The New York Times has an excellent article about why Haiti is so fragile:
Most houses and other structures are built of poured concrete or block, there being very little lumber available due to mass deforestation, said Alan Dooley, a Nashville architect who designed a medical clinic, built of reinforced concrete, in Petite Rivière de Nippes, a fishing village 50 miles west of Port-au-Prince.
Concrete is very expensive — much of the cement for it comes from the United States, Mr. Dooley said — so some contractors cut corners by adding more sand to the mix. The result is a structurally weaker material that deteriorates rapidly, he said. Steel reinforcing bar is also expensive, he said, so there is a tendency to use less of it with the concrete.
At the end of the day, the problem was one of unsustainable development (and the lack thereof). As Thomas Friedman explains in his book Hot, Flat, and Crowded, sustainable development is both necessary to ending global poverty and solving global warming. Without development, poor farmers will continue to practice deforestation with no regard for the environment or the long-term consequences, and they will remain poor, much like Haiti. Unfortunately, if that development is not smart, it will merely increase global warming and ultimately doom us. Only sustainable development that focuses on creating a green future can actually effect a better tomorrow.
From the December 2, 2009 Columbia Spectator
To the editor:
The various articles on the death penalty (“Til death,” Nov. 30, 2009) miss the point. There are many practical reasons to revamp the capital punishment system in the United States. Lawmakers can make capital punishment work better, and at lower cost. The court system could be retrofitted, to make it even less likely that we execute an innocent man, perhaps while even spending less on legal proceedings.
That, however, is irrelevant. As long as capital punishment exists, there is a chance that we may be wrong in killing someone, either for a crime they did not commit or by imposing a death sentence on a crime that may warrant a lesser punishment. For ordinary crimes we can accept the potential for mistakes—if you are almost entirely sure that someone robbed someone else, then the thief can be imprisoned, but that opportunity for a flawed decision is still there.
Society responds to this potential by devising various systems for reversing the wrongs of the judicial system. Fines can be refunded and even jail time can be compensated. But death is final. If someone goes to the electric chair, it matters not whether they are later found innocent, for death is irreversible. Once dead, no one can be brought back to life, even if the killer was mistaken.
However, even if there was, by some magic, an absolute certainty that a person was guilty and deserved to be killed, no person has the right to kill another person. We acknowledge that murder, in and of itself, is wrong, for it is the killing of another, just as much as murder. Executions, by whatever means, are the same, merely in a judicial setting. Killing people for having killed, though, does nothing but extend the murderous streak and makes no rational sense. It’s like having sex for virginity.
Michael Spitzer-Rubenstein, CC ’12
Dec. 2, 2009
From the November 24, 2009 Columbia Spectator:
Plenty of these articles state a question and then answer it. This isn’t such an article—I have no answer. Columbia has long been marked by activism. Back issues of this newspaper document a storied history of student political action. While one may disagree about the merits of many of the acts, there’s no doubt they existed. Two years ago, students congregated and mounted both a hunger strike and a counter-protest, all because of the school curriculum. Just last year, masses gathered on Low Steps to watch moments of the election and then Barack Obama’s inauguration. So where is that energy now?
Could things be so good that there’s no need for students to react? Are Michele Moody-Adams and the rest of the Columbia administration so good that all the issues the hunger strikers fought for have been addressed to such satisfaction in these first few months of her tenure? Our new dean seems very nice from the couple times I’ve met her, but she has not revolutionized Columbia. And even if she has, so what? Furthermore, our most memorable activism, in 1968, was not simply a reaction to a hostile administration, but to national events and trends.
And to be fair, this isn’t just about Columbia. Across the nation, there seems to be a dearth of activism. After the eight years of George W. Bush, perhaps people just want a break. American politics have typically been cyclical. After the chaos of World War I, people wanted to turn inward and enjoy boring political “normalcy.” Following Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and World War II, people wanted the picket-fenced suburbia of ’50s America. After Jimmy Carter’s turbulent four years of oil and hostage crises, business re-exerted its cultural influence, and the Silicon Valley dot-com bubble did the same. Is that what this latency is—a turn from politics to less chaotic realms?
Possibly, but so much is still undone. American soldiers are still in Iraq and Afghanistan. Climate change legislation, which might slow our sprint into the abyss, has not moved much out of congressional committees. Health care reform still sits in Congress with an unclear fate. Despite New York’s first Democratic-controlled State Senate in decades, gay marriage legislation is stalled, with questions about whether it will ever be voted on, let alone passed. Have we as a country decided that these issues are simply too tough, and it’s better to just leave them to other people?
Part of the problem may be that there is such Democratic control of government at the local, state, and national level. If things don’t happen, it’s not because Republicans prevent them from moving forward. Certainly, Republicans oppose many of the issues for which campus groups advocate. Up until Jan. 20 of this year, the answer to so many of our challenges could be “George W. Bush,” and it would be true. Yet, thanks in part to the work of many students, Democrats control almost every branch of government from the lowest to the highest level, with the notable exception of New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, an independent and former Democrat. Democratic activists achieved more than many ever seriously hoped, but in an odd way, that’s disempowering—nothing happened. We successfully worked to put people in office, and those problems still exist. For a variety of reasons, including politicians who don’t share our views, the issues haven’t been resolved. What’s the point of working and being politically active if it doesn’t accomplish anything?
The truth is, few of the things we face can only be addressed in Washington. Our attention may be riveted by health care reform debates in Congress, but that won’t be a panacea even for health care—there are so many complicated facets that Congress is not even dealing with, never mind fixing. President Obama will not reduce our student loans or help the homeless dotting New York’s streets to find housing and a means to live. We must take on the burden of solving these problems. So why aren’t we? Why aren’t we rallying to the cause of something greater than ourselves? If you feel bad that so many people must beg for a living, why aren’t you doing anything? And if you are doing something, why aren’t you enlisting other Columbia students in your cause?
From the October 13, 2009 Columbia Spectator:
On Tuesday, Columbia will hold a town hall meeting on the proposal to ban smoking on campus. Haven’t heard about it? Not surprising. Outside of a few groups on campus, no one’s talked about it. That, in and of itself, is problematic for such a large policy change. Without public notice, small minorities, whether they are supporters or opponents of smoking, have virtual control over campus governance. Whether the broader student population wants it or not, a draconian policy might be imposed simply because supporters showed up at a meeting to gauge support. If only die-hards vote, the vote does not reflect the sentiment of the population as a whole and indeed poses a real threat to representative government. Even more noticeably, though, smoking is already banned across much of campus to little effect.
You wouldn’t know it from walking around campus, but smoking is banned within 25 feet of a building by state law. Where does that end? Who knows? It’s not marked. Even if someone wanted to obey the law, they would be hard-pressed to do so. Without any visible indications of where smokers can’t light up, the entrance to Butler becomes a cloud of tobacco smoke. That’s a real concern, especially for asthmatics, and Columbia’s learning environment is not fostered by forcing library-goers to brave an onslaught of smoke. There’s no reason they should have to, either. Smoking should be forbidden there.
Yet the Columbia administration is not focusing on that very real issue. Rather than putting up signs to indicate where smoking is and is not allowed, the administration is pushing a campus-wide ban on smoking under the radar without student knowledge, let alone input. Why? Would administrators enforce a new ban any more than the current ban is enforced? We can’t know. From the limited coverage in campus media, it has not been mentioned. Would Public Safety round up smokers on campus? Unlikely, but all the time they would spend telling students, and even faculty, to put out their cigarettes is time they would not be spending protecting students from crime.
In addition, unenforced rules erode respect for all rules. If the smoking ban is enacted and not enforced, it will spread a general disrespect for authority. If the smoking regulations are not enforced, this sends a very powerful signal that other rules, whether about underage drinking or writing graffiti on walls, will not be, either. Ultimately, this results in a broader lack of regard for campus standards and seemingly give smokers carte blanche to violate the rules.
If a complete ban were enforced, on the other hand, that would drive smokers off campus. The main gates and other entrances to campus would be clouded by smoke. If you think the smoke in front of Butler is bad, imagine how much worse it would be if all the smokers on campus were standing on 116th and Broadway, clustered together to form an even larger, more threatening cloud. Who would want to go to a school where they have to go through that to get to campus? Students would go off campus to find activities where the long arm of Public Safety wouldn’t tell them not to smoke. In a puff, Columbia’s effort to support student activities would be gone. Smokers would be less engaged in student life on campus, and considering that a number of student leaders smoke, Columbia’s vibrancy would decline.
The best thing to do would be for Columbia to enforce its current ban on smoking near buildings. Without depending on a massive witch hunt for smokers across campus, the administration could put up signs near buildings reminding students and faculty not to light up there but marking where smoking is permitted. Public Safety, in the course of its normal rounds, could remind smokers too close to buildings to take a step back without requiring a significant presence beyond what already exists. At the same time, rather than wasting money criminalizing a large portion of the Columbia community, the savings could be used to help smokers quit. It wouldn’t even require a drastic policy change. If that’s not enough, and scientific studies show that expanding a smoking ban would result in measurable improvements, the administration can publicly educate the community about the benefits of a change and wait for the democratic process to work.
The author is a Columbia College sophomore.
From the October 23, 2008 Columbia Spectator:
Politics should be kept out of the classroom. Educators should maintain perfect neutrality on partisan issues and not disclose their political views. By never talking about their own beliefs, they will avoid prejudicing their students’ grades on the basis of the views expressed and indoctrinating them into a specific ideology. Wearing a button or putting up a sign contributes to shaping political views. At least that is what The New York Department of Education believes.
That simplistic view of political propaganda infiltrating the classroom falls apart, though, because every part of a school’s curriculum helps shape a student’s ideology. In history class, when we learn about how the New Deal saved us from the Great Depression, it’s an only slightly-veiled lesson that governmental intervention in the economy can be beneficial while laissez-faire economics is harmful. Brown v. Board of Education showed that Supreme Court “activism” was a good thing. Conservative Christians use the Dred Scott decision and Plessy v. Ferguson to say that the Supreme Court has been wrong before, and by implication could be wrong on a case like Roe v. Wade. All great literature explores important philosophical questions that can shape political views. In short, in many classes almost everything is inherently, if not explicitly, political.
Wearing buttons and putting up posters just makes that politicization clear. No John McCain supporter is going to become a Barack Obama voter because of an Obama pin on a professor’s lapel. If anything, it just makes it clear which direction the teacher’s politics lean. Perhaps that’s exactly what some are concerned about. The New York Department of Education recently began enforcing a regulation that teachers should maintain strict neutrality while on the job. NYCDOE Schools Chancellor Joel Klein has prohibited teachers from wearing campaign pins or putting posters on union bulletin boards. But the new regulations are not an attempt to keep schools free from all accusations of political proselytizing. The Department of Education may say that the regulations are meant to keep students from feeling intimidated for holding a view contrary to that of the teacher. Nevertheless, the department betrays its actual goals by not trying to regulate what teachers say, so much as what they wear.
In fairness, teachers can intimidate students who do not agree with their politics. I endured that during my last two years of high school, spending a great deal of mental energy arguing with teachers who were far more conservative than I am. One even accused me of cheating because I demonstrated that he was wrong about the crucial facts of his argument—that conservative policies were better for the economy. That’s clearly intimidation. He wasn’t wearing any political apparel at the time, but he was perfectly able to intimidate without needing to display a button declaring his views.
Indeed, one can wonder exactly how much educators actually change the politics of their students. Certainly, no one should receive a lower grade because they disagree with their instructor about who should win on Nov. 4. But restricting political apparel does not even remotely affect the issue. It would seem likely that teachers actually do very little to shape the ideologies of students, for most of the students who pay close attention to politics are not undecided voters. The students who do not know as much about current events are less likely to remember a few stray comments about President Bush’s tax cuts from an economics class.
What displaying campaign materials can do, however, is raise awareness of an issue. If a teacher is wearing an Obama button, students may be curious to ask more about the candidate and why the teacher supports him. By beginning a discussion of current events, the pin can teach students more about politics. And that’s an absolute good—students can never learn too much about political affairs, especially because test-driven classrooms spend far too little time on the workings of our government. In that sense, then, the strict enforcement of this mistaken idea of neutrality is harmful because it deprives students from learning about what is going on in the world.
But the essential problem with enforcing this ideal of neutrality is that it does not address the problem it claims to solve. No partisan individual who wears Obama apparel will become impartial without it. The real answer is not to condemn campaign paraphernalia, which have never graded down a student with opposing viewpoints, but instead to watch out for actual cases where teachers allow their views to override academic integrity. That behavior is what actually harms students and should not be tolerated. Wearing an Obama pin does not harm anyone, and the New York City Department of Education should not punish teachers for doing so.
The author is a Columbia College first-year. He is a member of the Columbia University College Democrats.
Later today, I will deliver this statement to the LA MTA Board, asking them to put a measure on the ballot to increase the sales tax by half a cent to pay for transportation funding.
I’m Michael Spitzer-Rubenstein, representing the LA County Young Democrats, and I implore you to help the youth of LA County by putting this on the ballot because the rewards, especially for younger voters, will be immense.
Young people, who generally have less disposable income, less access from cars, and a greater need for public transportation, would disproportionately benefit from this. Even though it’s not perfect–a sales tax is far from ideal, the cost will only be about $25 per person. At the same time, the transportation projects funded under this act will create tens of thousands of new jobs and dramatically benefit our economy. The effects of those programs will make up for the regressive nature of the tax, for those receiving the greatest benefits will be the young and least among us.
Moreover, this will alleviate some of our environmental footprint by paying for the mass transit that is the most effective way to reduce transportation-based emissions. And so, on behalf of the LA County Young Democrats, I ask that you approve this measure to help future generations of Angelenos.