While the United States resolved its own (manufactured) brush with default last week, global stocks have continued to slide on the more legitimate threat posed by the sorry fiscal state of several European countries. Greece was the recipient of a major euro zone bailout at the tail end of July—but concerns over its financial stability remain. Spain and Portugal are also facing serious questions, as are Ireland and Iceland.
Volcanic ash is back. No, not a weird new band. For the second year in a row, a volcano in Iceland is spewing ash into the sky. Last year, ash from Eyjafjallajökull (or, as newscasters called it, "the Iceland volcano," "the volcano in Iceland," and any other possible phrase that didn't involve pronouncing Eyjafjallajökull) closed airspace over twenty European countries. This year, the ash is coming not from Eyjafjallajökull, but from nearby Grímsvötn, again cancelling flights in England, Scotland, and Ireland.
I am no fan of the European Union. It is an artificial contraption, run by the corporate and bureaucratic elites of the continent, without democratic sanction because the various peoples subsumed under its rule themselves see that it is without democratic values or ambitions. Had it at least energized the economies of Europe there might be some raison d'être for its intrusive rules which wreak havoc with every member nation's culture and identity. The fact is, however, that the prosperous countries are still more or less prosperous, some paradigmatically so.
Ezra Klein has been doing some great blogging from the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is indeed full of ideas--some good, some not so good. Into the latter category I would put some remarks by former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, as relayed by Ezra today: Coming to the issue of taxes, this gets to the more fundamental issue of the effects of taxation and spending cuts. There are several studies out there evaluating past efforts at fiscal restraint that show the heavy weight of successful contraction has been on the spending side.
Of course, scapegoats are intrinsic to the language of politics. And scapegoats are particularly useful to ignorant politicians. The fact is that most politicians do not know the slightest about how finance—public or private—actually operates. It is for them a matter of good and evil—mostly good when prosperity reigns, mostly evil when prosperity collapses.
That the Icelandic volcano that has shut down much of Europe’s air travel has ripple effects around the globe is well known. A recent article in the New York Times quotes the Center for Asia Pacific Aviation saying: "The Ash Attack has already affected the travel plans of eight million passengers in Europe and around the world. The total cost for the aviation industry (airlines, airports, suppliers, freight operators, handlers, etc.) could be well over $2 billion." But what U.S. metros are impacted the most? Reports abound about delays from Chicago to Orlando and Miami.
Setting aside all the questions about air travel and global cooling, have there been any other environmental consequences from the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull? As best I can tell from trawling around various news sources, the effects have actually been pretty mild—though they could get a lot worse if Eyjafjallajökull's sister volcano Katla erupted (the two have a storied history of blowing up one after the other).
Back in 1991, Mount Pinatubo erupted in the Philippines and kicked up nearly 20 million tons of sulfur-dioxide into the air. The particles spread across the global atmosphere, scattering a greater portion of sunlight back into space, and ended up cooling the Earth by about 0.4°C for a spell. (The sulfuric haze also caused further damage to the ozone layer.) The eruption was a horrible disaster for the immediate area—destroying homes and farmland and kicking up all sorts of nasty air pollution.
The way we're warming the planet, we can probably expect sea levels to rise at least a meter, on average, by the end of the century. That's what most scientific projections suggest, anyway. One kink, though, is that that's just an average—the seas won't go up uniformly by one meter all across the globe. Some places will see much higher rises than that, some places much lower. Michael Lemonick has a great Environment360 piece delving into some of the factors that make sea-level rise so odd and unpredictable.
In the popular imagination, the United States and Europe are assumed to be radically opposing poles--"Mars" and "Venus"--on issues such as market regulation, public education, social policy, health care, crime, and the environment. But is that really the case? The numbers would suggest otherwise. My book, The Narcissism of Minor Differences: How America and Europe are Alike, presents quantifiable data on a wide array of social conditions on each side of the Atlantic.