The Federal shutdown may be the most striking evidence to support claims that America’s political system is broken, but it is far from the only example. Writing in Governance, acclaimed political scientists Norman Ornstein and Jared Diamond explore if tribalism is at the heart of the problem, or if the U.S. is facing a far greater political crisis.
“The state of our overall political process as the most dysfunctional I have seen in over 44 years of watching Washington and American politics up close,” writes Norman Ornstein, from the American Enterprise Institute. “If we are not in the most dysfunctional period in our history, we are certainly in the top five.”
American political history has recorded many inept and ineffectual congresses, from the scandals of the 1970′s to the divided house of the 1860′s, so what makes the 112th and 113th congresses any different? Ornstein argues that the rise in political extremism, manifested in open tribalism, is to blame.
From acts seeking to tighten the rules over gun ownership, to commissions established to tackle America’s debt problem, the list of legislation that has been sunk by tribalism continues to grow into President Obama’s second term.
“Political dysfunction has serious consequences for the health, well-being, and future prospects for the country that go well beyond gridlock or political gamesmanship,” concluded Ornstein. “American history suggests that these problems are cyclical, that eventually we will come out of it and restore a modicum of problem-solving rationality. But ‘eventually’ does not mean anytime soon.”
In contrast, Jared Diamond, writing from the University of California, proposes that the United States is facing four existential threats to its democratic system.
“Our form of government is a big part of the explanation why the United States has become the richest and most powerful country in the world,” said Diamond. “Hence, an undermining of democratic processes in the United States means throwing away one of our biggest advantages.”
Diamond argues that political compromise has been deteriorating in recent decades, that restrictions on voting are reversing the positive historical trend of political enfranchisement, that the gap between rich and poor continues to grow, and that public spending by the government In areas such as education is declining.
“Large segments of the American populace deride government investment as ‘socialism,’ but it is not socialism. On the contrary, it is one of the longest established functions of government,” said Diamond.
As production of shale gas soars, the industry’s effects on nature and wildlife remain largely unexplored, according to a study by a group of conservation biologists published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment on August 1.
The report emphasizes the need to determine the environmental impact of chemical contamination from spills, well-casing failure, and other accidents.
“We know very little about how shale gas production is affecting plants and wildlife,” says author Sara Souther, a conservation fellow in the Department of Botany at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “And in particular, there is a lack of accessible and reliable information on spills, wastewater disposal and the chemistry of fracturing fluids. Of the 24 U.S. states with active shale gas reservoirs, only five maintain public records of spills and accidents.”
The 800 percent increase in U.S. shale gas production between 2007 and 2012 is largely due to the use of hydraulic fracturing. Also called fracking, the process uses high-pressure injection of water, laden with sand and a variety of chemicals, to open cracks in the gas reservoir so natural gas can flow to the well. A similar technique is used for extracting oil from “tight” geologic formations.
The chemical makeup of fracturing fluid and wastewater, which can include carcinogens and radioactive substances, is often unknown. The authors reviewed chemical disclosure statements for 150 wells in three top gas-producing states and found that, on average, two out of three wells were fractured with at least one undisclosed chemical.
Pressured by growing concern about pollution to groundwater and surface water, government and the industry have made some steps toward openness, Souther acknowledges, but she says more progress is needed.
“The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s website is one of the nation’s best sources of publicly available information on spills of fracking fluid, wastewater, and other contaminants. Even so, gas companies failed to report over one third of spills in the last year,” she says. “How many more unreported spills occurred, but were not detected during well inspections? We need accurate data on the release of fracturing chemicals into the environment before we can understand impacts to plants and animals.”
One of the greatest threats to animal and plant life identified in the study is the cumulative impact of rapid, widespread shale development, with each individual well contributing collectively to air, water, noise and light pollution.
“The past has taught us that environmental impacts of large-scale development and resource extraction, whether coal plants, large dams or biofuel monocultures, are more than the sum of their parts,” notes Morgan Tingley, a researcher from University of Connecticut. “We can’t let shale development outpace our understanding of its environmental impacts.”
“If you look down on a heavily fracked landscape,” Souther says, “you see a web of well pads, access roads, and pipelines creating islands out of what was, in some cases, continuous habitat. What are the combined effects of numerous wells and their supporting infrastructure on wide-ranging or sensitive species, like the pronghorn antelope or the hellbender salamander?
“I am from West Virginia, which is underlain by one of the largest shale gas reservoirs in the U.S. However, this industry doesn’t just impact gas-producing states. Here in Wisconsin, shale development is affecting areas that supply sand for use in hydraulic fracturing.”
The study looked broadly at what is known – and what is not – about the conservation impacts of fracking. “Some of the wells in the chemical disclosure registry were fractured with fluid containing 20 or more undisclosed chemicals,” says co-author Kimberly Terrell, a researcher at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. “This is an arbitrary and inconsistent standard of chemical disclosure.”
With shale gas production projected to increase exponentially over the next 30 years, the authors hope the study will guide the application of limited scientific resources to the most important questions, and enhance cooperation among scientists, industry and policymakers to minimize damage to the natural world.
The authors are all David H. Smith Conservation Research Fellows, a project established by the Cedar Tree Foundation and the Society for Conservation Biology. Souther has been a research fellow at UW-Madison for three years. In September, she will begin a professorship at West Virginia Wesleyan College in West Virginia.
An Indiana University study has found that three easy — one could even say slow — 5-minute walks can reverse harm caused to leg arteries during three hours of prolonged sitting.
Sitting for long periods of time, like many people do daily at their jobs, is associated with risk factors such as higher cholesterol levels and greater waist circumference that can lead to cardiovascular and metabolic disease. When people sit, slack muscles do not contract to effectively pump blood to the heart. Blood can pool in the legs and affect the endothelial function of arteries, or the ability of blood vessels to expand from increased blood flow.
This study is the first experimental evidence of these effects, said Saurabh Thosar, a postdoctoral researcher at Oregon Health & Science University, who led the study as a doctoral candidate at IU’s School of Public Health-Bloomington.
“There is plenty of epidemiological evidence linking sitting time to various chronic diseases and linking breaking sitting time to beneficial cardiovascular effects, but there is very little experimental evidence,” Thosar said. “We have shown that prolonged sitting impairs endothelial function, which is an early marker of cardiovascular disease, and that breaking sitting time prevents the decline in that function.”
The researchers were able to demonstrate that during a three-hour period, the flow-mediated dilation, or the expansion of the arteries as a result of increased blood flow, of the main artery in the legs was impaired by as much as 50 percent after just one hour. The study participants who walked for 5 minutes each hour of sitting saw their arterial function stay the same — it did not drop throughout the three-hour period. Thosar says it is likely that the increase in muscle activity and blood flow accounts for this.
“American adults sit for approximately eight hours a day,” he said. “The impairment in endothelial function is significant after just one hour of sitting. It is interesting to see that light physical activity can help in preventing this impairment.”
The study involved 11 non-obese, healthy men between the ages of 20-35 who participated in two randomized trials. In one trial they sat for three hours without moving their legs. Researchers used a blood pressure cuff and ultrasound technology to measure the functionality of the femoral artery at baseline and again at the one-, two- and three-hour mark.
In the second trial, the men sat during a three-hour period but also walked on a treadmill for 5 minutes at a speed of 2 mph at the 30-minute mark, 1.5-hour mark and 2.5-hour mark. Researchers measured the functionality of the femoral artery at the same intervals as in the other trial.
People living in countries with governments that spend more on social services report being more contented, according to a Baylor University study.
“The effect of state intervention into the economy equals or exceeds marriage or employment status – two traditional predictors of happiness – when it comes to satisfaction,” said Patrick Flavin, Ph.D., assistant professor of political science in Baylor’s College of Arts & Sciences.
The study – “Assessing the Impact of the Size and Scope of Government on Human Well-Being” – is published in the journal Social Forces. The researchers analyzed data from 21 advanced industrialized countries collected by the World Values Survey from 1981 to 2007, with nearly 50,000 respondents.
The Great Recession from December 2007 to June 2009 intensified debate about how much governments should intervene into the market economy. Conservatives and right-leaning political parties tend to champion free market capitalism and are critical of government intervention, maintaining it can lead to inefficiency and waste that hurts employment, wages, and economic growth. By contrast, left-leaning political parties and labor organizations argue for more intervention into the market to even out the ups and downs of the business cycle, Flavin said.
“We assessed respondents’ subjective well-being using a very straightforward question: ‘All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days?’” Flavin said. On a scale of 1 to 10 — with 10 the highest level of satisfaction — the average rating for all respondents for the duration of the survey was 7.48. The United States was ranked at No. 11 out of 21 countries on the list, with an average rating of 7.61.
Four measures of government policies were used by Flavin and co-researchers at the University of Notre Dame and Texas A&M University:
- The overall size of government consumption as a percentage of national gross domestic product.
- Social welfare expenditures as a percentage of the gross domestic product.
- Welfare state generosity measured in terms of the ease of access to welfare benefits, the expansiveness of coverage to citizens of different statuses and life circumstances, and the degree to which social benefits replace incomes lost due to unemployment, retirement, or family circumstances.
- Labor market regulations governing such circumstances as job dismissals, temporary employment, and mass layoffs.
The study’s findings held true regardless of whether respondents were rich or poor. The researchers also ruled out alternative explanations such as an individual’s health, education level, and marital status as well as the gross national product and unemployment rate of the country that he or she lives in.
“Are we saying we need a bigger government to be happier? No,” Flavin said. “Instead, our goal is to objectively examine the data and let people draw their own conclusions. If anything, this study is a conversation-starter about what role we envision for government in our lives and the advantages and disadvantages of government intervention into the market economy.”
Countries ranked from most to least satisfied – with 10 the highest level of satisfaction – included:
- Denmark: 8.20
- Switzerland: 8.10
- Iceland: 8.04
- Ireland: 7.95
- Austria: 7.95
- Finland: 7.82
- Sweden: 7.82
- Canada: 7.82
- Norway: 7.78
- Netherlands: 7.76
- United States: 7.61
- Australia: 7.58
- Great Britain: 7.51
- Belgium: 7.49
- Germany: 7.08
- Italy: 7.05
- Portugal: 7.05
- Spain: 6.96
- France: 6.85
- Greece: 6.67
- Japan: 6.63
Co-researchers were Benjamin Radcliff, Ph.D., professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame; and Alexander C. Pacek, Ph.D., associate professor of political science at Texas A&M University.
ABOUT BAYLOR UNIVERSITY
Baylor University is a private Christian university and a nationally ranked research institution, characterized as having “high research activity” by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The university provides a vibrant campus community for approximately 15,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating university in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 80 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 11 nationally recognized academic divisions. Baylor sponsors 19 varsity athletic teams and is a founding member of the Big 12 Conference.
ABOUT BAYLOR COLLEGE OF ARTS & SCIENCES
The College of Arts & Sciences is Baylor University’s oldest and largest academic division, consisting of 26 academic departments and 13 academic centers and institutes. The more than 5,000 courses taught in the College span topics from art and theatre to religion, philosophy, sociology and the natural sciences. Faculty conduct research around the world, and research on the undergraduate and graduate level is prevalent throughout all disciplines.
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