10 posts from January 2009

January 30, 2009

Are we Equal, but Separate?

author_janis By Janis Prince Inniss

My best friend is white. In fact, several of my friends are from racial and ethnic backgrounds that differ from my own. As a black woman in the U.S., these may be unusual truths or may even sound like the old cliche, “Some of my best friends are black.” Now that President Barack Obama is in the White House lots of people having been saying, both publicly and privately that race relations are improving in America. And perhaps they are. However two recent incidents have caused me to think less optimistically about the role of race in our social interactions.

clip_image002One recent Saturday night I attended two parties. As I was on my way out of the first—a holiday gathering— I was surprised to see a group of about four white couples at the dining table. The other guests, all of whom were black, were mingling in the kitchen, living room, or were on the lanai. This was a fairly large gathering of about fourteen or more couples eating, drinking and chatting throughout this home, while their children played in a game room. Because the sizable home’s layout, I did not realize that this group had formed at the dining table until I passed them on my way out. To be sure, the eight or so whites at that table were in the minority at that party; everyone else was black. And the fact that they were even there as invited guests of my friends the black hosts suggests that some cross race socialization was taking place .

But why was there this segregation at the party? Perhaps there was a good explanation for this group to be off by themselves—they work together and were talking shop or are neighbors discussing their homeowner’s association—I don’t know. And perhaps there was co-mingling after I left.

clip_image004When I left that party, before I could finish mulling over what I had witnessed, I went to the graduation party of another friend’s son. I was very excited to be attending this graduation of a young man—a young black male—part of the demographic least likely to be among the college educated. This young man had graduated from one of the nation’s top schools. As though continuing an unwritten theme of the evening, however, this was another segregated social event. Except for one or two Latinos, every one of the graduate’s friends at this reception was black!

I was glad to see so many young black men who were in/or graduating from college but how is it possible to attend a predominately white college and make no white friends there? I would ask a similar question about a white graduate with only white friends too. How is it possible to attend even a “majority” school and make no minority friends? Friendships are not regulated and we don’t want them to be. But these incidents remind me that in many cases Americans continue to live segregated lives.

Despite decades of bussing and other integration efforts, many kids ”choose” to hang out with their own race at school. I see evidence of this weekly when I meet with a high school mentee. Everywhere I look, there are bunches of black students together, white students together, and Latino students together. When my step-daughter was in middle school, I saw students waiting for the school bus in the same fashion. I often thought it unrealistic that none of the friends on the TV show of the same name had any interactions with minorities, particularly since that show was set in the highly cosmopolitan city of New York. (Eventually black actress Aisha Tyler made a few appearances as a love interest, finally adding some ”color” to the show.)

Whether or not one has friends or acquaintances who are a different race is not an academic issue. Recent research indicates that even spending relatively short amounts of time with someone of a different race reduces bias and prejudice. The extended-contact effect even ripples out to include your friends. In these research sessions, strangers of differing races are brought together for four hour-long sessions. In these structured interactions, pairs move from simple conversations to those that address more serious matters and eventually to a trust exercise. Some of the people form relationships that move beyond the research environment. People who have been through these exercises instantly score lower on prejudice measures and are less afraid of encounters with people of another race. Research suggests that even low doses of ”exposure” to someone of a different race can impact our attitudes towards that group.

Do you live in an area that is racially and ethnically diverse? How many of your friends or people in your social circle are from a different racial background than your own? Social settings do not have the structure of these research sessions, but in some cases we can build trusting relationships even in a purely social environment. Why might this be important?

January 27, 2009

General Deterrence and an Eye for an Eye

author_brad By Bradley Wright

Ameneh Bahrami was a young woman in her twenties who worked as an electronics technician. She lived in Tehran, Iran, and in her free time she enjoyed photography and sight seeing. Several years earlier, when she was in university, she and some friends gave some clothes to a bedraggled, younger student named Majid Movahedi. Movahedi fell madly and obsessively in love with her and pursued her for several years. Finally, Bahrami made it clear that she would not marry Movahedi. “Continue with your life,” she told him. “There is absolutely no hope for us.” What Movahedi did next forever altered Bahrami’s life and stirred a national controversy in Iran. Movahedi staked out her office, and then as she was leaving one day, he poured sulfuric acid over her, permanently blinding and disfiguring her.

Iran, of course, is a fundamentalist Islamic country, and Bahrami petitioned the courts to punish her attacker according to Islamic jurisprudence. Recently, an Iranian court accepted her request and ordered that five drops of sulfuric acid be placed in each of Bahrami’s eyes so that he will be blinded in a similar manner--literally an eye for an eye.

clip_image002As sociologists, we could examine this heartbreaking story in terms of gender and domestic violence or we might use it to explore the role of religion and the law. Instead, I want to address a different aspect of it, and that involves Bahrami’s and the court’s reasoning for this punishment.

In explaining her reasoning for requesting this punishment, Bahrami said that she wanted to prevent this type of crime from happening to any one else. “I am doing that because I don’t want this to happen to any other women.” The courts agreed with her. “If propaganda is carried out on how acid attackers are punished, it will prevent such crimes in the future," said Mahmoud Salarkia.

This motivation for punishment—to prevent future crimes by others—illustrates the criminological concept of general deterrence. Deterrence refers to preventing crime, and general deterrence is punishing one person as a way to prevent the crimes of others. Here in the United States, punishing criminals is also viewed as a general deterrent; in fact, that’s one of the arguments for the death penalty. By killing criminals who have killed, the criminal justice system might prevent future killings.

General deterrence works best when potential criminals find out about punishments given to previous law-breakers. So, punishing someone quietly with no one else knowing would have little general deterrence effect. It is not unreasonable, then, to expect that the sulfur-in-eyes punishment of Majid Movahedi might have some deterrent effect, for the case has become widely known, and the brutality of the punishment might make other men in Iran think twice before similarly attacking a woman.

Related to general deterrence is the concept of specific deterrence, when a person is punished not to prevent other people from committing crimes but rather to prevent that person from committing future crimes. For example, locking someone up in jail creates specific deterrence because it makes it difficult for that clip_image002person to commit additional crimes (at least against the general population). The proposed punishment of Movahedi would also serve as a specific deterrent, for it will be more difficult for him to attack people if he’s blind.

The idea of deterrence assumes rationality among criminals. The reasoning goes like this: If society makes known the costs of crime, people should be less likely to participate in it. What if, however, criminals are not responsive to the costs of crime? Given Movahedi’s very strong emotions at the moment he injured Bahrami, would knowledge of future punishments kept him from attacking her? It’s unclear, but we might expect strong punishments to deter rationally-based crimes, such as theft, more strongly than emotionally-based crimes.

The application of general deterrence has its own issues, for not only does the victim have rights, but so does the attacker—though they forsake many of them when they commit crime. Is it reasonable to punish one person harshly in order to benefit other people? Is it appropriate for society to “make an example” of someone? In the story above, Bahrami is such a sympathetic figure that it’s easy to overlook these issues, but they still stand.

Questions remain about the effectiveness and appropriateness of general deterrence, and yet it stands as one of society’s main defenses against law-breaking. Do you think general or specific deterrence work? If so, in what situations might they be most effective?

January 24, 2009

How Great is being a Sociologist?

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

I think I have a pretty good job. I get to think about, talk about, and write about sociology every day. As high as my job satisfaction is, I was pleasantly surprised to see a Wall Street Journal article listing the best and worst jobs. Sociologist came in at number eight, just j0439422behind Mathematician, Actuary, Statistician, Biologist, Software Engineer, Computer Systems Analyst and Historian. Other top jobs include Industrial Designer, Accountant, Economist, Philosopher, and Physicist.

What makes being a sociologist so great? Like the other best jobs listed, sociologists’ thoughts and ideas are valued; many people in the best jobs work at universities, where we have a good deal of autonomy and respect. One great thing about what I do is that I feel like I am using my skills and talents each day, and the work is never dull or mundane. I get to read new books all the time—often for free—and then talk about them with other j0365652people who are interested in  the same topics.

The best jobs are also somewhat stable, relatively shielded from the highs and lows of the economy. My income doesn’t fluctuate wildly from year to year, and though few people ever get rich doing what I do, I have good benefits and a lot of time off. I work from home several days a week and can structure my time as I like on those days.

It’s not unusual for people to ask me how I decided to become a sociologist; did I always know this is what I wanted to do? I typically provide the quick version of the answer: I took a sociology class as an undergraduate because it fit in my schedule and I needed a social science class and liked it. In truth, the process was not so clear. I did stumble onto sociology by accident when the class I really wanted to take in the psychology department was closed. But when I initially decided to go on to graduate school I studied psychology—in part because of a list that indicated “psychologist” was a growing profession that paid well.

I didn’t even consider sociology at first because I never heard of anyone becoming a sociologist. When I was in high school, classmates talked of being doctors, lawyers, teachers, and psychologists, but never sociologists. So I figured the odds of getting a job were higher if I was a psychologist, and that was the deciding factor. I was struggling to pay j0439407 my bills as a recent college grad, and having a good paying job was my central motivation.

When I took the GRE subject test in psychology, I saw a woman given the sociology subject test and felt pangs of jealousy. I guess that was a sign. After earning a master’s degree in psychology, I realized that sociology was my true love and applied for a Ph.D. program. Looking back I’d have to say that sociology found me rather than the other way around. Despite all attempts at other careers, the siren song of sociology kept calling me.

Note that the better-known careers my high school classmates and I thought about did not make the Wall Street Journal’s top twenty. I suspect that these jobs carry with them high expectations: for doctors and lawyers in particular, a big paycheck and social status are often presumed. Their pathways are clear-cut too. How many people know (or are told) from an early age that they will be going to law school or medical school only to find that once they are there it is not for them? One acquaintance is still practicing law despite discovering more than a decade ago that he doesn’t enjoy it; he thinks that law is “all he is trained to do” and that he has no other options.

Feeling trapped is the antithesis of job satisfaction. Social psychologists have documented how feelings of autonomy at work contribute to self-esteem, and typically sociologists define middle-class status in part based on how much autonomy one has in their job. I have had several jobs with little autonomy: as a receptionist I had to ask for permission to use the bathroom, and at a corporate job I was expected to work very long days and could not go home until a supervisor said I could. I didn’t know if I would be off at 7 pm or 1 am, even if I got in at 9 am every day. I felt like a prisoner in my own life and became very unhappy and eventually experienced physical symptoms from the stress of hating my job and feeling out of control.

Jobs that are dangerous cause stress too. Among the Wall Street Journal’s worst jobs include Lumberjack, Taxi Driver, and Roofer. While individuals who do this work might enjoy it—the article quotes a very happy lumberjack—these kinds of jobs are often seasonal and can be repetitive. Taxi drivers are at risk for robbery on a regular basis as well. Some of the other occupations on the low end of the list, like Dairy Farmer and Construction Worker, require a great deal of physical labor. These jobs might not pay very well either, and people in these occupations may feel that they have few other options for employment.

The best occupations require a great deal of education, and while they offer financial stability they typically do not by any means guarantee wealth. Perhaps the most important common element of the Journal’s top jobs is that they all offer the satisfaction of using our minds rather than focusing only on amassing wealth or power. How do you think people’s occupational aspirations would change if they were encouraged first to focus on what they loved to do? How do economic realities often interfere with this idealistic notion?

January 21, 2009

Black-White Interracial Relationships

author_janis By Janis Prince Inniss

One of the many reasons that I love staying in hotels is that I get to watch cable TV. And although I have had cable for about a year—as a side-attraction to the best telephone deal we could find--I only have the 5,000 or so basic channels. So on my recent hotel stay, I was rather excited to have access to HBO. I salivated when I saw an advertisement for comedian Chris Rock's "Kill the Messenger" special on that channel. And this treat was the impetus for getting back to the hotel by 9:30 one evening. One joke has stayed with me since then. Without giving it away, Rock tries to answer the following question: Why are more black men romantically paired with white women than black women are with white men?

It was not until the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Loving v. Virginia , that interracial marriages became legal in the U.S. There are many aspects of this clip_image002case that are striking, but in the context of this post, it is remarkable that this landmark case was of a black woman and white man. This combination of race and gender is noteworthy because, although interracial marriages are relatively rare overall, those of black women to white men are rarer still. (The most recent census data put these unions at about 7% of all U.S. marriages. Although this is a marked increase from 40 years ago, it is still a very low percentage.)

In the last 27 years, despite enormous social shifts in American society, there is nothing approaching equality in terms of the ratios of black men and women who choose white spouses. Looking at the graph below, you will see that the black female/white male pairings of today are about what they were 30 years ago for black male/white female dyads. (The blue line represents black husband/white wife). In other words, today, white men and black women marry at about the same rate that black men and white women married about three decades ago.


Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Table 59 and Table MS-3.

Even when we look at interracial cohabitation, black men are far more likely than black women to be living with a white partner of the opposite sex. In fact, 82% of blacks cohabiting with whites are male. Why is this so?

As I contemplate this question, I can’t help but reflect on my own experiences in the world of dating. When I attended USC—which had, and still has, a majority white student body—I felt invisible to white men—completely and totally invisible. It was like I didn’t exist to them, not as a person, let alone as a woman. Of course, there were exceptions. My professors recognized me and knew my name. And a fellow first year graduate student once gave me a lift home on his motorcycle. This time at USC was notable for me because my experience there was in great contrast to some of my experiences when I lived among large populations of blacks; from an early age, I was used to men and boys noticing and admiring me. Any feminist worth her sensible shoes will disavow whistles, but it was an odd, if not unwelcome experience for me to be so ignored. How typical or not was my experience?

If it is typical, it would begin to explain why there are fewer black female/white male romances. If men are still mostly the initiators of relationships, one explanation may be that clip_image007men—regardless of their own race—have been exposed to a similar beauty standard. And that beauty standard is white. Tall, thin, straight- haired white women is the image most of are bombarded with as being beautiful. All men seeking that image would be seeking white women. (This is not to suggest that these relationships remain at a superficial level.) Given this standard, who would be attracted to me? This is a question that I considered as a single woman in Los Angeles. I chose to wear my hair in braids, before cutting it to little more than peach fuzz. Neither of these hairstyles created a look reminiscent of “the average girl from the video” or those on magazine covers. Perhaps, these looks underscore why I was invisible to white males at USC.

Many sociologists have used social exchange theory to explain interracial marriage. Maybe this seems cold, especially in relation to romantic relationships, but this theory asks us to think about the costs and benefits of relationships. It posits that we keep relationships in which their benefits out weigh their costs. Unfortunately it does not provide an explanation for why there are more white female-black male pairs than the other way around? (Can you guess what social exchange theory has to say about the characteristics of whites and blacks that do intermarry?)

January 18, 2009

Sustainability and Marriage

author_sally By Sally Raskoff

In a previous blog, I discussed the concept of sustainability, focusing specifically on the environment. We can also view marriage in this context.

The fight over same-sex marriage has also used sustainability as an argument. As Governor Mike Huckabee recently stated on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, marriage exists to create babies, thus sustaining our civilization.

He is invoking a religious argument that sees marriage in this particular way – as the societal institution that sanctions perpetuation of the species. This is, of course, only one partial function of marriage and it is not entirely correct.

Marriage is more of an institution that regulates sexual behavior, which can lead to childbearing if fertile heterosexuals are the people involved in the marriage (and if they choose to procreate). Childbearing and “family making” can also occur with people raising children that someone else has born or whose genetic origins are partially or wholly someone else’s as when fertility drugs clip_image002and technologies are used.

And marriages do not always create children even if fertile heterosexuals are the people involved in the marriage. Thus childbearing does not come only from marriage between heterosexuals even as the religious organizations that are primary today hold this as the norm to which we are told we should all aspire. When you think about it sociologically, it is more accurate to state that historically a marriage license really worked as a license to have socially legitimate sex!

More importantly, marriage is the institution that controls the ownership and transmission of property and property rights – as the series finale of Boston Legal cleverly depicted with the marriage of Denny Crane and Alan Shore. While women are no longer property in this country, property and ownership rights remain central to the institution of marriage. Spousal rights of inheritance, power of attorney, health and retirement benefits, and taxation all rest with that ability to gain a marriage license.

While some of these benefits can be gained by other legal partnerships such as civil unions or domestic partnerships, those marriage ”alternatives” have no socially legitimate naming benefits. Calling one’s partner your wife or husband is very different from referring solely to one’s partner – and not only because some people assume you’re talking about your business partner.

Thus defining marriage as one for a heterosexual couple only rather than people irrespective of gender or sexual orientation is allowing homophobia to be the more “sustainable” short-term pattern as it continues to set same-sex couples apart from other-sex couples. This has the effect of continuing our patterns of inequality based on sexual orientation – thus calling into question whether or not defining marriage in this way is really sustainable!

As we saw in the 1960s, limiting marriage to people based on race was not a truly sustainable practice even as the religious institutions of the time supported those racial bans on intermarriage. Realizing that marriage is an institution for regulating sexual behavior and to create families in which people socialize children – a very sustainable entity by definition – one must realize that barring people from doing this because their race or gender combinations are not typical does not serve the society’s need to sustain itself over time.

If marriage helps serve to stabilize society, one might wonder what harm can come from encouraging more consenting adults from committing themselves to one partner, with full legal benefits and responsibilities. Then again, maybe those who oppose gay marriage should abandon the sustainability argument. After all, allowing same-sex couples to marry does nothing to preclude the ability and desire for heterosexual couples to marry and raise children.

January 15, 2009

Cologne and Self-Fulfilling Prophesies

author_brad By Bradley Wright

I go to the gym at my town’s community center, and I can always tell when a high school boy has used the locker room recently—it smells strongly of Axe or Lynx body sprays. In a triumph of marketing, Unilever has convinced a whole generation of young men who think that if they douse themselves with the right spray, beautiful women will throw themselves at them. Don’t believe this is true? Well, here’s documentary evidence provided in an Axe commercial.

As a middle-aged person, I just roll my eyes at anything I don’t understand about young people. (“Kids these days”, said in a cranky voice). Some scientists, however, have taken the time to figure out if in fact these man-sprays actually work, and what they have found wonderfully illustrates the sociological concept of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This study gave a group of young men cans of aerosol spray to use. Half the respondents had the real stuff—that smells so good—and the other half had a spray that didn’t really have anything in it. The researchers then gave the young men a series of psychological tests which were filmed. These films were then shown to young women, and the women were asked to rate the attractiveness of the male respondents. Lo and behold, the men who had sprayed themselves with the real body spray were deemed more attractive.

How did this work? The women viewers could not smell the men, yet they were more attracted to the men who smelled differently. The researchers concluded that the body spray had no direct effect on the women viewers, rather the sprays altered moods of the men who wore them. Smelling a certain way apparently made the men feel more confident, and so they acted differently, more confidently, than those who did not get the good-smelling sprays. The women viewers noticed this more confident manner and found it attractive.

The researchers then showed photographs of the male respondents to group of women, and the women did not find the good-smelling guys to be more physically attractive. It was the good-smelling guys’ behavior, not their physical appearance or scent that attracted women. The right smell made the guys act more confidently, so, somewhat counterintuitively, the secret may not be whether a woman thinks a man smells good, but rather whether a man thinks he smells good.

This effect of body-spray—making a man more attractive because he thinks he is more attractive—represents a self-fulfilling prophesy. This concept has a long history and many uses, but here it refers to the effect of a changed self-identity. A change in the situation (i.e., body spray) changes a man’s attitudes about himself (more confidence) which in turn changes how others react to him (attraction).

Self-fulfilling prophesies show up in a remarkably wide range of social behaviors. If a basketball player thinks she’s going to miss a free throw, she probably will. If a child comes to believe that they are a bad kid, they’ll act that out. If a student thinks they are smart and hard working, they will do better in school.

clip_image002In fact, I wonder if the logic of the study described above applies to all fashions. Wearing the right style at the right style at the right time might actually make us more attractive due to feeling better about ourselves. (Of course, some styles are inherently attractive, regardless of social definition. They always look great—for example, the baby blue tuxedo I wore to high school prom).

In this essay, I’ve focused on the effects of our self-image on our behavior, but there’s an equally rich story to be told about how society affects our self-image. Gender and racial stereotypes affect the self-images of groups of people. Parents, teachers, and friends constantly affect how we see ourselves. Advertising and all manner of media alter our self-perceptions. In the end, this concept, of a self-fulfilling prophesy, helps us to understand both who we are and what we do and how both are influenced by the society that we live in.

As you go through today, think about how you’re social interactions change how you see yourself, and how this in turn changes how you act and how others respond to you. Also, don’t forget to douse yourself with something that you think smells good.

January 12, 2009

Health and Wealth

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

Benjamin Franklin famously said, "Early to bed early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise"--words that I strive to live by. We bear a great deal of responsibility for our overall health, and getting enough sleep, exercise, and proper diet go a long way towards feeling good.

That said, there are many factors that contribute to our overall health, some beyond our control. Inheriting the right genes helps (or as some say, picking your parents wisely), but other factors affect whether we get sick, and if we do, influence the likelihood that we will recover from illness. One such factor is wealth. Franklin could revise his famous aphorism to say that those who are wealthy have a better shot at being healthy, at least in contemporary America. clip_image002

The December 2008 issue of Self magazine got me thinking about this topic. One article, “Secrets of America's Healthiest Women”, provided a rundown of which cities ranked at the top for prenatal care, cancer occurrence, and a variety of other measures related to health care screenings and treatments. Under each item, the magazine offers readers a chance to “Steal their Secret” and provides suggestions that might be related to the city’s overall health.

For instance, Honolulu, Hawai’i was listed as the city with the least cancer, and their “secret” is their plentiful fish markets. Readers are encouraged to “load up on wild salmon, herring, and halibut.” By contrast, Gary, Indiana was listed as the city with the most cancer. Is their problem too few fish markets?

Possibly, but there are other significant factors that might predict that Gary residents would be sicker than those in Honolulu. Most centrally, 31.6% of Gary residents live below the federal poverty line. In contrast, 8.6% of Honolulu residents live in poverty. Gary’s 2007 homicide rate was 73.2 per 100,000, indicating high levels of violent crime. Honolulu, on the other hand, is one of America’s safest cities, with a murder rate of 2.1 per 100,000 residents in 2007. The stressors of navigating violent communities, coupled with high unemployment (Gary's unemployment rate is 15.5% compared with 4.2% in Honolulu) certainly can interfere with good health, especially if residents have limited access to regular health care.

So should residents of Gary pack up and head to Honolulu? Considering the median income in Gary is $26,725 and median home value $71,700, it is unlikely that many could afford Honolulu's median home price of $604,600. Even trying to follow Self’s advice about eating more seafood might be difficult. Low-income communities are notorious for lacking large grocery stores stocking healthy choices like produce, let alone seafood. Couple that with a limited food budget and fresh fish is a luxury many people in poverty cannot afford.

Other healthy cities listed, like San Jose, California (poverty rate 9.9%) and Seattle, Washington (13.1%) have significantly lower poverty rates than Gary and the clip_image002[5]other cities that frequently topped the “unhealthy” list like Memphis, Tennessee (26.2%) and El Paso, Texas (27.4%). People in the “unhealthy” cities also experience higher rates of racial/ethnic segregation, another factor that is important to consider. Areas with high degrees of segregation often provide fewer basic services like health care for residents. This problem is particularly acute here in Los Angeles, where hospitals in low-income, predominantly black and Latino communities have shut down or drastically reduced services. In an era of budget deficits, this trend is likely to continue.

I enjoy reading Self for the tips on healthy living, which I try and incorporate into my routine whenever possible. Yet the title of the magazine reflects our very individualized notions of health and well-being. Yes, we are responsible for ourselves, but other factors rooted in the social structure shape our health, which can be beyond our control. It is instructive for us to see which cities have the healthiest residents, but we also need to examine what patterns have created these disparities.

My health is partly a result of my behavior and genetics, but also reflects other sociological factors, not the least of which being my socio-economic status (related to my education, the job market, and my family’s socio-economic status). Not only do I have health insurance through my employer, but there are a number of high quality health care providers in my area (my dentist’s office is actually just across the street!). And when I do need medical treatment, my and my family’s experience navigating the health care system provides me with advantages that others might not have. What social factors might enhance or affect your health?

January 09, 2009

The Sociology of Sustainability

author_sally By Sally Raskoff

I’ve been thinking of teaching a new Sociology course– the Sociology of Sustainability. This word, sustainability, is everywhere these days and it is an important concept that will be with us for some time. It seems new to us here in the United States, which, should be no surprise as our culture and economy haven’t embraced this idea.

Dictionary.com defines Sustainability as with being sustainable and rooted in the word “sustain”: To keep in existence; maintain; To supply with necessities or nourishment; provide for; To support from below; keep from falling or sinking; prop; To support the spirits, vitality, or resolution of; encourage; To bear up under; withstand: can't sustain the blistering heat; To experience or suffer; To affirm the validity of; To prove or corroborate; confirm; To keep up (a joke or assumed role, for example) competently.

clip_image002Applied to society, sustainable suggests continuity over time, that is a society can be said to be sustainable if its structure and properties allow it to continue over the long-term. What is long term to a society? Suffice it to say that the U.S. hasn’t lasted long enough to claim that it is or can be sustainable as of yet. In fact, the structure of our society is currently not sustainable, especially in its economic structures. Karl Marx had said that capitalism will eventually exhaust its supplies of cheap resources in its globalized search for profit. A continual search for profit is virtually impossible since resources are not inexhaustible! We have run out of cheap labor to exploit and cheap resources to fuel our economy. Our economic short-term focus on profit has helped created the global recession (depression?) of the late 2000s.

Sustainability is a term used by the environmental movement to call attention to our dismal practices and policies relating to our environment and the pollution we create. For example, sustainable packaging has resulted in CDs and DVDs wrapped in plastic rather than those huge plastic encasements they used to be sold in. We have more recycling bins and more ”green” awareness campaigns to get us out of our cars – not so easy here in Los Angeles – and onto trains, buses, and bicycles. In some settings, such actions are easy while in others, not so much. When your job is miles away from where you live, and not on a public transportation route, trains, buses, and bicycles won’t get you there, no matter how environmentally conscious you might become.

clip_image004Alternate power sources are part of the green sustainability movement. Since they are unlimited, wind and solar power are more attractive than fossil fuel sources of electricity. Nuclear and fuel cell power sources are also mentioned although their long-term sustainability is not fully clear and is often obscured. Nuclear power still produces tons of toxic radioactive waste that has to be stored somewhere for an inconceivable amount of time. Fuel cells are new and their safety has not yet been established.

Just as we must continually research and develop antibiotics to fight the ever-changing bacteria that plague us, we must continue the search for sustainable societal structures if we are to ensure our long-term survival as a nation. This is no easy task as our capitalist individualistic post-industrial society has raised us to be good competitive consumers. As a result, it is difficult for us to imagine our society without the pursuit of profit for profit’s sake. However, we must think more about how we can preserve our quality of life over the long term. Our sustainability depends upon it.

January 06, 2009

Recession Concessions?

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

By now you have probably heard that the U.S. economy is officially in recession. By definition, a recession involves two quarters of shrinkage in the nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). You might be wondering how economists differentiate between recessions and depressions; a depression occurs when the GDP shrinks by ten percent or more. The term “recession” was used to describe economic downturns after the Great Depression so as not to alarm Depression-weary Americans and trigger widespread panic. In large part, how we define our economic circumstances shapes how we cope with them. Now that the “R” word has been confirmed, how will this alter our behavior?

Certainly those who lose their jobs, face a cut in hours, or are otherwise directly hit by the recession will be faced with serious challenges. Others may see more indirect effects, like a decline in their retirement account’s value, price increases, or a decline in their home’s value. People in these circumstances might respond by cutting back on spending whenever possible, which seems like a very reasonable idea.

Here’s one major irony of our consumption-based economy: the more we consumers rein in our wallets, the deeper the recession might grow. Fewer sales might mean companies will lay off workers, creating more strapped Americans, who will need to reduce their spending, and the cycle continues….

Let’s be clear about one thing: consumers are small players in causing some of the financial woes the country is facing. Yes, some people live a bit too close to a clip_image002[6]financial precipice thanks to over-spending, but far more members of the working class and other low-earners struggle just to get by with basics. Many people took out mortgages that they could not really afford, but they did not create the system of offering mortgages to nearly anyone (referred to as NINJA loans: no income, no job, no assets) and repackaging these as investments for Wall Street, which even executives later admitted they didn't understand. If heads of large brokerage firms didn’t realize these investments were bad, how would the average American just looking to buy a home?

And yet the recent failures of the economy offer us the chance to rethink both our economic structure and our own relationship with consumption. David Lazarus, business columnist for the Los Angeles Times, wrote that maybe Americans would begin to question our affair with materialism, which would in turn cause new challenges and result in a need to reinvent our economy:

If you believe that such high levels of consumption are unsustainable, and that sooner or later the American people won’t want more stuff, or won’t be able to afford it, where does that leave us?....Such a cultural shift would entail a wholesale reinvention of how we do business, and would almost certainly result in numerous companies either cutting back or folding. Millions of people could be thrown out of work.

Lazarus notes that it’s not simply consumption that is the problem, it’s also the meager savings rate. I had a high school social studies teacher (hello Mr. Bain, if you are out there!) who once said that as long as Americans had easy access to credit, there would be no real challenge to the social system. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why we have seen the decline in the power of organized labor over the past half century: we see ourselves primarily as consumers, rather than as workers. And our wages might be stagnant, and our savings little or non-existent, but as long as we can borrow more we haven’t complained. Well, easy access to credit is now threatened…will we see a resurgent labor movement?

Maybe, but the old beneficiaries of uber-consumption are not going down without a fight. Instead, some advertising campaigns actually use the economic downturn in their clip_image002marketing pitches. De Beers, the biggest diamond distributor in the world, launched its “Fewer, Better Things” campaign. The copy in the picture to the left reads:

“HERE’S TO LESS. Our lives are full of things. Disposable distractions, stuff you buy but do not cherish, own yet never love. Thrown away in weeks rather than passed down for generations. Perhaps things will be different now. Wiser choices made with greater care. After all, if the fewer things you own always excite you, would you really miss the many that never could? A DIAMOND IS FOREVER.”

Clever, huh. Here’s an ad that criticizes materialism while simultaneously promoting the commoditization of marriage and family. And this is for an item sold by a monopoly at a huge markup, the mining of which often involves violence. The De Beers ad is strikingly ironic, but it’s not the only example of a company that’s using the recession as a pitch point.

Consider an article that ran in the Los Angeles Times’ Image section the day after Lazarus’s column. Titled “The New 24-Carat Face,” the article (which reads more like an ad) quotes a beauty industry analyst who said, “When you are spending almost $100 to fill up your gas tank, you can justify spending $70 on your face cream.” The article discusses the high-priced face creams in light of the recession a bit critically, but yet concludes, “It’s easy to feel that your face is your best investment. Ten years from now, you may not be carrying that $4,500 Bottega Veneta lizard clutch. But your mug, much like a diamond, according to De Beers, is forever.”

So how will our relationship with consumption fare in light of our new economic reality? Will more people question our culture of materialism, as Lazarus suggests (and as the De Beers ad uses as a marketing tool)? Or will the lure of looking better, younger, cooler, and hipper forever keep us in the dance of consumption? What do you think?

January 01, 2009

Global Inequality: Healthcare

author_janis By Janis Prince Inniss

clip_image002Every time we go to a new doctor, there are those dreaded forms asking about our family history. I always feel a little silly when I state that the cause of my father’s death is “unknown,” or I write “cancer???”. How is it possible that in this modern day his cause of death could remain unknown?

At the time of his death, my father lived in the tiny island of Antigua. At 108 square miles (that is 14 by 11 miles), and with a population of about 68,000, Antigua is the main island of the country Antigua and Barbuda. Its location in the Caribbean, the 365 beaches, and year-round balmy weather are some of the reasons that it is a tourist haven. In fact, Antigua’s economy is heavily dependent on tourism and it has luxury resorts that attract some of the world’s richest and most famous.

My father, who was Antiguan, had lived in several countries but returned home in 1976. In 1985, on the advice of a physician friend visiting from the U.S., Daddy went to the only local hospital, Holberton. (Here’s a picture of the hospital taken more than twenty years after my father was there. I don’t remember whether this is what it looked like during his stay though.) There, he learned that his white blood cell count was so low that the medical staff was stunned to learn that he could be alive, much less walking around. Soon after, Daddy was admitted to the hospital. What was going on? Why was his white blood cell count so low?

I no longer remember what tests were performed, but I will never forget being told that the medical staff wanted to do an x-ray. Why is that unforgettable? What has remained with me after all these years is that they could not perform the test because there was no barium sulfate at the hospital! Barium sulfate is given to people as a chalky tasting drink or by enema to illuminate certain parts of the body during an x-ray. This basic item, without which a number of x-rays are useless, could not be performed because there was none available on the island.

clip_image005I recall a discussion about when or whether there would be some barium sulfate arriving from Barbados. Perhaps there was even talk about whether my father was well enough to fly to Barbados to have this x-ray; at that time, many people flew there for medical care. The x-ray was never performed and for me this meant that absolute diagnosis of my father’s condition would remain impossible. He remained in the hospital, emerging only once before having to be rushed back. Within a few days of his second trip to Holberton Hospital, my father died.

This story of one patient’s tragedy exemplifies what health care is like in poorer countries. Today, the Gross National Income (GNI) of Antigua and Barbuda makes it a high-income country as defined by The World Bank, thanks to tourism, online gambling and off-shore banking industries. But in 1985 its GDP was a fraction of what it is today, and it ranked 139 out of 156 countries. As a result, health care suffered.

I have written about some of my mother’s experiences as a cancer patient in the U.S. For as many problems as she has faced, however, the one faced by my father in the Antiguan hospital would never have happened in the U.S.

There are racial and other gaps within the U.S. and in other high income countries, infant mortality being one important example. But, overall differences in health outcomes for high-income versus low- income countries are myriad and usually indicate that people in lower-income countries have poorer health and die earlier. What kind of healthcare could be offered under the circumstance of Antigua’s lone hospital with such woefully inadequate facilities? Compare that experience—and picture—with Antigua’s newly opened “modern facility” Mount St. John Medical Centre. With a helipad to transport patients from neighboring areas, Antigua’s improved GNI seems to be positively impacting the country’s health system.

There is no way to know whether my father would have lived any longer had he walked into a state-of-the-art hospital for that first blood test. Surely, he would have received the proper screenings to identify his illness. It is likely that his final days would have been more comfortable because of the medications and expertise available. Perhaps if he lived in a high-income country he would have accessed routine, preventative health screenings and his illness would have been diagnosed early enough to buy him more time, even if his illness was not curable. And had my father received proper care, my siblings and I would have more information about our own health history, and that information would help keep us healthy.

Should these kinds of issues be so dependent on macroeconomic factors? How could we restructure healthcare so that more people, regardless of whether they live in high or low income societies, can have access to first-rate care?

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