Forget the steaming, record heat along the East Coast or the hundreds of peat fires in Russia. It is easy to attribute summer’s soaring mercury to El Niño weather patterns or long-term weather cycles. (We can’t blame sunspots because they have practically disappeared.) Across the northern Rockies, however, signs of long-term global warming have been fast accumulating. Northern pine beetles have destroyed vast tracts of white bark pine, greatly reducing the mountains’ capacity to control snowmelt and prevent spring flooding downstream. At the same time, the golden marmot population in the same ranges has been exploding, and growing fatter too, because of the longer warm seasons in the high country. Nonetheless, Congress failed last month to produce a climate bill before its summer recess.
The House once again did its part, but the Senate, as usual, decided against bringing a bill to the floor. House members are fuming. They took a brave vote in a difficult political season, only to be abandoned by the upper house and by the White House. They worry that constituents, fearful that gasoline taxes and utility bills will rise under a climate bill, will take it out on them at the polls. The administration, with a go-ahead decision from the Supreme Court in 2007, may attempt to meet its international commitments by allowing the Environmental Protection Agency to curtail carbon emissions through regulation. While regulation may provide the hoped-for reductions in the short and medium term, it is not likely to build the national consensus that outspoken leadership on behalf of a climate bill might have begun to create. In addition, unlike a law, agency regulation can be easily overturned by another administration.
Afghanistan, the world’s largest opium producer, now finds its own population to be a major consumer of narcotics, with widespread addiction among all age groups. Both production and drug use have greatly increased over the past five years. The trauma of three decades of war-related strife has led many to turn to opium-based drugs as a way to dull the pain of their difficult existence. The typical addict, according to a U.N. report in June, is a 28-year-old male, married with children but separated from his wife. Women too become addicted, especially those who are widowed or divorced. Half of opium-using parents who cannot afford medicine give the drug to their children to assuage pain. Complicating the situation is that there are few treatment facilities for those who seek help. Over half a million people have no access to addiction treatment.
Poppy cultivation has increased in the southern provinces partly because of greater access to irrigation and fertilizers. Efforts to reduce the overall number of poppy fields have met with limited success because the crops bolster families’ incomes, and farmers are reluctant to switch to food crops that would earn them much less. Moreover, Taliban militants fund their insurgency partly by taxing farmers on their poppy crops. There are no easy answers for a problem that threatens the well-being of an increasing number of Afghanistan’s addicted inhabitants. More resources are needed to address this crisis, but corruption and fallout from the nine-year coalition war cast doubt on that possibility.
Profit and Loss
Liberal and conservative economists agree: Actions taken by the Bush and Obama administrations and the Federal Reserve saved the world economy from a depression. Nonetheless, people and pundits are restive. Public anxiety over the slow economic recovery is real. It is also projected onto President Obama. Do we need a second stimulus? Should the president renew the Bush tax cuts for upper-income earners? Ease up on the big banks? In keeping with the pattern of the last two recoveries, business activity in our stratified economy is anemic. There are six job-seekers available for every opening. Measures of household wealth are in decline, not just because of the collapse in the housing market, but because of the long-term decline in wages and the rise in inequality.
Few seem to hold the banks that brought on the economic collapse accountable for the lack of lending or lay criticism on major corporations for their lack of hiring. The financial sector has recovered. In some cases, banking profits are close to record highs and so are salaries and bonuses. Still, banks hesitate to extend loans for fear, they say, of sluggish consumer spending. Yet consumer spending will not rise unless more workers have more to spend. Corporate profits are growing because of greater productivity—that is, companies are getting more work out of employees for the same or lower pay. In the meantime, according to Bloomberg BusinessWeek, corporations are sitting on nearly $2 trillion in cash—enough for two new stimulus bills, with some to spare. The federal government has done its part to save the economy and protect workers. It is time for businesses, especially the banks, to do their fair share to invest in the future of the country and the well-being of their fellow Americans.