Opinion

The Great Debate

Self Help is no help for inequality

For all the howls of rage from plutocrats like Tom Perkins and Ken Langone over possible tax rate increases, there has been relatively little public anger about the increasing wealth disparity in the United States — especially compared to the past.

During the Progressive era in the early 20th century and the Great Depression, we saw violent strikes and marches on Washington. These days, we have an army of sometimes-intemperate bloggers and a labor movement so bereft the United Auto Workers union recently failed to mobilize workers in a Volkswagen factory in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Occupy Wall Street, meanwhile, is now a distant memory, even as more than half of all Americans say they believe the nation remains in an economic recession.

So what changed? Kathleen Geier speculates in the Washington Monthly that the mainstream media no longer reflects the values of the working class. That’s true, but it’s more complicated than that. In fact, the media reflects our values all too well.

We’re a nation founded on the Protestant work ethic. Our forefathers came to America with the idea that diligent efforts and thrift demonstrated both godliness and virtue — and would result in worldly success.

The self-help industry is the modern secular version of our grounding myth. It’s a $10 billion annual business that sells its services by claiming there is almost no problem — from weight loss to financial struggles — that can’t be overcome with grit, determination and willpower.

In defense of the NCAA

As the annual March Madness basketball tournament returns, so does our collective ambivalence toward college sports operated by the NCAA. Many find it outrageous that with so much money at stake, the players aren’t paid.

This debate normally leads to two different solutions: either pay student-athletes and acknowledge their true status as university employees, or focus on universities’ true purpose — education — and only admit academically qualified students, effectively ending Division I college sports as we know it. Supporters of the latter argue we should drop the charade that these players are amateurs, and replace the NCAA with a minor league for football and basketball, where players are paid.

From an economic perspective, however, the current system is a better alternative for most athletes. The NCAA college-athlete model, where pay consists largely of scholarships, is a good one because it overcomes a market failure that would arise if all promising high school athletes went straight to the minor leagues. Replacing the NCAA with a pay-for-play system is not the answer. Instead, we should embrace the model we have and adjust it to serve the majority of athletes.

Combatting TB 2.0

Earlier this month, health officials in Los Angeles confirmed they are treating a patient for extensively drug resistant tuberculosis — a deadly form that does not respond to most of the antibiotics. The United States is one of 100 countries that have reported cases of “XDR-TB” since it was discovered in South Africa less than a decade ago.

Congress is holding public briefings Tuesday and Wednesday to look into the threat posed by tuberculosis, seeking expert recommendations to help develop a U.S. response. To be effective, public health efforts must adapt to the ways TB is evolving.

Tuberculosis is often described as an “ancient” malady, evident in Egyptian mummies. But today’s tuberculosis epidemic, which kills around 1.3 million people a year, is unlike its predecessors genetically, clinically and epidemiologically. Defeating TB 2.0 will require innovative approaches designed to fight this modern epidemic.

Why corporations don’t deserve religious freedom

On March 25 the Supreme Court will hear arguments in two cases, Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius, whose outcomes will decide whether corporations can exempt themselves from provisions of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), based on religious beliefs. The cases challenge a provision of the ACA that requires employer-provided insurance plans to include contraception coverage.

The rulings’ importance extends beyond the ACA, however. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood, its companion case, are also about Citizens United — which established that corporate personhood includes freedom of speech, exercised, in part, by giving money to political causes. Now the court will decide whether corporations have freedom of religion as well, and whether on the basis of those rights, corporations can deprive services to others.

The court should reject this dangerous assertion. Corporations exist as separate legal entities precisely to distinguish their activities from those of their owners. It is that separation that Hobby Lobby threatens to erase.

Nuclear terrorism prevention at a crossroads

The crisis in Ukraine underscores the prescience of the international efforts to eliminate all nuclear weapons and weapon-grade material there after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Their success lowered the danger of deadly nuclear assets falling into the wrong hands.

President Barack Obama and the more than 50 world leaders meeting at the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague on Monday need to show the same vision. They must seek to eliminate the persistent weak links in the global nuclear security system that can make dangerous materials vulnerable to nuclear terrorists.

There has been progress in securing nuclear materials because of the two previous nuclear summits. Removal of weapons-grade material, for example, has accelerated in 12 countries.  But, unfortunately, the earlier summits focused on what is acceptable by consensus rather than on what is needed to prevent nuclear terrorism.

Ukraine: U.S. hawks regain their voice

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression is having an unintended effect on U.S. politics. It is generating a backlash against America’s retreat from world leadership.

That retreat was itself a backlash against President George W. Bush’s overextension of U.S. military power in Iraq and Afghanistan. Putin’s actions spotlight the consequences of America’s world wariness. Internationalists in both parties are expressing alarm about the shrinking U.S. role around the globe.

Republican hawks, long on the defensive after the war in Iraq and the missing weapons of mass destruction, have found their voice again. They are attacking President Barack Obama as weak and feckless. Even some Democrats are calling for a tougher response.

How technology widens the gender gap

The Internet and mobile phones have transformed our connections to people around the world. This technology has also, however, led to a widening gender gap in poorer countries. For it is largely men who control the information revolution that helps to educate, inform and empower.

In low and middle-income countries, a woman is 21 percent less likely than a man to own a mobile phone, according to research done by GSMA. In Africa, women are 23 percent less likely than a man to own a cell phone. In the Middle East the figure is 24 percent and in South Asia, 37 percent,

The factors driving women’s lack of connectivity vary from community to community. But the end result is always the same: disempowerment.

Insider traders are still trying to get it right

Sylvester Stallone once told an interviewer about advice he got from Carl Icahn when they were discussing investments. “The dumbest guy on Wall Street is smarter than you,” Icahn warned him. “Keep your money in the bank.”

The stories behind the scores of insider trading convictions since 2007 make me think Icahn might have been wrong.

Three more Wall Street types were busted this week for running an insider trading scheme that spanned five years and involved over a dozen corporate secrets. Their modus operandi — passing information from lawyer to middleman to trader — was almost identical to the one used by Matthew Kluger, Kenneth Robinson, and Garrett Bauer, who were arrested in 2011.

The serious costs of weak CIA oversight

In her angry broadside at the CIA on the Senate floor last week, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman, said, “I have grave concerns that the CIA’s search … may have undermined the constitutional framework essential to effective oversight of intelligence activities or any other government function.”

She is right.

Congress has the constitutional authority to do robust oversight of executive branch activities.

Lost in the noise about who spied on whom in this continuing fight between the Senate Intelligence Committee and the CIA over release of a massive report on interrogations, is the history behind the skirmish.

Reaching for a deal on Crimea

There is a disturbing air of inevitability in Western capitals surrounding Russia’s annexation of Crimea. A growing consensus views this scenario as a rough analogy to  Moscow’s recognition of Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia after the 2008 war — perhaps more severe, but still manageable.

Such complacency is misplaced, however. The consequences of the annexation of Crimea are not manageable. The moral high ground we currently occupy isn’t worth it.

Despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s triumphalist speech on Tuesday, the United States and the European Union should not assume that Crimea is lost. Instead they should be working overtime to prevent annexation.

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