A Larger View

A Commentary On How Current Events Reflect— Or Not—Our Search For Higher Values

  • Volume XXIII
  • No. 6
  • November/December 2018
  • Bulletin of The Inner/Outer Partnership

in this issue:

  • Hail The Caravan
  • Work of the Future and Reskilling
  • One Billion Without Toilets
  • Guns, Ammo ad 3-D
  • DNA Testing and Errors
  • Ode to Libraries
  • To Ponder On

Hail the Caravan

As an immigrant I know what it’s like to leave all you know for the unknown. We had visas, we weren’t penniless, we flew to the US and regardless I felt fear.  When you emigrate everything familiar is gone and you don’t know how it will be replaced, nor do you know what will happen next. I heard and read about the caravan from Central America and I  can’t help thinking about those courageous people who are willing to walk  a couple of thousand  miles or more in search of some safety, in search for some opportunities out of assured poverty and violence, in search of  better lives for their families. They banded together to avoid the criminals who prey on migrants, the kidnappers, the thieves, the smugglers, they are walking because they cannot pay Continue reading

A Larger View

A Commentary On How Current Events Reflect— Or Not—Our Search For Higher Values

  • Volume XXIII
  • No. 5
  • September/October 2018
  • Bulletin of The Inner/Outer Partnership

in this issue:

  • The Religious Liberty Task Force
  • Eagles of the Desert
  • The Burn Unit
  • Gene Drives, GMOs and Species Extinction
  • The Need for Conversation
  • Welfare Benefits and Racism
  • To Ponder On

The Religious Liberty Taskforce

According to Jeff Sessions, the Attorney General, addressing a recent Religious Freedom Summit, there is what he called a dangerous movement interfering with religious freedom. Consequently, he announced the creation of a Religious Liberty Taskforce and charged them with enforcing 20 principles which he presented in a DOJ Memorandum. Some of the 20 points seem to place religious liberty over civil liberty, or permit certain kinds of discrimination. According to Session’s speech, religious freedom must come first. So it would appear that in practice if two aspects of the bill of Rights come in conflict, the answer would be simple, religious freedom would trump (no pun intended) any other one.

There is much to be concerned about when one reads these 20 principles, which are listed in Continue reading

A Larger View

A Commentary On How Current Events Reflect— Or Not—Our Search For Higher Values

  • Volume XXIII
  • No. 4
  • July/August 2018
  • Bulletin of The Inner/Outer Partnership

in this issue:

  • Private Equities and Toys 'R' Us
  • Bankruptcy and The Poor
  • Mergers, Less Jobs and Smaller Paychecks
  • Eyegkasses fir the World's Poor
  • Health Insurance Companies and Profits
  • 68.5 million Refugees
  • To Ponder On

Private Equities and Toys ‘R’ Us

How do popular stores like Toys ‘R’ Us end up filing for bankruptcy?  The behind the scene story opens a window on the role of private equity funds in our society. “Thirty-three percent of retail job losses from 2016 through 2017 resulted from private-equity backed store closures…,” according to a report by Inflection Capital Management, an equity fund consulting firm. Due to competition from ecommerce like Amazon, Toys ‘R’ Us was in debt and was bought by a private equity fund. The funds some say are like payday lenders, they charge high interest rates. Rosemary Batt of Cornell says, “Debt is the lifeblood of private equity, but it spells death for companies and joblessness for workers.” So Toys ‘R’ Us ended up paying $400 million a year in interest alone, and wasn’t able to recover.  With that much debt it is difficult for the stores to improve their business. They can restructure and pare down expenses but the profits still aren’t enough to pay down the debt.  In time it was an untenable situation, Toys ‘R’ Us owed $5 billion. To be fair, the private-equity fund which had bought the 735 stores for $6.6 billion had put up $1.3 billion of its own money, so when it was time for bankruptcy they did lose money, but had already made money on their investment, and some say that in between its debt repayment and all the fees attached to the financial transactions had made up more than it had lost. The executives of Toys ‘R’Us walked away with millions, but 30,000 workers lost their jobs without any severance pay. These are low paying, low skills jobs which continue to be disappearing for the same reason as what happened to Toys ‘R’ Us. It happened at Nine West, at Mervyn’s several years back and to others like Claire’s which are less well known.  It is difficult for these workers to find jobs, perhaps somewhat easier for the younger among them, but much harder for the many older ones. Some experts like Josh Kosman believe what he calls the buyout of America may lead to a financial crisis. Meanwhile it is important for us to understand the consequences of private equity funds, and realize what happens when Wall Street places profits ahead of the social good.

Bankruptcy and the Poor

In 2005 Congress passed a new bankruptcy law to prevent abuses, it made getting a lawyer necessary. But of course many can’t afford one. Some wait until their tax refunds, so much so there is a spike in bankruptcy filings from March to May. Some file under Chapter 13 which means their debts have to be repaid usually over 5 years.  Chapter 13 requires a lawyer too, and those fees have to be added to the list of debts. Many default and then it all falls through. There are also bankruptcy services which purport to help people, but the law can be complicated and often consumers are not well served by these services. The best way to file for bankruptcy is through Chapter 7 which erases all debts. But the lawyers’ fees and the filing fees are not within the means of many who need to file. Recently the number of consumers who file for bankruptcy each year is from 800,000 to 1.5million people. Some have the clients write a series of pre dated checks which they cash every month after the bankruptcy court proceedings, and some states have not allowed this practice. Some other states allow lawyers’ fees to be paid in two installments pre and post bankruptcy. What is needed are reforms, which are not complicated and which are not major but which in this Congress are not likely to be passed despite a powerful ally in Senator Elizabeth Warren. As it is laws meant to help those in need make things worse for them. And that is wrong.

Mergers, Less Jobs and Smaller Paychecks

We’re so used to hear about mergers, we don’t give them sufficient attention. Some are well known names, Amazon bought Whole Foods, Cigna bought Express Scripts, and some are names we may not often hear such as Marathon Petroleum buying rival Endeavor. There are also those which are proposed, AT&T merger with Time Warner or T Mobile with Sprint, for example. The number of mergers keeps growing; so far in 2018 $1.7 trillion worth of deals have occurred and more are expected. We are so inured perhaps we hardly think of the consequences. As far as the mergers being studied by the Justice Department are concerned, however, only how they will affect consumer prices will be looked at.  Mergers reduce competition and its incentive to attract customers, and while consumer groups and others opposing them say they will not be good for consumers and increase prices in the long run, if not the short one, those who study mergers think that only looking at consumer prices is a small slice of the consequences. Economists have now studied the impact of mergers and found that they do a lot more besides affect consumer prices. They first of all reduce the number of employers available and the numbers of jobs as well. And also they lead to what is called monopsony by reducing the number of job opportunities for workers and therefore placing the employers in a better position to dictate terms. So when combined with the weakening of unions, workers are losing bargaining power.  The result is wage stagnation. Corporations keep earning larger profits but wages do not keep up and can be said to be smaller.

The number of mergers keeps happening at a pace hard for the average person to follow. We may not be able to stop them for the present, but we must be aware of what they do and must insist that those we vote for be informed and prepared to tackle an issue which is key to economic health and economic inequality.

Eyeglasses for The World’s Poor

The headline in a NYT story was arresting, “A Simple way to Improve a Billion Lives: Eyeglasses. Poor eyesight is not the kind of problem that usually makes headlines and yet according to the WHO it costs $200 billion a year in productivity.  Poor eyesight means that truck drivers in Nigeria and drivers in India drive without seeing what they need to see and end up causing more accidents, many involving fatalities. It means that school children who can’t see to do their school work properly are labeled poor learners and held back from the very education that could help them. It means that farmers can’t see small pest infestations or may not read pesticides labels properly, it means that workers fear for their jobs because they may not be able to properly read instructions or the texts sent them. People are held back when they have poor eyesight and economic barriers compound the human ones. Several organizations are now trying to draw attention to this problem and in the case of EYElliance also trying to raise money to solve it. The number of people affected alone makes it a problem worthy of notice, at least one billion people need glasses and perhaps as high as two and a half billion. It’s more than money, there are very few vision centers in the affected countries and that means very little access. In Liberia for example until last year there were no vision clinics in the whole country. Besides money there are societal barriers. In a country like India, for example, there is the prejudice about wearing glasses. It may be considered an infirmity and a girl wearing glasses may not be as marriageable.  Poor eyesight may be a big problem but it has a simple solution, it’s easy to diagnose, it’s not a contagious disease and does not require a vaccine and the difficulty of administering it. It also involves no big cash outlay, for a pair of eye glasses in many African or Indian countries can vary from a few cents to $2.00.

I do believe I’ll never take wearing glasses for granted again.

Health Insurance Companies and Profits

Health care is a big consumer concern and health care costs an even bigger one. As is already known, the US spends more per person on health care and gets less than other developed nations. And then there’s the fact that one in 5 of every person currently being pursued by collection agencies is for medical debt. The issue of rising costs is proverbially complex, and in part why ProPublica, the investigative reporting site in conjunction with NPR conducted an examination which puts a finger on how health insurers operate.  According to their reporting, insurance companies pay the high costs of hospital bills without flinching or arguments.  Hospital bills are not easy for consumers to decipher, and yet the price may be set or known to both the hospitals and the insurers. Many who undergo surgeries have co-pays which are often percentages of a given bill, say 10% which means that only 2 out of the 3 parties involved know the costs involved. The article compares it to not knowing what an airline ticket would cost until after you’ve flown. The absolutely striking part of the article is that for health insurers profits do not lie in saving money but in the percentage left once they have paid the medical bills and covered their administrative costs. What they do is try to accurately predict how much the people they insure will cost them and set premiums accordingly. If they’re right they reap a profit. If they’re wrong, they cover their losses by raising the premiums in the following year. The amount of a bill is not a factor for them, and their profit is not predicated on their decreasing spending.

The stark facts of this investigation not only highlight the role that insurers—like drug companies—have to play in making health care affordable, but also that solutions to making health care affordable cannot be done without a change in the formula of how all these companies derive their profits. Most of all since all this may end up very difficult to accomplish, our awareness and insistence things must change ought to hopefully inch us towards a single payer system.

68.5 Million Refugees

Being an immigrant is very difficult. I know from experience what it’s like to leave everything you know and have behind and go towards an unknown. And in our case we didn’t have to pay smugglers, we didn’t have to walk across borders, we had passports, visa, purchased our own plane fares and weren’t fleeing war. So when I read that the number of refugees and displaced persons from wars and persecutions has reached 68.5 million, I shudder. These are 68.5 million lives which have been uprooted, undergoing suffering, and we can well assume at least some are traumatized.   They are 25.4 million actual refugees, 40 million internally displaced persons and 3.1 million seeking asylum.  Two third of them come from principally five countries,  and that excludes the long term Palestinian refugees, they are Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar and Somalia. The 68.5 million for 2017 represents an increase of 16.5 million from the previous year and that despite the fact that some 5 million refugees were able to return home. Refugee agencies are overwhelmed, there is of course a question of funding to accommodate so many. 14 countries are banding together trying to forge a blueprint of how to deal with refugees, and  the UN is in the process of putting together a Global Compact on Refugees to be voted on by the Security Council. Still those may not be sufficient to help those in need.  The time has come for the world and each of us as citizens to take a stand to demand action be taken. It is heartening that people protesting the incarceration of children at the US border became a springboard for some action (not yet resolved at the time of this writing). Yet the protests were not triggered on behalf of refugees and their plight, but because children were held in cages. It is a good step, but not enough to address the problem. We need to stop incarcerating children, certainly, but we need to better apply our own principles, seeking asylum is legal. We also need to develop a new philosophy about our borders, and renew our commitment to immigration. And not to be forgotten, whatever we do, we need the resources to do it.  Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees sums up the issue by saying, “No one becomes a refugee by choice, but the rest of us can have a choice about how we help.”

To Ponder On

“It is our choices… that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

J.K. Rowling

A Larger View

A Commentary On How Current Events Reflect— Or Not—Our Search For Higher Values

  • Volume XXIII
  • No. 3
  • May/June 2018
  • Bulletin of The Inner/Outer Partnership

in this issue:

  • Mistresses in China
  • Wage Stagnation
  • War and Suffering
  • Hunger on College Campuses
  • Antibiotics Resistance and Typhoid
  • Fasting in Silicon Valley
  • To Ponder On

Mistresses In China

I accidentally saw an article about mistresses in China on my phone one night and since it was written in October 2013 later checked how prevalent the practice  was still  today. It is. In June 2017 the New Yorker published an article on China’s Mistress-Dispellers, a kind of new profession whereby third parties are hired by wives to get rid of their husbands’ mistresses. What struck me was not how common the practice of having a mistress is, it was how these women saw it as a step up for them.  Many of them came from rural China and were trying to escape poverty. They would end up in things like karaoke bars, having to sometimes sleep with customers, if they paid enough. Sometimes they had been involved in more conventional forms of prostitution. If they were noticed by a man who wanted to take care of them they jumped at the chance. They then would live in fancy apartments, had an allowance, received gifts.  There were times when several of them could be in different apartments in the same building, so it was possible for them to meet, talk and share notes.  They work hard for what they have to do to maintain the interest of “my man” as they would refer to the men keeping them.  They explain it as a question of being sincere about liking him and enjoying being with him, being interested in his life, at the same time mean it so that it would feel and be real to him even if they did not feel the same–anything so they would not have to go back to the karaoke bar, or their previous life. Some were able to save money, buy apartments, invest all the while enjoying certain luxuries. Many of the men were public officials, so essentially they were being supported by public funds. That is of course not how their wives saw it. In a culture where divorce is not accepted as it is in the West, their option was to use mistress-dispeller. He or she would shame, intimidation or perhaps make friends with the mistress and then have his picture taken with her if he was a man, and later send it to the husband, who felt deceived and would break off the relationship.

I couldn’t help think that rare among us would be the woman who would give up her freedom and opportunities for their luxury and makeshift security. In turn what would these Chinese women do if they could  have what we have?

Wage Stagnation

What happens to the wages of American workers may not seem like a topic we want to spend time on but it is important. For example, according to some experts it was a contributing factor to the election of Donald Trump. Although the last jobs report showed some wage increase, overall that increase was very flat and shows that in the long run wages will continue to be flat.  Wage stagnation is not new, it has basically been around for the last 40 years and has puzzled economists. That’s why the Hamilton Project of the Brookings Institution has now issued an e-book discussing the issues, making proposals and recommendations. One of the proposals which the authors seem to emphasize is related to creating circumstances for workers to compensate for the collective bargaining what unions used to provide. Unions represented a group and were able to obtain more concessions than a single individual. In addition when unions were powerful, there were many employers, now the numbers of employers has shrunk. In fact a recommendation is for the government to evaluate mergers in terms of how they would affect the labor market. The problem of employers being able to dictate terms has a name, monopsony, and the book’s authors alert us that employers today tend to have a degree of monopsony. Other measures suggested meant to compensate for  this problem work to give some bargaining power back to workers. Also companies often have non poaching agreements or workers are asked to sign that they will not work for the competition. All this limits workers’ bargaining power. And a recommendation is to alter those agreements and practices.

Wage stagnation is a complicated topic that often requires specialized knowledge, and yet it is one of extreme importance to the future of the US, one which can be crucial in reducing the growing economic inequality, and therefore one which can go to the core of how democracy is practiced.

War and Suffering

The war in Yemen has just entered its fourth year. The war in Syria is 7 years old, the war in Sudan 5, the war in Afghanistan 15. War and suffering go together. For example, in Yemen which has already been called a humanitarian crisis :

  • in March 2017 an outbreak of cholera spread to a million people by the end of the year
  • an estimate of 2 million children are out of school
  • 2 million people, nearly 3 in every 4 people are dependent on humanitarian aid to survive
  • besides cholera there has been dengue fever malaria and diphtheria, while the fear and possibility of those diseases returning is real
  • the destruction of hospitals and infrastructure make rendering aid more difficult

It is not known how long the war will last.  The same can be said of Syria, Afghanistan, Congo, Sudan and others not mentioned here. In Yemen’s case it is a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. In Syria Turkey and Russia also make it a proxy war. Whether the United States has an interest in the stakes of a given war and is able to influence some form of peace is not foreground on the agenda of the current administration. This means that our understanding and commitment that as humans the suffering of war is our responsibility, to at least alleviate, must be that much stronger.

Hunger on College Campuses

Being in school is hard. For those who have access to life’s necessities, even for those who can include some of its pleasures, it can nevertheless be the best time of their lives, but for the rest for whatever reason, it is challenge upon challenge. According to a new survey 36% of students on college campuses do not have enough to eat. The survey finds that one of the reasons for food insecurity is that jobs are not as easy to find.  There is much competition for the low paying jobs students typically get. Other reasons are “ballooning college costs”, inadequate aid packages, growing enrollment among low income students and too the reluctance of colleges to admit the problem. According to the same survey a similar percentage of students have no secure place to live or can be homeless. I worked my way through school albeit at a time when tuitions were much cheaper. My education means more to me than whatever difficulties I encountered while a student. I am sure the same holds for many of these young people. But the result of this survey shows us this is not how we ought to build a future for young lives as well as for society.  Many of these same students who experience food and shelter insecurities may well be those who will end up with the greatest student debt. Student debt the way it is unfolding in the US (as opposed to the US, Australia or Sweden for example) saddles young people with life -long consequences.

When seen as a total picture, the results of this survey are not only distressing, they also lead to asking whether a remedy for economic inequality is being harmed?

 Antibiotics Resistance and Typhoid

It’s hard to realize that typhoid in Pakistan can impact us, but it’s much more likely than we may like. There’s an epidemic in 14 districts there, some 850 cases of typhoid which have been spreading since 2016. The problem is that the particular strain is mostly resistant to five different kinds of antibiotics. And further that strain is expected to disseminate globally. An oral antibiotic azythromycin is hoped to help, the last to be tried. If it fails, typhoid could be untreatable. So the issue is no longer about typhoid, but about antibiotic resistance. That means as far as typhoid is concerned we would have to return to the pre antibiotic era, and that would involve a very high mortality rate. As it is 21 million people suffer from typhoid each year and 161,000 already die of it. A hope for containing this epidemic lies in a vaccination campaign—indirectly making the case for the importance of vaccination.

The whole issue of antibiotic resistance is far from new which makes what’s going on in Pakistan more than a wake-up call.?  It is also an intractable problem since it affects the entire food chain. Cattle, for example, are fed antibiotics are as a means to prevent them from contracting certain diseases. The result is that even if we don’t take antibiotics ourselves we ingest them if or when we eat meat from such cattle. While the dangers of antibiotic resistance have been too abstract for us to grapple with and comprehend something like the typhoid epidemic in Pakistan brings them home in a way we can’t avoid and too one we must remember.

Fasting in Silicon Valley

iFasting, Mouth Timer, Grumbli, Foodless Lite, Pizza Prison, Fork Busters. These are the names of companies which are based on a current craze in Silicon Valley: Fasting. Silicon Valley is filled with young, affluent, pampered, intelligent people who, among other things, are always on the lookout of what could improve their comfort, physical, emotional or intellectual—and for many it also includes what among what is new can be monetized and bring them the rewards it has for some already well-known people. The current research behind fasting, however, explains much and one cannot be surprised that it is a current fad.  The research says that fasting, reduced caloric intake or restricted diets boost energy and cognitive ability. There is also the research on mice indicating that low caloric intake promotes longevity.  I wouldn’t want to live in a world without science, but I am aware that scientific notions do often alter with time. When I was these people’s age, for example, the prevailing notion about fasting was that it fulfilled the need to detoxify your body and because detoxification prevented disease it could therefore be a boon to health.

Why shouldn’t these young enterprising people fast if they want to? I can’t tell them not to. Not only is it their right, it is after all their freewill, their decision. In addition for all I or anyone knows it may be a necessary phase they need to undergo. The whole issue of fasting and restricted intake is not one of right or wrong. Yet, for someone like me, it is one of thoughtfulness, awareness and social consciousness. I wonder how refugees and migrants would feel about such topics, and how they would react should the research about reduced caloric intake be shared with them. In fact I doubt that the life expectancy in many poor countries (and I realize there are other factors at work) would correlate restricted food intake and longevity. And too there’s the whole issue of turning a fad into profits. It may be so emblematic of our contemporary culture, still it leaves me with how much these young entrepreneurs could accomplish to reduce human suffering if  they would turn their abilities towards reducing inequalities and evening out opportunities.

To Ponder On

“In this new, hyper competitive age, none of us, none of us can afford to be complacent.”

                                                                                                 Barack Obama

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Larger View

A Commentary On How Current Events Reflect— Or Not—Our Search For Higher Values

  • Volume XXIII
  • No. 2
  • March/April 2018
  • Bulletin of The Inner/Outer Partnership

in this issue:

  • The Land Mines Problem
  • The Cost of Childbirth in the US
  • On Freedom of Religion
  • Guns and the Heller Decision
  • Rape in South Sudan
  • Teaching Slave History
  • To Ponder On

The Land Mines Problem

For some of us, the problem with land mines is an old one, and the fact that it continues is and should be a blot on our conscience.  The casualties are increasing, for 2016, the last year for which there are statistics, there were 8,605 casualties, a number which includes 2089 deaths.  These numbers represent about 25% more than the casualties the year before and are more than double the number for 2014.  Much of the damage is done by cluster landmines. As their name indicates, they are one landmine made up of many smaller ones, so when they explode a lot more harm is done.   Much of the mayhem created by landmines is in Afghanistan, Libya, Ukraine and Yemen although at least 56 other countries including Syria also have landmines.  There is, or perhaps I should say there was, a treaty signed by 169 countries which became Continue reading

A Larger View

A Commentary On How Current Events Reflect— Or Not—Our Search For Higher Values

  • Bulletin of The Inner/Outer Partnership

in this issue:


Airlines Seats and Safety

It’s well known that airplane seats are getting smaller and are projected to get smaller still—that is if airlines have their way. But consumers are at last beginning to speak up. Earlier this year American airlines was planning to redesign its cabin where a few seats would have a 29 inch pitch.  After what a New York Times’ article called a “rash of complaints” they dropped their plans.  There are now several plans to shorten knee space and add seats. The airlines say it’s not only profits, but also to lighten the load carried by an aircraft. Seats are now thinner, materials are different, back pouches and arm rests are redesigned, all measures that benefit the airlines, not consumers.  A spokesman for Spirit airlines said that to think of comfort in Continue reading

A Larger View

A Commentary On How Current Events Reflect— Or Not—Our Search For Higher Values

  • Volume XXII
  • No. 6
  • November/December 2017
  • Bulletin of The Inner/Outer Partnership

in this issue:

  • Cancer Drugs Prices
  • Private Prisons Boom
  • The Deaf In Prisons
  • Cancer Drugs In Africa
  • Donations From Inmates
  • Kids And Robots
  • To Ponder On

Cancer Drugs Prices

To most of us it’s hardly surprising!! A new analysis found that the claim by drug companies justifying the high price of drugs by the expenses of research and development cannot be proven. In an article published in JAMA Internal Medicine, the researchers found that the cost of developing a new drug is around $650 million. The drug companies put that cost at $ 2.7 billion or several times the actual cost established by the researchers. On top of the $650 million the researchers add another $100 million to cover the cost of what the companies would have gained by investing the money instead of using it in R and D.  Of the 10 companies the researchers looked at, the drugs earned 7 times what they cost to be brought to market and of course the profits will continue in the years to come. One argument the pharmaceutical Continue reading