Sunday, December 16, 2007

A People's Economist

A recent article by Joseph Stiglitz, a noted economist, provides a concise and directed critique of the havoc created by the Bush administration. He details the economic mismanagement and financial audacity that has damaged the U.S. and will require significant effort to redact. He provides a good starting point for a discussion of the steps to be taken to fix this problem.

As far as economists go, I find Stiglitz to be one of the one's I admire most. He doesn't accept many of the "facts" spun out by economists and has worked to increase nuance among economic analysis of the "invisible hand" by identifying informational asymmetries and their role in markets.

While he still represents a more mainstream view than I would ascribe to, I find value in his analysis and his work for social change and justice. His recent involvement in the independent film "The Big Sellout" was excellent. In this film he commented on the commodification of goods and the negative effects that it had on various countries. It was a really good movie and provided some clear examples where the Washington Consensus was failing those it claims to be "developing".

Monday, November 19, 2007

Justice May Be Blind But Her System Is Not

A new report identifies that the rising rate of imprisonment in the U.S. has not resulted in a decline in the actual crime rate that many neo-conservative ideologues had predicted. The report "Unlocking America" also identifies that the massive expense that is incurred from this explosion of the prison population represents a significant burden on society. The U.S. has often considered itself a "law and order" society where revenge and justice are used in the same breath. Ideas of deterrence and paternalism inform the vast majority of our criminal policies. The linkages between the increased inequalities and hopelessness experienced by those who are born without is something that is often discarded as an important factor.

It is time for the U.S. to look to other models of justice that have found more success and attempt to create massive change. One significant barrier to any reform is the massive profit that is being made by the corporations that are building and running these new mega-prisons, as well as those industries (food, bedding, security) that are making an exorbitant profit from providing substandard services (in a parallel with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan).

The outdated notion of "lock them up and throw away the key" clearly has not provided Americans with the level of security they desire. A more nuanced approach to sentencing and rehabilitation is necessary to provide real safety. The further polarization of wealthy Americans into gated communities and the poor into squalid decaying inner cities only exacerbates this crucial problem. A serious focus must be made to close the gaps between the richest and the poorest. This must also be coupled with substantive reforms to our democratic process that allows for a more inclusive civil society where more voices have a chance to be heard.

The prison problem is a prime example of the ideology of neo-conservativism being passed off as fact. There are many different options for punitive actions in a criminal justice system. In the U.S. only the most expensive and least supported (in terms of facilitating a safer society) in the empirical literature are utilized. Examples such as those currently used in Scandinavian countries can help us to start a dialogue and create substantive reform.

A further point that must be identified is the fact that in terms of costs "white collar crime" represents a significantly larger drain on society than violent crime does. Though those folks that commit this sort of crime are more likely to receive a slap on the wrist versus real substantive punishment. When the quality of the lawyer is one of the main determinants of a persons chance of getting a fair trial, our justice system cannot be called just. The fact that crimes committed by the poor are those that are labeled a "social problem" just shows the complete bias and unobjective nature with which prosecutions are handed out. Those who cannot afford to pay for a good lawyer get a public defender, one of the most overworked and underpaid jobs. This vast discrepancy in quality of trial is just a further indication of the inequitable system under which we live.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Social Problems Require A Social Solution

A recent report from the UK finds that obesity is not the individual problem that most people seem to think. Instead, social factors appear to play a larger role in determining whether or not someone becomes obese. For someone in sociology this seems reasonable, but for those not familiar with the field it may be hard to understand how social forces can create social problems.

Some will still argue that it is an individual's "choice" and responsibility to control and regulate themselves. This atomistic view of the world misses the way in which our choices and ideas are constrained by the social world in which we live. For example, energy dense foods (e.g. fast food) that are cheap and available to the poor are more likely to lead to obesity than more nutrient dense food (e.g. fresh fruits and vegetables). While many would say that this just means that the poor need to "make better choices," the fact that these findings show a clear pattern by sociodemographic factors indicate that ideas of choice and responsibility are not sufficiently nuanced to get at the reasons for difference.

Societal factors such as sedentary lifestyle, energy saving devices, automobility, and energy dense cheap foods are all on the rise. Social problems require social solutions and this report just highlights this. A considered response is necessary to combat this problem. It is important to identify and attempt to work on structural factors and not just the symptoms. Issues of consumerism and excess consumption must be examined along with things such as education. We also must come to hold corporations more accountable for their actions and products. Simply providing the nutritional information of the products is not sufficient. It is true that people have the ability to decide what they are consuming. The fact that it is often easier to consume something fast and unhealthy than something self-prepared and nutritious shows a failure of the market to provide adequate alternatives.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Utterly Appalling

A recent report identifies that the Millennium Development Goals in the area of maternal death are woefully off target. This critical issue is something that is often overlooked when health policies and practices are being implemented in international development. This absence is a a crucial one and one that I can't honestly understand. As has been noted by distinguished authors like Amartya Sen, health costs are much lower in countries that are just implementing health policies. This is because the initial steps taken to set up a clinic or extend the range of health care professionals in most developing countries is much smaller.

Another important aspect that is identified in the article is the estimated twenty million unsafe abortions that go on every year. This is a significant contributing factor to maternal death. Safe, legal, and accessible abortions are something that must exist as the need for them is always there. The article does not identify how many of these unsafe abortions are actually illegal but it can be assumed that many unsafe abortions are the result of nation wide bans on abortions. This forces all women, even those who have life threatening pregnancies, to have a "back-alley" abortion.

The report concludes that one reason for such little progress is that in many societies women are viewed as nothing more than a vessel for reproduction. This extremely disheartening conclusion indicates the importance of positive action on behalf of women all over the world to increase their status. Cultural relativism must have its place in discussion of international development, but it cannot be used as a tool to allow domination of marginalized populations.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Time to Abstain from Abstinence

While those in the public health field have been familiar with this finding for some time it is worth reiterating the point in light of even more evidence that identifies the inadequacies of abstinence education. This report is particularly damning in light of the position of abstinence education as the only form of sex education that is able to receive federal funding. This sort of extreme ideological policy without any concern of its effectiveness typifies the policies of the Bush administration and its backers in Congress (in such wide ranging fields from health care to the Iraq war). Teaching that sex is bad in school stands no chance of competing with the rampant hyper-sexualized messages that teens see throughout popular culture. The report identifies that teaching students about the use of condoms and their importance in preventing the spread of diseases and reducing the risk of pregnancy are much more effective. While academic literature has never been the way in which Bush and his supporters have constructed their policies, it can be hoped that those who replace them take this sort of work into account when attempting to clean up the mess left by those currently in power.

False Contrition

Despite China's supposed attempt to reign in bad business practices, a recent report found that some of the merchandise for the upcoming 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing has been produced under such deplorable practices as child labor, forced overtime, and extremely low wages. Along with other recent problems such as lead paint in childrens' toys and poisonous contamination of pet food, it is difficult to argue that a sufficient regulatory industry exists for products made in China.

This sort of behavior is accepted as normal in the global economy and does not bring much outcry. The entire business of hosting the Women's World Cup and then the Olympics in totalitarian state that abuses its people is disheartening at best and a crime against humanity itself at worst. I fail to understand how we can justify such close ties with such a despicable and deplorable regime. If it didn't have as much capital or as large of a consumer base, there is no way we would be as involved with it (see Myanmar, Syria, North Korea). The fact that companies and countries are willing to make condolences and refrain from criticizing Chinese policies is one of the largest failings of public morality of our time. The money we invest in China is used daily to repress and create fear within an already troubled country. While we see photos of the massive amount of development and consumerism in the ports and cities, we don't see the rampant extreme poverty experienced by those in the rural areas. While engagement with all forms of government is important in the international system, such unquestioning patronage to China is dangerous and provides no carrots or sticks (international relations terms for rewards or punishments, respectively) for them to move toward democracy or more adequate worker protections for their wide range of businesses. The brutal repression of democracy movements in China continues and companies like Google continue to uphold the abhorrent "Great Firewall" while still claiming some level of ethical business. It will be interesting to look back and see how these facilitators of oppression are viewed when the history of this time is written.

Neo-Liberal Morality as a Life Lesson

Most people by now have probably heard of The Secret, one of the newest crazes in the "self-help" genre. While normally I don't pay much attention to them and find their premises often mildly pointless, The Secret really struck me as unusual. The underlying ideas about social reality reflect much of the cultural zeitgeist in the Western capitalist world, particularly that of the United States. Notions of personal responsibility, individual efficacy, and blaming the victim all play a central role in creating a mythos that embodies the neo-liberal ideology that has come to infiltrate nearly all areas of American life.

The Secret argues that you need to put positive energy out into the world and it will come back to you in the form of the wishes that you have made. The positive energy focuses on simply telling the universe telepathically what you would like (be it consumer goods, health, love, etc.). While I am all for positive thinking, this movement takes it to the level of cultish psychobabble. Those who are failing in life are not making their wishes to the universe in a sufficient way. Much of The Secret is focused on bringing in material goods as well such as cars and houses. This individualist ideology comes at a time of hyper-selfishness and extreme consumerism; The Secret reflects both of these tendencies. Similar to other ideologies of its ilk, it does not even attempt to identify the role of social and structural factors in the creation of life opportunities (which is not surprising in the least given that it is simply a "self help" book"). While I never cease to be amazed by the mystical inclination of the American public, The Secret plays upon the biases and under education within the United States to create another self help movement to bilk people out of their money as they go in search of even more money.

Future Plans

I am unsure if I will be going on for my PhD directly after my MA. This is because at some level I have become disillusioned with a large part of academia. I feel that many of the debates that are carried out between the smartest people in the world are more semantic than substantive. While two researchers may, for the most part, agree on some fundamental issue, they are split on something like the "level of analysis" or whether a particular hypothesis adequately takes into account context. Though the differences may seem huge to the individual researchers, the policy prescriptions that would come out of them often seem rather similar.

Currently I plan to work within the field of public policy. For me public policy or possibly an activist oriented NGO would be a good place for me. I am interested in working on what I see as issues of substance. I really enjoy studying issues of inequality and neo-liberalism. I think that neo-liberalism is an overarching hegemonic social structure that affects our daily lives in a myriad of ways. These include things as distant as the rise and fall in the value of the American dollar and as close as the price of food and gas. Most interesting for me is that it represents a fundamental shift in the way governments think about legislation and their role in public policy.

Through my graduate work I have come to focus specifically on health and health policy as an important area of legislation. For me health policy represents a fundamental social good that the state must play a role in for it to function adequately. The pitfalls of health for profit can be seen through the structural inadequacies and inequalities that are experienced throughout the U.S. system. The argument goes that the market can provide goods and services at a lower cost and more efficiently than with government "interference." In the empirical literature on health we see no support for this notion. The U.S. has some of the least efficient health distribution and the highest per capita costs for health in the world. While this post is not about health policy per se, I do see myself as working towards fundamental changes in health in the U.S. I appreciate and plan to use a wide range of empirical and qualitative academic literature to inform the policies that I eventually will work toward. I feel confident enough in my training to be able to interpret the literature and create informed and relevant measures that could be implemented at a wide range of levels of government. Though I still think that it is important for my work to face the scrutiny of peer review. For that I plan to still look at trying to publish in academic journals. Simply the creation of "gray" papers doesn't sufficiently fulfill my ideas about the role of a sociological researcher, even in the realm of public policy.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Irresponsible and Negligent... What's New?

The Bush administration has again struck a blow against appropriate and prudent public policy. Bush has vetoed a bill that would extend basic health care insurance coverage to 10 million children who parents earn too much to be eligible for Medicaid but cannot afford insurance on their own. In recent polls it was found the policy was favored by over seventy percent of Americans. This in a country that is traditionally against social spending, even for the poor. The fact that Bush said that he vetoed this measure because it was too big of an increase in spending is impossible to justify in light of the billions spent each year on subsidies to large companies and pointless military purchases and research. It is difficult to comprehend how providing unneeded subsidies to those who don't need it is unquestioned while providing health care to children left behind by the system is considered a burden. The audacity of Bush to attempt to prove that he is a "fiscal conservative" at this point is bewildering. Even Republicans realize that he is not and never has been a fiscal conservative. Hopefully Congress can push through the desperately needed bill and get back with more "important" business like flag burning amendments.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Right Side of History

After weeks of positive social action in Myanmar, the military regime has done what many of us expected all along, turned to violence. Monks and their supporters have been marching in solidarity and called for reforms to the country. At a time like this, countries that support democracy need to heed the call to action that these marches represent. These monks have led similar marches in the past and have faced violent crackdowns. Still they march in defiance. The military dictatorship has committed crimes against humanity and even, it has been argued, genocide against some of the ethnic minorities that live in rural areas of the country. The time has come to act. We must move beyond sanctions and simple monetary action. Such petty and deplorable regimes must face a more constant pressure from both regional actors and the international community. This pressure should not include violence, unless it is decided upon in a multilateral way, and in the protection of those who are marching for democracy, or those who continue to face starvation and forced relocation throughout the country. Toppling a military regime with violence only opens a power vacuum that is often filled with another violent regime. In 2001 a U.N. commission published "The Right of Intervention" a document that made the argument that the right to intervene in the affairs of a country must be taken into account when its actions against its own people constitute genocide or other deplorable conditions imposed in a consistent and measured way. The U.S. has failed the test of history many times in the past, it is time we place our actions in line with our rhetoric and not in line with the interests of multi-national corporations.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Development as Opulence

The historical specificity of development is important to keep in mind. The social context of development is still important because it belies much that is taken for granted when discussing issues of development. Development is a misnomer because it depends on the assumption that countries move forward on a trajectory that would eventually lead to a society that is similar to those currently deemed developed. This idea is untenable because the “developed” world is unsustainable and it would require massive change in order for even a portion of the world to reach that level of decadence.

Instead the development paradigm that is put forward by many dominant institutions is not sufficient to allow for actual change. This is particularly reflected in groups such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund that place both responsibility and blame on the countries themselves for not "developing." This blame is not appropriate because these countries exist within a world trade system that is horribly unfair and does not serve their interests.

The contradiction of "development" can be seen clearly in China. As China begins to turn into a consumer society the ecological footprint of many of its citizens is increasing exponentially. This situation will continue to exacerbate the already dangerous trajectory we are on for consumption of resources. By exporting neo-liberal consumerism as the mode and end of development we are selling short a chance at a more just and equitable world.

A Plot Most Despicable

A recently released report makes the charge that the U.S. did in fact set up illegal and secret prisons in Europe that were used to interrogate suspects in the war on terror. The report also alleges that flights were known about by different countries that were involved. While the CIA has recently rejected these charges it is difficult to believe their assertions that there is no truth. This is once again a damning indictment of the Bush administration and represents a significant threat to democracy in America as well as the other countries involved. It is telling that this sort of thing is plausible because of previous actions of the administration, such as wire tapping, Guantanamo, and the designation of "enemy combatants." These actions put more Americans in danger as we are continually seen as an evil superpower. If other countries were to do the same actions we would not stand for it, thus we cannot allow it to happen here either.

The Breakdown of Democracy

It is truly scary when a presidential candidate is laughed out of the election because of how he looks or how he talks. Dennis Kucinich represents a significant change in politics. His proposed policies would attempt to create solutions that would be a value to a majority of Americans. He refuses to be beholden to corporate or ideological interests. Kucinich is often called "Dennis the Menace" for his dogged approach and willingness to propose legislation that others are afraid to. This undeserved moniker is an indication of the poor state of democracy that the U.S. currently is subject to. Three major factors show that we have truly lost course: money required to run, confused public perception, and a poor system of elections.

An increasingly ludicrous amount of money is required to run a campaign for election for either the presidency or for seats in Congress. This leads to a system were raising funds becomes the most important aspect of a legislators time. Less time is left to work on issues and actually create quality legislation. This system, which is taken for granted by most Americans, is actually very different than democracy found in other countries. Election cycles in Europe last only a matter of months (though this number is now increasing), candidates spend a fraction of their U.S. counterparts, and the voters are able to be more informed on issues. Because parties are the focus in Europe, as opposed to the individual focus of the U.S. system, it is much easier to identify what policies would be pushed for if one of the parties is elected. The parties hold their members to the party line and because there are multiple parties it is much easier to find one that fits the politics that you would like seeing.

Now I am not saying that we have to go to a proportional representation system that is seen in Europe, we do need to implement significant electoral change. Changes that would make legislators less beholden to special interests, allow them to actually legislate, and allow U.S. voters to understand what the benefits of voting are.

Friday, June 8, 2007

More Hype Without Details or any Chance of Real Follow Through

The recent G8 meetings have come to a close. As per usual they recognized that they didn't hit the goals set previously but pledged even more money this time around. Now this type of display is disgusting to say the least. These pledges are just that. If it is inconvenient or if one of the donor countries decides something is amiss they can easily (and usually do) pull out in part or entirely. Many in the development sphere are already calling this recent pledge a "farce."

Hypothetically, if the G8 does provide the money promised (60 billion alone for AIDS research, among other pledges) it will not be in the form that many would accept as reasonable. Anyone familiar with the Bush administration's past work on AIDS will know how disastrous and ill-informed the strict rules that come attached to the money. Because the U.S. pledged to donate 30 billion of this sum it is likely that they will have a large say in the contingencies and policies on which the money can be spent.

Among the most insulting of the ludicrous ties that AIDS money to Africa has endured in the past is the focus on abstinence. Much of the money was earmarked for groups that only push abstinence as a method of stopping the spread of AIDS. When the money goes through a recipient government there are strict "abstinence only" financing rules that must be followed for the money to keep coming in. This despite the fact that abstinence does not make sense when used alone as a method to prevent AIDS. Studies have continually found this to be true worldwide. I will acknowledge that it can play a minor role in an overall sexual health and well-being program. Use of only abstinence has been shown in many instances to not decrease the rate of transmission but has actually increased the rate of transmission by decreasing funding to other services. When abstinence becomes the focus of a government targeting teen and pre-teen boys and girls, other important issues like birth control methods, safe-sex practices and use of condoms falls aside.

These AIDS grants are also incomplete because one of the best ways to mitigate the devastating effects of AIDS is to drop the price of drugs that serve to decrease the effects of the actual virus. Also drugs that when taken by a child born to an HIV positive mother can severely decrease the chance of contracting AIDS. These steps are blocked at every turn by pharmaceutical companies that cite the cost of research of the drugs as the reason for the high prices. When these companies are having record breaking profits and at the same time receiving much of their R&D at highly subsidized rates from public universities and grants, they could at least take a "loss" (though the idea that they would take a loss is severely suspect) on these necessary drugs.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

The Onion Strikes Again

Those of you familiar with the sarcastic wit of The Onion are probably aware of the socially conscious parodies that they often produce. This recent one is perhaps the most biting I've seen in a while. Enjoy!

Gap Unveils New 'For Kids By Kids' Clothing Line

Monday, April 30, 2007

Making My Move

After many months of being too busy to feel comfortable placing my money in the market, I have finally made the purchases. Having never dealt in the amount of money I was placing into the market, it felt odd to see these large numbers on the screen.

After executing the trades, I looked around my brokerage account a bit and checked out what was going on in the market. I happened to check what were the most traded equities at the moment and found the one I invested in most heavily (SPY) at the top of the list. Now while I certainly was not responsible for the more than thirty-two million transactions that took place, it felt nice to see that some of those numbers were a result of my actions.

At this stage in my life, with this asset allocation (if interested see previous post that discusses my exact allocation), I feel that I can go on with my life without fretting about how my stock is doing. I know that even if we experience something as bad as the great depression, that if I simply don't pull out then I don't lose money. The key to long term investing is to not lock in your losses.

I never knew investing could be this simple. To me it seems like the only way to go in order to keep it from becoming a constant concern. Fretting over the rise or fall of small holdings daily seems like a pain with no significant payoff, which investing gurus such as Bill Schultheis, William Bernstein, and William P. Kemp (its true!) also find to be the case.

To the final guru on the list I express my most sincere thanks. For personally walking me through (and at points holding my hand) the confusing and contradictory world that is the stock market. Through your tutelage I have come to understand a place for myself in the market that I didn't know existed. Prior to this wonderful experience, I didn't see the market as something approachable or understand that it could be tamed through asset allocation. Again thanks so much. I can't help but feel that through this experience we have become closer. I will always cherish our long talks, whether stock related or otherwise. Next time we get together, the coffee is on me.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Exploring the Digital Divide

While I don't typically comment on issues of technology, this article really struck me as interesting. I was amazed to see the estimate of 750 million people accessing the internet in 2007. While this number itself is not particularly interesting, when compared to the world population of six billion, it represents an extreme disparity of access to a revolutionary technology that consumes much of our daily lives in the Global North. It is hard to make the argument that the internet is democratizing public discussion when less than eleven percent of the world has accessed it in the past year. It is hard to imagine what perspectives we are missing out on and what analysis could be brought to bare that would inform world opinion in a fundamentally different way. It could be argued that those who are in the most need of having their voice heard are silenced by this extreme digital divide.

Arguably more important than having your voice heard is the access to information that the internet allows. The ability to find information and analysis on an infinite range of issues is what keeps most of us logged on as we go about our daily lives. An overwhelming majority of the world lacks access to the wealth of informational resources that the internet provides.

One promising intervention to close this gap comes from the One Laptop per Child movement. By creating a rugged laptop that costs about one hundred dollars to create, MIT and other groups are working to close this significant disparity. While one hundred dollars is prohibitively expensive for individuals all over the world (over one billion of which make less than one dollar a day), donors have been spurned into action to buy these laptops for distribution around the world. While this in no way addresses the structural and social forces that created this inequality, it can be seen as a step in the right direction.

Extreme Callousness as Foreign Policy

It is difficult to understand why Bush would choose to tour Latin America at a time when his approval rating is so low both here and abroad. He has little to no political capital to draw on for this visit. While many have cited the reason as an attempt to undermine the rise to power of Chavez, this seems ludicrous. A visit by one of the least popular presidents in history, whose administration has all but ignored Latin America except on issues of bi-lateral trade, seems like a poor public relations move. Bi-lateral trade deals place individual countries up against the U.S. These countries have little to no chance to bring measures to the table they want addressed. While the breakdown of the current trade round was celebrated by many(myself included), these bi-lateral trade regimes are an extremely negative consequence of this show of solidarity by the Global South.

Bush's claim that the U.S. is planning on helping out the poor in Latin America seem particularly hollow. He has continually demonstrated contempt for those measures instituted by Latin American countries that have actually improved the position of the poor. The Bush administration has berated countries that have implemented pro-poor policies. Steps such as nationalization of companies and redistribution of land ownership monopolies that have often been successful in raising the standard of living for the poor. While measures such as nationalization of companies are controversial, it is often forgotten that many of these industries, particularly those such as natural resources, were initially privatized without the consent of the people. The profits that used to go into budgets of Latin American countries instead began to flow out of the country through multi-national corporations that had no invested interest in sustainable development or stewardship.

It is also interesting to see how the rhetoric output by Bush doesn't match the aid that has been made available to those in Latin America. Venezuela has pledged nearly three times the amount of aid that has been given by the U.S. to the region. Also, important issues that would fundamentally increase the standard of living for Latin Americans, such as access to U.S. markets for agricultural products, have not even been addressed by Bush. The continued disconnect between the discussion of free trade and the lack implementation of policy based on it is apparent. Though fair trade is a better way of organizing the international marketplace, while free trade is hegemonic, the central players could at least learn to play by its rules.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Hard to Comprehend

In a stunning example of the dangers of insufficient health care, a boy in Maryland has recently died from what began as a rotten tooth. This situation brings to mind the unconscionable consequences of our current system of health care. It also illustrates the dangers of negative freedoms versus substantive freedoms (capabilities). Using the capability approach put forth by Amartya Sen, we can see how the current system in the U.S. could have allowed this to happen. While this boy's family experiences, in theory, many diverse negative freedoms (freedoms from things), such as freedom of speech (freedom from censure), freedom from imprisonment without due process (clearly in theory here), etc., their ability to express these freedoms is significantly limited by unfreedoms that diminish their ability to achieve desired functionings. In the capability approach these unfreedoms represent capability disabling elements that restrict what an individual can do.

In the United States there is no substantive freedom to have basic health care. Being free of preventable disease is a core functioning for Martha Nussbaum, another author who has written extensively on the capability approach. The lack of basic preventative health care for millions of Americans serves to magnify the effects of the income inequality that continues to grow in the U.S. Inequality experienced in Canada and Europe is significantly less extreme than what is experienced in the U.S. Even for cities with comparable inequality, those in the U.S. experience significantly more extreme gradients of health as there is not a basic health care system in place to mitigate some of the effects of inequality.

This particular example displays the extreme effects that deprivation can have on individuals. It brings to light larger issues that go unnoticed by media. In the article it is noted that the boy's sibling also had rotting teeth and there was an attempt to take care of his because they seemed to be more pressing. Discussion of these sorts of "personal" problems are ignored because they are often not considered interesting because they are experienced widely by the poor in the U.S. By minimizing these problems that are being suffered by millions, their collective power is diminished in an era of "individual responsibility" that has come about in the current neo-liberal era.

The article also notes the significant costs that the family now faces for the emergency care that was required to attempt to save the life of the child. While the initial extraction would have cost less than a hundred (a cost too high for many to bear for something as seemingly small as a rotten tooth) the bill has now risen to hundreds of thousands of dollars in the cost of surgeries and other emergency care that was given. It is hard to imagine how a family that could not afford a tooth extraction will deal with such an extreme form of debt. I noted in a previous post how this sort of emergency is one of the largest reasons for bankruptcy in the U.S.

This case is provocative because it points out glaring disparities in the current U.S. health system. There are many other examples of lesser problems that go unnoticed in the media but are experienced be individuals without a voice or real political power. In order for the family of this boy to get any sort of attention, a death had to be involved. Until this system is reformed in a meaningful and structural way, little improvement can be expected.

Defining Yourself

It is interesting how something as abstract as an ontology or epistemology can be used to define someone without their consent. I have come to be defined as the "quantitative guy" in my graduate cohort because I am the only one perceived to be doing statistical analysis. There is at least one other student who is using quantitative methods, though in a more mixed approach, in her thesis. Also there are other students that will be basing at least some part of their work on research that was previously carried out using quantitative methods. It is interesting because before coming here, there would have been no reason for me to think of myself as a quantitative researcher.

One difficulty I am facing in my research methods class is that many in the class clearly have not had even a basic statistics course, or if they have that it was long enough ago that it has all been forgotten. This is frustrating because the questions that are asked reflect their ignorance of even basic statistics and sampling techniques. Instead of helpful critiques, I am forced to defend ideas of approximation of the normal curve, random sampling, representativeness and inferential statistics. Many of these ideas have been sufficiently settled and the real debate is about improving methods and refining techniques. Having to defend an entire discipline to people who are completely opposed to its even existence, is tedious at best and insulting at worst. The questions that were asked were not asked to improve my project, but instead to fulfill their own prejudice against a particular method in the social sciences.

Statistics, like any other method, cannot be taken uncritically and must be examined in the context of what is being studied. Though I think that often the condemnation of statistics is misplaced and ill-informed. Statistics may be overused in the media and politics, but that does not mean that they can't be used in a more appropriate way. Through conducting research in a transparent and reflexive manner, the methods that are used come to be sufficiently problematized. By problematizing our methods we can see more clearly the limitations and ways to counter-act these limitations.

In my thesis I am attempting to use statistics in a reflexive way that I think sufficiently engages with the limitations that I face. By using statistics I am accepting that at some level they can give a probabilistic view of society. Though I also understand they they can never reflect perfectly the social reality that they attempt to investigate. By continuing to reflect and being aware of these issues, I feel that I can use statistics without falling into overstating my conclusions or misrepresenting my analysis.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Undocumented Workers

The current situation with immigration is not sustainable. American citizens, due to media propaganda, have a difficult time understanding how important undocumented workers have become in sustaining the American way of life(the very use of the term undocumented workers as opposed to illegal aliens belies much about what a person's stance is on the issue). There exist many arguments about what should be done and also what can be done. It is clear that deportation is not a viable option for the estimated 11-13 million undocumented workers. This is because both the logistics of removing millions of people to other countries and the effect on the American economy. The American economy rests on the backs of the cheap labor from Latin America. These people work for minimum wage or less and work longer and, by many accounts, harder than Americans would be willing to.

There are many that argue that these immigrants are soaking up our welfare and other social services while not paying taxes. This argument does not hold up to critical scrutiny. First is the issue of taxes. Most of these workers will not formally be filing income tax. This is a significant penalty for them as most would be able to get money back because they are making below poverty wages. Many immigrants work under false social security numbers and so they have regular taxes taken out of their checks each month. The fear is that if they file that they will be caught and deported. Also these workers have a host of other taxes that either they are responsible for paying or are payed on their behalf by those that exploit their labor. All of the taxes that are paid by these undocumented workers go to benefit the rest of American society but cannot be drawn upon by the workers due to the legal limbo in which they currently reside.

One significant tax that that these workers pay but receive no benefit from is is sales tax, the bane of poor people everywhere. This tax that is used extensively in 48 states is one of the most regressive that can be instituted. Most states have no provision for food exemptions and other important measures that reduce the negative effects of this tax. Another significant set of taxes are employer taxes. This includes a host of taxes that are paid by companies on the profit they make. This is extremely significant because we are talking about large amounts of money. This has been made particularly clear by the recent "Un Dia Sin Inmigrantes" . Large companies such as Tyson faced plant closures on the day of the protests. These large companies are paying significant taxes on revenue that is generated by workers that are unable to receive the social services that the rest of us take for granted.

For me the reason that this current system can't continue is one that I don't see discussed very widely. These workers are exploited and marginalized at every turn. By crossing the border illegally they lose all power to negotiate. The employers know this and exploit it to their full advantage. Things such as minimum wage, mandatory breaks, clean and safe facilities have no meaning when those who are marginalized have no legal rights. Any complaint by undocumented workers means being fired, again something from which they have no protection, and likely deported. It is difficult to imagine how undocumented workers can bring about such animosity from the general public. These workers face a deadly border crossing, made more deadly by changes to border surveillance that have pushed crossers to more treacherous terrain. Also upon entering, they face difficult exploitative labor that is difficult to envy in any way. Finally, they are often away from their families for months to years at a time. How could these people be seen as a threat to our way of life? In many ways they represent the dogged determination to create a better life that is characteristic of what most Americans subscribe to as "the American dream."

While no simple solution can be instituted to ameliorate the divergent interests that are affected by this issue. It will take time and critical reflection to create a policy that ensures that workers are treated fairly and that the deaths from crossing the border illegally cease to happen. For me what makes the most sense is an immigrant worker program that gives protections to workers and allows border crossing to be standardized. We need some sort of system that allows for different levels of workers, depending on what the worker wants. Individuals should at least be able to get into a track to either be a guest worker, or to work in the U.S. and be on a track toward immigration. Also necessary would be some sort program that allows workers (and presumably their families) who have been here to have an expedited process of immigration. These people are already working and living here and there is really no reason to force them to leave only to attempt to immigrate "legally." The specifics of these programs should be open to public debate as opposed to just being misinterpreted by American media that consistently takes the side of their corporate backers on matters such as this.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Going Without Health Care

With more than seventy-five million Americans going without health care, it is tough to imagine how a health care system could perform more poorly. It is increasingly difficult to justify the private health care and health insurance system that exists in the U.S. The U.S. regularly spends significantly more, per capita, on health care than any other industrialized country. It is time that we take a look at what other countries are doing right and wrong in terms of health policy. Our current health care scheme is clearly not sustainable and is negatively affecting the lives of millions of Americans. When millions of Americans are declaring bankruptcy as a result of health care bills, it is clearly time for a significant change.

One important thing that must be addressed is that there will be no perfect policy to address the health care needs of everyone. This issue must not be left to politicians who are largely out of touch with successful social policy. We must learn the lessons that the successes and failures that other countries have faced, and use that information to create a coherent policy that can work for the U.S. It is difficult to imagine a significant new policy coming about at a time when public well-being is up against billion dollar industries. While most Americans would benefit more from nearly any other health policy, many will continue to be fooled into voting against their interests. Those in power are quite skillful at using wedge issues to crush real attempts at meaningful reform.

A Decent Start

An interesting new plan has been developed that would increase the likelihood of creation of vaccines for diseases that largely affect countries in the developing world. While this is a step in the right direction, it misses some of the large issues that surround the pharmaceutical companies. These companies constantly bemoan the difficulties that they face in creating medicine, while at the same time recording higher profit margins than most other sectors. Confounding this situation is the fact that pharmaceutical companies receive significant subsidization from the U.S. government, both directly and indirectly. Directly through government grants for research and indirectly through funding of public universities that cooperate with pharmaceutical companies to create new products. If the company is genuinely concerned with financial solvency, perhaps it is time to reduce CEO pay and put some of those millions into developing new drugs.

Also important to recognize is why developing countries are unable to represent a suitable market to pharmaceutical companies. Many of the billions of people that would benefit from drugs for preventable diseases live on less than $1 a day, and nearly all that would benefit live on less than $2 a day. When basic sustenance is difficult to achieve, it is hardly likely that there will be sufficient out-of-pocket funds for vaccinations.

Also significant is that measures such as this fail to get at some of the core issues that create the problem in the first place. Issues such as for-profit medicine, which bring about the terrifying 10:90 divide: where 90% of investment in pharmaceuticals is directed toward diseases that affect only 10% of people in the world. Of course, this 10% are the wealthiest. This frightening discrepancy between those who need and those who have only shows further the moral bankruptcy under which we exist. This is an industry where the majority of products released are knock-off drugs that are about to lose their patent or drugs that closely emulate products put out by their competitors. A more democratic form of research and development of pharmaceuticals would be extremely beneficial worldwide. It seems the only people that are benefitting from the increasing concentration of pharmaceutical companies are those companies themselves. When large parts of the research are carried out in public universities, it makes it difficult to identify what role these pharmaceutical companies are really playing in facilitating a more healthy world.

*If anyone is unable to access the article linked above, let me know and I can provide a copy over email.

An Idea Whose Time Has Come

I am currently finishing up a paper that discusses the issues and approach put forth by Amartya Sen in "Development As Freedom." The approach discussed in the book has been developed by Sen throughout his academic career. With the publication of the book, the capability approach gained significantly more recognition. Particularly interesting is the fact that it has sparked significant interdisciplinary debate, as well as a questioning of the development orthodoxy. The capability approach, in my estimation, represents a significant shift in terms of conceptualizing, as well as operationalizing development. This opinion is clearly shared by many others as the capability approach has spawned nearly 150 academic articles, as well as over 20 books in only the past two years. I would recommend the book to anyone as it represents an attempt by Sen to make the capability approach accessible generally, and in this pursuit, I think he succeeds admirably.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

World Trade Talks

World trade talks are set to begin in an attempt to resuscitate the current Doha round. As most will remember, the talks previously fell apart when the G-8 refused to bring their agricultural and other unfair subsidies onto the table. Many countries in the developed world were tired of the unfair burden that these subsidies placed on their populations. Farmers that are heavily subsidized in the G-8 are able to effectively dump their undervalued crops on the world market, destroying the possibilities of local farmers to compete. While on the surface, lower prices may seem like a positive fact for developing countries, the ramifications are actually quite negative. In most developing countries, rural areas are the most impoverished and these subsidies only serve to further decrease the ability of rural farmers to earn enough to support themselves.

While the bastions of neoliberalism continue to preach that free trade is the panacea to world problems, it is important to note that their actions indicate that this is just rhetoric. The most important thing for groups such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank is making the investors that rely on their recommendations happy. In large part this is due to the revolving door of companies and supranational instutions. Many of those hired by these international bodies come from the large corporations that benefit from neoliberalism and after serving in their positions, move back to the private sphere and profit from the decisions they made while at the IMF and WB.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

I Don't Really Know What To Say...

A spectacular human being is no longer with us. I am forever indebted to her for her writing. Not just for her biting political commentary but for her ability to satirize everyone in politics, even herself.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Drug Marker Stalling Generics

Eighty-five percent of Americans are hoping for a measure that would help provide some relief from the high prices of prescription drugs. Sadly, but not surprisingly, Bush has threatened to veto such a measure. This situation just underscores the danger of special interest money in politics. One of the major justifications Bush has made for vetoing a measure of this kind is that there are generics available and that the competition they create brings down prices. It is kind of hard to make that argument when pharmaceutical companies continue to stall release of important generics. Of course, with this administration, actual relief for millions of Americans will always take a backseat to protecting corporate interests.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Pragmatism and Critical Realism

In my undergraduate education both of the departments I studied in were very applied. This applied approach was more pronounced in the sociology department but political science was not far behind. It is interesting to come to a completely different type of department. The focus of many in the department is much more theoretical and abstract than anything I am used to. I don't think I ever could have imagined having to grapple as intensely with the ontology and epistemology of all aspects of my graduate experience. While at some level I enjoy this new way of approaching research, in other ways I have come to resent it.

The resentment, I would imagine, comes largely from my past experience with research. I originally left biology, in large part, because I didn't feel like I could help enact the types of social change that seemed fundamental at the time. What I found in sociology and political science were the tools and methodologies that allowed me to identify causes of serious social problems. Also important was the idea instilled in us that we were responsible to work for the change we saw as necessary. The idea of praxis become extremely important for me. The idea that expanding our social knowledge is not enough. That social change is an important aspect and outcome of the research process seemed central to me.

This contrasts heavily with the post-structural debates that I am constantly aware of now. I have always supported the idea of being reflective of your work and looking at it critically. Though I never had any idea how far these arguments had been carried out. The ideas of post-structuralists such as Foucault as well as some Anthropologists that have rejected anything moderately resembling postitivism or even post-positvism are in some sense offensive to me. This is because many hold themselves as well as others to an impossible standard. Anything except a critical reflection on yourself is seen as either dehumanizing the social actors that you are studying or in fact furthering harm by imposing ethnocentric colonial ideas. This sort of subjectivism, for me, is more demeaning of the human character than it is empowering.

While we must always be aware of the possible harms and consequences of our research, we can't let it paralyze us. Though we must not rush blindly into action thinking that we can "save" others without taking into account their social context, we also can't stand back and let people suffer only because we fear we would inflict greater harm. How is it truly different to not do something out of apathy than it is to not do anything out of a sense of self-righteousness that stops a researcher from pursuing social change?

For me this issue has come to a head as I look around at projects that many fellow graduate students are doing. It seems that this fear influences many of their projects and they have become concerned only with reflecting critically on their methods and proving to their advisors that they are not doing anything remotely relating to a claim of truth or causation. In my view it has meant that they have lost sight of larger issues that are ever present. Issues such as hunger, war, politics, racism and crushing social inequalities are left by the wayside in an attempt to create a project free of controversy.

Monday, January 15, 2007

In For The Long Haul

Well my odyssey begins this week. I have my asset classes picked out and my money moved to a money market account. My investment horizon is 30-40 years and so things should turn out well. One of the most important aspects for me is the issue of taxes. To mitigate taxes I am investing in 6 ETFs that have historically paid out little in dividends. This is important as my funds are held a taxable account. The six asset classes I am investing in are:

Large Cap U.S. 40%
Mid Cap U.S. 14%
Small Cap U.S. 11%
EAFE 20%
Bonds 10%
REITs 5%

All of these are represented by low fee ETFs that track an appropriate index. This asset allocation may seem risky to some but with my investment horizon my risk will be significantly mitigated. Even in the case of a catastrophic event my long term investing outlook is quite good. Also contributing to my choice of ETFs is that I will be investing my assets in one lump sum and will likely not be adding for the next couple years.

Being in my early 20s and having this opportunity to invest heavily is really exciting. My main source of inspiration in this whole line of investing was the advice given to me by my father. He showed me the simple ideas of investing legends such as William Bernstein and Bill Schultheis. The idea that beating the market is irrational and that approximating it is the best we can do long term is born out in much of the literature on investing. Through approximating the market with index ETFs I am able to free myself of the burden of always chasing the illusive "hot" stock. I hope others who have the chance will pick up these same simple strategies for successful investing.

Remember people, the biggest loss you will face when if you don't invest is inflation. It eats away at your money over time and is a constant risk. Mitigating this through wise investing is the key to being able to live without fear of money troubles later on. Even if you don't have a large amount of money to put away right now, a small amount a month can begin an account that will grow significantly as you age.

Investing doesn't have to be an agonizing chore. Approximating the market is well within your grasp. As Schultheis often says "Get On With Your Life!"