Monday, April 30, 2012

Money can buy just about anything you like according to Harvard’s Michael J. Sandel in his provocative new book, “What Money Can’t Buy, The Moral Limits of Markets.”

Did you know that convicts can pay cold hard cash for a prison cell upgrade? Or that some cities will let you drive solo in the car pool lane if you pay an extra fee during rush hour? Or that foreigners who want to immigrate to the US can do so for a cool $500,000 down and the creation of 10 jobs in high unemployment areas?

Money talks, some times in rational ways– and other times in exploitative ways. Cell phone access to your doctor can be purchased for as little as $1500 per year. Be a guinea pig in a big pharma experiment and earn $7500. Some $30 billion is being invested in buying insurance policies from ailing elderly patients and then  collecting the death benefit less the cost of paying the annual premiums.

Maybe, says Sandel, the market should not be the guiding measure of the moral life. ” We need to ask whether there are some things money should not buy,” the Harvard prof. , who teaches the immensely popular course on “ Justice”, writes.

We should hesitate to put everything up for sale, he suggests, explaining how it furthers income inequality amongst those who cannot afford all the little social benefits that make life easier.

I’ll be interested to see how the affluent  respond to this moralistic argument, not well I would suppose.. Sandel wants us to rethink markets because sometimes market value crowds out nonmarket values, because money is too dominant in our social and civic life.

I say its perfectly fine to preach on this level from  an Ivory Tower in Cambridge, Mass. Especially as we are still grappling with the recklessness that cause the bailout of Wall Street costing trillions...

How many of us have  the extra cash to pay a fee for fouling the atmosphere or participate in death pools or buy  the increasingly expensive box seating at professional sporting events? Especially in a world where wages and salaries are  flat and corporate profits are pushing the stock market ahead. Ordinary Americans can’t  afford all t he goodies for sale, while corporations can.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

A year after the death of Osama bin Laden, American special operators are training their sights on his successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the former Egyptian Army surgeon widely regarded as the mastermind of major attacks against Americans and other targets. And forces loyal to Zawahiri, who affectionately call him “Glasses” because of his trademark oversize spectacles, are determined to guard their leader.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

What sort of man was the American landscape supposed to produce? The key words that come to mind when viewing Frank Blackwell Mayer’s Independence (1858 – reproduced at the top of this article) are “rugged” and “self-reliant.” The subject is Squire Jack Porter and around him are the fruits of hard work. The American landscape was not (as the earliest colonists hoped) an Eden in which once could live by plucking things off trees. On the contrary, the land had to be tamed and worked. And so, the Squire is surrounded by examples of personal manufacture: a corncob pipe, a wooden bench, his wife’s knitting. Although the size of his porch suggests modesty, the rewards of his labour are his nice clothes. His expression is content but not self-satisfied. And beyond him, yet again, is the ubiquitous dense foliage of the American landscape. This is the model of the self-made “independent” man that the revolution was supposed to create.

If there is hope for the revolutionary ideal, I took it from one of the last paintings on display – Old Black Joe by Horace Pippin. Joe is a former slave and he babysits a young white girl who is tethered to him: the roles have been reversed and Joe is now free. Behind him is an abundant cotton field (no longer an image of oppression, but of profit) and above him the clouds part to provide the eternal reward of heaven. Old Joe has found the freedom that Squire Jack Porter enjoyed one hundred years before – the eternal promise of American liberty. As much of the United States struggles towards a future that offers a mix of abundance and conformity, it is once again to the magical landscape that the true pioneer-in-spirit returns. Squire Jack and Old Joe are the symbols of the republican simplicity and dignity that America so desperately needs to rediscover.

Friday, April 27, 2012

The culture you grow up in usually has a significant effect on the values you hold. If you have moved to another country you become keenly aware of this fact as you are able to contrast the values of your own society against that of your host's.

When people are brought up in a tolerant, cooperative society that values things like community, education and art, more often than not, they embody a least a good proportion of those values in their everyday lives. If they were brought up in a violent, intolerant society that valued war, misogyny and greed, there's a good bet they'd instinctively behave in a way that reflected those values. This is of course an extreme comparison -- culture is complicated and the more I have traveled, the more I understand that when it comes to assessing whether a culture is 'good,' 'bad' or 'better,' it's usually a matter of taste and opinion.

There are certain aspects of America that I find enormously attractive as a Brit -- the openness and friendliness of the people, their generosity, incredible optimism and dynamic entrepreneurialism, and the lack of a stifling European-style class system. It's a great country to live in and in general, I'm very happy here.

However, there is a side to America that I find extremely unsettling -- the relentless fixation on money, the deeply corrupt political system, lack of public health care and the massive extremes in wealth inequality, to name a few. There seems to me to be a very dangerous combination of cultural, political and economic factors that make greed and corruption a staple of American life. And sadly, I think that America is a country so beholden to the interests of the wealthy that I don't hold a huge amount of hope that anything significant can, or will happen to change the status quo.

The roots of the problem are, I believe, cultural. America was founded on the ethos of rugged individualism -- the notion that you could move to the new world, work hard and become whoever you wanted to be. This in itself is no bad thing, but combined with a political system open to the influence of money, it has become positively toxic. The current monetary system, often referred to as 'selfish capitalism' is a ruthless economic paradigm designed to concentrate wealth in the hands of the few and keep the rest of the population in a constant state of insecurity so that they often have to work two to three jobs just to stay alive. This system has been sold to the public as the ultimate expression of rugged individualism -- the very definition of the American way, and the only option other than communism. Of course it isn't, but when the corporate media system owned by the same financial interests that control the political system reinforces that notion day in day out, it's hard for the public to imagine an alternative.

However, for every action there is a reaction, and despite America's brutal treatment of its poor, there is an undercurrent of extreme generosity that I have personally not seen in any other country. Movements like Occupy Wall Street, the explosion of non-profits, and the deep mistrust of the political classes reflect the growing disenchantment with the selfish capitalism model -- a sign that culture in America could be changing. And if the roots of America's problems are cultural, a significant shift in culture could go a long way in changing the political system.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

In 2010 alone, Americans accumulated 250 million tons of garbage, and although recycling in the U.S. has increased by 34% since 1960, the country's attitude to waste is still not sustainable.

"It's very convenient to roll your trash to the curb every week and have it disappear, but it's a magic trick -- and really there's not very much magic,"..."We need to have less packaging; use less disposable items; (use) things that last longer; make purchasing decisions that are more studied and less wasteful."

The environmental impact of landfill sites varies depending on how well they're managed and resourced. However, typical problems include the contamination of soil and groundwater from toxic residues; the release of methane, a greenhouse gas produced during the decaying process that is more potent than carbon dioxide; and disease-carrying pests.

At present, just over half of all U.S. garbage is buried in landfills, a third is recycled and the rest is incinerated to produce electricity, a process known as waste-to-energy.

A recent study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency concluded that incinerating a ton of trash emits at least 35% less greenhouse gas and yields 10 times more electricity than burying it and capturing the methane. So why does America still seem so in love with landfill?

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

"A quiet revolution is happening in America." So says Tim Ryan, Ohio congressman and author of A Mindful Nation, which documents the spread of mindfulness meditation across the US, and argues for its widespread adoption as a way to favourably affect the country's healthcare system, economy, schools and military.

Ryan may not have to worry. The practices he recommends are drawn from Buddhism, but commonly taught as secular disciplines, and (unless I missed it) the B-word isn't mentioned once in A Mindful Nation. Ryan is a Catholic, and positions his plea squarely in the context of western, rather than eastern, tradition – his book is subtitled "How a Simple Practice Can Help Us Reduce Stress, Improve Performance and Recapture the American Spirit". He aligns mindfulness with no-nonsense values such as "self-reliance, stick-to-itiveness, perseverance and getting the job done", as well as the softer sounding "connection, kindness, caring and compassion". The book draws on plentiful neuroscientific and clinical data supporting his claims, as well as interviews with scientists who have tested mindfulness on hospital patients, schoolchildren and even the armed forces.

Some Buddhists are uneasy about the mainstream co-option of mindfulness. Whereas meditators in the 60s and 70s allied themselves with counter-cultures, this movement is happening right in the heart of some very conservative institutions – bankers, government officials, doctors and management consultants are among those being sponsored to pay attention to raisins (a typical opening meditation practice) as a way to enhance not just wellbeing but also productivity and creativity.

Buddhism's second noble truth states that the cause of suffering is craving; is the power of mindfulness diluted when taught as part of the culture in contexts that may support craving? Could it even come to be perverted when employed as an instrument for the "pursuit of happiness" enshrined in the US Declaration of Independence, which from a Buddhist perspective might be viewed as a contradiction? Might happiness come from letting go of attachment even to happiness itself?

Despite the assertion of traditional American values, Ryan may actually be an important radical, willing to use his influence to trigger a shift in cultural attitudes and practices, leading perhaps to less pursuit and more happiness. Having looked at the science, and experienced the effects of meditation in his own life, he is convinced that mindfulness "will be the next great movement in the United States", and declares that: "I would be derelict in my duty as a congressman if I didn't do my part to make mindfulness accessible to as many people as possible in our nation." As the first mainstream US politician nails his colours to the meditation mast, it'll be interesting to see what happens next, both to Ryan and to American mindfulness.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012


Hillary Rodham Clinton
Secretary of State
Maxwell School of Syracuse University
April 23, 2012

I think that trying to go back in time to January of 2009, if you remember the challenges that we were confronting, particularly the economic crisis, which had such severe impacts here at home but also around the world and had certainly affected the view that people around the world had of American leadership.

So coming into the office along with President Obama and the Administration, I was surprised at how much work we needed to do to reestablish American leadership, to reassure people that the United States would get through the economic crisis, that we would continue to provide leadership on the full range of issues that affect us as well as the rest of the world.

I hadn’t fully grasped how nervous people were until I began traveling in February of ’09 about what they could expect from us. Because even when leaders and societies criticize the United States, there’s always, in my experience, a thread of concern about where we are and what we will do and whether we can continue to represent the values that we’ve stood for, and serve as an inspiration as well as a very strong presence.

So what surprised me most, was how much work we had to do in those early months to reestablish American leadership around the world. And I think we’ve done that. That doesn’t mean everybody agrees with us, and it doesn’t mean that we don’t have a lot of work to do, primarily here at home. Because any leadership that we try to convey elsewhere has to be rooted in strength at home – economic strength, political strength.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Welfare reform in the 1990s helped slash cash benefit rolls, yet the use of food stamps is soaring today. About 15 percent of Americans use food stamps. They've become what some call the new welfare.

A big reason why is a deal struck between President Clinton and the Republican-controlled Congress in 1996. At that time, the number of Americans who received cash payments — what's often thought of as welfare — was at an all-time high.

The Clinton overhaul made it much harder to qualify for those payments, and today the welfare rolls are down 70 percent, but that's only if you define welfare in one way.

"We decided cash assistance is welfare and that's bad, but we decided food aid is nutritional assistance and that's good," says New York Times reporter Jason DeParle. "We made [the food stamp] program much easier to get on."

What is true, DeParle says, is that more Americans depend on food assistance now than at any other time in modern history: 1 in 6 people, or almost 50 million Americans. The question is whether this is a good thing or a bad thing.

"Some people would say it is bad because dependency is on the rise because people are on food stamps," DeParle says. "I think there's also a strong case to be made in the opposite direction, that this is a safety net program that has responded to the worst economy since the Great Depression."

Sunday, April 22, 2012

DOES America need an Arab Spring?

A system with as many checks and balances built into it as ours assumes — indeed requires — a certain minimum level of cooperation on major issues between the two parties, despite ideological differences. Unfortunately, since the end of the cold war, which was a hugely powerful force compelling compromise between the parties, several factors are combining to paralyze our whole system.

For starters, we’ve added more checks and balances to make decision-making even more difficult — such as senatorial holds now being used to block any appointments by the executive branch...Also, our political divisions have become more venomous than ever.

In addition, the Internet, the blogosphere and C-Span’s coverage of the workings of the House and Senate have made every lawmaker more transparent — making back-room deals by lawmakers less possible and public posturing the 24/7 norm. And, finally, the huge expansion of the federal government, and the increasing importance of money in politics, have hugely expanded the number of special-interest lobbies and their ability to influence and clog decision-making.

When a country amasses too many highly focused special-interest lobbies — which have an inherent advantage over the broad majority, which is fixated on the well-being of the country as a whole — they can, like a multilimbed octopus, choke the life out of a political system, unless the majority truly mobilizes against them. America’s collection of minority special-interest groups is now bigger, more mobilized and richer than ever, while all the mechanisms to enforce the will of the majority are weaker than ever.

If you have a proper understanding of American history — so you know that government played a vital role in generating growth by maintaining the rule of law, promulgating regulations that incentivize risk-taking and prevent recklessness, educating the work force, building infrastructure and funding scientific research — then a vetocracy becomes a very dangerous thing.  
It undermines the secret of our success: a balanced public-private partnership.

I know what you’re thinking: “That will never happen.” And do you know what I’m thinking? “Then we will never be a great country again, no matter who is elected.” We can’t be great as long as we remain a vetocracy rather than a democracy. Our deformed political system — with a Congress that’s become a forum for legalized bribery — is now truly holding us back.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

This week the Pulitzer Prize board deemed the latest crop of American novels and short-story collections not up to scratch.

The Pulitzers used to be the perfect symbol of the place where America’s pragmatic democratic middle (whose natural idiom was journalism) overlapped with its artsy elite (whose natural idiom was poetry, the novel, drama and classical music). But resources are migrating away from that place. 

Friday, April 20, 2012

This week Gallup had a poll showing only 24% of Americans feel we're on the right track as a nation.That's a historic low. Political professionals tend, understandably, to think it's all about the economy—unemployment, foreclosures, we're going in the wrong direction. I've long thought that public dissatisfaction is about more than the economy, that it's also about our culture, or rather the flat, brute, highly sexualized thing we call our culture...

Now I'd go a step beyond that. I think more and more people are worried about the American character—who we are and what kind of adults we are raising.

Every story that has broken through the past few weeks has been about who we are as a people. And they are all disturbing.

There is the Secret Service scandal. That one broke through too, and you know the facts: overseas to guard the president, sent home for drinking, partying, picking up prostitutes.

This week I saw a picture of agents in Colombia. They were in T-shirts, wrinkled khakis and sneakers. They looked like a bunch of mooks, like slobs, like children with muscles.

Special thanks to the person who invented casual Friday. Now it's casual everyday in America. But when you lower standards people don't decide to give you more, they give you less.

The leveling or deterioration of public behavior has got to be worrying people who have enough years on them to judge with some perspective.

Something seems to be going terribly wrong.

Maybe we have to stop and think about this.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

More Americans than forecast filed applications for unemployment benefits last week, a sign the improvement in labor-market conditions may be stalling.

The number of people continuing to receive jobless benefits rose by 26,000 in the week ended April 7 to 3.3 million.

The continuing claims figure does not include the number of Americans receiving extended benefits under federal programs.

Those who’ve used up their traditional benefits and are now collecting emergency and extended payments decreased by about 20,000 to 3.2 million in the week ended March 31.

Fifty states and territories reported an increase in claims.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Tax time pushes some Americans to take a hike

A year ago, in Action Comics, Superman declared plans to renounce his U.S. citizenship.

"'Truth, justice, and the American way' - it's not enough anymore," the comic book superhero said, after both the Iranian and American governments criticized him for joining a peaceful anti-government protest in Tehran.

Last year, almost 1,800 people followed Superman's lead, renouncing their U.S. citizenship or handing in their Green Cards. That's a record number since the Internal Revenue Service began publishing a list of those who renounced in 1998. It's also almost eight times more than the number of citizens who renounced in 2008, and more than the total for 2007, 2008 and 2009 combined.

But not everyone's motivations are as lofty as Superman's. Many say they parted ways with America for tax reasons.

The United States is one of the only countries to tax its citizens on income earned while they're living abroad. And just as Americans stateside must file tax returns each April - this year, the deadline is Tuesday - an estimated 6.3 million U.S. citizens living abroad brace for what they describe as an even tougher process of reporting their income and foreign accounts to the IRS. For them, the deadline is June.

But those of more modest means renounce, too. They say leaving America is about more than money; it's about privacy and red tape.

On April 7, 2011, Peter Dunn raised his right hand before a U.S. consular officer in Toronto and swore that he understood the consequences of giving up his U.S. citizenship. Dunn, a dual U.S.-Canadian citizen who has lived outside the United States since 1986, says he renounced because he felt American citizenship had become more of a liability than a privilege.

As an American, Dunn had to file tax returns and report all of his bank accounts - even joint accounts and his Canadian retirement fund. If he didn't, he would be breaking U.S. law and could face penalties of up to $100,000 or 50 percent of his undeclared accounts, whichever is larger. Dunn says he was tired of tracking IRS policy changes, and he had no intention of returning to the United States. Renouncing his citizenship, as he puts it, was "a no-brainer."

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

I believe it wasn't just coincidence that both the space race and the civil rights movement reached their respective apogees at roughly the same time: the late 1950s and early 1960s. Think about the integration of Little Rock High School starting barely a month before the Russian launch of Sputnik, which galvanized the United States, pushing it toward not just sending its own satellites, but also getting busy with improving and funding math and science education.

At the time, the tendency was to think of such events as being at best mutually exclusive. I think they are now both logical and synchronous outgrowths of the human impulse to break down barriers and move ahead. The less afraid we are to think outside the box scientifically, the less afraid we are of other barriers, other things that constrict our natures. This week, Major League Baseball celebrated the 65th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier on April 15, 1947. Seven months later, almost to the day, Chuck Yeager poked a hole in the sky with a rocket plane and broke the sound barrier.

I do not say one event led directly to the other (not necessarily, anyway). But I do think both were driven by the same insistent energy to fly higher, push harder, maybe even make ourselves better people in the very long run.
I will try very hard not to consider Discovery's last touchdown as the end of something, though I still fear it may signify the beginning of the end -- not just of a dream, but of our very capacity to dream.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Americans Do Not Walk The Walk, And That's A Growing Problem

"Americans now walk the least of any industrialized nation in the world," says writer Tom Vanderbilt. To find out why that is, Vanderbilt has been exploring how towns are built, how Americans view walking — and what might be done to get them moving around on their own two feet.

Talking with Morning Edition co-host Steve Inskeep about what is wrong with Americans' relationship with walking, Vanderbilt says, "The main thing is, we're just not doing enough of it."

"We've engineered walking out of our existence and everyday life," Vanderbilt says. "I even tried to examine the word 'pedestrian,' and it's always had sort of this negative connotation — that it was always better to be on a horse or something, if you could manage it."

And while Americans have cut down on walking, they've been putting on some pounds. A recent study found that about 35 percent of adult Americans are obese, as NPR's Shots blog reported in January. That equals "more than 78 million adults and more than 12 million children."

"I think we've all had that experience, of just taking a walk to clear your head. And it lowers your stress," Vanderbilt says...

As he writes in the final installment of his series, "There is not a single dollar in the U.S. federal transportation budget dedicated strictly to walking."

Sunday, April 15, 2012

My buddy explained to me how baseball is an analogy for The American Way. Everyone gets a go at the bat. If you hit a home run, that’s great. If you strike out, that’s your lot. It’s very meritocratic, with no prejudice and ample rewards for the talented.

Then there’s the complex relationship between the individual and the team. At face value, baseball’s an individualist sport because it’s all about the man at the bat. He swings, he runs, he’s in command of his destiny. But he’s also playing for the team, and sometimes sacrifices have to be made. If someone’s already at third base, the goal of the batter is to hit the ball far enough to allow his teammate to get to fourth – accepting that he’ll probably get taken out himself as he sprints to first. It’s a reminder that a necessary ingredient for the flourishing of the individual is the health and the wealth of the people around him. For you to succeed, others must succeed, too – and as with baseball teams, so with nations. We’re all in this together.

Another, more stark, reminder of that truth is the role that military pageantry plays at a baseball game. At the start of the contest, the CIA honour guard trooped the colours and we were all invited to stand and applaud the folks serving in the US military. But nothing prepared me for the moving rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner, as sung by a female soldier in combat fatigues. The stadium stood proudly – hats clasped to chests – as she powerfully, beautifully sang the national anthem. “Does that Star-Spangled Banner yet wave/ O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?” It sure does.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Debate affirms American goals

The current health care debate may call into question whether or not Americans are united by a shared set of fundamental values. I would argue that we are. Before skepticism takes hold, consider this.

Nothing better symbolizes these Americans values than "Old Glory" herself. The 13 stripes are reminiscent of our common history, spanning from the American Revolution, to the Civil Rights movement, to today. The 50 stars are equal, exemplifying the common commitment to states' rights and representation in government. The "Stars and Stripes" fly proudly over both the White House and the homes of everyday American citizens.

But, the flag is more than just a symbol. Only people who truly love their country would so deeply revere its flag. Americans are among the most patriotic people in the world, and for good reason. For over two centuries, fidelity to the Constitution has perpetuated a "living" democracy, able to adapt to the unique exigencies of each generation. This is one of those times where Constitutional fidelity will try the American people, but I am confident we will hold together.

Friday, April 13, 2012

He is one of the most famous men on the planet. Adored  by millions. His films are almost always box office smashes. But when Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan travelled to the US on Thursday, he was detained by security for two hours while they checked out his "status".

Ironic, considering his biggest hit film was the story of a man determined to visit the US president and give him a very simple message: My Name is Khan and I'm not a terrorist. 

The film is a powerful look at what it means to be Muslim in the land of the free and the home of the brave.  I wonder if he told Homeland Security that he wasn't a terrorist. 

Yet I feel as though that's exactly what I am. A criminal. Each time I sat in this holding facility I looked around at the people sat with me. Tired children. Harrassed parents worrying about what is going on. One time I even saw a near blind old man in wheelchair. 

Occasionally I saw Europeans, but the vast majority of the time it was men between the ages of 18-45. I'm taking an educated guess with that figure. I didn't take a poll. They seemed to be of south Asian or Arab origin, and again I'm taking an educated guess.

Male. 18-45. Of south/central Asian or Arab origin. That's a massive demographic to tar with the same brush. Every time I was tired, hungry and I could feel that I was about to get rattled. But shouting and getting angry would not have helped. These men are just doing the job.

It's the US that has a problem. It's simply in a tailspin when it comes to dealing with Muslims. America is scaring the very people it needs to help it. Good US citizens who pay their taxes, vote and who love the country are concerned about what's happening.

The US was brutally hurt by the events of September 11th 2001. But over a decade later it has not learned the lesson that its greatest asset is people. If future attacks from a tiny but determined minority are to be stopped, then enlist the help and respect of those good people who share the name of the faith with the terrorists, but not their spirit.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Dr. Mitch Pearlstein’s From Family Collapse to America’s Decline makes an unapologetic attempt to soberly address one of America’s most tragic, yet largely ignored, shortcomings over the last half of the last century: the decline and collapse of the American family. It is the erosion of marriage and family, argues Pearlstein, which can be found at the root of coinciding declines in educational performance, and subsequently economic performance of the generations of American children raised in broken or never-formed families.

The true pearl of this book is its section on strengthening marriage. Although Pearlstein can’t offer a universal solution to reorient American culture toward what really matters, he does offer three themes for repairing marriage, or at the very least repairing people—especially young men—so that they are fit to be married.

First, young men in America are in terrible shape, and the near and medium term outlook looks even worse. Young men have serious achievement gaps in education, are more frequently diagnosed with learning disabilities, have a much higher rate of expulsion from schools, and have an astonishingly higher propensity to commit suicide.

Hordes of males are seeing their lives hamstrung by getting tangled up with the law at a young age and having no clear path to restoring their good name in society thereafter. The United States has seven times the incarceration rate of Western Europe, as of the early 2000’s eleven percent of American males could expect to go to prison at some point in their lives.

Developing programs to rehabilitate offenders, especially the huge numbers of minor drug offenders and other non-violent criminals (my note), provide an incentive for convicts to stay out of trouble, it gives them hope for a stable future free of social stigma. It should be noted that Pearlstein advocates for this to be done in the safest possible way, so that the result is not the release of those who pose a threat to society back into society. Without this, those that run afoul of the law, especially those that do so at a young age, will remain second-class citizens in the US, at a grave social cost, and needless to say, will make terrible marriage material as well.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Inspired in part by photographers who have used dolls in their work Ms. Szwarc started taking pictures. She focused on the American Girl line of dolls...

For the most part, the girls in her project, “American Girls” lead fairly well-off lives. But that isn’t always the case. One, who Ms. Szwarc photographed shortly after she got her first “real” doll, came from a troubled home. “She thought she would never get it because it’s so, so expensive,” Ms. Szwarc said.

The girls connect the dolls to social status, Ms. Szwarc said. Around $100 each, the toys are the designer bag of the tween set. One of her subjects had 24 dolls, and the necessary accessories (which include clothes, bunk beds and lifestyle perks, like hairstyling appointments).

But Ms. Szwarc, who is still working on the project, has yet to answer the question of what an “American Girl” really is. Born and raised in Poland, she has been preoccupied by the patriotic branding.

“To me, it felt really exclusive — only about Americans and for Americans — and I began to wonder, Where do I fit in this scenario?” she said. The project is an opportunity for her to explore the idea of growing up in the United States, while also examining gender and identity construction. How do the dolls help to stereotype or categorize women?

The idea of owning a doll in one’s own likeness is, in her mind, indicative of the culture we live in: one where young teens think regularly about self-image, creating avatars and retouched self-portraits for Facebook profiles.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Think fueling up your car at $4 a gallon is rough? How would you feel about paying more than $6.50? Add on top of that massive job losses and a drastic drop in U.S. economic productivity, and you’ll get the picture of what life in America would be like if oil stopped flowing from Saudi Arabia.

It’s a scenario that’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility. Over the past year, the world has watched the Arab Spring spread across the Middle East, toppling regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Were massive social upheaval to strike Saudi Arabia, the conditions could be ripe for the country’s oil spigot to be shut off to the Western world.

In the event of an economic crisis like this, Heritage experts write that the free market is the best instrument to ride out the storm, and that government’s task is be prepared to support that effort rather than to jump in and try to tell markets what to do.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Middle America Is Experiencing a Massive Increase in 3.0+ Earthquakes

A new United States Geological Survey study has found that middle America between Alabama and Montana is experiencing an "unprecedented" and "almost certainly manmade" increase in earthquakes of 3.0 magnitude or greater. In 2011, there were 134 events of that size. That's six times more than were normally seen during the 20th century.

While the changes in the area's seismicity began in 2001, the trend has really accelerated since 2009, the geologists note. That happens to coincide with increased oil and gas production using new extraction techniques in some parts of the area.

The conclusion that at least one environmental group has drawn from this data is that fracking, in one way or another, has caused these earthquakes. The Environmental Working Group notes that more than 400,000 wells were drilled between 2001 and 2010, a 65% increase over the previous ten-year period. They also note that the new extraction techniques require vast amounts of water to be injected into the ground: major producer Chesapeake estimates that it uses about 5 million gallons of water per well. Lots of wells plus lots of water injected underground could change the subterranean conditions and lead to more earthquakes.

But if it is not fracking, then ... What is it? At the moment, we don't have a whole lot of other hypotheses, just a lot of unexplained earthquakes in places where they don't normally strike.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

As Christians around the world celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ this Easter, heaven is naturally on the minds of many.

The widespread belief among Christians that we, like Jesus, will live after our death, has led many to ask what heaven is like. Throughout history Americans have offered many different answers to this question.

Although their interpretation of biblical passages has guided most Christians in describing heaven, their cultural settings, dreams and hopes have also shaped their portraits as expressed in music, art, and literature.

During the last decade, several major cultural trends — especially increased anxiety, the prominence of our entertainment culture, the impact of the therapeutic worldview and concerns about the breakdown of the family and the impoverishment of personal relationships — have shaped American views of heaven.

Some conceptions of paradise provide a soothing antidote to the anxiety-arousing and disconcerting events that lead many newscasts and newspaper headlines. Heaven promises a pleasant respite from the world's perils, tragedy and despair.

For others, the afterlife is principally about introspection and self-actualization. It is the place where individuals listen to their inner child, repair their self-esteem and finally attain closure. Influenced by a culture that promotes and prizes personal happiness, still others make happiness a key feature of heavenly life. Finally, for many, heaven is primarily a place of reunion with family members and friends, characterized by love, intimacy and comfort.

As Christians celebrate Easter this year, they rejoice that Christ's resurrection promises that those who trust in him as their Savior will someday join him in paradise. Until that occurs, Christians will continue to debate the features and wonders of heaven.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Dogs are not required to earn badges beyond the first one, for basic obedience and appropriately called the Dog Scout badge.

The Scouts have two mottos. For humans: “Our dogs’ lives are much shorter than our own. We should help them enjoy their time with us as much as we can.” For dogs: “Let us learn new things that we become more helpful.”

Both serve as inspiration for the group’s grossest badge: “Clean Up America.”

It consists of picking up piles left behind by other dogs on trails, parks and beaches.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Farm vs. factory, bucolic green fields vs. densely packed streets: from Green Acres to The Simple Life, America's urban-rural divide has been an enduring axis of the nation's culture. Today, with less than one percent of people employed on farms, what is the underlying source of that divide?

 Urban centers tend to specialize in knowledge-based work, with high concentrations of scientists, technicians, engineers, and executives. When it comes to pay, the closer to the city center a job cluster is, the higher the pay.
 Rural areas have larger concentrations of Machinists and Makers, which generally require less skill and receive lower salaries. Jobs with the highest skill requirements -- engineers, executives, scientists, and analysts -- were noticeably underrepresented in rural areas and were far below national averages.

It is particularly interesting to note the absence of social skills—e.g., coordination, persuasion, and negotiation—in the most rural areas, which are places where extensive interaction and face-to-face contact are hindered by the obstacles of isolation and distance.

America's urban-rural divide may no longer reflect the difference between farms and factories, but it continues to turn on the very real differences in the types of work people do.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

American digital public library promised for 2013

Two million books will be available in an online digital library to rival Google's collection, according to Professor Robert Darnton.

Darnton, who represents Harvard, said that the idea behind the library is to make America's "cultural heritage accessible, free of charge, to all of our countrymen and women, in fact to everyone in the world".

"It challenges the assumption that the way things are is the way they have to be and that the everyday, workaday world is firmly fixed in what we take to be reality. History shows that things can fall apart, sometimes in a way that releases utopian energy."

The lessons to be learned from Google's "failed … attempt" are that it is possible to build a huge digital library, but that "such a library should be designed and run for the public good", said Darnton.

Darnton finished by calling on his listeners not to let "concern with legal entanglements … blind us to the utopian energy that has driven democratisation from the time of the Founding Fathers".

"Given the opportunity, authors and publishers and readers of all kinds will rally to the cause," he said. "Their commitment can fuel the other force that shaped the Republic from its beginning. I mean the pragmatic, can-do spirit that actually gets things done."

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The events of 9/11 came as a tremendous shock to America. Equally shocking was the failure of the intelligence community to detect and prevent these attacks. We need to work smarter. We need better trained agents. We need agents who speak the languages of terrorist hotspots, who know the cultures of these areas...

Yet, more than ten years after 9/11, it seems our intelligence community is only getting more and more bloated, not leaner and smarter. As Tom Engelhardt notes, we now have seventeen major intelligence agencies, funded to the tune of $80 billion per year and growing, chasing and collecting everything about everyone.

To this end, the National Security Agency (NSA), known humorously as "Nonesuch Agency" due to its inherent secrecy, is building a $2 billion colossus in Utah to collect and store oceans of data, from "the complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches, as well as all sorts of personal data trails -- parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital 'pocket litter.'"

The more intelligence centers we create, the more data we collect and store on ourselves and our fellow citizens, the more our country comes to resemble a Panopticon. We are less as a society, we are less as individuals, we have less dignity and autonomy, the more our rights to privacy are stripped away from us in the name of "security."

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Does America Need Rehab for Sugar Addiction?

Americans may need to go into rehab for sugar addiction, according to Dr. Robert Lustig, an endocrinologist based in California.

Based on brain scans, sugar is as addictive as cocaine, and that it causes a euphoric effect that activates dopamine, the chemical that controls pleasure in the brain. Dr. Lustig shared that based on the results of his research, sugar causes heart disease, cancer, Type 2 diabetes, and obesity.

America eats about 1/3 pound of sugar a day, or 130 pounds a year. Although sugar consumption has gone down 40 percent since the 1970s, high fructose corn syrup consumption has gone up.

High fructose consumption, according to University of California Davis nutritional biologist Kimber Stanhope, may increase risk for heart attack and stroke. Stanhope shared further that based on the results of her research, when one overindulges on sugary food and drinks, some of the fructose is converted by the liver into fat. This fat can eventually result in an increase in dangerous LDL cholesterol, which can form plaque in the arteries.

Monday, April 2, 2012

In Abraham Lincoln’s time America was known as “the last best hope of mankind”.  Ronald Reagan resurrected the old Puritan mantra and referred to our country as “that shining city upon a hill’.  But what are we today.  Our politics is uncivil and negative, featuring the politics of personal destruction.  Sick individuals shoot indiscriminately at students in schools and parishioners at church.  We see the renewal of race based violence.

So how do we get past this? How do we regain our faith in the future and move progressively forward?  When the British crown tired to impose its will by bayonet on the citizens of Boston, Americans became Angry.  We fought and won a great war for independence.  But it was not the Anger we became known for it was the principle of freedom for which men fought and died that became the symbol of America to the world.   We should once again become a civil nation where everyone agrees to let others live their lives without interference as long as they do no harm to others.  We should again practice a politics of consensus and compromise. We should lead the nations of the world not as a great military or economic power but as the great moral arbiter we were viewed as when we entered the two World Wars of the last century.