The Commonwealth Blog
From the archives: Gail Cleland addressed The Commonwealth Club of California? regarding "Struggle for Democracy in Korea: U.S.A. v. U.S.S.R." on January 23, 1948. While in the U.S. Army, Cleland served as senior chaplain for "Southern Korea," as it was then known. He spoke to many groups about the comparative situations in the Soviet-occupied Northern Korea and the U.S.-occupied southern portion of the country.
By: Mehroz Baig
“It’s hard to imagine fallible human beings creating machines that are infallible,” Eric Schlosser said in reference to nuclear weapons. Schlosser is an investigative journalist and author of Fast Food Nation and, most recently, Command and Control, which examines nuclear risk. “Nuclear weapons are highly complicated machines and like all machines, they can go wrong,” he added.
Schlosser’s book documents some of the mishaps that have taken place in our history of owning and expanding our nuclear arsenal. However, as Schlosser admits and Walter Russell Mead in a review of his book in The New York Times points out, there hasn’t been a nation that has yet to face the consequences of an accidental nuclear disaster. Schlosser warned that the likelihood of an accident happening increases every day that there isn’t an accident. “I think we were lucky [that we haven’t had an accident], and there’s no guarantee that that luck will last,” he said.
Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund and author of Nuclear Nightmares: Securing the World Before It’s Too Late, joined Schlosser at the Commonwealth Club for a discussion recently on nuclear safety. He noted another argument for reducing our nuclear arsenal: the sheer cost of maintaining and updating nuclear weapons. A report by the Ploughshares Fund estimates that the United States will spend anywhere between $620 and $661 billion dollars on nuclear weapons in the next 10 years. And though it’s understandable that creating and maintaining nuclear weapons is costly, there is some questioning about where that money is going.
An article in Time magazine reported that in October 2013, the Pentagon requested approximately $10 billion in funding to update the country’s B61 bombs. However, we had already developed a more advanced version of the B61: the B83. The problem? The B83 is much too destructive. The article reported, “The B83, truth be told, is a city-destroyer. First detonated in 1984, its yield (adjustable, but about a megaton) is 75 times that of the ‘Little Boy’ that destroyed Hiroshima.” That means that it’s not very good at being a deterrent, one of the reasons why we keep nuclear weapons. The reason is that more than likely, our government wouldn’t use such a strong weapon against an enemy due to the much higher number of casualties and destruction it would cause because, it could be against international law. If the United States faced an attack and retaliated by obliterating a city, it would be in violation of the Geneva Conventions and the principle of proportionality, which requires attacks in armed conflict to take into account the destruction they would cause compared to the military advantage they yield.
Kennette Benedict, executive director and publisher of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, makes another argument for reducing our nuclear arsenal: the increased ability to use diverted funds to strengthen the U.S. economy. In an article for the Bulletin, she notes, “The diversion of investment into military production leaves a society with fewer resources for housing, agriculture, and education,” and goes on to add, “public sector investment, as well as production in the civilian economy, are engines of long-term growth.” The money that would be saved from nuclear spending could indeed be put to good use elsewhere, to improve the myriad issues the United States is currently facing, including education, unemployment, and weakening infrastructure.
Complete denuclearization might be unrealistic, especially with other nations acquiring or working toward acquiring nuclear weapons. However, the argument that Schlosser, Cirincione, and Benedict make is that the thousands of nuclear weapons we currently possess are an unnecessary source of danger, not only physically but also economically. Cirincione noted that in order to use nuclear weapons as a deterrent, the United States only needs about 500 of them, not the estimated 7,700 we currently have. “Several hundred seems to be what many military and national security experts think will serve our deterrence needs,” he said during his discussion at the Commonwealth Club.
Mead agrees, noting in his review, “[Schlosser’s] core recommendation that the United States explore the possibilities of operating a minimal deterrent, the smallest number of nuclear weapons needed to prevent adversaries from contemplating a nuclear attack on us, may be the most hopeful direction in which we can look.” The United States is slowly moving in that direction, having signed the New START treaty with Russia, which aims to reduce the nuclear arsenals of both nations. The treaty’s duration is 10 years and reduces the number of weapons to 1,550. And though the president is working toward further reducing our nuclear arsenal along with that of Russia’s, we’ll have to wait to see how long it takes, and hope that the luck that’s kept a nuclear accident from happening up until now comes along for the ride.
We may not see forced labor explicitly in our day-to-day lives, but that illusion hides the reality that an estimated 20.9 million people are victims of forced labor globally, according to data from the International Labor Organization (ILO). Of the 20.9 million people exploited globally, 18.7 million, or 90 percent, “are exploited in the private economy, by individuals or enterprises,” the ILO reports. It is in this exploitation where we can be most culpable.
Supply chains for products are hard to keep track of, and if companies aren’t investing time, money, and energy in ensuring a clean supply chain, our consumerism continues to support labor exploitation. California’s Transparency in Supply Chains Act, passed in 2010, is a first-of-its-kind legislation that requires “retail sellers and manufacturers doing business in California and having $100 million or more in annual worldwide gross receipts [to] inform their consumers about what the company is doing to end human trafficking and slavery within their supply chains.” Know the Chain, a non-profit organization, aims to be “a resource to promote greater transparency and dialogue around issues of slavery in supply chains.” As such, they provide information on California’s law and a list of companies that have and have not posted disclosure statements in requirement of that law.
While companies are being asked to do their share, we can do ours by examining what we use and how much that can contribute to forced labor practices. An Oakland-based non-profit, Slavery Footprint, allows users to take a short quiz about their lifestyle (what they wear, eat, etc.) and calculates based on that information, how many slaves work for that individual. You can take the quiz online or use their mobile app. As The Huffington Post points out, the calculation may be a little skewed, but it does shed light on which of our habits contribute the most to slavery around the world.
Our ability to be aware and do something is a fact that Martina Vandenberg wants us to remember. Vandenberg, founder and president of The Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center in Washington DC, spoke at The Commonwealth Club about facts and myths of human trafficking. She pointed out that slavery exists all around us. There have been recent cases of modern-day slavery, from women held in domestic servitude by diplomats just miles from the White House, to three women having been held for 30 years in Britain, including one woman who was believed to have been born in captivity.
That’s not all. People are held in slavery in almost every country in the world, and children are not immune. In many cases, due to a lack of financial resources and available credit, families may borrow money from other individuals with the intent of paying it back through labor. That’s how the conversation starts. However, once the person is indebted, a high interest rate ensures that the debt will never be paid back, and the person is bound to continue working as a slave indefinitely. That’s the story that Lisa Kristine encountered on her journey to India, Nepal and Ghana, for a project with Free the Slaves, an organization based out of Los Angeles. Kristine is a humanitarian photographer who captured portraits of men, women, and children enslaved in labor camps and sex trafficking in the countries she visited. She shared her work at The Commonwealth Club in November. She talked about people who work in brick kilns in India, often bringing their children with them, and the miners in Ghana who are forced to work in shafts hundreds of feet deep for up to three days at a time, or the men and women who pan for gold in mercury-tainted waters, often leading to disease and physical ailments.
Her portraits and stories bring a human face to slavery and remind us of its prevalence. According to the Global Slavery Index from the Walk Free Foundation, Mauritania has the highest prevalence of slavery today, with 140,000 – 160,000 enslaved individuals in a country of 3.8 million. In absolute numbers, India tops the list, with estimates ranging from 13.3 to 14.7 million enslaved people. The United States is estimated to have anywhere between 57,000 and 63,000 people in slavery. The report points out that factors that highly correlate with slavery are corruption, human development (such as levels of income and the availability of education and health care), GDP, and access to financial services. These factors are not surprising but they are also not the sole cause of slavery, because even the most developed of nations have some prevalence of slavery. For this reason, both Vandenberg and Kristine stress the importance of awareness among individuals—of what slavery is in today’s world, how it happens, and actions that we can take to reduce it, if not eliminate it. As much as eradicating slavery rests with institutions—governments that enforce their laws, corporations that check their supply chains—part of the onus lies on us. Our demand for products and services drives the supply and if we demand cleaner supply chains, fair and humane treatment of individuals, and understand that the cost may be a few extra dollars compared to a life lived in servitude, we may make a difference.
By: Mehroz Baig
“Perhaps the most important or notable finding of this panel is that it is indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture.” That’s the finding after a two-year investigation by a high-level panel that examined detainee treatment by the United States during the war on terror, in a report published earlier this year by The Constitution Project’s Task Force on Detainee Treatment. The report states that there was systematic use of torture and in many cases, it did not result in any useful information. The report also identifies the maneuvering that allowed torture to happen — the legalities of war, as noted in the Geneva Conventions, have already been outlined; definitions of conduct that is allowed and conduct that is illegal in international law have been hammered out. What has happened over the past 13 years, however, is the fudging of boundaries and the redefining of terms that allowed government officials to distinguish between abuse and torture, drawing a very fine line between what constitutes legal torture and what doesn’t. The report concludes that torture took place widely, that it was in fact illegal, and that it violated our ethical duties.
In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, there was uncertainty about the best way to proceed and the repercussions of any action by the U.S. on policy, military, and legal fronts. This was also new terrain — there wasn’t a clear, territorial enemy, but rather one classified as a non-state actor, and not much precedence for an attack against the United States on U.S. soil. The new circumstances allowed officials to create a plan of action on policy, tactics, and the U.S. approach toward its enemy. Rules were created, bent, and broken and in some cases, to avoid a broken rule, a new classification was invented to circumvent current law.
The report clearly states,
“The most important element may have been to declare that the Geneva Conventions, a venerable instrument for ensuring humane treatment in time of war, did not apply to Al-Qaeda and Taliban captives in Afghanistan or Guantánamo. The administration never specified what rules would apply instead.”
Other actions, such as classifying detainees as “enemy combatants,” allowed for military proceedings to overtake civilian proceedings. “By defining Guantanamo detainees as enemy combatants, the Bush administration cleared the way for some to be tried in newly created offshore military commissions rather than in civilian courts,” reported The Wall Street Journal. The creation of the military commissions was found to be unconstitutional in 2006 but military commissions were reinstated when Congress passed the Military Commissions Act. This was followed by a ruling giving the military commissions power to choose if each detainee classified as an “unlawful enemy combatant.” If so, he was not accorded any rights that a prisoner of war, under the Geneva Conventions, would receive. The Obama administration dropped the term “enemy combatant” in 2009, in a symbolic gesture to distance itself from the Bush administration — the Department of Justice under President Obama continued to argue for indefinite detention of Guantánamo inmates.
The report goes on to address the complicity of medical professionals in creating interrogation techniques that amounted to torture and not reporting any abuse. “After September 11, 2001, military psychologists and physicians were instructed that they were relieved of the obligation to comply with nonmilitary ethical principles, and in some cases their military roles were redefined as non-health-professional combatants.” The report notes that established professional conduct for medical professionals includes refraining from abusive conduct, participating in interrogations, or providing medical information to interrogators. Yet the policy and reclassification of doctors and psychologists as “non-health-professional combatants” allowed them to circumvent their ethical duties on paper through a very conservative adherence to the letter of the ethical standards.
Policy changes also took place elsewhere within the U.S. apparatus against terrorism. As the report points out, changes were made in the Army Field Manual that allowed previously negated interrogation techniques:
“For over 50 years, the Army Field Manual has been an invaluable document guiding American soldiers away from abusing prisoners, with its clear prohibitions on cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and torture. However, the 2006 version deleted language that explicitly prohibited the use of sleep deprivation and stress positions, and its Appendix M authorizes an interrogation technique called “separation,” which could inflict significant physical and mental anguish on a detainee.”
The problem with these changes is that they did not happen in isolated incidents but in a cohesive manner that shields the government from accountability. There is evidence that torture occurred and yet when a victim of torture seeks justice, the judiciary cannot help him. The report is explicit in noting that the Convention Against Torture, to which the U.S. is a party, requires that nations have a legal system that allows victims of torture redress. However, “the United States has not complied with this requirement,” the report’s authors note, adding, “in large part because of the government’s repeated, successful invocation of the state-secrets privilege in lawsuits brought by torture victims.” The argument has been that the government cannot defend itself in such cases without revealing state secrets pertaining to national security, so the cases are dismissed.
“It’s a travesty that we’ve applied classification to [torture],” said Ambassador Thomas Pickering, one of the members of The Constitution Project’s Task Force, at a Commonwealth Club program in October. He added that the minimum requirement we face as a nation is to ensure that torture doesn’t happen again. He counts torture as “a serious and disturbing problem in our national history.”
However, it’s a slow move away from some of the terrible and illegal actions the U.S. government took, and continues to take, in its quest to hunt down terrorists. Even today, Guantánamo — a prison that has housed 779 suspected terrorists, including 15 children, one as young as 13 years old — remains open. Ambassador Pickering said, “I hope Guantánamo is closed shortly,” but added, “I don’t think it will happen.”
In her article, “The Tortured Body, the Photograph, and the U.S. War on Terror,” Julie Gerk Hernandez, a professor at the University of Cincinnati examined the violence that took place at Abu Ghraib, arguing that the torture that took place in Afghanistan is part of a “historical continuum of racialized violence.” She compared the photographs from Abu Ghraib to photos of lynchings in the post-Civil War years. “In both cases,” she says, “a group of people records — as a source of enjoyment, pride, and righteousness — another person’s experience of mind-numbing pain or the aftermath of such an experience (death), which individuals of the group inflict.” She further goes on to say in reference to one of the photos from Abu Ghraib, “What this picture suggests is that the sexual violence at Abu Ghraib stems from the same racialized hatred and fear that made lynching possible.”
If Hernandez is correct, the torture, ethical, and moral abuses are not simply part of an unprecedented situational context. And as such, they could easily happen again, given the right combination of zealousness, anger, hatred, and a defined “other” as the enemy. We’re not doing ourselves any favors if we don’t address this issue head-on and try to amend some of the mistakes we’ve made. Much of that involves transparency about what happened and accountability for it. Accountability comes in many forms, including allowing justice for victims of torture through recognition of what they’ve endured and compensation. But if we don’t take an introspective look at the policies and actions we’ve taken in the name of national security, actions that grossly violate our fundamental values, then we are leaving the door open for this to happen again. Public outrage on some of these issues has been short-lived, and we may face the same situation or worse yet again, if we decide not to look back.
By: Mehroz Baig
Even though 87 percent of all U.S. counties lack an abortion provider according to 2008 data, actions to restrict the access of abortion services continue steadily. In 2013 so far, state legislatures have introduced 321 anti-choice measures and enacted 46 of them, according to internal research by NARAL Pro-Choice America Foundation. NARAL defines anti-choice broadly, including any measure that hinders a woman’s ability to exercise her reproductive rights.
In a panel discussion at The Commonwealth Club of California that addressed reproductive rights, Lisa Lindelef, a pro-choice activist and board member of NARAL Pro-Choice America Foundation, noted that the abortion conversation has moved to the state level. Lindelef added that the landmark Roe v. Wade decision from 1973 that seemed to enshrine a woman’s right to choose isn’t being attacked directly. Instead, the restrictions being enacted are attacking the infrastructure around access to legal abortion services. “What they are doing is chipping away incrementally around it,” she said. She noted that adding constraints like decreasing how early a woman can have a legal abortion, requiring ultrasounds, waiting periods, and counseling before gaining access to abortion services are all ways of undermining the right that Roe v. Wade outlined, without directly attacking that decision.
Last week, a federal judge ruled that the Texas law aimed at abortion clinics is unconstitutional. This is the same law that Texas Democratic state legislator Wendy Davis, who is now running for governor, filibustered against in June. The Texas attorney general filed an emergency appeal, and a federal appeals court reinstated most of the restrictions until the case is heard in January 2014.
Accessing abortion services has become restricted in some areas of the country. This interactive map from the The Daily Beast details how accessible clinics are and the restrictions imposed on women seeking abortions by geography.
Lindelef was joined by two other panelists: Fran Moreland Johns, author of Perilous Times: An Inside Look at Abortion Before – And After – Roe v. Wade, and Scotty McLennan, dean for religious life at Stanford University. Shanelle Matthews, communications strategist for ACLU Northern California, moderated the panel.
Fran Johns agreed with Lindelef about the possibility that current legislation could put Roe v. Wade in jeopardy. She added, “I would like never to see abortion happen again. But that’s not going to happen.” Johns’ book examines back-alley abortions before Roe v. Wade and looks at the difficulty women face in accessing abortion services today. “What we want is for abortion to be safe, legal, and rare,” added Lindelef.
Some areas of the country have been fairly progressive in their approach to ensuring that women have access to all reproductive services, including contraception and abortion. San Francisco even went a step further in 2011 by implementing an ordinance against crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), to prevent false advertising. CPCs often advertise themselves as counseling centers that provide women with information on pregnancy and abortion services. However, according to pro-choice advocates, they tend to have an anti-abortion stance and generally counsel women against accessing abortion services.
While similar laws in New York and Baltimore were struck down, San Francisco’s ordinance focused on false advertising and has been upheld. That has made San Francisco’s ordinance the first successful one of its kind in the nation. The ordinance was enacted to ensure that CPCs advertise accurate information about the services they provide, making it a consumer protection issue, argued the authors of the ordinance, Supervisor Malia Cohen and City Attorney Dennis Herrera.
Geography plays a role in the restrictions that are enacted. The Daily Beast’s analysis noted, “Often, the states with the fewest clinics also have more restrictions.” In those cases, not only are women physically unable to access abortion, but there are added restrictions — such as wait times and requirements of ultrasounds or in-person counseling — that make it more burdensome for them to do so. That is all in addition to the social pressures that accompany the issue. “I’ve spoken with women, especially very young women, who felt so intimidated or frightened by the protestors that they were worried about, or felt they could not do it,” said Fran Johns in an email. She’s referring to protests held by activists outside abortion clinics to dissuade women from getting abortions, a tactic now being exported outside the U.S.
Johns added, “It’s not so much an urban/rural issue as a state-by-state issue. But the saddest stories I heard were from women in rural or small-town areas who did not have the money, time, and resources to access a safe abortion.” Again, state legislation plays a big role in allowing women access to safe services. The New York Times reported in September that in the last three years, 54 clinics in 27 states have closed. And an interactive map from The Washington Post shows which states have introduced and enacted restrictions on abortions this year. According to this article, restrictive abortion legislation has been introduced in 32 states and enacted in nine states.
Decisions on these laws differ from state to state: though a judge in Ohio upheld that state’s law requiring doctors to follow FDA protocol in medical abortions, a similar regulation was deemed unconstitutional in Oklahoma and may be heard in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. As the article notes, “Supporters of the law say such procedures protect women. But the Oklahoma court concluded that it effectively bans medication abortions, which are used early in pregnancies, because doctors over the past decade have found the FDA protocol to be excessive or outdated.”
The legislative wrangling at the state level leaves women behind who need abortion for any number of reasons. Cases such as those of the Davises from Oklahoma, profiled in an MSNBC report, will continue. According to the article,
Earlier that month, at home in Oklahoma City, the Davises were told that the boy she was carrying had a severe brain malformation known as holoprosencephaly. It is rare, though possible, for such a fetus to survive to birth, but doctors told them that he would not reach his first birthday. “He would never walk, lift his head,” Jessica, 23, recalled in an interview…The lack of options sent them to Dallas, where protesters outside the clinic tried to hand Jessica a pair of baby socks. She told them to go to hell. She left the clinic with a death certificate, which she and Eric had asked for, and a footprint of the son they named Mark Gordon Scott Davis.
The funeral homes Jessica called for a “proper burial” laughed at her, or hung up “because I mentioned the word ‘termination,’” she said. The funeral homes told her she had an abortion. “I don’t look at it like that,” Jessica said. “I’m showing my son mercy.’
For those who cannot afford to go elsewhere for the procedure, the outcomes are less well known. One study conducted recently of women who wanted an abortion but were turned away shows increased negative consequences in their health and economic stability. However, this area can use more research, not only on the consequences of being turned away from an abortion for women, but also for the children who are subsequently born.
“It’s never an easy decision,” said Fran Johns, who herself had to obtain a secret and illegal abortion after being assaulted at her job, before Roe v. Wade made abortions legal.
And Lindelef cautioned, “Making this illegal is not going to make it go away. It will probably make it more frequent and less safe.”
By: Mehroz Baig
On Wednesday evening, the night of the vote in the Senate and the House that ended the government shutdown, The Commonwealth Club convened a town hall meeting to look at the past few weeks and answer questions about what the government shutdown did, what the votes in the House and Senate mean and what we can expect moving ahead. The panelists included Professor Alan Auerbach, a law professor at UC Berkeley and Dr. Tammy Frisby, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Below are some questions that our panelists addressed during the town hall.
How did we get here? What caused this rift in Congress?
Frisby: The debt ceiling conversation has never been an easy one. During most debt ceiling increases, the majority party takes a hit for approving an increase because the popular position is to not increase the ceiling. Our current House and Senate present a new configuration: we have a Democratic president, a Democratic majority Senate and a Republican majority House, so any possibility of the Senate helping the House through the debt ceiling discussion was no longer present. Additionally, with a Republican president, it may have been easier to persuade Republicans to approve the increase, but that wasn’t the case here either. In this case, Republicans were even less incentivized to increase the debt ceiling. Ms. Frisby further noted, “We got to this point because Congress – both parties – have not done their job in passing a budget.”
Does the debt ceiling matter?
Auerbach: “The debt ceiling makes no sense.” The government decides how much it will spend and what it will bring in through taxes. Both of these determine how much debt accumulates. So all the government has to do is pass spending and tax bills to keep the debt in check.
What are some of the consequences of the government shutdown?
Auerbach: We don’t have as secure of a position as we did before the shutdown, in terms of how the rest of the world sees us. We didn’t default this time but getting close to a default isn’t good either. Internally, our economy will slow down further. “An economy, which hasn’t been growing strongly since the recession, will grow even more slowly.” Auerbach went on to say that shutting down the government will cost us money. He noted that the furloughed workers who are returning to work will be paid retroactively, so they’re being paid for work they didn’t do; additionally, they have to manage all the backlog from the days when they couldn’t work. So not only did we have a loss in time, but also in productivity, which is an added cost.
What did the deal accomplish?
Frisby: “What the deal does not include are any substantial changes to the Affordable Care Act.” And that’s the reason why this started in the first place. The Republicans managed to stay at sequestered funding until Jan. 15, 2014. And “they added some legislative language that says that we need to have stricter income verification requirements for people receiving subsidies under the Affordable Care Act.”
Auerbach: There are long-term budget problems that we face that this discussion or the shutdown didn’t address. Our large underlying problem is that our taxes can’t pay for the benefits we’ve promised.
What happens next?
Frisby: The government is now reopened and they have funding until Jan. 15, 2014. The debt ceiling has been raised until February 7, 2014. So the debt ceiling discussion will happen again next year, when 2014 primaries will be in swing. This will become an election issue and voters will get to decide if they tolerate this. In the next election cycle, we’ll also see a real test for moderate, business-oriented Republicans: can they serve as a counterweight to the Tea Party/far-right GOP? We will also need to see how John Boehner feels after all this: if he feels burned by the Tea Party and the far-right GOP, he may be more inclined to produce more bipartisan results.
There’s much to be said about the education system, not just in the United States but also across the world. When Sir Ken Robinson spoke at The Commonwealth Club he talked about the education system being styled like an industrial era assembly line, one that stunts creativity and forces students to fit a schedule and predefined form of learning instead of opening up creative avenues to explore their potential. Similarly, last week at another Commonwealth Club program, Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy, talked about the mass of homework that teenagers receive these days, in addition to the barrage of extracurricular activities they are involved in. It’s a race to keep up, because ultimately that race determines what happens after high school. Khan said that the system doesn’t provide space for students to explore their creativity, to learn in different ways or take their time in mastering a subject. “The assembly line is moving on,” he said. “They can’t get off.” This article in The Atlantic is a perfect example of how the current education system can drive kids to simply be students moving from one requirement to the next, not individuals invested in learning.
The education conversation is not a new one. As a nation, we’ve been advised of the declining numbers of students in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields within the United States. There also have been back-and-forth debates about teacher effectiveness and what it takes to be successful in the classroom. Along those same lines, the entire sense of how we define success is also up for questioning. Do SATs really measure a student’s intellectual ability? How do we account for gaps in test scores for students of color? According to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, there are 850 four-year colleges that do not use the SAT or ACT as part of evaluating an application, a response to the questions that these tests pose.
Things are further complicated by disparities among schools: public schools vs. charter schools; schools that have more funding compared to those that don’t; schools in higher-income neighborhoods compared to those in lower-income neighborhoods. A report by the OECD analyzed various factors within education and ranked the U.S. as 6th out of 36 in educational attainment. It noted that in the U.S, as of 2010, 89 percent of adults had at least a high school degree; the OECD average is only 74 percent. However, the rest of the data doesn’t present as optimistic an outlook: U.S. students scored a 496 in reading literacy, math and the sciences, on par with scores from Hungary and Sweden but one point less than the OECD average of 497. This ranks the U.S. 20th out of 36. Students in Finland had the highest scores at 543. The U.S. scored worse on the social inequality scale, ranking 27th out of 36, close to Brazil and New Zealand.
But ultimately, it comes down to the stakeholders involved. Our public education system at one point was touted as the best in the world. And even today, students from all over the world come to the United States to advance their studies. As such, it has also become entrenched in its ways. Change has been difficult to implement because the process as it stands today was very successful and got us where we are. What is difficult to recognize, however, is that it may not get us where we want to go.
The education industry is massive and distribution of wealth within it is disproportionate. This infographic points out that while the U.S. is top of the list in terms of spending per student, that spending doesn’t correlate to better outcomes in math or science. That may have something to do with how effectively or ineffectively the money is being spent. And there are studies that show that when it comes to achievement, the divide between the rich and the poor is growing.
That says nothing of the for-profit market that has created itself around education. Everything from testing services to test preparation to personalized tutoring all contribute to the current culture of test-driven education. Frontline reported that the testing industry is worth anywhere from $400 million to $700 million. Every high school student with any plans to pursue higher education knows that registering for the SAT will cost money, $51 to be exact, and the loss of a Saturday. And the costs add up depending on how many times a student takes the exam. Of course, the test is not always about intellect but also strategy, so you’ll need to prepare for it. That’s where Kaplan comes in: you can choose from the lowest-cost test prep program at $299 or go up to the unlimited prep program that costs $1,099.
These companies are not necessarily to blame, because they don’t operate in a vacuum. They are responding to a need that the system has created—a need to excel in a test-driven environment, which is seen as the only determinant to succeeding. Success in this case is defined as acceptance to a high-caliber college, which operates within the same system. Of course, adding these additional facets to the education machine creates anything but a level playing field.
Khan pointed out during his Commonwealth Club program that the traditional education model today groups together students by age in a lecture-like setting. Each topic within the subject gets a few weeks’ attention and when time is up, the class moves on to the next topic. That, for Khan, is a problem. He argues that instead of time as a fixed constraint and how much a student learns as a variable, it should be the other way around. “What should be fixed is that everyone gets an A and the variable is how long it takes you,” he said.
Khan Academy’s mission is to provide a world-class education for anyone anywhere and to truly make education a fundamental human right. But how do we accomplish that within today’s system? By focusing on what’s best for the students, according to Khan. He’s concerned about the impact of the entire system on students: in commenting on the SAT during a phone interview, he said that he’s not afraid of the test itself but “of the overweighing of the test and what it does for the classroom.” If students are learning well and are able to perform better on tests for that reason, that teaches good behavior. However, if students are only learning to take tests, learning at its optimal is not happening and that’s not the outcome Khan envisions for a dynamic classroom.
He noted, “Students are starting to crave other options. The decision to go to college now for students is much different than it was for me, and I’m not that old.” Khan also added that colleges will need to look at rising tuition costs and the outcomes students can expect after graduation because those are changing and having an impact. “The cracks in the idea that college is the ticket for a middle class living [are already forming],” he said. That’s not to say that physical institutions will not be needed — “I’m a big believer that there’s a role for the physical institution [in the system],” Khan said. But he added that providing alternative routes for education, not just for those who can’t afford it but for everyone who wants an education, is one way to catalyze the bottoms-up approach to change.
The change won’t happen overnight, Khan noted. “It’s kind of the wild, wild west right now in online education and how it will impact the system,” he said. But he’s very optimistic that in the next 20 years, the education system will change dramatically, in the best interest of the students who take part in it.
By Mehroz Baig
Internships have long been a part of building a career trajectory and most students have resigned themselves to the fact that internships will be unpaid. Many college students spend summers interning at various places, hoping to gain some hands-on experience, a few recommendations and some sense of what they would like to do after graduation. However, the unpaid internship is now creeping into life after graduation.
“No one keeps statistics on the number of college graduates taking unpaid internships, but there is widespread agreement that the number has significantly increased, not least because the jobless rate for college graduates age 24 and under has risen to 9.4 percent, the highest level since the government began keeping records in 1985,” reported the New York Times in May of last year. The unemployment rate for college graduates ages 20-24 this August was 10.8 percent. For those with a Bachelor’s degree, the number was 10.6 percent while those with a Master’s degree faced a 17.2 percent unemployment rate, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“You can look as much as you want while in grad school but the competition was tough,” says Maura Donovan, 26, who graduated with a Master’s in International Affairs from Columbia University in 2012. After searching for a paid opportunity and “applying like crazy,” Donovan moved back in with her parents during the summer after graduation to work a summer job and save money.
Donovan, who was looking for work in conflict resolution and development with a focus on the Middle East, needed to get field experience abroad and realized that she wouldn’t be able to do so unless she took on an unpaid internship. Continued networking landed her an internship with Search for Common Ground (SFCG), a non-profit based in DC focused on increasing cross-cultural understanding. Donovan was based in SFCG’s Tunisia office for six months. “The amount of responsibility that I was given because I went abroad was amazing—I was running things as an intern,” she said. Her experience abroad added to her portfolio and made her a more viable candidate for jobs in the U.S. But it didn’t lead to a full-time opportunity.
Donovan moved back to DC and began a collage of jobs, internships and consultancies. She continued working with Search for Common Ground as an intern and a consultant, and got other jobs as a swim coach and sales associate at Loft, all while keeping the job hunt active. There was a time when she was working two jobs in one day and pulling shifts on weekends to ensure that she had enough income to meet her expenses. “There was a good month in there when I thought I wasn’t going to make it,” she said. It took Donovan two months of juggling before she landed a full-time position with Chemonics International, where she is currently working in the contracts department.
Donovan’s story is not unusual, especially for the up-and-comers in DC. An article in the Washingtonian that looks at the cycle of graduates going from one internship to another points out that “Washington’s job pyramid, at least in many industries, often doesn’t start at entry level; it starts at internship.”
Experts agree that the unpaid serial internships do not classify every young person’s job prospects. “It’s clearly a minority who are in that position,” said Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the Economic Policy Institute, a non-partisan think tank based in Washington, DC. “It’s not like it characterizes the young person’s employment market. But unemployment is very high and when it’s a choice of being unemployed or doing something that you think might advance your career, there’s a lot of pressure.”
Suzanna Anderson, who asked not to use her real name, felt similarly during her job search. A 2011 graduate of the University of Delaware with a double major in history and political science, Anderson, 24, began a one-year service project in Detroit with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps after graduating. She spent a year as a volunteer at the United Community Housing Coalition, helping clients with landlord/tenant legal issues.
Upon completion of her year in Detroit, she returned to Delaware to begin a job hunt within the legal field, to continue preparing herself for law school. “I didn’t understand that people in their late 30’s and early 40’s were also applying for [the positions I was applying for] and had the years to back it up,” Anderson said.
Anderson spent another year looking for a job. “In the end, companies want the years and they want the experience,” she added. “It was really hard telling lawyers and hiring managers to please take a chance on me,” she said. During her job search, she found work as a temp and volunteered in various organizations in Delaware, from a nursing home to a historical museum. In that year, she supported herself using her savings and with help from her parents.
Anderson says that she’s glad that she kept the search going instead of taking a sales position or something similar, “[which] wouldn’t add anything to my resume.” She landed a job as a research associate at a law firm in Philadelphia last month.
“It’s not unusual for young people to have higher unemployment rates than the general population,” notes Catherine Ruetschlin, a policy analyst at Demos, a public policy organization based in New York. “What is unusual,” she added, “is how long the job market is taking to recover.”
Reutschlin added that the high unemployment that young people are experiencing right now is cyclical; however, that combined with the length of the recession has impacted the nature of jobs available. “The nature of the employment relationship has changed.” She noted that a generation ago, firms expected to hire young people and provide them full-time jobs with training, and the focus was on long-term investment in the employee. That has now shifted to part-time, temporary work, which includes internships.
Eisenbrey agrees. “Businesses know that they are in a new position of power and their own expectations have changed. I think it’s a fact that a lot of these businesses expect to hire people and not have to pay them.”
Recent lawsuits against large corporations are putting employers on alert. After interns came out victorious against Fox Searchlight Pictures for their work in the production of “Black Swan,” complaints against Condé Nast, Warner Music and Gawker Media were brought. And they are only a few in the growing number of complaints against employers. ProPublica is maintaining a database that currently lists 15 cases in progress, including the three mentioned.
There is also a Fair Pay Campaign urging the White House to pay its interns and Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In Foundation has now implemented a paid internship program after being criticized for soliciting an unpaid intern.
The Department of Labor’s regulations are one reason why Alex Hochman, assistant director of career services at University of San Francisco, says that unpaid internships after graduation are becoming less and less available. “I’ve been the internship coordinator for eight years now, and it’s something I saw far more of back in 2005-2007.” It is here where lack of data becomes an issue. There isn’t anyone keeping statistics on graduates, and even colleges don’t have numbers that identify if their graduates are interning.
Hochman concedes that there are certain fields in which it is still tough to get paid positions. He notes journalism as one, and adds that nursing graduates at USF have now come to expect that they’ll have to move at least 50 miles to get a paid position.
Hochman’s otherwise optimistic outlook may have something to do with the fact that the Bay Area is faring much better than the nation economically. In July 2013, the most recent data available for local areas, the nation’s unemployment rate stood at 7.7 percent; California’s was 9.3 percent, while the San Francisco metropolitan area had a 5.7 percent unemployment rate. That is compared to a 7.7 percent unemployment rate of the neighboring Oakland metropolitan area.
Barry Thompson, executive director of career services for undergraduates at Tulane University in Louisiana, expressed a cautious optimism. “What we’re seeing this year is that participation by employers is growing,” he said, referring to attendance at career fairs and on-campus interviews. “That’s not to say that it’s not difficult,” he added. “It has been a greater challenge, and certainly there are college graduates that are leaving and aren’t getting the jobs they want.”
It’s not the short-term consequences or individual satisfaction that worries Reutschlin, but the long-term impact of today’s job market. “Young people now are just barely getting by or getting into debt, which is going to have a lifetime impact,” she said. Reutschlin noted the phenomenon of labor market scarring—the fact that young people are starting at lower wages or at unemployment so even if the market improved dramatically, the earnings and employability of the young people affected by the recession will decrease over their lifetime and have a long-term impact.
Furthermore, though everyone agrees that even without pay, an internship can provide valuable experience and networking opportunities, it is not a luxury in which every young person can indulge. “[Internships have] significant benefits,” noted Ruetschlin, “but they are distributed disproportionately to people who are already at a benefit in the labor market.”
That is no more apparent than for graduates who cannot afford to take unpaid internships due to student loan debt, or simply because they need to support themselves financially. If taking an unpaid internship is not an option, these populations fall farther from their goal of building substantial work experience in their 20s to be able to advance in their careers later on.
Eisenbrey noted that hiring people with the expectation of not paying them was not the norm 20-30 years ago but that it is becoming one. “If we get to the point where we think that college graduates and people with skills and experience can be hired without being paid, then people with less education, fewer skills and less experience will be in worse situations,” he added. That would have repercussions across all levels of the economy collectively, not just for individuals taking on unpaid work.
More thoughts on unpaid internships:
By Mehroz Baig
“We are dancing on the edge of tyranny,” said Brian Michael Jenkins at a recent Commonwealth Club program. We have in place the institutions and the machinery that can move us in a more controlled direction, if a less benign government were to take advantage of the current systems in place, he added. Jenkins is the director of the Mineta Transportation Institute’s Transportation Safety and Security Center and author of When Armies Divide: The Security of Nuclear Arsenals During Revolts, Coups, and Civil Wars. An expert on terrorism, Jenkins is referring to the current surveillance landscape.
Jenkins spoke at the Commonwealth Club shortly after Edward Snowden leaked information about the NSA’s surveillance program, and though he does not condone Snowden’s actions or condemn any specific program, he says that the mindset with which our policies are being created is troubling. “The real thing that is a cause of concern is the accumulation of secret programs, the accumulation of extraordinary measures, the assertions validated by Congress of extraordinary executive authority, he said. “It is the cumulative effect of those that causes the greatest concern.”
He also said that 9/11 shifted how the United States responds to threats: “We’re not driven by what terrorists have done. We are driven by our apprehension of what they might do. And that’s a difference. And that’s an effect of 9/11.… It fundamentally altered our perceptions of plausibility. That is, far-fetched scenarios that were dismissed as the stuff of Hollywood scripts the day before 9/11, the day after became operative assumptions.”
It is important to understand the thinking behind our response to terrorism. With an organization that is fluid, functions across states and borders, and one that utilizes any means at its disposal, the United States faced a nontraditional threat. As such, the government and its associated agencies took action that they felt was necessary for our nation’s safety. However, Jenkins reminds us that our nation was founded on the principle of checks and balances, and the three branches of government — executive, judicial and legislative — work with and against one another to ensure a balance of power. In the aftermath of 9/11, that balance shifted to the executive branch, with sweeping legislation such as The Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act, or more commonly known as the USA PATRIOT Act. This legislation provides the government with much latitude when it comes to accessing property or records or keeping individuals under surveillance.
Whether such measures are necessary or not is up for debate and continues to be argued in both directions. However, Jenkins’ caution is worth noting: he is very careful to observe that “a less benign government” can also misuse the authority it has. With legislation such as the Patriot Act and programs such as the NSA’s surveillance program among others, the executive branch holds within its hands immense ability to go about searching, seizing and interrogating anyone and anything it pleases.
And though we hope that our elected officials will act for the good of our nation and with regard to the rights and liberties that our founding fathers prescribed, there is no guarantee that the outcome will be so benevolent. After all, our elected officials are also human beings and while they may think that they are doing the right thing, simply thinking doesn’t make it so. We now know and understand that interning U.S. citizens of Japanese descent during WWII was neither right nor constitutional. Many people make the same argument for detainees at Guantanamo. Yet the difference is that those incidents were or currently are restricted to certain populations. It doesn’t make them right, but because they affected a small portion of the population, they were or continue to be tolerated. What if that restriction was taken away? Though it is unlikely that the U.S. government will use its powers against all Americans in as abusive a way as was done with Japanese-Americans or the detainees at Guantanamo, Jenkins is right to be worried. Our legislators have put us on a path that could get much more dangerous if we aren’t looking ahead to what we’ve set up for ourselves.
By Mehroz Baig
“They really suffer in silence,” said San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón at a recent program at The Commonwealth Club. He was referring to victims of the most recent crime wave to hit San Francisco: blessing scams. Especially targeting older, Asian, Cantonese-speaking women, the scam came to the police and district attorney’s attention approximately a year and a half ago.
“Suspects typically work in groups of two to four people,” said Gordon Shyy, public information officer for the San Francisco Police Department. “They prey on older victims, because they are more susceptible to the story they tell.”
The story Shyy is referring to is the scam: One suspect approaches a potential victim on a crowded street or in a marketplace and strikes up a conversation in Cantonese or another Chinese dialect. They steer the conversation toward family and eventually reveal that they sense a negative energy or impending death in the victim’s family. The suspect will then suggest a blessing to avoid potential catastrophe. At this point, a second person pretends to overhear the conversation and suggests a third person who can perform the blessing ritual that will rid the victim’s family of negative presences. These two seeming strangers suggest going to the third person who can perform the blessing. The third person asks the victim to bring all of her valuables to be blessed. The victim comes back with a bag full of cash and jewelry and the person performs a ritual, during which they switch the victim’s bag full of valuables with a bag full of worthless items. At the end of the blessing, the victim is told to go home and not open the bag for a certain period of time. Of course, when the victim finally opens the bag, hoping to have rid her family of an evil presence, she finds her cash and jewelry gone.
The DA’s office estimates that there are at least 50 victims and they have lost a total of $1.5 million. However, a concrete number of victims is hard to pin down simply because the crime is underreported. “A lot of people probably didn’t report the scam because they were too ashamed,” said Stephanie Ong-Stillman, a spokesperson for the San Francisco District Attorney’s office.
Albert Samaha, a staff writer for SF Weekly who has reported extensively on the topic, agrees. He said that in addition to victims suffering physical reactions like loss of appetite or inability to sleep, “afterwards, consistently across the board, there is deep shame.” He further noted that it is imperative to understand the context in which these scams are taking place, within immigrant communities by people who speak the language. This scam is no different from any other scam: “the only differences are the specifics. All cons are the same — they prey on beliefs and desperation.”
Samaha noted that historically in the United States, immigrant communities have found success by joining together and building up collectively. Scammers in these cases use that to their advantage, by starting conversations in Cantonese. “[There is an] implicit trust in the scam artist because of the nature of immigrant communities,” Samaha said. That’s precisely the message the DA has touted in his public education campaign, emphasizing the fact that victims are not foolish to have been scammed in this manner. “This is a real crime. This is a real victim. And no, she did not have it coming to her,” said DA Gascón. He further added, “They’re just getting taken advantage of based on the vulnerability that they have, but, by the way, guess what? We are all vulnerable in our own different ways.”
The DA’s office and SFPD believe that these crimes may be connected. Ong-Stillman noted that blessing scams are not only occurring nationwide, but around the world. “We suspect that [the criminals] are all part of a larger ring — they all came from a similar region in China and they are moving around a lot.” However, neither the DA nor the police have enough evidence to prove a connection. Yet separately, the DA has obtained convictions in two out of the three blessing scam cases being tried; the third trial has yet to begin. As the first jurisdiction in the nation to have successfully prosecuted perpetrators of blessing scams, the DA is now advising other jurisdictions on prosecution strategies.
To address the scams locally, the police department and district attorney’s office collaborated with Hong Kong police to create a robust public education campaign. Hong Kong had seen a rise in blessing scams in the early 2000s and used a public education campaign effectively to counteract the scams. The San Francisco campaign consisted of public meetings, ads on Muni, and a multigenerational approach using social media, brochures, and giveaways, such as reusable tote bags with warnings about the blessing scam. “We imagine that if a swindler sees a woman with that bag, maybe they won’t target her,” said Ong-Stillman. At the very least, the bags along with other efforts will spread the word about these crimes.
“It seems to have worked,” said Shyy of the SFPD, and added that no incidents of blessing scams have been reported since February 2013. “But we are very vigilant because we don’t want people to become complacent and the suspects to come back.” Samaha agrees. “The crime only works if the victims don’t know about it,” he said. And in that train of thought, the DA’s office will continue educating the public. “Currently the best thing to do is prevention and education,” added Ong-Stillman.
Prevention is especially key, because in many of these cases, victims barely recover their losses, if at all. The DA estimated a $123,000 loss in cash and jewelry among five victims in the first case it prosecuted; however, only $17,000 was recovered, which will be split among the victims. The only case in which the entire amount was recovered was the second case, where an undercover operation led to the suspects being apprehended as they were leaving with the victim’s savings—a total of $47,000. To complicate matters, the DA is also wary of people inflating their reported losses, or falsely claiming a loss, Samaha noted. In many cases, victims cannot identify the perpetrators, in which case restitution becomes impossible.
Prevention via education then becomes the most effective tool for combating such a scam. And the DA is quick to note that the educational campaign is not restricted to the affected communities. “Part of what we try to do is educate, not only dealing with the communities that are being impacted, but educating the communities at large that we’re all in this together.”