Minnesota's miseries

The government of the northern state shut down on 1 July following a disagreement over the budget de

It's party time across America today as the nation celebrates Independence Day -- but in the state of Minnesota, it's political fireworks lighting up the sky. That's because for the second time in six years, party leaders have failed to agree a budget because they can't decide how to tackle the deficit, so the entire government has shut down. That's only happened in a handful of states before -- and Minnesota's the only place to go through it twice.

Today at least is still a holiday of sorts -- leaders won't hold any more talks until tomorrow. But for local people looking to spend some time outdoors over the holiday weekend the shutdown means that state parks are all closed, along with historic sites, rest-stops on highways, and even two racetracks run by the state.

In an ironic twist, state troopers are still handing out tickets for traffic violations -- but you can't get a fishing licence, buy a lottery ticket or claim on a winning number.

And more seriously, among other closures: a women's refuge, reading services for the blind and a helpline for elderly people and their carers. Parents say they're having to stay home from work because childcare facilities aren't operating. And the 22,000 employees who work for the state aren't getting their pay cheques.

Both parties, naturally enough, are blaming each other for the impasse. The Republican chairman Tony Sutton accused the (Democratic) Governor Mark Dayton of causing "maximum pain" for political reasons -- while Dayton is blaming much of the $5 billion deficit on his predecessor-turned Presidential candidate Tom Pawlenty. Left wing activists have set up a "shutdown shame'" website which invites users to "share the impacts of the GOP's reckless political game with your friends".

Pawlenty was in charge last time the state shut down in 2005, but this time he's saying it could have a positive outcome: forcing Minnesota to live within its means. Tackling it has come down to an ideological battle between Democrats, who want to raise taxes on the highest earners -- while Republicans are demanding sweeping cuts in spending, including heath and welfare.

The breakdown in negotiations shows quite how far apart these two sides have become: bipartisan spirit is precious thin on the ground. This was the state which was once home to high-minded liberals like Eugene McCarthy, Walter Mondale, and Paul Wellstone. Now politicians on both sides have grown ever more radical. On the left, Al Franken's bitterly fought campaign for the Senate in 2008 won him the seat with the slimmest of majorities -- just 312 votes. Minnesota's representatives in the House include Democrat Keith Ellison, who co-chairs the progressive caucus, and on the right, the darling of the Tea Party, Michelle Bachmann. Polarised parties -- where the zone of possible agreement is growing ever more thin.

Today at least the politicians are back in their districts, the acrimony on hold for now, as they celebrate the 4th of July. But one thing they're unlikely to escape is their constituents -- who'll no doubt have their own views on how the two sides should reach a budget deal. And it's a fight with national implications too, as President Obama and Congress wrestle with that little budget defict problem of their own...

Felicity Spector is a senior producer at Channel 4 News

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Stephen Hawking's enthusiasm for colonising space makes him almost as bad as Trump

The physicist's inistence on mankind's expansion risks making him a handmaiden of inequality.

“Spreading out may be the only thing that saves us from ourselves,” Stephen Hawking has warned. And he’s not just talking about surviving the UK's recent run of record breaking heat. If humanity doesn’t start sending people to Mars soon, then in a few hundred years he says we can all expect to be kaput; there just isn’t enough space for us all.

The theoretical physicist gave his address to the glittering Starmus Festival of science and arts in Norway. According to the BBC, he argued that climate change and the depletion of natural resources help make space travel essential. With this in mind, he would like to see a mission to Mars by 2025 and a new lunar base within 30 years.

He even took a swipe at Donald Trump: “I am not denying the importance of fighting climate change and global warming, unlike Donald Trump, who may just have taken the most serious, and wrong, decision on climate change this world has seen.”

Yet there are striking similarities between Hawking's statement and the President's bombast. For one thing there was the context in which it was made - an address to a festival dripping with conspicuous consumption, where 18 carat gold OMEGA watches were dished out as prizes.

More importantly there's the inescapable reality that space colonisation is an inherently elitist affair: under Trump you may be able to pay your way out of earthly catastrophe, while for Elon Musk, brawn could be a deciding advantage, given he wants his early settlers on Mars to be able to dredge up buried ice.

Whichever way you divide it up, it is unlikely that everyone will be able to RightMove their way to a less crowded galaxy. Hell, most people can’t even make it to Starmus itself (€800  for a full price ticket), where the line-up of speakers is overwhelmingly white and male.

So while this obsession with space travel has a certain nobility, it also risks elevating earthly inequalities to an interplanetary scale.

And although Hawking is right to call out Trump on climate change, the concern that space travel diverts money from saving earth's ecosystems still stands. 

In a context where the American government is upping NASA’s budget for manned space flights at the same time as it cuts funds for critical work observing the changes on earth, it is imperative that the wider science community stands up against this worrying trend.

Hawking's enthusiasm for colonising the solar system risks playing into the hands of the those who share the President destructive views on the climate, at the expense of the planet underneath us.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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