September 18, 2014

Inside the Islamic State

We're looking inside the Islamic State: as a phenomenon and as America's latest enemy in the endless war on terror. Do we know who they are, or how we plan to defeat them? President Obama says they aren't Islamic and aren't a state. It's clear they're a dangerous mad storm of Arab anger armed, in part, with hand-me-down American weapons. Could this be the coming Caliphate that Dick Cheney warned us against? What if it’s blowback that his Iraq War fired up?

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Guest List

• John Mearsheimer, historian and father of the realists at the University of Chicago, and author, most recently, of “How the West Caused the Ukraine Crisis” in Foreign Affairs.

• As’ad AbuKhalil, scholar, blogger at The Angry Arab News Service, and author of The Battle for Saudi Arabia.

• Patrick Cockburn, journalist for the Independent and author of The Jihadis Return

• Hugh Roberts, historian of Algeria and the great explicator of Middle Eastern politics at Tufts University.

We’re looking inside the Islamic State: as a phenomenon and as America’s latest enemy in the endless war on terror. Do we know who they are, or how we plan to defeat them? President Obama says they aren’t Islamic and aren’t a state. It’s clear they’re a dangerous mad storm of Arab anger armed, in part, with hand-me-down American weapons. Could this be the coming Caliphate that Dick Cheney warned us against? What if it’s blowback that his Iraq War fired up? For a little perspective, let’s look back at the beginning of the Islamic State, known in 2004 as Al-Qaeda in Iraq:

Reading List

  • Our guest Patrick Cockburn has posted a typical excerpt of his new book, The Jihadis Return, on Vice (where you can also see the definitive news documentary on ISIS).
  • The myths regarding ISIS, brought to you by Vox. These include: “ISIS is irrational”, “ISIS’s extremism is popular”, and “the U.S. could destroy ISIS.”
  • The FBI veteran, the moral hero of the torture moment in American policy, and now private analyst Ali Soufan gives America a reality check on Mideast strategy in The Guardian:

“…There can be no purely military solution, and it cannot be carried on by the West. When Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iraq, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, Turkey and, yes, even Iran, finally act as if the future stability of their region is at stake, only then will the tide turn. Only when the world – and specifically the region now plagued by bin Ladenism – is vested in the outcome will we prevent Isis from making bin Laden’s rhetoric more of a reality.”

  • Iranians looking at the Islamic State see it as an American invention designed to drive a rift through the Mideast.
  • The ISIS strategy dates, according to several writers, from 2004 — to The Management of Savagery, something of a hit book among Sunni extremists.
  • Our friend Steve Kinzer is praising Obama’s calm handling of ISIS in The Boston Globe, and recommending cooperation with Iran — provided the threat is great enough.

July 20, 2014

Artist in a Revolution: Ganzeer and his Wounded Cat

It’s a thrill to read about the graffiti genius Ganzeer in the New York Times Sunday Arts Section, and about his prominence in a big show at the New Museum in Manhattan. And it’s a chill to discover that Ganzeer is a refugee in Brooklyn now — because Egypt under military dictatorship again is not a safe place for an artist of revolution. Ganzeer’s imprint on the walls of Cairo was my epiphany in 2012 about the depth of the art and passion under the so-called Arab Spring, and the universal reach of its graphic language.

 It’s a thrill to read about the graffiti genius Ganzeer in the New York Times Sunday Arts Section, and about his prominence in a big show at the New Museum in Manhattan. And it’s a chill to discover that Ganzeer is a refugee in Brooklyn now — because Egypt under military dictatorship again is not a safe place for an artist of revolution. Ganzeer’s imprint on the walls of Cairo was my epiphany in 2012 about the depth of the art and passion under the so-called Arab Spring, and the universal reach of its graphic language. So I’m re-posting that enlightening moment, and linking to a few of our conversations with Arab artists that, after so many reversals, feel still current: the novelist of The Yacoubian Building, Alaa Al Aswany and the historian, Khaled FahmyMy brief season in Cairo in 2012 was also a grave crisis moment in Gaza.

CAIRO — A coin dropped yesterday as I was looking at Ganzeer‘s painting of a wounded cat in the stylish little Safarkhan Gallery on Brazil St in Zamalek. This is what I came for — the painting and the feeling it induces. Out of an Egyptian tradition of cats and calligraphy, it’s a stunning large (guess: 8′ x 4′) canvas of a cat: fur painted in red; left eye shot out and bandaged, right eye on the horizon. It’s an irresistible image of suffering and survival in a revolution. In an all-Ganzeer show just being taken down, called “The Virus is Spreading,” the cat painting is the piece I would steal. Ganzeer himself is in Berlin, doing a month’s workshop — which tells you something about the spreading of his insight and his touch. Not yet 30, he is exemplifying and teaching defiance in his young generation in the face of every establishment, though in a familiar Egyptian language. Mona Said, daughter of the gallery founder, says Ganzeer (aka Mohamed Fahmy, aka Mofa) was a painter before he was a graffiti artist, and always more humanist than painter.

Immediately, I thought, here’s a statement that will keep, or is keeping, the revolution deeply alive in the world, a current more charged than politics or journalism or social media, finding its own network and resonance. Ganzeer as I imagine him has something in common with the young rockers and rappers in the decorated Egyptian film “Microphone” about the music underground pre-revolution in Alexandria; except that Ganzeer has a much grander talent and now global reach. The musicians remind me of our own Amanda Palmer — defiant energy and confidence to “make art every day” … and then? Ganzeer reminds me more of the late Joseph Beuys (1921 – 1986): “every man is a plastic artist who must determine things for himself.” Ganzeer’s work looks more considered, more beautifully executed, older, newer, more political, more universal than anything new I can think of. It’s worthy of a book project to decode this work, and find the others. Part of the fun of his work, specially this cat, is the element of old “Pharaonic” Egypt about it: the semi-sacred cat who symbolizes freedom and endurance, not to mention the Egyptian tradition of formalist painting on the walls of tombs. The words in the stylized Arabic script come from the cat, in a vernacular Egyptian expression: “One day he entertains me. The other day I’m on my own. And I can work with that.”

Ganzeer — painter, graffiti master, humanist — in Cairo. Photo Credit: Baldwin Portraits

July 17, 2014

Lines In The Sand

The borders that divide up our modern world hinge, sometimes, on decisions that have stopped making sense. The Middle East is still suffering from unhealed wounds resulting from the boundaries established a hundred years ago in secret by two men, Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot, that carved the former Ottoman empire into today's Middle East. As geopolitics changes around the world, why don't those political maps?
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Guest List

Juan Cole, academic, blogger and tireless watcher of the Middle East — his new book is called The New Arabs: How The Millennial Generation is Changing the Middle East.

Seyla Benhabib, the Yale political scientist and a philosopher of borders and cosmopolitanism.

Labib Nasir, a Palestinian reporter for Reuters who covered the Arab Spring from North Africa.

The borders that divide up our modern world hinge, sometimes, on decisions that have stopped making sense. The Middle East is still suffering from unhealed wounds resulting from the boundaries established a hundred years ago in secret by two men, Mark Sykes and Francois Georges Picot, that carved the former Ottoman empire into today’s Middle East. As geopolitics changes around the world, why don’t those political maps?

 

Read More

• Our friend Stephen Kinzer launched the conversation this week in The Boston Globe, writing on the flexibility of human borders and the news from Iraq and Syria;

• Juan Cole says the Arab Spring dream, apparently lost in fighting across borders and crackdowns within them, isn’t dead yet in The Los Angeles Times;

• John Judis and Nick Danforth have already playing out one side of the debate this week.

In The New Republic, Judis makes an argument we’ve seen many times since 2003: that the Middle East as a colonial creation, is coming undone. Danforth’s response, in the Atlantic, sees that line of thought as dangerously out-of-focus. The real disaster, he writes, was “the truly pernicious policy of divide-and-rule that the French and British used to sustain their power… The militarization of these ethnic and religious identities, rather than the failure of perfectly placed state borders to alleviate tension between them, explains much of violence in the Middle East today.

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• There’s another geo-controversy brewing around our guest Juan Cole’s mapping of shrinking Palestinian territory since 1948. Cole sees the maps as proof that the hardcore Israeli leadership has no plans to stop settling the West Bank or to accept anything short of a unified Israel. The Netanyahu government confirmed some of those fears this week, with a snub to Biden and a declaration of intent, off the radar of the American media.

• Frank Jacobs, geographer of the odd, took on the borders separating Israel and Palestine and India and Pakistan in his fine Times blog, “Borderlines”.

• Finally, glimpses of hope on the horizon: the president of Iraqi Kurdistan visits Ankara this week, seeking to ease some of his nation’s tense history with the Turks. And Haaretz asks for a revolution in Israeli culture as a step toward attacking the crisis at its roots in hearts and minds.

July 10, 2014

One Nation Under Surveillance

It’s the artists — from Orwell of Nineteen Eighty-Four, to Philip Dick and Margaret Atwood, to Trevor Paglen and Banksy — who raise the big questions: about voyeurism, about safety and risk, and the essence of our public and private selves. Is there a book or a movie that tells us what kind of world are we living in, or where the surveillance state begins and ends? What impact does mass surveillance have on our selves, on our national psyche, on the way we interact with each other, on the art we make and the way we live?
The Five NSA Programs You Should Know About

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Guest List

What do we envision when we envision the surveillance state?

The latest item in the Snowden surveillance files comes from  Barton Gellman of The Washington Post, who tells us that the messages of law-abiding Americans outnumber ‘legitimate’ targets of NSA surveillance nine to one. We’re talking about love stories now, trysts, hook-ups, mental-health crises, political and religious conversions, financial nightmares. They have no ‘intelligence value’, but the NSA is saving them all the same.

Still, there doesn’t seen to be any real outrage. We the People under surveillance seem to be confused about how much our liberty and our privacy are worth in exchange for convenience  and connectedness. We beg to be followed on Twitter and stalked on Facebook, even as we’re wonder, in an abstract way, how bad it would be to pop up on a government watch list.

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It’s the artists — from Orwell of Nineteen Eighty-Four, to Philip Dick and Margaret Atwood, to Trevor Paglen and Banksy — who raise the big questions: about voyeurism, about safety and risk, and the essence of our public and private selves. Is there a book or a movie that tells us what kind of world are we living in, or where the surveillance state begins and ends? What impact does mass surveillance have on our selves, on our national psyche, on the way we interact with each other, on the art we make and the way we live?

Here’s a short excerpt with the surveillance artist Trevor Paglen:

For a lot of moviegoers the thought of the surveillance state conjures the entirely sinister images of East Germany under totalitarian Communist control after World War II – all of it made vivid in the film “The Lives of Others” from 2006 about an eavesdropper for the security police known as the Stasi. Fritz Pleitgen was a celebrated correspondent for German TV during the Cold War, and warns us about giving up our privacy.

Read More

  • Our friends at the Boston Review convened a forum on privacy and surveillance, with the former FCC chairman Reed Hundt at the center, and comments from Rebecca MacKinnon, Evgeny Morozov, and Richard Stallman.
  • Glenn Greenwald has argued that we’re closer to Nineteen Eighty-Four than we’re willing to admit, while our other guest Benjamen Walker sees it differently on his Theory of Everything podcast;
  • Judith Donath traces the line between public and private space in this lecture;
  • The photographer Trevor Paglen told a conference this winter that secrecy doesn’t describe all the things we’re not allowed to know, but rather a behavior of powerful people — a whole world, with a look and a feel, if you care to seek it out.
  • Facebook has been manipulating your mood, and you can read about it at The Atlantic.
  • Michael P. Lynch on privacy and the threat to the self on the New York Times philosophy blog.

Photo credit: Trevor Paglen; Flickr. 

Podcast • June 30, 2014

Stokely Carmichael and Black Power

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act. At the end of June, 1964, Stokely Carmichael, Martin Luther King Jr., and hundreds of civil rights activists marched across Mississippi to register African-American voters in one of the turning points of the civil rights movement. In remembrance of that "Freedom Summer," we're republishing this show with the Carmichael biographer Peniel Joseph, historian Isabel Wilkerson, and activist Jamarhl Crawford.
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Stokeley Carmichael at UC Berkeley’s Greek Theater, October 29, 1966

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act. At the end of June, 1964, Stokely Carmichael, Martin Luther King Jr., and hundreds of civil rights activists marched across Mississippi to register African-American voters in one of the turning points of the civil rights movement. In remembrance of that “Freedom Summer,” we’re republishing our show with the Carmichael biographer Peniel Joseph, historian Isabel Wilkerson, and activist Jamarhl Crawford.
Stokely Carmichael was a down-home organizer and radical off-beat visionary of racial equality in America 50 years ago, a quicksilver activist, theorist, street hero, preacher and prophet of black revolution in America and the world.  He’s in the civil rights pantheon, for sure, but he’s still struggling in spirit with the leadership, especially the example of Martin Luther King; and he’s still a scarecrow in the memory of white America.   Stokely Carmichael had some of Malcolm X’s fury and fire, and some of the comedian Richard Pryor’s gift with a punchline, too.  “Black power” was his slogan that became a chant, that built his bad-boy celebrity and awakened a political generation but may also have been his undoing in the 1960s.  So what does a half-century’s hindsight make of the man and his Pan-African vision?  And while we’re at it: what would Stokely Carmichael make of black power today – looking at Hollywood, Hip Hop,  the White House, and prisons and poverty?

Reading List

  • Stokely Carmichael, “What We Want,” from The New York Review of Books (1966):

An organization which claims to speak for the needs of a community, as does the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, must speak in the tone of that community, not as somebody else’s buffer zone. This is the significance of black power as a slogan. For once, black people are going to use the words they want to use, not just the words whites want to hear. And they will do this no matter how often the press tries to stop the use of the slogan by equating it with racism or separatism.

  • Black Power: The Politics of Liberation, the bible of the movement, by Carmichael (under his African name, Kwame Ture) and Charles Hamilton;
  • Peniel Joseph talks about his new biography with the Boston Globe, and presents a helpful introduction to Carmichael’s life and legacy at The Root;
  • Two of Jamarhl Crawford’s contributions to the discussion: a speech to Occupy Boston from 2011, and Blackstonian’s ongoing reporting on shootings in the city;
  • Two great films — the episode on the classic series Eyes on the Prize given to the March Against Fear in 1966, and the more recent Black Power Mixtape.

June 13, 2014

China Rising

China is in its own gilded age, says The New Yorker writer Evan Osnos, into a second generation of ultra-modern tech, a still-developing country bristling with billionaires. On the eve of Chris' trip to China, we're wondering how a country with nearly a century of poverty, collectivism, and authoritarian rule adapts to its instant prosperity?
Evan Osnos on China's "Age of Ambition"
Sino-American Relations: An Interactive Timeline

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Guest List

China is in its own gilded age, says The New Yorker writer Evan Osnos, into a second generation of ultra-modern tech, a still-developing country bristling with billionaires. On the eve of Chris’ trip to China, we’re wondering how a country with nearly a century of poverty, collectivism, and authoritarian rule adapts to its explosive (and vastly unequal) wealth.

Podcast • June 12, 2014

Evan Osnos on China’s “Age of Ambition”

On the verge of my own first plunge into China, I’m in conversation with Evan Osnos of The New Yorker. He’s been eight years in the new China, reenacting the role of the foreign correspondent on the grand scale: covering an impossibly big story of politics and culture, police stories and natural disasters, with bold strokes and a novelist’s eye.

 

Evan Osnos 2On the verge of my own first plunge into China, I’m in conversation with Evan Osnos of The New Yorker.  He’s been eight years in the new China, reenacting the role of the foreign correspondent on the grand scale: covering an impossibly big story of politics and culture, police stories and natural disasters, with bold strokes and a novelist’s eye.  

Age of Ambition is the title of a fine hard-cover condensation of what he sees going on in China.  It’s something new in the world – not least as a very long running and high-functioning dictatorship.  But another big pattern he began to see was a mirror of a boom era in American history, the first Gilded Age of expansion building railroads and everything else in the late 19th C.

May 1, 2014

The French Sensation: Income Inequality in 700 Pages and a Hundred Graphs

Capital is a giant, data-packed tome on income inequality covering three hundred years of history by the French economist Thomas Piketty. Is there a reason he’s getting the rock star treatment? Is it the symptoms that resonate so — our drift into oligarchy — or the cure — a progressive tax on wealth?
A Piketty Primer: "Capital" in 10 Graphs

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Guest List

 

The hottest book everybody is talking about, that no one has read and no can get their hands on, is a giant, data-packed tome on income inequality covering three hundred years of history by the French economist Thomas Piketty. Is there a reason he’s getting the rock star treatment? Is it the symptoms that resonate (our drift into oligarchy), or is it the cure (a progressive tax on wealth)?

 

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A rock star?

For a French economist, sure: Capital in the 21st Century is expected to sell 200,000 copies in the first month. Both The New Yorker and New York have covered the book’s success and Piketty’s whirlwind tour of the States, which is surprising everyone. It’s being praised as a ‘watershed’ entry in economic thought by Paul Krugman, blogger Tyler Cowen, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, whose own book, A Fighting Chance, was for a while runner-up to Piketty on Amazon’s bestseller list.

When asked about the book’s appeal, Warren told a crowd in Cambridge: “He’s got good historical data, and boy, what it shows is trickle down doesn’t work. Never did, doesn’t work… I just saved you 1,100 pages of reading.” The book shows more and less than that, but Warren should understand the book’s appeal. Piketty’s earlier research into income distribution helped provide the Occupy Wall Street protests with its rhetoric of 99% vs. 1%. He’s long been setting the conversation on the structure and the consequences of inequality; now he has announced himself. (Maybe if half the people who bought the book read it, there could be “Piketty clubs” the way there were once “Bellamy clubs”. Or maybe Capital could be the next Brief History of Time — millions of unread copies worldwide.)

A new Tocqueville?

Maybe. It seems strange that, months after our president abandoned the rhetoric of inequality, that Piketty, who left MIT years ago, has such a great resonance. In fact much of his book is about Britain and France, which have the deepest stores of tax data going back to the 18th century. But he does make insights, in the style of Tocqueville, into economic life today — for example, “wealth is so concentrated that a large segment of society is virtually unaware of its existence, so that some people imagine that it belongs to surreal or mysterious entities.” These aren’t necessarily unfamiliar truths, but they mean more coming from non-pundits. Arthur Goldhammer, Harvard professor and translator to both Tocqueville and Piketty, draws the comparison in The Daily Beast:

Because Tocqueville was such an assiduous researcher, who returned from his travels in the U.S. with trunkloads of documents filled with statistical data of all kinds, I have no doubt he would have found the data compiled by Thomas Piketty fascinating… He was not wedded to his preconceptions about American society; he came here with his eyes open and modified his opinions as he gathered information and talked with experts who knew more than he did about how the American political system and economy worked.

 

a Marxist?

Not really, though he’s been accused of that and worse. In the Wall Street Journal, Daniel Schuchman reads Piketty as a “bizarre ideological screed” in support of authoritarian, Communist government. Schuchman has supporters among the Amazon reviewers and in the New York Post. But  readers of the book will note that Piketty criticizes Marx for his “anecdotal” approach to economic data and disagrees with features of his picture of capitalism from the very beginning. In an uncharacteristically political interview with the Guardian, Piketty still hesitated to argue for outright socialism.  Piketty’s readers, and especially his non-readers on the American right, are conflating Marxist economics with critical thinking about the current capitalist economy, and that’s too bad.

But, as Matthew Yglesias writes a long, helpful ‘explainer’ at VoxCapital isn’t mainstream American economics, either. It bears its Marx-ish title for a reason: Piketty is worried about capitalism. From the book’s introduction, the book’s central claim is made in relation to Marx’s economic theory:

Modern economic growth and the diffusion of knowledge have made it possible to avoid the Marxist apocalypse but have not modified the deep structures of capital and inequality— or in any case not as much as one might have imagined in the optimistic decades following World War II.

 

a prophet of doom?

 Not according to Piketty himself, who sees himself as (almost) an optimist, according to an interview with Tim Fernholtz at Quartz. Three-quarters of the way into the book, Piketty launches into his solution to the problem of inequality: a progressive tax, coordinated globally, on wealth. He believes that a pro-tax, populist movement like the one that emerged in America in the early twentieth century could materialize and change the political realities. If not, there are problems, however: in the Guardian interview, Piketty argues that the other two roads out of the crisis are Russian-style oligarchy, which he considers “barbaric”, and inflation — a tax on the poor.

 

a savior?

As much as economists left and right have praised the book, there is far broader disagreement about Piketty’s proposed taxes. Tyler Cowen, economist behind Marginal Revolution, concluded in Foreign Affairs that “large wealth taxes do not mesh well with the norms and practices required by a successful and prosperous capitalist democracy. It is hard to find well-functioning societies based on anything other than strong legal, political, and institutional respect and support for their most successful citizens.”

And Paul Krugman, an ardent believer in Piketty and his book, still argued in the New York Review of Books that the prospects of such a tax aren’t good, when the Republican Party, on their way to more political success, “already emphasizes and celebrates capital rather than labor” even though we’re decades behind Europe’s regression into the patrimonial capitalism like that of Balzac and Austen.

Pick your Piketty, and tell us why in a voicemail or comment!

Podcast • April 29, 2014

A Piketty Primer: “Capital” in 10 Graphs

In the Piketty surge to the top of the best-seller list, there's a misleading polemic evolving (and not from people who have read the book, it turns out): it's been attacked on the right as a new call for communism and heralded on the left as proof that capitalism simply doesn't work. Here's my take on Piketty's arguments, in 10 figures from the book.

By Kunal Jasty

In the Piketty surge to the top of the best-seller list, there’s a misleading polemic evolving (and not from people who have read the book, it turns out):  it’s been attacked on the right as a new call for communism and heralded on the left as proof that capitalism simply doesn’t work. Here’s my take on Piketty’s arguments, in 10 figures from the book. 

1. A person’s income in the United States is comprised of labor income and capital income. Let’s look at labor income first. The top 10% of American earners currently receive 35% of all wages (labor income), while the top 1% receive 12%. Europe, and especially the Scandinavian countries, has far lower levels of labor income inequality.

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 2. But both Europe and the United States have high levels of capital inequality, with the top 10% owning 60% of all capital in Europe and 70% of all capital in the United States. We’re not yet at European turn of the century levels, though, when the top 10% owned 90% of all capital, but we’re certainly heading in that direction.

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3. When we combine labor income and income from capital, we get total income. 50% of total income goes to the top 10% in the United States, while 20% goes to the top 1%. In 2030, Piketty predicts that 60% of all income will go to the top 10% of Americans.

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4.  In the United States, the top 1% are doing well because of extraordinarily high wages, which leads to rapid capital accumulation. Piketty calls these high-earners “supermanagers,” the financial and non-financial executives who set their own salaries.

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5. Taxes, combined with huge capital losses in WWI and WWII, resulted in a rate of return to capital (r) lower than the global growth of GDP (g) during the last century. Because r < g, income inequality decreased during the postwar period and stayed flat until 1980.

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6. But global economic growth is largely an effect of population growth, which can’t continue at current rates. If today’s growth rate continued at 1.1% per year, the world’s population would be over 26 billion by the year 2100.

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7. And top marginal tax rates are still low, especially in the United States.

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8. With r < g, income inequality dropped dramatically in the United States during the postwar period. Now that r > g,  income inequality is on the rise once again.

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9. So is the world capital/income ratio

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10. And who benefits most from capital income (in other terms, who receives the majority of their income from capital income rather than labor income)? Not the top 10% or 5%, but the top .1%!

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Podcast • April 11, 2014

Richard Rhodes: Is the Knowledge of Nukes Enough?

Richard Rhodes is the go-to analyst of nuclear weapons for most of thirty years now ever since the publication of his acclaimed history of the Manhattan project and the mostly men and the science and the political emergency behind it. His first masterpiece was called The Making of the Atomic Bomb. He’s even written a play about the Reykjavík Summit between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, perhaps the closest we’ve been so far to the total abolition of nuclear arms.

rrRichard Rhodes is the go-to analyst of nuclear weapons for most of thirty years now ever since the publication of his acclaimed history of the Manhattan project and the mostly men and the science and the political emergency behind it. His first masterpiece was called The Making of the Atomic Bomb. He’s even written a play about the Reykjavík Summit between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, perhaps the closest we’ve been so far to the total abolition of nuclear arms.