Showing posts with label Politics. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Politics. Show all posts

Friday, February 7, 2014

A Parched Future: Global Land and Water Grabbing

This is the bond of water. We know the rites. A man’s flesh is his own; the water belongs to the tribe.”                Frank Herbert - Dune

Drought Tomas CastelazoLand grabbing refers to the large-scale acquisition of comparatively inexpensive agricultural land in foreign countries by foreign governments or corporations. In most cases, the acquired land is located in under-developed countries in Africa, Asia or South America, while the grabbers are investment funds based in Europe, North America and the Middle East. The acquisition can take the form of an outright purchase or a long-term-lease, ranging from 25 to 99 years, that gives the grabbing entity extensive control over the acquired land. Proponents of such large-scale acquisitions have criticized the term “land grabbing’ because it carries the stigma of illegitimacy and conjures up images of colonialism or other forms of unethical land acquisitions that were so common in the not so distant past. They point out that land acquisitions by foreign investors are made in accordance with the local laws and that the investments could create jobs and development opportunities in impoverished countries. However, recent reports suggest that these land acquisitions are indeed “land grabs”. NGOs and not-for profit organizations such as GRAIN, TNI and Oxfam have documented the disastrous consequences of large-scale land acquisitions for the local communities. More often than not, the promised jobs are not created and families that were farming the land for generations are evicted from their ancestral land and lose their livelihood. The money provided to the government by the investors frequently disappears into the coffers of corrupt officials while the evicted farmers receive little or no compensation.

One aspect of land grabbing that has received comparatively little attention is the fact that land grabbing is invariably linked to water grabbing. When the newly acquired land is used for growing crops, it requires some combination of rainwater (referred to as “green water”) and irrigation from freshwater resources (referred to as “blue water”). The amount of required blue water depends on the rainfall in the grabbed land. For example, land that is grabbed in a country with heavy rainfalls, such as Indonesia, may require very little irrigation and tapping of its blue water resources. The link between land grabbing and water grabbing is very obvious in the case of Saudi Arabia, which used to be a major exporter of wheat in the 1990s, when there were few concerns about the country’s water resources. The kingdom provided water at minimal costs to its heavily subsidized farmers, thus resulting in a very inefficient usage of the water. Instead of the global average of using 1,000 tons of water per ton of wheat, Saudi farmers used 3,000 and 6,000 tons of water. Fred Pearce describes the depletion of the Saudi water resources in his book The Land Grabbers:

Saudis thought they had water to waste because, beneath the Arabian sands, lay one of the world’s largest underground reservoirs of water. In the late 1970s, when pumping started, the pores of the sandstone rocks contained around 400 million acre-feet of water, enough to fill Lake Erie. The water had percolated underground during the last ice age, when Arabia was wet. So it was not being replaced. It was fossil water— and like Saudi oil, once it is gone it will be gone for good. And that time is now coming. In recent years, the Saudis have been pumping up the underground reserves of water at a rate of 16 million acre-feet a year. Hydrologists estimate that only a fifth of the reserve remains, and it could be gone before the decade is out.
Saudi Arabia responded to this depletion of its water resources by deciding to gradually phase out all wheat production. Instead of growing wheat in Saudi Arabia, it would import wheat from African farmlands that were leased and operated by Saudi investors. This way, the kingdom could conserve its own water resources while using African water resources for the production of the wheat that would be consumed by Saudis.

Peter_Paul_Rubens_-_The_Union_of_Earth_and_Water_-_WGA20332The recent study “Global land and water grabbing” published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2013) by Maria Rulli and colleagues examined how land grabbing leads to water grabbing and can deplete the water resources of a country. The basic idea is that when the grabbed land is irrigated, the use of freshwater resources reduces the availability of irrigation water for neighboring farmland areas, i.e. the areas that have not been grabbed. This in turn can cause widespread water stress and affect the ability of other farmers to grow crops, ultimately leading to poverty and social unrest. Land grabbing is often shrouded in secrecy since local governments do not want to be perceived as selling off valuable land to foreigners, but some details regarding the size of the land grab are eventually made public. The associated water needs of the investors that grab the land are even less clear and very little is publicly divulged about how the land grabbing will affect the water availability for other farmers. In the case of Sudan, for example, grabbed land is often located on the fertile banks of the Blue Nile and while large-scale commercial farmland is expanding as part of the foreign investments, local farmers are losing access to land and water and gradually becoming dependent on food aid, even though Sudan is a major exporter of food produced by the large-scale farms.

Using the global land grabbing database of GRAIN and the Land Matrix Database, Rulli and colleagues analyzed the extent of land-grabbing and identify the Democratic Republic of Congo (8.05 million hectares), Indonesia (7.14 million hectares), Philippines (5.17 million hectares), Sudan (4.69 million hectares) and Australia (4.65 million hectares) as the five countries in which the most area of land has been grabbed by foreign investors. The total amount of grabbed land in these five countries is 29.7 million hectares, and accounts for nearly 63% of global land grabbing. To put this in perspective, the size of the United Kingdom is 24.4 million hectares.

The researchers calculated the amount of rainfall (green water) on the grabbed land, which is the minimum amount of water that would be grabbed with the acquisition of the land. However, since the grabbed land is also used for agriculture and many crops require additional freshwater irrigation (blue water), the researchers also determined a range of predicted blue water grabbing for land irrigation. For the low end of the blue water grabbing range, the researchers assumed that the land would be irrigated in the same fashion as other agricultural land in the country. On the higher end of the range, the researchers also calculated how much blue water would be grabbed, if the investors irrigated the land in a manner to maximize the agricultural production of the land. This is not an unreasonable assumption, since foreign investors probably do have the financial resources to maximally irrigate the acquired land in a manner that maximizes the return on their investment.

Rulli and colleagues estimated that global land grabbing is associated with the grabbing of 308 billion m3 of green water (i.e. rain water) and an additional grabbing of blue water that can range from 11 billion m3 (current irrigation practices) to 146 billion m3 (maximal irrigation) per year. Again, to put these numbers in perspective, the average daily household consumption of water in the United Kingdom is 150 liters (0.15 m3) per person. This results in a total annual household consumption of 3.5 billion m3 (0.15 m3 X 365 days X 63,181,775 UK population) of water in the UK. Therefore, the total household water consumption in the UK is a fraction of what would be the predicted blue water usage of the grabbed land, even if one were to use very conservative estimates of required irrigation.

The researchers then also list the top 25 countries in which the investors are based that engage in land and water grabbing. They find that about “60% of the total grabbed water is appropriated, through land grabbing, by the United States, United Arab Emirates, India, United Kingdom, Egypt, China, and Israel”. The researchers gloss over the fact that in many cases, land and associated water resources are grabbed by foreign investment groups and not by foreign governments. Just because certain investment funds are based in Singapore, UK or the United Arab Emirates does not mean that these countries are “appropriating” the land or water. In fact, many investment groups that are involved in land grabbing may have multinational investors or investors whose nationality is not disclosed. Nevertheless, there are probably cases in which land and water grabbing are not merely conducted as a form of private investment, but might involve foreign governments. One such example is the above-mentioned case of Saudi Arabia, in which the Saudi government actively encouraged and helped Saudi investors to acquire agricultural land in Africa. While perusing the list of the top 25 countries in which land and water grabbing investors are based, one cannot help but notice that the list contains a number of Middle Eastern countries that are themselves experiencing severe water stress and scarcity, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates or Israel. Transferring their water burden to Africa by acquiring agricultural land would allow them to preserve their own water resources and may indeed by of strategic value to these countries. However, the precise degree of government involvement in these investment decisions often remains unclear.

The paper by Rulli and colleagues is an important reminder of how land grabbing and water grabbing are entwined and that land grabbing could potentially deplete valuable water resources from under-developed countries, especially in Africa, which accounts for more than half of the globally grabbed land. Even villagers that continue to own and farm their own land adjacent to the large-scale farms on grabbed lands could be affected by new forms of water stress, especially if the foreign investors decide to maximally irrigate the acquired land. There are some key limitations to the study, such as the lack of distinction between private foreign investors or foreign governments that are engaged in land grabbing and the fact that all the calculations of blue water grabbing are based on very broad estimates without solid data on how much blue water is actually consumed by the grabbed lands. These numbers may be very difficult to obtain, but should be the focus of future studies in this area.

After reading this study, I have become far more aware of ongoing land and water grabbing. Excessive commodification of our lives was already criticized by Karl Polanyi in 1944 and now that water is also becoming a “fictitious commodity”, we have to be extremely watchful of its consequences. The extent of land grabbing that has already taken place is quite extensive. An interactive map based on the GRAIN database allows us to visualize the areas in the world that are most affected by land grabbing since 2006 as well as where the foreign investors are located. The map shows that in recent years, Pakistan has emerged as one of the prime targets of land grabbing in Asia, while Sudan, South Sudan, Tanzania and Ethiopia are major targets of recent land grabbing in Africa. The world economic crisis and the recent food price crisis will likely increase the degree of land grabbing and associated water grabbing. The targets of land grabbing are often countries with fragile economies, widespread poverty and significant malnourishment.

As a global society, we have to ensure that people living in these countries do not suffer as a consequence of land grabbing deals. The recent “Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security” released by the FAO are an important step in the right direction, because they attempt to provide food security for all, even when large-scale land acquisitions occur. However, they do not specify water access and they are, as the title reveals, “voluntary”. It is not clear who will abide by them. Therefore, we also need a complementary approach in which clients of land grabbing investment funds ask the fund managers to abide by the FAO guidelines and that they maximally ensure food security and water access for the general population in grabbed lands. One specific example is that of the American retirement fund TIAA-CREF (Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association – College Retirement Equities Fund) which is one of the leading retirement providers for people who work in education, research and medicine. Investment in agriculture and land grabbing appears to be a priority for TIAA-CREF, but American educators or academics that use TIAA-CREF as their retirement fund could use their leverage to ensure socially conscientious investments. Even though land and water grabbing are becoming a major concern, the growing awareness of the problem may also result in solutions that limit the negative impact of land and water grabbing.

Image Credits: Wikimedia - Drought by Tomas Castelazo / Wikimedia - The Union of Earth and Water by Rubens

An earlier version of  this article was first published on

Rulli MC, Saviori A, & D'Odorico P (2013). Global land and water grabbing. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 110 (3), 892-7 PMID: 23284174

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Abdul Ghaffar Khan: Pioneer of Nonviolence

Nasim Saber writes in Qantara:

He was a contemporary of Indian pacifist Mahatma Gandhi and always preached an Islam of nonviolence: Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the man who was venerated by the Pashtuns as "King of Chiefs" died 20 years ago in Peshawar.

Abdul Ghaffar Khan was born in 1890 in Charsadda near Peshawar in the British-occupied northwest sector of the Indian subcontinent. He was a member of the Mohammadzai family, a respected Pashtun dynasty, to which Zahir Shah, the last king of Afghanistan, also belonged.

Abdul Ghaffar Khan grew up to become a pioneer of nonviolence in a region plagued by wars. The Pashtuns still revere him today as "Badshah Khan" (King of Chiefs).

In 1910, when he was only 20 years old, Abdul Ghaffar Khan already built a school near Utmanzai in the northwest region of what is today Pakistan. He went on to found the "Anjuman-e islah ul Afghana" (Afghan Reform Association) and to publish the magazine "Pashtoon" in order to reach the masses under British domination.

Read more here

Image Credit: Abdul Ghaffar Khan and Gandhi in 1940, Public Domain image via Wikimedia

Saturday, January 12, 2013

"I think it may be taken as the rule among primitive men, that they both fear and hate whatever is unfamiliar."

An excerpt from Bertrand Russell's 1950 Nobel lecture:

"Interwoven with many other political motives are two closely related passions to which human beings are regrettably prone: I mean fear and hate. It is normal to hate what we fear, and it happens frequently, though not always, that we fear what we hate. I think it may be taken as the rule among primitive men, that they both fear and hate whatever is unfamiliar. They have their own herd, originally a very small one. And within one herd, all are friends, unless there is some special ground of enmity. Other herds are potential or actual enemies; a single member of one of them who strays by accident will be killed. An alien herd as a whole will be avoided or fought according to circumstances. It is this primitive mechanism which still controls our instinctive reaction to foreign nations. The completely untravelled person will view all foreigners as the savage regards a member of another herd. But the man who has travelled, or who has studied international politics, will have discovered that, if his herd is to prosper, it must, to some degree, become amalgamated with other herds. If you are English and someone says to you, «The French are your brothers», your first instinctive feeling will be, «Nonsense. They shrug their shoulders, and talk French. And I am even told that they eat frogs.» If he explains to you that we may have to fight the Russians, that, if so, it will be desirable to defend the line of the Rhine, and that, if the line of the Rhine is to be defended, the help of the French is essential, you will begin to see what he means when he says that the French are your brothers. But if some fellow-traveller were to go on to say that the Russians also are your brothers, he would be unable to persuade you, unless he could show that we are in danger from the Martians. We love those who hate our enemies, and if we had no enemies there would be very few people whom we should love."

The complete 1950 Nobel lecture of Bertrand Russell can be found here.

Image: Photo of Bertrand Russell/Wikimedia

"To oppression, plundering and abandonment, we respond with life"

An excerpt from the 1982 Nobel lecture given by Gabriel García Márquez:

"Latin America neither wants, nor has any reason, to be a pawn without a will of its own; nor is it merely wishful thinking that its quest for independence and originality should become a Western aspiration. However, the navigational advances that have narrowed such distances between our Americas and Europe seem, conversely, to have accentuated our cultural remoteness. Why is the originality so readily granted us in literature so mistrustfully denied us in our difficult attempts at social change? Why think that the social justice sought by progressive Europeans for their own countries cannot also be a goal for Latin America, with different methods for dissimilar conditions? No: the immeasurable violence and pain of our history are the result of age-old inequities and untold bitterness, and not a conspiracy plotted three thousand leagues from our home. But many European leaders and thinkers have thought so, with the childishness of old-timers who have forgotten the fruitful excess of their youth as if it were impossible to find another destiny than to live at the mercy of the two great masters of the world. This, my friends, is the very scale of our solitude.

 In spite of this, to oppression, plundering and abandonment, we respond with life. Neither floods nor plagues, famines nor cataclysms, nor even the eternal wars of century upon century, have been able to subdue the persistent advantage of life over death. An advantage that grows and quickens: every year, there are seventy-four million more births than deaths, a sufficient number of new lives to multiply, each year, the population of New York sevenfold. Most of these births occur in the countries of least resources - including, of course, those of Latin America. Conversely, the most prosperous countries have succeeded in accumulating powers of destruction such as to annihilate, a hundred times over, not only all the human beings that have existed to this day, but also the totality of all living beings that have ever drawn breath on this planet of misfortune."

The complete 1982 Nobel lecture of Gabriel García Márquez can be found here.

Image: Photo of Gabriel García Márquez via Jose Lara/Wikimedia

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

David Sedaris on Undecided Voters

David Sedaris on undecided voters in a 2008 New Yorker article:
"I don’t know that it was always this way, but, for as long as I can remember, just as we move into the final weeks of the Presidential campaign the focus shifts to the undecided voters. “Who are they?” the news anchors ask. “And how might they determine the outcome of this election?”
Then you’ll see this man or woman— someone, I always think, who looks very happy to be on TV. “Well, Charlie,” they say, “I’ve gone back and forth on the issues and whatnot, but I just can’t seem to make up my mind!” Some insist that there’s very little difference between candidate A and candidate B. Others claim that they’re with A on defense and health care but are leaning toward B when it comes to the economy.
I look at these people and can’t quite believe that they exist. Are they professional actors? I wonder. Or are they simply laymen who want a lot of attention?
To put them in perspective, I think of being on an airplane. The flight attendant comes down the aisle with her food cart and, eventually, parks it beside my seat. “Can I interest you in the chicken?” she asks. “Or would you prefer the platter of shit with bits of broken glass in it?”
To be undecided in this election is to pause for a moment and then ask how the chicken is cooked.
I mean, really, what’s to be confused about?"

The complete piece by David Sedaris can be read here

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Obama and Romney: The Future of American Healthcare

The New England Journal of Medicine asked President Obama and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney to “describe their health care platforms and their visions for the future of American health care” and published their statements on the journal’s website. The (roughly) 1,300-word statements released by the two presidential candidates are rather vague, do not address specific issues and sound like political campaign speeches.

Floating (Via Massimo Valiani - Flickr)
President Obama’s statement emphasizes the importance of the Affordable Care Act (also known as “Obamacare”), and criticizes his opponents Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan for how their plans would be detrimental for medical research in the US and for Medicare, as seen in this excerpt:

My opponent in this election, Mitt Romney, has a radically different vision for the future of our health care system — even if it means running from his past as the architect of health reform in Massachusetts. He would begin by repealing Obamacare on day 1. Your patients would once again be charged excessive copays for preventive care, and millions of Americans would be one illness or injury away from bankruptcy. He would undo the progress we are making toward a more coordinated delivery system. Romney and his running mate, Congressman Paul Ryan, have proposed a budget that could force drastic cuts to investment in medical research, eliminating 1600 National Institutes of Health grants and slowing our progress on scientific and medical breakthroughs. They have pledged to turn Medicaid into a block grant and slash its funding by a third — plunging tens of millions more Americans into the ranks of the uninsured and leaving our hospitals and health care providers to grapple with an increasing burden of uncompensated care. And they are committed to ending Medicare as we know it by turning it into a voucher program, with insurance companies set to make millions while seniors and people with disabilities are forced to pay thousands more every year.

Mitt Romney’s statement, on the other hand, does not directly address medical research, but instead focuses on criticizing Obamacare and wants the states to play a bigger role in providing healthcare:

Nor can our society ever turn its back on those who cannot afford the care they need. We will provide support for low-income Americans and those uninsured persons whose preexisting conditions push the cost of coverage too high for them to pay themselves. But my experience as a governor and the lessons from the President's attempt at a one-size-fits-all national solution convince me that it is states — not Washington — that should lead this effort. I will convert Medicaid into a block grant that properly aligns each state's incentives around using resources efficiently. Each state will have the flexibility to craft programs that most effectively address its challenges — as I did in Massachusetts, where we got 98% of our residents insured without raising taxes.

I have to admit that I am underwhelmed by both responses because they just repeat the political rhetoric that we have already heard during the national conventions and other appearances. One problem is that the editors of the journal asked them for very broad statements instead of asking them to address specific questions and solutions. This is in contrast to, for example, the approach of Scientific American and, who asked the candidates 14 specific questions related to science and technology.

The New England Journal of Medicine could have also asked very specific questions about the future of American healthcare. After all, the future of American healthcare does not just depend on health insurance, Medicare and Medicaid. Specific questions for the candidates could have included questions about how they will address the current crisis in the federal funding of medical research, how they want to deal with the growing problem of obesity and diabetes among children, how they intend to improve preventive healthcare for all, how we should facilitate translation of research findings into clinical practice, how we should curb the staggering cost of healthcare or how we can ensure adequate numbers of primary care healthcare providers, especially in underserved areas.

Such specific questions would force the candidates to focus on the same issues and allow the audience to compare and contrast their responses. I hope that in the future, the candidates will be asked more specific questions regarding their vision for American healthcare.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Presidential Wordles: Obama and Romney on Science

Scientific American and partnered up earlier this summer and asked President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney some key questions about their stances on issues related to science, technology and education. This is quite important because presidential debates and interviews with presidential candidates often gloss over science and science-related topics. This is not due to some sort of conspiracy among presidential candidates and debate moderators or interviewers that allows them to neglect policy stances about science and technology. Instead, there seems to be a lack of interest among the general public regarding the science policies of the presidential candidates that they might elect. To illustrate this, one only needs to review the 32 "crowd-sourced" questions that the readers of The Atlantic would like to ask the presidential candidates. In this list, we can find numerous questions related to the budget deficit, wars, terrorism, economy or taxes, but not a single question that focuses on science or technology. Being a scientist, I am probably biased in favor of emphasizing the important role that science plays in our everyday lives, but I think that even non-scientists would admit that science and technology are quite central to contemporary society. It would therefore make sense to carefully evaluate a presidential candidate’s policies in regards to science, technology and education prior to casting one’s vote.
            Instead of waiting for some elusive and sparse questions about scientific issues that the candidates may encounter prior to the upcoming presidential election in November 2012, Scientific American and took a pro-active approach and sent them a list of questions related to science, technology and education. These carefully selected questions touch on many of the major science and technology related issues that ought to be of interest to the US voters and should factor into their decision-making. They were based in part on questions that readers of the Scientific American Blog submitted as their top science-related questions for the presidential candidates. Unlike the broad request for questions by The Atlantic, the Scientific American readers were specifically asked to submit science and technology related questions by the editor Bora Zivkovic.
I look forward to an in-depth and serious analysis of Obama’s and Romney’s  responses by the editors of Scientific American, which will be published in the upcoming November issue. However, since I am neither profound nor serious, I decided to perform my own superficial and fun analysis of some of the responses using the online app Wordle. The Wordle app generates images of texts show-casing the words, based on the frequency of the words used in the input text. The more often a word is used in a text, the larger the font of the word in the generated image. I chose four questions that I was especially interested in because they relate to general science policy and education and I plugged in the responses of the candidates into the Wordle app.
1. Innovation and the Economy. Science and technology have been responsible for over half of the growth of the U.S. economy since WWII, when the federal government first prioritized peacetime science mobilization. But several recent reports question America’s continued leadership in these vital areas. What policies will best ensure that America remains a world leader in innovation?
Obama Answer to Question 1
Romney Answer to Question 1

When we look at the Wordles of both responses, we can see that both candidates used the word “American” frequently and they use the expected buzz-words innovation, economy, workers and jobs. However, what does stand out is that in Obama’s response, science and math are specifically mentioned, whereas Mitt Romney’s response seems to use the word “tax” frequently. This does strike me as a bit odd; after all, the question is about science and technology leadership and it is not clear why taxes should be such a prominent part of the response. The other distinguishing feature of the two responses is that Obama specifically mentions science and math, whereas Romney’s response does not use the word science at all. 

3. Research and the Future. Federally funded research has helped to produce America’s major postwar economies and to ensure our national security, but today the UK, Singapore, China, and Korea are making competitive investments in research. Given that the next Congress will face spending constraints, what priority would you give to investment in research in your upcoming budgets?
Obama Answer to Question 3
Romney Answer to Question 3

The Wordles do not seem too different – research and energy appears prominently in the responses of both candidates. Romney mentions Obama multiple times, but this can be attributed to the fact that as a challenger he feels the need to highlight flaws and mistakes of the incumbent president. The Wordle does reveal that Romney uses “companies” multiple times in a response to a question about federal funding of research.

5. Education. Increasingly, the global economy is driven by science, technology, engineering and math, but a recent comparison of 15-year-olds in 65 countries found that average science scores among U.S. students ranked 23rd, while average U.S. math scores ranked 31st. In your view, why have American students fallen behind over the last three decades, and what role should the federal government play to better prepare students of all ages for the science and technology-driven global economy?
Obama Answer to Question 5
Romney Answer to Question 5
The Wordle of Obama’s response indicates a repeated mention of STEM – science, technology, engineering and math, whereas Romney’s response manages to completely avoid using the expression science or the all-inclusive STEM, but does have a couple of references to “technology”. Instead, there is an oddly frequent occurrence of the word “unions” in Romney’s response. I was so puzzled by “unions” in a response to a question about science and math education, that I decided to read his full response and realized that Romney believes teachers unions are to blame for the poor science and math education in the US.  

11. Science in Public Policy. We live in an era when science and technology affect every aspect of life and society, and so must be included in well-informed public policy decisions. How will you ensure that policy and regulatory decisions are fully informed by the best available scientific and technical information, and that the public is able to evaluate the basis of these policy decisions?
Obama Answer to Question 11
Romney Answer to Question 11

The one key difference in the Wordles of the responses to a question about public policy is that Obama responds using the word “public”, whereas Romney seems to be quite concerned with EPA regulations regarding mercury and pollution in general. Other than that, there does not seem to be any obvious difference in the word frequencies.

This Wordle analysis did not involve actual reading and interpretation of the responses – it therefore does not constitute an in-depth analysis of the science policies of the two candidates. Nevertheless, this simple automated enumeration of words did reveal some unexpected results, such as Romney’s repeated mention of “taxes” and “unions” in responses to questions related to science and education. It is likely that the frequent recurrence of these expressions is indicative of some key differences in the approaches of the two candidates to the policy goals for science and technology. I look forward to the in-depth analysis of the Scientific American editors and, more importantly, I hope that American voters will consider the science policies of the candidates when they cast their votes in November.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Future of U.S. Health Care

Andrea Louise Campbell in the Boston Review:

Physician treating a patient.
Red-figure Attic aryballos, ca. 480–470 BC.

The Affordable Care Act is a monumental accomplishment. Thanks to its expansion of health care coverage and new regulations, tens of millions of Americans will feel more secure, knowing that they can seek medical attention when they need it and that they will be protected from the insurance industry’s most egregious practices.
But the reform was very much limited by the American terms of the debate, particularly the enduring belief that markets are always more efficient than government (even though our current private insurance system demonstrates otherwise) and the conviction that any changes to the arrangements of the insured cannot fly. The result is a sprawling, confusing, Gorgon-headed workaround, whose beneficial features are difficult for the typical consumer to discern.
Now that the Act has run the Supreme Court gauntlet, how will it affect the structure and politics of health care going forward? Assuming the ACA survives Republican repeal attempts, does it represent a large step toward a single-payer system? What will happen to the employer-provided sector of health insurance? Will health insurance in the United States settle into a pattern of competing private plans? And will some states really opt out of the ACA’s Medicaid expansion and forgo billions of federal dollars?

Continue reading here:

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Paul Ryan is a Blessing for American Democracy

The announcement that Paul Ryan would be Mitt Romney's running mate in the upcoming presidential election created ripples of joy among Democrats and Republicans. Democrats felt that President Obama's chances of winning the election had significantly improved because the majority of Americans will oppose the severe budget cuts that Paul Ryan has proposed in the past. Republicans were thrilled that they could energize their conservative base and re-activate the Tea Party enthusiasm that was so pervasive and successful in 2010. Only time will tell who should be celebrating the choice of Paul Ryan. What we do know is that this choice represents a big victory for democracy. The purpose of an election is to choose between candidates who present their distinct political goals and visions. For independent voters (who cast the deciding votes in American elections) the differences between Mitt Romney and President Obama may not have been that obvious. After all, Mitt Romney himself instituted a healthcare system as governor of Massachusetts that is quite similar to the one envisioned by President Obama. This has now changed with the choice of Paul Ryan as Romney's running mate. He can now offer something that Romney never could: A clear vision. What does Paul Ryan's vision consist of? In the past, he has articulated how strongly he has been influenced by Ayn Rand's philosophy. However, he then faced harsh criticism and push-back from American Catholics, who were not too enthusiastic about the atheism, pro-choice stance and laissez-faire capitalism that Ayn Rand stood for. An example of this criticism is this public letter, that was sent to Paul Ryan by members of the Georgetown University faculty:
"In short, your budget appears to reflect the values of your favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand, rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Her call to selfishness and her antagonism toward religion are antithetical to the Gospel values of compassion and love."
Paul Ryan responded to such criticism by down-playing his admiration for Ayn Rand and even suggesting that he rejects Ayn Rand's philosophy. However, his proposals to aggressively cut government programs such as Medicaid and Medicare as well as curtail welfare spending constitute the center-piece of his political views. These proposed cuts have propelled his rise to stardom in the Republican Party and they are quite consistent with Ayn Rand's philosophy. Reneging on his goals to severely curtail government spending would diminish his credibility with the fiscal conservatives that see him as their champion. On the other hand, reducing government spending on the poor and the elderly appears antithetical to the Christian principles of compassion. This has created a dilemma for him, and forces him to find other ways to placate Catholics or other Christian voters who feel that his severe budget cuts are incompatible with Christian values. This may explain why Paul Ryan is emphasizing his religious conservatism by suggesting that he is anti-choice in matters of abortion and opposes same-sex marriage or adoption by gay couples. His positions on matters of abortion or gay marriage are quite inconsistent with the individualism of Ayn Rand and may thus help him distance himself from her views.
It therefore appears that Paul Ryan is generating a new hybrid philosophy: A reactionary vision for America which combines radical fiscal conservatism with selected "Christian values". Paul Ryan intends to roll back the progress made in the arena of providing affordable healthcare for the elderly and poor and diminish the social safety nets created over the past decades. The November ballot will tell whether American Christians will accept this hollowed version of Christianity, which has been stripped of its compassionate core. In this context, Paul Ryan's reactionary vision a blessing for American democracy. In recent years, the "everyone fend for themselves" philosophy of Ayn Rand has been taking hold in American culture and politics, gradually pushing the United States towards an "Ayn Rand Nation". This gradual process has been driven by selected activist groups such as the Tea Party, but there has been a much broader tacit approval. There has been lukewarm support for the Affordable Healthcare Act, which will provide healthcare of millions of uninsured Americans, even among those who would benefit from it. There is a growing American perception that European welfare programs should be blamed for the flailing European economies. These are all indicators that Ayn Rand's philosophy has been creeping into and taking hold of mainstream American culture. Discussion about how this creeping laissez faire capitalism and unhinged individualism is antithetical to Christian values has been rather scarce, which is surprising since the majority of Americans see themselves as Christians.
The November election will now force Americans to carefully think about their vision and their ideals. Do Americans really want an Ayn Rand Nation with a few cherry-picked "Christian values" as epitomized by Paul Ryan? This is the question that Americans will be asking themselves in the next months. Instead of just giving their tacit approval, Americans will have to actively vote on this question in November. This will require much soul-searching, but it is this type of soul-searching that makes a democracy vibrant.