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Urban Peripheries and Politics of the Slum

My article: Urban Peripheries and Politics of the Slum
The world is over half urban. In 1990, less than 40% of the global population lived in a city, but as of 2010, more than half of all people live in an urban area. By 2050, this proportion will increase to a staggering 70%.

The bulk of new urban population growth will be in the so-called Global South: Sub Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America, with an increasing number of people across the class spectrum settling in peripheral and suburban areas in both megacities and smaller towns. The nature of that growth, however, will not follow a familiar pattern. Dr. Malini Ranganathan, an Associate Professor at American University’s School of International Service and an expert on urban geography, says informality is the “new normal” of urbanization. This new kind of growth defies binary terms like “slum” and brings questions of equality to the forefront of the discussion on city planning and development, making the very concept of citizenship incredibly malleable and negotiable.
Ranganathan’s recent research focused on Bangalore, a city of over ten million people, where much of the growth is occurring in the so-called urban peripheries—the outskirts of town, where people are securing their claim to urban land through a series of negotiations and adaptions that while informal in nature are reshaping the very notion of “right to the city.” The discourse of the slum, Ranganathan explains, is incredibly limiting and doesn’t recognize informal land tenure. “We are referring to something akin to occupancy urbanism, where the people first occupy the space and then start to put in place the mechanisms of livelihood and the infrastructure. Many of these occupants might purchase what is initially considered farm land and then through negotiations and forming a relationship with bureaucrats are able to create a sort of an ambiguous ownership, which is in a sense advantageous to both the state and the inhabitants.” Much more noteworthy, however, is that while home owners associations in the United States are usually preoccupied (or rather, obsessed) with safeguarding property values, the ad-hoc neighborhood welfare associations she observed in Bangalore formed to make demands on the state. By banding together in groups, occupants gain the power to advocate for critical services such as water access and sanitation. As one of the residents described it, “The ‘we’ feeling has to be there.”
While informal urban growth seems to be especially prevalent in the developing world, it is certainly not foreign to the United States. Every day in American cities street vendors spread out their wares on sidewalks, food trucks serve lunch from the curb, and homeowners hold sales in their front yards. “Squatting” or adverse possession, as it is referred to legally, is becoming a little bit more prevalent, especially in cities like Baltimore and Detroit. “Baltimore is full of buildings artists have used over time to solve their problems,” says Fred Lazarus, president of the Maryland Institute, College of Art. “Many of them live illegally in buildings where they rent studio space.” All of these ground realities would require urban planning to be less top-down and more responsive. “The question remains about the extent these lofty goals can stir political action—how can the right to the city be institutionalized and to not rely so heavily on tech fixes. This issue is not just an environmental or technical issue but also a heavily political and social one. It is about social dynamics such as making public transit more accessible, new sustainability initiatives, and providing more affordable housing,” says Ranganathan.
Ranganathan also discussed a recent shift in the discussion on urban inequity. ”Urban inequity is now front and center on the urban policy agenda. Inequality is proving to be bad for development, period.” At the most recent World Urban Forum, the theme was Urban Equity in Development—Cities for Life. The concept paper of the forum argues that, “unequal cities are all-around inefficient, politically volatile, unsafe, and unsustainable, and just plain bad for human development.” The recognition that inequality is detrimental to overall human well-being is a notable shift away from decades of mainstream development policy guided by trickle-down economics and top-down ideas meant to simply offer band-aid solutions to the have-nots while simultaneously focusing on them as the problem. More importantly, the notion that growth and equity are antithetical is fast losing ground: “The OECD dismissed the assumption that the benefits of economic growth automatically filtered down to the poorest in society. The Economist has just affirmed that inequality has reached a level which makes it inefficient and bad for growth. By the same token, the IMF has recognized that inequality slows down economic growth, weakens the demand and contributes to financial crises. When Henry Lefebvre wrote about the “right to the city” in 1968, he was referring to far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources. Right to the city is a common rather than an individual right; it relies on collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization. It is the right to inhabit the city, the right to produce urban life, and to right of inhabitants to remain unalienated from the urban life. Yet, on a practical level, making these lofty ideals a reality requires political commitment. Until the time the powers in place wake up to the trenchant realities on the ground, informal settlements and their safety issues and environmental hazards will continue to exist and workers who build glitzy skyscrapers in global cities will still only be able to live in them while working on their construction.

Incarcenation: In Pursuit of Liberty in American’s Broken Prison System

My article for Voice of Russia

A 2014 report published by the National Research Council asserts that the prison population of the United States “is by far the largest in the world. Just under one-quarter of the world’s prisoners are held in American prisons.” There are currently 2.3 million people behind bars. Since 1980, the federal prison population has grown 721 percent, according to a recently released Human Rights Watch Report.

“In the last 40 years, there has been a historic marked expansion in the US prison system. There are 7 times as many people in the prison system today than in the 1970s,” says Marc Mauer, Director of The Sentencing Project, a non-profit that documents trends and calls attention to policies.
The exponential rise in imprisonment rates is, sadly, not a reflection of rising crime rates. The prevailing consensus points a finger squarely at politicians and their push for policy changes in a much more punitive direction, intended to send more people to prison and to keep them there longer. According to a national study, 88 percent of the increase in incarceration rates between 1980 and 1996 was due to policymakers’ decisions to lengthen sentences, impose incarceration (as opposed to probation), and ensure that offenders spent an increased amount of their sentence in person (for example, by reducing parole).
In the 1980s, with rising crime rates, simmering racial tensions, and the spread of crack cocaine, legislators adopted a “tough on crime” stance. The “war on drugs,” that gained tremendous political speed during the Reagan administration, contributed significantly to the skyrocketing rates of incarceration. The number of people behind bars for nonviolent drug law offenses increased from 50,000 in 1980 to nearly 500,000 by 2000. The political hysteria led to the passage of draconian penalties at the state and federal levels. Even as the drug scare faded from the public mind, the tough-on-crime stance became a default for most politicians.
“Mandatory sentencing laws took away the power of discretion from judges to consider the personal circumstances of the offenders. ‘Three strikes and you are out,’ the war on drugs, and a number of other policies have all combined to make the system much harsher,” says Mauer. If all of this was intended to safeguard public safety, how has increased incarceration impacted crime rates? “The broad consensus is that while the threat of prison has some effect on crime, as the system has grossly expanded, we very much have a case of diminishing returns.” According to an ACLU report, over half of prisoners with a sentence of one year or more are serving time for a non-violent offense. Life sentences are often imposed on recidivists for property or drug-related crimes.
On average, it costs $25,000 to keep someone in prison for a year. With almost 700,000 people returning home from prison each year, “they find it hard to establish themselves since in most cases, they did not pick up any substantial work skills or education in prison that would enable them to reintegrate back,” Mauer explains. As a result, recidivism rates remain high, he adds—66% for violent crimes, 78% for property crimes, and 71% for drug re-arrests.
Who stands to profit from the massive incarceration? One obvious culprit, the private prison industry, interestingly enough, is not as deeply enmeshed in the system as one would think. Mauer points out that only 130,000 inmates are held in the private prison system, which amounts to roughly 8% of the total prison population. The industry has, instead, focused its profit-seeking efforts on immigration detention as the new area for expansion and has spent over 45 million in lobbying funds to ensure that immigration reform remains mired in a legislative quagmire. With a record number of deportations taking place, imprisonment is turning into the solution of choice when it should be the last option.
And prison labor has become the new sweatshop labor. Nearly a million prisoners are performing labor for private corporations, while getting paid somewhere between 93 cents and $4.73 per day, giving new meaning to the term “confinement at hard labor.” The Corrections Corporation of America and G4S sell inmate labor at subminimum wages to Fortune 500 corporations like Chevron, Bank of America, AT&T, and IBM. In 1979, Congress created the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program to establish employment opportunities for inmates “that approximate private sector work opportunities”—a far cry from the tidy profit-making scheme for corporations that exploit the captive labor force it has devolved to. The worst abuses have taken place in the agricultural sector, especially in states like Arizona that require inmates to work, earning between 10 and 50 cents an hour, hardly approximating “private sector work opportunities.”
So what should be the priorities in seeking to reform the system? “Sentencing policy change is the most important. Reforming or eliminating mandatory minimum sentencing laws that prevent judges from being able to tailor sentences to the individual crime and the particular defendant is vital. Extremely long sentences are far too common. Far too many 25 year olds are sentenced to life in prison when their progress should be reviewed and they could be released back into the community,” states Mauer.

Geoengineering

My article on geoengineering for Voice Of Russia

In May, scientists reported that the average daily level of CO2 in the atmosphere surpassed 400 parts per million, an alarmingly high concentration level last seen two to four million years ago.

Even if humans miraculously halted all carbon emissions next week, the problem of climate change would be an inescapable and grim reality as most of the heat-trapping gas would linger in the atmosphere for decades or even centuries. The inertia in the world’s warmed oceans would prevent a quick return to cooler temperatures, even as the CO2 levels decrease. The most optimistic predictions for the rest of the century, cited by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its 2007 assessment report, forecast a rise of 2.0 to 5.2 degrees by 2100, while the direst anticipate a rise of 4.3 to 11.5 degrees. Among the anticipated effects are rising sea levels, increasingly severe storms and droughts, and melting glaciers and permafrost.
So what exactly is geoengineering then, a concept given some unexpected attention and increasing legitimacy by its mention in the most recent IPCC report? It refers to methods that “aim to deliberately alter the climate system to counter climate change.” The rather controversial area of engineering Earth’s climate seems to now be firmly planted on the scientific agenda. Some climate models suggest that geoengineering may even be necessary to keep global temperatures within the 2 °C above pre-industrial levels mark, agreed upon by the scientific and international community as the “tolerable” level. Most geoengineering technologies generally either reflect sunlight — through artificial “clouds” of aerosols, for example — or reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Reducing greenhouse gases generally involves carbon-capturing technologies that range from building towers to collect it from the atmosphere to grinding up rocks to react with CO2 and take it out of circulation. Solar geoengineering involves ideas including deflecting sunlight away from the earth with massive space shields or with clouds over oceans.

Renowned author Clive Hamilton recently visited American University’s School Of International Service to talk about his recent book, Earthmasters, and the environmental justice implications of climate engineering proposals. SIS Professor Simon Nicholson, who is a part of The Washington Geoengineering Consortium, moderated the event. Hamilton explained that until recently, geoengineering was largely a scientific discussion, held behind closed doors, and that it was very much viewed as a “Plan B” solution in the event that cutting greenhouse gas emissions was unsuccessful at the requisite speed. He referenced Harvard professor David Keith as the foremost proponent of climate engineering. The main climate geoengineering plan was inspired by sulfur-spewing volcanoes and involves using jets to spray sulfates into the stratosphere, where they would combine with water vapor to form aerosols. Dispersed by winds, these particles would cover the globe with a haze that would reflect roughly 1 percent of solar radiation away from Earth.
The 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo, which shot some 10 million metric tons of sulfur into the air, reduced global temperatures about 1 degree F for at least a year. The sulphate aerosol shield would be regularly sprayed into the stratosphere to create a dimming effect and a resultant cooling akin to what happens when there are large volcanic eruptions. Couching the discussion in the context of environmental justice, Hamilton stated “we need to implement the sulfate aerosol shield to protect the Pole as a matter of justice, because there is nothing more unjust than the impact of climate change itself.”
A big issue that remains, however, is the uncertainty of how well it would work—there is no question about the cooling effect the shield would have but whether that cooling would be systematic and how it would affect precipitation patterns and the climate as a whole is a major question. Another issue is what Hamilton called the question of governance: a) who should control the technologies (patents?)?, b) who should make decisions about the deployment of geoengineering schemes?, c) where would the sulfite sprays be applied (over the Arctic or at the Equator, for example)?, and d) how would they be applied? “Essentially, the question is who should have their hand on the global thermostat.”
The most recent report by the IPCC reinforced the rather dire projection that “with business as usual,” we would surpass the 2 degree threshold set as an acceptable level of temperature change within a decade. SIS Professor Paul Wapner stated, “business as usual is what has gotten us in trouble in the first place, and this solution may seem like more business as usual. We tend to not solve problems but displace them across time, space, and species.”
Hamilton agreed that what was initially a Plan B is now a nearly inevitable course of action as mitigating efforts do not seem to be progressing forward at the requisite rate to stem drastic climate change. But he expressed a lot of reservations about the Promethean-like nature of this sort of intervention and the “technology will save us now” air to it. “In essence, this plan is being marketed as turning a drastic failure of the free enterprise system into a triumph of humanity’s ability to solve our greatest problems through technology.” In her recent article, Dr. Rachel Smolker took issue with what she perceived to be the normalization of geoengineering: “This insistence that we engage in debate over climate geoengineering is part of the process of ‘normalization’ that seems orchestrated — perhaps deliberately — with the intent of habituating people to the whole idea of climate geoengineering as an option.”
 In a response, Dr. Simon Nicholson stated, “geoengineering is in fact entirelynormal. It is the expected response of a culture that looks to technological solutions to complex societal challenges. It makes far more sense, in that light, to have an active voice in the geoengineering conversation than to seek to suppress it.”

The Young And The Penniless: 25-35 Age Group Vulnerable To Poverty

My Article For Voice Of Russia

WASHINGTON (VOR)— Much ado has been made about the purportedly entitled Millenial generation, but the reality of most young people’s lives is more akin to an urban dystopia than an utopia.

Few topics in public discourse are more plagued by pervasive myths and misconceptions than poverty, especially about how and to whom it happens. Poverty, Dr. Mark Rank points out, is a surprisingly commonplace experience. “The question for most Americans is not whether they will experience it at some point but when.” Dr. Rank and long-time collaborator Thomas Hirschl of Cornell University are releasing a new book in February 2014 entitled Chasing the American Dream: Understanding the Dynamics that Shape Our Fortunes. It explores the shifting nature of the American Dream—how tenuous it has become, how has the concept morphed over time, and how economically viable it is. Dr. Rank describes the methodology in the book as based on a “large longitudinal panel of data from 1968 to 2009 and from it, we generated a life table of the likelihood of experiencing particular economic events, thus quantifying the measure of ‘economic insecurity.’ The book also includes interviews with 75 people, as a way for us to study their responses on the question of the American dream.”

Mark Rank’s research indicates that nearly 40 percent of Americans between the ages of 25 and 60 will experience at least one year below the official poverty line during that period ($23,492 for a family of four), and 54 percent will spend a year in poverty or near poverty (below 150 percent of the poverty line). Yet, the group of young adults aged between 25 and 35 seems be especially susceptible to financial peril. As the figure below illustrates, almost 40% of young adults spend at least a year living below 150% of the poverty line. “Young adults have always been at the greatest risk for economic instability as this is typically a low point in their income earning ability,” Dr. Rank explains. But undoubtedly their economic hardships have been compounding in recent years.
The way that Dr. Rank measured the variable of economic security was living below the poverty line, loss of job, or being on some sort of public assistance program, like welfare or food stamps. The employment status of young adults was a large contributing factor to their economic insecurity. Fewer Americans aged 18 to 29 worked full-time for an employer in June 2013 (43.6%) than did so in June 2012 (47.0%), according to Gallup’s Payroll to Population employment rate. Fewer young adults with a college degree now hold a full-time job than did so in June 2012 (68.9%) and in June 2010 (67.9%). Similarly, fewer young Americans without a college degree have a full-time job now than in June of the previous three years. And as Dr. Rank’s research indicates, unemployment in that age group is the highest of any age group.
According to a Pew study, since 2010, the share of young adults ages 18 to 24 currently employed (54%) has been its lowest since the government began collecting these data in 1948. And the gap in employment between the young and all working-age adults—roughly 15 percentage points—is the widest in recorded history. In addition, young adults employed full time have experienced a greater drop in weekly earnings (down 6%) than any other age group over the past four years.
And what about the white picket fence part of the American dream? Home ownership is becoming less and less attainable to young adults, even in cities with high concentrations of upwardly mobile young people like Washington, DC.
According to the research of William H. Fray from Brookings, while homeownership across all age groups fell by 3 percentage points to 65 percent from 2007 to 2012, the drop-off among adults 25-29 was much larger — more than 6 percentage points, from 40.6 percent to 34.3 percent. Declines in homeownership for those ages 40 and older over in that five-year period were more modest.
The District of Columbia, with its high share of young adults, had the lowest homeownership rate across all age groups at 41.6 percent, followed by New York at 53.9 percent.
Being young puts one in a precarious economic position, but being non-white seems to especially exacerbate the problem. “If you are white, there is a fairly large chance that you will experience economic instability at some point in your life. If you are African-American or Hispanic, this chance now becomes almost a certainty. In the 25-60 bracket of white respondents, a very significant percentage—80%– had experienced one or more economically calamitous events. In the 25-60 age group of non-white respondents, 90% had experienced the same economic insecurity,” Dr. Rank explains.
So what does this all say about the attainability of the American dream? Dr. Rank thinks that concept, while not entirely rendered null, has certainly morphed. “The American dream is no longer about making it big or making a lot of money. Our respondents felt that it now meant leading the kind of life that you want and makes you happy. They also pointed to it being the idea that if you work hard, you should be able earn a decent living and be in a secure economic position. The third component was the importance of having a hope for the future, a certain optimism that one’s children and ensuing generations would fare as well or better.”

Public To Politicians: End The War On Drugs

My Article for Voice Of Russia

WASHINGTON (VOR)— Over the past 40 years, the War on Drugs has cost more than $1 trillion and accounted for more than 45 million arrests.

According to the FBI 2012 Crime Report, of all drug arrests, an overwhelming 82.2 percent were for possession and not distribution. For marijuana alone, 88 percent of arrests were for possession. And as spokesmen of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition point out, more people were arrested for marijuana offenses alone last year than for all violent crimes combined. Increasingly in recent times, the futility and utter failure of the “war on drugs” has become all too apparent to the general public, but the shift might be sweeping through the policy-making community as well, where for far too long being anti-prohibition was nearly tantamount to political suicide and equated with being “soft on crime.”
On October 9th, at the National Press Club, Richard Branson of the Global Commission on Drug Policy and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island hosted a screening of Sundog Pictures’ Breaking The Taboo, followed by a discussion that also included A.T. Wall, Director of the Rhode Island Department of Corrections, Ethan Nadelmann, Executive Director of Drug Policy Alliance, and Naya Arbiter, of the Amity Foundation. “Breaking The Taboo”, akin to the documentary The House I Live In, also puts forth that the “war on drugs” has essentially been a very expensive (in human and economic costs) failure with a lot of unpredictable consequences worldwide. Where The House I Live In focused on the United States and examined what role industrialization, classism, and racism play in the entire picture, Breaking The Taboo takes a more global look at how the illicit drug trade has had a lot of collateral damage, with rampant corruption amongst law-enforcers and politicians, especially in producer and transit countries, endangering democracy and civil society (for example, Afghanistan is now dangerously close to being a narco-state), stunting development, and threatening human rights. Both films argue that a move away from prohibition to control is desperately needed. Criminalizing users instead of helping them has been deleterious to communities.
Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance spoke about what he perceives to be a shifting tide not only in public opinion but also in political will. “At DPA, we seek to 1. reduce the harm of drugs on communities and 2. reduce the harm of government policies (corruption, etc.). In a nutshell, we seek to reduce the role of criminalization as much as possible while still protecting public safety.” He is convinced that we are definitely at a “major tipping point” when it comes to legally regulating marijuana, for one. Not just past Presidents are now speaking out against the drug war (Bill Clinton, for example), but also current ones—like the Presidents of Uruguay and Guatemala. Nadelman continued: “We have spent 40 years and trillions of dollars and the new focus is coming up with pragmatic alternatives. Rand Paul recently called the drug war the new Jim Crow, so this sort of injustice is becoming a real rallying call.”
And while we are not at a tipping point, we are definitely at a turning point of public opinion on mass incarceration. “We have the largest prison population of any nation in the world, with 2.3 million people in jail. The public is finally understanding what this really means. My only big fear is we are so accustomed to such massive rates of incarceration that we would be happy even with a 10% decrease.”
When asked to comment on the state of affairs from the correctional point of view, A.T. Wall was optimistic in his assessment: “In my state, prosecuting people for simple possession is now almost relatively unheard of; the focus has shifted to other types of crime. And it has definitely been bipartisan. We have people coming forward from both sides of the political spectrum saying the same things.” He also commented on the fact that “we have to work very hard to keep drugs out of prison,” which is why the focus on the demand side makes it imperative that prisons provide treatment and support and not just punishment.
Which brings us to another huge piece of this quagmire—in a sense, the arrest record that follows is the most dangerous thing about drug use and not the drug use itself, many would argue. The record prevents people from reintegrating into society (for example, affecting a multitude of economic aspects of a person’s life, such as voting, securing housing loans, and jobs), and thus hugely increases recidivism rates. Naya Arbiter, who works on the frontlines of support for former drug users, commented, “instead of criminalizing people and dismissing them as ‘bad apples,’ we should really see how we are building bad barrels all the time. We need to address issues of inequality, racism, lack of opportunity, and the social conditions that lead to drug use simultaneously with addressing the issues of the war on drugs.” Ms. Arbiter is convinced that foster care is almost exclusively driven by the war on drugs. For every 200 incarcerated men, there are 700 children that are affected as a result. “We need to focus on a drug policy that has collateral benefits for a lot of people and not just the white middle class. We need to make the transition from corrections to human services.” Richard Branson brought up the example of Portugal, which has stopped prosecuting drug users, as having registered major drops in heroin use as well as Hepatitis C and HIV infection rates.
The ultimate question is when will the actual policies and laws on the books change to reflect the growing discontent with the war on drugs? Undoubtedly, this question has been gaining some political attention as well—at the most recent Summit Of The Americas, it was firmly on the agenda. The “war on drugs” no longer carries the political cache it did during the “Just Say No” days. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse commented, “Currently, there is an incarceration reduction bill that is making its way through the Judiciary Committee, which will deal with pre-sentencing, sentencing, and treatment in prison. We are also working on a recovery bill that will provide support and recovery assistance.” While the tide is undoubtedly shifting in public attitude toward drug use, the crux of the issue remains decriminalization versus legalization. While legalization seems to require the kind of open-mindedness that seems not present at the moment, a consensus now holds that criminalizing simple drug possession and feeding the prison-industrial complex is untenable. As “Breaking the Taboo” points out, “you can’t wage a war on drugs without waging a war on people.”

Inequality For All: Robert Reich’s Powerful Message: Not “Trickle Down,” But “Middle Up”

My Article For Voice Of Russia

The documentary Inequality For All, directed by Jacob Kornbluth, features Robert Reich, former Secretary Of Labor under Bill Clinton, author of Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future, in an impassioned exposé on why the chasm between the rich and the poor has much further reaching implications than a mere income gap.

In and of itself, Reich points out, inequality can be viewed as an inherent part of an incentive-driven capitalist system, but Inequality For All asks when inequality becomes a problem. This question takes on particular urgency when we consider that of all the developed nations, the United States has the greatest degree of wealth disparity. Much like The Corporation, Inequality For All is broad in its scope, and clearly shows the interconnectedness of a number of seemingly disparate phenomena. Filmed in the style of other policy lecture documentaries, Inequality For All uses Reich’s Wealth And Poverty class at UC Berkeley as the platform for some rather hair-raising revelations (a lot of them new even to those very familiar with the Occupy movement’s platform), yet the tone of the film remains optimistic about disrupting this status quo.
Just how consolidated is wealth at the top, you might ask? Put simply, 400 people in the top income bracket earn the same amount as 150 million in the lower tiers. Reich homes in on a recent study by Pikkety and Saez that analyzed tax data dating back to 1913, when the income tax was first instituted. The study finds that 1928 and 2007 were the peak years of income concentration at the top, creating a graph that resembles a suspension bridge. Both years were followed by calamitous market crashes — a parallel that Reich thinks is not random at all. As income got more concentrated at the top, the rich turned to the financial sector for investment, creating a speculative bubble. And as middle class income was stagnating, that in turn created a debt bubble, conditions that inevitably precipitated economic crises.
The crux of Reich’s argument is that what makes an economy stable is a strong middle class. And while his assertion that consumer spending makes up 70% of economic activity is contestable, there can be no denying that the middle class plays an integral role in the economy. The rich alone are not spending enough to generate the requisite level of economic activity. Inequality For All features venture capitalist/1%-er Nick Hanauer who debunks the myth of the rich as “job creators” in favor of a feedback loop theory that Reich also espouses (he calls it the virtuous cycle). If there is one sound bite to emerge from the film, it is that Reich supports “middle up” rather than “trickle down” economics. If the middle class is not doing well enough to create healthy consumer spending levels, then the economy as a whole will suffer—in other words, as the film rightly notes, one doesn’t have to be a bleeding heart liberal to understand that this is not merely a social justice issue. Reich argues that even from a cynical and self-serving perspective, the top 1% should have an interest in how well the middle class is doing as they drive spending in a rather significant way.
Was there an idyllic time that was different from the current abysmal state of affairs? Reich points to the years between 1947 and 1977 as the golden age of great prosperity and very low inequality. What were we doing right then? Public higher education spending was much more of a priority and the proportion of people who were able to receive a college degree without being saddled with mountains of debt was much higher than today. With decimated federal funding for higher education nowadays, little is trickling down to the states, he argues, causing unparalleled spikes in tuition costs. Unions were also very strong, ensuring that worker wages remained robust. With the decline of unions, Reich argues, wages and rights have suffered a crushing blow. Not only have wages remained stagnant, but upward mobility is also equally imperiled. 42% of children born in poverty will never leave poverty behind. No other developed nation, Reich argues, even the UK with its vestiges of a monarchic system, has less social mobility than that.
Inequality For All covers a number of other plucked-from-the-headlines issues thoroughly as well, such as the shockingly low tax rate most of the rich actually pay, and how the tax code has increasingly evolved to the benefit of the haves. It also talks about the impact globalization has had on worker wages and the fact that which countries’ workers add the most value determines what country reaps the benefits. A prime example is that even though iPods are assembled in China, it only earns 3.6% of the value of an iPod, with Germany and Japan taking much more significant portions because the parts come from there.
The ultimate upshot of inequality is that its deleterious effects ripple outward, profoundly disrupting a healthy economic cycle. Reich calls equal opportunity the “the moral foundation stone on which this country and our democracy are built,” and that is not mere exaggeration or partisan-minded alarmism. When money starts to infect politics, as it has done now with lobbyists and PACs, it undermines democracy and paves the way to plutocracy. Inequality For All offers plenty to get outraged over, but Reich remains measured in his rhetoric. Instead of portraying inequality as an “us versus them” zero-sum game, he explains that is in our interest and in our power in to disrupt the status quo by demanding change.

What’s In A Number: Can We Meet UN Poverty Reduction Goals?

My Article For Voice Of Russia

WASHINGTON (VOR)— As the old saying goes, “the numbers don’t lie.” Perhaps not, but they don’t necessarily tell the truth, either.

The numbers in the recently released UN Millenium Development Goals Report are a case in point. Among its key findings, the report tells us that “the proportion of people living in extreme poverty has been halved at the global level. In developing regions, the proportion of people living on less than $1.25 a day fell from 47 per cent in 1990 to 22 per cent in 2010. About 700 million fewer people lived in conditions of extreme poverty in 2010 than in 1990.” A UN High-Level Panel report touts the progress made in the last 13 years as “the fastest reduction in poverty in human history.” In essence, the prevailing consensus is that Millenium Development Goal 1, the reduction of extreme poverty and hunger by half, is already accomplished. But are the numbers really so clear?
The actual numbers on poverty look significantly grimmer–1.29 billion people in 2008 lived below $1.25 a day; 2.47 billion people in 2008 consumed less than $2 a day. At the current rate of progress, there will still be around 1 billion people living below $1.25 per day in 2015. Most of the 649 million fewer poor by the $1.25 per day standard over 1981-2008 are still poor by the standards of middle-income developing countries.
It turns out that the seemingly simple question of how we measure the number of poor people in the world is surprisingly difficult and extremely important to answer. It affects how we report success, especially considering that the post-2015 talks now dare to speak openly about the goal of complete poverty eradication. In April, at a press conference during the Spring meeting of the international financial institutions in Washington, DC, the president of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, pointed to 2030 as the global target year to end poverty. President Obama expressed similar sentiments in February, when he promised that “the United States will join with our allies to eradicate such extreme poverty in the next two decades.”
So, how much has actually been accomplished? Thomas Pogge, the Director of the Global Justice Program and the Leitner Professor of Philosophy and International Affairs at Yale University, makes an important insight—the way that extreme poverty and hunger are measured has shifted over time, and significantly. In other words, some of the madness definitely lies in the method—measurement shifts have taken place, perhaps under the radar of public knowledge and only noticeable by economics geeks. This is inherently confusing. When we claim success, we should know what we have actually accomplished.
In September 2000, the heads of 147 governments pledged that they would halve the proportion of people on Earth living in the direst poverty by 2015, using the poverty rate in 1990 as a baseline. Here Pogge points out something largely glossed over: as with the hunger target, the so-called success over recent years owes much to the back-dating of the base year from 2000 (UNGA Millennium Declaration) to 1990. More specifically, the goal set at the World Food Summit in Rome in 1996 was to halve the number of chronically under-nourished people between 1996 and 2015. That criterion quickly changed at the 2000 meeting to “halve, by the year 2015, the proportion of the world’s people whose income is less than one dollar a day and the proportion of people who suffer from hunger.” Changing the language to refer to a proportion instead of an outright number and backdating the goals to 1990 changed the picture and made the goals easier to reach. Another modification changed the definition to refer only to people in the developing world. Dr. Pogge explains, “…there are two different shifts: (a) shifts in what is to be halved by 2015 (number of poor, proportion of poor in world population, proportion of poor in population of the developing world) and from what baseline (1996, 2000, 1990). (b) Shifts in how persons get identified as poor (average household income below $1/day in 1985 US-dollars, below $1.08/day in 1993 US-dollars, $1.25/day in 2005 US-dollars). These methodological revisions entailed substantial shifts in the number of poor, in their geographical distribution, and, most importantly, in the global poverty trend.” The back-dating of the year allowed for the international institutions to count the significant progress China had made in poverty reduction.

Another major methodological issue is how poverty is measured, using an international poverty line (IPL), and the resulting overreliance on what Dr. Pogge calls a “money-centric” measure set by the World Bank. “In contrast to a human requirements-centered approach, the Bank has set a relatively arbitrary international poverty line (IPL) defined in abstract money units and translated into local currency amounts that it deems to be ‘equivalent.’” The poverty measurement’s excessive sensitivity to the IPL level has a significant impact in how we measure progress, as it provides a very narrow definition of poverty. At $1.25/day, according to PovcalNet, we are 22.4% ahead of meeting the goal. But with $1.50/day, we are only 8.5% ahead, and with $1.815/day we are 5.7% behind. The choice of base year that the progress is measured from is an equally important consideration. Another distortion comes from the use of general consumption PPPs. The general-PPP (purchasing power parity) equivalent to $1.25 (2005) in a typical poor country buys only as much food there as $0.83 bought in the US in 2005. So, the World Bank’s poverty line is too low to cover basic needs. The Bank’s very low line overlooks a lot of very poor people. It counts as poor in 2010 only 1,214.98 million people. The rather narrow IPL measure also disregards intra-household income distribution by looking at the household as a whole, nor does it account for other dimensions of poverty such as the leisure time/labor time ratio, public goods, and climate.
So how can we get around this statistical quagmire and properly measure a very human problem — living in dire poverty. Dr. Pogge suggests that it is crucial that we “define precisely in advance the goals and targets the world is committing itself to as well as the methods by which progress toward these targets is to be measured or assessed,” to prevent midstream revisions and back-dating of targets. He also advocates that the monitoring of progress be left to groups of independent experts, not to international agencies, which are politically exposed. Ultimately, the new agenda should be a lot more participatory, inclusive, and responsive to those directly affected by poverty and social injustice.

The High Cost Of Unpaid Internships

My article for Voice Of Russia

WASHINGTON (VOR)— Unpaid internships have become increasingly common in the current career landscape, becoming almost a requisite milestone in “growing up.”

Couched as an “investment in yourself,” and a place to “make contacts and get a job someday,” they are all too readily accepted as the only available path to full-time employment. Yet, the internships of today are a far cry from the apprenticeships of yore—by some estimates as many as 50% of internships are unpaid. Are they the quid-pro-quo arrangement they are posited as, or simply a front for employers to secure free labor that would otherwise have to be performed by an employee? With internships rife in all branches of the government, they stir up thorny questions about access, equality, and opportunity. A movement against unpaid and exploitative internships has been gaining steam since the economic crisis of 2008 made employment prospects especially bleak, and a number of important legal precedents are now in place. Ultimately, the question is not just whether internships give that extra experiential learning boost for interns’ resumes. The more important question is whether unpaid internships have become yet another playground of “the haves” that perpetuates the status quo of limited social mobility and income inequality.
The unemployment rate of the 16-24 age group today is more than double that of the remaining population, at nearly 20%. The average starting salary today is lower that it was in 2000. Internships have become so coveted in this stagnant climate that they have become a veritable industry—arguably one that lines the pockets of everyone involved but the interns themselves. Colleges charge students thousands in tuition money for the “opportunity” to earn academic credit for internships; a myriad of programs have sprung up promising students insider access to internships (The Washington Center and Washington Semester Program, to name a few). Yes, it is so competitive out there that securing an unpaid internship can be just as difficult, if not more, as securing regular employment.
Ross Perlin’s seminal work Intern Nation: How To Earn Nothing And Learn Very Little In A Brave New Economyoffered one of the most thorough exposes on the issue, shattering the image of the typical intern as a college student and showing the sheer breadth of the intern demographic. A Georgetown law student, 41-year-old Eric Glatt, was one of those “non-traditional” interns, who in seeking to transition to a career in the film industry, worked as an unpaid intern on the set of the movie “Black Swan” in 2010, essentially performing the functions of an accounting clerk . In September 2011, after being referred by Ross Perlin to a lawyer, Glatt sued Fox Searchlight Pictures, asking for compensation for his work. “Obviously, this was not a suit about back pay only. It was a suit to put this culture under the legal microscope and see if it withstood the test in court.” Some of the legal underpinnings of the suits have been the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 and the Labor Department’s Fact Sheet 71. In a New York Times article, published on April 10, 2010, Nancy J. Leppink, the acting director of the U.S. Department of Labor’s wage and hour division, said, “If you’re a for-profit employer or you want to pursue an internship with a for-profit employer, there aren’t going to be many circumstances where you can have an internship and not be paid and still be in compliance with the law.” In essence, Fact Sheet 71 established the six federal legal criteria of what constitutes an internship. Glatt’s case proved that the standard very much holds—the judge ruled in favor of Glatt and his fellow interns, deeming their “intern” work to be labor requiring compensation and allowing the suit to continue as a class action one.
Glatt continues his activist work outside of court as well. He explains that a group he is a part of, Intern Labor Rights, initially began as a grass-roots offshoot from the Occupy movement, and has since grown to be a part of an international coalition with branches in six other countries, including the UK, France, Austria, Switzerland, Netherlands, and Canada. Describing the two main issues the group works on, he states “most organizations did not seem overly concerned with how the practice of unpaid interns fit within the law/legal code, nor did they worry about the ethics and economics of the practice.” In essence, a lot of the work of Intern Labor Rights has been educational in nature—getting the public to see the flaws in a system that embodies and promotes inequalities of opportunity.
The economic impact is significant in some fields where unpaid internships seriously undermine the health of the labor market, especially in what Glatt calls the “cultural production industries,” such as film, music, and journalism. He attributes that to the notion that “thinking labor” is somehow perceived not as “labor” because it is mental and not physical. The implications of unpaid internships being the only “in” in cultural production industries are worrisome—a narrowing in the voices of our future journalists, and thus, the viewpoints we hear. In a study conducted in the UK, Alan Milburn found that 54% of top journalists were privately educated and “the media had become one of the most socially exclusive of professions.”
Unpaid internships are rife in many branches of government and international governing organizations, including the EU, the UN, and others. These positions are coveted because of the prestige and access they might grant. As a commentary on just how stacked the deck is in favor of the employers, the Department Of Justice now has unpaid intern positions for “special assistant US attorneys.” One can easily see why the kind of cache of exclusivity these internships permit and the hypercompetitive arena for landing one of them only serves to perpetuate entrenched social divides. While one could argue that non-profits really do need the help of interns to operate, the same cannot be said for the government or for the private sector.
So, how true are the assumptions of inequality? In a study conducted by Intern Bridge, women are much more likely to be engaged in unpaid internships than men, who prefer to participate in paid internships with for-profit companies. The “liberal arts industries” are much more likely to offer unpaid internships. And “high income students through their preferences, social networks, and status, enjoy more opportunities at the largest companies, are more likely to be paid, and have access to a limited number of opportunities in organizations their peers compete fiercely to enter.” Almost ¾ of interns report holding a second part-time job to support themselves while on internships.
While the challenges faced by unpaid interns are formidable, the movement to correct employers’ abuses is picking up tremendous momentum, both through legal filings and grassroots activism. The arts and labor working group of Occupy Wall Street demanded that the New York Foundation for the Arts stop advertising unpaid internships. Designer Alexander McQueen ignited a controversy for advertising a full-time, unpaid internship. And groups like The Fair Pay Campaign, Make Youth A Priority, and The Campaign for America’s Future are at the frontlines of this long overdue battle.

The Buzz Over The Dire Decline In Bee Populations

My article for Voice Of Russia

The Buzz Over The Dire Decline In Bee Populations
The Buzz Over The Dire Decline In Bee Populations

Worldwide, bee populations are suffering significant decline and rather than a single cause, it seems to be the result of multiple factors working in concert. The U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a reportin 2012 citing a “complex set of stressors and pathogens,” and calling for “multi-factorial approaches to studying causes of colony losses,” yet stopped short of making any policy recommendations. The EPA has, sadly, been woefully lackadaiscal in taking steps to stem the problem. Perhaps that will change with the recent momentous suit filed by beekeepers and environmental groups against it for failing to protect bee populations.

Nearly 40 percent of U.S. domesticated hives did not survive this past winter, making it the worst loss to date. Far more than just giving us honey, bees are a crucial player in our food production; they are responsible for pollinating many flowering plants–by some estimates, almost one out of every three bitesof food that we eat was produced with the help of these natural pollinators. Cashews, beets, broccoli, cabbage, watermelons, cucumber, strawberries, macadamia, mangoes, apricots, almonds are just a few of many of the delicious crops our six-legged worker friends toil on.

Domesticated bees are not the only ones being affected either—wild bee populations have decreased by an alarming 90% over the last 50 years. The ecological implications are nearly catastrophic; so are the resultant economic and food supply concerns. The World Conservation Union predicts that 20,000 flowering plant species will disappearin the next few decades as a result of bee losses.

Bee die-off is in part attributed to the appropriately-ominously-named phenomenon of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) in which bees fly off en masse and never return to their hive. Climate change, habitat destruction, pesticides, and disease all seem to have an influence on the occurrence of CCD and are factors that often interplay with each other–the worldwide bee population decline speaks to the multiplicity of causes not endemic to specific regions.

Climate change and habitat destruction are affecting ecosystems as a whole and bees in particular. Erratic weather patterns have an indelible effect on the schedule of flowering plants. Plants may blossom early, before honeybees can fly, or may not produce flowers at all, resulting in no pollen for the bees.

The impact of pesticides on bee depopulation has been widely examined by researchers. Jeff Pettis of USDA’s Agricultural Research Service and his team found that a pesticide called imidacloprid is weakening the bees’ immune systems and allowing infectionsto spread through hives. Another group of pesticides, extremely commonly-used worldwide, the neonicotinoids, chemically-related to nicotine, could harm bees by disrupting the navigational and learning abilities they use to find flowers and make their way back to the hive. The neonicotinoids have often been likened to “nerve agents” for the neuroactive effects they have on bees. In a landmark move, the European Union passed a measure last month to provisionally banthe use of neonicotinoids for the next 2 years. By contrast, the EPA continues to greenlight chemicals widely recognized even by the EPA itself as “highly toxic to bee health,” allowing the use of the pesticide sulfoxaflor manufactured by the Dow Chemical Company.

In addition to their neuroactive effects, pesticides also tie into another element in the explanatory chain–disease–by decreasing pathogen resistance. The blood-sucking parasite, the Varroa mite, is one of the most virulent pests of bee colonies. It is dangerous not only in its own right, but also in that exposes hives to other viruses too. Another suspect is the Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) toxin in the pollen of genetically modified corn, which German scientists found compromised bee immune systems. The bacterial disease European foulbrood is yet another pathogen.

Communities worldwide are astir about the danger of bee extinction and the buzz is certainly gaining in volume, with many states, including Oregon,passing measures to ban the use of certain pesticides. Clearly, the battle against CCD will have to be waged on a multiplicity of fronts.