Wednesday, December 24, 2008


It is an interesting time to be in Washington D.C., particularly working on issues of health and health care. I look forward to seeing how things play out with so much talk of health reform going around. I recently picked up a few books and reread some old ones that I think help create a good foundation of knowledge about the challenges and possibilities for health reforms in the coming years. I wanted to highlight four that I think are great reads:

The first and probably most approachable book is Critical: What We Can Do About the Health-Care Crisis by Senator Tom Daschle (with Greenberger and Lambrew). This book is a good primer for the upcoming health care debate, and is extremely timely (making it somewhat hard to find at a bookstore...) given that Daschle will likely be the next head of the Department of Health and Human Services. Daschle, an experienced former Senator, brings a unique perspective to the discussion and highlights the plight of real Americans using poignant and illuminating examples from people he has interacted with during his long career of public service. The book does a good job providing a clear overview of what must be taken into account and what reforms should be made. It is written in a very engaging manner and would be a great read for anyone even vaguely interested in one of the possibly largest overhauls to the U.S. government in history.

The second book is Health Care at Risk: A Critique of the Consumer-Driven Movement by Timothy Jost. Jost is a law professor but the book reads more like a thriller (well, maybe not for most people...). He paints a clear picture of the rise of the consumer-driven health movement and highlights its intellectual as well as political origins. While it would seem that consumer-driven health would be the focus of the book, in fact, that is only one part of the overall story. Jost constructs the most clear and concise narrative I have found about the rise of the current U.S. health care system and how truly exceptional (not in a good way, by most accounts) the American system is. He does a good job identifying the common conceptions that people have about health care and the possible solutions. His analysis questions many of these assumptions and forces us to think critically about the goals of health care and what those goals would mean for reforms.

The third book is Governing Health: The Politics of Health Policy by Weissert and Weissert. The book is the best source I have seen that lays out the different actors and interests that play a role in the health care debate. Each of the key players (Congress, the President, interest groups, etc.) is explored at length, including their often contradictory and nuanced stances and perceived interests. Written by two political scientists, the book provides an excellent overview of the factors that are likely to come into play during any health care debate, particularly one that would entail wide-ranging reforms to the system. The actual policy process is also highlighted, something that is often discounted when people talk about what should be done when it comes to health. Taking into account the feasibility of particular reforms will be key for the new administration and any advocates of reform.

The final book is Why Are Some People Health and Others Not? The Determinants of Health of Populations, edited by Evans, Barer, and Marmor. This classic book is a personal favorite. It expands the notions of health away from just health care by examining the importance of how society is structured and its implications for health. The book highlights growing congruence among a number of fields that identify health issues that cannot be explained simply by differences in care or sanitation or wealth. It highlights the importance of factors like hierarchy, genetics, and structural issues that play an important role in determining not just health outcomes but also opportunities for care and even understandings of what it is to be sick. Many of the ideas underlying this book played a key role in my graduate work.

If there are any books that you have found helpful to understand health or health care, please let me know as I am always looking for new sources on the subject.

Another Day in D.C.

It is strange having a career. In most ways it is unlike anything else I have ever done before. There aren't a set number of years I will be here and there is no final product that will complete it. I am really enjoying everything about the job so far and am optimistic about it continuing that way. I am consistently amazed by how happy people are in their different positions at GAO. One recent announcement was of the retirement of a person that had been with the GAO for forty-one years. It is amazing to think that if I were to work there that long I would be sixty-seven at retiring. It just seems so far away. Similar stories of long tenures at the GAO are not uncommon. One of the other analysts was saying that, statistically, if you stay at GAO past three years you will be there for your whole career. I am beginning to really understand how that is possible. The GAO prides itself on being a model federal agency and is constantly trying to improve itself. Despite the high expectations that are placed upon workers there is an atmosphere of calm and relaxation at all levels. Each worker is treated with respect and expected to carry out there work with little supervision. Understanding what its like to be treated as a professional is not something that comes easy after working at places where you had to document how your time was spent.

Another thing I have really come to appreciate about GAO is truly how flat the organization is hierarchically. When I heard this comment in my interview I was intrigued but skeptical. Over the past month it has become clear how true this really is. The people at the top of the organization are all approachable and engaged, which must be a hard thing to juggle considering the GAO overall has around 3,000 employees and the Health Care team has over 200. I had a really great meeting with the Managing Director of the team, in which it was made clear that everyone was accountable to each other, especially those at the top. Another interesting thing there are surveys of both the analysts and the management that foster discussion about what each can do better to make continual improvements. Both the analysts and the directors seem to really think that these measures have really helped keep people engaged and aware of what needs to be improved as well as what is going quite well.

After leaving work today, I took advantage of the warmer temperatures (40s today up from 10s over the weekend). I walked over to a nearby bookstore and picked up a couple new books and spent some time at the cafe. It still feels so funny when walking a couple blocks to pass by Chinatown, the National Portrait Gallery, the Spy Museum, the Ford Theater (where Lincoln was assassinated) among other nationally important sites. It is still hard to wrap my head around all of the things that exist within blocks of where I work and live. It is hard to imagine how long it would take to hit all the things Heather and I have talked about visiting. Looking back, Heather and I took a risk coming out here with only our M.A.s in hand and some idea of what we wanted to do. I could never have imagined it would work out as well as it has.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Like A Real Adult

This week I received my business cards at work. Honestly, I was pretty excited about it. The ones that I received from the people during my interview looked really cool and I couldn't wait to get my own. There is something special about having a real business card. I think the cards came out quite well. Now I just have to start meeting important people to give them to.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Hard To Imagine How The NRA Can Spin This

A recent study which was underwritten by more than 300 U.S. mayors has uncovered some extremely damning evidence about the link between lax gun laws and legal guns ending up being used in crimes. The study makes clear that 10 states with lax gun laws are responsible for over 50% of guns used in crimes across the U.S. This number should be staggering and the repercussions swift. This sort of dangerous funneling of weapons to be used in crimes cannot be allowed to continue. While people will continue to argue that it is not the guns that commit the crimes, it is clear that access to guns is providing the ability to carry out many crimes. It is hard to imagine how anyone reading the report could come to the conclusion that gun control does not have a positive effect on reducing the amount of guns in the hands of criminals. Particularly deplorable was the cover-up pushed by the industry to keep this data from seeing the light of day. To know that such data exists and to try to censor it is despicable and calls into question how dedicated to safety those involved really are.

It isn't just purchasing guns intended for use in crimes that is making headlines. In the same days as the above-mentioned report was released, this story came out as well. I cannot imagine how horrible all those involved must be feeling at this moment. It is difficult to imagine such a senseless thing, all because a weapon was being treated as a source of entertainment. Why an eight year-old would be allowed to fire such a deadly weapon is beyond me. I hope people learn to respect the dangers that guns pose and accept that they must be regulated for public safety. Together these two articles highlight what many researchers in a variety of fields (including public health, criminology, sociology, economics, and others) have found, that guns must be regulated and that protections must be in place to keep guns out of the wrong hands. Clearly many states are failing on this issue and must be brought to task.

Finding My Stride

After a week of mostly training and paperwork last week, this week gave me a better idea of what the job will actually be like. I had a really good time conducting background research and identifying relevant legislation for our engagement. It is an interesting topic and I am starting to feel like I have a good handle on many of the background factors that will help to set up our analysis. Also exciting is that we will soon have our meeting with the requesting Congressional office and identify how their interests or needs have changed since the request letter was sent to GAO. On Thursday we met as a team with the director on our project and it went really well. The AIC (analyst-in-charge, GAO love acronyms, it's kind of an obsession) was really pleased with how often I spoke up and the points I raised. Prior to the meeting she emphasized that I didn't need to be nervous. Her saying that was the only thing that made me a little nervous. 

The GAO is heavily involved with the 2009 Congressional and Presidential transition. They will be doing a lot of briefings of the president's staff on important issues and have even created a website that highlights some of the key issues that will play an important role at the beginning of Obama's term. I am really excited about the transition and am reading everything I can about the health care reform plans. It is amazing to think that I will likely have a chance to work closely on these issues, and to see some of that work end up being made into policy. While that may sound overly optimistic, consider the following numbers for 2008 alone for the GAO:

-Over 1,200 requests from Congress in 2008 (this is the main way GAO gets work, comes from a chair or ranking member on a committee)
-160 new mandates written into law (mandates are the second most common way of GAO getting work, things written into legislation that ask GAO to examine something later on, usually examining the effectiveness of a program)
-Provided testimony to Congress over 300 times
-Financial benefits 57.8 Billion dollars
-Other benefits 1398 (defined a variety of ways, can see more info on their website:
-Products (meaning reports and other written work, such as audits) with recommendations 66%
-Recommendations implemented 83%
-Timeliness (based on client feedback) 95%

I was particularly surprised by the recommendations implemented. I knew that GAO played a key role in helping Congress legislate (being the "investigative arm of Congress"), but I wasn't aware that some much of it was directly made into law. It really helps to explain the level of detail and precision that is emphasized in the GAO training. It is exciting to be working in such a powerful but accountable place like the GAO. They take their responsibilities seriously and I look forward to doing so as well. It is nice to have a job that I look forward to going to each day. 

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Settling Down

I have finished my first week at the Government Accountability Office. It was a great week and I am really enjoying the job. I am really excited that this is my career.  I am continually amazed at how much power the GAO has on the Hill and how much of their work ends up becoming law. The GAO has a reputation as being one of the more efficient and effective government offices. It focuses on providing research and legislative support to Congress on nearly all of the issues Congress examines. I am looking forward to getting past the administrative paperwork and getting deeper into my first engagement (their term for a group of 4-7 researchers that carry out a specific project for around nine months). I have had a chance to work a bit on my first engagement and it is really exciting. I am an analyst on the Health Care team, which has about 150-200 analysts and directors, from what I can tell. The whole GAO is about 3,000 workers -about 75% of which are in the main HQ in downtown Washington D.C. (a few blocks NW of the Capitol Building). The rest are spread out around 15 field offices. One of the Health Care field offices is in Seattle and overlooks the Puget Sound, so we may end up in the Pacific Northwest again at some point.

My first engagement is a little different than the usual Health Care assignment because it was originally assigned to another team but there was a fear of conflict of interests because the auditing department had connections to the office being audited. Normally, health care examines a specific issue and then carries out research using a variety of methods and finally provides a report that identifies the findings on a topic and makes recommendations, many of which become enacted by Congress. My first engagement will be examining the effectiveness and efficiency of the investigative arm of the Food and Drug Administration. This will involve interviewing and engaging with the FDA to find out their procedures and costs, and how well their funds are spent. From what I gather from other people on the team, it is a unique opportunity for the Health Care team and should be really interesting for my first engagement.

The process of getting the job was long and arduous and started July 22nd, the day before Heather’s defense and two days before my own. I didn’t hear back from them until early October asking for an interview. The interview was set up as a three hour process: two one-hour interviews and a one-hour informational meeting with one of their new hires. I felt I nailed the interview but I was told that it takes on average around two weeks for any decisions to be made. After about a week and a half I heard that I was offered the position contingent upon having positive references. The process of getting the references took another couple weeks. Finally, at the end of October I was offered the job and was given my start date as November 24th, nearly another month! However, I am thankful that it worked out so well. 

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A New Dawn, A New Day... And I'm Feeling Good

Since my previous post a lot has happened. We have gotten an amazing apartment in Silver Spring, Maryland (a suburb just North of D.C.), I have accepted a position at the Government Accountability Office as a Analyst for the Health Care Team, and our furniture and stuff has arrived earlier than expected. Heather has also had some good luck with the job search. After interviewing she was offered a position that she turned down because it wasn't a good fit with her interests. It is nice to be in a position where we don't have to settle for things. Looking over the piles of boxes in the dining room, it is nice to think that in a couple weeks we will have our apartment in a semi-permanent state. However, the chaos is also nice. Opening boxes and remembering things you haven't seen in over two years (we left a lot of stuff in Logan when we went up to Vancouver) is nice.

Our apartment is in a great area; walking distance to nearly everything we need. After living in Vancouver we have come to appreciate being in walking distance to things, and the improved quality of life that it provides. Being able to walk next door to the library, walk a couple blocks to amazing restaurants, groceries (including the best Thai market I have been to) and two movie theaters (one of which is an AFI theatre), and few blocks to the Metro makes it an ideal place for us. At first I thought the area was quite gentrified. However, now it seems to me that it is more of an urban renewal. The area is extremely diverse and many of the projects are focused on making the community more inclusive and accountable as opposed to more divisive and exclusionary which is found in many similar projects nationally. I look forward to seeing the plans unfold around us and possibly playing a part at some point. 

I start at the GAO in a couple weeks and I am really looking forward to it. The job seems like a perfect fit. The GAO provides oversight, advice, and recommendations to Congress for the creation and improvement of public policy in a variety of areas. In a 2006  audit it was found that every dollar spent on the GAO led to 105 dollars of savings for the U.S. government. With a budget of 500 million dollars, it means the GAO saved the U.S. government 50 billion dollars. However, saving money is far from the only charge that the GAO is given. In the area of health care it is responsible for synthesizing academic knowledge and suggesting appropriate public policy based upon it. This means interviewing experts in the field and identifying (and even carrying out) relevant studies to ascertain answers to the needs of Congress. From the three hour interview I had, a few things became clear about the GAO, all of which I am extremely excited for. The first is that the organization is very flat hierarchically. The research teams are organized in groups of 4-6 people with the four primary levels of workers: analysts, senior analysts, assistant directors, and directors. These team members have regular contact and meet frequently as the research process moves forward. There is not a significant chain of command in the team, it is fine and expected that the analyst can go straight to the director if they have a question or have found relevant information for them. This seems to create a real sense of collegiality among those who interviewed me. 

Another exciting thing was the intellectual rigor with which the reports are written. In the interviews and on their website they emphasize the importance of using quality sources and having significant oversight to make sure the points based on those sources are appropriate. The senior analyst that interviewed me focused on this point and said that there are rounds of revisions that focus on tying the document back to the sources in order to have the report be as strong as possible. This is because parts of each report are likely to become public policy or will be used to reform current policy. This is a level of influence I was not expecting to have in my first career position. It is particularly exciting because as an analyst you are given a part of the report which you are largely responsible for. This autonomy with accountability sounds exciting and I look forward to seeing it in practice. It seems like a great place to start my career. A career, what a scary and exciting proposition.

Dangerously Heightened Expectations

With the election of Barack Obama, a international outpouring of support has increased the already immense pressure on the 44th President-Elect. Congratulations have come from the most unexpected places, including the President of Iran (who now feels spurned by the Obama camp's tepid response). Different groups around the world are placing expectations and ideas at the feet of Obama hoping that he will become involved and help solve problems. On one hand, this invitation to multilateralism is breathtaking. It is amazing to see that even the international community believes that America can and will be better under the leadership of Obama. However, together with the expectations domestically, it is hard to imagine how Obama can make all groups happy within the grace period of his early campaign. Obama stands on the cusp of being the most important president in America's history. The possibility of making the U.S. more accountable and multilateral is a dream that many have hoped for for decades, particularly during some of the recent dark years America has faced. People around the world have placed their hopes and dreams on his administration and it is difficult to imagine how it can meet expectations. 

A recent article by one of my favorite journalists, Ahmed Rashid, author of the recent book Descent into Chaos (which focuses on the war on terror in South Asia, primarily Afghanistan and Pakistan), sheds light on some of the massive expectations Obama faces. Reading through the article I was struck by just how much different factions in different conflicts are focusing on every word Obama says, in hopes of identifying what his presidential and international priorities will be. Particularly interesting was the quote by an unnamed European foreign minister that European countries will be unable to refuse anything Obama asks for in the first six months of his administration. There is such a massive amount of power in that statement. I cannot imagine any president in recent times being charged with such a great and also dangerous burden.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

An America I Can Believe In

In what has to be the most historic election in a generation, Barack Obama has become the president-elect of the United States. It is hard to imagine how such an unlikely candidate had such a meteoric rise to success. I will be the first to admit I questioned Obama in the primaries. Initially I was a Kucinich supporter (a long shot, but one of the only beacons of true progressivism in a party bogged down by greed and avarice). After his withdrawal I changed my loyalties to Clinton. Having met her personally and believing that she had the strength, experience, and political capital needed, I felt she would also be the best to face whatever Republican was chosen. Now, unlike many Clinton supporters, I never fell into the rancorous denouncements of Obama and genuinely felt that either would do a reasonable, centrist job as president. I felt safe with either of them but not particularly inspired. Sure they were both historic candidates in a year the Democrats stood a good chance of actually winning, but it is always hard for me to vote for centrism. This country has been governed by the fifty-one doctrine for too long (playing to the middle in an attempt to eek out the election with just enough votes). This doctrine has often meant proving who was the most centrist, the most moderate. As a leftist progressive, this placation often struck me as dumbing down the election, and also hindering a genuine vision of a better future. I began to see that Barack Obama was trying to transcend the old language of elections. He spoke to the youth in a way that didn't seem placating or insulting. He gave people the opportunity to inform themselves on complex issues and expected that they would respond. He called for national service, in a country that is facing hard times and an uncertain future. He made me believe.

It is hard to sum up how amazed I am looking at the electoral map in today's Washington Post. Seeing how many states ended up blue and how many of the red states are closer than anyone could have imagined even two years ago. I was amazed to see Obama do so well in my home state, Montana, a rural homogeneous state. It makes me question my own and many other cynics' interpretations of the possibilities for a sustained grassroots movement in America. Many first time voters must feel empowered by the success of their campaign of choice. It will be important to keep these citizens involved in the process as it moves forward and to get them to understand that democracy is not just voting. Only through a sustained national movement can real change be accomplished. I feel optimistic about politics for the first time in a long time, and I am really excited that I will be in the middle of it.  Heather and I are already making plans to be at the inauguration. It will be exciting to play an important role in the health care debate and to have the real likelihood of actual reform. It is a historic time, and a great time to be in Washington D.C.  As one person who always had a hard time believing in hope, I say this with complete conviction: Yes, We Can!

Monday, October 20, 2008

A Vote For Change

I have always been a bit of a pessimist when it came to politics. Being a political science/sociology major will likely do that to you. Compounded by the fact that my political development happened in a state were if you weren't voting Republican you may as well not show up. For awhile I certainly understood the expatriate movement and why some Americans felt the draw of greener pastures around the world. I still have my fair share of complaints about the U.S. and its position and direction in the world. I have come to see however that everyone in the world wants the U.S. to change, in a myriad of different ways. Only through remaining in the U.S. and being that voice for change can effective reforms be undertaken.

I often hear Americans and residents of other countries say that they didn't realize how good they have it at home until they go abroad. While I can empathize with this comment, it in no way informs my way of seeing the world. There are many good things about the U.S. that I appreciate. The reason I have chosen to remain in the U.S. for the forseeable future is to push for change. Leaving just because the times are bad is an injustice to those left behind. Those who believe that the U.S. can or should be better have the obligation to work toward that change. Only through a truly democratic movement will Americans become engaged and informed. The record numbers of people registering to vote is one sign of light in a very dark time.  We need to realize that democracy is not just voting. Democracy requires active engagement and only the people can keep government responsible.

I cast my absentee ballot today. When I cast the ballot I was reminded of a quote by RFK that informs the kind of communitarian democracy that I idealize:
“Each time a man stands for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

A vote for change is in the mail. Lets hope we get it right this time.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

The District Sleeps With Heather and I Tonight

We have been in D.C. a little over a week and things are going well. The jobs search is exciting and we have both found many interesting jobs to apply to. One job I applied to I heard back the same day, only to find out that even while requiring a Master's, the pay was only $35,000. Luckily, we aren't in a dire position and I can still hold off for pay more appropriate to my training and skills. Another job I heard back from was the Government Accountability Office, a job I applied to back in July. It looks like I will be interviewing sometime next week.

It is nice to be back in Washington. So far we have gone to many of my favorite parts of town and eaten at great restaurants. Sadly, one of my favorite restaurants, Hunan Chinatown, has closed down in my absence. The place where I saw the underhanded and unscrupulous Robert Novak. We also went by the area where I used to work on the Hill and walked the path that I took to work everyday. Walking past the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress, and the Capital all in the same span brings back good memories. The overwhelming scope of being in the political center of the world. I don't say statements like that lightly. Sometimes in D.C. you catch wind of the actual power of the process and it feels like looking straight down from the top of a skyscraper, scary and at the same time exhilarating.

It has been nice staying in a part of the greater D.C. area in which I haven't spent much time before. Maryland is much nicer than I had been led to believe in my previous stay here. Silver Spring is one possible community we could end up at. Seeing where our jobs are located and what our income looks like will help make the final decision of where we end up. However, currently there are some nice places off of Pentagon City (in Arlington, VA), that are offering some amazing deals. With things so rough for the market and people having less discretionary income, apartments are dropping prices and offering up to two free months of rent. Looks like a good time to be moving in.

I am really looking forward to our time here. We will likely be here for at least 5 years and possibly the rest of our careers. It feels odd to be so sure and at the same time at loose ends. Getting an apartment and jobs over the next few weeks will create a sense of permanence that is currently lacking from our lives.

The Straight Talk Express Is Off The Rails Again

I never realized the "Straight Talk Express" mantra of McCain included slander. After being clearly rebuffed on issues of importance like the economy, the McCain campaign has decided to fall back on the most deplorable and depressing of tactics. While I can't fault them for using every tactic available to them in such an historic election, I am extremely disappointed at this decision. The Washington Post recently reported that the McCain campaign will be focusing on personal attacks on Obama's character.

The opening salvo of this new course was Palin dragging out the tired old line of Obama being associated with terrorism because he happens to live in the same neighborhood as one of the founders of the Weather Underground. Real solid stuff guys. What's next, talking about how the name OBAMA rhymes with OSAMA? I mean seriously, is this the best that the McCain folks can come up with, ad hominem attacks that indicate nothing about Obama.

This new tactic is just another low point for one of the few senators, Republican or Democrat, that I truly respected. Pandering to the religious right, becoming the partisan he said he never would, and leaving behind the issues to instead make personal attacks. McCain's star has fallen quite far in the last six years for me. These actions are not the course of a "Maverick" but of a flailing politician behind in the polls. If you're going to lose, at least do so with some dignity.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Obama's To Lose

After quite possibly the oddest vice presidential pick since Dan Quayle, the presidential race is now Obama's to win or lose. McCain has effectively silenced his greatest criticism of Obama by selecting someone much less experienced as a running mate. Palin has been the mayor of a city of 9,000 and is now the governor of Alaska, a state of only 680,000 and is run largely at the expense of the U.S. federal government. She has no foreign policy experience and is even younger than Obama. The fact that McCain has put her one step from the presidency shows that he is not as truly concerned with experience as he claims. A vice president needs to be ready to take on the job of the president from day one. It is hard to see how that is possible with someone like Palin.

I hear many people say that McCain is trying to reach out to disaffected Clinton supporters with his choice of Palin. While this may seem plausible because of the fact that she is a women, I would hope that McCain would be smarter and realize the women that supported Hillary are much more savvy than that. The fact that Palin appears to be an arch-conservative and opposes fundamental rights for women (anti-choice, against federal funding for family planning) doesn't lend itself to many Clinton supporters switching sides.

The choice of Palin is likely to raise this issue of the extreme sexism that still exists within the Republican party. The traditional and essentialist roles that are ascribed to women in Republican talking points only show how out of touch the party is with changes in society. I would also not be at all surprised if having a female VP hurts McCain among southern white males. It will also be interesting to see if the media continues its sexist tirades that were so common while Clinton was still in the race.

After a couple rough weeks in the polls, it looks like smooth sailing till November now (don't prove me wrong, Obama!).

Saturday, August 23, 2008

An Election Without End

As the U.S. presidential election draws near, I am increasingly disgusted by what passes for journalism and democratic participation. It is hard to fathom how such a corrupt and despicable system is not challenged more widely by Americans. Most Americans, liberal and conservative, agree that our government has serious problems. However, instead of addressing them through collective movements, we choose to pick at each other on "hot-button" issues. Responsible and accountable government is not something anyone would oppose. The steps that would need to be taken to create a responsible system are neither easy nor straightforward. Many argue that the presence of massive amounts of money in American politics is the largest source of its problem. While I would argue that money plays a part in making the problems worse, the structure of the legislature and elections also has significant negative effects on representation and public policies that come to be instituted. The current structure enforces the two-party system and the personalization of campaigns. It also greatly hampers the ability to implement reforms. The lack of benefits of voting combined with the lack of risks of not voting create the situation where only around half of eligible voters turn out on presidential years, and even less than that on non-presidential years (let alone the paltry sum that appear for purely local or county elections).

While, for me, some form of proportional representation and changes to the amount of elections we have would be a good start; it is important that other people get engaged with this process. Having people come to understand that democracy requires much more than just voting is important if sustained, realistic change were to be enacted. This isn't something that will be accomplished through a spontaneous uprising of national consciousness. It must be facilitated by groups that people engage with in their daily lives (employers, religious communities, civic organization, NGOs, and the government itself). We as a society have learned to be apathetic, but this social apathy can also be unlearned. Giving people a reason to vote and significant benefits for electing your particular chosen party would create a more vibrant and engaged democracy.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Goodbye Bebe

Bebe (my family's black cat -- formally named Isis, though never called it) passed away a couple days ago. After her most recent bout of illness she was too weak to carry on any longer. She was getting too sick and had to be put to sleep. My dad was the only person at the vet but his account of her last moments is too touching to recount here. After hearing the news Heather and I bawled for a bit and then began to recount some of Bebe's most interesting and unique behaviors. They are presented here in no particular order.

One memory I will always smile about was the times that she would hurl her body against the bathroom door. Whenever someone was in the bathroom she would tuck one of her front legs and somersault into the door with an amazing amount of force. The sound would be reminiscent of someone in heavy work boots giving the door a good kick. Her crashing against the door indicated that it was time for one of her favorite pastimes: attacking things under the door. At this point whoever was using the bathroom was required to find something to slide back and forth under the door so that Bebe could attack it. This game was always a source of enjoyment for both participants.

Another funny behavior was Bebe's desire to placed in the highest spots in the house. She would look up somewhere and cry letting you know that she needed to be up there, and post-haste. I would usually be the one that she would get to do this. So I would pick her up and place her on all sorts of things. One of her favorite spots, strangely enough, was to be placed on top of the sliding shower doors in the bathroom. She would walk along them and lay down periodically. She then would look for other high places in the bathroom she could jump to. She also liked being placed on the really high mantle above the large window in the living room. From there should could see everything and everyone in the room.

When Bebe was a tiny kitten (we got her after some little girls found her in a park and were going around the neighborhood asking if someone would take her) we were going to dinner at La Beau's and we took her with us. She was really tiny and spent all her time in a shoebox that we lined with towels. Upon smelling the greasy food she crawled out of the box on her own for the first time in the three days or so that we had owned her. My mom gave her a bit of her burger, which Bebe immediately scarfed down while making an extremely cute growling noise, as if to be saying "stay back, this meat is mine!"

Bebe spent much of her early life living above Smiling Moon Toys with Aramie and her boyfriend at the time. When Aramie would come down for work she would bring Bebe with her. Bebe loved to explore the store and find new hiding spots. One time Aramie had her on the counter while she was stamping bags. Bebe walked through the ink pad with two paws and then continued walking on the counter-top leaving a perfect set of purple paw prints.

One of the most unusual things about Bebe was her watering habits. Drinking for her was always a spectacle accompanied by grand traditions and perfect timing. She liked running water the most. At some point she got someone to put their hand under the water so that she could drink off of it. She then trained everyone in the house to do this for her whenever she wanted a drink from the tap. My father, who initially expressed disdain at this level of servitude, would later be found watering Bebe in the very same way.

As Bebe grew older she continued to develop curious behaviors. One that was always funny and sad at the same time was when she would chase Boush (his real name is Ambush, but this spelling gets across the pronunciation better) out of warm sleeping spots. He would be in a spot for a while and then when Bebe decided it was warm enough she would shoo him away and settle in to sleep. Boush never seemed to understand this and would just go lay a couple feet away without any fight. Another odd behavior was that she liked to be spun on the kitchen floor. She would flop down in front of me on her side in the middle of the kitchen floor and I would whirl her around. She would eventually tire and stand up awkwardly and stumble to a place to rest, usually coming back for more within a few minutes.

Another Bebe idiosyncrasy was that she would hide in places where you were only able to feel her but not see her. Sometimes we would be sure that Bebe had gotten out of the house because we couldn't find her anywhere. Eventually we would start feeling behind quilts in closets or looking behind boxes under beds. A couple of her favorite spots we were never able to find. The only proof she had been there is that she would slink out of the downstairs apartment with a smattering of dust stuck on her fur.

Bebe's brushes with death came early and often. One early encounter happened when she was no more than a few weeks old. She would sometimes get cold and so we would wrap her in a towel or small blanket and place her on the couch. One day a not so aware friend (Beth for those of you from Logan) sat on Bebe as I yelled "Look out!" She immediately jumped up and looked underneath her. Bebe was now lodged between the cushions but no worse off than prior to the crushing.

One funny trait of Bebe's was that she liked to be held in crazy positions. She would like to be slung over my shoulder. I wouldn't even have to use my hands to hold her up as she would just sit completely weightless. Another funny position was when I would hold her like a shot gun complete with firing her at random family members. She would have Heather hold her with her head as far out as her left hand could reach and her right hand close to her body. Bebe would lay on her side weightless in this position until Heather's arms got tired. My father would also hold Bebe in unique position where she would be able to tuck her head underneath is arm and rest (sadly it was this position that was most comfortable for Bebe, and the position she took when the time came to be put to sleep).

One thing that will always be special about Bebe is that she had unique relationships with all the different people in her life. I had never seen such specific behaviors out of one cat. She would interact with each family member in a different way and everyone has different memories of the things about Bebe that made her so special to them. It is hard to believe that she is gone. She had a great life and brought immense joy to everyone who interacted with her. She will be greatly missed and fondly remembered.

Goodbye Bebe

Friday, August 15, 2008

Back in Utah

I feel a little embarrassed making this post so late. I started the day after getting back but have not found the time or desire to finish it until now. We have arrived back in Utah and it has been a nice break since. After a couple long days of packing/driving, we finally have all of our stuff in Logan and out of the cars. It will be nice to be able to relax for a few weeks and finally take a real break. My parents have invited Heather and I to go to California near the end of August and that should be really fun as well. It feels weird to be back in Utah, if only for a little while. The Utah leg of the trip has been more fun than I was expecting. I guess two years away makes you less likely to worry about the small things that used to be annoying. It is nice to go back to the restaurants we love and see people we have really missed. Logan remains much as it always has, moderately boring with surprisingly good food. The other day Heather and I were hanging out at the Conover house and I turned to her and asked "What did we used to do for fun here?" I spent seven years living here but somehow can't remember how we filled the hours. Luckily my huge stack of books that were put off during graduate school finally have a dent. Also, Heather's sister Kayla has developed an interest in Buddhism and so I read the intro book that she bought about it. I found it really interesting and was surprised how many similarities my world view shared with it.

Being back in Logan is always nice because of the great deals on books and DVDs that we find. I found a couple books that I had used previously in my thesis for a really good deal at the USU bookstore. Also, Logan's abundant cheap booze makes the trip completely worthwhile. Having already had Crumb Brothers twice since getting back reminds me how much I will miss that place.

The job search is going well. I have found a lot of really interesting opportunities and see the process more as a hobby than something to be concerned about at this point. Getting back in the habit of applying is good and it will be nice to make some real money for once. There have been lots of interesting jobs for which Heather and I meet the requirements. It will be exciting to see where we end up and it is crazy that we will be in Washington D.C. in less than a month.

Moving back to Washington D.C. will be really fun. Having lived there for four months in my undergrad, I feel like it is a comfortable place to be. I know my way around the city really well and know what would be the best neighborhoods to live in. The only thing I dread is the weather. While it isn't as bad as weather elsewhere, it is a significant downgrade from the Pacific Northwest. Right now we imagine we will be out there for at least five years as we start actual careers and decide how we like them. Knowing that we have so many opportunities makes it much easier to be relaxed about the situation overall.

Having an M.A. still hasn't quite sunk in yet. I see it on my resume, but being in Logan doing the same things doesn't really make me feel like there has been any big change. Maybe it's because no one in Logan wants to talk about epistemologies or the social determinants of health...

Well I probably should go play with "tiny spicy" Chewy (my new nickname for the Conover family dog, in honor of the Beijing Olympics).

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Almost Over...

We leave for good in two days. Last minute packing and cleaning now fill up most of our time. I just hope now that everything fits in the cars. Looking around the room, the apartment is just a shell. The only thing that remains the same are the pictures on the walls (left up to keep our sanity as long as possible). Even the pictures will come down either today or tomorrow. Luckily we have done pretty much everything that we need to outside the apartment so there won't be much rushing around today.

It is really nice that Denise and Kayla will be coming up to help us move. Having the truck to haul some of the big stuff will be a lifesaver. It is also really good because it will allow us to take one final tour around Vancouver tomorrow, showing Kayla the place we have come to call home. I will really miss this area, I have never been unhappy about the weather my whole time here. Even when it is raining, it feels right.

I turned in all my stuff into the thesis office (close to 800 pages of paper). The funny lady that runs the place let us know that there were no glaring mistakes that would require a reprint of the whole thing (margin errors, page numbering, etc.). That was a huge relief. Now we just wait a couple months and hope there are no problems prior to binding. Being completely done with the thesis feels like a relief. It was an interesting topic and I enjoyed the things I learned from it. I can't believe it is really over...

Copies of my thesis are for sale, only $80 CAD each (Just kidding SFU, I know I only have a partial copyright).

Friday, July 25, 2008

Still Hasn't Sunk In Yet

I defended my thesis successfully yesterday. It was really intense but a lot of engaging questions were raised and everyone there complimented me on my answers and calmness. I can't believe that I am done. I just have to make some minor revisions and then print the copies to be bound by the library. It is so exciting to have a Master's. Since Heather defended yesterday (which was overly success), every time she does something I say "that is your first time doing _____ with your master's." I have started doing it for myself as well since yesterday afternoon.

It just feels crazy to think that we will be moving back to the U.S. in about a week. Having worked for two years on one project is something new and I am glad that it has worked out so well overall. My extremely kind adviser came to the bar after the defense and graciously bought pitchers for a few of the grad students that came to the defense. It was a nice celebration. Today we have been invited to a celebratory/going away BBQ. It will be sad to leave our friends, but moving onto to the next part of our lives will be really exciting. Seeing all our old Utah friends will be really fun as well.

Because I am a bit of a masochist, I found a couple jobs I could not pass up applying for in Washington D.C. It was actually kind of fun updating my resume. The jobs that I see are really interesting and would be really exciting as careers. It is cool to be in a position to try out careers and still have a lot of options to fall back on if I decide it isn't exactly what I want. The possibility of doing a PhD is still out there but I think that getting an idea of what is out there for the types of jobs I want first is a good idea.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Migration Myths, Journalistic Mistakes: How do Articles Like this Get Printed?

On the front page of MSN today was a link titled "What if All the Illegal Immigrants Went Home". It sounded like an interesting piece so I decided to check it out. Obviously the folks at felt the actual title of the article, "What if we threw out all the illegal immigrants,"was not quite appropriate for the tagline. Once I saw the actual title and checked the credentials of the writer (Shirley Skeel, a "print and radio journalist based in Seattle who has written for Bloomberg News, The Seattle Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph in London. She has also produced radio features for National Public Radio and its affiliates"), I was not sure what I would find. I did a quick google search of Skeel's previous work and found some other less than complimentary commentaries about other Skeel articles here.

While shoddy journalism is nothing new at MSN Money, this articles takes lessons learned from an intro to economics course and attempts to apply them to the real world.
The biggest losers would be middle-class families with two working parents, living in high-immigrant states such as California, Texas, Florida or New York."
What about the twelve million people forcibly displaced? Seems like being tossed back to a variety of countries in Latin America, Europe, and Asia would be more difficult. These workers left for a multitude of reasons (including discrimination), and being forcibly returned would be much worse than someone having to clean their own house. Not to mention that many of those that had to go back to low-income countries would now face extremely difficult circumstance as large numbers of former immigrants would now end up competing for the same jobs that caused them to leave their home country in the first place. Also, the families that would be destroyed by such an event would also be in a worse situation than the guy who has to mow his own lawn. Many families have some family members that are undocumented workers while other members have gained legal status. This could even mean couples being split up and parents separated from children. Skeel touches on the difficulties of deporting so many people, but only as an afterthought (though it seem like the whole article is more of an afterthought, than actual journalism).

Possibly the most insulting part of the article:
"Economists say if [American citizens] agreed to bone meat or install insulation, they could earn 6% to 10% more than the deported workers, as wages rose to lure new workers. That could mean $18,000 to $30,000 in pay a year."
Come on, what "economists" did you speak to? This sort of theoretical armchair economics is the reason most Americans understand so little about how global capital works. These two sentences are riddled with so many problematic and untrue assumptions that it would take more time than I am willing to invest to deconstruct them. However, I will focus on two key points: wage determinants and employment networks.

This statement (and the wider article) makes the fallacious assumption that the "illegal immigrants" are the reason for lower wages. While from a purely theoretical perspective this may seem plausible or even likely, any engagement with the actual literature on wage restructuring points to wider, more structural factors. Aviva Chomsky (2007) notes that wages across the U.S. have either stagnated or declined for low-skill workers, while profits have increased in many sectors. She argues that it is the businesses that target undocumented workers because of their marginal status, which allows companies to treat them abhorrently while not fearing repercussions. This is particularly true in many agricultural industries that rely heavily on undocumented labor. Were they to switch to documented workers with legal rights they would deeply cut into their profits and thus face the wrath of their short-term minded shareholders. This would likely push many companies either to increase their production of goods in other countries (which may not be as profitable as it used to be, due to the high costs of transportation due to higher gas prices) or by directly increasing the prices of goods (something that would create a serious backlash).

For employment networks, most social scientists recognize that it is not simply employment that determines where an individual lives. However, Skeel found someone intellectually lazy enough to believe so (however without evidence, like most researchers at the Heritage Foundation; Rector is a senior research fellow, though research is a strong word for what the Heritage Foundation does)

"Just how quickly would Americans fill the vacated jobs? And at what pay rate? Perryman points to Texas, where he says there are more than 1 million illegal workers, but only 450,000 unemployed residents. 'If you do the math, it just doesn't work,' he says. He doubts that many needy Virginians would move to Texas for often-grueling, low-paying jobs.

Rector disagrees. He says it would take time for 'Cousin Fred' in Texas to phone up his jobless mates in Virginia, but, 'There are a lot of people who work for less than $20,000 a year.' And they would move for a job."

While some people move to find employment, the vast majority of Americans would have no idea where and what types of jobs are available in their own town, even less so in places across the country. The idea put forth by Rector in the above quote relies on the economic ideology that individuals are rational choice robots that have perfect information and are able to weigh the costs and benefits of their decisions. Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel prize winning economist, has studied informational asymmetries and notes that these naive assumptions of many economists simply are not supported by research. Calvó-Armengol and Jackson (2004) identify that the importance of social networks in determining opportunities for employment has been well-researched and is overwhelmingly supported. To assume that eight million American citizens (the number it would take to replace the employed undocumented workers, from Skeel's estimates) would pick up and move to take part in unskilled and nonunionized work is just ridiculous.

While such hypothetical articles allow us to think about the difficulties of immigration policy, when as poorly researched as this one, it is hard to see how it adds to the debate. Immigration is a complex issue without simple solutions (as can be seen in nearly all countries), however, using simplistic logic and ignoring previous empirical work will not get us any closer to a solution.


Calvó-Armengol, Antoni, and Matthew O. Jackson. 2004. "The Effects of Social Networks on Employment and Inequality." The American Economic Review 94: 426-454.

Chomsky, A. 2007. They Take Our Jobs: And 20 Other Myths About Immigration. Boston: Beacon Press.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Is it a little Chile in here?

So I dropped off the final copies of my thesis today for my upcoming defense. Printing off four copies of a 150 page thesis is pretty brutal. The four copies doesn't even include the one I will print off for myself... At some point in the last two weeks they reset all the grad student printing accounts without telling anyone. Both Heather and I were reduced to $30; about enough to print two copies. Luckily, my senior adviser came through and offered up his printer. Sadly his printer has that weird glitch where it just stops midway through printing sometimes.... To make a long, painful story short, the theses are in. Just a little over two weeks now until the actual defense. I am kind of looking forward to it, though I am still nervous about the event itself. It will be nice to have that closure. I ran into my second adviser today and he was saying that he really likes the defense because it is a good opportunity to have an academic dialogue. He felt this was something very common where he did his graduate degree (University of Wisconsin - Madison). I have to agree in some ways, though I would rather not have to talk to most of the other grad students any more than I already do.

In other news, I have stepped down from my position as the president of the SA Grad Caucus. While the job was not terribly intense, not having to care about the when, where, and how of the next meeting is nice. I do feel concerned about the person that was elected to take over the position. He can be pretty overbearing and long winded. I guess it isn't my problem to worry about.

I am really going to miss having limitless access to academic journals and a well-stocked library. I have begun looking through some of the journals I use most frequently and getting all the articles I can... Kinda scary. Also, as crazy as this sounds, I will miss writing my thesis. I really enjoyed writing it and am sad that it is over. I have even begun looking at doing some freelance articles for different political magazines. While I already have a couple academic co-authored articles under review, it would be nice to also show that I can write for more popular audiences (and get paid for it). There are a few areas that I feel that I have sufficient expertise to write widely on (not that expertise should stop me, you just have to look at the hacks over at Slate and the New York Times to see that qualifications mean nothing).

Now to go work on perfecting my query letter...

Thursday, July 3, 2008

I <3 Computers

So the other day Heather and I got asked by the second adviser on her committee to present in the graduate methods course on going from the prospectus to writing your thesis. My presentation was going pretty well until I started explaining the importance of a good way of organizing your computer files and articles as you work. I talked about creating a library folder and then having a consistent naming scheme that would allow you to find the files you need easily. One of the older PhD students (the same student who once said she was so frustrated she wanted to "take my kayak and paddle off into the sunset"), asked a couple questions about the program I used to organize citations, Endnote. Those questions went fine but I wasn't sure if she was understanding my answers.
It became clear when she said "Also, what do you mean create a library folder?" To which I explained that it was a place to put your various pdfs of articles that you will accumulate.
She responded quickly "Oh I get that, but how do you create a folder?"
Confused I said "On a computer?"
She said "Yeah, do you mean like a word folder?" (as if such a thing exists) At this point I was at a loss for words, students obviously had similar experiences like this with her in the class and giggled and rolled their eyes.
The professor chimed in "No, just a regular computer folder."
"Uh, yeah, just right click to create a new folder where you want it" I said, not sure if the idea of right clicking would make her head explode.
"Well I'll just ask you more about it later" the student said to me.
At this point I was looking for the exit to make a run for it. My presentation ended and Heather started hers. When Heather was in her first few minutes the fire alarm went off and we had to file out of the building. The kayak lady cornered me outside and said "Well I am really bad at the computer so I'll email you in a couple weeks and we can get together and talk about" At this point she knew I was defending in less than a month which means I have to turn in my final draft in two weeks. In less than a week from the defense we will be moving back to the U.S. The last thing I have time for is helping someone learn to right-click and create a folder. Why did I say yes....

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Intensifying Violence as a Way of Increasing Safety?

The ruling today by the Supreme Court on District of Columbia v. Heller does not come as much of a surprise but does set a dangerous precedent and shows how out of touch with reality the current court is. The ruling struck down the 1976 Washington D.C. law that banned the ownership of concealed weapons in Washington D.C. Scalia argued that gun ownership represents an important part of the "historical narrative" of the U.S. However, so did slavery, but I don't think his "air-tight" logic will get applied to that. Evidence from those who study gun violence and gun ownership find that while gun ownership among the general population does not increase crime, it does increase the intensity of the violent crime. A recent opinion piece points out the absurdity of the "more guns, less crime" ideology. Ludwig and Cook (2006) argue that this leads to greater likelihood of death from violent incidents and thus a greater risk to the community. Kleck (2004) notes that increased gun ownership by non-criminals leads to increased number of guns in the hands of criminals, through a variety of mechanisms. Luckily, D.C. is still able to create regulations for gun ownership if not ban it outright. Evidence of the effect of the 1976 law was overwhelmingly positive, with a twenty-five percent reduction in gun homicide and a similar reduction in suicide with a gun. Similar declines were not found in the areas of Maryland and Virginia that surround Washington D.C., which did not implement similar measures (Wintemute 2008).

Besides the evidence of the negative social costs in relation to violence, the ruling raises another key issue. The ruling notes that gun ownership is important for hunting and self-defense. On the issue of hunting, clearly the preferred weapon of most hunters is not a handgun. While hunting may be a enjoyable pastime for some, it seems that having measures such as trigger locks or disassembling them should not be a problem, as was required in Washington D.C. prior to the ruling today. For self-defense, Hemenway (2000) found that that criminal uses of guns far outweigh self-defense uses. This casts serious doubt on whether the presence of guns actually makes us safer, even from a self-defense standpoint. Wintemute (2008) also notes the dangers of guns and the likelihood of fatal accidents when fear is a factor, even when there was no actual threat.

While I don't think any amount of evidence can make die-hard gun activists change their mind, I hope that others are more open to the overall effects of guns on society. While a collectivist approach to public policy is not something that many Americans understand, it would provide for a safer future. Fixing the fear of violence through arming ourselves does little to assuage the fear and makes us less safe as a society. Reducing inequalities and creating active, engaged communities would do much more to foster safer neighborhoods than any amount of individual effort.


Cook, Philip J., and Jens Ludwig. 2006. "The social costs of gun ownership." Journal of Public Economics 90: 379-391

Hemenway, David, and Deborah Azrael. 2000. "The Relative Frequency of Offensive and Defensive Gun Uses: Results From a National Survey." Violence and Victims 15: 257-272.

Kleck, Gary. 2004. "Measures of Gun Ownership Levels for Macro-Level Crime and Violence Research." Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 41: 3-36.

Wintemute, Garen J. 2008. "Guns, Fear, the Constitution, and the Public's Health." New England Journal of Medicine 358: 1421-1424.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Misperception of Intent

When discussing undocumented workers many people on both sides of the argument make the claim that these workers end up in jobs "Americans don't want." However I think this argument places the decision making wrongly in the hands of the average American, who in this fantasy considers themselves too good for farm work or that it is too difficult work. It seems more likely that the reason these jobs are not taken by Americans is because the companies that hire these workers would be completely uncompetitive if they hired Americans (due to their ability to demand better pay and protection). Only through hiring marginalized workers with no formal rights are they able to remain competitive with goods produced much more cheaply elsewhere.

There are many jobs that are much more disgusting and backbreaking than field work but are done by Americans and some are even unionized. This is possible because these industries can remain competitive despite paying reasonable wages due to different competition structures than is present for agricultural work (e.g., copper mines). Many of these companies would have already moved production to another country if possible; but they are unable to, due to the type of product they produce.

While this argument leads some to push for new policies of protectionism, for me it indicates the need to structure trade in a fair way. Protectionism has done little to provide good long-term jobs for Americans. We must come to the point where the lowest cost is not separated from the factors from which the product are produced. Products from countries with substandard quality controls, unethical work practices, and terrible human rights records must be identified as such. By accepting these products despite these problems, we are just serving to reinforce the negative tendencies under which the goods were produced.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Last Push

Just over a month until I will be defending my thesis. Having just finished the last other big thing this summer (a conference presentation) , I feel like time is passing amazingly quick. On Tuesday I turned my most recent draft in to my second adviser. Now with the conference done I can finally take a weekend off. I am not sure what to do with myself at the moment. I have been working so consistently that hobbies and pleasure reading are a distant memory. Now bringing myself back to things I used to do seem strange and distant. After finishing up two posts that have been waiting a while on my other blog, I figured I should post one over here as well.

I look forward to the job search once I finish my master's. From what I have seen, there are some really amazing opportunities for public policy research and implementation for someone with an M.A. in sociology. It will be interesting to see what types of jobs Heather and I find and how we enjoy them. It is nice right now because I feel like all options are open. If we like the careers we find we can continue on in them. If we don't, there is always the opportunity to go back and get our PhDs.

It is also strange to not have a destination. By the beginning of August we will likely be leaving Vancouver and creating a new life elsewhere. The transient nature of my mid-twenties feels right. I'll be twenty-six in October and I have no idea where I will be celebrating it. I've never felt so free.

Confusing Correlation with Causation

A recent article on MSN Health does a great job showing how the medical view of individuals can miss the social determinants of both health and crime. The article cites a recent study in PLoS Medicine which found that increased levels of lead in children is linked to crime later in life. They article goes on to discuss the dangers of lead and the neurological effects that it has. Even though it notes the connection between lead exposure and poor communities, it completely misses the connection between poor communities and crime. Instead in assumes that the effects of lead on the brain are what lead to crime.

This lack of a larger perspective shows how entrenched the medicalized, atomized version of society is. Individuals who are born into socially marginalized communities often have no real opportunity for engagement and often end up being involved in delinquency. While there is still the presence of agency, it is difficult to disregard the widespread patterns of crimes in marginalized populations worldwide. Nothing links these groups (race, religion, creed, education) except for their marginal status. It is difficult to see how policy makers cannot make the connection that it is not something intrinsic to these individuals but something social that is happening. Social patterning of all aspects of our lives is something continually overlooked by the media and not well understood by those in power. We must learn to look past simple individual level explanations and ask why these patterns are so consistent across place and time. Only then will we be able to find adequate social and economic policies to mitigate the ill effects of poverty and marginalization.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Social Determinants of (Google) Health

Google recently added an interesting new feature to their online empire, Google Health. It has the making of a useful and helpful tool for many people that want a place to keep track of their medical history and required prescriptions. You can enter your personal information, update your existing conditions, and even import your medical history and records from a variety of sources. It can also be used to find a doctor in your area or to seek online medical help.

One area where it is woefully insufficient is on social determinants of health. It would seem a more appropriate name for the site would be Google Medical, because that is its sole focus. The social determinants of health have been found to play a significant and varied role in individual health. Factors that are social determinants of health include things like where you live, what type of social capital the area you live in has, what is inequality like, how much income do you make, what kind of discrimination do you face, etc. However those critical factors are completely absent from Google Health. This reinforces the myopic medical view of health that divorces the health of the individual from the health of others. All health is patterned. Even things we consider random and tragic, like cancer, follow social patterns and gradients across factors like income. Ignoring these issues on a health site is at best ignorant and at worst neglectful of a whole host of factors many people may not be aware of.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

More Folly than Fact

John McCain's proposed health care policy is another example of irrational faith in a market that has already failed millions of Americans, particularly the 50 million without any health insurance. The problem is that "the market" and health have an extremely poor track record in all countries that have implemented market-oriented measures. The costs in each of the countries has increased without an increase in the actual services provided or quality of the care. This is the reason (as mentioned at length in previous posts) that Americans spend the most per capita on health but have among the poorest health outcomes for OECD countries. The U.S. government currently covers health for the two groups most prone to health problems: the poor and the elderly. By bringing all Americans into a national health system, the higher risk of these groups could be shared across a larger pool. This would bring down costs per patient overall in the U.S. and would reduce the overhead and bureaucracy needed to run the system. While both Barack and Hillary have imperfect plans for health care they are vastly superior than the "faith-based" plan from McCain. While government may not be the perfect provider of health, we have plenty of examples of more successful programs run by other countries that we could draw lessons from.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Work in Progress

My last teaching semester of my M.A. career comes to an end on Monday. It will be the last lecture and after that there is only the final exam where I am just invigilating (Canada's equally dirty sounding version of proctoring). I have really enjoyed being a teaching assistant and have lucked out with the classes that I have taught. Both the quantitative methods course and the social research methods course helped me to strengthen my abilities as a researcher. They also forced me to be able to discuss these issues with people who are seeing them for the first time. I think that experience will be invaluable once I am working as a policy analyst or researcher. Being able to explain or identify relevant methodological issues to a lay person will be important as I will be dealing with a variety of folks that don't have that type of training.

One thing that being a teaching assistant has taught me is that I am not interested in teaching, at least in the short term. I find it interesting but exhausting at the same time. Trying to get people to do what they are paying a lot of money to do is difficult. Many students know they should read and study and carry out the exercises but do not. I understand time is a factor, but many people are paying a lot of money to be here and I would imagine they would want to get the most they can out of it. Though even if I had a class of all stellar students, I don't think it would make me want to teach any more. I really like the applied aspects of the social sciences generally and sociology more specifically.

If I end up not liking policy research and analysis I can imagine going back and getting my PhD and being a professor as an option. It seems that many of my favorite professors came to that point after working for some time outside of academia. I am not sure what this says about what I will find outside the ivory tower, but I look forward to seeing it for myself. As I look at possible jobs in my field I am continually amazed at how many I would be applying for if my thesis were finished at this point.

Despite that, I am really looking forward to my final semester (for most programs in Canada an M.A. is two full years, six semesters - including summers). I am at an interesting point in the writing of my thesis and am enjoying the wide range of readings that it leads me to. At my most recent meeting with my adviser I was asked if I was sick of my topic yet. It was followed by a quick "because it's ok if you are..." I have to say I am not sick of it yet. I actually really enjoy it. I will miss working on Chile and focusing so much attention on a very narrow topic. It is hard to imagine where I will be in six months... But I sure will miss the view here:

Photos by Heather

Monday, March 10, 2008

Peace Through Torture

It is difficult, if not impossible, to fathom at this point how the Bush administration can justify the actions they have taken. The most recent disgusting example of rampant disregard for the safety of Americans is the veto of the interrogation limits for detainees. While intelligence experts and interrogators continually identify the ineffectiveness of torture, overwhelmingly Americans fail to understand this. This disconnect is dangerous because it has been shown that torture can increase similar acts of violence from those on the other side of the conflict. The American people and those around the world must not let these actions continue. A concerted effort to hold those responsible for torture could be one positive step in creating sustained change.

Another aspect that has been identified as playing a role in the veto is executive power. Like many of the actions taken during his term, Bush has continually attempted to enhance the power of the executive generally and the presidency specifically. This is in direct contrast to the rhetoric of big government as a pariah on society. It is hard to imagine trying to secure your legacy by making the world less safe and free through torture. History will not look positively on the wasteful War On(of) Terror that has been undertaken during this administration. It is even more disgusting that McCain gives the Bush administration nearly a free ride in his discussion of their actions. I have a campaign slogan for him "Making America Less Safe for only Three Trillion a War!" I guess it may be a little too long...

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Rough Mid-Terms

Today we will be handing back students' graded mid-term exams. I am quite concerned about being killed by a mob of angry students at the end of it. Grades overall were not so great. The test didn't seem overly hard and the folks that did well, on average, did really well. As with most classes, there were those folks that clearly never read either the text books or the assigned articles, despite the fact that the expectations for the exam were laid out clearly throughout the class.

Getting back their mid-terms is going to be a rude awakening for some students. Particularly those who did well on their literature reviews, but clearly didn't put in equivalent time preparing for their exam. Overall I would have to say I was hoping they would do better. I am not sure if they got a sense of false confidence or just were too busy with other exams. When I originally saw the exam I thought it was going to be too easy if anything. All of it was covered clearly in lecture and the readings that were covered were among the more interesting. Even the essay questions closely followed the format he previewed in class.

I was also surprised by the questions most people got wrong or right. Most people were able to correctly provide the definition of induction (in social research, collecting the data and then building a theory based on it, as opposed to deduction), a term I thought was going to be more difficult. Many people got respondent validation(having your participants read through your results to see if your interpretation is accurate) wrong, surprisingly. Particularly with the amount of times this idea was referenced in class and in the readings.

Oh well, lets hope they learn the lessons and make a more concerted effort for the final.

(Update: Twelve out of the fifteen students that failed the final didn't show up to pick them up. No surprise there, but it doesn't bode well for them to keep missing lectures.)

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Possible Turning Point

A recent ruling in California on rescinding health insurance will hopefully have a industry wide impact on the way health insurance cases are managed. As the article notes the woman was diagnosed with breast cancer and was undergoing treatment for it. Midway through treatment, the company, Health Net Inc., canceled her policy leaving her with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. The reason given was that there was some weight discrepancies on her application and possibly missing information about a heart condition. This type of health care is deplorable and just another example of the dangers of for-profit health care.

The current system has Americans paying the most per capita for health care by a wide margin. (see table below). This massive discrepancy between what is spent in the U.S. and the level of health that is attained is a fundamental contradiction of our system. The fact that 50 million Americans go without health insurance (which often means going without health care) helped to increase this discrepancy. When people without insurance go for care they pay up to four times as much as those with insurance.


Administrative costs are also a significant reason for this vast discrepancy in spending. The bloated insurance company system makes health care less efficient as opposed to the "common sense" notions that are typically expressed around issues of public versus private. Using simplistic theories from economics may give particular policy prescriptions, but the empirical data often indicates something much different.

Many recent polls indicate contradictory factors in people's perceptions of health care. While approximately two-thirds of Americans support the idea that the government is responsible for providing health care to everyone, only forty percent would like to see the system changed to a single payer system.

The thing that I fail to understand is how Americans don't make the connection between the per capita spending and the cost of a single payer system. When we are paying significantly more for health care and receiving less benefits, it is hard to justify the current system. Due to the cultural fear of taxes present in the U.S., it is difficult to imagine an increase in taxes being a possible method of funding health care. It must shown that an increase in taxes would actually save Americans money. What they pay to insurers as well as the decreased direct pay that they receive due to the cost of company provided health care likely exceeds the tax increases that would be required to fund this system. Overall the expenditures of Americans on health care would decrease under a single payer system for a variety of factors including the ones mentioned above, but also other factors (ability to practice preventative medicine, decreased cost for prescription drugs, and increased risk sharing to name a few).

While the road to a single-payer system is neither simple or clear, it stands as the most likely and successful measure. While many countries are repealing aspects of their health care system, it is largely at the behest of those who stand to make profit. Those who require health care are often the first to decry these cut-backs. Though a single-payer health system would impose problems of its own, it is hard to imagine that it could be anywhere near as bad as the current system for the fifty million Americans without insurance and the tens of millions who are underinsured or likely to be dropped if they do get sick.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

An Anticlimactic Ending

The recent departure of Castro from the position of president of Cuba fails to represent the 49 year rule that began with a thunderous revolution. While the results of his rule have been mixed, the Castro doctrine represented a fundamentally different way of viewing the world. It is hard to imagine that Cuba will not end up plodding along within the current globalized economic system much like other countries of Latin America. Their gains in social capital represent a real possibility for facilitating sustained development (in the sense of the capability approach). Hopefully the U.S. will give up our historically messy legacy now that Castro has stepped down. Removing the embargoes and travel restrictions would create the best possible opportunity for allowing actual change to take place in Cuba. Most important for Cuba at this time, in my view, is an implementation of a more democratic and representative system of governance. With it's spiritual and political figurehead out of office this seems more possible than it has in decades. Cuba is already highly globalized with its dependence on tourism and trade in sugar. By identifying and implementing appropriate legal and political changes it could take advantage of the years of progress in social capital that it has sustained.

It will be interesting to see what Castro's legacy will be. Beginning his reign as a fiery orator and general to stepping down decades too late. The gains made in Cuba in areas of health and poverty were often overshadowed by stories of repression and abuses of power (jailing homosexuals and dissidents comes to mind). Will Castro be seen as a revolutionary character that sustained Cuba? Or a petty dictator that kept Cubans from attaining a better standard of living? I assume the polemics will eventually fade and a more nuanced and ambivalent account will be the one taught in years to come. In the battle of "Socialismo O Muerte!" it appears a withering death of Cuban socialism will be the final result of Castro's grand experiment.

Monday, February 4, 2008

First Tutorials

After finishing my first few weeks of tutorials I can say it was much better than I thought. I was particularly concerned about early semester jitters making discussion difficult. They seem like good groups and we have had quite good discussions with all but a couple people making regular comments. I try not to push the shy folks too much, especially since they usually seem to be engaged with what others are saying but have that deer-in-headlights look whenever I look at them after asking a question. I really thought that it would be more difficult to fill up two hours of time, particularly when I am only facilitating discussion as opposed to lecturing. All or nearly all of the students seen to read each week, though the past week had a lot a of reading and I overheard many saying they didn't get through all of it.

The tutorials are definitely more work than the lab consultation position I had for SA 355 but I think it is good to have a change of pace. Also, chairing meetings of the SA grad caucus makes facilitating discussion less of a daunting task. I am enjoying the opportunity to do something new. It is funny to have the students ask directly for my opinion on the topics on which I am facilitating discussion. I don't mind giving my opinion but I am afraid it will cut discussion short if I say too much so I usually am brief and turn it into a question. This seems to work well. I realized I had established rapport with my students when one said "see you later, man." I can't imagine him calling the professor "man", but I could be wrong. Also funny is the student that wants to know the exact structure of the final paper and final exam on the first day of class. The instructions will mean more to you once you have at least completed the first assignment and even the mid-term. I also have a student who takes all the key terms out of the books and makes flash cards for them, now that is my kind of student.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

An Informed Discussion

As with much of American politics, the current immigration debate is filled mostly with polemics and demagoguery. It is often difficult to find a nuanced discussion of the issues and the wider context in which they exist. Luckily over the holiday break I was able to dive into two books on the subject, both of which provide a very contextualized account of central issues and controversies and where they reside in the course of debate.

The first one I read is They Take Our Jobs: And Twenty Other Myths About Immigration by Aviva Chomsky. It was a great book. Chomsky identifies key myths that are pushed about immigration from both pro and con positions. It places the immigration issue within the larger context of neoliberal reforms. While I wish some of the entries were longer, always good to leave the reader interested in finding out more, the book really stands out as a critically engaged account of the issues. One thing that particularly stood out was the role of marginalized labor and its place in the U.S. economy from the time of the American Revolution.

Ex Mex: From Migrants to Immigrants by Jorge Castañeda, a former foreign minister of Mexico, examines the historical context that situates the current debate. He also provides an excellent discussion of possible policies and the likely proponents and opponents to these policies. Examining the ways immigration from Mexico has changed, but also how it remains remarkably similar to previous decades, helps to identify that what we face is nothing new. Also noteworthy is that it provides a Mexican perspective on the issue, particularly from a person who has had a lot of influence and experience dealing with this issue at the highest levels of government.

While these are just two of many possible books that provide accounts of the current immigration debate, they are both very accessible and well-written. A proper discussion of immigration and its ramifications must start somewhere and these are good resources for that discussion.

Monday, January 14, 2008

New Semester

This week is the first real week of TAing this semester for me. I will be teaching my first three tutorials. It will be interesting because the tutorial system is not something I ever ran into in my undergraduate education. Apparently it is quite common at Canadian universities.

In the tutorial system there is one lecture held by the professor, generally near the beginning of the week, which all the students attend. Then students come to a tutorial section where there are around 10-15 students. These tutorial sessions are taught by the TA and are for in-depth discussion of topics discussed in lecture. Previously TAing the quantitative methods course I was only responsible for helping folks in lab sessions. I think it will be interesting to facilitate discussions and have a more dynamic interaction. I have three tutorials each week and they are each two hours long. It will be interesting particularly because the first few weeks deal with things such as epistemology, ontology, and research ethics. As the students are Sophomores (or 2nd year as they say up here), this will be one of their first experiences with learning specific research methods. It is both a qualitative and quantitative course and so it will be interesting to see what biases people come in with and how they come to terms with different methods. With the SFU Sociology and Anthropology department being so qualitative in focus, I look forward to hearing students' concerns.

Over the holiday break Heather found me reading an article titled "Rethinking Critical Pedagogy and the Gramscian and Freirean Legacies: From Organic to Committed Intellectuals or Critical Pedagogy, Commitment, and Praxis." It is about creating non-hierarchal relationships in the classroom. As soon as she saw the title she just walked out of the room. I have to say it is a pretty good read if anyone is interested... Some how I think I am alone on this one.

Overall, I am really excited for this semester. I am beginning to work on the results section of my thesis, in many ways the key section, and look forward to completing the entire thesis on time (defending in July or August). I really enjoy working on my thesis and think the two RA projects I am working on are both really interesting.