President Obama’s Political Leadership

by Isabel Taylor
December 6, 2010

In The Cathedral Within, Billy Shore wrote that, “leadership is getting people to a place they would not get to on their own” (Shore, 181). This is not limited to those in traditional positions of authority or elected office, but it is surely a major aim of any progressive politician elected to serve as President of the United States. President Obama came to office on a tidal wave of enthusiasm and with a call for change still ringing in the ears of many voters. Less than two years later, he is facing criticism of his leadership and is accused of not taking his followers where they would like to be.

Now nearly half way through his first term in office, and with depressing mid-term election results behind him, questions are being raised about the way in which Obama and his administration offer leadership. As a presidential candidate, Obama pledged to be post-partisan and committed to a different way of conducting politics, and this brought him support across a wide spectrum of the electorate. But he has since been abandoned by both moderate Democrats and independent voters who feel he has failed to live up to their expectations and his promises. As fingers are pointed and excuses made about past policy choices and his style of governing, many Democrats up for election this fall attempted to distance themselves from him and the Affordable Care Act he championed. This made it clear that the brand of Barack Obama that enjoyed so much success in the 2008 election campaign has been tarnished in the first two years of his Presidency.

Obama set the standard high. Not only did he promise to represent a new generation and a new way of working in Washington, but he was a figurehead for many as to what the future could hold. Many of his supporters were fully invested in his cause in a personal as well as a political way. He managed to utilize new resources, talk to new voters and energize disenfranchised communities in a way that had not been seen in many years. This is a compliment to his leadership as a politician during the campaign. He managed to harness a previously untapped sentiment, but this has also proved to be dangerous.

Not only did Obama set up extremely high expectations for himself, he also helped to perpetuate a situation in which people were looking to him alone to deliver solutions to wider problems even though leading scholars in the field of leadership contend that “many complex problems are not amenable to solutions provided by leaders; their solutions require that constituents address the problematic situations that face them” (Heifitz & Sinder, 185). However, this in many ways proved too big a cross to bear. The talk of hope that was the cornerstone of his campaign has proved more than difficult to deliver. The abstract ideas well suited to stump speeches have been less easily transferable to the day-to-day business of governing.

Despite the strong individualistic and libertarian current that dominates U.S. society, Americans still tend to look for strong leaders who will solve all their problems when the going gets tough. As author Barbara Kellerman explains, “however deep-seated and enduring our libertarian and egalitarian impulses, they do not characterize all of us all the time. We have not been altogether immune from the desire for even political heroes (especially during hard times)” (Kellerman, 10). And indeed, the first two years of Barack Obama’s Presidency have seen some tough times; he was elected to office when the opinion of politics and politicians was at an all time low and when the economic situation in the country was the worst for many generations. He managed to use the first aspect of this to his advantage, promising a new style of politics when he got to Washington, and promised to offer real solutions to the economic downturn.

Although much of the enthusiasm generated by Obama’s Presidential campaign centered around his call for change, the U.S. political system is neither designed nor used to change. To deal with political problems in the intricate system of American government, the President needs more than just the charisma that helped get him into office, he also needs the political acumen that will help guide him and his administration through this complex institutional set-up. Both federalism and the checks and balances within government tend to prevent anything but the most modest of changes from being introduced.

For many people, the idea of change is profoundly worrying as it destabilizes the status quo in favor of an unknown future. This is especially true in politics, where major developments can cause shifts that impact both those legislators who championed them but also, more importantly, those whose lives will be transformed by new measures. This is why it is so crucial to ensure that strong leadership exists to support all stakeholders through this process. On this, Obama and his team appear to have failed. As Marty Linsky (chairman and a co-founder of Cambridge Leadership Associates and a faculty member at the John F. Kennedy School of Government) writes, much of the resistance to Obama’s high profile healthcare reform came because people were afraid of the change it involved. The argument from the White House did not convince people that change was needed, and Obama’s charisma was not enough to overcome this fear of the unknown: “The inspiration part is easy and right in Obama’s wheelhouse. What makes leadership on health care difficult (what makes leadership for any purpose difficult), is the distribution of loss. The opposition to change in the current health care system comes from people, organizations, interests and industries for whom the current reality, flawed as is, seems to them (and they may be right for themselves) a lot better than an unknown future” (

Since taking office, Obama has seen his lofty ambitions fall and has started to point the finger of blame at others involved in the process. While this has seen the President, in recent months, criticize both members of his own party and the Republicans across the aisle, the nature of party politics meant that Republicans had little incentive to help Obama pass his health legislation. Instead of accusing his opponents (or even those on his own side), Obama needed to heed Thomas Cronin’s advice: “You don’t blame others. Your don’t blame circumstances. You simply take charge and help move the enterprise forward” (Cronin, 29). Not only is this reminiscent of the style of politics he pledged to change, but it is also profoundly unhelpful if he wants to push on and try to deliver on the promises of his campaign, especially in the current climate.

Many people going to the ballot boxes in 2012 will not care quite how intelligent he is, and many will not doubt that he is indeed usually the smartest person in any room. But they will be concerned with how and if he can engage with them and understand their issues. At times, a certain level of detachment will help him rise above issues of party politics, but if he continues to be perceived as someone who does not or cannot understand the pain of the average voter, this will undoubtedly harm him at the next election. Linsky suggests that, “he has failed to be convincing because his rhetoric doesn’t sound real” (, highlighting the problem behind of much of the criticism the President has received for failing to connect with the ‘ordinary’ voter in recent months.

Some members of the administration have blamed this on a communications problem, but professional politicians should surely be using every ounce of political savvy they have to set the political agenda as much as possible. Obama and his team needed to explain to people not only the details of the legislation they were pushing but also convince them as to the reasons why it needed to be forwarded in the first place. This is not a question of taking popular decisions, but of taking the correct decisions and securing buy-in for them by displaying to constituents how an agenda will benefit them.

Although the election of a President is a popularity contest, effective leadership often requires making tough, and unpopular, decisions. Ron Heifitz claims that, “leadership couples emotional intelligence with the courage to raise the tough questions, challenge people’s assumptions about strategy and operations – and risk losing their goodwill” (Inside the Mind of the Leader, 37). But for someone seeking re-election in two years time – and facing an opposition who will capitalize on any perceived slip-up by the presidency – this is easier said than done.


Billy Shore, The Cathedral Within,

Thomas E. Cronin, ‘Thinking and Learning about Leadership’, Presidential Studies Quarterly, Volume 14, Number 1, Winter 1984, pp 22 – 34

Ronald A Heifitz, Leadership Without Easy Answers, Cambridge: Belknap Press: 1994

Ronald A Heifitz and Riley M Sinder, The Power of Public Ideas, Ballenger, 1987

Ronald A Heifitz and Marty Linsky, ‘Leading with an Open Hear’, Leader to Leader, Fall 2002, pp 28 – 33

Barbara Kellerman, The Political Presidency: Practice of Leadership From Kennedy Through Reagan, New York: OUP, 1984

‘Inside the Mind of a Leader’, Harvard Business Review, January 2009

The Appeal of High-Speed Rail

by Chris Hildebrand
December 3, 2010

Quick, reliable, and convenient high-speed trains whisk European travelers to their various destinations at up to 217 miles per hour.[i] These advanced trains, whose speeds are made possible by purpose-built high-speed tracks, link many European and Asian capitals – a concept foreign to most Americans. In America, the fastest train can only reach 150 miles per hour, and such trains only connect three major eastern seaboard cities. Thus, most Americans to choose air travel for longer trips.[ii] In Spain, by comparison, the Alta Velocidad Espanola (AVE), which covers the route between Madrid and Barcelona, has lead to a drop in air travel between these cities by an estimated thirty percent.[iii] In Japan, high-speed rail has completely eliminated several short-haul air routes, and France’s Train a Grand Vitesse (TGV), has caused the elimination of over 90% of many high-demand short- to medium-haul air routes.[iv]

The Myth of American High-Speed Rail

Why are Americans forced to rely on overcrowded airports, frustrating air service, and overbearing security procedures when similar or greater distances are effectively covered by high-speed rail abroad? The U.S. cannot emulate the success of foreign high-speed rail service for several reasons. First, the costs of high-speed rail are in the tens of billions of dollars.[v] Second, America’s quasi-monopoly national rail service, Amtrak, is flawed, inefficient, and financially insolvent – a damaging factor that makes most innovation infeasible, if not impossible. Finally, neither Congress nor the current Administration is taking the necessary steps to lay a foundation for further American high-speed rail development.

The costs of high-speed rail can be broken down in two ways: initial capital costs and the cost of daily operation and maintenance. The vast majority of these costs come from the former, due to the need for entirely new, high-speed-dedicated tracking, as existing track infrastructure cannot support high speeds. Part of the reason Amtrak’s Acela – the only “high-speed” train currently operating in America – is so slow relative to European trains is because Acela only uses a very small section of dedicated high-speed tracking. This limits its average speed to 125mph, and hurts its competitiveness with air travel.[vi] Existing track infrastructure is also shared with freight and industrial trains, which can often take track priority over high-speed trains.

Beyond the high costs necessary to purchase and install dedicated high-speed tracking are the costs associated with daily operation and maintenance. While the GAO found that for some high-speed rail systems, “revenues were sufficient to cover ongoing operation costs,” they were generally “[in]sufficient to recoup the initial investment.”[vii] However, covering these operating costs – ignoring capital costs completely – relies upon accurate ridership predictions. In America, these assessments are considered notoriously unreliable and over-optimistic.[viii] Without realistic expectations, therefore, investors will be hesitant to invest capital into a project with a highly volatile rate of return.

If the costs are so high, how did Europe manage to successfully fund and operate high-speed rail systems? According to the GAO, “the central government generally fund[ed] the majority of up-front costs…without the expectation that their investment will be recouped.”[ix] Other countries used a different method where the national (central) government would bear two-thirds of the cost and local governments would put up the remaining third. A private entity would then be contracted to manage daily operations.

In America, the Obama Administration has already distributed several billions in federal funding to spur high-speed rail development as part of the federal stimulus package. However, this money – totaling about $8 billion – has been spread across various high-speed rail projects throughout the country, diluting the funds and their effectiveness.[x] To put this figure in perspective, one strong high-speed rail candidate project in California has estimated capital costs of around $32-33 billion dollars (with some estimates as high as $40 billion). The California project received only $2.5 billion from the Obama Administration. [xi]

Political costs must also be considered. With the government facing a massive deficit crisis in the coming years, the likelihood that the federal government will be able to fully or even partially fund high-speed rail projects is increasingly low. Without strong backing from the government, investors will be hesitant to provide large amounts of capital, especially in the face of shifting political currents that could quickly sink high-speed rail projects.

Amtrak’s Sinking Ship

Compared to the state of Amtrak, however, America’s current quasi-monopoly rail system, the economic picture looks downright optimistic. The Amtrak system was created as a federally sponsored monopoly to provide rail travel to the nation. The rail provider has gathered much criticism, however, in how it has impacted rail travel since its inception. The Economist has labeled Amtrak as “the most potent enemy of passenger rail in America,” adding that entrusting Amtrak with “something like $12 billion in capital spending [to improve system-wide infrastructure would be] insane.”[xii] Echoing these concerns, the Congressional Budget Office describes Amtrak as a corporation that “has lurched from one fiscal crisis to the next” as part of a larger critique of Amtrak’s wasteful financial drain on the Federal Budget.[xiii] Multiple attempts at reforming the Amtrak cash-cow – including an attempt to shut down Amtrak completely – have all failed.

Recently, Amtrak unveiled a plan asking to spend nearly $117 billion on improvements and new tracking for its Acela service between Washington, DC and Boston, Massachusetts.[xiv] The proposed plan would cut the travel time from Washington to New York to around 96 minutes – significantly shorter than the current 162-minute journey.[xv] Notably, the plan does improve on many of Acela’s current problems by proposing to use brand new dedicated high-speed tracks, as well as shortening the route (eliminating Providence, RI and Fairfax County, CT, but adding Hartford, CT).[xvi] However, there is widespread political opposition to the plan, stemming both from a distrust in Amtrak’s ability to successfully design and manage high-speed rail projects and also from a lack of funds.

Amtrak’s woes have several sources. First, and perhaps foremost, is Amtrak’s business model. Anthony Perl, a noted rail scholar, describes Amtrak’s current model as a “Regulated Public Monopoly” (RPM).[xvii] In this model, an organization is focused around providing a service first, as opposed to making large profits. In contrast to an RPM is a “New Model Railroad” (NMR), which better describes many European and Asian rail systems.[xviii] In the NMR model, rail service is considered a “competitive transportation business” as opposed to a “political railroad.”[xix] In Perl’s opinion, in order for Amtrak to become financially solvent, it must transition to a “New Model Railroad” and adopt measures aimed at improving its economic competitiveness. It can do this by improving reliability, convenience, and prices relative to its competitors (bus and air travel). While these goals may at times run counter to its original mission of providing a broad national service, this mission is no longer necessary with the advent of America’s cheap and widely spread network of domestic air service.

The next figurative thorn in Amtrak’s side is the role played by the federal government and Congress. Perl’s description of Amtrak as a “political railroad” is accurate – individual members of Congress have been quick to use Amtrak to earn votes by ensuring that their town or district has a stop on any new Amtrak line.[xx] As The Economist points out, this practice is detrimental to any high-speed rail project since “there will be nothing high-speed about an express from Chicago to St. Louis that stops nine times in between.”[xxi] Furthermore, Congress does not demonstrate a willingness to hold Amtrak accountable both fiscally and politically. Allowing Amtrak to escape reform time after time has meant that Amtrak will continue to inefficiently consume federal taxpayer dollars.

Finally, Amtrak’s management deserves a large portion of the blame. A GAO report on a specific Amtrak project concluded that Amtrak’s “poor management [meant that] many critical elements of the project were not completed, project costs and schedules increased considerably, and the project goal was not attained.”[xxii] This critique is reflective of both poor management practices and a larger sense that Amtrak is unable to effectively plan and implement large projects. In order to combat this, Congress could consider using carefully targeted funding practices and further oversight measures to improve management practices. Amtrak must be kept on a short leash, or federal cash will quickly disappear.

Ultimately, Amtrak’s sinking ship has only remained afloat because of desperate, short-term funding by Congress. The system is becoming increasingly expensive as the current economic recession compounds Amtrak’s inefficiencies. Trusting such a system with the evolution of American high-speed rail would be a disastrous mistake – a mistake already exemplified by the problems with the slow Acela system.[xxiii]

Will High-Speed Rail in America Ever Be Possible?

There is still hope. With an improved economy and further crowding and stretching of an already over-capacity domestic air network, high-speed rail in America has slowly become a more realistic possibility. It will, however, take a lot of time – and money – before this dream can be realized. The Obama Administration has been funding high-speed rail in a piecemeal and largely ineffective manner, signaling that while they consider high-speed rail to have significant potential for the nation, they are unwilling to provide the necessary funds in an appropriate manner to make that dream a reality. A more appropriate path for the future, then, would be to fully fund a high-speed “test case” – such as the project in California, which so far seems to have the most financially sound and well-designed business model – or carefully allow Amtrak to revitalize and improve the Acela system (at the cost of $117 billion).[xxiv] If either of these options results in a successfully small-scale high-speed rail line, then further projects could be funded. For now, though, high-speed rail is still several stops away from reality.

[i] “Slower Than a Speeding Bullet.” The Economist. April 8 2009.

[ii] Galbraith, Kate. “U.S. Plays Catch-Up on High-Speed Rail.” The New York Times, September 5 2010.

[iii] U.S. General Accounting Office, “High Speed Passenger Rail: Future Development Will Depend on Addressing Financial and Other Challenges and Establishing a Clear Federal Role,” GAO-09-317, March 2009.

[iv] ibid.

[v] ibid.

[vi] Galbraith, Kate. “U.S. Plays Catch-Up on High-Speed Rail.” The New York Times, September 5 2010.

[vii] U.S. General Accounting Office, “High Speed Passenger Rail: Future Development Will Depend on Addressing Financial and Other Challenges and Establishing a Clear Federal Role,” GAO-09-317, March 2009.

[viii] ibid.

[ix] ibid.

[x] Zeleny, Jeff. “At Florida Stop, Obama Announces Rail Investment.” The New York Times, January 28 2010.

[xi] Wolmar, Christian. “Slug on the Tracks.” The New York Times, March 7 2010. <>.

[xii] “Trop Peu, Trop Tard, Trop Amtrak.” The Economist. August 11 2001, 22. <>.

[xiii] U.S. Congressional Budget Office, “The Past and Future of U.S. Passenger Rail Service.” 2003.

[xiv] Walters, Patrick. “Amtrak to Spend $117 Billion on High-Speed Rail.” The Huffington Post, September 28 2010.

[xv] ibid.

[xvi] “Amtrak’s Long Term Plans.” The Economist. October 2 2010.

[xvii] Perl, Anthony. New Departures: Rethinking Rail Passenger Policy in the Twenty-First Century. 2002. Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky.

[xviii] ibid.

[xix] ibid.

[xx] ibid.

[xxi] “Trop Peu, Trop Tard, Trop Amtrak.” The Economist. August 11 2001, 22.

[xxii] U.S. General Accounting Office, “Acela’s Continued Problems Underscore the Importance of Meeting Broader Challenges in Managing Large-Scale Projects,” GAO-05-698T, May 11 2005.

[xxiii] “Americans and their trains.” The Economist. October 16 2010.

[xxiv] Wolmar, Christian. “Slug on the Tracks.” The New York Times, March 7 2010.

Fulfilling the Promise

of Workplace Wellness

by Kelsey Kurth
November 30, 2010

As the United States begins to implement the landmark Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), workplace-based wellness programs are already becoming a staple of health benefit packages, and are staged to become even more so.

Employers and policymakers alike, have recognized the value of workplace wellness initiatives to combat growing population health problems (i.e., obesity and chronic disease) and subsequently reduce health care expenditures. Today, approximately 77 percent of U.S. employers offer some type of wellness programming to their employees.i However, the evidence suggests that not all workplace wellness programs are created equally, and in fact, a substantial number of employer-sponsored programs are ill-supported by financial and managerial resources and/or not compelling or integrated enough to have a measurable impact on health outcomes. Employers need a mechanism to vet program offerings and evaluate existing wellness initiatives to determine how best to improve outcomes for employees.

The Market for Workplace Wellness

Ten years ago, the U.S. government’s Healthy People 2010 initiative set a goal for 75 percent of U.S. employers to offer comprehensive wellness programs to their employees by 2010. Healthy People 2010 defined comprehensive programs as those that include the following five components:

  1. Health education (skill development and lifestyle behavior change, along with information dissemination and awareness building)
  2. Supportive social and physical work environment (support of healthy behaviors and implementation of policies promoting health and reducing risk of disease)
  3. Integration (integration of the program into the organization’s structure)
  4. Linkage (linkage to related programs such as employee assistance programs)
  5. Worksite screening and education (programs linked to appropriate medical care)

Though in practice workplace wellness programs may share common components such as risk identification, behavior modification, educational programs, and changes in the work environment, there is great variation in the comprehensiveness of wellness programs and the types of providers that employers contract with to offer them. The 2004 National Worksite Health Promotion Survey, the national survey that evaluates progress on the Healthy People 2010 goal according to the definition above, found that just 7 percent of workplace wellness programs were comprehensive in nature.ii

In the United States, employers cite physical activity and exercise as the top health issue driving their wellness program strategies, followed by nutrition and healthy eating.iii Two of the most commonly targeted behavior modification program components implemented by employers aim to encourage weight loss and smoking cessation. In particular, U.S. employers and employees view weight management programs at the workplace as both appropriate and effective.iv This is most likely due to the relationship between weight and poor diet to high-cost chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Among large U.S. Employers (200 or more employees), 53 percent offer weight loss programs and 47 percent offer classes in nutrition and healthy living. Just 29 percent of small employers (3-199 employees) offer weight loss programs and 23 percent offer classes in nutrition and healthy living.v

In general, large employers are still more likely than small employers to offer any sort of wellness programs at all. Both small and large employers offer the standard wellness program provided by their health plans at high rates, but data from the Kaiser Family Foundation suggests that small employers are significantly more likely that large employers to provide most of their wellness benefits through a health This is likely related in part to the administrative flexibility associated with self-insured health plans as opposed to fully insured plans. Fully insured employers assume no financial risk. As a result, they do not have the flexibility to alter the benefit structure within the health plan they contract with and are limited in their ability to require the health plan to share information with wellness vendors.

High offer rates of standardized programs raise questions about the degree to which wellness programs are being tailored to suite employers’ specific needs. Some very large employers on the scale of Dow Chemical, Pitney Bowes, and Johnson & Johnson have dedicated substantial in-house resources to developing and implementing their wellness programs, complete with physicians and other medical personnel. These programs have achieved great success through integration across the health benefits structure, ongoing evaluation and tailored intervention strategies.

Legislative Drivers

The recent passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) in the United States creates additional incentives for employers to offer and expand upon their workplace wellness initiatives. Most notably, PPACA authorizes $200 million to establish a Workplace Wellness Grant Program for employers with fewer than 100 employees who do not currently provide such a program. To qualify for the grant, the new programs must be made available to all employees and must include health awareness initiatives, employee engagement practices, a behavioral change component, and a supportive work environment.

For employers that already offer a workplace wellness program, PPACA expands the incentives that employers may offer employees for participation in the program. Beginning in 2014, employers may offer rewards of up to 30 percent of the value of employee-only health insurance coverage, for employees who meet specific health targets. There is currently no cap on incentives for programs that reward employees for participation only. In future years, the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) may expand allowable incentives to as much as 50 percent of the value of employee-only coverage.

State policymakers have also taken an interest in workplace wellness programs. In the 2009 and 2010 legislative sessions, 20 states introduced legislation related to workplace wellness. Several of these bills proposed tax incentives for employers that offer comprehensive workplace wellness programs, while others address the types of incentives that employers may use to encourage participation.

Quality Assurance Strategies

The prevention and wellness provisions of PPACA will undoubtedly fuel the rapid growth in workplace wellness programs, particularly among small employers. As employers increasingly offer wellness programs as part of their benefit packages, the task will be to make sure that they focus their attention on the evidence based, comprehensive strategies that have the greatest potential to improve employee health.

As policymakers look to promote expansions in the prevalence and scope of workplace wellness programs, they are also rightfully concerned about quality assurance. In September 2010, the U.S. Department of Labor entered into a contract with the RAND Corporation to evaluate the effectiveness of workplace wellness initiatives. Rigorous evaluation of workplace wellness programs will be valuable in designing and refining wellness plans, but there is much to be done to promote adoption of comprehensive wellness initiatives in the interim.

First, HHS has a valuable opportunity to ensure that programs funded through PPACA wellness grants meet a basic set of program guidelines and include a mechanism to evaluate program effectiveness. As of November 2010, it is unclear if Congress will appropriate funding for the workplace wellness grant program in FY2011. However, assuming Congress funds the program, HHS should seize the opportunity to operationlize program guidelines (including evaluation and measurement) through its Call for Proposals.

Second, private sector accreditation presents another avenue to ensure that wellness programs meet quality assurance benchmarks. Nationally recognized health care accreditation organizations such as URAC and the National Committee for Quality Assurance already have standards in place to evaluate wellness programs offered by vendors. URAC, in particular, requires that vendors report on a set of six performance measures to quantitatively assess program goals. Employers can use private accreditation standards to both assess the vendors they contract with and as an instructive guide to program development.

State policymakers have also recognized the value of private accreditation. This year, the State of Colorado enacted legislation requiring that wellness programs offered by health insurers meet nationally recognized accreditation standards related to the program and its incentive structure, if the program offers incentives related to a health risk factor.vii

Grant requirements and the use of private accreditation standards are just two opportunities that policy makers have to promote the implementation of meaningful wellness programming. As employers continue to innovate new ways to reduce their health care costs and keep employees healthy, their programs only stand to benefit from further research and program evaluation to optimize the most effective wellness strategies to achieve positive outcomes for employees.


i. Buck Consultants, “Working Well: A Global Survey of Health Promotion and Workplace Wellness Strategies,” (November 2009): 2. [Note: Due to the voluntary nature of this survey, estimates may have upward bias].

ii. Linna, ScD, CHES, Laura, et. al., “Results of the 2004 National Worksite Health Promotion Survey,” American Journal of Public Health 98 (August 2008):1503-9. Doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2006.100313.

iii. Buck Consultants, “Working Well,” 3.

iv. Gabel, Jon R., Heidi Whitmore, Jeremy Pickreign, Christine C. Ferguson, Anjali Jain, Shova KC, and Hilary Scherer, “Obesity and the Workplace: Current Programs and Attitudes Among Employers and Employees,” Health Affairs 28 (Jan/Feb, 2009): 48.

v. Kaiser Family Foundation and Health Research & Educational Trust, Employer Health Benefits: 2010 Annual Survey, 194.

vi. Kaiser Family Foundation and Health Research & Educational Trust, Employer Health Benefits: 2010 Annual Survey, 196.

vii. Colorado House Bill 1160, as enacted May 26, 2010.

Unemployment and Freedom

by William Margeson
November 30, 2010

In the midst of President Obama’s post-election[1] concessions[2] to conservative wisdom, I am increasingly pessimistic about the prospect for full recovery in America, which is distinguished from economic recovery in the sense that the latter largely ignores equity. Full recovery, in my belief, would entail the restoration of a more equal allocation of opportunity and the fruits of economic growth.

Even when the economy returns to a normal level of growth, the scars of the recession will be evident for decades, inequality of wealth will likely be worse, and the allocation of opportunity will be just as skewed in favor of the affluent as it is at present.

In a study of the effect of layoffs in Pennsylvania in the 1980s on the probability of death among displaced workers, Till von Wachter of Columbia University concluded[3] that remaindered male workers — who prior to losing their job enjoyed good health — were significantly more likely to die in subsequent years than their more fortunate coworkers who had not been displaced. “Mature men who lost their stable job in Pennsylvania during the early 1980s experienced an increase in mortality right after job loss of up to 100%” (Wachter 2010). Wachter calculates that the increased mortality risk resulting from job loss reduced the lifespan of the remaindered workers in the study by 1 to 1.5 years.

Wachter’s discovery of a negative relationship between life expectancy and unemployment represents the most ominous finding concerning the implications of the Great Recession for health. Other research has found that unemployment is associated with a rise in the probability of being diagnosed with a stress-related illness. In a recent study using data from the U.S. Panel Study of Income Dynamics, sociologist Kate Strully of SUNY-Albany found[4] that “[l]osing a job because of an establishment closure increased the odds of fair or poor health by 54%, and among respondents with no preexisting health conditions, it increased the odds of a new likely health condition by 83%” (Strully 2009).

It is stressful to lose a job, particularly in a society that offers threadbare support to the unemployed. In addition to stress, which contributes to an increase in the risk of heart attacks and strokes (Wachter 2010), unemployment is associated with depression and a decline in healthy behaviors. The decline in health triggered by layoff likely detracts from employability and future earnings.

Job displacement has also been found to have a significant and negative effect on future earnings: “The average mature worker losing a stable job at a good employer will see earnings reductions of 20% lasting over 15-20 years” (Wachter 2010).  Moreover, the contraction in earnings occurs over a time period characterized by increased “job instability” that “lasts up to ten years after layoff” (Wachter 2010).  Employment instability can only intensify the economic insecurity individuals experience. However, this presumes that the unemployed individual was able to reenter the workforce. As the duration of unemployment increases, the attachment of the individual to the labor force weakens, and the expected consequences of unemployment worsen. For the long-term unemployed, “all of these costs are likely to be larger” (Wachter 2010). In many cases, unemployment leads to an exit from the workforce.  Research has shown that unemployment “increases the rate of application to and the receipt of disability insurance programs” and “hastens retirement” (Wachter 2010).

Widespread unemployment is likely a contributing factor to the increase in the poverty rate, which the U.S. Census, in September, revealed has risen to a 15-year high[5].  Currently, one in seven Americans is living in poverty. Research done by Harry Holzer[6] of Georgetown, shows that “when children grow up in poverty, they are somewhat more likely than non-poor children to have low earnings as adults, which in turn reflects lower workforce productivity. They are also somewhat more likely to engage in crime (though that is not the case for the vast majority) and to have poor health later in life.”

Economists have suggested that unemployment has negative implications for educational attainment. An Economic Policy Institute paper[7] by John Irons cites a 2009 survey that found that 20% of people between the ages of 18 and 29 “have left or delayed college” (Irons 2009) as a result of the economic recession. Many young adults are indirectly financially dependent on their parents’ employment.  If not reliant upon their parents for financial support, then they rely on their own ability to earn a sufficient income. Unemployment has reduced the ability of affected individuals to pay for college and the cost of college continues to rise.

Foregoing college has grave consequences for future earnings and employment, a phenomenon unambiguously documented by David Autor in a 2010 paper[8] exploring the “polarization” of the labor market. Employment opportunities are increasingly concentrated in the lower and higher ends of the skills distribution. At the higher end of the skills distribution, employment typically requires high educational attainment and is associated with higher earnings; at the lower end of the skills distribution, employment typically requires relatively little education and is associated with much lower pay.

As a result of the disappearance of “middle-skill” jobs, which Autor refers to as the “’hollowing out’ of the occupational distribution,” economic security now crucially depends on college attainment (Autor 2010). It is probable that it is not wealthy individuals who are abandoning college due to financial concerns, but rather individuals from families at the bottom of the income distribution. It follows that the recession, which has disproportionately affected those without a college degree at the lower end of the income distribution, will perpetuate and further augment the unequal distribution of wealth in America.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports[9] that while the unemployment rate was 15.3% among those without a high school diploma and 10.1% among those with a high school diploma but no college, the unemployment rate among those with a college or graduate degree was 4.7%. Considering that those without a college degree face much higher unemployment, it is likely that they represent the majority of the unprecedented population of the long-term unemployed who, as mentioned above, face larger consequences than displaced workers who manage to promptly return to the workforce.

Chronic unemployment, which reduces earnings for up to 20 years, heightens income insecurity, worsens health and impairs the economic mobility of children from affected families, will leave a scar on America.

Tragically, the long-term consequences of unemployment will disproportionately burden those at the bottom of the income distribution. As Congress pursues tax relief for the affluent, the poor and unemployed will continue to suffer the consequences of their displacement. What this indicates, in my opinion, is a displacement of values.

The economic status quo is defended by elevating as inextricable the ideals of freedom and the right to the rewards of economic success. However, the probability of economic success or failure is unequal between citizens and depends on wealth. And freedom is limited by the absence of the opportunity associated with economic success. Freedom has always been an exclusionary good but as inequality of wealth has risen over the past three decades it has become a luxury good.  Considering that the ill health and wealth effects of unemployment will persist through the foreseeable future, the bottom of the income distribution can expect a further erosion of opportunity and freedom.

[1] Shear, Michael D.  “After Months of Feuding, Obama Makes Overture to Business Group.” The New York Times, 4 November 2010. Web. Accessed November 14, 2010 

[2] Shear, Michael D. “Liberals Fear Obama Is Caving on Their Agenda.” The New York Times, 12 November 2010. Web. Accessed November 14, 2010

[3] Wachter, Till von.  “Testimony before the Joint Economic Committee of U.S. Congress on ‘Long-Term Unemployment:  Causes, Consequences and Solutions.’”  29 April 2010.  Web. Accessed November 12, 2010

[4] Strully, Kate. “Job Loss and Health in the U.S. Labor Market.”  Demography, 46. 2 (2009) :  221-246.

[5] Eckholm, Eric. “Recession Raises Poverty Rate to a 15-Year High.” The New York Times, 17 September 2010. Web. Accessed November 14, 2010

[6] Holzer, Harry, and Diane Whitmore Schazenbach, Greg. J. Dunacan, and Jens Ludwig.  “The Economic Costs of Poverty.”  Center for American Progress.  January 24, 2007.  Web. Accessed November 14, 2010

[7] Irons, John.  “Economic Scarring.” Economic Policy Institute. 2009.  Web. Accessed November 12, 2010

[8] Autor, David. “The Polarization of Job Opportunities in the U.S. Labor Market,” Center for American Progress & Hamilton Project. April 30, 2010.  Web. Accessed April 30, 2010

[9] Bureau of Labor Statistics.  “Employment Situation.”  5 November 2010.  Web. Accessed November 13, 2010

Re-imaging Local Government:

Japanese Efforts to Define

Local Autonomy

by Richard Harris
November 18, 2010

In early March, Osaka Prefectural Governor and popular former television star Toru Hashimoto unveiled a new plan: combine the cities of Osaka and Sakai, as well as the remaining cities in Osaka Prefecture to create the Osaka Metropolis (Osaka-to), a new level of local authority in Japan.

Japan has a unitary government with certain powers reserved for the 47 prefectures. Among those powers are public safety (police, fire), education policies and direction, sewage and water treatment, and the creation of local ordinances. The new Osaka Metropolis would not have any other powers that the 47 prefectures do not already possess.

However, larger cities in Japan can also become “government ordinance cities” – many of the powers that prefectures would normally undertake become the responsibilities of the cities. Not only does this lead to a doubling-up of authority and responsibilities between the prefectural government and city government, but tax money and national subsidies that would be marked for the prefecture are instead diverted to the cities.

Osaka prefecture has two of these cities: Osaka, Japan’s third largest city, and Sakai. The prefectural government is placed in a very awkward situation; it has the second strongest economy of any prefecture in Japan, but its actual area of authority is quite limited. Furthermore, many of its responsibilities are mirrored by other local authorities.

Hence Governor Hashimoto’s suggestion: instead of having three local authorities, each of relatively similar stature, attempting to provide the same services in nearby areas, why not combine them all? The idea is not without merit. Another idea that Governor Hashimoto has also put forth is to leave Sakai City as it is and only split up Osaka; regardless, the concepts are the same.

Governor Hashimoto would reshape Osaka in the Tokyo Metropolitan Model: Tokyo, which is a prefecture and not an independent city, is composed of 23 Special Wards, which are roughly equivalent to cities elsewhere in Japan (and are even referred to as such in English documentation). The 23 Special Wards even have elected heads of government and assemblies. In addition, several other distinct cities exist in Tokyo. Osaka City, as a designated city, has 24 Wards, but they are only administrative divisions and lack the power that Tokyo’s Wards have.

The Osaka Metropolitan Model would take the 24 Wards of Osaka City and combine them into eight Special Wards, as well as taking the seven Wards of Sakai City to make 3 Special Wards. The remaining nine cities in Osaka Prefecture would be made into the last nine Special Wards, making 20 in all. Each new Special Ward would be responsible for about 300,000 people, roughly equal to the 23 Special Wards of Tokyo.

Needless to say, such a large shake-up has a number of issues. One that has been brought up is the Ward Assemblies – each Special Ward would have its own Assembly and its own elected representatives. Another is how the expanded number of local representatives would be compensated. Governor Hashimoto suggests that, at least in the beginning, representatives should be elected on a volunteer basis, while his opponents suggest that this will only pack the assemblies with those wealthy enough to do without compensation.

Another concern is the use of the Tokyo Model. Tokyo, as the capital of Japan, is administratively different than other local governments in Japan. Tokyo is the only local government with Special Wards and the designation of Metropolis (there are four different words for prefecture in Japan; while they are all translated as Prefecture into English, Tokyo may also be referred to as Metropolis). Tokyo became a Metropolis in the midst of World War II, as the wartime government sought to separate it from the rest of the country administratively so as to focus on the defense of the imperial capital. How the new Osaka Metropolis, if it comes to be, relates to Tokyo, or whether it can do so at all by national law, remains to be seen.

Governor Hashimoto also faces some stiff opposition from local politicians. Perhaps his largest detractor is Osaka Mayor Kunio Hiramatsu, who is instead seeking greater autonomy from the prefectural government, and closer relations with other neighboring cities. Sakai Mayor Osami Takeyama has also voiced some concern about the plan.

However, that Governor Hashimoto is serious about a re-imagining of local authority is without question. He has gone so far as to create his own political party dedicated to the idea, the One Osaka Party. The One Osaka Party currently posses about 30 seats out of 112 in the prefectural assembly, as well as 13 seats out of 89 in the Osaka City prefectural assembly. The next local elections will take place in Spring 2011.

Governor Hashimoto will also need to continue to court the public to support his plan: in an October 19 survey of citizens in Osaka Prefecture (including Osaka City), Asahi Broadcasting Corporation found that only 43% of respondents voiced support for his plan, with 28% against and 29% other/no response. Limiting the responses to only Osaka City found no significant change in opinion. However, Governor Hashimoto remains very popular, with an almost 80% approval rating throughout Osaka Prefecture.

While the question of how Japan’s most populous area outside of Tokyo organizes itself is academically interesting, it is important to remember the economic weight that the Osaka area holds. The Kansai area, where Osaka is located, is responsible for about 20% of Japan’s GDP, which is roughly equivalent to the entire GDP of South Korea, coming to a total of 845 Billion USD. Osaka City alone is responsible for roughly half of that (350-450 Billion USD), a number close to Switzerland or Belgium’s GDP.

There’s no real indicator whether or not Osaka Metropolis will become a reality. Still, given the economic weight of the region, it’s important to keep up with developments on that front.

A Walmart Manager, a Farmer,

and a Bodega Owner Walk into

a City Planner’s Office…:

Food Deserts, Urban Agriculture,

and Nutrition in the City

by Scott Baumgartner
November 11, 2010

The first Walmart in the city of Chicago opened in 2006 following a bitter fight between supporters, including Mayor Richard Daley, and opponents, including the zoning board, who showed their opposition by passing a bill that would have required Walmart to pay its Chicago employees a base wage of $13 per hour. Daley vetoed the measure and the Walmart was approved over the board’s objections1.

Yet this July, the Chicago zoning board unanimously approved a second – and then a third – store. What changed? For one, union supporters and Walmart struck a deal in which the discount department store chain promised to pay employees at least fifty cents above the minimum wage. Another reason, however, was that the city had begun focusing its attention on the problem of food deserts – swaths of city blocks that lack local, healthy food options for their residents due to a dearth of grocery stores, adequate public transportation and a high number of fast-food restaurants and carry-outs.

The recently approved Walmart, which will be built in South Chicago, will undoubtedly improve access to food in underserved neighborhoods, providing some residents with their first walking-distance grocery store. Detractors, however argue that urban Walmarts and the like will kill local business and supply only low-skill, low-wage jobs2. In their eyes, initiatives to improve food options in inner cities should target local grocers and support a truly local, healthy, and sustainable food supply. As more and more cities address their food deserts, both camps are seeing progress in bringing food to underserved neighborhoods through a wide variety of local policies and programs across the country.

“Sets of Deliberate Choices”: New York City’s FRESH Initiative, the FEED DC Act, and the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative

The 2006 report “Good Food: Examining the Impact of Food Deserts on Public Health in Chicago,” commissioned by the Chicago-headquartered LaSalle Bank, found that people living in food deserts were almost exclusively black and poor. Moreover, individuals in these areas experienced diet-related diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, and obesity at higher rates than individuals with access to healthier food options.3 The report identified numerous food deserts across the city of Chicago and recommended a “set of deliberate choices” be made to improve access to healthy food options, including changing zoning laws, providing subsidies and tax credits, and securing favorable financing for developers4. Since the publication of “Good Food,” other cities and states have undertaken studies of their own food deserts and developed initiatives to eradicate them.

New York City’s FRESH initiative provides zoning incentives that encourage mixed-use development – putting grocery stores on the ground floors of residential buildings – and reductions in parking requirements. Both have the added benefit of promoting less car-dependent urban environments5 . In addition to the zoning incentives, New York’s FRESH initiative gives grocery store owners tax exemptions and reductions for building in underserved areas, identified through a 2008 study of food deserts and diet-related diseases in New York City6. With particular emphasis on small grocers and corner stores, the FRESH initiative requires an eligible grocery store to be at most 6,000 square feet, or about one-eighth the size of the average supermarket7.

In Washington, D.C., a report by the group DC Hunger Solutions found that, despite a provision on the books that gives supermarkets ten years’ grace on property tax for building in the city, five of the eight city wards had an inadequate number of grocery stores8. To combat the District of Columbia’s food desert problem, Councilmember Mary Cheh has introduced the FEED DC Act, which provides incentives for building supermarkets in low-income areas and creates a separate program in the mayor’s office dedicated to providing and managing grants to build supermarkets in underserved areas9. Additionally, the bill would create a Healthy Food Retail Program to provide financial assistance and tax breaks to corner stores and farmers markets, provided that they accept WIC and food stamps and employ District of Columbia residents10.

The Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative is a public/private partnership that has provided grants to build eighty-eight grocery stores in food deserts and underserved areas across the state11. With a bigger purview, this program targets underserved areas beyond urban centers and reaches into suburban and rural environments12.

These tax incentives can be a powerful tool to promote food equity, but cities will have to ensure that the requirements for program eligibility are based on up-to-date demographic data13. Both Pennsylvania’s Fresh Food Financing Initiative and Washington D.C.’s decade-old supermarket tax exemption rely on income data provided by the Census,14 which became problematic in the District recently when the city council voted to extend the tax credit to an organic grocer trying to open a store in Columbia Heights. This gentrifying area of the city had undergone vast changes in the decade since the last Census, and was already well-served by grocery stores15.

When hearings were held on the FEED DC Act in October 2010, it was criticized for defining the underserved areas it targets using language in the 13-year old Taxpayer Relief Act of 199716. These areas, known as “enterprise zones,” extend beyond the District of Columbia’s food deserts and into areas already well-served by grocery stores17. Had this definition remained in the bill, developers could have reaped the tax benefits of building a grocery store in an enterprise zone without actually increasing healthy food options in underserved areas. The most recent draft of the bill instead limits eligibility for tax incentives to only grocery stores in census tracts eligible for low-income housing tax credits18.

Sprawl into Soil

Food justice, a movement that encourages community-based solutions and incorporates aspects of environmentalism, advocates for community stores and local grocers as a solution to food deserts. For many food justice advocates, a supermarket that sets up shop in a neighborhood, even if it stocks fresh produce, is still a tentacle of the industrial food system that ultimately harms the overall health of the neighborhood. Instead, these advocates offer groundbreaking solutions that are beginning to take effect in some of the most economically depressed cities in the country.

Many cities and some states have formed food councils, which provide a venue for political leaders, citizens, organizations, and players in the food system to coordinate on food policy19. Forums like these have the potential to create innovative policy solutions, such as plans drafted in Detroit to change the zoning restrictions on vacant blocks throughout the city to promote widespread urban farming20. Tax incentives similar to those used for grocery stores in New York City, Pennsylvania, and the District of Columbia would be provided to startup urban farms, and vacant city land would be sold at a discounted rate if the buyer intended to farm on it. A more ambitious (and controversial) second stage of Detroit’s urban agriculture policy proposal would create zoning regulations for raising animals and livestock.

While innovative, the political viability of such a scheme is still undetermined. Detroit’s urban agriculture policy proposal, which was drafted in March 2010, has not seen much consideration since it became public. While Mayor Dave Bing has been favorable to the goals of food justice, the city’s current master plan does not include any plans to change zoning regulations for urban agriculture21.

Furthermore, even if Detroit sees success with these plans, it is hard to say whether they alone could eradicate food deserts in cities with less widespread vacancies for farming. Nevertheless, the idea of turning sprawl into soil and abandoned factories into greenhouses is an elegant solution to providing low-income neighborhoods with food options. Other cities have already taken note. Formal municipal policies to create special zoning for urban agriculture have been discussed in Seattle, Milwaukee, Kansas City, Baltimore, and Boston22.

For urban agriculture and food justice advocates, the problems with food and nutrition in our cities are more than a localized economic problem. They’re symptomatic of a larger infrastructural issue with the way food is grown and distributed in the United States. Yet the path forward is unclear. Challenging our entire food system might make the whole country healthier in the long run, but it isn’t nearly as immediate or tangible as building a Walmart with a grocery section, especially to those who will finally have healthy food options within walking distance of their houses. Through another lens, the problem is symptomatic of an entirely different structural problem – a question of class, race, and exclusion that a few tax incentives cannot possibly address23. Overall, the devastating public health problems caused by poor nutrition are not likely to be fixed just by building a supermarket or starting a farmers market; proposals need to be enacted on a large scale and managed effectively. Multiple approaches will be necessary – from Walmarts to urban farms and everything in between.

Read More:

  1. “When Healthy Food Is Out of Reach,” a report on food deserts in Washington, DC by DC Hunger Solutions:
  2. “Feeding the City,” a running series about our urban food system and those working to change it, from
  3. 2010 Food Desert Progress Report for Chicago, by Mari Gallagher Research and Consulting Group, who produced the first “Good Food” report in 2006:
  4. Mogk, John, Sarah Kwiakowski, and Mary Jo Weindorf. “Promoting Urban Agriculture as an Alternative Land Use for Vacant Properties in the City of Detroit: Benefits, Problems, and Proposals for a Regulatory Framework for Successful Land Use Integration.” Wayne State University Law School. 1 August 2010. Web.


  1. Patton, Leslie and Matthew Boyle. “Walmart Cracks Chicago by Splitting Union, Non-Union Workers.” Bloomberg L.P., 22 July 2010. Web. Accessed 21 October 2010.
  2. Clifford, Stephanie. “Walmart Gains in In Its Wooing of Chicago.” The New York Times, 24 June 2010. Web. Accessed 17 October 2010.
  3. “Good Food: Examining the Impact of Food Deserts on Public Health in Chicago.” Mari Gallagher Research and Consulting Group: Chicago, Ill. 2006. Web. Accessed 14 October 2010.
  4. ibid.
  5. “FRESH.” The New York City Department of City Planning. 9 December 2009. Web. Accessed 17 October 2010.
  6. “Going to Market: New York City’s Neighborhood Grocery Store and Supermarket Shortage.” New York City Department of City Planning. 29 October 2008. Web.
  7. “Financing and Incentives.” New York City Economic Development Corp. Web. Accessed 1 November 2010.
  8. “When Healthy Food Is Out of Reach.” DC Hunger Solutions: Washington, DC 2010. Web. Accessed 1 November 2010.
  9. Committee on Government Operations and the Environment, Washington, DC City Council. “Working Draft: FEED DC Act.” Washington, DC: 20 October 2010.
  10. “Working Draft: FEED DC Act.”
  11. “Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative.” The Food Trust. The Food Trust, 2004. Web. Accessed 17 October 2010.
  12. “Fresh Food Financing Initiative Program Guidelines.”
  13. Lazere, Ed. “It’s Time to Stop Shopping for Supermarket Tax Breaks.” DC Fiscal Policy Institute. DC Fiscal Policy Institute. 3 November 2009. Web. Accessed 17 October 2010.
  14. “Fresh Food Financing Initiative Program Guidelines.” The Food Trust. The Food Trust, 2004. Web. Accessed 1 November 2010.
  15. Plotkin, Greg. “Will Tax Incentives Make Food Deserts Bloom?” Greater Greater Washington. Greater Greater Washington. 4 December 2009. Web. Accessed 20 October 2010.
  16. Cheh, Mary, David A. Catania, Kwame R. Brown, and Tommy Wells. “As Introduced: FEED DC Act.” Washington, D.C.: 13 July 2010.
  17. Boadi, Kwame. “FEEDing a Healthier DC.” DC Fiscal Policy Institute. DC Fiscal Policy Institute.  20 October 2010. Web. Accessed 20 October 2010.
  18. Roberts, Kristin. “Testimony on Bill 18-967, the ‘Food, Environmental, and Economic Development in the District of Columbia Act’.” DC Hunger Solutions. 22 October 2010. Web.
  19. Trueman, Kerry. “Smart Cities are (Un)paving the Way for Urban Farmers and Locavores.” Grist. 30 August 2010. Web Accessed 17 October 2010.
  20. City of Detroit Planning Commission memo to Detroit City Council. Detroit, MI. 18 March 2010.
  21. Berman, Laura. “Detroit Farming is Slow to Grow.” The Detroit News. 17 August 2010. Web. Accessed 20 October 2010.
  22. Levenston, Michael. “Zoning for Urban Agriculture, Excerpt from the Urban Agriculture Issue of Zoning Practice.” City Farmer News. City Farmer. 9 March 2010. Web. Accessed 21 October 2010.

“Why I Don’t Use the Term ‘Food Desert’.” People’s Grocery. People’s Grocery. 10 August 2009. Web. Accessed 20 October 2010.

How Safe is Choice?

by Christina Moore
November 8, 2010

Across the country, anti-choice laws are being passed by state legislatures that restrict reproductive rights. In the past twelve months, over three hundred seventy bills limiting abortions have been introduced to the state legislatures and twenty four of these bills became laws which significantly limit personal freedoms. These laws and the efforts serve to weaken the Roe v. Wade ruling in which abortions were legalized based on the right to privacy in the fourteenth amendment. Even though this right was established in 1973 and Roe v. Wade continues to be upheld, other Supreme Court cases have allowed abortion to become further regulated, thereby enabling legislators across the nation to introduce anti-choice legislation contesting reproductive freedom.  These laws, such as the mandatory ultrasound laws and the personhood initiative, are often not publicized and use nebulous language to mask restrictive effects and constitutional infringements. As a result, citizens often remain unaware of the legislative consequences of these bills until they become law.

Role of Supreme Court
The constitutional right to an abortion was established by the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade (1973), but since then this right has gradually become more restricted through numerous court cases (Feldmann 1995). In 1989, Webster v. Reproductive Health Services upheld a statute which prohibited the use of state facilities for abortion, except for the exception of saving the mother’s life. Three years later, Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992) endorsed the requirement of a waiting period before participating in an abortion procedure. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor loosened the criterion on abortion restrictions by allowing regulations if they do not place an “undue burden” on access to abortion services. Lowering the benchmark for abortion regulations opened the door for legislative branches to further impede on this reproductive right (Feldmann 1995).

State Legislatures
The state legislators play a significant role here, because they possess the authority to strengthen and uphold reproductive rights. Even if Roe v. Wade were to be overturned at the federal level, the states maintain the power to preserve abortion rights. However, history has shown that the majority of state bills focus on limiting rather than preserving the right to abortions. Most significantly, the number and success of these restrictions has been steadily increasing over time (Tumulty, Maag, and Thigpen 2006). In 1995, three hundred four bills were introduced, a third of which protected abortion rights. Bills upholding abortion rights are greatly needed, considering half of the introduced bills attempted to limit access to abortion services (Sollum 1995). In 2005, fifty two new laws restricting abortion were passed in state legislatures; this was double the number from 2004 (Tumulty, Maag, and Thigpen 2006).

Abortion Services Regulations
Abortion policies within the state legislatures do not attempt to ban abortion completely or explicitly control the reason allowing for the procedure. Rather, these laws reduce access to these services (Sollom 1995). Polls show that these regulations are indeed supported by the majority of Americans. The Pew Research Center found that while sixty-five percent of American polled did not support overturning Roe v. Wade, a similar number of Americans did encourage more legal restrictions (Tumulty, Maag, and Thigpen 2006). Pew conducted another poll in October 2005 showing that the majority of Americans only favor legalizing abortion for the conditions of rape, endangerment of health or life, or a serious birth defect (Tumulty, Maag, and Thigpen 2006). Additional restrictions have included required waiting periods before abortion services, notification of parents and spouses, illegalization of late-term abortions, and mandatory ultrasounds. However, questions arise as to whether limiting access works to decrease the number of abortions sought, or merely forces abortions to take place at a later date or through illegalized means.

This large public support for restrictions is surprising, considering their ineffectiveness in actually causing a change in one’s decision to have an abortion. Eighteen states have established mandatory ultrasounds laws, the purpose of which is to persuade women not to have the procedure. The argument reasons that if a woman is forced to view an ultrasound, then she will be less likely to follow through with an abortion. Studies have yet to prove that viewing an ultrasound causes a woman to change her decision about an abortion.

A significant consequence of these restrictions is their disproportionate effects on low income women. The Hyde Amendment, passed by Congress in 1977, limits the use of federal funds for abortions with exceptions for rape, incest, or life endangerment. Thirty-two states adhere to this federal policy by only using Medicaid funding in these situations (Sable and Galambos 2006). The irony of this legislation is that it effectively ended the right of low-income women to obtain abortions. Women whose incomes fell below the federal poverty level were found to be four times as likely to have unintended pregnancies and three times as likely to have an abortion compared to women with incomes at 200% of the poverty level (Sable and Galambos 2006). Without federal funding it is highly unlikely that low income women will be able to afford, and therefore access, a legal abortion service.

Policy Language
This movement of increasingly frequent state-level policy proposals to regulate abortion services is coupled by a trend of vague and misleading language consistently being used to rally support for these anti-choice legislative initiatives. Nebraska’s “Women’s Health Protection Act” allows the discussion of false medical information to be shared regarding abortion risks, and requires women to be screened for future mental and physical risks. Its title promotes the idea that women are being “protected” by this mandate. However, these “screenings” lack a scientific basis and intrude upon one’s right to privacy.

The use of misleading language is exemplified through the personhood initiative.  Personhood initiatives incorporate vague wording that surreptitiously assigns a fertilized egg the same rights as a fully functional human being.   Leading up to the 2010 election, petitions were circulated to gain signatures to put an amendment on the state ballot to be voted on. The personhood initiatives were unable to even be put on the state ballots the following states this year: California, Georgia, Nevada, Montana, Missouri, and North Dakota.  Similar initiatives on the state level that failed this year occurred in Virginia, Maryland, Kansas, Iowa, and Hawaii. However, personhood did succeed in being placed on Colorado’s 2010 state ballot, but was soundly defeated by a 3:1 margin as it had been in the 2008 election. This defeat greatly helps protect reproductive rights.  If personhood initiatives had passed, fetuses would have been viewed as having all the same rights as legal adults. This would have resulted in a de facto ban on abortions, the illegalization of birth control, emergency contraception, fertilization treatments, and stem cell research. Miscarriages could be investigated and treated as manslaughter. They also could have resulted in endless court cases, paid for by taxpayers, further overwhelming the already swamped state legal systems.

The question that has arisen is how these anti-choice laws are continuing to pass, when this right is still clearly protected by Roe v. Wade. This reproductive right is relentlessly being challenged through state laws, which could eventually lead to a change in the national policy (Sollom 1995). However, the public is seldom aware that these bills exist until they are passed and subsequently declared unconstitutional. Informing voters of the consequences of these policies is complicated by financial constraints and the struggle to remain on the political agenda. Choice and privacy are both constitutionally protected rights which continue to face opposition from extreme state legislation that utilizes vague wording which forces proponents of this freedom to constantly be on the defensive.

Putting the Dollar on Steroids:

Chinese Currency Intervention

by Joseph Cox
October 25, 2010

When China passed Japan to become the world’s second largest economy this summer, (i) the United States seemed resigned to its fate as a global also-ran. While China has only one-tenth of the U.S. GDP per capita, the U.S. unemployment rate (9.6%) hovers just below China’s GDP growth rate (10.3%), making the future of U.S. global leadership seem bleak. Not surprisingly, a plurality of U.S. respondents to a 2009 Pew Research poll named China the top economic power in the world (ii).  In reality, China’s rise is far from accomplished; the U.S. has more to gain, than fear, from a wealthy China. While Americans hold many misconceptions about Chinese policy – from debt to trade – the economic reality is more complex than it appears.

That China holds a massive amount of U.S. government debt has become a source of popular outrage for American politicians of every stripe. What is less well understood, is exactly why China keeps buying so much U.S. Debt. In fact, China must purchase U.S. Treasury bonds, even though it often takes a loss in the process. A complicated cycle has developed due to tight Chinese controls on currency outflows. Chinese exporters must convert the dollars they earn into Chinese renminbi, leaving the central government with dollars and the Chinese economy with freshly printed currency. To prevent inflation as the economy absorbs hundreds of billions of dollars worth of the new currency, the Chinese government sells domestic bonds to remove money from circulation, a process known as “sterilization”(iii).  Meanwhile, the dollars confiscated at the border are spent on the only good capable of absorbing that much money: U.S. Treasury bonds. The gap between the low rate of return on Treasury bonds, and the bond rate, in a fast growing and poor country like China often entails negative arbitrage, the difference between the rate of return on two investments, for the People’s Bank of China. To minimize their losses, China makes low rates on domestic bonds palatable by instituting price controls on necessities and banning certain types of speculative lending. This process has led China to accumulate foreign reserves amounting to almost 50% of GDP (iv) which is a staggering 4% of global GDP. This Rube Goldberg-style economic policy is not sustainable, but breaking it will involve a period of difficult transition to increased economic openness and increased Chinese domestic consumption as a component of GDP(v).

The current American obsession with China’s currency manipulation is tied to their tight control of the domestic currency. The simplest way for China to deal with massive imports of foreign capital from trade is to allow the renminbi to float with market prices. With all else equal, the value of currency should increase in net exporting countries and decrease in net importers (vi). Eventually, trade deficits will lead to currency depreciation, which will shrink the trade deficit because it makes exports relatively cheaper and imports relatively more expensive. The peg that prevents currency appreciation in China keeps Chinese exports competitive, but it has also incited increasingly inflammatory accusations of currency manipulation from Chinese trading partners(vii).

A “strong dollar” has a pleasant ring to it, but Chinese currency intervention renders many U.S. exports too expensive to be completive globally. An artificially strong dollar costs the U.S. jobs; one estimate is that the $226 billion dollar U.S. trade deficit with China has cost the U.S. almost three million jobs (viii).  The narrative that blames the Chinese for U.S. unemployment is more pleasant than the underlying truth of dollar depreciation: the only way to reemploy much of the country is by lowering real wages for American workers. Even though wages have stagnated in recent decades, a strong dollar, and the massive expansion of consumer debt, enabled American consumers to purchase cheap Chinese goods that raised the American standard of living. If China agreed to weaken its peg against the dollar, or if inflation reduced the value of the dollar, U.S. households would reap benefits from depreciation in real debt alongside real wages, and the devalued currency will increase exports and therefore growth resulting in increased employment of American workers (ix). Meanwhile, Chinese consumers have been partially left in the cold by currency intervention during this period of robust growth by a threadbare safety net and artificially depressed buying power.

In the long run it will benefit everyone for Chinese currency to reach market value, but the transition to a consumption fueled economy is tricky. The Japanese allowed the yen to appreciate in 1985 and shortly thereafter were rewarded with the “lost decade,” where Japanese currency appreciated so fast that it created a massive asset bubble that burst into a national financial crisis. China seems determined to avoid that fate; but the U.S. is similarly determined, and their respective goals may be mutually exclusive. The prolonged Japanese recession was marked by persistent deflation until the Bank of Japan publically committed to “maintaining low rates until inflation was reliably forecast to remain positive” (x). The Federal Reserve has cautiously begun to explore a similar commitment during the current financial crisis (xi). If the Fed prints more money it will simultaneously push down the value of the dollar and returns on Treasury bonds. China will suffer arbitrage losses on Treasury versus domestic bonds, while renminbi appreciation will cause export driven growth to slow. The Chinese may have the world’s second largest economy, but it is a distant second, only slightly more than one-third the size of the U.S. economy. If the Chinese informal currency peg remains in place, the contrived currency cycle and Chinese economy will be dragged down with the dollar.

China’s centralized government has proven capable of jealousy-inducing economic responsiveness, but going forward China will face daunting challenges in the transition to increased openness and domestic consumption- not to mention the difficulties posed by aging demographics and demands for increased individual autonomy. How China navigates these obstacles will determine the prosperity of not just China, but also the United States. The two have become increasingly intertwined such that their informal economic alliance has become perhaps the world’s most important. Fortunately, economics is not zero-sum: Chinese economic growth does not have to hurt the American economy. Even in the past decade, punctuated by trade deficits and currency manipulation, most Americans benefited from cheap Chinese production. A more balanced relationship between saving and consumption in China will lessen the trade gap between the U.S. and China and will spread those gains more evenly. Vigorous Chinese economic growth will be the engine of the world’s economy for years to come. In these dismal economic times that is reason for optimism, not fear.

i. Barboza, David. “China Passes Japan as the Second Largest Economy” The New York Times. August 15, 2010.

ii. “America’s Place in the World 2009” Conducted by Pew Research Center for People and the Press conducted in association with the Council on Foreign Relations..

iii. Devine, Ethan. “The Japan Syndrome” Foreign Policy September 30, 2010.

iv. Chinese State Adminstration on Foreign Exchange. “Monthly Foreign Exchange Reserves”, June 2010

v. Devine.

vi. Bartlett, Bruce. “America’s Foreign Owned Debt” Forbes Magazine. March, 10, 2010

vii. Chan, Sewell. “I.M.F. Chief Steps into Dispute About China’s Currency Policy” The New York Times. October 7, 2010.

vii. Brown, Sharrod. “For Our China Trade Emergency, Dial Section 301” The New York Times. October 17, 2010.

ix. Yglesias, Matt. “Pearlstein on Wage Cuts.” Think Progress. October 13, 2010.

x. Posen, Adam. “The Realities and Relevance of Japan’s Great Recession: Neither Ran nor Roshomon.” STICERD Public Lecture, London School of Economics. May 24, 2010.

xi. Nohara, Yoshiaki and Harui, Ron. “Dollar Trades Near 15-Year Low Against Yen on Speculation Fed to Ease More” Bloomberg Online. October 18, 2010.

Humanitarian Aid v. National Interests:

The Current Dilemma in Pakistan

By Jacqueline Burns
October 20, 2010

The Crisis

By numbers alone, this year’s summer floods in Pakistan have created the largest humanitarian disaster since the founding of the United Nations in 1947. Floodwaters engulfed over twenty percent of the country, ravaging as much as seventeen million acres of farmland (Basu 2010). Over twenty million people were affected by the flood: 1.9 million houses were damaged or destroyed, at least 1,800 people were killed directly, and 16 million people continue to be in dire need of humanitarian assistance (USAID Oct 15, 2010). While there already existed a large network of humanitarian actors in Pakistan before the devastating rains began, activity has increased exponentially in an attempt to meet the urgent needs of the twenty million Pakistanis who have been thrown into life threatening conditions.

This story, however, is not one of mere humanitarianism; it is unfortunately also one of competing security concerns and political interests.

Since 2009 at least sixty-five aid workers in Pakistan have become victims of violent attacks by militant groups, typically the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Thirty-one have been killed, twenty-five wounded and nine abducted (The Aid Worker Security Database). As more workers are recruited to help in the current relief efforts, the Taliban has been stepping up their rhetoric, threatening to attack aid workers as agents of the West.

Politically, it is no secret that Pakistan holds significant strategic interest to U.S. operations in neighboring Afghanistan as well as U.S. efforts to defuse extremist sentiments and bring stability to the region. The U.S. has pledged $7.5 billion in assistance to Pakistan over the next five years and has been by far the largest and swiftest donor in the most recent crisis, with over $360 million already dedicated by October 2010 (USAID Oct 15, 2010).

Where Political and Humanitarian Objectives Collide

In recent weeks, this intersection of humanitarian, security, and political concerns has resulted in rising tensions between the U.S. government and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) over the issue of something called “branding.” Branding is the official term for the United States Agency for International Development’s (USAID) legal requirement to ensure that all foreign aid being funded by the U.S. government is visibly labeled with the USAID logo and the words “from the American people” in local languages, regardless of who is actually delivering the aid. While this may sound benign on the surface, most individuals with “boots on the ground” in humanitarian emergencies are employees of international or non-governmental organizations, rather than agents of the U.S.. Many of these IGOs and NGOs claim that the branding requirement makes them indistinguishable from agents of the United States, putting their already vulnerable workers in even greater danger in regions where the U.S. is looked upon unfavorably, or with downright hostility, such as in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan.

From the perspective of the U.S. government, humanitarian aid is a method to win over the hearts and minds of the Pakistani people – something the United States has been desperately trying to accomplish. Despite increasing levels of assistance, most Pakistanis hear more about the casualties of U.S. drone strikes than they do about U.S. humanitarian aid. According to recent Pew Research Center surveys, fifty percent of Pakistanis believe that the U.S. gives little to no assistance to Pakistan. With only seventeen percent of Pakistanis having a favorable opinion of the United States, and sixty-eight percent having a completely unfavorable opinion, officials would like to see greater publicity for the $1.3 billion in U.S. funds given as civilian aid to Pakistan in 2010 (“More Aid, Little Affection” 2010). Past experiences show that the most effective way to gain the approval of a local population is to show them the substantial impact of U.S. assistance—things they can see and touch, such as seed, food aid or medicines delivered directly to those in need. Without a visible USAID logo on these goods, Pakistanis typically do not know or do not believe that the aid is coming from the U.S. government (“V.P. Biden Pledges To ‘Sustain Long-Term’ Aid For Pakistan” 2010). In recent months, U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, as well as Secretary of State Clinton, have expressed frustration at the lack of attention given to U.S. relief efforts in Pakistan and have specifically pressured NGOs to more strictly follow the branding guidelines.

NGOs, on the other hand, are concerned about the security of their workers and cite USAID’s ability to grant waivers to the branding requirement in situations where security is a concern – such as regions of Pakistan where aid workers are regularly threatened, attacked and abducted. The security situation is dire enough in Pakistan that many NGOs do not even display their own logo on goods, convoys or buildings, much less advertize their affiliation with western nations (Lawson 2010). Especially with recent Taliban threats against international humanitarian operations, branding may limit or altogether prevent the ability of NGOs receiving U.S. funding from operating in locations where the Taliban and other extremists are active. This can be incredibly problematic from a humanitarian standpoint. Not only were some of the Taliban strongholds the hardest hit by the floods, but they also tend to have less sophisticated infrastructures and thus are even less able to cope with the effects of the crisis on their own.

In response to what NGOs claim has been increased pressure to ensure compliance with branding policies, eleven major aid organizations banded together in early October to draft a letter to the U.S. government asking for relief from the branding requirements in flood affected areas. The letter suggested that instead of branding, a public relations campaign be carried out that would separately provide literature and information to the Pakistani people detailing U.S. activities to help in the recent crisis, as well as in overall assistance (Georgy 2010). On October 12, 2010, prompted by the letter and the recent controversy, acting Director of USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA), Mark Ward, responded in a blog saying that “where the security risks warrant it, we will continue to grant waivers to the branding requirement for certain areas and limited periods of time…in Pakistan today, I have granted waivers for NGOs working in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province. But Pakistan is a vast country and not a monolith. In other parts of the country ravaged by the floods, where security has not been an issue, we continue to require branding on our aid” (Ward 2010).

No Consensus in Sight

The debate is far from over. Relief groups continue to desire more autonomy to decide where the safety of their workers should take precedence over the political objectives of donating countries, while the U.S. continues to press for greater “transparency” in their assistance to Pakistan and similarly conflicted nations. This issue, which may initially seem like a mundane policy directive, has very real and perhaps dire implications for thousands of aid workers and millions of suffering Pakistanis. This debate should also prompt policy makers to consider the larger normative questions of how interconnected humanitarian and political objectives can and should be.

As much as many would like to, it is perhaps naïve to believe that humanitarian assistance could always be provided out of altruism and not carry any other underlying motivations or concerns of national interest. Furthermore, by accepting and utilizing such national interests, those with humanitarian objectives can often achieve greater success for their goals. Most major humanitarian NGOs take a pragmatic view and accept this compromise as the price of doing business and the most efficient way to carry out their missions to help as many in need in as many places as possible. The downside of this strategy, however, is that political motivations often affect the means and methods for conducting humanitarian operations – as seen clearly in the current dilemma in Pakistan.

If policy is to be conducted in such a grey area, where political and humanitarian motives are allowed to intermingle, there will inevitably be conflict between the two. So the question then remains: where does one draw the line? When do political objectives hurt the humanitarian imperative? When do national interests begin to overshadow human suffering, and is this a price we are willing to pay? Unless a framework is developed to address the difficult questions of when and how these sometimes divergent motives should be balanced, life-and-death decisions for thousands will continue to be decided at the whim of inconsistent, and sometimes arbitrary, policies.

The Aid Worker Security Database, accessed October 17, 2010.
Basu, Moni. “Aid Falling Short in Flood-Devastated Pakistan.” CNN, September 20, 2010.
Crilly, Rob. “Pakistan Aid Workers in Row with US over Stars and Stripes ‘Logo.’” The Daily Telegraph, October 11, 2010.
Crill, Rob. “Taliban Threat to Flood Aid Teams.” The Daily Telegraph, August 27, 2010
Georgy, Michael. “Aid Groups Concerned Over U.S. Branding in Pakistan.” Reuters, October 12, 2010.
Ignatius, David. “In Flood-Ravaged Pakistan, No Sign of American Aid.” The Washington Post, September 29, 2010.
Ignatius, David. “Why Doesn’t the U.S. Take Credit for Aiding Pakistan?” The Washington Post, October 4, 2010
Lawson, Alastair. “US ‘Should Delete its Logos” on Aid to Pakistan.” BBC News, October 12, 2010.
More Aid, Little Affection.” The Washington Post, August 24, 2010.
Pakistan – Floods: Fact Sheet #2, Fiscal Year (FY) 2011.” USAID, October 15, 2010.
V.P. Biden Pledges To ‘Sustain Long-Term’ Aid For Pakistan; U.S. Concerned About Aid Branding.” Medical News Today, September 28, 2010.
Ward, Mark. “USAID Assistance in Pakistan.” USAID, October 9, 2010.
Witte, Griff. “Billions of Aid Dollars Buy U.S. Little Goodwill in Pakistan.” The Washington Post, August 24, 2010.
Worthington, Samuel A. “Why American Aid Workers in Pakistan Need to Keep a
Low Profile.” The Washington Post, October 10, 2010.


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