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A few well-written words can convey a wealth of information, particularly when there is no lag time between when they are written and when they are read. The IPS blog gives you an opportunity to hear directly from IPS scholars and staff on ideas large and small and for us to hear back from you.

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Entries since December 2011

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The Human Face of the Nuclear Arms Race

December 6, 2011 ·

The legacy of human suffering from amassing nuclear arsenals remains ignored in the current debate over eliminating these horrific weapons of mass destruction.

Lest we forget, the Energy Employee Illness Compensation Program Act, which I helped draft and push for, was enacted 11 years ago this week. It was based on legislation first proposed by Senator John Glenn (D-Oh) in 1992. "What good is it to protect ourselves with nuclear weapons," Glenn would often ask, "if we poison our people in the process?"

Former NASA astronaut and Senator John Glenn, pictured giving a lecture in 2009, stood up for the health of nuclear industry workers. Photo by NASA HQ.

As of 2010, some 50,000 people have received $6.5 billion for illnesses and deaths following exposure to ionizing radiation, beryllium and other toxic substances while making nuclear weapons.

A lot of credit goes to Energy Secretary Bill Richardson who saw the need for justice for sick workers and their families, ostracized in their communities and driven into poverty from a system that spared no expense to fight their claims in the name of national security.  Paul Jacobs, an IPS Fellow, was the first to bring the plight of radiation victims of the nuclear arms race to public attention in the 1950s. Later in 1999 and 2000, Joby Warrick at the Washington Post and Pete Eisler at USA Today played prominent roles in waking up the nation and the Congress to this injustice.

This would not have happened where it not for the pioneering research of Harriet Hardy, Alice Stewart, George Kneale, Thomas Mancuso, Gregg Wilkinson, Carl Johnson, Wilhelm Huper, Frank Lundin, Joe Waggoner, Steve Wing, David Richardson, John Gofman, Karl. Z. Morgan and others, some whose research was suppressed until we brought it to light with the help of the White House. Many of these scientists paid a high price for their quest of the truth about the hazards of nuclear weapons production.

This struggle for justice for people deliberately put in harm’s way in order to amass nuclear arms is not over. For instance, residents living near the Hanford site in Washington State, who were exposed to the radioactive detritus of plutonium production remained trapped in a 25-year-old lawsuit with no end in sight. The Energy department spends about $1 million a year to fight these claims. Moreover, thousands of tribal people, who were found by the Centers for Disease Control in 2002 to be the most highly exposed from Hanford’s radioactive discharges are totally ignored.

The pernicious quest for nuclear arms ­ all in the name of a “greater good”-- has tens of thousands of human faces, who paid a bitter price, which we should not forget.

Durban Diary: Dispatch from the Ground

December 6, 2011 ·

As UN climate negotiations in Durban, South Africa, go into their final week, IPS got a quick update from Janet Redman, co-director of IPS’s Sustainable Energy & Economy Network, who is in Durban at talks.

Janet spoke to us from the corner of a crowded conference room at the summit about the current state of the negotiations:

Interviewer: It’s recently been announced that 2010 saw the most dramatic upswing in greenhouse gas output on record. How are folks in Durban reacting to this?

People not pollutersJanet Redman: Greenhouse gas emissions rose between 2009 and 2010 by a record-breaking 6 percent in one year. There’s a real sense of urgency here in Durban because of the news that emissions are growing at such an alarming rate.

But unfortunately that sense of urgency is not translating to action by the biggest historical polluters here.

In particular, what’s happened this week is a blame game that’s now shifted to the big developing countries. Developing economies still have incredibly high rates of poverty, even in countries that are considered “emerging economies” such as India and China. The EU and the U.S. are pegging the potential failure to reach a climate deal here in Durban on those two countries.

But we don’t need a new deal – or what some are calling a new mandate. What we really need out of this next week is to see countries agree to a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, and to see a completion of the Bali action plan, which was a set of commitments and obligations that developing countries said they would take on with the support of developed countries and a commitment by the United States to take actions comparable to those of other wealthy northern countries. This was the compromise world leaders struck because the U.S. said it would never, ever sign the Kyoto Protocol.

The big news is that if developed countries are willing to agree to fulfill their own obligations that already exist in the convention and in this Bali action plan, then developing countries are considering negotiating internationally-binding activities that could take effect in 2020. That’s a pretty big deal. So basically, China’s already doing more than the U.S. is on renewable energy, but they’re even saying, we’re willing to take on binding commitments in the near future, as long as you show us good faith that you’re willing to do what you said you would do in Bali in 2007.

Interviewer: It sounds like there’s a lot of discussion on just renewing what’s already been agreed upon. Do you think that renewing or approving these already-negotiated terms would be enough?

JR: Well, in some sense it’s a first step toward a bigger change. One of the things that we’re hearing here is a call for a new mandate. I think that’s a real mistake because there are two existing mandates right now.

Again, the Kyoto Protocol is one mandate, and the Bali action plan is another mandate. The convention has set that up very clearly, so the idea of asking for a new mandate here in Durban actually undermines existing commitments that are science-based that have been agreed to already in the past 20 years since the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was established.

So I think having movement on agreements would be enough to set the negotiations on a really positive track for subsequent periods after the second period of the Kyoto Protocol, but also on a positive track in terms of implementing the convention which of course is what this is all about.

Interviewer: There’s been discussion on possible threats to climate financing for developing countries. Are there any further observations that you’d like to share about that?

JR: Last week we were really concerned about the U.S. obstructing talks on opening the doors of the Green Climate Fund. As of earlier today, it looks like almost every country is satisfied with moving forward on the Fund, and building the Board that will put more meat on the bones of the GCF over the next year.

What’s still incredibly frightening is the blatant cooptation of the Green Climate Fund by the private sector, with unabashed support from the U.S. and the UK. If the financial sector and multinational corporations have direct access to the Fund and can bypass sovereign national governments, then we have a real potential for serious problems with democratic control, transparency, the application of social and environmental safeguards and basic standards, and the Fund’s effectiveness in achieving climate goals.

Finally, even if we get the Fund here in Durban it may be nothing more than an empty shell. The U.S. is still blocking a conversation on long term finance – both the scale that should be delivered on and the sources of where that money should come from. A text released last night did mention innovative sources of finance, but an outcome here in Durban needs to be much more specific about how countries will make that real. One thing they can do right now is commit to a work plan for implementing some of the leading proposals, such as a financial transaction tax.  

Interviewer: Thanks very much for taking the time to talk to me, Janet!

JR: Thank you!

The Other 99 Percent: How the U.S. Compares

December 5, 2011 ·

One reason why the Occupy Wall Street movement grabbed the world’s attention was its protest against the injustices of 21st century capitalism. The Occupiers focused on the fact that "the other 99 percent" — the non-wealthy majority of the population — are increasingly excluded from the world’s economies.

The other 99 percent didn’t benefit from the economic booms of the 2000s. The other 99 percent didn’t cause the global financial crisis. The other 99 percent paid for the bank bailouts of 2008. And yet, the other 99 percent are now being asked to suffer cuts in pay, benefits, and government services. Increasingly, the other 99 percent are saying "no."

Occupy movements have now sprung up in at least 20 countries, and probably more. They all speak, in one way or another, for the other 99 percent. But the other 99 percent means different things in different places.

In some countries, the other 99 percent are truly oppressed.  In others, they manage reasonably well.

The accompanying figure shows the percentage of total income going to the other 99 percent in eight different countries. The data are taken from the World Top Incomes Database produced by economists Emmanuel Saez, Facundo Alvaredo, Tony Atkinson, and Thomas Piketty.  This database uses tax records to analyze the distribution of income across countries.

What immediately stands out in this figure is that the other 99 percent do far worse in the United States than in any other developed country.  The other 99 percent take home just 82.6 percent of America’s personal income. In the United States the share of the other 99 percent has been falling for decades.

(The data in this figure are from 2005 because that’s the latest year for which comparisons are available for most of our peer countries.)

The other 99 percent share of total income reached a high of 92.3 percent in 1973. Back then, U.S. income distribution looked the same as it does in continental Europe today. It fell slightly in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In the mid-1980s it was still over 90 percent. Then the slide began.

The share of the other 99 percent's income fell from 90.9  percent to 83.5  percent between 1986 and 2000. It reached its lowest point at the height of the 2000s boom, just before the global financial crisis. By 2007, the income share of the other 99 percent had declined to just 81.7 percent.

In other words, between the 1970s and the 2000s the United States went from looking like a European country to looking like an African country. Data are available for very few poor countries, but even in South Africa the income share of the other 99 percent is higher than it is in the United States.

The only developed country that comes close to the United States in the decimation of its other 99 percent is the United Kingdom. In the UK, the other 99 percent take in 85.8  percent of total income, down from 90.2  percent in 1990, the earliest year with data are available. Surely it’s no coincidence that some of the biggest Occupy encampments have been in New York and London.

Back in the 1970s, the United States and United Kingdom looked, statistically, more or less like the rest of the developed world. We may have had our own distinctive institutions and policies, but the outcome for the other 99 percent was similar in the US, UK, Europe, Japan, and Australia. It’s simply not true that American — or British — capitalism has always been more unequal than in the rest of the world.

With the Reagan-era tax cuts and union busting in the 1980s the United States moved decisively from being a country for the other 99 percent to being a country for the top 1  percent. The same happened in the United Kingdom after the premiership of Margaret Thatcher, though her policies were more strongly resisted and took longer to have an impact. Today, the United States and the UK represent pathological economic models, out of step with the rest of the developed world.

The decline of the other 99 percent in the United States has been underway for 30 years or more. It will take a major, sustained effort to restore normalcy. If we want to restore a healthy income distribution, somehow we have to claw our way up from the low 80s to the mid-90s.

In other words, it’s not enough to stem the decline of the other 99 percent. At some point in the near future ordinary workers have to start getting raises that are actually higher than those of their bosses and CEOs, and they have to keep getting those higher raises for 30 or 40 years. That may sound like a fantasy scenario, but it happened from the 1930s through the 1970s. It can happen again.

Policies to support the other 99 percent include a shift in taxation from payroll taxes to capital gains taxes, an expansion in government employment and government salaries, support for unions, and much higher minimum wages. The experience of other countries shows that such policies are possible in the United States. It all comes down to politics: If the other 99 percent demand these policies, they certainly have the numbers to get them.

The Lineup: Week of Dec. 5-11, 2011

December 5, 2011 ·

In this week's OtherWords editorial package, Jim Hightower lampoons a luxury tent Neiman Marcus is marketing to the uber-rich this holiday season. Please also check out Karen Dolan's witty take on the collapse of Herman Cain's presidential bid — written in verse and posted on our blog. Get all this and more in your inbox by subscribing to our weekly newsletter. If you haven't signed up yet, please do.  

  1. The Rich Don't Need a Free Ride / William Rice
  2. Hardly Working / David Elliot
  3. Cut the Pentagon's Budget, Make the U.S. Safer / Jim Cason
  4. Mitt's Personhood Problem / Jason Salzman
  5. Ethnic Jokes are a Fool's Game / Donald Kaul
  6. How the 1 Percent Can Camp Out with the 99 Percent / Jim Hightower
  7. The Long Road to Marriage Equality / William A. Collins
  8. Occupy Ellis Island / Khalil Bendib

Occupy Ellis Island, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib.

2012 Won't Be the Same without Herman Cain

December 5, 2011 ·

Herman Cain. Photo by Gage Skidmore.Nein! Nein! Nein!
Say it ain't so.
Oh dear Herman,
Please don't go!

Your chutzpah,
Your halo,
Your unrivaled hubris,
Your lack of embarrassment about being clueless.

We didn't care that your tax plan was dumb,
We didn't care that 9-9-9 made us numb.
Your policy of nuclear war was quite grand,
dictated by the mountainous terrain of Iran.

We didn't care if you knew nothing of Libya,
Gaddafi, Egypt,  Mubarak, or Namibia.
You loudly denounced women claiming sexual harassment,
It was they, and not you, who were the embarrassment.

We ate it up when you swore you had never done wrong.
That it was your charisma to which women throng.
When we watched the endless Republican debates,
We knew the others, next to you, were lightweights.

So what will we do now that you have stepped down?
Who will be the next bumbling clown?
I guess the job now falls to Newt.
But we really will miss you because you were a hoot.

Karen Dolan is an Institute for Policy Studies fellow.

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