Monday, July 30, 2012

ANS -- Q&A: Paul Polak, author of Out of Poverty

When I first read it, this article was three pages. Now it only gives me one page.  Computers.  But it's worth reading anyway, however truncated....   It's about a guy who has some original ideas about new markets that help poor people. 
find it here:  

Q&A: Paul Polak, author of Out of Poverty

By Christina Hernandez Sherwood | July 30, 2012, 3:00 AM PDT
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[] Multinational companies are ­ at their own peril ­ ignoring a major market, according to Paul Polak. They're missing out on more than two billion customers who wouldn't just increase their profits, but could ensure their long-term survival. Who are these consumers? They're people living on less than $2 a day ­ and they make up about 40 percent of the world's customers.

Thirty years after starting a business selling products that helped small farmers in developing countries grow their crop yield, Polak is now launching global companies aimed at changing the lives of hundreds of millions of poor people worldwide. His projects range from developing a factory for producing an affordable coal alternative to teaching students to design products for the "other 90 percent," people living on $600 a year or less. I spoke with Polak last week. Below are excerpts from our interview.

You're a psychiatrist by trade. How did you come to shift your focus to the world's poor?

When I was working as a psychiatrist in southwest Denver, I was in charge of a mental health system serving about 100,000. People who were chronically mentally ill benefited more from poverty strategies than formal psychiatric therapies. I started working on improved housing and other opportunities for the chronically mentally ill. Being able to hold a job and have a regular income and improved self-esteem significantly reduced readmission rates to hospitals. I realized that people who were chronically mentally ill in Denver were living on $600 a month. And there were people in the world living on $30 a month.

We started treating the chronically mentally ill as customers for mental health services rather than as patients. I did the same thing for one acre farmers I met in Bangladesh. That was so fascinating that I ended up spending all of my time on practical solutions for poverty for people who lived on $1 or $2 a day.

In your TED talk, you said we need a revolution in the way products are designed, priced, marketed and delivered. What would that look like? Are we seeing any of these changes yet?

All of Western design and Western businesses focus virtually all their attention on the richest 10 percent of the world's customers. The other 90 percent are pretty much ignored. In business terms, that's a new growth market opportunity. This population starts at an income of about $600 a year. There are encouraging beginnings of markets serving that population. One very clear example is mobile phones. That's a purely commercial, new movement and it has reached virtually every person. Even someone on $1 or $2 has access to a cell phone, whether or not they can afford to buy one. That's a whole new market.

We need a revolution in how businesses design, price, market and deliver their products because on $2 a day customers can't afford the cost of products designed for wealthy customers. The design process is based on what I call the ruthless pursuit of affordability. That doesn't mean you make shoddy products. You change the design criteria. You have to change the distribution pattern. Many people who live on $2 a day live in small villages. There's a real challenge in creating last mile supply chain. We have to create whole new distribution and marketing systems to reach these populations. It's a vast new market. You can't just take products that are popular for wealthy customers and make cosmetic changes to them and sell them to poor customers. You have to create a new product line with new criteria that are attractive to poor customers. But if you do, there vast new profits.

You say treating the world's poor as potential customers can help businesses with their bottom line. So why don't companies do this?

The first misperception is that you can't make money in emerging markets. There have been a lot of examples that you can. Secondly, many businesses don't have a clue how to design products that would be affordable enough to be attractive to the other 90 percent and have the features those customers value. Third, most multinationals don't have a clue how to distribute to small rural villages in a way that is economically profitable. Those are three of the biggest reasons why businesses aren't investing in this space. But there are lots of examples of major profitability in emerging markets.

What are some specific opportunities for businesses that want to reach the other 90 percent?

Big companies are realizing they can't continue to operate under the assumption of unlimited access to energy and world resources. The energy is not in unlimited supply. There's an increasing realization of carbon emissions having a negative effect on the environment through climate change.

Here's an example: coal currently contributes 40 percent to carbon emissions globally. There are six billions tons of coal consumed each year. At the same time, the planet produces four billion tons of agricultural waste products like peanut shells. If we could harness one billion tons of agricultural waste and add another billion tons of invasive plant, making electricity could be transformed by using various versions of compressed biomass. The problem is that a lot of that biomass is at scattered, rural locations. One opportunity is new technology European firms are investing in called torrefaction. The plants European utilities are designing start at $10 million. You can design the plants for much less [because the torrefaction] process is not that complicated. One of the companies I started is designing a $10,000 torrefaction plant with a four kilometer collection radius. One of these plants will produce five to seven tons of marketable coal replacement. You could essentially lower global carbon emissions by 10 to 15 percent by taking advantage of agricultural waste and invasive plant and converting them into a coal replacement. Each of these village enterprises that makes a biomass coal replacement might cost $10,000 to $20,000 and generate income at the village of $700 a day. It would be transformative for poverty. It would create new employment. It would create more affordable energy sources. It would make a positive impact on global carbon emissions.

That's one example. There are many others like that. Nobody has tried to build a $10,000 torrefaction plant. We're in the R&D phase of building and testing that plant in India. If that works, I'm forming a global company that will spread that approach all over the world. I'm in the process of creating four global companies, each of which has the capacity of reaching 100 million $2 a day customers generating $10 billion a year in sales and making an impact on world economies and the environment. I'm doing that to demonstrate that profitability and serving $2 a day customers at scale is not only feasible. It's necessary for the survival of many of the existing global companies.

You also sell products to people living on less than $2 a day. Talk about these products and the idea behind the slogan "cheap is beautiful."

Thirty years ago, I started International Development Enterprises. That's a development organization where I learned a lot of the things I've been talking about. That company has helped 20 million $1 a day small farmers move out of poverty. They did it by designing radically affordable irrigation equipment in the beginning. I started by interviewing at great depth $1 a day small farmers. I've done interviews with 3,000 families over 25 years. What they needed most to move out of poverty was to increase their income from farming. To do that, they needed affordable water control. If they could get affordable access to water during the dry season, they could get three times the price they get in the rainy season.

We started with a simple device called a treadle pump. It's like a StairMaster with a couple of bamboo treadles. Walking is the most effective muscular action that translates work into pumping water. In Bangladesh, water is only 15 feet down. You can install a treadle pump that allows you to pump water through a filter. A treadle pump costs $8 in Bangladesh. Drilling a tube well and putting a treadle pump on top of it costs a total of $25. At that price, the manufacturer of the pump, the dealer and the village technician who installs the pump all make a profit. With that investment of $25, a farm family can grow half an acre of vegetables in the dry season and increase their income by $100 a year net on average. We worked through a network of 3,000 dealers and 75 manufacturers. That network sold 1.5 million treadle pumps. We applied that model to other products like low-cost drip irrigation.

You can't donate people out of poverty. They have to invest their own time and money to move out of poverty. When you sell them something at a fair market price, it changes the whole design process. You can't give away things you think would be nice. You have to design things that poor people will buy. That's a whole different process. Out of that came three rules that have been both widely criticized and adopted for designers for the other 90 percent:
  1. If you haven't talked to at least 25 customers in some depth before you start, don't bother.
  2. If it doesn't earn three times the investment cost in the first year, don't bother.
  3. If you can't sell a million of them, don't bother.

We found many products that could generate a 300 percent net profit for the purchaser in the first year and that had a potential global market of at least a million. Since I've handed over IDE to my successor, I've used the same principles but lifted the bar to 100 million customers for each company I'm starting. We're creating companies in water, energy, health and education.

People often feel that poverty is an insurmountable problem that can't be solved on a personal or local level. What do you say to that?

In my book, Out of Poverty, I describe 12 practical steps for addressing any social problem whether it's in a country like Bangladesh or a poor rural area in California. The first three of those steps are the most important. They are:
  1. Go where the action is - You can't come up with a solution to a problem of homelessness in your city by thinking about it. You have to talk to a lot of homeless people and learn what their lives are like.
  2. Talk to the people with the problem and listen to what they have to say - Listening doesn't necessarily mean just the words. It's listening with your whole soul. Ninety percent of the information is not in words. Do they have a watch on their wrist? Are they overweight or short of nutrition? How many cabbages are they growing in their field?
  3. Learn everything there is to know about the context of the problem - If you're talking about homelessness, look at the situation in which homeless people live. I spent a day with a homeless man named Joe. He had a need for safe storage. People who are homeless have things they value, but they need secure locker space. That resulted in finding an abandoned building and starting a locker business run by homeless people.

If you follow those three steps, my experience is that practical solutions that make a big impact just fall into your lap.

Photo: Paul Polak on a treadle pump

Sunday, July 29, 2012

ANS -- Official Won’t Enforce Pennsylvania Voter ID Law

This is brave, and just.  He is a hero.  I hope others join him in refusing to enforce this unjust and unconstitutional law.  Very short article.
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Official Won�t Enforce Pennsylvania Voter ID Law

Official Won’t Enforce Pennsylvania Voter ID Law  
Ryan J. Reilly July 27, 2012, 2:45 PM 19453

Christopher Broach, a Democratic inspector of elections in Colwyn, Pa., says he won�t enforce Pennsylvania�s voter ID law.

�To ask me to enforce something that violates civil rights is ludicrous and absolutely something I am not willing to do,� Broach told the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Though there�s the potential he could could face fines or prison Broach said his mind is made up.

�Rosa Parks made the same decision,� he told the paper.

Pennsylvania�s statistics indicate that 43 percent of voters in Philadelphia lack a form of state-issued identification. The law is currently on trial in state court and the Justice Department is conducting a federal investigation into whether the law is discriminatory.

Answering a question from a reporter this week, Gov. Tom Corbett couldn�t remember what types of IDs were accepted under the law he signed.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

ANS -- This graph of whooping cough cases in Washington State should scare the crap out of you

This is scary.  It's about a huge increase in Whooping Cough cases in Washington state (and elsewhere).  The article was suggested by Brad Hicks.   If you like to read comments, there's a tolerably good discussion after this article.  What do you think about vaccinations?
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Jul 25, 2012 10:20 AM
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This graph of whooping cough cases in Washington State should scare the crap out of you

[]  Robert T. Gonzalez

The United States is in the middle of its worst whooping cough (aka pertussis) outbreak in over half a century, but few states have been hit as hard as Washington. This graph, released just a few days ago by the CDC, compares the state's pertussis cases in 2012 against those documented in 2011 ­ and the difference is downright staggering.

A 1300% Increase

The graph plots the number of cases of pertussis by week of onset from January 1, 2011 through June 16, 2012. See those relatively short, stubby looking grey bars? Those correspond to pertussis cases documented in 2011. The gigantic, dark-blue bars? That's what Washington is facing today. Between January 1 and June 16 of this year, a total of 2,520 pertussis cases have been reported. By this time last year, the state had seen just 180 cases. That translates to a mind-boggling 1300% increase.

Put simply: things are very, very bad. In fact, they're even worse than state officials predicted they would be. Back in May, Washington's health department spokesman Tim Church warned that the state risked ending 2012 with 3,000 pertussis cases if steps were not taken to "stem the tide" of infection (3,000 pertussis cases would be the highest number Washington has seen since the 1940s). Fast forward to today, and the 3,000-case threshold seems not just likely, but inevitable.

There is a very real chance that Washington's pertussis cases will continue to skyrocket in the months to come. Notice how 2011's grey bars get taller and taller as the year proceeds; 786 (81%) of Washington's 966 pertussis cases in 2011 were reported during the second half of the year. If the number of cases in 2012 continues along a similar trajectory, the results will be nothing short of devastating. (It's worth pointing out that the drop in 2012 numbers in recent weeks, overlaid in the graph up top by a shaded bar, corresponds to a lag during which additional cases likely occurred during 2012, but had not yet been reported to Washington's Department of Health).

What's Causing It?

Explanations vary. On one hand, the pertussis bacterium could be developing a resistance to the childhood vaccine (DTap) and adolescent/adult booster (Tdap); but Washington's rate of infection is still ridiculously high.

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Look at it this way: the country is in the middle of its worst outbreak in half a century, so pertussis infections are up across America; yet Washington's pertussis incidence is still more than seven times that of the national average (second only to Wisconsin). That, say experts, points to a more pernicious problem: the anti-vaccination movement.

So-called "antivaxxers" have an unusually firm foothold in the state of Washington. Last year, The Seattle Times reported that "Washington [state] parents are choosing not to vaccinate their kindergartners at a rate higher than anywhere else in the country."

"When the vaccination rates drop, everyone becomes more vulnerable to infectious diseases," writes Steven Salzberg, a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, in a recent blog entry. He continues:

When more than 90% of the population is vaccinated, we have "herd immunity" ­ this means the disease can't spread because there aren't enough susceptible people in the community. So the high rate of vaccine refusal in Washington makes it easier for whooping cough (and other diseases) to spread.

This graph of whooping cough cases in Washington State should s

What's Being Done?

Thankfully, state officials in Washington believe in vaccines, and have spent upwards of a million dollars on a comprehensive vaccination campaign. The Seattle Times reports that the Department of Health has ordered 41,400 doses of vaccines since last month, and that counties are working with local health agencies and pharmacies to distribute them at a fraction of the normal cost of 60 dollars.

"Most insurers cover the cost of the vaccine, reports Seattle Times' Kibkabe Araya, "But with the state-supplied vaccine, the price drops to a $10 to $15 service fee if the underinsured or uninsured customer can pay. Otherwise, the fee is waived."

Remember: Washington is just one part of a nationwide pertussis outbreak, the likes of which the U.S. hasn't seen in fifty years. Pertussis is a nasty, nasty disease. It's highly contagious, typically manifests in the form of a violent, uncontrollable cough that can persist for months on end (it's also known as the 100 days' cough), and is fatal in an estimated one in 100 infants. With cases on the rise, you owe it to yourself and those around you to talk with your doctor about getting vaccinated, or getting a booster.

Additional Resources

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

ANS -- Ripples from Pebble felt far from Alaska

Brad Hicks says, "Again I only get US news from a UK paper: a half-trillion in gold and copper vs. the last intact salmon run."
This is about a choice: mining or salmon.  Reading this makes my stomach hurt. 
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Ripples from Pebble felt far from Alaska

Even Republicans are against the huge Pebble mine, which could ruin a pristine salmon fishery – but locals are in two minds Drilling for core samples at the proposed site of Pebble mine b  
Drilling for core samples at the proposed site of Pebble mine by Lake Iliamna in Alaska. Iliamna is the largest undeveloped lake in the US and a crucial nursery for young salmon. Photograph: Bridget Besaw/ Bridget Besaw/Aurora Photos/Corbis

Rick Halford is a "manifest destiny" kind of Alaskan. He cleared his land with dynamite. He calls himself the "ideal redneck Republican". As a longtime leader in the state legislature, he never met a hard-rock mine he didn't like.

That is, until he took a long look at the proposed Pebble Mine in south-west Alaska. It is a phenomenal prospect, the biggest and richest in North America. But to dig a mine there is to make a Faustian bargain that involves an agonizing Alaskan twist.

In return for copper and gold worth an estimated $500bn (£320bn), state and federal regulators risk poisoning what scientists describe as the last best place on earth for millions of wild salmon.

"If God were testing us, he couldn't have found a more challenging place," said Halford, who helped write Alaska's industry-friendly mining laws when he was president of the state senate.

The global mining corporation Anglo American and its Canadian partner, Northern Dynasty Minerals, which have formed the Pebble Partnership, want to dig one of the world's largest open-pit mines – up to three miles wide and 600 metres deep. They want to do it in the near-pristine watershed of Bristol Bay, home to the world's largest sockeye salmon fishery.

Worry about the mine, in a place where extensive exploration and drilling has been going on for more than a decade, echoes far beyond south-west Alaska. Major environmental groups have mobilised against it, with the backing of eminent salmon scientists and celebrities such as Robert Redford.

More than 50 top jewellers around the world worldwide, including Tiffany, Zales and Boucheron, have promised not to use gold that comes from Pebble. Restaurants, chefs and seafood distributors across the US have also come out against the mineit. Its supporters include Sarah Palin, who backed the project when she was state governor.

The proposal has triggered partisan infighting that reaches from the Alaskan tundra to the halls of Congress, where House Republicans accuse the Obama administration of plotting a pre-emptive move to kill the mine.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) described the Bristol Bay fishery as "a significant resource of global conservation value" in a report this year. It noted that more than 14,000 people had jobs based on salmon fishing, which sustainably generates $480m a year. It also warned that, during the lifetime of the Pebble Mine, accidental spills of waste were likely to pollute some waterways, creating the potential for killing salmon and poisoning their habitat for many years.


The EPA's draft scientific assessment of mining impacts on salmon outraged Northern Dynasty. It called the study in June as "a fundamentally flawed document that is premature, rushed, omits key sources of scientific data … and distorts other data to arrive at conclusions that are simply not supported in science".Executives at the Pebble Limited Partnership, a company owned in equal parts by Northern Dynasty and Anglo-American, say they have the know-how to operate an open-pit mine in the Bristol Bay region for a hundred years or more -- without significant harm to salmon fishing.

"I really do think you can do both," said John Shively, chief executive of Pebble, told the US documentary series Frontline. Pebble's slogan is "Fish Come First."

Protecting salmon in perpetuity from mining waste is a corporate pledge that Native Alaskan fishermen find impossible to believe. They note that the Pebble site occupies a soggy saddle of land between the salmon-rich Nushagak and Kvichak rivers, which flow through the heart of the world's most productive sockeye watershed. The site is also prone to extreme weather and big earthquakes.

Jason Metrokin, president of the Bristol Bay Native Corporation (BBNC), the region's largest native-owned business, said leaks of toxic mining waste are inevitable, as is harm to the fishery. The BBNC's 9,000 Eskimo, Indian and Aleut shareholders have voted overwhelmingly against Pebble as a threat to their economy and culture.

Scientists who have studied the long-term biological consequences of hard-rock mining are dumbstruck by the prospect of an open-pit mine in an ecosystem where 30m-40m salmon return from the Pacific each summer – and where commercial and sport fishermen catch half of them without reducing the historic abundance of fish.

"It is essentially a goose laying golden eggs," said Tom Quinn, a University of Washington fish biologist who has studied the watershed and camped there for 25 years. Elsewhere, in North America and across the world, when major mining development has occurred near a salmon or trout watershed, there has been a consistent pattern of pollution that erodes the health of fish or kills them outright, according to Quinn and many other researchers.

Even the best mining technology, engineers and ecologists say, periodically fails to prevent spills and leaks. After mines foul streams and rivers, cleaning up the mess and reviving salmon runs have proven to be expensive, complicated and slow. Fish biologists say that the damage usually turns out to be irreversible given the persistent toxicity of the pollutants, the chronic lack of government money for remediation – removing pollution from soil, groundwater, sediment or surface water – and the history of mining companies in ducking clean-up obligations.

"There really is no such thing as a 'no-risk' mine," said Nicole Vieira, a Colorado State University researcher who studies the effects of mining on rivers in the Rocky mountains.

The federal government is well aware of the risks. It has been obligated by the Endangered Species Act to spend billions of dollars on salmon restoration in western rivers. However, at best, huge spending by taxpayers has helped return only a small fraction of the historic fish runs in what had once been great salmon highways.

In its assessment this spring of the potential impact of open-pit mining in the Bristol Bay ecosystem, the EPA spelled out the costly trouble the Pebble Mine could create. At a minimum, with no accidents or failures, it said that the mine would cause the loss of spawning and rearing habitat for multiple species of salmon, removing about 70 miles of streams and five square miles (13 sq km) of wetlands. More worryingly, the report said that evidence from the operation of similar large mines suggests that one or more accidents or failures would probably occur, releasing toxic waste with the potential to cause "immediate, severe impacts on salmon, and detrimental, long-term impacts on salmon habitat and production".

The EPA says it has the authority under the Clean Water Act to stop Pebble Mine from being built. It is now in the process of determining whether it should use that power. But the agency's report – and the possibility that the Obama administration might stop the mine before the state permitting process formally begins – has prompted an angry response from the state of Alaska and Republicans in Congress.

Leading the charge in Washington is Darrell Issa, a Republican Representative for California and chairman of the House committee on oversight. In a letter to the EPA in May, he said the agency appeared to be considering "an unprecedented and legally questionable" bid "to pre-emptively veto permits for the Pebble project". By moving to stop the mine before other state and federal agencies examined the project, Issa said the EPA was "arriving at a conclusion without all the facts". His letter demands that the agency disclose internal documents related to its assessments of the mine and reveal names of employees who worked on the review.

Alaska state authorities also dispute the EPA's authority to make the assessment, with the state's attorney general calling it "unlawfully pre-emptive, premature, arbitrary, and capricious". The dispute over jurisdiction – and when EPA can weigh in on Pebble – seems certain to end up in a federal court. The push to develop Pebble Mine comes amid surging global demand for copper. Historically high metal prices have given mining conglomerates such as Anglo American plenty of capital to invest in challenging engineering projects and to fight their way through opposition in the courts for years or even decades.

So far, the Pebble Partnership has spent about $450m on exploratory drilling, permit preparations and public relations. If the mine moves forward into production, it expects to spend another $7bn or more on bringing electricity to the site, as well as on the construction of a pipeline, an 86-mile private road for freight, and earthen tailings dams for storing waste. The money would benefit many large and small companies across Alaska.

The world needs more copper. It is a vital component in our gadget-crazed, electrically-powered culture and in devices that reduce use consumption of fossil fuels. Hybrid cars contain nearly twice as much copper as conventional cars. Wind turbines require tons of it. So does the power grid, which is expanding rapidly to hook up windfarms, solar panels and geothermal plants. In China and across the developing world, the need for copper is growing even faster than it is in the United States.


John Shively, chief executive of the Pebble Partnership, said: "If you want to go to a green technology, something has to come out of the ground to build these things. And that's just the way it is."

The Bristol Bay salmon fishery, which environmentalists fear will be badly affected by the mine, is as productive and healthy now as it was a century ago. And in ways that non-scientists often fail to appreciate, sockeye and other species of salmon are fundamental building blocks of life in southwest Alaska. Fattened by their years in the Pacific, the fish deliver about 20,000 tonnes of nutrients to bears, wolverines, eagles and Native Alaskans, according to the EPA assessment. Phosphorus and nitrogen from rotting fish that have died after spawning are vital to plants and trees. Studies show that trees near salmon-rich streams grow up to three times faster than those near waterways without salmon.

North of Bristol Bay, tens of millions of juvenile sockeye come of age each year in a vast salmon incubator called Lake Iliamna. Nearly 80 miles long and 22 miles wide, it is the largest undeveloped lake in the United States. It also happens to be about 15 miles downstream via Upper Talarik Creek from the proposed Pebble Mine – a geographic coincidence that mortifies fish biologists.

"If you were to pick the worst place in the world from the point of view of salmon to have an activity like [an open-pit copper mine], this would be right exactly where they've got it," said Quinn, the fisheries biologist from the University of Washington. "If Iliamna isn't the strongest of the [salmon] strongholds, nothing is."

In its assessment of open-pit mining at the site, the EPA said there is a risk that during the expected life of the mine, some contaminates – including dissolved copper – could wash into Lake Iliamna from pipeline breaks or the failure of water-treatment systems. These accidents have occurred at other similar mines in the past, the EPA said.

In native villages along the shores of Lake Iliamna, residents eat salmon nearly every day. Catching salmon is a seasonal ritual that binds families together, while preserving cultural identity. Salmon, though, are not enough to survive in modern Alaska. To pay bills, villagers say they need cash. The best-paying fishing jobs have always been in towns around Bristol Bay, which is about 80 miles south of Lake Iliamna but not reachable by road. Even in Bristol Bay many native Alaskans have sold their fishing permits to non-Alaskans, who now hold about two-thirds of the lucrative drift-net permits and earn most of the fishery's cash revenue.

Near Lake Iliamna, good year-round jobs were always hard to find. That is, until the discovery of Pebble.

"If Pebble wasn't here, I don't know where I would be working," said Sheena Ishnook, 23. She has a $17.50-an-hour job operating an incinerator in Newhalen, a village on the lake. The job is funded by the Pebble Partnership, as part of its campaign to win over local support.

With her savings, Ishnook bought an iPad and is saving for a snow blower and a pick-up truck. She knows that the mine might harm the salmon she and her family rely on for food. "It is kind of a big risk," she said. "But other than that, it gives us job opportunities, makes us stay here at home instead of moving away."

For several years now, Alaskans have been haggling about – and voting on – the risks and rewards of the proposed mine. Television and radio periodically bombard them with advertisements, some financed by Pebble, others by environmental interests. A statewide vote in 2008 narrowly supported the mine, with the backing of then-governor Sarah Palin. But in the autumn of 2011, residents of the sparsely populated Lake and Peninsula borough, where the mine would be built, voted narrowly against it. The vote was 280 against, 246 for. There are only 1,631 people in the borough, which is about the size of Ireland.

Within days of the "no" vote, Alaska's attorney general, John Burns, launched a lawsuit to invalidate the election, saying that a "small majority of voters" in a local community could not usurp "comprehensive state authority".

The promise of well-paid jobs at Pebble – 2,000 in construction and 1,000 in mining – comes at a time when Alaska is searching for new tax revenues to replace dwindling income from its main oilfields on the North Slope.

Current rules require mining firms to pay salaries and overhead costs at the Alaska department of natural resources when state employees process mine permits. Under these rules, no big mine has been turned down by the state.

The regulations – which Rick Halford helped write in the 1980s when he was Republican leader in the state Senate – have saved money and encouraged small- and medium-sized mine operations, he said. But he now believes the rules undermine the state's ability to evaluate a multibillion-dollar project such as Pebble.

"States are too close to the short-term jobs," Halford said. "It's difficult for the state to say no."

Like many conservative Alaskans, Halford hates it when the federal government, particularly the EPA, intrudes in state business. Still, as much as he would like to see more mining, more well-paid jobs and more economic activity in Alaska, the scope of Pebble – and its perennial risks – have convinced him that any decision about the mine's future should be made at the national level.

"The real hope of stopping this development is the national conscience," he said.

• Blaine Harden reported this story for the documentary series Frontline. The film Alaska Gold will be broadcast in the US on the US Public Broadcasting Service on Tuesday, 24 July

Monday, July 23, 2012

ANS -- How I lost my fear of Universal Health Care

This is an article by a conservative Republican who moved to Canada and experienced the hated Universal Health Care for herself.  Sometimes reality does change people's minds.....
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How I lost my fear of Universal Health Care

When I moved to Canada in 2008, I was a die-hard conservative Republican. So when I found out that we were going to be covered by Canada's Universal Health Care, I was somewhat disgusted. This meant we couldn't choose our own health coverage, or even opt out if we wanted too. It also meant that abortion was covered by our taxes, something I had always believed was horrible. I believed based on my politics that government mandated health care was a violation of my freedom.

When I got pregnant shortly after moving, I was apprehensive. Would I even be able to have a home birth like I had experienced with my first 2 babies? Universal Health Care meant less choice right? So I would be forced to do whatever the medical system dictated regardless of my feelings, because of the government mandate. I even talked some of having my baby across the border in the US, where I could pay out of pocket for whatever birth I wanted. So imagine my surprise when I discovered that Midwives were not only covered by the Universal health care, they were encouraged! Even for hospital births. In Canada, Midwives and Dr's were both respected, and often worked together.

I went to my first Midwife appointment and sat in the waiting room looking at the wall of informational pamphlets. I never went to the Dr growing up, we didn't have health insurance, and my parents preferred a conservative naturopathic doctor anyways. And the doctor I had used for my first 2 births was also a conservative Christian. So I had never seen information on birth control and STDs. One of the pamphlets read "Pregnant Unexpectedly?" so I picked it up, wondering what it would say. The pamphlet talked about adoption, parenthood, or abortion. It went through the basics of what each option would entail and ended by saying that these choices were up to you. I was horrified that they included abortion on the list of options, and fact that the pamphlet was so balanced instead of "pro-life."

During my appointment that day, the midwife asked her initial round of questions including whether or not I had desired to become pregnant in the first place. Looking back I am not surprised she asked that, I was depressed at the time, (even though I did not list that on my medical chart) and very vocal about my views on birth control (it wasn't OK, ever.) No wonder she felt like she should ask if I was happy to be having this baby. But I was angry about the whole thing. In my mind, freedom was being violated, my rights were being decided for me by the evils of Universal Health Care.

Fast forward a little past the Canadian births of my third and fourth babies. I had better prenatal care than I had ever had in the States. I came in regularly for appointments to check on my health and my babies' health throughout my pregnancy, and I never had to worry about how much a test cost or how much the blood draw fee was. I didn't have to skip my ultrasound because of the expense. With my pregnancies in the States, I had limited my checkups to only a handful to keep costs down. When I went in to get the shot I needed because of my negative blood type, in Canada it was covered. In fact I got the recommended 2 doses instead of the more risky 1 dose because I didn't have to worry about the expense. I had a wide array of options and flexibility when it came to my birth, and care providers that were more concerned with my health and the health of my baby than how much money they might make based on my birth, or what might impact their reputation best. When health care is universal, doctors are free to recommend and provide the best care for every patient instead of basing their care on what each patient can afford.

I found out that religious rights were still respected. The Catholic hospital in the area did not provide abortions, and they were not required too. I had an amazing medically safe birth, and excellent post-natal care with midwives who had to be trained, certified and approved by the medical system.

I started to feel differently about Universal government mandated and regulated Health care. I realized how many times my family had avoided hospital care because of our lack of coverage. When I mentioned to Canadians that I had been in a car accident as a teen and hadn't gone into the hospital, they were shocked! Here, you always went to the hospital, just in case. And the back pain I had endured ever since would have been investigated and cared for with whatever X-rays, Physiotherapy or even Surgery that was needed, which would have been at no cost to me. In out particular province, even chiropractic care was provided after a car accident by the provincial care insurance.When I asked for prayers for my little brother who had been burned in an accident, they were all puzzled why the story did not include immediately rushing him to the hospital. When they asked me to clarify and I explained that many people in the States are not insured and they try to put off medical care unless absolutely needed, they literally could not comprehend such a thing.


I started to wonder why I had been so opposed to government mandated Universal Health care. Almost every western country in the world has Universal Insurance of some kind, except the USA. Here in Canada, everyone was covered. If they worked full-time, if they worked part-time, or if they were homeless and lived on the street, they were all entitled to the same level of care if they had a medical need. People actually went in for routine check-ups and caught many of their illnesses early, before they were too advanced to treat. People were free to quit a job they hated, or even start their own business without fear of losing their medical coverage. In fact, the only real complaint I heard about the Universal Health Care from the Canadians themselves, was that sometimes there could be a wait time before a particular medical service could be provided. But even that didn't seem to be that bad to me, in the States most people had to wait for medical care, or even be denied based on their coverage. Depending on where one lived and how rural the area was, one's access to care could be limited, and that was regardless of what country one lived in. The only people guaranteed immediate and full service in the USA, were those with the best (and most expensive) health coverage or wads of cash they could blow. In Canada, the wait times were usually short, and applied to everyone regardless of wealth. If you were discontent with the wait time (and had the money to cover it) you could always travel out of the country to someplace where you could demand a particular service for a price. Personally, I never experienced excessive wait times, I was accepted for maternity care within a few days or weeks, I was able to find a family care provider nearby easily and quickly, and when a child needed to be brought in for a health concern I was always able to get an appointment within that week.

The only concern I was left with was the fact that abortion was covered by the Universal Health Care, and I still believed that was wrong. But as I lived there, I began to discover I had been misled in that understanding as well. Abortion wasn't pushed as the only option by virtue of it being covered. It was just one of the options, same as it was in the USA. In fact, the percentage rates of abortion are far lower in Canada than they are in the USA, where abortion is often not covered by insurance and can be much harder to get. In 2008 Canada had an abortion rate of 15.2 per 1000 women (In other countries with government health care that number is even lower), and the USA had an abortion rate of 20.8 abortions per 1000 women.

And suddenly I could see why that was the case. With Universal coverage, a mother pregnant unexpectedly would still have health care for her pregnancy and birth even if she was unemployed, had to quit her job, or lost her job. If she was informed that she had a special needs baby on the way, she could rest assured knowing in Canada her child's health care needs would be covered. Whether your child needs therapy, medicines, a caregiver, a wheelchair, or repeated surgeries, it would be covered by the health care system. Here, you never heard of parents joining the army just so their child's "pre-existing" health care needs could be covered. In fact, when a special needs person becomes an adult in Canada, they are eligible for a personal care assistant covered by the government. We saw far more developmentally or physically disabled persons out and about in Canada, than I ever see here in the USA. They would be getting their groceries at the store, doing their business at the bank, and even working job, all with their personal care assistant alongside them, encouraging them and helping them when they needed it. When my sister came up to visit, she even commented on how visible special needs people were when the lady smiling and waving while clearing tables at the Taco Bell with her caregiver clearly had Downs Syndrome.


I also discovered that the Canadian government looked out for it's families in other ways. The country mandates one year of paid maternity leave, meaning a woman having a baby gets an entire year after the birth of her baby to recover and parent her new baby full-time, while still receiving 55% of her salary and her job back at the end of that year. Either parent can use the leave, so some split it, with one parent staying at home for 6 months and the other staying at home for 6 months. I could hardly believe my ears when I first heard it. In America, women routinely had to return to work after 6 weeks leave, many times unpaid. Many American women lost their jobs when becoming pregnant or having a baby. I knew people who had to go back to work 2 weeks after giving birth just to hang onto their job and continue making enough money to pay the bills. Also every child in Canada gets a monthly cash tax benefit. The wealthier families can put theirs into a savings account to pay for college someday (which also costs far less money in Canada by the way), the not so wealthy can use theirs to buy that car seat or even groceries. In the province we lived in, we also received a monthly day care supplement check for every child under school age. I made more money being a stay at home mom in Canada than I do in the States working a part-time close to a minimum wage job. And none of the things I listed here are considered "welfare" they are available to every Canadian regardless of income. For those with lower incomes than we had there are other supports in place as well.

If a woman gets pregnant unexpectedly in America, she has to worry about how she will get her own prenatal care, medical care for her child, whether or not she will be able to keep her job and how she will pay for daycare for her child so she can continue to support her family. In Canada those problems are eliminated or at least reduced. Where do you think a woman is more likely to feel supported in her decision to keep her baby, and therefore reduce abortions?

Since all of these benefits are available to everyone, I never heard Canadians talking about capping their incomes to remain lower income and not lose their government provided health coverage. Older people in Canada don't have to clean out their assets to qualify for some Medicare or Social Security programs, I knew older people who went in for procedure after procedure, and we never heard about dwindling resources, kids paying for their parents medical expenses, or being forced to use up life insurance or funeral savings in order to get the health care they needed. I heard of inheritances being left even amongst the middle classes. Something I had only heard about in wealthy families in the USA.

And lest you think that the Canada system is draining the government resources, their budget is  very close to balanced every year. They've had these programs for decades. Last year Canada's national debt was 586 billion dollars, the USA has 15.5 trillion dollars in national debt. Canada has about one 10th the population of the US, so even accounting for size, the USA is almost 3 times more indebted. And lest you think that taxes are astronomical, our median income taxes each year were only slightly higher than they had been in the States, and we still got a large chunk of it back each year at tax time.

In the end, I don't see Universal health care as an evil thing anymore.
Comparing the two systems, which one better values the life of each person?

Which system is truly more family friendly?
Posted by Melissa at Monday, July 09, 2012
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Labels: About Me, Education, Finances, Helpful Tips, Life , Mama Health, Pregnancy, Provision, Things People Say


Sunday, July 22, 2012

ANS -- The Shots Heard Round the World: Argentina's Radical Banking Reforms

This article is about Argentina deciding to use its central bank to help the economy instead of making money "stable".  The conservative bankers, like the World Bank(WB) and the IMF (International Monetary Fund), are predicting doom.  But by now anyone with a lick of sense knows that The WB and IMF are blowing smoke -- their way of managing money doesn't work for anyone but the elites, who get the opportunity to steal everything while everyone else is struggling in disaster mode.  Perhaps that's what they mean....
Find it here:  

The Shots Heard Round the World: Argentina's Radical Banking Reforms

Sunday, 22 July 2012 13:05 By Rick Rowden, Foreign Policy | News Analysis

Argentina pesoes (Photo: Argentina pesoes via Shutterstock)At a time when most governments seem incapable of doing anything about unemployment, worsening economic inequality, and continuing financial instability, Argentina has adopted a set of striking new reforms that will enable its central bank to play a much more proactive role in addressing all of these problems. In fact, the reforms, adopted in March, may be the first shots fired in a quiet revolution in monetary policy. If successful, they could threaten to overturn 25 years of conservative central bank policies that have long been considered best practice by the IMF and central banks around the world.

Argentina's new central bank president, Mercedes Marcó del Pont, said the reforms challenge the conservative axiom that central banks should play a very limited role in the economy. The bank is now rediscovering its sovereign capacity to formulate and implement economic policy, she explained, adding that some of the portraits on the bank's hall of fame would be coming down -- "beginning with Milton Friedman's."

Stalwarts of free markets and "central bank independence" were aghast. The Economist proclaimed that the Argentine central bank had become the "piggy bank" of the government, "losing the last shred of its legal independence." It claimed the government's meddling in the central bank would lead to reckless fiscal deficits and spark out-of-control inflation. Similarly, The Wall Street Journal's Mary Anastasia O'Grady reported the state had "stormed the central bank... destroying the last vestiges of independence," and told its readers to "Cry for Argentina."

Launched by President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and approved by Congress, the reforms formally abandon the central bank's focus on maintaining low inflation to the exclusion of other economic goals. From now on the bank will pursue a triple mandate of monetary stability, financial stability, and economic development.

In other words, rather than merely fighting inflation, the central bank will now play a broader role in economic management. It will safeguard financial stability through the application of corresponding regulation and it will promote job creation and more equitable development through the allocation of subsidized credit to priority sectors. The shift requires the central bank to coordinate more with government policies and priorities -- a radical step away from the 25 years trend of "central bank independence."

A key reform enables the government to use more of the central bank's $47.3 billion in international reserves for servicing external debt payments, which would enhance Argentina's creditworthiness. Previously, the bank was required to have a high level of reserves, but now the central bank's board decides what level of reserves is consistent with its monetary and exchange-rate policies.

A second reform gives the central bank an increased role in supervising the financial system by regulating domestic credit conditions, including loan maturities, interest rates ,and commissions, and preventing excessive risk-taking. A third reform allows for increased central bank help to the government for financing domestic banks and institutions involved in job creation and productive investments.

Supporters say the changes will help Argentina address its diminishing fiscal and trade surpluses in the short term. But more importantly, it will allow for greater financial stability and the use of incentives and disincentives to steer investment capital and loans toward businesses and projects that increase jobs and boost domestic production. Critics say the reforms will lead to over-regulation that will constrain finance, and worry that the government will go too far with new spending.

The changes break a host of taboos in the dominant school of monetarism in neoclassical economics and conservative policy circles -- a bold effort to show that central banks can play more proactive roles by providing credit to promote productive investment and job creation, and doing so with an eye to ensuring greater socioeconomic equality.

Such interventionist policies have been rare in recent years. In the 1970s, the financial services industry complained that interventionist central banks were too easily "captured" by populist governments who recklessly increased public spending in order to get re-elected. They famously complained that too much central bank financial oversight was constraining investors' "animal spirits" and amounted to "financial repression," prompting leaders such as U.S. President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to promise liberalization reforms and "independent central banks."

This began the trend in the 1980s of IMF loan conditions and policy advice that pushed central banks to make decisions in increasing isolation from the fiscal demands of governments -- and thus from voters' preferences. Over the last few decades, low inflation became the leading goal of monetary policy, regardless of what else might be happening in an economy, and any fiscal policy goals had to be constrained to accommodate it. In other words, monetary policy came first, and fiscal policy goals were second. The financial sector benefited from the low inflation and the greater degree of freedom to invest capital in speculative activities afforded by deregulation, but government-spending and public investment consequently suffered.

Argentina's dramatic turn will now allow fiscal policy goals to lead, while monetary policy takes steps to accommodate it. But even after 25 years of having their way, economic conservatives disagree with the new tactic; Abel Viglione, an economist at the Bueno Aires free market think tank Fiel, objects to the new mandate precisely because it once again subordinates monetary policy to fiscal policy.

In response to her critics, Central Bank President Marcó del Pont denied that printing currency necessarily leads to inflation, especially when inflation is rooted in other causes. While monetarists may view inflation as primarily the result of too much money in circulation, Marcó del Pont argued that economists should also consider additional sources of inflation, such as bottlenecks in supply routes or external factors like price hikes on international markets -- factors that have been known to spur inflation in Argentina and other countries like it. In such cases, simply raising domestic interest rates -- as the IMF often demands -- does little to solve the root of the problem. What's really needed, in many cases, is increased public investment targeted at clearing up supply bottlenecks or buffering against external shocks.

Yet it is precisely such increased public investment that is often discouraged by the IMF, which claims that rising fiscal deficits will lead to higher inflation and crowd out more efficient private sector investment. Others point out there is little evidence that deficits lead to higher inflation, and more importantly, it all depends on what exactly the governments spend: If the deficit is used to increase public investment in infrastructure, human capital, technology, and R&D -- measures that will ultimately increase the economy's future productivity (and more than pay for themselves with higher taxes over the long run) -- such deficit spending should be OK. Yet critics of this approach worry the government will squander the expenditures on unproductive investments or wasteful consumption, only adding to the debt burden.

According to economist Gerald Epstein, co-director of the Alternatives to Inflation Targeting Project at the Political Economy Research Institute of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the Argentine reforms are in line with the historical practices of many central banks. In both industrialized and developing countries, central banks were historically more integrated with governments on macroeconomic policymaking, even coordinating credit allocation policies with them. Epstein cites several successful economic recoveries after the Second World War that were based on such collaboration, including examples from South Korea, Taiwan, China, and India.

It will be interesting to see whether Argentina's reforms inspire other countries to adopt similar changes, thus bringing about a sea change in monetary policy around the world. International enthusiasm for Argentina's reforms is building: economists in the UK, the U.S., Turkey, and elsewhere have been sending letters of support. Epstein, a signatory to the U.S. letter, says: "I hope other countries will look closely at the Argentine experience and be inspired to go down a similar path: To transform their central banks to act less as agents of finance and instability and more as agents of equity promoting economic development."

Less enthusiastic about such prospects are champions of financial liberalization, such as those at The Economist and The Wall Street Journal, and at least two generations of economists who've built their careers on the efficacy of central bank independence. In queries for this report, the IMF press office would only say, "No comment."
This piece was reprinted by Truthout with permission or license.

Rick Rowden

Rick Rowden is currently a Ph.D. student in economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi and a former inter-regional adviser for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in Geneva. Previously, he taught global studies at California State University, Monterey Bay; and political science at Golden Gate University in San Francisco.

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Saturday, July 21, 2012

ANS -- The New Totalitarianism: How American Corporations Have Made America Like the Soviet Union

This is an important article.  Threats often come from the direction we aren't looking, while we diligently look in the direction we expect them to come from.  But movements also become their opposites, often.  Read this.
Find it here:   

AlterNet / By Sara Robinson
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The New Totalitarianism: How American Corporations Have Made America Like the Soviet Union

Free-market capitalism was supposed to save us from the tyranny of faceless apparatchiks. But that's not what happened.
July 15, 2012  |  
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The great power struggle of the 20th century was the competition between Soviet-style communism and "free-market" corporatism for domination of the world's resources. In America, it's taken for granted that Soviet communism lost (though China's more capitalist variant seems to be doing well), and the superiority of neo-liberal economics -- as epitomized by the great multinational corporations -- was thus affirmed for all time and eternity.

There's a small problem with this, though. An old bit of wisdom says: choose your enemies carefully, because over time, you will tend to become the very thing you most strongly resist. One of the most striking things about our victorious corporations now is the degree to which they've taken on some of the most noxious and Kafkaesque attributes of the Soviet system -- too often leaving their employees, customers, and other stakeholders just as powerless over their own fates as the unhappy citizens of those old centrally planned economies of the USSR were back in the day.

It's not just that the corporations have taken control over our government (though that's awful enough). It's also that they've taken control over -- and put serious limits on -- our choices regarding what we buy, where we work, how we live, and what rights we have. Our futures are increasingly no longer our own: more and more decisions, large and small, that determine the quality of our lives are being made by Politburo apparatchiks at a Supreme Corporate Soviet somewhere far distant from us. Only now, those apparatchiks are PR and marketing executives, titans of corporate finance, lobbyists for multinationals, and bean-counting managers trying to increase profits at the expense of our freedom.

With tongue only somewhat in cheek, here are a few ways in which Americans are now becoming a new lumpenproletariat, subject to the whims and diktats of our new Soviet-style corporate overlords.

Reduced Choice and Big-Box Censorship

We see it most evidently when we go to the store. Back in the 1970s, the American retail landscape was still mostly dominated by mom-and-pop stores, which in turn carried merchandise also made by small manufacturers (many of them right here in the US). Not only did this complex economy sustain tens of millions of comfortable middle-class jobs; it also produced a dazzling variety of retail choices. Every store on Main Street carried somewhat different merchandise, bought from a different group of preferred suppliers. A shoe store might carry 20 different brands. The shoe store down the street might differentiate itself by carrying 10 of the same brands, and 10 different ones. The result was a very wide range of consumer choices -- though you did have to go from store to store to find it -- and a rich variety of stores that competed aggressively for their customers' attention. And if you visited a different part of the country, the selection might be very different from what you'd get back home.

Now, every Macy's in America carries the same dozen or so lines of bland, middle-of-the-road women's clothing. You'll find exactly the same stuff on the racks in Long Island as you do in Long Beach. If you're looking for something that hasn't been dumbed down to the lowest common denominator, you probably won't find it at the mall.

Big-box stores have eliminated choice even further: The Supreme Soviet in Bentonville or Atlanta or Minneapolis has decreed what appears on the shelves of your local Walmart or Home Depot or Target store, with very little tailoring to local tastes and preferences. (Even our own tap water is being sold back to us by Coke and Pepsi.) You have exactly as many choices as they deign to devote shelf space to. Now that Wal-Mart is selling 25% of the groceries in America, if you're looking for a specific brand that someone back in Bentonville decided Walmart will no longer carry, then you're just plain out of luck. And since the other grocers in town often close up when a Walmart opens, there's no place else to turn to find it.

This constriction of choice is most virulent when it comes to media. Big-box stores have very limited shelf space for each product category they carry; yet they are far and away the nation's biggest purchasers of things like toys and video games. For the past 20 years, this fact has dominated decision-making in both those businesses: manufacturers know viscerally that if the buyers at Walmart aren't interested in your toy or game, there's probably no economic point in even making it. So everything is made with these buyers' sensibilities, prejudices and cost requirements in mind. This became a de facto form of centralized control, where a handful of buyers in Bentonville ended up dictating what the entire country got to play with.

Increasingly, the corporatization of our consumer landscape has meant that there's less choice and variety in our marketplaces than there used to be. Centrally planned franchise and chain stores have been stripped of quirkiness, uniqueness, local color, and anything that might be challenging to the most easily upset among us. The result is that we're left with a bland, santized, Disneyfied set of choices in goods, experiences, entertainment, and ideas that's a far cry from the lively, authentic Main Street scene those stores killed -- and which has brought us several steps closer to the scary stereotype of the limited and poorly stocked state-controlled Soviet shops we were constantly threatened with during the Cold War. Yeah, it's still better -- but not as much better as it should be.

The Sovietization of malls and big-box stores has launched a couple of backlashes. Online shopping is the new refuge of people who are looking for a broader set of options. Local producers of food, clothing, grooming supplies, furniture, and other goods are stepping up to scratch our itch for things that are unique and special. These are both end-runs around the corporatized retail order that's been systematically stripping away consumer choice for decades. But they've got a long way to go before they'll supplant the neighborhood hegemony of Walgreens.

Health Care

The Supreme Health Care Soviet has also done a number on the kind of health care we get, how we get it, where we get it, and who we can get it from. Again: there was a time not so long ago when health care was in the hands of a doctor, who was usually in independent practice (often in a partnership with a couple of other doctors, but that's it), and who had wide leeway to dictate patient care without being second-guessed. The doctor got sound, reliable information on new treatments from respected peer-reviewed journals, and insurance companies generally paid for most of what he or she ordered without further ado. This extreme level of autonomy notoriously led to doctors who overestimated their capacities; but it also meant that whatever happened in an examination room was -- to an extraordinary degree -- left in the hands of the doctor and the patient, and nobody else was entitled to interfere. The result was that, in the struggle between science and the doctor's profit motive, science stood at least a fighting chance of prevailing.

Now, the profit Politburo has had its way with almost every aspect of this interaction. Two-thirds of primary care doctors don't own their own practices anymore -- in no small part because the administrative cost of dealing with Soviet bureaucrats insurance company overseers is so overwhelming. Now, they're salaried employees of some large corporate entity, where they're subject to constant pressure to shorten visits, rack up billable hours, stick to narrow protocols of accepted treatment and churn patients through.

Insurance bean-counters second-guess every order, requiring doctors to put in extra shifts each week writing letters and making phone calls to fight for their patients' right to care. Every channel they rely on for information on new drugs and treatments -- from the peer-reviewed journals to the medical conferences to the drug information inserts -- has been co-opted by the pharmaceutical companies to ensure that doctors won't ever get important information that might reflect badly on profitable drugs; and this, in turn, undermines evidence-based medicine in favor of a kind of corporate-driven Lysenkoism.

Increasingly, states are also inviting themselves into the exam room, passing laws telling doctors what they can and can't tell you about your own condition (and, in some cases, demanding that they out-and-out lie to you, for reasons that are entirely political and seldom supported by science). And as a patient, your access to this co-opted, compromised care is entirely dependent on what the Politburo apparatchiks at your own employer's corporate HQ have decided you deserve to have.

Again: what we've got here isn't anything like a free or independent system, one in which patients and doctors are at liberty to make appropriate decisions without layers of centralized interference (much of it from people who aren't even MDs). And most of this interference isn't from government; it's from various corporate interests that have subjugated both doctors and patients to a centralization regime in order to extract profits from them. During the Cold War, this is what we were told Soviet medicine was like. Now, we don't have to go to Russia: we can get the same regimented, over-managed treatment from our own free-market health system -- and we'll pay more for it than anybody else in the world.

Education: Testing, Not Teaching

My eighth-grade civics teacher used to terrify our class with grim stories about the education endured by our unlucky peers in the USSR. Communist education, she said, was nothing but rote learning -- no discussion, no critical thinking skills, all aimed at preparing kids for high-stakes standardized testing that would ultimately determine their place in the Party hierarchy. They weren't free like we were to explore our own interests, or choose professions that pleased them. Rather than being treated like full, autonomous human beings being prepared for a limitless future of their own design, they were sorted and graded like potatoes, and tracked to serve the needs of the state. All of the decisions, we were told, were dictated by the central authorities in charge of determining what kind of workers the state would need, and which schools students would be sent to in order to fulfill those goals.

The ironies abound. Even as China has ramped up its efforts to inculcate creativity and critical thought in its students, the United States has voluntarily given up on those values -- our competitive edge over the world for the past 150 years -- in favor of a centralized, test-driven schooling regimen that only a Soviet bureaucrat could love. Increasingly, the doors to the best high schools and universities are closed to everyone but those in the top echelons of society, just as the best schools in the USSR were set aside for the children of the Party leadership. But the greatest irony of all is that, far from being done in the name of the state, this is being done by taking education out of the hands of the state and giving it over to for-profit corporations. Again, the more "private industry" gets involved, the more the outcome looks like something from a 1950s John Birch caricature of the horrors of Soviet life.

And On It Goes

These are just three easy examples. There are plenty more to be had:

* Our modern homes are designed by marketing researchers working for Soviet-style large developers that dictate what The People's Houses should look like.

* Our food supply is dominated by Soviet-style government-mandated (but privately run) monoculture.

* Our voting system is increasingly restricted to people who are acceptable to the party hierarchy, just as the Soviet system limited Communist Party membership to a small percentage of the population; and corporate-owned machines count our votes.

* Our increasingly privatized and militarized law enforcement is starting to owe a lot to the brutal Soviet policing style, too. We have gulags now -- and the corporations are running them, too.

* Our response to climate change is being driven by another form of Lysenkoism -- a science-denial movement driven by corporations that are threatened by any demand that they change their ways.

* And anybody who's dealt with a bank foreclosure can tell you stories that would cross Franz Kafka's eyes about the runaround they get every time they try to contact their lender. Checks and papers vanish, and must be sent over and over. Payments are never posted. And you can never talk to the same person twice. (We used to think the DMV was bad enough, but now we know: it takes a corporation to really screw things up.) This kind of faceless, brutally inhuman bureaucracy used to be the stuff of totalitarian nightmares. Now, it's everyday reality for tens of millions of American homeowners.

This is corporate-sponsored tyranny that comes at a huge expense to the masses. The great irony of our age is that, over the past 60 years, the more energy we put into resisting Communism by raising up the cult of the consumer (and the corporations that serviced it), the more our own corporate overlords were able to seize our resources and energy, and divert them into the goal of consolidating their power and inflicting their own totalitarian, centrally planned hell on us.

The USSR has been a historical dead letter for over 20 years now -- but there are still plenty of earnest Fox-watching Americans for whom "communism" remains the most terrifying of all scare words. They're vigilantly watching the leftward horizon, scanning for signs of government-inflicted socialism, ready to strip their own democracy of its very ability to thwart totalitarians if that's what must be done to stop totalitarianism.

Unfortunately, they're facing the wrong direction. The real threat of dignity-stripping, liberty-destroying, soul-crushing oppression is coming not from government, but from the very corporations those same people believed were the key to our superiority over the Communist menace. Now that the government can't protect us from rapacious businesses any more, the centrally planned authoritarian state they've feared is already coming to pass -- privately, for the profit of the few, free from pesky accountability or oversight, and without a bit of resistance from the would-be patriots who have been on guard for decades to ensure it could never happen here.
Sara Robinson, MS, APF is a futurist and the editor of AlterNet's Vision page. Follow her on Twitter, or subscribe to AlterNet's Vision newsletter for weekly updates.

ANS -- What Shaving Taught Me About Capitalism

Does the competitive market always improve products, or does it sometimes just produce hype and increased cost?  That's the question here.
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What Shaving Taught Me About Capitalism

A couple months ago, I ran into an article on TechDirt that linked to another guy's post on his personal blog, both making the same ridiculous point: Shaving technology hasn't really improved since World War II.

Anybody who watches sports in real time (when you can't fast-forward through the commercials) knows this is crazy. For decades, shaving has had a "revolution" every two or three years: disposables, cartridges, comfort strips, double-blade, triple-blade, and now even 5-blade cartridges. Each revolution makes shaving a little more expensive, but it achieves the perfect comfort and safety that the previous revolution fell short of.

Or so the ads say.

But these guys on the internet were saying that all the revolutions were just marketing nonsense, and that I (and just about every other male on the planet) had been taken in by it. Shaving itself hadn't gotten any safer, easier, or more comfortable since the last few bugs were worked out of the double-edged safety razor, a technology that is more than a century old.

All these "improvements", they claimed, had only two purposes:
  • to create a patentable technology that would protect the manufacturer from generic competition for another 20 years or so.
  • to provide a marketing gimmick that would make men fork over big bucks for a product no better than one they could buy cheaply.

That couldn't be right. Could it?

[] Reclaiming the way of my ancestors. It's actually not that simple to find out. My local supermarkets and drug stores sell double-edged blades if you look hard enough for them ­ they get one hook in the whole shaving aisle ­ but the razors they fit into are nowhere. No worries, though, that's what the internet is for: I got a perfectly functional razor (in the old butterfly style my Dad used) for about $20. That lone hook in my supermarket carries 5-blade packs for $2. Above it, rows of 8-packs of Gillette Fusion cartridges go for $32.

Do the math: 40 cents apiece vs. $4 apiece. Even for somebody like me (who goes bearded in the cold half of the year) that could add up.

But what about the experience and the quality of shave? You have to hold the handle at a slightly different angle (because the double-edged blades sit perpendicular to the handle rather than being angled like the cartridges), and that takes a day or two to get used to. After that, in my opinion, the "improved" 21st-century razor is no better and might even be worse.

[] Connoisseur shaving. Once you start browsing through shaving web sites, you quickly discover the other side of the market: straight-razor shaving, like the old-fashioned barbers did before King Gillette (his real name, apparently) invented his double-edged blades. (BTW, it turns out this great American entrepreneur was a utopian Socialist.)

Today, straight-razor shaving is a way for a man to establish his connoisseur identity, and it carries a comparable price tag. A high-class straight razor can set you back hundreds. Then you need a leather strop, and the perfect brush and bowl to mix your special shaving soap, and on and on.

Upper-crust malls have a chain of shops called The Art of Shaving, many of which include a barber chair where a straight-razor professional can demonstrate proper technique.

Does it make a difference? I got the cheap cousin of the classic straight razor ­ a $19 arm-and-handle that holds half of a double-edged blade. Straight-razor shaving turns out to be like driving a manual transmission or baking a cake from scratch. It takes some learning, there's a certain satisfaction to mastering it, and even if you never do it again, you'll have a deeper appreciation of what's really going on when you shave.

Here's the deeper appreciation I got: All blade shaving comes down to covering your face with something slick, and then dragging something sharp across it. You can improve by making the slick stuff slicker or the sharp thing sharper, but pretty soon you've gone as far as you can go. Beyond that, it's all marketing. []

Profit margins. So let's review. Shaving has basically been a solved problem for at least half a century. By the 1970s the patents on those solutions had expired, and nothing of importance has been invented since. In a sensible world, all men would know this and the factories would focus on delivering cheap high-quality double-edged razor blades.

That didn't happen because it wouldn't have made anybody rich. Since a standardized, patent-expired product like the double-edged razor can be made cheaply by anybody, the profit margin is too small to buy Super Bowl ads or pay stupendous CEO salaries.

So instead, the market has gone two ways. The mass market has kept research labs busy churning out phony "improvements" that generate market-protecting patents and give advertisers something to work with. And vast amounts of money have been spent persuading men (successfully!) that there's something new worth paying up for and something primitive about the double-edged safety razor.

For men who have caught on to that game, a connoisseur market sells expensive shaving paraphernalia to bolster an overclass identity. So whether you're a mass-market Gillette-Fusion-type guy or a connoisseur wielding a buffalo-horn-handle Damascus-steel-blade straight razor, you support a market with high profit margins.

Computers, razors, and public schools. This isn't a personal-care blog, so I didn't tell you any of that because I think you care about shaving. Instead, I believe there's a lesson here about capitalism and politics.

Whenever we have a public discussion about the virtues of the free market, we always end up talking about computers. Computers keep getting better and lighter and faster and cheaper because that's what the market does; it forces everybody to improve or die.

So we're always promised that if we turn the magic of the free market loose in some new area ­ if we get rid of public schools, say, and let the market educate our kids, or if we stop regulating healthcare and let hospitals, doctors, and insurance companies compete freely ­ we'll see the same incredible progress we've seen in computers. Everything will get better and cheaper in ways no one can imagine now.

But how do we know that the education market or the healthcare market won't turn out to be like shaving? What if, instead of low prices and spectacular improvements, we get high prices funding marketing campaigns that obscure and denigrate the low-profit-margin solutions that already exist and actually make sense?

Realistically, it could go either way. Neither the computer market nor the shaving market is an invention of some political propagandist. Both exist in the same economy.

Capitalism is double-edged that way. Sometimes the market inspires scientists and engineers to build a better mousetrap. But sometimes it's the advertisers who turn out to be slicker and sharper than the rest of us.


  • []  DanB On July 16, 2012 at 12:39 pm
  • Permalink | Reply Healthcare market? Did someone say healthcare market? Have a look at the recent history of cholesterol drugs (so-called "statins", like Lipitor), or acid reflux medications ("proton-pump inhibitors", or PPIs). I think you'll find a similar pattern there.
    • []  weeklysift On July 18, 2012 at 3:04 pm
    • Permalink | Reply In my earlier draft I mentioned the prison market as a third example, but I took it out because the we-don't-know note I was ending on was totally inappropriate there. We know: The prison industry will do its damnedest to make sure we keep locking up as many people as possible, whether it makes sense or not.
  • []  Rhett On July 17, 2012 at 5:05 pm
  • Permalink | Reply There's one thing I'd like to mention in your musings on shaving. While it is definitely true that the market for straight razor shaving has catered to luxury and high-class buys, it's also the case that it's very easy to become a straight razor shaver without falling into that.

    I've shaved with a straight razor since 2007. My razor is basic steel and the handle is plastic. I got the strop free with purchase, and ultimately bought a paddle with both a strop and a sharpening stone. There's nothing fancy about the brush. I swiped my wife's "Xena: The Warrior Princess" coffee mug to use as my shaving mug. Her friends like to giggle about the fact that my shaving mug says "Worship me like the Goddess I am!"
    My total outlay for my shaving kit is less than the price of most of those straight razors you point to. It is a bit of an up-front outlay, but the razor and strop/stone will last me for the rest of my life, and the brush probably will, too. I've used these tools exclusively for five years, and the only new shaving purchases I've made is for bars of shave soap.
    I don't want to get into a hardcore dollar-for-dollar contest on total cost of ownership, but I do want to simply dispel the notion that straight razor shaving is strictly for conspicuous consumption.
    • []  weeklysift On July 18, 2012 at 3:01 pm
    • Permalink | Reply Rhett: Thanks for your insight. My point wasn't that you can't shave cheaply with a straight razor, it's that (as in the razor blade market) the wind doesn't blow that way. It takes a considerable presence of mind to focus on what's important and not let the marketing trick you.