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Thursday, October 24, 2013

Arctic Warming: Not Just Another Natural Cycle This Time

In late October 2013, research was published on the average summer temperatures over time in the Canadian Arctic. The scientists found from analyzing deep ice samples and moss only recently freed from the grip of ice that the average temperatures in the twentieth century were the highest going back at least 44,000 years to 120,000 years. The most significant warming did not begin until the 1970s and is particularly striking in the 1992-2012 period. The most significant implication of the study is that the argument that we are merely seeing another natural cycle underway can finally be put on ice.
"The key piece here is just how unprecedented the warming of Arctic Canada is," Gifford Miller, one of the study’s scientists, said. "This study really says the warming we are seeing is outside any kind of known natural variability, and it has to be due to increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere."[1] Particularly striking is the phrase, “outside of any kind of known natural variability.” We are in unchartered waters made possible only by melting glaciers. In other words, we could really get blind-sided.
To get some perspective on how long the moss had been encased in ice, our species reached Australia approximately 45,000 years ago. Another 25,000 years earlier (50,000 years after 120,000 years ago!), homo sapiens underwent a cognitive revolution, which resulted in the “fictive mind.” The sapiens brain had via development from natural selection become capable of apriori imaginary realities or ideas. Story-telling in the hunter-gatherer bands (i.e., small groups) no longer be bound to observable (i.e., empirical) phenomenon. After the agricultural revolution based on permanent settlements in place of the nomadic life of the hunter-gatherer, the imaginary ideas of the fictive mind would enable homo sapiens to get past the lack of any “hard-wiring”(via thousands of years of natural selection) enabling members of the species to live in close proximity with many strangers. Larger, more complex social living groups (e.g., cities, kingdoms, and eventually even empires) could be formed and maintained through inter-subjective imaginary ideas.
Perhaps then the question is whether the human fictive mind will be able to harness enough coordinated effort and invention to compensate for the non-natural roller-coaster ride in the twenty-first century.    

[1] Douglas Main, “Arctic Temperatures Reach Highest Levels in 44,000 Years, Study Finds,” The Huffington Post, October 24, 2013.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Has Facebook Been Too Invasive?

A general or basic distrust of business can show through in charges that a particular company has just gone down an unethical path on the road to perdition. In such cases, the societal concern is not only applied to what a company is doing publically; the fear is also that a subterranean activity is also going on, which is unethical. The generalized distrust finds fertile ground in the dark recesses that are possible in private enterprise. For example, government regulators as well as some ethicists raised concerns about Facebook’s face-recognition feature when it came out. Specifically, the concern was not so much regarding the feature's stated purpose, but, rather, any other uses of the technology that the company was not divulging.

The full essay is at "Taking the Face Off Facebook."

Monday, October 21, 2013

Leadership Funds: A Congressional Conflict of Interest

Congressional leadership funds constitute a loop-hole by which members of Congress can more easily use donations for personal expenses including vacations. To count on those very same members to turn off the sugar-water that they themselves enjoy is perhaps the epitome of naivety. A solution to a systemic conflict of interest cannot come out of the parties themselves, but must be from an exogenous or outside force. In this essay, I depict the conflict of interest and suggest places we might look to eliminate the conflict of interest.
The seat of the U.S. Congress. The dome was completed during Lincoln's term. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons
In the second quarter of 2012, the YG Action Fund, which was being run at the time by former staffers of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), snagged $5 million from Sheldon Adelson, a casino magnate. The Congressional Leadership Fund pulled in $1.28 million, which includes $1 million from Bob Perry. The House Democrats’ leadership fund raised $4.3 million.[1] At a time when bipartisanship was a rarity, lawmakers of both parties heartily availed themselves to their own leadership funds even though the “leadership fund” exception to donation and use limits had ostensibly been slipped into a bill on the assumption that such funds would be given to members through the leaderships for the campaigns.

The strictures on how members of Congress can spend money from their respective leadership funds and that of the leadership were designed to be relatively lax—to make it relatively easy to use the funds to cover even personal expenses. One Congresswoman loaned her own campaign not a small sum of money from her leadership fund, charging the campaign 18 percent interest.  Essentially, the transaction was a transfer of money from her heavily regulated campaign contributions to her leadership fund, which could be used to pay relatives (to “work” on her campaign) and take vacations.

Even assuming that the party leaderships would still be dolling out the cash to favored lawmakers instead of each member also having his or her own leadership fund, a structural or institutional conflict of interest imperils any reform coming from the lawmakers or their respective leaderships. In other words, the rare instance of bipartisanship in supporting the leadership-fund loophole has the not insignificant problem of private gain at the expense of the donors and even the public interest. For the open secret in Washington that members of Congress do in fact benefit financially from their offices cannot but impact and warp the lawmakers’ official roles.

Yet strangely, the conclusion of the investigative report broadcast on CBS’s “60 Minutes” on October 20, 2013 that the American people can only wait until Congress finally decides to act to reform its own sordid practice even though the members of Congress have a huge personal disincentive in doing so. In other words, the assumption of the journalists was that the people would just have to accept being held hostage to a Congressional conflict of interest.

Discounting the harm in an institutional conflict of interest seems to be engraved in the American body politic and culture. The typical assumption that people can obviate a conflict of interest that benefits them personally renders the society itself as naïve as a deer in headlights. We seem blinded to the necessity or at least facilitating general policy of deconstructing an institutional conflict of interest by going above or beyond the parties to it. To rely on the parties benefitting is a fool’s errand.

The problem seemingly forestalling needed reform to unwind the “leadership fund” conflict is that the Congress is the end of the line in terms of enacting reform (i.e., passing a law). To be sure, the U.S. president is at least theoretically separate from the bicameral legislature and could put pressure on Congressional members to police themselves. However, the president would surely lose many otherwise useful friends on Capitol Hill that way.

I suspect the delegates at the federal convention in 1787 assumed that the state governments would be able to check the self-aggrandizing Congressional loop-hole because one of the virtues of modern federalism is that both the General Government (i.e., the federal government) and the governments of the states can check and balance each other. However, for this check to function, the state governments must have enough autonomy and have a direct role inside the General Government. Since the war between the CSA and USA commencing in 1861, the General Government has encroached so on the purview of the state governments that the latter had not the wherewithal by 2012 to restrain a misbehaving Congress. The switch from legislative appointment to popular election for U.S. Senators in 1913 effectively removed the state governments’ “breathing hole” in cold Washington.

For a state’s citizenry may have no problem with federal encroachment and be too dispersed to hold Congress accountable directly whereas the same state’s legislature and chief executive/head-of-state would have an incentive to eliminate Congressional loop-holes and, moreover, restrain Congress’s over-reaches that have come to eclipse federalism itself. In short, the problem goes deeper than members of Congress using donor dollars for personal edification rather than to advance the political principles held by the donors. The system of public governance in the U.S. has incrementally been self-contorted by an oblivious citizenry for decades. In fact, the increasingly dangerous gridlock (e.g., on raising the debt-ceiling) could have been predicted from the federal government’s habit of forcing “one size fits all” more and more on a diverse empire of republics that spans a continent and more.

[1] Paul Blumenthal, “House GOP Super PACS Tap Sheldon Adelson To Raise $6.6 Million,” The Huffington Post, July 16, 2012.