LENA HILLIARD, EQUAL JUSTICE DIRECTOR
Last Monday, the members of the Roosevelt Institute Equal Justice Policy and Advocacy Center traveled to the Transitional Housing Corporation (THC), a non-profit operating in the Washington, DC area. We were greeted by staff at the organization, who took us downstairs into an office room, where we matched up alarming facts and statistics on homelessness in the DC metropolitan area. These statistics made it clear that there is a vital need for organizations such as THC.
As we learned, there has been a 50 percent increase in the number of homeless families in the past 10 years, and the price of living in DC is so high that to afford a market-value, two-bedroom apartment, one needs to work 3.4 minimum wage jobs. After learning these alarming statistics about homelessness, we had a very comprehensive lesson on how the Transitional Housing Corporation is taking action to combat the issue.
Since its founding in 1990, THC has, through support services and housing opportunities, helped to place more than 500 families into stable homes. They utilize four different housing systems: Transitional Housing, Permanent Supportive, Rapid Rehousing, and Affordable Housing.
Transitional Housing is a system that bridges the gap between living in a shelter and living in an owned or rented home. It is a stable place of residence and a support system for families while they become more financially independent. Support is given to help people enter a stable job and receive consistent income. Permanent Supportive Housing moves families into permanent homes with leases in their names and offers comprehensive support as needed. The Rapid Rehousing system provides short term monetary assistance to place families in permanent housing in their names as quickly as the housing market allows. The last system, Affordable Housing, allows families to be placed in the district in a home that is within their means.
THC only works with homeless families in Washington, DC, a group whose number now hovers around 1,231. To qualify as a family, the group must include one adult 18 years or older and one dependent under 18 years old. The organization has struggled in the past with identifying how many homeless families actually exist in the district because less than 15 percent of people are considered chronically homeless -- the most overt form of homelessness, where a person has no roof over their head. Many families stay with relatives and may not identify as homeless.
When asked about how gentrification has affected their cause, THC was undecided. While the city is becoming safer and safer, the organization is finding an even greater need for its services. More and more families can no longer afford the cost of living and are being forced into unfavorable situations. Ultimately, the Transitional Housing Corporation aims to end homelessness in the District of Columbia. “We want to work ourselves out of a job,” said staff member Quinn Miller.
All statistics are courtesy of the Transitional Housing Corporation.
DAWID SKALKOWSKI, INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS DIRECTOR
The Alexander Hamilton Society at the George Washington University recently hosted a debate between Philip Gordon, of the Council on Foreign Relations, and Mark Dubowitz, Executive Director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Gordon has suggested that history shows it is unlikely for the United States and its partners to negotiate a better agreement than the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iranian leaders. Dubowitz argued that it is not only possible to acquire a better arms agreement, but that the United States and its partners must do so if they intend to ensure the stability of the region in the long-run.
This post will not examine details of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (more commonly referred to as the Iran Deal); Vox has an in-depth overview of the language within the agreement. Much of the discussion surrounding the agreement has pointed towards the same objective: removing the possibility for Iran to develop industrial-sized centrifuges that can enrich uranium to produce a bomb. Yet critics and proponents alike disregard a crucial component to the discussion: preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons compounds its desire to acquire them in the long-run.
Mark Dubowitz is correct to point out that the major flaw of the nuclear agreement rests in its ballistic missile restrictions being depleted over a fifteen year period, assuming Iran complies with all components of the agreement. To be sure, no agreement has the potential to prevent Iran from acquiring advanced centrifuges and building an arsenal of intercontinental ballistic missiles.
As Kenneth Waltz has contended, attempts to punish Iran for developing a nuclear program through economic and political sanctions further draw Iranian leaders to pursue the ultimate deterrent. Leaders have proven to the international system that Iran responds to sanctions and incentives like any other state would. Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew announced in April that Iran’s economy was fifteen to twenty percent smaller than it would have been had it remained on its pre-2012 growth trajectory.
Clearly, Tehran has taken notice. Critics of an armed Iran often look to discredit the regime by portraying its officials as irrational fanatics who would utilize a nuclear weapon against Israel. Yet, if Iranian leaders were willing to join international negotiations to remove sanctions on its economy—what is to suggest they would accept self-destruction through the promise of Israeli retaliation?
History is on the side of nuclear states that the international community wanted to disarm. North Korea frequently utilizes bellicose rhetoric towards other actors on the international stage, but has not employed use of its ballistic missile technology against another state. A nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union revealed that the promise of mutually assured destruction has served as the primary deterrent from states utilizing their nuclear programs.
If the United States and its partners find it in their interest to stabilize the region, the foremost consideration to be made is to recognize an Iranian withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Next, the United States and the international community should draw back its sanctions against Iran. As Daniel Drezner has indicated, sanctions against Iran have the potential to weigh heavily on Iran’s economy—they do not, however, have the ability to alter Iran’s willingness to concede on arming itself with a nuclear weapon. By some accounts, sanctions make Iranian leaders more likely to perceive an external threat, and provide them with an even greater incentive to pursue a nuclear program.
The United States, and its partners in the region, should take steps towards drafting treaties that prevent the targeting of nuclear facilities—an initiative that was successfully accomplished between India and Pakistan in 1991.
We will have to accept that Iran’s regime will eventually gain nuclear capabilities, and we need to turn the discussion surrounding Iran towards what a world like that will look like, and how the United States and its partners can prepare to accept that reality. In the question of whether or not states should have the potential to pursue nuclear weapons, the international community may attempt to delay the construction of nuclear programs, but ultimately cannot erase the desire for states to defend themselves on the international stage.
Whether or not allowing Iran to develop a nuclear program would make it a more responsible actor on the international stage is a topic for a different discussion. By providing Tehran the assurance it needs to secure itself against opposing powers in the region, the international community would be taking a step towards recognizing and fulfilling greater stability in the region. By gaining a nuclear program, Iran will be joining a community of other nations that have developed nuclear programs against opposition from the international community, and ultimately have been deterred from utilizing them.
DAVID MENI, CHAPTER PRESIDENT
Urban acoustics is much more than a really excellent band name. It’s an emerging field of study that incorporates elements of urban planning and acoustic ecology—the study of sound’s impact on society and human functions. The study of urban sound planning has grown in popularity in parts of Europe but has yet to be holistically addressed in many American cities, even as new trends of mixed-use development make acoustic considerations more important.
While it may at first seem to be a trivial issue, acoustics can have an impact on everything from local economics to human psychology. Because of these intersectional issues, it’s important that cities take seriously those policies having to do with urban acoustics, take efforts to eliminate the socioeconomic disparities of noise pollution, and encourage creative use of sound design in new development projects and urban planning.
Now, before I get labelled as a grumpy “get off my lawn” type that doesn’t like loud noises, let me explain some of the current literature on noise pollution and acoustic ecology and how it impacts life in cities.
The World Health Organization and the EPA have established guidelines for community noise exposure: “Individuals [should] not exceed an 8-hour daily average level of 75 decibels or a 24-hour daily average of 70 decibels over a 40-year exposure period.” Seventy to seventy-five decibels is about as loud as a vacuum cleaner or a busy street; the New York Subway gets as loud as 105 decibels.
The public health impact of noise pollution, particularly in cities, is actually quite surprising. By 2050, there may be as many as 50 million people in the US with hearing impairment; younger generations have a rate of impaired hearing 2 1/2 times higher than that of their parents and grandparents, in large part due to the louder environments they live in. Sustained traffic noise in urban environments has been linked to everything from hypertension to sleep deprivation.
Urban acoustics even has an impact on economics. A Hofstra University study found a striking inverse relationship between noise levels and property value in residential areas, with a decrease in property value of 0.62% per decibel. Highways have an even greater impact; just the adjacent noise of a highway like the SE Freeway in DC can reduce property values 8-10%.
It’s important to note that the point of urban acoustic design is not meant to just make everything quiet. The type of noise is just as important to study as the volume—a coach bus and a crowded coffee shop are around the same decibel level. Good public spaces make use of noise as a cue for activity, and well-planned urban acoustic spaces can even go as far as providing the perfect natural acoustics for street musicians.
Soundscape mapping is an important tool for studying these kinds of relationships, but the practice is underutilized in the United States as a resource for planning. Below is an example of a soundscape map of a neighborhood in Seoul, South Korea, which shows trends of activity over the course of day.The crowd-sourced tool Sound Around You is a fun exploration of natural recordings, from birds chirping to squeaky metro escalators.
There are clear connections between the impacts of noise and the development trends of American cities, particularly as the automobile became ubiquitous in the 20th century. There’s no doubt that noise pollution is partially to blame for the 20th century phenomenon of over-zoning—the practice of so rigidly dividing residential, commercial, and industrial zones that they can no longer reinforce each other or create a sense of community. The desire to separate loud commercial and recreational space from residential areas led to this stark separation of land use seen in development of the last 40-50 years.
This trend introduces a disparity in noise pollution, which the American Public Health Association put the issue quite succinctly:
Even if you live in a city, it’s likely that you want to come home to some peace and quiet. But this tranquility often comes at a cost, and, without proper intervention and planning, can be relegated to a luxury. Low-income and minority communities are often not given a voice when high-noise land use (like a freeway) is placed near (or through) them, posing all the health risks, economic damages, and impediments to community growth mentioned above.
With the recent rise of New Urbanism and trends towards zoning for mixed-use, reduced sprawl, and greater density, urban acoustic design has become more important than ever.
If investments are made to advance urban acoustic planning, developments can more comfortably accommodate increased density.
A great example about how intentional acoustic design can encourage diverse and high-density are the plans for The Wharf development on DC’s Southwest Waterfront. Specifically, one building of the mixed-use plan contains both a 6,000 seat concert hall and residential units (the apartments effectively encase the concert hall). The site developers are working with a team of acoustic engineers to sufficiently soundproof the space—the concert hall can rock on while people upstairs can go about their business in peace.
Currently, there are two clear policy applications for urban acoustic design:
First, municipalities should seek to remedy the existing racial and income disparity in noise pollution. While nearly every locality has a noise ordinance, most are poorly enforced in the areas that need it most. To this end, more state and federal funding should be made available for the study of current urban soundscapes and methods of lessening the impact of noise pollution on public health and community development.
Second, American cities should embrace the range of new possibilities opened up by the continued advancement of acoustic design in built spaces. Developers both public and private can involve acoustic design earlier on in the development process, and acoustic considerations and their impacts on human behavior should be given greater consideration in urban planning.
Robust acoustic design can be an effective tool to fight increased sprawl in new developments and help make our cities more diverse.
Increased attention to the policy and practice of urban acoustic design can go a long way to improve the life of our cities. Well designed acoustic spaces can positively impact public health and local economies, as well as create novel ways to increase density and mixed-use development.
JACK NOLAND, ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
As another session begins, there’s a monumental case before the Supreme Court concerning the Affordable Care Act (ACA), better known as Obamacare. Hold on. Didn’t we settle this a few years ago? Weren’t the streets filled with gleeful liberals and fist-shaking conservatives as the Court upheld the President’s signature piece of legislation? As seems to be the answer to any political question, yes and no.
National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, the case decided in 2012, centered on the law’s individual mandate – the provision that eligible people need to buy health insurance or face a penalty so that there are enough healthy people in the insurance pool to keep everyone’s rates low. Since insurers cannot discriminate based on existing conditions, without the individual mandate, someone could wait until they got sick to purchase insurance, and it would be illegal for insurers to deny the coverage to them. Everyone would pay more, since the insurance pool would be primarily full of people who only purchased a policy once they had fallen ill.
In the end, Chief Justice Roberts joined the more liberal justices of the Court in holding that the individual mandate was indeed constitutional, which cleared the way for the law to be implemented. After a much-maligned rollout, the ACA remains in place. What’s the issue at hand now?
Essentially, King v. Burwell, the most recent case to dispute a component of Obamacare, will be decided over five words in an act running longer than nine hundred pages:
“an Exchange established by the State.”
A little more background: since the ACA mandates insurance coverage, there are potential issues for lower to middle class people who may not be able to afford the policies they are required to have. In thinking about this burden, the law establishes subsidies for these individuals.
The kicker, however, is that these subsidies are only available to those who purchase their insurance policies through a government-run exchange. As of 2011, 59.5 percent of Americans received their health insurance through their employer. To ensure that the remaining citizens were able to get insurance, the federal government encouraged states to establish marketplaces where people could pick the policy that worked for them. However, since the federal government cannot force the states to set up these exchanges, the law also provides for federal marketplaces to be developed in the states that choose not to build their own.
As the plaintiffs in King contend, if an individual purchases their policy in a federal marketplace, they will not be able to receive a subsidy, since the exchange was not “established by the State.” Whether or not this language was designed to restrict subsidies to state-run marketplaces, or rather to refer to the government exchange in a state in general (as opposed to the private marketplace), is up in the air. Should the Supreme Court hold the plaintiff’s interpretation to be correct, there will be massive economic implications.
Last year, five million people purchased insurance on the federal exchanges, and thirty-four states have a federally-facilitated or state partnership marketplace. Without subsidies, many people in these states would be unable to afford health insurance, and the ACA would be effectively kneecapped.
As an Urban Institute report estimates, should the plaintiffs win, the federal government would withhold $340 billion in tax credits over the course of 10 years. This would lead to 8.2 million more uninsured people in the states with federal exchanges, or a seventy-five percent decrease in coverage. Put simply, if your state didn’t vote to implement its own exchange, there’s a good chance you would be unable to afford insurance.
Crucially, there would also be a spillover effect. For many people, the cost of insurance would be more than 8% of their income and they would therefore be exempt from the penalty; in this case, it would be more affordable to forgo insurance entirely. As discussed above, insurance pools maintain low premiums by covering a wide swath of people, both sick and healthy. This loss of buyers into the insurance pool would exert economic pressure on the price of insurance policies, to the tune of thirty-five percent higher premiums for the marketplace.
There are very real expenses for both individuals and institutions here. According to Paula Brussard of the Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania, the cost to hospitals in that state of treating people with insufficient or no insurance increased about 50 percent, to over $1 billion in 2012. Keeping people insured makes clear economic sense.
Such a rate hike would have a profound impact on health insurance in general. Obamacare’s trusted defense rests on the idea that, at least in the long run, it will provide a cheaper alternative to the status-quo market. If premiums shot up, the legislation would lose the credibility it has struggled so hard to attain, as people become increasingly priced out. The number of uninsured individuals would rise, and we would be back to where we started.
This two-tiered system would defeat the purpose of the law: comprehensive coverage for all. The states that opted not to run their own exchanges would essentially be stuck with a higher percentage of uninsured citizens until they decided to implement programs of their own. In truth, this might light a fire under the states to try to set up their own markets, but, as Dan Schuyler of Leavitt Partners notes, this would cost the average state around $40 billion. Additionally, attempts to craft creative solutions in these states would fall flat, for the ACA’s “state innovation waivers” only grant states funding relative to the “amount of tax credits they would otherwise receive.” This is precisely why several of the states with federal exchanges have signed onto an amicus brief arguing against the plaintiff’s interpretation, and that they had received no forewarning that states with this type of marketplace would be denied subsidies.
For those who would have received subsidies and decide to buy insurance anyway, there are very real losses to savings and investment at stake. Instead of forcing people to choose whether high-priced health insurance is worth it for them because their state decided not to set up its own exchange, this comprehensive national reform should be allowed to be just that: comprehensive and national. Creating a system where some states receive benefits and others do not is not only against the spirit of the legislation, it is simply the wrong thing to do.
When the Supreme Court hears arguments on March 4, ignoring questions of plaintiff standing, it is under no obligation to consider economic impact. Nor should it, really.
The argument really comes down to statutory interpretation. In the context of the rest of the law, it is clear that Congress did not intend to create a system of two halves, and the argument that this was a move to try to incentivize states to set up their own exchanges is not compelling to me. If this were the case, there would be more explicit references to such a reform, as it truly would be a monumental division. Either way, this is a ruling whose effects will ripple through the economy.
The Affordable Care Act is an imperfect law, to be sure, and it needs works to best achieve its objectives. A ruling against federal subsidies in King v. Burwell, however, will have massive and negative economic repercussions. Ruling for the plaintiffs here would create an unnecessary two-tiered system outside the scope of the law’s intentions, and prevent millions from getting the health care they need, just as they seem to have secured it.
VALERIE NAUMAN, DIRECTOR OF HEALTHCARE
Mainstream media has purposefully criticized this because of its appeal to Millennials, but this is precisely how to include a generation, often called apathetic, in the political process. Despite their reputations, the interviewers stuck to important and complicated issues, often addressing some elephants in the room. The YouTube creators each took suggestions from their viewers on what topics the interviews should cover. Hank Green begins the interview series with asking topics ranging from the political feasibility of his policies from the State of the Union to drone technology and about US sanctions placed on North Korea. To conclude the first of three interviews, Hank, who has suffered from a chronic condition and greatly benefitted from the Affordable Care Act, asked the president to sign a receipt from his pharmacy where his normally $1100 medication cost $5.
Glozell conducted her interview next, most notably expressing that Fidel Castro “puts dick in dictatorship” when asking how the president justifies relieving sanctions on Cuba. To finish the triad of interviews, 19- year-old Bethany Mota dives into education plans and why people her age should obtain an education. Lastly, Mota asks one of the most important questions, why should young people be interested in politics? President Obama asks viewers to get involved and let their representatives know what issues they care about most to have some positive impact.
Is this the future of social change, and is this how we can get Millennials to become more involved in their world? I hope so. Only 13% of voters between the ages of 18 and 29 participated in the 2014 midterm elections. Hank noted that “Legacy media accuses young people of being apathetic while actively attempting to remove them from the conversation.” Hank’s words ring true. Every day I see a new article about how Millennials are the worst generation yet. Time magazine even named us the “Me Me Me Generation” in a May 2013 issue. So while Millennials try to watch traditional forms of media, that media constantly bombard them with criticism. Legacy media has actively tried to remove Millennials from political conversation in an elitist effort of generational warfare. For a generation that has seen the Great Recession, the longest war in American history, and a 1,120% increase in the cost of secondary education since our parents’ generation, Millennials are doing surprisingly well. Millennials simply don’t watch as much television as their parents but rather find their entertainment with the free internet and the Obama administration has caught onto this. Although many of these YouTubers’ viewers are too young to vote, they eventually will grow to become part of the American electorate and will, hopefully, become more informed because of the way the information is presented to them. Whether their information comes the playful Bethany Mota, the ridiculous Glozel Green, or the hopeful Hank Green, if they can successfully produce a less politically apathetic generation then the White House should absolutely support that.
Despite criticism, the President has made an admirable effort to reach out to a generation often considered lost by their parents. Any effort to reach out to Millennials should be celebrated and these YouTube creators are certainly one way to get the attention of a generation. This isn’t something new to President Obama. He went on Zach Galifianakis's Between Two Ferns in 2010 to promote the launch of healthcare.gov. GW students will recall his appearance on The Colbert Report in December of last year. He also, just this past week, appeared in a hilarious Buzzfeed video that seemed to plug for healthcare.gov. This demonstrates the desire to include Millennials in the national conversation despite the belief that young people can’t care. The government is often criticised for its distance with the public with too many Americans believing they cannot affect change without a sizable change purse. Only 24% of Americans said in 2014 that they trusted the government most or all of the time. A separate 2014 poll showed that “84 per cent of people felt alienated from the political system.” There is an unnecessary amount of pomp and circumstance that has created a remoteness and area of separation around the presidency that some view as too big to influence. In Miss Mota’s interview, she asks the president why Millennials should care about politics and this reflects the apathy by most young people who have simply given up on something that they don’t feel like they have any say in anymore. Restoring the faith that citizens (especially young people) can affect change is crucial to the political process. So is it “beneath the dignity of the office”? Is it beneath the President’s dignity to ensure the country has a well-educated and politically active populace? Is it beneath his duties to ensure the nation is safe in the hands of the next generation? That is exactly what the President should be doing.
The truth is, no one would criticise the president if he had done an interview with a mainstream news organization (some of which should have less credibility than the YouTube interviewers). Both inform the public, but one informs a different generation than the other. As seen with the vlogbrothers’ Project for Awesome by raising $1,279,877 collectively, the young viewers of YouTube are capable of some pretty amazing social change. So is it “beneath the dignity of the office” to reach out to constituents in any way possible? No, and the sooner we realize that YouTube and Facebook and Twitter can be some of the most powerful avenues for social change, the better. By using the internet to connect young people with their political system, we can reduce apathy and hopefully boost political participation for years to come.
SOPHIE KRENSKY, EQUAL JUSTICE
Domestic work—labor involving caring for children, the disabled, and the elderly or cleaning a home—has historically lacked respect and consideration, in both culture and policy. In September of 2014, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill entitling workers to more sick days, but purposefully exempted domestic workers to alleviate cost. The bill is shortsighted—the coming increase in retiring and aging Americans is making elder care the fastest growing profession, but low wages and lack of rights for domestic workers mean high burnout, with a 40-60% turnover rate for a home aide on the job for less than a year.
As an occupation that consists primarily of women, domestic workers are disproportionately subjected to undignified working conditions, such as injury, various abuses, lack of contract, and vulnerable employment status. Their work is often emotionally and physically demanding, with long hours and little time off, only to earn about $20,000 a year. Domestic work’s labor standards are not covered under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and as such have recently come under scrutiny. While some believe that unionization is the best choice to help these workers’ voices be heard, this traditional approach may not be effective. Both lacking a centralized workplace and being employed under different bosses, domestic workers struggle to find enough common ground to unite.
Earlier this year, a group of non-union domestic workers objected to an Illinois state law that mandates that all workers contribute their “fair share” to the union that the majority of their fellow co-workers voted to be a part of. These costs are typically associated with collective bargaining and administrative costs, but when Harris v. Quinn came before the Supreme Court last year, Justices ruled in favor of the non-union workers, and further weakened the American workers’ claim to collective bargaining rights. The ruling was particularly harmful to the average domestic worker, whose legitimacy as a laborer was further diminished in the eyes of the law.
The disregard of domestic labor as “legitimate” work has dangerous implications for the livelihood of those who care for the people we love. As such, some workers are looking outside the traditional labor union structure to advocate for change. Domestic work movements could benefit from looking to other decentralized, difficult-to-organize labor forces, such as agricultural workers. Recognizing that traditional union action relies on worker centralization and solidarity, Florida’s Fair Food program created a direct bridge between farm workers, employers, and the state, based on education, accountability, and responsibility. Through workers’ rights education programs, a strict employer code of conduct, and high grower and buyer participation, the program has become one of the most effective ways to ensure fair treatment, creating a distribution of power that would be almost unheard of for a traditional union (Fun fact: GW Alternative Breaks leads a community service trip to Immokalee, Florida where trip participants work with the program’s sponsor organization.)
If the courts and policymakers continue to be as ineffective and ignorant of the value of domestic workers, we risk alienating a labor force that works tirelessly to ensure happy, productive lives for our nation’s elderly and disabled. Finding alternative methods to the traditional union model provides new opportunities with a specially-tailored approach for domestic workers to assert their rights. In failing to grant domestic workers basic rights like sick leave, policy makers show where their priorities lie, and it’s not with the person helping their 90-year-old mother go to the bathroom.
SHANNON QUINN, INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS DIRECTOR
For many students at GW, the complex array of issues learned in international affairs classes in the Elliott School seems a world away. Although the forces of globalization make it an exciting and relevant time to undertake international relations, it might not always be obvious how to connect worldly problems with local action.
One clear avenue in which to accomplish this connection is through the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement that has been building up global momentum. As I’ve heard joked again and again, it’s the goal of many students here at GW to “solve” Middle East peace. Sixty-seven years of unrelenting Palestinian-Israeli conflict make this an admirable, albeit lofty, goal. But how would this contentious (and surely controversial) move help the situation? What’s its relevance to GW, and would it actually make any clear difference on an international stage?
What is BDS?
The BDS movement began on July 9, 2005, a year following the advisory opinion by the International Court of Justice on the illegality of the Israeli separation wall. Palestinian civil society called for the mobilization of global support “to launch broad boycotts, implement divestment initiatives, and to demand sanctions against Israel, until Palestinian rights are recognized in full compliance with international law.”
Of particular interest in this movement in a university setting is divestment. The primary goal of divestment is targeting corporations that comply with violating Palestinian rights under international law, “ensuring that the likes of university investment portfolios and pension funds are not used to finance such companies.” This effort works to raise awareness about Israeli policies and exert economic pressure to end those that do not comply fully with international law.
There are many intertwining issues at hand within the overarching Palestinian-Israeli conflict, not all of which can be adequately unpacked and addressed here. However, if one thing is clear, it’s that the current status quo of the Israeli occupation cannot continue if serious progress in the peace process is to be made. International pressure, from the bottom up, is an opportunity to change this status quo and place a warranted weight upon Israel to grant basic dignity and human rights to the Palestinians.
Divestment actions to exert economic and social pressure are not without precedent. In the 1970s, student-led activism at universities across the United States prompted divestment from apartheid South Africa. Although this was clearly not the only force behind ending the apartheid, its contribution was tangible.
Desmond Tutu writes, in support of recent divestment efforts by UCLA, “In South Africa, we could not have achieved our freedom and just peace without the help of people around the world, who through the use of non-violent means, such as boycotts and divestment, encouraged their governments and other corporate actors to reverse decades-long support for the Apartheid regime.” Even GW students, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, took an active role in protesting apartheid South Africa and calling for similar sanctions against the state until they ended their internationally illicit practices.
Efforts by student activists across the country have begun to unfold to pressure their universities to divest. Most recently, on November 18, 2014, the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) student government was the sixth UC campus to pass a resolution calling on their administration to divest from companies such as Boeing, General Electric, and Hewlett-Packard. In this resolution, student leaders cite several reasons for divestment.
These reasons range from bigger picture, citing the standards of the United Nations-endorsed Principles of Responsible Investment, to how UCLA students themselves are impacted by adverse investment policies. According to the resolution, “the consequences of these companies’ actions also affect the UCLA community directly, including students whose families experience occupation, systematic discrimination, death, injury, and other forms of human rights violations.”
And it’s not just universities that are divesting. Last June, the United Methodist Church decided to sell its stock in a company that provides military equipment to Israel. The European Union has also voted in the past to divest from companies that comply with Israeli violations of international law.
Can we have student driven peace?
This past summer, thousands of lives were disrupted or lost with Operation Protective Edge, the latest round of fighting between Israel and the Gaza Strip. A continuation of the conflict within the current status quo inevitably means more lives lost and unsettled, with bouts of tension similar to last summer erupting at any possible moment.
As GW students, we are in a unique position to be more active our roles as participants in an international community, fighting for human rights standards and peace on a higher level. Bringing BDS activism to campus—perhaps in the form of a resolution that GW divest from companies violating international law—would provide a channel to showcase student power on an international stage.
ERIC WOLFERT, ENERGY & ENVIRONMENT DIRECTOR
To make a statement so painfully obvious that it almost need not be said, 2014 was a disheartening year for advocates of racial justice. From Ferguson, MO, to New York City, stories describing a dispiriting lack of progress were seemingly omnipresent. While these stories rightly adorned front pages across the United States, a study from the University of Minnesota added a new layer to issues of racial injustice--in a vastly different form than most headlines. The study found that, controlling for other factors, non-whites are exposed to significantly higher levels of environmental toxins than whites in the United States, with the most significant finding being that non-white Americans are exposed to a staggering 46% more nitrogen dioxide than their white counterparts. The inequality holds even when adjusting for income--poor whites are still, on average, exposed to fewer environmental toxins than wealthy non-whites. Startlingly, the study found that if black Americans were exposed to same level of nitrogen dioxide as white Americans, nearly 7,000 deaths resulting from coronary heart disease could be averted. Nitrogen dioxide is also a primary cause of a variety of lung diseases as well as preterm births.
The Environmental Protection Agency updated its nitrogen dioxide standards in January 2010, establishing a maximum threshold of 100 parts per billion of the gas in a given area. If during any hour the average level of nitrogen dioxide is found to exceed that threshold, it is considered a violation. This policy applies to non-stationary sources such as cars and trucks, as well as stationary sources such as power plants. Furthermore, the EPA required individual states to enact State Implementation Plans (SIP) that detail how the state plans to reach that threshold. As of November 2014, seven states and the District of Columbia were found by the EPA to still not be in compliance with the regulation, a full 22 months after the deadline to submit a SIP. Interestingly, the states little in common with regards to demographics or politics--running the gamut from Vermont to Arkansas.
What can be done about this issue? The most obvious answer is, of course, to address the pollution at its source. Upon finding this delay, the EPA is authorized to supercede state concerns and establish a Federal Implementation Plan (FIP), which strictly regulate nitrogen dioxide in a more “one-size-fits-all” manner. This is used to coerce the seven holdout states into compliance with the new standards, but twenty-four months is a severely long period of noncompliance, as evidenced by the thousands of deaths from coronary heart disease described above that are caused by nitrogen dioxide emissions. Given that fact, economic penalties are necessary in the interim. These penalty funds should be used to help fund further research into the various diseases that arise from the excess nitrogen dioxide pollution--an imperative particularly as federal spending on medical research has dropped significantly in recent years, leaving the United States at risk of being eclipsed in levels of research and innovation. Furthermore, the federal government should create a tax policy that encourages private businesses to cut back on harmful emissions on their own. Would businesses be willing to further cut their own emissions if they were promised that the tax rate on their profits would fall by 0.5% for every five parts per billion below the EPA standards their emissions were? I would bet they would,spurring new technologies that both help the environment and public health while creating new economic sectors and more jobs.
Finding a way to cut nitrogen dioxide emissions is more than a public health issue; it is also a racial justice issue. At a time when significant discussion is being devoted to how to better ensure racial equality, policy makers would be wise to include environmental barriers to such equality in the debates.
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