Capitalism and the Planet

Can Growth and Innovation Lead to a Lighter Environmental Footprint?

The notion that high living standards and environmental protection represent a zero-sum game finds expression on both the left and right. On the right, the charge that environmentalists prefer trees and endangered species to people is a long-standing trope. On the left, the idea that humans must dramatically downscale consumption, lest the earth that sustains us collapse, has animated modern environmental thought since the early 1970’s.

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Towards Peak Impact

The Evidence for Decoupling

In the past few years, decoupling – breaking the link between economic growth and environmental impacts – has become the new catchword in environmental debates. The OECD has declared it a top priority, and UNEP’s International Resource Panel launched a report series on the topic in 2011. And last year, interest in the idea shot up after the publication of An Ecomodernist Manifesto” which declared decoupling a central objective of ecomodernism.

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Improving on Nature

Dispatches from the Front Lines of Ecomodernism

"So sometime in the distant past, at least 20,000 years ago and probably much more, members of our species decided they could improve on nature."

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Keeping Nuclear Plants Open

Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Ecomodernist Movement

Last week could have been better for the world's fleet of nuclear power plants. Entergy announced they were closing the 680-megawatt Pilgrim plant in Massachusetts, despite the plant having been relicensed in 2012 for an additional 20 years of operation. German utility Eon has also decided to shutter two units at Sweden's Oskarshamn plant. As we've seen everywhere from Germany to California to Japan, natural gas and coal fill in where nuclear falls off, which is the opposite direction from where we should be heading. For more on the situation in the States, check out the latest Energy Gang podcast, where MIT's Jesse Jenkins explains why it will be difficult to meet US carbon goals with so many threatened nuclear plants.

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Ecomodernists in Finland and Oysters in California

Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Ecomodernist Movement

“Ecomodernism is an environmental movement that seeks to defend and enhance the environment’s well-being while simultaneously increasing possibilities for human prosperity. For ecomodernists, both the vitality and diversity of natural world and the existence and progress of humanity are fundamental values.” 

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Raiding Progress

How Ralph Nader and the Public Interest Movement Undermined American Liberalism

As contemporary American progressivism has come to be defined by the public interest movements associated with Ralph Nader, both the white working class and the business community have abandoned the Democratic Party. For working-class whites, the regulatory assault upon manufacturing, resource-extractive industries, and agriculture threatened both their employment and the local economies in which they lived and worked. With the postwar New Deal compact between business, labor, and government fractured, business groups and industries mobilized themselves as a countervailing force to the increasing power and organization of the public interest movements on the Left. For these reasons, the decline of New Deal liberalism in the last half-century owes as much to assaults by the public interest Left as it does to attacks by a resurgent Right.

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Can Economic Growth Be Green?

How Prosperity Enables Environmental Progress

Against projections of unsustainable growth, industrializing countries are poised to enter an era of “green growth,” explained a panel at Breakthrough Dialogue. To encourage this transition, however, requires better metrics for valuing public goods like clean air and longer lifespans.

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What is Modern in Ecomodernism?

Nature, Technology, and Politics in the Anthropocene

“Is ecomodernism a white elephant to kill as soon as possible, or a hopeful monster that requires the care of a whole bunch of Dr. Frankensteins?”

So asked sociologist Bruno Latour at the 2015 Breakthrough Dialogue, the theme of which was “The Good Anthropocene.” Latour offered a rollicking critique of ecomodernists and their manifesto, kicking off a discussion among the other panelists and participants about what it means to be human and the division between nature and society.

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Wicked Fat

Harvard Historian of Science Steven Shapin on the Nutrition Wars

Last month the US government issued a 571-page report suggesting it would be making significant changes to its dietary guidelines. Eggs are no longer a no-no. Caffeine consumption is encouraged to prevent Parkinson’s disease. The report comes at a time when new studies, and journalists including Gary Taubes, Nina Teicholz, and Aaron Carroll, have called into question the low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet promoted by the nutrition establishment for more than half a century.

Breakthrough is interested in the battle over dietary advice as an example of “wicked problem” — a problem characterized by high levels of uncertainty and expert disagreement — and asked Harvard historian of science, Steven Shapin, to provide some historical and sociological context. Shapin is the author of numerous articles and books about the history diet and nutrition.

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The Rise of the Up-Wingers Part Two

The Case for the Proactionary Principle In the Face of Uncertainty

In part one of the interview with Steve Fuller, the professor of social epistemology at the University of Warwick discussed an emerging ideological axis in which the Left and the Right are replaced by Up-Wingers and Down-Wingers. Up-Wingers, Fuller says, are fundamentally opposed to the dominance of the precautionary principle in guiding policy. In the second part of the interview below, we explore the failings of the precautionary principle and the advantages of a proactionary state, which has a documented history throughout the United States and Europe. 

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The Rise of the Up-Wingers Part One

Steve Fuller on the Proactionary Principle, Environmentalism, and Interstellar Flight

Cryogenically preserved at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Arizona, the transhumanist Fereidoun Esfandiary – “dead” since 2000 – might better speak to the future of politics than today’s prognosticators. The leader of a loose group of futurists and thinkers in the 1970s, FM-2030 (as he dubbed himself) believed that humankind’s full potential could be unlocked by advances in science and technology. 

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The Left vs. the Climate

Why Progressives Should Reject Naomi Klein's Pastoral Fantasy — and Embrace Our High-Energy Planet

Ever since Marx’s day, leftists have been straining to spy the terminal crisis of capitalism on the horizon. It’s been a frustrating vigil. Whatever the upheaval confronting it — world war, depression, communist revolution, the Carter administration — a seemingly cornered capitalism always wriggled free and came back more (and occasionally less) heedless, rapacious, crass, and domineering than before. 

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Climate of Extremes Part Two

Dialogue – Not Diatribes – Needed for Bipartisan Action

This is the second of two articles on climate activism and political polarization. The first can be viewed here.

1.

As Bill McKibben has focused on building a new progressive grassroots movement, Tom Steyer and his political advisors have sought to spend his vast wealth to influence key U.S. Senate and Governoratorial races. This strategy is intended to lay the groundwork for climate change to be a dominant issue during the 2016 presidential election, while positioning Steyer as a candidate for future electoral office.

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Climate of Extremes: Part One

How Polarizing Global Warming Strategies Backfire

This is first of two articles on climate activism and political polarization, the second of which can be found here.

In August 2011, writer-turned-activist Bill McKibben along with a few dozen other environmentalists spent several nights in a Washington, DC jail. They were the first among thousands who would be arrested in front of the White House as part of a series of intensifying protests against the Keystone XL oil pipeline. In jail, McKibben’s “mind was running fast: things I needed to tweet or blog, messages I needed to get to the media,” he would later recall. The protests organized by his advocacy group 350.org, he believed, marked “a turning point, the moment when insider, establishment environmentalism found itself a little overtaken by grassroots power.”1

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The Romance of Ecomodernism

Pragmatism, Romance, and Urban Renewal at Breakthrough Dialogue 2014

People will be drawn to an ecomodernism when it combines a romantic love for nature with the pragmatic use of technology and development. That was the advice offered by Emma Marris, Mark Sagoff, and Reihan Salam in the final panel of Breakthrough Dialogue 2014.

“Environmentalism has many characteristics of a religion — a religion I’m a member of,” said Marris. “But if we care about outcomes, pursuing personal eco-sainthood is not the most efficient means of getting to those outcomes,” Marris said. “Can we have a movement with excitement and enthusiasm but without the religiosity?”  

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The Education of an Ecomodernist

From Eco-Romanticism to Radical Pragmatism

Environmentalism came readily to many of us who grew up on the mushrooming fringes of major metropolitan areas in the 1960s. I grew up in Walnut Creek, some 25 miles east of San Francisco, amidst a patchwork of new housing tracts and old orchards: prime playgrounds for boyhood adventure. My friends and I found our paradise along the Walnut Creek, a modest stream with a few passable swimming holes and a surprisingly rich array of wildlife.

But as I grew older, the orchards steadily gave way to yet more housing tracts while Walnut Creek itself was turned into a nearly lifeless concrete channel by the Army Corps of Engineers. Suburbs like Walnut Creek, which had promised the best of urban amenities and rural repose as the epochal decade began, had by its end come to seem grimly conformist. The transformation of formerly pleasant and diverse outskirts into manicured tracts of generic houses molded by the automobile seemed emblematic of modernity gone astray in its unthinking devotion to progress

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The Cooperative Advantage

How Innovation Rewrote the Rules of Foreign Policy

If you wish to conduct some latter-day colonial expansion on behalf of the US government, look no further than US Code 48, Chapter 8: “Whenever any citizen of the United States discovers a deposit of guano” — dried bat or bird droppings — “on any island, rock, or key, not within the lawful jurisdiction of any other government, and not occupied by the citizens of any other government, and takes peaceable possession thereof, and occupies the same, such island, rock, or key may, at the discretion of the President, be considered as appertaining to the United States.”1

In short: find an unoccupied rock in international waters on which a seagull has relieved herself and you can claim it for America.

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Embracing Creative Destruction

Hopeful Pragmatism for a Disruptive World

Over the last two decades, Joseph Schumpeter has become perhaps the most influential economist in the world, largely because of his view of capitalism as a process of “creative destruction.” His most famous work, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, published in 1942, is today more widely cited than John Maynard Keynes’s The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. Schumpeter taught at Harvard and was elected president of the American Economics Association in 1948. Yet his work was neglected outside of academic economics for almost half a century after his death in 1950.

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American Pastoral

How Romantic Elites Became the Eco-Puritan Left

For years, political divisions over the environment have had the seemingly odd feature that Americans farthest from the open country have tended to be most supportive of protecting the environment, while those nearest to it — farmers and other rural residents — have been most resistant. This split has been muddled in recent years as nature lovers have retired to the countryside, country folk have realized the business advantages of environmental tourism, and political polarization has increasingly subsumed specific issues. Still, when contentious topics such as the Keystone Pipeline or expanding national parks come up, the nature purists tend to be upscale urbanites. The General Social Survey asked how willing respondents would be to “accept cuts in your standard of living in order to protect the environment;” highly educated, white liberals in metropolitan areas were the most willing.

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After the Culture Wars

The Decline of Social Conservatism and the Rise of a New Political Order

April was a tough month for supporters of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy. Hailed by Conservatives for refusing to pay the government to graze his cattle on federal land, Bundy went from right-wing folk hero to widely-denounced villain when he suggested that black people were better off under slavery. Right-wing pundits like Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly were forced to condemn the sentiment, walking back their previously enthusiastic support for Bundy and his cause. “Those comments are downright racist”, emphasized Hannitty. “They are repugnant. They are bigoted.”

In the wake of Obama’s decisive 2008 and 2012 victories, Republicans have been grappling with the fact that they increasingly appear to be a party of people like Cliven Bundy and his erstwhile supporters. The GOP has managed to hang onto political relevance thanks to gerrymandered congressional districts and lower turnout among youth and minority voters, but with Hispanics and multiracial Americans among the fastest growing demographic groups, the endgame looks clear: a predominantly white, socially conservative Republican Party is unlikely to be competitive in national elections.

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The Conservative Case for Climate Policy

And Why Adaptive Resiliency Is One Way Forward

It is not news to say that climate change has become the most protracted science and policy controversy of all time. If one dates the beginning of climate change as a top tier public issue from the Congressional hearings and media attention during the summer of 1988, shortly after which the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was set in motion with virtually unanimous international participation, it is hard to think of another policy issue that has gone on for a generation with the arguments—and the policy strategy—essentially unchanged as if stuck in a Groundhog Day loop, and with so little progress being made relative to the goals and scale of the problem as set out. Even other areas of persistent scientific and policy controversy—such as chemical risk and genetically modified organisms—generally show some movement toward consensus or policy equilibrium out of which progress is made.

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The Coming Realignment

Cities, Class, and Ideology After Social Conservatism

Read a summary of the essay here.

Following Barack Obama’s historic victory in 2008, pundits posited that a new Democratic majority would dominate American politics for generations to come. But according to Michael Lind, no such majority will hold: political conflict is with us to stay, though traditional terms like 'left', 'right', and 'center' will take on new meanings. Thanks to a shift in generational values among Millennials, social conservatism is experiencing a rapid, terminal decline. As issues like “God, gays, and guns” become less and less relevant to Americans' worldviews and political preferences, the Left/Right axis will experience a radical realignment. Economic attitudes will become the central battleground of politics, leading to the emergence of two new groups, the populiberals and liberaltarians, each clustering in its own unique geographical niche. Forget “red states” and “blue states": the rural and peri-urban Posturbia and the urban Densitaria will be the key new constituencies on tomorrow's political map. The implications for American politics and policy couldn't be greater. 

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Reinventing Libertarianism

Jim Manzi and the New Conservative Case for Innovation

Recent years have seen growing recognition of the critical role the US government has played in creating world-changing technologies. In several State of the Union addresses, President Barack Obama made mention of the role of government in creating the information-communications revolutions. And various scholars including Richard Nelson, Vernon Ruttan, Fred Block, Rob Atkinson, Michael Lind, William Janeway, and Mariana Mazzucato have described how the federal government financed the invention of manufacturing through interchangeable parts (for rifles), canals and railroads, dams and highways, jets and microchips, pharmaceutical drugs, and much more.

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Off on the Wrong Foot

Why A Footprint Is A Poor Metaphor for Humanity’s Impact on the Planet

On the cover of Our Ecological Footprint, published in 1996, a giant foot stomps on the Western hemisphere, carrying the weight of cars, overpasses, and skyscrapers. William Rees, a population ecologist at the University of British Columbia, first thought of the footprint metaphor while boasting to a graduate student about the “small footprint” of his new computer tower in 1992. Linguists trace the use of footprint to mean “space occupied” to 1965 when astronomers described the landing area for a spacecraft. It would be another 14 years before a Senate committee first uttered “environmental footprint.” But is this the best metaphor for humanity’s impact on the natural world?

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The Psychology of Climate Change

The Science and Scholarship of How Humans Think and Feel about Global Warming

A growing body of scholarly and scientific studies finds that fear-based appeals around climate change backfire, resulting in increased climate skepticism and fatalism among much of the public.

This post summarizes scholarly and scientific articles published in peer-reviewed publications on the psychology of climate change. 

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Gray Matter

New Research Suggests the Left & Right Are Guided By Shared Morals

Debates between liberals and conservatives often degenerate into the two sides talking past one another, as though they are speaking different languages. Jonathan Haidt’s and Jesse Graham’s Moral Foundation Theory (MFT) and Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind suggest that this impression is reasonably accurate: liberals’ and conservatives’ moral beliefs are based on different moral foundations. Liberals’ and conservatives’ moral beliefs both rely on fairness and harm. But conservatives are more likely than liberals to make moral judgments based on the foundations of loyalty, authority, and purity (the “binding” foundations, so called because they emphasize group cohesiveness and order). Claims like these imply that conservatives and liberals are fundamentally different kinds of people; conservatives may be figuratively from Mars, whereas liberals are from Venus.

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Love Your Frankenfoods

Anti-GMO Mob Scarier Than Biotechnology

The Frankenstein metaphor that opponents of genetically modified food use to promote their fears is more apt than they realize. Yes, the monster is an unnatural life-form created by scientific hubris that wreaks death and destruction, the way they describe biotechnology. But remember that frightened angry mob in the Frankenstein movie, the terrified townspeople that take up torches and pitchforks and follow their baying hunting dogs to kill what they fear? It’s a more-than-apt metaphor for how the most virulent segments of the anti-GM mob are behaving. And for society as a whole, between the perceived risk of GMOs and the real risks of making policy about safety under the torches of an emotion-driven mob that distorts and ignores the evidence, the latter is the FAR scarier of the two.

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2014 Breakthrough Senior Fellows Announced

Five Distinguished Scholars Join Breakthrough Community

A economist studying electricity access for India’s poor. A Stanford University scholar who published a groundbreaking ecomodernist critique of environmentalism over two decades ago. One of France’s leading novelists and social critics. The co-inventor of a breakthrough nuclear technology. And the engineering professor who revitalized MIT’s nuclear energy department. Breakthrough Institute is honored to announce these individuals — Joyashree Roy, Martin Lewis, Pascal Bruckner, Per Peterson, and Richard Lester — as Breakthrough Senior Fellows 2014.

This is the sixth year of Breakthrough Senior Fellows. These five new Senior Fellows will join 30 Senior Fellows. Breakthrough Senior Fellows advise Breakthrough Institute staff, collaborate on scholarly and popular papers and reports, and attend Breakthrough Institute’s annual conference, the Breakthrough Dialogue.

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It’s Time to Label GMOs

Why We Need to Move Biotech Out of the Shadows

In just about three weeks from now, on November 5, Washington State will likely pass a ballot initiative to label GMOs. Polling I’ve seen suggests two-thirds of voters currently approve of I-522. Those numbers may come down a bit, but my hunch is this particular battle is lost.

I’m told that it’s entirely possible that the ballot initiative could then be struck down as unconstitutional, so it being passed is not the end point. But as Churchill once said, it is certainly the end of the beginning. The strategy of fighting labeling state by state will have failed, and something new will have to take its place. Today I want to outline to you some ideas about what this something new might look like.

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A Science Communications Intervention

Dan Kahan on How Different Cultural Groups Evaluate Risk

It’s a common refrain: If people only knew more about the science, there wouldn’t be so much polarization on the issue of climate change. But Dan M. Kahan’s groundbreaking work has gone a long way to prove that idea wrong. In fact, he’s found, it’s not the lack of scientific understanding that has led to conflict over climate change, but rather the need to adhere to the philosophy and values of one’s cultural group.

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Bridging the Polarization Gap

How Science Communication Paves the Way

Those of us involved in journalism, education, and science like to believe that facts and science illuminate the way through contentious debates. We believe that given ample evidence, thoroughly weighed, we will arrive at some consensus. At the very least, our viewpoints will converge. This devotion to objective facts, the scientific method and the primacy of evidence is the basis for a liberal democracy.

Oh, how very 18th century.

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Measuring Obesity

Part 2: The Limitations of Body Mass Index

The problem of obesity is so complex from a scientific standpoint and so highly-charged in the public discussion that it’s hardly surprising that there are divergent opinions. My previous article prompted several responses arguing that “obesity” should be considered a “disease.” But let’s leave this question aside for the moment.

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Obesity Is Not a Disease

Part 1: The Illness Label Precludes Societal Factors

The American Medical Association’s decision last month to label obesity as a disease has provoked a good deal of commentary, much of it critical. In fact, the AMA’s action went against the conclusions of its own Council on Science and Public Health, which had considered the issue over the past year.

While no analogy is perfect, in terms of the magnitude of a societal problem, the example of smoking offers a number of points relevant to the discussion of obesity.

 

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Don’t Blame the Internet for Political Polarization

New Media a Force for Democratization, Not Subjugation

Leading intellectuals blame the Internet as cause of our increasingly isolated, polarized, and fragmented society. Evgeny Morozov (above right), author of Net Dellusion and To Save Everything, Click Here argues that the web distracts youth from political engagement. The critique isn’t new: thinkers and writers from Socrates to Theodor Adorno (above left), have feared that new media, whether books, newspapers, radio, or TV, would undermine democratic rule. With the benefit of hindsight, these concerns seem grossly misplaced. Each new form of mass media started as a tool of elites but over time has a massively democratizing effect. Furthermore, political polarization was driven by forces that long predate the Internet, including the rise of libertarian conservatism, the disappearance of Southern Democrats and Northeastern Republicans, and democratization itself. In the end, the “filter bubble” that most increases polarization and threatens democracy is the ideological one in your head.

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Don’t Blame the Robots

Technophobia Distracts Us from What Most Imperils Working Poor

Technophobia is an affliction we have yet to cure even after decades of evidence-based ameliorative efforts. We might not have expected much resistance to the disease in earlier times, before evidence accumulated that the fears it inspired were irrational. Back in 1930, a mind as brilliant as John Maynard Keynes was susceptible to the condition. Keynes sensed sickness in the air but misdiagnosed it as a feature of the capitalist economy: “We are being afflicted with a new disease of which some readers may not yet have heard the name, but of which they will hear a great deal in the years to come—namely, technological unemployment.”

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Bracing for the Cloud

Digital Economy Requires Massive Amount of Electricity

They weigh less than five ounces, but according to recent data, when you count everything that matters, the average iPhone consumed more energy last year than a medium-sized refrigerator. By the numbers, a refrigerator from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star ratings list uses about 322 kWh per year. In contrast, the average iPhone used 361 kWh of electricity when you add up its wireless connections, data usage, and battery charging. Considering that a smart phone represents just one device in the ocean of the world’s Information-Communications-Technologies (ICT) ecosystem, it seems superfluous to say that the digital economy is poised to consume massive amounts of energy. 

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The Proactionary Principle

Between No Caution and Precaution

What is the most prominent science-based principle that influences international law today? The answer is undoubtedly the precautionary principle, which aims to promote only those policies whose likelihood of harm to both target and collateral populations is relatively small.

The principle is "scientific" insofar as it invites skepticism towards ambitious claims, typically about proposed innovations, which are sufficiently uncertain that their worst outcomes would be catastrophic and possibly irreversible. Thus, applications of the precautionary principle tend to be accompanied by "risk assessment" studies that try to distinguish what former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld memorably called the "known unknowns" from the "unknown unknowns." This sounds very hard-headed. But is it really?

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Mega-Philanthropists Won’t End Poverty

Rapid Economic Development Will

Philanthropy has become the ‘it’ vehicle for investment managers, corporate leaders, and nonprofits to come together and abet a curious form of ‘noble’ colonialism that accelerates inequality by reinforcing political and societal norms. The argument isn’t a new one, but that didn’t stop Warren Buffett’s son Peter from taking to the opinion pages of the New York Times with a proposal for a “new code” of philanthropy that will truly enable systematic change.

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The Founding Father of Foodie

Wendell Berry and Green Pastoralism

No other contemporary writer has captured the hearts of food-conscious Americans than Michael Pollan, who argues across his seven books, most recently Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, that our food and our eating habits have a complex narrative we must heed. Today’s narrative, according to Pollan, is one in which Americans tacitly accept the industrial food industry and cheap energy system, both of which are cause not only for obesity and disease, but also global warming, pollution, and humanity’s numerous wicked problems. 

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Against ‘Anti-science’ Tribalism

Science Is No Substitute for Politics

One of the more useful concepts to emerge from online discussions is Godwin’s Law, which holds that the longer that an online debate takes place the probability that someone invokes Hitler or the Nazis approaches 1.0. When discussions reach such a point of fantastic overstatement, the existence of Godwin’s Law enables its invocation, and often a conversation can be reset to good effect.

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A Green Vision of Technology

How Ecomodernists Foresee Room for Nature

There is a new environmental agenda out there. One that is inimical to many traditional conservationists, but which is picking up kudos and converts. It calls itself environmental modernism — which for many is an oxymoron. Wasn’t the environmentalism of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Greenpeace’s warriors against industrial whaling and the nuclear industry, and efforts to preserve the world’s last wild lands, meant to be the antithesis of the modern industrial world?

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The Ethics of Ecological Modernization

Embracing Creative Destruction

The concluding panel at the Breakthrough Dialogue raised questions about the doomsday narratives embedded in current conversations of mankind’s ecological impacts, and pointed to an alternative set of ecologically modern ethics that might succeed the “small-is-beautiful,” anti-consumerist, and technologically skeptical values of traditional environmentalism.

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Dark Age Politics

Energy Austerity A Return to Feudalism

Of all the fantasies that entrance neo-Malthusians, none is more dangerous than the idea that a low-energy, low-consumption, locavore world could be organized along egalitarian lines.

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Making the World Safe for Coal

The History of the Antinuclear Movement

The antinuclear movement has historically drawn from a number of wellsprings, from fears of radioactive fallout caused by nuclear missiles, to parallels between Nazi Germany and the science of nuclear energy, to paranoia over radiation as the ‘most serious agent of pollution.’ The success of such antinuclear campaigns in the 1970s has guaranteed a legacy of increased use of coal for decades to come, as proposed nuclear plants across the Western world were cancelled and replaced by coal plants.

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Information Society

The Rise of Big Data

Covering everything that’s happening today with information technology in one book is a monumental challenge. As if to acknowledge that difficulty, Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier, authors of Big Data, begin by describing the data’s magnitude. They note, for instance, that the amount of data now stored around the world is an estimated 1,200 exabytes (itself an already dated and debatable number), which can be expressed as an equally incomprehensible 1.2 zettabytes. “If it were all printed in books, they would cover the entire surface of the United States some 52 layers thick.”

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Post-Truth Pluralism

The Unlikely Political Wisdom of Nietzsche

The last decade has seen heightened progressive concern with alleged conservative mendacity. Last year, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman criticized the rhetoric of the recent presidential election campaigns as reflecting our “post-truth politics.” Satirist Stephen Colbert has lampooned political spin as “truthiness,” which is as much an indictment of contemporary American political culture as it was of bloviating conservative TV hosts. After he lost his bid for higher office, Al Gore wrote The Assault on ReasonIn the early George W. Bush years, then-comedian and now Minnesota Senator Al Franken wrote a best-selling book called Lies (And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them)Chris Mooney’s 2005 book The Republican War on Science was a best-seller among liberal audiences. In his 2010 novel, Freedom, Jonathan Franzen portrayed a Bill Kristol–type character as hypocritically denouncing Islamist lies about 9/11 as Zionist plot while defending the Platonic idea of the “noble lie” to justify the invasion of Iraq. 

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Who Governs the Climate?


Against the Antipolitics Machine

One of the many dividing lines in climate change debates is between those, on the one hand, who think that climate change is such a totalizing and overwhelming existential threat that normal politics must be suspended and those, on the other, who recognize that human life is political before it is natural. Australian environmental lawyer Lisa Caripis from the University of Melbourne is clear on which side of this divide she sits.

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A Locavore’s Dilemma

On the Fantasy of Urban Farming

I have no idea where my food comes from, but I hope it’s shipped by rail from a California factory farm.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m an environmentalist, not an agribusiness executive. But I’m an environmentalist who can do math, and the numbers on locavorism, like much else in green-urbanist food ideology, don’t add up.

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The Desecration Paradigm

Environmentalism's Antihuman Strain

Among the paradigms that structure discussion of environmental policy are what Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, among others, have called the pollution, depletion, and conservation paradigms. To these, I think, another must be added: the desecration paradigm.

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How the Left Came to Reject Cheap Energy for the Poor

The Great Progressive Reversal: Part Two

Eighty years ago, the Tennessee Valley region was like many poor rural communities in tropical regions today. The best forests had been cut down to use as fuel for wood stoves. Soils were being rapidly depleted of nutrients, resulting in falling yields and a desperate search for new croplands. Poor farmers were plagued by malaria and had inadequate medical care. Few had indoor plumbing and even fewer had electricity.

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The Irrelevance of Climate Skeptics

Why the Obsession with Deniers Impedes Climate Progress

Earlier this week, Martin Wolf of the Financial Times announced that the "climate skeptics have won." His comments echo those of former NASA scientist James Hansen who told an audience in Edinburgh last year that the skeptics "have been winning the public debate with the help of tremendous resources." The action needed in response to this situation was spelt out by Lord Stern – the eponymous author of the well-known 2007 report on the economics of climate changewho once called skeptics "forces of darkness" who had to be "driven back."

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It’s Not About the Climate

The Great Progressive Reversal: Part One

Over the last few decades, humans achieved one of the most remarkable victories for social justice in the history of the species. The percentage of people who live in extreme poverty — under $1.25 per day — was halved between 1990 and 2010. Average life expectancy globally rose from 56 to 68 years since 1970. And hundreds of millions of desperately poor people went from burning dung and wood for fuel (whose smoke takes two million souls a year) to using electricity, allowing them to enjoy refrigerators, washing machines, and smoke-free stoves.

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We Have Never Been Natural

As Environmentalism Fragments, Competing Stories About the Anthropocene Emerge

Environmentalism is no longer about saving nature alone: increasingly, it's about saving people given their dependencies on nature (witness the sustainability movement) and since environmental problems are often symptoms of deeper social problems (witness dumping in Dixie). Yet concepts of nature still suffuse the movement—perhaps no longer just wilderness, national parks, and Gaia, but also a spirit of wildness, community gardens, and an optimal 350-ppm-CO2 atmosphere. It is not surprising that manifold notions of nature are found throughout contemporary environmentalism, since that is what environment means to most people.

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Bruno Latour Wins Prestigious Holberg Prize

Breakthrough Senior Fellow ‘Completely Re-imagined Science Studies’

Breakthrough Senior Fellow Bruno Latour, the French anthropologist and sociologist, has been announced as the winner of the 2013 Holberg International Memorial Prize, one of the most distinguished awards in the arts and humanities. The prize committee recognized Latour as a “creative” and “unpredictable” scholar who has “undertaken an ambitious analysis and reinterpretation of modernity, challenging the most fundamental categories such as the distinction between modern and pre-modern, nature and society, human and non-human.”

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The Ecology of Obesity

How the Focus on Neighborhood Food Environments Led Public Health Astray

Starting in the mid-nineties, ecologically-minded Americans increasingly came to see farmers markets as a way to bring healthy foods to poor neighborhoods, support local organic agriculture, and even address global warming. During the Bush years, major health philanthropies joined these efforts, making new grocery stores their highest priority in combating obesity, which was disproportionately affecting the poor.

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The Making of the Obesity Epidemic

How Food Activism Led Public Health Astray

In the 1990s, many public health advocates homed in on food availability as a significant influence on obesity. Major anti-obesity campaigns now center on radically remaking school and neighborhood food environments by reducing access to unhealthy foods and improving access to healthy ones. With this approach advocates have fostered a reductive story about obesity that appeals to liberal audiences but doesn’t comport particularly well with the evidence. Against the popular discourse, those most at risk for obesity would be far better served by strategies demonstrated to improve overall health than calls for more grocery stores and farmers’ markets.

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Welcome, Robot Overlords

How Intelligent Machines Let Us Enjoy Life

A surprising number of people seem to be freaking out about an imminent takeover by robots. It’s true that only at the fringe is anyone suggesting a Matrix-style dystopia where the machines rise up and enslave us. But the commonly-expressed conviction that technological innovation will immiserate broad segments of society is only somewhat less irrational.

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Why Progressives Don’t Like Nuclear

Values and Worldview Trump Facts

Many of my friends are science-loving liberals. Many of them are also environmentalists. But most of them are against nuclear energy, and this is where I disagree with them. Over the years I have had several conservations with these friends about nuclear power and most of their objections seem to boil down to a handful of arguments that are well-meaning but often ignore some basic facts. So here’s a purely personal, short list of reasons which in my opinion drive a lot of liberal objections to nuclear power. These are by no means exhaustive, but it just seems to me that there are some simple answers at least to a few questions raised by well-meaning liberals regarding nuclear energy, and it’s worth delving into them.

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The Great Stagnation Myth

How We Have Grown Richer But Feel Poorer

The last decade was a lost one for the American middle class. It came on the heels of three decades of frozen wages. We have entered the Great Stagnation.

So goes the drumbeat. But when you look around, everyone seems richer. "If our obvious material affluence seems difficult to square with various narratives of economic decline," writes Brookings economist Scott Winship in a major new essay for Breakthrough Journal, "that's because it doesn't."

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The Affluent Economy

Our Misleading Obsession with Growth Rates

Nostalgia for the boom economic growth years of the 1950s and 1960s is misplaced. Americans of all classes have grown materially richer every decade since. The lower growth rates today are a function of the slower metabolism of large economies, not a sign that American capitalism is fundamentally broken. Higher rates of economic growth might be desirable, but whether or not they materialize, the stagnation discourse misrepresents the country's economic health. We will be better at solving unemployment and poverty by starting from the recognition that rising prosperity remains the norm of American economic life.

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Shellenberger on Colbert Report

Breakthrough Cofounder Talks Climate, Nuclear, and Frankenstein with Stephen Colbert

Michael Shellenberger, president and cofounder of the Breakthrough Institute, made the case for a new environmentalism on the Colbert Report last week.

The new environmentalism is defined by its embrace of technology as essential to human progress and overcoming environmental challenges such as climate change.

“That’s why we wrote this book — it’s called Love Your Monsters. It comes from this idea that we should treat our technologies like our children, like our creations,” Shellenberger explained. “When they fail us — when they disappoint us — you don’t abandon them, you improve them. You make them better.”

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Wicked Polarization

How Prosperity, Democracy, and Experts Divided America

Thirteen years after he authored The End of Ideology, Daniel Bell would argue in The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism that rising affluence and changing values would result in greater social fragmentation and create a crisis for democratic governance. What Bell did not foresee was that all that heterogeneity would ossify into a new polarization: the enforcement of orthodoxy by powerful ideological institutions, the narrowing of partisan platforms, and gridlock on many of the most serious issues facing the country. This issue of Breakthrough Journal is dedicated to understanding the forces behind wicked problems, including ideological polarization itself, and what can be done to overcome them.

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The Polarization Paradox

Why Hyperpartisanship Strengthens Conservatism and Undermines Liberalism

Whoever wins November’s presidential election is almost certain to face a Congress more ideologically divided than at any time in the past century. Though movement conservatives have accounted for much of the rise in hyperpartisanship, liberals have tried to match fire with fire in recent years. But highly partisan tactics, far from being politically neutral, actually strengthen conservatism and undermine liberalism. Instead of achieving their goals of advancing a progressive agenda, outfits like Media Matters and the Center for American Progress are self-defeating for liberals in the long run.

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Should Scientists Rule?

A Review of The Geek Manifesto

In The Geek Manifesto, British journalist Mark Henderson makes a passionate case for why science and scientists deserve a greater role in politics. He argues that political views ought to be measured beyond two axes representing economics and social policies. “Politics,” Henderson explains, “has a third axis, too. It measures rationalism, skepticism and scientific thinking.”

The champions of this third axis are the “geeks” — those “people with a passion for science and the critical thinking on which it is founded.” Science, Henderson explains, “is not a noun but a verb.” He continues, explaining that science “is provisional, always open to revision … comfortable with your changing your mind … anti-authoritarian: anybody can contribute, and anybody can be wrong … [tries] to prove the most elegant ideas wrong … [and] is comfortable with uncertainty.”

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On Justice Movements

Why They Fail the Environment and the Poor

The theory of climate justice tells us that the gap between rich and poor and the looming threat of catastrophic climate change are not simply unfortunate circumstances that demand our attention and action, but rather the result of active efforts on the part of rich nations, wealthy elites, and powerful corporations to profit on the backs of the global poor and the environment. But demands for climate justice too often ignore basic practicalities of energy, poverty, and climate change, directing our gaze away from the issues that really matter to the future prospects of both the global poor and the planet and toward issues that don’t.

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The Rise of the ‘Modernist Greens’

Slate Features Breakthrough Institute and Allies

A growing movement of “modernist greens,” made up of cutting edge scientists and thinkers, innovative activists and policy experts, has reimagined environmentalism over the past decade and is today actively creating a powerful new ecological politics for the twenty-first century.

These efforts, profiled expertly by former Audubon editor Keith Kloor last week in Slate, are fashioning a “radical departure from the nature-centric framework that has long dominated environmental politics and policy.”

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The Progressive Case for Modernization

Against the 'Infantile Left'

It is virtually impossible to discuss manufacturing, energy, infrastructure and related subjects from what I consider a center-left perspective without being challenged by anti-industrial or post-industrial Luddites who claim that the genuine progressive position is an amalgam of Mathusian anti-consumerism and energy austerity, often combined with support for old-fashioned, premodern methods of making artifacts and growing food.  I had thought that this debate was limited to the liberal left, and was surprised to learn, from an interview with Ecuadoran president Rafael Correa, that a similar debate occurs within the less familiar (to me) circles of the radical left.

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Robot Cars Not an Automatic

Why the future of self driving cars will be societally driven

The self-driving car has been invented, but is it likely to be widely adopted by as a mode of transport? Will we really buy self-driving cars? Or will we hire them like taxis, or even hop on and off them (or in and out of them) like buses? What would have to change in the way we live our everyday lives in order for us to adopt this strange interloper? And what sort of other things and services might we need to support travelling around in driverless cars?

Some of these questions go so far into the future that we can't possibly know the answers. So let's start with what we do know, and that is, perhaps surprisingly, the technology behind a self-driving car.

The concept of the self-driving (or, more alarmingly put, the driverless car) relies on the clever assembly of many existing technologies. There are several versions of the driverless car in existence, so let's focus on one of them. Google's car is perhaps the most widely covered. Developed through their long collaboration with Stanford University, it cleverly combines a raft of technologies that most of us, in one way and another, are fairly familiar with.

The car uses data gathered from Google Street View with artificial intelligence software, inputs from video cameras installed inside the car, a light detecting and ranging sensor (LIDAR) on the roof, a radar sensor on the front and positioning sensors on the rear wheels. Interestingly, the self-driving car looks suspiciously similar to any other car (only with a few extra gadgets). This is likely to change as the physical constraints presented by these technologies are overcome by the skills of designers that reconfigure interior car spaces as meeting rooms, cafes or perhaps even playrooms.

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Does R&D Drive Economic Growth?

The Mythology of Innovation

It is a claim that you hear often in discussions of the role of research and development in the economy: “Federal investments in R&D have fueled half of the nation’s economic growth since World War II.” This particular claim appeared in a recent Washington Post op-ed co-authored by a member of the US Congress and the chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It would be remarkable if true. Unfortunately, it is not.

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Polarization Is Here to Stay

A Response to "The Polarization Paradox"

By temperament I’m deeply sympathetic to Matthew Nisbet and Dietram Scheufele’s argument in "The Polarization Paradox," and welcome the unusual range of data that they have brought to bear on the subject of polarization and liberal hope, drawing on cognitive science and social psychology as well as institutional political science.

The authors’ point that “compromise and reasonableness can be every bit as potent a weapon for liberals as polarization has been for conservatives” sounds a lot like a sentence I wrote in 2007 about the emerging candidacy of Barack Obama: “Perhaps we are being too literal in thinking that ‘hope’ and bipartisanship are things that Obama naively believes are present and possible,” I wrote, “when in fact they are a tactic, a method of subverting and breaking the unified conservative power structure.”

But time has not been kind to my 2007 argument.

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Fishy Business

How Media Alarmism Puts Us at Risk

The media reported in typical fashion on a recent study about the possible connection between in-utero mercury exposure from fish and ADHD. They played up the bad news – that mercury can have negative cognitive effects – but missed the story: children of mothers who ate more fish during pregnancy actually had better overall cognitive health.

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The Long Peace

Modernization and the Decline of Violence

Humanity is dramatically less violent than it used to be. In early societies, 15 percent of people died violent deaths. Today, just 0.03 percent do. Social psychologist Steven Pinker has identified several stages, each with its own dynamic, that have driven this transformation, from the creation of modern states and the expansion of trade to the rights revolution. Importantly, new technologies that facilitate the spread and exchange of ideas often precede humanitarian reforms. It is sometimes fashionable to despise modernity. A more appropriate response is gratitude.

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The Myth of the ‘Capitalist System’

The Persistence of the Mixed Economy

One of the indices that mark the retrogression of public discourse since the 1970s is the fact that we now take it for granted that the United States and other, similar nations have a “capitalist system” or a “market economy” instead of a “mixed economy,” the term preferred by mid-century American thinkers for the typical blend of public good provision, social insurance, and private enterprise in advanced industrial nations.  Equally misleading is the idea that the Cold War, rather than being a great-power struggle, was an ideological battle in which “capitalism” won and “socialism” lost.  To the extent that economic models were involved, state socialism was discredited by comparison with the economic performance of variations of the mixed economy in which government typically accounts for 40-50 percent of national GDP.

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What ‘Lost Decade’?

The Truth about Middle Class Decline

Pop quiz: Which of the following is true? (a) Over the past 40 years, the middle class has shrunk; (b) Over the past 40 years, the middle class has grown poorer; (c) The middle class just suffered through a “lost decade”; (d) All of the above.

You could be forgiven for answering (d), given the angst-producing state of discourse on the economy, but the truth is that none of these claims about middle-class decline are supported by the best evidence.  A recent report by the Pew Research Center (PRC), “The Lost Decade of the Middle Class,” is the latest entry in the doom-and-gloom genre, but like other analyses before it the report badly misrepresents the economic standing of the middle class. Pew generally does very good work, and I am a fan particularly of its Economic Mobility Project, the research portfolio of which I managed for three years. But “declinist” analyses are both wrong and insidious, and since PRC’s work is especially influential, its errors deserve a careful examination.

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Environmentalism, the Face of a Deeper Fight

The Lesson of Barry Commoner

Barry Commoner, an ecologist and pioneer of modern environmentalism who passed away on Sunday, pursued a mission that went far beyond preserving biodiversity or reducing pollution. Like many environmentalists today, he sought to advance a values-based vision of how society should work.

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Is Economic Growth Coming to an End?—Part II

The Decline Narrative and the Data

In my column last week at The Breakthrough Institute on Robert Gordon's analysis of US per capita economic growth, I identified what I believe to be an error in his calculation of post-1950 growth rates. Such an error matters because Gordon's recent discussion paper has been called “the summer’s most talked about working paper in economics” and argues a data-based case for US decline. My view is that such discussions should at least start with a solid empirical basis and re-checking assertions grounded in data claims is fair game (not all agree, however).

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The Science of Bias

How Some Scientists Contribute to Science Denialism

It is frightening to observe how persistently people reject evidence that presents some truth inconvenient to their deeper beliefs and self identities; excessive fear of vaccines, or fluoride, or nuclear power… denial of climate change, evolution, the age of the earth! Stunning. Some scientists dismiss such thinking as ‘irrational’. The more enlightened ones, informed by recent research into the realities of human cognition and the limits to perfect reason, accept this denialism as reality, but still blame the lay public for refusing to accept what the bulk of the facts say. May I suggest that there is another community that shares some of the blame for the denial of scientifically developed evidence... some of the scientists themselves.

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The Theory of the Moocher Class

Conservative Narrative of "Entitlement Society" Ignores That Most Americans are Givers and Takers

As David Brooks points out, Mitt Romney's remarks describing 47 percent of the population as, in effect, moochers who would vote for Obama because they got government benefits were not “off the cuff,” as he described them today. There is a carefully developed theory behind his words, which has seen expression in previous Romney speeches, such as one last December in which he described Obama's vision as an “entitlement society” in which “everyone receives the same rewards,” but in which “we'll all be poor.”

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The Great Cosmopolitan Stagnation

The Marriage of Technological Pessimism with Geopolitical Optimism

To the extent that the American elite shares a consensus, it is a combination of pessimism about technology and optimism about politics—particularly world politics. In my view this synthesis provides a picture that is the opposite of reality, in which amazing technological progress will continue to take place on a planet whose politics is characterized by national and sub-national conflict, irrationality, and ignorance. This seems so obvious to me that I don’t understand why most educated and thoughtful people in the U.S. and the world generally hold perceptions that are exactly opposite mine. In the words of the eighteenth-century British poet Christopher Smart, who was confined to London’s infamous Bedlam asylum: “I said they were mad, and they said I was mad, and damn them, they outvoted me.”

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Friedrich List and Economic Nationalism

A Personal Credo, Part III

In my two previous posts, I argued that Epicurean ethical theory and Lockean political theory are the most useful guides to ethics and politics in a universe that scientific discovery has emptied of magic and divinity. I’ll conclude this personal credo by explaining why I think that economic nationalism, in the tradition of Friedrich List, is the tradition of political economy most compatible with the republican liberalism of John Locke.

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In Defense of Obama’s Compromise Strategy

The Burden of Proof Rests with Liberal Critics

In a speech Tuesday night at the Democratic National Convention, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick admonished viewers across the country that “it’s time for Democrats to stiffen our backbone and stand up for what we believe.”  His remarks were aimed at mobilizing Democrats to rally in defense of President Obama’s achievements, particularly passage of health care reform. 

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John Locke and Republican Liberty

A Personal Credo, Part II

See Part I here.

By explaining everything in nature, including the evolution of humans and consciousness, as the result ultimately of impersonal forces working on atoms, materialists like Democritus and Epicurus swept away all moral and political systems justified by appeal to the commandments of supernatural beings. Although he had much to say about ethics in the world that science has revealed, Epicurus had little to say about politics, other than defining justice as agreements about people neither to harm one another nor do harm.

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Epicurean Ethics in a World Without Magic

A Personal Credo, Part I

T. S. Eliot described himself as "classicist in literature, monarchist in politics and Anglo-Catholic in religion." Daniel Bell said that he was a socialist in economics, a liberal in politics and a conservative in culture. For what it is worth, I would describe myself as an Epicurean in ethics, a Lockean in politics, and a Listian in economics.

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Wicked Questions

How Do We Create an Urgent Politics That is Not Apocalyptic?

Can we advocate greater effort to break cycles of poverty, alienation, and despair even as we acknowledge that our lives, including the lives of the very poor, have vastly improved with increased wealth, modern medicine, and better infrastructure? Can we acknowledge that the new environmental risks that our prosperity has created are serious and must be dealt with, while acknowledging that they are unlikely to result in the end of human civilization? In short, can we imagine a non-apocalyptic politics that is neither Cornucopian nor Panglossian?

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Where New Ideas Are Born

“The old is dying and the new cannot be born:  in the interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms will appear,” wrote the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci.  “Morbid symptoms” is an apt description of the state of politics and public philosophy, at this crisis in American and world history.

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Against Cosmopolitanism: A Breakthrough Debate

When the eurozone was on the brink last fall, Michael Lind's summer Breakthrough Journal essay, "Against Cosmopolitanism," appeared prescient. What just a few years ago seemed to be the permanent alignment of interests between the radically different economies of Germany and Greece was replaced by an awareness of the currency union's fragility and contingency. Economic integration had outpaced political integration. The nation-state wasn't giving way to global governance. It was prevailing everywhere.

Not so fast, say Ulrich Beck, one of the world's most influential living sociologists and author of the landmark 1986 tome, Risk Society, and Nils Gilman of Monitor 360 and Michael Costigan of Global Business Network. Cosmopolitanism may not be up to snuff but the nation-state isn't doing so hot either, they argue in a new Breakthrough Forum we publish today.
 

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The Way We’re Fighting Over Fracking is All Fracked Up

David Ropeik on the Frames of the Fracking Debate

The fracking debate is producing a lot of natural gas and a growing amount of hot air about whether fracking is a good thing or a bad thing. Most of these opinions have less to do with the facts than with how those facts are framed, and what frame of mind people are in as they form those opinions. Fracking is yet another example of the subjective, instinctive, affective way human cognition deals with risks, and it offers sobering lessons about the limits on our ability to reason about complex modern issues like this.

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Conservatives and the State

Francis Fukuyama on Reinventing the Right

The contemporary right has taken distrust of the state to an absurd extreme. It has lost sight of the difference between limited government and weak government. But the model for a future American conservatism has been out there for some time: a renewal of the tradition of Alexander Hamilton and Theodore Roosevelt, with a strong if limited state oriented toward national revival. Importantly, it would see the state as a facilitator rather than an enemy of its agenda.

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Modernizing Conservatism: A Breakthrough Debate

Last fall, Reagan scholar Steve Hayward declared the conservative movement's starve-the-beast anti-tax strategy a failure. Not only has it failed as a policy, resulting in massive indebtedness and no constraint on the growth of the welfare state, it has failed politically. Soon, he warned, Republicans would be forced to choose between "cuts to popular entitlement programs, deep reductions in national defense spending, and tax increases... It is hard to see how this ends well for conservatives."

The essay served as an electroshock to the libertarian amygdala. While Hayward won plaudits from center-rightists like David Brooks and David Frum, as well as from conservative apostate Andrew Sullivan, Joe Bast of the libertarian Heartland Institute sent Breakthrough Journal a letter, which we publish online today, calling Hayward a "bonehead," and speculating that Hayward is either trying to preserve a dying Reagan coalition (between neocons and libertarians), or just looking for "something to talk about with liberals at cocktail receptions."

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The Conservative Welfare State

Conservatives Want to Re-create the Welfare State -- Not Abolish It

While conservative politicians and pundits have been denouncing the welfare state for three-quarters of a century, conservative theorists have spent much of that time trying to devise a conservative version of the welfare state. All of the proposed models of a conservative welfare state are less efficient and less fair than the progressive alternatives. All, to date, have failed to win widespread popular support. But the fight is far from over.

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Middle Class Wealth: It’s Not as Bad as It Looks

Last month, the Census Bureau released its latest data on wealth, updating earlier figures from 2005 to 2010. The numbers confirm findings from a Federal Reserve Board survey showing unprecedented declines in the net worth of the typical American household. The Census figures indicate a drop of 35 percent between 2005 and 2010 in median wealth-the wealth of the household right in the middle-from $103,000 to $67,000. The estimates from the Federal Reserve show a decline of 28 percent between 2004 and 2010. From 2007 to 2010, median net worth declined by an astonishing 39 percent in three years.

This loss of wealth surely hurt many people counting on these funds to pay for retirement, children's schooling, and other needs. Others counted on being able to sell their homes to take advantage of opportunities in other parts of the country but are now underwater on their mortgage and stuck in place. Viewed in context, however, the wealth levels of middle-class Americans are in better shape than these dramatic figures would suggest, though they have not improved markedly over several decades.
 

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Breakthrough Dialogue 2012

In 1969, two little-known urban planners, Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, gave a speech to the American Association for the Advancement of Science where they described new problems like crime, environmental degradation, and urban redevelopment as fundamentally harder to deal with than earlier social problems.

The streets have been paved, and roads now connect all places; houses shelter virtually everyone; the dread diseases are virtually gone; clean water is piped into nearly every building; sanitary sewers carry wastes from them; schools and hospitals serve virtually every district; and so on. But now that these relatively easy problems have been dealt with, we have been turning our attention to others that are much more stubborn.

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