Good Reads: Oil's future, wealth in Africa, 'Occupy' failure, progress in Mexico, and the Tsarnaevs

This week’s round-up of Good Reads includes the question "What if we never run out of oil?", a profile of African wealth divides, the 'Occupy Wall Street' movement's failure to leave a lasting imprint, and a profile of the Tsarnaev family.

Nathan W. Armes/Reuters/File
A protester at an ‘Occupy Denver’ rally in Denver, Colo., in November 2011.

It’s increasingly possible that the world may never run out of fossil fuel. The cheap and plentiful natural gas that fracking has brought to your local pipelines may be just a precursor to a much larger and more global reserve stored as methane hydrate – basically frozen natural gas – in vast volumes in the world’s seabeds.

The cover story of the latest Atlantic magazine asks, “What if we never run out of oil?” By which it mainly means natural gas. Ten years ago, author Charles Mann notes, mainstream analysts dismissed the potential of fracking (short for hydraulic fracturing) to unlock new stores of gas. How wrong they were. Now the promise of methane hydrate, he suggests, could be vastly greater, and that scenario is a mixed bag: long-sought energy independence for nations such as Japan; cleaner emissions from countries such as coal-burning China; curtailing of the power of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries; some greater instability as fewer countries around the world need to trade for energy; perhaps even sea-bottom territorial disputes. But the biggest downside pointed to by Mr. Mann is that plentiful natural gas, while relatively clean, could delay moving to a post-carbon world altogether.

Wealth doesn’t always end poverty

Oil and gas often lead to the so-called resource curse, whereby countries blessed by the revenue that comes out of their ground – whether oil, diamonds, or manganese – find both their economies and politics stunted and narrowed by the single-source wealth. A World Bank study of Africa adds a couple of new brush strokes to that picture. Not surprisingly, resource-rich countries such as Nigeria and Gabon have grown 2.2 times faster than resource-poor countries since 1996. Yet, counterintuitively, poverty declined by 16 percentage points in resource-poor countries such as Rwanda and Ethiopia, compared with only seven percentage points in resource-rich ones. The upshot: Oil and mineral wealth brings growth, but doesn’t spread it very far.

What ‘Occupy Wall Street’ missed

Speaking of spreading the wealth, whatever happened to the “Occupy” movement that caught such a wave of anti-Wall Street sentiment in 2011? Several books on the movement have come out recently, and Financial Times economics writer Martin Sandbu reviews them together. At one point, polls showed far more popular support among Americans for Occupy Wall Street – and its argument that the economic and political systems were run for the benefit of the “1 percent” – than for the tea party movement on the right. But the tea party was action-oriented, elected its own activists to Congress, and still has a powerful influence on the Republican Party. Occupy Wall Street is a memory, its legacy mostly defined by establishing a line in Western minds between the 99 percent and the empowered 1. Mr. Sandbu’s take is that Occupy Wall Street was clear about what it was against, but not at all clear about what to do about it. The leaders of the self-consciously leaderless movement refused to engage the existing political system at all. “A sympathetic reader of these books will end up with the slightly exasperated feeling that Occupy wasted its chance as a political movement,” he writes.

Removing ‘obstacles to growth’

Mexico has long been plagued by crony capitalism, in which political power too often is used to enrich an elite few rather than promote economic growth for many. So Daron Acemoglu, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and James Robinson, a Harvard political scientist, view new Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s first months in office with some optimism. In their Why Nations Fail blog, they note that Mr. Peña Nieto has made a national priority of reforming Mexico’s “terrible” education system. He has further removed what the authors call a major obstacle to reform: the head of the teachers union, Elba Esther Gordillo. Known as La Maestra, she had used the union “like a personal fiefdom for two decades, enriching herself and blatantly intervening in elections.” Peña Nieto has had her arrested on charges of embezzling some $200 million. The test, the authors say, will be whether Peña Nieto proves to be truly trying to reform the system or is merely doing what earlier Mexican presidents have done: change out one elite for another.

Who are the Tsarnaevs?

The story of the Tsarnaev family, whose sons are accused of the Boston Marathon bombings, has many interesting parts. Perhaps the best overview so far is in The Washington Post, written by Marc Fisher and reported by legions.

Things started well for the immigrant family. “But over the past four years, even as members of their extended family found their piece of the American dream, the Cambridge Tsarnaevs’ experience in their new land curdled. Money grew scarce, and the family went on welfare. Zubeidat was accused of stealing from a department store. Anzor’s business, never prosperous, faded,” writes Mr. Fisher. As the family fell apart, older son Tamerlan grew increasingly radical in his religion under the influence of an Armenian-American friend who was a recent convert. “The change in Dzhokhar, now a college sophomore, became apparent only in the past few weeks, and even then seemed to be tacked on to his existing lifestyle rather than displacing it,” he writes.

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