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 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 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 Benny Sun
“Truth is like poetry and most people… hate poetry” - The Big Short (2016)
The Great Recession of 2008 has become one of the darkest moments in modern history, permanently shaking up millions of American households and international markets. Within a few short months, America experienced a total financial meltdown with the bankruptcy of investment banks such as Lehman Brothers, foreclosures of 10 million homes, and the wiping out of 20 trillion dollars in total American household assets. Unfortunately, at the heart of America’s crisis was criminal negligence and sheer greed from politicians and higher-ups in the banking sector. This is because while major banks were bailed out by the US government, the brunt of the economic burden was placed on the very poor. Although the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform sought to address the recession’s root cause, new trends in global banking seemingly seek to only replicate the same recklessness prevalent among banking institutions prior to 2008. Here, this article will address the main culprit: shadow banking, now a 52 trillion dollar global industry which represents a 75% increase since 2008
The shadow banking system, often in the form of hedge funds, has the same goal as traditional banks of providing access to loans and liquidity. However, there are numerous differences between both categories. Foremostly, shadow banks, because they don’t provide typical deposits, are subject to little or no regulations, often only required to register and have assets worth around 150 million dollars. Consequently, shadow banks are more easily able to loan towards unqualified borrowers considered too risky to loan to (which under certain conditions can expand economic growth and financial access). However, as in the cases of 2008, mass defaults across these loans could trigger bank bankruptcies as well, as these banks often profit off the promise of future money, rather than their current financial situation.
Moreover, shadow banks also lack access to government safety nets like deposit insurance or central bank funding, making their operations considerably riskier. Instead, these corporations rely on money from short-term investors to fund these operations. Thus, as unregulated institutions, many shadow banks simply skirt away from the rules designed to avoid a financial crisis. For instance, as their investment is reliant on investors, any market downturn could decrease investor confidence which forces shadow banks to either shut down or sell off all of their assets at depressed prices to return their money to investors, causing a downward price spiral in derivatives, bonds, and stock markets. Overall, Economist Paul Krugman demonstrates how shadow banking creates vastly more volatile markets and economies, concluding that it “makes the good times better, but the bad times far, far worse”.
An implication of shadow banking in the United States has been its major role in procuring a private debt and loan conundrum, a ticking time bomb for America’s economy. Economic columnist Steven Pearlson specifies that the increased accessibility of loans in the market is only fueling increasingly severe credit bubbles such as auto loans, student loans, and credit card debt. The reason why risky lending is so harmful is that while providing this capital can prove vital to low-credit households and companies if they are unable to pay it back and are forced to issue a default, the shadow bank loses precious money for operations and investors. Multiply this by the thousands and an economic catastrophe becomes tangible, such as the case of increasing mortgage defaults and the popping of the Housing Bubble that preceded the 2008 recession. Even after recent legislative attempts to regulate the Shadow Banking industry, much of the industry is still considered to be as risky as before and still as dangerous.
Alarmingly, these effects of shadow banking have already manifested in debt markets. A recent economic report shows that the private debt market as a result of shadow banking has tripled, accounting for a 1.2 trillion dollars of American debt. This only breeds instability for businesses and individuals, as any economic shock, such as mass layoffs, lower spending, or dips in the stock market, can push corporations into insolvency or families into bankruptcy which makes them unable to pay off their debts or loans. For this reason, household debt is seen as a good indicator of the future economy, with the last five economic recessions being preceded by high levels of household debt. Even now with the Coronavirus pandemic, stock markets are cascading to all-time low never seen before since 2008, members of the Financial Stability Oversight Council have identified shadow banks as a major risk amid economic anxieties. Thus, the Coronavirus will simply compound the difficulty of keeping shadow banks afloat as they face a new financial crisis.
Overall, Bond Ratings Agency DBRS is calling on federal legislators to increase regulations on the shadow banking industry, as existing loopholes and lack of oversight could generate incidents of rapidly recurring recessions. They conclude their letter with a very clear and price message: with the Coronavirus pandemic around the corner, the banking industry is “not ready to handle an economic crisis” and Americans should be “very worried”.
By Benny Sun
“I begged them to kill me” Here, Mihrigul Tursun, a Uighur Muslim, describes her experiences in China’s infamous Muslim re-education facilities, evoking historic sentiments similar to those found during Nazi Germany’s brutal persecution of Jews in the 1930s and its meager international response. “I still have scars on my body from the constant beatings and pain in my wrists and ankles from the chains. I cannot hear on my right ear caused by heavy beatings”. As a sufferer under China’s systematic oppression, Mihrigul Tursun’s experiences are not a rare occurrence, but rather a part of a broader trend towards authoritarianism and human rights abuse now being propped up by the digital and internet age. With innovations in computer science, such as social media and artificial intelligence rapidly increasing, so too is a voracious wave of “techno-dystopia” utilizations that are threatening to sweep Asian countries in a flood of increasingly intrusive and prevalent surveillance.
A prominent manifestation of the surveillance state in Asia is China’s attempt to dismantle the livelihoods of ethnic Muslims across the Chinese region. Since its military occupation by China in the 1950s, the communist party has utilized the autonomous region of Xinjiang as a prison to oppress 10 million Uighur Muslim minorities through constant surveillance, burdensome restrictions, and dehumanizing policies. As a part of China’s “de-extremification policy”, Chinese officials attempt to coerce Uighur Muslims into relinquishing their Muslim beliefs and praising Chinese communist ideology. While China notoriously describes the treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang as a part of the “peaceful vocational process” to inhibit “religious extremism” and “separatism”, investigative reports from the Economist, in contrast, paint a horrific narrative of coercive torture and inflicted violence.
Armed with state-of-the-art recognition software from recent technological advances which can distinguish between different facial features and skin tones, Chinese authorities can effortlessly target and track the movements of individual Uighurs. Every piece of biological data imaginable is entered into government records, with China storing fingerprints, blood samples, and voice recordings for each Uighur individual. On the internet, every single word on online chatrooms and social media is monitored by authorities where a single jab against the Chinese Communist Party may mean the difference between freedom and confinement. Overall, by silencing the minority voice through the extreme censorship of political expression, China has erected a technological surveillance state similar to that found in Orwell’s 1984, almost following it faithfully like a guidebook on the repression of rights.
China’s experiment in Xinjiang has also become a standard to be replicated by other authoritarian countries, with China exporting the same surveillance technology to over 60 countries, including Iran, Venezuela, and now India. Amid the rise of anti-Islamic views and Hindu-nationalism spearheaded by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, more Muslims are increasingly under the control of blatantly exclusionary policies and enhanced government surveillance. For instance, over the summer of 2019, Modi passed legislation that erased the statehood for two Muslim-majority regions, Jammu and Kashmir. Modi also kicked off around nearly 2 million Muslims from citizenship in India, causing a divisive domestic and international uproar among Muslims who all protest in large groups across the country to fight off Modi’s tyranny. Unfortunately, this only served as a pretext for India’s further expansion of repression through surveillance and technology.
When delving more deeply into India’s treatment of its Muslim-majority regions, one can see glaring resemblances to China’s treatment of Uighur Muslims. In these regions, India has cut off internet access and mobile and postal communication, measures even more extreme than those in China, isolating millions of Indian Muslims from the global world. In Kashmir, Chinese corporation Hikvision has set up thousands of CCTV surveillance systems, and India has also utilized its drones to monitor local mosques and movements of Muslims in India. Unfortunately, under this expanding surveillance state, this technology has already been used to oppress, with law enforcement agencies in India in February using facial recognition software to identify over 1,100 individuals at a recent riot for Muslim rights. Unlike China, however, there is still some hope left for India’s minority population; recently, local groups and even the United Nations Human Rights Council have sued Modi’s administration under India’s Supreme Court for violating an article under the Constitution which promotes equality among all citizens in India. As many of the justices in the Indian Supreme Court have been critical of Modi’s previous actions, many hope that their judgment could roll back months of racist legislation originating from Modi’s religious war on Muslim Indians. Even still, these actions cannot unduly reverse the destructive effects of Modi’s surveillance regime.
However, without regarding the consequences of religious discrimination, China’s and India’s actions betray the possible rise of a broader, dangerous trend across Asia this pattern of mass surveillance continues, a multitude of consequences could result. First and foremost, their actions could embolden dictatorships and democracies to encroach upon the precious privacy of its citizens, enabling politicians to discriminate against entire populations based on race, religion, and gender. On the bright side, although the Western World has adopted surveillance to monitor its people, Time Magazine writer Charlie Campbell explains that “Western democracies have enacted safeguards to protect citizens… while China [seeks]... to exploit it and weaponize it”. China’s actions to utilize its technology could leave behind a dangerous precedent for the rest of the world to follow, where more susceptible democracies such as Bolivia and South Africa could perceive China’s surveillance expansion as a greenlight to strip away their citizen’s own privacy as well. Therefore, many see China’s rise in surveillance sales as a new opportunity for China to export its model of authoritarianism and dictatorship over democratic ideals.
Moreover, the rise of techno-digital dystopia could be further impacted by other crises, primarily China’s own coronavirus outbreak. With a rising number of coronavirus cases quickly becoming a global pandemic, New York University’s Rina Chandran predicts that Asian countries such as Malaysia and Thailand could be using the COVID-19 epidemic to clamp down on free speech via the use of Big Data to and AI to track and locate protestors of their governance. Unfortunately, by suppressing potential criticisms in these governments, it is also slowing down the spread of awareness for the Coronavirus. For instance, China, expanding its surveillance technology from Xinjiang into the mainland, imposed strict information controls while also arresting and punishing people who criticized Chinese authorities for mishandling the outbreak. “There’s a danger that when you increase surveillance and information controls, it can undermine the public health system,” said Chandran, who cites the instance of a Chinese doctor who initially warned the international community about the virus and was subsequently arrested.
With more governments in Asia seeking surveillance as a method to control crises and gain greater control, many must first understand the political implications of such a decision: it’s potential to drive dictatorship and fall under corruption. Thus, Chandran concludes: “Surveillance itself can never be a solution”.
By Benny Sun
On September 16th, 2015, Martin Shrekli, a pharmaceutical entrepreneur known as “ Pharma Bro” and infamous for his online feud with the Wu-Tang Clan, acquired the living-saving drug Daraprim which had initially cost $13 per pill. The very next day, he jacked up the price up to $750 – a price hike of over 5000%. Soon Shrekli became the most hated face in America, an embodiment of the greed of the pharmaceutical industry. Unfortunately, Shrekli’s actions are not a rare occurrence. Rather, they follow an alarming trend of rising healthcare prices which are leaving thousands either at the brink of death or nearing poverty to pay for their exorbitant medical costs. In fact, near the beginning of 2020, average price hikes on prescription drugs rose by over 10% across the board. To address this impending issue, Speaker Nancy Pelosi proposed HR3 or the “Lower Drugs Costs Now Act” in September 2019, which implemented sweeping reforms across the healthcare system. HR3 contained two major components: first, it would drastically decrease all drug prices for anyone covered by private insurance and second, it would reinvest the savings into new breakthrough treatments. All in all, HR3 has become a controversial bill supported by the majority of Democrats but despised by many Republicans.
Congress’s debate over drug pricing mainly centers around the trade-off between accessibility and innovation. Many Republicans claim that only the small pharmaceutical companies would suffer under these barring regulations, which can drastically reduce America’s drug innovation output. A report from the Congressional Research Service finds that US companies could lose over $358 billion dollars in profits annually, resulting in significant cuts to research and development budgets and decreasing the new innovative drug output from small companies by 88%. This could be catastrophic for the pharmaceutical industry; as CNBC writer Lori Ioannou explains that because startups need a way to appease new investors to fund their projects, they often produce the most innovative and risky drugs in the market, accounting for 63% of new drug approvals in 2018. With a drastic reduction in the profitability of the pharmaceutical industry, venture capital investment and seed funding into startups could suffer, preventing many companies from creating innovative drugs in the first place. This political discourse over drug pricing is especially vital, as the importance of pharmaceutical innovation cannot be understated. Republicans such as Mitch McConnell argue that promoting innovation helps consumers in the long term, as general improvements on existing drugs could lower drug prices along with generics development. Moreover, innovation in the United States not only benefits Americans but also the dozens of other countries that are able to buy these essential medicines at often discounted prices. The National Bureau of Economic Research finds that US pharmaceutical innovation accounted for an incredible 73% increase in life expectancy in developing countries. In conclusion, while critics demonize the Republicans for supporting the “greedy” drug corporations, many downplay how drug innovation impacts both the developing and developed world.
However, many Democrats argue that HR3 would save the thousands of suffering and desperate Americans who are unable to take their medicine and could jumpstart innovation in the pharmaceutical industry. A Center for American Progress reports finds that the bill could give the government authority to negotiate down the prices of over 250 pharmaceutical drugs each year. This would be incredibly important for many consumers, as American drug prices are four times higher compared to other countries, causing one-fourth of all Americans to commonly skip out on their medication. Nicole Rapfoegel, a writer from the Center for American Progress, finds that “reform is desperately needed. Today, pharmaceutical companies set excessive prices that they increase over time in order to maximize profits.” A report in the New York Times on April 17th of 2017 which studies comprehensive data from all 50 states from 2012 to 2017 finds that nonadherence results in over 125,000 deaths in America annually. Additionally, while some critics/Republicans forewarn that drug price caps could stifle innovation, House Democrats argue that implementing HR3 could actually benefit innovation. A Statnews report finds that big pharmaceutical companies use the majority of their profits to invest in killer acquisitions to buy out small pharmaceutical startups rather than investing in their own research and development budgets. In fact, over 81% of drugs from pharmaceutical giant Pfizer actually originate from third-party developers bought out. Thus, reducing drug profits would not affect Big Pharma’s already small budget on innovation. With mortality rates rising from America’s broken medicine industry, the implementation of this policy could mean the literal life or death for thousands of Americans annually.
Regardless of the current fierce debate over HR3, the bill is unlikely to be passed in its current form. Paul Hastings, CEO of Nkarta Therapeutics, explains that the House had “another near party-line vote in the Chamber” with Democrats voting for it and Republicans voting against it. Because the Republicans control the Senate, many analysts predict that the bill will easily be thrown out. Instead, politicians will likely make bipartisan compromises to ensure that some reforms are made in America’s dying healthcare industry. For instance, Erik Watson from Bloomberg argues that the most likely result would be to keep reforms on capping out-of-spending costs for Medicare beneficiaries in HR3, as it benefits the gray vote or America’s elderly voter population, an essential constituency both Republicans and Democrats must win. Other bipartisan agreements under Pelosi’s HR3 bill could include the measures to promote price transparency among American consumers and possible antitrust policies that restrict killer acquisitions to increase competition among existing pharmaceutical giants such as Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson. The result could benefit a large portion of America’s elderly population who see reductions in their medical expenses. Furthermore, improving price transparency and competition could still lower drug prices, but to a lesser degree, ensuring that some of the thousands of Americans can afford another night of medicine. All in all, Congress’s compromise bill over drug pricing will most likely implement some minor common-sense reforms which could further progress in increasing accessibility while still allowing companies the budget to pursue productive innovation. Unfortunately, with the 2020 presidential elections coming up, many Democrats are choosing to forego negotiations because they believe that bipartisan bill could potentially give Trump a political boost. Thus, it is likely that Congress’s fierce debate over drug pricing policy will be delayed until 2021.
By Benny Sun
With Presidential Nominee Hillary Clinton becoming the first woman to win her primary elections and almost attaining the presidency, and with President Donald Trump becoming the first real-estate-baron-turned-reality-television-star-turned-orange to win the presidency, the Presidential Election of 2016 was an event of both groundbreaking progress and curious intrigue. For instance, the use of social media by politicians to directly connect to the millions of political constituencies under the swipe of a keyboard skyrocketed, championed by Donald Trump in his persistent nocturnal toilet tweeting sessions. However, under the surface of technological progress holds a darker sinister secret revolving around foreign intervention and its threat to democracy.
Russia’s disinformation operations on social media have become infamous for their intervention to sway the results of the election in favor of Trump. For example, Russian agencies swarmed Twitter with Twitterbots which promote false information about Hillary Clinton, inaccurate polling results favoring Trump, and even cropped images depicting pro-Trump rallies internationally. However, lesser-known is Russia’s attempts to exploit racial tensions in order to demoralize and divide African Americans, discouraging them from voting; over two-thirds of Russian fake ads during the 2016 campaign season targeted Black Americans with the intention to lower turnout. In a country rife with racial discrimination and a history of suppressing the black vote, Russia is now only another group to disentangle African Americans from the political process. More specifically, reports indicate that Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA) on social media has depicted false movements such as “Black Matters US” or “Don’t Shoot” where 96% of all Youtube activity focuses on police brutality on black victims in left-leaning areas. In 2016, the unfortunate police shooting of African-American, Keith Lamont Scott, gave rise to numerous protests for ending police brutality across Charlotte, North Carolina. However, Russian internet trolls attempted to manipulate the mood over these protests through its focus on instigating hate and violence over rightful anger. By injecting negativity of lies among social media and by pressuring African-Americans through antagonism, Russia’s spread of misinformation detrimentally dissuaded real political actions in favor of more violent and hateful alternatives.
Through their numerous means to divide Americans, all Russian ads have one common message: to skip out on Voting Day. Unfortunately, in 2016, Russia’s strategy worked. The voter turnout for black Americans was 7% lower in swing states in 2016, and a study by the University of Tennessee quantifiably found that every 25,000 retweets connected to Russia’s Internet Research Agency correlated to a 1% increase in Trump polling results. With significant efforts by Russia to destroy the legitimacy of American elections, has the United States shown equal efforts to protect American elections from the foreign intervention? The answer is more nuanced than it seems.
America’s own cybersecurity and election infrastructure are still incredibly vulnerable to malicious manipulation from foreign and domestic threats after 2016. In Georgia’s sixth congressional district’s election in 2017, leading Democrat Jon Ossoff had 50.3% of votes, enough for him to win the vote, but soon after a computer crash saw his vote share drop to 48.1% which allowed the Republicans to win the district. While initially blamed as a technical error that miscounted the number of Democratic votes, many were looking towards Russia as the culprit behind this cyber attack. However, Georgia is not the only state with a vulnerable election infrastructure today. Alex Halderman, a leading cybersecurity expert at the University of Michigan explains that “Many states are making progress, but the progress is patchy and there are major gaps … Forty states are using computer technology that is a decade old or more and often they are not receiving software updates or security patches”. Critically, with consistent cyber tampering looming over America’s elections and with Republican states passing stricter voter ID laws which disproportionately affect minority voters, more and more African Americans are choosing to remain home on election day. However, even if the states completely renovated their online infrastructure with state-of-the-art technology, many would still face issues. The ISC(2) reports that North America will face a cybersecurity shortage of over 800,000 professionals in the field. With over 51% of cybersecurity professionals citing that their organization is at extreme or moderate risk due to staff shortages, the United States is completely unprepared to defend its minority population from the delegitimization of American elections.
Instead in 2018, rather than “defending” America, the United States has adopted an “offensive” position actively hacking Russia’s agencies before they hack America first. Under the newly-adopted US Cyber Command which gained new powers in 2018, the federal government is currently targeting individual Russian operatives to deter them from spreading false information in the next election cycle. Dubbed “Defending Forward”, the US Cyber Command pursues an offensive strategy of disrupting, denying, and shutting down enemy networks as a measure of preventing the hacking election. For example, in the 2018 Midterms, US Cyber Command successfully took out the online capabilities of Russian Troll Farm, the Internet Research Agency, thus severing their abilities to spread online propaganda without the need for the United States to defend their networks. Additionally, the United States also took out numerous agencies funding the IRA and indicted over 13 individuals connected to the IRA who face prosecution in the United States. Senator Mike Rounds corroborates “the fact that the 2018 election process moved forward without successful Russian intervention was not a coincidence.” While taking the operations of the IRA offline may seem temporary, America’s strong cyber capabilities can act as a deterrence factor that discourages other countries from hacking into US elections.
Overall, America’s decision to ignore cybersecurity and instead focus on offensive cyber operations against Russia will play an important role in the upcoming 2020 elections. With the legitimization of America’s elections and the voter turnout of minorities at stake, the success of Russia’s hacking could very much shake the foundation of American democracy.
By Benny Sun
After one month of his presidency, Trump did the unthinkable; with security experts, defense lobbyists, and military contractors joined together in shock around the globe, Trump discovered the ultimate form of warfare surely to shake the international stage: Twitter. With his right hand furiously tapping away and his left comfortably by his side, Trump has no-doubt altered the method of conducting foreign policy in America, cutting off foreign aid to Pakistan via Twitter, sending in troops to Afghanistan via Twitter, and even bickering about North Korean tyrant Kim Jong Un… via Twitter. Unsurprisingly, this past summer marks another time Trump has famously used his Twitter weapon, as Trump announced in April of 2019 that the US is now able to “put tariffs on 11 billion dollars of EU products!”, furthering that “the EU has taken advantage of the US on trade for many years. It will soon stop!” With October marking the end of Europe’s and America's failure for productive trade negotiations, the World Trade Organization has finally given the greenlight for America to impose tariffs on the European Union, an outcome which could potentially reorient international supply chains around the world and even shift major geopolitical dynamics, in this duel launched solely from a single tweet.
Since his nomination to presidency, Trump’s tariffs have been a major element behind his economic beliefs. With years of bipartisan support for unrestrained free trade, Trump’s tariffs are another example of how his political views run opposite to the Republican Party. Under the auspices of protectionism, Trump touts restrictions on foreign trade either through tariffs or other government regulation as a strategy to shield domestic industries from foreign competition. In fact, Trump’s support for protectionist policies stems from his populist backing, as the majority of Trump’s political base, who work in the agricultural and industrial sectors, also feel that foreign goods have the potential to seize American jobs and hurt local domestic growth with their cheaper prices. As such, Trump began initiating many trade wars with other countries by placing tariffs on the imports of other countries like Mexico, China, and now the member nations of the European Union.
Tariffs on the European Union are no different and are a result of similar consequences of foreign competition. In April of 2019, Trump tweeted his plans to target $25 billion dollars of European exports with tariffs, as part of a dispute over Europe’s subsidies to Airbus, an aerospace and defense company. These trade policies followed personal complaints and lobbying efforts from America’s largest manufacturing exporter, Boeing. Boeing argued that Europe was unfairly giving substantial financial support to the European airplane manufacturer Airbus, giving Airbus the opportunity to sell their planes at a much cheaper price which undercutted Boeing’s sales. Trump’s decision has not gone ignored. The European Union also has declared retaliatory tariffs against American imports, pushing both parties towards the negotiating table.While the European Union and the United States sought to establish peace through trade negotiations which would take place beginning in May, these talks ended abruptly in October due to bitter rivalry and lack of agreement.
In order to impose tariffs on another country, the United States must first file a complaint to the World Trade Organization, who then rules on the validity of the complaint. As such, on October 2nd of 2019, the World Trade Organization cleared Trump’s ability to impose tariffs over the European Union, which included a 25% duty on a range of products like Italian cheeses, French wines, and Spanish olives, and also a 10% tariff on all Airbus products adding up to 7.5 billion dollars worth of imports (18 billion dollars less than initially threatened). Inadvertently, America’s tariffs could negatively harm some American workers. Many analysts including the Specialty Food Administration predict that these tariffs could adversely raise the price of some European food products by 33% and the United States could lose 14,000 specialty food retailers and 20,000 other food retailers nationwide. Conversely, a European Central Bank study conducted by Dr. Venessa Gunnella and Lucia Quaglietti concludes that current trade-war outcomes have had “mild impact across the Atlantic”.
However, while the trade conflict may seem mild, recent deadlines placed by Trump previously could potentially escalate the EU-US dispute and cause severe consequences. In May of 2019, Trump announced that he would delay his decision of implementing tariffs on Europe’s automobile industry as high as 25% to November, citing that Europe’s sway over American cars is a “national security threat” to the American economy. Europe’s auto industry holds crucial portion of Europe’s economy accounting for 10% of Europe’s global exports, employing 14 million Europeans, and generating 7% of Europe’s total GDP. Thus, America’s auto tariffs could also greatly affect the European economy. Despite Trump’s claims, many are detesting his actions. Industry group Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers claims that implementing “auto tariffs” in Europe would be a mistake and could entail significant negative consequences. With his deadline coming up soon, many are questioning whether or not Trump will actually move forward with his threat.
There is little consensus over Trump’s ultimate goal in the trade war. Given the popular perception that Europe is an American ally, many analysts believe that Trump no longer has the political capital to implement auto-tariffs if he wants to win the 2020 elections as both Republicans and Democrats have pushed Trump away from auto tariffs. Instead, David Hauner from Bank of America Merrill Lynch indicated Trump may only be threatening a large sector of Europe’s economy so that he may gain leverage over current trade talks in Europe. More specifically, Trump may be holding the looming threat of auto tariffs over their heads in order to coerce Europe into accepting more agricultural imports such as beef which would appease his political base of farmers for the 2020 elections. Other analysts predict that Trump will actually implement these auto tariffs. Citing Trump’s his desire to slash his trade deficit with Europe, Economist Hans Buchard suspects that the President’s method of receiving votes is through his confrontational approach to foreign countries. Thus, implementing auto tariffs on Europe could serve as an example for other countries. In fact, many politicians believe that Trump won his 2016 election by portraying China as a massive foreign threat, a strategy that got him the support of his blue collar base. Painting Europe in this light could fortify the loyalty of Trump’s Rust Belt supporters as he enters his 2020 campaign season.
Overall, Trump’s trade war with Europe could provoke massive consequences on the global economy. In a worst-case scenario, analysts from Bank of America Merrill Lynch predict that economic growth could fall from 2.2% to 1.2% as the price of American vehicles, both domestic and imported, could be raised anywhere from 2,000 dollars to 7,000 dollars making the cost of travel much more expensive. Contrary to popular belief, this lesser known trade war may even cause harms even worse than the Chinese-US Trade war. While the total trade between Europe and the United States is worth 1.2 trillion dollars, Chinese-American trade is only worth 737 billion dollars; thus continuing Trump’s tit-for-tat approach with Europe spark an economic catastrophe worse than one with China. Unfortunately, with the last recession of 2008 still burned into the minds of many pushing over 64 million people around the world into poverty, many are worried about the economic consequences of the US-EU trade war. However, there are also greater geopolitical consequences at hand. In contrast to many other nations, China could easily be the greatest winner of the EU-US trade war, as a disruption of the American-European alliance could prompt Europe to shift eastward for a stronger relationship. With China and Europe already working on a free-trade agreement, promises to collaborate on China’s Belt Road Initiative, and greater collaboration on environmental issues (all of which are opposed by the United States), pushing Europe toward China could permanently damage Transatlantic relations.
In conclusion, the EU-US trade war is a conflict that must be monitored in 2019, as just a single tweet can evoke century-lasting changes on the world.