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A few well-written words can convey a wealth of information, particularly when there is no lag time between when they are written and when they are read. The IPS blog gives you an opportunity to hear directly from IPS scholars and staff on ideas large and small and for us to hear back from you.

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Entries since January 2011

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Oh, Brother

January 18, 2011 ·

Perhaps by now we are accustomed to the annual right-wing co-opting of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s legacy. Over at FPIF, Mark Engler offers an instructive example from the Pentagon. He quotes DoD's general counsel Jeh C. Johnson: "I believe that if Dr. King were alive today, he would recognize that we live in a complicated world, and that our nation's military should not and cannot lay down its arms and leave the American people vulnerable to terrorist attack."

A cursory Google search of "MLK" and "Vietnam" would cast doubt on the notion that the Pentagon is somehow following in King's footsteps in Afghanistan. Such a remark is insidious and intellectually dishonest, but it nonetheless pays an odd sort of tribute to King's legacy, if only to co-opt it.

A truer sign of the times might be the boldness with which recently elected Republican governors have rebuffed the legacy itself. First there was Maine Gov. Paul LePage, who told the state NAACP they could "kiss my butt" after declining an invitation to appear at their MLK Day event. "If they want to play the race card, come to dinner and my son will talk to them," he added, playing the race card on his own adopted son, who is originally from Jamaica.

Now comes Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, who told a crowd in Birmingham, "I was elected as a Republican candidate. But once I became governor...I became the governor of all the people. I intend to live up to that. I am color blind." He then continued with this stirring addendum:

"Now I will have to say that, if we don't have the same daddy, we're not brothers and sisters. So anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I'm telling you, you're not my brother and you're not my sister, and I want to be your brother."

It's a trifle odd that the governor would go out of his way to make this particular exclusion, not least given King's many statements on religious tolerance and his decidedly Gandhian approach to political activism.

A spokesperson was quick to add that Bentley "is the governor of all the people, Christians, non-Christians alike." Governor, maybe...Brother, no.

A Moment for Contemplation

January 14, 2011 ·

On March 26, 2010, millions of mainstream Americans grabbed their coffee and sat down to watch the morning talk show “The View.” The health care debate was raging, with fear-mongering language rising to a feverish pitch. Yet for once the hosts, liberal Joy Behar and conservative Elisabeth Hasselback, finally agreed on something – Sarah Palin's cross hairs pamphlet had gone entirely too far.

After flashing the image on the screen showing Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) as a target, Whoopi Goldberg turned directly to the camera. “I want to put something out to the talking heads still busy inciting this. Whatever comes down from this, it’s on your hands. When you say, ‘Wipe them out,’ and sort of gently suggest that people do stuff…watch yourself, talking heads, this stuff is dangerous,” she said. Hasselback followed up her comments by saying, “I hope no one will take this literally and take this to an extreme but the chance is out there.”

The nation is now debating whether there is a connection between this vitriolic rhetoric and the attempted assassination of Giffords, in which 20 were murdered or wounded in Tucson. Institute for Policy Studies fellow Karen Dolan offers a nuanced look at this issue in her recent essay, "No Ordinary Cross Hairs" and follows up her thoughts with "Sarah Palin: Liable or Libeled?"

As a country in mourning, we have a moment for contemplation. We should reflect on our ingrained culture of violence as well as our political leaders' language. Even after the Arizona tragedy, we probably won't see stronger gun laws, Foreign Policy In Focus co-director John Feffer predicts in World Beat, a weekly IPS newsletter. In fact, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) is currently writing a bill that would allow members of Congress to carry concealed weapons in Washington, D.C.

We, as a nation, seem to breathe in the daily toxicity of hate and violence – be it through an ever increasing military budget, ever-popular shoot-‘em up video games, Internet and real life bullying or so-called leaders symbolically suggesting taking action through violence. We find ourselves living and dying by the sword.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military continues to kill 9-year-olds and other innocent people with real crosshairs in Afghanistan and Pakistan. At IPS, we'll continue to "fight" for peace and civility.

When Science Goes Bad

January 12, 2011 ·

Thirteen years ago, Dr. Andrew Wakefield published a study claiming that the childhood vaccination for measles/mumps/rubella was linked to autism. Last week, the medical journal BMJ began a three part series discrediting this linkage.

Writing in the Baltimore Sun, Adil E. Shamoo and Bonnie Bricker note the study's weakness. The lesson one draws from their argument is that scientific studies must be more rigorous. They write,

The comprehensive new report from the editors of the British Medical Journal flatly accused Dr. Wakefield of using fraudulent data to "prove" his theory. Yet health decisions were based on research conducted with this tiny sample, which by research standards is a clearly flawed practice. Regardless of the strength of the findings or their original publication in a prestigious medical journal, there is no way one can control all of the variables in just 12 subjects.

Beyond the rigors of the study, today, BMJ focused on another problem: money.

Wakefield had been engaged by a lawyer named Richard Barr, who hoped to bring a lawsuit against vaccine manufacturers. Barr ... acted for an anti-vaccine group, JABS. And, through this connection, the man nowadays popularly dubbed the “MMR doctor” had found a supply of research patients for Walker-Smith.

Just like oil and water, medicine and money shouldn't mix. But the medical industry, like politics, has become tainted with money. It also suffers from the revolving door problem seen in politics as well where the line between industry and science is increasingly blurred.

Regulating issues where public safety is paramount, such as medical studies, is a prime example of the role government should play in our lives. The Wakefield case illustrates the danger of having industry largely regulate itself.

Shamoo and Bricker conclude by saying,

The irony of the Wakefield case is that in an effort to spare their children from a dreaded disorder, parents exposed those children to other horrendous childhood illnesses that had been considered remnants of the past.

It should be the role of regulators, backed by independent scientists, to keep this from happening again.

Sarah Palin: Liable or Libeled?

January 12, 2011 ·

I was prepared to point out how the media are succumbing to the paper-tiger arguments from right-wingnut outlets that the so-called "left" is accusing Sarah Palin of whispering in the disturbed inner ear of Jared Lee Loughner urging him to shoot 31 rounds into Democratic public officials and their supporters.

I was prepared to point out that there are, of course, wingnuts on both political sides: on the far left shouting about blood on Palin's hands and on the far right shouting about Obama saying he'd bring a gun to their knife fight.

I was prepared to highlight the fact that most liberal/left commentaries are merely pointing out relatively objective realities. The level of incendiary rhetoric is too high for civil discourse and putting gun sights over congressional districts is irresponsible in such a highly charged political atmosphere, regardless of the presence or absence of schizophrenia and far-right delusional, conspiratorial thinking in the U.S.

I was prepared to try to put to rest the baloney that there's no political bent to Jared Lee Loughner's disjointed anti-government writings that repeat far-right conspiracy theories about mind control through grammar, about so-called conscious dreaming and about the anti-Constitutional nature of a currency not backed by the Gold Standard. The guy may espouse incoherent fringe ideas, but these are, definitively, far-right incoherent fringe ideas.

That's the blog post I planned to write. But then, I (and thousands of my fellow commentators) were accused this morning of "blood libel" against Sarah Palin. The Fox News commentator aired, on her Facebook page, a video expressing condolence. Then expressing confusion, then shock then anger, and finally righteous indignation for being called out for her incendiary rhetoric and irresponsible electioneering tactics leading up to the tragic shootings in Arizona. She accused us of manufacturing blood libel against her.

I checked my publications. I checked my Facebook page. I checked my twitter feed. For the life of me, I couldn't find anyone accusing Sarah Palin of being Jewish. I searched my own and many other commentaries from a wide variety of pundits and reporters. I didn't find a single instance of anyone accusing Sarah Palin of sacrificing Christian children and using their blood to make matzoh.

At a time of searching for answers, a time of mourning the loss of life, a time of collectively putting our heads together to see how we can lessen the chances of this tragedy repeating itself, Sarah Palin very publicly turned the spotlight onto what she perceives as grievous wrongs perpetrated against her.

Against her.

Seemingly ignorant of the meaning, origin, or painful impact of invoking the phrase blood libel, Palin once more failed in her position as a public figure and once more inflamed passions through irresponsible rhetoric. Though occasionally and imprudently used as a phrase to generally refer to wrongful accusation, the phrase blood libel has historically referred to lies spread by anti-Semites seeking to destroy the Jewish people. False accusations of Jews killing Christian children to use their blood in Jewish ritual has served as an excuse for mass-murdering Jews throughout history. It's an inexcusable, genocidal term.

Anyway, I was going to write about how we must examine and change inflammatory rhetoric, especially as used by public officials in this highly polarized and economically insecure time in our nation.

But Sarah Palin has made the case so much better than I ever could.

The Age of Vulnerability

January 10, 2011 ·

Philippine Laborers

Laborers going home from a Philippine
plantation where pineapple is grown
for export.

Photo by John Cavanagh

If you are wondering what the Wall Street crash did for U.S. credibility abroad, listen to this. In the middle of the pain and suffering of the global economic and food crises of 2009, a group of South Asian economists and policy makers met in India and mocked the United States: “You guys messed up, and you’re taking the world economy down with you. Thank God we were smart enough to ignore your advice, so our financial sector was never deregulated, and we still grow most of our own food. We keep government grain stocks to cushion price spikes, and we’re even better than China because we rely more on internal demand than exports so we’re not taking as much of a hit,” as one participant summed up the sentiment of the meeting.

Is anyone in the United States (and other, poorer nations of the world) listening? We certainly are intrigued. So, after 30 years of working on and off in the Philippines, we return to gauge the debate, among members of the nations' new government and among ordinary Filipinos. How is the government and how are Filipinos, we asked, responding to what we call the “triple crises of vulnerability”: the global economic crisis, the food crisis, and the spreading environmental crises of water, forests, fisheries, and climate?

Some broader context is helpful here: For these past 30 years, the United States (along with the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and World Trade Organization) has preached the merits of “free trade”—gearing economic activity to global corporations and markets in order to take advantage of the so-called “efficiencies” of trade and investment with other countries. From the United States to the Philippines to Mexico, governments set incentives and rules so that firms shifted from local to global markets and, in the case of the Philippines, roughly 11 million people ended up working overseas.

Over these decades in most countries, banking was deregulated so that new high-risk financial instruments reaped big gains for investors, but small businesses that once formed the backbone of most economies had trouble getting loans. Firms produced goods in global factories that exploited natural resources and workers from poorer countries like the Philippines where governments offered lax labor and environmental standards. Over this period in the Philippines, the big foreign-exchange earners became overseas workers, call centers for Western firms, electronic exports, and tourism.

In this era of what financier George Soros calls “market fundamentalism,” the rich soared to unimaginable heights (the number of billionaires in the world jumped from 111 in 1987 to 1,011 in 2010) while workers, the environment, and fairness suffered. We now know that this strategy made poorer countries extremely vulnerable to external shocks from the economies of other nations, over which they have no control.

Robin Broad and John Cavanagh

The authors debate their latest book
at World Bank Headquarters.

Photo by World Bank Staff

Indeed, economic crisis struck in late 2008, emanating from the Wall Street casino as a giant bubble in U.S. housing prices burst. Then banks and other financial markets crashed. The crisis quickly spread to Europe and to those poorer countries most tied into Western markets. Turkey and Mexico, for example, found export markets and remittances from overseas workers drying up. Many countries in Asia fared somewhat better, since they traded more with China and India—which partially insulated their economies from such shocks. About half of the Philippines’ global trade and other economic ties, for instance, are still with the United States and Europe; it thus remains vulnerable to a global economic crisis that has defied conventional predictions of recovery.

For most countries, economic crisis has been accompanied by a food crisis, as prices of rice, wheat, corn and other basics soared in 2008, fueled by both unusual weather and opportunistic speculators. This led to widespread protests and unrest in countries like the Philippines, which still imports up to 10 percent of its rice, the country's most important source of calories (it is the most import-dependent of the rice-consuming nations).

Meanwhile, the spread of global assembly lines and trade, heavily dependent on fossil fuels, deepened the climate crisis. The Philippines sits on key lists of the 10 countries most vulnerable to climate change, as the majority of rice and other foodstuff are grown on land that is barely above sea level.

In the middle of such global suffering and continuing vulnerability, what better time to rethink the overall economic and agricultural path? We asked this of a group of Philippine Congress members, led by Rep. Erin Tanada and Rep. Walden Bello. Coming from various political parties, most harbored hopes that global markets would simply pick up again and the Philippines could continue to live off the largess of other countries. But every Congressperson with whom we met in these hallowed halls has been spooked by the food crisis, and we found a refreshing openness to new ideas.

The good news, as we told these members of Congress, is that alternative economic models more rooted in small businesses and small farms are spreading around the world. In the United States, the local farm movement has expanded rapidly; for the first time in decades, the number of U.S. farmers has stopped shrinking. From local farmers markets to the spread of worker-owned cooperatives, creative people are building communities based on rooted economic activity, less inequality, more ecological health, and involving people more directly in the decisions that affect their lives.

We found this also in the Philippine countryside, where we spent time with dozens of farmers. We discovered a growing number who had shifted from so-called “high-yielding” varieties of rice heavily dependent on imported and toxic chemical fertilizers and pesticides to local seeds grown organically and kept healthy by a variety of homemade “concoctions” to control pests and weeds (more on this in our next blog).

Back to the India conference of 2009. The participant ended his report: The global economic crisis “is a blow, but we’ll still grow at 6 percent and we’ll catch you [in the U.S.] even sooner in the global economy than we would have otherwise. Hope you learn something from this.”


John Cavanagh and Robin Broad wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Robin is a Professor of International Development atAmerican University in Washington, D.C. and has worked as an international economist in the U.S. Treasury Department and the U.S. Congress. John is on leave from directing the Institute for Policy Studies, and is co-chair (with David Korten) of the New Economy Working Group. They are co-authors of three books on the global economy, and are currently traveling the country and the world to write a book entitled Local Dreams: Finding Rootedness in the Age of Vulnerability.

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