Number 543 December 9, 2013

This Week: A Little o' This 'n That

"Quote" of the Week: Going the way of the dinosaurs. In just decades!
A De-Americanized World
The Effects of Austerity
Expand Social Security?


First of all: THANK YOU to all of you who sent in your Pledges of support for Nygaard Notes. I am touched by your generosity and by your willingness to put your money where your mouth is (or, should I say "where my mouth is?). I know I say this all the time, but it's YOUR support that makes the Nygaard Notes Project possible. I'll keep doing it, thanks to you.

I've got parts of the next three Nygaard Notes already written, so I'm hoping for a relative flurry of issues before 2014 begins. I need to kind of clear off my desk, if you know what I mean. One of the things I'm working on is a "Good News" issue of the Notes, to balance out what some people told me seemed the rather depressing news of the seeming success of the reactionary budget-cutters and their austerity agenda. There's plenty of good news, so that should be fun. The piece on Social Security this week is a bit of a start down that road.

I hope to do another installment of my occasional "Stroll Through the News With Nygaard," where I try my best to be brief and mention as many of the weird, unsettling, funny, and/or neglected news stories as I can in 2,200 words or less.

Finally, I'm hard at work on some pieces about Systems Theory, and some ideas I have about the media system and the various ways it functions and interacts with other social systems. The research involved in this one has been a bit overwhelming (I've been digging deeply for the book chapter that has to do with this) and I'm finding that it's very difficult to articulate in a satisfying way. But, as soon as I figure it out, I'll send it your way.

OK, plenty on the agenda, as always. But now let's get down to business and look at the current issue of Nygaard Notes, which has no particular theme that I can tell. Just four rather revealing stories.

From below-zero Minnesota,



"Quote" of the Week: Going the way of the dinosaurs. In just decades!

This is a two-part "Quote." The first part comes from page 22 of the December 4th New York Times. There was found a story headlined "Panel Says Global Warming Carries Risk of Deep Changes." Here's the lead paragraph: "Continued global warming poses a risk of rapid, drastic changes in some human and natural systems, a scientific panel warned Tuesday, citing the possible collapse of polar sea ice, the potential for a mass extinction of plant and animal life and the threat of immense dead zones in the ocean."

The panel was appointed by the National Research Council, and the report is called "Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises." Here's paragraph 10 of the Times article:

"Among the greatest risks in coming years, the panel said, is that climate change could greatly increase the extinction rate of plants and animals, essentially provoking the sixth mass extinction in the earth's history. The panel said many of the world's coral reefs, a vital source of fish that feed millions of people, already seemed fated to die within decades."

I couldn't easily access the full report, but here's one paragraph from it, courtesy of a December 5th MinnPost article by Ron Meador:

"If unchecked, habitat destruction, fragmentation, and over-exploitation, even without climate change, could result in a mass extinction within the next few centuries equivalent in magnitude to the one that wiped out the dinosaurs. With the ongoing pressures of climate change, comparable levels of extinction conceivably could occur before the year 2100; indeed, some models show a crash of coral reefs from climate change alone as early as 2060 under certain scenarios."

That's right: Death of the coral reefs in our children's lifetime. And we could all go the way of the dinosaurs in less than 90 years. Maybe—just maybe—space could have been found on the front page for this story?


A De-Americanized World

On October 12th appeared a commentary in the official Chinese news service Xinhua, headlined "U.S. Fiscal Failure Warrants a De-Americanized World."

The author, Liu Chang, succinctly summarized what I think a lot of the world has been thinking lately, especially during the recent threat of the U.S. defaulting on its debts. He said:

"Instead of honoring its duties as a responsible leading power, a self-serving Washington has abused its superpower status and introduced even more chaos into the world by shifting financial risks overseas, instigating regional tensions amid territorial disputes, and fighting unwarranted wars under the cover of outright lies.

"As a result, the world is still crawling its way out of an economic disaster thanks to the voracious Wall Street elites, while bombings and killings have become virtually daily routines in Iraq years after Washington claimed it has liberated its people from tyrannical rule.

"Such alarming days when the destinies of others are in the hands of a hypocritical nation have to be terminated, and a new world order should be put in place, according to which all nations, big or small, poor or rich, can have their key interests respected and protected on an equal footing."

Chang goes on to suggest a number of steps towards a "de-Americanized world," adding that

"What may also be included as a key part of an effective reform is the introduction of a new international reserve currency that is to be created to replace the dominant U.S. dollar, so that the international community could permanently stay away from the spillover of the intensifying domestic political turmoil in the United States."

Granted, the official propaganda branch of the Chinese government isn't the first place I turn for analysis. But what's striking here is A) I can't argue with much of it, and B) It seems to have generated quite a lot of buzz all over the world.

And . . . . .

On December 3rd the Pew Research Center for People and the Press released their every-four-years survey of U.S. foreign policy opinions called "America's Place in the World." They found that, "For the first time in surveys dating back nearly 40 years, a majority (53%) says the United States plays a less important and powerful role as a world leader than it did a decade ago." Then they said, "An even larger majority says the U.S. is losing respect internationally. Fully 70% say the United States is less respected than in the past..."

And . . . . .

In between the Xinhua editorial and the Pew survey announcement, on November 1st, the inimitable Immanuel Wallerstein, in a commentary entitled "Consequences of U.S. Decline," notes that "a large percentage of people (albeit not everyone) accepts the reality of at least some relative decline of U.S. power, prestige, and influence." But, he adds, there is no obvious successor to the role of superpower, which leads to great instability. In that context, Wallerstein noted:

"The problem for everyone in a situation of geopolitical chaos is the high level of anxiety it breeds and the opportunities it offers for destructive folly to prevail. The United States, for example, may no longer be able to win wars, but it can unleash enormous damage to itself and others by imprudent actions. Whatever the United States tries to do in the Middle East today, it loses. At present none of the strong actors in the Middle East (and I do mean none) take their cues from the United States any longer. This includes Egypt, Israel, Turkey, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan (not to mention Russia and China). The policy dilemmas this poses for the United States have been recorded in great detail in The New York Times. The conclusion of the internal debate in the Obama administration has been a super-ambiguous compromise, in which President Obama seems vacillating rather than forceful.

"Finally, there are two real consequences of which we can be fairly sure in the decade to come. The first is the end of the U.S. dollar as the currency of last resort. When this happens, the United States will have lost a major protection for its national budget and for the cost of its economic operations. The second is the decline, probably a serious decline, in the relative standard of living of U.S. citizens and residents. The political consequences of this latter development are hard to predict in detail but will not be insubstantial."


The Effects of Austerity

There's an organization called NDD United, which is a coalition of 3,200 organizations (!) that has been working valiantly to, in their words, "save public services – known in Congress as nondefense discretionary (NDD) programs – from devastating budget cuts." That's right, 3,200 organizations, ranging from the obscure (Benign Essential Blepharospasm Research Foundation) to the well-known (NAACP), and from the national (American Library Association) to the local (Nett Lake School District in Northern Minnesota).

Back on February 11th NDD United sent a 72-page letter to Congress pleading with them to stop cutting funding for the programs that "support our economy, bolster our global competitiveness, and provide an environment where all Americans have the opportunity to lead healthy, safe, and productive lives." (Actually, the letter was only one page long, but the list of signers was 71 pages long, which I found amusing, and also important.) You can see the letter, and the signers, for yourself by going HERE:

I was unable to find a single reference to the letter, or the organization involved in producing it, in the corporate media. But an even greater failure occurred last month (November 12) when the media ignored a major 136-page report by NDD United. Called "Faces of Austerity: How Budget Cuts Have Made Us Sicker, Poorer, and Less Secure," the report includes sections on Education, Housing, Infrastructure, International Affairs, Job Training, Natural Resources, Public Health, Public Safety, and Science.

The report was clearly designed with media in mind, as it:

* Offers tons of statistics about the specific cuts, where they fall, and who they affect

* Offers many, many anecdotes that bring the statistics to life.

* Explains the federal role in various aspects of our daily lives, a context that is poorly understood and actively obscured by the "anti-government" maniacs who dominate political discussion these days.

An example of the misconception-busting effect of this study can be seen in the recurring summary of the various "outlays as a percent of all federal spending." For example, federal outlays for housing come to just 0.93 percent of all federal spending." Job training outlays come to a mere 0.42 percent, "natural resources needs" take up 1.49 percent of the federal dollar. And so forth.

Given the magnitude of budget cuts at the federal level, and given the ongoing debate about those cuts, the mass media really has a responsibility to provide ongoing and prominent coverage of the consequences of austerity agenda on those who need help the most. Kudos to NDD United for providing the information on the real-world consequences of this agenda. Find the report here and make sure your elected representative knows where to find it, too.


Expand Social Security?

I've been writing a lot about "austerity" lately, and that's not the cheeriest subject. However, there is some good news to be found these days, even in this age of cut, cut, cut. Just don't look in the corporate media for it.

One piece of good news is a legislative initiative called The Strengthening Social Security Act of 2013 (SSSA-2013). Introduced as S. 567 on March 14, 2013 by Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, it was completely ignored in corporate media. Not a single article. Well, OK, there was one letter to the editor about it, in the July 1st Virginian-Pilot of Norfolk, Virginia.

A companion bill was introduced into the House of Representatives on September 17th by California's Linda Sánchez. That got mentioned in 5 daily newspapers. But, again, they were all letters to the editor. In fact, all five were the same letter, by the same person: Syd Hadsell of Hercules CA. (Go, Syd!)

So here, to cheer you up in this chilly December of 2013, is a little information about a plan to INCREASE Social Security, which is a good idea on so many levels. I'll list them in a moment.

SSSA-2013 would make three major changes.

1. First of all, it would change the benefit calculation formula the Social Security Administration uses, which would increase benefits for all Social Security beneficiaries by approximately $70 per month.

2. The current Social Security Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) is determined by the Consumer Price Index (CPI). The Strengthening Social Security Act of 2013 would make the Consumer Price Index for the Elderly, or CPI-E, the yearly adjustment formula. The CPI-E considers the specific living expenses of seniors and is expected to result in higher COLAs, helping them to cover necessary goods like health care.

3. Social Security is not in crisis, but does require some tweaks to ensure it is a strong resource for future generations of retirees. This bill would lift the cap on income that is subject to the payroll tax that funds the Social Security trust fund, so the tax would apply to every dollar earned. This move would make the trust fund solvent until 2049.

The above facts courtesy of Rep. Linda Sánchez and the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Here are a few more facts, these from the Social Security Administration:

• Nine out of ten individuals age 65 and older receive Social Security benefits.

• Social Security benefits represent about 39% of the income of the elderly.

• Among elderly Social Security beneficiaries, about 46% of unmarried persons rely on Social Security for 90% or more of their income.

• 51% of the workforce has no private pension coverage.

• 34% of the workforce has no savings set aside specifically for retirement.

Those facts give a hint as to why it would be a such a good idea to expand Social Security instead of cutting it. Plus, that extra $70 a month would be spent almost immediately, providing a much-needed boost to demand in our still-depressed economy.