Sunday, March 20, 2011

My Second Report: Parent and Child Insurance

My second report was released in early February, but I never remembered to post it. It looks at the association between a parent's health insurance and their child's insurance, their use of health care services, and the quality of care the child receives. It is available at:

I really enjoyed working on this report and think it turned out really well. It was nice to work on something where I had some expertise on the subject matter. As nerdy as it sounds, it was also nice to do some advanced statistical analysis. I definitely look forward to working on more Medicaid/CHIP projects.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Human Worth: A Novel Concept

One of the most enjoyable aspects of my graduate work was engaging with the capability approach, a relatively new theory on well-being. The approach grew out of the work of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum and engages with both issues of international development as well as governance more generally. Most books and articles on the capability approach have been directed to an audience with some familiarity with international development and/or political and social theory. However, Martha Nussbaum's new book, Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach, does an excellent job providing an engaging introduction to the capability approach.

Having read much of the detailed work on the capability approach, I was afraid Nussbaum's book would simply rehash ideas from previous works. Happily, I was quite wrong. The book lays out the capability approach in a very clear and concise way. It also provides a good discussion of the growing diversity within the capability approach itself as more people, particularly those with different backgrounds, engage with it and take the capability approach in different theoretical and empirical directions.

Despite it being early in the year, I can certainly say that Creating Capabilities will have a spot on my top ten books of 2011.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Frayed Social Safety Net

For some, the recent election is indicative of the confusion many Americans feel about government. On one hand, Americans who voted were most concerned about jobs and the economy. On the other, the big gains for Republicans are unlikely to lead to policy changes that would either stimulate the economy or help those in most need of assistance due to their continued joblessness.

Repairing the U.S. Social Safety Net by Martha Burt and Demetra Nightingale does an excellent job highlighting the current state of U.S. social safety net policy, as well as its origins. It also does a nice job highlighting that, despite complaints about how large it is, the U.S. social safety net is woefully inadequate when it comes to supporting the American people. The authors note that in comparison to other countries, U.S. social indicators (such a infant mortality rate, poverty rates, and housing needs) are much worse, in large part due to our weak social safety net.

The book is an approachable and engaging discussion of key issues of public policy and well worth a read.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Everything in A Single Moment (Buddhism: A Series, Part 8)

I really enjoyed The Universe in a Single Atom by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. It was interesting to hear his take on physics, based on his interactions with scientists from around the world. Some interesting quotes.

"Although Buddhism has come to evolve as a religion with a characteristic body of scriptures and rituals, strictly speaking, in Buddhism scriptural authority cannot outweigh an understanding based on reason and experience. In fact the Buddha himself, in a famous statement, undermines the scriptural authority of his own when he exhorts his followers not to accept the validity of his teachings simply on the basis of reverence to him. Just as a seasoned goldsmith would test the purity of his gold through a meticulous process of examination, the Buddha advises that people should test the truth of what he has said through reasoned examination and personal experiment."

"In essence, Nagarjuna and Chandrakirti are suggesting this: when we relate to the empirical world of experience, so long as we do not invest things with independent, intrinsic existence, notions of causation, identity, and difference, and the principles of logic will continue to remain tenable. However, their validity is limited to the relative framework of conventional truth. Seeking to ground notions such as identity, existence, and causation in an objective, independent existence is transgressing the bounds of logic, language, and convention. We do not need to postulate the objective, independent existence of things, since we can accord robust, non-arbitrary reality to things and events that not only support everyday functions but also provide a firm basis for ethics and spiritual activity. The world, according to the philosophy of emptiness, is constituted by a web of dependently originating and interconnected realities, within which dependently originated causes give rise to dependently originated consequences according to dependently originating laws of causality. What we do and think in our own lives, then, becomes of extreme importance as it affects everything we're connected to."

"The theory of karma is of signal importance in Buddhist thought but is easily misrepresented. Literally, karma means "action" and refers to the intentional acts of sentient beings. Such acts may be physical, verbal, or mental--even just thoughts or feelings--all of which have impacts upon the psyche of an individual, no matter how minute. Intentions result in acts, which result in effects that condition the mind toward certain traits and propensities, all of which may give rise to further intentions and actions. The entire process is seen as an endless self-perpetuating dynamic. The chain reaction of interlocking causes and effects operates not only in individuals but also for groups and societies, not just in one lifetime but across many lifetimes.

When we use the term karma, we may refer both to specific and individual acts and to the whole principle of such causation. In Buddhism, this karmic causality is seen as a fundamental natural process and not as any kind of divine mechanism or working out of a preordained design. Apart from the karma of individual sentient beings, whether it is collective of personal, it is entirely erroneous to think of karma as some transcendental unitary entity that acts like a god in a theistic system or a determinist law by which a person's life is fated."

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

No Better Time Than the Present

The surprising release of Aung San Suu Kyi reminded me of a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.
The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice
At times I am skeptical of the idea expressed in this quote. However, moments like this make you at least hopeful that it could be true. We also recently watched Burma VJ, a great documentary about the 2007 protests against the military junta in Burma. The documentary focused on a small group of journalists that continually risked their lives to capture and share photos and videos of what was going on in Burma. Their struggle to tell the story of the Burmese people highlighted the importance of an engaged citizenry. The excitement in their voices as mass crowds turned out to support the marching Buddhist monks was infectious.

Such moments are rare in U.S. politics and it can be easy to become apathetic and cynical about democracy and our place in it. However, we need to recognize that, around the world, billions of people are struggling for their right to representation. Democracy cannot function well without constant support and engagement with the people. Even small steps, like voting, help ensure the accountability of your government. And if you feel like your vote doesn't count, think back to the constant struggles throughout U.S. history to extend the vote to different groups. If everyone who thought their vote didn't matter actually voted...well, lets just say it would count.

Monday, November 1, 2010

On Suffering (Buddhism: A Series, Part 7)

I would like to extend my previous discussion on causing suffering. From my background in sociology, I am acutely aware of the impact of our individual actions and how, in the aggregate, they can have serious widespread consequences. For example, most people believe that they are ethical in that they take no specific actions that directly harm others. By taking a step back we can begin to see how our actions (or inaction) can, even indirectly, contribute to the suffering of others. Taking steps to limit these negative effects can serve to inspire others but it can also serve to ease our own suffering. This higher idea of focusing on the wellbeing of others (even to the detriment of oneself) is the focus of The Way of The Bodhisattva by Shantideva. It is a historical text from 8th century CE. It is written in a stanzas and most translations are also accompanied by notes and interpretation.

Some key stanzas:

To cover all the earth with sheets of hide --
Where could such amount of skin be found
But simply wrap some leather round your feet,
And it's as if the whole earth had been covered!

When the urge arises in the mind
To feelings of desire or wrathful hate,
Do not act! Be silent, do not speak!
And like a log of wood be sure to stay.

Thus, when enemies or friends
Are seen to act improperly,
Be calm and call to mind
That everything arises from conditions.

If even this you do not want for beings,
How could you want buddhahood for them?
And how can anyone have bodhichitta
And resent the good that others have?

If someone else receives a gift,
Or if that gift stays in the benefactor's house,
In neither case will it be yours--
So, given or withheld, why is it your concern?"

Strive at first to meditate
Upon the sameness of yourself and others.
In joy and sorrow all are equal.
Thus be guardian of all, as of yourself.

Since I and other beings both,
In fleeing suffering, are equal and alike,
What difference is there to distinguish us,
That I should save myself and not the other?

Seeing then the faults that come from cherishing myself,
The oceanic qualities that come from loving others,
I shall lay aside all love of self
And gain the habit of adopting others."

Thus when I work for others' sake,
No reason can there be for boasting or amazement.
For it is just as when I feed myself--
I don't expect to be rewarded.

Just as I defend myself, therefore,
From all unpleasant happenings however small,
Likewise I shall act for others' sake
To guard and to protect them with compassion."

All the joy the world contains
Has come through wishing happiness for others.
All the misery the world contains
Has come through wanting pleasure for oneself.

Americans, more so than other inhabitants of high-income countries, often take a view that we are all independent and responsible for only ourselves. Until we see that we are all in this together, it will be difficult to address our biggest problems.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Just Be Ordinary (Buddhism: A Series, Part 6)

In Nothing To Do: Nowhere To Go, Thich Nhat Hanh presents and comments on the teachings of Master Linji, a 9th century Zen master. Linji's teachings are profound in that they are so relevant to the harried lives we live today.

One section that particularly resonated with me highlights a teaching where Master Linji relates stories of two people who are trapped. The first stands on the peak of a lone mountain with no other peaks to leap to. The second stands at a crossroads, confused about which direction to take. The teachings highlight that if we can't succeed in such a moment, we won't succeed in the next. That if we can't be happy on that lone peak, we won't be happy were we to reach the valley below.

Another section that really rang true for me focused on being happy with being ordinary. Linji spoke of being a "businessless" person who strives to be only what they are -- living in a joyful and relaxed way, content with yourself. Instead of wishing we were wealthy, famous, or respected, we should focus on being content with the present moment. Much of what we do is in hopes of some sort of recognition, approval, or effect. For Master Linji this would be a mistake. Instead, it would be better to dwell in the present moment and not get caught up in the desire to leave your mark or receive the praise of others.