Opinion

The Great Debate

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.

There are nearly 1 billion people worldwide living with a disability. For the sake of those individuals, the United States joined 158 other countries in signing the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2009. The Disabilities Treaty was drafted to promote and protect the human rights and fundamental freedoms of persons with disabilities — modeled on our own Americans with Disabilities Act, but on a global scale.

Yet the Senate failed to ratify the United Nations treaty last December. As is often the case, a bit of politics and a bit of misinformation ruled the day.

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.

How to build on the Bloomberg legacy

New York City is engaged in a highly contentious general election campaign for mayor. One of the fascinating turns in this race is how both candidates have chosen to distance themselves from the city’s current mayor, Michael Bloomberg. Bill de Blasio, the Democratic party candidate, has articulated a progressive agenda that might sound to some New Yorkers like 1960s liberalism. Echoing John Lindsay’s aspirational New York, de Blasio argues that the city must refocus public policy in support of the American Dream. Government continues to be important in de Blasio’s New York, but it must change its focus from supporting the wealthy to doing more for its poor and middle-class population.

Joe Lhota, the Republican candidate who served as Deputy Mayor during the Rudy Giuliani administration, is too smart to run a campaign on his former boss’ coattails. After all, Democrats have a 6 to 1 registration advantage in New York City, so the simple math dictates that he needs Democrats and independent voters to win the mayoralty. So, Lhota’s message is dark: New York’s economic health and civic peace is fragile and we can’t revert to those “bad old days” of high crime, economic decline, middle-class flight and a broken city government. Lhota also promises to cut taxes.

While it is not surprising that the campaign rhetoric often sounds anti-Bloomberg, the next mayor must understand that at this critical moment in the city’s history, our future will depend on continuing much of Bloomberg’s successful policies. I say this because there are an extraordinary number of changes that Bloomberg put into place that are vital for both the future economic well-being of the city, and for achieving the policy goals that both de Blasio and Lhota are advocating.

Democrats: It’s the states, stupid (Part 2)

ILLUSTRATION: Matt Mahurin

Since the government shutdown, public opinion of the Republican Party has hit a new low. Yet the Democrats might not be able to gain from it. Despite the GOP’s fall from grace — and even if they suffer a lower vote count in the 2014 midterm elections — the Republicans might still control the House of Representatives and many state legislatures after the polls close.

Our Constitution is unique in that it gives state legislatures virtually complete control over how we elect the president and Congress. In other democracies, the national government runs elections, usually through an impartial commission. Our system, however, lets the party that controls the state legislatures manipulate election rules to help itself and harm its opponents in both the state and House races.

Realizing this, powerful Republican leaders, including former Bush White House Counselor Ed Gillespie and Senior Adviser Karl Rove decided in 2009 to concentrate on winning control of the state legislatures. Through a combination of money, luck and skill, in 2010 the Republicans captured almost a majority of the state legislatures, and then added a few more in 2012. This has given them the power not only to shape the electoral rules and control the House, but also to pass other laws that shape many aspects of our lives.

What about Social Security’s rollout?

After the nation’s major social program finally became law, critics regularly blamed it for a slowing economy and a swelling federal bureaucracy. Fierce congressional opposition led to the formation of a blue-ribbon panel to overhaul the measure. Obamacare in 2013? Not quite. It was Social Security in 1937.

Meanwhile, after enrollment began for the far-reaching health insurance initiative, administrators wrestled with myriad, unexpected problems. Implementation, according to the man who oversaw the introduction of Medicare in 1965, “took the form of a whole year of consultation with literally hundreds of people in identified areas of concern.”

The tortuous, often controversial implementation of both Medicare and Social Security serves as an early template for the current controversies over the Obamacare rollout. The ultimate success of those social programs ought to calm the overheated atmosphere surrounding the first days of enrollment for the Affordable Care Act.

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