arctic ice is melting at an accelerated rate -- and that humans play a role in these changes. According to the panel, humans are ‘really running out of time’ to prevent atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations from reaching levels that would precipitate runaway climate change. Hansen warned that even maintaining current concentrations of approximately 390 parts per million for several centuries ‘guarantees disaster.’”

                                                                                          Ice melting in Greenland.   NYT
The excerpt from the Huffington Post sounds like a promotion for a 1970s disaster movie like Earthquake or one of the later flicks in which a huge rock is headed directly for Earth. Rather than get carried away with sensationalistic accounts of what is likely to happen—such as what is now Miami becoming a series of islands next to a salt water bay that we now know as the Everglades, I want to make transparent the mentality that sustains the gulf between what the scientists know and the general public believes.
A few weeks ago, I received an email from a retired man who ironically lives in Southern Florida and yet does not believe in global warming. His attribution of belief struck me as odd. One might say, “I don’t believe in God,” or “I don’t believe it is going to rain today,” but people don’t usually say, “I don’t believe in math,” for example. That is to say, belief is not typically applied to fields of knowledge. In effect, the man was telling me that he did not respect the enterprise of science. I thought to myself, on what basis? In other words, the man presumes that  belief applies to knowledge or that science is mere opinion. That he doubtlessly did not have a background in science troubled me, for he had no basis to make the claims he was making. It seemed to me to be a case of ignorance that can’t be wrong. How can ignorance make such a claim? Anti-foundationalism knows no better example than the arrogance of ignorance that cannot be wrong.
So the ice keeps melting as our scientific community is relegated epistemologically into mere opinion or politics. The astounding implication is that we as a species do not have the luxury of such a mentality. Even the possibility of “guaranteeing disaster” suggests that we as a society or species cannot afford to ignore the scientific consensus even though science is not perfect. To be sure, science does not prove a hypothesis; rather, successive null hypotheses are rejected, giving us added confidence but not certainty that the remaining hypothesis is valid.
My general point is that where the survival of our species is flagged, we have an obligation to err on the side of what the scientists are telling us, rather than dismissing their findings as self-interested ideology to further some cause. Ironically, it is opinionated ideology that presumes to discredit science without having sufficient scholarly credentials in it. Put another way, the democratizing of science such that anyone believes one has a sufficient basis to reject it as mere opinion takes the little bundles of subjectivity too far. I see this also when people proclaim themselves to be professionals.
Recently I ran through the criteria from the Journal of Professional and Business Ethics on what constitutes a professional (e.g., lawyer, physician, CPA) with someone who told me that as a school teacher he is a professional. He presumed to reject any criterion that did not go along with his view of himself as a professional. I pointed out that I had read of a guy who gives massages for a living representing himself as a professional, and therefore that there is no limit if everyone gets to ignore the criteria and proclaim oneself a professional. It is the self-proclaiming as a sort of given fiat that is so problematic in this case as well as in the case of scientific evidence of the warming of the planet’s atmosphere and oceans. Besides the arrogance, the failure of ignorance to know and correct itself can easily lead to a shipwreck of sorts. “There really isn’t a giant rock out there heading toward Earth.” Meanwhile, the asteroid comes closer and closer. It doesn't care in the least whether we believe in it or not.
What I am getting at here is the following: might it be that an inherent weakness in human nature is our own worst enemy?  Whereas there is no harm in someone ignoring the definition of “professional” and inventing his own (or that of society), ignoring the scientific evidence that the Earth is warming can literally be dangerous. Even if the pollution has not contributed to the warming, efforts to reduce CO2 concentrations could offset the warming at least in part. The issue is not one of blame, but of the survival of our species. Scoring ideological or partisan points is in my view not worth putting that in jeopardy. If we do go down, I submit that besides greed and selfishness, the presumed entitlements of human ignorance—something hardwired into human nature—are to blame. Lest it be supposed that the culprit is of an epistemological or intellectual nature, I submit that it is based in what Augustine called the sin of pride. That is to say, it is self-idolatry that may bring our species down. Holding ourselves as the ultimate authority on whatever we happen to think we know or believe, we essentially expunge our own species. Flying so high to the sun as a god, a human being is bound to fall to the ground in a fiery mass of self-conceit that takes itself to be a falling star.


Joanna Zelman and James Gerken, “Arctic Sea Ice Levels Hit Record Low, Scientists Say We’re ‘Running Out Of Time,” The Huffington Post, September 19, 2012. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/19/arctic-sea-ice-loss-record-low_n_1897602.html


Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Report on the Future of Europe: Federalism and Democracy

The report of the Future of Europe Group, released on 17 September 2012, warrants careful consideration by E.U. citizens and their state and federal officials. Beyond the various reforms proposed in the document is the critical notion that not every state need be a part of the enhanced integration (i.e., the additional governmental sovereignty being shifted to the Union from the states). This assumption applies both to the proposals themselves and to the application of a super-majority in place of unanimous consent to future amendments to the E.U.’s basic law. It follows that if the Czech Republic and Britain prefer the status quo, this would not prevent other states from going on to closer union. From an American standpoint, this “dual or multiple track” approach to federalism is quite foreign.

The complete essay is at Essays on Two Federal Empires.

The E.U. flag at the European Commission.  

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Barroso's State of the Union: Is the E.U. a Political Union?

On September 12, 2012, President Barroso delivered his State of the Union Address. His depiction of the E.U. itself can be regarded as blurry, and his notion of "political union" as being misplaced as something somehow not yet extant. Even so, he does manage to accurately characterize the epoch at the time in terms of the Union being in its development stage. He correctly labels this stage as decisive for Europe.

The complete essay is at Essays on Two Federal Empires.

  President Barroso talking with Angela Merkel of the state of Germany.         NYT

Corporations and Political Debate: Taxation & Regulation

Under an American judicial doctrine, the corporation is a legal person, whose wealth translated into political influence is speech protected by the first Amendment. It is no matter that the corporation is an artifice constructed by the state for economic purposes. That a role in governing would “reverse the arrow” does not seem to trouble those who believe that the modern corporation should lobby and spend money (or “speak”) in terms of political advertisements on behalf of candidates for public office.  It is as if the American family had been turned upside-down, such that the kids were now to direct the parents rather than vice versa. Even a “business-government partnership” can be reckoned as a sort of “my mom is my best friend” approach to raising a child.
In general terms, to regard the agent of a principal as equal or superior to the principal is to commit a category mistake. For a creature of government to own said government puts the effect before the cause. Less abstractly, one could point to problems of accountability. The corporate benefits of immortality and limited liability should be offset by limitations, such as those on commercial speech (e.g., fraudulent claims), rather than accompanied by a still-greater benefit, such as a dominant role in setting the terms of the debate in the public media during a political campaign.

That deregulation could have come out as a major winner in the 2010 election following the financial crisis in 2008 is mind-boggling, and yet the scores of new Republican representatives in the U.S. House had precisely that as one of their main objectives. That unregulated derivatives had almost brought the house down two years before was a point too inconvenient to have been part of the electoral debate in 2010. The debate was not on whether banks that are too big to fail and yet are extant should be broken up like Standard Oil in 1913. Out of sight and out of mind. Instead, the public got to talk about whether the existing regulation on businesses in general should be discarded in favor of ostensible economic growth. Such is the power of self-interested money in setting the terms of debate at the societal level.
Accordingly, debate on whether the corporate statutory tax rate of 35% should be lowered never bothers with the inconvenient truth that the weighted effective tax rate (taxes as a share of profits) was 27.1% in the U.S. in 2012 (i.e., below the 27.7% average rate of O.E.C.D. members). The weighted average marginal tax rate on corporations was 20.2 percent.
That none of the corporate tax rate is shifted to consumers in the U.S. is somehow absent when the claim that taxing business more will only be passed on to you and me. A U.S. Treasury Department report concludes that 82 percent of the corporate tax is borne by capital, while 18 percent is borne by labor.
Defining the contours for a debate goes a long way in terms of having one’s candidate come out on top on election-day. This is not lost on corporations, whose treasuries are fair game as political influence after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 2010. Whereas hitherto only employees and executives could contribute personally, the ruling enables corporate executives to use corporate wealth (i.e., treasuries) to contribute to PACs oriented to a particular political message or candidate (yet without contributing directly to his or her campaign directly). General Electric, the sixth largest corporation in the U.S., had profits of $14.2 billion in 2010. Even spending just 1 percent of that on political ads would dwarf the contributions made by you and me and thus dominate the terms of the ensuing debate.

                                                                             For all that G.E. does, it paid no U.S. corporate income tax.     Businessweek

Accordingly, it should come as no surprise to hear that corporations are taxed too much, and even regulated too much in spite of the fact that a lack of regulation (of derivatives) contributed to the near collapse of the financial system in September 2008. The resulting direct interference in the causal relationship between “lack of regulation being a problem” and “let’s deregulate” can be attributed directly to “corporations are legal persons” and “money, even in a corporate treasury, is speech.”  Unfortunately, even debating these notions would require breaking through the tight money-grip that corporations have on political advertising. As a result, the corporate good becomes the public good even as the general public is none the wiser.


Bruce Bartlett, “Some Big Corporations Don’t Pay Taxes, Either,” The New York Times, September 18, 2012.  http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/09/18/are-corporations-overtaxed/?ref=business