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.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Social Determinants of Health

I am nearly finished reading Successful Societies: How Institutions and Culture Affect Health and couldn't be happier with the state of research on the social determinants of health. While my work focuses more on health care, I am pleased to see this field progressing so quickly. Public policy which references the social determinants of health is likely years away in the U.S. (though it is beginning to gain traction in some European countries). However, I am definitely beginning to see it filter through discussions of health care policy. Most people recognize that the recent health reform law signed into law by President Obama is really more of a health insurance reform. The law creates a system where more Americans will be insured but it doesn't constrain the excesses of the insurance industry other than to prevent them from doing particularly deplorable things, like refusing to pay for cancer treatment because someone underestimated their weight when they first applied for coverage.

A recent post highlights the continuing danger the insurance industry poses as the law begins to be implemented. Not surprisingly, insurance companies are working to purchase legislators who will be favorable to their profiteering. This was one of the reasons that many people felt that any health reform should further limit the power of these insurers. In some other high-income countries you still have insurance companies through which care is rendered. Such a system can work as it has in the Netherlands and Germany. However, when these companies are singularly focused on profit and not on providing the best care for their clients, it is difficult to not wish for further regulations.

Also, the Commonwealth Fund recently released a fascinating (if not surprising) report which highlights how the U.S. health and health care system is doing in relation to other high income countries for which comparable data is available. The results are not good. The U.S. is in the bottom 2-3 (out of 7 countries) for nearly all of the measures and only on two does it make the top 4. All of this despite the U.S. having the most expensive health care system in the world. However, the authors of the report are optimistic that some of the measures in the recent health reform bill may give the U.S. better results over time.

Friday, July 9, 2010


There is a fun site called Lookshelves that has people present a photo of some part of their bookshelf and then answer five simple questions about their collection. Instead of a picture, here is a link to my Shelfari, a site that allows you to put books on a virtual shelf to keep track. My shelf on Shelfary contains about 1/3 of our current collection.

1) Who are you and where are you?
My name is Eagan and I am in Washington, D.C. (well technically Silver Spring, MD -- which is just outside the DC border, but most people have no idea where that is)

2) What do you do for work?
I am a health care analyst for an arm of Congress which provides oversight of the federal government and publicly spent funds.

3) What do you do for fun?

Spending time with Heather. This often includes hanging out at bookstores, seeing new exhibits at D.C.'s many museums and galleries, trying new restaurants, watching movies, and discussing politics.

4) Tell me something about your bookshelves.
Our bookshelves are currently the largest and cheapest that Ikea had to offer. We have four of them and they each fit around 200 books. However, they are all completely full and we have had to resort to stacking books on top of the books on the shelf. We also have one bookshelf from my Mom's old toy store.

5) Tell me something about ONE of the books on your shelf.
The most bookmarked book I own is Development as Freedom by Amartya Sen. In grad school it was my bible but I haven't gone back to it much since then. I am sure I will read it again soon and the ideas in it still influence my work greatly. It comforts me to know it is always there.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Only in Theory

A recent editorial in the WSJ lays out the overly simplistic rhetoric that some economists use to criticize those with a more complex world-view.

The piece claims to highlight that "liberals" and "progressives" are woefully ignorant of basic economic principles. The article highlights the eight measures used in the survey:
The other questions were: 1) Mandatory licensing of professional services increases the prices of those services (unenlightened answer: disagree). 2) Overall, the standard of living is higher today than it was 30 years ago (unenlightened answer: disagree). 3) Rent control leads to housing shortages (unenlightened answer: disagree). 4) A company with the largest market share is a monopoly (unenlightened answer: agree). 5) Third World workers working for American companies overseas are being exploited (unenlightened answer: agree). 6) Free trade leads to unemployment (unenlightened answer: agree). 7) Minimum wage laws raise unemployment (unenlightened answer: disagree). 8) Restrictions on housing development make housing less affordable (unenlightened answer: disagree)
What the author clearly fails to understand is how overly simplistic these examples are. His use of the term "unenlightened" further shows the author's inability to comprehend that someone may not simply agree with these supposed truisms from Economics 101. However, the true story behind many of these statements is more come complex when you look at them empirically (as opposed to pretending that theoretical understanding plays out perfectly in the real world). Those familiar with the actual empirical literature on minimum wages know that the simple assertion of #7 is simply unfounded. Unemployment is a complex issue and to pretend that it is so largely affected by one factor just highlights how out of touch many in the field of economics are with reality.

Also, anyone familiar with survey methodology can identify poor question design and vague wording in many of the suppositions posed to the interviewees. The question don't ask whether these assertions are "correct according to economic theory." Were that the case, it is likely that many would answer differently (I know I would); and then you could only say that progressives and liberals didn't understand economic theory (something very different from economic reality). The survey questions also make widely unfounded suppositions -- for example, that there is something called "free trade" that exists outside of the minds of economists.

Finally, the questions fail to highlight that the benefits of many of these measures outweigh the theoretical negatives highlighted in the statements. Were it always true that mandatory licensing of professional services increases the prices of those services, then such an increase is a minor problem in comparison to having various unlicensed pseudo-professionals posing as actual professionals in a given field. To claim that simply disagreeing with such a simplistic statement in any way impugns the intervieweree is absurd to say the least.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Never Enough Time (Buddhism: A Series, Part 5)

As I got more and more comfortable in my job, time began to fly by. Weeks felt like they were passing in days, and months would end before I had time to flip my calendar. There is a lot to do in DC and it has kept us pleasantly busy. But I felt a nagging feeling: Where was the time going?

Each Moment is the Universe by Dainin Katagiri highlights the teachings of impermanence and inter-being and how our ignorance of them causes us to suffer. This was the first book I read that delved deeply into Zen practice and ideas. The book focuses on being aware and mindful in each moment.

As human beings, we always base our thoughts on this misunderstanding [that we are separate from everything else in the universe]. We always feel that something is missing from our lives. We think that to live a peaceful life we must get something that is outside ourselves. Then we try to get it. But actions based on thirsty desire just become the cause of more suffering. That is why Buddha's teaching that suffering arises from desire based on ignorance is the second Noble Truth.

This teaching, for me, highlighted the importance of being aware each day. I began to focus more on taking time to just be aware of what I was doing at that moment. This would often meant little more than taking time throughout the day to keep level and focused. I found the practice rewarding and came to take pleasure in these instants of awareness.

One aspect of the book I found intriguing was the emphasis on the congruence of time and space. Here the book explores an idea similar to some from physics.

Time seems to be separate from beings, but actually there is no separation. From moment to moment, all sentient beings exist together as a completely independent moment of time. When the moment begins, all sentient beings temporarily appear as particular beings in the stream of time and seem to have their own separate existences. When the moment ceases, all sentient beings disappear, but they do not go away: they are interconnected smoothly and quietly in timelessness.

In physics, there is the notion that time and space are not separate. That they are tied together. This notion, for me, highlights that while we can say we are in the same place, are lives continue moving. Even at times when we feel stuck or lazy, that which we depend on and which depends on us continues to change.

The next book I read was Becoming Enlightened by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I was interesting in understanding more about this fabled figure in Buddhism.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Walking the Path (Buddhism: A Series, Part 4)

I have never been one to shy away from self-reflection, and Buddhism's emphasis on doing so appealed to me. I began reading Heart of the Buddha's Teachings by Thich Nhat Hanh to get a better idea of some of the more specific tenets of Buddhist beliefs. I had a vague sense of the overall structure and some of the core values, but I had yet to dive in too deeply. This book highlighted many of the fundamental ideas attributed to the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama. Some of these ideas included lists of attributes that are incorporated in anyone attempting to achieve bodhichitta, or an awakened mind.

While concretizing these ideas seemed on some level more prescriptive than necessary, I could understand the need for many to have a guide in their lives and in their practice of Buddhism. It was around this time that I made the conscious effort to begin experimenting with many of these ideas. I began reflecting more often on my own actions and views. I tried to identify what purpose they were serving. The biggest change was thinking about how my words and behaviors could be serving to create suffering, even unintentionally. I tried to think before speaking, particularly when I was angry or prideful (not terribly often for the former, more often than I would like to admit for the latter). Thay (a nickname given to Thich Nhat Hanh, meaning teacher) emphasized that by speaking to someone in a way that causes them to suffer, we are making things worse for them and others they interact with.

These changes made me think back to being in high school and early college. In those days I often found myself in heated political, religious, and social arguments in classes. I often would deliver biting critiques of other students' arguments. While these arguments took place in the context of a classroom, the tense feelings could last far beyond. I relished the sense of fear I put into some students as they came to realize they had little chance of coming out on top in any argument. Looking back now, I shake my head at my behavior then. My pride and arrogance likely impeded their learning and my own as well. I failed to see how it was likely their upbringing that led them to believe the way they did. My lashing out could never serve to rearrange their thinking and lived experiences in the course of a classroom discussion.

Now, to be clear, speaking up against injustice is something that everyone is responsible for. Silence is often confused with consent and letting injustices go unchallenged hurts us all. However, I know I could have been a more compassionate and, therefore, more convincing interlocutor if I had tried to understand why they believed what they did, instead of just cutting off the head of their argument.

This practice began to reap dividends as I found myself less stressed, slower to anger, and I was content in that I had made progress. When I found myself in interactions that would have previously caused anxiety, I was able to navigate them with a cooler head which often led to a more positive outcome than I would have expected. You would be surprised how appreciated a kind word or a smile can be, even to someone you don't know who is experiencing pain or anger.

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed grappling with the minutia of specific Buddhist ideas and was interested in diving deeper into more complex books. The next book I read was Each Moment is the Universe by Dainin Katagiri, which focused on Buddhist perspectives on time. As weeks flew by, I was beginning to see the value of my time more than ever before. I next plan to discuss the insights from that book and also some areas where I was beginning to see my prior ideas were matching up well with Buddhist beliefs.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

A Modern Day Jim Crow

The recent noxious immigration law in Arizona highlights many of the problems of the immigration debate. The measure, as has been the case for measures like it, will not serve to reduce crime or improve living conditions in Arizona. It will simply serve to further marginalize undocumented workers, making it even easier for coyotes and unethical companies to exploit them.

Further, by requiring ALL immigrants to carry around their papers, it strikes an eerily similar tone to precursors to violence in other countries which have marked certain populations as dangerous and attempted to create a parallel system for their treatment. Police are emboldened to stop anyone perceived as being an undocumented immigrant and demanding to see their paperwork. As you can imagine, there are clear racial and ethical undertones in such a law.

A more sane and just approach to immigration is needed, and the Obama administration must be pushed into taking the lead. It is a positive development that the Justice Department has promised to be vigilant as this law begins to be enforced over the next few months.

Anyone interested in the causes of this controversy and workable solutions would be advised to check out one or all of the following:
"They Take Our Jobs!" and 20 Other Myths About Immigration by Aviva Chomsky
Ex-Mex: From Migrants to Immigrants by Jorge Caste├▒eda
The Children of NAFTA: Labor Wars on the U.S./Mexico Border by David Bacon

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Personal Is Spiritual (Buddhism: A Series, Part 3)

To this day, I don't call myself a Buddhist. My lack of acceptance of such labels was reinforced by Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening by Stephen Batchelor. A former Buddhist monk and now lay Buddhist teacher, Batchelor explores issues of Buddhism from, what he terms, a Western perspective.

Through the book I came to identify Buddhism as a religion, but Dharmic practice (living the teachings of the Middle Way -- a name the Buddha gave his teachings) as an existential approach to life. This approach appealed to me for a variety of reasons. Batchelor's emphasis on a non-denominational Buddhist practice was something I found engaging. At this time I was also beginning to get a better understanding of the sociology, geography, and history of early Buddhism and its denominations. I was also learning more about early Islam and its interactions with Buddhism (a great book on the history of Islam is Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes by Tamin Ansary).

The different denominations of Buddhism were not terribly familiar to me. I had a vague understanding of regional differences in practice from the hilarious and surprisingly informative The Savvy Convert's Guide to Choosing a Religion (with such selling points on the cover as "Most Approved by God!" and "Get the Best Faith for Your Buck").

Batchelor's iconoclasm (which I would later understand the controversy of) really appealed to me. By putting some of the more arcane and obscure aspects of Buddhism in a historical context, and then treating them with a sort of reverent agnosticism, Batchelor found a way to embrace Buddhism without feeling tied to pieces he found questionable.

However, at this point I was beginning to feel like I was coming to have a more individual understanding of some of the concepts discussed. Some of the same ideas that hung up Batchelor were also hanging me up, particularly things like Karma and Rebirth. However, having a very cursory understanding of Buddhism, I approached much of Buddhism more as an intellectual exercise and sociological project than something overly personal.

This would begin to change as I allowed myself to be more open and honest about my skepticism and where it came from. That topic and The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh will be the focus of my next entry.

Monday, April 5, 2010

An Oddly Familiar Perspective (Buddhism: A Series, Part 2)

After moving to Washington D.C., my interest in Buddhism was put on the shelf. Upon arrival we had about 6 weeks to find jobs and a place to live. As can be expected, engaging with Buddhism wasn't top on my list of concerns. It was a stressful but happy six weeks. Sending off resumes, attending interviews, and looking for apartments took up most of our time. My father was in D.C. for six weeks for work and so we were able to stay with them. This made for some tight quarters at their 1 bedroom extended-stay hotel.

Things finally began to come together in mid-October. I got a job and we found an apartment that we really liked. One of the many perks of the building we chose is that it is next door to a library branch. After settling in we began to make more regular use of this wonderful service. Glancing through the Buddhism books one afternoon, many seemed more doctrinal and archaic than I was interested in.

I picked up one book, pretty much by random, called No Death, No Fear by Thich Nhat Hanh. Glancing through the introduction, the book seemed more like a discussion of existential philosophy as a coping mechanism. I was interested by the way he reduces complex Buddhist principles into ways of approaching grief. The approach he took seemed novel, the book was written to be appropriate for someone currently going through grief, but was even more appropriate for someone who wasn't (in that the lessons in the book are best to know before you are struck with grief). I think this dual purpose made the book much more approachable than it would have been otherwise. The book spoke broadly about loss, the fear of loss, and how these things cause us to suffer. I would greatly come to appreciate these ideas in a year or so, with the passing of my grandmother.

As an introduction to some of the more fundamental aspects of Buddhism, I found it really engaging. The two main points emphasized interconnectedness and impermanence. His approach never belied the complex doctrinal debates that underscore and support both of these fundamental ideas. I would later come to appreciate just how deeply these ideas run in Buddhist thought.

Most important from No Death, No Fear was that it sparked my interest in reading more books on Buddhism and beginning to unpack some of the more complex aspects. Many of the ideas expressed in the book aligned well with ideas that I had come across on existentialism and even secular humanism. The thing that was outstanding to me was that the book discussed these ideas not as a religious or necessarily spiritual practice, but more as a way to approach life. While Nhat Hanh discussed the benefits of quiet contemplation, it never seemed to be the only way to approach our fears of mortality, sickness, and change.

Around this same time, Kayla sent me a book on Buddhism that she thought would fit my style. It was called Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening by Stephen Batchelor. This engaging book will be the focus of my next post.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Accidental Encounter (Buddhism: A Series)

When Heather and I arrived in Utah after finishing our M.A.s in summer 2008 we wanted nothing more than to relax, read, and eat at some of our favorite restaurants. Heather's family has always been warm and inviting and it was nice to have a place to land while we planned our next step. We had been back a few days when Heather's sister, Kayla, approached me with a book she had started reading that she thought I would find interesting. It was a beginner's guide to Buddhism and it gave the historical background on Buddhism as well as an overview of its teachings. Kayla had been curious about Buddhism, as well as other religions, and was in the middle of trying to attend services of all of the different religious denominations in Cache Valley. I hadn't had much experience with Buddhism. I had a few friends who called themselves Buddhist, though only because it made their parents angry.

I had rejected Buddhism along with every other religion under the sun back in high school. Moving to Utah forced me to figure out what I believed in (and didn't believe in) very quickly upon arrival. Having grown up in a city in Montana that had one of every church and parents who didn't push us to be religious left me with a default agnosticism. Upon arriving in Utah, my friends wanted to know what religion I was and would I consider becoming Mormon. I came to realize I was an atheist, and a pretty devout one (which cost me a few friendships early on).

I went through a dogmatic phase where my biggest concerns were getting "In God We Trust" off of U.S. money and "Under God" out of the Pledge of Allegiance. As I became more interested in social and political issues and began going to college, the rabid atheism took a backseat to a less confrontational atheism and a general interest in religion as a sociological phenomena.

Kayla proposed that we both read the book and compare notes and thoughts. She mentioned that she had begun meditating and was finding it quite interesting, if a little boring. I mentioned that I wasn't one for meditation (my bias against anything "spiritual" still firmly entrenched), but that I would be interested in reading the book and talking about it.

The book gave just enough about Buddhism to make me realize just how little I had known about it. I had been vaguely aware of the story of the Buddha and was aware of the Dalai Lama and his struggle for the freedom of Tibetans. Being a sociologist interested in religion gave me an idea of the social significance it plays in many countries around the world, but its canon and doctrines were not something I had ever examined.

I plan for this to be the first of many posts on Buddhism, a topic I have been interested in recently. In the next post I plan to highlight some of the points I found interesting from that first book and where it led me to turn next.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Next Up: Immigration Reform

With health reform all but passed, many are now advocating that Obama and Congress turn to immigration reform. Immigration reform was something discussed under the previous administration mostly as a way to drum up fears among their xenophobic base. Little to no substantive action was taken, other than the ill-conceived border fence. As I have discussed previously on this blog, immigration reform is necessary and long past due. Until we have a more coherent and humane immigration policy, we will continue to have undocumented workers toil in the shadows, exploited and neglected. These estimated 11 million people do many jobs we could not live without. While none of the proposed solutions are perfect, weighing the pros and cons of each of them and carrying out the best available one should be our focus now. Some sort of amnesty program that sets a cut-off date in the past and provides documentation seems to be one of the most reasonable approaches. Critics argue that a problem with this approach is that it neglects those who tried to immigrate legally. However, this can be rectified by granting visas to these people as well.

In order to properly address immigration reform, trade reform also has to be discussed. Many of the forces driving undocumented workers to the U.S. are a result of trade practices that allow subsidized American industries to dump products on countries at prices that unsubsidized local industries cannot compete with. This hurts the importing country in the long run by making it impossible to keep up the infrastructure that is required to run these industries. Grievances filed by these countries with the WTO, even if won, are often ignored by the United States. Also, the series of bilateral trade agreements negotiated in the past two decades have put most of our smaller trading partners at a significant disadvantage. U.S. negotiators were able to impose their influence on smaller countries that lacked the ability to push for more fair provisions. Often specific industries were given special benefits, while the overall agreement hurt far more producers in that country.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

How Random: For Those Who Watch House

Apparently a recent episode of House (I haven't watched the show much myself) featured the case of a blogger whose fictional web address was:


I have received a couple comments from fans of the show informing me this. I find it quite funny that (I assume by coincidence) they used the same name as this blog (particularly as this is the blog I use to update friends and family of the relatively mundane things going on in my life.)

So House fans, you are welcome to view and read through.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

My First Report

My first GAO report was recently released to a surprising amount of media coverage. The report can be downloaded here:

The Wall Street Journal and Associated Press both had original stories about the report. Both authors contacted the Director on the report with questions.

Associate Press story

Wall Street Journal story

The AP story was also picked up by various other news outlets including:

The New York Times

The Washington Post

Business Week

The Daily Caller

In addition, some smaller regional and local papers have also picked it up.

Finally, the report has also sparked interest among some industry blogs and websites:

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Paradox of Free-Market Paternalism

There has been a lot of discussion lately about whether Obama is doing a good job as president. The state of the economy ranks as a top concern for most. Economists note that the current recovery may be a jobless one, especially at the outset. This jobless recovery, coupled with the frayed social safety net, leaves many Americans in a desperate situation. A recent article highlights this problem as well. As criticism of Obama persists, many are failing to identify the underlying contradiction inherent in that criticism.

For many, this jobless recovery has served as a platform to claim Obama is not doing enough to help average Americans. However, most of those making these claims are the very same people who consistently state that the government is the problem, not the solution. In that sense, they are contradicting themselves. You cannot have it both ways, criticizing government for being not involved enough and also too involved. Clearly industries regulated only by their endless greed have created an economy where good careers are increasingly difficult to find and irregular, poorly-paid jobs are the norm. This has come at a time of decreased union presence and a general malaise on the part of American workers to make their interests heard.

Related to this is Americans' belief that "our system of government is broken." Despite this popular idea, government (at all levels) does more things well than it does poorly. It provides necessary services to Americans for prices no corporation could achieve. Privatization schemes for basic services in different parts of the country have led to worse services and weakened infrastructure. While a centrally planned economy is an inefficient and obtuse solution, government has a clear and important role to play in laying the groundwork in which creative ventures and new businesses can thrive. Government also must play a role in creating the rules, regulations, and taxation that allows people to have the capabilities to engage meaningfully both with the market as well as with civil society.

Monday, January 18, 2010

A Call to Action: In Honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary. - Martin Luther King, Jr.
Pity may represent little more than the impersonal concern which prompts the mailing of a check, but true sympathy is the personal concern which demands the giving of one's soul. - Martin Luther King, Jr.

I enjoy my work for Congress and knowing that the reports I work on influence public policy. However with all the suffering in the world, I long to do more.

The issue of human rights is something that I have always found interesting and engaging. My previous volunteer work with the ACLU and Amnesty International focused closely on civil and political rights. I really enjoyed this but came to focus more on social and economic issues in my own work. While both social and economic rights are found in the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, they are often downplayed or ignored.

Recently, Amartya Sen, a nobel prize winning economist, (and one of the primary inspirations for my M.A. thesis) wrote an article on the legacy and future of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. His article is a great read and highlights the positive effects human rights have had in many areas. Sen has grappled closely with the critiques of human rights in two of his books, Development as Freedom and, more recently, in The Idea of Justice. His work has helped me to think more broadly about rights and obligations and what role an individual can play in creating a more just world.

This brings me to the purpose for posting this on the day we recognize Martin Luther King, Jr. and his noble work for social justice. Amnesty International recently refocused their work to more concretely include social and economic rights. The current Secretary General of Amnesty International, Irene Khan, wrote The Unheard Truth: Poverty and Human Rights to highlight this broadening of focus. The book is well-written and very approachable. It highlights the human rights implications of poverty and that the poor are more likely to lack adequate protections of their rights (and thus face significant hardship).

Along with this book, Amnesty International has started a new campaign called Demand Dignity. The campaign (and associated website) are in the early stages and focus on a simple message:
No solution without human rights at its core will have any long-term, sustainable impact on the lives of those in poverty.
It highlights some of the statistics that got me involved in activism over a decade ago:
  • 963 million go to bed hungry each night
  • 1 billion people live in slums
  • One woman dies every minute in childbirth
  • 2.5 billion people have no access to adequate sanitation services
  • 20,000 children die every day from poverty
Sadly, in the ten years since becoming aware of these facts, little has changed. Times are tough -- both here in the U.S. and around the world. Without a more consistent and a sustained push for a more socially just world we will likely face these same grim statistics ten, twenty, or fifty years from now. Such a fate is too terrible to conceive. I hope you will consider getting involved as well.
Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. - Martin Luther King, Jr.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Global Democracy: Beginning of a New Era?

As a new decade dawns, many people are asking whether this is all there is. The notion that the world will always progress has been called into question by the latest world economic downturn. Stalled progress on a variety of health, security, and humanitarian measures highlights that our future is far from predetermined. The vacuum of democratic power at the international level has been recognized as a possible reason for this and other problems. National interests dominate at bodies like the United Nations, World Bank, and International Monetary Fund. There is little sustained international collaboration, as each country seeks to protect its interests foremost, often at the expense of a global good. Conferences and international meetings can only do so much to highlight current problems. Most governments regard the reports generated by these meetings as merely information. They rarely are implemented into workable public policies.

There are currently efforts to create a more democratic and participatory United Nations. I applaud these efforts, though I fear they lack broad enough appeal to be implemented any time soon. It is certainly hard to imagine that countries would be willing to give up any substantive powers to these bodies. However, a more democratic international community would allow low- to middle-income countries to finally be able to apply the necessary pressure to get high-income countries to sufficiently open their markets to their goods. It would also allow the world to move toward an economic system where environmental, humanitarian, and social well-being can be included in the price of goods. Those goods made under regimes with lax environmental regulations, poor worker protections, and oppression would reflect these social negatives in their price. Only then would places like China be forced to interrupt the "race to the bottom" in terms of workers rights and environmental protections.

While I recognize that such substantive reforms are unlikely, at least in the short term, they are necessary for social justice. A socially just world is only possible when the people of the world can hold nations, international bodies, and corporations accountable for their actions.

You may say I'm a dreamer...