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Turkey goes to the polls to vote for president and parliament on Sunday.
As a scholar of the history and politics of the Middle East, I believe the most striking feature of the campaign is the ideological uniformity displayed by the main parties and their presidential candidates. With the exception of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party, candidates espouse strong sentiments of activist nationalism, Muslim piety or, sometimes, both.
This seems to resonate well with the majority of the Turkish electorate.
First as prime minister and then as president, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party have worked to recast Turkey in an increasingly nationalist and religious mold. Today, Erdoğan successfully uses these two ideas to cement his bond with voters.
Turkey was regarded as an outpost of Western-type secularism during much of the 20th century. But Islam and Turkish nationalism were always present in the country, even if not as strongly displayed as they have been in recent years.
The growing focus on religion and nationalism is leading Turkey away from democracy and democratic participation, making it difficult for diverse ideas to be advanced and respected by all parties. That has been evident in the increased authoritarianism of Erdoğan’s rule and the state of emergency he imposed after an attempted 2016 coup.
As Turkey becomes less liberal and more authoritarian, it contributes to the fracturing of western alliances, furthering instability in Europe and the Middle East.
Forcefully establishing an identity
Before World War I, the Ottoman Empire was home to a large number of Christian communities, Greeks and Armenians most prominent among them, and various ethnic groups.
But following the Ottomans’ destruction of the Armenian community in the early part of the 20th century and the expulsion of the Greeks, leaders of the new Turkish Republic devised policies to assimilate the country’s largest remaining ethnic minority group, the Kurds.
They believed that otherwise they would continue to lose territory and would not be able to hold on to their new country.
The Kurds, who are predominantly Muslim, resisted almost immediately and have been locked in an armed struggle with the Turkish state since the early days of the Republic in 1923.
The elimination of the largest non-Muslim groups, the Greeks and Armenians, meant that Islam became the de-facto identity for the overwhelming majority of the people who remained in Turkey.
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder and the first president of the Republic, initiated a radical policy of separating religion from politics. He created institutions and laws that were modeled after European counterparts, and severed ties with the country’s recent Islamic past, making Turkey the model country for successful westernization in the eyes of many observers.
But the reach and penetration of these policies beyond the country’s urban centers was limited.
For the more than 80 percent of the population who lived in rural areas, these reforms meant little. For them, their Muslim religion continued to be the most immediate way in which they identified themselves.
Power of religion, nationalism
This year – with the exception of the Kurdish party – the parties that are running for the parliament have competed with each other to showcase their nationalist and religious credentials.
Most of them have formed alliances to boost each other’s chances. But they have all rejected any form of cooperation with the pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party, HDP. None of these parties raised any serious objections when the HDP leadership and deputies were jailed almost two years ago. Government prosecutors have charged them with aiding Kurdish terrorism but a proper trial or sentencing has not taken place yet.
As for Islam, none of the candidates are promising a return to the strict secularism of the early 20th century. Even Muharrem Ince, the presidential candidate of the Republican People’s Party that was founded by Ataturk, enthusiastically flaunts his religious beliefs in his rallies. In fact, his unexpected success in the polls is attributed, in part, to his embrace of Islam.
Eroding barrier between religion and politics
Center-right parties that have dominated Turkish politics and won all the elections in Turkey since the 1950s have always used a combination of Turkish nationalism and Islam to advance their chances.
But for most of the 20th century they had to be careful in how they used religion for political purposes.
Red lines separated religion and politics and were enforced by laws and by the ever-present military, which claimed to be the guardian of the secular order. Appeals to religion were carried out indirectly – for example, by showing up at Friday prayers.
There were, however, no limits to using nationalism in politics. With a history curriculum that excluded any reference to any aspect of the region’s multicultural past, generations grew up believing mythical theories of national origins of Turks and their superiority.
The lines that separated religion and politics in Turkey eroded steadily in the course of the 20th century. The political parties wanted to appeal to constituents keen on asserting their Islamic identity and practicing their religion without having to conceal their beliefs.
Erdoğan pushes limits further
Under Erdogan’s leadership, Turkey’s education and government bureaucracy have been reformed to train and govern “a pious generation”. Following the attempted coup in 2016, the military has been defanged, becoming a bystander if not an enthusiastic supporter of this epochal transformation.
Today, I believe it is inconceivable for any political party to be successful in Turkey by advocating a staunchly secular line of policy.
Similarly, national unity is a non-negotiable plank in the election platforms of all the parties.
The armed conflict with the Kurds continues. The Turkish military has invaded and occupied a strip of land in northern Syria in recent months to fight against the Kurds there. But no candidate, other than HDP’s Demirtaş, has seriously questioned these policies.
None of the political parties or presidential contenders, with the exception of HDP, veer too far away from either Turkish nationalism or Muslim piety. So the short campaign for this snap election in Turkey has almost exclusively revolved around President Erdoğan. He has become such a paramount figure that being for or against him has become the single most important marker for politicians.
The campaign hasn’t included a sustained discussion of Turkey’s economy or international relations, even though the country is facing serious challenges in both of these areas.
It is hard to know what difference electing one of the opposition candidates will make in these areas since we don’t really know where parties stand. We know, however, what staying with Erdoğan will mean.
If Erdoğan emerges as a victor with the newly enhanced powers of presidency, he is certain to steer Turkey further down the road of authoritarianism. This will have serious implications for the people of Turkey, the region and Europe. If he loses, there will likely be an opening that will allow for new visions to emerge.
Even with a new party or president in power, it will not be easy to recreate the space for genuine democratic participation in Turkey. For a more inclusive politics to develop, the constraints of religious nationalism will have to be broken.
Resat Kasaba does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Los edulcorantes artificiales están en todas partes, pero el jurado todavía está deliberando sobre si estos productos químicos son inofensivos. También llamados edulcorantes no nutritivos, pueden ser sintéticos, como la sacarina y el aspartamo, o derivados naturales, como el esteviol, que proviene de la planta de Stevia.
Hasta la fecha, la Administración de Alimentos y Medicamentos de Estados Unidos ha aprobado seis tipos de edulcorantes artificiales y dos tipos de edulcorantes naturales no nutritivos para su uso en alimentos.
Para los que se esfuerzan arduamente por dejar de consumir azúcar, ésta ha sido una gran noticia. En todo el mundo, el aspartamo se encuentra en más de 6.000 alimentos, y se consumen entre 5.000 y 5.500 toneladas por año solo en los Estados Unidos.
La Asociación Americana de Diabetes —el grupo profesional más respetado enfocado en esta condición— recomienda oficialmente los refrescos dietéticos como una alternativa a las bebidas azucaradas. Hasta la fecha, siete municipios han establecido un impuesto a las bebidas azucaradas para desalentar el consumo.
Sin embargo, estudios médicos recientes sugieren que los políticos que están interesados en imponer un impuesto a los refrescos, podrían querer incluir a las bebidas dietéticas porque también estarían contribuyendo a la diabetes y a las enfermedades cardiovasculares.
¿Por qué no tienen calorías los edulcorantes?
La clave de estos edulcorantes, que virtualmente no tienen calorías, es que no se descomponen en azúcares naturales durante la digestión, como la hacen la glucosa, la fructosa y la galactosa, que luego el organismo usa como energía, o se convierten en grasa.
Los edulcorantes no nutritivos tienen diferentes subproductos que no se convierten en calorías. Por ejemplo el aspartamo pasa por un proceso metabólico diferente que no produce azúcares simples. Otros, como la sacarina y la sucralosa, no se descomponen en absoluto: se absorben directamente en el torrente sanguíneo y se eliminan por orina.
Para los diabéticos, teóricamente, estos edulcorantes deberían ser una “mejor” opción que el azúcar. La glucosa estimula la liberación de insulina, una hormona que regula los niveles de azúcar en sangre. La diabetes tipo 2 ocurre cuando el cuerpo ya no responde tan bien a la insulina como debiera, lo que lleva a niveles más altos de glucosa en la sangre, lo que daña los nervios, los riñones, los vasos sanguíneos y el corazón.
Como los edulcorantes no nutritivos en realidad no son azúcar, deberían eludir este problema.
Edulcorantes artificiales, tu cerebro y tu microbioma
Sin embargo, en la última década se ha acumulado cada vez más evidencia que estos edulcorantes pueden alterar los procesos metabólicos saludables de otras maneras, específicamente en el intestino.
El uso a largo plazo de estos edulcorantes se ha asociado con un mayor riesgo de diabetes tipo 2. Se ha demostrado que los edulcorantes, como la sacarina, cambian el tipo y la función del microbioma intestinal, la comunidad de microorganismos que viven en el intestino. El aspartamo disminuye la actividad de una enzima intestinal que normalmente protege contra la diabetes tipo 2.
Además, esta respuesta puede exacerbarse por el “desajuste” entre el cuerpo que percibe algo como sabor dulce y las calorías asociadas esperadas. Cuanto mayor es la discrepancia entre la dulzura y el contenido calórico real, mayor es la desregulación metabólica.
Los edulcorantes también han demostrado que cambian la actividad cerebral asociada con el consumo de alimentos dulces. Una resonancia magnética funcional, que estudia la actividad cerebral midiendo el flujo sanguíneo, mostró que, comparado con el azúcar regular, la sucralosa, disminuye la actividad en la amígdala, una parte del cerebro relacionada con la percepción del gusto y la experiencia de comer.
Otro estudio reveló que el consumo grande de sodas dietéticas a más largo plazo está relacionado con una menor actividad en la “cabeza caudada” del cerebro, una región vinculada a la sensación de recompensa, necesaria para generar una sensación de satisfacción. Investigadores han planteado la hipótesis que esta disminución de la actividad podría llevar a una persona que bebe refrescos dietéticos a compensar la falta de placer que ahora obtienen de los alimentos al aumentar el consumo de todos los alimentos, no solo de refrescos.
En conjunto, estos estudios, a nivel celular y cerebral, pueden explicar por qué las personas que consumen edulcorantes todavía tienen un mayor riesgo de obesidad que las que no consumen estos productos.
Mientras este debate sobre los pros y los contras de estos sustitutos del azúcar continúa, debemos ver estos estudios de conducta con un grano de sal (o azúcar) porque muchos bebedores de sodas dietéticas —o cualquier persona consciente de la salud que consuma edulcorantes sin calorías— ya tiene los factores de riesgo de obesidad, diabetes, hipertensión o enfermedad cardíaca.
Aquellos que ya tienen sobrepeso u obesidad pueden recurrir a bebidas bajas en calorías, lo que hace que parezca que las gaseosas dietéticas están causando su aumento de peso.
Este mismo grupo también puede ser menos propenso a moderar su consumo. Por ejemplo, estas personas pueden pensar que tomar una soda dietética varias veces a la semana es mucho más saludable que beber un solo refresco con azúcar.
Estos resultados indican que los consumidores y los profesionales de salud necesitan verificar nuestras suposiciones sobre los beneficios para la salud de estos productos. Los edulcorantes están en todas partes, desde bebidas hasta aderezos para ensaladas, desde galletas hasta yogurt, y debemos reconocer que no hay garantía que estos químicos no aumenten la carga de enfermedades metabólicas en el futuro.
Como médica internista especializada en prevención general y salud pública, me gustaría poder decirles a mis pacientes cuáles son los verdaderos riesgos y beneficios si beben una soda dietética en lugar de agua.
Los legisladores que consideren impuestos a las bebidas gaseosas para fomentar mejores hábitos alimentarios, tal vez deberían pensar en incluir alimentos con edulcorantes no nutritivos. Por supuesto, hay un argumento para ser realista y perseguir el menor de dos males.
Pero incluso si las consecuencias negativas de los sustitutos del azúcar no influyen en nuestra política impositiva, por ahora, al menos la comunidad médica debería ser honesta con el público sobre lo que puede perder o ganar, consumiendo estos alimentos.
Eunice Zhang does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Nota editorial: Este articulo se publicó por primera vez el 28 de agosto de 2017. Read in English.
La noticia corrió como pólvora a lo largo de las redes: Leopoldo López, el líder de la oposición venezolana preso en la cárcel militar de Ramo Verde ha muerto. Lo dijo Leopoldo Castillo, un conocido periodista de Canal de Noticias Globovisión que se encuentra exiliado en Miami, por Twitter.
En Venezuela y fuera, la gente empieza a retuitear la noticia sin esperar confirmación. Hasta el senador norteamericano Marco Rubio lo “confirma”: el cuerpo casi sin vida de López había sido trasladado al hospital militar.
Se lanzan epítetos diversos en contra del gobierno de Nicolás Maduro, al que se acusa de asesinato . Algunos dicen que la cuenta de Castillo fue hackeada por agentes gubernamentales justamente para esto, para generar zozobra, cosa que Castillo desmiente con lo cual se genera una confusión aún mayor .
Se solicita una “fe de vida”. El gobierno se apresura a través del programa de televisión del poderoso ex-diputado Diosdado Cabello a mostrar un video en el cual López asegura estar vivo y en buenas condiciones, mientras la familia de López se dirige al hospital militar y exigen verlo.
Castillo confirma la información de la muerte. Se dice que el video es un montaje, o que la voz de quien habla no es la de López, la mismísima Lilian Tintori tiene dudas sobre la veracidad del video.
Algunos expertos expresan que la cara de López se manipuló digitalmente para colocarla encima del cuerpo de otra persona y así fue presentado en un intento por despistar al país.
El clima de desconfianza y desconcierto solo se disipa pocos días después cuando Lilian Tintori, esposa de López, confirma luego que su marido se encuentra “vivo y bien”.
Este es solo un ejemplo de la distorsionada realidad mediática que va sacudiendo a Venezuela, país que verdaderamente no necesita más sobresaltos.
Unos pocos días antes de la debacle con López, la exdiputada y líder del partido Vente, María Corina Machado, le presenta al país una fotografía de una orden de detención en su contra, presuntamente emanada del Ministerio Público. Empiezan las manifestaciones de solidaridad, la gente se moviliza a su favor. La información resulta falsa.
Al mismo tiempo, fuentes cercanas al gobierno muestra una foto de jóvenes encapuchados armados con revólveres y fusiles. Horas más tarde “rueda” por las redes una versión de la misma foto en la cual los hombres no se encuentran armados.
En días pasados corrió el rumor de que se habían encendido los reflectores del Palacio Presidencial porque se esperaba un bombardeo, en realidad se trataban de los reflectores del Festival de Teatro de Caracas.
Todo esto forma parte del día a día de los venezolanos. Nuestra realidad se encuentra mediada por el manejo de información no confirmada, a veces tendenciosa, que genera zozobra y colapsa nuestra capacidad de procesamiento. Las “fake news” (así se dice en Estados Unidos, país con una industria robusta de “hechos alternativos”) distorsionan nuestra percepción de lo cotidiano y generan expectativas (o decepción) en razón de las fuentes a las cuales se tiene acceso o la capacidad del usuario para discriminar lo ficticio de lo real.
Por una parte, los medios de comunicación tradicionales están sometidos a importantes presiones gubernamentales que los han colocada frente a formas de censura muy rudas. Los periódicos han perdido concesiones, se ven presionados a despedir a periodistas que mantienen posturas críticas al gobierno, hasta se han puesto limitaciones a la compra de papel para la prensa escrita.
En los últimos dos años han cerrado al menos 13 medios por presión gubernamental. Al menos 25, inclusive El Universal, un diario critico del chavismo, han sido vendidos a sectores cercanos al gobierno, lo que ha implicado una reducción fuerte de la autonomía editorial. Todo esto ha contribuido a una autocensura de la prensa que reduce la capacidad del usuario de obtener información confiable.
Así que nos presenta un país ficticio en el cual no parece existir conflictividad social, o por lo menos no en los niveles que uno aprecia al salir a la calle.
Claro que esta dinámica se complica más gracias a las redes sociales, con sus fuentes poco confiables, contradicciones permanentes, pistas falsas y discursos tergiversados de acuerdo a intereses particulares.
Se trata de una plena guerra de información.
Guerra de baja intensidad
No queda claro cómo los cronistas del futuro calificarán los tiempos que vivimos. ¿Será que Venezuela ya confronta una guerra real de baja intensidad? Es que aquí, encima del bombardeo de noticias falsas, hay muchísima violencia.
Según la Fiscalía, el año pasado los venezolanos sufrimos mas de 20.000 homicidios. Como consecuencia de enfrentamientos entre población civil y la policía, más de 30 personas murieron en tan solo los últimos dos meses.
Como toda guerra, la nuestra incluye violencia física y psicológica. Los venezolanos nos movemos entre la necesidad y la incertidumbre. Tenemos dificultades para comprar pan e insumos básicos como pañales, leche o medicamentos; al mismo tiempo, la confusión no deja mucho espacio para la normalidad, para enviar a los niños al colegio, ir al cine, enamorarse o planificar el futuro.
Al ritmo de marchas, protestas, represión y bombardeos comunicacionales nos hemos convertido en una sociedad dividida y profundamente alienada que vive en un presente permanente. Es agotador, y lo cotidiano solo se hace posible mediante un esfuerzo extraordinario.
La dinámica perversa de información y contra-información hace difícil distinguir lo real de lo aparente y la verdad de la mentira. Disminuye la capacidad de los ciudadanos para tomar decisiones. Se anuncian marchas y contramarchas que resultan no pasar, se convoca a diversas actividades o se cancelan y se habla de muertos y heridos sin que la información sea cierta (por exceso o por defecto).
Esta construcción sistemática de la ‘postverdad’ representa una revisión del momento histórico que responde más a lecturas interesadas y a intereses particulares que a hechos fácticos. Muchas de nuestras “noticias” son simplemente elaboraciones ideológicas.
Se ha llegado al extremo de informar acerca de la salida del país de la familia presidencial, de la renuncia de funcionarios o de movimientos militares, situaciones que millones de venezolanos quisieran creer. Pero son rumores, sin más.
Las noticias falsas provienen de diversas fuentes, muchas de ellas no identificadas, pero que responden a intereses diversos dentro del conflicto actual. Quienes hablan de manera ligera de terrorismo, de atentados en contra de funcionarios es por que esperan auspiciar un golpe militar para poner fin a este caos. Quienes hablan de torturas y de secuestros pretenden levantar miedo en la población, fomentando odios sin pensar en las consecuencias.
A partir de estas ‘realidades alternativas’ se elaboran los contenidos de un discurso confrontador que auspicia el odio, la exclusión y el enfrentamiento.
Es así que entre el dolor por los fallecidos, la confrontación callejera, la escasez, la corrupción, las escaramuzas constantes, quizás lo más complejo del conflicto permanente de Venezuela sea esta guerra de información. Pues hace más difícil que se construya una solución negociada y pacífica a la crisis. Y esa es una muy mala noticia.
Miguel Angel Latouche does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Physical therapists help people walk again after a stroke and recover after injury or surgery, but did you know they also prevent exposure to opioids? This is timely, given we are in a public health emergency related to an opioid crisis.
Many people addicted to opioids are first exposed through a medical prescription for pain. Opiate-based drugs provide relief for acute conditions, such as post-surgical pain.
Unfortunately, the effectiveness of opioids decreases after time, requiring higher doses of the drug for the same effects and, perhaps counter-intuitively, worsening pain in some people. Many people progress from this prescription to other opiate derivatives, including heroin and fentanyl. As a result, a growing emphasis has been placed on nonpharmacological alternatives to opioids.
I am a physical therapist and I have studied non-pharmacological methods of preventing the transition from acute to chronic pain. It’s an exciting time for the field, because practice and research are showing that physical therapy could diminish the need for opioids, and thus lower the risk of addiction.
Reducing initial exposures to opioids
Part of the proposed solution to the opioid crisis is to limit new opioid exposures. Physical therapists are an important part of this process. And it is not just physical therapists who are saying this.
A letter to the president from the Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis stated, “individuals with acute or chronic pain must have access to non-opioid pain management options. Everything from physical therapy, to non-opioid medications, should be easily accessible as an alternative to opioids.” U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams echoed this call for alternative treatments, including physical therapists.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also issued prescribing guidelines in 2016 that recommend physical therapists be considered a first-line treatment for people with chronic pain conditions.
These studies show quite convincingly that the probability of receiving a prescription for opioids is 89 percent lower for people seeing a physical therapist for pain. Seeing the physical therapist sooner, rather than later, makes this protective effect even greater.
Why don’t more people see a physical therapist?
People in pain can go directly to a physical therapist in every state. So why don’t more people to do this? The simple answer: time and money.
Steven George, the director of musculoskeletal research for the Duke Clinical Research Institute, recently wrote, “Our existing health care system is designed to treat pain through easily delivered products, like opioids, injections and surgery,” suggesting that alternatives are not as easily delivered.
Only about 10 percent of people who see a physician for back pain get referred to a physical therapist. Only 37 percent of those people actually go. The process to make an appointment can be lengthy and time-consuming, and insurance companies often slow down the process. Some HMO insurance plans require that physical therapy treatment be certified as medically necessary, or they will not pay. And, there’s another step: pre-authorization. This, too, delays the access to covered care even more. For a person in pain and in need of help, this is a deterrent. It’s much easier to ask for a pill.
Then there is the cost. Physical therapists are often classified as specialists, so co-payments may be as high as US$75 a visit. The average patient with back pain sees a physical therapist for seven visits. Even with insurance coverage, this episode of care still will cost the person over US$500 out of pocket compared to the cost of a single primary care visit and prescription. Several states, including Kentucky, have enacted laws limiting co-payment for many services. One of the recommendations from the President’s Commission was that alternatives to opioids, including physical therapy, should be adequately covered by payers. These recommendations have yet to be acted upon.
So what does all of this mean for people in pain? First, seeing a physical therapist is effective for many pain conditions. Second, getting to a physical therapist sooner rather than later decreases the use of opioid medication. The current health care system must change in order for people in pain to access this safe and effective non-opioid alternative for pain management.
Mark Bishop works for University of Florida Department of Physical Therapy. Mark receives funding from the National Institutes of Health to study conservative interventions for pain. He serves on the Board of Directors of the Florida Physical Therapy Association.
And yet, there has been no dearth of such comparisons nearly one and a half years into his term.
Many commentators have also drawn parallels between the conduct and language of Trump supporters and Holocaust-era Nazis. Recent news of ICE agents separating immigrant families and housing children in cages have generated further comparisons by world leaders, as well as Holocaust survivors and scholars. Trump’s use of the word “infest” to refer to immigrants coming to the U.S. is particularly striking. Nazis referred to infestations of Jewish vermin, and Rwandan Hutu’s labeled Tutsi as cockroaches.
In August 2017, in the wake of the Charlottesville violence, the president used a familiar rhetorical strategy for signaling support to violent groups. He referenced violence on “both sides,” implying moral equivalence between protesters calling for the removal of Confederate statues and those asserting white supremacy. His comments gave white supremacists and neo-Nazis the implied approval of the president of the United States.
Many of these groups explicitly seek to eliminate from the U.S. African-Americans, Jews, immigrants and other groups, and are willing to do so through violence. As co-directors of Binghamton University’s Institute for Genocide and Mass Atrocity Prevention, we emphasize the importance of recognizing and responding to early warning signs of potential genocide and other atrocity crimes. Usually, government officials, scholars and nongovernmental organizations look for these signals in other parts of the world – Syria, Sudan or Burma.
But what about the U.S.? President Trump’s executive order halting family separations provides Congress an opportunity to act. How the legislators respond will be an important indicator of where the U.S. is headed.
Is it possible in the US?
The term “genocide” invokes images of gas chambers the Nazis used to exterminate Jews during World War II, the Khmer Rouge killing fields of Cambodia and thousands of Tutsi bodies in the Kagera River in Rwanda. On that scale and in that manner, genocide is highly unlikely in the United States.
But genocidal violence can happen in the U.S. It has happened. Organized policies passed by elected U.S. lawmakers have targeted both Native Americans and African-Americans. Public policies defined these groups as not fully human and not protected by basic laws. Current policies treat immigrants the same way.
The threat of genocide is present wherever a country’s political leadership tolerates or even encourages acts with an intent to destroy a racial, ethnic, national or religious group, whether in whole or in part. While genocide is unlikely in the United States, atrocities which amount to mass violations of human rights and crimes against humanity are evident. The U.N. defines crimes against humanity as any “deliberate act, typically as part of a systematic campaign, that causes human suffering or death on a large scale.” Unlike genocide, it does not need to include the actual destruction or intent to destroy a group.
According to Holocaust survivors, the current visual and audio accounts of children separated from their parents in border detention facilities reminds them of practices of the Nazis in ghettos and concentration and extermination camps.
The Holocaust took the international community by surprise. In hindsight, there were many signs. In fact, scholars have learned a great deal about the danger signals for the risk of large-scale violence against vulnerable groups.
In 1996, the founder and first president of the U.S.-based advocacy group Genocide Watch, Gregory H. Stanton, introduced a model that identified eight stages – later increased to 10 – that societies frequently pass through on the way to genocidal violence and other mass atrocities. Stanton’s model has its critics. Like any such model, it can’t be applied in all cases and can’t predict the future. But it has been influential in our understanding of the sources of mass violence in Rwanda, Burma, Syria and other nations.
The 10 stages of genocide
The early stages of Stanton’s model include “classification” and “symbolization.” These are processes in which groups of people are saddled with labels or imagined characteristics that encourage active discrimination. These stages emphasize “us-versus-them” thinking, and define a group as “the other.”
As Stanton makes clear, these processes are universally human. They do not necessarily result in a progression toward mass violence. But they prepare the ground for the next stages: active “discrimination,” “dehumanization,” “organization” and “polarization.” These middle stages may be warning signs of an increasing risk of large-scale violence.
Where are we now?
Trump’s political rhetoric helped propel him into office by playing on the fears and resentments of the electorate. He has used derogatory labels for certain religious and ethnic groups, hinted at dark conspiracies, winked at violence and appealed to nativist and nationalist sentiments. He has promoted discriminatory policies including travel restrictions and gender-based exclusions.
Classification, symbolization, discrimination and dehumanization of Muslims, Mexicans, African-Americans, immigrants, the media and even the political opposition may be leading to polarization, stage six of Stanton’s model.
Stanton writes that polarization further drives wedges between social groups through extremism. Hate groups find an opening to send messages that further dehumanize and demonize targeted groups. Political moderates are edged out of the political arena, and extremist groups attempt to move from the former political fringes into mainstream politics.
Do Trump’s implied claims of a moral equivalence between neo-Nazis and counterprotesters in Charlottesville move us closer to the stage of polarization?
Does housing children in cages at border detention facilities in the name of deterrence represent a deepening dehumanization?
Certainly, there are reasons for deep concern. Moral equivalence – the claim that when both “sides” in a conflict use similar tactics, then one “side” must be as morally good or bad as the other – is what logicians call an informal fallacy. Philosophers take their red pens to student essays that commit it. But when a president is called on to address his nation in times of political turmoil, the claim of moral equivalence is a lot more than an undergraduate mistake.
Similarly, when warehousing children in cages and tent cities is justified as a policy of deterrence, this is more than an academic policy debate. We suggest this is a deliberate effort to dehumanize and polarize, and an invitation to what may come next.
While the U.S. may not be on the path to genocide in the sense of mass killings, it clearly is engaging in other crimes against humanity – deliberately and systematically causing human suffering on a large scale and violating fundamental human rights.
Responding and preventing
Polarization is a warning of the increased risk of violence, not a guarantee. Stanton’s model also argues that every stage offers opportunities for prevention. Extremist groups can have their financial assets frozen. Hate crimes and hate atrocities can be more consistently investigated and prosecuted. Moderate politicians, human rights activists, representatives of threatened groups and members of the independent media can be provided increased security.
Encouraging responses have come from the international community, the electorate, business leaders and government officials. German Chancellor Angela Merkel condemned the racist and far-right violence displayed in Charlottesville, and U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May harshly criticized Trump’s use of moral equivalence. More recently, Pope Francis and the governments of various countries have spoken out about U.S. family separation practices.
The recent withdrawal of the U.S. from the U.N. Human Rights Council suggests that international pressure may not be effective. Domestic actors may have more luck.
Individuals and groups are following the recommendations presented in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s guide to combating hate in supporting victims, speaking up, pressuring leaders and staying engaged. Business leaders have also expressed their discontent with Trump’s polarizing statements and actions. The American Academy of Pediatrics has gone so far as to label the immigrant family separations a form of mass child abuse.
Local governments are struggling to maintain their status as sanctuary cities or cities of resistance. These cities try to provide refuge for immigrants despite ICE raids and arrests. The general public and politicians of both parties and at all levels are speaking out about the separations, and it appears they may be heard.
In our assessment, these actions represent essential forms of resistance to the movement toward escalating atrocities. The executive order issued by President Trump this week provides the elected representatives in Congress with an important opportunity. Will they be complicit in or act to prevent further atrocities?
It also provides the general public an opportunity to strongly assert a commitment to human rights. How Congress responds will be a clear indicator of whether our democratic checks and balances are functioning to stop atrocities from escalating, or whether we are continuing down a dangerous path.
The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
China’s leader, Xi Jinping, is one of the most powerful people on the planet.
He is also a soccer fan.
Since taking office in 2013, Xi has put soccer squarely at the center of his ambitious plan to turn China into a wealthy superpower. Xi has a “World Cup dream.” He wants China to qualify for, host and eventually win the World Cup by 2050.
To date, China has qualified for this global soccer tournament just once, in 2002, and it has never scored a goal in the World Cup.
Can China go from soccer dud to soccer superpower? My guess is probably not – at least not in Xi’s lifetime.
Not a winner
I’m a China expert who has researched the country’s top-down political system and its approach to economic development. I also lived in Shanghai, in 2012 and 2013, where I shuttled my three school-age children to and from soccer practice.
China certainly has the money and political wherewithal to expand its commercial and political influence over this global sport, just as it has lately done with the Olympics and international relations.
Chinese companies have bought several major European soccer teams, including the U.K.‘s Wolverhampton and Italy’s AC Milan. Chinese brands like Mengniu and Luci bought serious advertising space in this year’s World Cup, publicizing these little-known companies alongside global giants like Budweiser and Rozneft.
Xi can also ensure that his countrymen see and play more soccer. China’s 2016 plan for Chinese soccer greatness proposes to build 70,000 new stadiums and develop 20,000 new specialized schools, with the aim of having 30 to 50 million Chinese children playing soccer by 2020.
China’s ferocious academic culture
So Chinese soccer may well improve dramatically over the next two decades. But I believe China lacks the culture and institutions to achieve Xi’s third goal: winning the World Cup.
For one, history shows that investment from China’s soccer plan will inevitably be directed mostly to coastal megacities and capitals because of the country’s administrative hierarchy. That hierarchy systematically benefits provincial capitals and large municipalities. My experience is that the trickle-down to rural areas, where about half of the population still lives, is slow and minimal.
China’s fierce academic culture is also a barrier to nurturing soccer talent. The drive to achieve at school starts early, intensifies during elementary and middle school and culminates with the “gao kao” – the infamously difficult college entrance exam.
Even when students have great athletic talent, test preparation and homework inevitably crowd out all but the most traditional extracurricular activities, like classical music training. In some Chinese cities, severe air pollution even makes having recess outside hazardous.
Parental pressure has been found to be one of the most significant sources of Chinese teenagers’ high levels of stress and anxiety. As a parent, too, I heard many other parents complain that their kids were maxed out. Adding athletics to their children’s agendas seems an unlikely choice.
Schools also frequently underemphasize athletics because this is not how reputations and strong student demand are earned in China. High academic performance, measured through testing, is the singular goal.
I see no evidence that China is currently training the next generation of global soccer stars.
Not enough space
Even China’s economic boom does not work entirely in soccer’s favor.
The bulk of China’s 1.38 billion people live in central and eastern China, where cities are among the most densely populated in the world. Urban real estate prices there are sky high, so recreational space in cities – like soccer fields that can be used for pickup games and local leagues – are few and far between.
Japan has 200 sports fields for every 10,000 people. China has seven, and most of them are owned by schools or the military. Your average American has access to 19 times more sports space than the average China resident.
China is massive – bigger than Germany, Brazil and South Africa combined. But that doesn’t mean there is a lot of free space. Land in rural China is still dominated by small-scale agriculture.
The central government’s 2016 soccer plan addresses China’s deficit in youth talent development and infrastructure by proposing more childhood soccer training and building more soccer stadiums.
The culture gap may prove harder to overcome, though. China just isn’t a soccer country. I rarely saw kids playing informal games in the streets of China with a soda can or a half-deflated ball as one does across Latin America and Africa.
Only 2 percent of Chinese play soccer, compared to 7 percent in Europe and Latin America. China does not rank in the top 10 nations of youth participation in soccer, according to FIFA’s last survey.
Will China follow the US’s lead?
Rich countries without much of a soccer culture can build it – over time. That’s what soccer advocates in the United States have been trying to do for decades.
The country got its professional league, Major League Soccer, in 1988. By the early 1990s, the league was establishing teams and building stadiums across the country. Managers imported popular – if aging – global stars like England’s David Beckham to boost the sport’s American profile. Former U.S. National Team Coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who was fired in late 2016, also put emphasis on youth soccer development.
The U.S. hosted the World Cup in 1994 and will host it again, alongside Mexico and Canada, in 2026.
But for all this money and effort, the results have been middling. The U.S. men’s soccer team did not even qualify for this year’s World Cup.
The U.S. women’s team, on the other hand, won the 2015 Women’s World Cup. Chinese women have also seen more global success than male players.
That’s because many traditional soccer powers have marginalized women’s participation in the sport. If Xi wants China to make its mark as a soccer upstart, the women’s team may be his best investment.
Mary Gallagher does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
The new health care venture formed by Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase announced June 20 that Harvard professor and well-known author Atul Gawande would be the company’s CEO. The idea for the new company is to innovate by cutting costs from the health care system, starting with the more than 1 million employees of the three companies behind the venture.
Previous efforts to contain health care spending – from managed care to high deductible health plans to alternative payment models – shared the goal of eliminating unnecessary and overly expensive services. But these practices are very hard to change, since they’re based on physicians’ clinical judgment and patient preferences.
The new joint venture may find it is easier to start with a different question entirely: Can we reduce spending by 15 to 20 percent just by cutting out unnecessary middlemen?
As business school professors, we know that cutting the unnecessary transactions costs generated by unneeded middlemen is the classic first step. We expect it will quickly be seen as the low-hanging fruit for this new organization.
Tackling inefficient health care arrangements
In its main business, Amazon cuts out everyone except the original supplier of what they sell – and the post office. That’s how they have cut prices of other consumer products.
There’s ample room to replicate that success in health care, because the system in the U.S. has long been plagued by excessive transaction costs – the expenses incurred when buying or selling goods and services. These include irrational pricing, as evidenced by the price of services varying wildly for hospitals, insurers and patients. This, along with unnecessarily complicated billing systems, creates the need for extensive bureaucracies to manage all the varied relationships.
Businesses like Amazon try to fix this sort of mess and make shopping for services more convenient and transparent. Imagine an easy-to-use platform where patients can readily assess the price and quality of competing providers and quickly schedule appointments or perhaps even initiate an online consultation. We bet Dr. Gawande is imagining it.
There are also several less visible sources of unnecessary transactions costs that are vulnerable to disruption. Two of these center on pharmacy benefit management companies (PBMs) and insurance brokers and consultants.
Lately, the big pharmaceutical firms have pointed at PBMs to deflect the blame for their sky-high drug prices. President Donald Trump seems to share this view. However, PBMs are just middlemen whose only purpose is to lubricate the relationship between insurers, Big Pharma and pharmacy chains. They let pharmacies know what your plan covers and what you owe – a valuable service worth a nominal payment.
But PBMs also work the system by collecting rebates of up to 25 percent from drug manufacturers as an agent for insurers. They then pass some, but not all, of them on to the insurance companies and their customers. We believe these rebates should be understood for what they really are: bribes that Big Pharma pays in an attempt to bias insurers to favor their higher-priced products over others.
Health insurers, such as the plan one of us ran as CEO, receive these higher rebates based on volume – but only for drugs with a competitive alternative where there is a choice of what to cover. The growth of drug rebates clearly indicates these bribes work independent of clinical appropriateness and input from doctors.
Furthermore, Big Pharma’s use of coupons and donations to reduce what patients pay permits huge increases in drug prices, which more than offsets these rebates. The patient is insulated from higher prices at the pharmacy but still ultimately pays more. The cost of these coupons and donations shifts to the insurer, and the insurer then gets it back in premium hikes. This whole mess rests on rebates as an unproductive transaction cost that has little real reason to exist at all.
Insurers are not blameless. They also try to buy business, creating unnecessary transaction costs in the process. For instance, employers typically hire brokers and consultants to advise them on coverage for their employees. Given the complexity of insurance plans, seeking such help is usually a rational decision. But the hidden fact is that these middlemen, in addition to fees from their clients, are taking side payments from insurers up to 16 percent of the premium – clearly designed to bias their recommendations to employers. These payments are another case of unproductive transactions costs that can be eliminated by bargaining directly with insurers and drug companies.
More targets for the joint venture
Efforts to remove the middlemen won’t stop with PBMs and brokers. Insurers, the biggest middlemen, are certainly vulnerable with their high administrative costs ranging from 12 percent to 18 percent. And this new joint venture might also ask why they would pay wildly variable prices for similar health care services when they can dictate package prices for a given episode of care and channel employees to higher-quality providers willing to bargain. Employers like these three can even hire their own clinicians and save another layer of overhead. And if they can do it for their own employees, they can share these efficiencies with others.
Ron Coase, who won the Nobel Prize in economics in 1991, demonstrated that industries are organized ultimately to minimize transactions costs. This is obvious in the history of other sectors where fragmented producers gradually transformed into integrated organizations, and then into assemblers as labor and transportation costs changed. In a similar way, the internet has allowed radical restructuring of many businesses as transaction costs have fallen.
So far, the health care system has largely avoided such transformations. The Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase venture suggests their time is coming.
J.B. Silvers is affiliated with Case Western Reserve University and MetroHealth System.
Mark Votruba does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Lorna Simpson, a pioneering visual and conceptual artist whose striking work on race, gender and identity has placed her among the leading artists of her generation, was recently honored by the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (SMFA) at Tufts University with the SMFA Medal, given annually in recognition of creative excellence in visual art, art history and arts advocacy. Simpson’s works have been presented in many of the world’s major art museums. Much of Simpson’s work focuses on experimenting and discovering new ways to develop imagery.
Below is an excerpt from a public conversation, edited for clarity, between Simpson and York University Professor Christina Sharpe, Ph.D., at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where the SMFA at Tufts honored Simpson. Sharpe, a professor of English at Tufts when she spoke with Simpson, is a renowned feminist critic and author of “Monstrous Intimacies: Making Post-Slavery Subjects” and “In the Wake: On Blackness and Being.” Her scholarship is dedicated to the same concepts explored and confronted by Simpson’s work.
Christina Sharpe: I was introduced to your work when I was in graduate school at Cornell through an image of “The Waterbearer” that appeared on a syllabus. The text [on the image] reads, “She saw him disappear by the river, they asked her to tell what happened only to discount her memory.” I wonder if you could talk some about that early work in conceptual photography, the combination of image and text?
Lorna Simpson: That work was from 1985 or ‘86. By the time I got out of college, I was really questioning what I was doing with photography. I had opportunities to show; I had looked at a lot of work, and the way that work was being presented by photographers, but I kind of felt there was some assumption that was being made about how these images were being read. That got me to think about a different way of viewing an image with meaning.
“The Waterbearer” actually comes from a memory of my father’s relatives – my father was from Cuba and Jamaica – and how they would talk about their days between Jamaica and Cuba, and just different family events that there was a lot of secrecy around. In those stories, and in the conveyance of memories, I noticed there was a lot stopping short, or a tendency not to fill in all the blanks. There also was the consideration that memory is a contentious situation in a way, so that what one wants to voice in terms of memory doesn’t always get acknowledged. I think “The Waterbearer” was a contemplation about that.
Christina Sharpe: I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about some of the other conceptual photographers who influenced you. Who were you in conversation with? Who inspired your work? Who did you want to interrupt or contest?
Lorna Simpson: In the late 1970s, the canon of art history and photography was quite narrow, and so I spent a lot of time being on the Lower East Side, and also up in Harlem. What was interesting about that, and also being an intern at the Studio Museum in Harlem, [was that] I had this view of a whole other arena of practice. I immediately saw that there was this gulf between what I was learning and what I was seeing in the world, and that what was presented to me educationally was quite narrow.
I found myself in all these amazing situations that opened my eyes to the practice of contemporary art. I would say David Hammons was really important to my work. There was also Charles Abramson, and then maybe later Adrian Piper.
Christina Sharpe: Your most recent body of work marks a change from that practice; obviously, your practice has evolved. I wonder if you could discuss the work that uses, for example, those vintage images from [the magazines] Jet and Ebony, as well as found images, and if you could speak to your movement to painting and sculpture?
Lorna Simpson: It was interesting going to [the University of California San Diego] in the early 1980s, because it was an era of performance art, and I found myself to be in this pool of people who were interested [in performance art]… Although it wasn’t an art form that I was particularly comfortable with, personally, the “performative” aspect of my work came from being immersed in that community.
I would say from that point on I didn’t feel wedded to a particular way of working, or that I had to have a particular medium in working a particular way that would define my entire career. It was more [that] the structural or conceptual idea framed how the work would be made. When working and painting now, […] I kind of feel like I don’t fear failure. I don’t have the sense that I need to do something more comfortable, because I think in terms of making art, and writing, and anything that we do as artists where we have to step up to the plate, it should be uncomfortable, it should be nerve-wracking, and there should be this level of unknown. Not at all times, but at certain points.
Christina Sharpe: There’s a book by Tina Campt called “Listening to Images.” She invites us to listen to these mundane, compelled photos, in which we might hear something like “black refusal,” or “desire,” which is to say that one may locate in them the dynamics of black life. I want to ask you, what do we hear in your work?
Lorna Simpson: I think my work is a conversation between me and me. I look in the mirror, I get up every morning, and I don’t go, “Oh my god, there’s a black woman in the mirror in front of me!” I take for granted and strongly have a sense of ownership of my own experience. And in the ownership of that experience, I have the expectation that my audience has to come with me, and that there is a universalism that I assume in what I’m doing. So while the work pictures black bodies – and considering the particular climate in which we’re living now, and the way that American politics have, in my opinion, reverted back to a caste that none of us want to return to – that that specter of the work is important. But at the same time, as a country – and speaking as an American – there has to be this kind of universal acknowledgment that America means many different things to many different peoples from many different places. And particularly, if you are not Native American and your people haven’t been here for centuries before the [17th century] settlement of America, then those experiences have to be regarded as valuable, and we have to acknowledge each other. This is the premise by which I view the world.
Christina Sharpe: Many years ago, in an interview that I read in BOMB magazine with Coco Fusco, you said, “I do not feel as though issues of identity are exhaustible. The notion of identity, be it self-constructed, or as an imposed ideology from outside, means to me that it’s a complex and contradictory system.” You said also that complexity’s what’s most interesting, and so I wonder if you could speak more about that complexity and questions and practices of image-making?
Lorna Simpson: Now I have a daughter who is 19, and watching her come of age, and seeing other young women in her circle and how they think about gender and sexuality, I am so grateful and overwhelmed that they actually read work that was written in the 1960s and 1970s and 1980s. But their conception of how we think now about gender and binary systems doesn’t even consider those [older] ideas [from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s]…they’re like, “Oh, please, we’re not even going to talk about that.” I find that to be really amazing, and I am heartened by that. I feel that the younger generation of people understands the heart of gender and sexuality concepts, and understands where it leads. I find that exciting and amazing, and I’m grateful that that’s the case.
Christina Sharpe does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
If you had US$1 million to give to charities aiming to eradicate poverty, how would you do it?
Would you support a soup kitchen? A financial literacy program? Educational scholarships? Organizations pressing for policy changes?
I worked for nonprofits for many years before realizing the way I approached solving social problems said more about me than it did about the problem I wanted to solve. If I really wanted to make a difference, I had to think about how I was thinking about the problem. And, if I wanted to make a difference at a broader level, I had to help donors and nonprofit leaders think about how they think.
Nonprofit fundraisers consider many demographic characteristics to explain and predict charitable giving, such as age, gender, income, and marital and parental status. As far as I could tell, no scholars had considered “how people think” as a category worth considering.
My quest led me to obtain my Ph.D. and learn to analyze how an individual’s thinking changes over time. Along the way, I found that how people construct their ideas influences their philanthropic choices, and that how donors think is as important as what they think.
How donors think
Human beings develop increasingly complex ways of making sense of the world over the course of a lifetime. To a large extent, this is intuitive – you probably expect a 20-year-old to think about many things differently than a 50-year-old. How people think, however, is largely unconscious. People are rarely aware of how they are thinking in the moment.
Yet how individuals think influences how they interpret the world, how they feel and how they behave. And, as I explain in a recent article in Nonprofit Management & Leadership, how donors think also influences how they choose to give.
Through a series of two in-depth interviews, I interviewed 11 philanthropists about where and how they give, and I assessed the complexity with which they approached their giving. This pilot study amassed preliminary evidence linking how people think to their ideas about charitable giving.
One of the people I interviewed is a woman I’ll call “Paula.” She’s an executive who currently manages a sizable foundation. Prior to this, she owned her own business. She has about seven years of experience in philanthropy and she spends a lot of time working with nonprofits. Paula did two things throughout her interviews: She hesitated when asked to speak her mind and she frequently deferred to other people’s opinions. Despite her decades of professional experience, she still leaned on the ideas of others to make sense of the world.
Developmental theorists – scholars of how people grow and change over time – like Robert Kegan and William Torbert would describe this as “an early stage of development,” by which they mean being unable to separate your own ideas from what others think. Therefore, Paula leans on others’ ideas, experience and feelings to decide what to do.
“Joseph” is a businessman with decades of experience donating to nonprofits, working on nonprofit boards and serving as a nonprofit executive director. He feels confident that he’s learned a thing or two about how nonprofits should be managed. When I asked what he wanted other philanthropists to know, he said most nonprofits should probably close down.
“While they are passion-rich, they’re strategy-poor,” he said. “They are sopping up resources – dollars and board members – for organizations that will never become sustainable or scaled.”
On the surface, his quote may seem like the counsel of a confident person who has been there, done that. What strikes me, however, is that Joseph is doing something Paula is not: expressing his own opinion, based on his experience and expertise.
Developmental theorists would describe this as a “middle stage of development,” in which people draw from a variety of experiences, knowledge and perspectives to come up with their own original ideas.
You might notice one other thing – Joseph doesn’t question his own opinion. He argues that the only reason to run a nonprofit is to make a big impact on the problems addressed by its mission. He does not wonder if there might be other valid reasons, such as developing community-based relationships, addressing local needs or providing services to populations not served by larger programs. The ability to question your own assumptions marks the transition from middle to later stages of development.
“Phyllis” is another successful executive and a longtime philanthropist. She once took part in a nonprofit evaluation conference just for the sake of learning. There, she attended a session on a new way for donors to evaluate the causes they support.
She noticed audience members hanging their heads, perhaps lamenting that their old ways of doing evaluation were insufficient and they needed to learn yet another new technique to do it “right.” Phyllis had a different perspective: “We have to find new ways of talking about impact and evaluating impact, and none of the evaluation methods is going to be the answer.”
She proceeded to consider that philanthropists and foundations needed to change how they were thinking about evaluation – the answer wasn’t a new technique, but an evaluation of why evaluation was done in the first place.
Thinking about the purpose of evaluation, she reasoned, would free leaders and donors from overly rigid approaches.
Here, Phyllis is demonstrating a subtle but important shift from focusing on what to think to focusing on how to think, and specifically to questioning the assumptions behind how and why nonprofits evaluate their programs. In thinking about how to think about evaluation, Phyllis opens up new possibilities for these groups and their donors.
Experts would describe this as a movement toward “a later stage of development,” in which people question and deconstruct the assumptions behind their ideas. It is very rare and most people don’t get to the point where they do this regularly or without effort, according to developmental theorists.
How donors give
The dollars Phyllis gives away are no better or more important than Paula’s or Joseph’s. However, if any of them want to solve the complex problems facing humanity today, I believe that they must each think about how they think about these problems.
For example, I observed that donors in earlier stages of development spoke often of what could be described as reactive giving – donations that address what feels like urgent, immediate needs, like feeding the homeless right away.
Donors in middle stages of development preferred to make strategic gifts that resulted in outcomes they considered to be important, such as increasing the number of low-income students who go to college.
Donors in later stages of development talked about long-term impact. Their discussions interwove the short- and medium-term activities into a long-term, often generational perspective. They often funded educational opportunities that improved staff’s ability to do their job, to build the capacity of the organizations they chose to support.
There is no one right way to give. Each of these perspectives adds value.
While this was a pilot study, my findings are consistent with what developmental scholars have found: How people think – the structure of their thoughts – informs their thoughts and actions. And this, I believe, is worth thinking about. Especially if philanthropists want to solve complex problems.
Jennifer A. Jones does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
When I overcame a flying phobia, I resolved to make up for lost time by visiting as much of the world as I could.
So in the course of a decade, I logged over 300,000 miles, flying everywhere from Buenos Aires to Dubai.
I knew intuitively that my travels would “make me a better person” and “broaden my horizon,” as the clichés have it. But I’ve come to believe that travel can, and should, be more than a hobby, luxury or form of leisure. It is a fundamental component of being a humanist.
At its core, humanism is about exploring and debating the vital ideas that make us who we are. We study music, film, art and literature to do just that. And while it’s important to explore these ideas in our own communities, people and places that are not like us have a role to play that’s just as crucial.
This is where travel comes in. It’s what sent me packing to see some of the places I have spent so long reading about. And it’s what compelled me to write “The Importance of Elsewhere: The Globalist Humanist Tourist,” in which I wanted to make a case for a new approach to travel.
The imperialist tourist
From the 16th to 19th centuries, European empires gobbled up territories around the world, planting their flags and building embassies, banks, hotels and roads. Imperialists traveled to collect cinnamon, silk, rubber and ivory, using them, upon returning home, for pleasure and profit.
The golden age of travel roughly coincided with that period. Not long after the military and commercial incursions began, tourists followed imperialists to these far-flung locales.
Both tourism and imperialism involved voyages of discovery, and both tended to leave the people who were “discovered” worse off than they had been before the encounters.
Globalism’s impact on the way we travel
Over the last century, globalism – a vast and daunting concept of transnational corporate and bureaucratic systems – has replaced imperialism as the dominant network of international relations.
Globalism can be overwhelming: It involves billions of people, trillions of dollars, innumerable inventories of goods, all ensconced in a technocratic vocabulary of geopolitics and multinationalism that’s anathema to those of us who approach the world on a more human scale.
It has also made travel much easier. There are more airplane routes, more ATMs on every corner and international cellphone service. You can travel elsewhere without ever leaving the comforting familiarities of home, with McDonald’s, Dunkin Donuts and Holiday Inns now dotting the globe.
But why bother traveling if you want familiar comforts?
I would argue that we need a new travel guide that acknowledges the sweeping interconnectedness of globalism, but balances this with a humanist mindset.
Because beneath the innocuous activities of visiting cathedrals, lounging on the beach and collecting souvenirs, travelers can still harbor selfish, exploitative desires and exhibit a sense of entitlement that resembles imperial incursions of yesteryear.
In a way, globalism has also made it easier to slip into the old imperialist impulse to come with power and leave with booty; to set up outposts of our own culture; and to take pictures denoting the strangeness of the places we visit, an enterprise that, for some, confirms the superiority of home.
The right way to be a tourist
Humanism, however, is proximate, intimate, local. Traveling as a humanist restores our identity and independence, and helps us resist the overwhelming forces of globalism.
There’s nothing wrong with going to see the Colosseum or the Taj Mahal. Sure, you can take all the same photos that have already been taken at all the usual tourist traps, or stand in long lines to see Shakespeare’s and Dante’s birthplaces (which are of dubious authenticity).
But don’t just do that. Sit around and watch people. Get lost. Give yourself over to the mood, the pace, the spirit of elsewhere. Obviously you will eat new and interesting foods, but think of other ways, too, of tasting and “ingesting” the culture of elsewhere, of adapting to different habits and styles. These are the things that will change you more than the view from the top of the Eiffel Tower.
Psychologists have found that the more countries you visit, the more trusting you’ll be – and that “those who visited places less similar to their homeland became more trusting than those who visited places more similar to their homeland.” Immersion in foreign places boosts creativity, and having more diverse experiences makes people’s minds more flexible.
With the products and conveniences of globalism touching most parts of the world, it simply takes more of a conscious effort to truly immerse yourself in something foreign.
My own empathy, creativity and flexibility have been immeasurably enhanced by such strange and fascinating destinations as a Monty Python conference in Lodz, Poland; a remoteness seminar near the North Pole; a boredom conference in Warsaw; Copenhagen’s queer film festival; Berlin’s deconstructed Nazi airport; a workshop in Baghdad on getting academics up to speed after Iraq’s destruction; and an encounter as an ecotourist with Tierra del Fuego’s penguins.
There’s an especially vital argument to make for travel in these fractious times of far-right ideologies and crumbling international alliances, burgeoning racism and xenophobia. The world seems as if it’s becoming less open.
A trip is the greatest chance you’ll ever have to learn about things you don’t experience at home, to meet people you wouldn’t otherwise encounter. You’ll probably find that, in many important ways, they are the same as you – which, in the end, is the point of doing all this.
Humanists know that our copious insights and deliberations – about identity, emotions, ethics, conflict and existence – flourish best when the world is our oyster. They dissipate in the echo chamber of isolationism.
Randy Malamud does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
At birth, the brain is the most underdeveloped organ in our body. It takes up until our mid-20s for our brains to fully mature. Any serious and prolonged adversity, such as a sudden, unexpected and lasting separation from a caretaker, changes the structure of the developing brain. It damages a child’s ability to process emotion and leaves scars that are profound and lifelong.
That’s bad news because, although President Trump has ended his “zero-tolerance” immigration policy of separating parents and children at the border, there are some 2,300 children whose reunification with parents remains uncertain.
In my psychiatric and therapeutic practice, I work with children and adults who as children experienced unexpected and lasting separation from their parents. Some fare better than others. Some struggle with major psychiatric disorders, whereas others have no psychiatric diagnosis. Yet, their feeling of safety and trust in others is compromised. The impact of separation trauma is everlasting.
Born to be nurtured
Altricial species, such as humans, are dependent upon parental care for survival and development after birth. The parent is necessary to regulate the offspring’s temperature and to provide food and protection against environment threats. This is accomplished through parent bonding with the offspring that nurtures a deep attachment. The newly born learn quickly that signs of parental presence, such as an image, voice, touch or smell, signal safety.
Studies in mammals show that infants naturally conform to parental emotions. The presence of a calm and caring parent produces the feeling of safety in a child. On the contrary, parental distress and fear activate the infant’s brain circuits that are responsible for processing stress, pain and threat. The ability of a caretaker to regulate the offspring’s emotions is an adaptive function encoded in our genes. Before people have our own independent experiences, we start learning what is safe and what is dangerous in the surrounding environment through observing and interacting with our parents. This increases our chances of survival and success in the world.
Numerous studies show that parental presence is more important than the surrounding environment for the emotional well-being of an infant or a very young child. As long as the parent is present and remains calm and caring, the child is able to endure many threats and adversities. Metaphorically speaking, the caretaker is the world for the young child.
Separation alters the brain’s structure
The parents’ presence is also necessary for a person’s harmonious growth and development. That includes the development of our psychological and social functions, such as our ability to respond to stress and self-regulate our emotions or our ability to trust others and function in a group.
Any serious and prolonged disruption of parental care, especially in infants and very young children, alters how the young brain develops. Very young children, younger than five years old, separated from their parents cannot rely on their presence and care anymore, which causes their stress levels to spike. As stress hormones like cortisol, epinephrine and norepineprhine rise, they alter physiological functions of our bodies to better prepare us to cope with threat. However, prolonged increases in the levels of stress hormones disrupt physiological functions and induce inflammation and epigenetic changes – chemical alterations that disrupt the activity of our genes. Turning genes on or off at the wrong time alters the developmental trajectory of the brain, changing how neural networks are formed and how brain regions communicate.
Studies of children who were separated from their parents or neglected by their parents, and experimental research on animals, consistently show that the disruption of parental presence and care causes a precocious and rapid maturation of brain circuits responsible for processing stress and threat. This fast-track development alters the brain’s wiring and changes the way how emotions are processed.
Short, sharp separation quickly causes harm
Laboratory studies show that it doesn’t take long for separation to hurt these infants and children.
In laboratory rodents these changes in brain wiring are triggered when a pup is separated from its mother for a mere two to three hours a day for a several consecutive days. We know the stress to the pups is caused by the mother’s absence, not by other changes in the environment, because the researchers continued to feed the pups and maintain their body temperature during the experiment.
Premature maturation of stress and threat processing networks in the brains of children separated from parents stunts the child’s development and leads to loss of flexibility in responding to danger. For example, most of us are able to “unlearn” what we may have initially considered threatening or scary. If something or someone is not dangerous anymore, our defense responses adapt, extinguishing our fear. This ability to unlearn threat is compromised in maternally separated animals.
The subsequent reunification with a parent, or the replacement with a new caretaker, may not reverse the changes caused by this early separation stress.
Pictures of the brain reveal altered brain structures
Brain imaging studies demonstrate structural and functional changes in the brains of children separated from their parents. Specifically, the stress of separation increases the size of the amygdala, a key structure in threat processing and emotion, and alters amygdala connections with other brain areas. On the molecular level, separation alters the expression of receptors on the brain cell’s surface involved in stress response and emotion regulation. Without the right number of receptors, the communication between neurons is disrupted.
The trauma of either permanent or temporary separation poses general health risks and affects academic performance, success in career and personal life. In particular, the loss or separation from parents increases the likelihood of various psychiatric disorders, including post-traumatic stress, anxiety, mood, psychotic or substance use disorders.
The feeling of safety and the associated ability to bond with others, the ability to detect and respond to threat, as well as the ability to regulate one’s own emotions and stress are vital. Early reprogramming of neural circuits underlying these functions can directly or indirectly alter the child’s physical, emotional and cognitive development and causes lifelong changes.
National Institutes of Health and Brain & Behavior Research Foundation
America’s CEOs have become increasingly active on political issues that they would have shunned in prior years.
The latest example came in response to the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” border enforcement policy that led to the forced separation of several thousand immigrant children from their detained parents. United Continental CEO Oscar Munoz called the policy “in deep conflict with our company’s values.”
United and fellow airlines American, Southwest and Frontier each indicated they didn’t want the government to use their planes to fly separated children. President Donald Trump hoped to quell the furor over the issue by signing an executive order ending the separations.
It’s certainly not the first time corporate CEOs took a stand against a Trump policy or his words. After the president’s contentious response to violent clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia, CEO resignations and denunciations led to the dissolution of two White House advisory councils.
While Trump’s actions likely sparked this increase in political activism by corporate CEOs, its roots run deeper and will survive beyond the end of the current administration.
From custom abiders to bullies
When I first began studying the interactions between social movements and corporations in the 1990s, it was rare to see business take a public stand on social issues. Yet today we see organizations ranging from General Electric to the NCAA weighing in on, for example, transgender rights, something hard to imagine even a decade ago.
Traditionally, corporations aimed to be scrupulously neutral on social issues. No one doubted that corporations exercised power, but it was over bread-and-butter economic issues like trade and taxes, not social issues. There seemed little to be gained by activism on potentially divisive issues, particularly for consumer brands.
A watershed of the civil rights movement, for example, was the 1960 sit-in protest by students that began at a segregated lunch counter in a Woolworth store in Greensboro, North Carolina, and spread across the South. Woolworth’s corporate policy had been to “abide by local custom” and keep black and white patrons separated. By supporting the status quo, Woolworth and others like it stood in the way of progress.
But negative publicity led to substantial lost business, and Woolworth eventually relented. In July, four months after the protest started – and after the students had gone home for the summer – the manager of the Greensboro store quietly integrated his lunch counter.
In general, companies were more worried about the costs of taking a more liberal stand on such issues, a point basketball legend and Nike pitchman Michael Jordan made succinctly in 1990. Asked to support Democrat Harvey Gantt’s campaign to replace segregationist incumbent Jesse Helms as a North Carolina senator, Jordan declined, reportedly saying “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”
And companies presumed that taking controversial positions would lead to boycotts by those on the other side. That’s what happened to Walt Disney in 1996 as a result of its early support for gay rights, such as “Gay Day” at its theme parks. Its stand prompted groups including America’s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptists, to launch a boycott, calling Disney’s support for gay rights an “anti-Christian and anti-family direction.” The eight-year boycott, however, was notably ineffective at changing Disney policy. It turns out that too few parents had the heart to deny their children Disney products to make a boycott effective.
Since then, some of the biggest U.S. companies have taken similar stands, in spite of the reaction from conservatives. For example, when the Arkansas legislature passed a bill in March 2015 that would have enabled LGBT discrimination on the grounds of “religious freedom,” the CEO of Walmart urged the governor to veto the bill.
Not surprisingly, given Walmart’s status in the state and the corporate backlash that accompanied a similar law in Indiana, the governor obliged and eventually signed a modified bill. That didn’t sit well with former Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, however, who argued in The New York Times that companies in those states were joining “left-wing activists to bully elected officials into backing away from strong protections for religious liberty.” He warned companies against “bullying” Louisiana.
Why have corporations shifted from “abiding local custom” around segregation and other divisive social issues to “bullying elected officials” to support LGBT rights?
In my view, there are two broad changes responsible for this increased corporate social activism.
First, social media and the web have changed the environment for business by making it cheaper and easier for activists to join together to voice their opinions and by making corporate activities more transparent.
The rapid spread of the Occupy movement in the fall of 2011, from Zuccotti Park in New York to encampments across the country, illustrates how social media can enable groups with a compelling message to scale up quickly. Sometimes even online-only movements can be highly effective.
When the Susan G. Komen Foundation cut off funds to Planned Parenthood that were aimed at supporting breast cancer screenings for low-income women, a pop-up social movement arose: Facebook and Twitter exploded with millions of posts and tweets voicing opposition. Within days the policy was walked back.
Mozilla’s appointment of a new CEO who had supported a California ballot proposal banning same-sex marriage also generated outrage online, both inside and outside the organization. He was gone within two weeks.
In each case, social media allowed like-minded “clicktivists” to draw attention to an issue and demonstrate their support for change, quickly and at very little cost. It’s never been cheaper to assemble a virtual protest group, and sometimes (as in the massive Women’s March that took place in cities around the world the day after Trump’s inauguration) online tools enable real-world protest. As such, activism is likely to be a constant for corporations in the future.
Millennials don’t like puffery
A second change is that millennials, as consumers and workers, are highly attuned to a company’s “social value proposition.”
Companies targeting the sensibilities of the young often tout their social missions. Tom’s Shoes and Warby Parker both have “buy a pair, give a pair” programs. Chipotle highlights its sustainability efforts. And Starbucks has promoted fair trade coffee, marriage equality and racial justice more or less successfully. In each case, transparency about corporate practices serves as a check on puffery.
Social mission is even more important when it comes to recruiting. At business school recruiting events, it is almost obligatory that companies describe their LEED-certified workplaces, LGBT-friendly human resource practices and community outreach efforts.
Moreover, our employer signals something about our identity. Value alignment is part of why people stay at their job, and among many millennials, socially progressive values – particularly around LGBT issues – are almost a given.
In this situation, corporate activism may be the sensible course of action, at least when it comes to LGBT issues. According to the Pew Research Center, for example, support for same-sex marriage has doubled from 31 percent in 2004 to 62 percent in 2017, and there is little reason to expect a reversal.
Red and blue companies?
While prominent companies like Starbucks and Target have taken stances associated with liberal causes, some businesses have gone the other direction.
Chick-fil-A aimed to implement “biblical values” and supported anti-gay groups in the 2000s. Those groups returned the favor by encouraging like-minded people to dine there on “Chick-fil-A appreciation day.”
Hobby Lobby famously sought to abstain from providing funding for birth control for employees on religious grounds. Koch Industries, overseen by the famous Koch brothers, has long been a lightning rod for boycotts due to the right-wing proclivities of its dominant owners. And small businesses across the country are not always shy in advertising their conservative political orientations.
As states have seemingly divided into red (for conservative) and blue (for liberal), might we expect the same thing from corporations, as consumers and employees drift toward the brands that best represent their views – red companies and blue companies?
It is already easy to look up political contributions by companies and their employees. For example, Bloomberg, Alphabet and the Pritzker Group lean Democratic; Oracle, Chevron and AT&T tend Republican.
In the current electoral climate, it is not hard to imagine this continuing.
This is an updated version of an article originally published on Sept. 27, 2016.
Jerry Davis does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
When New York State Attorney General Barbara Underwood recently sued the Donald J. Trump Foundation and four Trump family members who serve on its board of directors, she alleged the foundation was “little more than a checkbook for payments” that personally benefited the Trump family rather than supporting good causes.
Along with the headaches it’s causing the first family, the lawsuit is raising questions about charitable norms. For example, some people may wonder whether the alleged misdeeds really stray so far from what other family foundations typically do.
That’s why putting these allegations in context is important. As a scholar of legal ethics who studies how organizations make decisions, I know that perceptions matter. When the public believes that corruption is rife, people become more likely to break the rules for their own benefit.
Not like the other ones
To be sure, the New York attorney general’s allegations against the Trump Foundation are only that.
If proved in court, however, those allegations would indicate that the Trump Foundation did deviate from the way most private family foundations operate. And these differences may have made it easier for the Trump Foundation to break laws.
First, most family foundations get all or most of the money they give away from their own fortunes. Since these charities are set up so the wealthy can help others, their benefactors do not typically seek or obtain donations from outsiders.
Until 2008, the Trump Foundation was fairly normal in this regard; it was primarily funded with the Trump family’s own money. In the last decade, however, it relied solely on donations from outside sources, a highly unusual practice that former New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman ordered the foundation to stop nearly two years ago.
A second departure from the norm is the Trump Foundation’s decision-making process.
By law, foundation boards must oversee spending. Trustees have fundamental fiduciary duties – that is, they must ensure that spending serves the public good rather than enriching themselves. To obey the law, even donors cannot insist on the granting of any particular payment.
Requiring the board as a whole to approve spending decisions prevents any one person from using foundation money as their personal slush fund. Underwood’s complaint alleges that the Trump Foundation board members improperly “ceded control” of this authority. Indeed, Donald Trump allegedly ordered that outlays be made without conferring with other members of the foundation’s board.
“Ceding” might be an understatement. Allen Weisselberg, the Trump Organization’s chief financial officer, was listed as the Trump Foundation’s treasurer. When New York authorities asked if he had realized he was on the board for at least 10 years, he replied, “I did not.”
Also, according to Attorney General Underwood, Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski – who did not work for the foundation or even belong to its board – decided how some of the foundation’s money would be spent.
A recipe for self-dealing
If the New York lawsuit’s allegations are correct, these departures from standard practice may have paved the way for the foundation to violate not just protocol but laws.
There are exceptions to the general rule that private foundations may not directly spend money in ways that benefit their donors, board members or staff, or anyone related to these people. For example, a foundation may pay the donors’ relatives what the IRS calls “reasonable compensation” for certain legal, clerical and other services. Of course, defining reasonable compensation is tricky.
But, in my opinion, the acts of wrongdoing the Trumps stand accused of go far beyond one or two mistaken payments. The alleged acts are illegal and, I believe, may result in fines or even criminal liability if proven.
The lawsuit alleges, for instance, that Trump Foundation funds covered the cost of settling at least two different legal claims involving Trump businesses and paid for promoting Trump-branded hotels.
In addition, the lawsuit alleges that the foundation illegally lent its name and used funds it raised from the public to back Donald Trump’s presidential bid.
According to the lawsuit, decisions to make these payments were made without official review or approval by the board of directors as a whole.
How prevalent is this?
Is it possible that other private foundations double as a personal checkbook for families with fortunes? Some probably do.
There are around 112,000 private foundations in the U.S., according to a recent Wall Street Journal investigation that explored the frequency of similar self-dealing problems and found a few. Both federal and state authorities are empowered to audit these foundations to ensure compliance with the tax laws. But enforcement gets limited funding, meaning that fewer than 1 percent of all nonprofit tax filings get audited each year.
Making official scrutiny rare means some wrongdoing probably slips through the cracks. But evidence suggests that wrongdoers are the exception, not the rule. Far fewer than 1 percent of foundation tax returns reveal any obvious evidence of self-dealing.
In short, most small foundations seem to obey rules against leveraging charitable assets for personal gain, behavior known as self-dealing, and having conflicts of interest.
It’s possible that stepping up government oversight would catch a few more wrongdoers. But audits are expensive, both for the government that spends tax dollars on enforcement, and for the charity that must satisfy the government’s paperwork requests. Given the high levels of compliance that likely already exist, such efforts probably wouldn’t recover their costs with revenue from fines.
Should the public come to believe that foundations regularly give their money away in a self-serving way, I fear this false impression could become more accurate. Research has shown that seeing others cheat makes people more likely to do it too.
This dynamic also occurs in bigger groups. In societies where corruption is believed to be commonplace, individuals are more likely to indulge in self-serving dishonesty, a study that compared and contrasted attitudes and behavior in Georgia, Tanzania, Guatemala and 20 other countries found.
Right now, I believe that most of the tens of thousands of Americans in families with their own private foundations take their responsibility seriously and spend or reserve the assets held in those charitable vehicles for their intended purpose.
But if the Trump Foundation lawsuit leads the public to believe otherwise, then there’s a risk that more people responsible for philanthropic funds will indulge in self-dealing and corruption.
One way to stave off that problem would be to ramp up charitable oversight and enforcement, which are chronically underfunded. Doing so, however, would cost taxpayers a lot of money.
Should the Trump Foundation scandal erode the public’s trust in philanthropy, that might be the biggest toll it takes. If so, that would make this case as dangerous as it is unusual.
Cassandra Burke Robertson does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
With all the recent news on opioid overuse in the U.S., it’s not surprising that Americans consume the vast majority of the global opioid supply. Daily opioid use in the U.S. is the highest in the world, with an estimated one daily dose prescribed for every 20 people. That rate is 50 percent higher than in Germany and 40 times higher than in Japan.
As former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy once said, the U.S. “arrived here on a path that was paved with good intentions,” but “the results have been devastating.” “We have nearly 250 million prescriptions for opioids written every year. That’s enough for every person in America to have a bottle of pills and then some,” he added.
Has the U.S.‘s heavy reliance on prescription opioids caused more harm than good? And, likewise, have other countries’ low use of opioids caused more pain than good?
I have been pondering these issues at Texas A&M Health Science Center, where I am the chair of a newly established Opioid Task Force, an initiative that emphasizes a multifaceted approach to the opioid epidemic. To me, it seems like most countries need to find a happy balance between the American attitude that all pain needs to be cured – and the ethos in other countries that pain is to be endured.
Differing views on pain
In investigating this issue, I came across two reasons that might explain the worldwide differences in pain management strategies.
First, while pain is universal, pain is fundamentally a subjective phenomenon. People from different countries experience pain differently, based on traditional beliefs rooted in social and cultural values.
For example, people in Africa, especially men, may be reluctant to admit to pain, as doing so would be a sign of weakness. In contrast, Americans report more pain than people from any other country, with about a third of adults reporting pain “often” or “very often.”
In traditional African society, pain is viewed as something to be endured and pain medication has often been a luxury for those who could afford it. Self-medication with simple analgesics and traditional herbs are often the first -— but not necessarily effective – strategies to reduce pain.
Secondly, many countries have much stricter regulations than the U.S. regarding when opioids may and should be prescribed.
For example, until the past few years, there were few U.S. regulations for the medical prescription of opioids. With the goal of eliminating pain, physicians generously prescribed opioids after most surgical procedures or for routine patient complaints of pain. (It’s worthwhile to note that, thanks to new restrictions, opioid prescriptions in the U.S. decreased by more than 20 percent between 2013 and 2017.)
Conversely, in Europe, opioids are dispensed by specialists and more tightly regulated, including restrictions on advertisements. It’s less common to dispense opioids for non-cancer related pain such as chronic back or musculoskeletal pain.
Many countries have traditionally treated pain with other approaches. With a view of pain as a condition, Chinese medicine has long incorporated the use of herbs, acupuncture and lifestyle changes to manage pain. Acupuncture has been adopted in many clinical settings around the world, including in the U.S., and is considered effective for certain pain conditions and safe when performed by an experienced practitioner.
With a similar aversion to narcotics and concerns about addiction, Japanese health care providers have traditionally avoided opioid prescriptions, recommending non-pharmacological treatments for dealing with pain such as acupressure, massage and relaxation techniques. Yet, with the aging of the population, there has been a greater demand for opioids and growing concerns about abuse.
In Europe, there are positive attitudes among both the medical profession and the public alike about complementary and alternative medicine – or the use of natural products or mind and body practices developed outside of mainstream Western medicine. These approaches are increasingly integrated into primary care, with reimbursement through national health care systems. For example, German physicians often prescribe physical therapy, exercise, massage and relaxation therapies, all of which have been associated with pain relief. However, there’s some concern about the use of unregulated natural health practitioners, as well as the need for better communication among certified medical providers, natural health practitioners and patients.
A happy balance
What’s the best strategy for dealing with pain? There are no simple answers.
What does seem clear is that pain management strategies are slowly converging in the face of the opioid crisis. Countries that have been overprescribing are now putting the brakes on uncontrolled prescriptions through increased regulation and continuing education. Meanwhile, in counties with limited access to pharmacological treatments, there’s increased recognition of the rampant suffering and the need for increased access to opiates as part of an overall approach that includes traditional non-pharmacological strategies too.
I’m heartened to see physicians start to emphasize alternatives to opioid prescriptions as a first step in pain management, in line with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, and practices in other countries. To go even further will require better education of both health care professionals and patients regarding complementary and alternative treatments, as well greater access to and payment for them.
For me, the issue goes beyond the simplistic characterizations of pain management often seen in different countries and cultures. Pain isn’t just to be cured – or to be endured. Rather, all Americans, whether providing or receiving care, need to understand what can be learned from best practices in pain management around the world.
Marcia G. Ory does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Adults are sitting more than ever, and few pay attention to how they sit throughout the day.
Take a moment to think about all the reasons we sit. First off, you’re probably sitting while reading this. Some of the most common sitting activities include eating meals; driving; talking on the phone; using a computer, television, or small device; and reading. Now take another moment to think about all the sitting done across your lifetime.
The fact is, the amount of time spent sitting has increased over time. And with innovations such as Alexa, delivered groceries, and pre-made meal services, we expect many older adults will sit longer, and will do it more often. As of today, the average older adult spends between 56 percent and 86 percent of their waking day sedentary. That’s a lot of sitting.
Our research team studies healthy aging and is interested in how sitting too much might contribute to heart disease and diabetes. Our recent study suggests that the way older adults accumulate their sitting time might be important for aging without diabetes.
What happens while sitting?
When you sit for long periods without getting up, the large weight-bearing muscles of the legs remain dormant. With no action, these muscles are unable to efficiently use the sugars and fats that float around in your blood - and in theory, this could lead to weight gain and metabolic diseases such as diabetes.
At the same time, reduced blood flow in your arteries leads to hostile conditions that promote injury to the blood vessel walls. Over a lifetime, this injury likely contributes to heart disease and to peripheral artery disease. Furthermore, when your leg muscles remain shut off for long periods, blood collects in your veins which leads to an increased risk for blood clots, or deep venous thrombosis. Standing up and moving around can stop these processes, but all too often, we just keep sitting.
Sitting patterns describe how people sit throughout the day. Some people commonly sit for long periods at a time, rarely getting up. They are said to have prolonged sitting patterns. Others rarely sit still. They regularly get up after sitting for just short periods. These sitters are said to have interrupted sitting patterns. Where do you fit on the sitting pattern spectrum?
Are sitting patterns important for metabolic health?
Emerging evidence suggests yes. From observational studies, we learned that adults with prolonged sitting patterns had larger waistlines, higher BMI, and in their blood had less good fats, more bad fats, and higher levels of sugar compared to adults with interrupted sitting patterns.
To test whether problems with fat and sugar metabolism were being caused by sitting patterns, researchers around the world conducted experiments. They brought adults into a laboratory at least two times each, having them sit continuously for about eight hours (an extreme prolonged pattern. On the second day, the participants were asked to get up every 20-30 minutes (a highly interrupted pattern). The interruptions lasted for two to five minutes and included standing still, light walking, simple resistance exercises or moderate-intensity walking, depending on the study.
When researchers synthesized evidence from most of the laboratory studies, the results were clear. On days with prolonged patterns, our bodies are not able to metabolize fats or sugar as well as they are on days with interrupted patterns. Blood pressure and fatigue were also higher on days with prolonged sitting compared to days with interrupted patterns.
These groundbreaking laboratory studies provided strong evidence that sitting patterns had an immediate effect on how the body processes fats and sugar, otherwise known as metabolism. This led to the idea that prolonged sitting patterns over a lifetime could contribute to metabolic diseases such as diabetes in later life. Since diabetes can take a long time to develop, this question cannot be feasibly tested in a laboratory. Instead, we turned to an observational study of the population to help answer the question.
Are sitting patterns related to diabetes?
We recruited over 6,000 women aged 65-99 from the Women’s Health Initiative and measured their sedentary patterns for seven days using research-grade activity monitors. We also had over 20 years of detailed health records, which included information on whether the women had ever been diagnosed by a physician with diabetes.
As expected, the group with the most prolonged sedentary patterns had the most women with diabetes. The group with the most interrupted patterns had the fewest women with diabetes.
We used advanced statistical procedures to account for differences in other factors such as dietary habits, physical activity, medication use, weight, age, alcohol and cigarette use, and overall health, giving us more confidence that the sitting patterns were in fact driving the findings. We should caution, however, that since we did not measure sitting patterns before the women were first diagnosed with diabetes, we do not know whether the sitting patterns contributed to diabetes or whether the diabetes changed their sitting patterns. We ran additional statistical tests to try to untangle that, which indicated that sitting patterns contributed to diabetes. However, additional studies specifically suited to answer the question of causation are needed.
While this was the first study of sedentary patterns and diabetes exclusively in older adults, our results were remarkably similar to recent findings in a younger cohort. Researchers from the Netherlands studied 2,500 adults ages 40-75 and found that prolonged sitting patterns were associated with Type 2 diabetes and with metabolic syndrome.
Conclusions and words of advice
Based on the findings from our study and those of the Dutch researchers, when viewed with the earlier epidemiologic data and findings from the laboratory experiments, it seems that sitting patterns may contribute to the growing international diabetes epidemic.
With that said, as with all science, these first few studies are only the beginning of the story. Much more work lies ahead. For the time being, there is a possibility that changing your sitting patterns might provide protection against diabetes, especially if long sitting bouts were always broken with light activity or even better, moderate-intensity activity, as recommended by the American Diabetes Association.
The authors wish to sincerely thank Dr. Jonathan Unkart for his help with this story.
John Bellettiere receives funding from training grants provided by the National Institutes of Health (T32HL079891-11 and TL1TR001443).
email@example.com receives funding from the National Institute on Aging and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute related to this research.
Matthew Mclaughlin does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Anti-immigrant policies, race-related demonstrations, Title IX disputes, affirmative action court cases, same-sex marriage litigation.
These issues are continually in the headlines. But even thoughtful articles on these subjects seem always to devolve to pitting warring factions against each other: black versus white, women versus men, gay versus straight.
At the most fundamental level of biology, people recognize the innate advantage of defining differences in species. But even within species, is there something in our neural circuits that leads us to find comfort in those like us and unease with those who may differ?
Brain battle between distrust and reward
As in all animals, human brains balance two primordial systems. One includes a brain region called the amygdala that can generate fear and distrust of things that pose a danger – think predators or or being lost somewhere unknown. The other, a group of connected structures called the mesolimbic system, can give rise to pleasure and feelings of reward in response to things that make it more likely we’ll flourish and survive – think not only food, but also social pleasure, like trust.
But how do these systems interact to influence how we form our concepts of community?
Implicit association tests can uncover the strength of unconscious associations. Scientists have shown that many people harbor an implicit preference for their in-group – those like themselves – even when they show no outward or obvious signs of bias. For example, in studies whites perceive blacks as more violent and more apt to do harm, solely because they are black, and this unconscious bias is evident even toward black boys as young as five years old.
Brain imaging studies have found increased signaling in the amygdala when people make millisecond judgments of “trustworthiness” of faces. That’s too short a time to reflect conscious processes and likely reveal implicit fears.
In one study, researchers tapped into negative black stereotypes by playing violent rap music for white participants who had no external biases. This kind of priming made it hard for the brain’s cortex to suppress amydgalar activation and implicit bias. Usually these “executive control” regions can override the amygdala’s push toward prejudice when confronted with out-group members.
Whether or not such biases are learned or in some way hardwired, do they reflect conflicting activity of the amygdala versus the mesolimbic system? That is, how do our brains balance distrust and fear versus social reward when it comes to our perceptions of people not like us?
Research into how the amygdala responds as people assess the relative importance of differences, such as race, is nuanced and complex. Studies must take into account the differences between explicit and implicit measures of our attitudes, as well as the impact of cultural bias and individual variation. Still, research suggests that signaling within the amygdala underlies the degree to which people are reluctant to trust others, especially regarding in-group versus out-group preference. It’s reasonable to conclude that much of the human instinct to distrust “others” can be traced to this part of the brain that’s important for feelings of fear and anxiety.
Reward from ‘sameness’
As opposed to fear, distrust and anxiety, circuits of neurons in brain regions called the mesolimbic system are critical mediators of our sense of “reward.” These neurons control the release of the transmitter dopamine, which is associated with an enhanced sense of pleasure. The addictive nature of some drugs, as well as pathological gaming and gambling, are correlated with increased dopamine in mesolimbic circuits.
In addition to dopamine itself, neurochemicals such as oxytocin can significantly alter the sense of reward and pleasure, especially in relationship to social interactions, by modulating these mesolimbic circuits.
Methodological variations indicate further study is needed to fully understand the roles of these signaling pathways in people. That caveat acknowledged, there is much we can learn from the complex social interactions of other mammals.
The neural circuits that govern social behavior and reward arose early in vertebrate evolution and are present in birds, reptiles, bony fishes and amphibians, as well as mammals. So while there is not a lot of information on reward pathway activity in people during in-group versus out-group social situations, there are some tantalizing results from studies on other mammals.
For example, in a seminal paper, neuroscientist Karl Deisseroth and his colleagues at Stanford combined genetics and behavioral tests with a cutting-edge approach called fiber photometry where light can turn on and off specific cells. Using this process, the researchers were able to both stimulate and measure activity in identified neurons in the reward pathways, with an exquisite degree of precision. And they were able to do this in mice as they behaved in social settings.
They showed that neural signaling in a specific group of these dopamine neurons within these mesolimbic reward loops are jazzed up when a mouse encounters a new mouse – one it’s never met before, but that is of its own genetic line. Is this dopamine reward reaction the mouse corollary of human in-group recognition?
What if the mouse were of a different genetic line with different external characteristics? What about with other small mammals such as voles who have dramatically different social relationships depending upon whether they are the type that lives in the prairie or in the mountains? Is there the same positive mesolimbic signaling when a prairie vole encounters a mountain vole, or does this “out-group” difference tip the balance toward the amygdala and expressing fear and distrust?
Scientists don’t know how these or even more subtle differences in animals might affect how their neural circuits promote social responses. But by studying them, researchers may better understand how human brain systems contribute to the implicit and unconscious bias people feel toward those in our own species who are nonetheless somewhat different.
Neural signaling is not destiny
Even if evolution has tilted the balance toward our brains rewarding “like” and distrusting “difference,” this need not be destiny. Activity in our brains is malleable, allowing higher-order circuits in the cortex to modify the more primitive fear and reward systems to produce different behavioral outcomes.
Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie eloquently states that “the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” In other words, stereotypes reduce those not exactly like us to only their differences.
So why would people put up with the discomfort that differences evoke, rather than always selecting the easy reward with sameness? In his book “The Difference,” social scientist Scott Page provides mathematical evidence that although diverse individuals are less trusting of one other, when working together, they are more productive.
From cracking the Enigma code in World War II to predicting stock prices, Page provides data to demonstrate that a diversity of perspectives produces better innovation and better solutions than the smartest set of like-minded experts. In short, diversity trumps ability. And diversity significantly enhances the level of innovation in organizations across the globe.
So acknowledge the amygdalar distrust that differences evoke. Then, while you may not get that same boost of dopamine, recognize that when it comes to what will promote the greatest good, working with those “not like us” has its own rewards.
This is an updated version of an article originally published on Nov. 12, 2014.
Leslie Henderson has received funding from the National Institutes of Health.
In recent years, there has been a great deal of public angst about refugee resettlement in the U.S. and Europe. Americans are deeply divided on the issue. For instance, a Pew Research Center study published in May of this year found that only a quarter of Republicans and right-leaning independents say the U.S. “has a responsibility to accept more refugees,” compared with almost three-quarters of Democrats and left-leaning independents.
Policies under the Trump administration reflect this division: The number of refugees being resettled to the United States in 2017 was just over 50,0000 – less than half the number from 2016. The decline is even sharper for 2018, since the administration lowered the annual cap to 45,000 refugees. Fewer admissions also means a decrease in numbers of students with refugee backgrounds in U.S. public schools.
Those who see refugees as a drain on public resources might view these declines as a positive. However, qualitative research published recently in my co-edited book, “Educating Refugee-background Students: Critical Issues and Dynamic Contexts,” suggests that this trend represents a loss to our schools and communities.
Having fewer students with refugee backgrounds, I argue, may result in missed opportunities for learning among all U.S. students – particularly when it comes to preparing them for global citizenship, civic responsibility and perseverance both inside and outside of the classroom.
Proponents of education reform in the U.S. often cite global citizenship as an important piece of college and career readiness, as well as engaged citizenship. At the crux of global citizenship is an awareness of one’s place in the world and a sense of openness to different viewpoints.
Many current K-12 education reforms have placed strong emphasis on global citizenship and cross-cultural engagement. Such reform efforts include the Framework for 21st Century Learning and the Common Core State Standards. Global citizenship and cross-cultural engagement have also been the focus of curricular innovation within higher education.
Cultural artifacts, diverse perspectives
In a chapter by Bryan Ripley Crandall, an associate professor of education at Fairfield University, Somali-born student writers describe ways they contribute to their peers’ cross-cultural understanding. They share information about family heirlooms, colonial history on the African continent and the legacy of slavery in the U.S. One student created a Facebook page where he and his friends discuss history and post their own creative writing. A poem posted on the page, entitled “History Should Come First,” opens with these lines:
I wish I can take you back, time, when African pride was still shining. African king was more than a dream. Consider it supreme and heart of the lion, before children suffer and are dieing (sic), before bullet was already flying before leaders was already lying killing wrong people so.
Another piece of global citizenship is understanding and responding to prejudice. In her chapter about Muslim students from Iraq, Amy Pucino, an assistant professor of sociology at the Community College of Baltimore County, has documented the strategies her students use to respond to Islamophobic and xenophobic comments from peers. After being called a “terrorist,” for example, one student tells his peers: “Hold on a second. The (U.S.) army, when they came to Iraq, killed my uncle and killed my best friend. And they killed this and that person. Were you included in that? … No, you don’t have anything to do with that.”
Finding their way
Many students with refugee backgrounds want to be not only global citizens but social change agents. This is illustrated in a research collaboration between Erin Papa, a dual language facilitator in the Pawtucket School Department, and students of Cambodian and Guatemalan heritage. The students used photography and writing to suggest ways the schools and community could be more culturally responsive. Students criticized local police for lack of cultural sensitivity, pointing out that officers sometimes removed a religious string known as a “ksai-see-ma” from the wrists of Cambodian students during an arrest, claiming the string could be used as a weapon. “I get so scared whenever I lose my ksai-see-ma,” one student explained. “This is a big deal … it means a lot because without it you’re open to evil spirits, like, messing with you.”
This line of research also offers insights into the nature of resilience, another focus of much discussion lately in U.S. education. In her study of autobiographical narratives from Rohingya youth, Kristiina Montero, an associate professor of education at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada, finds evidence of self-healing, expressed in statements of religious faith and a commitment to community service.
The examples cited in the book represent just a sampling of the many ways that students with refugee backgrounds can and do contribute to American classrooms. Rather than seeing refugees as a drain on resources, I believe educators and policymakers should consider how to tap in more fully to the assets these students and their families bring to U.S. schools and communities.
Shawna Shapiro does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
The Fuego volcano puffs smoke against a clear blue sky, as it has done for centuries.
Here in Antigua, 10 miles away, people go about their daily business: Students rush to school; tourists snap shots of the UNESCO-protected city’s Spanish Colonial architecture and cobblestone streets.
That is not true for the tens of thousands of people who were caught by Fuego volcano’s recent eruption. On Sunday June 3, El Fuego turned violent, spewing columns of fire, ash and rocks – pyroclastic flows that billowed up some 15,000 feet before raining over the region.
Some 60 square miles of mountainous central Guatemala were blanketed in deadly 400-degree ash. Families having Sunday lunch in the communities of San Miguel Los Lotes and el Rodeo were buried in 10 feet of ash and volcanic rock.
Officially, 110 people died and 197 are missing.
We are an anthropologist-photojournalist team who lives in the area. After the eruption, we interviewed survivors and photographed the devastation. We have come to believe that official death toll is grossly underestimated.
Insufficient government response
According to the National Coordination for Disaster Reduction of Guatemala agency, the region now buried in dense, gray ash is home to more than 1.7 million people.
But no one knows how many people actually lived in the disaster zone.
Guatemala’s 2012 population census was cancelled for political reasons, so the last exhaustive door-to-door national census was conducted in 2002. That means population data from the affected areas is almost two decades old.
In that period, the country’s population has grown from 12.2 million to over 16 million, according to the World Bank.
Poor, rural communities like those on Fuego’s slopes are difficult to count accurately because they are remote and difficult to access. Census workers tend not to speak the indigenous languages that predominate in the Guatemala’s Mayan highlands.
In our interviews with victims of the Fuego eruption and the volunteers helping them, several people have complained that the Guatemalan government is reporting information they know to be inaccurate.
It estimates that 12,823 people were evacuated and 3,613 people placed in shelters. Weeks after the eruption, the official death toll remains at 110. Local residents insist it is much higher.
“The government gives these numbers to look like it’s in control,” one rescue volunteer told us. “We know they are lies. Thousands died and will never be found.”
Since the eruption, rain has regularly fallen across Guatemala, hardening the volcanic ash into something resembling concrete. Unless the government sends dozens of workers with heavy equipment, bodies will likely remain entombed where they fell.
A fumbled rescue effort
The lack of up-to-date population information has made it even harder for Guatemala’s cash-strapped government to plan an effective, coordinated rescue and recovery mission.
President Jimmy Morales has declared that Guatemalan law doesn’t allow him to spend a penny of the national budget on emergencies. He has asked Congress for US$26.7 million in emergency relief funds.
Officially, the government’s disaster reduction agency is charged with coordinating evacuation, cleanup efforts and providing supplies to victims during any national emergency. National police officers and soldiers are now in place to guard the disaster zone to keep survivors and rescue workers out of the eruption zone.
But the larger rescue effort was mounted by people outside the government. Local volunteer firefighters and emergency workers entered the disaster zone to rescue victims from the hot ash and shuttle survivors to shelter. Social media and civil society organizations – including the academic Guatemala Scholars Network – have played a bigger coordinating role in local aid activities than Guatemala’s national disaster office.
Morales, an unpopular leader, was already enmeshed in a campaign finance scandal. His party is under investigation by a United Nations anti-corruption prosecutor.
People did not wait for the Guatemalan government to help after Fuego exploded.
On the Sunday of the eruption, La Merced Church, in Antigua – which was not affected by the volcano – rang its bells, calling parishioners to help the priests who were already loading trucks of supplies to help the victims. Church officials tell us they have sent an average of four trucks daily to shelters, full of collected food, clothing, medicine and other items.
Hangars at La Aurora International Airport, in Guatemala City, have become temporary storage for relief goods pouring in from private donors around the country. It is one of 21 donation centers where hundreds of volunteers bag and label food, clothing, medication, cleaning supplies and personal hygiene items. They are then driven to affected areas.
Volunteers in Antigua’s central plaza are accepting donations, too. They deliver food and medicine now. Other items they’re housing for later.
“The media will soon move on to something else, people here will grow weary and the government won’t do what it needs to do,” explained one woman receiving donations. “So we’re collecting anything and everything that is given and saving it for later.”
A delegation of volunteers lead by firemen from Antigua are making regular 34-mile trips to the ash-covered village of Paraíso El Xab, where people are now contending with poor air quality, water contamination and damage to crops. Eswin Cabrera, president of the town’s Community Council Development Organization, says unripened coffee beans will soon begin to rot.
Accustomed to disaster
Neighbors helping neighbors is standard practice in Guatemala.
Guatemalans know they cannot rely on the national government to provide. And they know how to handle natural disasters. Four of the 37 volcanoes in the country are active. Fuego has erupted some 60 times over the past 500 years, most recently in September 2012.
On June 17, Guatemala suspended its search for bodies and survivors. Local rescue workers, however, continue their grueling efforts.
Kerstin Sabene a photojournalist currently based in Guatemala, contributed original photography and reporting to this article.
Walter E. Little does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
The problem with opioids is that they kill pain – and people. In the past three years, more than 125,000 persons died from an opioid overdose – an average of 115 people per day – exceeding the number killed in car accidents and from gunshots during the same period.
America desperately needs safer analgesics. To create them, biochemists like myself are focusing not just on the opioids, but on opioid receptors. The opioids “dock” with these receptors in the brain and peripheral nervous system dulling pain but also causing deadly side effects.
My colleagues and I in Bryan Roth’s lab have recently solved the atomic structure of a morphine-like drug interacting with an opioid receptor, and now we are using this atomic snapshot to design new drugs that block pain but without the euphoria that leads to addiction.
What has caused the opioid epidemic?
In the U.S., more than one-third of the population experiences some form of acute or chronic pain; in older adults this number rises to 40 percent. The most common condition linked to chronic pain is chronic depression, which is a major cause of suicide.
To relieve severe pain, people go to their physician for powerful prescription painkillers, opioid drugs such as morphine, oxycodone and hydrocodone. Almost all the currently marketed opioid drugs exert their analgesic effects through a protein called the “mu opioid receptor” (MOR).
MORs are embedded in the surface membrane of brain cells, or neurons, and block pain signals when activated by a drug. However, many of the current opioids stimulate portions of the brain that lead to additional sensations of “rewarding” pleasure, or disrupt certain physiological activities. The former may lead to addiction, or the latter, death.
Which part of the brain is activated plays a vital role in controlling pain. For example, MORs are also present in the brain stem, a region that controls breathing. Activating these mu receptors, not only dulls pain but also slows breathing. Large doses stop breathing, causing death. Activating MORs in other parts of the brain, including the ventral tegmental area and the nucleus accumbens, block pain and trigger pleasure or reward, which makes them addictive. But so far there is no efficient way to turn these receptors “on” and “off” in specific areas.
But there is another approach because not all opioids are created equal. Some, such as morphine, bind to the receptor and activate two signaling pathways: one mediating pain cessation and the other producing side effects like respiratory depression. Other drugs favor one pathway more than the other, like only blocking pain – this is the one we want.
“Biased opioids” to kill pain
But MOR isn’t the only opioid receptor. There are two other closely related proteins called kappa and delta, or KOR and DOR respectively, that also alter pain perception but in slightly different ways. Yet, currently there are only a few opioid medications that target KOR, and none that target DOR. One reason is that the function of these receptors in the brain neurons remains unclear.
Recently KOR has been getting attention as extensive studies from different academic labs show that it blocks pain without triggering euphoria, which means it isn’t addictive. Another benefit is that it doesn’t slow respiration, which means that it isn’t lethal. But although it isn’t as dangerous as MOR, activating KOR does promote dysphoria, or unease, and sleepiness.
This work suggests it is possible to design a drug that only targets the pain pathway, without side effects. These kind of drugs are called “biased” opioids.
Discovering and designing drugs to target KOR
So far, there are two popular ways to discover new drugs. The first involves using existing commercially available libraries of compounds and testing them on cells or animals to find one that has the required characteristics. This hit-and-miss approach is straightforward but time-consuming, running anywhere from three months to two years to screen between 3,000 to 20,000 compounds.
The other strategy is called “structure-based drug design.” With this approach, you first need a high-resolution photograph of the receptor – showing the arrangement of every atom in the molecule. Then, using a computer program, you can examine up to 35 million molecules from a virtual chemical library called ZINC 15 to find a molecule that will precisely interact – lock-and-key style – with the receptor. It is like having the precise dimensions of the International Space Station so that you can design a spacecraft that can fits perfectly in the docking site.
I’m a crystallographer, which means I specialize in taking atomic resolution photographs of proteins. I became interested in solving the structure of KOR – when the protein is in its active state bound to a drug.
Structure is considered the gold standard for figuring out how a drug interacts with a receptor and produces a signal. To solve the KOR structure, I first manufactured the KOR protein to make KOR crystals, which consists of hundreds of millions of KOR molecules stacked in the same way, just like salt molecules in a salt crystal. Then I blasted the crystals with X-rays to generate an image of the receptor at atomic level. The key to these pictures was that I “froze” the KOR proteins in their active state to understand how these receptors interact with a drug.
With an action shot of KOR, we recognized what parts of the molecule are critical for blocking pain signals. We are now using this structural data to construct a “biased” molecule that only activates the pain-blocking parts of the protein without triggering side effects.
Deciphering the structure of a protein is also valuable for creating a drug that interacts only with only one receptor. All the members of the opioid receptor family – MOR, KOR and DOR – look similar, like siblings. Therefore, these high-resolution photos are essential for designing drugs that will only recognize and target KOR.
Our structure is now used for virtual drug screening where the computational program randomly inserts millions of compounds into the structure and ranks each of them based on how well they fit. The better the score, the more likely that compound will yield a drug.
The exciting news is that researchers in the Roth lab have discovered several promising compounds based on the KOR structure that selectively binds and activates KOR, without cavorting with the more than 330 other related protein receptors.
Now our challenge is to transform these molecules into safer drugs.
Tao Che receives funding from the National Institute of Drug Abuse. (Grant number: DA035764)
The news has been full these past few weeks of disturbing stories from the nation’s borders. The Trump administration has separated immigrant children from their parents precisely to discourage others from trying to enter the country.
Trump has signed an order to end the practice. But thousands of children have been traumatized as part of an explicit effort to, in Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s words, send a powerful “message” to other potential immigrants. Sessions used the Bible to defend the practice: “I would cite to you the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.”
What has struck me, as a professor of English literature, are the startling parallels between the Trump administration’s policy on immigrant families and the “New” Poor Laws of England in the 1830s, whose cruelty was illuminated by Charles Dickens in novels and other writings.
England tried much the same kind of tactics that Trump’s administration has used. Americans may remember the suffering face of Oliver Twist, begging for just a little more food. It may surprise some to realize that Dickens wrote the novel specifically to shine a light on new and brutal laws. Dickens was particularly concerned by the state’s assault on the integrity of the family.
‘Fraud, indolence or improvidence’
England’s “New” Poor Laws of the 1830s were designed to “solve” what was believed to be a common problem: the existence of a body of weak, lazy people leeching off the state. How could the government end abuses of the system? How could money be saved, diverted back to the honest hard-working citizens who paid their way?
In 1834, a Royal Commission issued a report insisting that poverty was almost always a result of “fraud, indolence or improvidence.” Good news: This, apparently, could be fixed.
The commission rolled out a series of recommendations. At the center of these was a core idea: The poor should be cared for in conditions so abject, so truly humiliating, only the really desperate would turn to them.
Under the “workhouse test,” relief would only be given to those willing to relinquish their independence, their human dignity, their spouses and their children. Others, the argument went, would buck up, get a job and stop bothering the righteous rest. Their rights, needs and humanity were disregarded.
The new rules went into effect on June 1, 1835, two years before Victoria became queen.
Families torn apart
Children forced into the workhouse system were either housed in separate buildings from their parents or sent miles away, to live in government-run district schools. The “reformers” proudly trumpeted that children could be fed less than adults when families were separated. They also argued children would learn new and better values once isolated from their parents.
Many families were never reunited.
In an early scene, Oliver sobs when the Board of the Workhouse condemns him because he does not know how to pray. Oliver has never been taught to pray – has never been shown kindness, sympathy or compassion of any kind.
“What a noble illustration of the tender laws of this favored country,” Dickens remarks bitterly, as Oliver weeps himself into unconsciousness. “They let the paupers go to sleep!”
“Bleak House"’s horrific Mrs. Pardiggle is, as Dickens put it, an "inexorable moral Policeman.” She shouts Christian teachings at the poor and suffering and fails in her most basic duties of care. She’s so busy spouting religious text, she does not notice when a baby dies in front of her.
Dickens was not the only writer to expose the horrors of the poor laws. The separation of children from their parents was a flashpoint then, as now.
A famous 1843 cartoon in Punch, called “The Milk of Poor-Law ‘Kindness,’” was the Victorian equivalent of the recent photo of a sobbing two-year-old by her immigrant mother’s knees. It showed a crone-like workhouse matron dragging a baby from its horrified mother, as a devil sneers and an angel hides its face in horror.
Marches and acts of political disobedience followed, including riots and arson against the new-built workhouses, with many Victorians uniting around the sanctity of the family.
The depiction of paupers as suffering people, not just leeches on the system, helped shock the population and precipitate social change. With deliberate use of sentiment and tear-jerking scenes of tragedy and loss, Charles Dickens gave a human face to those who were being treated with profound inhumanity.
I’ve taught the novels of Charles Dickens for more than 20 years. My students have tended to approach his era as a bizarre and strangely cruel period in human history. But Dickens’s world has come to life again. Our government has detained children as young as infants in “tender age” centers in south Texas.
It’s 2018, but it sure feels like 1834.
Sarah Bilston does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
“The President is Missing,” Bill Clinton’s new suspense novel that he co-wrote with James Patterson, was swiftly panned. It spills no secrets, the prose is leaden, the story predictable.
Clinton isn’t the first former president to try his hand at fiction. Jimmy Carter took seven years to write “The Hornet’s Nest: A Novel of the Revolutionary War,” which suffered a similarly unenthusiastic response.
When it came to their literary ambitions, both Clinton and Carter proved John Quincy Adams prescient.
“There is nothing more pathetic in life than a former president,” the sixth president once opined.
What happens to motivated, determined, duty-driven men when they are forced to abandon the White House? When the global spotlight dims? When, as Barack Obama put it, life begins to move in slow motion?
As a scholar of presidential families, my research suggests that while presidents have many more options open to them in their “retirement” than the rest of us, they find the transition difficult and their choices have run the gamut from the decent to the disastrous, from altruistic to avaricious.
Getting in the last word
After the daily grind and chaos of being president, it’s no surprise that many presidents, upon leaving office, immerse themselves in quiet activities like writing, painting and farming.
Writing is probably the most common pastime of ex-presidents, who can seldom resist the urge to rehash major events of their tenure, justify their decisions and seek to influence their place in history.
Knowing he was about to die, Ulysses Grant penned his memoir to provide a financial cushion for his family. Bedridden, tormented by pain, and writing on his back in pencil in a desperate race to finish before throat cancer killed him, he completed his manuscript and died days later. It earned nearly half a million dollars for his widow, thanks to the extremely generous royalties granted to him by his friend and publisher, Samuel Clemens.
Theodore Roosevelt’s hunting books, Herbert Hoover’s “Fishing for Fun: And to Wash Your Soul” and Gerald Ford’s “Humor and the Presidency” stand in contrast to the many books written by former presidents analyzing foreign and domestic policy, chronicling past eras, providing civic and spiritual advice and showcasing public and private correspondence.
John Adams grimly rebutted the by then deceased Alexander Hamilton in protracted letters to the Boston Patriot. Even “Silent Cal” found he had a lot to say post presidency, churning out 300 syndicated newspaper columns under the title “Calvin Coolidge Says.”
Painting, meanwhile, acted as a solitary, post-presidential pursuit for at least three former presidents.
Dwight Eisenhower’s landscapes and portraits occupied his last two decades and were exhibited widely. An oil painting of Carter’s netted US$750,000 for charitable works last year, and George W. Bush professes to be both “challenged” and made “happy” by his artwork.
Farming also places high on the agenda of ex-presidents. Like Cincinnatus, the powerful fifth-century B.C. Roman leader, George Washington resisted the temptation to remain in power and instead returned to his plow. James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, John Tyler, Andrew Johnson, Franklin Pierce, Lyndon B. Johnson and Ronald Reagan, among others, all found solace in going home to their fields and ranches. Eisenhower earned a place in the Angus Heritage Foundation for the prize-winning cattle he raised on his farm near Gettysburg.
The allure of the limelight
But as John Quincy Adams well knew, the glamours and thrills of the old life always beckon.
Theodore Roosevelt may have once written with his customary certainty that “when [the president] goes out of office he takes up his regular round of duties like any other citizen, or if he is of advanced age retires from active life to rest.”
Yet once his term was up, Roosevelt undertook an African safari, started a third party, charted an unexplored river in Brazil, and tried but failed to recreate the Rough Riders for the World War I trenches. George H. W. Bush, who celebrated his 90th birthday by skydiving, recalls this level of derring-do.
Some former presidents turn into elder statesmen, dispensing advice to all who will listen, especially presidential hopefuls. They are called upon to attend state funerals, put in appearances, unveil their portraits and accept awards.
Not everyone complies. Millard Fillmore resisted an honorary degree from Oxford University because he felt he did not deserve it. Harry Truman knew he didn’t merit the proffered Congressional Medal of Honor.
Then there are the politicians who simply cannot stop being politicians.
In 1799, Washington set a precedent for inserting himself into future elections, when, with the elections of 1800 looming, he persuaded fellow Federalists to run for office and made sure he was solidly apprised of political machinations.
Fillmore, Grant, Grover Cleveland and Theodore Roosevelt all ran for president after leaving the White House. John Quincy Adams was elected nine times to the House of Representatives, doing such good work that he – like Carter – was considered a better former president than president. Seven years after he was impeached, Tennessee sent Andrew Johnson back to the U.S Congress.
“Thank God for the vindication,” he gloated – although his Senate colleagues largely snubbed him.
But only one was truly a traitor. John Tyler became a secessionist and an elected member of the Confederate Congress.
In the end, the desire to reward and punish, to analyze the past, to promote an agenda, to be part of the nation’s business, and to remain in the spotlight proves overwhelming.
Some former presidents may eventually come across as pathetic, but none is ever missing from public view for too long. Ambitious men accustomed to prominence and power find it difficult to “retire from active life to rest.”
Presidents who preceded him have provided Donald Trump several options for his eventual retirement. It is, however, nearly impossible to imagine his Twitter account truly going dark.
Stacy A. Cordery does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Social media are among the primary sources of news in the U.S. and across the world. Yet users are exposed to content of questionable accuracy, including conspiracy theories, clickbait, hyperpartisan content, pseudo science and even fabricated “fake news” reports.
It’s not surprising that there’s so much disinformation published: Spam and online fraud are lucrative for criminals, and government and political propaganda yield both partisan and financial benefits. But the fact that low-credibility content spreads so quickly and easily suggests that people and the algorithms behind social media platforms are vulnerable to manipulation.
Our research has identified three types of bias that make the social media ecosystem vulnerable to both intentional and accidental misinformation. That is why our Observatory on Social Media at Indiana University is building tools to help people become aware of these biases and protect themselves from outside influences designed to exploit them.
Bias in the brain
Cognitive biases originate in the way the brain processes the information that every person encounters every day. The brain can deal with only a finite amount of information, and too many incoming stimuli can cause information overload. That in itself has serious implications for the quality of information on social media. We have found that steep competition for users’ limited attention means that some ideas go viral despite their low quality – even when people prefer to share high-quality content.
One cognitive shortcut happens when a person is deciding whether to share a story that appears on their social media feed. People are very affected by the emotional connotations of a headline, even though that’s not a good indicator of an article’s accuracy. Much more important is who wrote the piece.
To counter this bias, and help people pay more attention to the source of a claim before sharing it, we developed Fakey, a mobile news literacy game (free on Android and iOS) simulating a typical social media news feed, with a mix of news articles from mainstream and low-credibility sources. Players get more points for sharing news from reliable sources and flagging suspicious content for fact-checking. In the process, they learn to recognize signals of source credibility, such as hyperpartisan claims and emotionally charged headlines.
Bias in society
Another source of bias comes from society. When people connect directly with their peers, the social biases that guide their selection of friends come to influence the information they see.
In fact, in our research we have found that it is possible to determine the political leanings of a Twitter user by simply looking at the partisan preferences of their friends. Our analysis of the structure of these partisan communication networks found social networks are particularly efficient at disseminating information – accurate or not – when they are closely tied together and disconnected from other parts of society.
The tendency to evaluate information more favorably if it comes from within their own social circles creates “echo chambers” that are ripe for manipulation, either consciously or unintentionally. This helps explain why so many online conversations devolve into “us versus them” confrontations.
To study how the structure of online social networks makes users vulnerable to disinformation, we built Hoaxy, a system that tracks and visualizes the spread of content from low-credibility sources, and how it competes with fact-checking content. Our analysis of the data collected by Hoaxy during the 2016 U.S. presidential elections shows that Twitter accounts that shared misinformation were almost completely cut off from the corrections made by the fact-checkers.
When we drilled down on the misinformation-spreading accounts, we found a very dense core group of accounts retweeting each other almost exclusively – including several bots. The only times that fact-checking organizations were ever quoted or mentioned by the users in the misinformed group were when questioning their legitimacy or claiming the opposite of what they wrote.
Bias in the machine
The third group of biases arises directly from the algorithms used to determine what people see online. Both social media platforms and search engines employ them. These personalization technologies are designed to select only the most engaging and relevant content for each individual user. But in doing so, it may end up reinforcing the cognitive and social biases of users, thus making them even more vulnerable to manipulation.
For instance, the detailed advertising tools built into many social media platforms let disinformation campaigners exploit confirmation bias by tailoring messages to people who are already inclined to believe them.
Also, if a user often clicks on Facebook links from a particular news source, Facebook will tend to show that person more of that site’s content. This so-called “filter bubble” effect may isolate people from diverse perspectives, strengthening confirmation bias.
Our own research shows that social media platforms expose users to a less diverse set of sources than do non-social media sites like Wikipedia. Because this is at the level of a whole platform, not of a single user, we call this the homogeneity bias.
Another important ingredient of social media is information that is trending on the platform, according to what is getting the most clicks. We call this popularity bias, because we have found that an algorithm designed to promote popular content may negatively affect the overall quality of information on the platform. This also feeds into existing cognitive bias, reinforcing what appears to be popular irrespective of its quality.
All these algorithmic biases can be manipulated by social bots, computer programs that interact with humans through social media accounts. Most social bots, like Twitter’s Big Ben, are harmless. However, some conceal their real nature and are used for malicious intents, such as boosting disinformation or falsely creating the appearance of a grassroots movement, also called “astroturfing.” We found evidence of this type of manipulation in the run-up to the 2010 U.S. midterm election.
To study these manipulation strategies, we developed a tool to detect social bots called Botometer. Botometer uses machine learning to detect bot accounts, by inspecting thousands of different features of Twitter accounts, like the times of its posts, how often it tweets, and the accounts it follows and retweets. It is not perfect, but it has revealed that as many as 15 percent of Twitter accounts show signs of being bots.
Using Botometer in conjunction with Hoaxy, we analyzed the core of the misinformation network during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. We found many bots exploiting both the cognitive, confirmation and popularity biases of their victims and Twitter’s algorithmic biases.
These bots are able to construct filter bubbles around vulnerable users, feeding them false claims and misinformation. First, they can attract the attention of human users who support a particular candidate by tweeting that candidate’s hashtags or by mentioning and retweeting the person. Then the bots can amplify false claims smearing opponents by retweeting articles from low-credibility sources that match certain keywords. This activity also makes the algorithm highlight for other users false stories that are being shared widely.
Understanding complex vulnerabilities
Even as our research, and others’, shows how individuals, institutions and even entire societies can be manipulated on social media, there are many questions left to answer. It’s especially important to discover how these different biases interact with each other, potentially creating more complex vulnerabilities.
Tools like ours offer internet users more information about disinformation, and therefore some degree of protection from its harms. The solutions will not likely be only technological, though there will probably be some technical aspects to them. But they must take into account the cognitive and social aspects of the problem.
Giovanni Luca Ciampaglia has received funding from the Office of the Vice Provost for Research at Indiana University, the Democracy Fund, and the Swiss National Science Foundation. Currently, he is supported by the Indiana University Network Science Institute.
Filippo Menczer has received funding from the National Science Foundation, DARPA, US Navy, Yahoo Research, the J.S. McDonnell Foundation, and Democracy Fund.
In the old days, pain was pain, and there was not a lot of differentiating on the best way to treat it. Then came along powerful morphine in the late 1800s, and more than a century later, powerful opioid painkillers. Marketing by opioid manufacturers led many people to believe, several lawsuits claim, that there were few downsides to using powerful opioids to treat pain. Well, we know differently now.
At the same time we saw the rise of deaths due to opioids in the past decade, research revealed the nuances of pain. A modern medical approach, emphasized even more in the wake of new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations on prescribing opioids for pain, is to consider non-opioid painkillers first.
As a physician and pain researcher, I can say this is not as easy as it sounds, because there are different kinds of pain and because people experience pain differently. As a pain specialist, I’ve learned to use a broad array of treatments, including dozens of non-opioid pain medications, to treat the type of pain my patients describe and what I diagnose. Now, we need every clinician to practice this way, and to do so, we need to start at the beginning. An essential part of treating pain is to first identify what type of pain a person is having and then use a targeted treatment.
Three broad categories of pain
Nociceptive pain is experienced when pain receptors, called nociceptors, are activated. For example, go ahead and pinch your skin right now. The pain happens because pressure receptors are being activated on nerves, and pain signals travel quickly to your brain. Some pain nerves have these special receptors, and others have bare nerve endings that can be activated by pressure, stretch, extreme temperature, chemicals or movement. The activated nerve endings send pain signals to the spinal cord and up to the brain. Nociceptive pain is a normal response to insult or injury because it tells the person to protect themselves from further injury.
Nociceptive pain can be divided into two types – somatic, with receptors that monitor the musculoskeletal system, or visceral, with receptors that exist in the lining of intestines. Somatic nociceptive pain results from a broken arm, for example. If a person holds really still and doesn’t move the arm, the pain is not intense. But if a person moves, all the somatic nerve receptors in the bone and muscle are activated and pain is severe.
A stomach ulcer is an example of visceral pain. If the stomach and intestines are quiet, there may be little or no pain, but as soon as the stomach and intestines start moving, the pain receptors around the ulcer are activated and severe sharp, burning pain is felt.
Neuropathic pain is felt when nerve fibers are damaged or malfunctioning. A classic example is diabetic peripheral neuropathy, where patients with diabetes feel like pins and needles are stabbing them in their fingers and toes. That is because nerves have been damaged by high levels of sugar. Think of it like a fallen electric power line that has lost its insulation and is now sparking and zapping randomly on the ground. Those random zaps are injured nerves spontaneously firing and sending false signals to the brain that there is something causing pain. Neuropathic pain is pathologic pain, which means that it is considered abnormal. It is not a protective response, as is nociceptive pain; it is a malfunction.
Inflammatory pain is caused by inflammation, the body’s response to injury or infection. In inflammatory diseases, such as infection, traumatic injury, burns, cuts, arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease or autoimmune diseases, the region around the nerve is inflamed. There, an inflammatory soup of pain signal molecules, such as TGN-alpha, IL-1, IL-6 and ATP, lower the threshold for nerve firing, so even the slightest thing sets them off. Inflammation causes nerves to signal pain much easier than they otherwise would.
It makes sense to use pain medicines if the pain is severe, in all three types. If it isn’t really that bad, then non-medicine treatments are better. Elevate your leg, stretch your muscles, put ice on that charley horse. All that works well. Often, movement, coping strategies, and time for the body to heal are truly the best remedy.
If medication is needed, there are medications geared for each type.
Different pain, different treatment
Let’s look again at the example of the broken arm. If you don’t move it, it doesn’t hurt as much because the pain receptors are not being activated. So protect the arm, stabilize it, and get it fixed. Treat nociceptive pain by looking for the cause and treating the cause. If you stop the cause, the acute pain will resolve. So, immobilize the arm, realign the bone in surgery, and put a cast on it until it heals. In many instances, no pain medicine is needed. But it’s okay to use medicine for moderate and severe pain. Medications in this case can help you tolerate the fix and speed up rehabilitation and recovery.
Severe nociceptive pain can be controlled by starting with non-opioids and adding other medications as needed. Don’t stop the non-opioid pain medicines. You may think they weren’t working because the pain was too severe, but when used in combination with opioids, medicines like Tylenol and ibuprofen are what we doctors call opioid-sparing. This means that if a person needs more than Tylenol or ibuprofen, a smaller amount of opioid will be needed to control the pain if opioids are combined with non-opioids. This significantly lowers the risk of using opioids.
Nerve pain caused by damaged nerves is targeted by nerve pain medicines. Gabapentin is probably the most common, but again, there are several options. Finding the one that works best with the fewest side effects for an individual person is the key.
Inflammatory pain best responds to drugs called anti-inflammatories. There are non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), and steroids used to treat inflammation and reduce inflammatory pain. Aspirin, ibuprofen and naproxen are NSAIDs. Steroids, such as cortisone, have side effects of their own.
Many of these drugs were not originally developed to treat pain, so they are used by doctors “off-label” because doctors and other clinicians noticed that they were beneficial for targeted pain treatment.
For example, gabapentin’s traditional use is to stop seizures. If I prescribe it for pain, I explain it like this: Gabapentin can be used at really high doses, and is strong enough to prevent a seizure. I compare that dose to a very high volume, like listening to music so loud it might give you a headache. On the other hand, a low dose of gabapentin, like playing a stereo quietly in the background so the music is barely noticeable, calms overexcited nerves. This is how I and others use it to treat diabetic neuropathy, sciatica and even nerves injured from normal surgery.
All of this may seem complicated, and brings up many good questions that providers and patients have. Let me respond to the questions with a series of answers.
Can all three pain types occur together?
Yes, people can have only one pain type or all three pain types at the same time. After surgery, a patient will have nociceptive, neuropathic and inflammatory pain. So in this case, using a combination of medications is more effective and safer than trying to treat all the pain types with one drug.
This means that a person with all three types of pain may take multiple medicines to most effectively treat it all. Low doses of combinations of medications are often more effective and safer. This is why when drugs become generic, they often are combined into combo pills for the best effect. This is known as synergism. But, this also means that if a person only has one type of pain, a single targeted prescription may be all they need.
Are opioids still good medicines to use?
Yes, targeted pain treatment with non-opioid pain medicines may not be enough, and some patients will still need opioids. The severity of pain may be overwhelming, and opioids indiscriminately block pain sensation. Opioids are still an indispensable tool in the doctor’s toolkit for many diseases.
Are newer pain medicines being developed?
Yes, because of the opioid crisis, alternative options that are safer and have fewer side effects are appropriately being sought out. Many old drugs are being revived, reformulated and re-evaluated with new research methods. While researchers discover new benefits of ketamine and its cousin memantine for treatment of depression and memory loss respectively, each is finding resurgent use for treatment of pain.
Does marijuana treat pain?
Yes, marijuana can treat pain. The active ingredients in marijuana are similar to fat molecules our own body makes, called endocannabinoids. Endocannabinoids are retrograde messengers, meaning they travel backwards from one nerve to the nerve upstream to turn it off. But, turning off nerves indiscriminately can have some pretty horrible side effects, so researchers are trying to identify exactly which cannabinoids work best in specific body areas and for specific disease types. Once we have better research data, using marijuana-like molecules may become a targeted pain treatment.
Today, in this decade, targeted pain treatment is modern medical practice. I believe future decades will look different, as newer medicines are developed and non-medicine options are emphasized. Already, even major surgeries are being done using targeted pain treatment with improved pain control and with safer outcomes. Non-medicine pain control options coupled with targeted pain medicine treatments when needed, is what the doctor should be ordering today.
David A. Edwards is involved in many research trials to bring new treatments to patients. For 2 studies, he receives research grant funding from Grunenthal and Semnur, Inc. Dr. Edwards does not accept any compensation from companies or political bodies. Dr. Edwards is a board member of the Tennessee Pain Society.
Increasingly, local laws punish Americans who are homeless.
By severely restricting or even barring the ability to engage in necessary, life-sustaining activities in public, like sitting, standing, sleeping or asking for help, even when there’s no reasonable alternative, these laws are essentially persecuting homeless men, women and children.
As law professors who study how laws can make homelessness better or worse, we encourage cities, suburbs and towns to avoid punishing people who live in public and have nowhere else to go. One big reason: These “anti-vagrancy laws” are counterproductive because they make it harder to escape homelessness.
Many paths to not having a home
Why do at least half a million Americans experience homelessness at any time?
And when homeless people can stay in shelters, often they may only spend the night there. That means they have to go somewhere else during the daytime.
As the number of people facing homelessness increases, local residents are demanding that their elected officials do something about the homeless people they encounter in their daily lives. The leaders of cities, towns and suburbs are often responsive.
But more often than not, municipalities don’t address the underlying problems that cause homelessness by, say, providing sufficient permanent housing, affordable housing or shelters with minimal barriers to entry. Instead, criminalizing homelessness is growing more popular.
Over the last decade, city-wide bans on camping in public have increased by 69 percent while city-wide panhandling bans rose by 43 percent, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.
Advocates such as the American Civil Liberties Union frequently challenge these laws in court. Judges often strike down such laws on the grounds that they violate constitutionally protected rights, such as the freedom of speech or due process.
Still, more and more communities keep trying to outlaw homelessness.
Criminalizing homelessness is ineffective
Cities are aggressively deploying law enforcement to target people simply for the crime of existing while having nowhere to live. In 2016 alone, Los Angeles police arrested 14,000 people experiencing homelessness for everyday activities such as sitting on sidewalks.
San Francisco is spending some US$20 million per year to enforce laws against loitering, panhandling and other common conduct against people experiencing homelessness.
Jails and prisons make extremely expensive and ineffective homeless shelters. Non-punitive alternatives, such as permanent supportive housing and mental health or substance abuse treatment, cost less and work better, according to research one of us is doing at the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project at Seattle University Law School and many other sources.
But the greatest cost of these laws is borne by already vulnerable people who are ticketed, arrested and jailed because they are experiencing homelessness.
Fines and court fees quickly add up to hundreds or thousands of dollars. A Sacramento man, for example, found himself facing $100,000 in fines for convictions for panhandling and sleeping outside. These costs are impossible to pay, since the “crimes” were committed by dint of being unable to afford keeping a roof over his head in the first place.
Joseph W. Mead serves on the board of directors and as a cooperating attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio.
Sara Rankin does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
On June 18, the U.S. Supreme Court kicked a closely watched case on gerrymandering back to the lower court.
Gerrymandering – where states are carved up into oddly shaped electoral districts favoring one political party over another – has ignited debates in a number of states, including North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Maryland.
Many observers had hoped that the decision on Gill v. Whitford would provide some clarity on whether this controversial practice is constitutional. To better understand what the fight’s all about, we turned to articles in our archive.
What is gerrymandering?
Gerrymandering is far from a new problem, explains Michel Balinski at École Polytechnique – Université Paris-Saclay, nor will this be the first time that the Supreme Court has considered it: “Practiced as a political art form for some two centuries, gerrymandering is now an exact science. Computer programs using vast data banks describing sociological, ethnic, economic, religious and political characteristics of the electorate determine districts – often of incredibly weird contours – that favor the party that drew the maps.”
For an example of those weird contours, take a look at Ohio’s 9th District, nicknamed “the snake on the lake” for the way it stretches from Toledo to Cleveland.
“The representation of communities is made a mockery by maps that either splinter cities and counties or overwhelm them with voters ‘tacked’ into the district from distant rural areas,” writes Richard Gunther at The Ohio State University.
What’s the fight about?
The fight against gerrymandering was likely to rage on no matter what the judges in Gill v. Whitford decided, explains Jonathan Entin at Case Western Reserve University.
“The Constitution doesn’t say anything explicit about gerrymandering of any kind,” he says. “The basic argument against it says that partisan gerrymandering is inconsistent with basic concepts of self-government.”
Americans often seem proud of their democracy, notes Pippa Norris at Harvard University, but experts rank U.S. elections among the worst in all Western democracies. According to one analysis, the U.S. scores only 62 on a 100-point assessment of election integrity.
There are many issues with our electoral process – including problems with campaign finance and voter registration – but gerrymandering stands out as the worst, writes Norris. “[A] large part of the blame can be laid at the door of the degree of decentralization and partisanship in American electoral administration. Key decisions about the rules of the game are left to local and state officials with a major stake in the outcome.”
Thanks to gerrymandering, Democrats likely won’t win back the House in 2018 or 2020, predict experts at Strathclyde University, University of Richmond, University of California, Irvine and California Polytechnic State University.
What can be done?
Federal law dictates that congressional districts “distribute population evenly, be connected and be ‘compact,’” explains Kevin Knudson at the University of Florida.
Scholars have proposed a handful of ideas of how to redraw congressional districts more fairly. States might consider changing how votes are tabulated or appointing an independent commission to redraw the lines. Or, they could turn to new mathematical techniques and run simulations in search of the best map.
A group of mathematicians based at Tufts University is exploring ways to reinvent gerrymandering. “The authorities who control the lines – usually state legislatures, but sometimes nonpartisan commissions or judges – are practicing political geometry, whether they think of it that way or not,” write Moon Duchin and Peter Levine, who head up the project. “They’re carving up the population into pieces, and the shapes of those pieces matter.”
And it’s not as simple as separating the normal shapes from the weird-looking ones. A mathematical proof from Dustin G. Mixon at The Ohio State University suggests that voting districts sometimes need to be bizarrely shaped in order to be fair.
Not just politics
Gerrymandering is often discussed in the realm of politics. But Derek W. Black at the University of South Carolina explores a case in Alabama where school districts have been redrawn to create racially segregated schools. He notes that this seems to be an unfortunate pattern across the country: “In many areas, this racial isolation has occurred gradually over time, and is often written off as the result of demographic shifts and private preferences that are beyond a school district’s control.”
This is an updated version of a story that was originally published on June 25, 2017.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony in front of Congress, following disclosures of personal data being misused by third parties, has raised the question over how and whether the social media company should be regulated. But short of regulation, the company can take a number of steps to address privacy concerns and the ways its platform has been used to disseminate false information to influence elections.
Scholars of privacy and digital trust have written for The Conversation about concrete ideas – some of them radical breaks with its current business model – the company could use right away.
1. Act like a media company
Facebook plays an enormous role in U.S. society and in civil society around the world. The leader of a multiyear global study of how digital technologies spread and how much people trust them, Tufts University’s Bhaskar Chakravorti, recommends the company accept that it is a media company, and therefore
“take responsibility for the content it publishes and republishes. It can combine both human and artificial intelligence to sort through the content, labeling news, opinions, hearsay, research and other types of information in ways ordinary users can understand.”
2. Focus on truth
Facebook could then, perhaps, embrace the mission of journalism and watchdog organizations, and as American University scholars of public accountability and digital media systems Barbara Romzek and Aram Sinnreich suggest,
“start competing to provide the most accurate news instead of the most click-worthy, and the most trustworthy sources rather than the most sensational.”
3. Cut users in on the deal
If Facebook wants to keep making money from its users’ data, Indiana University technology law and ethics scholar Scott Shackelford suggests
“flip[ping] the relationship and having Facebook pay people for their data, [which] could be [worth] as much as US$1,000 a year for the average social media user.”
The multi-billion-dollar company has an opportunity to find a new path before the public and lawmakers weigh in.
Most of Facebook’s 2 billion users have likely had their data collected by third parties, the company revealed April 4. That follows reports that 87 million users’ data were used to target online political advertising in the run-up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
As company CEO Mark Zuckerberg prepares to testify before Congress, Facebook is beginning to respond to international public and government criticism of its data-harvesting and data-sharing policies. Many scholars around the U.S. are discussing what happened, what’s at stake, how to fix it, and what could come next. Here we spotlight five examples from our recent coverage.
1. What actually happened?
A lot of the concern has arisen from reporting that indicated Cambridge Analytica’s analysis was based on profiling people’s personalities, based on work from Cambridge University researcher Aleksandr Kogan.
Media scholar Matthew Hindman actually asked Kogan what he had done. As Hindman explained, “Information on users’ personalities or ‘psychographics’ was just a modest part of how the model targeted citizens. It was not a personality model strictly speaking, but rather one that boiled down demographics, social influences, personality and everything else into a big correlated lump.”
2. What were the effects of what happened?
On a personal level, this level of data collection – particularly for the 50 million Facebook users who had never consented to having their data collected by Kogan or Cambridge Analytica – was distressing. Ethical hacker Timothy Summers noted that democracy itself is at stake:
“What used to be a public exchange of information and democratic dialogue is now a customized whisper campaign: Groups both ethical and malicious can divide Americans, whispering into the ear of each and every user, nudging them based on their fears and encouraging them to whisper to others who share those fears.”
3. What should I do in response?
The backlash has been significant, with most Facebook users expressing some level of concern over what might be done with personal data Facebook has on them. As sociologists Denise Anthony and Luke Stark explain, people shouldn’t trust Facebook or other companies that collect massive amounts of user data: “Neither regulations nor third-party institutions currently exist to ensure that social media companies are trustworthy.”
4. What if I want to quit Facebook?
Many people have thought about, and talked about, deleting their Facebook accounts. But it’s harder than most people expect to actually do so. A communications research group at the University of Pennsylvania discussed all the psychological boosts that keep people hooked on social media, including Facebook’s own overt protestations:
“When one of us tried deactivating her account, she was told how huge the loss would be – profile disabled, all the memories evaporating, losing touch with over 500 friends.”
5. Should I be worried about future data-using manipulation?
If Facebook is that hard to leave, just think about what will happen as virtual reality becomes more popular. The powerful algorithms that manipulate Facebook users are not nearly as effective as VR will be, with its full immersion, writes user-experience scholar Elissa Redmiles:
“A person who uses virtual reality is, often willingly, being controlled to far greater extents than were ever possible before. Everything a person sees and hears – and perhaps even feels or smells – is totally created by another person.”
And people are concerned now that they’re too trusting.
Following the fatal police shooting of 22-year-old Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man in Sacramento, protesters have gathered to express anger over his death.
At issue is what is called police “use of force.” That’s when police exert physical force to make an individual comply with their orders. Each police department has policies for when use of force is appropriate. Protesters and Clark’s family members argue shooting at Clark 20 times was excessive. The California Department of Justice is investigating whether the officers involved breached any policies and whether policies need to be changed.
We’ve turned to our archives for a look at what experts say drives how and when police use force, and how it ties in to issues of race and gender.
1. Unconscious bias
One leading theory that is used to explain police behavior is what psychologists call implicit bias. The idea is that police officers, like all humans, have biases – negative attitudes and beliefs toward members of a social group.
As psychology professors Kate Ratliff and Colin Smith at the University of Florida explain, what makes these biases hard to address is that they exist outside of a person’s conscious awareness and control. These experts explain the methods scientists are developing to measure implicit bias, such as the Implicit Association Test.
Data from such tests have revealed, for example, that “Pro-white implicit biases are pervasive. Data from millions of visitors to the Project Implicit website reveal that, while about 70 percent of white participants report having no preference between black and white people, nearly the same number show some degree of pro-white preference on the IAT.”
Psychologists and social scientists are only beginning to understand how to apply this science to change behavior.
Another issue people often point to is machismo, which law professor Frank Rudy Cooper of Suffolk University describes as “a gendered, aggressive outlook” that is embedded in police training and culture.
One of the essential components of this outlook, Cooper writes, is zero tolerance for disrespect. This can even apply to female officers. When police officers feel disrespected, their natural response is to punish and often escalate a situation.
“Such escalation is commonly known as ‘contempt of cop.’ Being found in contempt of court is a punishment for disobeying a judge. ‘Contempt of cop’ occurs when an officer punishes you for failing to comply with her request.”
3. Lack of police-community trust
Historically bad relations between police and communities of color may also be a contributor to the ongoing violence. Police departments across the U.S. are seeking ways to train officers on improving trust and citizen cooperation.
Megan Price, a professor at George Mason University, is also director of a program called Insight Conflict Resolution. A new strategy called Insight Policing, she writes, is a “community-oriented, problem-solving policing practice designed to help officers take control of situations with the public before conflict escalates.” Pilot programs have been tested in Memphis, Tennessee and Lowell, Massachusetts.
The program teaches officers to defuse citizens’ behavior that is threatening or intended to cause conflict. Price writes,“ Eighty percent of officers trained agreed that Insight Policing enhanced their ability to defuse the feelings of threat citizens have about their encounters with police officers.”
At the beginning of the baseball season, every team wants to win the World Series or at least make a strong playoff run. For the Cincinnati Reds, the goal might be more modest: breaking a streak of three straight last-place finishes and improving on the worst-pitching record in the National League last season.
Off the field, the team faces a different kind of struggle: trying to avoid paying tens of thousands of dollars in sales tax on the bobbleheads, jerseys, tote bags and other memorabilia that the team gives away as promotions to entice fans to buy tickets.
It’s an issue that baseball teams have been battling for decades, with some having more success than others convincing their home states they shouldn’t have to pay sales tax on the promotional merchandise.
As I explain in a recent paper in the Journal of Taxation of Investments, I believe their arguments have little merit. Still, it does raise challenging questions about how we define the scope of sales taxes.
Sales tax exemptions
All but five states impose sales taxes, which can range widely from one place to another. Residents and businesses in Cincinnati, Ohio, where the Reds are based, pay the state rate of 5.75 percent as well as a local levy of 0.75 percent.
But most states, including Ohio, exempt purchases for resale from sales tax. For example, you pay a sales tax when you buy a computer at Best Buy, but the retailer does not.
This exemption can also apply to stuff a company buys to pass on to customers as part of a larger transaction. A good illustration of this involves the bags in which Kroger, Safeway or your neighborhood food store uses to pack your groceries. That’s because the typical grocery store includes the cost of the bags in the price of the goods it sells.
Another example is the toy that comes with a Happy Meal at McDonald’s. Again, the cost of the toy is included in the price of the meal.
Baseball teams claim that their memorabilia are like grocery bags or Happy Meals. The Reds say they factor the cost of those items into their ticket prices for every game during the season, so they should not have to pay a separate sales tax when they purchase them to give to fans as promotions.
The Ohio tax commissioner is the latest state official to disagree with that analysis.
‘Supplies are limited’
The commissioner emphasized in his unpublished ruling that the Reds did not give away the promotional items at every game. And even at games designated as giveaways, supplies were always limited.
In other words, ticket prices for the games were the same whether or not promotional items were offered or a fan actually received a bobblehead doll – those who didn’t get one did not get a discount on their ticket price. The commissioner found that the promotional items were gifts and therefore taxable.
The Reds appealed the ruling to the Ohio Board of Tax Appeals, which upheld the commissioner’s decision. So the Reds asked the Ohio Supreme Court to consider their case. After initially dismissing the appeal because the Reds’ lawyers missed a filing deadline, the court reluctantly agreed in February to consider the case, which remains pending.
The Reds have a lot at stake. They’ve designated 30 games this year for giveaways.
This number is typical for the major league teams. Forbes magazine reports that the average big league team has almost 27 games with giveaways this season.
If the Reds lose, they could be on the hook for a lot of money, though how much is unclear. One account put the total for just the 2008-2010 seasons at US$88,000, but the commissioner is likely to ask for tax payments going back a full decade, based on court records.
The Reds are at least the fourth MLB team to wind up in court over the past four decades over sales taxes on promotional items. Previous decisions have reached inconsistent results.
The Kansas City Royals won a case in 2000 that allowed them not to pay sales tax on their giveaways. But the Milwaukee Brewers in 1983 and the Minnesota Twins in 1998 lost their cases and currently have to pay sales tax.
A bobblehead is not a Happy Meal toy
The teams have a respectable legal argument, but I believe they should lose.
Promotional items are not really like grocery bags or Happy Meals. Virtually everyone who shops at grocery stores uses the store-provided paper or plastic bags. And every Happy Meal comes with a toy. But as the Ohio tax commissioner noted, only a minority of baseball fans who go to a game get the team memorabilia. To qualify, fans have to buy tickets for giveaway games and get to the stadium early enough to get one of the items before the supply runs out.
There is no resale and the teams should have to pay the sales tax on their promotional items.
The case, however it’s resolved, does have broader implications beyond some wealthy baseball teams. And it illustrates the challenge of defining what qualifies for the sales tax exemption. How should we decide when a premium item qualifies for the exemption?
How about a “free” streaming service like Netflix offered when you buy a TV or new phone? Or a buy one, get one free offer?
This is why we might think about switching to a value-added tax, which is collected at every stage of the supply chain. A sales tax, in contrast, is paid only by the final consumer. Of course, a value-added tax has its own issues, such as whether it’s regressive, but a VAT would eliminate these kinds of exceptions and loopholes.
For now, though, we have a sales tax. And the Reds case will turn on the meaning of the purchase-for-resale exception. I only hope that they do better on the field this year than they may do in court.
Jonathan Entin does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Editor’s note: The following is a roundup of stories from The Conversation’s archive.
Students from across the country will march in Washington, D.C., on Saturday. Similar marches will take place elsewhere in the U.S. Organized by survivors of the Parkland school shooting in Florida, the protesters want Congress to pass gun control legislation.
Among the activists’ demands: Ban assault weapons, stop the sale of high-capacity ammunition magazines and mandate background checks for every gun purchase.
Here are a selection of stories from our archive that will help you understand the issues raised by the students:
1. Can security measures stop school shootings?
When shootings happen, one common response of policymakers is to demand better security at schools – or what’s known as “target hardening.” More metal detectors, more surveillance cameras and more lockdown policies would be among these steps.
Scholars Bryan Warnick, Benjamin A. Johnson and Sam Rocha write that while it may seem sensible, there’s scant evidence that such an approach will decrease the likelihood of a school shooting. There were surveillance cameras used at the terrible scene of the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School; and a lockdown during the Sandy Hook school shooting did not save children there.
And, the authors write, there’s a subtle negative effect from instituting such measures: “Filling schools with metal detectors, surveillance cameras, police officers and gun-wielding teachers tells students that schools are scary, dangerous and violent places – places where violence is expected to occur.”
2. School shooters share traits
After Columbine, the U.S. Secret Service joined with the Department of Education in 1999 to study school shooters. They wanted to see whether there were traits and patterns common to those shooters that could be detected and used as early warnings.
Equally important: In most cases, there were people who knew of the attacker’s plans. And many attackers had exhibited behavior that worried others and showed that they needed help.
3. Arming teachers could make things worse
Both President Donald Trump and the National Rifle Association responded to the Florida shootings with proposals to arm teachers. Scholars Aimee Huff and Michelle Barnhart write that the proposal misses the mark.
“While carrying a gun may reduce the risk of being powerless during an attack,” they write, “it also introduces substantial and overlooked risks to the carrier and others.” Chief among those risks: That the teacher may shoot an innocent person.
4. Law enforcement’s limited options
Legal scholar James Jacobs writes that some abhorrent or disturbing behavior isn’t illegal. That’s important to understand when, after a school shooting, people ask: “Why didn’t they do something to stop him? Everyone knew he was strange and violent.”
Jacobs writes that prior to the Parkland shooting, shooter Nikolas Cruz had attracted attention – “family members, school personnel and neighbors had reported Cruz’s disturbing, threatening and violent behavior many times to police and social services.” But Jacobs writes: “Florida police have limited options when faced with a potential shooter like Cruz. They can take him to a mental hospital for evaluation. They can try to persuade him to surrender his firearms, but they cannot seize his guns.”
The best option for stopping a shooter like Cruz from killing in the future, writes Jacobs, is a “civil commitment to a mental hospital, where the disturbed person’s mental and emotional state is addressed.”
Editor’s note: The following is a roundup of stories from The Conversation’s archive.
In an unexpected development, President Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un have agreed to meet and discuss improving relations.
Over the last year, the two countries’ leaders have exchanged increasingly bitter and bellicose rhetoric as North Korea continued its development of long-range nuclear weapons, which the U.S. opposes. Trump called Kim “Little Rocket Man,” Kim called Trump a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard,” and both have threatened nuclear annihilation of the other side.
But it’s not necessarily nasty name-calling that got North Korea to issue Trump the invitation to meet. Years of sanctions imposed by the U.S. and the United Nations have isolated North Korea economically.
Here is a roundup of stories from our archives to help you sort the story behind the U.S.-North Korea conflict.
1. A brief history
North and South Korea were once a single country. They shared a common culture. But they’ve been at odds since the end of World War II, when the Korean Peninsula was divided in two, with South Korea backed by the U.S. and North Korea backed by the Soviets.
“Amid the growing Cold War tensions between Moscow and Washington, in 1948, two separate governments were established in Pyongyang and Seoul,” writes East Asian scholar Ji-Young Lee. Lee also quotes recent polls reporting that more than half of South Koreans believe that reunification with North Korea “is necessary.”
2. Everybody get together
Since Korea was divided into two countries relatively recently, is there a chance they could join together again?
“History suggests such efforts to reunite the peninsula as a single country often don’t go far,” Lee writes.
In a second essay, Lee details the number of times the two countries have tried to achieve national unity and how each has failed. It turns out that each of these efforts has floundered through a combination of aggressive moves by each side, internal political conflicts and pressure from allies across the globe.
Now, though, writes Lee, “current South Korean President Moon Jae-In is more open to … pursuing engagement. … This may be a game changer. Without a doubt, he is much more proactive about creating opportunities for inter-Korean reconciliation.”
3. The mind of a ‘smart cookie’
The North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who was called a “smart cookie” and other less complimentary things by President Donald Trump, is a complex man who has assassinated political rivals and, according to human rights advocates, runs prison camps where political prisoners are raped and starved.
When Trump meets him and becomes the first U.S. president to ever hold talks with a North Korean leader, it might help if he understands something about Kim. “I hope he’s rational,” Trump said last April.
Scholar Stephen Benedict Dyson provides a response to Trump’s statement. Dyson writes that in his research on political leaders, he found that “different people have different definitions of rationality. The core question – "What is my best move?” – is often answered by a leader’s idiosyncratic beliefs, rather than by an immediately obvious logic of the situation as seen by external observers.“
So if the United States want to influence Kim, "Trump and his advisers must first understand how we look to the North Korean leader, peering at us from his very particular vantage point,” writes Dyson.
4. It’s not only a nuclear threat
Kim Jong Un doesn’t just have an army of soldiers and a growing nuclear arsenal at his disposal. He also has an army of cyber warriors.
Those hackers, writes Dorothy Denning of the Naval Postgraduate School, have used their digital skills to steal money to fund the government and launch cyberattacks that disable online services and destroy the data on computer disks.
5. Around the corner
Let’s say Trump and Kim meet. But then, like so many summits between adversaries, it fails to produce an agreement.
What’s next, war?
There’s an alternative, say Sievert and Norris: international arbitration. It’s worked in the past with seemingly intractable adversaries.
The scholars detail several of those crises, going back to the mid-19th century, and describe how the countries were brought to the table to work out their conflicts peacefully.
Every vote counts. It’s the key principle underlying democracy. Through the history of democratic elections, people have created many safeguards to ensure votes are cast and counted fairly: paper ballots, curtains around voting booths, locked ballot boxes, supervised counting, provisions for recounting and more.
With the advent of computer technology has come the prospect of faster counting of votes, and even, some hope, more secure and accurate voting. But the internet has also enabled hackers to attack voting systems and has given disinformation campaigns new tools to influence public opinion. Here are highlights of The Conversation’s coverage of these issues.
1. Voting machines are old
After the debacle of the 2000 election’s efforts to count votes, the federal government handed out massive amounts of money to the states to buy newer voting equipment that, everyone hoped, would avoid a repeat of the “hanging chad” mess. But almost two decades later, as Lawrence Norden and Christopher Famighetti at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University explain, that one-time cash infusion has left a troubling legacy of aging voting machines:
“Imagine you went to your basement and dusted off the laptop or mobile phone that you used in 2002. What would happen if you tried to turn it on?”
That’s the machinery U.S. democracy depends on.
2. Not everyone can use the devices
Most voting machines don’t make accommodations for people with physical disabilities that affect how they vote. Juan Gilbert at the University of Florida quantifies the problem:
“In the 2012 presidential election, … The turnout rate for voters with disabilities was 5.7 percent lower than for people without disabilities. If voters with disabilities had voted at the same rate as those without a disability, there would have been three million more voters weighing in on issues of local, state and national significance.”
To date, most efforts to solve the problems have involved using special voting equipment just for people with particular disabilities. That’s expensive and inefficient – and remember, separate is not equal. Gilbert has invented an open-source (read: inexpensive) voting machine system that can be used by people with many different disabilities, as well as people without disabilities.
With the system, which has been tested and approved in several states, voters can cast their ballots using a keyboard, a joystick, physical buttons, a touchscreen or even their voice.
3. Machines are not secure
In part because of their age, nearly every voting machine in use is vulnerable to various sorts of cyberattacks. For years, researchers have documented ways to tamper with vote counts, and yet few machines have had their cyberdefenses upgraded.
The fact that the election system is so widespread – with multiple machines in every municipality nationwide – also makes it weaker, writes Richard Forno at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County: There are simply more opportunities for an attacker to find a way in.
“Voter registration and administration systems operated by state and national governments are at risk too. Hacks here could affect voter rosters and citizen databases. Failing to secure these systems and records could result in fraudulent information in the voter database that may lead to improper (or illegal) voter registrations and potentially the casting of fraudulent votes.”
4. Even without an attack, major concerns
Even if an attack never happens – or if nobody can prove one happened – public trust in elections is vulnerable to sore losers taking advantage of the fact that cyberweaknesses exist. Just that prospect could destabilize the country, argues Herbert Lin of Stanford University:
“State and local election officials can and should provide for paper backup of voting this (and every) November. But in the end, debunking claims of election rigging, electronically or otherwise, amounts to trying to prove something didn’t happen – it can’t be done.”
5. The Russians are a factor
American University historian Eric Lohr explains the centuries of experience Russia has in meddling in other countries’ affairs, but notes that the U.S. isn’t innocent itself:
“In fact, the U.S. has a long record of putting its finger on the scales in elections in other countries.”
Neither country is unique: Countries have attempted to influence each other’s domestic politics throughout history.
6. The real problems aren’t technological at all
In any case, the major threats to U.S. election integrity have to do with domestic policies governing how voting districts are designed, and who can vote.
Penn State technologist Sascha Meinrath discusses how partisan panels have “systematically drawn voting districts in ways that dilute the power of their opponent’s party,” and “chosen to systematically disenfranchise poor, minority and overwhelmingly Democratic-leaning constituencies.”
There’s plenty of work to be done.
Editors’ note: This is an updated version of an article originally published Oct. 18, 2016.
On Feb. 6, technology companies, educators and others mark Safer Internet Day and urge people to improve their online safety. Many scholars and academic researchers around the U.S. are studying aspects of cybersecurity and have identified ways people can help themselves stay safe online. Here are a few highlights from their work.
1. Passwords are a weakness
With all the advice to make passwords long, complex and unique – and not reused from site to site – remembering passwords becomes a problem, but there’s help, writes Elon University computer scientist Megan Squire:
“The average internet user has 19 different passwords. … Software can help! The job of password management software is to take care of generating and remembering unique, hard-to-crack passwords for each website and application.”
That’s a good start.
2. Use a physical key
To add another layer of protection, keep your most important accounts locked with an actual physical key, writes Penn State-Altoona information sciences and technology professor Jungwoo Ryoo:
“A new, even more secure method is gaining popularity, and it’s a lot like an old-fashioned metal key. It’s a computer chip in a small portable physical form that makes it easy to carry around. The chip itself contains a method of authenticating itself.”
Just don’t leave your keys on the table at home.
3. Protect your data in the cloud
Many people store documents, photos and even sensitive private information in cloud services like Google Drive, Dropbox and iCloud. That’s not always the safest practice because of where the data’s encryption keys are stored, explains computer scientist Haibin Zhang at University of Maryland, Baltimore County:
“Just like regular keys, if someone else has them, they might be stolen or misused without the data owner knowing. And some services might have flaws in their security practices that leave users’ data vulnerable.”
So check with your provider, and consider where to best store your most important data.
4. Don’t forget about the rest of the world
Sadly, in the digital age, nowhere is truly safe. Jeremy Straub from North Dakota State University explains how physical objects can be used to hijack your smartphone:
“Attackers may find it very attractive to embed malicious software in the physical world, just waiting for unsuspecting people to scan it with a smartphone or a more specialized device. Hidden in plain sight, the malicious software becomes a sort of ‘sleeper agent’ that can avoid detection until it reaches its target.”
It’s a reminder that using the internet more safely isn’t just a one-day effort.
Editor’s note: This is a roundup of material from The Conversation’s coverage of the 2018 World Economic Forum.
The annual gathering of global elites known colloquially as Davos is over – in case you missed it. So what does it matter?
While the rare attendance of the president of the United States may have made the biggest splash, several thousand other leaders in business, politics, academia and, well, celebritydom ensured there was plenty of other star wattage at the World Economic Forum’s three-day meeting in the Alps.
A few heads of state auditioned to take the U.S. president’s place as “leader of the free world,” while other attendees assessed the risks likely to batter the world economy in coming months and years. And the parties this year – we hear – were epic.
To help readers pierce the luxury bubble that surrounded the Alpine town of Davos from Jan. 23-26, we’ve been asking experts to examine some of the key themes and speeches.
1. A Davos primer and reading list
Since it was President Donald Trump’s first time attending Davos, we thought he might like a primer.
To that end, University of St. Thomas professor of ethics and business law Christopher Michaelson, who has previously attended the meeting, offered a little history on the World Economic Forum and suggested three novels and a children’s book to help the president acclimate himself to the unique culture at Davos.
“If only Trump could get over his distaste for books and read them,” Michaelson wrote.
2. Inequality, dishwashers and Elton John
The main theme at Davos was “Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World,” which put growing concerns about inequality front and center. While receiving an award, musician and philanthropist Elton John decried economic inequality as “disgraceful.”
Michele Gilman, a professor of law at the University of Baltimore, gave the Davos elite credit for grappling with inequality but cautioned the issue won’t be meaningfully addressed until the forum panels “include the voices and concerns of everyone who doesn’t get to go there.”
“Politicians have little incentive to tackle these problems because they are beholden to the interests of their donors,” she wrote. “Until the drivers and dishwashers toiling in the chalets at Davos – along with their working brothers and sisters across the globe – get the microphones and push the levers of policy, economic inequality is likely to persist and perhaps get worse.”
3. Macron makes his own splash
French President Emmanuel Macron, in his own special address at the forum, declared “France is back!” – in English – as he touted his government’s reforms meant to improve French productivity and competitiveness.
But when Macron switched to French, he made a very different argument, wrote University of Michigan history professor Joshua Cole, in which he decried growth at any cost and called for a new “global contract” to replace globalization and fend off nationalists. It’s a “compelling vision” that may be hard to achieve, Cole argued.
“For Macron this is the danger of the present moment: a relapse into a sterile nationalism that is incapable of addressing the real challenges posed by the present,” he wrote. “Macron’s hope is that a united Europe might play this mediating role. A democratic Europe might thread the needle between the unregulated capitalism often endorsed by the United States and the statist and anti-democratic model provided by China.”
4. A coal clash
During the speech, Macron also pledged to end his country’s use of coal within four years – in sharp contrast to his American counterpart’s express interest in pushing policies that favor the fossil fuel. Jay Zagorsky, an Ohio State University economist, explained why the rhetoric of both leaders won’t be able to change the laws of economics.
“Politicians can claim all they want that they are for or against coal in Davos’ forums, making grand promises about ending the use of the dirty fuel or declaring their plans to make it cheaper to use as a way to protect jobs,” he wrote. “No matter what they say in speeches, however, economic forces will inevitably dictate whether reality can match their words.”
5. Merkel looks back and forward
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, another candidate for leader of the free world, spoke about a digital divide separating generations of Germans. Elizabeth Heineman, of the University of Iowa, delved into the history that makes Germans more cautious than Americans about turning their data over to businesses or the state.
“Merkel’s – and Europe’s – quandary is this: how to move forward in the digital age when Europe’s contribution is to seek balance between state power, individual rights and the dynamism of capitalism,” she wrote.
In her speech, Merkel worried about Germany being steamrolled as it conducted “philosophical debates about the sovereignty of data.”
But commentator Heineman argues that “achieving any balance – means slowing things down. It means philosophizing.”
6. A currency crash
The Trump administration was already making headlines well before the president himself arrived in Davos on Jan. 25. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, for one, caused the dollar to nosedive after he broke with longstanding tradition and said a weak greenback would be “good” for the U.S.
Benjamin Cohen, professor of international political economy at the University of California, Santa Barbara, described what was so “alarming” about Mnuchin’s words.
“It came as a shock to many – including me – when Mnuchin declared that a depreciation of the greenback is ‘obviously’ welcome,” Cohen wrote. “Prolonged depreciation could severely erode the dominant position of the greenback as the world’s leading currency.”
7. Trump strikes a chord
Trump, in his 15-minute speech to forum delegates, sought to make his “America First” policies palatable to an audience much more inclined to international alliances and plotting a course toward a shared future.
While the president’s words were well-received in some quarters for their perceived pragmatism, they struck a discordant note in the ears of at least one person in attendance. Stephen D. Smith, director of Shoah Foundation at the University of Southern California, argued that Trump’s promotion of a “my country first” brand of isolationism turns the main theme of the forum on its head, more likely fracturing the world than sharing it.
“Trump’s insistence that ‘putting America first’ is his duty as president – just as other heads of state must do so in their own countries – ignores the many political leaders at Davos, such as France’s Emmanuel Macron or Germany’s Angela Merkel, who were genuinely trying to find shared interests at the forum,” Smith wrote.
8. Bullish billionaires
Trump’s words had a very different impact on at least some of the business leaders and billionaires in attendance, who seem to have decided to look past the differences in style they find less appealing and focus on the impact of “pro-business” policies such as tax cuts and deregulation.
However, Georgia State political scientist Charles Hankla cautioned it’s a bit too soon to celebrate.
“It is important to remember that the long-term business costs of Trump’s destabilizing influence are likely to be much greater than any short-term policy benefits,” he argued. “This is because businesses must operate within a social and political context, one which influences their success at every step.”
In 2017 an evangelical perspective influenced many political decisions, as President Donald Trump embraced the key constituency that voted overwhelmingly in his favor. As recently as Dec. 6, President Trump announced that the U.S. would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, a move embraced by many evangelicals, for its significance to a biblical prophecy.
Earlier in the year Trump made several other announcements keeping in mind his conservative Christian supporters. He nominated Judge Neil M. Gorsuch, a conservative judge, to the Supreme Court. He also brought evangelical Christian leader Jerry Falwell Jr. to head the White House education reform task force, and Betsy DeVos, a conservative advocate of school choice, to serve as secretary of education.
I’ve been editing The Conversation’s ethics and religion desk since February 2017. As mainstream media outlets covered how Trump was embracing evangelical politics, at The Conversation we strived to provide historical context to these developments, as the following six articles exemplify.
1. History of the end-times narrative
Trump’s move on Jerusalem was widely understood as being linked to a biblical prophecy. Many evangelical Christians believe in an end-times narrative, that promises the return of Jesus to the Earth to defeat all God’s enemies, and establish God’s kingdom. The nation of Israel and the city of Jerusalem are crucial for the fulfillment of this prophecy. This is part of a theology considered to be a literal reading of the Bible.
However, Julie Ingersoll, religious studies professor at University of North Florida, explains that this theology is actually a relatively new interpretation that dates to the 19th century and relates to the work of Bible teacher John Nelson Darby.
Darby argued that the Jewish people needed to have control of Jerusalem and build a third Jewish temple on the site where the first and second temples were destroyed. This would be a precursor to the Battle of Armageddon, when Satan would be defeated and Christ would establish his earthly kingdom.
With the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, this theology suddenly seemed feasible and as Ingersoll further explained, the end-times framework became popularized in the 1970s and ‘80s through novels and movies.
“It’s impossible to overemphasize,” she writes, “the effects of this framework on those within the circles of evangelicalism where it is popular. A growing number of young people who have left evangelicalism point to end-times theology as a key component of the subculture they left. They call themselves 'exvangelicals’ and label teachings like this as abusive.”
2. The Moral Majority
Evangelicals have for decades played a prominent role in American politics. As the senior director of research and evaluation at USC Dornsife Richard Flory wrote, President Trump’s appointing Jerry Falwell Jr. to spearhead education reform is best explained by his family’s legacy.
Falwell Jr. is a relatively minor political and religious figure. It was his late father, Jerry Falwell Sr. who was, and continues to be, enormously influential in American politics.
Falwell founded the Moral Majority in 1979 as a conservative Christian political lobbying group that promoted “traditional” family values and prayer in schools and opposed LGBT rights, the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion – all key issues in Trump administration as well.
“Republican candidates for office, dating back to Reagan and George H.W. Bush,” Flory says, recognized the power of the religious right as a voting bloc.“
3. Billy Graham and Eisenhower
Before Falwell, it was evangelist Billy Graham who left a deep impact on conservative politics.
The National Prayer Breakfast, now an annual political tradition in Washington D.C., attended by the American president was a result of Billy Graham’s efforts with President Dwight Eisenhower.
As USC Annenberg religion scholar Diane Winston writes,
"Soon after his election in 1952, Eisenhower told Graham that the country needed a spiritual renewal. For Eisenhower, faith, patriotism and free enterprise were the fundamentals of a strong nation. But of the three, faith came first.”
It was, indeed, under Eisenhower that Congress voted to add “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance, and “In God We Trust,” to the nation’s currency.
And readers may recall that it was at the 65th National Prayer Breakfast that President Trump made an announcement to repeal the Johnson Amendment and allow religious leaders to endorse candidates from the pulpit, a pledge he made on the 2016 campaign trail. It’s another matter that the repeal was eventually dropped from the Republican tax reform bill.
4. Christian movements
Besides these prominent individual conservative voices, there are other Christian groups trying to shape American politics and the religious landscape.
Two of our contributors pointed in particular to a fast-growing Christian movement, that aims to bring God’s perfect society to Earth by placing “kingdom-minded people” in “powerful positions at the top of all sectors of society.”
Writing about this movement, Brad Christerson, professor of sociology at Biola University together with USC’s Richard Flory, explain how this movement regards Trump as part of that plan. Other kingdom-minded people include Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson.
Christerson and Flory believe this to be the fastest-growing Christian group in America and possibly in the world. Between 1970 and 2010, Protestant churches shrunk by an average of .05 percent per year but this group grew by an average of 3.24 percent per year. This number, they say, was “striking,” when considering the fact that U.S. population grew an average of 1 percent per year during this time period.
5. History of pluralism
Over the past year our scholars also pointed out how American politicians – starting with the nation’s founding fathers – have strived to be inclusive.
University of Texas historian Denise A. Spellberg told the story of a 22-year-old Thomas Jefferson purchasing a copy of the Quran, when he was a law student in Williamsburg, Virginia, 11 years before drafting the Declaration of Independence.
As she explains, Muslims who arrived in North America as early as the 17th century, eventually comprised 15 to 30 percent of the enslaved West African population of British America. The book purchase, she says, was not only “symbolic” of this connection, but also showed America’s early view of religious pluralism.
In Jefferson’s private notes was a paraphrase of the English philosopher John Locke’s 1689 “Letter on Toleration”:
“[he] says neither Pagan nor Mahometan [Muslim] nor Jew ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the commonwealth because of his religion.”
6. An inclusive nation?
Coming to the present, the question is how far has President Trump shifted the rhetoric of inclusiveness?
Trump, too, walked the “well-worn path,” in “proclaiming tolerance and highlighting commonality with Muslims,” wrote David Mislin, an assistant professor at Temple University. Analyzing President Trump’s address to leaders of some 50 Muslim nations during his visit to Saudi Arabia in May 2017, Mislin explained that Trump “used the language of a shared humanity and common God.”
However, Mislin also pointed out, that there was no acknowledgment in Trump’s speech of the Muslim population in the United States or of its contribution to American society. And that, “Islam remains something foreign” for Trump.
Indeed, in this administration – backed by over 80 percent of the white evangelical vote – “the legacy of Falwell Sr. lives on,” writes Richard Flory, “at least for the near term.”
Over the course of 2017, people in the U.S. and around the world became increasingly concerned about how their digital data are transmitted, stored and analyzed. As news broke that every Yahoo email account had been compromised, as well as the financial information of nearly every adult in the U.S., the true scale of how much data private companies have about people became clearer than ever.
This, of course, brings them enormous profits, but comes with significant social and individual risks. Many scholars are researching aspects of this issue, both describing the problem in greater detail and identifying ways people can reclaim power over the data their lives and online activity generate. Here we spotlight seven examples from our 2017 archives.
1. The government doesn’t think much of user privacy
One major concern people have about digital privacy is how much access the police might have to their online information, like what websites people visit and what their emails and text messages say. Mobile phones can be particularly revealing, not only containing large amounts of private information, but also tracking users’ locations. As H.V. Jagadish at University of Michigan writes, the government doesn’t think smartphones’ locations are private information. The legal logic defies common sense:
“By carrying a cellphone – which communicates on its own with the phone company – you have effectively told the phone company where you are. Therefore, your location isn’t private, and the police can get that information from the cellphone company without a warrant, and without even telling you they’re tracking you.
2. Neither do software designers
But mobile phone companies and the government aren’t the only people with access to data on people’s smartphones. Mobile apps of all kinds can monitor location, user activity and data stored on their users’ phones. As an international group of telecommunications security scholars found, ”More than 70 percent of smartphone apps are reporting personal data to third-party tracking companies like Google Analytics, the Facebook Graph API or Crashlytics.“
Those companies can even merge information from different apps – one that tracks a user’s location and another that tracks, say, time spent playing a game or money spent through a digital wallet – to develop extremely detailed profiles of individual users.
3. People care, but struggle to find information
Despite how concerned people are, they can’t actually easily find out what’s being shared about them, when or to whom. Florian Schaub at the University of Michigan explains the conflicting purposes of apps’ and websites’ privacy policies:
That can leave consumers without the information they need to make informed choices.
4. Boosting comprehension
Another problem with privacy policies is that they’re incomprehensible. Anyone who does try to read and understand them will be quickly frustrated by the legalese and awkward language. Karuna Pande Joshi and Tim Finin from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County suggest that artificial intelligence could help:
“What if a computerized assistant could digest all that legal jargon in a few seconds and highlight key points? Perhaps a user could even tell the automated assistant to pay particular attention to certain issues, like when an email address is shared, or whether search engines can index personal posts.”
That would certainly make life simpler for users, but it would preserve a world in which privacy is not a given.
5. Programmers could help, too
Jean Yang at Carnegie Mellon University is working to change that assumption. At the moment, she explains, computer programmers have to keep track of users’ choices about privacy protections throughout all the various programs a site uses to operate. That makes errors both likely and hard to track down.
Yang’s approach, called “policy-agnostic programming,” builds sharing restrictions right into the software design process. That both forces developers to address privacy, and makes it easier for them to do so.
6. So could a new way of thinking about it
But it may not be enough for some software developers to choose programming tools that would protect their users’ data. Scott Shackelford from Indiana University discussed the movement to declare cybersecurity – including data privacy – a human right recognized under international law.
He predicts real progress will result from consumer demand:
“As people use online services more in their daily lives, their expectations of digital privacy and freedom of expression will lead them to demand better protections. Governments will respond by building on the foundations of existing international law, formally extending into cyberspace the human rights to privacy, freedom of expression and improved economic well-being.”
But governments can be slow to act, leaving people to protect themselves in the meantime.
7. The real basis of all privacy is strong encryption
The fundamental way to protect privacy is to make sure data is stored so securely that only the people authorized to access it are able to read it. Susan Landau at Tufts University explains the importance of individuals having access to strong encryption. And she observes police and the intelligence community are coming around to understanding this view:
“Increasingly, a number of former senior law enforcement and national security officials have come out strongly in support of end-to-end encryption and strong device protection …, which can protect against hacking and other data theft incidents.”
One day, perhaps, governments and businesses will have the same concerns about individuals’ privacy as people themselves do. Until then, strong encryption without special access for law enforcement or other authorities will remain the only reliable guardian of privacy.
Editor’s note: The following is a roundup of stories The Conversation has published on the GOP’s sweeping 2017 tax bill.
The Senate’s passage of the Republican tax plan on a party-line vote on Dec. 2 means the most significant overhaul of the U.S. tax code in a generation may be just days away from becoming the law of the land. All that remains is reconciling the Senate’s version with the one passed by the House in mid-November, a couple of additional votes and the president’s signature.
The Senate bill’s nearly 500 pages, some aspects of which were handwritten in the margins within hours of the 2 a.m. vote, contain changes that will greatly affect every facet of the economy, from health care to higher education and housing.
1. Sickness and the economy
Under the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, Americans must buy health insurance or face a penalty. But the Senate’s tax bill would eliminate this rule. According to the Congressional Budget Office, that will lead to 13 million more uninsured Americans by 2027.
That’s bad for the economy, says Diane Dewar, who studies health policy at the University at Albany, SUNY. When people don’t have health insurance, they’re more likely to get sick and miss work. They also may wait to go to the doctor until it’s absolutely necessary, racking up bills for uncompensated care that end up being absorbed by hospitals, insurance companies and others.
“If Americans become less healthy and have less access to health care,‘ she argues, "then everyone loses.”
2. An attack on higher education
The tax plans passed by the House and Senate contain several provisions that would have a big impact on universities and students alike, such as a tax on university endowments and changes that could significantly increase taxes for some students.
Benjamin Cohen, a professor of international political economy at the University of California, Santa Barbara, explains how these “appalling” provisions “will have adverse economic effects that will be both substantial and long-lasting.”
“Many schools will see their budgets cut,” he continued. “Faced with higher fees and tuition, many students will be forced to drop out – their dreams shattered, their earning potential stunted, their contribution to the American economy significantly curtailed.”
3. It’s not a popularity contest
So will voters punish Republican lawmakers for passing such an unpopular bill during next year’s midterms?
David Barker, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University sees the opposite – positive outcomes for incumbents.
“Nothing is more central to Republican orthodoxy than tax cuts for the wealthy,” Barker writes. “If Republican lawmakers hadn’t gotten this done now, while they had the chance, they could have expected donors to ignore their calls next year.”
Of course, passage of the law was also a win for the president – and may help him win reelection in 2020.
“And if Trump wins reelection, everything else that we associate with his candidacy and his presidency may be validated and copied by future politicians, on both sides, as 'the way to win,’” Barker concludes, “leaving a political legacy that may far outlast the consequences of this tax bill.”
4. Tax ‘reform’?
Many refer to the Republican tax plan as a “reform” that will make the tax code simpler.
Taxpayers do want reform – just not the kind in the bills that just passed the House and Senate, argues Stephanie Leiser, a lecturer in public policy at University of Michigan.
“Research has shown that their most important gripe about taxes is the demoralizing feeling that the system is hopelessly complex and that other people are getting away with not paying their fair share. To use the president’s words, people think the ‘system is rigged.’”
The Republican plan, she writes, “will only exacerbate that feeling.”
5. ‘Dire’ impact on affordable housing
You might not expect a tax plan to have a big affect on the supply of affordable housing, yet Georgetown research fellow Michelle D. Layser explains how it will do just that.
“The supply of affordable housing is so low that there is no state, city or county in the country where a full-time minimum wage employee can afford to rent a two-bedroom unit,” she wrote. “These housing woes are sure to become more dire.”
Editor’s note: The following is a roundup of stories from The Conversation’s archive.
On Sept. 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria tore across Puerto Rico. The Category 4 storm was so massive – 300 miles wide – that it enveloped the island entirely, battering it with 155 mph winds and dropping almost two feet of rain.
The next day, Puerto Ricans awoke to a radically altered reality. Two months after the storm, the island still faces shortages of food, water, electricity, transportation, cell service and medical services – an American humanitarian crisis that even today shows few signs of improvement.
Here, experts answer five key questions about Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
1. What has life been like since the storm?
For Puerto Ricans who stayed on the island, life has been extraordinarily hard. Just finding enough food and water to survive can be a daily struggle, especially for people in rural areas and places cut off from help by washed-out bridges or mudslides.
Evelyn Milagros Rodriguez, a librarian at the University of Puerto Rico’s Humacao campus, offers an insider’s view of what life is like on the island’s eastern shore (in Spanish here).
She hasn’t been able to go to work since the storm, she says, because the library is “mold-infested and the roof is leaking. The mold has gotten into our collection…most of the furniture and computers will have to be replaced.”
After three weeks of a near-total communication blackout, radio, television, telephones and internet are starting to recover. Still, Rodriguez says, electricity comes and goes, and “it took me more than two weeks just to write this article, between finding somewhere to charge my laptop and locating an internet connection strong enough to research the data and send a file by email.”
Hurricane Maria demolished an estimated 100,000 homes and buildings, and 90 percent of the island’s infrastructure is damaged or destroyed.
It’s also unsafe to venture outside at night. An island-wide curfew was lifted in October, but without streetlights, stoplights or police, driving and walking are dangerous after dark.
“Nothing is easy,” Rodriguez reports.
2. Why are things still so bad?
After a decade of fiscal decline and a May 2017 bankruptcy, Puerto Rico was exceptionally vulnerable by the time Maria hit. Before the hurricane, people already struggled with food insecurity, poor health care and crumbling public infrastructure, the result of both damaging U.S. policy and deepening financial crisis.
Now these problems are complicating Puerto Rico’s recovery, asserts Lauren Lluveras, a policy analyst at the University of Texas, Austin.
Lluveras, whose family is Puerto Rican, notes that in addition to preexisting financial hardship, a lackluster federal relief effort has made storm recovery much harder. The Trump administration delayed dispatching military personnel and material relief until after the hurricane made landfall and allowed a waiver to the Jones Act – a law dictating that only U.S.-made or U.S.-staffed vessels can do commerce in American waters – to lapse.
That “reduce[s] the number of ships that can bring aid to the island,” she says. Both of these federal actions “have slowed Puerto Rico’s recovery considerably.”
On Nov. 13, Puerto Rico’s governor asked the federal government for US$94.4 billion in aid. Previously, Congress had approved just $5 billion in disaster funding for Puerto Rico.
3. Why is the power still out?
Two months after Hurricane Maria, something like 75 percent of Puerto Ricans still don’t have electricity. At times, hundreds of thousands of households – particularly in San Juan and other urban areas – have seen power restored, only to be plunged into darkness again by a system failure.
That’s because almost half of Puerto Rico’s power generation comes from “old, very expensive oil-fired plants,” writes Peter Fox-Penner, director of Boston University’s Institute for Sustainable Energy.
Before it went bankrupt in 2017, PREPA, the island’s sole energy provider, had been hoping to upgrade these aged facilities and incorporate renewable energy sources like solar and gas. Then Maria knocked out the entire grid, and all of PREPA’s resources have gone toward just getting Puerto Rico’s lights turned back on.
The island’s extended outage is “a humanitarian crisis that has yet to be resolved,” Fox-Penner writes. He believes that any hope of Puerto Rico emerging from this storm with a greener, more durable grid – one better able to withstand future hurricanes – have been dashed.
On Nov. 17, PREPA’s director resigned.
4. How does living without power for so long affect people?
Shao Lin, Professor of Public Health at SUNY-Albany, has researched how prolonged blackouts impact health. She believes that Puerto Ricans can expect to see numerous lasting effects from this power outage, including mental health issues.
After Hurricane Sandy, the power was out for about 12 to 14 days in some parts of New York City. For months afterwards, Lin found, residents reported more emergency department visits due to anxiety and mood disorder. They were also more prone to excess drinking and problematic drug use.
The power outage in Puerto Rico has already lasted eight weeks, much longer than the blackout in New York City.
As a result, “We should expect to see a corresponding increase in disease – not only mental health issues, but also diseases that depend on electricity for treatment, such as renal failure, asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease,” warns Lin.
5. Will this crisis change how the US treats Puerto Rico?
Pedro Caban, a professor at SUNY-Albany, thinks that the appalling aftermath of Hurricane Maria could improve Puerto Rico’s political status, moving the needle on longstanding harmful American policies.
Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territorial possession of the United States, meaning that the Puerto Rican government exercises only those powers that the Congress allows. “In other words,” says Caban, “it is still a colony.”
The humanitarian crisis there has prompted the Puerto Rican diaspora in the U.S. to fight for their island. They are actively lobbying against some of the most restrictive colonial policies, among them the Jones Act and the oversight board that has controlled Puerto Rico’s budget since it declared bankruptcy earlier this year.
This could be a “watershed moment that redefines U.S. treatment of Puerto Rico,” writes Caban.
Beyond pressuring local officials and the federal government, Puerto Ricans across the U.S. have organized a nationwide campaign to raise funding and collect donations for Puerto Rico. An outraged and emboldened diaspora, it turns out, may finally get the federal government to resolve Puerto Rico’s damaging colonial status.
Editor’s note: The following is a roundup of archival stories.
Federal investigators following up on the mass shooting at a Texas church on Nov. 5 have seized the alleged shooter’s smartphone – reportedly an iPhone – but are reporting they are unable to unlock it, to decode its encryption and read any data or messages stored on it.
The situation adds fuel to an ongoing dispute over whether, when and how police should be allowed to defeat encryption systems on suspects’ technological devices. Here are highlights of The Conversation’s coverage of that debate.
#1. Police have never had unfettered access to everything
The FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice have in recent years – especially since the 2015 mass shooting in San Bernardino, California – been increasing calls for what they term “exceptional access,” a way around encryption that police could use to gather information on crimes both future and past. Technology and privacy scholar Susan Landau, at Tufts University, argues that limits and challenges to investigative power are strengths of democracy, not weaknesses:
“[L]aw enforcement has always had to deal with blocks to obtaining evidence; the exclusionary rule, for example, means that evidence collected in violation of a citizen’s constitutional protections is often inadmissible in court.”
Further, she notes that almost any person or organization, including community groups, could be a potential target for hackers – and therefore should use strong encryption in their communications and data storage:
“This broad threat to fundamental parts of American society poses a serious danger to national security as well as individual privacy. Increasingly, a number of former senior law enforcement and national security officials have come out strongly in support of end-to-end encryption and strong device protection (much like the kind Apple has been developing), which can protect against hacking and other data theft incidents.”
#2. FBI has other ways to get this information
The idea of weakening encryption for everyone just so police can have an easier time is increasingly recognized as unworkable, writes Ben Buchanan, a fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Instead,
“The future of law enforcement and intelligence gathering efforts involving digital information is an emerging field that I and others who are exploring it sometimes call "lawful hacking.” Rather than employing a skeleton key that grants immediate access to encrypted information, government agents will have to find other technical ways – often involving malicious code – and other legal frameworks.“
Indeed he observes, when the FBI failed to force Apple to unlock the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone,
"the FBI found another way. The bureau hired an outside firm that was able to exploit a vulnerability in the iPhone’s software and gain access. It wasn’t the first time the bureau had done such a thing.”
#3. It’s not just about iPhones
When the San Bernardino suspect’s iPhone was targeted by investigators, Android researchers William Enck and Adwait Nadkarni at North Carolina State University tried to crack a smartphone themselves. They found that one key to encryption’s effectiveness is proper setup:
“Overall, devices running the most recent versions of iOS and Android are comparably protected against offline attacks, when configured correctly by both the phone manufacturer and the end user. Older versions may be more vulnerable; one system could be cracked in less than 10 seconds. Additionally, configuration and software flaws by phone manufacturers may also compromise security of both Android and iOS devices.”
#4. What they’re not looking for
What are investigators hoping to find, anyway? It’s nearly a given that they aren’t looking for emails the suspect may have sent or received. As Georgia State University constitutional scholar Clark Cunningham explains, the government already believes it is allowed to read all of a person’s email, without the email owner ever knowing:
“[The] law allows the government to use a warrant to get electronic communications from the company providing the service – rather than the true owner of the email account, the person who uses it.
"And the government then usually asks that the warrant be "sealed,” which means it won’t appear in public court records and will be hidden from you. Even worse, the law lets the government get what is called a “gag order,” a court ruling preventing the company from telling you it got a warrant for your email.“
#5. The political stakes are high
With this new case, federal officials risk weakening public support for giving investigators special access to circumvent or evade encryption. After the controversy over the San Bernardino shooter’s phone, public demand for privacy and encryption climbed, wrote Carnegie Mellon professor Rahul Telang:
"Repeated stories on data breaches and privacy invasion, particularly from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, appears to have heightened users’ attention to security and privacy. Those two attributes have become important enough that companies are finding it profitable to advertise and promote them.
"Apple, in particular, has highlighted the security of its products recently and reportedly is doubling down and plans to make it even harder for anyone to crack an iPhone.”
It seems unlikely this debate will ever truly go away: Police will continue to want easy access to all information that might help them prevent or solve crimes, and regular people will continue to want to protect their private information and communications from prying eyes, whether that’s criminals, hackers or, indeed, the government itself.
Editor’s note: The following is a roundup of stories from The Conversation’s archive.
Once again, Americans are asking themselves the same familiar, heartsick questions:
How can gun violence be prevented? What policy or program could help save innocent lives? What is an approach that would be tolerable to people on both sides of the political spectrum?
#1. No ready answers
“Unfortunately, the research we need to answer these questions doesn’t exist – and part of the problem is that the federal government largely doesn’t support it,” explains Lacey Wallace, a criminal justice researcher at Penn State University.
Why not? In 1996, Congress passed the Dickey Amendment, which mandated that “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” From 1996 to 2013, CDC funding for gun research dropped by 96 percent.
It’s an urgent problem, Wallace writes. In 2015, for example, roughly 85,000 people were injured by firearms, including nearly 10,000 children.
#2. A public health emergency
One in four American children reports having easy access to a gun in the home, the researchers pointed out.
“Parents sometimes do not fully understand child and youth development, impulsiveness or curiosity,” Xuan wrote.
“A recent study shows that what parents report about their children’s access to guns often contradicts children’s reports,” he continued. “The kids reveal that they know the location of guns in the house and have handled the gun, while parents reported they did not. For injury prevention, it is far more effective and long-lasting to change the environment by changing modifiable policies and norms than to try to change the way children behave.”
#3. A new debate
A mass shooting often brings out partisan politics. Those who want to regulate guns face off with those who want to protect the Second Amendment, and the political debate never seems to progress.
“A new dialogue is desperately needed among policymakers and the public,” writes Timothy M. Smith, a professor of International Business at the University of Minnesota. “It could begin by shifting our focus away from the regulation of guns toward understanding (and mitigating) the social costs of firearm fatalities.”
From a purely economic perspective, Smith writes, the social costs of gun deaths likely exceeded US$300 billion in 2013. This is a staggering number, more than what the federal government spent on Medicaid in the same year. And that’s not including the more than 80,000 nonfatal firearm injuries each year.
Smith’s argument is not that you can put a price on human life, but that a government policy that discourages people from owning the most lethal types of guns – handguns – could protect society as a whole.
#4 Testing existing laws
Michael Siegel, a professor of community health services, and Molly Pahn of Boston University recently created a new database that offers insights into the effectiveness of existing laws across all 50 states for the past 27 years.
“This database is intended to help researchers evaluate the effectiveness of different state-level approaches to reducing gun violence,” Siegel and Pahn write. “By examining the relationship between changes in these laws over time and changes in firearm mortality, researchers may be able to identify which policies are effective and which are not.”
Editor’s note: On Friday, Oct. 20, “Third Rail with OZY” will ask: Is marriage dead?
This roundup of stories from The Conversation archive explores trends and pressures affecting the institution of marriage around the world.
#1: Fewer ‘I dos’
There’s no doubt: Fewer people are making a commitment to marriage.
Barely “more than half of adults in the U.S. say they’re living with a spouse,” writes Jay Zagorsky, an economist at The Ohio State University. “It is the lowest share on record, and down from 70 percent in 1967.”
What’s behind the trend?
“Some blame widening U.S. income and wealth inequality,” Zagorsky writes. “Others point the finger at the fall in religious adherence or cite the increase in education and income of women, making women choosier about whom to marry. Still others focus on rising student debt and rising housing costs, forcing people to put off marriage. Finally some believe marriage is simply an old, outdated tradition that is no longer necessary.”
However, Zagorsky writes, none of these factors alone can explain the trend.
#2: Delayed adolescence
It could be that marriage rates are down because America’s youth is suffering from a Peter Pan syndrome?
Today’s teens are in no hurry to grow up, according to Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology of San Diego State University.
“The teen pregnancy rate has reached an all-time low,” Twenge writes. “Fewer teens are drinking alcohol, having sex or working part-time jobs. And as I found in a newly released analysis of seven large surveys, teens are also now less likely to drive, date or go out without their parents than their counterparts 10 or 20 years ago.”
“‘Adulting’ – which refers to young adults performing adult responsibilities as if this were remarkable – has now entered the lexicon,” Twenge writes. “The entire developmental path from infancy to full adulthood has slowed.”
This slowed path could also mean a delay in walking down the aisle.
#3: No matchmaking skills
This downward trend in marriage is worth our attention because “stable, satisfying marriages promote physical and mental health for adults and their children,” according to psychology professors Justin Lavner, Benjamin Karney and Thomas Bradbury.
What’s more, they explain, the abandonment of marriage is more pronounced among low-income Americans – prompting the government to try to turn things around.
The professors explain that relationship education programs are the cornerstone of government efforts to strengthen low-income Americans’ relationships and encourage them to get, or stay, married.
By interviewing low-income couples in Los Angeles, the professors concluded that communication may not be the main driver of relationship satisfaction for these couples.
They asked the couples themselves about the biggest sources of disagreement in their marriages. Their responses? Money management, household chores, leisure time, in-laws and children.
#4: Pity the bare branches
The downward trend in marriage is not limited to the United States.
“The United Nations gathered data for roughly 100 countries, showing how marriage rates changed from 1970 to 2005,” Zagorsky notes. “Marriage rates fell in four-fifths of them.”
“Australia’s marriage rate, for example, fell from 9.3 marriages per 1,000 people in 1970 to 5.6 in 2005. Egypt’s declined from 9.3 to 7.2. In Poland, it dropped from 8.6 to 6.5.
"The drop occurred in all types of countries, poor and rich.”
Xuan Li, an assistant professor of psychology at NYU Shanghai introduced The Conversation readers to China’s involuntary bachelors.
Those “who fail to add fruit to their family tree are often referred to as "bare branches,” or guanggun,“ Li writes. "And the Chinese state has recently started to worry about the dire demographic trend posed by the growing number of bare branches.”
According to the 2010 national census data, “82.44 percent of Chinese men between 20 and 29 years of age have never been married, which is 15 percent more than women of the same age.”
Soon after the U.S. gained independence, Uncle Sam began to tax inherited wealth. These levies applied only intermittently, however, until 1916, when Congress and the Wilson administration established the modern estate tax in time for it to finance U.S. involvement in World War I.
Once a significant moneymaker that generated 10 percent of federal tax revenue, the estate tax now reaps only about 1 percent. Just one out of 500 estates left by people with at least US$5.5 million to their name – or couples with more than $11 million – get taxed today.
Still, if Congress were to end the estate tax, as the Trump administration and Republican lawmakers propose, the government might miss those funds. What’s more, nonprofits could see their budgets pinched by a decline in giving.
What happens after repeal
Without an estate tax, there are two likely scenarios. The people inheriting a larger share of great fortunes might give more of their windfalls to charity. Alternatively, they could keep more of the money to invest, enjoy or share with their families and friends.
The estate tax encourages giving by providing a dollar-for-dollar deduction from estate and gift tax liabilities matching any amount of money bequeathed to charities after death. Estates are officially taxed at a 40 percent rate now, but loopholes and workarounds push the average rate down to 17 percent, according to the Tax Policy Center.
When the price of anything rises – whether it be bacon or tennis balls – economists expect demand for that product or service to fall. Without an estate tax, there’s nothing to be gained, accounting-wise, from rich people writing posthumous charitable gifts into their wills.
The question is, do fewer multimillionaires write charities into their wills when this incentive goes away?
The money at stake is significant. Bequest giving has more than tripled in inflation-adjusted dollars over the last 40 years, rising to $30.36 billion in 2016 from $9.7 billion in 1976, according to the Giving USA report, which the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy researches and writes in partnership with the Giving USA Foundation.
To be clear, the volume of bequests is often unpredictable over the short term and does not purely track tax policy changes. Frequent adjustments to the estate tax rate and exemption level, as well as market swings – which alter the value of assets like stocks, bonds and fine art – affect what happens in a given year.
So do some deaths. David Rockefeller, the successful banker and heir to a great fortune, who died this year at 101, had a net worth in excess of $3 billion despite giving $2 billion away during his lifetime.
When his estate auctions off an estimated $700 million in European ceramics, Chinese porcelain, paintings, furniture and other items from his assorted collections, the proceeds will go to charity, bumping up the total for bequests.
But I have found in my own research that, controlling for various factors, a 10 percent increase in the estate tax rate is associated with a nearly 7 percent increase in charitable bequest giving.
Conversely, raising the threshold for how large estates must be before they are subject to the tax, knows as the “exemption level,” is associated with decreases in bequest giving, especially when the exemption is at or above $3 million.
What I saw indicates that when more wealthy people were exempted from the estate tax altogether, fewer of them wrote charities into their wills. Alternatively, those that did leave money for a cause tended to make smaller donations.
In 2004 the Congressional Budget Office estimated a smaller decline of as little as 6 percent.
Since this research is fairly old and lots of things have changed since then, these studies may either underestimate or overestimate the effects of a repeal of the estate tax today.
Personally, I believe that these studies probably underestimate the effects of repeal because extrapolating what would happen with a hypothetical situation is always trickier than modeling an outcome based on a real-world event.
Until 2010, there was no relatively recent evidence of what might happen with a complete repeal. That year, the estate tax was essentially paused.
While its brevity and multiple idiosyncrasies limit what it shows, the episode does provide a case study of what might happen if the estate tax were repealed.
During the decade before 2010, bequests ranged from $18 billion to $24 billion a year – except in 2008 when it surged over $31 billion.
In 2009, bequest giving plummeted to $19 billion. This was for two reasons: The exemption level rose from $2 million to $3.5 million and the Great Recession dramatically drove down the value of stocks, bonds, real estate and other assets.
There were two options for the estates of people who died in 2010, when the Great Recession was over but its effects were lingering: Take a $5 million exemption and a 35 percent top marginal tax rate or a $0 exemption and a 0 percent top marginal tax rate.
Unsurprisingly, most chose the tax-free option.
Partly as a result of these two tracks, the Internal Revenue Service still collected $7 billion in estate and gift tax revenue in the 2010 fiscal year – even though theoretically the estate tax had been waived. And bequest giving, according to Giving USA, grew by 22 percent to $23.4 billion between 2009 and 2010 – admittedly from a Great Recession-induced, below-normal amount in 2009.
In 2011, once the estate tax was reinstated and the exemption returned to $5 million with a top marginal tax rate of 35 percent, bequest giving grew 7.6 percent to $25 billion. Since then, the exemption has been adjusted only for inflation. The estate tax rate held steady at 35 percent in 2012, later rising to 40 percent.
Bequest giving remained in the mid-$20 billion range for 2012 and 2013 then edged up to the low $30 billion range – about where it stood prior to the Great Recession in inflation-adjusted dollars.
What does all that mean? While there’s no clear pattern, suspending the estate tax didn’t eliminate bequest giving in 2010, even if it appears to have reduced it.
It’s hard to draw firm conclusions from this episode, as few estate lawyers or wealthy people anticipated this one-year repeal – even if it was rumored at the time that many rich families had prepared multiple wills to be deployed as needed according to the latest estate tax policies or took other steps to take advantage of the unusual and shifting circumstances.
And it’s important to remember that people give for many different reasons and that bequests are different from other kinds of donations – it is truly a last chance to support a charity or cause. As such, people usually don’t give just because of a tax deduction, but all the studies I have seen indicate that taxing inherited wealth makes a difference.
What’s more, research also suggests that estate taxes can encourage donors to give more during their lifetimes. Several studies have estimated that eliminating the estate tax would usher in a decline of non-bequest giving in the 6 percent to 12 percent range or more.
In other words, repealing the estate tax would probably reduce giving to charity both during donors’ lifetimes and after their deaths.
Patrick Rooney is affiliated with the public policy advisory committees for Independent Sector and The Philanthropy Roundtable. The author and the IU Lilly Family School of Philanthropy have received grants, contracts, and donations from many foundations, corporations, charities, and individuals. However, none of them funded this research. The views expressed in this essay are strictly my own and do not reflect policy stances of Indiana University or the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.
Editor’s Note: On Friday, Oct. 6, “Third Rail with OZY” will discuss violence in the United States.
These stories from The Conversation archive explore how violence permeates different aspects of American society.
#1. Kids today
Do American parents teach their kids violent behavior through the use of corporal punishment?
A professor of psychiatry at SUNY Upstate Medical University and Tufts Medical School, Ronald Pies takes up the question “Is it OK to spank a misbehaving child once in a while?”
Pies begins by acknowledging that researchers and parents often disagree on this topic, but ultimately concludes “spanking a child may seem helpful in the short term, but is ineffective and probably harmful in the long term. The child who is often spanked learns that physical force is an acceptable method of problem solving.”
And yet, Pies doesn’t feel that parents who spank their children need a stern lecture – and certainly not an even stronger punishment.
“It isn’t that the parent is "evil” by nature or is a “child abuser,” Pies writes. “Often, the parent has been stressed to the breaking point, and is not aware of alternative methods of discipline – for example, the use of "time-outs,” removal of privileges and positive reinforcement of the child’s appropriate behaviors.“
#2. Paddling still frequent
Unfortunately, parents’ belief in corporal punishment often follows their children to school.
As Joseph Gagnon of the the University of Florida writes, "19 states still allow corporal punishment [in schools], despite research that clearly indicates such public humiliation is ineffective for changing student behavior and can, in fact, have long-term negative effects.”
According to Gagnon, every day approximately 838 students are paddled in American schools. And children in less affluent communities were more likely to be hit.
Why is this practice still so pervasive? Gagnon and his colleagues talked to school principals to find out. They learned, “principals cite pressure from parents as a primary reason for using corporal punishment. Despite the science, the idea that corporal punishment is effective, ‘Because that’s how I was raised,’ pervades the discussion.”
#3. A culture of aggression
Of course, schools aren’t the only institutions in the U.S. were physical violence takes place. The criminal justice system is another.
Paul Hirschfield of Rutgers University studies violence perpetuated by police in various countries.
“American police kill a few people each day, making them far more deadly than police in Europe,” Hirschfield writes.
Although the cause of police killings is complex, Hirschfield believes one factor is American gun culture – which causes the police to fear for their own safety in too many situations.
“American police are primed to expect guns …” Hirschfield writes. “It may make American policing more dangerous and combat-oriented. It also fosters police cultures that emphasize bravery and aggression.”
#4. Behind prison walls
Too few of us take the time to think about how that culture of aggression follows prisoners behind bars, writes Heather Ann Thompson, a professor of History and Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan.
“That so many are blissfully unaware of just how many people are, or have been, subject to containment or control is, perhaps, unsurprising,” Thompson writes. “Prisons are built to be out of sight and are, thus, out of mind.”
And yet, Thompson writes, “the closed nature of prisons remains a serious problem in this country” – and one that demands closer scrutiny.
“In September 2016, prisoners at facilities across the country erupted in protests for better conditions,” Thompson writes. “In March and April of 2017, prisons in Delaware and Tennessee similarly exploded. In each of these rebellions, the public was told little about what had prompted the chaos and even less about what happened to the protesting prisoners once order was restored.”
But, she writes, “it is obvious that much trauma takes place behind bars while we aren’t watching.”
Editor’s note: This is a roundup of gun control articles published by scholars from the U.S. and two other countries where deadly mass shootings are far less common.
An underresearched epidemic
Guns are a leading cause of death of Americans of all ages, including children. Yet “while gun violence is a public health problem, it is not studied the same way other public health problems are,” explains Sandro Galea, dean of Boston University’s School of Public Health.
That’s no accident. Congress has prohibited firearm-related research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health since 1996. Galea says:
“Unfortunately, a shortage of data creates space for speculation, conjecture and ill-informed argument that threatens reasoned public discussion and progressive action on the issue.”
The Australian model
The contrast with Australia is especially stark. Just as Congress was barring any research that might strengthen the case for tighter gun regulations, that country established very strict firearm laws in response to the Port Arthur massacre, which killed 35 people in 1996.
To clamp down on guns, the federal government worked with Australia’s states to ban semiautomatic rifles and pump action shotguns, establish a uniform gun registry and buy the now-banned guns from people who had purchased them before owning them became illegal. The country also stopped recognizing self-defense as an acceptable reason for gun ownership and outlawed mail-order gun sales.
“When it comes to firearms, Australia is far a safer place today than it was in the 1990s and in previous decades.”
There have been no mass murders since the Port Arthur massacre and the subsequent clampdown on guns, Chapman observes. In contrast, there were 13 of those tragic incidents over the previous 18 years – in which a total of 104 victims died. Other gun deaths have also declined.
Concerns about complacency
After so many years with no mass killings, some Australian scholars fear that their country may be moving in the wrong direction.
Twenty years after doing more than any other nation to strengthen firearm regulation, “many people think we no longer have to worry about gun violence,” say Rebecca Peters of the University of Sydney and Chris Cunneen at the University of New South Wales. They write:
“Such complacency jeopardizes public safety. The pro-gun lobby has succeeded in watering down the laws in several states. Weakening the rules on pistols so that unlicensed shooters can walk into a club and shoot without any waiting period for background checks has resulted in at least one homicide in New South Wales.”
In the UK
Like Australia, the U.K. tightened its gun regulations following its own 1996 tragedy – when a man killed 16 children and their teacher at Dunblane Primary School, near Stirling, Scotland.
Subsequently, the U.K. banned some handguns and bought back many banned weapons. There, however, progress has been less impressive, notes Helen Williamson, a researcher at the University of Brighton. On the one hand, the number of firearms offenses has declined from a high of 24,094 in 2004 to 7,866 in 2015. On the other, criminals are growing more “resourceful in identifying alternative sources of firearms,” she says, adding:
“Although the availability of high-quality firearms may have fallen, the demand for weapons remains. This demand has driven criminals to be resourceful in identifying alternative sources of firearms. There are growing concerns about how they could acquire instructions online on how to build a homemade gun, or even 3D-print a functioning pistol.”
Editor’s note: the following is roundup of previously published articles.
Passwords are everywhere – and they present an impossible puzzle. Social media profiles, financial records, personal correspondence and vital work documents are all protected by passwords. To keep all that information safe, the rules sound simple: Passwords need to be long, different for every site, easy to remember, hard to guess and never written down. But we’re only human! What is to be done about our need for secure passwords?
Get good advice
Sadly, much of the password advice people have been given over the past decade-plus is wrong, and in part that’s because the real threat is not an individual hacker targeting you specifically, write five scholars who are part of the Carnegie Mellon University passwords research group:
“People who are trying to break into online accounts don’t just sit down at a computer and make a few guesses…. [C]omputer programs let them make millions or billions of guesses in just a few hours…. [So] users need to go beyond choosing passwords that are hard for a human to guess: Passwords need to be difficult for a computer to figure out.”
To help, those researchers have developed a system that checks passwords as users create them, and offers immediate advice about how to make each password stronger.
Use a password manager
All that computing power can work to our advantage too, writes Elon University computer scientist Megan Squire:
“The average internet user has 19 different passwords. It’s easy to see why people write them down on sticky notes or just click the ‘I forgot my password’ link. Software can help! The job of password management software is to take care of generating and remembering unique, hard-to-crack passwords for each website and application.”
That sounds like a good start.
Getting emoji – 🐱💦🎆🎌 – into the act
Then again, it might be even better not to use any regular characters. A group of emoji could improve security, writes Florian Schaub, an assistant professor of information and of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Michigan:
“We found that emoji passcodes consisting of six randomly selected emojis were hardest to steal over a user’s shoulder. Other types of passcodes, such as four or six emojis in a pattern, or four or six numeric digits, were easier to observe and recall correctly.”
Still, emoji are – like letters and numbers – drawn from a finite library of options. So they’re vulnerable to being guessed by powerful computers.
Drawing toward a solution
To add even more potential variation to the mix, consider making a quick doodle-like drawing to serve as a password. Janne Lindqvist from Rutgers University calls that sort of motion a “gesture,” and is working on a system to do just that:
“We have explored the potential for people to use doodles instead of passwords on several websites. It appeared to be no more difficult to remember multiple gestures than it is to recall different passwords for each site. In fact, it was faster: Logging in with a gesture took two to six seconds less time than doing so with a text password. It’s faster to generate a gesture than a password, too: People spent 42 percent less time generating gesture credentials than people we studied who had to make up new passwords. We also found that people could successfully enter gestures without spending as much attention on them as they had to with text passwords.”
Easier to make, faster to enter, and not any more difficult to remember? That’s progress.
A world without passwords
Any type of password is inherently vulnerable, though, because it is an heir to centuries of tradition in writing, writes literature scholar Brian Lennon of Pennsylvania State University:
“[E]ven the strongest password … can be used anywhere and at any time once it has been separated from its assigned user. It is for this reason that both security professionals and knowledgeable users have been calling for the abandonment of password security altogether.”
What would be left then? Only attributes about who we are as living beings.
The unknowable password
Identifying people based not on what they know, but rather their actual biology, is perhaps the ultimate goal. This goes well beyond fingerprints and retina scans, Elon’s Squire explains:
“[A] computer game similar to ‘Guitar Hero’ [can] train the subconscious brain to learn a series of keystrokes. When a musician memorizes how to play a piece of music, she doesn’t need to think about each note or sequence. It becomes an ingrained, trained reaction usable as a password but nearly impossible even for the musician to spell out note by note, or for the user to disclose letter by letter.”
That might just do away with passwords altogether. And yet if you’re really just longing for the days of deadbolts, padlocks and keys, you’re not alone.
Don’t just leave things to a password
User authentication using an electronic key is here, as Penn State-Altoona information sciences and technology professor Jungwoo Ryoo writes:
“A new, even more secure method is gaining popularity, and it’s a lot like an old-fashioned metal key. It’s a computer chip in a small portable physical form that makes it easy to carry around. (It even typically has a hole to fit on a keychain.) The chip itself contains a method of authenticating itself … And it has USB or wireless connections so it can either plug into any computer easily or communicate wirelessly with a mobile device.”
Just don’t leave your keys on the table at home.
On Friday, Sept. 8, “Third Rail with OZY” opened by asking: “Is truth overrated? Is lying the American way?”
Of course, lies have long been a big part of American politics, but fibs, tall tales and whoppers also affect our home and work lives.
We searched The Conversation archive for stories that explore how, why and when people lie – and what happens as a result.
Do you lie – and why?
Liars aren’t born – but they do start early.
Gail Heyman is a professor of psychology at the University of California, San Diego who studies how children as young as three-and-a-half years old need to develop before they can become successful liars. Heyman acknowledges the corrosive power of lying on relationships, organizations and institutions. But she also admits that lying is “a source of great social power, as it allows people to shape interactions in ways that serve their interests: They can evade responsibility for their misdeeds, take credit for accomplishments that are not really theirs, and rally friends and allies to the cause.”
Have you ever harnessed this “great social power” by telling a lie?
If you answered “no,” perhaps that’s true, but perhaps that’s just something you mistakenly believe – a falsehood.
Ronald W. Pies, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine, walked us through the difference between those two terms.
Someone “who deliberately misrepresents what he or she knows to be true is lying – typically, to secure some personal advantage,” Pies writes. “In contrast, someone who voices a mistaken claim without any intent to deceive is not lying. That person may simply be unaware of the facts, or may refuse to believe the best available evidence. Rather than lying, he’s stating a falsehood.”
Parsing lies from falsehoods requires us to understand another person’s motivation. That’s tricky business anytime – but it gets more complicated when the speaker you’re scrutinizing is the president of the United States.
Into the political realm
Donald Trump, of course, embraced what Kellyanne Conway later dubbed “alternative facts” in the first official act of his presidency – his inauguration speech.
During the speech, Trump claimed that unemployment went up under President Obama. It didn’t, as researchers at the University of Florida point out, but 67 percent of Trump’s supporters believed it at the time. Such misinformation contributes to Americans’ sense that there is a “reality gap” between conservatives and liberals in the United States.
But UF’s Lauren Griffin writes that these far-fetched claims aren’t “lies,” but something she sees as much more dangerous – bullshit.
Griffin quotes the philosopher Harry Frankfurt as explaining that a bullshitter “does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.”
Of course, “politically motivated skepticism of science is certainly not new,” as Elizabeth Suhay, an assistant professor of government at American University, observed. Trump didn’t invent the divide between scientists and politicians – or between science and policy.
“Science is consistently a political target precisely because of its political power,” Suhay writes. “The problem for science and evidence-based policy comes when politicians and other political actors decide to discredit the science on which a conclusion is based or bend the science to support their policy position. Call it "policy-based evidence” as opposed to “evidence-based policy.”
Could an embrace of “policy-based evidence” harm U.S. credibility in the world?
One example to consider is how the world reacted when American leadership turned its back on settled climate science and withdrew from the Paris Agreement. But perhaps embracing such hard truths is overrated.
Do you disagree? Make your voice heard in Third Rail’s online poll or tweet with the hashtag #ThirdRailPBS.
Nearly half a million people are expected to seek federal aid in the aftermath of the Category 4 hurricane, which already has dumped more than 30 inches on the Houston area.
While this horrible hurricane is extreme, the number of disasters has doubled globally since the 1980s, with the damage and losses estimated at an average US$100 billion a year since the new millennium, and the number of people affected also growing.
Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was the costliest natural disaster in the U.S., with estimates between $100 billion and $125 billion. The death toll of Katrina is still being debated, but we know that at least 2,000 were killed and thousands were left homeless.
Worldwide, the toll is staggering. The triple disaster of an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown that started March 11, 2011 in Fukushima, Japan killed thousands, as did the 2010 Haiti earthquake.
The challenges to disaster relief organizations, including nongovernmental organizations, are immense. The majority operate under a single, common, humanitarian principle of protecting the vulnerable, reducing suffering and supporting the quality of life. At the same time, they need to compete for financial funds from donors to ensure their own sustainability.
This competition is intense. The number of registered U.S. nonprofit organizations increased from 12,000 in 1940 to more than 1.5 million in 2012. Approximately $300 billion are donated to charities in the United States each year.
At the same time, many stakeholders believe that humanitarian aid has not been as successful in delivering on its goals due to a lack of coordination among NGOs, which results in duplication of services.
My team and I have been looking at a novel way to improve how we respond to natural disasters. One solution might be game theory.
Getting the right supplies to those in need is daunting
The need for improvement is strong.
Within three weeks following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, 1,000 NGOs were operating in Haiti. News media attention of insufficient water supplies resulted in immense donations to the Dominican Red Cross to assist its island neighbor. As a result, Port-au-Prince was saturated with cargo and gifts-in-kind, so that shipments from the Dominican Republic had to be halted for multiple days. After the Fukushima disaster, there were too many blankets and items of clothing shipped and even broken bicycles.
In fact, about 60 percent of the items that arrive at a disaster site are nonpriority items. Rescue workers then waste precious time dealing with these nonpriority supplies, whereas victims suffer because they do not receive the critical needs supplies in a timely manner.
The delivery and processing of wrong supplies also adds to the congestion at transportation and distribution nodes, overwhelms storage capabilities and results in further delays of necessary items. The flood of donated inappropriate materiel in response to a disaster is often referred to as the second disaster.
The economics of disaster relief, on the supply side, is challenged as people need to secure donations and ensure the financial sustainability of their organizations. On the demand side, the victims’ needs must be fulfilled in a timely manner while avoiding wasteful duplication and congestion in terms of logistics.
Game theory in disasters
Game theory is a powerful tool for the modeling and analysis of complex behaviors of competing decision-makers. It received a tremendous boost from the contributions of the Nobel laureate John Nash.
Game theory has been used in numerous disciplines, from economics, operations research and management science even to political science.
In the context of disaster relief, however, there has been little work done in harnessing the scope of game theory. It is, nevertheless, clear that disaster relief organizations compete for financial funds and donors respond to the visibility of the organizations in the delivery of relief supplies to victims through media coverage of disasters.
We modeled the costs incurred in delivering relief supplies, including congestion, the gain from delivering goods (since these NGOs are nonprofits and also wish to do good) plus the financial donations they stand to acquire from media exposure at the disaster sites and compete for.
These comprised each NGOs “utility” function, which each sought to individually maximize. The NGOs also faced constraints in the volume of relief supplies that they had pre-positioned and could distribute to victims of the disaster.
We examined two scenarios:
When the NGOs were free from satisfying common minimum and maximum amounts of the relief item demands at points of need (a Nash Equilibrium model);
When the NGOs had to make sure they delivered the minimum needed supplies at each demand point for the victims but did not exceed the maximum amounts set by a higher-level organization.
Such constraints guarantee that the victims would be served appropriately while, at the same time, minimizing materiel convergence and congestion associated with unnecessary supplies (a Generalized Nash Equilibrium model because of the common/shared constraints). Such bounds would correspond to policies imposed by a higher-level humanitarian or governmental organization.
Policies and implications
We used a case study of Hurricane Katrina, because of its historic catastrophic nature.
We built the models using publicly available data, with the NGOs corresponding to the Red Cross, the Salvation Army and “other” NGOs collectively. Since Louisiana suffered the brunt of the damages, we selected, as demand points, 10 parishes in Louisiana.
Applying computer-based algorithms, we computed the relief item flows and the utilities of the NGOs in the noncooperative games without imposed policies in the form of bounds (Nash Equilibrium) and with (Generalized Nash Equilibrium).
An actionable framework for NGO decision-makers
A comparison of the outcomes under the Nash and Generalized Nash Equilibria quantifiably showed that coordination is critical to achieving better outcomes in humanitarian relief operations.
The Generalized Nash solution is not only capable of eliminating the possibility of having under- or over-supply, it guarantees – through competition – the efficient allocation of resources once the minimum requirements are met.
Without such imposed bounds, relief organizations may choose an “easy” route in delivering supplies because it is less costly, rather than the route that will end in a destination where there are the most in need.
Therefore, the game theory framework has significant benefits both for the disaster victims and for the NGOs. In addition, we also demonstrated that, under certain circumstances, the Generalized Nash solution is capable of attracting more donations than the unrestricted, competitive solution.
Our study has numerous implications to guide coordinating authorities. It provides a strong argument for the importance of these coordinating bodies in successful humanitarian relief efforts.
Specifically, our research demonstrates that, if authorities can impose the constraints on upper and lower demand levels for relief supplies, they can provide an effective mechanism to improve the disaster response. Response teams need a certain amount of supplies to save lives but not so much that it results in congestion and waste.
Governmental agencies or NGOs need to come together to set these values.
The Generalized Nash Equilibrium Game Theory model provides managers of NGOs with a strategic framework to analyze their interactions with other NGOs, while also providing insights into their own operations. Moreover, as our study reveals, the framework answers fundamental questions that every NGO must address: (1) How and where should we provide aid? and (2) How can we finance those operations? A computer-based model that can answer these questions provides an actionable framework for NGO decision-makers.
Our study further suggests that, despite the competition among NGOs for fundraising, there are strong reasons for them to collaborate, thereby strengthening their disaster response and achieving better results for those in need. In fact, our game theory analysis quantifiably shows that cooperation among NGOs may increase financial donations to all NGOs.
This is an updated version of an article that ran in The Conversation on March 9, 2017.
Anna Nagurney does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
The following is a roundup of previously published articles.
The U.S. electricity grid, the sprawling network that delivers power to our homes and businesses, is changing rapidly – a point few experts will debate. But how policies should guide the future of the grid – and specifically which fuel sources should be used – is a highly contentious question.
Department of Energy Secretary Rick Perry in April asked DOE staff to prepare a study, which was released on August 24, to assess the electricity markets and its reliability. News of the review caused great trepidation among solar and wind advocates because Perry had singled out the importance of nuclear and coal – a favorite of President Trump – in maintaining grid reliability.
In the end, the study said the sharp decline in natural gas prices over the past decade is the primary reason coal has become less economic, rather than the spread of wind and solar. The report also found that wind and solar, which provide power intermittently, have not caused any insurmountable problems in the grid’s functioning – yet.
Lessons from Texas
Reactions to the report’s release have been mixed, and it’s not clear what policies might follow from it. But academics have written extensively about the dramatic changes happening behind the scenes on the grid. Most notably, four energy experts from the University of Texas looked at what happened when wind energy surged on the Texas grid, known as ERCOT – much of it during Perry’s time as governor.
Wind power did not crash the Texas grid because the state reformed how it operates its wholesale energy markets, they said. Yes, grid operators need to rely more on natural gas plants to compensate for varying wind and solar, but the wholesale price for energy has gone down. They wrote:
“Research at UT Austin shows that while installing significant amounts of solar power would increase annual grid management costs by $10 million in ERCOT, it would reduce annual wholesale electricity costs by $900 million. The result of all this is that renewables compete with conventional sources of power, but they do not displace nearly as much coal as cheap natural gas. In fact, cheap gas displaces, on average, more than twice as much coal than renewables have in ERCOT.”
Nuclear power plant operators cheered the DOE’s report because it noted the crucial role of nuclear in the current grid and recommended faster reviews for new plant construction. But should the federal government provide subsidies, as New York has done in one case, to keep nuclear power plants in operation?
Nuclear engineering professor Arthur Motta argued that policies should recognize the fact that nuclear power is reliable and emits no emissions during operation.
“Subsidizing carbon-free sources is justifiable to provide for the future greater good of the country because they provide climate change and clean air benefits. Perversely, however, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and most states have declined to consider rewarding the same benefits from existing nuclear power plants.”
On the other hand, Peter Bradford from the Vermont Law School and a former Nuclear Regulatory Commission member said that nuclear has always struggled to be economic, and policies to favor nuclear will cost consumers. He wrote,
“Nuclear power producers want government-mandated long-term contracts or other mechanisms that require customers to buy power from their troubled units at prices far higher than they would pay otherwise. Providing such open-ended support will negate several major energy trends that currently benefit customers and the environment.”
The stated rationale behind the study was that the U.S. grid needs to ensure it has “baseload” power sources that can operate around the clock, as nuclear, coal and natural plants can. And the DOE study does note that it’s worth studying what happens with a deeper penetration of solar and wind because they could cause reliability issues in the future.
California is on the vanguard of this change. When it shut down its last nuclear plant, UCLA researchers Eric Daniel Fournier and Alex Ricklefs explained that the state will need a number of techniques, including energy storage, to meet its aggressive renewable energy targets. They wrote,
“Careful planning is needed to ensure that energy storage systems are installed to take over the baseline load duties currently held by natural gas and nuclear power, as renewables and energy efficiency may not be able to carry the burden.”
Meanwhile, the future of coal still does not look particularly bright – at least in the U.S., wrote Lucas Davis from University of California Berkeley. He wrote,
“This dramatic change has meant tens of thousands of lost coal jobs, raising many difficult social and policy questions for coal communities. But it’s an unequivocal benefit for the local and global environment. The question now is whether the trend will continue in the U.S. and, more importantly, in fast-growing economies around the world.”
Editor’s note: The following is roundup of archival stories.
On June 19, the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it would hear Gill v. Whitford, a case on partisan gerrymandering in Wisconsin.
This controversial practice – where states are carved up into oddly shaped electoral districts favoring one political party over another – has already ignited debates in a number of states, including North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Maryland.
The Supreme Court’s decision may provide some long-awaited guidance on whether gerrymandering is constitutional. To better understand what this news means, we turned to stories in our archive.
What is gerrymandering?
Gerrymandering is far from a new problem, explains Michel Balinski at École Polytechnique – Université Paris-Saclay, nor will this be the first time that the Supreme Court has considered it:
Practiced as a political art form for some two centuries, gerrymandering is now an exact science. Computer programs using vast data banks describing sociological, ethnic, economic, religious and political characteristics of the electorate determine districts – often of incredibly weird contours – that favor the party that drew the maps.
For an example of those weird contours, take a look at Ohio’s ninth district, nicknamed “the snake on the lake” for the way it stretches from Toledo to Cleveland.
“The representation of communities is made a mockery by maps that either splinter cities and counties or overwhelm them with voters ‘tacked’ into the district from distant rural areas,” writes Richard Gunther at The Ohio State University.
Americans often seem proud of their democracy, notes Pippa Norris at Harvard University, but experts rank U.S. elections among the worst in all Western democracies. According to one analysis, the U.S. scores only 62 on a 100-point assessment of election integrity.
There are many issues with our electoral process – including problems with campaign finance and voter registration – but gerrymandering stands out as the worst, writes Norris:
[A] large part of the blame can be laid at the door of the degree of decentralization and partisanship in American electoral administration. Key decisions about the rules of the game are left to local and state officials with a major stake in the outcome. For example, gerrymandering arises from leaving the processes of redistricting in the hands of state politicians, rather than more impartial judicial bodies.
Thanks to gerrymandering, Democrats likely won’t win back the House in 2018 or 2020, predict experts at Strathclyde University, University of Richmond, University of California, Irvine and California Polytechnic State University. They argue that it’s difficult for today’s politicians to claim that gerrymandered districts occurred by accident:
If a state government could have drawn unbiased districts, but chose to draw to biased districts instead, then it has engaged in deliberate gerrymandering. It cannot claim that it did not realize what it was doing – modern districting software has allowed enough people to see the partisan consequences.
In search of solutions
Federal law dictates that congressional districts “distribute population evenly, be connected and be ‘compact,’” explains Kevin Knudson at the University of Florida.
Scholars have proposed a handful of ideas of how to redraw congressional districts more fairly. States might consider changing how votes are tabulated or appointing an independent commission to redraw the lines. Or, they could turn to new mathematical techniques and run simulations in search of the best map.
Some voters might wonder why all the bother, says Knudson:
One approach is to do nothing and leave the system as it is, accepting the current situation as part of the natural ebb and flow of the political process. But when one political party receives a majority of votes nationally yet does not have control of the House of Representatives – as occurred in the 2012 election – one begins to wonder if the system needs some tweaks.
Not just politics
Gerrymandering is often discussed in the realm of politics. But Derek W. Black at the University of South Carolina explores a case in Alabama where school districts have been redrawn to create racially segregated schools. He notes that this seems to be an unfortunate pattern across the country:
In many areas, this racial isolation has occurred gradually over time, and is often written off as the result of demographic shifts and private preferences that are beyond a school district’s control.
To commemorate African-American Music Appreciation Month this June, California Senator Kamala Harris released a Spotify playlist with songs spanning genres and generations, from TLC’s “Waterfalls” to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.”
In a nod to the integral role African-American musicians play in the country’s rich musical legacy, we’ve decided to highlight our own “playlist” of articles, pieces that feature icons like Michael Jackson and Tupac Shakur, along with forgotten – but no less important – voices, from Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield to the Rev. T.T. Rose.
The first black pop star is born
Before Aretha Franklin, before Ella Fitzgerald, there was Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield. A self-taught opera singer born in 1820, Greenfield had to overcome the belief that blacks couldn’t actually sing.
Penn State music instructor Adam Gustafson tells the story of Greenfield’s rise, which made audiences reconcile their racism with their ears:
“Greenfield was met with laughter when she took to the stage. Several critics blamed the uncouth crowd in attendance; others wrote it off as lighthearted amusement. Despite the inauspicious beginning, critics agreed that her range and power were astonishing.”
By the early 20th century, Americans were clamoring for the albums of black artists. The music industry was eager to oblige, but cordoned them off into a distinct genre: “race music.”
One of the most prominent early race labels was Paramount Records. Between 1917 and 1932, Paramount recorded a breathtaking range of seminal African-American artists. Unfortunately, as Penn State’s Jerry Zoltan explains, black artists like the Rev. T.T. Rose and the Pullman Porters Quartet were ruthlessly exploited – and eventually forgotten.
“Bottom line: if record companies could get away with it, there was no bottom line. No negotiated contract to sign. No publishing. No royalties. Anonymity was also implicit in the deal, so many black artists were forgotten, their only legacy the era’s brittle shellac disks that were able to withstand the wear of time.”
University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s Clifford Murphy describes how these same industry forces tried to pigeonhole an ex-con named Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter as a black blues artist.
But Lead Belly loved country stars like Gene Autry, and while he sang blues and spirituals, he also created songs influenced by the string band traditions of the white working class. Promoters, however, were interested in only a certain type of song:
“Though he had an immense repertoire, he was urged to record and perform songs like ‘Pick A Bale of Cotton,’ while songs considered ‘white,’ like ‘Silver Haired Daddy of Mine,’ were either downplayed or cast aside… Lead Belly was constrained by a commercial and cultural industry that wanted to present a certain archetype of African-American music.”
Michael Jackson breaks the mold
Only later would black artists be able to move freely across musical genres. Perhaps no artist stitched together a more diverse range of styles and influences than Michael Jackson, the King of Pop.
But Jackson was simultaneously derided as “Wacko Jacko,” a hopelessly deluded freak. McMaster University’s Susan Fast sees it differently. To Fast, the way Jackson lived his life was an extension of the risks he took in his music. Both were united by a central tenet: to collapse boundaries considered irrevocable.
“Michael Jackson – gender ambiguous; adored and reviled; human, werewolf, panther; black, white, brown; child, adolescent, adult – shattered the assumptions of a society that craves neat categories and compartmentalization. Order and normality are illusions, he said through his life and art.”
The triumph and tragedy of Tupac
In the 1980s, hip-hop – then a budding musical genre – found itself gravitating toward black nationalist messages. It was during this time that Tupac Shakur, the son of a Black Panther, came of age.
While R&B, soul and jazz musicians were largely silent about the challenges poor black communities faced, Tupac, in his music, directly confronted the hostile forces that threatened him and his peers: mass incarceration, poverty, illegal drugs and police brutality. But in Tupac’s meteoric rise and swift fall, UConn’s Jeffrey O.G. Ogbar sees the tragedies of an entire generation of black youth:
“Tupac’s life isn’t just an embodiment of the struggles, contradictions, creativity and promise of a generation. It also serves as a cautionary tale. His life’s abrupt end was a consequence of the allure of success, much like the pull of the streets.”