A Closer Look at History: Where Does Debt Come From?

This graph of American household debt relative to American Gross Domestic Product over time is licensed under Creative Commons 2.0 Share and Share Alike.

The obvious answer is this: debt comes from borrowing money.

What’s not so obvious is this: if debt is what happens when someone who doesn’t have money borrows from someone who does, how on Earth can every nation in the world be in debt?

Where is all the money being borrowed from, if nobody seems to have any to lend?

Here’s what I found…

Interest rates are how you make money off of lending money to others.

This painting of Jesus giving his Sermon on the Mount by I. Makarov is in the public domain. Jesus was not a fan of charging interest on loans.

For centuries in Europe, Christians were not allowed to be bankers. Why? Because Jesus forbid his followers from charging interest on loans. “Give, asking nothing in return,” he said. “f you lend money to any of my people with you who is poor, you shall not be like a moneylender to him, and you shall not exact interest from him.” The Bible also stated that all remaining debts should be forgiven if the borrower was unable to pay them back after seven years.

The same scriptural teaching has led to the creation of Shari’a-compliant banks in the modern world; rather than saying simply “don’t do it,” the Qu’ran allows Muslims to lend and borrow money, provided they follow strict rules about interest rates, to ensure that the amount of money paid back by the debtor is fair, and that taking out a loan does not result in lifetime indebtedness.

When you put it that way, it kind of makes you wish all banks were Shari’a-compliant.

The modern economic argument for high interest rates is this:

  1. Lending money is good for economic growth. If people are able to borrow money to start a business, which will “create wealth” by creating a new product or service, everybody wins.The new borrower gets to use a temporary investment of wealth to turn their time and talents into a sustainable source of income; the world gets a new product, service, or piece of infrastructure; the lender gets back what they leant, plus interest (in the case of a simple loan), or a portion of proceeds from the new business (in the case of investment).
  2. High interest rates and low capital gains taxes encourage people who already have money to spread it around through lending and investment. After all, who wouldn’t want to lend money to others if it meant you were going to get substantially more money back?Over time, lending money has itself come to be viewed as a source of profit. Step 1: Convince people to borrow money from you; Step 2: Charge high interest rates such that you end up with more of the borrower’s money than you originally leant to them; Step 3: Profit.

    Arguments in favor of mandating lower interest rates have often been met with concern that, if interest rates were lower, fewer people would be able or willing to lend, and overall economic development would suffer as loans became harder to come by.

    However, the present situation often involves borrowers who started out poor or middle-class paying out thousands more than they originally borrowed to people who were already wealthy to begin with.

    This explains the endless stream of credit card offers you get in the mail.

Debt can be so profitable that buying it can be seen as a good investment.

This photograph, taken from inside the members’ gallery at the New York Stock Exchange, has been generously released into the public domain by photographer Ryan Lawler. Surprisingly, debts are one of the assets traded within and between countries as potentially profitable assets.

I mentioned the practice of buying debt in my article about Greece’s financial situation.

Because debt is now thought of as a source of profit – something that you will get more money off of than you originally spent – debts are often bought and sold.

Parties who are looking to make some cash now will sell someone’s debt for less than the total expected payout; the buyer, who pays that amount of money to the original lender, will then receive all subsequent payments on the loan.

For the seller, it’s a way to make some money now instead of waiting for the loan repayment schedule; for the buyer, ownership of the debt is supposed to represent a long-term source of profit.

This is one reason why the American-spawned Great Recession hit everyone; governments of other countries, especially those in Europe, had been buying chunks of homeowner’s mortgage debt from American banks, thinking that the payments on these would fuel their own economic growth.

When many American homeowners were unable to pay their debts, all of the debt buyers were suddenly in the red.

This is also why The Rolling Jubilee has been able to eliminate $32 million worth of debt by spending only $700,000 in donations: “distressed debt” for which the original lender is currently receiving little to no payment may be sold for  fraction of the price of the original loan.

The Rolling Jubilee has been buying distressed debt for pennies on the dollar. Instead of initiating collection efforts as is common practice for the new owner of a debt, they forgive it.

Some banks were so threatened when they heard about this charity model that they refused to sell debt to The Rolling Jubilee, for fear that this kind of debt forgiveness could drain borrowers’ payments from the market if it became widespread.

Debt can be so profitable that people sometimes lend to other people instead of paying their own bills.

Although China owns over $1 trillion in U.S. debt, it owes over $17 trillion of its own debts to other parties. Using your money to buy others’ debt instead of paying off your own bills is now a commonly accepted economic practice. This image licensed by FutureofUSChinaTrade.com under Creative Commons 3.0 Share and Share Alike.

Take, for example, the strange case of the U.S. and China.

It’s a popular talking point that China owns a large amount of the U.S.’s national debt. This leads to the popular perception that the U.S. owes China money.

While this is technically true, it is also true that the Chinese government itself owes over ten times more money to various parties than the U.S. owes to China.

This suggests that, at some point along the line, the decision was made by China’s government to spend the money they had acquiring U.S. debt instead of paying their own bills in real-time.

Like the European governments prior to the Great Recession, the Chinese government was probably figuring that interest on U.S. debt would be a source of profit over time.

To be a sensible solution, they must have been betting that the interest we pay on those debts would outweigh the interest they would pay on their own debts acquired as a result of not using that money to pay bills in real-time.

All of this leads to a global sustainability problem.

Citizens block traffic to protest austerity measures in Germany. Austerity measures, referred to as “spending cuts” in the U.S., are designed to alleviate government spending – but they often hurt the economy by leaving citizens less productive and with less disposable income as a result of loss of public services. Photograph by timmy-litchbild licensed under Creative Commons 2.0 Share and Share Alike.

See the problem yet?

If all of us are betting on interest payments on loans as a source of profit, and all of us are borrowing money from each other, we’re effectively all gambling with money we don’t have.

This is what allows a crash in one region, such as the U.S. Great Recession or any number of potential natural or man-made disasters, to become a downward spiral worldwide.

Only countries with strictly regulated banking systems, often criticized for “restricting growth,” seem immune from such global calamities.

Somebody can’t pay their debts? Then the people who borrowed from them can’t pay their own debts either (indeed, the U.S. mortgage crisis was one of many contributing factors to the Greek economic crisis for that reason).

Government can’t pay its debts? It faces the choice Greece faced: either stop providing public services, or continue borrowing yet more money at yet higher interest rates from people hoping to profit off of lending to you, and pray that you somehow come up with enough economic growth to pay them off.

If you stop providing public services, you face a loss of worker productivity and a loss of economic activity, as people are spending more of their own money on basic essentials to stay alive instead of on purchasing goods and services from your businesses.

If your people stop purchasing goods and services from your businesses, your businesses have to pay people off. If your businesses lay people off, those people obviously have even less money to spend in your local businesses.

Suddenly it seems like borrowing more money at higher interest rates – which is the only way anyone will lend to you, since high interest rates balance out the probability that you won’t make be able to make your payments on time – is the only way out.

When everybody in the world is doing this, the net effect is a kafka-esque loop whereby everyone is passing around hypothetical resources that don’t currently exist, gambling on the idea that someday they will.

The effect at the end of the day is…

The top 1% is constantly siphoning money off of the bottom 99%.

This image based on controversial estimates which attempt to take into account “missing” money, such as money hidden in foreign tax shelters and otherwise not reported for tax purposes. Original source: Henry, James, “The Price of Offshore Revisted: New Estimates for Missing Global Private Wealth, Income, Inequality, and Lost Taxes”, Press Release, Tax Justice Network, July 2012, pp 5. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 3.0.

This graph based on controversial estimates which attempt to take into account “hidden” money, such as money in overseas tax shelters and money not reported for taxation purposes. Original source: Henry, James, “The Price of Offshore Revisted: New Estimates for Missing Global Private Wealth, Income, Inequality, and Lost Taxes”, Press Release, Tax Justice Network, July 2012, pp 5. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 3.0.

We’ve all heard of the term “trickle-down economics.” The logic was that prosperity for the wealthy would naturally lead to prosperity for all, as the wealthy would naturally invest their money in creating jobs, lending to and investing in small businesses, and passing top-bracket tax breaks along to consumers in the form of lower prices.

The problem is, in a culture where wealth is seen as a measure of your moral fiber (how many times have you heard economic success attributed to “smart decisions and hard work?”), that’s not what happens.

What happens instead is that the wealthy become devoted, primarily, to becoming wealthier. While this motivation might make sense for those at the bottom and even in the middle of the income curve, when practiced by those who already have six-figure incomes, it becomes clear that a self-sustaining feedback loop of more money = better has formed.

Moral questions aside, the numbers are clear on the fact that this happens. Since the 1970s, instead of a “trickle down” effect, the U.S. has seen a trickle-up effect; each year, the already-wealthy have gotten proportionally richer, while the wages of the lower- and middle-classes have dropped relative to the price of essential commodities.

This can be seen happening at a global level as well; and interest rates are a huge way in which this happens.

While it’s true that global prosperity is in fact rising, despite all the doom and gloom we hear in the news, and due in no small part to moneylending by the wealthy – it is also true that much of this money is leant with the ultimate intention of making a profit off of the borrower, and the net effect is that billions of dollars annually paid by national governments and private individuals on their debt are going into the pockets of those who already had enough money to go lending it around.

This is cause for serious concern, since many parties, from wealthy insiders to NASA scientists, have raised alarms about the rise of the global elite. The concern is not that these people are evil, so much as it is that they’re simply out of touch, as a consequence of wealth-is-good morality.

After all, someone who is accustomed to comfort and has practically limitless money is not likely to care tremendously about climate change; they will almost certainly care more about the numbers in their bank account, and if one locale  becomes uncomfortable, they can simply move to another.

Someone who has not had to struggle to pay bills in decades – during which the economic landscape has drastically changed – is unlikely to feel sympathy for the plight of workers struggling to pay medical or educational bills. “Just work harder,” they’ll say, “that’s what I did.”

The fact that the cost of a college education has risen by 1120% since they were in college themselves  may register as numbers on a piece of paper, but there’s no way they can know the reality of it if they haven’t experienced low or even median income firsthand in decades.

This is arguably all a product of our “wealth means you’re a good person” culture. By persistently attributing financial success to pure hard work and good ideas, we ignore the role that screwing over other people often plays in economic success. We also totally ignore the influence of luck, because it’s uncomfortable to think that such an important aspect as our income is determined to a large extent by forces we cannot control.

And yet, statistics show that it is – in the United States, for example, only a small percentage of people now manage to escape the economic class in which they were born. Generally, those lucky enough to be born rich will remain rich, and indeed get richer thanks to current economic trends; those unlucky enough to be born poor will almost universally remain poor, with those who have wildly successful business ideas making up a tiny percentage of those born to non-rich families.

Statistics tell us that a thousand factors which are not chosen or earned effect our economic outcomes.

Men make much more money than women. Members of the ethnic majority make more money than minority members. IQ, a key determinant in “making smart business decisions,” is determined by a confluence of everything from genetics to education to the nutrients and toxins you ingested growing up.

And the strongest correlate of all is how much money you were born with: those who can afford the best private schools from day one through college will obviously be more successful than those struggling through underfunded public schools in the inner city. Studies show that even the “rich kids have better genes” argument does not explain the results we see.

In summary, debt is a dangerous game of gambling stability for the possibility of growth.

The Great Depression was spawned by excessive “buying on credit” – essentially, people borrowing and spending money they didn’t have. The interest-based economy bears a resemblance to this habit, as it also relies on money that doesn’t yet exist. This photograph is in the public domain, available through the National Archives and Records Administration.

Moral ramifications for the individual aside, the economic truth about debt is this: nearly everybody has it, and the potential to make money off of acquiring it is leading to a self-sustaining  cycle of buying other people’s debt instead of paying your own bills.

Buying other people’s debt, you see, is an investment in infinite growth. Paying your own bills is responsible – except insofar as “not making the most profitable investment” is considered irresponsible, the same way that not borrowing thousands of dollars in order to go to college is.

The cycle has to stop somewhere.

Arguably the easiest way to do that would be to follow the example of the Hebrew scriptures, the Christian gospels, the Qu’ran, and The Rolling Jubilee: if you’re going to give money to another, don’t do it because you hope to turn a profit.

If you want to lend money to help increase the world’s productivity, do it because you want to help increase the world’s productivity – not because you’ve been taught that wealth = right and lending money is a way of getting more wealth.

Changing that cultural paradigm will require an attack on the “wealth equals morality” ethos that are so deeply ingrained in the way we think.

But succeeding in changing that might just save the world.

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History Part 3: 2012 & 2013

It’s hard to believe that the would-be Mayan apocalypse passed nearly four years ago. Here’s what happened in 2012 and 2013 in…

The World

Screenshot of Earth from the Celestia application. Screenshot by NikoLang, licensed under Creative Commons 3.0 Share and Share Alike.

 

Population: 7.08 billion – 7.16 billion

Population growth: 80 million

Life expectancy: 71.0 years – 70.9 years

Top 3 causes of death:

  1. Ischaemic Heart Disease
  2. Stroke
  3. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease

The Three Largest Empires

United States

This image is in the public domain because flags are not copyrightable.

GDP: $14.6 trillion

China

This rendering of the Chinese flag by Sabine Deviche.

GDP: $5.93 trillion

Japan

This rendering of the Japanese flag by kahusi, licensed under Creative Commons 2.0 Share and Share Alike.

GDP: $5.46 trillion

Africa

 

Collage of photographs of uprisings in Egypt (Tahrir Square), Tunisia, Yemen, and Syria by The Egyptian Liberal. Licensed under Creative Commons 3.0 Share and Share Alike.

  • Egypt was named the “most dangerous country for journalists” by the Committee to Protect Journalists, who published worrisome findings that legal and violent retribution against journalists by governments was on the rise globally.Most of the retribution against journalists reporting news that the Egyptian government didn’t want people to know occurred under President Mohammed Morsi.Hailing from the Muslim Brotherhood political party, Morsi was Egypt’s first democratically elected president following the ouster of long-time U.S.-backed president-cum-dictator Hosni Mubarak via peaceful mass protest in 2011.

    Mubarak’s ouster was an initially promising and impressive development, the resignation of a strongman known for human rights violations similar to those that continued under Mohammed Morsi, without any bloodshed. Middle-class Muslims, Christians, and secularists from Egypt’s major cities took to the streets for 18 days to demand Mubarak’s ouster after he was “re-elected” amidst claims of intimidation and threats against supporters of his opponent at the polls.

    Impressively, in addition to Muslims and Christians forming human shields to protect each other’s congregations from possible violence during their respective times for prayer, military personnel refused to orders to use force against these peaceful civilians. During the peaceful protests, military leadership ignored orders from President Mubarak and ordered troops to protect the protesters instead of suppressing them.

    Morsi was then elected with the support of the majority of rural Egyptians, who are largely poor, under-educated, and deeply religious. Promising a new era of religiously inspired morality, he quickly resumed Mubarak’s old tricks for violently quashing dissent and arguably made them worse.

    As of 2015, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the military leader who protected the protesters of Tahrir Square in 2011, is now President of Egypt, having assumed power by military coup and promptly charged Mohammed Morsi with crimes against humanity. Unfortunately, he, too, has received criticism for quashing pluralism and dissent.

The Middle East

 

Syrian rebel soldiers hold a planning session in a damaged building in the once-prosperous city of Aleppo. The “Battle of Aleppo” began with peaceful protests demanding greater freedom and democracy. It turned violent after the government attempted to disperse the protests using force, and large numbers of Islamist fighters from surrounding rural areas joined in the anti-government battle.

    • Israel made headlines briefly after it was discovered that the Israeli government had been requiring Ethiopian immigrant women to get long-acting birth control injections to prevent pregnancy, without the women’s knowledge or consent.

      Some women were told that the injections were disease-preventing vaccines which were legally required to enter the country; others were told they would be at risk of medical complications if they gave birth.

      This compounded concerns about racism in Israel, which were also stoked in 2013 by news that a prominent Israeli neighborhood had created a separate, racially segregated kindergarten for the children of African immigrants after white Jewish residents complained about their children having to attend kindergarten with children of African immigrants.

 

  • Concerns were raised about yet another problem for Iraqi citizens to contend with, as one study showed that up to 50% of babies born in Fallujah in recent years had birth defects.

 

A sharp increase in environmental levels of uranium, lead, mercury, and other toxic chemicals which have a particularly severe impact on fetal development are blamed for the staggering increase in birth defects and miscarriage since the start of the American invasion of Iraq.

Critics blasted mainstream Western media, particularly in America, for failing to report anything about these findings to the American public.

  • In Syria, civil war continued to rage between the forces of Syrian government leader Bashar al-Assad and Syrian citizens who were dissatisfied with the government for various reasons.Like the Jasmine Revolution in Egypt, the Syrian conflict began in 2011 with massive peaceful protests by educated middle-class Syrians in several cities demanding more free and fair elections, more freedom of speech and assembly, and an end to corruption.

    The protests turned into a conflict after President al-Assad attempted to put down the protests using deadly force, prompting many citizens to reciprocate with equal violence against government forces.

    And like the Jasmine Revolution in Egypt, this conflict which began with educated, middle-class pro-democracy protesters in big cities was eventually joined by large numbers if Islamists from the countryside, including Hezbollah.

    The anti-government forces of the Syrian rebellion eventually joined forces with the anti-government forces of Al Quaeda in Iraq to seize control of a large swath of territory encompassing parts of western Iraq and eastern Syria, which are now referred to as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

    The bloodbath, which has included the use of chemical weapons against civilians by the Syrian government and mass execution of non-Muslims and destruction of historical sites by ISIL forces, continues to this day.

 

Europe

This photograph of protests during the Icelandic revolution by OddurBen. Iceland peacefully disintegrated and completely reformed their government through peaceful mass protest in 2008; under their new constitution their economy has made what some term a ‘miraculous’ recovery.

  • Iceland experienced an unprecedented economic comeback after the “peaceful revolution” of 2008, in which mass peaceful protests forced the dissolution of the government and the writing of a new constitution.

    The revolution had been triggered by a financial crisis caused by a credit bubble that formed following the privatization of the country’s banks. The bankers had borrowed an estimated 10 times the total wealth of the country’s economy from foreign nations, and doubled housing prices.

    The country’s new constitution was written by a democratic process and formulated to avoid entrapment by foreign loans; as of 2013, Iceland’s unemployment rate was at 5%, and its economy and currency were growing faster than that of the European Union.

  • British researcher Nafeez Ahmed raised concerns that global food shortages and rising food prices could get worse in coming decades if counter-measures are not taken.

    Ahmed cited a combination of climate change with increasing economic inequality, debt, and profit-driven behavior by large corporations as reasons why hunger is making a comeback.In the United States, the 35% increase in the average price of food during the 2000s was attributed to economic troubles related to the Great Recession. Food riots and increasing economic woes among farmers globally have often been treated as isolated and unrelated.

    However, Ahmed argued that policies by Monsanto and many other corporate giants, combined with climate change which is projected to cause wide-spread droughts and temperature changes that will impair food production by 20-40% in the next century, pointed to a global systemic problem in need of global systemic action.

  • German researcher Margrit Kennedy found that a staggering amount of the price of many goods and services in Germany could be attributed to interest payments on borrowed money at some point in the goods’ production line.

    These results – finding that 10-77% of the cost of everything from garbage collection to public housing were attributable to interest rates being paid back to lenders, are expected to be generalizable to the globe.This finding might help to explain some burning questions which have become of increasing global importance, such as why income inequality is increasing globally, why virtually everyone seems to be in debt, and why the price of everything seems to be rising at the same time.

    Kennedy’s findings suggest that a large proportion of prices paid by lower- and middle-class citizens for goods and services around the world are being collected by already-wealthy lenders and investors.

Asia

 

This photograph of an anti-Monsanto protest in India by infoeco. Licensed under Creative Commons 3.0 Share and Share Alike. Although genetically modified crops helped to reduce hunger in India in previous decades, recent increases in the price of seeds, combined with Monsanto’s policy that farmers must buy new seeds from Monsanto every year and may not replant the fruits of their crops, has led to a spike in debt and a great deal of anger against Monsanto.

  • Concerns were raised over drastic increases to the price of genetically modified seeds sold by Monsanto.While genetically modified crops have done a great deal to alleviate hunger and poverty in famine-stricken regions, in recent years the price charged for these seeds, which are proprietary intellectual property of the Monsanto corporation, have risen, forcing many farmers to go into debt to buy seeds to continue growing their crops.

    Monsanto also does not allow farmers to plant seeds from their own Monsanto-provided plants; instead they must purchase new seeds from Monsanto each year, or face legal action on charges of patent infringement.

  • The United Nations Development Program reported that all three of their Asian regions had made “significant progress” towards their Millennium Development Goals, although they were behind schedule on tackling their #1 goal – the elimination of extreme poverty.

    The top Millennium Development Goals for the region include: 1) Elimination of extreme poverty and hunger, #2) Achieve universal primary education, and #3) Promote gender equality to empower women.

    A lack of social safety nets provided by governments, as well as a lack of good job opportunities, were blamed for the behind-schedule status of the poverty initiatives. As of 2013, 743 million Asian workers lived on less than $1.25 per day, and many were forced to take any work they could find, regardless of how poorly compensated or unsafe, by the lack of government safety nets.

  • The United Nations also appealed for the universal adoption of refugee asylum laws across the region. As of 2015, there are 7.7 million people of concern for refugee status, including refugees, people who have been internally displaced within their own country due to conflict, and stateless people who have nowhere to go.

    Afghan refugees have been in particular trouble, as some have been living in neighboring countries if Iran and Pakistan for up to three decades following various conflicts in their home country.

    The situation of refugees from Myanmar, regarded by many as the world’s second-most-oppressive regime after North Korea, is similar. Refugees from Myanmar are most commonly found in Thailand, Malaysia, and and Bangladesh.

North America

Occupy protests in America. Born in 2011 and continuing through 2012, tens of thousands of American protesters rallied around the slogan “we are the 99%” to protest the continued losses of the middle- and lower-classes while America’s wealthiest get richer.

    • The 100 richest people in the world, who together control more wealth than the “bottom” 50%, or 3.5 billion people in the world, saw their collective net worth increase by $241 billion.The 80 wealthiest people in the world control the same amount of money per person as 35 million members of the world’s “bottom” 50% of earners. More of these uber-wealthy live in the United States than in any other country.

      Concerns have been raised in recent years about a “trickle-up” effect whereby monetary, trade, and patent policies have allowed the world’s already-wealthiest people to profit by charging more than necessary for basic goods, services, and loans.

      The United States itself has been a microcosm of this “trickle up” effect whereby the rich have gotten proportionally richer and the poor have become proportionally poorer, to the point that the U.S., which has the largest GDP of any country on Earth, has millions of people who cannot afford basic health insurance.

 

  • In the United States, a bill was introduced which would place a $0.03 tax on each $100 spend on non-consumer financial transactions. If passed, the bill was projected to bring in $352 billion in tax revenue each year.

 

A near-identical bill had been previously proposed in 2010 and thrown out by a Congressional committee before getting the chance to reach the President’s desk.

Similar legislation has already been passed in France and elsewhere, and has been shown to succeed in increasing tax revenue while having little to no effect on market growth. The legislation was co-sponsored by Senator Bernie Sanders, who is now running for president in 2016.

  • The organization No More Deaths published a report describing a “culture of cruelty” among both Mexican smugglers transporting illegal immigrants into the United States, and American law enforcement workers patrolling the U.S.-Mexican border.

    Alternet.Org picked up the a series of interviews with women who crossed the U.S.-Mexican border illegally, who reported fleeing severe poverty in their hometowns, being charged thousands of dollars by smugglers promising to get them into the U.S., and then faced violence and sexual assault on both the Mexican and American legs of the journey.

    Some analysts blame NAFTA for the upsurge in illegal immigration from the U.S. to Mexico in recent decades saying that the same legislation which gave Americans access to cheaper Mexican-made goods and expanded America’s food exports into Mexico also resulted in severe poverty for many Mexican workers and farmers.

 

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A Closer Look at History: What Causes Corruption?

This color-coded map of corruption around the world made by Transparency International based on 2013 survey data. Licensed under Creative Commons International 4.0 Share and Share Alike by creator Ruben.2196. The closer to 100 a country’s score is, the closer it is to having zero resources lost to corruption.

With Greece remaining a major issue of our time – and a possible predictor of the behavior of governments around the globe – the question of what causes corruption has become very important.

We are accustomed of thinking of corruption as something that happens to third-world countries, not effecting us in a meaningful way. And yet, corruption in modern European countries appears to be a major cause of economic distress.

Corruption in Greece, both among tax-dodging citizens and pocketing-and-favor-giving government officials prevented the country’s economy from working even remotely the way it should have worked on paper; communism has in many cases become synonymous with corruption, with a long and virtually universal history of communist leaders using their power for their own personal gain despite voicing high-minded ideals.

Some say that corruption follows everywhere that socialism goes; that countries which give governments increasing power to serve the public will inevitably end up giving power to increasingly corrupt rulers – power corrupts, and all that jazz.

And yet, corruption in modern nations seems to have little to do with how capitalist or socialist a country is; most of the world’s 10 least-corrupt nations are first-world countries who provide as many or more social welfare services to their citizens as Greece did at its height.

So, does socializing healthcare and education corrupt? Apparently not. But it seems not to protect against corruption, either.

To help us understand what corruption – and lack thereof – look like, let’s examine Transparency International’s lists of 10 least- and most-corrupt countries:

Least corrupt nations on Earth:

  1. Denmark
  2. New Zealand
  3. Finland
  4. Sweden
  5. Norway
  6. Switzerland
  7. Singapore
  8. The Netherlands
  9. Luxemborg
  10. Canada

Most corrupt nations on Earth:

  1. Somalia
  2. North Korea
  3. Sudan
  4. Afghanistan
  5. South Sudan
  6. Iraq
  7. Turkmenistan
  8. Uzbekistan
  9. Eritrea
  10. Libya

How does your country stack up?

  • United States – in 17th-lowest corruption score. Tied with Ireland, Barbados, and Hong Kong.
  • United Kingdom – 14th-lowest corruption score.
  • Australia – 11th-lowest corruption score. Just missed being in the top 10!

So what can we say about what these least- and most-corrupt countries have in common?

Social welfare programs don’t cause corruption

It has been suggested many a time that welfare programs, high taxes, and the socialization of industries for the public good are causes of inevitable corruption.

Our list of top 10 least corrupt countries clearly illustrates that this is not true. Nine of the ten least corrupt countries have socialized healthcare; the tenth has free market healthcare, but requires individuals to put away a mandatory percentage of their income to pay for their own healthcare costs.

Nine of the ten least-corrupt countries also have higher tax rates than the U.S.; most of them offer free higher education to their students, the costs being paid for by taxpayers collectively.

This has not resulted in a corrupt dystopia – or, similarly, in out-of-control public debt – like we saw in Greece.

And lest we forget that socializing certain industries is not necessarily antithetical to overall market freedom, six of these top ten least-corrupt countries also appear on The Heritage Foundation’s list of the top 20 most free economies in the world. Four are in the top 10.

The bottom line seems to be that you can both provide a high degree of social services to your citizens and have an extremely free market for business, if corruption isn’t redirecting your resources.

Social division does cause corruption

Now, we’ve established what does not cause corruption, based on what the 10 least-corrupt countries in the world have in common. Those things include socialized healthcare, high taxes, free higher education, and free markets.

What do our 10 most-corrupt countries have in common?

For starters, most of them have people who don’t see themselves as one community. Sudan, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Eritrea all famously have semi-ongoing civil wars between communities within their borders.

This may turn out to be very important. The whole point of government, after all, is to be an agreement between the people of a country to abide by a certain set of rules, and contribute resources towards a set of common goals.

That’s what taxation is; individual contributions towards goals that no one individual could accomplish alone, such as roads, law enforcement, education for all children, scientific research, and national defense.

Likewise, government jobs are supposed to be public service jobs; you are elected or hired to provide services to taxpayers in exchange for their tax money.

It is easy to see then, perhaps, how citizens or government employees who don’t feel that the goals of the legal or tax systems are their goals might feel that it’s okay to not pay into them.

If you only care about yourself or your immediate in-group, why wouldn’t you siphon off resources to serve that group whenever you are able? The failure of multiple legal systems to enforce tax and anti-corruption laws shows that fear of punishment is not enough; to have a truly effective, corruption-free system, citizens and government alike must want to contribute to the common good. They must feel that the common good is also their good.

This map shows the United States sharply divided along political lines. Blue areas are mostly multicultural centers of high population density, while the red areas are mostly rural, Christian, and white. Licensed under Creative Commons 3.0 Share and Share Alike by CourtlyHades296.

Social division is not the only cultural cause

Daniel Treisman’s cross-national study of causes for corruption turned up a few other interesting predictors of a country’s level of corruption. Some of these seem to confirm stereotypes, while others may be quite surprising:

  1. Countries with Protestant traditions tend to be less corrupt.

    This applies to most of the entries on our top ten list; virtually all Scandinavian countries were Protestant before they were secular, as was Canada.

    It’s difficult to say why this should be so. Many of the countries on the top 10 list, while historically Protestant, are currently among the world’s most atheist.

    It is possible that Protestantism, with its famous beliefs including the “Protestant work ethic,” which teaches that God rewards those who work hard, and the fear of punishment by hellfire for any unrepentant sin, might have established traditions of personal responsibility, honesty, and fear of wrong-doing that remained after the original religious justifications for these feelings became less widespread.

    Some social psychology findings have suggested that religious people, especially Christians, people are less likely to cheat due to fear of punishment.

  2. Countries with histories of British rule also tend to be less corrupt.

    It is possible that this is a carry-over of point #1: Protestant Britain had possibly the epitome of the teachings mentioned above, with an added sense of nationalism whereby it was a person’s responsibility to represent their family and their country by behaving with honesty and concern for the public good.

    Obviously these standards were not adhered to in all cases, but the fact remains that, when all other factors are controlled for, formerly British-controlled nations are on average less corrupt than those controlled by other European countries.

  3. More developed economies tend to be less corrupt.

    This also applies to most items on our top 10 list, and quite noticeably does not apply to our bottom 10.

    There are a few possible reasons for this. In his studies of 70 societies at all stages of economic development and their values, Ronald Inglehart found that people who have less fear for their material well-being tend to be less motivated by personal wealth.

    While this conclusion may seem blindingly obvious when you put it like that, the implications are quite significant: contrary to becoming more materialistic due to higher standards, Inglehart found that after a certain point in a society’s development, the younger generations became progressively more generous and less motivated by personal economic gain.

    In short, people who feel like they’re pretty secure and satisfied will generally not feel a need to steal, cheat, or otherwise work against the common good in favor of their own success.

  4. Countries with federal governments (those that divide power between a state and national government) tend to be more corrupt.

    It is difficult to say exactly why this is. It is possible that by dividing their nations into regions with different governments, these governments are in some way pitting their people and rulers against each other.

    In the United States, for example, a citizen or government official of Michigan is less likely to think of someone from Texas as being “us.” Texans, by the same token, are likely to feel less connected to the public good of Michiganders.

    One wonders whether Americans would behave differently if they all thought of themselves as simply “Americans.”

  5. The longer you have had democracy, the less corrupt you are likely to be.

    This may explain a great deal about the failed experiment that was mid-20th century communism.

    While these nations attempted to go completely cold-turkey on that most addictive substance, self-interest, they had almost no tradition of rule by and for the people prior to their attempt. This probably had several consequences.

    People from un-democratic backgrounds likely had little concept of fear of punishment for failure to promote the public good; they likely had an image of leadership more characteristic of feudal society, where positions of power were appointed and one’s job performance was judged from above, not below.

    Countries with long histories of democracy, on the other hand, are likely accustomed to several principles that would not appear in feudal-to-communist revolutions.

    The idea of a citizen as a willful contributor to a society in which they have a say, for example, would not be a firm establishment in a recently-feudal nation. The idea that the whole point of positions of power is to serve the public would have been quite alien!

    And, lacking a sense of a society in which they have a real say and responsibility to contribute to the public good – lacking, indeed, a sense that the public good is one’s own good – it is easy to see how citizens at all levels may fail to cooperate at the extremely high level demanded by communism.

Laws have little to do with it

If there is one thing the European experiment has shown us, it is that a country’s laws have remarkably little correlation to its outcome.

Most EU and northern European countries, after all, have similar tax rates. Most provide similar levels of social services. Yet a few have ended up in dire tax straights due to un-explained costs, likely resulting from corruption; others are the world’s most prosperous on virtually every measure, including low corruption.

This may be part of the reason for the American inability to agree on how to prevent corruption. We are a people who thinks in terms of laws. Something is wrong? Make a law to fix it!

That clearly doesn’t work when it comes to preventing and fixing corruption.

And corruption is clearly a very, very important issue for us to tackle in the coming decades.

Can we raise our citizens’ standards of living to unprecedented heights, providing free high-quality healthcare and public education, ensuring that no one ever goes homeless or hungry?

Yes.

Can we become one of the most unfettered markets in the world, rewarding entrepreneurship, investment, and hard work?

Yes.

Can we do both of those things at the same time with no conflict between the two?

Yes.

We just have to fix our culture, before we fix our laws.

In one of the only images I could find of two American political figures who weren’t both members of the same party shaking hands, Martin Luther King, Jr. shakes hands with Lyndon B. Johnson over the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

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History Lesson 2: The Year 2014

The year 2014 was a year for great change in many parts of the world. Let’s see what happened in…

The World

This wonderful image by NASA.

Population: 7.13-7.26 billion

Population growth: 130 million

Average life expectancy as of May 2014: 70.9 years

Top 3 causes of death:

  1. Heart disease
  2. Lower respiratory infections (pneumonia)
  3. Stroke

Interesting comparisons:

  • In 2014, the world population grew by 130 people – that’s over 1/4 the total number of people who lived on Earth in the Middle Ages, and over 1/3 of the current population of the United States.
  • Major progress has been made against pneumonia in the past 12 months; in May of 2014, it was the world’s second-largest killer. In July of 2015, however, it does not even appear on the top three causes of death list!Unicef reports that rates of fatal pneumonia in childhood have dropped by nearly half in the past decades, thanks to continued access to expand medical care. But there is still much more to do; many children ever year still die of pneumonia.
  • As was true in 2015, the average human life expectancy in 2014 was about twice of what it has been historically; this can be attributed to advances in medical care, agriculture, and world peace. Among other factors, child mortality has plummeted by orders of magnitude since the advent of antibiotics and vaccines.

The Three Largest Empires

The United States

American children playing violin at the Suzuki institute in 2011.

Annual GDP: $17.4 trillion

GDP per person: $46,600

Population: 319 million

Land area: 9.15 million square kilometers

Average life expectancy: 78.8 years

Infant mortality rate: 6-7 deaths per 1,000 births

Interesting comparisons:

  • The United States has the highest GDP per person of the world’s top three economies; if U.S. gross domestic product were distributed equally among all U.S. citizens, each one would have been paid $46,600 in 2014.
  • Despite having a GDP per person that’s almost 25% higher, the United States had a shorter life expectancy and higher infant mortality than Japan. This can probably be attributed to a combination of lack of universal healthcare with unhealthy lifestyle choices on the part of American citizens.
  • The United States’ GDP per person was over 10 times higher than that of China, which, though it’s a close second to U.S. in total gross domestic product, has more than four times as many people.

2014 events:

  • President Barack Obama’s annual State of the Union address focused on environmental protection, job creation, and immigration reform. He stated his hopes that 2014 would be “a year of action.”Critics described his statement that he intended to use executive powers to overrule Congressional decisions blocking action as a grave overreach of the executive branch and destruction of the government’s checks and balances.

    Critics of the critics pointed out that the Republican Congress had semi-openly declared a policy of obstructing any and all legislation supported by Obama during his presidency, leaving the president with little other recourse.

  • The FBI announced in June that it had rescued 168 children, many of whom had never been reported missing, from sex trafficking during a nationwide crackdown.This highlighted the problem of sex trafficking in the U.S. and elsewhere, where underage people may be abducted or else coerced into sex work without even leaving their homes.

    Teachers across the United States were advised on potential signs that a child was being coerced into sex work, including emotional distress and withdrawal, frequent unexplained absences from school, and the sudden unexplained appearance of expensive items in the possession of otherwise low-income students.

  • Mass protests broke out over the shooting of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri – making him one of several high-profile cases of unarmed black people being killed by American police, and one of nearly 400 American citizens fatally shot by police in each year.As has been typical of mass protests historically, these eventually developed into riots including looting and violence once residents realized that law enforcement was ineffective in the protest zone. Controversy arose over the portrayal in some American media of all protesters as violent offenders.

    This incident also raised awareness of police brutality in America, where it is almost impossible to tell how many citizens are killed by police each year due to fuzzy and inconsistent definitions of “justifiable killings” in self-defense vs. willful homicide by officers.

China

Photograph of a Chinese family having a picnic in a Beijing park by Daniel Case licensed under Creative Commons 3.0 Share and Share Alike.

Annual GDP: $10.4 trillion

GDP per person: $3,870

Population: 1.39 billion

Land area: 9.60 million square kilometers

Average life expectancy: 75.2 years

Infant mortality rate: 14-15 deaths per 1,000 births

Interesting comparisons:

  • Although China is the world’s second-largest economy, it has the shortest life expectancy of any of the top three, and nearly twice the infant mortality of the next-largest contender.

2014 events:

  • An environmental survey showed that nearly 1/5 of China’s soil was contaminated with substances toxic to humans, such as arsenic, nickel, and lead. This seemed to validate concerns that China’s rapid industrialization in pursuit of economic growth may be doing long-term damage to its people’s health.The finding was particularly concerning because heavy metals such a lead are known to impair cognitive development and result in decreased IQs in children. In the United States, high soil lead levels are strongly correlated with learning disabilities and school drop-out rates.

    Because of the potentially explosive public health ramifications, the results of the environmental survey had been classified as a state secret for a time before being released to the public.

  • In May, 34 people were killed by explosive-laden trucks in the Xinjiang province, making it the deadliest single attack in the history of the Xinjiang conflict between the Chinese government and some residents of the far-west province.Xinjiang separatists refer to the far northwest province as “Eastern Turkestan” and say that it is not rightfully part of China, but rather that it was assimilated under Soviet rule and has been occupied ever since.

    The separatists are members of the Turkic-originated Uyghur ethnic group, supported by Turkic Islamic militant organizations who see the separatist movement as a way to expand their own sphere of influence.

  • In November, Chinese president Xi Jinping reached an agreement with U.S. president Barack Obama to limit greenhouse gas emissions. The deal, which was the first time China has agreed to limit their carbon emissions, came on the heels of rising concerns about the effects of air pollution on Chinese health.Included in the deal was the rather bold commitment to cap greenhouse gas emissions and take 20% of China’s energy from non-fossil fuel sources by 2030. In exchange, the U.S. promised to cut its own greenhouse gas emissions by 26% by 2025, and lift tariffs on certain technological items from China.

    China and the United States together account for 45% of the Earth’s man-made greenhouse gas emissions, making this agreement a true landmark for human development on the planet – if, that is, it is adhered to by their successors in the coming decades.

Japan

This photograph of Japanese citizens by Nihonjoe licensed under Creative Commons 3.0 Share and Share Alike.

This photograph of Japanese citizens by Nihonjoe licensed under Creative Commons 3.0 Share and Share Alike.

Annual GDP: 4.6 trillion

GDP per person: $37,600

Population: 127 million

Land area: 378,000 square kilometers

Average life expectancy: 87 years

Infant mortality rate: 2-3 deaths per 1,000 births

Interesting comparisons:

  • Japan is one of the world’s three largest economies, despite being geographically confined to a fairly small chain of islands. This stems from the “economic miracle” Japan underwent following World War II.After WWII, Japan and the United States collaborated to ensure Japan’s success as a capitalist economy, due to the U.S. fear that if capitalism in Japan failed, it could ally itself with the U.S.’s communist foe.

    But arguably even more important than U.S. support was Japanese Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda, who began Japan’s policy of encouraging banks to make loans to industrial conglomerates to assist in their development. Ikeda also took other measures, like relaxing anti-monopoly legislation and introducing import taxes.

  • Japan also has one of the world’s longest life expectancies, with Japanese women living longer than any other group. This is probable due in part to genetics and in part to a diet which is traditionally very low in fat and sugar.In Japan, high sodium is more of a health concern for most people than fat- and sugar-related diseases like heart disease, which is a leading cause of death worldwide, or diabetes, which is a major cause of morbidity in the United States.

2014 events:

  • Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democrat party (keep in mind that “liberal” in other countries means favoring economic freedom; almost the exact opposite of what it means in the U.S.) won big in the 2014 election, maintaining its “supermajority” which gives it a near-monopoly on Japanese government.This came despite the fact that the Japanese economy had shrunk for two consecutive quarters under “Abenomics,” which had involved essentially doubling the country’s consumption tax from 5% to 10%.

    The U.S. White House praised the re-election, saying they looked to Abe as a reliable partner on issues such as global disaster relief and response, the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and the planned Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership.

  • A record snowfall killed 19 people, from causes including buildings collapsing under the weight of the snow, and motorists freezing to death while attempting to walk home from stranded cars.Prime Minister Abe immediately instituted a task force to attempt to prevent further deaths from hypothermia, and open roadways to rural communities which were in many cases totally cut off from urban centers.

    Japan averages about 262 inches of snowfall annually; the 2014 storm dumped 59 inches, or nearly 6 feet, of snow on the country within a matter of hours.

  • The Ministry of Health and Labour reported the first outbreak of dengue fever in the country since 1945; 153 people in the Tokyo Metropolitan area showed dengue-like symptoms.Genetic analysis showed that all 153 people appeared to have been infected by the same strain of the virus carried by the first patient.

    Dengue fever, a tropical illness transmitted to humans by mosquitos, was once a major cause of death in tropical areas; it has been controlled largely through use of insecticides to kill mosquitoes, and encouraging personal protection to prevent mosquito bites.

A woman sleeps on the bus to the airport after being rescued from months of captivity by Boko Haram militants.

Africa

  • The Brookings Africa Growth Initiative called for the continent’s nations to make employment of youth a priority in the coming years. Africa has one of the fastest-growing youth populations on the planet, with an estimated 14 million entering the workforce in 2014 alone.Africa’s long-standing lack of development means that most of these new workers have little formal education, and as such are restricted to contributing to Africa’s economy through unskilled labor.

    Even for skilled laborers, the African economy often suffers from a mismatch between the availability of jobs, the need for productivity from human resources, and the large numbers of youth entering the workforce each year.

  • The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa called for particular attention to be paid to the industrial sector, which is seen to be more reliable and sustainable than Africa’s current strengths of exporting raw materials and providing services.The UNECA report found that government policy was often required to encourage industrial development, as the current short-term markets do not necessarily encourage the kind of growth that will be sustainable in the future.

    The report voiced the need for stronger institutions to support industrial growth, like the banks of Japan which contributed to the Japanese economic miracle. It stated that creating policies to encourage industry without creating the necessary institutions to support it is often not enough.

  • Up to 2,000 people may have been killed in an attack by Boko Haram in Nigeria. Boko Haram, whose name translates to “Western education is forbidden,” gained global fame after kidnapping over 200 schoolgirls and forcing them to be “wives” for their soldiers this same year.Boko Haram was started by Muslim preacher Mohammed Marwa, born in 1927. Extreme even by the standards of the most conservative Muslim cleric, he nonetheless struck a chord with some inhabitants of northern Nigeria, which had experienced religious and economic differences with Nigeria’s southern coastal cities for hundreds of years.

    Nigeria’s north had long been populated by Muslims from northern Africa who invaded in 1000 AD; its south had been populated by followers of native African religions, who subsequently mostly converted to Christianity during the colonial era. Nigeria’s south also reaped the fruits of commerce with Europeans, while the Muslims in the north, lacking coastal access, did not.

The Middle East

Syrian refugees on a bus in Turkey after fleeing the violence in their home country.

  • In Iraq, American hopes of turning the country into a peaceful democratic state following their 2003 invasion and ouster of dictator Saddam Hussein continue to fade.American military – now cast in the role of “advisors” to an Iraqi military severely damaged by early years of Bush-era policy disbanding many Iraqi troops – have largely retreated to Shiia-ruled Baghdad, while Sunni militants control a large swath of territory, calling it the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

    Some would argue this outcome was predictable in a region long afflicted by poverty and largely untouched by modern education; a combination which often breeds extreme scapegoating of powers that are more economically well-off.

  • In Syria, president Bashar al-Assad has also lost large swaths of territory to ISIS. Previously a stable nation, Syria was first destabilized by anti-government protests sparked b Assad’s often-repressive policies; Islamic militants from across the border in neighboring Iraq soon joined the fight, brewing a massive army.As in Egypt, Islamic militants seem to have at least in part hijacked what was originally a secular pro-human-rights movement. When government control was weakened by the protesters, the militants moved in, claiming to be the true champions of the people.

    It is possible that they were technically correct – though wealthy, secular cities tend to be the birthplaces of effective anti-government protest in the Middle East, many countries are composed predominantly of poor subsistence farmers with little to no education outside of that provided by their local, often conservative mosques.

  • In Egypt, former military chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was elected president with 96% of the vote. He was the first president to be democratically elected since the removal of Mohammed Morsi by al-Sisi’s military force in 2013.Morsi, a representative of the Muslim Brotherhood, had been voted in following former long-time president Hosni Mubarak’s ouster by popular peaceful protest. Although the forces which ousted Mubarak were secular liberals, most Egyptian citizens who turned out to the polls supported the Muslim Brotherhood party.

    Al-Sisi’s election marks the beginning of a new era for Egypt, which is effectively now trying democracy for the third time in the past half-century; the first attempt resulted in a president with a mixed human rights record who silenced political dissent; the second resulted in Morsi, who was arguably even more brutal in suppressing dissent.

Europe

Although the overthrow of the corrupt pro-Russian president of Ukraine involved some fiery face-offs between student protesters and government forces, no one was killed.

Although the overthrow of the corrupt pro-Russian president of Ukraine involved some fiery face-offs between student protesters and government forces, including creative use of Molotov cocktails to melt tank treads, no one was killed.

  • Russia challenged a 70-year-long agreement among European nations that borders could not be changed by force when it sent military troops into Ukraine, claiming it was simply “liberating” a region that wished to rejoin Russia.This move came after a peaceful student-led popular uprising overthrew president Viktor Yanukovych, who was accused of corruption and using violence against protesters.

    After Yanukovych lost power to the people’s revolution, Russian president Vladimir Putin claimed concern for the safety and desires of the ethnic Russians living in Ukraine – deeply unsettling other European nations by moving his military in to “annex” Crimea.

  • The European Union continued to struggle with stubborn unemployment in the wake of the U.S.-triggered Great Recession, and the failure to repay money borrowed from a few member states, most notably including Greece.The region has found itself in the difficult situation typical of most modern recessions. Cutting back on government spending means less money in the people’s pockets to spend to stimulate the economy; but continuing to spend government money when you’re not seeing tax revenue from commerce is unsustainable.

    The president of the European Bank attempted to alleviate the problem by drastically reducing interest rates on loans for even the most troubled European economies; but this does not seem to have been enough to spur the desired job creation.

  • The European Union also continues to struggle with how to handle a high demand to immigrate there from troubled regions. In 2014, over 200,000 migrants arrived on boats in Italy; over 3,000 died in the Mediterranean attempting to reach it.Germany received nearly 200,000 applications for political asylum; and Sweden struggled with whether to maintain its decision to have an open-door policy to refugees from war-torn Syria.

    In the midst of all of this, Europeans who fear that immigrants are dangerous and immigrants alleging racist treatment and economic inequality have both sparked protests, with nationalistic, pro-ethnically European movements gaining major political clout in some European states.

Asia

Girls attending Ashaqan Arefan school in Afghanistan in 2002. By Sally Hodgson (U.S. Department of State) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons,

  • India’s Narendra Modi was sworn in as Prime Minister, following what was possibly the largest democratic election in world history; more voters in India, the world’s largest democracy with a population of 1.2 billion, voted than ever before.Modi, a Hindu nationalist who presided over the nation’s worst communal riots in decades and an anti-Muslim slaughter that left nearly 2,000 Muslims dead, has been criticized as leaving behind Gandhi’s principles to promote the interests of India’s majority.

    He was elected on campaign promises to build 100 Smart Cities, strengthen India’s economy, and promote transparency in government.

  • In Indonesia, former governor of Jakarta, Joko Widodo, was elected president. His image that of an outsider who planned to take on the corrupt, moneyed political elite, he has been likened by some to U.S. president Bill Clinton.

    Popular among young voters and the urban middle class, Widodo promised to cut spending and balance the budget by cutting government fuel subsidies, which cost the country $23 billion annually. He also promised to crack down on corruption and waste, and prioritize education, healthcare, and transportation infrastructure.

    With a population of 250 million, the south Asian country made up of thousands of islands is the world’s largest majority Muslim state.

  • In Afghanistan, peace may finally be on the horizon – although Taliban attacks continue, the 2014 elections proceeded relatively without violence, and Taliban attacks failed to do major damage or bring new territory under Taliban control.

    A survey of Afghan citizens showed that unemployment was their biggest concern, at both the national and local levels. At the national level, citizens’ next-biggest concerns were insecurity and corruption; at the local level, poor access to electricity and roads were of more concern than insecurity.

    The survey also showed that 55% of Afghans believe their country is currently moving in the right direction, and 73% believe that efforts to reconcile warring groups within the country will help to stabilize it.

North America

$205 Million drug money seized by the Mexican Police and the Drug Enforcement Administration in Mexico city — largest single drug cash seizure in history (this particular bust occurred in 2007).

  • A Canadian research study of interactions between seven U.S. men who became militant jihadists sought to find causes to address to prevent the spread of jihadi ideology.

    The study found that some of the American-born jihadis focused on politics in their social media posts, while others focused on religion; but all spent a great deal of time seeking information about religion early in their jihadi conversions.

    The findings re-enforce the importance of religion to the jihadi ideology, which has sometimes been thought to stem more from politics or poverty than religious ideology.

  • In the United States, new provisions of the 2010 Affordable Care Act took effect. Among other provisions, private American insurance companies can no longer discriminate by gender or pre-existing condition when ensuring people; they also cannot refuse to cover people because they are participating in clinical research.

    Tax credits for the lower and middle classes have been introduced to offset the cost of healthcare, and the tax credit for small businesses that provide healthcare to employees has been increased to 50% of the total cost of the employee healthcare.

    Medicaid coverage has also expanded to cover Americans who earn less than 133% of the poverty line; the previous maximum income one could earn while remaining on Medicaid was much lower.

  • Mexico was ranked as one of the world’s most corrupt nations by the annual corruption perceptions index. This came as no surprise, as the year continued the recent trend of being peppered by mass kidnappings and killings, some of which were found to have direct ties to the Mexican government.

    In one case, former mayor of Iguala, Jose Luis Abarca, was found to have ordered police to attack, abduct, and kill 43 students because he feared that a protest they had planned would interfere with his re-election big.

    This echoes 2015 news in which another mass killing of young people was perpetrated by police under orders – this time with claims that the victims were members of a drug gang.

South America

Left to right: President Vladimir Putin of Russia, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, President Dillma Roussef of Brazil, President Xi Jinping of China, and President Jacob Zuma of South Africa at the 2014 BRICS summit in Brazil. Licensed under Creative Commons 3.0 Share and Share Alike by Kremlin.Ru.

  • Brazil hosted the 2014 meeting of the BRICS group – a grouping emerging economies including Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. In addition to Brazil’s president Dilma Roussef, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, India’s Narendra Modi, China’s Xi Jinping, and South Africa’s Jacob Zuma were in attendance.

    The group created a $100 billion New Development Bank, citing disappointment with the International Monetary Fund and seemingly setting the NDB up as a competitor to the IMF. The NDB will be headquartered in Shanghai, with all five BRICS nations represented among its inaugural administrative leadership.

    BRICS has been referred to by many economists as “the next G7.” The G7 has long been a summit of finance officials from the U.S., Canada, the U.K., France, Germany, Italy, and Japan meeting regularly to discuss economic issues and make joint plans for success.

  • Bolivia again elected Evo Morales as president of their nation. The first Bolivian of native descent to serve as president, Morales has served 2 terms, which have seen staggering 25% drops in poverty and 43% drops in extreme poverty.

    The election for a third term was seen as the Bolivian people’s endorsement of Morales’ policies, which have included nationalizing Bolivia’s oil industry to put 82% of its profits towards public service, and withdrawing from the International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes over concerns that its rulings favored corporations.

    Some of Morales’ staggering success has perhaps been due to his profound tackling of issues at the cultural level as well as the legal and economic levels; he has encouraged Bolivians to make their economic decisions based on a philosophy of “living well,” and drawn heavily upon indigenous traditions of communal living.

  • Haiti continued to suffer the after-effects of a string of natural and political disasters, including a deadly cholera epidemic. In the wake of these catastrophes, Human Rights Watch cited the nation for violence against women and inhumane prison conditions.

    The nation’s last election was due in 2011, but still had not been delivered in 2014, underscoring a question as to whether Haiti can be counted as an effective democracy. Many voters remained unrepresented in the Senate following disputes over election law.

    At last count in June 2013, over a quarter of a million people were still living in what were essentially refugee camps set up on the island in the wake of the devastating 2010 earthquake. No clear solution to the problem seems to be in sight.

Oceania

This photograph of an indigenous man of Papua, new Guinea and his son by Taro Taylor, licensed under Creative Commons 3.0 Share and Share Alike.

  • In Australia, the premier of New South Wales introduced the “one punch law,” which would mandate an 8-year prison sentence for perpetrators of fatal single-punch attacks.

    This came as part of efforts to curb alcohol-related violence in Sydney following an increase in brutal assaults in Sydney’s nightclubs, including two fatalities resulting from single-punch assaults involving alcohol.

    The law also expanded laws requiring alcohol-serving establishments to lock out new patrons at 1:30am, put a freeze on the granting of new liquor licenses, and mandated the statewide closure of stores selling alcohol at 10pm.

  • New Zealand’s general election saw a plurality of 47% of the vote go to the center-right party, let by incumbent Prime Minister John Key. Key has come under criticism for seemingly excessive spending on luxuries for government officials and spying on foreign nationals during his tenure, but has retained relative popularity.

    Key has spoken out in favor of the privatization, to some degree, of healthcare and education; and in favor of giving tax breaks to employers to encourage employment.

    Key has stated that he believes in global warming, and that government action is necessary to curb it. He has committed to reducing New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions by 50% within 50 years.

  • Papua New Guinea received a scathing review from the World Report on human rights for 2014. Findings showed that while the country’s natural resources continued to produce strong economic growth, that growth was not translating into an increased standard of living for citizens due to “consistently poor governance.”

    The report stated that a culture of violence remains endemic in Papua New Guinea, with violence against women being a series problem, and gruesome mob murders of alleged sorcerers continuing to occur.

    In addition, it was reported that physical and sexual abuse of detainees – including children – by police and military officials was found to be “widespread” within the country.

Space

This image has been released under a free license by the Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt (DLR). Creative Commons 3.0, Germany.

  • The United States White House proposed to extend the International Space Station’s mission until 2024 – four years longer than the U.S. had originally agreed to fund the mission. The White House began urging its ISS allies to follow suit.

    However, the implementation of that is looking tricky, as the European Union committed to cutting space station expenditures by 30% in the next year, and the American Congress funded the National Aeronautics and Space Agency at $600 million less than the President had requested for the program.

    It is hoped that the growth of the private space industry combined with contracting out to private entities by governments might help to offset the costs of space exploration development.

  • Europe’s Rosetta probe became the first man-made object to land on a comet, yielding a great deal of new information about the makeup and behavior of comets.

    Among surprises discovered by Rosetta was the rapid breakdown of water and carbon dioxide in the comet’s atmosphere by electrons – which could have implications for the conclusions astronomers draw from chemical analyses of the atmosphere’s of other planets.

    Rosetta also confirmed some expected, but nonetheless exciting discoveries – such as the presence of water ice within the comet.

  • The first fully Indian-built rocket was used to launch a geosynchronous satellite – marking another milestone in space exploration autonomy for the world’s largest democracy.

    The rocket featured a homegrown design, necessitated by the refusal of the governments of the United States and Russia to share their own blueprints for creating the components with India.

    The launched satellite was for commercial communications, not science – but it is another step in the direction of India’s exploring the stars.

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A Closer Look at History: What Caused the Greek Debt Crisis?

Photograph of a massive protest in Greece by Kotsolis, licensed under Creative Commons 3.0 Share and Share Alike. These citizens are protesting a 2011 decision by the Greek government to agree to the International Monetary Fund’s demands that they cut public spending and raise taxes.

The eyes of the world have been riveted on Greece in recent days. Some might struggle to understand why. After all, how does what happens in another country effect us?

However, what is happening in Greece right now is very, very important to the whole world. Why?

Two reasons:

1) In this globalized world of virtual currency exchange, all economies are interconnected.

Particularly important is the habit of “buying debt” – when someone owes you money, essentially, you can sell that debt to someone else. In the exchange, the buyer will receive the money the person pays on the debt, plus interest; you will receive money up-front from the  buyer instead of waiting for the debt to be paid back to you.

Interestingly, debt is sometimes sold for much less than the original value of what a person owed. This has led to The Rolling Jubilee’s innovative approach to tax relief, whereby they use donations to purchase “distressed debt” – that is, debt that the debtor is not able to currently pay – and forgive it. Distressed debt is often sold much for much less than the original price of the loan by creditors who want to get some money from the debt instead of none.

So when the Great Recession was spawned in the United States, for example, that hit everyone – because many other world economies (including Greece) had bought our debt, such as subprime mortgages, believing that they would profit in the long run. So when American banks and individuals declared that they were too broke to ever pay off their debts, buyers all over the world suffered – and since many of those buyers were also investors, stock markets all over the world suffered too.

This graph of interest rates across the Eurozone created by Spitzl. Licensed under Creative Commons 3.0 Share and Share Alike.

Which led to companies suffering; which led to companies cutting jobs, in their home countries and overseas; which led to now-unemployed people buying fewer goods and services; which led to companies suffering more. Etc..

Everyone who has bought pieces of Greek’s national debt – including most of Europe – now faces the prospect of having it not paid back. This means that people will only lend to Greece if they hope to gain something from it by charging astronomically high interest rates, which worsens the country’s overall financial situation.

This, in turn, is discouraging people from investing in markets that may be negatively effected by Greece’s failing to pay back the debts from which investors were expecting money. The cycle continues.

2) Greece is being upheld – not always justifiably – as a model of what happens when states provide generous social services to their peoples.

In the reasoning of fiscal conservatives, Greece represents the logical conclusion of the path that all “welfare states” are on – unsustainable spending leading to certain collapse.

This is going to make voters and politicians alike around the world skittish about anything that involves government spending; including investing in education, socializing medicine, etc.. And, in some cases, they may be right.

So it is very important to understand what actually happened in Greece; so that we might avoid it happening here, and so that we may not suffer from acting on incorrect or incomplete understandings of the situation.

So what actually did happen in Greece? It turns out to be quite a bit more complicated than simply “socialism doesn’t work.” Here’s what I found in a review of scholarly and popular articles on the subject:

Was socialism/the welfare state what killed Greece’s banks?

Yes and no. While it was government spending on public sector employees and services rendered to citizens that ran up Greece’s debt, that was far from the only thing that was going on.

There was also, for example, a rather horrifying lack of tax revenue. As liberals in the U.S. are quick to point out, you cannot finance social programs without tax revenue.

On paper, Greece’s tax rates were fairly typical for a European state. However, in practice, what was actually being paid was much less than any European state except for Ireland.

It turns out that Greece had a deep-seated culture of tax dodging. This may date back to feudal times, when favors between politicians and people were traded as a matter of understanding; the idea of having to pay for these services in addition to simply supporting your politician was alien and somewhat offensive.

So the people of Greece didn’t pay for the services they received from the government. An estimated $20 billion per year or more that should have been paid in taxes to keep the system functioning was not – which may sound modest to a U.S. reader, until you consider that with Greece’s meager population of 11 million, that’s at least $2,000 per person, per year, of what was essentially taking advantage of government services without paying for them.

No wonder the Greek government was forced to borrow so much from other countries.

Although the tax dodging problem has been called “the most obvious” cause of the Greek debt crisis, there were other problems, too. Transparency International, for example, rated the Greek government as the most corrupt in southern Europe – which doubtless translated to even more bureaucratic expenses that had nothing to do with actually providing services to the people.

Indeed, one study found that among OECD nations, Greece paid far more for the services it provided to its people, and yet “there was no evidence that they were greater in quality or quantity than those of other OECD nations.”

This may be partially explained by another component of Greece’s age-old culture of paying for services with loyalty: in addition to endemic tax dodging, it was quite standard for Greek politicians to create cushy government jobs and award them to their supporters, irrespective of whether the jobs were actually necessary.

In other words, the money Greece was spending “on social services” was not actually going to social services. It was going to pay public sector employees whose jobs often had, in reality, more to do with rewarding political loyalty than actually providing goods and services.

The last factor commonly cited as contributing to Greece’s decline was an overly complex system of laws; this system, perhaps intentionally, produced tremendous bureaucratic overhead and poor compliance. There were so many legal loopholes and bylines that evading the law was easy when it came to budgeting; and enforcing it was tremendously expensive.

So, was Greece’s problem that it provided too many social services to its citizens?

Ultimately, no.

While continuing to run its bloated and corrupt system on borrowed money is what led to Greece’s decline, as stated above, much of that money did not actually go to providing, say, healthcare or education to its citizens.

Instead, much of the money went into the pockets of private individuals through cushy government paychecks.

In other words, Greece’s system would have been much more sustainable if its public spending had actually been oriented towards providing valuable services to its citizens.

In addition to becoming a leaner, meaner, more efficient service-giving machine, Greece could have avoided many of these problems by simply paying its taxes.

Most Americans would probably jump at the chance to pay just $2,000 per year in exchange for all the healthcare they could possibly need, Greeks simply didn’t feel the need to pay taxes on their income. And they expected the social services to continue working anyway.

So if Greece had provided the same level of social services to its citizens without the corruption and tax evasion, they might have had an entirely different outcome.

So what happens now?

That is the question of the hour. Greece’s endemic tax evasion and inefficient spending has left all of Europe between a rock and a hard place.

The first instinct when seeking to reduce debt created by over-spending is to demand less spending; but cutting social services now could run the Greek economy further into the ground by resulting in Greek people having less money to spend on goods and services. If Greek consumers stop buying, Greek businesses will tank; and so, too, will tax revenues.

And yet, if government spending continues as it is, it could be perceived as having no consequences for Greece’s rampant corruption and tax evasion. This could encourage the bad behavior to continue.

Last week, Greece’s leadership encouraged its citizens to vote “no” on accepting the European Union’s offer to forgive some of Greece’s debt in exchange for Greece committing to pay the rest and taking certain measures to ensure that happened.

The Greek people did as they were urged, and essentially told Europe that they are too poor to ever pay off their debt.

This photograph of a classical Greek statue of Athena, goddess of wisdom, has been generously released into the public domain by Jastrow.

Many economists believe that this was yet another bad move on the part of Greece’s government; by defaulting on their existing debt, they have essentially precluded the possibility of anyone else lending money to them, or investing in their obviously-distressed stock market.

What will happen to the Greek people now is uncertain. It will be a long, hard road ahead for a country which has been spent into oblivion due to a confluence of factors which are more cultural than mathematical.

I wish the Greek people all the best in this difficult time. It is, arguably, not the fault of any one individual; likely none of the many moving parts involved knew what they were setting their country up for as a whole.

And I send this caution to citizens of all countries who wish to see their national debt reduced:

Pay your f*cking taxes.

Maybe even consider raising them.

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History Lessons Part I – The Last 6 Months

We’ll start our story of the Universe like any good movie director; as close to the end of the story as possible.

So without further ado, let’s find some creative ways to look at what’s been going on in the last six months in the…

World

EarthNASA

Amazing image by NASA.

Population: 7.26-7.33 billion.

Population growth since December 2014: 70 million.

Average life expectancy as of July 2015: 70 years

Top causes of death:

  1. Heart disease (~7.4 million per year)
  2. Stroke (~6.7 million per year),
  3. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (~3.1 million per year)

Interesting comparisons:

  • Following the advent of antibiotics, vaccines, the industrial revolution, and the advent of genetically modified food crops, the world population is now over 16 times what it was in the Middle Ages (~450 million).
  • In the past 6 months, the world population has grown by over 15% of the total world population in the Middle Ages.
  • Average life expectancy is now roughly twice what it has been in previous historical eras.  This is partially due to progress in treating age-related diseases, but mostly due to a huge reduction of deaths in childhood and young adulthood, from causes such as disease, starvation, accidental injury, and war.
  • We are now mostly killed by diseases of old age and excess. Heart disease and stroke occur mainly as functions of old age, or diets high in saturated fat without corresponding labor to metabolize said fat. COPD is associated with pollution of the lungs, most often caused by habitual smoking or environmental air pollution.These have rather remarkably unseated the biggest historical killers such as bacterial pneumonia, diarrheal illnesses such as cholera, malaria, and tuberculosis.

Three Largest Empires

(As measured by size of economy, because in the modern era, money is power.)

  1. The United States of America:

    JimIrwinCC3.0

    Image by JimIrwin / CC_3.0

    Annual Gross Domestic Product: $18.1 trillion.

    Population: 320 million

    Land area: 9.15 million square kilometers

    Annual military spending: $610 billion.

    Average life expectancy: 79 years

    Infant mortality rate: ~0.0075%; 5-10 deaths per 1,000 live births.

    In the United States, Barack Obama is serving out the last year of his 8-year presidency. Having been initially elected with 53.8% of the popular vote in 2008 and re-elected with 51.9% of the popular vote in 2012, he is forbidden by law from running for a third term.

    His presidency has focused on efforts to expand access to healthcare for Americans, recover from the American-caused Great Recession of the mid-2000s, and manage the two wars started in the early 2000s. Opponents have criticized him over concerns for government overreach into private industry, increasing national debt, and what some have characterized as a weak and accommodating attitude towards foreign policy.

  2. China:

    Alan_Mak_CC_3.0

    Image by Alan Mak, licensed under Creative Commons 3.0.

    Annual Gross Domestic Product: $11.2 trillion.

    Population: 1.36 billion

    Land area: 9.60 million square kilometers

    Annual military spending: $216 billion.

    Average life expectancy: 75

    Infant mortality rate: ~0.0125%; 10-15 deaths per 1,000 live births.

    In China, Xi Jinping is president. He is also the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, and the Chairman of the Central Military Commission.

    His presidency has focused on efforts to improve the justice system and crack down on corruption within it; to present a more assertive and nationalistic China on the world stage; and to continuing his predecessors’ advocacy for China’s one-party system of governance, stating that single-party governance is the only way to create effective economic change.

    Opponents have criticized him for making promises of a “Chinese Dream” of opportunity without outlining clear policies to make this happen; for human rights concerns over his handling of political dissenters; and for increasing censorship of the Internet in China, often mandating the removal of content critical of the government posted by Chinese people to social media outlets.

  3. Japan

    Elmor_CC_3.0

    Image by Elmor; licensed under Creative Commons 3.0 Share and Share Alike.

    Annual Gross Domestic Product: $4.2 trillion

    Population: 127 million

    Land area: 378,000 square kilometers.

    Annual military spending: $45.8 billion

    Average life expectancy: 84 years

    Infant mortality rate: ~0.0025%; 0-5 deaths per 1,000 live births.

    The Prime Minister of Japan is Shinzo Abe. He is the president of the country’s Liberal Democratic Party. His presidency has focused on efforts to improve the economy through government spending, collaborating with right-wing politicians to propose a bill to encourage the teaching of love of country to Japanese students in school, and pursuit of stronger relations with China and India.

    He has been criticized by opponents over concerns for promoting right-wing nationalism, questioning the reality of past Japanese war crimes, and censoring discussion of these war crimes on Japanese air waves. Abe has admitted to preventing broadcasts that he did not feel “came from a neutral point of view.”

Africa

This image generously released into the public domain by creator Mikael Häggström.

This image generously released into the public domain by creator Mikael Häggström.

In 2015, Africa continued to be ravaged by misfortune. Major developments included:

    • The largest outbreak of the Ebola virus in recorded history, killing over 11,000 people and spreading in a small number of cases to the United States and Europe through travelers returning from visits to Africa.The Ebola virus, thought to have originated in nonhuman animals and spread through eating their meat, is a highly contagious hemorrhagic with mortality rate varying from 90%-10%, depending on the availability of medical care. In the 2015 outbreak, about 41% of all those who became infected died.
  • Despite being one of Africa’s most developed nations and its largest economy, Nigeria fought to put down an insurgency of the radical Muslim group “Boko Haram,” which in 2014-2015 controlled a large swath of northeastern Nigeria, killed many who stood in their way, and kidnapped hundreds of Nigerian schoolchildren for use as soldiers and sex slaves.The name “Boko Haram” means “Western education is forbidden,” and the terrorists of Boko Haram claimed to be “rescuing” children from blasphemous and destructive education at the hands of schools influenced by the United States and Europe.

The apparent failure of the Nigerian government to deal with Boko Haram in a timely fashion is projected to be a major issue in Nigeria’s next election.

  • Activists inside and outside of Africa continued to work to improve the human rights situation on this continent, which currently has the world’s shortest average life expectancy, lowest GDP per capita, highest infant mortality, and highest income inequality in the world.

The Middle East

Image by Cacahuate, amendments by Globe-trotter and Joelf. Licensed under Creative Commons 3.0 Share and Share Alike.

Image by Cacahuate, amendments by Globe-trotter and Joelf. Licensed under Creative Commons 3.0 Share and Share Alike.

    • The self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant continued to wreak havoc, manifesting their apocalyptic theology by systematically killing all those who do not share it, and destroying books and historical artifacts which may contradict it. They continue to hold control over a large swath of territory within the borders of Iraq and Syria.They executed citizens of several other nations who fell into their hands while traveling, often videotaping the executions and releasing them on the Internet and to mass media sources. Victims hailed from countries including Japan, Egypt, Jordan, and Ethiopia. ISIL continued to execute civilians, often hundreds at a time, focusing on perceived non-Muslims such as Middle Eastern Christians, Western nationals, and sub-branches of Muslims that ISIL leadership considers heretical.

      ISIL also burned up to 100,000 books and manuscripts when storming various historical sites and libraries in Syria and Iraq, and bulldozed the 3,300 year-old ancient city of Nimrud.

  • The Israel-Palestine conflict continues to boil at a low level, with Palestinians and Israelis near the edge of Gaza killing each other on a regular basis. As ever, the conflict has been characterized by citizens of both nations feeling a right to live on the same land and refusing to vacate it, despite facing a high risk of death from violence while occupying the area.

Most recently, a Palestinian teenager was shot and killed after throwing rocks at Israeli military vehicles, allegedly shattering the windshield of one. Israeli police backed the actions of the Israeli military officer who shot the teen, saying he acted in self-defense.Palestine continued to try to divorce the image of its government, the Western-backed Palestinian Authority, from that of the terrorist group Hamas, which wields a great deal of power and influence over the Palestinian people and has been responsible for organizing Palestinian attacks against Israel.

Most recently, Palestinian Authority police arrested dozens of Hamas members, publicly condemning the group’s intent to “sow chaos” by attacking Israel which would inevitably result in more Palestinian deaths.

  • Iran faced mounting pressure from the international community regarding its nuclear program. While the Iranian government has long stated that the program was for purposes of providing nuclear energy to the Iranian people, the international community has felt great concern at the potential for nuclear weapons development in a nation whose leadership has denied Israel’s right to exist.

Most recently, several Western nations offered to lift long-standing economic sanctions against Iran in return for a curtailing of its nuclear program.The negotiations have been complicated by Republican politicians in America, the largest economic player involved in the sanctions, declaring that they disagree with the arrangement and will not honor it if they are elected to America’s presidency in 2016.

Europe

This image created by Dbachmann; licensed under Creative Commons 3.0 Share and Share Alike.

    • Greece’s government debt crisis continued to be a focal point for Europe, and for the world. The crisis, whereby the Greek government owes more money to other nations than it seems able to pay, has played out over the course of years.At times the Greek government has put a moratorium on further government spending and banking transactions in an attempt to stem its losses, triggering mass protests and occasional riots as Greek citizens have found themselves without public services and unable to withdraw money from banks.Several causes have been blamed for the Greek debt crisis, including over-spending by the Greek government; tax dodging on the part of Greek citizens to the tune of $20 billion per year – that’s nearly $2,000 per Greek citizen per year; and the global Great Recession, particularly the sale of billions of dollars in assets which were later found to be worthless to Greek buyers by American banks.
  • 30 British citizens were killed in a terrorist attack while vacationing in Tunisia. The terrorist, who also killed 8 non-British citizens with grenades and gunfire, claimed affiliation with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.The death toll of 30 British citizens makes this the worst terrorist attack on the British people since the bombings of 7/7/2005, when four suicide bombers killed 52 people and injured 770 in London.

Although the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant did not exist at the time of the 2005 attacks, responsibility for the bombings was claimed by Al Qaida in Iraq, which gave birth to ISIL after joining Islamist anti-government rebels in Syria.

  • Despite concerns that Greece may miss a 1.6 billion euro repayment to the International Monetary Fund, business activity in the Eurozone grew faster in 2015 than in the preceding 4 years.Business activity was helped by a 1 trillion euro bond-buying program instituted by the European Central Bank, announced in March of 2015, and price-cutting by companies to boost a larger number of sales.The “Eurozone” is made up of a union of European states including Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Greece, and most of Scandinavia and northern and eastern Europe.

Asia

This image generously released into the public domain by its creator, historicair.

    • China began probes into possible manipulation of its stock market, after sharp drops wiped out most of 2015’s growth in just a few weeks. The Shanghai exchange, one of the best-performing markets in the world in recent years, more than doubled its value between June of 2014 and June of 2015; but recent losses wiped out trillions of dollars in value.While some parties in China have blamed the crash on short-selling by overseas investors (a practice in which one buys and sells stocks in an intentional pattern so that one reaps profits from their losing value), analysts say that the plunge may in fact simply be a correction, representing the end of value inflation that helped to make the 2014-2015 fiscal year look more productive than it really was.These analysts point out that foreign investors have limited access to the Chinese market.The falling values have prompted investors to sell off stocks in Chinese commodities such as iron ore and steel; the loss of support could hurt those manufacturing markets.
  • Concerns were raised over why India’s government has not yet released the results of a massive survey of women’s and children’s health, conducted with the aid of Unicef last year. No large-scale health survey has been conducted by India’s government since 2007, and this massive survey endeavor involved weighing and measuring 100,000 children, and interviewing almost 200,000 people around India.

    The report was due for publication in October of 2014, but the results still remain secret. This has prompted criticism of the Indian government, particularly because all neighboring countries have released recent up-to-date nutritional surveys. Concerns have been raised that the Indian government may be hiding data which reflects poorly on itself, such as findings of a poor state of health within the populace.India is the world’s second-most populous country, with 1.25 billion of the world’s 7.33 billion people living within its borders.

    That means that nearly 1 in every 5 humans currently alive lives in India. Although India has some of the largest cities in the world and is among the world’s 4 largest economies, malnutrition and poor sanitation leading to death and disease remain major concerns in many parts of the country.

  • North Korea’s national government continued to be widely condemned as the most oppressive in the world, with foreign sources attempting to determine whether North Korean citizens were being properly fed in the wake of a drought which may be hurting crops, without a corresponding increase in grain imports.

    The current government of North Korea has been criticized for possibly the worst intentional human rights abuses in the modern world, with its single-party system and cult of personality surrounding members of the Kim family brutally punishing any perceived lack of support for the state.

    Horror stories which have emerged from the country in recent decades include stories of entire families being jailed on charges of political dissent, female prisoners delivering babies only to have them killed in front of them, and starvation possibly to the point of promoting cannibalism when environmental calamities have resulted in failing crops and these have not been supplemented with food imports.

This wonderful image created by NASA using satellite data.

North America

      • With the next American presidential election looming in November of 2016, would-be presidents have already begun entering the race. Candidates will first go through “primary elections,” in which American citizens vote to select which candidate each political party will run for president; the winning candidates for each party then compete in a general election, which decides who will be the next U.S. president.Although the United States is one of the world’s oldest democracies, it has recently been criticized for not being among its most truly democratic countries.Concerns include the two-party system, which essentially forces American voters to choose between just two candidates who typically have extremely similar platforms; and the role played by money in American elections, where the campaign spending is strongly correlated with a campaign’s success, and corporations and individuals can contribute an unlimited amount of money to candidates of their choice.
  • The American Supreme Court made several important landmark rulings which both indicate and strongly influence the course of the American nation’s future. Among them, the Supreme Court ruled that the Affordable Care Act, sometimes referred to as “Obamacare,” was constitutional; and that state-level bans on same-sex marriage were not.

The Affordable Care Act was implemented in 2010 with the goal of expanding access to healthcare for Americans in the wake of skyrocketing costs to consumers which were associated with poor health outcomes.Among its provisions, it forbids private health insurance companies, which insure most Americans, from denying people healthcare due to pre-existing medical conditions; it also requires them to cover more medical goods and services, and set up a system of government subsidies to help consumers pay the costs to the insurance companies.

The law has been viciously criticized by American conservatives as a case of government overreach into the private sector, with some claiming that the law’s provisions were so poorly planned as to result in a net increase in health insurance costs and a net loss of health insurance coverage. Most figures, however, show that millions more Americans now have health insurance than they did prior to the passage of the act.

The gay marriage ruling elated the roughly 60% of Americans who believe that same-sex couples should be given equal legitimacy and legal rights in the eyes of the law; it caused outrage among the roughly 40% of Americans who believe that same-sex unions are unhealthy and morally unacceptable. Many American conservatives have expressed fear that this denial by the government of their values would lead to wide-spread persecution of Christians who hold to Biblical ideas of sexual morality.

  • Mexico has continued to suffer from rampant violence related to drug cartels which, in some cases, control entire towns along narcotics shipping routes and have been known to execute dozens of people at a time over often-incorrect suspicions that they were members of rival gangs. Most recently, 22 Mexican civilians were killed, not by gangs, but by Mexican soldiers who had been ordered to execute “criminals…at night, since that is when most crimes are committed.”

What is now being called the Tlatlaya Massacre was initially described by the Mexican Army as a gun fight between armed forces and an armed crime gang; but subsequent evidence and testimonies revealed that at least a dozen of those killed had been executed in cold blood, not as a matter of self-defense.The military order encouraging the execution of criminals has subsequently come under fire from the National Human Rights Commission. The offending order also conflicts with the Mexican Army’s official policy of forbidding use of firearms by soldiers except in self-defense.

Seven soldiers are currently facing homicide charges over the event, and seven police investigators are facing charges of torturing three women in an attempt to cover up the truth of the events. Several families of the victims say they have not yet received compensation from the government for the killings.

South America

This image generously released into the public domain by Yug.

    • The United Nations has reported that Colombian coca farmers appear to have upped their production by 44% in the last year. Coca, a plant with psychoactive properties traditionally used by indigenous South Americans in religious ceremonies, to give them energy, and to help them adjust to the high altitudes of the Andes mountains, can be refined using chemical processing techniques into extremely addictive forms such as crack cocaine.Cocaine has become a major source of income for many South American criminal organizations, and a major source of crime in the United States, where the substance is illegal but still used frequently by those with the money to buy it.Fighting cocaine trafficking has become a major criminal problem for South America, where anti-government rebels and crime gangs can generate lucrative income by selling cocaine in the U.S., where it is illegal yet highly sought-after by some of the world’s wealthiest people. This flow of drugs-for-money has spawned a great deal of crime in the United States and South America alike, sometimes threatening to destabilize entire national governments as drug cartels grow in wealth and influence.
  • Puerto Rico faces a public debt crisis of its own, much like the one in Greece. While business owners complain about increasing sales taxes in an effort to produce more government revenue, Puerto Rico is struggling to pay off $72 billion in debt – that’s over $20,000 of debt for every Puerto Rican citizen. The island’s 14% unemployment rate isn’t helping.

The government has arguably made measures worse by suggesting that Puerto Rico may default on its debts (meaning simply fail to pay them back). This has spooked Puerto Rican markets, who now believe that lenders may be unwilling to lend further money to the island and are not sure where further money will come from.

With unemployment high, no seeming solution to the country’s infrastructure problems in sight, and continual arguing over whether government efforts to generate revenue from private business transactions are helping or hurting the situation – Puerto Rico has been losing about 1% of its population to immigration each year. Most of those who leave Puerto Rico, often bright young students and professionals, go to the mainland United States.

  • Pope Francis, the spiritual leader of the roughly 16.4% of the world’s population who are Catholic, is preparing to visit Paraguay and Bolivia. Francis’ papacy has already had an emphasis on social justice and economic equality, and his tour in two of South America’s historically poorest countries is expected to focus heavily on the necessity of alleviating poverty.

Pope Francis himself hails from South America – Argentina to be precise, making him the first Pope ever in the 2000-year history of the Catholic Church not to be born in Europe (unless one counts St. Peter himself who hailed from Israel). This shift of the seat of Catholic power to a South American is logical, since over 90% of the population of South American is Catholic, making it home to about 41% of the world’s Catholics.

Although Bolivia has experienced strong gains in recent years, reducing poverty by 25% and extreme poverty by 43% under President Evo Morales, economic and humanitarian concerns for the country remain strong. Morales, like Pope Francis, is another first – the first President of Bolivia to be of mostly indigenous Bolivian descent. His native heritage and corresponding attitudes and connection to the people are sometimes credited for the extreme success of his cultural and economic reforms.

Oceania

This image generously released into the public domain by its creator, Bongomanrae.

    • Fears were raised in Australia after an investigation by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and Fairfax Media found that members of an Italian crime family appeared to be involved at a high level in Australian politics.The report, which bases its findings on the contents of confidential police reports, alleges that members of the Italian mafia have met with leading members of Australia’s Liberal party at fundraising events. Key Australian political figures also appear to have supported and lobbied against the deportation of a mob boss.

      Although there is no evidence that the politicians in question knew of the criminal connections of the mafiosos, there is still concern that these mob connections could be using their Australian political connections to their advantage, potentially laundering money or raising funds within the country.

  • A new species of lizard has been discovered in Australia, which develops its sex based upon the temperature at which it  incubates in the egg. This trait – where embryos will develop as one sex under high temperatures and a different sex under lower temperatures – is found in many other species of reptiles, including alligators and crocodiles, and some fish.

Scientists have raised concerns about how these species might be effected by climate change, whose predicted global effects by the year 2100 could significantly effect the gender ratios of these species if they do not adapt to the new climate. This may subsequently cause problems for their reproduction.

The complexity of the weather system makes it impossible to predict exactly how temperatures will change in any given area with the data we currently have; but several regions of the world have experienced significant changes in temperature over the past few decades.

  • Three schools in Papua New Guinea will make history in the coming months, as they become the first rural primary schools in the country to teach computer classes. Papua New Guinea, which maintains some regions so un-touched by modernity that they remain home to some of the world’s last remaining cannibal tribes, plays host to big cities but also to rural villages with no road access to centers of commerce.

The Kama Scholars Foundation has donated a total of 18 computers to schools in three of these villages, assuring them that training their young people in computer skills will improve the village’s economic prospects and eventually its standard of living. The Kama Scholars Foundation’s deputy Chairman, Robert Kama, traveled over 8 hours to deliver the computers, along with books for the school’s libraries and sporting equipment.

The subject of modernization in Papua New Guinea has been a sensitive one, with many of its citizens, mostly young people, craving increased connectivity with the modern world and the career and lifestyle prospects it presents. However, development toward modernity is not uniformly seen as a good thing in a place with some of the last untouched jungles and neolithic lifestyles surviving on Earth today.

Space

his wonderful image of the International Space Station taken by NASA from the space shuttle Endeavor as it approached to dock.

    • America has struggled to regain its ability to launch astronauts from American soil, following the decommissioning of the space shuttle, which has not yet been replaced by a vehicle capable of bringing astronauts to the International Space Station.After decommissioning the shuttle, NASA contracted a private company, SpaceX, to create a new launch vehicle for U.S. astronauts. However, three unmanned SpaceX vehicles carrying supplies to the International Space Station have exploded while leaving Earth’s atmosphere so far. As such, no manned vehicle has yet been approved for American use.

      Until the Americans have a new manned space vehicle of their own, they will continue sending American astronauts to the International Space Station using Russian vessels.

  • The U.S. announced plans for its 10th commercial spaceport, slated to be located near Houston, Texas. Houston has been a traditional location for the U.S. government’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration mission control, due to its favorable proximity to the equator making launches into orbit slightly easier.

    The spaceport is expected to host operations such as the launch of commercial microsatellites and the manufacture of commercial spacecraft. It is also expected to be a proving ground for horizontal launch vehicles – that is, space vehicles that take off using runways like an aircraft rather than using vertical rocket propulsion.

    Crafts which could use the new spaceport’s horizontal runway setup include Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser space plane, which takes off vertically but lands horizontally; a horizontal takeoff and landing vehicle under development by Intuitive Systems, and Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo. The former two vehicles have been proposed as couriers for supplies to and from the International Space Station, while the last is planned to be used primarily for space tourism.

  • The U.S.-made probe New Horizons will become the first human-made probe to fly  by Pluto on July 14th. The flyby is expected to yield new data about Pluto, once considered the oddball among planets and more recently discovered to be one of many non-planet objects orbiting the Sun as part of the Oort cloud.

Pluto could tell us much about what exists at the fringes of our solar system – and beyond its limits.

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Why Are We Making Ourselves Miserable?

Originally posted on Breaking the Cycle:

What is necessary to make a better world?

Fruggo_CC_1.0 Fruggo / CC_1.0

One thing that is almost never talked about – and yet which seems to be a huge problem for developed nations – is whether we are wisely allocating our time to make us happy.

We hear about productivity. More of it is assumed to be a good thing. And yet we rarely talk about how we are measuring productivity. Is it in material goods produced? In money spent?

Are either of those things good reflections of happiness or virtue?

In his 2009 article “Can’t Get There From Here?” Stanley Schmidt points out that as automation has decreased the amount of human labor necessary for survival, instead of giving us more free time to live, love, and pursue happiness and virtue, we have created new, completely unnecessary, work for ourselves.

Consider our standards for social acceptability: material goods, which often don’t…

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