By Sarah Ouyang
Faith comes in many forms. For startup businesses planning for long-term growth and in need of sustenance, some cold, hard cash is preferred above all else.
And that’s where venture capitalists swoop in like reverse vultures who, instead of gorging on carcasses, breathe life into struggling newborns. Entrepreneurs might worship these firms for their financial benevolence, but venture capitalists are not exactly altruistic saints — thorough and adroit in calculating potential gains, they take into consideration factors such as the network and experience of the founders.
For 2010’s Berlin, this type of scrutiny became the basis of its economy, replacing the more defining business atmospheres of other European cities: chic culture in Paris, for example, or music in London. Three factors directed the V.C.-friendly spotlight shining on Berlin and pulled the city out of its financial mire in the years surrounding 2008. In fact, the global recession itself paved the way for venture capital in Berlin: the crisis left the city poor in capital and rich in opportunity. Office space was rent-free and plentiful for startups who entered the scene early in the game, since the only real competition they faced was the public sector.
Another contribution to the city’s venture capital originated from local hipsters. Influential artists, among them David Bowie and Iggy Pop, flocked to Berlin for cheap, trendy respite. This boosted its reputation in the eyes of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists alike. Finally, Germany had become a rival to America in “melting pot” status (perhaps either a cause or effect of the rise in hip culture), a development in which engineers from all over the continent were happy to partake.
Such economic and cultural shifts have designated 59% of German national V.C. investments to Berlin, rendering it a hub of possibility for tech companies. In 2019, a data report revealed startling numbers showcasing the progress that Berlin has made: startups manifesting 80,000 jobs; startups receiving 3.7 billion euros in funds; startups placing the city in 2nd place for European tech investment. The second place prize can also be attributed to the number of unicorns, or private startups valued at over 1 billion USD, created within a certain period of time.
It is essential to understand how this change has occurred in Berlin. Barely more than a decade ago, Berlin was turning itself inside out in search of industries that could set it apart from the rest of the bleak crowd, envying Paris and London for their glittering cultural je ne sais quoi. The desperate scramble for economic progress led to some “knock-offs” of American e-commerce. One such “shallow tech” company, Rocket Internet, left behind a legacy of unoriginality and misfortune that lasted until Berlin decided to concentrate its efforts on tech startups rather than “consumer clones.”
Foreign startups also peak the interest of Berlin’s venture capitalists, who see profits made from companies in faraway lands as an “external validation” of sorts. The richness of the city’s risk capital has diversified the focuses of its V.C. firms, expanding beyond simple, safe ventures to projects that might have universal benefits — a definite step forward in the morality of venture capital. For instance, June Fund partner David Rosskamp proudly describes an increase in funding towards “the agricultural world… [in response to] a large need, and an equally large economic opportunity in digitizing these flows, in providing transparent access to agricultural supplies and in empowering millions of small-scale farmers. So June has invested in agricultural trading networks from Europe to Africa.” Berlin has thus been near-flourishing in V.C. pursuits and tech advancements.
And then the coronavirus hit.
With the current pandemic exacerbating an economic crisis of our own, the United States is, as General Washington was according to Lin-Manuel Miranda, “in dire need of assistance.” More than anything else, the country needs an understanding of the situation in order to further analyze the best paths to recovery. Whether by following role models or avoiding worst-case scenarios, watching trends in other countries appears to be greatly important for a successful return to normalcy.
The problem is, experts are not quite certain whether Berlin is the former or the latter. Speaking from a rather humanitarian perspective, Germany is a clear example to follow for its relatively low percentage of COVID-19 fatalities, courtesy of Chancellor Merkel’s precise and effective handling of the virus.
On a fundamentally economic level, however, virus effects in Germany leave observers skeptical. Investment level decreases have been drastic, especially when compared with the fairly more fortunate European cities such as Dublin and Amsterdam. The vast range of different level changes is astonishing: while Zurich has seen a 98% increase in investment levels since the previous year, Madrid’s levels have dropped 69%. Berlin is on the devastating side, with a 51% drop in investment. NGP Capital partner Bo Ilsoe attributes this to Germany being “more conservative and more prudent in reigning back spending” while the pandemic unleashes its claws on German businesses. Others, however, present optimistic outlooks: Berlin is less expensive to operate in compared to other tech hubs, including San Francisco, so many V.C. firms are not too worried for the long term.
The impacts of the coronavirus on society have also reshaped the process of venture capitalism. Firms have begun encouraging clients to “focus on extending the runway both by increasing capital efficiency as well as taking on additional funding.” Different industries have been impacted differently as well. With the communications industry consolidating into an “oligopolistic market structure” featuring Zoom and Google Meet as its two lead stars, Berlin V.C. firms are wary about prospects for startups in the technology sector.
In any case, the city’s progress of the past decade cannot be ignored. There remains still a considerable amount of hope for startups in the German capital city. And where there is hope, there is venture capitalism. Or is it the other way around?
By Benny Sun
Running for re-election, incumbent Mayor James Baldassare is a Republican candidate for the Bernards Township Committee. His main stances include making Bernards Township debt-free, eliminating overdevelopment, and improving transparency. To better understand Mayor Baldassare as a candidate, here is more information about his beliefs, background, and insights.
Q: How did you get your start in politics? What is your background?
I got involved in politics because I enjoy helping people, finding solutions to problems and want to make our community a better place to live. I was elected to the Bernards Township Committee in 2017. I am Bernards Townships’ current Mayor and I am seeking another three-year term on the Township Committee. I have over thirty years of experience in the contract surety industry from both surety company and agency perspectives.
I am a United States Marine Corps veteran and graduated first in my class from Parris Island. I attended Northeastern University studying economics and participated in the 2015 Somerset Leadership Program. I am also a licensed New Jersey Property and Casualty Agent- Broker. Both my wife Tracy, who serves as a Bernards Township Police Officer, and I are lifelong residents of Bernards Township, and Ridge High School graduates. We have six children all of whom have attended or currently attend township schools and one grandchild.
Q: What are the main local-level issues facing young people that you plan on fixing?
Managing overdevelopment is a challenge being faced all across New Jersey and Bernards Township is not immune from that challenge. We enjoy great schools, outstanding parks, wonderful open space and many other enviable public facilities which enhance the high quality of life that Bernards Township is well-known for. Overdevelopment has the potential to seriously affect our quality of life and have serious adverse financial impacts in addition to adverse impacts on our schools, traffic, and emergency services.
As noted in the October 29th 2019 Affordable Housing Taskforce report, the majority of Bernards Townships’ current residential development is being driven by court-mandated affordable housing obligations. Under the Affordable Housing Law and associated mandated obligations, municipal zoning laws are preempted and municipalities are forced to comply. In our view the courts should not be deciding how local zoning works.
We can only make progress on the challenges of overdevelopment and finding solutions for meeting future affordable housing mandates if we work together in a collaborative manner. I am fortunate that my running mate, Kate Grochala, is an attorney knowledgeable about the Affordable Housing Legislation. We urge all voters to review the Affordable Housing Taskforce report which is available on our Bernards Township website. The Taskforce report includes information on how to contact the appropriate New Jersey State Officials and elected representatives. This is especially important during this critical election year.
Q: A major part of your campaign has been remaining financially responsible. What is an example of wasteful town spending that would go away under your candidacy?
Kate and I are fiscal conservatives and we will work hard to control taxes and keep Bernards Township 100% debt free. Avoiding debt is one of the ways Bernards Township controls taxes. We enjoy outstanding parks, open space and other public facilities. These are some of the things that affect the high quality of life that Bernards is well known for and which we will continue to support. Working with Bernards Township staff, we will continue to make prudent improvements and investments in our infrastructure and protect our open spaces. We do not believe that BT engages in “wasteful” spending. We believe it would be “wasteful” to enter into debt.
When municipalities borrow, they are robbing the future for the present. Every taxpayer dollar spent on interest is a dollar squandered, a dollar that could be spent on something else, a dollar that you could be spending on your family and your future. Through good Republican leadership, Bernards Township has avoided debt. Looking ahead to the future, “paying as you go”, carrying no debt, keeping adequate reserves on hand, maintaining accurate and current tax base valuations, exploring shared services with other municipalities, sound long term planning, and vision are the keys to good governance including managing the effects of unforeseen events such as the COVID-19. This is the approach BT has taken through solid Republican leadership and should continue to follow.
Q: Voter engagement has been a crucial part of your election. How will you continue to get residents in Bernards Township involved in committee affairs?
One of the many great things about Bernards is the high level of engagement by many of our citizens. Their service is a testament to their commitment to the community and its improvement. For example, volunteers have undertaken many laudable and successful initiatives to help our community, including our senior citizens and businesses, cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. There are numerous ways for residents to initiate, sponsor, or otherwise support a variety of community service-related activities. We will continue to encourage all residents to become engaged and we will support opportunities for engagement. Similarly, we will continue to recognize those who have dedicated their time and resources as volunteers to make our town the great place that it is. Our campaign website recognizes that voter engagement is a crucial part of what makes Bernards Township such a desirable place in which to live.
It is interesting to note that community engagement and transparency go hand in hand. We believe that openness, accountability and honesty coupled with community engagement define transparency in government. Therefore, we will encourage our residents to follow the issues, attend public meetings, and become engaged. We will listen to our residents and their concerns with an open mind, encourage honest and candid discussion and respond to questions, to the best of our ability. In particular, we will ensure that proposed municipal budgets are published well in advance with ample opportunity for review and discussion by the public prior to any approval.
Q: As the only incumbent in this election, what is your most proud accomplishment over your career as the mayor of Bernards Township? What is your biggest regret?
During the pandemic, I worked hard to keep everyone apprised of the situation and evolving events surrounding COVID-19. My letters to the Township residents have been well received and intended to both provide residents with information but also to be a reassuring voice in an uncertain time. I am also very proud of the work that our health department has done in providing vital information to the public regularly. In addition, because the Township’s finances are in such a strong position, we have been able to weather this storm without having to curtail essential municipal services. I have done my very best in everything I undertake on behalf of Bernards Township and have no regrets.
Q: How will you balance the safety of Bernards Township residents during the COVID-19 pandemic while also ensuring that our economy keeps chugging along?
The health, safety and welfare of all residents is of course our primary concern as elected representatives. The Township has strictly complied with all of the Governor’s mandates concerning COVID-19 and has encouraged all residents to likewise comply. However, during the pandemic, the Township took judicious actions to ease certain restrictions on business while still maintaining high standards for the health, safety and welfare of the public. We continue to actively look for ways to help our businesses and residents during these challenging times.
Q: What are some ways we can get Ridge High School students to get more involved in local politics?
The best way to be productively involved is to be informed. I would encourage everyone including high school students to follow the issues, understand what the municipal governments role is and be aware of what is happening in the community. One of the best ways to do this is to attend the Bernards Township Municipal meetings where the Township’s business is discussed and various issues addressed twice monthly, usually on the second and fourth Tuesday. It is best to attend in person but all meetings are also televised and recorded for future viewing. In addition, there is a great deal of information on the Bernards Township website including opportunities for volunteering.
By Benny Sun
In the 2020 election for the Bernards Township Committee, there are two Democratic candidates: Jon Sandler and Dr. Sophia Chadda. Jon is a lifelong resident of New Jersey and attorney in the Commercial Litigation practice group of Riker Danzig Scherer Hyland Perretti, LLP in Morristown since 2007, has lived in Bernards Township since 2015. Dr. Sophia Chadda has lived in Bernards Township for over 20 years and, with her husband, Dr. Konstantine Trichas, raised her three children here. She has been practicing as a board-certified periodontist for 20 years and established her thriving dental practice on Stonehouse Road in Basking Ridge in 2004. Here is the audio transcription of the interview that transpired.
Q: What is your background and what moment made you realize that you wanted to run for local office?
Chadda: I was never involved in local politics until last year. I told myself that there are the same old people all the time. And we need different voices. We need different and diverse people. We need leadership that is transparent, inclusive, and innovative. I kept watching our property taxes increase and our home values continue to decrease. I also said to myself that we have seen the same Republican party running the show for the longest time, except two Democrats in the last forty or fifty years. We don’t know what kind of problem we’re gonna have in the future, but what we do know are what values our leaders are gonna have, so that’s important to me. I want to ensure that Bernards Township remains a place that people want to live, work, shop, and do business. We need people that have a fresh perspective, a different perspective. I have a science background, so I thought that it would be helpful as well to bring some evidence-based knowledge to the township community.
Sandler: I am a Jersey guy, born and raised. I grew up in Bergen County. My wife and I moved to Bernards Township five years ago. I am a practicing attorney and part of my practice involves representing municipalities in outside litigation as special counsel. So I’m uniquely qualified in that I’ve got an understanding of how to assist municipalities with hedging risk and advising with local and state ordinances and regulation, as it relates to all sorts including affordable housing. I’ve negotiated with developers in litigations with municipalities. So I see both sides of it, and that perspective brings something unique to the Township Committee. I’ve been a guiding voice to help reverse difficult legal landscapes. This is also the first time I’ve ever run for a local office. I have been a district representative to the Somerset County Democratic Committee for a few years. I’ve realized that I love Bernards Township. Bernards Township has suffered lapses of leadership over the past five years, and it’s been disappointing. And these last new leadership have led to senseless and expensive litigation which has not only cost us in the pocketbook but also soiled our good name. We've been splashed across the news, local and even federally as a result of poor, decision making and poor leadership that has been displayed by a township committee. What happens with that the same core group of people who have been in charge of the town for many, many years. There's a certain complacency that comes with that. There's a certain paternalistic attitude that “We know best. Residents don't worry about what we're doing. We'll take care of it”. It just got to a point where I couldn't watch it anymore without at least throwing my hat in the ring to say no. We need to start looking at things differently. We need new people involved, people they're gonna look to experts to make sure that when we proceed going forward, we're doing so in the best interest of the town, not just maintaining the status quo.
Q: What do you think is the main local level issue facing young people and Bernards Township that you plan on fixing specifically?
Chadda: We've got to address our mental health crisis and the increasing anxiety and depression. Especially the unprecedented amount of stress that high school students are facing. And I talked about this last year when I ran. This year, we've been talking about COVID and businesses because that's been taken over the whole discourse, for the most part. But last year, when COVID-19 wasn't around, we could talk about that being a huge issue. And I remember, last year, the Journal of the American Medical Association published this study indicating that suicide levels are at their highest level in 20 years in youth. And they attributed that to two things, social media and the opioid epidemic. Wellness needs to be a priority in our community. And that wellness issue, that mental health issues encompasses a lot of things because a lot of things that in general I don’t think John and I are facing. We didn't have social media growing up, so our every move wasn't documented or every failure. We didn’t have to worry about likes and how we looked at all times. So there are a lot more challenges that the teens are facing.
Sandler: No, I couldn't agree more. The stress levels that young people face today are so much greater than anything that I saw as a kid. The pressure to get good grades, the competitive nature of the admissions process. The requirement that you have to be good at everything but specialize in one thing has created a huge amount of anxiety amongst our young people. College counselors say that the kids around that time have more anxiety than they’ve ever seen before, to the point where they worry about their health and safety. I'm 40 years old and I didn't go to high school that long ago, but the pressure just wasn't there. Social media is adding so much to that level of anxiety. People put on social media only the best of what's going on in their life, and they paint a rosy picture of everything going on. And so it automatically makes everyone who sees these posts feel as though they're not enough and they're not good enough. That clear anxiety contributes to drug addiction. That contributes to issues that need to be addressed. The Bernards Township has the municipal alliance, whose mission is to talk about drug addiction. But as council committee members we can work with the Board of Ed to ensure that there are places where our kids can go and talk to those that can be compassionate. That can help them to reverse these difficult waters so that their mental health is a priority.
Q: I know during the last discussion that there was mention about having a youth advisory board. So I was wondering if you could elaborate more on that issue or how exactly that would work.
Chadda: There have been some complaints or concerns about the lack of activities for teens in town. That was why I recommended having a teen advisory task force. I know the library has some activities. Parks and Recs have activities, but let's say you're not into sports. You like chess or you like drama. There should be stuff for everybody. Some people are oriented towards athletics, and there are teams. There could be more recreational activities. It doesn't have to be so competitive. So it should be some sort of task force that incorporates different ideas and suggestions. There aren't a lot of places for teams to congregate in town. If we have a place like more coffee shops, dessert places that would help. As far as teen involvement goes, it's so important for teens to get involved in this election cycle. This is the second most important election of our lifetime. The most important time was the election of 1860 where we were gonna go to civil war, determining the future of America. So this election is so important because you have two competing visions for the future of this country. It's important for everyone if they can vote to be involved in the political process. So I would just say to all teens out there if you're 18 please exercise your right to vote. It's just of paramount importance.
Sandler: Also, there was a discussion at the committee level about whether or not to create the Human Rights Advisory Committee. And the purpose of that committee was to study biases in town and to work towards creating a welcoming, open environment for all of our residents, regardless of sexual orientation or identity or race or gender or religion, or able-bodied. There was some pushback at the township committee level initially, but the voices of the people that came out in the community were young people. I was so overwhelmed to see the support and to see young people coming to the township committee members, making public comments on the record, participating in local government. It's through the voice of the young folks that came out and made their feelings known that ultimately the town committee was swayed. And now there is a diversity and inclusion committee that was voted on just the other day. I think that shows the importance of community engagement and particularly the engagement of young people. Because I'll tell you that if there wasn't much significant backlash towards the township committee and in favor of creating this diversity and inclusion, there's no way it would have gone through. I saw young teenagers come out and participate in local government and tell everyone what they believed in and it worked, so that was nice to see.
Q: That leads to my next question about the diversity inclusion committee. I was wondering if you had any examples or stories about the hostility towards inclusion in Bernards Township.
Sandler: I don't personally thankfully. I didn't grow up here. I moved here five years ago, and we have never felt anything other than welcome by everyone. One of the things that occurred at the township many meetings were stories of young folks that did experience unfortunate situations here, including someone, dressed up in a way that is derogatory towards Mexicans during Mexican Day. There were articles in the newspaper a couple of years ago about Swastikas that were found around town. There were some flyers for white supremacist organizations posted around towns. These things have happened in Bernards Township.
Chadda: I have never really experienced anything like personally. Last night, in the last township committee meeting, some community members put forward the notion that there's no institutional racism which I was surprised and shocked to hear because I just think that’s very tone-deaf. This Human Advisory Board is so necessary because there are so many people in our community that feel they are different. And as Bernards Township is becoming increasingly diverse, our approach to governance has to evolve, and our township committee members should work together to ensure that everybody feels welcome and heard. So this committee is going to be 11 people. They're going to report to the township committee twice a year. It's going to include the police, clergy, school administrator, and person trained in diversity and inclusion. So, I look forward to that committee, and I think it's long overdue.
Q: Going on to the issue of businesses and Basking Ridge and Bernards Township. We all know that a pandemic is bad for business. What are your plans to promote local business spending while ensuring safety during the pandemic?
Sandler: I'm not sure if you follow our campaign on Facebook, but we did the 30-day shop Local Challenge with Sophia and me. For 30 days over the summer, we patronize the local business every single day. And the purpose of that was to encourage residents to get out there and support the local businesses, particularly, during COVID -19. I think our small businesses are hurting in such a significant way. It's so critical to support them anyway we can. And one way to support them is by shopping locally. But another thing that the town committee can do: ease ordinances and zoning restrictions that allow for outdoor dining and outdoor shopping. Maybe you have a street fair, maybe you close off downtown for a day and let the merchants put their goods outside to be sold. So you get these businesses an opportunity to make some money, and will also operate within the confines of what's been put in place at the state level. If and when Sophie and I get elected, the COVID pandemic is not as severe, although I certainly don't take that for granted. But if it's not, you can be certain that we're gonna work hard to make sure that you do everything we can for local businesses to safely drive shoppers and foot traffic to these businesses to spend their money.
Chadda: We proposed creating an economic development commission to stimulate our economy. And that would comprise all businesses. Everything from large Verizon to small mom and pop shops, and to come up with strategic immediate short term and long term goals to stimulate our economy and revitalize our business districts. They were already suffering before and I'm sure they're suffering even more now. As John said, we did our 30-day shop local campaign. Our goal was to encourage people rather than going to Amazon straight away or big box stores to shop locally. Because without small business, the local economy will fail, and we need our local money to work to preserve our property values to help with our tax base. It's very important for keeping our taxes at a reasonable level to support our local businesses and develop the local economy.
Q: So you mentioned about stabilizing property taxes and just making taxes generally lower. And also, another part of your campaign has been just increasing more money for maintaining infrastructure. So I was wondering, what is something that our town spends too much on where it's being wasted right now?
Chadda: Well, I'll say this on the 65% of our budget. About 90 million goes to our school. I think about two million was in the library, but the school board is the one that has control over that budget. So the town committee has no control over the school budget. That's why our taxes are so high. That is the main reason. But what we can do is like we mentioned just now, it's trying to stimulate our local economy to broaden in our tax states so that the burden doesn't fall so squarely on the homeowner's shoulder. So that is something that we can do.
Sandler: There has been money that has been spent poorly, relating to litigation, relating to certain studies. I know that they did that study in Pleasant Valley Park about looking at a little trickle of water that cost a ton of money. It just comes down looking at the budget, sharpening the pencil, and figuring out where we can spend our money most wisely. Because at the end of the day, as council committee members, you're acting as a shepherd of the town’s people's money, and you should make sure that it's not being wasted and that you're spending as wisely as you can and any savings you're able to attain to the diligence or efficiency should go back in the taxpayer's pocket, one way or another.
Chadda: The Township committee has wasted money on medical benefits for part-time elected officials and PR consultants. So those are unnecessary expenditures that can be, and there have been consulting projects that the county has spent tens of thousands of dollars that didn’t need to be that way.
Q: Nationally, we've been more polarized than now than any other year in American history. Do you think locally there are major differences in ideology between our two partisan committees and how will you ensure to create policies and ideas that everyone likes?
Chadda: Local politics is related to national politics. If you're a supporter of Donald Trump, then you follow and believe in his line of thinking. That can be problematic. We need leaders that have empathy. We need leaders that will promote American values of diversity and unity, cohesiveness. That's important. To look at who our local leaders are, we need leaders that have values. That's incredibly important. We don't know what problems our community is gonna face, but what we can know is what values elected officials have. And if you are supporting this current administration. then you are complicit with what Donald Trump is doing.
Sandler: There are certainly some ideological differences between the council committee members on the Democratic side, solely being Joan Harris and four Republican Town Committee members. But it's so important that you're able to reach across the aisle and to work with everyone because, at the end of the day, that's what every county community member should be interested in. The primary interest should be: What's in the best interest of Bernards Township? These are local issues. Now all politics are local politics. That much is true. But we can defer on national policy. We can differ on the larger national political issues. But ultimately, when it comes to local issues, there's no reason why we can't work together: Democrat, Republican, Independent. To put forth, in Bernards Township policies and ordinances and regulations that are in the best interests of folks, no matter what their political affiliation is. The Democrats have been either not represented at all on the township committee or have been vastly outnumbered. We've had to be willing to work with our Republican counterparts. Even if Sophia and I win, I think Sophia and I can commit to working with the Republican Committee members and not just forcing ideas through. That it has to be a partnership among the five members, regardless of the party affiliation.
Chadda: No matter who gets elected, we have to work together, reach across the aisle. Otherwise, we just have gridlock. Nothing gets done. And ultimately, we live in the town. We love this town, and we want what's best for the town. So absolutely we will work with our Republican colleagues for the betterment of our town.
Sandler: One of the things that's interesting that I've found about running local policies. You're running against your neighbors. You're running against your kids' friends. We don't get that on the national level. We have to go to Shoprite and we see our political opponents and we see people that are part of their campaigns. Our kids are friends with their kids and it's so important that we keep this race civil and cordial to the issues. Because these are our neighbors, and regardless of what happens in November, they're gonna continue to be our neighbors. And that's in my mind what makes local politics very unique.
Q: Just generally outside the election. What is something unique that you like about Bernards Township? And why is it that you love this town so much?
Chadda: Bernards Township is just the most picturesque town you’ll ever see. Their school districts are top-notch. We have a great quality of life here. It's a wonderful place to raise a family and to have a business.
Sandler: I echo the sentiments. Bernards Township is a beautiful town. It's also strategically located. It's so commutable, no matter where you work. And I think that's what makes it unique. we got 78. You've got 287. You've got two train stations which are direct lines to the city, and you get that accessibility with the picturesque nature of the town, the beautiful foliage. The people here are really, truly exceptional. I grew up in Bergen County, and then I lived in Jersey City during law school and so my life before here was so congested with everything close together and people on top of one. Bernards Township is such a beautiful community where there's so much green, so much space. I think it's just a wonderful place to raise a family. I love the fact that my kids in the public schools here we've had nothing but a wonderful experience. Thrilled to welcome a newborn a little over a month ago and get her involved locally as well as soon as she's old enough. So I think it's just a wonderful, wonderful town.
To listen to the interview in its entirety, here is the link: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1VtLBttzjDE8HRhJnS1rz_c_ivDHU1hOy/view
By Benny Sun
Venezuela is in chaos. As over four million Venezuelans have left the country, Venezuela's situation continues to worsen every day. The economic pain faced by normal civilians is characterized by widespread poverty driven by hyperinflation and chronic shortages of food, medicine, and necessities. In fact, a recent report now finds that over 9 in 10 Venezuelans live in poverty. In the context of human disaster, it is no wonder that America’s recent actions in January are controversial, as the Trump Administration has chosen to renew their sanctions policy which blocks Venezuela access to food, water, and humanitarian aid amid Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis. Even in international accounts, the U.S. government had frozen over 5.5 billion dollars in Venezuelan funds, preventing the government from attaining the necessary funds to conduct fiscal policy or enact stimulus packages to save their economy. Overall, to better understand the Venezuelan crisis, one must first under its cultural history.
The 1990s saw the rise of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, who soon became the face of Venezuela’s government in 1998 off of his uncompromising attacks on political corruption and state incompetence. Many saw Hugo Chavez’s domestic policy as radical, as he greatly expanded social welfare programs including improving access to health, education, food, and social security to the lowest echelons of society. As Venezuela was an oil state, meaning that a vast majority of their industries relied on extracting oil and petroleum, the boom in oil prices in the early 2000s allowed Chavez to use its extra profits in providing for the people. Unfortunately, because of Venezuela’s lack of diversification, Venezuela’s extreme reliance on oil would later become the beginning of Venezuela’s economic woes. Moreover, Chavez’s successor, Nicolas Maduro, would drive his country further into financial chaos with his lack of competent management, rampant corruption, and dismantling of humanitarian services. In 2014, plummeting oil prices triggered a severe economic contraction causing simultaneous hyperinflation. However, rather than aiding his people, Maduro instead announced cuts to major social services that millions relied upon under the guise of austerity. Consequently, even before the implementation of American sanctions, from 2013 to 2016, Venezuela’s food imports had dropped 71%, medicine had dropped 68%, infant mortality had increased 44%, and inflation has risen by 1 million percent.
Under these circumstances, the Trump administration, beginning in August 2017, announced sanctions on Venezuela’s oil industries and international markets. Their main intention was simple: to drive Maduro away from power (who they deemed as the cause of the crisis) and instigate the Venezuela economy away from socialism towards free-market economics. However, the current success record of these sanctions is mixed and has come into dispute because of the views that America is only prolonging the crisis in Venezuela. For one thing, Maduro is still in power and has seen a bolster in his support. Weeks after Trump’s implementation of sanctions, Maduro’s approval ratings rose by 23%. This is because while Venezuela heavily relies on oil for revenue, many of Maduro’s allies including Iran and Russia have responded by increasing their investments to keep Maduro alive. Simply, while Maduro can continue living on, it is only the poorest of the poor who could be suffering under these sanctions. On top of that, Maduro, with his state-controlled media, can shift the blame away from his mismanagement and lack of diversification onto the United States. However, while Maduro might still be in power, there are certainly still economic shifts occurring within Venezuela. For instance, in December 2019, the Maduro government erased price controls, loosened capital controls, and even accepted dollarization into his country. The implications of these policies have been the rise of non-oil private industries including food, service, and technology sectors. Venezuelan business chamber Fedecamaras predicts that for the first time in decades, the private sector will account for 25% of GDP in 2019 and continue to rise in 2020. Consequently, the New York Times in 2020 predicts that Venezuela could potentially follow a path of economic liberalization: by loosening the control of the government, capital inflows such as foreign investment and bond investors could re-enter Venezuelan markets again. However, while this process is slow, American sanctions are also painful for the majority of normal Venezuelans.
By incapacitating revenue streams from the Venezuelan government, American sanctions also prevented Venezuela from purchasing food and medicine imports directly. For example, while Venezuela attempted to buy new water pumps, they were unable because the sanctions prevented these companies from doing business with Maduro’s regime. These reports showed that Venezuela’s clean water input fell by 30% and nearly 20% of the country was facing water shortages as a result. Not only has it been reported that water shortages have occurred, but additional blocks to medicine, food, and even humanitarian aid. Therefore, America’s solution to continue its placement of sanctions still has its varying detrimental effects. As a result, a report from Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, Professor of Economics at Columbia University, analyzed data and found that American sanctions coincided with a whopping 31% increase in mortality or 40,000 additional deaths. On the other hand, since American sanctions froze Venezuelan assets in international markets, Venezuela was unable to commit to debt-restructuring in 2017. Even during the Chavez times, external debt was a major problem that Venezuela had to deal with when arising in Latin America. However, in 2016, Venezuela was on the brink of restructuring and solving many of its debt problems under a major debt-restructuring package that would redirect billions of dollars back into the Venezuelan economy. Subsequently, American sanctions inhibited Venezuela from reaching its economic cure which further pushed Venezuela’s health down the drain.
While US sanctions on Venezuela’s oil sector and international markets have failed to oust Maduro, there are still some benefits such as their slow economic liberation phase, with increases in diversification and privatization. Unfortunately, Venezuela’s progress is still slow and COVID-19 is only continuing to enact punishment on Venezuela. Thus, millions of civilians are still suffering, unable to access the necessities to live a normal and healthy life. As economic conditions worsen across the globe due to COVID-19, it is crucial for Venezuela to create productive policies to recover its economy soon.
By Daniel Zhang
The world watched in horror as New York City’s Covid-19 infections exponentially skyrocketed. Within the epicenter itself, a different story was emerging — one now echoed across every urban area in the United States. Geographically, in a classic tale of haves and have-nots, Upper East Siders vanished while East Harlemers endured. Rich, predominantly white neighborhoods, such as Greenwich Village and Brooklyn Heights, emptied out by nearly 50%. While those New Yorkers laid low in the Hamptons, nearly 95% of their compatriots, residents earning household incomes lower than $80,000, remained in what they, now ironically, saw as ‘the greatest city in the world’. As a result, 30% of New York’s Covid-19 hospitalizations consist of African Amercians, who represent 18% of the state’s population. In New Mexico, 20% of Covid-19 cases consist of Navajo tribe members, who represent 5% of the state’s population. In Louisiana, 70% of Covid-19 deaths consist of Black residents, who represent 1/3 of the state’s population. The Brookings Institute reports that “Hurricanes hit the poor the hardest” and the Economic Policy institutes finds that the top 1% captured 85% of post-recession growth between 2009-2013. At seemingly every crisis — natural, social, or medical — low-income minorities lack the resources to avoid the effects. Analyzing this familiar trend through the microcosm of Covid-19 reveals the decades-long buildup to these circumstances: the astonishingly high cost of health prior to Covid and less insulation from the effects of this during Covid.
Before the first case of Covid-19 was discovered in Wuhan last year, low-income minorities were already disenfranchised in terms of health. As writer Eric Schlosser notes in his book, Fast Food Nation, never before has there been a time where a fit and healthy rich preside over an unfit and unhealthy poor. Being plump was once an indicator of financial prosperity, but it has now become a predictor of poverty. While lifestyle brands, such as the ever-popular Sweetgreen, charge upwards of $8.00 for a single salad, McDonalds and KFC provide affordable alternatives with dollar menus and value meals. It’s understandable why a low-income minority family would rather make a trip to a fast food outlet instead of forking over a week’s pay for a bowl of leafy greens. The high cost of fresh fruits and vegetables has created a dangerous plight: to meet the USDA dietary standards, low-income minorities would have to spend 70% of their food budget on fruits and vegetables alone. These findings, in combination with the low cost of fast food, reveal that a bowl of salad can be as indicative of wealth as a brand new Mercedes.
While eating healthy is unaffordable, access to quality healthcare is oftentimes unattainable. In addition to problems arising from affordability, low-income minorities face difficulties accessing the same quality of care as their white counterparts. The American Bar Association reports that even when controlling for factors such as class and eating habits, low-income minorities are less likely to receive effective treatments. They are less likely to be offered kidney transplants and less likely to receive innovative heart attack, stroke, and AIDS treatments. When examining medical professionals administering this care, the reason for these disparities emerges: only 5.8% of them are Hispanic and a mere 5% identify as Black. In fact, when Black doctors took care of Black men, a Harvard Business Review analysis found that the men were more likely to receive effective care. In essence, a lack of diversity within medicine means that low-income minorities are less likely to have been effectively treated or diagnosed prior to Covid, leading to a deteriorated state of health before the pandemic struck.
Consequently, as Covid-19 infected our nation, low-income minorities' plight became further pronounced. A lack of sufficient national data on Covid-19’s impact separated by race and income level has led many states to conduct their own research. The results are overwhelmingly similar: poor minority-filled areas have the highest positive-test rates while wealthy communities possess the lowest. This stems from a number of reasons, ranging from employment to living conditions. While higher-income white collar workers could work from home or rely upon savings, low-income minorities often have to continue working contact-heavy jobs, leading to a higher chance of infection. Low-income minorities are overwhelmingly the ones who must deliver InstaCart orders to homes, drive Ubers in cities, and work fast food drive throughs. This is compounded by their higher rates of public transit, where infections are more likely when compared with personal cars. These findings, in addition to compact living conditions, mean low-income families are more likely to receive infections as well as affect each other. Disastrous results have emerged from these structural problems, indicating that an already worse state of health, in combination with less desirable employment and living conditions, have led to higher infection rates amongst low-income minorities.
When analyzing the government’s medical and financial response's effects on low-income minorities, several successes emerge, as well as several failures. For starters, the United States has achieved a ventilator surplus, a product of Trump’s evocation of the Defense Production Act and lower-use states shipping ventilators to places like New York and California, states with large amounts of Covid-19 cases as well as low-income minorities. Additionally, government aid has allowed Pharmaceutical companies to focus on developing Covid-19 vaccines and treatments. Notably, the Federal Drug Administration has already approved Remdisever, a treatment developed by American company, Gilead Sciences, which shortens the average hospital stay of a Covid-19 patient by four days. While the price of the treatment is around $3,120 for those with commercial insurance, it may prove to benefit the wallets of low-income minorities overall, as early intervention with Remdisever may help them avoid hospitalization altogether, a process which costs around $12,000. Despite these overall successes, the main criticism of Covid-19 response for low-income minorities has not necessarily been the absence of mask mandates or the abundance of harmful online ‘cures’. Rather it is the lack of focused resources. The federal government has failed to adequately direct a higher portion of resources towards low-income communities, often distributing an excess of resources to wealthier communities that do not require them. While this has not yet led to drastic consequences, the continued daily increase of Covid cases, especially in low-income neighborhoods, may require concentrated resource distribution.
Another pillar of government Covid-19 response has been financial stimulus packages, which deliver $1,200 to individuals earning less than $75,000. While these checks undoubtedly aid individuals financially, a larger issue remains: the most disadvantaged are often the ones still waiting to receive payment. Employed people, regularly filing taxes with the government, are easily pinpointed to receive proper aid. However, those earning too little to file taxes often did not receive the extra $500 families were promised for each child under sixteen years of age. This is because tax filers state dependents when doing so, while those who do not file are not able directly inform the government of their dependents. These financial oversights, in combination with the design of the stimulus package bill, provide aggrandized benefits to wealthy Americans. While the package could have provided an expanded set of benefits, common in other developed countries, wealthy corporations and Wall Street have been gifted a rescue fund that could be valued at 6 trillion dollars. These concerns indicate another criticism of the stimulus bill. Similar to medical resources, financial resources have been distributed in an untargeted manner. More specifically, it provides funds to those not requiring them while failing to provide enough for those requiring them the most. White-collar workers, who often already earn higher wages, are able to telecommute, not having to spend additional resources on arsenals of personal protective equipment. Blue-collar works, who are often low-income minorities, must continue to interact with others on production lines and delivery gates, having to allocate more resources to masks, gloves, and cleansing products. There are markedly different pandemic experiences for white-collared and blue-collared workers. Amongst those who received stimulus checks, individuals with less than $500 in bank accounts spent half of their payments within ten days, indicating the same check for white-collar families earning $100,000 and blue-collar families earning $1,000 annually creates difficulties for the latter.
As winds howl and storms rage, disasters should, in theory, affect the rich and low-income minorities equally; both rich homes and poor homes are destroyed while rich families and poor families are both forced to evacuate. Despite this seemingly logical rationale, from Katrina in New Orleans, to Sandy in New Jersey, to even the 2008 financial crisis, low-income minorities often bear the brunt of the effects of every storm. Covid-19 appears no different; as a disaster that impacts mental and physical health, in addition to creating financial burdens, this pandemic disproportionately affects low-income minorities. Consequently, Covid-19 continues a familiar trend, where after natural and financial crises, disenfranchised minorities disproportionately suffer.
By Benny Sun
America’s school systems are broken. With George Floyd protests proliferating across the country, Americans are now reflecting upon the many deeply-flawed institutions including criminal justice courts, housing policies, and now schooling. Recent reports indicate that the alarming prominence of “intensely segregated schools” where whites are less than 10% of the student body population has tripled in the last 20 years. Now, nearly 42% of Latinos and 40% of African Americans attend minority-majority schools which severely lack in quality, funding, and equal treatment. While Brown v. Board of Ed was a landmark case passed 66 years ago in favor of racial equality in schooling districts, these sentiments have unfortunately not been reflected in the United States.
For instance, New York City’s school district, home to an extremely racially-divided education system, has been called on to revamp its admissions process. Elite high schools in New York including Stuyvesant and Manhattan Beacon employ a standardized-test based admission process, allowing wealthy students to hire private tutors while poorer students are left behind. For this reason, these elite schools have incredibly low racial diversity rates: in Stuyvesant, only 4% of its student population is Hispanic, Latino, or African American. However, to better understand how the public school system has failed racial minorities, we must first understand the historical context of America’s unequal school systems.
To begin, Brown v. The Board of Ed. was simply not followed through by states. During the 1950s and 1960s, nearly 1,000 school districts remained as segregated as before the ruling. This was because a plethora of southern states clashed with lower and federal courts, bringing in any method of slowing down the process of desegregation. As such, a desire for a truly ambitious education reform failed. Moreover, in the years following World War 2, the 1950s saw a period of immense rapid population and housing shortage, prompting the emergence of suburbs around large cities. Under this new development, “white flight” occurred where wealthy white families moved to predominantly white-majority suburban towns, creating racial-minority areas in poor cities and separating high-echelon neighborhoods.
As a result, white-majority neighborhoods grew more prosperous while living standards in urban areas declined due to a depleted tax base. Even though school segregation was banned in 1954, because of the vast separations in areas, busing projects to bring low-income students into higher-quality schools were scrapped altogether. In the worst case, Boston’s Busing project in the 1970s erupted in violence, as white residents harassed racial minorities through insults and threats. Moreover, during the 1980s, the rollback of legal mandates allowed white families to “splinter” from existing districts, separating their school funding and population from the poorer district. Thus, school segregation existed very much in spirit. These impacts are manifest in two important outcomes in schooling districts across the United States: lack of funding for poor districts and consistent separation.
Education spending across the country is widely inconsistent among school districts. States like New Jersey, Connecticut, and Massachusetts with fewer lower-income students of color spend twice as much on their students compared with states like Mississippi with a larger population of low-income students. Unfortunately, these fewer dollars means that school districts with less resources provide less services such as more personalized teaching, important field trips, and resources like computers (all essential to the learning process). On the other hand, poorer districts suffer from significantly lower standardized test scores because they are unable to acquire textbooks or test-prep books for teaching materials.
As stated before, the sources behind fewer resources originate from the highly-concentrated areas of poverty areas that some minority students grew up in. Because of the massive white-flight movement in the 1950s, racial-minority families in mostly urban areas were stuck in the cities, where property values sunk and schools saw decreases in funding. Thus, local governments were less able to collect property taxes, the main mechanism for funding schools. For this reason, school quality began dropping off, creating a vicious cycle that pushed more wealthy areas away from these neighborhoods due to poor education. These effects are already well documented: a report by the US Department of Education found that the 20% reduction of pupil-spending in districts is correlated with a whopping 25% reduction in future income gains.
Even if richer families reside near minority-majority school districts, they often do not attend these schools. In a study revolving around the National Educational Longitudinal Survey during the 1980s, Dr. Robert Farlie and Alexandra Resch from MIT discovered an alarming fact: white families simply reverted to nearby private schools instead, cementing the prevalent segregated school district problem. This becomes extremely problematic, as not only does school integration receive less political backing, but interacting with people from all different backgrounds is crucial for raising an open-minded society. By establishing an integrated school district with all races, studies show that these places help white students “overcome prejudice”, while Black and Latino's students receive higher test scores. In some instances, the achievement gap was cut in half in math and one-third in English.
The solution for America’s deeply-divided public schools is tricky, but still possible. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, there are no “neighborhood schools”. Instead, all residents choose their top school choices and district administrators select a match based on socioeconomic factors and preference to ensure an integrated school experience. In New York City, the city council has attempted to push school districts towards integration through offering grants, where schools that develop an integration model are rewarded with extra funding. Luckily, last year, Brooklyn started to craft an admissions process that no longer requires standardized tests. However, without addressing the root of the problem, segregation will still exist in housing.
Overall, because school segregation is entirely based on neighborhood demographics and median income levels, the United States will remain divided unless a major shift occurs soon. As long as Americans are determined to draw lines around each other, whether physical or social, racial progress will be stymied by the lack of educational and economic opportunities that racial minorities face. Learning to live together amidst ethnic and economic tensions may seem impossible right now, but it is the only way Americans can learn to set aside their differences. Through dismantling school and neighborhood segregation, the United States would be one step closer to fulfilling the wish from Brown v. Board of Ed 60 years ago.
By Lucas Canteros-Paz
Around the globe, authorities and experts are preparing for the second wave of COVID-19 infections, yet in the Americas, there’s still no end in sight to the first.
Currently, most countries in Latin America are seeing their daily cases and deaths increase, and in the past two weeks, this region accounted for over half of coronavirus-related deaths worldwide. Brazil, the most populous nation in the region, has reported more than 1.2 million cases, while Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, and Peru are forecasted to have more than 10,000 deaths each, according to Reuters. Worryingly, researchers say these numbers could be even higher due to low testing rates. Although the situation in Latin America seems to get worse every day, efforts to contain and treat the virus have been marred by corruption scandals and profiteers who seek to use the pandemic for their own economic gain.
According to various experts, the pandemic has actually facilitated attempts of corruption for public officials in Latin America. By declaring a state of emergency, several countries have suspended regulations governing public contracts, adjourned in-person congressional meetings, or abolished rules requiring them to respond to media requests for information. These actions have resulted in reduced transparency and have left thousands across the region without the necessary resources to treat the deadly virus.
For instance, Bolivia’s former health minister, Marcelo Navajas, is awaiting trial for corruption charges after the ministry over-paid for 179 ventilators that did not even work properly. According to Al Jazeera, Bolivia initially paid $27,683 for each ventilator from a manufacturer in Spain when the actual price was estimated to be about $11,000. Bolivia is one of Latin America’s poorest nations and is currently experiencing political turmoil after the controversial resignation of Evo Morales. Due to the nation's current economic state and the governments failed policies, many patients have been turned away from hospitals.
Also, in heavily impacted Ecuador, prosecutors revealed that they identified a criminal ring that colluded with health officials. One of their leaders, Daniel Salcedo, was detained after reportedly selling body bags to hospitals for 13 times the actual price. As a result, many hospitals in the Guayaquil area were forced to dispose of bodies on the streets.
Most notably, Peru’s police chief and interior minister were forced to resign after their deputies were caught purchasing diluted hand sanitizer and useless face masks for their officers. Thus, more than 11,000 police officers have been infected and at least 200 have died of the virus. Due to the lack of law enforcement, the government has failed to enforce lockdown orders, and currently, Peru has the 6th most cases in the world.
Although scandals in Latin American countries are not very surprising given that they consistently rank amongst the most corrupt in the world, it is clear that many government officials and members of law enforcement have abused their power during the pandemic. A recent survey by Transparency International revealed that more than half of the region’s residents believe the problem of corruption to be getting worse. They also found that a fifth of survey takers admitted to paying a bribe in the past year.
But, many still remain optimistic that social pressure against corruption could bring massive change to Latin America. In the same report, it was found that 77% of survey takers believed that ordinary people could make a difference in the fight against corruption despite fears of retaliation.
Before the pandemic, massive protests against corruption and economic inequality erupted in several countries. For instance, protesters in Ecuador blocked highways and fought with security forces when the government decided to remove fuel subsidies in 2019. After the mass protests, the government backed down from their decision. Similarly, many people in Chile took to the streets after the government raised the price of public transportation. Although prices have only increased a mere 4%, these protests are representative of a greater economic divide between the top 1% and the rest of the nation.
Also, the use of social media has made it easier for people to publicly denounce corruption. For example, in 2016, Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht admitted to paying over $788 million in bribes for over a decade after public pressure. This led to the jailing of several former company presidents. Optimists also point to Paraguay’s successful implementation of a platform that allowed users to track the status of 110 emergency accounts worth over $26 million. This will allow citizen groups to monitor how resources are being spent to address the pandemic.
In Latin America, the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over. Countless lives are still being lost each and every day. It is up to the authorities of each nation to do what's necessary to protect their citizens, but it is clear that many are using the virus for their own economic benefit. Only time will tell whether this trend will continue.
By Julia Roos
This month, LGBTQ+ community members and allies have come together to celebrate their identities and increased visibility. Over the past decade, monumental strides have been made towards equality for all Americans regardless of their identity. In 2015, the landmark civil rights case, Obergefell v. Hodges, legalized same-sex couples’ rights to marry under the Fourteenth Amendment. On June 15, 2020, the Supreme Court interpreted a statute that will transform the lives of millions of LGBTQ+ Americans.
In an unanticipated 6-3 ruling, the Supreme Court ruled that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 applies to employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The Court heard a series of three cases: Bostock v. Clayton County and Altitude v. Zarda concerned lawsuits from gay men who asserted that they were fired because of their sexual orientation, and the R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission case was brought by a transgender woman who was fired after she revealed that she is a transgender woman and will come to work in women’s clothing. Title VII prohibits employers’ discrimination against an employee “because of race, color, religion, sex, and national origin.” The Court questioned if employment discrimination “because of … sex” encompasses homosexual and transgender individuals. Since the present Supreme Court is fundamentally conservative, this ruling surprised communities and allies, while it disappointed many Republicans. Trump’s first appointee to the court, conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch, authored the majority opinion that “discrimination based on homosexuality or transgender status necessarily entails discrimination based on sex; the first cannot happen without the second.” He furthers his rationale by explaining, “an employer who fires an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex.” Imagine this scene: if an employer fires a man for having a husband but not a woman, they are firing that man for an action that they would not question in a female worker, which is discriminating based on sex. Sex undeniably plays a role in the concept of homosexuality and gender identities.
Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas wrote the leading dissent, which criticized the majority and accused them of sailing under a “textualist flag,” essentially pretending to make decisions strictly based off of the text but instead updating it to better reflect the values of modern society. Gorsuch acknowledged that the drafters of the Civil Rights Act did not likely have LGBTQ+ groups in mind when creating Title VII. However, he pointed out several major court rulings that have read the law expansively, for example, barring discrimination in the workplace against women because they have children, and prohibiting sexual harassment of both men and women.
Before this ruling, 29 states lacked full protection for citizens against discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation in employment, housing, and public accommodations. These states substantially fell along the partisan divide as red states in the south and the midwest did not uphold statutory protection. According to the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, this ruling will protect 4 million LGBTQ+ workers in those 29 states that lacked protection under federal law. The Court’s order is the most influential in the American LGBTQ+ movement’s decades-long history. Earlier successes included the implementation of anti-discrimination laws by states in 2013 and the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2015. Not everyone gets or wants to be married, but most American adults do work, and need to work, to provide for themselves or their families.
Although this landmark case indicates an enormous stride for the LGBTQ+ community, Gorsuch addressed several possible stipulations that will form after this ruling, like employers having religious objections to hiring gay or transgender workers. Freedom of religion, stated in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, is a fundamental aspect of the United States government. The free exercise clause is an important regulation to follow, especially when it comes to minority religious groups whose practices are easily infringed upon by laws and policies enacted by the majority. Although, when exemptions from laws and statutes to satisfy religious beliefs or practices trample on the rights of others or essential societal values like nondiscrimination, policymakers should not blindly support freedom of religion. Proponents of laws that make exceptions for religious groups argue that they effectively balance religious freedom with LGBTQ+ rights, when in reality, these laws create exemptions for religious groups with no consideration for the burden and harm on others. These exceptions take the form of refusing to provide services to a same-sex wedding, permitting religious adoption agencies to not place a child in a same-sex family, healthcare providers turning away LGBTQ+ patients, and countless other injustices. By encouraging people to place their biases against LGBTQ+ people above fairness and equality, it challenges the broader principle that people should not be discriminated against because of who they are. The recent Supreme Court ruling does not directly combat this complication, but for LGBTQ+ groups to make this much progress in the judicial system, and in society, anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination laws should be enforced on every individual, and not be disregarded by people with “religious” or “moral” standards.
President Trump has been actively pursuing the Evangelist constituency, as they made up a large percentage of his voters in the 2016 election. According to the Pew Research Center, white evangelical groups’ confidence in Trump’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has decreased since March. As a response, Trump pushed for churches to reopen, visited religious sites, and continued to advance conservative social policies. Although the statute only refers to employment discrimination, the other prohibitions of education, housing, and public accommodation should likely follow this decision. The outcome of the ruling directly reprimands the Trump Administration, who use its rule-making power to take protections away from transgender individuals. Their attempt to roll back transgender healthcare rights from Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act may bring this case back into question, since this rule would remove nondiscrimination protections from people based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Supporters of this rule believe that the reversal of Obama-era regulations is necessary to define the meaning of “sex discrimination,” so healthcare providers can legally harm this already vulnerable group, even amid a pandemic. The original law stated that protections of sex discrimination include males, females, a combination of both, or individuals that identify as neither. The United States Department of Health and Human Services finalized the rule in June 2019 that will reverse the former definition of sex discrimination to be again based on biological sex exclusively. They claim that this regulation will save doctors and hospitals billions of dollars over five years, which makes sense considering these institutions can legally turn away the one million transgender people that live in America and seek healthcare. The implementation of this new rule will lead to dangerous refusals for transgender citizens in the healthcare system: a checkup at a doctor’s office, a transgender man who needs treatment for ovarian cancer, a hysterectomy not being covered by an insurer because it relates to someone’s gender transition. Fortunately, various LBGTQ advocacy groups, clinics, and organizations, like the Human Rights Campaign, will sue the Trump Administration for rolling back LGBTQ+ healthcare protections.
No American should be refused care because of a provider’s beliefs or morals against the individual’s existence. Hopefully, the outcome of the Supreme Court’s decision will outlaw the Trump Administration’s war on LGBTQ+ rights. The definition of “sex discrimination” should apply to gender identity or sexual orientation on every account to every person and in America regardless of religious affiliation. Since when did the value of equality in America be prioritized for certain groups over others? Why can people stigmatize the LGBTQ+ community in the name of religious freedom? Nobody should be turned away from healthcare providers, employment, or any other accommodations because of who they are.
By Benny Sun
In a region marred by poverty, death, and disease, Yemen hopelessly sinks further and further into chaos as both the Coronavirus and the deep-seated violence of war continue to fester within the country. Now in its sixth year of the war, Yemen’s crisis has been dubbed the “Worst Humanitarian Crisis” by the United Nations with reports indicating over 14 million Yemenis in deep poverty and 20 million civilians on the brink of starvation. Under this brutal conflict, in 2015, Saudi Arabia launched its air campaign over Yemen to protect the Sunni-backed Yemen government against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. What started as a few skirmishes quickly escalated into an all-out war and now an all-out human catastrophe. However, as civilian casualty rates continue to increase and the economic effects take its toll on Saudi Arabia, the Yemen conflict is entering into a new chapter, one whose fate could be entirely decided by the United States.
Announced in April of 2020, Saudi Arabia declared a ceasefire in the Yemen region in order for the alliance to recoup their losses from the coronavirus. Soon after, in May of 2020, the United Nations declared comments on the success of the ceasefire, finding that recent attempts “significant progress on negotiations”. However, despite this progress, there are still extreme tensions between the Saudi air force and Houthi rebels. For instance, the port of Hodeida, the country’s main access to aid and food from other countries, was attacked despite the ongoing ceasefire. Even on April 24th, the Houthis accused Saudi Arabia of violating the ceasefire 241 times in 48 hours, demonstrating that the existing hostilities could easily boil back into an all-out war. Unfortunately, while tensions are near the boiling point, recent actions by the United States could intensify conflict in Yemen and re-ignite the fighting, destroying all progress seen in the last few months. Against the behest of Congress, Trump officials are planning again to sell billions of dollars more into Saudi Arabia in munitions, arms sales, and weaponry so that Saudi Arabia can continue its fight in Yemen. This is especially significant, as against the backdrop of 2019, where Trump vetoed a resolution to end arms sales which were supported by both the House and the Senate, existing defiances by the executive branch again could set more clashes between Trump and Congress. Specifically, Trump plans to add 478 million dollars in existing deals which would add more than 7,500 more precision-guided missiles and expand Saudi Arabia’s access to advanced weaponry. Overall, to better understand the geopolitical implications of recent actions, one must first understand the arguments on both sides.
Congress has drawn the human toll attributed to American weaponry by Saudi Arabian fighter jets over Yemen. Currently, 60% of Saudi Arabia’s arms deliveries originate from the United States. Not only does Saudi Arabia depend on external weapons, but America even provides a daily supply for maintenance, refueling, and logistical training. Therefore, many would argue that if the United States ended its arms sales to Saudi Arabia, they would be left unable to fly their planes and continue these campaigns. Essentially, on every level, current Saudi Arabian military equipment relies on American training and technology. Moreover, mere backing Saudi Arabia could push them towards fighting rather than strong diplomacy, as Foreign Policy Expert Trita Parsi explains that when the United States militarily backs Saudi Arabia up, they become emboldened to expand in conflict violence in the first place. This is because when a major world power like the United States backs up Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia perceives this support as greenlight for further action. And with Trump continuing to ignore many human rights violations done by Saudi Arabia, it definitely could be the case. On the other hand, in November 2019, when Saudi Arabia recognized that the US military was no longer at their disposal, Parsi concluded that Saudi Arabia “began exercising diplomatic talks”. Consequently, there was a miraculous 80% drop in airstrikes with little casualties two weeks after this incident. It is therefore understandable why Congress is so uneasy about Trump’s recent actions: if the United States continues to fund the war effort, the Yemen situation would quickly boil over. Problematically,, Saudi Arabia’s airstrikes have become synonymous with terror in Yemen repented by both the civilians and the international public. In fact, according to a report from the New York Times, nearly 4,600 civilians have been killed in the crossfire as a result of inaccurate bombing from Saudi Arabia. An especially tragic incident occurred when Saudi officers subverted their chain of command and struck a funeral hall mourning the deaths of Houthi rebels which killed over 155 people. To conclude this chapter simply, NJ Senator Bob Menendez finds that “since 2015, we have seen Saudi Arabia utilize American-made weapons in what started as a campaign to restore the legitimate Yemeni government but has degenerated into one of the most devastating humanitarian crises in the world and a wholly destabilizing campaign”.
Conversely, Trump’s decision to continue supporting Saudi Arabia only furthers America’s long track record with the United States. As early as the 1930s when Franklin D. Roosevelt declared oil as a strategic resource, the federal government established a strong connection with Saudi Arabia. Since then, even with its bumpy relations including the oil embargo 1970s or later events of 9/11, America established strong economic ties which later flourished into a military alliance as well. To address existing concerns, many experts such as writer Tom Rogan predict that Trump is utilizing its leverage as a trusted ally to push Saudi Arabia towards ceasefires and better targeting practices. For example, in 2017, the Trump administration required Saudi Arabia to buy 750 million dollars worth of US training to further mitigate civilian casualties. Although the results have been mixed, these efforts could demonstrate the leverage the United States could have over Saudi Arabia's relationship. Therefore, if Trump ended the relationship with Saudi Arabia by cutting off these arms sales, they could lose this important leverage to control Saudi Arabia’s action, prompting Saudi Arabia to continue aggressively pushing in the area. This is especially important as the main reason why Saudi Arabia decided to launch its air campaign has always been to reduce Iranian or Shia influence in the Middle Eastern region. Thus, even without Trump’s arms sales, the war in Yemen could still theoretically continue. This is because as the Economist reports, the United States is competing with other major rivals in arms sales including Russia or China. Rostec, a state-owned Russian firm, sold over 13 billion dollars of weapons to the region of the Middle East with Chinese firms closely following behind. Thus, a common claim by the Trump administration has been that if they ended their relationship, Saudi Arabia could simply buy weapons from other countries like Russia or China.
Overall, despite popular protests from both Congress and most Americans, Trump will continue to aid Saudi Arabia in fighting the war in Yemen. While current negotiations are taking place, it is important to understand that America’s actions in the next few months will become vital in the outcomes of these events. Thus, Trump’s recent decision to expand arms sales could either become a curse for the people of Yemen or a signal of restraint for Saudi Arabia. Only time will tell.
By Julia Roos
It’s no secret that fashion holds a high position as one of the most polluting industries in the world; but how often does that stop us from shopping for clothes every season? This dilemma is especially pertinent while shopping at affordable brands like Zara and H&M, which seem to always carry clothes in style for a low price. The environmentally conscious consumer will search for “green” products, which often lead them back to fast fashion brands. Almost every fast fashion retailer promotes a line that appears dedicated to the sustainable process of making clothes, yet none of these supposed “efforts” could offset the damage that they continue to cause. Fast fashion bears the responsibility of toxic behavior on both the production and consumer side: the environmental damage, the unethical labor practices, and the perpetuation of overconsumption.
The environment faces problems like extensive water consumption and waste accumulation due to the fast fashion industry. An abundant amount of freshwater goes into the process of dyeing and finishing clothing, as well as growing the most popular fabric, cotton. Although cotton is a natural fiber that can biodegrade, it still prevails as one of the most environmentally demanding crops. Cotton is the most widely used textile, accounting for 75 percent of the world’s clothing products, but the even more staggering statistic relates to its environmental harm. In fact, it takes 20,000 gallons of water to make a single pair of jeans. Water scarcity extends past fashion, as it will lead to detrimental world effects. The United Nations estimates that 700 million people worldwide could be displaced by intense water scarcity by 2030. In addition to draining resources, growing cotton requires a heavy use of pesticides that contain harmful chemicals. World WildLife proposes that the pesticides risk damage to water quality and biodiversity in and downstream from the fields. Current cotton production methods are not environmentally sustainable. Moreover, fashion physically pollutes the Earth as 85% of all textiles end up in a landfill. Even worse, synthetic fibers, such as polyester, are made of plastic and therefore non-biodegradable. Polyester is the driving fabric of fast fashion development since the cost of production is exceptionally inexpensive, and it is projected that the global population will consume 102 million tons of clothing by 2030, with 70 percent containing polyester.
In order to keep the cost of clothing inexpensive, brands will outsource their labor, or produce clothing in countries where the federal minimum wage is low. The fast fashion industry remains notorious for exploiting underpaid and mistreated workers at the bottom of the supply chain. Workers in these supplier factories do not make a high enough wage to support themselves. If the price of a piece of clothing retails at $19.99, the person who made it was paid 19 cents. The labor policy hub, Global Labor Justice, conducted a report on the exploitation of Asian female garment workers in Gap and H&M supplier factories and documented acts of harassment, dangerous working conditions, and forced overtime. These brands don’t technically hold any legal obligation to keep these workers safe because they are not directly affiliated with the supplier firms. For reference, brands that have more transparency about their production process are more likely to be producing clothing ethically.
Fast fashion brands also maintain the pattern of overconsumption by appealing to the consumer through style and affordability. For example, Zara puts out at least 20 collections a year, which produces millions of garments that align to the most recent fashion trends. In comparison, most designer brands only show around five collections throughout the year. Fast fashion brands have made it so that every few weeks, new clothes are being sold while others become old and discounted. Furthermore, these clothes were not made to last. Since fast fashion uses cheap materials and labor, they can sell their clothes with a low price tag, which allows consumers to spend more money on garments they don’t need, and only end up wearing a few times.
In short, you buy what you pay for: cheap labor and cheap materials that won’t last long and eventually will be thrown away. To avoid the negative publicity that comes with damaging the environment, permitting poor labor conditions, and encouraging overconsumption, fast fashion retailers invest in simpler and less expensive ways to revive their images through greenwashing. Among the numerous collections fast fashion brands produce, they often present an “eco-friendly” or “sustainable” line. They inflate their marketing with vague phrases that don’t have a legal definition to carry out. H&M’s “Conscious Collection” and Zara’s “Join Life” are perfect examples of PR campaigns for brands to be seen more favorably by consumers. The information presented on H&M’s website does not do a subsequent job of explaining the range of their products. The only justification they give for their “Conscious Collection” is that they at least 50% recycled, organic or, TENCEL material, with the exception of only 20% of recycled cotton in a garment. These statistics do not relay significant information, like the method in which the materials are recycled or produced, or why they are a better alternative. Accompanied with the description, the campaign photos appeal to the environment by using grass, plants, and other symbols of nature. Similarly, Zara’s “Join Life” campaign claims to commit to sustainable fashion, but “sustainability” does not have a standardized definition to uphold, so brands continue to abuse sustainable advertising. Greenwashing is simply a short-term marketing ploy to reap the benefits of “going green”: more consumer interest and higher stock prices, without actually acting on it. These brands spend more time and money trying to convince the public that they are environmentally friendly instead of taking steps to actually reduce their impact on the environment and society.
Sustainable fast fashion is an oxymoronic phrase; the industry cannot truly be “green” when the foundation of its business plan is based on mass production for low prices. Greenwashing practices mislead the customer that values sustainability and that wants to shop ethically. As customers, we carry a large role in the political system of consumerism. While the consumer should not be to blame for the consequences of the actions of large corporations, we have the power to stand up against them by not supporting fast fashion brands and their unethical practices.