About Me

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Policy provokes me to think and write. I currently work in ivory towers inspiring people to engage in their world. I am a student of the human condition and my classroom is the world. I don't need credentials to have an opinion but I've got paper to prove I know a few things about public health, social welfare and economics. I'm coming out of the tower and taking the words to the people and hope you will send some words back at me.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Mass Murder, Civil Rights and Constitutional Amendments

The right to keep and bear arms was given to the people of the United States to keep them safe. It is enshrined in the Bill of Rights (click here for a copy of the Bill of Rights)

It states, "A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed."
 I'm all for the rights of the people. But I also know that historical documents have 'context' that apply to a particular time and place. Yes, the constitution was once about men and not about women. About whites and not about blacks nor the people that were here when the white folks came.
And though I think men shooting at rocks and whatnot in the bush or at the range is men being men (and some women being women), i dont get the need for an assault rifle when we are not living in the DRC or are a mercenary on a secret op for Shell or some other Fortune 100. 

I even love reading Soldier of Fortune magazine and watching Sons of Guns on Discovery Channel
I kinda like guns though I have never shot one. They fascinate me. And the very peaceful women I know who have shot one have loved it. So its not about guns per se. But its about the types of guns, the number of guns, and the availability of guns.
For more details click on the link for this news report from ABC News in August of this year: Guns in America: A Statistical Look

There is a straight line from the Columbine shootings in 1999 to the Newtown shootings of 2012. Obama has 4 more years in the White House and the time is right. People are outraged. Even if you believe in the right to bear arms, the killing of 20 children will be hard to fight on a policy level. Although the White House said that today is not the day to talk gun control, I think the response from the people on Twitter, on Facebook and from recent previous shootings is that the time for change to start is NOW. People before things. Lives before rights.
Having slaves was once the right of certain people. We got rid of that 'right'. 
I think its time for the right to keep and bear arms to go.

I am no legal scholar but the Constitution (click here for the Constitution) is a flexible document. And the second amendment was meant to protect the people in a free state and while in need of a militia. The link of the second part of the statement to the first part often falls by the way side because the first part outlines in many ways why the second part is necessary. And now it seems that the people of the United States need protection from the second amendment. The right to bear arms is a CIVIL right not a HUMAN right. 

I have nothing against hunting. 

But no one is invading our borders and there is (almost) no risk of a coup. The people pay taxes to be protected by a police force, and military forces within and without our borders. Im not a legal scholar but Ive read said 2nd amendment and without disparaging anyone it takes a good dose of paranoia for anyone to think a semi-automatic or such is the intent of the law. And though I be not a legal scholar i know that there are more than 20 amendments (flexible doc that Constitution), and I'm pretty sure we can repeal amendments and best of all we can add new ones. 

Yes. I know the NRA think the 2nd one was written on a tablet and brought from Mt. Rushmore, but it was handwritten on paper like the rest. Now NRA go tell the parents of those 20 children that were shot to death today in Newtown, CT that guns dont kill people.

And that argument that guns dont kill people is especially poignant on a day when a Chinese man entered a school and stabbed 19 children and none died. I'm sure if she had gone in with a handgun at least one would have died. 


The data supporting gun control is clear but I dont want this post to be about data when the only data that matters is the 20 children and 8 adults dead (as of writing and as reported by the New York Times). 

I want this post to begin a conversation in common sense and to be about finding solutions to a very vexing and painful social problem. Gun proponents like to point out that people with brain disorders are the ones killing people but mass murder is not going to happen with ones bare hands and a knife is much less efficient or effective. Even a handgun without automatic and semi-automatic capacity does much less damage. Getting treatment for people living with brain disorders is one very small piece of the puzzle because sane men also kill their intimate partners - exes as well- by gun and sometimes then commit suicide. The mental health argument does not apply here.

And the call for more security means a call for more guns in places where people can get harmed in the chaos of a shoot out. 

Yesterday, Michigan passed a law allowing guns in spaces where children are cared for. 
It seems that if safety is our concern, we can get childcare providers to learn martial arts just as much as we can make sure they can shoot straight and keep the guns safe from children.

Responses to this shooting include more gun-free zones, more gun detectors in schools etc etc. Basically we respond to gun laws but gun laws dont respond to us.

The HUMAN rights to health, safety and life trump the CIVIL rights to keep and bear arms. People before things. 

We got rid of the right to have slaves. We can get rid of the right to carry guns.

That said, there are many ways to retain the second amendment but  have more restrictive gun laws. It need not be an either/or decision but 'reason' should prevail.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Beyond MDGs 2015: The search for new objectives, new goals and new measures.

Recently on the Humanosphere blog there was a call for comment on a paper, titled ‘How can a post-2015 agreement drive real change’, written by Duncan Green, Stephen Hale and Matthew Lockwood of Oxfam. So I took up the challenge to read the paper and I am offering up this feedback.

Defining Poverty
First, its time to stop with the global strategies, initiatives, imperatives, goals, objectives etc. Poverty, though common across the goals in its experience of inadequate resources for daily living, is by its complexity and locale-specific nature, not amenable to ‘global targets’. Any global target means that variations across locales disappear and the outcomes seems somewhat meaningless. Furthermore, and most importantly, the people setting these targets are usually not the ones who have to meet them, nor are they the ones who will be among the counted when these targets get evaluated.

Authoring Poverty
Second, it would be beyond wonderful if more of these papers get written by people in countries where these targets will be implemented and by in-country people who will have to implement the programs through which these targets will be met. Included in these papers should be the voices of the poor people whose lives these policies are supposed to change.

Aid and the Environment
Third, there is a significant cost to the environment (the focus of MDG #7) created by the aid industry. As well-meaning, well-educated and sometimes well-prepared development workers, finance ministers, UN staff etc etc zip around the world, they consume millions of plastic bottles of water in places where plastic is not recycled and leave an ever-growing carbon footprint in their wake. Given the state of technology, there should be less need for travel of the rich and more space for the voices of the poor. Until this happens, the business of aid will be increasingly one of self-perpetuating indulgence and less about helping poor people.

Rich-Poor Country Relationships
As the authors note, there is little evidence of the kind of rich-poor country strategies like technology transfer, trade, finance etc that could really make an impact on global poverty. Instead, it is the gift of cash, stuff and people that poor countries get. Furthermore, the ‘customization’ of the MDGs by many of the countries reinforce the need for local governments to set their own goals and not follow some guideline set and monitored by people far away: the so-called 'international community'.

The Politics of Poverty
The politics of poverty and aid (the latter needs to be tossed into the garbage pile of post-colonial, neo-liberal, capitalist failures), and the geopolitics that influence the relationships between rich and poor countries are more significant than any aid strategy. The USAID is explicit that their aid strategy must be in sync with their security strategy. And their security strategy seems to include supporting leaders who rape and pillage the national treasuries of their countries – money that could build the kind of infrastructure that aid wont build but is so integral to the alleviation of poverty. Of course, once these criminals deposit such funds in their offshore accounts, aid fills the gap; and often by avoiding the government sector all together as ‘civil society’ is the Cinderella of the aid game.

The Business of Aid
The business of aid seems to be an end in itself: meetings, conferences, conventions, consultations, site visits, photo ops with donations, writing of papers, and on and on. It has also proved to be great fodder for bestsellers. In many countries aid is its own sub-economy: hotels, maids, drivers, consultants, and speakers at the endless meetings where the same people say the same things – driving the hospitality and service industries of many nations, with trends in where meetings get located based on making successful transitions within the aid space. (Scared of Lagos but longing for Addis).

Self-perpetuating Aid
The authors propose ‘the best way for the international community to encourage pro-poor change’. I would suggest that the time has come to leave people alone, except to help in case of emergency. And the goal should be to work oneself out of a job. Noone will deny the romantic ideas attached to going around the world ‘helping people’ that perhaps began in the adventures of the Scottish medical missionary Dr. David Livingstone ("Dr. Livingstone, I presume") and continue through the passionate followers of Dr. Paul Farmer and Partners in Health. But I am reminded of how the system of apartheid fell: People around the world in their own countries pushing long and hard for change in solidarity with efforts on the ground in-country led by local leaders. (Noone was flying into South Africa for AIDS meetings serviced by prostitutes, instead political activists were running out). Perhaps the aid industry could study the anti-apartheid movement as a model for how to stay home and effect change far away.

Poverty Assumptions
The assumption that poor people in foreign lands NEED our help is the assumption we must challenge as the international community (whoever that is) start thinking of new ‘targets’. Instead of giving poor people what our theoretical frameworks, randomized controlled studies, and consultation with Ivy-educated energetic young experts ( that tend to populate consultant firms) say they need, perhaps we could set up frameworks for them to tell us what they need from us (I'm thinking YouTube, Skype, Google). We may choose whether or not to give it to them, but at least they would have had their say.

The Study of Poverty
As for the authors' ‘we need  more research’ conclusions. I beg to differ.  The key being “the substantial investment of money and brainpower in both the MDGs and the global debate over what should replace them" (p.17). That they state the existing research has provided so few answers is a sign that perhaps more research is not what we need. Nor is the need to spend all this time, energy, money and carbon creating new agenda items to write about and discuss in far-flung meetings in fancy spaces for the next x numbers of years. Yes, some countries may find that their tourism infrastructure may suffer the lack of peripatetic aid professionals but I am sure they will find other economic engines to replace them.

Eliminating Poverty
The abject poverty targeted by the MDGs was created, and is maintained, by well-understood systems of power and wealth that reside in the countries that give aid. These are systems that few in the ‘international community’ are willing to change; including many in the aid business who would have no more travel to exotic locations for cool meetings with really interesting and smart people. (Have they heard of Skype?). Until they are ready to do that, they should leave the victims of their policies alone. I think they've done enough. Big goals for years ending in 0 or 5 may make us feel better before they even hit the ground, but that alone should make them suspect.

For an updated critique of the SDGs see 'The 169 Commandments', The Economist, March 28, 2015.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Good intentions, exploitation and studying 'the poor'

I am an academic and thus I am required to do research and to write. As someone who studied sociology, social welfare, public health, international health, and economics I am plenty equipped to study poverty and the lives of poor people. And in my areas of study, these are the people of whom we ask questions, whether here or abroad.Were I to do a search of any library database using poverty as a keyword, I will get hundreds of hits for journal articles published in the past month alone. But I have decided that I will no longer study 'poverty' or 'the poor' because I find it exploitative in its convenience, somewhat useless in its findings and creates a conundrum in its recommendations: how to change poverty by changing the poor.

We study how the poor shop, what they eat, what they drink, how fat they are, how (un)educated they are, how much health care they (don't) get, how they parent, and how a wide range of social, political and economic factors interact to influence their patterns of behavior.

Given that the poor have been studied for more than a hundred years and are not responsible for their poverty, and that poverty is a result of social and economic policies and systems, the objective of studying the poor or poverty seems unproductive. For example, Charles Booth's study of the poor in East London in the late 19th Century has findings similar to recent studies of the poor of East London. Finding that poverty did not change should not be surprising if the system that creates vast swaths of poverty: capitalism and social/political neglect, have not changed. That we are fascinated by the increases in inequality after creating systems that create such inequality makes us seem out of touch with the 'real world' outside of the towers of ivory.

Through our 'engagement' with the poor and with poverty, academics have implicitly and explicitly made poverty, and especially the poor, the object of our inquiry and therefore the focus of our interventions. There is something inherently 'perverse' or 'interesting' or 'puzzling' about the behaviors of the poor that inspires intellectuals of all stripes to spend lots of time writing grants, seeking out 'controlled and randomized' samples (or more likely samples of convenience), and doing complicated qualitative and quantitative analyses using sophisticated software to find out wherein lies the problem of poverty and how we can change the behaviors of the poor to make them less poor or more 'functional' within their poverty.

 In the global arena, economists are leaving the theoretical equations of the classroom to test their ideas in the real world (see the books More Than Good Intentions, Poor Economics etc). Using localized research projects, these economists from Yale and The Poverty Action Lab at MIT seek to find 'the answers to poverty' by comparing how samples of poor people respond to different 'aid' scenarios. I will not deny the fascinating results of these studies, but the power dynamics of the 'lab rat' experiences that poor people must endure at our expense in the production of knowledge, leaves me queasy; despite all the very careful ethical standards that are in place.

Our extensive studies of the poor goes against the justice principle of the 1978 Belmont report that defined ethical standards for protection of 'subjects' in research. Academics put undue burden of research on the poor because the benefit to the poor is hard to justify the more we study them and the longer they remain 'poor' as mobility upwards slows down and the top 1% get increasingly wealthy. Perhaps we should study the rich in order to benefit the poor. We know a lot about the poor but it is hard to say how much 'new' information we gain about poverty/the poor with each new study, or how much poverty alleviation has happened as a result of the waves upon waves of various methodologies and strategies we have employed in the study of individuals who are poor.

The problem is not poor people. The problem is poverty. And there is no way to 'find answers to poverty' by studying poor people as they are not the creators of their demise. However, as people with power, we have chosen them as the 'object' of our research (though 'partners' is a more trendy notion - and lofty goal - I hesitate to tarnish the meaning of the word by using it in this context). We do this because it is challenging to find a sample of the top 1% to study in the same way that we study the bottom 1%. How fascinating it would be to find out about how the wealthy give to charity, pay their workers more, consume less, vote in a particular way, their savings patterns, their inheritance patterns, their parenting, consumption of pharmaceuticals and recreational drugs, their romantic relationships, their residential patterns etc. etc. However, the wealth and power of the rich insulates them from being subjected to the querying minds of academe. The Center for Wealth and Inequality at Columbia University was created several years ago in a groundbreaking move to study wealth and inequality and yet it still identifies poverty as the first item in its list of research interests.

Among my colleagues around the globe, I would be hard pressed to find anyone who finds new research on poverty groundbreaking in any way. This particular blog post was inspired by an online discussion on the Spirit of 1848 listserv of the American Public Health Association - a left wing community of public health professionals from around the world interested in the issues of inequality and its impact on health. Recently, the conversation was exploring the issues raised in an article titled, 'Low income linked to poorer health in both US and England, despite different health systems', which was published in the American Journal of Public Health in late September. An article that created a resounding 'duh!' online.

I think it is time to leave poor people alone; to use our power to protect them from our insatiable curiousity about their lives through actively fighting with them for social policies that raise their standard of living and education and gives them more access to resources and power. Replicability may be a founding principle of science but after a point we move to redundancy. If we still feel the need to ask questions of the poor, perhaps we can let them guide the way. This means we give up our 'intellectual superiority' and become servants to the poor, asking the questions to which they want answers. This may mean less articles for me to review for lofty (and not so lofty) journals but it may mean that more of what we write gets read by more people, and more of what we read educates us in a meaningful way that makes social change possible.

Picture from Grandmother's March 2012, sponsored by St Francis Health Services of Njeru, Uganda, 

Monday, August 13, 2012

Global Hunger, Capitalism and the Aid Business

Food and Festivities
Riding on the coattails of the London 2012 Olympics, there was a Hunger Summit - another grand meeting of officials who fly in business and first class to be put up in 5 star hotels where they eat sumptuous meals right before they meet to discuss how they are going to feed the world's hungry. They even roped in gilded Mo Farah and other Olympic-related media darlings to get some press. Seriously?? They needed Mo Farah to do this for them to take the issue seriously?

Like the Family Planning Summit which preceded the Olympics, there are grand promises made by the 'Western' countries about working together towards eliminating world hunger. Co-hosted by Cameron and Michel Temer (VP of Brazil - host of the next Olympics), it has had to fight for page space among the continued media blitz, tsunami and hurricane of Olympic-related press. Of course, this summit came out of the last G8 summit in May when Obama made promises to African leaders on the issue.

Everyone acting on good faith, with lots of data and charts ('infographics') and public health specialists buzzing about at media events that will go quiet about hunger come tomorrow morning. Because unless there is famine involved, most people do not think about hunger. Perhaps they could sell the soundtrack of last night's closing ceremony to raise money. Quicker than getting together another bunch of singers to do a Hunger Aid song.

Boosting Agricultural Production
There will be plans for boosting agricultural production (let's ignore the drought in the USA that is going to raise the roof on grain prices), increased financial commitments to research (let's ignore double dip recessions and 'interesting' food products), more efficient distribution (let's ignore noone wants to fund infrastructure) and I'm sure some new software program for phones or something that will be a 'key' factor in making this all work. And yes, the capitalist countries of the world are going to try and promote local production (which is the best plan) in a global environment where a handful of food producers control not only production but processing. And we also have to ignore the economic foundations of national economies that are often based in agricultural products that noone can eat for nutritional purposes; items such as coffee and tea, which are vital to economies but do little to feed populations.

Subsistence Farming
In the area of Jamaica where my parents live, smallholder farms get killed off by US imports because should we 'protect' our market, the USA would WTO us back into being a repository for their market products that make their markets grow and puts us at an economic disadvantage in the balance of trade game. So I'm suspicious of how the USA will balance their need for exports (thou shalt not mess with the farm lobby if thou wants to be elected) with local need for food that doesn't require thousands of miles of infrastructure and does nothing but drain local coffers - both individually and nationally.

Eradicating Global Hunger
Eradicating extreme poverty and hunger is a Millenium Development Goal with very ambitious targets that seem to have come out of the mouth of a beauty pageant contestant. With the 2015 end date on the MDGs closing in and failure eminent the UN now has a target for 2025 (who picks these years?) and Cameron has a target for 2016 (related of course to the next Olympiad) that will fit into this larger UN target. Perhaps if countries could plan beyond election years, these long-term targets may actually be achieved because although my colleagues like to insist that they are just there to motivate, I think if any of these Olympic athletes kept failing to meet their targets, they would quit and find another vocation, but in public health, we just keep marching on. Simply means another report about what went wrong and how we can fix it when we set the next target.

Eradicating Child Malnutrition in the UK
A glimpse at the Twitter feed generated by the #globalhunger tag includes this post from DFID (UK Aid) which quotes Prime Minister Cameron as saying:"While we all enjoy #London2012 there's another world where children don't get enough to eat". His focus is on reducing child malnutrition rates in poor countries as he moves into being the head of the G8 (how many numbered G's are there?)

I am hoping Mr Cameron may include reducing child malnutrition in his own country as part of his goal. As a social worker in Redbridge back in 2010, I was shocked at how few resources there were to feed hungry people who for one reason or another did not qualify for benefits.

Eradicating Hunger in the USA
As for the USA, with recent cuts in food stamps (a cash for food benefit program) and an expansion (and institutional entrenchment) of food banks, it hardly befits the government to think it can solve the hunger problems of poor, disorganized nations that are less agriculturally developed. California may feed the world but there are thousands of Californians that are what the US government calls 'food insecure' (i.e. not sure where there next meal is coming from).

Hunger Summits & Careers
I am exhausted by grand summits and meetings. Each one following the next with final reports begun to be written before meetings occur. Photo op upon photo op of smiling guys in suits shaking hands making commitments (like their marriage vows) that they know they cannot keep. And noone holding their feet to the fire because fiscal promises like electoral ones are best taken with a strong dose of cynicism.

Among the noise on Twitter was even a job posting for a Campaign Communications Coordinator to work on the food and hunger campaign that will be sponsored by UK NGOs. As I feared, another summit means the aid business gets a boost, everyone goes home feeling good, more miles in their affinity programs, another report to write and present at a meeting. And unless something miraculous happens, it goes back to being business as usual.

Because if the country sponsoring this meeting has the same nutrition problems with its poor kids that its had since the creation of sociology, I will await with unabated breath to see what becomes of yet another summit about some problem faced by rich countries that they want to solve in poor countries.

Hunger and Income
Perhaps we could just guarantee people an income and they could deal with their food and family planning issues on their own without some Peace Corps (nothing against them just an example) volunteer or Ivy-league trained NGO professional from 10,000 miles away telling them what to do.

It's worth a try, no?

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Family Planning Summit and the Voice of Poor Women

I decided to edit this piece to start with a video of Melinda Gates talking about her privilege to travel the world and meet women whose voices are not heard on the world stage and so she feels it is her obligation to speak on behalf of them. This gets at the heart of why I wrote this piece so I will let her speak in her own words before I speak mine in response:

Melinda Gates interview on her work as family planning advocate

I work in the development industry. Sometimes. I have worked in the family planning sector a long time. I have worked in safe motherhood a long time. And I have worked in AIDS. (That these are not integrated in the development sector is a topic for another post).

I came to development through childhood experiences with development workers whose ideas were formed in some office far, far away using the most recent data and information on my Jamaican community. They were talented, mulitlingual and well-intentioned. But something about the experience left an indelible mark on me that often has me questioning my own motives and behaviors as I work with women in different countries to make their lives better. I lived in a house where my uncle (who housed these workers) also spent many years with a huge canister on his back spraying anopheles mosquitoes to rid the Caribbean and Central America of malaria. Malaria left Jamaica. Perhaps we are all damaged for the effort (given the eco movements objection to spraying in Africa) but so far so good. When it rains now, my mom puts a speck of kerosene or oil on the standing water and that takes care of that. For some reason, that isn't good enough for Africa. But I digress. (That's another post).

I spend too much time (its part of my job) going to panels and lectures on issues related to the Southern poor (somehow Northern poor are not in need of 'development'). Despite the current theme that 'technology will save the world' and 'health is part of security' and 'we must empower people to do the work themselves', I find this all disingenuous no matter the speaker's intent. And good intentions abound in development.

Technology Will Solve the Problems of the World

There are some problems that technology can fix and others it can't. I can give you technology and you can choose not to use it because you don't want to, don't know how to, or it doesn't suit your needs. But behavior change (to get you to use this technology) is messy and funders want metrics and they want change in the 3-5 year funding cycle and methods must be new and sparkly. And 'technology' seems to be a code for 'new technology' because a lot of old technology works fine.

In family planning we have things like the female condom (which practically no woman in the developed world will use, and for good reason) being pushed on women who live where one can't find a tampon because putting hands or things inside one's vagina is taboo. (It also assumes that sex will be planned).

Perhaps if we can get the old technology to new women there would be no need to spend so many millions on developing new technology when the old ones are working so fine for so many women in the 'rich world' that their low birthrates are wreaking havoc on their present and future demography and economies.

Health as Security

The 'security' argument for health is so offensive to me that I simply wont address it.

Speaking On Their Own Behalf

If we are going to 'empower' the poor of the world, perhaps we can stop visiting them to collect their stories and then be their voice on the world stage. Can that community organizer in Malawi not learn more by visiting the UK or the USA or Germany than a team of aid workers or academics visiting her? Is it not she who needs the knowledge so why are we there?

When we have 'summits' such as Rio+ 20 and the Family Planning Summit, where are the women whose lives we are talking about? Why aren't they on the stage and in the room? Telling the stories and asking the questions? Can't the technology we have Skype them in so they can speak for themselves instead of being an anecdote in a sea of data to 'bring it back to the ground level'? Or to remind us that its about people and not data. So where are the 'people'?

My job requires that I do research and as much as possible I have fought for the rights of the queried to have them be able to speak directly to the audience. I have used quotes and I recently tried using video.  Of course, with 10 minute presentations, the people often get lost in the objectives, methods, findings and recommendations. Thus my often conflicted state as an adult who was a child on who development was done who is trying not to do development to anyone else.

If we really believe in empowering people then we must stop speaking (and doing!) on their behalf when they can speak (and do!) for themselves. I loved Ashley Judd's anecdote at the LSE panel preceding the Family Planning Summit that demonstrated how the intersectionality of AIDS, lack of inheritance rights, sexual trafficking, and lack of contraception made the life of one woman and her children extremely difficult. But how much more powerful would that story have been if told in first person?

Melinda Gates, Family Planning and Poor Women

It is great that Melinda Gates of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has finally (after much effort) come around to the family planning story after hearing directly from women about their lives. And then she can retell those stories to the world. But why can't these women tell their own stories to the world (using Microsoft technology perhaps)? And why can't they enjoy the business class flight, 4-star hotel rooms, and chauffeured car rides as they flit about the world telling their stories? Or does that budget line always have to be on our side?

Maybe Melinda could have brought the Kenyan women she was talking to (below) to London. Just like Bloomberg sent in his donation by video so could everyone else. All that back patting is nice but really its the women in the picture below that its all about. And as I searched for images in Google using the keywords 'Family Planning Summit', I could find lots of pictures of dignitaries in London (and in poor countries) and poor women in Africa and Asia. Perhaps there were panels of the women below. I just couldn't find pictures of them.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

DREAMing of a future: The politics of undocumented youth in the USA

Note: The links in this document are to primary sources of various laws proposed/implemented.

Undocumented Immigration in the USA
According to former Huffington Post editor and immigration activist Jose Antonio Vargas - as cited in the latest TIME magazine cover story on undocumented immigrants - there are an estimated 11.5 million undocumented immigrants in the USA. (For a short video of undocumented immigrants/immigration, click here).

Like many undocumented immigrants, Vargas came as a young child. He came with forged documents and discovered his status as a 16 year old child when he wanted to get a driver's license. Others discover their status as they try to get jobs or pursue a college education and others know from they are very young because of the tenuous nature of their parents' economic lives.

A Stay on Deportation of Undocumented Youth
As I stood in a room in London (UK) presenting on the topic titled above, on Friday June 15th, 2012, President Obama passed a 'grant of deferred action' that stated that there would be a federal stay on deportation of young immigrants. (For White House video of the announcement click here). Though making it clear that it is not immunity nor an amnesty, but a focus on higher priority undocumented immigration, more than 800,000 young people are expected to take advantage of the change in the law and perhaps gain one of the limited number of work permits that will become available.

To be eligible for this relief from deportation, applicants must have entered the USA younger than 16 years old and must be younger than 30 at the time of application, and have lived in the USA for at least 5 years. Additionally they must have graduated from high school or have a GED and must have an honorable discharge from the Coast Guard or the military. They will be disqualified if they have a felony, a serious misdemeanor or several misdemeanors and not present a threat to national security.

The main 'catch' of the President's declaration is that only Congress can decide on citizenship and thus until there is a law passed by Congress (such as the DREAM Act) there is still no path to citizenship for the young people who benefit from this new law that protects them from deportation.

This move by President Obama is a response to long-term pressure by immigrant groups to deal with the issue of undocumented immigrants. The bipartisan DREAM Act originally introduced in Congress in 2001 (and re-introduced in 2009) by Republican (UT) Orin Hatch and Democrat (IL) Richard Durbin goes much further than a stay on deportation and provides a path to citizenship.

The Development, Relief, and Education of Alien Minors Act (H.R. 1842 & S. 952) has the same residency requirements but the maximum age at application would be 35 years old. The Bill provides a path to citizenship through education (completing 2 years of a 4-year program) or 2 years of military service. This would give them a 6-year temporary residency and then would qualify for permanent residency upon completion of the degree or through an honorable discharge or completion of further military service.

Health and Social Welfare Benefits Without Residency
Earning permanent residency not only provides a path to citizenship (after 5 years of permanent resident status) but provides access to health and social welfare benefits. Without permanent residency, there is no access to the following social welfare benefits:

  • government-sponsored financial aid for education
  • less tuition (in-state and resident fees are much less than fees for 'foreign' students)
  • more job opportunities (more flexibility in changing jobs)
  • start their own company
  • social security
  • ease of entry into the USA 
  • Medicaid (if permanent resident for 5 years)
  • Food Stamps
  • cash aid
This is not an exhaustive list but without access to the social safety net the lack of permanent resident status negatively impacts the health and social welfare of undocumented immigrants. Even as a resident, it is expected that for 5 years, a person shall not be taking from the public coffers so immigrants are still 'on their own'.  This means that undocumented immigrants are more at risk to be exploited by employers and not to have access to the basic rights guaranteed by the Declaration of Human Rights; specifically Article 23 protects against discrimination at work, Article 25 provides for medical and social care provisions and Article 26 provides the right for an education. 

Incarceration of Undocumented Youth
For undocumented immigrants these rights exist but are not enforced or enforceable under the current laws of the United States. Furthermore, through incarceration of young adults for the crime of illegally entering the country or being convicted of a crime as a minor, the USA goes against the human rights of children. Although held under administrative detention, many young immigrants are held in criminal facilities (due to lack of capacity) and do not have access to government paid legal representation. All for a decision that was often made for them and not by them.

It should be noted that on June 4, 2012, Republican David Rivera of Florida introduced HR 5869: the STARS Act: Studying Towards Residency Act. The primary difference is that upon acceptance to a 4-year college, youth could apply for a 5 year temporary visa to study and then apply for a longer visa upon graduation. It is a more restrictive version of the DREAM Act.

Social Impact of Non-Residency
With bipartisan proposals under consideration it is clear that the issue of young undocumented immigrants is of significant concern. To have a growing population of people with no future is not conducive to social integration or economic growth. A permanent underclass of low-paid workers with no hope of becoming integrated into the fabric of the USA defies the basic foundation of the country as a refuge for those seeking a better life. Denying access to health and social welfare benefits threatens the health and social welfare of the USA because access to necessary healthcare is denied as is access to services that would deter a precipitous fall into abject poverty.

The Future of Undocumented Immigration in the USA
The struggle to redefine the immigration laws of the USA is not going to be easily or quickly resolved. Despite the fact that it would be hard to eat a meal in the USA were it not for an undocumented immigrant nor would the California wine industry exist, and the fact that the labor provided by these workers is such a significant and irreplaceable source of economic power, Republicans and Democrats and the general populace cannot agree about how to deal with these immigrants. That they are brown and from the South is similar to the barriers faced by Greeks and Italians at the turn of the 20th Century. Or the Irish in the late 19th Century. It is not simply about immigration but about what the country will look like in the future. That image, held dear by many, is not easily changed. But like all social change, their image will have to change to reflect the changing world around them.

Note: I have lived in the USA for 19 years under a variety of visas (TN, H1B, F1) as a foreign student, a worker under NAFTA and a H1 skilled employee (using my Canadian citizenship while also having British citizenship). After 18 years I decided to apply for permanent residency because of all the benefits it provided and I was tired of the seemingly random restrictions of being on a work permit. After 16 months of collecting letters etc. and filing loads of paperwork, my petition for residency based on my status as an 'outstanding professor' was granted in April 2012.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012


Ye Old University
The library at Trinity College, Dublin
I went to the old university. A place where professors gave midterms and finals or 100% finals and you did not complain unless your case was airtight. And you only went to see the professor if you had worked on the problem for hours on end and now your headache would not go away or if you needed a signature to drop out of the class. I also saw my advisor once a year. Tops. If I had a question. Otherwise, I followed the course listing for my major and got about it.

In this old university, I was given a long list of books to read and if I did not read them I would fail because I could not answer the questions on the really challenging final. (Or if I was really on the ball I would analyze one paragraph for 12 pages so someone thought I read the whole thing. Don't think I finished reading Durkheim but got an A in my sociology class on Durkheim: Writing is a really, really useful skill:). Or at the very least I would sound stupid when I got asked a question. In my quant classes I had to spend hours upon hours doing problem sets (and I'm real good at numbers) that made some of my colleagues cry or surrender to the help of a tutor.

In the old university, we could find most of our books in the library if we could not afford to buy them, and our tuition could be earned in the summer and paying for living expenses could be mostly handled by a job off campus. (Note: I did go to school in Canada but in the same period a public university in the USA was also 'affordable').

In the old university, I did not evaluate my professor probably because noone thought I was qualified to do so given s/he had a PhD and I was some little twerp who only knew what it was to be a student and nothing on how to be a teacher. Also it was assumed, I suppose, that if I passed then I had learned.

The New University

But I teach in the new university: a place where students AND THEIR PARENTS (another topic altogether but intricately tied to this one) expect that there will be lots of 'support' for their learning. And exactly what they are supposed to be learning seems to be better articulated in terms of charts and tables and fancy terms such as 'learning objectives' and 'learning outcomes' that are tied to accreditation and the university's outcomes and it all links together with lines going in every direction and in every color and yet, I still teach the same stuff I was taught. However, now I must measure their learning in a multiplicity of ways so that I spend almost as much time grading as I do teaching.

MacEwan Student Center, University of Calgary
In the new university, everyone is worthy of an A if they achieve the targets of the 'grading rubric' that tells them how to get an A and should they not get an A, they can challenge that grade all the way up the chain of command, usually with Mommy and Daddy pitching in on the whys and wherefores of Johnnie's worth for an A. I dared to tell a class that if they all got an A then it was a meaningless A, and the traumatized looks on their faces told me that they did not give a care for what a bell curve means.

Of course, should they not get their A with the 'regular' assignments, there are lots of ways to get 'extra credit' - a concept that somehow creeped into my classes but are scheduled for an exorcism. As for the concept of a 'study guide', I am not sure how these got started but somehow after reading the books, doing the assignments, and coming to lectures I am supposed to tell them what to study. I am still unclear on this point despite numerous attempts on my student's behalf to explain to me the point of a test of which the contents are known. Even the notion of an 'open-book test' is still very confusing (oxymoronic?) to my rigid post-colonial (British) concept of 'exam'.

And this new university is a university in which student failure reflects badly on those ratings by US News and World Report , Princeton Review and whoever else is measuring how quickly we graduate students, how they feel about us, blah blah.... so we must do everything to not let Susie fail. This includes alerting advisers to the fact that Susie has not been in class for days or failed the last assignment etc. which is clearly a sign that Susie needs "support" to facilitate her graduation; as if $30k a year in tuition and $thousands in books is not enough motivation. And as I refuse to take attendance, remembering the last day Susie was in class is a real problem for me. (Attendance is not a proxy for any adult learning outcome that I can think of so why measure it?)

But my most favorite part (NOT!) of the new university is that student's rate my teaching. People who do not know the subject or pedagogy get to decide who gets a raise and how much or whether someone gets tenure or a long-term adjunct contract. What makes a 'good course'? And do students know what that is? If I make the course really hard, is it good that they are challenged even if they fail because it was so hard? Does a student know what 'active learning' is? What is an 'effective' instructor? One that makes your head hurt with really hard questions? Or one that has pretty pictures and orderly bullet points on a PowerPoint presentation that follows along the textbook so the student does not really have to read? Is it the professor who takes you on a rambling intellectual journey through stories or gives you an agenda for each class? Or is it the one who evaluates at midterm and then tweaks the class to suit the students so that a good review is assured?

There are teachers that get outstanding reviews from students and absolutely horrible reviews from others who sat in the same room. And in the new university, our job is to 'contextualize' our evaluations from our students (though I'm beginning to think of them as 'consumers' given how much they drive 'production') should we not get great ones. And given that our merit increase is partially based on the student's evaluation of our pedagogical skills, we exercise our intellectual abilities to theorize why Johnny and Suzie thought us wanting. So what if Susie thought she learned nothing and yet did advanced statistics after 10 weeks? Or if Johnnie thought he learned no policy at all but just got offered a policy internship because of the great policy work he did? What matters is if Johnnie or Susie THOUGHT they learned something. My A or B is not enough validation of their learning.

The Future University

I spent several weeks at the London School of Economics and Political Science during the summer of 2011 in the company of a much younger cohort of economics students from all over the world and there I got a taste of the old university again. How wonderful it tasted: harsh, anonymous grading, no return of assignment, no challenging of grade, lots of hard reading. I even failed a writing assignment for the first time in 5 degrees: A 3-page writing assignment on the US welfare system. Ohhh the crushing pain of that given that's what I teach back here in the good ole USA. But hey, no challenging of the grade. And the comment on the grade page said I was a poor writer and my first 2 pages should be tossed. Of a 3 page assignment. Ouch!!!! Doesn't matter that I'm a budding economist learning a new language (same concepts different words) and trying to repath my neurons and have my dendrites fire differently. It was crushingly humiliating to be the failing professor of social policy in a public finance class!!! But I sucked it up. Had no choice. My students have no notion of suck it up.

But I also got a taste of the new university because to get one's grade or Certificate of Attendance, we had to complete an on-line evaluation; no evaluation? No grade. Effective use of coercion to get 100% return of evaluations.

So it may be that the future university lays somewhere in-between the old and the new. Or perhaps we in the USA will exhaust ourselves on ever expanding maitrices of interlocking objectives that serve as our instrument of 'factory inspection' that says we reached  objectives 1 through 6 even though our 'product' may still be faulty. Maybe then we will return to the beautiful simplicity of a mid-term/final dynamic duo or the unitary 100% paper still so common across Europe. Or it could be that the whole mess ends up online and I stand in front of an audience scattered around the world. Or maybe I just write the stuff and facilitate in the cybersphere as students' avatars practice counseling virtual clients.

Or maybe we can be like Coca Cola: never changing the formula, just the packaging and the marketing.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Rush Limbaugh and the reputation of women

Patriarchy and Women's Sexuality

It's an interesting artifact of patriarchy that women's sexuality is prized. Thus ruining it in any way ruins the woman. The words whore and slut  become weapons that have no equivalent in the sphere of males. In honoring a woman's 'honor' we revisit the impact that this honor has on the reputation of a family. In the most extreme cases a woman is killed in order to protect the honor of her family and rape during conflict is not just about the violation of self and person but of reputation that ruins a woman's life chances.

Rush Limbaugh and Sandra Fluke

So Rush Limbaugh understood that there was no power in attacking Sandra Fluke's intelligence or her looks. Instead, he went for what would be the most inflammatory: an attack on her sexual 'purity'. Some anachronistic notion that should women have many sexual partners they are morally inferior and less worthy. Or that should they accept money for sexual pleasure then they are less than. Attitudes that prevent women from seeking recourse in the criminal justice system for sexual crimes. Attitudes that women reinforce by continuing to be outraged by 'accusations' that are no longer 'accusations' at all. The more we reinforce these social scripts that oppress us the more power these scripts have, despite slutwalks and campaigns to legalize the marketing of sexual favors.

A Woman's Reputation and the Sexual Revolution

To pressure sponsors to withdraw support from Rush Limbaugh we acknowledge that these notions about the 'sanctity' of a woman's sexual purity are indeed correct. And that calling women these names impunes their reputation, a 'false' reputation reinforced by white wedding dresses and the giving away of brides.

That Mr Limbaugh goes beyond the pale to rile up audiences and get ratings has never been in dispute. But that he went for a woman's sexual expression was not simply a factor of the context of the discussion of contraception but a social context in which a woman is still expected to restrain herself sexually. So much for the sexual revolution.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The sexual politics of board quotas

Women and Access to Executive Boards

The Brits and the EU are contemplating and implementing quotas for board representation of women. A very lofty idea that will bring women into the rooms of power where crucial business decisions are made.

The issue at hand is that women need to have more access to power and also boards and companies need the diversity that women bring. But this presumes that power is male-defined and that only male definitions of power have validity. What is it about women's power that has no validity?

The Power of Being Female

Is the power to gestate a human being and feed them from their body for months not power? What about the power to raise children that then rule the world - both male and female. Women start more small businesses and is that less power than running GM? Is the power of running a home when the head of GM is at work not power? Is the power of being the majority of the world's consumers not power? Is it not power to maintain relationships of friendship and family and keep home life together not power?

So if we decide to take on male forms of power, does that not devaluate our own power? Is ambition only ambition if it means to take on the positions in which men dominate? Even a suit is male. What's wrong with a nice dress? If professional means a suit then we are continuing to perpetuate male standards of 'professional' power. And trying to find pictures of non-suit wearing corporate women on google.com was quite a challenge.

Of course I am not saying that wanting to be president or in the board room is not a valid goal for a woman. I sit on boards, some on which I've had power and others on which I haven't. I have found that having men 'legitimate' my power has gone a long way. At the same time there are women in power who validate that I am the equal of the men. Though I often notice that I'm the 'only' in the room I figure we're all in the room and everyone gets to say their mind. There are times that it takes me a while to notice that I am not only the only woman in the room but the only person of color as well. I don't know if that is significant but I'm always aware of the power that being a woman has over men. And I have no qualms in exercising it in the same way that men use their male power over women. Though women often feel that using their femininity is somehow not okay when men inherently use their masculinity. If we are going to be equal we will have to understand that our power - intellectual, sexual, or otherwise - is as legitimate as that of men.

We do not need to try and get their power but to learn to exercise the tremendous power that we have.

Family and the Business of Being Female

As Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook says, we have to be present and we have to speak up.  But sometimes we can't show up because we have kids and at the bottom of the career ladder it is hard to find childcare. So though the women at the top in line for the board room can afford a nanny, there are a lot of women who fall out along the way because they can't.

A London newspaper interviewed 6 top business women and didn't see the irony of 2 of these women having step-children (and none of their own) as if that didn't have anything to do with their success. The rest of the women had full-time help. That is not the reality of women on the way up. There may be a lot of us at the starting line but we drop out because family policies and cultural norms have us dropping out along the way.

The Pipeline to Corporate Power

And it is the pipeline that is the challenge to fix and not the quotas at the top. If the women are 30% of MBA programs and even less so in quant programs and yet in social work programs they are almost 90%, we must wonder if women are self-selecting careers that do not take them to the top of corporate america; quotas at the top wont fix that. If this 30% shrinks as women go up the ladder how can there be 30% of women on boards? The numbers dont add up.

Exercising Female Power

At the end of the day, women have come far enough to be able to control their own destiny. Perhaps we can get men to learn our ways of power and then we can respect the power that each of us have and not measure power only by male ways of being. We can respect each other's power - whether in the home or the boardroom - and not have women fight for space they seemingly dont want.

As a character said on Mad Men: "Dont be a man. Be a woman. It's powerful business when done correctly."

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Brown, Southern and in-debt: IMF, ECB and the 'super' powers

The IMF and the South

There was a time not so long ago when the kind of bank induced pain being suffered by the Greeks, Irish and Portugese was only felt by those who lived in the South, in places like Jamaica. Those who at the mercy of the IMF and World Bank did what they were told if they wanted to survive economically. When the effects of globalization, the oil crisis, and markets forced open by the predecessor of the WTO meant that island states and other post-colonial economies had to absorb the state-supported production excesses of the North, the USA in particular. We were supposed to want what they had but they seemed to want nothing we had. Except in Jamaica's case: smoke, sex, sand, sea and sun.

The Case of Jamaica

In that not so long ago, I was a child growing up in Jamaica when at one time during my quite idyllic childhood, the Jamaican dollar was worth more than the US dollar. Bauxite was shipped out for aluminium production in Canada and the USA, bananas headed straight to Britain, and tourists came from the world over. Despite its tendency for election-related violence, this island state has always had fair elections. And we've had bright leaders, educated at LSE, Harvard, Oxford etc. As far as the records show none of the leaders have siphoned off their country's cash to bank accounts elsewhere.

When the oil crisis hit in the 1970's (much like the worldwide housing meltdown now) we could not absorb the pain without a loan or two or three from the IMF. With conditions that annihilated health and social services and squeezed our economy so tight food and milk were rationed. With our renowned rebellious spirit  we took to the streets. And our leaders begged and pleaded with the fiscal gods housed in Washington, DC but they got much less airtime, thinking time and decision time than Greece because we were far away and brown: a remnant of ego-induced colonial over-achievement. And if we suffered it was because we were bad money managers. Unable to make it without our old colonial ties. And even when our colonizers gave us favor, say as the UK did for banana trade, the USA (which grows no bananas) came in and severed the last of the post-colonial tethers, with the help of the WTO.

Structural Adjustment Programs

So I feel the pain of the Greeks and the Portugese; also been branded as lazy Southerners who can't balance a budget. Greece no longer being run by an elected leader but having had their democratic choice overturned by a 'colonial' power in Berlin now is being held economic hostage in a drama for which the script is being written on the fly as errors of decades past catch up with dreams of competing with the world superpower: the USA. With default all but acknowledged, the people of Greece line up for social services that used to be the domain of immigrants to their country. Cuts to health and social security mean that the poorest will feel it most; as is always the case. And those poorest are yesterday's employed with unemployment above 20% and minimum wage and government salaries suffering deep cuts. Instead of the dynamic duo of the 1970's: World Bank and IMF, the so-called 'troika' of IMF, ECB and EU are now the economic hitmen that are holding the world's economy hostage as they focus their scope on the EU's 'periphery'; nice name for some southern, brown neighbours who came late to the single currency party.

The Case of the Irish

The Irish on the other hand seemed to have hunkered down to feel the pain or leave, as they are wont to do. And without being stereotypical but instead being honorific, I'm sure there will be great literature in which their post-boom will be a riveting context. But interestingly as they are not brown or southern, they are not tainted by words such as lazy.

Surviving Beyond Austerity 

But the Greeks have no choice. Just like Jamaica and Michael Manley had no choice in the 1970's. They will survive. Just like we did. My parents chose to leave in 1977. With $75/person due to a dollar so devalued and exports being so tight that the only thing bringing in USD was those green leaves that foreigners loved to smoke.

So make noise Greece. Make noise Portugal. But save your strength. It's going to be a long trip back to posterity and though these policies are supposed to bring you home, they will bring you back to nowhere that you recognize. Until you get 'there' (wherever 'there' is) you will be poorer, sicker, less educated and economically traumatized for a long time; whether in or out of the EU. But survival is better than the alternative; not that anyone seems to know what that alternative is.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Hunger in a land of plenty

By Ruth C. White, Ph.D., M.P.H., M.S.W
(written for ParentMap.com December 2007).

In a country considered to be the fattest in the world, it seems oxymoronic that the US is also the only industrialized nation to still have widespread poverty. In the US, calories are cheap but nutrition is expensive. In a country with a safety-net full of holes, poor people (mostly children) suffer from hunger when there is food aplenty growing in the fields, packing the shelves of gargantuan grocery stores (unless you are one of the millions of unlucky poor who have limited access to a grocery store) and restaurant servings on the verge of nauseating.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), in 2005, approximately 35.1 million people -- including 12.4 million children -- lived in households that experience hunger or the risk of hunger each year. This represents 11 percent of households in the United States. Interestingly, the USDA does not have a measure of ‘hunger’ or the number of hungry people. However, it defines households with very low food security as ‘food insecure with hunger’ and characterized them as households in which one or more people experienced hunger because they could not afford food.

In Washington State, there has been progress on the hunger front as we have gone from 2nd hungriest state in the nation to the 30th in only seven years. To get us to the bottom of that list, Children’s Alliance has launched a two-year project called End Childhood Hunger in Washington with a goal of making sure that children throughout the state get three nutritious meals per day.

Left behind
It takes no research for us to know that children who experience severe hunger have higher levels of chronic illness, anxiety and depression, and behavior problems than children with no hunger. And how can they learn when their only meal may be the free lunch they receive at school? Not surprisingly, low test scores and participating in the free lunch program are highly linked; poor children are “left behind.” Ninety percent of households receiving food stamps live below the poverty line ($20,650 for a family of four in 2007).

Feeding the hungry
To address the dozens of millions of hungry people in the US, the USDA oversees more than twenty nutrition assistance programs. The two major nutrition assistance programs of the USDA are Food Stamps and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). The details of these programs cannot be discussed here, but access is a big issue because almost 50 percent of people who qualify for the Food Stamp program do not receive benefits. Stigma, lack of information and administrative hassles are a huge barrier to getting services, especially if the situation is expected to be short-term.

In 2006, the USDA reports that the Food Stamp program spent nearly $33 billion to almost 27 million people with an average monthly benefit per person of $94.32! Can you plan a food budget that gives you less than $25 to spend on food each week?

In 2006, the WIC program spent more than $5 billion to provide food, nutrition education and referrals to more than eight million low-income (185% of poverty income guidelines) pregnant, parenting and breast-feeding women, infants and children younger than 5 years old. The WIC program provides items like infant formula and cereals, eggs, milk, cheese, peanut butter, dried beans/peas, tuna fish and, according to their Web site, only one vegetable: carrots.

CARROTS?! Why carrots? Well, the USDA develops list of available food products in their food programs based on agricultural surplus, not on basic food needs. This serves large farmers and shuts out the smaller farmer who may sell directly through farmers’ markets, which for the most part accept the limited dollars permitted to be used in these settings. But things may be shifting as acting agriculture secretary Chuck Conner announced on Oct. 1 almost $1 million in grants to promote farmers’ markets in 16 states, and $5 million to increase access to food stamps.

Despite all these programs, in 2006, the US Conference of Mayors reported that 45 percent of the cities surveyed did not have enough food to give to those in need and America’s Second Harvest, the largest network of food banks in the country, served an estimated 25 million people.

How do we solve the hunger problem?

First and most importantly, pay people a living wage so they need not choose between a nutritious meal and the rent. Second, increase access by poor people to fresh fruit and vegetables. Third, increase access to nutrition assistance programs by providing transportation and raising income guidelines. Fourth, increase access to summer nutrition programs to poor children. Last, increase the amount of assistance given since the average support is $1.03 per meal: a fiscal and nutritional challenge.

What can you do?

  1. Write, call or visit your legislators (see www.leg.wa.gov to find your legislators and their contact info) in support of a) expanding the use of food stamps in farmers’ markets; b) increasing access to nutrition programs by raising income qualification standards; c) increasing access to summer nutrition programs for children; and, d) raising the amount of nutrition assistance that people receive.
  2. Join with organizations that fight hunger and fight for “living wages.” (See below).

For more information, visit:
Food stamps info: www.fns.usda.gov/fsp/
Advocacy: www.bread.org
Advocacy: www.oxfam.org

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Who are the 1%?

Why the 1% and Who are They?

Why are we fixated on the 1%? Why not the 5%? And are these people all the same? Should we be angry at a man who has worked hard for years and now his business finally makes him some serious money? Or are we only upset at CEOs of major corporations? What about the person whose grandmother left them a fortune? Or do we think that bankers are the root of all evil? (Even though we couldn't live without them if we tried). And is it all bankers??? Or just certain types?

Placing Blame for our Economic Woes

What about the 'sit-on-my-hands-and-do-nothing' group of politicians in Washington, DC. Running for office so often so justifiably spend much of their time making sure they have enough money and leverage to get reelected? What about the non-decision-making that messed up our credit rating and frequently pushes us to the brink and cuts the social safety net and protects the military budget? What about them? Are they not to blame for any of this?

Are we going to be as angry at politicos the way we are at Wall Street when Wall Street's rules are made in Washington DC? Why were people sitting in cities beating up on bankers, joined in chorus by politicians (who if you're Obama you hire them right off the Street and then berate them), of whom so many are the 1% who benefit from insider information (there is no law against them doing that) and leave Congress much richer than when they showed up?

Targeting the Rich

Targeting 'the rich' is silly social action because they are no more moral/social monolith than the poor. Targeting people is never a good idea and does not create social change. Targeting behavior or laws is much more productive. And getting mad at someone for maximizing the utility of tax loopholes is pointing a finger in the wrong direction. Most of us would do same. Perhaps closing the loophole is the answer and just perhaps its Washington where that must happen. Yes... putting money in foundations is often a nice way to deal with excess wealth but it's also plugged a lot of holes left by our somewhat fishnetty social welfare system.

Where individuals are the problem then charge them with a crime and get on with it. Where rules are the problem then change them to rein in problematic behavior.

What About Us?

What we should not do is fully participate in our own demise (i.e. spend up credit cards and buy lavish homes we can't afford) and then blame someone else for our misfortune. Did Lehman Brothers, Countrywide and AIG mess up?!! Hell yeah!! And there's not a banker would say otherwise. So we clean up the mess and figure out what we have to do to make a different kind of mess next time (there will always be messes in life, humans being who we are). And the people to hold accountable for cleaning up the mess is the government.

The Cost of Blaming

In the meantime, I suppose I take it personal when people attack bankers because some of the most wonderful people in my life and the lives of so many happen to have that professional title. But that's not the source of my rant..... blaming groups of people for the bad things that happen in our society has never had a good outcome in human history. So maybe its time we stop.