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The world’s tallest slum—a “pirate utopia”—is being cleared by the Venezuelan government

Eupraxsophy:

It is fascinating to see people come together autonomously to create an impromptu, self-sustaining, and stable community.

Originally posted on Quartz:

On a rainy night in September 2007, hundreds of squatters made their way into the third-tallest skyscraper in Caracas, Venezuela, and set up a temporary encampment. The unfinished, 45-story building—intended as a bank headquarters in the center of the capital—had sat vacant for more than a decade, after the developer’s death and the country’s 1994 financial crisis put construction on hold.

Eventually, nearly 3,000 of the city’s poor—many of them refugees from insecure shantytowns—would join the initial squatters, creating a makeshift city with apartments up to the 28th floor, even though there are no elevators or, in some places, even a facade. The squatters organized their own electricity, running water, and plumbing, along with bodegas, a barbershop, and an orthodontist. The improvised community became known as Torre David, or the Tower of David, after the developer, David Brillembourg.

Torre David in the skyline of Caracas

Torre David in the Caracas skyline.

Yesterday, the Venezuelan government began a long-threatened eviction of Torre David’s residents. They are…

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Eighty-Five People Have More Wealth Than Half The World

It is undeniable that wealth and income inequality is growing in the U.S. and across the world. But the scale and extent of it is far more than previously imagined. Although about six months by the time of this post, the report by  Oxfam International – titled “Working for the Few” — is no less stark and relevant in its identification of a “growing tide of inequality” (to use the report’s own description).

You can read the report yourself, but Laura Shin of Forbes did a good job of breaking down the sobering statistics:

  • Almost half of the world’s wealth is now owned by just one percent of the population.
  • The wealth of the one percent richest people in the world amounts to $110 trillion. That’s 65 times the total wealth of the bottom half of the world’s population [3.5 billion people].
  • The bottom half of the world’s population owns the same as the richest 85 people in the world.
  • Seven out of ten people live in countries where economic inequality has increased in the last 30 years.
  • The richest one percent increased their share of income in 24 out of 26 countries for which we have data between 1980 and 2012.
  • In the U.S., the wealthiest one percent captured 95 percent of post-financial crisis growth since 2009, while the bottom 90 percent became poorer.

The following chart compiled from this data highlights just how much the problem has grown: while every country saw some growth in inequality, the U.S. by far saw the most dramatic increase:

Although the report makes clear that some economic inequality is necessary to foster growth (in line with mainstream economics) it also warns that wealth concentration at this severity “threaten[s] to exclude hundreds of millions of people from realizing the benefits of their talents and hard work” — also in line with what we’ve learned from both history and economic research.

In particular, the Oxfam report emphasizes the corrosive effect that such inequality can have on democratic governance and social mobility, due mostly to the fact that “when wealth captures government policymaking, the rules bend to favor the rich, often to the detriment of everyone else”

According to polls conduct by Oxfam in Spain, Brazil, India, South Africa, the U.K. and the U.S. — a mix of developed and developing economies — the majority of people in these countries believe that “laws are skewed in favor of the rich” in a variety of areas, including financial deregulation, tax laws favoring the wealthy, economic austerity, policies that disproportionately harm women and the poor, and the use of oil and mineral revenues.

Despite all the grim news, the report does point out that such trends aren’t irreversible: there are plenty of historical examples of countries minimizing inequality and creating broader prosperity (notably the U.S. and Europe following the Second World War). In fact, since the turn of the century, Latin America has made significant inroads in reducing its historically high rate of inequality and underdevelopment, although it still has a long way to go.

Is there enough political will in each country, not to mention on a global level, to resolve this problem before it worsens? Or is this issue overblown? What do you think?

Prisoners and the Art of Winemaking

There are many things wrong with the U.S. justice system, but perhaps the chiefest problem is high recidivism: as of 2011 (the most recent reliable data I could find) an average of 43.3 percent of prisoners fall back into crime. Clearly, the rehabilitation system isn’t living up to its name.

One of the key causes of this is the lack of skills and opportunities among the largely poor and marginalized groups that make up the prison population. Easing up on the restrictions imposed on the formerly incarcerated, while imparting them with marketable skills, would go a long way in improving their lives and those of their families and communities (which in turn would help the U.S. economy as a whole, given the size and proportion of this population).

Italy is another country struggling with this problem — in fact, the rate of re-offense is as high as 80 percent, and Italian prisons meet similar criticisms regarding the poor and counterproductive treatment of prisoners. So some enterprising reformers decided to address the matter in a uniquely Italian way: teaching prisoners the art of winemaking, which is being spearheaded in the penal colony of Gorgona in Tuscany. As the New York Times reported:

For the past two years, Frescobaldi enologists and agronomists have imparted their know-how to a group of the island’s inmates as part of a rehabilitation program that aims to provide skills for life after their release.

Recidivism is high, around 80 percent, for the inmates of Italian prisons, “but instead, if you give people education, training, or access to a job, recidivism drops to 20 percent,” said Lamberto Frescobaldi, president of Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi, and the driving force behind the project.

Giuseppe Fedele, an educator at Gorgona, where training programs have been going on for years, said that “the best thanks a prisoner can show when he is released from here is not to be sent back to prison.”

As you would imagine, the details of this program are both interesting and inspiring:

First opened in 1869, the prison operates like a working farm. Some inmates carry out agricultural chores — growing fruit and vegetables, raising livestock, and making cheeses and bread — while others work in maintenance or in the kitchen and commissary.

“It’s still a prison, but the day flies because you’re working. It’s one thing to be in a cell for 12 hours, another to be outside, busy doing something,” said Santo Scianguetta, who has six years to go on a 16-year sentence, adding that the experience of working in the vineyard was building his confidence. “I think a lot about getting out. And now I see hope in the future.”

Most of the inmates here are serving the final years of long sentences for serious crimes, including murder. Prison officials asked that for reasons of privacy, reporters refrain from specifying their individual crimes.

Projects like the Frescobaldi initiative make inmates feel like “the protagonists of their incarceration, and not passive recipients where the state is the enemy,” said Mr. Mazzerbo, the prison director, who has lobbied to extend similar programs to other Italian prisons.

“It costs nothing to change the mentality” of an inmate, Mr. Mazzerbo said. “You can do that anywhere. You don’t need an island.”

Several penitentiaries are already involved in economic activities, and at least two others produce wine. Some penitentiaries are involved in food or fashion initiatives, and products can be ordered from the Justice Ministry website.

Prisoners here receive a monthly wage, about two thirds of what they would get on the outside, based on the provincial agricultural labor contract. “It’s good not to depend on our families for money,” said Ciro Amato, who is serving a 30-year sentence. “At least here you get an opportunity. In many cases people leave prison angrier than before.”

It’s a small start, and not without its challenges, but it is definitely worth trying. While there are similar initiatives in the U.S. (albeit many of which are accused of being exploitative and underpaying), we should definitely take steps to make such programs the norm, along with minimizing such an unusually high rate of incarceration to begin with (although that is a different story for another post).

Hero of the Week — Maria Bashir

Maria Bashir II Maria Bashir

 

Maria Bashir is the Chief Prosecutor General of Herat Province Afghanistan (the second largest jurisdiction in the country), the only woman to hold such a position thus far. Her fifteen years of experience as a civil servant has brought her into conflict with criminals, the Taliban, and corrupt policemen. When the Taliban took power in 1996, she was barred from working and instead spent her time illegally educating girls at her home. 

She was called back into service in 2006, focusing on rooting out corruption and eradicating the oppression of women. She has handled hundreds of cases amid death threats and assassination attempts, one of which nearly killed her children; subsequently, she has a retinue of around 20 or so bodyguards while her children are in virtual hiding.

For her courage and tenacity, Bashir has received the 2011 International Women of Courage Award and been recognized among The 2011 Time 100. I recommend reading her interview with the United Nations here; unfortunately, most of the information about her is three or four years old, so I am unaware of her current efforts and predicaments. Thankfully, she seems to still be alive and working as a prosecutor, doing everything she can to better her country and its future .

Needless to say, Maria Bashir is an incredible hero and role model, to say the least. 

National Pride Around The World

With the rise of the nation state — whose conceptual origin is disputed but typically traced back to the Treaty of Westphalia in the 17th century – has emerged the idea of patriotism and pride in one’s civic and national identity — equally contentious and amorphous concepts.

As a life-long American, I am intimately aware of the impact, prevalence, and subsequent controversy of patriotism — indeed, national pride is seen as one of the definitive elements of American identity, coinciding with and emerging from notions such as American exceptionalism and the American dream.

But how deeply is patriotism ingrained in the  U.S. collective consciousness, especially nowadays, amid so much declinism and cynicism about our future? What of the effects of globalization on our and other nations’ sense of national belonging: in an increasingly globalized world — with so many people traveling and living abroad, exchanging one another’s cultures, and forging deep emotional and social ties across borders — how influential is the nation state on our psyches?

Well, data from the 2010-2014 World Values Survey (which is still being completed) offer some interesting insight on how citizens of select countries feel about living there. Citizens in 52 participating countries were asked the following: “How proud are you to be [insert nationality]” to which they could select “Very Proud”, “Quite Proud”, “Not Very Proud”, “Not at All Proud”, or “Unsure”.

Here are the maps courtesy of Vox.com.

Note that this only signifies people who selected the highest option of “very proud”. The total percentage of citizens who are proud of their country is much higher when you add the follow data showing those who are “quite proud” (the second highest option, although it does not sound that much lower than “very”).

Moreover, a redditor named DMan9797 put together the following custom chart based on the total responses, which I feel does a better job of giving us the bigger picture globally and for each individual country (click the image to see it bigger).

So in total, there are 48 out of 52 participating countries in which 70 percent of respondents are proud or very proud to be a part of; the four notable exceptions are Japan, Germany, Ukraine, and Taiwan (although Russia, Estonia, and Belarus were not that far off). The Vox articles offers some interesting  explanations as to why these countries stand out:

For Germany and Japan, it suggests that the post-World War II hangups about nationalism may have not quite gone away. Since their defeats, both countries have developed a much more complicated relationship with national pride — in some ways, German and Japanese nationalism run amok were responsible for the whole thing. This sense of national guilt, or at least a wariness of too much national pride, might be making it harder for German and Japanese folk to feel immense amounts of national pride.

In Ukraine, the issue may be the country’s ethno-linguistic divides. As many know by now, eastern Ukrainians and Crimeans tend to be more sympathetic to Russia than the rest of Ukraine. That divide was one of the underlying causes of the current crisis between Ukraine and Russia. So it’s likely that eastern Ukrainians and Crimeans, many of whom were less than thrilled about being Ukrainian even when the survey began in 2010, reported abnormally low levels of Ukrainian pride. Estonia’s results may support that theory as well: the Baltic country just barely dodged the sub-70 percent prideful club, and it has a significant ethnic Russian minority.

Then there’s Taiwan, whose results are almost certainly about tension with mainland China. 20 percent of Taiwanese outright favor reunification with China, and 43.5 percent of Taiwanese also identify as Chinese (“Zhongguo ren,” which could mean Taiwanese, mainland Chinese, or both). This complicated relationship with the People’s Republic probably explains why Taiwanese people aren’t quite as proud of their country as other peoples are.

Personally, I think these explanations make sense, although it is interesting to note that Germany’s national pride has presumably been growing in light of the country’s renowned economic performance and subsequent international clout. It may be that Germans are simply sheepish about being more explicit in their patriotism.

In any case, it is interesting to see such a mixed bag of countries at the top: Qatar, Ghana, Ecuador, Uzbekistan, Trinidad and Tobago, and the Philippines could not be any more different from each other. Whether a country is authoritarian or democratic, rich or poor, or developed or underdeveloped doesn’t seem to impact peoples’ sense of national pride; nor are certain linguistic, ethnic, or religious compositions more or less likely to feel strong national pride.

All this probably speaks to the complex factors that go into one’s sense of belonging to a nation and feeling proud of it. Plenty of poorly governed and impoverished nations are nonetheless rich in culture, history, or national achievement (Qatar is an outsized player in the Middle-East affairs, Ghana paved the way for African independence movements, etc).

Conversely, having a high quality of life and an enviable socioeconomic system, even in combination with a rich culture and much accomplishment, doesn’t mean everyone will feel a strong sense of national identity or pride — Germany and Japan can speak to that, albeit for reasons unique to themselves.

Of course, every country — like every individual — has its own unique characteristics, history, social dynamics, and other factors that explain its standing among its own citizens and the world at large. It goes to show just how complicated the concepts of nation and state are, let alone the political and psychological relationship with these entities and ideas.

What are your thoughts?

 

Ten U.S. Supreme Court Cases That Strengthened Corporate Personhood

Although last week’s Hobby Lobby decision brought much attention to the complex concept of corporate personhood — put crudely, that companies are entitled to some of the same legal rights as individuals — there is a long history of jurisprudence in the U.S. that has consistently blurred the distinction between corporate entities and flesh-and-blood humans.

Courtesy of Mothers Jones is a list of  ten key cases (including Hobby Lobby) that have increasingly strengthened the legal rights and privileges of corporations (not necessarily always for the worst, but certainly with some problematic implications and potential abuses).

1809 (Bank of the United States v. Deveaux): In the early days of the republic, when state and federal courts were still working out their jurisdictions, the Bank of the United States—a precursor to the US Treasury—sued a Georgia tax collector named Peter Deveaux for property he had seized when the bank failed to pay state taxes. Deveaux argued that, because corporations weren’t people, they couldn’t sue in federal court. Chief Justice John Marshall agreed. This meant businesses could only sue or be sued in federal court if all the shareholders, and at least one member of the opposing party, lived in the same state. According to Burt Neuborne, a corporate law professor at New York University, Wall Street banks hated this decision because it restricted suits to state courts where judges were partial to the banks’ local clients—typically Midwestern farmers.

1844 (Louisville, Cincinnati, and Charleston Railroad v. Letson): It soon became apparent that Marshall’s decision in Bank of the United States was unworkable because it put corporations outside the reach of the federal courts. Thirty-five years later, after hearing the Louisville, Cincinnati, and Charleston Railroad case, the Supreme Court shifted course, ruling that corporations were “citizens” of the states where they incorporated. Still, it was difficult for a corporation to sue or be sued in federal court unless all its shareholders lived in the same state.

1886 (County of Santa Clara v. Southern Pacific Railroad): Now that corporations were legally citizens, corporate attorneys worked to expand their rights. When California officials levied a special tax on the Southern Pacific Railroad, the railroad sued, arguing that singling out the company violated its rights to equal protection under the 14th Amendment, which was intended to protect freed slaves. In a strange twist, the court reporter—a former railroad man—wrote in the published notes on the case that the 14th Amendment did, in fact, apply to the company. Even though this notion appeared nowhere in the high court’s actual ruling, 11 years later the court declared it was “well settled” that “corporations are persons within the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment,” citing Santa Clara.

1898 (Smyth v. Ames): Building on the Santa Clara decision, the court voided a Nebraska railroad tax, ruling that it was akin to the government taking a corporation’s property without due process—a violation of its 14th Amendment rights. (The decision was overturned in the 1944 Federal Power Commission v. Hope Natural Gas decision.)

1906 (Hale v. Henkel)Having blocked unlawful seizures of corporate property, the court went on to shield companies from other kinds of intrusion. Writing for the majority, Justice Henry Billings Brown found that corporations, like people, are protected from unreasonable searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment (although the Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination did not apply).

1931 (Russian Volunteer Fleet v. United States): A Russian shipbuilder, Russian Volunteer Fleet, sued the US government, claiming that government officials had unlawfully seized property worth more than $4 million. The high court sided with the company, ruling that even foreign corporations are protected from unlawful government seizures under the Fifth Amendment, which ensures fair treatment by the legal system.

1977 (United States v. Martin Linen Supply Co.): After a criminal trial for two linen companies and their owner was dismissed due to jury deadlock, federal prosecutors appealed the decision. The Supreme Court ruled that a second trial violated the companies’ rights to be tried only once, expanding the double jeopardy rule to include both humans and corporations.

2010 (Citizens United v. FEC)In the run up to the 2008 election, the Federal Elections Commission blocked the conservative nonprofit Citizens United from airing a film about Hillary Clinton based on a law barring companies from using their funds for “electioneering communications” within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election. The organization sued, arguing that, because people’s campaign donations are a protected form of speech (see Buckley v. Valeo) and corporations and people enjoy the same legal rights, the government can’t limit a corporation’s independent political donations. The Supreme Court agreed. The Citizens United ruling may be the most sweeping expansion of corporate personhood to date.

2014 (Burwell v. Hobby Lobby): Corporations are legally people with the right to free speech, but do they have religious rights? Apparently, they do. In 2012, Hobby Lobby, an Oklahoma-based craft store chain, sued the federal government, arguing that a provision in the Affordable Care Act requiring it to provide contraception coverage for employees violated shareholders’ constitutional rights to freedom of religion. The Supreme Court sided with Hobby Lobby and found that corporations can assert the religious rights of their owners, greatly expanding the power of shareholders while creating a world of confusion for corporate attorneys.

Given that the U.S. operates along a common law system – whereby law is developed by and built upon preceding legal decisions — these cases often have tremendous weight and influence long after they’re settled in court, and Hobby Lobby is certainly no exception. In many instances, Congress would need to step in and create clearer laws governing these matters — provided that the courts do not reign in on such efforts on behalf of legally-entitled corporations.

This is complex stuff, and I am hardly a legal expert given my own limited studies of law. What are your thoughts?

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In the United States, in a far more simple time, it took eight years following the end of fighting in the American Revolution to establish the American government. In France, 50 years. In Britain, 210 years. Nobody should expect that the current turbulence is going to subside and that there will be a neat solution within a few years.

In fact, what is happening now is that the global order established following the First World War and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire is itself collapsing and is going to be replaced by a new order. And you should concentrate on helping the people build up that new order.

Finally, the order established after the First World War replaced the Ottoman Empire, which for 400 years dominated the region based in Turkey. And Iraq at that time … for 400 years was three administrative districts operated separately by the Ottomans. The notion and nation of Iraq is a recent construct. It’s less than 100 years old, and it’s undergoing great strain now which it may not be able to survive.

George Mitchell, quoted in Taking the Long View on the Middle Eastby Uri Friedman of The Atlantic.

In the United S…

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Calling the invasion and slaughter that followed a mistake papers over the lies that took us to Iraq. This assessment of the war as mistake is coming mostly from well-intentioned people, some of whom spoke out against the war before it began and every year it dragged on. It may seem like a proper retort to critics of Obama (who inherited that war rather than started it). But it feeds a dangerous myth.

A mistake is not putting enough garlic in the minestrone, taking the wrong exit, typing the wrong key, falling prey to an accident.

Invading Iraq was not a friggin’ mistake. Not an accident. Not some foreign policy mishap.

The guys in charge carried out a coldly though ineptly calculated act. An act made with the intention of privatizing Iraq and using that country as a springboard to other Middle Eastern targets, most especially Iran. They led a murderous, perfidious end run around international law founded on a dubious “preventive” military doctrine piggybacked on the nation’s rage over the 9/11 attacks. An imperial, morally corrupt war. They ramrodded it past the objections of those in and out of Congress who challenged the fabricated claims of administration advisers who had been looking for an excuse to take out Saddam Hussein years before the U.S. Supreme Court plunked George W. Bush into the Oval Office.

The traditional media did not make a mistake either. They misled their audiences through sloppiness and laziness because it was easier and better for ratings than for them actually to do their jobs. For the worst of them, the misleading was deliberate. They fed us disinformation. Lapdogs instead of watchdogs.

Meteor Blades, “Stop pretending the invasion of Iraq was a ‘mistake.’ It lets the liars who launched it off the hook“, Daily Kos. 

Read the linked article above and decide for yourself. Personally, I think it makes a compelling case, although even if it were genuine ineptitude, there’d be just as much culpability given the horrific scale of the consequences.

Don’t Call The Iraq War A Mistake

Five Misconceptions About Refugees

In honor of World Refugee Day (June 20) — which is sadly as overlooked and forgotten as many refugees — The Guardian offers a rundown of five influential myths that have been dispelled by a recent Oxford study. Researchers surveyed 1,600 refugees in living in Kampala and two rural settlements in Uganda to understand their economic and social lives and how they persevere while contributing to their host countries.

While the following misconceptions are addressed based on just one particular case study, the observations and conclusions obtained apply broadly to most other refugee communities around the world.

1) Refugees are economically isolated

Refugee economies are part of complex systems that go beyond their communities and the boundaries of particular settlements. Refugees trade across nationality groups and across international borders. Maize grown in settlements is exported across borders to neighbouring countries. Congolese jewellery and textiles are imported from as far as India and China. Somali shops import tuna from Thailand, via the Middle East and Kenya.

2) Refugees are a burden on host states

Refugees make active contributions to the host economy. Many Ugandan business people acknowledge relying upon the presence of refugees. One fruit farmer told us: “It is hard to imagine Kyangwali’s economy without the refugees’ presence.” Refugees buy and sell goods and services from and to Ugandan nationals. Many also create job opportunities for others, including by employing Ugandan nationals. In Kampala, 21% of the refugees surveyed employ others, and of those, 40% employ Ugandans.

3) Refugees are economically homogenous

Although there are a range of traditional income-generating activities such as farming in rural areas and running shops and restaurants, we found huge diversity. In the settlements, we found Congolese cinemas, a Somali computer games parlour using recycled consoles and televisions and innovative businesses in areas such as transportation and maize milling that have scaled and often employ others. Even among farmers, income levels vary massively, with huge deviation around the mean of $29 per month.

4) Refugees are technology illiterate

Many refugees use technology, including mobile phones and the internet, for income-generating activities, often at higher levels than the national population. In Kampala, 96% use mobile phones and 30% use them for money transfers as part of their primary livelihood strategy. Many refugees also adapt their own appropriate technologies, engaging in forms of “bottom-up innovation”, often recycling whatever is available to create an entrepreneurial opportunity.

5) Refugees are dependent on humanitarian assistance

Refugees are far from uniformly dependent on international assistance. Nearly all – 99% – of rural refugee households said they had at least some form of independent income-generating activity. When they were asked what kind of assistance they wanted, financial assistance did not come out top. Instead, opportunities for autonomy – including education, business training and resettlement – were valued highly.

This data is just a starting point, drawn from one country. More comparative research on the economic lives of refugees and other displaced populations is needed, including in less auspicious regulatory environments. One of the keys to our work was its participatory approach; our team included refugee research assistants, drawn from the different communities. This approach took more time and money than many quick surveys often used in development work. However, it enabled us to build trust, acquire better access and to leave a legacy in terms of training.

Although our findings are preliminary, we believe they have significant policy implications. They highlight the value of a market-based approach. Rather than assuming dependency, we need to build upon what there is to understand better refugee economies as complex systems, work to improve those markets and to empower refugees to engage better with those markets.

The key to this is helping refugees to help themselves. Refugees are not just passive victims. While many are in need of protection and assistance, it is important to recognise that they have capacities as well as vulnerabilities. Interventions might better nurture such capacities through, for instance, improving education, access to microcredit, business incubation and improved internet access. If we recognise and understand refugee economies, we may be able gradually to turn humanitarian challenges into more sustainable opportunities.

This is all very topical, not only because today is dedicated to highlighting the plight of refugees, but because a recent U.N. report has found the problem to have reached record-breaking proportions: according to the UNHCR’s annual Global Trends report, as of 2013 around 51.2 million people were registered as refugees, asylum seekers, or internally displaced — six million more than the 45.2 million reported in 2012.

With brimming social unrest and environmental catastrophe likely to increase this number further still, we cannot afford to ignore the human toll and wider geopolitical implications (nor the underlying causes that lead millions to flee at their own expense and risk).

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New polling out from NBC and the Wall Street Journal shows a huge shift in attitudes towards poverty and the poor over the last 20 years. According to the survey, 46 percent Americans believe that poverty is caused by circumstances beyond people’s control, versus 44 percent who think it’s caused by impoverished people not doing enough to improve their station in life. The last time the survey asked that question, in 1995, a full 60 percent of Americans felt that the poor weren’t doing enough to lift themselves out of poverty, compared to just 30 percent who blamed extraneous factors. Hard times, it would seem, have made us more sympathetic to the plight of the poor. There’s nothing like a massive economic downturn to foster a little empathy.

And that makes sense. When the economy so rapidly and viciously turns on so many people, it’s hard to maintain the sense of idealism that leads one to believe that hard work and ambition are all that’s required to secure a comfortable, reasonably prosperous existenc

Simon Maloy, Salon

New polling out…