Thursday, December 31, 2009

War on Terror

The U.S. has expanded its efforts on the War on Terror to Yemen. Although it is not entirely due to what happened on Christmas Day when Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian who trained in Yemen with Al Qaeda, attempted to blow up flight Northwest 253, that incident is part of the reason for expanding the efforts of the War on Terror. There is a lot of background leading up to the decision of the U.S. declaring war quietly against Al Qaeda in Yemen (granted, we are not actually declaring war on the Yemeni government itself, as we are working with them in order to attempt to take down Al Qaeda).

We are now in a three front war with Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen.

The article in the NY Times states that the Pentagon will be spending $70 million in the next 18 months to train and equip Yemeni military, which is more than doubling our military aid to Yemen previously.

Yemen is suspected as the next central training hub for Al Qaeda because over the last two years it has been facing growing problems with threats of succession in the south, rebellions in the northwest, and dwindling oil supplies for export and income.

Before Christmas Yemen did carry out air strikes on Al Qaeda with support from President Obama and equipment from the United States. The latest death toll of Al Qaeda militants was over 60, according to officials.

The reason I'm giving such a brief post on all of this is that I think it's important to follow. Reading the NY Times and other such newspapers and sources will give you a broader understanding. I figured I'd just start it off with a few links where you can read more about it.

If you're interested in the amount of money that the United States has spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, click the following link:

I was shocked, needless to say, at the amount of money our country has spent on these two war fronts.

No wonder we don't have universal health care.

Monday, December 28, 2009


Although Christmas was a few days ago, I've been feeling less than merry.

It's not that this time of year, or this year in particular, has been bad. It's more of the fact that I'm a lot more aware of the extravagance this year than I have been in the past. Looking back on my life, it makes me a little sick to think about the hundreds and thousands of dollars in gifts I've received in the last 19 years of my life on and around the Christmas season (this is excluding other times like graduations, birthdays, my baptism/confirmation/first holy communion, etc). Thinking about it, the amount of money that has been spent on me, one single person, could probably have gone to causes millions of times more important. However, being ignorant in the past about such causes, there was no way that I could have possibly known any better than to ask for toys, gift cards, and money around the holidays.

I enjoy the time I get to spend with my family, but after reading Peter Singer's book, and while being in the process of reading Jeffrey Sachs' book, it's hard not to feel miserable about the whole concept of gift giving in terms of unnecessary items like toys and gift cards. I've been so conscious about what I've been spending recently. Even doing things like having dinner out with friends, or going to the movies with my mom--it all seems so extravagant after reading what that $25 or $10.50 could do in the life of someone who really and truly needs it.

I've been going through the things in my room at home that I no longer need or use. I'm sorting through it all and I plan on donating a lot of it, or selling it and then donating the money I get from the things to some charity. It all just comes down to: which charity, as Singer raises the concern in his book. Which one will use the money as effectively as possible?

It's all really hard to think about and consider.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Life You Can Save

In my Principles of Sociology course this past semester, we were assigned a book called The Life You Can Save by Peter Singer. We never got around to reading it in class, but I decided to read it once I was done with finals. It's not too long, and a pretty quick read, but the material is not easy to digest.

The concept of the book is that we have the ability to eliminate extreme (absolute) poverty in the world. There are several different types of poverty according to Jeffrey Sachs (another author I am currently reading): extreme poverty, moderate poverty and relative poverty.

The following definitions are from Sach's article in the New York Times, which I've included at the end of my post.

Extreme (Absolute) Poverty: defined by the World Bank as getting by on an income of less than $1 a day (scaled to USD). This type of poverty only occurs in least developed countries, and means that people cannot afford to meet even the most basic of needs for survival.

Moderate Poverty: defined as getting by on an income of $1 to $2 a day (scaled to USD). This type of poverty means that certain basic needs may be met, but only barely.

Relative Poverty: defined as having a household or personal income level below a given proportion of the national average. This type of poverty means that people in relative poverty do not have the means to enjoy things that a middle class takes for granted.

So, as I have stated, extreme poverty is the type of poverty Peter Singer discusses in his book and claims can be eliminated. He sets up the book in four parts, logically discussing all sides of the argument about the ability to eliminate extreme poverty.

He first sets up the argument in chapters 1 through 3. He then discusses human nature in his next two chapters, where he brings up the concepts of fairness, our affluent culture, and what money does to our brains. In the third part of his book, he discusses the facts about foreign aid. This is where he gives numbers, statistics, and which charities are the best ones in terms of using the money where it's intended to be used, instead of administrative costs, etc. He also discusses ways to improve aid, which I really enjoyed learning about.

His final part was the most compelling, I feel. In his last three chapters, 8 through 10, he discusses the realistic approach to giving aid, and when asking becomes too much. He explains the difference between what one does, and what one ought to do, and that the difference does not mean that you can't discuss the most extreme ways of giving aid while not doing them yourself.

I highly recommend the book. I guarantee it will change the way you view your life.

We all talk a lot about money, especially with the way that the economy has been in the past two years, but the talk is all relative to the United States economy. When compared to the economy of Malawi, one of the world's poorest countries, even some of the United States' poorest citizens could be perceived as affluent. After all, people have access to food, clean water, sanitation, shelter and medical care when they need it. Granted, people have lost their homes, people might not have medical insurance, people have been laid off; however, there are plenty of services and amenities in the United States that serve those people in ties of crises like the one we are in. Those services and amenities serve even when there is no overwhelming crisis in the market.

Singer discusses in his last chapter a realistic approach to eliminating extreme world poverty. The United States alone could make this possible. He explains a sliding scale based on after-tax income where certain income brackets are placed in certain donation percentages.

For instance:

Income Bracket: $105,001 to $148,000
Donation: 5%

Income Bracket: $148,001 to $383,000
Donation: 5% of first $148,000; 10% of remainder

Income Bracket: $383,001 to $600,000
Donation: 5% of first $148,000; 10% of next $235,000; 15% remainder

Income Bracket: $600,001 to $1.9 million
Donation: 5% of first $148,000; 10% of next $235,000; 15% of next 217,000; 20% remainder

Income Bracket: $1.9,000,001 to $10.7 million
Donation: 5% of first $148,000; 10% of next $235,000; 15% of next 217,000; 20% of next 1.3million; 25% remainder

Income Bracket: Over $10.7 million
Donation: 5% of first $148,000; 10% of next $235,000; 15% of next 217,000; 20% of next 1.3million; 25% of next $8.8 million; 33.33% of remainder

If we were to do this, it would yield $471 billion every year. And keep in mind... This is just for the top 10% of the United States' affluent families.

Extending Singer's plan to all affluent families/people of the entire world would yield more than $1.5 trillion every year. That is 8 times the amount needed to meet the Millennium Development Goals by 2015.

Granted, it's a lot more complex than stating numbers and a sliding scale donation plan. However, it goes to show that it is absolutely possible to eliminate extreme poverty in the world.

It blows my mind. It's also made me a lot more conscious about how I spend my money and what I waste every single day.

Jeffrey Sach's article: The End of Poverty
(He also has a book by the same name, which I am currently reading.)

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Thoughts on Avatar

I saw Avatar tonight with some friends.

As a heads up, if you have not seen the movie, but wish to, I don't suggest reading this post until you've seen it. I'm no holds barred in my discussion of it.

I thought that it was an incredible movie, first off. It's long, however--about three hours, to be exact. But I don't feel its length took anything away from its worth. I feel it would have actually detracted from the overall affect of the movie if it had been shorter.

The movie's plot line has to deal with the hostile attempt (by humans) to takeover a Planet named "Pandora" where a native humanoid population resides. The native "Na'vi" are much larger than humans, but not as technologically advanced... or at least that's how it's initially portrayed. However, as the movie progresses and tensions rise between the Na'vi and the humans who want to displace the Na'vi from their "Home Tree" in order to access a huge deposit of a precious stone worth millions, the audience gets to learn more and more about the Na'vi and the planet Pandora. Sigourney Weaver, who plays the character Grace (a "Xenobiologist") is the one who announces that there is an incredibly complex "neural connection" within the planet and it's beings--a connection that far surpasses even the neural connection of the human brain.

Anyway, aside from synopsis:
After taking two sociology courses this past semester ("Principles of Sociology" and "Race Relations") and an LGU course ("Intro to Leadership and Global Understanding") the entire movie made me incredibly upset for several reasons.

First, the Na'vi are, not coincidentally I think, portrayed as very primitive and very tribal like. They definitely have numerous similarities to rural African peoples, wearing very little clothing, tribal jewelry, and using bows & arrows with poison as weapons. Several times throughout the movie they are referred to as "savages" by the "bad guys."

Second, there is an obvious superiority complex on behalf of the humans. And again, not coincidentally I think, from what I could understand, all of the humans were American, or at least Americanized. There could be any number of explanations for this portrayal of humans, but I just found it interesting. The United States was a country founded on slavery and colonialism, and here is a movie showing that, once again, people from the United States are attempting to colonize another place and destroy its native inhabitants.

Third, the humans believe that they have the right to destroy a habitat in order to obtain "unobtainium" (cleverly named) the precious stone worth $20 million a kilo. How could this not be upsetting? In order to make money and get rich quick, our species has no second thoughts about completely obliterating another species' habitat and even the species itself, if it decides to stand in the way.

Granted, this is all in context of the movie.

However, it's not completely unlike us to act in such ways and be ruthless towards those different than ourselves (general statement, I know).

Anyway. Those were just some thoughts I had while watching the movie. Thanks to my major, I'll never be able to live life without thinking sociologically about anything ever again, and honestly, I don't mind it.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Record Breaking Snowfall and an Initiation Post

It snowed on Saturday all day long. Typically, we get a dusting. Schools close because bus companies panic and don't know how to handle it. But this was no dusting. It was a blizzard. By blizzard, I mean blizzard for New Jersey standards. And for New Jersey standards, I mean South Jersey standards.

I spent several hours Sunday morning shoveling through the nearly two feet of snow we accumulated throughout the day and night on Saturday. My last count before heading to bed Saturday night was 21 inches. Record breaking for us.

Now, usually, I dislike snow.

However, after shoveling out our sidewalk, porch, and driveway where three cars lay buried in snow; after shoveling out our neighbors' car from their driveway; after shoveling out an elderly neighbor's sidewalk and porch, something happened. Maybe it was the snow getting to me. I had just spent three hours shoveling. But when my mom and I got into one of our family's cars that we had shoveled out and began to drive to her friend's place to shovel him out (he just had surgery and was unable to do so), I looked around at all the white, and all of the people shoveling each other out, and I felt happy.

As I said, usually, I dislike snow. However, this particular time, I felt like it brought everyone in my neighborhood together. We shoveled each other out. We all spent hours outside, bundled up, with our shovels, brooms, wheelbarrows and snow blowers, taking time to emerge from our homes where we had stayed safely confined the day before during the storm.

I turned to my mom and told her that it made me happy to see everyone outside and shoveling.

As trivial as this story may seem, I feel like it's going to set the theme for this new venture I'm about to embark upon (however epic that may sound...). I just spent an entire semester learning about communities--local communities near my university, communities facing racial, gender or sexual orientation issues, communities throughout US history, spiritual and religious communities, global communities. I spent so much time learning about communities, it's hard not to have it set the tone for this blog.

So, there is my goal.

I am going to focus on communities and the issues that they and I face.
It seems only natural, anyway.

We're social beings. We depend on communities. What is a blog other than a community?

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