Opinion

The Great Debate

Think everything on a dollar menu costs a dollar? Think again.

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How expensive are those everyday low prices? How much do things really cost on that fast-food restaurant’s dollar menu? The answer is more than you think, but maybe not for the reason you think.

The Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP, the current name for food stamps) is often thought of as something for the unemployed, though nothing could be further from the truth. Actually, 73 percent of those enrolled in the country’s major public benefits programs are from working families, just stuck in jobs whose paychecks don’t cover life’s basic necessities.

The United States now has the highest proportion of low-wage workers in the developed world, most of whom receive only the minimum wage (the federal standard is $7.25 an hour) and typically are capped by their employers well below 40 hours a week, so they won’t qualify for benefits. Hard work doesn’t always pay off. The math: even full-time work at $7.25 an hour only adds up to $290 a week. How do you live on that?

You don’t. You turn to food stamps and other forms of public assistance to make up the gap between minimum wage and a living wage. Which is just what large minimum-wage employers count on you doing.

Fast food workers claim public assistance at more than twice the rate of other employed people; McDonald’s workers alone receive $1.2 billion in federal assistance each year. About one out of every three retail workers gets public assistance. After analyzing Medicaid data, the Democratically led House Committee on Education and the Workforce estimated a single 300-person Wal-Mart in Wisconsin costs taxpayers $5,815 per associate in public assistance paid. Overall, American taxpayers subsidize the minimum wage with $7 billion in public assistance, which is what makes it possible for huge companies to get away with paying people so little. Add in the taxes you’re paying, and there’s nothing on the dollar menu that actually costs only a dollar.

To keep grads solvent, take the middleman out of student loans

Occupy Wall Street demonstrators participating in a street-theater production wear signs around their neck representing their student debt during a protest against the rising national student debt in Union Square, in New York

The mounting student debt crisis could cause serious economic damage to the United States. Rising college costs and declining financial aid at both state and federal levels have significantly contributed to the problem. A good deal of responsibility, however, belongs to the financial institutions that service federal student loans, according to a new report.

Millions of students use loans underwritten by the Treasury Department and granted by the Department of Education to help make college a reality. Once the loan is approved, however, borrowers usually deal with third-party servicers — and that’s where the trouble often begins.

In 2010, the Education Department expanded its Direct Loan Program and contracted many for-profit financial institutions to service and administer the loans. Complaints to the department’s Office of Federal Student Aid jumped significantly.

Clashes with Russia point to globalization’s end

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As the European Union and the United States ramp up their sanctions on Russia, President Vladimir Putin’s plans for retaliation seem to include an attack on McDonald’s. There could not be a more powerful symbol that geopolitics is increasingly undoing the globalization of the world economy.

The burger chain was celebrated in the 1990s by the journalist Thomas Friedman’s “Golden Arches theory of conflict prevention,” which argued that the spread of McDonald’s around the world would bring an end to war. But almost 25 years after a McDonald’s restaurant opened in Moscow, it seems that deep interdependence has not ended conflict between great powers – it has merely provided a new battlefield for it.

As in any relationship that turns sour, many of the things that initially tie the parties together are now being used to drive them apart. For the past two decades we have heard that the world is becoming a global village because of the breadth and depth of its trading and investment links, its nascent global governance and the networks of the information age. But those forces for interdependence are degenerating into their opposite; we could call it the three faces of ‘splinterdependence’:

To combat Ebola, first build back trust in healthcare workers

Medical staff working with Medecins sans Frontieres prepare to bring food to patients kept in an isolation area at the MSF Ebola treatment centre in Kailahun

The worst-ever outbreak of Ebola is spreading out of control in Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and now Nigeria, where almost 700 people have already died from the virus. Healthcare workers caring for Ebola patients have themselves fallen victim to the disease, including two American physicians.

And, at its root, the size of this outbreak can be blamed on a lack of trust in healthcare workers.

Ebola is spread through direct contact with an infected person or their body fluids, which may include sweat, blood, urine, feces or vomit, making it difficult to contain outside of proper medical facilities.

Need to learn to launch a BUK missile quick? Look online.

A Buk M-23 air defence missile system is seen on display during the opening of the MAKS-2009 international air show in Zhukovsky outside Moscow

No one has admitted responsibility for firing the sophisticated missile that brought down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, killing 298 people over Ukraine on July 17. But untrained rebels could probably have done it with a little practice. There are even instructions online, making it possible for nearly anyone who comes into possession of one of these systems — anywhere in the world — to use it.

Washington and Kiev both blame Russian-backed separatists from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic for attacking the plane with a 9k37 BUK missile system. These rebels had bragged about possessing the weapon before the attack.

The BUK is in the upper tier of the world’s antiaircraft weapons. It’s considerably more advanced and has more complicated procedures to fire than point-and-shoot, shoulder-fired missiles. Its missiles can climb to an altitude of 46,000 feet at Mach 3 speeds, packing more than a 154-pound high-explosive warhead.

from Breakingviews:

Few people know who this man is, and he’s probably better off that way

By Rob Cox

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Quick, who’s the chief executive of MetLife? That the name Steve Kandarian doesn’t roll off the tongue for almost anyone who isn’t deeply steeped in the insurance business is probably a good thing for his shareholders. How he handles his company’s inevitable designation later this week as a systemic threat to the financial industry could change that. A Jamie Dimon-style public spat with regulators would be foolish. Better to speak softly, and keep the CEO’s relative anonymity intact.

It’s understandable that MetLife objects to being labeled a systemically important financial institution, or SIFI. At a minimum, it imposes a higher level of oversight from regulators. It also would probably force the insurer to submit to cumbersome stress tests. More ominously, it could require MetLife, with its $890 billion of assets, to set aside a lot more capital, potentially lowering returns or forcing it to exit certain businesses. The precise rules on how insurers will be treated haven’t been worked out, however.

Putin’s anti-American rhetoric now persuades his harshest critics

People I know in Russia, members of the intelligentsia and professionals who have long been critical of President Vladimir Putin’s anti-Western stance, have suddenly turned into America-bashers. Many have been swept away by Putin’s arguments that the United States, not the Kremlin, is destabilizing Ukraine.

Since the current crisis broke in Ukraine over its efforts to side with the European Union rather than Russia, Putin has been at war with the United States. He seems intent on proving that a U.S.-centric world order is over and that Europe should decide on its own what its relations with Russia will be.

Putin’s big lie reached fever pitch after Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 went down over eastern Ukraine on July 17. Putin swiftly placed the blame on the Kiev government and its reputed U.S. masters — not even bothering to express proper condolences about the dead.

What do John Oliver, Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock have in common? Hard truths.

 Comedian John Oliver poses for photographers backstage during the 41st International Emmy Awards in New York

Until a few weeks ago, I’d met very few Americans who could name the prime minister of my homeland, Australia. But that was before John Oliver’s show Last Week Tonight, on HBO, ran a short segment about him. Suddenly, Americans I met were joking about Tony Abbott, the social conservative best known for being photographed in Speedos and telling people to vote for him because his daughters are so good-looking. Oliver’s recurring segment, “Other Countries’ Presidents of the United States,” profiles various world leaders — France’s François Hollande has also received the Oliver treatment — and handles them with the same comic contempt with which the show treats American politicians.

Oliver spent many years as a correspondent on Comedy’s Central’s The Daily Show before moving to HBO to host Last Week Tonight, which premiered in April. In addition to informing the American viewing public about the most laughable parts of Australian politics, the show is doing something truly remarkable: Making comedy out of some of the darkest and dullest issues in American and global politics.

Oliver’s addition to the news-comedy landscape demonstrates the value of a half-American’s perspective on American politics and culture. He was born and grew up in Britain, moved to the United States as an adult, and has a strong Birmingham accent. He has been living here for almost a decade, is now married to an American, and has become a citizen. He is at once an outsider and an insider, a powerful position from which to critique and mock the United States.

from Stories I’d like to see:

The Russian sanctions information gap

Emergencies Ministry member walks at the site of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash near the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region

There are so many gaps in the reporting about the effort to use economic sanctions against Russia to get President Vladimir Putin to pull back support for the Ukraine separatists that it makes sense to devote my whole column this week to listing them.

Of course, it’s a lot easier to identify the gaps than to do the reporting to fill them. Still, many are so obvious that it suggests that for all the resources spent on getting great video of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crash site, interviews with the victims’ families and reports from the war front in eastern Ukraine -- all important stories -- there is more heat than light being produced when it comes to the most critical, long-term question related to the Ukrainian conflict: If economic sanctions are the global economy’s modern substitute for using military force in repelling aggression, how is that playing out in the first test of that strategy against a global economic player like Russia?

The Dutch:

For starters, we need to see some reporting from the Netherlands, a country that, as we have been repeatedly reminded, lost a higher proportion of its population in the missile attack on the Malaysian airliner that left from the country’s flagship airport than America lost in the September 11 attacks.

CDC mishaps show live flu viruses are nothing to play with

ISRAELI MEDICAL PERSONNEL PREPARE SMALLPOX VACCINE IN JERUSALEM.

Over the past two months, a series of mishaps at the CDC and NIH — involving mishandled anthrax, mislabeled influenza and misplaced smallpox — has alarmed the scientific community. The common theme surrounding all of them is human error.

In June as many as 75 workers were exposed to live anthrax when researchers, failed to properly verify that anthrax spores were sterilized before moving them out of the high-level biosafety laboratory. In early July, NIH researchers discovered previously unknown stores of live smallpox at the NIH and transported them to the CDC for secure storage. Around the same time, the CDC disclosed that last March, several vials of supposedly mild influenza had been cross-contaminated with the highly lethal H5N1 strain of bird flu, exposing researchers to unanticipated risk of infection. A senior-level CDC director has now resigned and a major review of biosafety security protocols at the CDC and NIH is currently underway — but more should be done.

These mishaps show why we need to stop conducting certain types of research on strains of flu virus that could cause worldwide epidemics, or pandemics. In these types of research — which involve live, intact viruses that can spread from person to person — the risks outweigh the benefits. The scientists who are investigating these strains hope to develop vaccines capable of preventing the spread of the viruses. But it’s possible that they could accidentally cause what they are trying to prevent. Additionally, actively trying to make these types of flu more dangerous, in order to develop vaccines against a pandemic virus, and publishing the recipes provides a handbook for potential bio terrorists who might create and release the viruses.

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