Monday, February 28, 2011

Suffer the Little Children

With the incisiveness that we have come to expect from him, Paul Krugman makes it very clear in his New York Times column of February 28th who will be suffering the most as a result of the huge budgets cuts now being imposed on local and state governments. It is the children, particularly poor children. As Krugman notes, politicians love to wax rhapsodically about how dedicated they are to the welfare of the young and for refusing to mortgage their futures away through deficit spending. But they conveniently overlook the fact that by cutting education and other social programs, they are undermining the ability of children to make a good life for themselves, a result that hurts children as individuals and over time decimates whole communities.

The example he cites is the State of Texas where the tax rate is extremely low for the wealthy and disproportionately high for the bottom 40 percent of the population. With tax increases "ruled out of consideration," Krugman notes, the savings will come from slashing Medicaid and education, the two areas that matter most for maintaining a decent quality of life for children. Of course, Texas is already pretty cheap when it comes to both education and healthcare. The school drop out rate is the 8th highest in the nation and Texas is in fifth place on measures of child poverty. But with these new, even more draconian cuts, the situation is only going to worsen and the real toll will be taken years from now when Texas and other states like it are saddled with unhealthy, mis-educated children who are robbed of the opportunity to become productive citizens. As Krugman says, the really striking about this isn't the cruelty - "at this point you expect that -- but the shortsightedness. What's supposed to happen when today's neglected children become tomorrow's work force?" And think about this. The damage that is done now cycles through the next generation and the next. It becomes a vicious and endlessly recurring cycle that can be avoided only through judicious budgeting and reasonable tax increases on the wealthiest members of society.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

"I don't support autocracy in your society if I don't want it in my society."

"I don't support autocracy in your society if I don't want it in my society," is the standard of reciprocity asserted by Professor William Easterly regarding efforts to establish democracy in the Middle East and cited by Nicholas Kristof as the starting point for thinking about this most pressing of crises. Kristof also quotes Prime Minister David Cameron who recently observed that saying Muslims can't do democracy is "a prejudice that borders on racism. It's offensive and wrong, and it's simply not true."

But the history of claims that people are not ready for democracy is long and, frankly, embarrassingly persistent, not to mention invariably wrong. It wasn't that long ago in this country that women were told they were constitutionally unable to participate in the political process. And just think how recently Blacks in the South were threatened with physical violence if they had the temerity to enter the voting booth. Of course, every time that right has been finally won, the calamity that was predicted never came. Extending democracy to people who have been denied it has not only strengthened democracy, it had made our country better, more representative and even more judicious.

I can't help thinking that this is one of the few cases where history is our perfect guide to the future. Extending democracy will be a struggle with many bumps in the road, but over the long haul we will all be better off. That's not some wild, speculative prediction. It's a guarantee.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

"To change the way you see things is already to change things themselves"

"To change the way you see things is already to change things themselves," so says the street artist and photograffeur known as JR, profiled by Gaby Wood in this Sunday's New York Times Magazine. And it is hard to deny the truth of what JR says, especially given how extraordinarily arresting this street art is. All of his enormous, larger than life photographs that he pastes onto bridges, buildings, retaining walls, and hillsides are striking, but the most transformational ones are plastered on the rooftops and trains of the Kibera Slum of Nairobi, Kenya, and presented as a kind of two-page centerfold in the Times Magazine.

This picture of his art, shot from above, knocks you out. You've just never seen anything like it and then when you learn that a big part of his point is to bring attention to ordinary women who make such a difference to the everyday lives of people in Kenya, you know you're seeing something meant not only to change how we see the world, but also, as JR says, to change the world itself. No wonder his art has begun to fetch high prices. But JR doesn't care about that particularly, other than to help fund future projects. It's creating a better world that he's after, and this is his unique and unforgettable way of accomplishing that.

Friday, February 25, 2011

New Kidney Transplant Policy to Favor Younger Patients

Out of all the marvelous and amazing articles in the New York Times on February 25, 2011, the one I want to single out, which I think has enormous implications for many individuals and families, concerns a new policy being proposed by the kidney organ transplant network to give younger patients preference over older patients when it comes to kidney transplants. The principle at stake is to let younger and healthier patients have access to kidneys that they can use over a much long period of time due to their greater life expectancy. As Richard N. Formica put it, a transplant physician at Yale University and one of the authors of the new policy, "Right now, if you're 77 years old and you're offered an 18-year-old's kidney, you get it. The problem is that you'll die with that kidney still functioning, while a 30-year-old could have gotten that kidney and lived with it to see his kids graduate from college."

As Gardiner Harris explains in his New York Times piece, a pool of young and otherwise healthy patients would have access to the best kidneys. Amounting to about 20% of organ recipients, these are the patients with the longest life expectancies and the ones with the greatest chance to live with their donated kidneys for as long as 30, 40 or even 50 years. The remaining 80% awaiting transplants would receive transplants when the difference in age between recipient and donor is not more than 15 years. Thus, a recipient at age 80 would be given preference if a donor were 65 or older. A recipient at age 60 would be given preference if a donor were 45 or older and so on.

Although there is a great deal of support for this policy within the medical community, there are some who oppose it vociferously, because the problem of geographical disparity is not addressed by this proposal. Dr. Lainie Friedman Ross, the Associate Director of the McLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics at the University of Chicago, says that geography is the biggest challenge and that this proposal does nothing to deal with the difference between living in Florida where kidneys are more available and in New York or Chicago where there are significant scarcities.

Dr. Formica believes that most people will be unaffected by the new policy, but Dr. Ross asserts that most people over 65 will lose access to kidneys, if this policy goes into effect, which is another reason why she opposes it.

Arthur Caplan, an ethicist at the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Bioethics and a supporter of the policy, think it's fairly simple. "If it's a choice between saving grandpa or granddaughter, I think you save granddaughter first. It doesn't make sense to give people equal access to something if some people fail to benefit," or, to put it another way, it doesn't make sense when some people can derive a benefit for 50 years, while others have only 10 years or less to take advantage of what has been donated to them.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

R.W. Peterson, Environmentalist

In an obituary by Douglas Martin about the environmentalist Russell W. Peterson, who recently died at the age of 94, we are reminded of a man who served as a research scientist for DuPont, was a Republican governor from the state of Delaware, and became one of the country's most uncompromising advocates for clean water and protected wildlife. In a 1993 speech, former President Jimmy Carter commented that "Every time something wonderful has happened when I was President and since then in the field of environmental quality in this country or on a global basis, Russ Peterson has been intimately involved in it."

Born in 1916 to a poor family in Portage, Wisconsin, Peterson doggedly sought an education despite the fact that most of his siblings before him had dropped out of school. He earned a B.S. in chemistry from the University of Wisconsin and went on to get a doctorate in 1942. He accepted a low level job at DuPont and worked his way up the ladder, becoming Director of research and development in 1963. Along the way, he helped develop Dacron and other highly successful synthetic substances. Yet when he became governor of Delaware in 1969, he passed legislation to protect the state's coastline, despite the fierce opposition of his former employer. Another of his opponents, Shell Oil, attempted to discredit him which only caused him to fight harder, and to proudly flaunt a frequently displayed lapel button "To hell with Shell."

When Peterson was hurried to the Nixon White House to be chastised for threatening the security and economic well-being of the United States by promoting his coastline protection act, he arrived equipped with dozens of convincing ways to promote economic development without harming the coastline. Even Nixon was impressed and appointed him to the Council on Environmental Quality.

He became President of the National Audubon Society from 1979 to 1985 and, as Martin indicates, "pushed Audubon well beyond its traditional mission of protecting wildlife into newer environmental battles like population control, energy policy, and curbing toxic chemicals." These other goals did not prevent him from remaining committed to the preservation of birds. Even before the became President of Audubon he had identified nearly 1000 different kinds of birds. It was a lifelong passion, second only perhaps to his commitment to environmental quality. This country owes a great debt to people like Russell W. Peterson. His passing on Monday gives us an opportunity to remember and to express our heartfelt thanks.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Deficits in the Arab World

In his February 23rd New York Times column, Thomas Friedman refers to a 2002 United Nations report about economic development in the Arab World. He says that the report cites three serious deficits that threaten human development in Arab countries. The deficits include: a deficit of freedom, a deficit of knowledge, and a deficit of women's empowerment. Anyone, as it turns out, can access this report. It is easily available on the Web. And, let me emphasize, that when you actually read this report it is obvious from the start that all three of these deficits are clearly identified by the authors as critical.

Yet, in an article by John Cassidy in this week's New Yorker, the same report is mentioned without reference to the third deficit - the stark absence of women's empowerment. Why do you suppose that is? Well, for one thing, to mention disempowered women might undermine his overall argument that Islam as a religion is not responsible for the underdevelopment of Arab economies. If you take female disempowerment seriously and consider its connection to economic development, you might conclude that excluding half of the population from most professions is a decided handicap. And it isn't hard to attribute the low status of women in these countries to the dictates of organized religion. To put it another way, to even mention the status of women in an article about the economic underdevelopment of Arab countries immediately casts suspicion on religion as one of the culprits.

But somehow I think there is something else going on and this something else may be the greatest threat of all to world-wide economic development. And that is simply that women still don't count. Many economists, like Mr. Cassidy, simply don't take them seriously when it comes to the interconnected issues of economic and human development. And yet can anyone really doubt that without women being granted full freedoms to express themselves, to get an education, and to pursue economic well-being that sustained progress is possible? Women are the key to the future and until they have the freedoms both Friedman and Cassidy talk about, the rest of us will suffer.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Sidney Flores, Good Samaritan

"Sidney is never looking for anything in return. His work is based on all goodness." That's how Lieutenant Edward Gonzalez characterizes Sidney Flores, a resident of the Mount Eden section of the Bronx, in a portrait of Mr. Flores by Noah Rosenberg in the February 22, 2011 issue of the New York Times. Described by others as Mount Eden's unofficial mayor, Mr. Flores sees himself as the "eyes and ears" of his community. A long-time employee at Bronx-Lebanon Hospital, Mr. Flores awoke to the extent of his neighborhood's need sometime in 2004 and ever since has been devoting long stretches of his nights and weekends to caring for the community that he loves.

"This life isn't just about you. It's about reaching out to other people as well," Mr. Flores insists. In his own persistent way, he reaches out by reporting a dangerous pothole here or by bringing attention to an abandoned vehicle there. He patrols his neighborhood with unparalleled vigilance not because he wants to be praised or to be recognized by his neighbors, but because, as Mr. Flores himself observes, "there's work to be done...[and] quality-of-life issues that are going unseen, unreported."

As Noah Rosenberg reports in his article, Mr. Flores is most proud of his grass-roots petition to help clean up a playground next to his apartment building. Once contaminated by drug pushers and pimps, the playground has become a safe place for children in a community that has progressively become more livable thanks to the efforts of people like Mr. Flores.

Unmarried and living alone in a 2-bedroom apartment in Mount Eden, Mr. Flores's relentless monitoring of his community's well-being has taken a toll on his relationships and private life, and there are some in the community who question the motives of someone so willing to make such personal sacrifices. But Mr. Flores seems to have few doubts that he is doing the right thing for himself and his community. What he wants more than anything is to make a difference and to help his neighborhood rise above the neglect it has suffered. As one community member put it, "he's out there evenings, nighttime, he probably has a police radio in his bed." As Noah Rosenberg wryly concludes in his article about Sidney Flores, that turns out to be exactly the case.

Most of us don't have the time or the resources to emulate Mr. Flores, but we can take inspiration from him and find small, simple ways to pay greater attention to those most in need in our communities. Now, more than ever, we need that. Mr. Flores's superb example can provide us with the impetus to begin.

Monday, February 21, 2011

A New Blog

My previous blog - The Third New York - focused on the fact that in May of 2008 I moved to New York City and developed a settler's passion for this city's endless attractions. This one - beginning today - February 21, 2011 - takes up a lifelong passion for the New York Times and turns that passion into a blog about how one New Yorker reads and is influenced by the so-called Paper of Record. I love reading the Times; it is a habit I cannot give up. In fact, I love it so much, I am thinking of making the Times my main text for a course I will teach at Wagner College in the Fall. But more about that later.

For now, I just want to say that the chart that Charles Blow presented on Saturday's Op-Ed page is, for me, this weekend's irresistible piece. It shows the US as third from the bottom among 33 countries on the Gini Index of Income Inequality and far, far above all the others in the number of prisoners per 100,000 citizens. Incidentally, this chart also shows the US as not particularly competitive when it comes to its level of democracy, with a ranking far below that of such countries as Australia, Canada, Norway, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and many others. There is very little good news on this chart, though our level of educational achievement is probably not as low as many would have expected. It is nevertheless pretty low. But the real story is how unequal and how punitive the US has become. This cannot be sustained over the long run. New leadership is needed to remind us that public investments in the future are imperative. At the very least, these investments must be structured to help equalize wealth and provide healthy outlets for our adjudicated youth. These concerns have become more important than ever and yet are ignored as never before. Therein lies disaster. Our best hope is that the American people will come to their senses and insist that these critical public investments be initiated without further delay.