Opinion

The Great Debate

ENDA: Next step forward in march for equality

Hanging in my office is the vote tally for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, sent to me by Senator Edward Kennedy soon after September 10, 1996. That day, I had watched from the Senate gallery as a bill to protect gay and lesbian workers from on-the-job discrimination based on their sexual orientation failed to pass by one vote.

Since that time, we have seen extraordinary movement forward on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) — in public opinion and in the law of the land. We can judge how much on Thursday, when the Senate is again due to vote on a bill that prohibits job discrimination because of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Recent victories in the march toward equality have been historic. This summer, for example, the Supreme Court struck down key segments of the Defense of Marriage Act, which I had seen voted into law 85-14 just hours before ENDA failed. In 2010, Congress passed the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, which President Barack Obama signed.

Yet our work is far from over. Protecting America’s LGBT veterans and current military members is an essential measure of the progress of our nation — and one that federal law has ignored for too long. Thursday in the Senate, we have the opportunity to make meaningful progress by passing ENDA.

Most Americans — 90 percent in fact  – believe that this non-discrimination act is already the law. Majorities in every state support it. Democrats, Independents and Republicans alike back ENDA by strong majorities. So it was in the months before the Don’t Ask Don’t  Tell was repealed — 78 percent of Americans supported that move toward equality and fairness.

Should we believe more in Big Data or in magic?

One year I spent a lot of time with professional magicians. A few showed me the secrets to their tricks. Whenever they did, the skill and dexterity required for sleight-of-hand struck me as far more impressive than the idea that magic had been performed. It reminded me of my own experience with statistics.

Data analysis is very similar to performing magic. With great skill you can pull things together and create the perception of surprising relationships. Often the magic is getting people to look at one thing, when they should be seeing another. Similarly with statistics, it’s often not the correlation that’s interesting but what you did to find it.

This is important to keep in mind as the world embarks on the big data revolution. Big data is very large data sets, collected by the government, corporations, and institutions, becoming more available. Using this data, firms and policymakers can figure out what programs work (like health treatments, and which people respond to government incentives) and what consumers want. The deluge of information is expected to increase efficiency and lower prices. In a recent report, the McKinsey Global Institute encourages the increased availability of big data. It estimates that greater access to big data has the potential to create $3 trillion a year in value.

Not ‘court-packing,’ GOP’s aim is ‘court-shrinking’

The party that brought you “death panels” and “socialized medicine” has rolled out another term — carefully selected, like the others, for its power to freak people out. “Court-packing” now joins a Republican rogue’s gallery of poll-tested epithets.

Of course, “court-packing” is not a new term, and its menacing overtone is not a recent discovery. “There is a good deal of prejudice against ‘packing the court,’” observed Homer Cummings, the U.S. attorney general, in 1936, on the eve of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s failed attempt to do just that — to tip the Supreme Court’s balance by increasing the number of seats and filling them with New Dealers. Cummings, who sold the idea to FDR, hoped Americans would not be “frightened by a phrase.”

But they were. And today’s GOP is betting they still are. Hence the resort to a term that has no valid application to the matter at hand: President Barack Obama’s determination to fill the three vacant seats on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

Why the U.S. must lead on Disabilities Treaty

In an HIV clinic in Africa, a man born deaf holds a single sheet of paper with a plus sign. He looks for help, but no one at the clinic speaks sign language. In fact, the staff doesn’t seem interested in helping him at all.

He returns to his plus sign. These are his test results. They dictate he should start antiretroviral drugs immediately and should also make changes in his sexual habits. But he doesn’t know this. He leaves the clinic concluding that the plus sign must mean he’s okay, that everything is just fine.

This scenario seems shocking. Yet it continues to play out around the world. The Senate will tackle this issue at the November 5th hearings on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) — the Disabilities Treaty.

U.S. Mideast policy: Keeping our friends closer

It is time for Washington to change the parameters of the debate on its foreign policy toward the greater Middle East. It is not a choice between human rights and security — rather, the two goals should go hand in hand.

The United States does not need to lose its longtime allies in the Middle East and beyond in order to promote human rights and democracy. In fact, U.S. allies will be more likely to undertake political reform if they feel that Washington is a close partner.

A number of U.S. allies in the Middle East have recently expressed concern regarding Washington’s frequent flips in policies toward the region. The Obama administration’s policy toward the challenges arising from the Middle East has indeed been a series of zigzags: bold moves and initiatives, accompanied by retreats and withdrawals.

Food fight: Vote on GMOs could alter U.S. food system

The citizens in Washington state are about to make a decision that could have a big impact across the nation.

They will be voting Tuesday on Initiative 522, which would require labeling of all genetically modified (GM) foods on state supermarket shelves by 2015. If early surveys are any indication, voters there may be about to deliver the food industry a major defeat. Two-thirds of Washingtonians told pollsters last month that they will vote yes on Initiative 522, though Reuters reports that more recent surveys have the gap closing considerably.

Washington, a progressive state that has been a pioneer in legalizing marijuana and same-sex marriage, may become the first in the nation to require that controversial genetically modified foods be labeled.

A journalistic revolution

Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who revealed National Security Agency surveillance leaks from former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, dueled this week with former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller over objectivity in journalism. Keller argued that impartiality forces a journalist to test all assumptions. Greenwald, however, countered that impartiality didn’t test assumptions as much as confer authority to each of them. He explained that his new reporting venture, a website funded by eBay co-founder Pierre Omidyar, would treat official pronouncements with skepticism.

But while this argument has been taking up a lot of the journalistic oxygen, Paul Thornton, head of the Los Angeles Times letters to the editor section, weighed in recently with a potentially more significant position. Thornton held brief for neither impartiality nor skepticism, but rather for a belief that facts matter — that they can lead to conclusions whether you happen to like those conclusions or not.

Thornton admitted that in his section, he does not run letters claiming there is no human source to global climate warming. Why don’t they run? Because, according to Thornton, “Saying ‘There’s no sign humans have caused climate change’ is not stating an opinion, it’s asserting a factual inaccuracy.”

Why Scandinavian women make the rest of the world jealous

Icelanders are among the happiest and healthiest people on Earth. They publish more books per capita than any other country, and they have more artists. They boast the most prevalent belief in evolution — and elves, too. Iceland is the world’s most peaceful nation (the cops don’t even carry guns), and the best place for kids. Oh, and they had a lesbian head of state, the world’s first. Granted, the national dish is putrefied shark meat, but you can’t have everything.

Iceland is also the best place to have a uterus, according to the folks at the World Economic Forum. The Global Gender Gap Report ranks countries based on where women have the most equal access to education and healthcare, and where they can participate most fully in the country’s political and economic life.

According to the 2013 report, Icelandic women pretty much have it all. Their sisters in Finland, Norway, and Sweden have it pretty good, too: those countries came in second, third and fourth, respectively. Denmark is not far behind at number seven.

Could entrepreneurship jump-start Greece’s economy?

ATHENS, GREECE — Evgenia Papadopoulou runs a Pilates studio in downtown Athens, and over the past three years she has cut her staff from seven to three. Business is down 40 percent, while her studio’s taxes, insurance and electricity costs have increased by as much as 12 percent.

Even so, Papadopoulou feels lucky to be working — and to have started her business almost two decades ago, when bank loans were common and Athenians had steady incomes. Today’s entrepreneurs face a starker climate. Greece is a country in crisis, with unemployment at 27.9 percent – a staggering 58.8 percent among the country’s youth. Through June Greece’s economy declined for the twentieth straight quarter, with GDP shrinking by 4.6 percent. Efforts to pay down Greece’s mountain of debt — including tax hikes, and cuts to wages and pensions — have not had their desired effect, lowering household income and deepening the recession instead.

Could Greece turn its dismal economy around through entrepreneurship? Structural challenges make Greece a notoriously difficult country for entrepreneurs. It ranks 78th in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business list, out of 185 countries. Banks don’t give loans. Until recently, angel investors were nonexistent. Venture capital investment as a percent of GDP is essentially zero, compared to .17 in the United States and .04 in Britain. Taxation levels change constantly. Because Greece lacks a formal land registry, entrepreneurs who want to open a hotel or restaurant worry that others will challenge their land rights. Intellectual property law is complicated and expensive. Greece spends a lower percent of its GDP on education than any other EU country, and many graduates feel unprepared for careers in business.

Why low social status can be bad for your health

Inequality is at an all-time high in America. Since the 2008 crash, recent IRS figures show, the wealth of the top 1 percent grew 31 percent while the rest of American incomes grew by less than 1 percent. But although it might appear that income disparities affect only the poor and have primarily an economic impact, dozens of studies now link extreme inequality with poor health and shorter lives, across the entire socioeconomic spectrum.

Overall, the United States has among the largest social and economic inequalities of any rich country. Japan and the Scandinavian countries have the smallest. The more equal countries also have the longest life expectancies — and the richest American men only have the life expectancy of an average Japanese man, which is 4.5 years longer than the U.S. average, according to Sir Michael Marmot, a leading researcher on inequality and professor of epidemiology at University College London. He notes that residents of affluent suburban Maryland live, on average, 17 years longer than people in inner city Washington, D.C.

Marmot’s own research focuses on the UK, where a national healthcare system provides all socioeconomic classes with quality care. He has compared low- and high- ranking British civil servants over the course of their lives on a variety of health measures, ranging from cancer to obesity to alcohol addiction. For virtually all conditions except breast and prostate cancer (it is not clear why these are exceptions), Marmot found that those at the bottom are at dramatically greater risk, with overall mortality up to three times higher, depending on the specific condition. Increased levels of unhealthy behavior among the less-affluent — like smoking — did not account for all of the differences. Also, even the lowest-ranked civil servants in Marmot’s research were employed, meaning that those on bottom rungs weren’t impoverished, simply less well-off.

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